Articles in Restaurant

Main photo: The La Loma tamale is made from scratch out of corn dough and filled with chicken, serrano chile peppers, tomatillos, onions and garlic. Credit: Ben Bartenstein

Noelia Garcia grew up helping her mother make and sell tamales — those golden packages of cornmeal and spices steamed in cornhusks and tied like little presents. In Mexico, tamales are always made fresh, but Garcia figured her neighbors in her adopted state of Minnesota could use these steaming packages any time they wanted. And that is her gift to Minnesota: frozen tamales with the authentic taste of Mexico.

The Author


Ben Bartenstein

Ben Bartenstein reports for Round Earth Media out of St. Paul, Minn. His writing also appears on the websites for Minnesota Public Radio and Macalester College. Ben is active in the Asian American Journalists Association. Next year, he'll be reporting from Spain and Morocco.

Today, her Minneapolis tamale business, La Loma Tamales, produces Oaxaqueno tamales with spicy red sauce inside; tamales with a mole sauce of chilies, nuts and chocolate; and a dessert tamale filled with pineapple and raisins. That’s not to mention her signature chicken tamales with a green sauce of serrano chili peppers, onions, garlic and tomatillos. All are the flavors of Garcia’s childhood.

Growing up in Mexico

It’s a childhood Garcia remembers lovingly, even though it’s been 17 years since she last saw Quebrantadero, the tiny village where she grew up buying gorditas in the plaza, preparing for fiestas and sleeping in her family’s dirt-floor adobe house.

“We slept three or four kids in one bed, everybody in the same house, seven brothers and sisters, my mom, my dad, my grandma and grandpa,” says Garcia, 40. She and her friends loved to play on a little hill, la loma in Spanish, and that’s what she named her company.

“When you’re a child, you don’t care that you don’t have shoes. You’re just innocent and happy,” she says. “For me, it’s transporting myself to a place and bringing something from where I grew up to this place.”

Quebrantadero was her entire world until, at age 16, she met Enrique Garcia, age 17, and fell in love. What they did next surprises even Noelia. “We got married on Friday and we came to the United States on Sunday,” she says. “In a small village, there is nothing else to do.”

The Garcias long to revisit Quebrantadero, which they left nearly two decades ago. They can’t go back across the border until they resolve their immigration status, which they are working hard to do. In the intervening years, Enrique has lost his mother, grandmother and an uncle. He has had to miss all three funerals.

Shortly after coming to Minnesota, Enrique heard that a bakery in Minneapolis needed workers, so that’s where they headed. It was 30 below zero the day they arrived. “I remember we went to the bus and we kind of showed our hands with the coins, because we don’t know the value of the coins,” Noelia says.

Neither spoke English, but they got jobs and worked long hours. In the evenings, Noelia started cooking tamales to sell at a Mexican restaurant. Those tamales, based on her mother’s recipes, caused a sensation. Eventually, the demand proved too much for the small kitchen in the couple’s home.

Selling tamales … and coffee

In 1999, the Garcias quit their jobs and opened a tiny restaurant in Minneapolis’ busy Mercado Central marketplace. The landlord had one requirement for the renters of the 80-square-foot kitchen: They had to sell coffee. Although neither Noelia nor Enrique knew how, they agreed. “We bought a coffee machine and people trained us on how to use it,” Noelia says.

Today, they have one of the busiest spots in the Mercado, regularly selling 5,000 to 7,000 tamales during the holidays. A full-blown restaurant at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market followed.

Largely thanks to the Garcias, Minnesotans’ taste for tamales has expanded like luminarias on a winter sidewalk. The couple’s wholesale business sells frozen, handmade La Loma tamales to grocery stores and restaurants throughout Minnesota. It took a year to get the license for the tamale factory. The reason? “The health inspector didn’t know what a tamale is,” Noelia explains.

In recent years, the couple added downtown locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul and a seasonal stand at TCF Bank Stadium. This past summer they debuted at three local farmers markets.

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Noelia and Enrique Garcia turned a family pastime of making tamales into a revered restaurant and frozen food business. The couple opened their first La Loma location in 1999. Credit: Ben Bartenstein

Noelia loved math as a child, but her parents didn’t have the money to send her beyond eighth grade. Once La Loma was established, she earned her GED and went to college to study business. Now she has started a scholarship fund so her employees’ children can attend college, too. For Noelia, La Loma is not just a business — it’s a community of family and friends who take care of one another, much like in the Mexican village of her childhood.

“This country has given us a lot, but we also suffer a lot,” Noelia says. “For 17 years, I didn’t see my mom, and I don’t know if someone can pay that. But my kids grew up here, we’ve got a really successful business, and I got to go to school. It’s kind of a balance. You cannot have everything.”

Although she has been separated from her mother for years, Noelia feels close to her in the kitchen. She based La Loma’s signature chicken tamales in green sauce on her mother’s recipe. It’s a taste of what her fans can get at her Twin Cities restaurants, wholesale store and the St. Paul Farmers’ Market.

La Loma’s Mexican Chicken Tamales in Green Sauce

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 2 hours

Total time: 3 hours

Yield: 30 servings

Chicken and green sauce preparation

Yield: About 36 ounces

Ingredients

3 pounds chicken, cut into pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 pounds tomatillos

8 serrano chili peppers

1/2 onion

4 cloves garlic

4 cups of water

Chicken bouillon to taste

Directions

1. Add the chicken and salt to water and simmer for 30 minutes. Once the chicken is cooked, shred and set aside.

2. Boil the tomatillos, serrano peppers, onion and garlic in water. Once the sauce ingredients are cooked, discard the water and process the sauce ingredients in a blender with the chicken bouillon until smooth.

3. Add 12 ounces of the sauce to the shredded chicken, and reserve the remaining sauce (about 24 ounces) to use in the dough mixture.

Tamale dough

Yield: About 30 portions

Ingredients

1 ½ pounds cornhusks for tamales

5 pounds tamale dough

About 24 ounces green sauce

1 pound lard or vegetable oil

Directions

1. Soak the cornhusks in water for 10 minutes. Wash the cornhusks and allow them to drain.

2. Mix the dough, green sauce and lard or oil together. Knead the dough until it obtains a uniform texture.

3. Press a small, 4-ounce ball of dough and spread evenly onto the cornhusk.

4. Add the desired amount of meat and sauce on top of the dough and wrap with the corn husk.

5. Once you have finished assembling the tamales, place them in a tamale steamer and steam for 2 hours.

6. Serve immediately.

Main photo: The La Loma tamale is made from scratch out of corn dough and filled with chicken, serrano chile peppers, tomatillos, onions and garlic. Credit: Ben Bartenstein

Ben Bartenstein, based in St. Paul, Minn., reported this story for Round Earth Media.

Portions of this story first appeared in Mpls. St.Paul Magazine.

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Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif.. Credit: David Latt

During a hosted visit to explore the city of Napa, I stayed at the Inn on Randolph in a leafy neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. Waiting to meet chef Paul Fields, I was offered a golden brown chocolate chip cookie, a good litmus test of a baker’s skill.

All too often chocolate chip cookies are overly sweet or undercooked. In either case, that puts one’s teeth on edge. When chef Fields joined me, I complimented him on the cookies. With pride he explained they were gluten-free.

The Inn on Randolph is one of the few gluten-free upscale inns in the country. Fields was challenged by owner Karen Lynch to create flavorful, quality dishes that gastronomic visitors to Napa Valley would enjoy.

Fields makes virtually everything he serves from scratch using local ingredients. Many ingredients come from the inn’s gardens and fruit trees. He doesn’t make wheat-based breads and pastries. So to satisfy the need for morning carbohydrates, the day I stayed at the inn, he served a hot plate of Beluga lentils, a poached egg, roasted carrots and squash, with maple chicken sausages.

Anyone who bakes knows how well wheat flour mixed with a liquid and a fat creates elastic dough and batters. Many supermarkets and health food stores carry gluten-free flours made from a variety of plants: chickpeas, corn, chia, buckwheat, rice bran, barley, arrowroot, amaranth, nuts, potato, millet, quinoa and tapioca. But these flours have flavors and binding properties different from wheat.

Chocolate chip cookies are part of my childhood sense memory. They evoke my mother’s kitchen, where my sister and I vied to eat the first cookie warm from the oven.

Fields’ cookies passed my-mother-used-to-make-these-cookies test. They had the right amount of chewiness and sweetness with a lovely melted chocolate flavor. They were delicious.

Inn on Randolph Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fields suggests making a good supply of the gluten-free flour blend. The flour recipe below will make 6 dozen cookies. With the holidays coming up, the flour will not go to waste. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator. 

Having a good supply of pre-shaped frozen cookie dough is a great help for spur of the moment holiday celebrations.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Freezer time: 10 to 12 minutes or overnight

Cooking time: 10 to 15 minutes

Yield: 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature soft

2 1/4 cups dark brown sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract without alcohol

2 teaspoons baking powder

2 3/4 cups Inn on Randolph flour blend (see below)

8 ounces chocolate chips of your choice: milk, dark or a blend of the two

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine softened butter and brown sugar. Mix to combine and break up any lumps. Stir until smooth.

3. Add egg and vanilla. Mix until fully incorporated into the butter and sugar. In a separate bowl, mix baking powder with gluten-free flour blend.

4. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mixture and mix well until most of the flour is incorporated. Leave some of the flour unblended.

5. Add chocolate chips. Fold together the unblended flour and the chocolate chips to prevent the chips from sticking to one another. Then mix together with the batter until no flour can be seen. Scoop out the cookies with a 1-ounce scoop or with a large spoon. Prepare a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet. Place the balls of dough next to each other.

6. Freeze a minimum of 10 to 12 minutes or overnight. If the cookies are going to be baked on another day, transfer the frozen balls to an airtight container and return to the freezer.

Just before baking, remove from the freezer. Place the balls on a nonstick baking sheet or a baking sheet covered with a Silpat sheet or a piece of parchment paper. Remembering that as the cookies bake, they will expand, leave 4 inches of space between each ball of dough and the sides of the baking sheet.

7. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes to desired doneness. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Inn on Randolph Flour Blend

Weight is more accurate, but you may use cup measures. Store the blend in an airtight container in a cool, dark pantry or in the refrigerator.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups or 167 grams sorghum flour, superfine

3/4 cup or 101 grams cornstarch

1/2 cup or 82 grams potato flour, finely ground

3/4 cup or 117 grams potato starch, unmodified

1/2 cup or 56 grams tapioca flour

Directions

Measure out each dry ingredient.

Mix together. Stir well.

Store in an airtight container.

Main photo: Gluten-free chocolate chip cookies made by chef Paul Fields for guests at the Inn on Randolph, Napa, Calif. Credit: David Latt

In the video, Fields shows how to freeze the cookie dough in individual portions.

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L. John Harris' Broom Ballet. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Île Saint-Louis, one of two small islands floating in the middle of the River Seine and hyped in travel literature as “a peaceful oasis of calm” in the heart of busy Paris, is anything but. A tourist mecca, bien sûr (of course), filled with snazzy shops and restaurants — and home to the legendary Berthillon ice cream — the scene is more Coney Island fun park than Parisian island oasis.

Our Café French lesson today takes us to the island’s trendiest cafe, Café Saint-Régis on Rue Jean du Bellay. Just across — via the Pont Saint-Louis bridge — from Paris’ other natural island, Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame resides in all its gloomy Gothic glamor. The Café Saint-Régis is what I would call faux belle, refurbished to evoke the gaudy Art Nouveau atmosphere of Belle Epoque Paris, with gaudy prices to match. It can be, like the island itself, cloying.

Living in a Parisian broom closet

Whatever joie de vivre Parisian cafes provide their devotees — like me — I’m just not buying it today at the Saint-Régis. Lest we forget, cafes have their dark side: Revolutions and assassinations have been plotted, even launched in Parisian cafes throughout history, and the despair-laden philosophy, Existentialism, was hatched in Jean-Paul Sartre’s favorite cafes after World War II.

My dark mood today is more ennui – that perfect French word for melancholy — than despair. I’ve been staying in a very small apartment on the island — much smaller than the rental agency photos indicated. So I vegetate (call it work) in the island’s cafes to escape domestic claustrophobia, something apartment-dwelling Parisians have been doing for centuries.

The only joie of note at the Saint-Régis today is triggered by my waiter waltzing (literally) around the cafe with his broom — a  push broom, a smaller version of the broom type we use in the U.S. for exterior cleanups. I could write a whole treatise on France’s bizarre broom methodology: In short, the French push, they don’t sweep!

A broom ballet on Rue Jean du Bellay

Googling broom history and etymology — in both French and English — I come across our lesson’s homophones, le ballet (the dance) and le balai (broom), identically pronounced — bal-ai.

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Aha! My waiter, dressed in formal cafe black and white, is executing un ballet de balai – a broom ballet. Ennui morphs into bonheur (happiness).

But back at the apartment, my mood darkens again. The sight of the kitchen push broom leaning against the wall triggers gloom, not cafe joie. Maybe this is just a case of generic Island Fever (la fièvre de l’île), or the oppressive weight of French history that floats over the island like a giant bejeweled crown.

A whole lot-a Louis going on

Everywhere you go on Île Saint-Louis there are references to King Louis IX, the island’s beloved Saint Louis. Bridges, streets, hotels, churches and cafes carry the name or variants. Even the word régis in Café Saint-Régis, means “of the king.” My corner cafe/brasserie where I go for my morning petit déjeuner is Le Louis IX. It was Louis XIII in the 17th century, dubbed “the Just,” who developed the island’s urban plan — it had been a cow pasture — and named it in honor of Saint Louis.

À propos royal sobriquets, several of the 18 Frenchmen who have served as King Louis have earned less-flattering nicknames. In the ninth century there was “the Stammerer” (Louis II), in the 10th “the Lazy” (Louis V) and in the 12th, “the Fat” (Louis VI). You could say that the French have had a love/hate relationship with their mostly House of Bourbon Louises.

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Shrimp Louis. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Honestly, I’m surprised there was never a “Shrimp Louis.” The likely candidate would be King Louis XVII, son of guillotined King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Never attaining the throne after the revolution, the Dauphin died in prison at age 10. He didn’t live long enough to earn a snappy moniker.

Speaking of salads

If I thought my one-bedroom apartment was small, I was corrected at a dinner in the chambre de bonne (maid’s quarters) of Paris guidebook author Annabel Simms, an English expat. Her book, “An Hour From Paris,” is a perennial seller in Paris and is designed to take tourists out of crowded Paris for memorable day trips.

The fifth floor studio walk-up on the island’s main drag, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (of course), is equipped with a tiny wall-mounted kitchenette — two burners, under counter fridge and sink. “And,” Simms boasts, “no microwave!” Simms, who is currently working on a cookbook geared to simple French apartment cooking, serves me her version of Elizabeth David‘s “Salade Parisienne,” from “French Provincial Cooking” (1962), composed of fresh vegetables, hard-boiled egg and slices of room-temperature roast beef, dressed with a vibrant vinaigrette. Simple, delicious and perfect for a warm summer night.

The conversation drifts toward my host’s mixed reviews of her island oasis lifestyle. She’s been living frugally and productively on the pricey Île Saint-Louis for more than 20 years and avoids the expensive touristy spots like Café Saint-Régis. “I love their baby Spanish sardines served in the tin with the lid rolled up,” she admits, “but I’d rather go to the cheaper Café Lutèce next door with its terrace facing north towards the Seine and the quieter right bank.”

The next day, back for a farewell crème at Café Saint-Régis before heading back to the States, I ponder Simms’ somewhat cloistered life on Île Saint-Louis. It’s telling that over the course of decades on the island, Simms has built her career as a writer in Paris based on a book that encourages tourists to get out of Paris. After only three weeks here, I’m ready to get out, too. Or is that just my Île Saint-Louis ennui speaking?

Main illustration: “Broom Ballet.” Credit: L. John Harris

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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

Thanksgiving dinner is a feast of comfort food’s greatest hits. But even as much as I enjoy traditional favorites such as mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and turkey with gravy, it’s important to bring something new to the party. When chef David Codney showed me how easy it is to make his signature truffle macaroni and cheese, I knew I was going to make this elegant dish for Thanksgiving.

Codney is executive chef at the The Peninsula Beverly Hills, a five-star hotel. When I met the chef, he led me upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop where pool guests were swimming and hanging out. On a warm, blue-sky Southern California afternoon, the view was fantastic.

Just below the rooftop’s railing were two gardens. Originally planted with flowers, the areas are now used to grow edible plants. While the guests relaxed on their chaise lounges, Codney walked past thick bunches of carrots, cucumbers, ginger, tomatoes, fennel, chard, strawberries, heirloom onions, radishes, edible flowers and herbs.  Although Codney has local suppliers who bring him high-quality produce, he loves having a garden of his own.

He fertilizes the garden with compost made from coffee grounds and the pulp left over from making fresh juices in the kitchen.  When he spotted a cluster of photo-shoot-ready tomatoes and an heirloom onion, he cradled them in his hands and held them up for me to admire.

Codney’s first job as a teenager was washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen. Curious by nature, he learned every recipe the chefs would teach him. Even though he studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he learned his craft in the kitchens of accomplished chefs.

For the video, Codney introduced three sous chefs who would join him in the cooking demonstration. Not that he needed so many cooks to prepare his easy-to-make dish, but their assistance made an important point. For Codney a successful kitchen is the result of collaboration, and he was happy to have them help demonstrate one of the hotel’s signature dishes: truffle macaroni and cheese. And with Thanksgiving and the holiday season approaching, the dish is a good way to celebrate.

Truffle Macaroni and Cheese

Codney’s riff on an American classic can be served as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Building flavors as the sauce reduces, he blends fats (butter, cream and cheese) with aromatics (rosemary, parsley and thyme) and uses sautéed mushrooms to anchor the dish. White wine provides acidity, cutting through the lovely richness of the dish.

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In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills, truffle macaroni and cheese being prepared in a sauté pan by chef David Codney and his team. Credit: David Latt

Fresh truffles are not always in season and can be hard to come by for the home cook. Truffle oil is a good substitute and is available all year long. But where fresh truffles are a subtle addition to the aromatic quality of the dish, truffle oil can be perfumey, overpowering the other flavors, so Codney advises using it judiciously.

Yield: 8 appetizers or 4 entrees

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pound elbow macaroni, preferably whole wheat and ridged

3 tablespoons sweet butter, divided

1 cup mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, shiitake, brown or portabella), washed, stems trimmed, thinly sliced

Sea salt (preferably fleur de sel)

Freshly ground cracked white pepper, to taste

2 shallots, washed, peeled, ends trimmed, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, skins and root end trimmed, finely chopped

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, washed, leaves only, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, washed, finely chopped

½ cup Chardonnay

2 cups stock — vegetarian, meat, poultry or seafood — preferably homemade

1 whole thyme sprig, freshly picked

1 cup salty pasta water, reserved from cooking the pasta

2 cups cream, to taste

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon white truffle oil, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions

1. While the sauce is being prepared, heat a large pot of water salted with kosher salt. When the water boils, add the pasta. Stir every 2 to 3 minutes. Cook 7 to 8 minutes or almost al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water when the pasta is drained. Toss the pasta well with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

2. Heat a large sauté pan over low heat.

3. Add 1 tablespoon butter and mushrooms. Season with sea salt and freshly ground white pepper. After mushrooms begin to color, add shallots and garlic. Sweat until translucent. Season with parsley and rosemary.

4. Stir well to build the flavors. Add more sea salt. To balance the rich flavors, add the white wine and stir in 1 tablespoon of sweet butter. Add the pre-cooked macaroni. Stir well to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add stock and simmer. Add the sprig of thyme.

5. Reduce the stock and toss the pasta. Add a few tablespoons of salted pasta water for flavor and to thicken the sauce. Raise the heat to continue reducing the sauce.

6. Stirring the pasta, add cream in small increments. Taste and stop adding cream when you have achieved the desired richness. Add freshly ground cracked white pepper.

7. Drizzle olive oil into the sauce. Continue stirring and reducing. Add grated cheese, reserving 2 tablespoons and stir well.

8. If the sauce is too thin, raise the heat and reduce. If sauce is getting too thick, add more stock. In either case, add a drizzle of olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter to round out the flavors.

9. Taste and adjust with salt and pepper or more cream. Remove thyme sprig and discard. Finish with a drizzle of white truffle oil. Use the oil sparingly. Too much can overpower the other flavors.

10. Plate the pasta, decorate with edible flowers or an aromatic such as finely chopped Italian parsley and shaved fresh truffles when in season. Dust with grated cheese. Finish with a drizzle of quality olive oil.

11. Serve hot as an appetizer, side dish or entrée.

Main photo: In the kitchen at The Peninsula Beverly Hills are some of the ingredients used by chef David Codney and his team to prepare truffle macaroni and cheese, including hen-of-the-woods or maitake mushrooms, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sweet butter, whole wheat ridged macaroni and thyme sprigs. Credit: David Latt

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The Cooking Times They Are a-Changin'. Illustration Credit: iStock

Cook or chef? If asked, chances are most of us would opt for cook. But what does that mean? Cooks cook. Chefs cook too. So what’s the difference? Most obviously, chefs are men who cook in, and for, the public, while the rest of us labor away as unsung heroines (and a few heroes) on the domestic front to please family and friends.

The heavily masculine world of chefs has its roots in the military model formalized by the French in the 17th century. The chef de cuisine —  the “head” of the kitchen —  literally commanded the meal. So too in the modern restaurant that emerged over the 19th century; the chef gave the orders that lesser mortals carried out. The movement toward professionalization over the 19th century excluded women. (The iconic 1987 food film “Babette’s Feast” is totally off-the-mark. No woman would have been a chef in a top Parisian restaurant in the 19th century. Even today there are few.)

When we look closely at what chefs actually do, we may be astonished that “mere” cooks undertake many of the same activities. Perhaps cooking and “chefing” differ less than the fancy white chef’s toque would have us believe.

A continuum from cooking to chefing

In reality, from cooking to chefing is a continuum. The more foods involved, the more elaborate and complex the preparations, the more people involved as staff and consumers, and the greater the pressure for innovation, the closer we come to chefing. The more extensive the division of culinary labor, the more leadership and management skills come into play. It is not by chance that the restaurant kitchen is still known as a “brigade” and that “Yes, Chef” the only possible response to the kitchen commander.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

Priscilla Ferguson argues that the explosion of talk about food has blurred the lines between the plain and the fancy.

But the domestic cook uses many of those same skills — even if she has no one to order about. Just think about what is involved in putting together an elaborate meal for a special occasion or special guests say, a birthday party for 10-year-olds or an anniversary. The cook knows that time spent at the stove is the least of her tasks. She becomes an Executive Chef for the occasion, commanding the meal, setting the menu, ordering the food and seeing to the pleasures of a demanding public. Such a meal requires skills, time, energy and imagination. You may not be a chef, but you certainly are chefing.

The contemporary food world is incomparably varied — from high-end restaurants bent on innovation to the neighborhood diner —  so the hierarchical model, even for the professional kitchen, is only one mode. Is there an ideal balance between cooking and chefing?

The answer depends on the moment, the place, the occasion, the company. Cooks and chefs find their place on the continuum from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the unseen to the spectacular.

The worlds of cooking and chefing have never been closer than today. As I argue in my recent book, “Word of Mouth: What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” the explosion of talk about food in the past quarter century has blurred the lines between eating in and eating out, between the ordinary meal and the extraordinary feast, between the plain and the fancy.

From blogs to television shows and even films – think of Remy the rat as chef in “Ratatouille” —  food talk diffuses ideas, techniques and savoir faire beyond the professional sphere. All this talk brings the chef and the cook ever closer together. We cooks may not be chefs, but we sure do a lot of chefing.

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Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.

Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.

This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.

The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.

The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.

Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.

The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 pound fresh fettuccine
  • ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.

The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..

From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.

The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.

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A bowl of Iowa corn used to make a yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives, prepared by Chef Luigi Fineo in the kitchen at RivaBella Ristorante, West Hollywood, Calif. Credit: David Latt

Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.

For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being  ground into the fine powder.

Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn

When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.

In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.

Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.

Yellow Sweet Corn Soup

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.

Ingredients

  • 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
  • ¾ cup water
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
  • ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)

Directions

  1. Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
  2. Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
  3. Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
  4. Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
  5. Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
  6. Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
  7. Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  8. As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
  9. Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
  10. Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
  11. Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.

Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt

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Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris

La Vie en Rose: Bitter brews, perfunctory pâtés, questionable quiches, insipid salads and tepid tarts? Has the Parisian cafe lost its culinary luster? Well, yes and no, but from my hard-core cafe-lover’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter!

Yes, Paris’ fall as the world capital of fine dinning and its efforts to revive are well-documented. The most recent, and fairly gloomy, report is by Mark Bittman in his July 22 New York Times piece, “French Food Goes Down.” Bittman is a bit late to the funeral. The media discourse on French gastronomy has brightened of late, and Nicholas Lander’s April 25 column in London’s Financial Times has even hinted at a renaissance of fine dining in Paris.

In any case, fine French food — dead, alive or somewhere in between — has never been the draw of the Parisian cafe.

Joie de Starbucks

L. John Harris' Paris Cafe Index. Credit: L. John HarrisIt’s true that traditional cafes in Paris, and France generally, are closing in growing numbers. Young cafe-going Parisians and tourists, if not older, die-hard loyalists, are opting for food-trendy, Internet-friendly (Wi-Fi gratuit or free Wi-Fi) alternatives. These include, incredulously, American fast food and coffee chains like MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

Most traditional Parisian cafe owners would rather close up shop than give out their Wi-Fi (pronounced whiff-ee) passwords. Or so it seems.  Last summer, I had to swallow my pride (and their “handcrafted’ lattes) and head to Starbucks to access a signal. I was conducting an online interview with Leonard Pitt, the Berkeley-based author of “Walks Through Lost Paris” (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), a fascinating visual guide to Baron Haussmann’s architectural transformation of 19th-century Paris.

Pitt responded from his computer at the cafe in Berkeley, California’s French Hotel, across the street from Cali/Frenchie Chez Panisse. Working from my computer at Starbucks Odéon, the irony seemed absurd and a little painful. Pitt is a passionate proponent of a cafe-centric lifestyle over the work-ethic culture of Puritan-influenced America. “Nothing better symbolizes,” writes Pitt, “the congeniality, the rhythm and sheer joie de vivre we ache to recapture in life than the cafe.”

Well put, Pitt! But one man’s joie de vivre is another man’s (or woman’s) morning coffee ritual, writing studio, business office, evening gathering spot or flâneurian observation post. And often, all the above and more. The Parisian cafe is more than the sum of its parts.

Our Café French™ lesson today is based on my cafe-centric stay this June in the heart of Paris’ cafe-rich 6th Arrondissement — a perfect location for reflections on the traditional cafe’s basic functions. (See “Parisian Café Index” illustration.)

Wake up (se réveiller) and smell the coffee

When I go to a cafe to wake up with a café crème, the least important criteria for me is the coffee’s origin, quality or, I confess, taste. My critical connoisseur’s brain is still asleep even if my legs can get me there. So, I began each day at cafes within a few minutes walk of my apartment on rue Madame, mostly at my café du coin (corner cafe), Café Madame. There is nothing exceptional about Café Madame — they serve a typical petit déjeuner (decent coffee, acceptable croissant or buttered tartine, reasonably fresh orange juice) — except its convenient location.

After my morning coffee and a short stroll through the nearby Luxembourg gardens, I would arrive back at my apartment awake and ready for work — reading, writing and sketching — before heading out again to another cafe for lunch and more work.

Working (travailler): reading (lire), writing (écrire), sketching (faire des croquis)

Any cafe can be a working cafe, depending on one’s personal requirements. Kaaren Kitchell, an ex-pat novelist, poet and “Paris Play” blogger combines her daily one-hour walk with her writing and editing projects, so her cafe must be at least a 30-minute walk from home. Her other criteria include a quiet ambiance and, ergo, few tourists. “The French know how to modulate their voices,” says Kitchell, “Americans and Italians don’t.”

Chacun à son café! Ex-pat Paris author, tour guide and bon vivant, Terrance Gelenter, prefers to work in crowded and noisy icons, like Café de Flore. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gelenter holds “office hours” on the ever-popular terrace for his tour clients and visiting Anglophone writers, artists and musicians. His newsletter, “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes,” offers restaurant and hotel reviews, travel tips and a calendar of arts events.

Talking (parler)

Where better than at a cafe to talk? The cafe inhabits a middle world between public and private space, unlike bistros and brasseries, where spirited talking inter-table is welcome, if not required. For the 19th-century Impressionists who broke from the stifling restraints of the Academy, the cafe became a salon where they could engage in debates over aesthetic issues (with the help of addictive amounts of absinthe).

One artist, however, presents an amusingly downbeat view of the cafe’s talking function. That would be the legendary Marcel Duchamp, as quoted in “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” by Calvin Tomkins:

“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing — one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very, very artificial thing … full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”

The inscrutable, tight-lipped Duchamp famously abandoned art and art talk when, in mid-career, he withdrew into the silence of chess competition. Which brings us to our final, nonverbal, cafe functions.

Watching (observer) and resting/napping (se reposer/sommeiller)

Much has been written about the cafe’s observational function. It’s as if the cafe, invented in 16th-century Istanbul, was destined for “… the eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie!” as 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou was quoted in Edmund White’s book “The Flâneur.”

As for resting in cafes, it’s a touristic necessity after days filled with shopping and sightseeing. But napping? Well, I admit it’s a conceptual stretch. Nevertheless, while sketching one afternoon at Les Deux Magots toward the end of my summer cafe immersion, I drew three tables pushed together with a man sleeping on top. A visual punchline for my illustration of the cafe’s functions. Come to think of it, for us older, diehard cafe loyalists in search of that elusive joie de vivre — or, at least, an occasional afternoon nap — it’s not a bad idea.

Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris

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