Friday, September 28, 2012


Looking inquisitively I asked “What is this?!” “It’s a hot pepper so you might not want to touch it… it’ll make your mouth burn.” My mother said. Saying this to a six year old is like saying oh heck you’re gonna love it, why not just grab a fork and help yourself!! So naturally I waited until my mother turned her back and began stirring the sauce…looking like a red bell pepper I took a nice sized piece and got maybe three chews in before my face felt like it burst into flames. Running through the living room past my bewildered father I ran into the bathroom and dunked my face into the sink where my face and lips remained for the better part of the next hour. This was my intro to canning and sauceapalooza.

I had always remembered my mother canning but this was the first year where I got to see it up close and until the pepper incident, very personal. Peeling tomatoes, seeding, crushing them right through to the processing when the windows were all flung opened and made our house look like a steam factory, but it prevented the kitchen ceiling from raining down drops of condensed steam and turning the floor into a slip and slide. My mom pretty much canned or froze damned near everything from our garden and from shared gardens of several aunts. Enough to fill a standalone freezer from top to bottom and a garage type metal 5 tiered rack until I was nearly a junior in high school.

Suffice it to say mom has canned or frozen quite a few things since she was a little girl at my grandmother’s side, using the old fashioned canning jars with rubber seals. From applesauce to summer squash and everything in between… but nothing was ever as much fun as spaghetti sauce, or smelled any better. By the time I actually started helping with the knife work of mincing garlic, dicing the onion, carrot, green peppers and learning how to separate the skins plus seed and dice tomatoes I was maybe eleven or twelve. 

The time seemed to fly by and at the end a sense of disappointment prevailed until we got to eat the fruit of that year’s labor. There was no comparison between spaghetti sauce to when I was helping to pick, sort and then freeze blueberries, or as I like to call it…eternal damnation. The blueberries were easy but offered no magic as a reward for preparation… only stained hands and faces.

Over the year’s mom’s canning slowed, first the green beans stopped then the pickles until my father passed. It has only been spaghetti sauce for the last four years. I always joked with mom and called it sauceapalooza, even going so far as to filming it the year before my father died… sort of an “every boring thing you ever wanted to see about canning, and then some!” 

It’s almost unwatchable as the audio is bad except for the parts when my father would come into the kitchen and being half deaf from being a tool and die maker/machinist his whole life and asking my mother the odd this or that question… then a smile and wave he’d give to the camera and out of the shot he’d go. Typical ham that he was makes the whole thing worth playing every now and again.

“So I guess that’s it.” Mom says as the final canners are wrapped and stored. I said “yeah… done for another year.” She gave me a strange look and said “no I mean that’s probably the last time I’ll be canning.” “You know I was talking about selling the house and if that happens then those canners are yours.” I guess she had told me she wanted to sell. I thought of it every now and then, but quickly set it aside. 

My parents bought the house in seventy three and it’s the only home I ever knew short of a few oddball memories of falling down stairs when I was three in Worcester, or waving down the milkman for a ten cent pint of chocolate milk in Hinsdale when I was four. I walked around the yard and thought of how the neighbors that used to stop and comment about how good the sauce smelled have all gone or have passed away. I want to be selfish and come up with reasons for her to not sell, but I know in my heart that it’s time.

Sure I can invite her to my home to do spaghetti sauce, but it’s really not the same. Until now it’s been the familiar rhythms of seasons, of enjoying each other’s company…of home. But I guess that’s what life is all about isn’t it, change. I can tell you this, if those canners are mine come next year I’ll be breaking them out more often than just for saucezpalooza. 

I see jellypalooza and picklepalooza not to mention a few others besides. Because even if I can’t have the feeling of “that” home anymore at least I’ll be able to share a few days doing something I love and enjoy. Plus I’ll be doing it with the person that not only taught me how, but made it a home for all those wonderful years. Whatta ya say mom…pickled ramps too soon for our first canning event?!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Professional Cooks and Sacrifice

Sacrifice…” Sacrifice of one's personal interests or well-being for the sake of others…” Think about this the next time you’re in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, or hell even Arbor Day. I mean damn, those cooks and chefs would like to be out planting trees too! But they’re not; they’re forgoing being with their husbands, wives, children and loved ones to ensure you have a good time and great food.
In exchange for their sacrifice they have some of the highest incidences of alcoholism, divorce, drug abuse, suicides, stress related health problems and injuries in the working world. So with these problems so prevalent in cooking… why do they do it? Why would you give up so much time with friends and family to cook with such a band of social miscreants?

Must be the money right? How does a cook become rich and successful? Well that’s an easy one; he/she quits cooking and gets a job as a hedge fund manager. Sure there’s still a high incidence of stress, alcoholism and drug issues, but at least when you die you can be buried in a Ferrari and leave a billion dollars to your cat Fluffy McWhiskers. This is something a cook could never do. 

No folks it’s not about the money and it’s not about fame…it can’t be. It has to be something deeper and more personal. Becoming a cook for the money would be akin to becoming a convict for the excellent health benefits.

Some folks say it’s because cooks don’t fit in anywhere else in the working world and it gives them a sense of anonymity while at the same time the opportunity to belong, a sense of being or purpose. I think this might hold true for a couple of percentage points of the industry as a whole but not nearly as many as some would have you believe. Cooks by their very nature are gregarious types and fiercely competitive so in theory they could fit in just about anywhere in the work field…although I wouldn’t suggest you hire them to take inventory of your liquor cabinet.

Passion? Because what’s not to love?! I mean who wouldn’t want the chance to work in front of a wall of flame on the grill station, with the instant read in your chef’s coat telling you it’s 125 degrees and your face is telling you it’s more like 200! Yes without a doubt there is passion involved but probably not to the extent you’d think. You obviously have to like what you do or you wouldn’t do it, otherwise we’d all be floating around in a pool sipping daiquiris. Sadly this floating and sipping thing doesn't pay very well and besides, the straws and umbrellas can ruin a pool filter.

The long and short of it is there is a combination of things deep down in a cooks very being that makes them do what they do. There are intangibles that can’t really be quantified as well as some things that can. I posed the question to highly acclaimed and respected Saint Louis, Missouri Chef Josh Galliano…

“Why do you do it?” His response was brilliant… “I love it, but why do I love it is a better question. I grew up with so many creative people around me. They played guitars, or painted... I didn't really feel like I had anything. Cooking is that creative outlet for me and it is even better than all those others... First, I get paid, and I'm not sure if they will get paid to paint or sculpt...  Second, instant gratification. I cannot tell you how huge that is… it's instant because you get feedback from the person eating it. Third, I have an instant rewrite if I don't think the product is good enough. I didn't waste the clay or the canvas. I wipe the plate clean and I start over.”

I asked Chef Galliano why he thought other people cooked, what with all the personal, emotional and physical sacrifice involved… why are people doing this? “I never believe the guys who say they can't do anything else. Or that they are just there for a paycheck. You can clock in and space out somewhere else for a lot less stress. It's always something more with cooking, that you are master & commander of a ship. You can be better than your "place" in the world…you get to be better… because you know how to cook that food to get the most out of it and they don't.”

So next time you're in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day and you’re playing kissy face with your soul mate or date du jour over filet mignon and lobster tails… think about that person in the kitchen helping make your dreams of getting lucky a reality. They don’t do it for the fame or the fortune, but they don’t mind a thank you once in a while either. Send a personal thank you through your server to those cooks…or better yet… tell your friends and your social media outlets how much you enjoyed their food.

In closing I asked Chef Galliano if he’d like to add something I overlooked he said… “How many chefs out there need counseling? Probably all.” HAHAHA…eh…thank you Chef… and… I’ll be over here in the corner until you’re done frenching that rack of lamb…Valium anyone?!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pizza, "Much Ado About... Bread"

My first recollections of pizza were of takeout pizza as a child living in Worcester, MA. I even remember the store, Papa Gino’s. I remember this because they had a promotion of some sort where they gave out a kite if you drank five of their pizzas. Of course I’m kidding about drinking five of their pizzas as I’m sure nobody could drink more than three, but the kite was real.
I joke about the pizza being greasy because it was. I don’t mean the odd drip or two of grease coming off the pizza and running down your four arms kind of greasy. I’m talking about rust proofing the underside of a 63’ Cadillac Sedan De Ville kind of greasy. If not held and eaten properly the rivulets of grease would literally pour down your arms and make it impossible to lean on your elbows without them sliding out from under you.
The thing that I do remember was that the pepperoni they put on the pizza would curl around the edges and manage to get to this glorious stage of doneness just shy of burnt. I’m not sure if this was something my father requested as he liked everything from toast to hot dogs done to a certain stage of charred, or if it was a functional timer used by the pizza guy to gauge its doneness.
Either was it was the thing I liked best about that pizza and would sneak them off their greasy base to the point that my father eventually had to order extra pepperoni as it was easier than this game of alternately slapping the back of my hand and in turn getting the back of his hand slapped by my mother for doing the same thing. When we moved to New Hampshire when I was three, there was luckily a Papa Gino’s in the town next to where we moved, so for a few short years we had the security of pizza we knew.
I’m not really sure when it closed, but I remember having to go to different places to “try” their pizza. We tried the pizza barn with no recollection of their pizza. We tried Mama Mia’s, Mr. Pizza and then the brand new grand daddy of all pizza places…Pizza Hut. Yup, wasn’t I the lucky one?! We went there exactly once and blessedly, it took more than an hour to get 1 pizza and mom decided Pizza Hut was not to be our pizza place.
We then decided to try this place on Main St. called Athens Pizza. It was your average Greek style Pizza joint and I remember the man at the counter a Greek man named Andy, would come to our table and joke with my brother and I. Anytime we went in there… he knew us all by name and still does to this day. In one hand he was customer service personified, in the other…he was the devil. My mother was and is not much of a meat person and he suggested a pizza with maybe some mushroom or green pepper on it. This was all fine and good but for people of the vegetarian faith, these are just gateway ingredients to something more sinister.
So with mom being the only parent home at night during the week, and dad working nights… My brother and I were relegated to piles of undercooked vegetables on top of soggy pizzas until we were old enough to order and eat small pizzas for ourselves. That started with my mother saying, “ok but if you order it you had better finish it mister!” What my mother didn’t know was that I’d eat an entire couch cushion rather than one slice of her pizza disasters.
Until I was nineteen Athens pizza was the bar by which all other pizza had been measured. I went out into the world and found out there was so much more that my childhood could never have prepared me for. From Neapolitan, Sicilian, California and Chicago styles and everything in between I have tried them all and found that they all have strengths. Sure there are things that I like about each and some things maybe not so much.
We often lose sight of what’s important while we bicker about toppings, shape, how hot was the oven, what was the oven fired with, what type of oven is it, or which style is better. It’s pizza, a humble peasant food, something meant to carry a precious few toppings and in the original carnations, no sauce or cheese and really save for some salt, oil and herbs…no toppings. It was about the bread, not the number of things you could put on top of it and what order they were put on.
I went to Flatbread Company in Amesbury, MA the other day and they did a pizza with nothing more than olive oil, garlic, onion, peppers and a few slices of homemade Italian Sausage spaced judiciously so you could taste the star of the show the bread. It was cooked beautifully and as I ate, it gave me an epiphany of sorts. It’s like the folks at Flatbread were shouting at me “don’t forget it’s really about the bread…stupid.” It’s about cooking it well and with care as it’s a damned pizza and there’s no such thing as “perfect” only perfect for you. So to Flatbread Company, thank you…I won’t forget.

Notice there is no sauce and no cheese...Flatbread Company Amesbury, MA.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Trader Joe's Your Tapenade Superstore

"Did you hear… it’s finally coming!" said a giddy faced friend of mine last winter. What are you talking about? “Trader Joe’s is finally coming!” I thought really, it’s coming here?! I had been hearing about Trader Joe’s since I guess my mid twenties. I had seen it on TV shows, and on food sites. I even heard about it in hushed tones from friends and strangers, and now… it was coming here.
This place seemed more mythical than the fake ID I was supposed to be able to buy from "some guy" for twenty bucks in the combat zone of Boston in the early eighties. So when I heard it was coming to Portsmouth NH I was dubious to say the least. Surely someone had mistaken Trader Joe’s for Michaels or Home Goods or some other such place that Portsmouth already has one of and in my opinion, one too many.
What we need is Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s or at the very least a store that sells twenty dollar fake ID’s. This is so sixteen year old kids don’t have to go wandering the hard scrabble streets of Boston only to be harassed by undercover cops from the local vice squad, and poking around my business of trying to drink one year earlier than the state of Vermont thinks I should.
But since that’s probably never gonna fly, I'm over twenty one now and kids won't lift their heads from texting long enough to drink anyway... just give me a place that sells frozen gorgonzola gnocchi and three and a half dollar two buck chuck.
In fairness of full disclosure I had been to Trader Joe’s once on a whim in Peabody Massachusetts or Saugus. Or whatever strip mall ridden section of hell that was that I like to call route one between the thirty Sleepy’s mattress stores, and the most confusing misnamed store on the planet Burlington Coat Factory.
I went in and looked around and saw what appeared to be a miniature version of what I imagined a Trader Joe’s should be. I was sure this was an express version of the real thing, as there was little produce and even less meat. I left thinking someday I’d like to see a real one.
The big day was finally here…September 7th. A day that will no doubt go down in the history of Portsmouth as the day Trader Joe’s opened and then there was light…and the light was good. At least that’s what you would think with the amount of press and the number of mentions it was getting on social media.
I wouldn’t go on Friday the opening day as I imagined everybody from grammar school field trips to nursing home activities groups were to be descending upon this place in swarms. I would go on Sunday, when it would be quiet…
I arrived at about 3:30 Sunday afternoon after church, ok after a leisurely brunch and smack talking with a chef friend of mine about the evils of the food industry over crepes and a bloody mary. Something they won’t serve at church… or at least that’s what they said when I asked them. I stepped out of my truck to what looked like the opening of a beehive.
People were standing by the front door waiting for grocery carts for themselves and grocery carts for their kids?! People think McDonald’s was smart for marketing to kids with toys, but Trader Joe’s approach is even more genius. It’s like giving kids the keys to Toy’s R Us and then handing them your credit card! Any parent who’s ever brought their kid down the cereal aisle will know this.
I knew stepping in the door of this place I wouldn’t  need a shopping cart as I saw that every single register was fifteen deep with people waiting like sheep to check out, and hoping to be the first in their neighborhood to say “I went to Trader Joe’s.” But why?!
The one I had been to in Massachusetts was just about this same size although this one appeared to have a bit more meat and produce. Meat and produce are the litmus test for my grocery stores of choice…and this place was short on both in comparison.
I wandered the aisles looking at all the processed and frozen foods they had to offer but I didn’t recognize any brands. It was like being in Europe wanting a candy bar and trying to figure out what the hell is the American equivalent of a Lion Bar? Then it hit me… that was the draw.
The things they had were like nothing you could buy elsewhere, otherwise why would you go? Take something simple like tapenade, people in cities take this for granted but in the five grocery stores I regularly frequent I can’t find one blessed jar of this stuff. Yes I can make it, but the convenience factor is what these people are paying for the privilege of.
In the end I walked out knowing I won’t be doing my day to day shopping here. I will be going here for a few interesting snacks to have on hand in the event someone pops in for an unannounced visit, or for when I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent and too lazy to make dark chocolate covered raspberry sticks. Lucky for me I drink Jameson and not vodka tonics. But if I did drink vodka tonics and I needed a few limes plus cookie butter… I know just the store I’d go to.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Awards Breed Complacency

Turns out I’m the "Greatest Hunk of All Time" in a recent top ten poll I conducted myself. I gave myself a trillion votes, Brad Pitt who came in second looked positively dreadful with one vote thanks to some random girl I asked (didn't make that mistake again). Who are the other eight "Hunks"? Well if we are going to be picking fly shit out of pepper fine…. Uh, Superman, Batman, Slim Whitman, Fruit Pie the Magician, Ronald MacDonald (creepy), Twinkie the Kid, Trojan Man and The Cat all split a vote. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that Top-Ten lists, Reader’s Surveys and “best of” polls are…Pointless.

I had been driving by this joint which is near the place I get my medicine (read -liquor store) for the better part of a year now and written on their sign is this “Voted Best Burger in New England”. I know this isn’t as earth shattering as "best restaurant in the world" or "best happy ending by a Massage Parlor" but come on, that’s a pretty bold statement. Our accents may be a bit off-putting but I mean to tell you there are some pretty good burger joints in New England.

So I decided to do some research (meaning I looked around at four or five websites until I found myself looking at a website that sells clothes for cats) and look into who’s voting who to what, and where do I fall in the best all-around swell guy category. I’m not sure how these folks (by these folks I mean the news stations and magazines and whoever else does such silly things) put this poll together but if things were any more lopsided it would be laughable.

The best burger category had five entries with the top burger joint receiving almost half the vote with number two receiving just under that amount and the following three places getting just about a percentage point each. How does this happen? Yes I know it’s a burger joint and in theory it doesn’t matter who gets called what in the long run but you know who in reality it does hurt? It hurts the people running the place. How does it hurt them? I’ll tell you that in a minute.

So I pulled up to the place into the nearly empty parking lot… I purposely went after the lunch rush and went up to the window. (picture a lunch truck set-up) With nobody around except for a couple of confused *Quebec folks who were trying to ask for directions and apparently not getting the answers they were looking for. Although this didn't stop them from interrupting my questions a full four times. I asked the guy at the window if he owned the place. He said he did and I said great could I ask him a few questions. “Of course…”
*(Hey Quebec not for nothin, but they make something called a GPS now. So with the money you save from not tipping you should be able to afford one...or a hundred)

So I was asking him what kind of beef he used, the ratio of fat to lean, what was the method of cooking, when did he season, what did he season with, in short the kinds of questions you would ask a person known for the best burger in all of New England. After the first three questions and several interruptions from the kindly Quebec folks he was getting frustrated with the questioning and so rather than push the issue I backed off and ordered the double cheeseburger and asked if the fries were hand cut. “No, but they’re really good fries” was the answer… this was perhaps all I needed to know.

I’m not knocking frozen fries as I eat them and they’re fine. But when you’re supposed to be really good at making burgers, you should at the very least have a really good fry to go with it. I declined the fries politely and said no I’ll just have the burger. “It’s the best burger in New England you know…” “Yeah” I said, “I saw it on your sign, but why not have the best fries as well?” He thought for a second then replied…”Because we can’t do everything great.” I thought really?! You can’t do two things great?! We’re talking about a burger and fries, not an entire Michelin star restaurant menu.

I sat with my order and noticed the bun was a sad little white bun of the variety my parents bought circa 1975 as an ode to Wonder Bread. It was soggy from the start but from what I have no idea as the beef patties were crumbly indicating it was seasoned when ground and being overcooked made them drier than dirt. It had a honking rib of romaine lettuce, grainy unripe tomato, mostly un-melted cheese and chunks instead of sliced dill pickles. As I chewed it dawned on me what I tasted and what crime was committed because of this “Best” rating …Complacency. Complacency is how these ratings hurt the owners.

If you’re getting kudos from all forms of media and patrons and you choose to hang your hat on it and advertise it, don’t get complacent. The food suffers, your business suffers and your customers suffer. I think it best to just say thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. Just do it well, and do it the way you know it should be done. Any three Michelin star chef will tell you it only gets harder and not easier once you get to three. Otherwise you’ll find yourself standing in an empty restaurant staring at a five year old award and wondering why you don’t have any customers to share the moment with.
If you consider this "The Best" I don't want to see your worst.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Chef, Teacher...Compass

People say that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession; I’d make the argument that it’s hard to walk a street corner on an empty stomach. So cooking is probably tied for first or a close second. It may not be as profitable but you do get screwed more, just ask any cook on pay day. So there has to be something or someone that makes us do what we do. In the cooking world we call them chef, our mentors…our compass.

In the layperson’s world they are teachers and professors. In some cases these are people we are inspired by and respect so much we would rather springboard into a pool of burning oil than disappoint them. Then there are those we blame every time we freeze up when challenged with a task. We are all teachers to some degree so whatever you do…be the former.

You can go back as far as a Sicilian born cook working in Greece named Mithaikos in the late 5th century BC. He wrote the earliest known surviving recipe. I’m not sure if Mithaikos carried around a cookbook from his mentor but there was definitely somebody he once called chef. Somebody he apprenticed under to learn his craft. Somebody he learned from and carried forth their recipes and in a respectful manner...put his own slight spin on.

After being kicked out of Sparta for being a bad influence (today this is the equivalent of being kicked out of Detroit for being a bad egg) he went to Athens where he was given ancient Greece’s version of a bad critique from none other than Plato himself.  You know studied under Socrates, “Theory of Forms”, “The Republic”…yeah, that Plato. I mean, people are still reading and falling asleep to his works this very day!  

I thought of saying that this was something of an ancient Greek Yelp review except for the fact that ancient Greek is certainly more relevant then Yelp, and since Plato will always be remembered and Yelp won’t...let’s stick with the food critic analogy.

But as one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Athenaeus an “ancient foodie” promptly stole the recipe from Mithaikos’and wrote it down for the word to see in history’s oldest version of a blog…a book which was called Δειπνοσοφισταί. Now if you’re ancient Greek is as good as mine (My Greek consists of the crass word for excrement and “I’m tired”), you’ll know this can mean several things including “The Banquet of the Learned” or simply “The Gastronomers”

This book was about a banquet where the host was to have learned discussion with such folks as lexicographers, grammarians, hangers-on, musicians, my seventh grade English teacher and other folks that are as exciting as refrigerators humming. In short a complete bore of a book, but a befitting description of most blogs today.

The recipe was for a fish dish and if you’re Italian this would be a good time to cover your eyes as it flies in the face of your keenness for keeping it simple, and if you’re Jewish…well it’s just not Kosher.

Tainia~ gut, discard head, rinse, slice then add cheese and olive oil.

This was not a popular preparation and in fact got a “comment” from a poet of the time named Archestratos. He quipped that “Sicilians spoil fish by adding cheese…” Mithaikos undaunted by his detractors kept his style and moved forward with his slant on classic dishes for which he is remembered.
By all accounts he was a solid traditional cook as that was how he was no doubt trained. He was the kind of cook chefs stole recipes from and adapted to their tastes that carried through to this day in one form or another. He had a following of young and even established cooks who wanted to cook with, and learn from him.In short he was Mario Batali in a toga.

Fast forward to Modern Cuisine and people from François Pierre de la Varenne, up to Auguste Escoffier, or even modern day Paul Bocuse. What do they all have in common? Well aside from the fact that each one has a fish dish with cheese in their repertoire. They are what you think of when someone says classically trained traditional chef and yet each of them was in some way innovative. They all had their own style and way of doing things. But if they were a compass heading they would be pointing to magnetic instead of true north.

Chefs, remember that when you are teaching young cooks. Keep the reigns tight during service and prep because after all it is your kitchen. But once in a while with a daily special or with family meal let them go to magnetic north. We all remember that one chef that wouldn’t let us hold a whisk or peel a carrot differently…don’t be that kind of teacher.

We can all learn something new, even if it’s from a student and the lesson is “here’s another way not to do béchamel.” Strive to be that one teacher, that one chef who you still call to this day to share your successes and failures. The one you know will kick your ass when you need it, and offer solid advice when you don’t. Be a compass.