Hello dear readers! Things are really busy around here, there certainly is plenty to blog about, but I’ve found in my new adventure in culinary arts school brings me more ideas than time. My enthusiastic proclamation last month that I would “see you next week” might have been a little optimistic. I will get here as often as I can and share with you what’s going on, at least once a month, maybe more often if only to share a photograph or two.
The first month has been quite intense. Culinary math is my biggest challenge, as well as knife skills. I think there’s something in my brain that does not like EXACT precision. I don’t mean precision within a recipe but I mean linear precision. Such as math and such as cutting multiple onions or potatoes into exactly the same size shape specified. I find this extremely difficult. There are a couple of reasons why. I’m sure part of it has to do with my hands and wrist injuries. I don’t think I am able to hold the knife exactly as I need to. The other piece is just simply my personality. I am a free flowing take it as you go kind of gal. And precise knife cuts are not free-flowing. They are expected to be exact. Of course I know I’ll get better with practice and I do practice. (Thank goodness for the knife skills tutoring that is available once a week in the library.) I have a couple of more weeks before the midterm so hopefully I will get better. So far my cuts have been graded as a “B” but that’s not good enough for me- I want them to be graded as perfect.
Culinary math understanding has come a little faster due to receiving tutoring three times a week. One of my my math tutors is a very nice guy who is probably almost young enough to be my grandson (!) But he is kind and smart and extremely helpful. I call him “the math ninja” because his teaching sneaks up on me later when I least expect it and need it the most. It is such a relief to have someone helping because trust me friends, word problems are just as challenging even when they’re about food and subjects you love!
Of course we are cooking. We started off with broths and stocks, they are different you know. I didn’t really know the difference, I just thought that they were one product called two different things. Stocks are made with bones and broths are deeper flavored because of the addition of meat to the cooking process. I’ve been making chicken broth for a couple of years now at home and freezing it. I love using it in all of my recipes instead of buying commercial broth. I know now that I got a nice result doing it “my way” at home, but my method of putting everything in at the same time and letting it simmer all day is simply unnecessary. Good broth can be made in just a few hours, putting aromatics and the mirepoix in pot the last hour or so of cooking time is the way to go. We’ve learned how to clarify stock or broth (Also known as consommé) by using a raft- not the kind that you get at the sporting goods store but the kind that is made from raw ground meat and raw eggs. It’s an amazing process to watch as you put a big gloppy mess into the cloudy broth and then shortly while simmering the raft (the raw meat and eggs) begins to form and float on top – underneath is an incredibly clear beautiful consommé.We have also started making thickened soups such as potato leek, lentil, and now cream soups and volute.
Each day builds on the one before it and each week the time that we are given to complete our knife skills tray is shortened and intensified. The chef’s and instructor’s expectations of us grow with each day. I find that my own expectations for myself also grow each day. This truly is an opportunity of a lifetime for me. While living in a new city without my husband and creating a lifestyle that works for my education is a challenge I find every day to be rewarding. I wake up excited to see what’s in store, and I go to bed each night pleased with the person that I am becoming.
This is it friends! This is the post that reveals the most amazing adventure but I have embarked upon. Darla Cooks has gone to an entirely new level –I am now “Darla Magee culinary student” at the Culinary Institute of America. The Culinary Institute of America is known worldwide as the finest cooking school there is. With campuses in New York, Napa Valley, Singapore and San Antonio. I made my application to the CIA over a year and a half ago, and was accepted at that time. However, I had some yoga injuries that I needed to clean up. I spent that time having shoulder surgery and surgery on both wrists. Once I recovered and rehabbed (hopefully) the hunt for a place to live began. I was fortunate enough to find a very cute little three-bedroom house that is close to campus for myself and the dogs. My darling husband is of course still in Houston working very hard to make this happen. And friends, this is happening!
What’s it like? Week one I would say was quite easy. The hardest thing was learning how to wake up early enough. My day begins at the school at 7 AM, of course I’m up two hours earlier managing the dogs making breakfast and waking up. Once I’m there all about learning. We start the days off in the classroom most days learning about food, food safety, culinary math, gastronomy and theory. Thursdays and Fridays we spend all day in the kitchen learning how to cook, learning how to cut and how to clean. The curriculum is intense. The chef teachers are intense. And their expectations are very high for work in the classroom as well as work in the kitchen. In a nutshell – this is a very serious school. We spent most of the first week learning where things are and learning who everyone is. We also received our uniforms which are the typical white chef’s jacket with our name on it (no beautiful CIA logo yet, you only get to wear that once you graduate) checkered chef pants and a toque. There are neckerchiefs that we have to wear as well side towels and aprons to complete the look. We also received a very nice knife and hand tools kit! (sharp!)
Just to set the tone immediately, were given special projects to do (three), that to be presented in front of the class within a group. This is in addition to the regular coursework. The regular course work is very intense. Homework is assigned every night in each subject. (As well as ironing your uniform. There are no slouches here!!) As these posts continue throughout the next two years I hope to update you each week with what’s happening or share a funny story. I don’t really have a funny story this week; I did get a very clear message from our culinary fundamentals chef albeit nonverbal that he was less than pleased with the condition of my cutting board. When he came over to inspect the first days vegetable prep for mirepoix he didn’t say anything really, but he did grunt once and sighed heavily twice while he was picking the parsley from the onions and the onions from the potatoes while organizing the board the way he wanted it. Needless to say, day two’s cutting board was much cleaner and more organized. Not only that my cuts improved greatly. This week we made stocks and broths (they are not the same!) and learned the techniques and ratios appropriate for them. My days of making “a little of this and a little of that” chicken stock are over. At the CIA we learn there is a right way to do everything, and we are to strive to do so- each and every time! What a wonderful discipline!
With that said, I’ve got to get on the homework but here are some photographs from week one. See you next week!
Man oh man! It’s been a while since I’ve been here, even longer since I shared a recipe with y’all. There’s a lot going on in Darla-Land right now. (AKA Dar La-La land) I cannot even begin to tell you about it- so I won’t. I’ll tell you later, in another post when everything seems more real to me. For now, I want to talk about dogs. Of course! Of course, I want to talk about dogs because dogs are what I’ve been doing. I know I said I wasn’t going talk about what’s going on and I’m not, but I will tell you all four of them are a big part of it.
With that said, this needs to be said, “dogs need stuff to do when we are gone.”
Three of my guys are just under one year old- trust me…
What do experienced dog owners say? “Get a Kong! Get a Kong!” I think most dog owners are familiar with the big hollow red rubber toy known as KONG. For every dog I’ve ever wanted to make happy I have bought a Kong. I’ve always heard how great they were and how much dogs loved them. The idea is to fill it full of nice things that the dog will like and it will keep the dog entertained and out of trouble for hours. Indeed, if I smeared peanut butter on it and put some treats in it– it would keep my dog occupied for as long as it took them to eat the treats and lick the peanut butter. The longest it ever took? 10 minutes. And that’s an exaggeration! So the Kong became another toy that rolled under the couch no one bothered to retrieve because after 10 minutes it was a “tasteless rubber thing.” Great. $10. Wasted.
(cue the angel chorus)
And then a miracle happened. (Have you noticed that the theme in many of my blog posts are about miraculous food revelations?) While surfing the Interwebs I came across a discussion regarding this exact KONG issue. Someone mentioned if you freeze the big rubber plug with the good stuff in it it will last much longer.
Fill and FREEZE?
OH! OF-FRIGGIN-COURSE! GENIUS!
Friends, if you love a dog and you own a Kong go get it out from underneath the couch and throw it in the top rack of the dishwasher. While it’s washing make these:
2 large bananas
1/2 cup non-fat plain yogurt Greek or regular
1/4 cup sunflower seed butter (or any other nut butter your dog prefers
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of cinnamon
1 small apple, or berries or other dog approved fruits
frozen carrots or your dog’s favorite vegetables
your choice of dog treats (the number and size of which will depend on the size of your Kong toy)
Mash one of the bananas and put it into a medium-size bowl. Add the yogurt, sunflower seed butter, the vanilla extract and cinnamon. Mix this with a fork or whisk until it’s smooth. You might need to add a little warm water to bring it to the consistency of a thick milkshake. Set aside.
Slice the remaining banana. Wash the apple and chop it into appropriate size pieces for your Kong treat.
**Notice here that your big rubber Kong has a large hole in one end and a small hole in the other end. We need to plug the small hole so your wonderful banana mixture doesn’t run out.***
Take a piece of apple and smash it into the small hole from the outside. You’re actually creating a plug inside the Kong. Once you’ve smashed some of the apple into the small hole and plugged the hole (look and make certain it is plugged) toss that left over smashed piece of apple into the big hole of your Kong.
Add some banana slices, more apple pieces some berries or some sliced frozen carrots- whatever fruit and veggies your dogs like. I like to break up a few of the hypoallergenic dog treat from the vet and stick them in there. Sometimes I put some kibble inside, you could also use dry cereal if your dog is not allergic. If you feed raw you could use pieces of raw meat or your fancy frozen raw food. I think you get the idea, whatever your dog likes as treats stuff them in there! You don’t want to pack them too tight because the next step is very important.
Once you have your Kong toy stuffed with goodies you need to spoon the banana-yogurt- nut butter mixture inside. To do this successfully you need to stand it on its end with the small side down. (Please remember to plug the toy before you began to fill it with the liquid.) I stress this point because I know someone who happened upon this very important point in the R&D department for this very blog) If you’re making only one Kong you can stand it inside of a glass or coffee cup to fill and freeze. I’m usually making several at once so I have a few days worth to hand out so I stand mine a few at a time in a loaf pan or a shallow bowl. It is important to make sure that the toy does not fall over.
Use a spoon and fill the Kong with the delicious banana liquid mixture.
Here’s the key, stick it in the freezer. Yep. That’s it! Freeze that thing! I freeze mine overnight but probably three or four hours would be plenty. Once it’s frozen it lasts forever. Your dog will lick this and stick his tongue in there to get out the frozen deliciousness for a very long time. You will be happy because you can do things like shop, or bathe or read! It is a glorious quiet miracle waiting in the freezer!
More than likely you’re going to have leftover banana mixture as well as leftover chopped up fruit. PERFECT! Use the leftovers to make a few frozen tart treats. I have a heart-shaped silicone baking pan that I picked up at Target last year for a dollar at Valentine’s Day. I used this silicone tray to make my little frozen tart dog treats and it worked perfectly. Here’s what I did:
Tarts of Ice
Place the chopped up apples, berries, carrots, kibble, sliced bananas or peaches and dog treats you had left over in a silicone cupcake mold, a muffin tin or a regular ice-cube tray. The more items you use the less liquid you will need. Also keep in mind if you use too many extras your tarts won’t hold up to chewing as long. It’s the ice – the liquid – that soaks into the fruit as well as the kibble and then freezes that makes these treats long-lasting.
Add enough warm water to the banana yogurt sunflower seed butter mixture you have left over in the bowl to fill as many ice-cube molds as you intend to use. You can always add a little bit more yogurt or sunflower seed butter or water if you need to. You’re going to do this simply by sight not by measurement. Mine is usually pretty dilute. Your dog is going to love this.
Pour the liquid over the fruits leaving a quarter-inch space at the top of the mould. Place these in the freezer until frozen solid. Once they’re frozen pop them out of the mould by running warm water along the bottom if necessary and store them in a Ziploc bag in your freezer. I find these smaller treats fun for any time OUTSIDE or on an easily cleaned surface such as my kitchen floor. I only give my guys the big Queen Kong toy treats if I’m crating them or if I need them occupied for a couple of hours while I’m working at home.
Have fun making these beautiful delicious treats and Kongs for your babies AND feel better about having a little alone time.
As I’ve mentioned before, I cook a lot of chicken for dinner. My friend Lana teases me about it constantly, she says every time she calls I’m cooking chicken. That’s probably true. Sometimes I like to mix it up and do a little spatchcocked chicken in the oven. Spatchcocking is just as easy as it is fun to say it. Spatchcock! Spatchcock! Spatchcock! tee hee! All this is an easy way to roast chicken that helps it to cook faster. Basically you just take your poultry shears and cut the backbone out of a whole chicken. Once the backbone is out push down on the chicken to break the breastbone. Because more of the surface of the chicken is in contact with the hot pan it allows the chicken to cook more evenly and quicker.
And then there’s this: I went to my local neighborhood butcher for this chicken. It was labeled “smart chicken”, I didn’t ask what that meant because I didn’t see it on the label until I got home. When I chose it, it was not weighed and labeled. Does anyone out there have a clue what a smart chicken is? My first thought is that this chicken is not too smart, he sitting in my kitchen!
Spatchcocked- Somewhat- Smart- Roast Chicken
Preheat the oven to 425°
Take a whole chicken- using your poultry shears cut on each side of the spine and remove the backbone.
Press down on the breastbone to flatten the chicken.
Brush the chicken with ghee or oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and the spices of your choice. For this recipe I used fines herbs. (Finely chopped herbs, specifically parsley, chives, tarragon, and thyme, mixed together. I also peeled a couple of large potatoes and cut them into several spears, brushing them with ghee, treating them the same way with the spices).
Place the chicken in an appropriately sized braising pan and arrange the potatoes around- it put the lid on and cook at 425° for 45 minutes or so.
Carefully remove the lid and place the chicken back in the oven for another 30 minutes or more/ less depending on how big the chicken is.
Use your thermometer to bring the chicken to the proper temperature, check both of the thigh and the breast. If the chicken is cooking faster than it is browning- increase the heat of the oven to broil and allow the chicken to sit underneath the broiler for a couple of minutes to crisp the skin. (Keep an eye on it! You can overcook here very quickly) YUMMM! Easy chicken.
This is the barbecue of my childhood. I don’t recall the first time I ever had grilled meat. I must have been in my teens. We didn’t grill. Maybe when we went camping once, but we weren’t campers either. But I digress, THIS is pure home-cooking barbecue. Those are country-style pork ribs (barbecued) and mashed taters with the skins on. (That’s right I said tater. You might know them as potatoes, but I’ve eaten just as many taters as I have potatoes… the taters are always good, I’ve had potatoes that were not.)
There’s not really a recipe, I want you to do this just like you remember Mama doing back in Tennessee.
Get out the biggest rimmed baking sheet that you have and line it with foil. Put the ribs on the pan, salt them, pepper them, sprinkle them with garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. Chop an onion and put it on top of the ribs. Cover this tightly with foil and put it in a 350° oven. After 30 minutes turn it down to 325°. In about an hour take off the foil and flip the ribs. Put them back in the oven uncovered at 350°. Check on them every 15 minutes or so to make sure the pan hasn’t gone dry. If it does, add a little hot water into the pan. Only an eighth of a cup or so. After another 30 minutes or so top them with the barbecue sauce of your choice and put them back in the oven at 400 until they’re syrupy and the sauce is sticky.
The mashed potatoes are just as easy of course. Take about eight small white or yellow potatoes and quarter them. Put them in enough water to cover, add a teaspoon of salt and boil. After you can easily stick a fork through them, drain the potatoes, add a half a stick of butter and mash them by hand with a potato masher. Add about a quarter cup of heavy cream and mash them a little bit more. Salt and black pepper to taste. We’re pretty fancy in my house these days so we had raw sugar snap peas by the bowlful while we were waiting for this to cook. Mama would’ve made green beans, or if it was Sunday fried okra, or fried green tomatoes. BUT This is an easy meal for any night of the week and tastes great tomorrow too! Enjoy!
This recipe is just in time because cherries are about to be unavailable in Texas. I’m sure over on the West Coast you guys are covered up with beautiful cherries for a good part of the year, here in the South, the person who finds them first in the stores each season is given a ruby chalice, a crown and a belly ache! I always eat too many- and I always forget not to eat too many until it’s too late! Whether or not it’s easy for you to get fresh gorgeous cherries, you need to make these now because these are little miracles for the holidays.
Last summer I made a lot of jams for gifts such as peach and strawberry hibiscus but the cherry creations; bourbon cherry jam, balsamic cherry jam, brandied cherries and bourbon cocktail cherries went over like gangbusters! Everyone loved them! Apparently they were so delicious that you could eat them directly from the jar. If that’s not a ringing endorsement I’ve never heard one ring before! I function pretty well on positive reinforcement so this year I decided to make several batches of cocktail cherries and less fruit jams. I had my recipes from last year but thought that I would search around for to see what else was out there.
Cocktails are sooooo fashionable (I blame the Mad Men series) there are “new recipes” available, but basically they are same. You make simple syrup. You boil the cherries in the syrup. Remove the cherries. Boil the syrup more. Sterilize the jars, pack the jars, fill them with syrup. Process the filled jars and all that’s left to do is wait three months. That’s right. Just sit down and wait because you don’t want to have these for at least three months.
You see where I’m going here? This is August. In three months it’ll be November. And that my friends, IS the time that you’re going to want to have these cocktail cherries to offer your friends and family when they come over. Even if you don’t want to make TONS to give away as gifts you should at least make a half a dozen jars to give away as hostess gifts. Things are hectic in the holidays; this is one less thing you’ll have to do to get ready for all the fabulous parties that you’ll no doubt be attending this season.
The jars I used here are beautiful diamond cut “Ball” brands jars. They’re easy to find at Kroger, Home Depot or the feed store. They look really beautiful with the cherries inside dont you think? You also notice I left my cherries whole with the stems attached. Not only does this look pretty in the jar but also leaving the stem on makes it the classic garnish for a drink. Leaving the pit intact lends flavor to the syrup. (When I make cherry jam although I pit the cherries I also crush the pits and take out the tiny little kernel inside and use it to help flavor the jam as well as add pectin – but that’s another blog post.)
The point is these are so easy it’s crazy! There’s no prep essentially! All you have to do is rinse the cherries and make sure the stems are still fresh. When you’re ready to start packing the jars use silicone tongs to place the hot cherries in the hot jars. Don’t be afraid to use the ends of the tongs to gently squish the cherries down a bit to make room for more. Once you add the syrup the cherries will float so try to get as many in there as possible. You can see in the photograph I probably could’ve gotten a few more in there but wasn’t really sure how they would hold up and I did not want to crush them completely. Next year I’ll be a little more enthusiastic in packing them tighter. Also using a heavy-duty oven mitt to hold the hot jar with one hand while you pack the cherries in with the other hand makes it go a little faster. But hear this, this is a messy process. There’s going to be cherry syrup everywhere around your stove. And there’s also going to be quite a bit of cherry syrup left over. I would suggest putting it in a jar and keeping it in the refrigerator. It will probably last about six months in the fridge. This cherry brandy syrup can be used for everything! Crepes, ice cream, more cocktails yummm! Sort of a bonus of your not-too-hard-work! I suppose you could even put it into a pretty bottle and give it as a gift too! Why not?
2 pounds of cherries
1 1/4 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
½ c. lemon juice
1 whole vanilla bean
1 whole star anise
½ c. brandy* see note
Sterilize a dozen 12 or 14 ounce jars in your dishwasher. Place the jars and rings on a small rimmed sheet pan in a preheated 250° oven. Heat the jars for at least 30 minutes before filling with cherries.
Prepare your water bath canner and bring to boiling, keep the lid on. Bring your lids to a simmer on the stove.
Rinse the cherries under running cool water and pick through them looking for bruised cherries, brown stems or rot. Trim the stems if they are unattractive but try to leave as much of the stem as possible intact. Bring everything except for the brandy and the cherries to boil on the stove in a medium-size pan. Allow the mixture to simmer until the sugar is dissolved, about five minutes. Add the cherries. Bring to a simmer for about 5 to 8 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the cherries from the syrup and set aside. Add the brandy to the syrup and bring to a simmer again to intensify the flavor. Simmer for five minutes.
While the cherry syrup is simmering remove the jars from the oven pack the jars with the cherries. Pack as many as possible pressing down on the cherries to fit a few more in. Try to keep the cherries intact. Carefully ladle the hot syrup on top of the cherries. Use a wooden chopstick or skewer to remove air bubbles by gently stirring the cherries in the syrup. Add more syrup if necessary leaving 1/2 inch head space. Top off each jar with a half a teaspoon of brandy. Wipe the rims of the jars with a wet cloth, place the lids and rings on the jars and process in the water bath for 20 minutes.
Remove the jars to a towel on the counter and allow them to sit undisturbed overnight. Check each jar to make sure that it has sealed properly. Wipe the jars clean, add a pretty label and put them in the closet until the holidays. If any of the jars did not seal properly replace the lid and put them in the refrigerator. They’ll be fine. Let these be your secret stash for yourself, or tell the hostess when you give them to her that they are to be used as soon as possible and kept in the refrigerator. You won’t believe the squeals of delight that you’ll hear after these have been added to someone’s old-fashioned cocktail or whiskey sour or apparently just enjoyed straight from the jar!
* you could very easily use bourbon instead of brandy in this recipe. I made both this year.