Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lessons of Cheryl's Kitchen - It's Okay to Be Cheesy

Few things in life epitomize my feelings about the social purpose of food quite like fondue. It's perfect for cold weather and any size of party can benefit from having a melt-ey pot of goodness for your friends to commune around. This is likely a result of having a childhood where the little orange fondue pot of my mother's was frequently out on the table. There are so many options that I've even thrown dinner parties where the entire multi-course menu was comprosed of types of fondue.

Growing up, it's easy to see why fondue was fascinating and such a good option for me. Above all things, it's just fun to do. From a silky smooth chocolate fondue to a more rare and exotic shabu shabu these dishes are guaranteed to be a huge hit. Now when I make it for my friends, I can feel like I'm at one of my parents parties. Just a group of good friends gathered, sharing stories, joking, and simply enjoying some quality time with one another. 

Personally, and we probably have my mom to thank for this, I still feel that the king of these dishes is the swiss-style cheese fondue. Anytime I would smell the gruyere and white wine concoction simmering in that little pot... I probably wasn't too far behind with a piece of bread. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I often make this dish when I have friends over. By it's very nature it encourages talking and laughter, and it's just the right amount of messy. It's a socially acceptable way to play with your food.

This was absolutely the case this Sunday when I invited my friends Tom and Matt up for fondue and dessert. 

I'm so fortunate to have found a great group of friends so quickly after moving up to Wisconsin from Ohio. We've gotten together for tours, go out to the most chic of local watering holes, and (most importantly) gather regularly to make dinner with one another. I would never have imagined that I would feel so at home after moving so far away.

This was actually the second time we've had fondue, this time because Matt was unable to attend the first fondue party we had thrown. With 2 of the regulars out of town, and maybe just a little bit because of a personal craving, I had promised him we would get together and make cheese fondue(not originally on the menu). It was definitely the right dish considering the temperature outside and because all too often whoever is cooking is stuck in the kitchen. Fondue also ensures that everyone can eat at the same time, which I like.

All tolled, most of my mom's lessons are still sinking in. One though has always been apparent. If you have good food and good friends and spend time to bring them all together, everything will seem just a little more right with the world.

(My Spin on) Cheryl Coalmer's Traditional cheese Fondue:

2 Cloves garlic peeled and crushed
1c Dry White Wine (Chardonnay works well, any full bodied dry white that isn't too fruity is perfect)
1T Kirschwasser
Pinch of Kosher Salt
3 pieces of blade mace
8oz Emmenthal Cheese Shredded
6oz Gruyere Cheese Shredded
3-4t cornstarch (the more you use the more viscous the fondue will be)
pinch of white pepper
Fresh Grated Nutmeg (optional)

Cubes of Dry Bread, marinated and grilled steak tips, vegetables, pretzels, etc. for dipping.

Take the garlic cloves and rub the bottom and lower sides of a medium saucepan until evenly coated with the garlic juices and throw away the garlic. Add the wine, kirsch, salt, and blade mace and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.  
In a bowl, toss together the shredded cheeses, cornstarch, white pepper, and nutmeg until the cheese is lightly coated in the dry ingredients.
Remove the mace from the wine mixture after it has simmered for a few minutes. Increase the heat to medium.
Then, in VERY small amounts, add the shredded cheese to the pan, stirring with a whisk until the cheese has melted and dissolved into the wine and allowing the mixture to return to a simmer before making the next addition (This is key, if you add the cheese too quickly allow temperature of the wine mixture to drop too low it will become a gooey lump of cheese in a cloudy bath of wine soup)
When you're done adding all of the cheese taste the fondue and add any needed spices or salt to taste. 
Transfer from the saucepan to a fondue pot, hand out the forks, and have fun.

Trust me when I say this will be a HUGE hit every time. Also, rest assured that I will make other posts regarding different types of fondue in the future. Until then... stay cheesy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Discovering the Basics

I'm Baaaaack. After a Year-long hiatus, a 500 mile move, and a complete-life change, I'm back to parlaying my loosely defined, fully amateur, kitchen wisdom (if you can call it that). I have a lot of back-writing to do, so stay tuned. My kitchen is smaller, the dishes are getting increasingly more complex (more delicious too) and I am dead-focused on bettering my techniques. 

At times I think my life is a lesson in circumventing the lessons that basic things have to offer. I have a long history of diving, feet first, into things and swimming around until I have a "jack-of-all-trades" understanding of these things. Though often a hard lesson to learn, harnessing the power of the basics can be instrumental in discovering the subtle differences between an amateur and a master.

Thus is the case with stocks. Often a basic ingredient in many a repetoire, a stock serves as the foundation of a great dish. In french they are referred to as "fonds du cuisine" or, loosely translated, the foundation of the kitchen. Julia Child takes this a step further calling them the "working capital of the kitchen" and hence the term "stock".What I [now]  find sad is that all too many times I and many others I know are comfortable using a purchased, off the shelf stock to prepare my meals. After this last week, however, this is far more likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Why? Because last week, I discovered the power of veal stock.

Veal stock is the ultimate argument for tedium in the kitchen. Sure it's easier to pop the top off a box of culinary stock from a store, but when tasted side-by-side with a dish made with fresh, delicious, homemade stock, the comparison is night and day. Thus was the case with a chicken marsala that was, quite simply, amazing.

Making stock is not glamorous, it isn't quick, it isn't easy, and it's damn hard to come across the ingredients in today's "everything is pre-prepped" world. Being completely unfamiliar with my new surroundings, finding veal bones adequate for making stock was harder than I was prepared for. However, after a few calls, I managed to get hold of about 8 lbs of bones and I took to making Michael Ruhlmans basic recipe for a classic veal stock.

Now, Unfortunately, this recipe is not mine... and is copyrighted... and so you won't be seeing it unless you pick up a copy of Ruhlmans book The Elements of Cooking (which would be a worthwhile purchase to begin with). But any basic stock recipe will do just be sure to substitute with veal bones as the natural collagen in these bones is what makes for an amazing tool of the kitchen.

This week's discipline: Preparedness

How do you teach a grown adult male who is the general equivalent of a twelve year old boy with a crippling case of ADHD and zero organizational skills to be prepared? Start with the basics, make it fun, and throw in a couple of fancy foreign terms. I started the stock by setting my "mise en place" which is just a fancy way of saying: "take every thing you need to do what you're about to do, and put it in one place in an organized fashion." This way you aren't making 100 trips to the cabinet or searching for your tools. To some people this is simple logic... to me, it's a revelation.

Next was the prep: Roasting the bones.
Then Came the simmering and skimming of the scum

Then the aromatics:

Then, nearly 10 hours later... The finished product:


It truly has been a labor of love, but every dish I've made thus far has been a complete change. Trust me when I say that it was long, tedious, at times required more focus than I could give, but it has made a significant impact on the way I view food preparation. It is recommended that you use up your stock within 2-3 days of making it. One taste, and I guarantee it won't even last that long. Hello Wisconsin!