Shoes and food


These shoes are made for workin': Marmalade checks out my Dansko pro clogs, front, which replace the culinary school-issued work, front

These shoes are made for workin': Marmalade checks out my Dansko pro clogs, front, which replace the culinary school-issued work shoes.

“Ooh, you’ll get to wear Danskos all the time,” said my friend Hillari when I told her I was going to culinary school. Hillari is an unabashed champion of the ultra-comfy clogs, which also happen to be favored footwear by those who spend long hours on their feet–like chefs and nurses.

I demurred, saying the school-issued uniform included a pair of food-service, industry-grade, black lace-up shoes. Weighty, steel-toed, nonskid clodhoppers designed strictly for function. Useful features, certainly, especially if you happen to drop a hot, heavy pan on your foot, or when you’re wading through the puddles that inevitably form under the dish sink.

Heavy, steel-toe, nonskid shoes are a blessing if you happen to drop a hot, heavy pan on your foot, or when you’re wading through the puddles that inevitably form under the dish sink.

But by the end of the first week, the things were threatening to hobble me, as my Achilles tendons tightened. Who knew I was such a delicate petal? If I was going to get around the kitchen any faster than a snail’s pace, I needed a solution, and fast. On Sunday–Easter Sunday–I decided to pick up a pair of foot-friendly, but safe, Danskos. So we set out for Nordstrom, that Valhalla of footwear, at the Westside Pavilion. It was closed for Easter. Huh? I got used to religiously observed religious holidays while living in Alabama. But in the kosher canyon of LA’s Westside? Really? My mate consulted Google and found the shoes were carried at A16, up the road. Also closed for the holiday. This was beginning to feel like a conspiracy personally visited upon me by Jesus (my friend, Aimee, who prays for my immortal heathen soul would heartily approve). We decided to head continue heading west, to the REI store in Santa Monica.

My heathen prayers were answered! They had the color, the size, the model I needed. The clodhoppers have been set aside in favor of my cuter, much more comfortable, and therefore more functional clogs. My Achilles tendons have recovered. My feet are happy.

I’m a convert.

Culinary school update


Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

I started culinary school this week. It’s exhilarating and exhausting to embark on what my instructor predicts will be “the best seven months of your life that you’ll never want to do again.” It’s five intense hours a day, five days a week, and each day is an opportunity to build on the skills we were taught the previous day. For example, on Tuesday we were introduced to the classic French knife cuts (and sent home with a potato and a carrot to practice) and prepared ratatouille, a dish involving plenty of knife work, on Wednesday.

I’ve been working with food for awhile now, and a friend wondered if maybe I already knew too much to really benefit from culinary school. Not at all. Although I’ve picked up a lot along the way, there are huge gaps in my knowledge and skills. For example, day one answered a question that’s been nagging me for awhile: What’s the difference between stock and broth. The answer: broth is seasoned; stock is not.

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Another insight occurred to me on day two, as I struggled to whittle my first tourneed potato. The tourne cut is the considered the most difficult, as it involves shaping a potato (or other vegetable) into a little football with seven equal sides. Mine resembled misshapen tumors. I am not, by nature, a precise cook. It will be an interesting exercise for me to learn the discipline of French cooking, one that will ultimately improve my results in the kitchen.

Much of culinary school is about practice and repetition, and I’ve already begun to reap the benefits of that. I was able to whittle my homework potato into better tournes–not perfect, certainly, but a far better shape.

There will be good days and frustrating days. Yesterday was a good one, as we prepared braised leeks and ratatouille. We bustled through the preparation, practicing knife cuts, sauteing, braising, and presenting the results–on warmed plates–to the instructor. My leeks were cooked just so, she commented, but the sauce needed a bit more lemon. She examined my ratatouille.

Ratatouille that works

Ratatouille that works

“Good knife cuts,” she noted before taking a bite. She sample a bit and paused to consider the results. “Good seasoning,” she said, giving a thumbs up. “Yes, it’s very good.” 

And as I took my dish to the back of the kitchen to gobble the results–culinary school makes you very hungry–I had to agree. Of course, every dish won’t be a winner, and there are bound to be some duds. But it’s a nice way to start.

Monday starters

New ways, new ingredients

picture-1I love Chef John Ash. He has a creative touch with ingredients, and he’s a terrific teacher. His new online series, “Cooking with America’s Finest Ingredients,” offers videos, recipes, and tips for how to use gourmet salts, cured meats, cheese, oils, vinegars, and more.–Culinary Institute of America/National Association for the Specialty Food Trade

Balancing the vegetarian diet

picture-3In general, vegetarians eat a healthier diet and are less likely be overweight than the rest of us, largely because they consume more plant-based foods. That’s the good news. But a new study focusing on teens and young adults finds vegetarians are at higher risk of eating disorders than the general population.–

Enjoy it while it’s fresh

picture-4Antioxidants in foods don’t last forever, according to a pair of new studies. Green tea and olive oil both lost much of their antioxidant compounds after six months, even when stored unopened and unexposed to light or moisture. The lesson: Purchase both in small amounts you can consume within a few months, and shop a store with a high turnover of merchandise (you don’t want to buy oil or tea that’s been sitting on the store shelf for months).–HealthDay

Cheap restaurant eats

picture-2Tire of eating at home every night? Check out the Gayot Economic Stimulus Plan to find excellent value eats in your ‘hood. Also check out their picks for the best wines under 10 bucks.

Restaurant recession specials


Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

Restaurants are creating value-driven menus to woo diners and fill empty tables.

By now, we all know the recession has hit the restaurant business. The effects are especially hard in recession-ravaged cities like New York and Las Vegas, but eateries all over are struggling. The NPD Group, a market research firm, offered a grim forecast earlier this month, noting that restaurant business started dipping in the middle of 2008 and that 2009 will be a very tough year.

“Now we face a much tougher marketplace, much greater uncertainty, and a very tight hold on our pocketbooks,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report, commenting on the current climate.  “Restaurant customers are being bombarded with great offers; they can carefully choose how and where to spend their food dollars. Much of the challenge for operators this year will be having a good understanding of what their customers want.”

Bad news if you own a restaurant, but good news for value-seeking customers.

My mate and I are typical of a lot of people these days. We’re eating in most nights and eating out a lot less than we used to. When we do venture out, it’s on a pretty modest scale–lunch from Tito’s Tacos (the best taco stand in LA, really), for example. And when we dine higher up on the restaurant food chain, we’re pretty demanding. We expect great food, excellent value, and cheerful service. We’re also less willing to cut restaurants much slack if they stumble on any of those factors.

That said, I’ve really enjoyed my recent restaurant forays and believe it’s worth eating out. Here’s how I’m getting the most mileage from restaurant meals:

Opt for a prix fixe menu. Many restaurants, from casual spots to fine-dining establishments, are offering high-value multicourse menus. One example: Border Grill in Santa Monica currently has an awesome 3-course, $18 prix fixe lunch menu with lots of options. I love variety and often have difficulty choosing from the restaurant’s terrific menu, so this bargain seems tailor-made for me. My lunch started with a green corn tamale, followed by a trio of different tacos (chicken, fish, and potato rajas), topped off by chocolate bread pudding. Delightful, and worth every penny.

Let restaurant meals inspire  your home cooking. Last night, I had dinner with friends at Frank Stitt’s wonderful Bottega Cafe in Birmingham, AL. (He’s up for a James Beard Award this year, and I’m rooting for him!) We shared an appetizer of farro salad with fresh peas, beets, and ricotta salata cheese. It was wonderful, fresh, and certainly something I could replicate at home. Only I’d use fresh chickpeas, which have captured my culinary imagination lately. 

Share. More people are splitting entrees these days, and you can do the same with a round of appetizers to share at the table for more variety.

Ask for a doggy bag. Hold your head high and tell the server to bag up the leftovers. You’re paying for the food, so you should get the most mileage out of it. Even items like leftover rice can be spun into a home supper of stir-fried rice the next night.