Saturday, December 27, 2014

My favorite holiday pastime; Gingerbread Houses!

I love the food of the holidays! Roasted turkey, glazed ham, standing rib roast, all those awesome sides, you name it! Aside from cooking and eating all those wonderful things, I find a lot of pleasure in building gingerbread houses. The planning, the trip to my favorite candy aisle, the hobby store and the "BIG REVEAL!" All fun and exciting.

This year, I decided to do a replica of  a new athletics complex at an area private school. The building wasn't even built yet but I knew recreating it would make a huge impact. I love being all about the WOW factor!

Since there was really nothing physical I could use to make this replica, I had to use a picture that was hanging in the lobby. I just eye-balled the dimensions and it came out pretty nice.

In order to make my life a little easier (and to be able to recreate this in the future) I had to make a set of stencils out of something pretty sturdy. In the picture below, you will see that I chose a large cardboard box.I just held them together temporarily with scotch-tape to make sure it was going to fit my sheet pan. I was also sure to mark each side, wall and rooftop to avoid confusion later.

Of course, what's a gingerbread house without tasty gingerbread, right? Here's my favorite gingerbread dough recipe. This page even has some simple templates to help you build your own! The cookie is actually tasty too.

 Using my cardboard templates, I rolled the dough out in sheets and took a paring knife to cut around the stencil. I then laid them out on parchment lined sheet pans and wrote the names of each section to avoid a night mare later! 

Of course, royal icing is the glue that holds it all together. Once the icing sets a little, its time to stick all your candy on. There's no rhyme or reason, just have fun with it. I like "Necco Wafers" for ceiling tiles, they seem to work the best. Shredded coconut makes great snow. Crushing up some hard candies into powder makes awesome stained-glass windows too. After baking your sides, you lay the wall down where you want a window onto a sheet of flat aluminum foil, sprinkle the crushed candy dust carefully into the window hole and pop into the over for about 3 minutes or until the candy melts. Let cool completely and carefully pull the foil off the back of your wall. Any color will do. I chose red-cinnamon candies for these windows.

Red cinnamon candy windows, rice crispy treats with green food coloring for a wreath. 

Days to build, moments to kill! 

Friday, October 03, 2014

My deck garden and it's lessons...

Growing up, my great grandmother always had a garden. It was the first time I was really exposed to the amazing flavors of food grown just a few feet from the house. She'd pull these huge cabbages, some carrots and a couple onions out of there and turn it into something amazing. She'd put the seeds in the ground and something would grow! As a small child, that always impressed me. As I got older, and especially as a chef, I've always loved to plant a garden where ever I could. In the back yard of a couple of the places I've lived in the past, behind a country club I worked at, helping kids plant and grow their own too, gardening has always intrigued me. 

When I moved back to New Hampshire a few years ago, I moved into a townhouse with very little land. Yes, the view of the river and railroad tracks is nice and I don't have to maintain the yard but there is just no place to plant food! But wait...there's this huge deck with nothing on it but wasted space! Of course, we have neighbors and planting a bunch of produce in pickle buckets wasn't going to fly, especially with my better-half. 

As you can see below, I picked up a few planter boxes and a few seedlings from my local hardware store. A few varieties of tomatoes, some hot peppers, lots of herbs, watermelon, cantaloupe, a couple types of summer squash, strawberries and more. Everything I love to eat and that are easy to can for the winter (I learned that from my great grandmother too). 

At first, it seemed like my green thumb was kicking in and all was going to be well. Stuff started sprouting immediately and I had this abundance of flora to look at out my back door. 

But, as it became time to harvest my wares, seemed everything was coming out in miniature. The strawberries were basically snacks for my dogs, the melons and summer squash never happened and the watermelons were the size of softballs. My green beans produced a meager 6 beans, I pulled a mere three cucumbers off the vines and fought the good fight with a million aphids on my lettuce and basil leaves. 

Magically, however, I ended up with a ton of all the varieties of tomatoes and hot peppers and there was no shortage of herbs. I made this amazing gazpacho that was cold and refreshing in the summer months. Basically, it's a cold soup with all the great flavors of summer. In my recipe, I basically rough chopped some tomatoes (the garden produced a great mix of heirlooms, roma, cherry and beef steak), a cucumber, smashed a couple cloves of garlic, mince a shallot or two, tossed in some basil, oregano and parsley, a couple chilies, rice wine vinegar, some really good olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Couple pulses in the old vita-mix and we are golden! There is really nothing like it and nothing else captures summer like a really cold cup of gazpacho. 

I smoked a few tomatoes. None of my tomatoes got much bigger than golf balls but had a lot of great flavor. This batch was smoked in apple wood and turned into a nice sauce. I canned it and should have enough to get me through winter. This batch made 12 pints.

With the cukes, hot peppers and herbs, I made this fresh pickle; cold and crisp. The radishes and carrots were from a local farm stand. This recipe is simple; equal parts vinegar and water, little sugar and salt, dissolved together and allowed to marinate for a couple days. Great on burgers or as a snack.

I love ketchup, but tomato jam is, jam! I just chucked a few rough chopped tomatoes in a crock pot along with some spices, some sugar and a splash of white wine. Covered and cooked it for 8 hours then uncovered it, pureed it with a stick blender and let it simmer for another 6 hours. Better than anything Heinz can make!

At the end of my "harvest" I had loads of green tomatoes, a few chilies, some sweet peppers and herbs. Pickling these seemed the best idea. I basically took that same simple pickle recipe above, boiled it and poured it over a few jars packed tight the leftover goodies. I cant wait to try them in a few days. 

The reason everything came out so small, come to find out, was that the plants weren't getting enough sun. They were only getting about 2 solid hours of sunlight, which is far from enough. I'll need to revisit this issue next year. Meanwhile, I'll just enjoy what I have and scratch it up as an amazing learning opportunity!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ACE apprenticeship; journey to behind the scenes of certification...

     As with anything we have passion for, we have to keep moving forward, honing our craft to stay sharp and relevant. As a Certified Executive Chef, it is my career obligation to stay focused and get better at what I do. Doing the same thing and becoming complacent is not only bad for me personally, but bad for the industry as a whole. As chefs, we are given a gift. It's the gift of a skill that not a lot of people have. Creating something from nothing is not only an art, but a craft. Just having this ability opens up so many doors to great things. For example, the countless numbers of charity one could offer with the skills we have could change the world. Teaching someone how to cook for themselves could save a lot of lives. Cooking and being a chef could be the recipe for a lot of great things if we just went out and made a difference. 

    Some of the ways I try to stay fresh and relevant is to stay up on my certifications, compete with fellow chefs, go into other kitchens and offer a hand, attend my local ACF chapter meetings, cater to the masses and stay educated. Part of this important educational process is becoming an Approved Certification Evaluator or ACE. The American Culinary Federation put this into place to extend chefs professional experience to fellow chefs in the industry we love so much. It doesn't cost anything except our time and you can gain so much from it. 

     To become an ACE, one must apprentice under other ACE chefs four times. I've been working on this for over 3 years now and, in about a month, I will have finally met the criteria for this awesome accreditation. I did my first apprenticeship down in Charlotte, North Carolina at the beautiful Johnson and Whales campus. The other three were completed at the Cambridge location of Le Cordon Blue.  I watched chefs get tested for their CEC, CCC and CEPC certifications. It was such a learning event for me. To watch passionate chefs show off their skills to get those three little letters after their names was such a blast. 

     Certification separates the lifers in this business to the fly-by-night cooks, or hacks as I like to call them. Those who are serious about their professions and those who are just waiting for the next best thing. Of course, you can tell the ones that actually practiced for their test (which is always suggested) to the ones who thought that the certification process was just cooking. You have to come prepared, with a written menu, following a strict criteria, practice good sanitation and a level of professionalism. Professionalism is more than just shaking hands and saying, "Yes Chef" to everyone, its about respecting the uniform, your knives and others around you. Its about respecting the ingredients and respecting the ACFs expectations of you. Sadly, there are those that don't do their homework and it shows. 

     So, for those of you that are thinking of becoming a chef, remember that its not, necessarily, about getting on TV or opening a restaurant, its about living to cook and cooking to live. It's about mentoring and paying it forward for the rest of your career. It's about charity and not forgetting where you came from. Most importantly, its never letting yourself get complacent or bored. A bored, unhappy or complacent chef is bad for others and even worse for the industry we spent our life perfecting.  

Check out a few photos below of the certification process.  

Early bird gets the worm, right? We arrived at 6:00 am to get things started.  

This chef is working his fish course for the CCC exam. 

Knot rolls for the CEPC exam.

Lobster course for CEC.

Nice appetizer using lobster for CEC.

This chef had great cooking technique, was well organized and flavors were amazing. Another CEC made it out into the world.

CEPC dessert (notice the home made ice cream!)

My guest chef appearence at Merrimack College, Andover, Massachuesetts

     A few months ago, I was asked to do a guest chef presentation as part of the interview process for my "big promotion" with the food service company I work for. At the time it was a "big secret" as no one was aware that I was about to be joining their team. I entered this huge kitchen and an even larger dining hall, being greeted  by a few happy faces and professional managers This place reminded me of the food court at one of the many airports I've been through. Compared to other places I've worked, this place was simply cavern-es! This promised to be a great time and an awesome chapter in my budding career. Below is the blog I wrote from my phone the day of my guest appearance.       

     As I type this (first blog written on my mobile phone!) I've recently accepted the executive chef positive at a prestigious college in Andover, Massachusetts. This new position opens up a lot of doors for me in my career as well as many welcome challenges! Just think, a few years ago I was scrubbing pots and pans for 3 bucks an hour under the table at 13 years old! Now I'm about to embark on a game changing celebration of 30 years in this wonderful industry. 

     The menu was created for the "International Station" where Mexico was the featured country. I was asked to come up with an item that was inexpensive and delicious. Challenge accepted. Mexican food is full of flavors, colors and great textures. It's a simple cuisine that still holds its challenges when it comes to eye-appeal and offering a little something for everyone. The item I chose was a simple Tostada which is basically a fried corn tortilla spread with a little re-fried beans, meat and condiments.  A delicious spice-rubbed char-grilled flank steak was sliced thinly on a bias against the grain to ensure a tender cut. Lots of condiments were offered to the diners to add a colorful and interactive experience. Corn salsa, pico de guillo, chipotle salsa, guajillo spread and salsa verde were offered. Topped with some Crema and a couple lime wedges on the side and an amazing meal was ready! Of course, you can use your imagination and change any of these items up, that's whats so great about Mexican cuisine. Just use what you have laying around and it can become a mind-blowing experience. 

     Stay tuned for some more fun and exciting things when I get settled in. My team and I will be blowing minds and taking names. I just hope that we can keep up! 

Friday, July 04, 2014

Transitioning to a new chapter in my career, an Independant School Reflection...

Just about three years ago, as few of you may know, I moved back to New Hampshire from a long visit to North Carolina. The people, places and things I saw and had the privilege to take part in were life-changing. I met some amazing people and ate some even more amazing food. I saw a lot of great things culinarily and learned how I want to be as a chef. The passion for food that I didn't know I had blossomed and grew into this enormous entity that I would never have imagined possible. It's amazing how ones core beliefs change as they progress in life. When I first moved down there, I was lost and heading in a bad direction. Making food was more of a means to an end than a calling in life. With a little faith and courage and a lot of help, I made it to a place I am proud to be. If you had told me all those years ago that I'd be where I am today, I would have told you that you were crazy!
A little more than two and a half years ago, I started on an amazing journey with the food service company I am currently employed with today. Having been in between jobs for a few months at the time, I was so grateful to have been given the chance by my then hiring manager to take on the challenges of a small private day-high school in the North Shore of Massachusetts. The client was not pleased with the way things were going back then and had even considered looking elsewhere for someone to fill their dining services needs. There were a couple employee-related issues that needed to be resolved and the place was filthy from top to bottom. HACCP was an after-thought and, to be honest, I wondered how anyone did not contract a foodborne illness. To make matters worse, the staff and student moral was in the trenches. The people who made the food weren't excited to make it and the diners weren't excited to eat it.
After a lot of changes and even more hard work and determination, we left that place better than it was when I arrived. I am proud of where we took this place in the relatively short time I was there. Of course, you can't accomplish much without a team and my team helped make it possible to fill everyone's high expectations. The people who create the food do so now in a passionate and excited manner and, as a result, the diners give rave reviews. We introduced all sorts of awesome stuff; from Matzo ball soup made with real chicken stock to whole grains and mind-blowing interactive dessert bars to mile-high burger days. Staying relevant and non-complacent as a chef is the key to happy diners. Listen to the complaints and do something about them. Of course, we all know some people are impossible to please and that's a sad existence indeed, but we just have to smother them with kindness and hope they will wake up one day without the need to feel slighted.
Check out some of the photos below; sort of like a review of these past 2 years and 8 months.
Matzo balls floating in rich house-made chicken stock. Smelled like heaven.
Buffalo chicken wings and brown rice (of course, roasted vegetables were offered, just not pictured).

Scratch-made signature desserts (this one was called the "Brookie" brownie and cookie baked together and topped with out own butter cream icing).

Mile-high burger days! Local buns, local beef and lots of laughs.

Little logo flags on top of chocolate cupcakes brought a smile to even the most grouchy of grouches!

"Breakfast for lunch" complete with over a dozen toppers!

Gingerbread house for Christmas. One week to make and one hour to break!

The faculty and staff ate like kings during special events. Pictured here is a local artisanal cheese and anti-pasta display complete with house-made breads and spreads.

We composted all of our non-meat food scraps.

Once in a while, we'd fire up the grill for some amazing grilled meats!

I'm a condiment guy, that's half the fun of eating! Sriracha was one of those things I just had to bring in (I'm a huge fan) and now the students are huge fans!

Signage is great for communication and education. People just want to know what they are eating!

Local, seasonal food is important to me and yummy too! This handy chalk box was nice to show off the local apple offerings.

Nothing like local!

Local carrot/ radish salad was a hit, who knew?

Thanking the parents with great food. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have this amazing job!

When introducing infused water, I had no idea it would be so popular! We started off with one and moved up to three options within just a few weeks. Pictured here are melon water, basil infused sweet tea and orange water.

5' sub day! Filled with Italian meats and cheeses as well as a vegetarian option for those who care to indulge.

A salad like this was just not happening a few short months ago. This sort of thing became a regular occurrence as the students became aware of the importance of eating healthy. Of course, having over 30 items to choose from every day helped too!

With the good there comes the bad! Local frozen yogurt over scratch-made cakes with plenty of whipped cream on top will keep anyone smiling. You know those football players have big appetites!

We stuffed our napkin holders with food educational signs to keep everyone on top of what was going on. Neat and tidy is the way I like it!

"International Day" and other such specialty days were a huge hit and kept everyone happy and excited about their dining hall.
Easter chocolate fountain anyone? Complete with "Bunny on a death wish".
(after, no more bunny!)

Pie eating contest for the last day of school, surprised no one puked! (that girl on the left almost did, I was worried!)
Wokka wokka wokka :) Dressing up for Halloween/ costume day kept many up for the challenge.

Fresh-made mozzarella cheese with local tomatoes and basil, caprese goodness! We went though 40 pounds of cheese and 30 pounds of tomatoes that day. Not too bad for 350 eaters!

So, I told you all that to tell you this; I started off an even BIGGER adventure and list of challenges at a college about 30 minutes north of this school. I accepted the Executive Chef position and I started this past Monday. I have no idea what I got myself into but have already met some amazing people and the management team are all crazy foodies like me so I'm sure I'll fit in just fine. I always said I love a challenge, didn't I!? I accept the challenge and will keep you all posted as the days and months progress. I'll either learn more and become a better chef or die trying! Thank you to everyone that has supported me over these past few months and those who will support me in my new venture.