Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Category Archives: cooking

Meeting the Mytilidae Family

A number of weeks ago I took my wife out to dinner at a pretty nice restaurant. I don’t recall the reason – but who needs one? Great dinner + lovely wife + good conversation = well-spent evening.

There aren’t many restaurants in our immediate area that I feel are chef-driven. Most popular are chains of one kind or another, and while the food may be good, it rarely changes. We found a local bistro a while ago that is privately owned, and every meal we’ve had there has been extraordinary. Plus, they cater to gluten-free diners (like my wife).

This particular evening I was feeling a bit adventurous. In fact, I’m most always adventurous when it comes to food, but since this was a special occasion, I ordered steamed mussels as an appetizer, something I’d never tasted before.

I like clams, squid and all manner of unusually textured seafood, so mussels weren’t a real stretch. “Prince Edward Isle mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and lemon butter with baby spinach and Roma tomatoes,” in the shell. And boy, were they tasty! They tasted fresh, like the ocean, and with a bite of spinach, tomato, and the light sauce, it was a mouthful of seafoody goodness I won’t soon forget.

The wife loved them as well, and I really think we could have consumed several more plates, if we hadn’t already ordered our entrees. I read later that you should really think twice before ordering mussels in a restaurant, especially if you don’t trust the cook to properly evaluate them before cooking and serving. We didn’t have a bad one in the bunch, either in aroma or taste, so I was pleasantly reassured. I would definitely order them again at our bistro.

Question 1


Cooking Class, Week 4

Last night was to be fish stock night. However, we didn’t make fish stock. We didn’t even have a fish. We did take fish out of a can, though we didn’t make stock from it. Okay, we did make a kind of seafood “stock”, but more on that later.

We were all really hoping to learn how to deconstruct a fish and make stock. Chef’s reason was that whole fish were costly and not easily obtained for him, and fish heads and bones were all but impossible to get. Whatever; I guess there are limited funds and time for this class for him.

We all made three recipes again, this time crab cakes, salmon patties and seafood Newburg. We split into two groups – guys vs gals – to make the fried things, and all watched chef do the Newburg.

The four guys did the salmon. Pretty simple recipe – just combine salmon (de-skinned and de-boned by hand from the can), chopped onion, chopped fresh parsley, dill weed, lemon juice, eggs, bread crumbs, seasoning. I made the big mistake of dumping in what I thought were moist bread crumbs but were in fact chopped walnuts. I got most of ’em out, but it definitely added a new flavor. Fried in butter and/or oil until brown (the oil worked better).

I wasn’t watching what went into the crab cakes. Looked like onion, imitation crab, some liquid (cream?). Fried up very nice.

In the meantime, we unpackaged some frozen shrimp (already shelled and deveined), frozen bay scallops, and fake crab in a bowl. There was a fair amount of liquid after thawing; chef said this could substitute for fish stock, as there was a lot of flavor in it. I didn’t taste it. Heated on the stove, he added a cooled roux (sweated onions in butter with flour whisked in).  Added some semi-dry sherry, then some half & half, then cooked to a thin nappe.

Some puff pastry shells were baked earlier, and now cool. Chef called them “patty shells”, which I think is incorrect. Should be like this. We placed one uncapped shell in a welsh rarebit plate, with a scoop of the seafood Newburg on top, with one each of the crab cakes and salmon patties on the side.

The salmon patties were too dry – we should have added back in more of the drained salmon juice. Plus, when the patties were fried, they didn’t conform to the pan so only the high points got browned. Flattening them with the spatula helped. I should have added more juice or water.

The crab cakes were quite good, though a little weak on the flavor. Gals still won this round, in my mind.

The seafood Newburg was disappointing. The sauce was thin and certainly not bursting with flavor. My daughter thought the sherry was too pronounced; I couldn’t taste much of it. Most Newburg recipes call for egg yolks; none used here, and no nutmeg or cayenne/red pepper. It might have helped if the dish had cooked a while longer, to extract the seafood flavors and meld.

All in all a pretty disappointing evening. We finished just after 8pm, and sat around and talked until about 8:30. Not even a story about how Lobster Newburg came to be. Nothing to take away this evening, I’m afraid.

Cooking Class, Week 3

We arrived 15min late (wanted to be there at 6pm instead of 6:30, as Chef was going to prep the bones for beef stock), just as the bones were coming out the oven. Turns out he browned some veg as well – blackened, more like it, but I don’t know how you’d have prevented it at 450deg. Two others were chopping up onions – mostly for the onion soup, and skins and ends for the stock. Again, he seems to be ok with building the stock with imperfect ingredients. I strongly disagree with this.

Stock pot on the stove, filled with water to about 4″ over the bones and veg. More water than we added for veg or chicken stock, it seemed. Anyhow, it colored nicely very quickly, with much flavor.

There were three dishes to make – onion soup, beef stroganoff and a remoulade. There wasn’t a lot to do prep-wise, and there were a lot of people (9 of us, usually), so I chose to hang back and just observe. It was very crowded, as most of the work was going on at the stove, and there just wasn’t enough room around it for everyone to observe.

Top round got cubed and dredged, then cooked in oil in a large sautoir. A brown roux was made into a sauce and left to cool. Rough chopped onions were added when the meat was done. When cooked, the pan was deglazed with beef stock, thickened with the brown sauce, and a tub of sour cream added. Worcestershire and seasoning were involved. Egg noodles were also cooked. Nothing special there, just a note: let the meat cook! Don’t keep stirring it around!

Nancy sweated the pot of onions in a lot of butter, then Chef added half and half beef stock and leftover chicken stock from last week. Worcestershire and seasoning was added. Simple.

We made a remoulade – new flavor for all of us – which turned out pretty nice, though we were missing chervil, chives and anchovies, and it was blended, not stirred. Most said it reminded them of a tartar sauce; indeed, it’s kind of a french tartar sauce originally intended for meats. We sampled it over noodles.

The stroganoff was superb; best I’ve had in a long time. Absolutely wonderful, rich flavorful sauce. I think the best dish so far.

The onion soup was disappointing; I think the chicken stock weakened it, and worcestershire was the dominant flavor, not onions. Nancy thought it was bitter.

The remoulade was excellent over noodles, and because of the chopped dill pickle, I immediately thought fish. Chef said it would probably go well with chicken or beef too.

A couple takeaways this week. First, dredging the beef cubes in flour added a great flavor component to the strogranoff, in addition to the fond. I wonder if that should be a standard practice when browning meats.

Second, remoulade! Not only does it sound pretty cool, it tastes great – an excellent variation on dumb old tartar sauce, and I will definitely make it the next time we cook fish. Mmm… capers!

Chef missed a big opportunity to explain emulsions last night, since the remoulade is mayonnaise based. He did have someone make a brown sauce with a corn starch slurry- just for comparison with the roux brown sauce. Still, I was a bit surprised he didn’t elaborate at all. He’s quite comfortable just standing there, or talking about traffic in Cincinnati or his favorite steak restaurant. I’ve been regularly disappointed that he is not working harder to share his knowledge during class. I think most all of us would be interested in more.

Tilapia Cream Soup with Lemon and Ginger


6c vegetable stock*
3 medium baked russet potatoes chopped
1 can coconut milk
6″ lemon grass chopped in 1″ sections
1/4c lime juice
1.5″ knob of ginger julienned
1 bunch green onion chopped small (reserve 1/3 c for garnish)
1# tilapia fillets

Combine everything and simmer for an hour or so until potatoes are soft and fish is easily forked apart. Season to taste. Pick out lemon grass sections if possible.

Serve, garnish with remaining green onion.

* Vegetable stock:

4 medium onions roughly chopped
3 celery stalks roughly chopped
4 carrots roughly chopped
2 bay leaves

Cover with 1″ water in a 6qt pot. Simmer for 1 hour. Strain. Feed veg to dog when cool.

Cooking Class, Week 2

Chicken stock tonight. We arrive just a few minutes late, and the rest of the class is already in the kitchen. I guess there wasn’t any lecture. Too bad.

Chef has just cleaned a bag of white beans, and set them on to boil. Note: remove the stones.

In the mean time, Chef will demo chicken butchery. We’ll want the breast/thigh pieces for dishes tonight (chicken pot pie, cream of chicken soup), and the rest for the stock (which will also flavor bean and ham soup).

He demos the removal of the breast – long strokes along the breastbone, letting the sharp knife do the work, until the breast is free, then cutting off the thigh from the carcass. Pinch the leg joint to find the area where the soft cartilage is, then cut there to separate the leg from the thigh. Breast/thigh on a pan, leg in the stock pot. Similarly cut off the wing parts from the carcass and put them in the pot. No one else volunteers right away, so I jump in to duplicate his technique – this looks so easy! It isn’t, but it’s a lot easier than the hacking I usually do. The remaining carcass – minutes the inside bits – goes into the pot too. Good tip: cutting through the cartilage; dissecting a chicken is easy! Chef makes a case that buying a whole chicken is cheaper. I later find that Giant Eagle sells breast/thigh pieces significantly cheaper than whole chickens. Go figure.

Though he distinguished between stock and broth last week, we throw in bones and meat. We also add mirepoix, though not as much as for veg stock. A couple bay leaves and again, on the stove to boil. We season the breast/thigh pieces and bake until lightly browned, then cool and rough chop.

More prep this week for the dishes – different herbs, different veg, though again different than the recipes Chef hands out. We dice several of potatoes for the pot pies, then sautee in butter. Note: don’t stir, let them brown! Add veg and sautee some more. When done, add some broth and roux, and cook until pretty thick.

When beans are done, drain and add chicken broth, and diced smoked pork shoulder. Some herbs, probably, and not much seasoning. Let it cook for a while.

Chef pulls out pre-formed pastry shells from the store (!) and fills them, reserving some of the veg. Then pulls out pre-rolled pie dough and drapes over the top – not even bothering to trim or tuck the edges. It’s all about the taste, not how it looks, he says. I disagree inside. Pies go into the convection oven.

We remove all the chicken parts from the remaining broth, and pull off all the meat. This goes into another pot for a quick cream of chicken soup made with the leftover pie filling. Fortified with broth and thickened with milk and a little roux, this soup is thin, and doesn’t have the hearty taste you’d expect from a cream of chicken. I don’t have any.

The pot pie is tasty. The bottom crust is quite dry (good) and the top is flaky (good), but I wanted the interior to be much more saucy. I wanted to pour some of the cream of chicken over the top.

Bean soup is good too, though the beans could have benefited from an overnight soak, I think; they were a bit too chewy for me. But the flavor was quite good – that smoked pork added a lot. I’m sure the chicken broth added depth as well.

Pretty much the only think I took away from tonight was the chicken butchering tips and practice. There wasn’t as much evidence of deepened flavor profile based on the broth like there was the week before. I’d made a veg soup at home last weekend – making a veg stock, straining, then adding more veg and water, and it was delicious – very intense veg flavor, much more than a regular vegetable soup made with just water. Highly recommended.

Since I’m still blogging, you can conclude that Nancy and I decided to stick it out (plus, it was too late to get a refund) in hopes of bringing home a few tips, and just cooking!

Though using the term “we” makes it sound like all of us in the class were participating, in reality 12 is too many in the kitchen, and there’s rarely room for more than 2 at the stove. Quite frustrating, that.

We finished around 9, and sat around talking. Chef recommended that we not pursue cooking school – first because of the cost, second because he thought you could get the experience you need as an apprentice somewhere. He didn’t seem to take much interest in the technical aspects of cooking (a la CIA), and even mentioned some fat book “On Cooking” he doesn’t use. I think he meant, “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, a classic and perhaps one of the top 5 books chefs regularly recommend. I take Chef’s advice with a large grain of salt.

Cooking Class, Week 1

This week – vegetable stock and derivative recipes. We spent all of 15 minutes in lecture, though even that could have been pared down to 5 minutes. Chef is a very slow speaker! My first impression is that he’s not going to be the dynamic teacher I was hoping for. I overhear later that he retired from cooking over 10 years ago, because he was tired of the “pressure”. Well, he certainly slowed down!

We covered some brief safety rules and a very quick intro to stocks and sauces (all of which we knew). Then in the kitchen, we wash up and watch Chef prepare the vegetable stock. Of interest – he didn’t wash any of the veg! He used the outer skin of the onions (for color), didn’t peel or wash the carrots or celery. No mention of ratio of different veg (by volumn, should be 50% onion, 25% carrot, 25% celery) or veg to water; we simply added water to an inch or so above. Also, since class time was limited, he put the stock pot on to boil. Classic stock should not boil, only simmer, but he said boiling was ok (why?). Note: rough chop. Added 2 bay leaves.

Looks like the idea will be to prep a certain kind of stock each week, then prepare a couple dishes using the stock. This week it’s tomato soup and cream of mushroom. Chef provided recipes for the stock, two soups and something else, but never referred to them at all during class, and took grand liberties with the ingredients and method. He wants us, I think, to be able to construct dishes by feel, rather than being bound to a recipe. This is a good thing.

While stock was going, he briefly discussed/demo’d a blond roux, then had 4 teams of 3 prep a 2Tb blond roux. Important: cold roux to hot liquid, and vice-versa. We let the roux cool.

Briefly talked about the sugar/acid content of various tomato products (paste, whole, sauce), and 3 types of salt (sea, kosher, iodized) and when you’d use them. I disremember what he said, and will need to ask in a future class.

Tomato soup had stock base, used canned chopped tomatoes, salt & pepper, milk, that’s all I remember. Used an immersion blender on the tomatoes. Very simple, and tasted quite fresh, though some didn’t like the “graininess” of it. Well, yes, compared to canned cream of tomato. I liked it better. Maybe could have used cream to thicken a bit more, and fresh basil.

We reconstituted some dried mushrooms, and sauteed others. Sauteed diced onions and some diced celery in butter – Chef loves butter – then added stock and all our roux to make a sauce, then added more stock and mushrooms to make the soup. Seasoned. Excellent.

So very simple soups, but lots of flavor. Veg stock was a lot simpler than I imagined.

But we didn’t feel like we got a tremendous amount out of the class. Chef was not the kind of teacher we wanted, and the content of the class was decidedly not technical. May need to discuss whether to carry on.

Cooking Class, Introduction

Nancy and I decided to take a short class at a local vocational school called Soups, Stocks and Sauces. The class description read,

Discover the wonders of fresh homemade soup. A hands-on approach of how to prepare fantastic seasonal soups. This course will teach the classic methods of making stocks, as well as how to produce exceptional sauces. Students will develop the skills to cook with confidence.

We were hoping to put some “feet” on our head-knowledge of stocks, and to kind of test the waters a bit. At some point, Nancy would like to attend culinary school, and we thought this would be a very small first step.

The school has a culinary arts program, and the high school students even run a small lunch restaurant each day, so we knew it would be a commercial kitchen with all the tools, so we were pretty excited about it.

We also were hoping to rub shoulders with a chef who was interested in really getting into the nitty-gritty of cooking and cooking science. The teacher is an Executive Chef – no idea what that means at the moment, but it sounds impressive.

Unfortunately, class was cancelled the first day – guess the Chef couldn’t make it – so we’ll have to wait. On the upside, we were promised an extra week.