Monday, November 28, 2011

More with less.

There's a mantra for you. One that I have been contending with for several years now. During that time, though it has become cliche, it has also come to define how I'm forced to operate.

Right down to left-overs.

Starting my own personal chef service hasn't come easy- especially from a financial standpoint. Taking the time off to devote all of my focus to my passions has been invigorating, but financially risky. Mark and I are planners and all of this didn't come without lots of open-hearted conversation, but the fact of the matter is I'm not making the money I used to. It is what it is. Grocery shopping is always a fun adventure for me. It's a hunt for great ingredients. It's research and desire rolled into one. These days I can't indulge in ways I have previously. The meals that I make have to make it a long way. I must say I've done a somewhat decent job of giving meals longevity at our table.

I made a great batch of beef stew a few days ago that had some left-overs in it; vegetables from a batch of sweet pork ribs. Once the stew was mostly gobbled, what was left in the fridge got turned into a sloppy-joe like sandwich. I added fresh cabbage slaw for crunch, some cheddar and red onion for flavor and texture. Man alive, that was a satisfying supper.

Turkey proves to have even more longevity. Soups, casseroles, sandwiches, tacos, omellettes; poultry has what it takes to go the extra mile. Thank goodness we've had such an abundance of it due to the recent holiday.

Caramelized onions go a long way in our house, too. Any bit that's left over after making a flat bread waits for its next incarnation, be it soups and stews or eggs in the morning.

Of course, in order to re-invent your left overs you need to still add to them. A well stocked pantry is the key to this. Rice, flour, sugar, vinegars, salts and spices, pastas, canned vegetables and beans. Having some healthy and easy to add ingredients at your command makes all the difference. There are also some great publications out there that take all the guess work out of what to do with what's left. Here's a great list, many of them available on the web.

Every Day with Rachel Ray Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge Food Network fanatic, but this woman's revamp of her famous publication made my eyes bug out. Hundreds of recipes in every issue. Literally  Hundreds. If you're always at a loss for what to make, check out this wealth of information. Rach has a great track record for giving you ideas on what to do with all those left overs. May nothing go to waste!

Bon Appetit Magazine Yeah, kind of a no-brainer there. You want to find a classic and satisfying dish? The bon is a go-to in my house. Impressive set-ups for folks who just LOVE to cook (and impress). I'm not sure how well the new editor is doing with keeping up with old statues, but there used to be some great monthly menus available, complete with left-over recipes as well. If you're familiar with this site, good. If not, just take the time to browse. Great site. Wealth of information. Worth bookmarking.

The Flavor Bible This is a link to Amazon, though I know it's available just about everywhere, including (a favorite site of mine for impulsive book buying on the cheap). This book was recommended to me by the executive pastry chef at the Bedford Village Inn. Davide (pronounced Dah-vi-day) swore by it and from a quick review of his work I knew that any endorsement this man would give was well worth paying attention to. I also highly recommend the BVI. I had the privilege of working in their kitchen once and I learned a great deal! A wonderful group of committed staff, a pristine kitchen, a top notch eatery.

That's all for now, folks. I have a ton of work to do. Right now I'm studying for my ServeSafe exam- it isn't mandatory that I complete a ServeSafe course, but I feel it is essential to giving my clients confidence in my operation. After that, more marketing materials to work through and insurance to quote out.

Funny, it seems that while I was working with less I ended up getting so much more than I ever expected.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Oh man, it's a giddy thing.

I am officially unemployed. Completely jobless. Except, that is, for finally focusing full bore on the future I've been planning for years now. There is a freedom in not having someone to answer to besides yourself. I would like to live an existence like that. One where I dictate the outcomes. Where I do not fear that someone else is weighing my worth (outside of my clients). So, as of this past Wednesday, I am without a steady paycheck. Time to put my money where my mouth is.

Funny all of this strange change happens the week before Thanksgiving. My whole family is viewing what we are grateful for from a different perspective lately. I have no doubt this is a cultural phenomena and not limited to just my social sphere.We are not giving gifts en masse this year. Just one gift to one couple; like Secret Santa/White Elephant, only less conspiracy. And with this we are content- no, we're relieved. Our true holiday will surround all of us sharing a meal together- a few meals, even ... Grateful for the fact that we can celebrate all the countless meals we've had together. That we can look into each other's faces and thank God for each and every person at that table. And those that couldn't make it to our table, but remain in our thoughts.

I am grateful for my family. For my incredible husband. For my delightful friends. For opportunity; the fact that it still knocks for me every once in a while. That I do not struggle for shelter, water, food, or education. Such a beautiful life that swirls around me. I am so deeply blessed. Thank you for your part in that. Because you are a part of a beautiful reality- whether you believe me or not.

So in the nature of Thanksgiving I've recently helped my former employer host their third annual "Thanksgiving Gobble Cook-off". The whole company gets into it. Normally turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes are provided by an outside source. Harts Turkey Farm usually held the torch for us, but this year they decided to close their Manchester location for repairs the week before Thanksgiving. Poor planning? Maybe. Diabolical scheme to make their regulars anxious for turkey feast upon their return? Possibly. I can't be sure what their thinking was, but it worked in my favor. Audrey asked me if I wanted to bring the Thanksgiving haul to Goffstown and I agreed without hesitation. Turkey can be very easy if you let it. It's a basic formula, one that holds true for all poultry:

Bake on 350 for 20 minutes for each pound ...

My equation went like this: 17.97 lbs. x 20 minutes = 359.4 minutes / 60 minutes makes an hour = 5.99 hours. I rounded up to 6.

I put the turkey in the oven at 5 am to get to the office on time. And it came out GREAT! I was so happy with it! I wanted to brine it, but the well water where we live isn't all that awesome. In the mean time, we're using store bought jugs. I couldn't justify using two gallons of potable water for a brine solution. SO, I salted the bird and let it sit in the fridge overnight. The next day I did a compound butter of thyme, rosemary, sage, garlic, salt, and pepper. I rubbed the entire bird, top to bottom, under and over the skin. The result was a golden skin, flavor through out and a highly concentrated gravy that had some powerful flavor to it! Also, lots of butter fat. Delicious!! I was so happy with the results.

My family time during the holidays is split, so we're celebrating with Mark's family on Thursday and with my family on Saturday, heading up to our house at Pike Pond after Thursday's feast is done. A nice long weekend celebrating my entire family. I am so pleased! Especially since we have a new family member in the mix!

I'll explain.

On Saturday, Mark and I helped my sister Melody and her fiance Matt move into their beautiful new home in Candia. It's historic and fully restored, just a wonderful place. We're very happy for them. We spent all day helping them set up camp, but in the back of my head I remembered that there was an adoptable dog meet and greet at Pet Smart in Concord from 12 to 3. We didn't leave Candia until 2. I was sure we had missed our window to meet a dog. We got to Pet Smart at 2:45. There, lying at the feet of one of the volunteers, was a little black dog that was clearly exhausted from meeting so many new people and animals. He was all that was left. A lonely little Shepherd cross named Black Bear. I believe it was fate that he was brought to the meet and greet as the only older dog among two litters of brand new puppies. Puppies always get all the attention.

Happy Dogs of New England was the volunteer foster group that brought Bear that day. What a wonderful group of women. Informative and eager for us to give Bear a try. We walked him around and I watched him interact with children, adults, other dogs. When I say he's LAID BACK, I mean to do so in all-caps. And he had such a sweet face! Who wouldn't love this little dog? It didn't take Mark and I to figure out that he was meant to be ours. 48 pounds and from Tupelo, Mississippi- our friend Casey says he must have a musical soul if he hails from there.

We've had the little guy for two days now. He is afraid of cars, doesn't like riding in them or hearing them start, but beyond that he's perfect. We start obedience training at No Monkey Business Dog Training in January. In the mean time I'm doing my best to train him on my own, between chapters in my personal chef studies.

What a wonderful holiday season we are coming in to. Our family is blessed beyond belief. It is my hope that I can pass along some joy to others ... to give out infections/contagious grins that fall from ear to ear.

I wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings. As I say this, I wonder what you're thankful for? I know all the usual hallmarks of such a question, but what is it about this year that stands out for you? Would you mind sharing?

Signing off for now, forever thankful, forever feasting. xoxo

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Brown Butter

I spent the bulk of my day going through my chef studies. The bug has taken hold. I blew through the first chapter with ease ... now on to regulations, insurances- the scary stuff! This whole venture is new, but thrilling to say the least. In the end I'll be able to nurture bodies and minds for a living.

Doesn't that sound fulfilling? I'm beside myself with excitement. I made sourdough bread ... two loaves- my first baking endeavor in the new house. I want to plug King Arthur Flour for a second ...

During the move, I broke the cap to my sourdough crock that I keep in the fridge. It happened in the car-port as I was trying to juggle too many things (there's a metaphor in there, I'm sure of it), the cap slipped off the crock and smashed into pieces at my feet. There was no one else around to see it and share in my displeasure, so I just stared at it for a minute. What a horrible turn of events! My crock went into the fridge with an omelette pan as a cap. This just wouldn't do. So I wrote to the fine customer service folks over at King Arthur and explained my dilemma. Did they have a spare cap I could buy from them?

No, they don't sell caps separately, but they do get them in the mail from time to time from people who have received broken sets in the mail. MaryJane double checked with the warehouse. Melanie let me know that they did have one and put it in the mail for me right away. Both ladies were quick with responses and so delightful! My new crock top is on its way at no cost to me. King Arthur has a customer for life.

That said, there is more baking in my immediate future. Grampy's birthday is on Saturday and from what I've learned he has one mighty sweet tooth. Mark proposed we make him a batch of cookies as a gift and I couldn't agree more. Nothing says love more than food created with the individual in mind.

Recently I stumbled upon a concept that's fairly new to me... browned butter chocolate chip cookies. I could taste them before I even started making them! Warm, gooey, nutty, sweet ... I could get used to the birthday cookie concept. I found this recipe via ... One of those "food porn" sites that leave you drooling over your keyboard. It was this photo of scrumptious stacked cookies that gave me hunger pangs.

Isn't that just lovely?! Clicking that photo brought me to this great blogspot blog: The Little Red House. I felt even more encouraged to cook. I loved the writer's cadence. What's not to love about someone who professes to be grateful for cookies? Me too, sister. Me too.

With all the moving we've done recently and the need to cap out at my folk's house, I haven't been cooking much at all. My body and mind have both felt the change ... Creating a meal is something I thrive on. I enjoy being cooked for (especially when it's my mother doing the cooking), but a little creative, nutritious release is something I crave on a regular basis. With this being just my fourth day in the new house, the first of which the kitchen has been equipped enough for me to cook, it was about time I got to it already!

For our first "community" dinner in the house, Melissa took the lead. Chicken meatballs and Fra Diavolo sauce (thank you to the late Paul Newman for that one), over spaghetti squash. Mark and I have always been fans of spaghetti squash instead of pasta when we're looking to eat easy. It's way faster than making spaghetti from scratch! We paired it up with one of the sourdough loaves I made while studying today. A few cookies for dessert to go with a Kona Brewing Company Pipeline Porter? Heaven, my friends. Pure heaven. Melissa did a great job with the chicken balls. Very proud of her culinary efforts.

I'm pretty transparent. I'm excited about the new house. I'm excited about my roommates. I'm very happy with how life is panning out these days. Thanks so much for reading.

Before I sign off for today I want to mention that tomorrow is Veteran's Day. I want to thank our service men and women for making the ultimate sacrifice. I want to thank their families for enduring separations and losses- your sacrifice is greater than I have ever given my country. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I wish I could invite all of you to dinner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rally 'round the table

I've said it before- and I'm happy to say it again- family meals make all the difference.

I've been stagnant on updates for the past few days for good reasons. Mark and I have moved out of our apartment in Concord to a new house in Bow that we've been renovating with my family for the past few months. We consolidated our belongings over the course of several weeks and heaved all of our stuff into a pile in the new house. It isn't quite finished yet, so we're crashing at my folks house while the final touches are done. I haven't lived with my parents in years, but I'm happy to be there for a little while. I'm blessed to have a great relationship with both of my parents, as does my husband.

Saturday night was our first stay over- we had just finished moving out of our apartment and were exhausted that evening as snow fell all around us. We had no idea how much was to fall- a record 18" (we think more) on October 28th ... such a strange way for Autumn to come to a complete end! The following morning my siblings poured into the house, partners and roommates in tow, to huddle around the fireplace and take hot showers. Much of the state is still being plagued with power outages as I write this. To my friends living off of generators or camping out with friends and neighbors, I wish you good luck and God speed.

That night my mother made the swarm of us a delicious meal- comfort food at its healthy best. It's something she's done thousands of times before and never bats an eye at the task. Feeding ten hungry adults is no small feat, yet it is something my mother does with great joy and pride. This time it was a chicken dish:

Theresa's Welcome-Home Chicken:


Assorted chicken thighs and legs, skin on, bone in (figure two per person)
Flour, salt, pepper and garlic powder to coat chicken
Olive oil ... a few table spoons
Chicken broth to cover
A few heads of broccoli, the amount is your call
Sliced Crimini mushrooms, the amount is your call
Spices to taste- garlic (diced cloves), salt, pepper, etc.

What I love about my mother's cooking is that there's no map. She has a craving for something and makes exactly the flavors she desires out of whatever is in her fridge. This recipe follows that methodology. I'm also guessing at her ingredient list. From what I saw and could decipher while I ate, this is how the magic happened.

Start by heating the olive oil a large skillet, then coating the chicken in your flour mixture and browning it on all sides. When browned, place in dutch oven or roasting pan to rest. All those brown bits at the bottom of the pan? You want those. Add a bit more olive oil, bring it to temperature and add your mushrooms and broccoli for a quick toss or two- then add a bit of the chicken stock and scrape up the brown bits. Dump all of that delicious right on top of your chicken and add a bit more stock (til everything is just shy of covered) so the whole mess can braise in the oven. I would throw it in at 400 degrees for an hour or two, until the meat falls off the bone when provoked.

[Note, if you want a thicker end result, try adding a bit of roux or a bit of corn starch slurry to coagulate the lot.]

Ladle your end result over garlic mashed potatoes and pair with a fresh green salad and some whole grain bread or rolls. Everyone will want seconds. We certainly did.

As a grand finale to the meal, my sisters and I devised home-made cannolis. We weren't ambitious enough to make the shells- we bought those- but we certainly made some amazing filling!

Three Sisters Cannolis (Two ways)

1 cup Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
3 Tbs. confectioners sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract (if you have real vanilla beans, use that!)

Mix the cheeses first, then add sugar to taste- you might not need that much. Then add your vanilla. Let this stuff chill for a few hours before piping it into shells.

Follow the above recipe, but at the end add 2 heaping tablespoons of ground chocolate (we used Ghirardelli ground semi-sweet chocolate). Cocoa powder won't have the added sweet you're looking for for this recipe. Let chill for the same amount of time before piping.

We piped mini shells a little while after dinner, coating the ends of the regular ones with mini semi-sweet chips.A few cups of decaf coffee, mini cannolis and some Dawn of the Dead (the 2004 version) finished our night. As I looked around the living room at all of us huddled under blankets, sharing jabs at the film characters making horrible decisions, I was happily content. Families that share meals remain strong, well after the children have become adults and started families of their own. We didn't need an historic blizzard to prove that, but it was a wonderful affirmation.

Wishing all of you a warm, cozy and comforting winter season. xo