Surprised and Humbled!

Level1_CMSWhen I first started working at Cooper’s Hawk, they had a training program that included an all day course conducted by Master Sommelier Ron Edwards. Ron is very passionate about service and wine and a great example of what the Master Sommelier program is all about. I took his course twice, the second time unpaid, and would have taken it again if the program hadn’t been discontinued.

Since then, I’ve been preparing for Level 1 of the MS program. It is a two day intensive overview course on the wine world and hands-on training in the Court’s Deductive Tasting Method (DTM). The class is conducted by the Americas division of the Court of Master Sommeliers. As a result the class  is offered throughout North and South America each year, with 1-2 chances to take it here in Chicago. This year, there was only 1 in February, and it filled up before I could register. So I finally settled on taking the course in Louisville, Kentucky on 9/27-28. (Free lodging at a friend’s house was the key factor for the road trip.)

The world of wine discussions were broad overviews of the world’s wine regions, which had been covered in greater depth in the book I’d read to prepare, Karen McNeill’s Wine Bible (An updated edition releases this month!) The part of class each day that really opened my eyes was the blind tastings with the DTM. Here’s where I was both surprised and humbled, surprised by what I did know, and humbled by what I didn’t. Cooper’s Hawk teaches the DTM to a degree, but the view of wine I’ve acquired there is incredibly narrow and logically focused on their product line.

So, after knowing about 50% of the test question answers, and successfully guessing enough to score at least 60% to pass (they don’t give out test results), I got my pin and certificate! The Court recommends taking at least a year to prepare for the next level, which would see me become a Certified Sommelier. For that to happen, I’d have to find ways to explore a lot of wine outside of my job, and I’d have to consider possibly finding a new job that would allow me a broader spectrum of wines to sell and serve, possibly a fine dining experience so I can learn and practice serving techniques necessary for the next level. I’ll also have to take advantage of my free 1-year membership to the Guild of Sommeliers website and all the resources available there.

My biggest takeaway was that Master Sommeliers are passionate about humility and service. The program is meant to be open and generous. I left the classroom feeling a strong sense of accomplishment and the drive to raise my own level of service at work. Whatever the future holds, I know I want to continue my studies. Whether or not I go for the Level 2:Certified Sommelier remains to be seen. Either way, I’m already a better student of wine than ever before. Enjoy!

Waste Not! Want? Not!

I just watched a special report on food waste in this country. This topic is very important to me, as I love food and I hate to see it go to waste. When so many people go hungry every day, and I have at one time or another in my life experienced this to a small degree, it’s depressing to think about some of the reasons preventing us from tackling this problem.

So here’s a few quick points I gleaned from this report that I wanted to share. (And yes, gleaning used to be a thing that helped hungry people find food. We should embrace this practice more.)

1. I learned this statistic that helps put things in perspective. We waste enough food each year to fill 730 average sized NFL football stadiums. I think it amounted to $16 billion annually. That’s insane, even if not surprising.

2. “Sell by”, “Use by”, and “Best by” dates are not regulated or mandated and are completely at the discretion of the manufacturer. Don’t let them scare you into wasting that milk that still smells and tastes perfectly good.

3. There is actually a law that protects food donations, so you cannot be sued if someone gets sick from donated food.

4. Much of the food we waste is wasted at the beginning, because we are food snobs who won’t buy odd shaped peaches.

5. Many stores overstock shelves for fear that the last bunch of kale or chard won’t be bought because everyone assumes there is something wrong with it.

6. Permanent tax breaks exist for big businesses who donate. Small businesses get tax breaks, but these are temporary and must be renewed every year, leaving many small businesses fearful to spend the resources. The House of Reps passed a bill to make these permanent, but the Senate hijacked it and changed it into something else. These tax breaks are critical to offset the costs of donation, which are greater than the costs of disposal.

That’s all I can remember from the report. I work very hard at home and when I’m out to avoid food waste. I’m not perfect, but I think I’ll be even better now. Please join with me to spread the word and please do your part to reduce food waste so we can all have more to eat. Enjoy!

“If I Ruled the World”…

or “Some Things I’d Want to Address if I Were President”

I recently posted a, well, let’s call it half-joking notion, that I am running for president in 2020.

So for the half that may not have been a joke, here’s some things I’d like to tackle.

1. Slowing, halting, or reversing the perpetual devaluing of the dollar, and to a greater extent, all currencies.

2. Increased education in the area of moral fortitude. I’ve often said, “You cannot protect your kids when they go out into the world. You can only teach them to protect themselves.” This goes toward a wide range of challenges they will face, include all things related to sex and reproduction, fiscal responsibility, and how to think and behave communally.

4. Defense that makes sense. We have enemies. We have friends. How do we make friends out of enemies without losing our friends? And how do we protect ourselves from the enemies we can’t befriend without burdening ourselves excessively in the process?

5. The environment. It’s our responsibility whether global climate change is an issue or not. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be converted from natural resource to styrofoam. How do we change it back?

6. Infrastructure. This isn’t just how we get from Point A to Point B, but how we fuel our vehicles and ourselves along the way.

7. Federal rights versus state rights. Are we letting the wrong parties decide our personal rights?

8. Better communication. I’ve said it many times, “It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” How much of what we fail to accomplish for the better is caused by a breakdown in communication, whether we’re talking about couples or congresses?

9. Higher education. Student-athletes. These issues play into points 1, 2, 8, and maybe even 6. This has to be reigned in, no matter the cost, because the cost is already no matter.

10. And a whole lot more. I’m sure there’s a reason presidents go grayer in office. I know it would be a lot of work, but I’ve a kid now. That was a game changer for me. Things have got to get better for his sake.

So there you have it. Just some thoughts on what I might say if asked about the issues and my plans as president. Enjoy!

Quesadillas!

My dad is half hispanic. That makes me a quarter hispanic. Totally not obvious to people around me, and that’s cool. However, when my dad was a little kid, my grandma remarried Desi Arnaz. (Okay, not really, but he reminded me a lot of Desi growing up.) I spent many Sundays with my grandparents, enjoying chorizo and eggs and refried beans for breakfast. Many a holiday included chicken molé next to the turkey or ham. I learned about rompope, gazpacho, fidello soup, and picadillo, a ground beef and potato dish.

Because of this, I’ve become a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to mexican food. Not completely, of course, since I still like cheese on my otherwise mexican-style tacos (usually just meat, cilantro, and onion, often with a squeeze of lime.) Yet the one thing I love the most, I usually love most traditionally… Quesadillas!

In my mind, the best quesadilla is a corn tortilla, filled with chihuahua cheese and flat grilled till it’s the right balance of crisp and chew and the cheese is nearly as stringy as mozzarella on a pizza. Forget flour tortillas, forget cheddar-jack blends, and no thank you to the endless parade of add-ons. Calling that a quesadilla is like calling instant pudding “mousse” or Spaghetti-O’s “pasta.”

To be fair, there are the occasional surprises. A few of the tex-mex inspired creations out that can be amazing. However, it’s still hard not to bristle at the notion of these fantastic creations being given the “quesadilla” label. I’d much rather see them called something like, “latin-style grilled flatwraps” or something like that. Case in point, the delicious grilled flatwaps I made two days ago, with flour tortillas and slices of smoked sweet swiss. They were amazing, but very non-traditional.

So, if anyone is paying attention, feel free to use “flatwraps” for a more accurate description of your creativity, and please leave the traditional quesadilla to the professionals at Los Burritos (insert appropriate name here). Enjoy!

Recipes for Success

As I continue to spend more time in the kitchen, recipe apps like Allrecipes and Food.com are my go-to sources for direction and inspiration.  For example, about three weeks ago, we hosted a party for my son’s first birthday. As part of the snack selections I bought two big bags of El Milagro tortilla chips. They were never opened. So I told my wife I would make the classic mexican breakfast dish, chilaquiles. (If you’ve never had traditional chilaquiles you are missing out!)

This morning, I finally decided to give it a go. I found a short list of recipes of varying difficulty and complexity. I chose one in the mid range based on the ingredients I had on hand, but I had to make a few substitutions. For example, instead of a can of enchilada sauce, I used up some green salsa and some pico de gallo. Instead of a Kraft shredded mexican cheese blend, I shredded some applewood smoked cheddar. There was one aspect of the cooking process that I wasn’t sure about, regarding cooking the chips, but I decided to trust the recipe and follow along as indicated.

They turned out delicious! Packed with flavor, the tortilla chips had the right balance of chew and crunch one expects from this dish. I do wish I’d had the fresh cilantro on hand, but beyond that, I couldn’t be happier with the results. It’s always exciting to try something new and have it turn out well. I did take some liberties with the ingredients, so there’s no way to know if my version was better than the recipe. My previous experiences in the kitchen have given me greater confidence to change things up when the pantry comes up short. The important thing to remember, though, is to trust the recipe when dealing with new concepts or techniques. After all, if it doesn’t turn out well, at least I’ll have learned what not to do. Enjoy!

A Not So Secret Menu Item

It’s no secret I currently work as a server at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. I’ve been with the company for nearly four years now. In that time, I’ve eaten my way through the entire menu, and experimented with my own concoctions during many of my meal breaks.

One of the most popular side dishes on the menu is Betty’s Potatoes, a cheesy, shredded hash brown casserole inspired by the founder’s mother-in-law. People order it all the time, and often substitute it for other side dishes. I don’t blame them. If you’ve tried them, you don’t either.

They are also prepared in small batches and finished in individual rarebit dishes. Often at the end of the night, there are anywhere from one to four leftover orders that cannot be reused. As is often my motto about perfectly good items due to be discarded, “If it’s me or the garbage…” I will grab a couple servings to bring home. I usually reheat them for breakfast, playing with various mix-ins, like diced pepperoni, bacon bits, scrambled eggs, and canned chili, just to name a few.

The challenge has always been reheating them, I tend to scrape off the excess bread crumbs before I pack them, because those can turn out weird in the microwave. Lately, though, I’ve taken to a very specific set of steps to prepare them for breakfast. Before, I would pack them in bulk in a large to-go container and cut or scoop chunks out for a meal. Now, I pack each serving into a soup bowl, which serves as a mold, to shape each order into a nice, round cake. I then drop them into a greased, preheated frying pan on medium heat, and cook them for about 2-3 minutes per side. They get a nice, crispy toast on each side, and each serving makes a great base to lay a fried egg on top. It’s my current morning obsession.

Obviously, if you don’t work there, you can’t get them as easily as I do. However, they are very reasonably priced. Just order a side to go the next time you’re in the store. Press them flat into your carryout container, or take them home and transfer them to something that will give them a nice round shape, and reheat them the next morning. Then experiment with your own toppings, and see if you don’t get obsessed with them as well. Enjoy!

An Apron by Any Color…

This week, we received a free shipment from Blue Apron, courtesy of one of my wife’s coworkers. For those not familiar, they essentially pack and ship two complete meals, with nearly all the ingredients you need (including meats, packed in ice for shipping), neatly bagged and labeled, along with a recipe for each. All I needed to do was a little slicing and dicing, and provide my own olive oil.

Tonight, I tackled the first recipe; Salisbury Steak with roasted potato wedges and asparagus. I pulled all the ingredients together and skimmed through the instructions. I needed to dice an onion, mince some garlic, slice some cremini mushrooms, wedge-cut the russet potatoes, and cut the “woody” ends off the asparagus stalks. Overall start to finish time was estimated at 35-45 minutes, but it took me a little over an hour from oven preheating to serving up the finished product. So, my first bit of advice is, unless you’re a wiz with a kitchen knife, add about a quarter longer to the overall time estimate.

The instructions were clear and left little to chance. The attached pictures were a bit helpful, but almost unnecessary. It was easy to work with most of the items, and the quality and freshness of the ingredients was noticeable. I did have to move to a bigger pan at one point, but that’s probably because I ignored my initial instinct. The only step I felt less than confident that I completed well was when I had to gently blend the sautéed “aromatics” with the ground beef and bread crumbs. The finished “steak” patties were more fragile than I had hoped.

When I was all done, the dish presented very well. The sauce for the steaks had a chunkiness I’d never seen before for this dish, but I think that’s because I’d only ever had Salisbury Steaks in cafeterias, or as a tv dinner. The dish wasn’t gluten free, but as long as the all-purpose flour substitute can successfully thicken the sauce, it should be easy enough to alter. The flavors of the steaks, potato wedges, and roasted asparagus paired very well. The asparagus may have been our favorite part of the meal.

Overall, from a culinary perspective, I think the Blue Apron is great. The food was quite good, and I felt confident preparing this meal. I’m not sure if I learned anything significant, but I think looking at the portioning would help me be more aware when I wing it in the kitchen in the future. As far as the value of the program, I think it would depend on one’s lifestyle. If you’re home cooking dinner several nights a week, this could potentially be a great fit. They do all the thinking for you, while letting you focus on the joy of cooking a home-cooked meal. Compared to eating out, it’s a good deal, but only if you eat out frequently. I also think this would appeal most to people who don’t mind making some time to enjoy the process from start to finish. If you’re on a time crunch, this may not be a good fit. So, if you’re passionate about learning to cook, you enjoy the process, and you haven’t mastered ingredient selection/shopping and meal planning, this could be a great way to make your own great food for a change. Enjoy!

A Great First Impression

I finally got a chance to try Seasons 52 in Oak Brook. Their gimmick is a new menu every week of the year, with locally-sourced, healthy, lower calorie dishes. Cathy and I came in for a late lunch, early dinner.

We started out by splitting a tasty watercress salad with pine nuts and aged balsamic drizzle. Great taste, but the watercress could have been a bit more chopped. She had red mole braised beef lettuce wraps, a nice gluten free option that packed tons of flavor. I had their signature burger. They blend beef with druxelle mushrooms. It had a nice char and was served with housemade sweet pickles. The standout surprise for me was the side of tamale tots, served with two different dips. Basically they were deep fried balls of cornmeal. So good! I enjoyed a handmade ginger agave soda that was perfectly refreshing. Dessert was a small bite tasty lemon custard with blueberries.

I asked the server to what degree the menu changes. From what he told me, they have about two-thirds changing four times a year and one third changing weekly. I imagine that keeps regulars coming back, while catering to the adventurous. I plan to come back as soon as I can and explore some more. If anyone has tried this place already, let me know what you thought. In the meantime, watch for my second impression, coming soon. Enjoy!

Try it. You’ll like it.

Recently, a coworker said to me, “You always have the best break food.” She was noting my recent experiment with various items from the kitchen at work. My latest endeavor to change things up is to try different sauces and toppings on mashed potatoes. My current favorites are tomato basil relish on the regular mashed and the potsticker sauce on wasabi-buttered mashed.

Whenever guests ask me what I like, I always say the same thing. “I have tried everything on the menu, and I have favorites in every category.” When someone tells me to chose between two items I always ask if they’ve tried either and usually tell them to try the other one. If they want me to choose an all-time favorite, I rarely have one, and usually respond, “It depends on my mood.”

Why? Because I’ve got an explorer’s spirit when it comes to eating. I love to try new things. Sure, I have my go-to favorite flavors, like cilantro, chocolate, anything cheese. Yet, more often of late, I’m getting away from my old pattern of getting stuck on a dish and trying it wherever I go. Gone are my caesar salad phase, my obsession with reuben sandwiches, or my penchant for all things alfredo sauce. I’ve learned to appreciate brussel sprouts again, to cook without cheese, to put a fried egg on peanut buttered toast, just because a pinterest pin suggested it. I’m an open-minded eater always on the hunt for my next dining experience.

There are limits of course. I still won’t eat liver, I’ve never eaten bugs (as far as I know), and I prefer my seafood tailless and shell-less. Still, the pairing of cayenne pepper and dark chocolate, or peanut butter and jalapeños, are just some of the many unexpected treats I now seek out. I hope my adventurous spirit is something my son embraces as he learns about foot. I also hope I can continue to inspire others to embrace new food for the rest of my life. After all, there’s so much out there to be explored. You never know where your next great favorite meal is waiting to be consumed until you keep looking to find it. Enjoy!

Artificial Sweetener Saccharin Shows Promise In Cancer Treatment

Artificial Sweetener Saccharin Shows Promise In Cancer Treatment.

An interesting read. I’m not much for artificial sweeteners myself, but I’m guessing this might mean an uptick in usage of the pink packets again. This still won’t quiet the debate about all things artificial and diet, but it’s nice to see researchers are being more thorough about food safety concerns than they used to be.