Monday, March 30, 2009

Turkeys, Catering, and Those Blasted Pop-Up Timers

Unlike most food service businesses that do catering to corporate offices, we cook all of our own meats for the sandwiches we make. They don't just fall of the back of a truck and onto your sandwich! Our prime rib and turkey are slow roasted in our well loved smoker over various hardwoods from hickory to mesquite to oak or apple. What I have never understood are those little blue and white pop up timers. The very first step in preparing a turkey for roasting - before seasoning, before ANYTHING should be removing that useless timer, taking it out back, placing it under the tire of the largest truck one can find and driving over it until it has been crushed to dust! In other words, those little "timers" should be considered the bane of man's existence, public enemy number one, persona non grata.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't like those things! Ever wonder how those little demons from hell work? There is a little blob of metal in the tip that melts when the internal temperature of the bird reaches 185°. If you remove the bird from the oven the moment that timer pops, it will "only" reach 195°. If you don't catch it the moment it pops, you're looking at temperatures over 200°. Water, as you know, boils at 212°. The closer your bird's temperature gets to that magic temperature, the drier your dinner will be. Make sure you have plenty of bottled water available. Your guests will need it to rehydrate their dinner! How many people catch it the moment it pops? How many get caught up in the big game, a book, chasing the kids around the house? Why do you think most of the time Thanksgiving turkeys have about as much moisture and juice as the sand in the Sahara.
According to the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) the internal temperature of a turkey should not exceed 165°. This is now recognized as a safe temperature and will also insure a moist and juicy bird. To achieve a final temperature of 165° remove the turkey from the heat when it reaches 155° and it will carry over to the ideal doneness. This guideline changed in 2006. So why are these implements of culinary torture still on the market? Is it a government conspiracy? An alien plot?
Now can we finally put those little trinkets of yesteryear to rest once and for all? No more National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation turkeys! If you have any doubts, give us a call and we'll deliver!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chefs, Catering, and the Chicken Salad Dilemma

I've been a chef for many years now. I listen to what people say and try to give them what they are asking for... in certain situations. There is a time and a place for trying to broaden your guests' horizons... business lunches are not the time or the place. People know what they want and they want it when they want it, how they want it. Wine dinners, Tastings, Supper Clubs; those are acceptable times for "culinary education" and experimentation. Times when people want to eat and get back to business with a broad array of palates to please is not one of those times. Give the people what they want. It's easier to sell a perfectly done smoked ribeye sandwich on a beautiful yeast bread with tangy tomato, crisp green lettuce, and a crunchy pickle to everyone than it is to sell a mortadella on carmelized onion foccacia with fontina and roasted red pepper relish and saffron aioli to someone with a much more reserved palate.

That being said, I have wrestled with finding the perfect chicken salad recipe for years. How much is too much mayo? How much is too little? Some chefs add fruit -- apples, raisins, pears... Add nuts or no? I've seen it with walnuts; I've seen it with pinenuts. To chunk or to shred? That is the question. Simple parsley or tarragon? Perhaps chervil? Green onion or Spanish onion? Possibly no onion... I've had it with cinnamon. I've had it with cumin. Curry is always a choice... not MY choice, but A choice.

So this is my Kobayashi Maru, and no I'm not a "Trekkie"! No Star Trek shirts with the delta thing on the chest and no Spock ears in my top drawer! I just happen to have an older brother and a bit of trivial pop culture knowledge... Anywhooo... Needless to say I've been working on a killer chicken salad recipe for quite some time that caters to the tastes of everyone.

So here we go. Sometimes recipes evolve over time and sometimes they appear in a cloud with angels singing all at once. (Aaaaaahhhh! Aaaaaahhhh!) This is one of the latter. It just all came together at once and I'm happy to share it with you all...

Tuscan Pesto Chicken Salad
1 pound Chicken (white meat, dark meat, or whatever mixture you prefer)
1/4 cup minced Onion
1/4 cup Celery, small dice
1/4 cup Fresh Parsley, chopped
1/3 cup Toasted, Slivered Almonds
2 Tbsp Roasted Garlic
1/4 cup Basil Pesto
1/3 cup Italian Dressing (mix yourself or buy a high quality brand)
1/3 cup Mayonnaise
1/3 to 1/2 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil (as desired)
Salt and Pepper to taste

Cook chicken to desired doneness. Shredding or chunking are both perfectly acceptable. Mix all ingredients together and adjust the moisture to your preference with olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve on a naughty, buttery croissant with tomato and lettuce or by itself with a nice mixed green salad and a Bloody Mary for lunch. Enjoy!

I'm very happy with the results and it has taken years to get to this recipe. It's not always Foie Gras and Sweetbreads, sometimes a great chicken salad is just what the doctor ordered... literally. Cheers and Bon Apetit!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March in the World of Food & Catering

The second week of March... hard to believe the first quarter of 2009 is nearly over! The week was an interesting one. We started with a meeting with Alison O'Neil of Beauty Becomes You and ended with the GNFCC Business Expo and a private dinner in the Castella Room. Beauty Becomes You is a charity organization headed up by Alison O'Neil. They go around to retirement communities and help the residents with such things as hair and skin care. It really gives them a sense of well-being and belonging. I wish they would have been around when my grandparents were ageing and lived 14 hours away from us. It would have relieved a lot of stress. Ms O'Neil's organization, we'll call it BBY, has been working wonders in the Atlanta area for several years and is spreading the network across the country and seems poised to do some truly great things for an ageing population. With a large portion of the population reaching retirement age, BBY seems destined to explode on the national scene. In September, they will be holding a 3 day event to raise funds and bring some much needed attention to the cause. We have agreed to cater the brunch on Sunday the 13th for approximately 250 guests. I'll go into more detail as the event approaches.

The North Fulton Business Expo was a rousing success. The Marriott Windward was packed with exhibitors and guests and many great connections were made to expand business in the area. This was our second year to participate and the 3rd year that it has been held. We of course gave out samples as did many other food businesses so if you come next year, which you should, don't eat lunch before you arrive. On our list of samples this year were: Bacon Pretzels; Sun-Dried Tomato, Artichoke and Goat Cheese Rangoon; Swedish Meatballs; Petite Cheesecakes; Chocolate Delight Cookies. The Bacon Pretzels are a great snack we like to keep at the bars at cocktail receptions. They serve the dual purpose of making guests thirsty and absorbing some of the cocktails consumed. We typically refer to them as The King's Candycanes. Sound silly? Here's the logic behind it... We have been Elvis fans for quite some time and Elvis (The King, "Thank you very much...") always kept a bowl of bacon on his piano. The first time we served these was during a cocktail reception at Christmas - Voila! The King's Candycanes. Anyway... the meatball recipe I can post, the cheesecake recipe is off limits. It's Lynda's and I gave it out once... just once... and I'll NEVER do it again!

SWEDISH MEATBALLS: (We kept them on the lighter side)
2 lb Ground Turkey (Veal and Pork can be substituted for a richer dish)
1 cup Mushrooms, small dice
1 cup Onion, small dice
1 large Egg
1/3 cup Fresh Parsley, chopped
1/4 cup Roasted Garlic
1 1/2 cup Fresh Breadcrumbs, toasted
Salt and White Pepper to taste
2 Tbsp Butter
1/4 cup Fresh Lemon Juice
1 1/2 cup Dry White Wine
3 cup Chicken Stock
1/4 cup Cornstarch (or as needed)

Preheat oven to 425. Mix first 8 ingredients well. Form into approximately 1" meatballs. Place in buttered baking dish and top with lemon juice, wine, and stock. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the meatballs are just cooked through. Remove from oven and drain cooking liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Thicken with cornstarch and top meatballs with sauce.

Those were a big hit at the Expo because they were different - no BBQ sauce! As a side note, we also do meatballs with BBQ sauce, but it's like no sauce you've ever tasted! I'll post some of the other recipes from above in the future - those I'm allowed to that is!

So we finished up the week with a birthday celebration at the Castella Room. It was an intimate dinner for our client's Mother. They requested a Classic Italian theme. Here's the menu:

Gorgonzola Stuffed, Prosciutto Wrapped Figs & Mushroom Asiago Tartlets
Panzanella Salad
Sun-Dried Tomato, Artichoke Stuffed Chicken with a Marsala Butter Sauce, Asparagus with Lemon Parmesan and Saffron Risotto

They brought cupcakes for dessert to please the 5 year old! It's really nice to see people enjoy time together. It's the one thing in life you can never get back. That's all for now. Tomorrow I'll post our Tuscan Pesto Chicken Salad. Have a great night!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Summer in the World of Food

It's a beautiful springlike day and while spring is not quite here, it's definitely on it's way. Seems most people in the South LOVE the summer. The thing is, most of the people I talk to that LOVE summer work in air conditioned offices. The most heat they are subjected to on a regular basis is walking to their air conditioned cars after work to go home to their air conditioned homes!

I grew up in Mississippi. I have never been anywhere that is more miserable during the summer, although I hear Louisiana is quite rough. Mosquitoes in MS are the size of hummingbirds! I remember one year, the mercury was pegging 105°, the humidity was 100% and there wasn't a cloud in the sky! "Luckily" I had football practice that day and Confirmation that night. I passed out in the shower after practice and during Confirmation the Bishop had to catch me before I hit the ground! And so started my "love affair" with summer...

The first professional kitchen I worked in was a family owned Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh, where I attended Culinary School. The recipes were written in Italian on paper that had turned yellow with age and the owner was Marco Sacco, a gumba from way back. Capiche? His previous job description included the task of "breaking knees"... 'nuff said. The kitchen was about the size of a suitcase and the dish machine was in the corner so luckily it contributed even more humidity than the 3 Rivers already had! The ambient temperature of the kitchen during service was between 150° and 170°. I would routinely drink a gallon of water during a shift and still be dehydrated by the end of it. Between the heat and Jerry's (the Chef) bickering with the servers it's a wonder no one died... from a knife wound!

From Pittsburgh I moved to The Ritz-Carlton in Tyson's Corner, VA. That was a dream kitchen and one you don't often see except in large, very nice properties. The a/c actually kept up with the heat and I probably only broke a sweat twice the entire time I was there! It was nice, but I was ready to come back home to GA.

After a stint in a very nice private club here in GA, I decided to go into management and joined the team at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. They immediately shipped me off to IN. While there they sent me to Detroit of all places, during the months of January and February of all times. The property was old and the kitchen was small and hot, even in the middle of a Detroit winter. There were many times I would step outside for a break in the freezing cold and wouldn't even think about taking a coat. It was COLD out, but I couldn't even tell because the kitchen was so HOT. After a stint in Charlotte, NC I came back to Atlanta and got a job as sous chef at Ray's on the River. Ray's was a 450 seat beast of a restaurant. On busy nights we would have ten men on the hot line manning 2 convection ovens, a 10 burner cooktop with 2 more ovens, a salamander, a 6' wood burning grill, a flattop, 2 fryers, numerous heat wells, and a 6' window with heat lamp. The heat was pretty bad under the best of circumstances, but in their infinite wisdom, the management company decided to remodel the kitchen, which was good. The problem was they didn't budget correctly and ran out of money after they had removed all ventilation on the hot line... and it was April... Who were the Fools here? By the time summer hit it was miserable. The line cooks brought in an outdoor thermometer and on numerous occasions the thermometer pegged at 190°. On a particularly busy night our grill cook took a break and had to literally ring his t-shirt and chef coat out before he could come back to the line. My station was directly behind him. We basically worked back to back. It wouldn't have surprised me to have seen Satan himself walk onto that line. That was my last "normal" job in the culinary world.

We have our own kitchen now and it's not nearly as bad as some of the "hell holes" I've worked in, but I'm a bit older now. 10 or 12 hours in 80° temperatures isn't real fun. I could keep it cooler, but I'm... frugal. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm so old I CAN'T take it. I just don't WANT to anymore! When you work in kitchens, the last thing you want is to walk outside into even more heat and humidity. From May to September it's like being very slowly braised!

That's why my favorite times of the year are Fall, early Spring, and Winter... You can keep summer thank you very much! Enjoy the summer and think of me while you're sitting at your desk wishing you could be outside in the summer heat!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Incredible Buys on Beef!

Notice to all of you carnivores out there: This is an excellent time for stocking up on your favorite cuts of steak. With the markets being down and consumers holding on to every last cent until they are forced to part, the prices of beef have plunged. For those of you who don't have a membership to Costco - get one! Now! Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go directly to Costco and stock up on some of the best beef you can lay your hands on without shelling out big bucks for Kobe or Wagyu (American Kobe). Those two are still going to cost you a pretty penny IF you can find them.

I'm not sure if the grocery store prices have dropped accordingly, but wholesale vendors have certainly cut prices and Costco is a good alternative to opening a commercial food establishment and dealing with vendors. Trust me, you don't want to go there! Go to Costco... They have recently started carrying Prime cuts of steaks. If you're unfamiliar with the grading system for beef, there are 8 grades: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The first 3 are the only ones you should ever worry about. Prime is the best. Select is fine for sandwiches. Choice is the most common. We use only Prime or Choice in our kitchens depending on the application.

We were in our local Costco store and just browsing, killing time when we stumbled onto some really beautiful beef. These steaks had incredible marbling (veins of fat running through the meat). In the Culinary World, fat is flavor and these were QUITE flavorful. We immediately started rummaging through the cooler bin to find the most appetizing candidates and picked out the best 3. Luckily most people were buying the less expensive Choice cuts. I tried to tell'em, but they weren't listenin'! $8.99 for cut Prime ribeye steaks is an incredible buy! Their loss was certainly our gain!

We brought them home and seasoned with olive oil, salt & pepper, and some garlic. I prefer to season them well ahead of cooking. Place them on a plate in the refrigerator on a lower shelf for several hours prior to cooking. We use only natural hardwood charcoal. It gives the food a nice smoky flavor. I've seen on cooking shows where many people will place the steaks on the counter for 30 minutes prior to grilling. I personally disagree with this for a very good reason. I like my steaks to stay on the grill as long as possible to pick up as much of the smoke flavor as possible while staying as rare as possible.

We let the steaks rest for about 5 minutes prior to service so the juices could redistribute. Let me tell you these steaks melted in our mouths! We had some demi glace that we make for private dinners that we serve at our kitchen and in our clients' homes. The combination of the steaks, the demi, and a very nice red wine (the blood with the beast as Lynda likes to say) were enough to send us to a state of bliss rarely reached at the dinner table... this was GOOD!
I highly recommend you give these steaks a shot. If you have questions, send me an email for tips or have us over and we'll cook them for you! Bon Appetit!