Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The story of the Boston Globe picture

"Oh no! They want pictures and they want them by Sunday night!" I said to Jason in a panic. It was Saturday and we were spending the weekend in the Berkshires with my in-laws. Somewhere between hiking and cooking, I decided to check my e-mail and found the request for pictures from the Globe correspondent who interviewed me for a story about chefs and YouTube over a month ago. I have very limited media experience, but one thing I know about media is that they don't give you much notice.

I had no access to my pictures from the Berkshires. Even if I did, I didn't have what they wanted -- a picture that includes my face and a demonstration of some cooking technique. In desperation, I googled to see what food celebrities do for their PR pictures. If you have a cool rustic kitchen to show off, you can do from the waist up shot posing by a cutting board with some big hunk of meat, colorful and plump produce, and a knife (my favorite is when they hone a knife while looking at the camera). My kitchen is very functional, but not photogenic, which left the option number two -- lift up the food to your face and fuzz out the background.

After the drive back to Boston, we stopped by Whole Foods and got a bunch of "whole" food, no pun intended. Wholeness seems to be big in food PR these days. Chefs pose with whole pigs, whole cows, 300 Lb tunas. I settled on a whole chicken, whole fish, beets, and chard. We got to work. Getting the food and the face in the picture felt ridiculous. We couldn't stop laughing and started making up funny captions for the pictures as we went along. "Look -- I am Julia! Do I get brownie points if I drop the chicken on the floor?" By 8pm, the pictures were in the e-mail. I told them to choose which one they liked the most. Here are all of them. I like our captions better than the Globe's.

A huge thank you to Jason for the pictures and his endless patience.

Julia Child and Rosie the Riveter in one.
Don't ask what your chicken can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your chicken.

Local, organic produce makes me so happy!
Fishmonger:  "You want me to clean it?"
Helen: "No, I need it to look pretty for a picture." 
Aw -- it's a Swiss Chard wedding.  
Can you believe this egg has a yolk?
Kneeling down by the cutting board is so comfy.
I should chop like that all the time.
Don't mess with me.  I am a tough Russian woman
who does biceps curls with beets.
Now I am a friendly chef who grows beets in her back yard.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Roasted Butternut Squash (Video)


YouTube Link: Roasted Butternut Squash
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Pimenton (Spanish Smoked Paprika) is available at Whole Foods.  They often have both sweet and bitter-sweet options.  I prefer the bitter-sweet.

For the Squash:
1 medium squash
Salt to taste
Pimenton or black pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil or as needed

For Berry Topping:
1/3 cup dry cranberries or cherries
1/3 cup water
1 and 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp maple syrup or honey

What if you hate to cook?


An article caught my eye in the New York times written bya Mom who hates to cook. She was lamenting today's obsession with feeding your children "real" food, the importance of family dinners, making your own yogurt, only buying organic ingredients, and other culinary antics promoted by the latest avalanche of family-oriented cookbooks.

I feel her pain.  Surprised?  Sure, I love to cook, but not everyone does.  The guilt trip parents are put through these days for all their shortcomings -- this includes their culinary inadequacy -- drives me nuts.  Here is a quote from Ruth Reichl “I don’t think there is ONE THING MORE IMPORTANT you can do FOR YOUR KIDS THAN HAVE FAMILY DINNER,” the caps are Reichl's, not Heffernan's.  If that's the case, my kids are in serious trouble.  I am a culinary instructor and our family sits down to a family meal only 3 times a week.  I wonder how many times Reichl sat down to a family meal while she was a restaurant critic.

Here is what happens most of the nights in our house.  My husband works late three nights a week, so the kids have dinner in the kitchen with me while I am doing some cooking project or tidying up the kitchen.  I am teaching a cooking class the other two nights a week, and the kids have dinner with my husband downstairs in the playroom.  The remaining two nights, we have dinner together.  We eat, we talk, life goes on.   Sometimes, Jason and I will eat dinner in front of the TV while watching Seinfeld after putting the kids to bed.  Dinner is not the only time to have a "how was your day" discussion.  Sometimes, we'll talk late into the night, but sometimes we just need a good laugh with our dinner instead of a discussion on current events.

I'll tell you another dirty little secret.  I don't pack my daughter a healthy, nutritious lunch.  She eats whatever they serve in public school.  Why?  Because I hate packing lunches.  Simple as that.  I am probably starting to scare many people right now.  No family cookbook publishing deal is coming my way after this blog post.  You have to choose your battles and packing lunches is not one of mine.

I've noticed that in the US people are very motivated by it's-good-for-you value of an activity while in European countries whose joie de vivre we admire, people are motivated by pleasure.  Even the idea of pleasure strikes fear into the hearts of most conscientious Americans.  People imagine that pleasure is all about gobbling up cake for breakfast, potato chips for lunch, and ice-cream for dinner.  If we gave in to pleasure wouldn't the world dissolve into hedonistic anarchy?  The first question I get when I pull out a celery root in class is "Why would I eat it?  What's its nutritional value?"  When I explain that I am cooking celery root because it tastes good, some of my students look surprised.  The idea of eating vegetables for pleasure seems foreign to many people.

I don't cook to optimize my nutrients, to feed my children a healthy diet, to help my local farmer, or to save the environment.  Those I serendipitous side effects.  I cook because I love it.  If chopping onions after a day of work is not your idea of love, there are other options.  In France, they have a chain of stores that sells fabulous frozen meals.  In Japan, the prepared meals in 7/11 are better than most American home cooked meals both in taste and nutritional value.  Of course, we have our Whole Foods take out, but it tastes like crap.  Could we make delicious, nutritionally dense take out food in the US?  If consumers demanded it, we could.  But we care more about the food being low-salt, low-fat, low-carb, and low-fad-of-the-day, than about it tasting good.

Before we give up on cooking, let's consider a hypothetical scenario.  What if we got rid of the pressure to feed the family and stopped worrying about vitamins and nutrients. What if we just focused on the fun of cooking a particular dish.  Heffernan's antipathy to cooking is not unlike the antipathy I felt towards exercising while growing up.  My parents go so tired of writing notes to excuse me from gym class that they gave me a carte blanche to write my own notes and sign for them.  They didn't feel that physical activity was more than a nuisance either, so we were on the same page.  It wasn't until I tried ballroom dancing in college that I realized an enjoyable form of movement existed.  One thing led to another and over the course of 15 years, I've become addicted to zumba, running, and even weights.  Group setting definitely helps, and so does a good personal trainer.  What would have been impossibly boring to do alone, is not so bad with other people.

A similar transformation can happen with cooking.  Being alone in the kitchen while trying to figure out dinner might be painful, but cooking with a friend might not be so bad.  Feeding your children a balanced diet might give you a headache, but learning to make one dish (maybe something simple like frittata) might not be so intimidating.  The beautiful thing about cooking the same thing over and over again is that eventually you don't need a recipe.  There is nothing worse after a day of work than having to follow directions, but if you stick to just one dish in the beginning, you won't need those food writers to tell you what to do.

Nothing gives encouragement as much as success.  When I could finally run 2 miles, I wanted to see if I could run 3.  Turns out I could.  You might be cooking that frittata for a month, but don't be surprised if by the end of the year, you'll be able to roast a chicken, cook a fish fillet, and make a salad.  When you get rid of pressure and guilt, you just might discover your inner cook.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Broccoli Makeover


YouTube Link: Broccoli Makeover
More Videos: Helen's Kitchen Channel

Here are the ingredients.  You can watch the video for the steps.

Must have:
1 large head broccoli
Splash of water
Salt (taste and adjust)
2 Tbsp olive oil (or as needed)
1 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice (taste and adjust)

Optional:
1 garlic clove, minced
pinch of chili flakes
2 Tbsp toasted pinenuts
2 Tbsp golden raisins, plumped in hot water for 5 min, drained, dried
Pomegranate molasses (just a drizzle -- it's very sweet and tart)

I love cooking in vacation home kitchens.  Don't get me wrong -- it's a painful experience.  The reason I find it so educational is that it reminds me what it's like to cook on an electric stove with old style coils that never seam to get hot enough and don't heat evenly.

I finished making this broccoli video right before going to the Berkshires for the weekend.  Since the large cooking area of the skillet was very helpful for this dish, I was going to tell you to buy a pan with a huge cooking area.  It didn't need to be expensive.  The one I used in the video was from a Christmas Tree Shop and it cost me $17.

That pan is a poor choice fore searing a steak, but I find it invaluable in pan roasting vegetables.  Since I don't need to deglaze the pan after browning my vegetables, I don't mind the teflon coating.  It provides a huge cooking area because the sides are not sloped, yet is light enough that I don't dread washing it.  On my large gas burners it heats up like a charm and cooks very evenly, but on that dinky vacation home stove, it was a challenge.  The burner was too small to heat up the periphery of the pan and I had to play musical chairs with my broccoli to make sure every piece had its chance to brown.

When I got back, I edited the part about the huge pan recommendation out of the video.  You know your stove best.  If you don't think it will handle a 12 inch pan, do this dish in batches in a smaller pan.  Keep in mind that every cooking advice should be taken with a grain of salt.  I find that many cooks (including professionals) concentrate a lot on dos and don'ts instead of on why.  If you understand why the recipe is asking you to do something, you can make it work in your kitchen.  

Why doesn't mean we need to get into molecules, enzymes, or other food science gibberish.  For example, if your chicken stuck to the pan, you don't need to know why that happened on the molecular level.  You simply need to make an observation that damp proteins stick to stainless steel skillets.  Once you know that, when to salt becomes obvious too.  If you start paying attention to your ingredients, you'll notice that proteins get damp within 5-10 minutes after you sprinkle salt on them.  This should lead you to a conclusion that it's probably best to sear that protein quickly before the salt makes it damp.  When I explain the salting procedure in class, everyone is concentrating very hard on memorizing the following:

  • Salt the day before, refrigerate, dry, cook
  • OR
  • Dry, salt, cook immediately
Instead, it would be helpful if people memorized the goals instead of procedure.
  • Protein needs to be salted (this gives it flavor and helps retain moisture)
  • Protein needs to be dry (this helps it brown)
You can derive the procedure if you understand the goal and adopt that procedure to your constraints.  

Sorry for this little philosophical diversion.  So, how did that broccoli taste on vacation?  Awesome!  I simply had to move it around until every piece was brown.  I know, I know.  In the video I explicitly say, "Don't move the broccoli."  But instead of thinking about it as a step in the procedure, let's think about it as a goal.  The goal is to brown the broccoli.  Once it browns, you can move it around all you want.  So I simply had to wait for some pieces to brown and then move them out of the way to free up hot spots for other pieces.

The inquisitive readers among you are probably thinking, "So Helen, why does browning makes broccoli taste good?"  Oh, I am sure there are molecules doing all sorts of crazy things and creating flavor compounds.  Is this Maillard reaction or caramelization -- I am not sure, and I really don't care.  I have just noticed that browning = yum on most of the ingredients, and that's good enough for me.