Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A burger with a fried egg? And, BACON?

So, I had a really long week at work last week and my wife went out of town to watch the Bristol race with her family. We hadn't seen each other in a few days so I thought it would be nice to take her to lunch on my day off, this past Monday during her lunch break.

We go to this place in Charlotte called Brazwells. They don't seem to even have a web page yet as they're pretty new. It was the old Press Box for years (a shitty, dirty hole in the wall that has been around for decades. I was afraid to piss in their bathrooms back then) and has really gotten a face lift!

It's clean and new and full of life. The dining room/ bar area is pretty typical for a current American style sports bar acting as a "pub" with wide screens and HD sports playing on every screen. Hotty bartenders and server chicks running around with really tight "give me a bigger tip" jeans on. This is what I was told as, being as my WIFE was with me, and I'm a VERY happily married man, I didn't even THINK of looking for myself! (ahem)

Anyway, the great thing about this place is this huge patio bar area in the back. Full of seats under really nice tree cover and ESPN playing silently on the walls and this "music" playing in the background (new wave garbage, I must be getting old, lol) and ceiling fans.

We open our menus and start looking through. The wife orders her usual, a Club sammich with nothing but mayo, cheese and meat on white bread (toasted, of course) and me, I was in the mood for a burger, a good old fashioned Carolina burger with chili, slaw, mustard and onions, yum. They offered hand cut fries too, YAY!! We were in like Flynn (wtf does that mean!?)

Our server, taking our order by memory as most new restaurants do these days (side rant; why is it that suddenly its considered more "efficient" or "proper" for the servers to take our orders by memory lately?! I mean, my entire life up until a few years ago, when we went to a restaurant, the waiters or waitresses (got to call them all "servers" now) wrote down our orders on little pads and, magically, our orders came to us EXACTLY how we ordered them. If I wanted an extra lime for my steak, BAM, 2 wedges of lime. If someone wanted to dip their fries in Ranch dressing (yes, Ranch ain't just good with raw broccoli florets and carrot sticks) we'd get a side of ranch. Now, they like to take it by memory and ALWAYS (yes, ALWAYS) forget some little detail. And, if the poor bastard has more than two tables in their section, forget about getting that extra pickle or stack of napkins with your ribs you requested! (rant over).

Any who, I order that burger, you know, the one with chili and slaw and stuff? 20 minutes later, she lays down this perfect club with these amazing fries in front of my very pleased wife. And then, she lays down this big ass 1/2 pounder with fries and this yellow love sack stares back at me.

Is this a FRIED EGG!???

Proving my point that taking an order by memory is a bad idea, she gives me this "sunrise" burger with bacon and a fried egg on top instead of the "southern" burger I ordered just a few short minutes ago. As she walked away, I realized that there was no chili, slaw OR mustard anywhere near my burger. But, but, there was a fried egg on it man!! I ate it anyway and it was divine. The burger meat was a little tough and flavorless, but with a few shakes of salt and pepper, a great burger. The fries rocked too (sprinkled with Greek seasoning I think)

Thing of beauty, eh?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cigars, tiny veal, small batch liquors and BIG ASS SKRIMP!

Well, yea, another great night. We did something really fun and exciting; a cigar dinner for the members and it went really well. I wrote a 5 course tapas-style dinner using the freshest ingredients cooked over oak charcoal and, yes, everything was YUMMY!!!

Menu looked a little something like this;

1st course, 4-7 sized prawns (gigantic), grilled over oak on a chunky avocado cocktail sauce

2nd was asparagus wrapped in prosciutto over lemon garlic aioli (after this course, Charlies Cigars on Johnson Road gave the members one of two cigars to start off with followed by a small batch liqour to gulp down, let the fun begin)

Intermezzo of local musk melon and mint sorbet

3rd, petite veal lolly pops with caramelized onion demi

4th was (my favorite) hickory smoked duck breast (which was then
rendered crispy on a saute pan and finished to mid rare on oak coals,
baby arugula (tossed in Olive oil, rice wine vinegar and s+p) then
drizzled with an orange reduction sweetened and garnished with fried
capers. (another shot of small batch booze to lube them up a little more)

5th, dessert, mini assortment of cannoli, raspberry truffle rolled in
brownie crumbs and a mini eclair. (second cigar and a shot of Port to bring it all together!)

Everything was done from scratch from smoking the duck, to making the sorbet and the mini desserts to pulling the teeny weeny baby cow from its mothers womb!! (yes, I was kidding).

Check out the pics below.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oven dried tomatoes done right...

My neighbor/ fishing buddy/ story teller and friend stopped by the other day and gave me a huge bag full of, what looked like, baby Roma tomatoes fresh from his garden. Coming to the end of the local tomato season, which has been very rainy this year, there are an abundance of hanger-on tomatoes staying on the vines for all to enjoy. Problem with that is, what to do with them all! You can only make so much marinara sauce, right?

I came up with this simple recipe on how to use up some of your tomatoes before you run to the store and buy more canning jars!

These are oven dried tomatoes and are great for salads, making pesto, tossed in pasta or just snacking on.

First, cut the tomatoes in half and toss them in a bowl. Make a simple vinaigrette with 2 parts olive oil, 1 part white balsamic vinegar, a little crushed red pepper flakes, dried thyme, oregano, basil, granulate garlic, onion powder and salt and pepper. Toss everything together well with your hands and let sit for a few minutes to marinate while you wait for your oven to preheat to 300F.

Lay them out cut-side-up on a roasting rack, drizzling any left over marinade over the top and put in the oven until lightly dried out and still a little plump.

This will take 3-5 hours, depending on the size and moisture content of the tomatoes. About 2 hours into the drying process, start taking the smaller ones out of the oven as they became dry and let the larger ones finish up for a little longer. Total time for my tomatoes, just under 3 1/2 hours.

Let them cool completely and store them in an air tight container with a paper towel in the bottom in your fridge for a few days and enjoy.

William Sanoma cooking demos continued

For those of you following along, I've had the great pleasure to do cooking demos at one of the best cooking gadget stores in THE WORLD (albeit, a bit over priced, but, they're great people anyway).

These last two demos I've done have been bridal showers with a brunch theme. I showed everyone how to use this great stuffed pancake pan that made these cute round filled pancakes.

First, you just heat up this special pan, add a little butter, pour enough pancake batter in the bottom of these round cups to fill them about 1/3 full or so. Then add your favorite pancake filling. In this case, we used mascarpone flavored with cinnamon, orange zest and vanilla and apples that I cooked in butter, yum, and top them off with a little more batter until the cups were about 3/4 full. They cooked up, were flipped over with these special chop-stick-looking-things and finished until they were golden brown and a little crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, jeesh. Too good!

This last one, we did crepes filled with certain things. I revisited the same mascarpone filling used in the stuffed pancakes, macerated strawberries, apples, Dulce de leche and fresh made whipped cream out of one of my favorite gadgets, the nitrous oxide whipped cream maker! Yes, I had to have one, so now I do ;)

We had such a blast! I love hanging out with strangers, showing them how to cook and hamming it up the best I can :) Another one coming up in a few days, I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

23 years to become a CEC

Back when I was 13, I started working (illegally, I'm sure) for a small diner in New Hampshire for a crazy French Canadian woman named "Lorette" as a dish washer. She ALWAYS smoked Pall Mall filter-less cigarettes. Whether she was rolling out a pie dough or cooking bacon on the grill, her ash never fell. Weird and mysterious, lol. She had me doing all sorts of fun stuff! Cutting fries in the dank, dark basement, washing pots and pans, pouring coffee, buttering toast and frying bacon. I didn't know that the work sucked back then, I just knew I was COOKING! Like my idols on TV were doing all those years earlier. I can still smell the coffee/ cigarettes/ fried bacon smells of that place. I can still hear Lorette's growling/ raspy voice from behind her griddle screaming at me to "Hurry up and wash those coffee cups, we're almost out!", WOW, what a trip.

Fast forward 23 years and here I am. 1000 miles away from that nasty diner and that crazy woman. God knows I've been through a lot but here I am! Alive and kicking! After all that work and a lot of help along the way, it arrived. The document that separates the men from the boys (OK, or the girls from the woman :) ) And I have just one word to describe it:

"Beautiful." It's as beautiful as any piece of paper could ever be. It showed up in a filthy white card board envelope a couple days ago, kinda anti-climactic, to be honest. I was more excited to get the two cookbooks I ordered from Amazon.com that arrived at the same time than I was to open my "prize" from the ACF.

Was it worth the bullshit to get it? Well, maybe. Was it worth the money? Well, for what I spent, I kinda expected more than just a laminated card and a pretty piece of paper, maybe a bag of cookies or something? Could you guys have, perhaps, made the certificate from parchment like they do when you graduate high school? No kidding, my GED is printed on better quality stock than my CEC certificate and it was a LOT easier to achieve and shit tons less expensive than the latter as well. Ah, but it's still gorgeous :)

After it sank in for a couple days and after I stared at it a few times, the overwhelming desire to scream, "I DID IT!" came over me at least twice. Aside from the lack of pomp and circumstance the ACF puts forward for you, it's still pretty awesome to know that, after 23 years in this business, I can finally tell people I'm a chef and it mean something to both parties.

A good friend of mine, before we became good friends, told me once over the phone while I was sitting in the parking lot of a local Starbucks that I would never become anything in my life or career besides a "lousy sous chef". Oddly enough, at the time I was HIS sous chef!

Not sure what brought that up at the time besides his need for an ego boost, but it pissed me right off. Up to that point I defined myself by my work and WHO I worked for instead of WHY I worked and how I could better myself and MY OWN CAREER!

That statement brought me back to my senses a little. Instead of people pleasing for a bunch of self centered, self righteous wanna-be chefs, I began to focus on me and how I could become the best chef ever. I'm still working on that to this day but not for someone else, for me. It also made me realize how important a good team is for a chef to become successful. Those dudes, all into themselves and the "look what I can do" attitudes rarely mention who got them there. If it wasn't for my team and the people that have helped me through out my career to become successful, I would be, still, just a "lousy sous chef". Thanks for saying that to me that day bud, I guess I needed to hear it!

Now, the day has finally come where, oddly enough, I'm a CEC and the guys that have pissed on me along the way are either still working their same dead end jobs, have gone backwards in their careers or are dead. I have them all to thank for this great day! If I hadn't had my ass kicked by you all, well, my life would be very different, for sure.

Now I'm at the "now what" stage in my career. I reached this goal, now what? I guess I'll have to pray about it and wait for guidance. God is good and will always lead the way. He put people into my life knowing that I am only motivated by the people/ things in my life that try to get in the way. You know who you, lol.

Stay tuned for my next adventure!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Visit to Poplar Ridge Farm

In search for another local produce farm to feed the needs of my new menu, I found Poplar Ridge Farms during a Google search. Search engines are a wonderful thing man :)

Even though I'm currently using two local producers, Barbee farms in Concord and Nise's Herbs who has an amazing farm stand at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, there's always room for one more. Is too much awesome locally grown produce a bad thing?!

After driving for about 45 minutes from the club, I arrived at this amazingly beautiful farm in Union County. It's out in the middle of nowhere and man, talk about a mini paradise! As I drove into the gravel drive and up into the farm, a sense of peace combined with a child like excitement came over me. I saw all this food growing all over the place. For a chef, it's like ground zero. All I needed was a salt and pepper shaker and my knives.

Any who, I met with one of the owners, the beautiful Marianne Battistone and the farm manager Tony Phillips as they gave me a full tour of their farm. Tony showed me some amazing heirloom variety cucumbers, tomatoes and this red okra I wanted to fry up right on the spot! Asparagus plants, beans, corn, oh my! Shook hands with a couple of the farm employees, great guys. Everyone seemed happy, fulfilled and proud of what they do.

Marianne showed me around the other side of the farm where they grow herbs, lettuces, flowers and the like. We peaked around in the cooling house where there were tons of garlic, potatoes and butter nut squash curing and waiting to be eaten (by me, hopefully).

The entire property was like a serene garden of Eden fully equipped with horses, iron gates, a cooking class-room and a pool that would put anyone into an envious state (especially today, it was HOT out!).

As we were walking around discussing doing business together, all I could think about was what sort of things I could make with all those items coming out of the ground. "Yeah, I could roast those with a Duroc pork chop, wilt that tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, saute this, poach that!!!" Good thing I had to leave or I just may have had to run to the grocery store, buy a tent and start cooking! But, I digress.

Of course, there were samples! We nibbled on sweet 100 tomatoes and baby head sized heirlooms that had to be seen to be believed.

Also, if you ever want to eat some of the best local produce in the area, check out their CSA info here. I'll post some menu pics and blog about the new menu soon enough, stay tuned.