October 29, 2011

Halibuloo, Green Beans, Baked Apples

So as you probably know (or at least you've heard,) there's an "app" for everything.

An app is a small application to install on your iPhone that helps you organize your life. There is an app to  helps you (and your pet birds) destroy mean pigs - or perhaps save your virtual home from zombie invasion? I confess to enjoying both - and the Osho Zen Tarot Deck, too.

But don't even get me started trying to count the number and variety of apps out there to help you in the kitchen. I tried the Cooking Light app recently.

I used to subscribe to Cooking Light years ago, when one would actually subscribe to a magazine. With the internet, that doesn't happen much anymore. I can Google for just about anything, and most recipes from magazines are available online either before or shortly after publication. Still, I always liked most recipes I tried from Cooking Light, so I figured it was worth testing.

Despite being challenging to navigate on an iPod touch, browsing on an iPad would be no trouble as with a simple swish of a finger you see one glorious mouth-watering photo after another. I was entranced by the Halibut with tomato relish. I selected Brown-Butter Green Beans and Baked Apples with Chai Syrup as accompaniments.

Screenshot of Halibut with Tomato Relish

There was no halibut in my local grocery store, so I substituted fresh cod. While at the grocery store, I figured I would receive a tomato or two in this week's CSA package, so didn't buy any. But after I got home, I decided to make the fish immediately so improvised with avacado, shallot, lemon, pepper, garlic, cumin, olive oil, and a little sesame oil.

I reviewed the recipes, decided to not have the iPod on the counter while prepping and quickly wrote vague directions for all recipes. I taped them to the overhead cupboard, and winged the rest of the meal.

Hand-written vague directions

With the app, it's nearly impossible to know what needs to be prepped unless you've got all of the recipes in front of you.

With an archaic piece of paper, though, I could easily see that I needed to have the apples in the oven first, then prep the green beans, followed by the avocado mix for the fish. Only after those were prepped and the apple was in the oven did I begin to cook the fish and beans.

And while there is a menu feature, the app doesn't give suggestions for preparing a meal in a timely and efficient manner. And that is one huge strike against the app as time and efficiency are crucial for the modern cook. I stuck to my piece of paper and carried on.

The water came to boil, I dropped the green beans in, and the fish went into the pan to saute. A short while later the green beans were drained, shocked in cold water, and combined with browned butter, lemon, lemon zest, and salt and pepper. The fish finished shortly, flaking apart perfectly in the pan, and onto the plate they both went. About that time the apples were coming out of the oven, and I was ready to eat.

Browned-Butter Green Beans with Lemon
Cod with Sesame-Avocado Relish

Baked Apples with Chai Syrup
These recipes didn't disappoint; they were fast and easy to prepare, and quite tasty. But frankly, I didn't use the app while cooking.

With all of the potential liquids to invade the delicate interworkings, I just didn't want to chance an iPod disaster in the kitchen. And besides, have you tried to read and follow a detailed recipe from an iPod? It's a tiny screen. No way. Maybe on an iPad with a stand...and waterproofing.

There was, however, one app I did use while cooking - and I use it often when preparing multiple dishes. Kitchen Pad Timer kept track of cooking times for all items; in fact, it can manage up to four items on the stove top and four items in the oven. I wonder if the Cooking Light app will improve with a second use? We'll see soon.

October 19, 2011

Chef Bill Walz: A Risk Worth Experiencing Part 2 of 2

Continued from Part 1 – featuring Chef Bill Walz of Risk Restaurant

Like most of us, Chef Bill is as likely to turn to Google to find interesting recipes as he is to turn to his sizable cookbook collection. Once a week he pulls together a multi-course international menu that demands considerable research. 

Chef Bill at work in the small kitchen.

If the international night features food of Brazil, for example, Chef Bill looks at Brazilian-flavored restaurants in New York to see what they're cooking, and try to bring a little of that flavor and style to Risk for the evening. He stressed that keeping true to the feel of the food, rather than sourcing the complicated and authentic ingredients, works well for mid-Michigan clientele.

“It's not so much about using authentic ingredients as it is about capturing the essence of the cuisine, ” said Bill. “Authentic recipes can have long, detailed lists of ingredients. If you run into a recipe that requires several kinds of chile peppers – where would you actually find those different chile peppers in mid-Michigan? And you couldn't find them in 1990, so I learned to improvise.”

Risk Restaurant embraces the food-to-plate ethic, and uses local suppliers whenever possible. “The hardest part about this is the time it takes to go out and source it locally,” said Bill. “Then it takes time to ensure the items get delivered when they're needed.” He likes Monroe Organics for vegetables, and McConnell's and Smith Brothers for meats; all are located in the central Michigan area.

Bread warming in the kitchen.

Without a doubt, Bill loves cookbooks, and prefers good quality. “I like firm pages, good photos. And I look at that before looking at the recipes.” And he's not above trying several recipes to ensure the cookbook is worthy.

“I remember bringing home cookbook many years ago,” said Chef Bill. “I was very excited about trying out the pastry recipes.” Unfortunately, he quickly discovered that the measurements were completely off. “Every recipe I tried failed.”

Cookbooks from favorite restaurants, on the other hand, are reliable though often daunting for the average home cook as the two styles of cooking are so different.

“In a restaurant,” says Chef Bill, “you have mise en place – ingredients prepared ahead of time and at your fingertips. But at home, so often you don't – or you're not taught to have these things in order. But when you have your ingredients in front of you, in separate bowls or containers, you can cook several items quickly. The average home cook doesn't do that.”

Spices at your fingertips, too.

Bill's wife Cindy (an experienced chef in her own right) had mentioned to me in passing that they've always wanted to write their own cookbook. After all, with twenty years experience in the restaurant business, they have plenty of intriguing restaurant-ready recipes. Bill confessed that he had worked on some recipes while in-between the closing of one restaurant and the opening of another.

Do I sense a new cookbook being created to add to my shelves? 

If it's from Chef Bill Walz, it's a risk I'll be happy to take. In the meantime, I'll be eating wherever Bill is cooking.

437 South Mission Street, Mount Pleasant, Michigan
PHONE: 989-317-0844
Wednesday-Saturday 11am-2pm for lunch, 5pm-9pm for dinner
Price Range from $10-30
Casual dining, cash only, reservations recommended
Catering available

October 14, 2011

Chef Bill Walz: A Risk Worth Experiencing Part 1 of 2

Not long ago, I ate at Risk Restaurant's weekly international night. The five course German-inspired meal consisted of:
  • a creamy and crunchy amuse-bouche,
  • a potato pancake with applesauce and horseradish cream,
  • a cup of chicken vegetable soup with spaetzel,
  • a cold plate of pickled beets, carrot and parsnip, and fresh cherry tomato salad,
  • pork schnitzel, mashed root vegetables, sauteed red cabbage, and
  • spice cake garnished with pastry cream, whipped cream, and fruit preserves.

As I left the restaurant, I knew I had to talk with Chef Bill Walz. He's been around town for years, and has an admirable reputation.

The entrance at Risk Restaurant on Mission Street in Mount Pleasant, Michigan
I've never interviewed a chef before. Heck, the last time I spoke with a working chef was in my 20's, fresh out of college, attempting to work the garde manger station for a restaurant at the Cedar Point amusement park. I was clueless about culinary life and more concerned about the atrocious green polyester dress I was required to wear than the quality of the food. I didn't understand the testosterone-driven kitchen culture, and hated being called “salad girl.” You can bet I didn't last long.

So it was with the tiniest bit of trepidation that I knocked on the kitchen door at Risk.

The first thing I noticed was the drone of ever-present exhaust fans. Then I looked around and realized how much equipment was squeezed into the miniscule kitchen: there was a six-burner stove, griddle top, plate warming oven, deep fryer, bread racks, three stainless sinks, flat surfaces for chopping, storage shelves, and more.

Lunch service had just ended, and Chef Bill was working on chocolate pate. He had heavy cream heating in a pan on a gas-fired burner, then added chocolate chips and a dash of brandy. The mixture was stirred and set aside to cool; eventually it became chocolate truffles. We talked as he worked.

Chef Bill works on chocolate pate.
Chef Bill has an easy-going manner that belies his passion for good food. He grew up in Illinois in a large family that ate plenty of casseroles typical of the 1950s and early 60s.

But when an aunt married a man from France, young Bill's eyes were opened to the sophistication of French cuisine. “A meal at my aunt's house meant a white tablecloth and a three or four course meal. I'd never seen anything like it,” said Chef Bill.

At about the same time, Julia Child's “The French Chef” was on TV, and Bill got a copy of Mastering theArt of French Cooking Vol I and II. He learned many of the techniques by working with his siblings at home through trial and error.

“I learned that the important thing in cooking is technique,” said Bill. “When you know the techniques, you can cook almost anything. If you can poach salmon, you just need to come up with something to accompany it. Or if you know how to broil salmon, you have time to prepare a quick sauce of lemon, dill, and butter.”

Mushroom Gravy
And though “Mastering” is still a treasured cookbook, he doesn't recommend it for a beginning cook. “It's intimidating because the recipes are really long. Now I prefer the Mediterranean-style of cooking – combining fresh, local items with minimal cooking time.”

As a young man, however, Chef Bill wanted to learn cook in the French style and eventually landed a position in a sophisticated Florida restaurant. A few years later, and a lot more experienced in French cooking, he met wife Cindy, and they relocated to Cindy's hometown. Since then Bill and Cindy have raised a family and owned and operated several restaurants.

“In the 80s, people who came to the restaurant had never seen mesclun mix before and didn't know how to eat it or even what it was.” At the time, iceberg lettuce was preferred to the now ubiquitous and every-changing mix of radicchio, escarole, arugula, baby beet greens, dress, mache, and mizuna.

“Over the years, said Bill, “the tastes have expanded and people have become more adventurous, partially because of the expansion of the Food Network, and other celebrity chefs.”

*End Part One*

Coming in Part Two: creating international recipes, cookbook talk, more!

437 South Mission Street, Mount Pleasant, Michigan
PHONE: 989-317-0844
Wednesday-Saturday 11am-2pm for lunch, 5pm-9pm for dinner
Price Range from $10-30
Casual dining, cash only; reservations recommended
Catering available

October 10, 2011

What's Cooking?

Intriguing things going on here at Cookbook Fetish this season.

I've just completed an interview with Chef Bill Walz of Risk Restaurant in Mount Pleasant, Michigan; the first of two posts will be appearing this weekend. I'm also finishing up a review of the Cooking Light iPhone app.

The local library's annual book sale was last weekend and - you know me - I couldn't help but pick up some cookbooks. Here are a few:

So with the weather cooling and this year's CSA season winding down, you can bet I'm back in the kitchen.

October 2, 2011

Herb Drying For Dummies - and You, Too

As the seasons change, the summer of my first CSA membership is slowing down. The farmer has been bringing bountiful harvest each and every week. This week, I received a huge bouquet of feathery fresh dill.

Fresh Dill Bouquet
I was stumped with what to do with all that dill. I couldn't possibly use it all fresh in less than a week. Imagine - dill pancakes, dill potatoes, dill coffee, dill ice cream, dill cookies.

I did use a little chopped dill on eggs one morning, and had used some on an entree as well. I could have frozen the dill, but I'd already frozen quite a bit earlier in the summer. I decided to dry the dill.

A quick search of Google revealed several recommended methods for drying fresh herbs - all quite easy. If you were in a crunch for time, for example, you might try microwaving the dill until dry. Seriously – a little dill between two sheets of paper towels, nuke away in short bursts, and you've got dried dill in under five minutes.

The oven-drying method is equally simple but takes longer. Heat the oven to about 180 and leave the door cracked open. Spread the herb on cooking sheets, and pop into the oven. Then forget about it for a half hour.

Three pans of dill drying in the oven

Come back, shake it around. Stir if you're so motivated. Leave it alone for another half hour. Or longer. My dill was probably depressed because I ignored it for so long.

Regardless, I occasionally stopped by, fussed with the drying dill and went on with other things.

Eventually the dill started to crumble to the touch.

Also, when dill is dried, you can lift it up easily - like lifting a cloud or somewhat felted wool. It all lifts up together...like this.

A "cloud" of dried dill
From there, I simply crumbled the dill to release it from the stems. I discarded the stems, and had a small mountain of dried dill. You can follow the same procedure for many herbs.

Mountain of Dried Dill
Which I have no idea what to do with. Freeze? Share?

I compared the freshly dried dill to "ancient" dill from my cupboard – stuff that I have no idea where it came from...or when. You probably have something like this in your cupboard, too. If it's in plastic, it's absorbed the smell of the plastic, and of other spices and herbs that stored nearby. Mine was kind of brown-green, and smelled like dried weeds.

"Ancient" dill from my cupboard
That's a lesson learned for me - herbs purchased at a grocery store do not retain freshness for long. It's important to replace them periodically.  Give them six months, then start smelling; depending on the herb, they can last up to two years. I have no idea how long I've had the weed-smelly dill.

This is what freshly dried dill looks like. 

Fresh dill (and that other stuff, too.)

It smells like dill. It is thoroughly green, and that speaks to how recently it was in the ground and growing on an organic farm. That other stuff in the cupboard? Get it out of your house - compost it, throw it out, I don't care. But promise me you won't use it again.