Monday, July 12, 2010

from kitchen slave to executive chef in 1 day

Thank you universe! Yesterday was a gift. Yawning as I turn off the alarm, I make my morning pilgrimage to the coffee pot. Sunday mornings used to be my favorite. As I leave for work, Ryan is contemplating a walk to the farmer's market. It feels like he's cheating on me. The drive to Laguna Beach is beautiful, the first sunny day in weeks. "I wonder what exciting this is going to happen today?", I think to myself. The multiple fire engines and police cars on pacific coast highway were my first clue. A main transformer (Ryan thinks it was a Decepticon) blew, causing a power outage for much of Laguna. It's not until today that I realize the kitchen of Hotel Laguna is kinda like the outside light. Sternos were aglow on all the counters. I was promptly issued a flashlight and told not to go anywhere without it. I helped to put the food on ice, clean the eerily dark kitchen while balancing a flashlight, and fill bowls with pretzels and snacks for hungry guests & employees at the front desk and bar. Someone radios that it's going to be 3hrs before CalTrans even arrives at the scene. The chef says he "hates to do this to me" and sends me home. I try to act disappointed. I skip back to my car, and promptly drive back to San Clemente, where the power is on, the sun is out!, and my amazing fiance has packed the house with fresh local food.

There are so many hidden gems in San Clemente. Oliver's is one of my favorite. Specializing in high-end oils and vinegars, its a foodie paradise. The 18yr. aged Balsalmic Vinegar is syrupy sweet, perfect with these heirloom beauties. San Clemente wine company is, conveniently, across the street. Owners Rachel & Barney help us pair wines with our menu ideas...its almost too easy.

On a trip to the farmer's market, the dishes kinda create themselves as I walk up and down the rows. Letting the ingredients inspire me, its also a fun chance to try something new, use an ingredient that is completely foreign to me. This time, my personal shopper, Rybo, came home with purslane. Purslane is commonly considered a weed in the U.S. A succulent, it is rich in omega-3 fatty acid and several dietary vitamins. It can be used raw in salads, or cooked very similar to spinach. I can only describe the taste as "planty."

Heirloom Tomato Salad with Oliver's aged balsalmic vinegar, homegrown basil, and goat cheese, kosher salt & pepper. The taste of summer in one bite!

A walk to Billy's Deli on Del Mar led to the most beautiful Opah for our Sunday night dinner, crusted in a Meyer lemon olive oil. The corn & pepper relish is a favorite...grilled Anaheim pepper, sweet corn just cut from the cob (the milky juices are key in this dish), bell pepper and topped with avocado. Butter brings this corn & pepper classic together...also, key. Sauteed purslane with garlic & shallots cooked up in minutes, deliciously good for you.

The best summer desserts require no baking at all. This panna cotta uses Mango Sage honey from VR Green Farms right here in San Clemente. This honey (aka: candy) is good enough on its own, but I've been toying with this panna cotta notion for a while now. Creamy & custardlike, Nigela Lawson says it should "jiggle like a 17th century courtesan's inner thigh." With that, Ryan was already asking for seconds. The berries, also from the market, are at their peak...I love summer fruit :)

The kitchen slave gets to play executive chef for the day. It was so fun to revisit my own culinary food (mostly plants), as close to the food source as possible, harvested at its peak season, delicious to the taste buds and nourishing to the body.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adventures of a kitchen slave pt. 3, La Tortuga

Let the record show, I fancy myself a progressive. Largely devoid of social stereotypes and presumptions based on appearances, I try not to judge (lest I BE judged). "Mouthbreathers" are the one exception. In my experience, those who breath through their mouth instead of their nose (except during times of infirmity) are some of the slowest (physically & mentally) individuals you will ever encounter. I, somewhat, shamefully tell you that I consider this a sign of "lower" intelligence. Oh universe, must you make me so tragically aware of every time I renig on my personal truths? As a kitchen slave, I find myself asked to complete incredibly repetitive tasks tasks on a daily basis. I'm learning, the fastest way to execute these tasks is an "assembly line" basis. Complete each singular step in the task of cutting, say, an onion. Cut off the tops, and tails of each. Then, cut each in half. Next, complete the steps for dicing (as taught in Culinary Principles #1) for each onion in the bushel. Head down, I channel the focus of a factory fast as possible! Fast forward hour, a co-worker tells me its almost time to close down the kitchen, and I should leave my project (incomplete!) to assist them with the evening's cleaning. "How could this be?" I find myself working at turtle speed (my Spanish is improving..."si, la tortuga!"), mouth-open (trying to avoid the tears that come with cutting onions when breathing through one's nose) to complete a single task my coworkers seem to complete at mind-blowing speed. Yes, we've come full circle. I can only hope that I learn a small bit of compassion during my time as a mouth-breathing turtle.

The next day, I get the opportunity to really COOK something for the restaurant (ie: not just cutting vegetable to their appropriate lengths, but rather, apply a elevated temperature for the proper time). Asked to cook 15 two-and-a-half pound Maine lobsters for the July 4th holiday, I welcome the opportunity. I'm not intimidated by these claw-bearing crustaceans. I've sent many lobsters to their end, dipping these pleading, squirming lobs into their steaming oblivion. Yet, I felt the need to "thank" each of these living beings before sinking them into their final poaching liquid. Similar to the feeling when I cook (and eat!)protein..."Thank for giving your life. I hope your delicious." The rule of thumb cooking time is 8 minutes in full boiling water. After cooling in an ice bath, I proceed to take out my every frustration on these poor lobsters, breaking them down with the back of a meat cleaver and a pair of kitchen shears. Standing there covered in shell bits and puke green tamale, I embarrassingly admit to you, "I've never been happier." And, I mean it.