April 2011

Today is April 30.  Do you know what that means?  It’s the last day of National Poetry Month.  S0, of course, I can’t let April pass us by without a couple of poems.

These are from Unsettling America:  An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry.

I’m dedicating my blogging today to workers everywhere, but especially to mis compañeros who I will march with tomorrow during the Wisconsin Solidarity March.  Join me if you’re able!


Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albondigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herselft, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?

She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.

– Alberto Alvero Ríos

And one more that is particularly well suited to the occasion.

Today We Will Not Be Invisible Nor Silent


We will not be invisible nor silent

as the pilgrims of yesterday continue their war of attrition

forever trying, but never succeeding

in their battle to rid the americas of us

convincing others and ourselves

that we have been assimilated & eliminated,

but we remember who we are

we are the spirit of endurance that lives

in the cities and reservations of north america

and in the barrios and countryside of Nicaragua, Chile

Guatemala, El Salvador

and in all the earth and rivers of the americas.

– Victoria Lena Manyarrows


Thursday nights will bring Advanced Sauces to my repertoire.  I was not looking forward to the class for 2 reasons:

  1. Almost everyone I know from my previous classes is taking the class on Wednesday night, meaning I would not know anyone in the Thursday class.
  2. After a cursory review of the syllabus, it all looked like a review of the sauces we learned in the introductory course, Stocks, Sauces, and Soups, and this camper was none too pleased about that considering how much cash I’m putting on the table for these classes.

But, I decided to give it a chance, and boy, I’m glad I’m sticking with it.

We are a small group, and my classmates, from what I can tell are salt-of-the-earth types. True, I didn’t know most of them before Thursday, but I’m looking forward to working with them.

We also have Chef Stranek as an instructor, and I like him.  He is, in the eloquent words of a classmate who shall go unnamed, “kind of a hard-ass” but he’s a good guy who wants us to learn.  Plus, he’s a straight-shooter,  a man of few words who is effective in communicating what he needs to, no more.  Good stuff. I like people like that.

Really, I like all kinds of people, but in an instructor, those are good qualities.

Last night was largely review, but we made a couple of new things, one of which I plan to repeat for any occasion worthy of a celebration, because this stuff is the bomb.

What sauce could possibly bring so much pleasure?  Zabaglione, of course.

Say it with me:  ZA-BA-GLEE (love that show)-OWN-A.  Zabaglione!  Sounds like something a magician would say after a seriously gnarly trick.

I’ve actually heard of this sauce, and I may have even tasted it at some time in my life, but never really knew what it was or how it was made.  Turns out it’s made using hollandaise technique, which isn’t very difficult.  Who knew?

Basic formula for Zabaglione:

2 oz. marsala (or champagne, white wine, cognac, or other liqueur*)

2 oz. sugar

3 egg yolks

In this version, I am using Grand Marnier.

Combine all in a metal bowl with a whisk.  Place bowl over low heat (or if you need a little security, place it over a bowl of simmering water), and whisk vigorously and consistently until it reaches ribbon stage and is steaming.  Basically, you’re whisking until the yolks are cooked, but not scrambled.  It will probably take about 10 minutes. (Yes, your arm will be tired.)

Ribbon stage looks just like how it sounds – it looks like a silky ribbon, the sauce will nicely coat the back of a spoon and as you mix you will leave a trail in your bowl.

This is how it will look after you've whisked it enough.

*If you use a liqueur or something stronger than a white wine, you may want to reduce the amount for a less boozy result, and instead use a bit of water to dilute the mixture.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but zabaglione is much greater than the sum of its parts.

We poured the sauce over strawberries, gave it some broiler action (called a salamander) for a couple of minutes to brown the top, and it tasted like toasted marshmallows, only better.  You could fold whipped cream into it and make a mousse, trifle, or parfait, or freeze it for a frozen dessert.

Here is my Grand Marnier zabaglione with sliced pears and a dollop of creme fraiche. I also mixed some creme fraiche into the mixture. Berries would be better, but I didnt have any on hand.

Versatile and delicious.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

My last quarter of culinary school started on Monday with the first night of my Introduction to Baking class.  I wasn’t actually in attendance on Monday due to a work commitment, so my first day was Tuesday, April 12.

On the menu:  muffins

I make muffins a LOT.  They’re a nice little breakfast or mid-morning snack that carries me to lunchtime.  I occasionally try to inject some good nutrition by using a bit of whole wheat flour or oatmeal, but since the muffins I usually make are small, and I don’t eat them every day, I don’t get too anxious about it.

Good muffins make me happy.   Am I alone in this feeling?  I didn’t think so.

There are 2 ways to make muffins.  One way is the muffin method.  It sounds like it should be a song or nursery rhyme, doesn’t it?  It’s a simple technique with 3 completely uncomplicated steps:


The muffins and quick bread that Mavis and I made. Rhubarb-pistachio muffins with a cinnamon sugar topping, and cranberry ginger loaf with oatmeal streusel.

  1. Combine your wet ingredients:  melted butter or oil, vanilla, milk, eggs
  2. Combine your dry ingredients:  flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar (whisk ‘em up real good so they’re well mixed, or sift them together if you wish).  And here’s a little trick I learned from Dorie Greenspan.  If you’re using citrus zest, mix it into your sugar with your fingers before combining it with all the other ingredients.  The oils from the zest release into the sugar and it’s like a double-hit of citrus-y goodness.
  3. Combine your wet and dry ingredients, mixing just until there aren’t any dry flour streaks. This should only take a minute or 2.  Lumps are OK.  In fact, lumps are good.

If you mix too long, you’re doing 2 things to your batter that will make your muffins tough.

  1. You’re working air into your batter.  You need a little air, because that’s part of what makes them rise (in addition to the baking powder), but not too much or they’ll collapse as they cool on your rack and form these weird little tunnels on the inside that makes it look like small worms invaded your baked goods. Muffins are supposed to make you happy.  If they collapse or look like they’re a home for worms, you won’t be happy, and you’ve defeated the purpose of making muffins.
  2. You’re activating the gluten in the flour.  Gluten is the protein that gives bread its structure.  Gluten is good in bread.  Not so much in muffins.  Your end result will be a tougher texture and a larger crumb.  You won’t want to eat them, and you won’t be happy.

The second method for muffins is the creaming method.  You use the creaming method when you make cookies, layer cakes, and a host of other yummy treats.   And sure enough, if you use the creaming method to make muffins, and do it right, you’ve got yourself little cakes to munch on.  It helps to use pastry flour if you really want that cakey texture.

The creaming method is also simple, but generally involves more equipment (which generally means more dishes, so I don’t usually go this route, but it’s good to know just the same):

  1. Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, and any dried herbs or spices you’re using. Set aside.
  2. Mix your softened butter and sugar in a stand mixer for a few minutes until it’s well combined.  It will be kind of fluffy and pale, and you’ll notice that the sugar has begun to dissolve in the butter.  If you want to soften your butter quickly, stick in in the microwave for a minute at 10% power.  You can also just cube the butter, stick it in the mixer and run it at fairly high speed until it warms slightly.  But if you melt the butter, you’re screwed.  Switch to the muffin method if that happens.
  3. Scrape the sides of your bowl, and add your eggs one at a time until just combined. Scrape down the bowl after each addition.
  4. Add your flour and milk, and mix at low speed until combined.  Again, small lumps are good, but definitely make sure the batter is all together and uniform.

Once the batter is mixed in either method, you can add whatever you want to your muffins:  dried and/or fresh fruit, nuts, candy, chocolate, coconut, etc.

Rick's muffins

Ricks muffins. Dark chocolate orange, with a hint of chile. Sweet, but not too sweet, and delectable. Arent they pretty?

I was doubly happy last night, because not only were we making muffins, but I was reunited with my cooking partner, Mavis.  We didn’t have classes together last quarter, and I missed her laugh and fun spirit in the kitchen.

We decided to make rhubarb pistachio muffins with cinnamon sugar topping.  In our second batch, using the muffin method, we made cranberry ginger mini-loaves.  They both turned out rustically beautiful, and they were scrumptious.

Classmates came up with equally mouth-watering combinations including chocolate peanut-butter, oreo cookie, currant-orange, and more.

Our other fine partner in kitchen crime, Rick, made muffins with one of my favorite flavor combos: dark chocolate and orange.

Lovely, happy muffins.

A land of wine and jamón

For spring break, Randy and I skipped the white sand beaches crowded with bikini-clad women, largely because the 5 or so extra pounds on my midsection is not the kind of thing one wants to flaunt.

Damn culinary school.  If you ever decide to go, beware the culinary school version of the freshman 15.

Instead, we went to Andalucia, Spain.  Not a bad alternative.

We spent time on the Mediterranean coast, and in historic cities like Granada, Sevilla, and Cordoba.  The region has a captivating history, and incredible historic structures that bring it all to life.  We were really mesmerized and awe-inspired by much of what we saw.  And, oh the food! 

The emphasis in Spain is very simple preparations of high quality ingredients.    As Joan Mesquida, the General Secretary for Tourism and Domestic Trade says, “Spain’s great diversity of climate and geography makes it possible to find some basic products of excellent quality, both from the land and the sea.”  We definitely experienced this during our time in Spain.

toast with tomato and olive oil

Toast with tomato and olive oil, or "pan con tomate"

For example, a typical breakfast in Spain is toast with olive oil and tomato spread, garlic if you want it.  Sounds unremarkable, right?  But the bread is almost always a baguette, ciabatta, or other hearth baked loaf.  The olive oil is so flavorful – some of the best I’ve tasted anywhere.  And the tomato spread is usually a fresh concasse lightly seasoned with salt.  It’s so satisfying, and yet as simple as the toast with butter and jam we consume in the U.S.

The rest of the day, Spaniards go with a tapas approach.  Small plates of food that are usually a few bites of something delectable.   Spaniards will enjoy a mid-morning snack of croquettes – a béchamel-based filling using chicken, cheese or fish that is coated in breadcrumbs and deepfried – or bocadillos, simple sandwiches (you don’t see the loaded sandwiches in Spain. It’s usually a filling of one or two ingredients – chorizo and tomato, or jamón and cheese).

At  around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. the people will enjoy their largest meal of the day.  Shops and businesses close, and the tapas bars overflow with tourists and working Spaniards alike enjoying a meal with their family and friends.   This is feast time.

Salmorejo...delicious (follow link for recipe and photo credit)

You’ll see goat cheese and almond salads, open faced sandwiches with cheese, jamón, or chorizo,  skewers of lamb and chicken, baked shrimp and octopus with garlic,  bowls of salmorejo(a cold soup/sauce made with cream, bread,

tomato, and garlic – it’s everywhere!) with bits of fried jamón and maybe chopped egg, fried potatoes with brava or garlic sauce, sauteed mushrooms, and much more.  It’s a feast for all the senses.

After the big meal, a little nap and relaxation are in order.  Randy and I really got into this rhythm!

At 4 or 5 p.m., Spaniards return to work for a couple of hours, and then around 8 or 9 p.m. the walking and night life begins.  In most of the cities we visited, you would find what seemed like the whole town out for a walk. Eventually everyone wanders into the tapas bars again to enjoy a late, light dinner.  These bars are often jammed until well past 11 or 12. We were never out long enough to see the streets die down, and we were often out well past 11 p.m.!

Thinly sliced jamon

Jamon is always served thinly sliced on a plate with little to no garnish. This jamon is from Huelva, one of the government certified D.O. regions.

At least one meal every day inevitably includes jamón.  Jamón is like the national food of Spain, and the “Ibérico ham is the jewel in the Spanish culinary crown,” says Mesquida. Seriously. It’s regulated by the government, and for good reason.

The Ibérico breed of pig is native to the Ibérian Peninsula, eats grass and acorns and roams freely in the field.  It’s a cured ham, similar to prosciutto, but with its own distinct character.  The curing process is carefully regulated by the government. There are many different types of jamón, but the types I saw most often were Serrano, and jamón de bellota, which is a very special type of ham.  The bellota indicates that the pigs were Ibérico pigs that were fed acorns, and that nutty, complex flavor is evident in the final product.   The jamón de bellota is rated according to the quality, which is based on the animal’s feed.  If the Ibérico pig was fed only acorns during its life, it has the highest rating and most complex flavor, and of course the highest price.

Many of the pigs are fed acorn, but finished on a diet of mixed grains.  The jamón that results is still wonderful, but not as complex.  This is the type you will find in many tapas bars throughout Spain.  There were fewer bars that carried the highest quality jamón.

I developed a great love and appreciation for jamón while in Spain, and I already miss not just the flavor, but the experience of eating it with a bit of olive oil, bread, and maybe a hunk of cheese. It’s so simple, but satisfying to the core.

wine and tapa

Wine and a tapa of shrimp wrapped in potato threads and deep fried.

A word about the wine.  It’s delicious. And cheap.  I’m talking $3.50 to $4 for a glass of wine, which was often less than you pay for a beer – or even a glass of water!

You ask for a vino de la casa, tinto (house red wine), and you’re almost always going to get a juicy, well-balanced young Rioja.

Occasionally we went for the bit more expensive red wines from the Ribera del Duero region. The extra buck got you a more full-bodied and complex wine to enjoy with your jamón.  This stuff is terrific.  Sadly, I didn’t bring any wine home with me. I’ll have to take my chances with the reputable wine shops in the area.

A trip to Andalucia definitely beat the beaches, and I can’t wait to return.

I didn’t write much about the sights, since after all, this is a food blog.  But here are a couple of photos (more on my facebook page).

We had one fancy lunch on our vacation, and in addition to cuttlefish croquettes and almond soup, we ordered salt encrusted sea bass which was filleted for us at the table.

This is a photo from the mountain town of Ronda. We didnt spend nearly enough time here. Its gorgeous, as you can see.


The Alhambra. One of the most impressive sights we visited while in Granada.

tiny kitchen in a small tapas bar in Ronda

The tiny kitchen used by the proprietor in a small, but popular tapas bar in Ronda.

Buen Provecho!