Food reads: Is cooking school worth it?

I have been fantasizing about going to culinary school for a while now and I don’t mean any cooking school in the United States, but the renowned Le Cordon Blue in Paris. Just like Julia Child. Who wouldn’t want that kind of relationship with food? I want romance, I want adventure. I certainly have met people who have gone to culinary school and cringe when I tell them that I’d love to follow in their tracks. “It’s not easy,” they say. It’s a lot of work, the teaching chefs are usually jerks and it’s becoming harder to find a well-paying job even after potential employers see the shiny diploma. That’s a major buzz kill.

Ah, beautiful Paris…. {Image}

Apparently, they are absolutely right. According to this TIME article, culinary schools now charge up to $30,000 a year and most students struggle to find work other than line cooking. More than 800 current and former students are involved in a class action suit against Le Cordon Blue in Pasadena, California, for… basically selling false hope.

So, I ask you, are cooking schools worth it? The article even takes it a step further.

Are creative careers like cooking, fashion design and even journalism best learned by going to school or by getting your foot in the door and training on the job?

That’s a very  interesting question since I did go to journalism school. Could have I learned my skills on the job? Probably, but it’s the finessing of those skills that I learned in J-school; it’s the opportunity to learn about new media and dipping my feet into print, TV and radio journalism. I do admit that with food, however, the argument is a bit different. The newly minted cult of celebrity chefs has made going to school almost obsolete: If you have a computer, a camcorder and at least some cooking skills (well, not really… Food Network has a show called Worst Cooks in America), you are good to go. Maybe we should go back to working hard and doing things the right way. Just a thought.

Food reads: Slate’s take on best food show on TV (and I agree)

There is so much trash food TV around these days that it has become almost impossible to pick the freshest programs from the stale and boring ones.

Jennifer Reese writes in Slate that the best food show on TV is America’s Test Kitchen—by the staff of Cooks Illustrated magazine—on PBS. Yes! Hands down the most informative, creative and well-made food show around. Not that I would ever call myself an expert, but I happen to live in a city that got hammered with foot over foot of snow for two years in a row and what did I do for hours during those wintery weekends? I was glued to the TV. We couldn’t drive anywhere and I resorted to spending my waking hours salivating over meals I would probably never going to be able to make. And that’s the problem. As Reese states in the article,

If you’ve ever turned on the Food Network or Cooking Channel, you know that cooking shows circa 2011 are as much circus acts as culinary tutorials. Just about every Food Network star has a shtick, often accompanied by a signature hair style. Paula Deen is the zany Georgia matron with the silver mane. Guy Fieri: frat boy with the Rod Stewart mop. Anne Burrell: saucy chef with the Phyllis Diller shag.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Nowadays, food shows concentrate more on how good you will look in your friends’ eyes by cooking elaborate meals rather than actually learning why garlic works better than onions in a risotto (well, that’s actually a preference of mine, but I’d like to think that it’s true!), or that fresh ingredients are ALWAYS a better choice than canned or processed ones. Ehm, ever heard of Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade? Take this Wild Mushroom Dip recipe: a package of dry wild mushrooms, a can of condensed mushroom soup, a package of cream cheese and a few other things. Really? I wouldn’t get near this so-called dip.

And then there is Giada De Laurentiis. I like her, I really do, it’s just  that when she overemphasizes and over-pronounces every Italian word, I want to duck my head in the sand. But there is no denying that her recipes are approachable and very Italian. Paula Deen is a pleasure to watch (I really, really love her), but not for her food….have you seen the amount of butter she adds to all her recipes? Insane. I feel I gain weight just watching her doing her magic in the kitchen.

TV is tough work, I am sure, but if we want to inform and educate people, we should look for good, sound, healthy recipes to share with the public and not promote unhealthy shortcuts. We are all busy, I get it, but a homemade pizza dough takes 15 minutes. I promise.

So, do yourself a favor and watch  America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

Lessons from Julia Child

We have a bit of Julia Child in all of us. What I love most about Mrs. Child is her fervent humor (witty and pointed). While I was reading My Life in France, her book with Alex Prud’Homme, I began thinking about my own food related memories and heritage. I grew up in a family of excellent and inventive cooks—mom is a champ baker (her crostata is to die for) and dad is an unafraid alchemist, mixing ingredients and revising recipes without a hint of anxiety. I have only recently rediscovered the sheer pleasure in making a meal from start to finish. Pity. In college, I relied on Ramen instant noodles, processed, really-bad-for me, so-called food. Sure, I’d add in the ever-present pasta dish. Sad. It was only when I began cooking for two that I realized I needed to get over myself and learn how to cook properly. Hence, my infatuation with Julia.

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Interestingly enough, Julia Child is not well-known in Italy. I actually never heard of her before moving to the United States some 10 years ago. Is the never-ending feud/rivalry between Italy and France to blame? Not sure, but I am disappointed to have met Mrs. Child so late in the game.

I am a romantic at heart and I found the book melancholic, but exciting at the same time. From Julia and Paul’s arrival to Paris in the Blue Flash, their oversize, very American Buick, to their farewell to France many years later, I was transported back in time. Reality seemed to stop, at least for me. I have been to Paris before (it is my favorite place on earth), but I would give anything to go back and see it through Julia Child’s eyes; to navigate the streets of the city of lights with her, a braccetto, cheerfully stopping at our favorite butcher to pick up the ingredients for the glorious Boeuf Bourguignon.

Needless to say, I ordered Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After dreaming about Julia’s life and kitchen in their first grandiose apartment in Paris, I was hooked. The recipes’ butter content is something I will need some time and training adapting to…but I will try anything once. I’ve always wanted to master the art of brioche making and now I have my chance. No more excuses. Until next time, Bon Appetit! (Image)


Here’s to a happy and cool weekend…with watermelon!

It’s Friday and you know what that means, right? The weekend is knocking at my doors! Problem is, it’s 107 degrees outside (but it feels like 115) and who in their right mind would want to move from the couch? Not me. Yet, I’ll brave the heat and drag my overheated body to the farmers market tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, there is a purpose to my madness: I will be looking for my one and only remedy for summer heat: watermelon, anguria in Italian.

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With 92% water and 6% sugar, watermelon not only is my go-to fruit of the summer, it also is the only food I can stomach when the weather is as hot as it is today. Bonus points: Watermelon contains large amounts of beta carotene (let’s get tanning!). I don’t have a proven scientific method for choosing the right fruit, but what I usually do is tap it once and if it sounds a bit hollow, it usually means it’s ripe, juicy and ready to go. The best way to eat it? Cut it in small cubes, sprinkle a bit of lime juice and refrigerate. Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

What is your favorite watermelon recipe? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy weekend, everyone. Stay cool!

Potatoes don’t keep you slim. I’m doomed!

Image: The Washington Post

It turns out, potatoes are bad if you want to keep a Slim Jim figure. Deep inside the busy neurons in my brain, I’ve always known—good things typically harm you in some way….like a pair of succulent Christian Louboutin: bad for feet (have you seen those heels?) and worse for your wallet—but hell, they are delicious!

Rob Stein writes in the Washington Post that a study done at Harvard followed participants in intervals of four years and observed their diet and weight change over time.

Within each period, the subjects gained an average of 3.35 pounds. Every additional daily serving of potatoes pushed up the scale by more than a pound every four years. As expected, the type of potato, however, was important. Every order of french fries put on 3.35 pounds; a snack of potato chips added 1.69. But even each helping of boiled, baked or mashed potatoes contributed a little more than a half-pound.

Yikes. I consume a disproportionate amount of potatoes (as I am writing this, I am shamefully eating a mediocre cheesy potato soup)… chips, fries, broiled, baked, smashed, roasted, oven roasted, on the grill…you name it, I’ve tried it. But it doesn’t end here:

Many people might also be surprised that every extra serving of refined grains, such as white bread, added 0.39 pounds — almost as much as indulging in some sweets or desserts.

Ah! What am I going to do? My entire regimen is based on bread-y things. Have you ever gone to an Italian restaurant where they do not serve bread? Thought so. I love bread, I really do. I can eat a whole baguette in one sitting, by myself.

At last, the good news. Yogurt, it turns out, has actually helped people lose weight or keep it off. Sucks for me because I am slightly lactose intolerant, but never despair! Next on the “good” list is nuts. Those I actually adore, so from now on, I am going to snack on trail mixes, something I used to do and have, some for obscure reason, stopped doing cold turkey.

So, since I am known to occasionally dive into processed food heaven, I hereby challenge myself to diversify my intake of fruits and veggies and minimize that of potatoes. And bread, although the latter is a much bigger deal.

Food Reads: I’ve got some reading to do

I have been in a food coma for some time—the food book kind of coma. I obsessively check the latest arrivals at the local used book stores (Daedalus and Read it Again Sam) for a possible addition to my wordy arsenal. I’ve got eight books waiting for me and one that I am currently thoroughly enjoying: Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, My Year of Cooking Dangerously: An honest and raunchy account of life between Julia Child-derived meals. Right up my alley. Love it.

So, I’ve got some reading to do and in no particular order:

-Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by New York Times food writer Kim Severson

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (who, by the way, will be in Charlottesville in October with none other than Eric Ripert)

Ruth Reichl‘s Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples

The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace

Best Food Writing 2009

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipe from Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (of Orangette, one of the best blogs around!)

Phew! That is is for now.Or maybe not. Any books I should add to this list?

New York Magazine gives thumbs up to Peter Chang’s China Grill

{Image: New York Magazine}

Peter Chang’s China Grill (which has won over my taste buds not once, but twice) has finally made headlines, big, thick headlines in one of the most important cities for foodies: NYC. Grub Street of New York Magazine has named the local restaurant among “Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.”

May I recommend the braised short ribs? Or the shallots bubble pancakes? You won’t be sorry. I promise.

After this accolade, the disappearing chef may just stick around for a while.

Out and About: Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace

On the day of our first wedding anniversary, our good friends Farah and Lee brought us to one of New Orleans’ most renowned restaurants for a unique experience: Jazz Brunch.

Commander’s Palace is an institution, voted most popular restaurant by the Zagat guide in 2009. We were escorted to our table by a suited gentleman. We walked through the busy kitchen and by the smell of it, I knew we were in for a delicious treat. The menu was pure decadence. After a quick read, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of dishes I wanted to try out: Oysters, crabs, cheviche. For appetizers, I decided to go with the quintessential New Orleans treat—and the recommendation of the cordial, animated staff.

Oyster & Absinthe “Dome” – Plump P&J oysters poached with bacon, artichokes, Absinthe and a splash of double cream ~ Presented under a flaky pastry shell.

When Farah’s appetizer reached the table, I was jealous. The shrimps were fresh and spicy, the texture of the remoulade was perfect.

Wild Shrimp Remoulade “Moderne” – Spicy boiled shrimp with Tabasco mousse, crispy brix, Creole remoulade and salt cured lemon zest.

Before we dove into each entrée, the meal took a musical turn. As per tradition, a jazz band goes around the restaurant’s various rooms and plays jazzy tunes. At time, the players invite the customers to join in the fun and that’s exactly what happened to me.

The band came around and I found myself dancing, with my napkin in the air, around the room with Lee.  It’s called Jazz Brunch for a reason! (Yes, that’s me with my friend Lee).

Picking an entrée was like choosing the perfect pair of shoes: You wanted the make the smartest decision. Being in New Orleans, I decided to order something that I would not so easily find in Virginia, so I went with a soft shell blue crab, fried, on a bed of greens with a poached egg smothered with Hollandaise sauce.

The crab was perfectly married with the sweet and tangy Hollandaise. I had never had a whole fried crab before. It didn’t taste like anything I have ever eaten before and the more I think about it, the more I’d love to eat it again and again.

Farah also picked fish: Griddle Seared Gulf Fish – Butter roasted artichokes, asparagus, pequillo peppers, grilled eggplant and tiny tomatoes with brûléed citrus & lemon-thyme vinaigrette.

Francesco went with the only non-fish dish on the menu: A beautiful beef filet adorned with a poached egg and a myriad of extraordinary sauces. The meat was so tender, it blended with the smooth texture of the egg and accompanied white sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we still had dessert. Commander’s Palace, it turns out, is known for its bread pudding souffle. Farah recommended it, we listened and agreed: It was insanely good.

The pudding was rich and velvety and the occasional raising gave it an unexpected crunch. Yet, the star of the dish, according to Francesco, was the luxurious whiskey cream—which was carefully served at the table, when the souffle was still warm.

In order to try another specialty, I picked something reminiscent of an American classic—strawberry shortcake with local strawberries and handmade whipped cream. The cake was soft, moist. The whipped cream was light and with a hint of vanilla. The strawberry syrup was rich, but not too sweet.

This was most likely the richest and most satisfying meal of my life. Great food is hard to come by, and good friends are even harder. Farah, Lee and the carefully prepared food made our first anniversary simply unforgettable.

Out and About: New Orleans, beignets and NOLA

It’s really true what they say about New Orleans. It is the ultimate foodie town. Francesco and I got in around midnight on a Thursday night. Our French Quarter historic hotel, Hotel Monteleone, was impeccable—exuberant crystal chandeliers welcomed us into the lobby and the charm of old luxury traveled with us to the seventh floor, to our room.

Sleep didn’t come too easy…I was too excited; I kept waking up expecting it to be morning—time for my first beignets. The alarm went off at 7:30am (I am a morning person and I am sure Francesco resents that), I jumped in the shower and was ready in 4.3 minutes. Our good friends Farah and Lee recommended we head to Cafe du Monde for the best beignets in town. We walked to the Decatur Street location, in the French Market, and I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people waiting to get their order. I would have waited for eternity. The beignets were out of this world—warm, soft, fried pockets of delicious dough covered in confectioners sugar.

We shared an order and sat in the crowded cafe´and enjoyed the noise. We watched as petite waitresses carried overly loaded trays from the busy kitchen to the even busier dining room. In the midst of a chaotic Friday morning, we were completely at ease with stuffed bellies and happy souls. It’s funny how good food influences your mood.

Of course, as soon as breakfast was over, I began contemplating my lunch options. Francesco and I decided to go all out and chose NOLA, Emeril’s restaurant in the French Quarter.

A sparely lit space, the restaurant had a surprisingly accessible feel—it had a modern warehouse look with metal and brick—and was filled with tourists. The menu was a bit daunting. As appetizer, we picked the Wood Oven Roasted Pocket Bread with Garlic Oil, Fresh Basil and Grated Parmesan, a delicious beginning to an outstanding meal.

For the entree round, we hit a major roadblock. Francesco doesn’t eat seafood. I know, how can you go to New Orleans and not eat fish? Luckily, a brisket dish saved the day. The Hickory Roasted Beef Brisket with Orecchiette Pasta-Brie Cream “Mac & Cheese” and Bacon Smothered White Beans was an impressive feast. Crispy, fried bacon covered the delicious Mac & Cheese, but the star was, of course, the slowly roasted brisket smothered with sweet bbq sauce. Such a simple dish, yet elevated to such culinary heights.

Then, it was my turn. I am an avid seafood eater. My Seared Rare Yellowfin Tuna with Avocado, Wonton Crisps, Cucumber, Wasabi Aioli and Ponzu Vinaigrette was everything I wanted it to be and more. The best Yellowfin Tuna I have ever had in my life. It was rare, fresh and just perfectly sprinkled with Ponzu vinaigrette.

The cucumber was cut into think slices as to resemble soft angel hair pasta noodles. The wonton crisps served as the perfect resting place for the delicate tuna. I still dream about this meal at night.

Our culinary journey was punctuated by moments of pure ecstasy. We walked around the French Quarter and beyond for an entire day and we came across The New Orleans School of Cooking, complete with cooking class (that I wish I had taken) and a vast assortment of various uber spicy—and humorously named— sauces and seasonings.


Headed to New Orleans

Folks, I’m headed to New Orleans. I’ve lived  in the United States for 10 years, and I have never been to New Orleans. Shameful, I know.

But I’ve done my homework, asked friends who swear New Orleans is the ultimate foodie town, and I’ve come up with a list of places I absolutely want to get lost in. After reading Tom Sietsema’s “Postcard” from NE, how can one not dine at Cochon? Just look at these items on the menu:

  • Fried alligator with chili garlic aioli
  • Deep fat fried hog head cheese with field beans and ravigote
  • Smoked beef brisket with horseradish potato salad

And if these delicacies somehow fail to capture your attention, Cochon’s co-0wner and chef Stephen Stryjewski just won the James Beard Award as Best Chef: South.

My friend Wesley also suggested some very interesting spot I can’t wait to try out:

Domilise Sandwich Shop & Bar, which a commenter eloquently characterized as “the Quintisential New Orleans hole-in-the-wall excperience … They emptied the kitchen sink into my shrimp Po Beaux.” Yep. I’m going.

Court of Two Sisters‘ Jazz Brunch. The buffet’s selections change with the season and with the time of day. In the afternoon, for example, one can find Creole jambalaya, turtle soup, Duck a l’Orange and Shrimp Etouffee in addition to omelets and Eggs Benedict.

NOLA, one of Emeril’s best known restaurants. Bam! I’m there.

If you have any suggestions, please send them along.

Gotta finish packing! See you in The Big Easy!