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22 posts categorized "Food for Thought"

May 30, 2017

Butter is Better

By Piet E. Jones

The five mother sauces - Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Sauce Tomat, Hollandaise. The basis for French cooking that has influenced international cuisine for generations. Learn these, as nearly every chef does very early in their career, and you have a skill that will allow you to imitate or pioneer most any dish. Once the base was made, one could modify or enhance any of them to fit the dish they were intended for - be it a thyme infused Béchamel for the perfect mac-n-cheese or spicing up your eggs with a Sriracha Hollandaise. These were the sauces that set apart the truly great dishes from the might have beens. Or at least they used to be. 

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Sure, there is still a place for many of them, like the aforementioned mac-n-cheese and with your brunch Benedict, but rely on them too much these days and people will refer to your menu as dated and perhaps a bit heavy. The 80s were not kind to the mother sauces, short cuts and shelf stable mixes short circuited what made these sauces classic. A roux, the first step for many of these sauces, is a great way to thicken and as a medium to capture the flavor while a quickly dumped scoop of uncooked flour leads to lumps and sadness. Tastes have also changed. People like cleaner, more natural flavors, not to mention it being a bit of a shame to smother a high quality piece of fish or meat with a heavy sauce.

The problem with all this, while some proteins can be served plain, most need a little something to elevate the taste - a little fat to add sumptuousness along with some fresh herbs and spices to celebrate and complement the quality of the protein. Fortunately there is a simple solution, compound butter - more formally called a Maitre d'Hotel Butter. Endlessly adaptable, a simple pat or two will impart all the fat and flavor you’re looking for without burying the dish.

Making a Compound Butter is Simple

Softened butter with a little liquid and whatever flavor bombs you want to add, then roll in plastic and chill. Say you have a gorgeous prime cut of steak - grilled perfectly and ready to go. Instead of a heavy béarnaise or bordelaise, you could just add a pat of tarragon compound butter - shallots and garlic softened in olive oil then finished with a touch of dry sherry, take off the heat and mix in freshly chopped tarragon then whip into the softened butter, salt and pepper to taste (fresh cracked white pepper might be a more pleasant, subtle addition), roll into a log then chill until ready to use.

Don’t like tarragon? Try chopped chives with a shot or two of Worcestershire sauce or maybe some thyme with a squeeze of lemon. Yes, you could make truffle butter, but please use real truffle. Truffle oils and essences are little more than perfume, and often taste more chemical than fungus. The thing to remember, for most compound butters, garlic and shallots are a great starting point. Once you’ve created your butter, it can be used on most anything. Steaks, fish, chicken, even pork will work.

A Compound Butter Can Also be Used With Pasta.

A cheese or mushroom tortellini could be tossed with the tarragon or chive compound butters to add just enough flavor but still allowing the fillings to shine through. Perhaps you’re making seafood ravioli, why not top it with a little lobster roe compound butter? Literally just lobster roe and butter, the compound performs a bit of culinary magic as it warms up, turning from a rather unappetizing olive green to a sublime pale pink coral color. You needn’t limit yourself to lobster roe, salmon or trout roe can also work to create different flavors and colors.

As a matter of fact, you can even infuse the butter with seafood to create all manner of compound. Finely minced cooked shrimp? Sure! Chopped anchovies? Of course! Scallops or sea urchin can work as well. Even a few drops of concentrated seafood stock, distilled from the shells of crabs and lobster, could be the perfect delicate topping for a fillet of sole or turbot.

Sweeten Things up

Your compound butters don’t always need to be savory either, they can be sweet - a little honey and some poppy seeds, or perhaps a hint of lavender. Suddenly you’ve got the butter for the artisanal biscuits or cast iron rolls your baker has been wanting to add as a starter.

Besides appealing to modern tastes and cooking styles, compound butter offers more advantages over fussy sauces. It saves you time and money. A compound butter can be made then refrigerated until needed (seafood butters should be frozen). Sauces rarely last more than one night leading to waste and needing to be made fresh every day, sometimes remade in the middle of a rush if they break or go wonky in some way. A compound butter can last for several days - if it isn’t used up first. No more copper pans, tediously tended until they are just perfect, simply slice off a pat and you’re good to go. The perfect shortcut that won’t leave your diners feeling shorted.

April 26, 2017

Veggie Noodles are Here to Stay

By Piet E. Jones

Culinary trends are constantly on the move. Some pop big with lots of buzz and perhaps a bit overuse, like sous vide, before settling into becoming a somewhat commonplace technique used effectively for some dishes.Zoodles Others, like foams, devolve into culinary punchlines. 

Spiralized vegetables, or zoodles, looks like it might be on track to have some staying power. Typically made from zucchini, hence the Z, zoodles have crossed the boundary from restaurant to home kitchens cementing their popularity. Part of that is driven by the gluten free and reduced carb trends; the rest is that they are both tasty and versatile.

Any Pasta Dish Can Have Their Noodles Replaced with Zoodles.

Blanching in salted boiling water or a quick steam are common preparation methods, just be careful not to overcook lest the zucchini become limp and mushy. You can even skip precooking, just slip the zoodles into a sauté pan with the sauce and heat while tossing. A simple basil red sauce, maybe with some sliced hot Italian sausage, then finished with a little fresh shaved Parmesan is really all you need but nearly any sauce/protein combination can work. You could even list on your menu not as a separate dish but as a healthy option to your normal pasta dishes.

There is no need, however, to limit zoodles to pasta style dishes. They make great salads and slaws as well. The freshest zucchini zoodles can be served raw, although you can really dial up the color and taste with a quick blanch followed by an ice bath. Tossed with mayonnaise or dressings, they perform well as a bright and crunchy side dish or as a topping on, say, a pulled pork sandwich - either a tradition slaw dressing of mayonnaise and sour cream or with a simple, sweetened vinegar dressing.

You could even bind the zoodles together with flour and egg to make a pretty amazing latke. The flour kind of defeats the purpose of low carb and gluten free so you could sub it out for either almond (make sure you have an allergy warning) or coconut flour, just keep in mind those have very different flavor profiles so you might want to experiment with flour blends and maybe even some fresh herbs and spices to achieve your desired result. Dress the plate with the traditional accoutrements like sour cream and applesauce for the best fusion of nostalgic and contemporary.

Zoodles are Perfect for Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner

Lunch and dinner also shouldn’t be the only time to consider zoodles. Potato heavy skillets and bowls are very popular these days for breakfast, zoodles are a healthy alternative to all that starch. Soften onions and peppers in a cast iron skillet with a little olive oil, toss with zoodles and crispy, chopped bacon then top with a couple of poached eggs and shredded Gruyère. Voila, a great high protein/low carb way to start any day.

Zucchini is also not the only vegetable you can use. Drop the first letter from zoodle to match your veggie and you’re good to go. Coodles when you use carrots. For parsnips you’ve got poodles. OK, no one wants to put poodles on their menu… Besides, zoodles is fast becoming a more generic term that can apply to more than just spiralized zucchini, best to just stick to that and modify it with the name of the vegetable used.

Get Creative with Your Veggies

The point is, most any firm or hard vegetable will do. Some, like carrots, you can serve raw and lightly dressed. Others, like sweet potato, require cooking. You also need to be aware of how the vegetable changes when heat is applied. Some will fragment into shorter pieces with too much while others, like sweet potato, turn to mush if overcooked. In nearly all the cases, fast cooking is good, from frats blanching to deep frying. Slower methods tend to break the zoodles into increasingly smaller pieces lowering the visual appeal.

Zoodles can also help reduce waste and lower food costs. Already offering fresh broccoli on your menu? What do you do with the large center stalk? Try peeling it then run it through your spiralizer. A quick blanch and what you used to throw away is suddenly ready for the table in a slaw or side.

So, there you have it, a well-established cooking trend that is endlessly versatile and adaptable. Zoodles can help you appeal to today’s tastes and cater to those with gluten issues or trying to reduce their carbs. Plus you might be able to reduce waste and lower food costs in the process. Everybody wins!

March 1, 2017

Pollock – America's Other White Fish

Gray pollock2

By Piet E. Jones

“Monday fish hardly worth elevating to Friday.” That was how James Beard award winning British food writer, Jane Grigson, dismissed pollock in her 1973 tome, Fish Cookery.  “Tasteless” and “muddy” were some of the other words she used to describe the poor, lamented pollock.

But that was many years ago, tastes change and what was once out is now hot.  Diners today don’t want strong, fishy seafood.  What Grigson called “tasteless,” today we describe as “delicate.”  The “muddy” color that offended her?  Our eyes see a beautiful ivory fillet.  Don’t forget, in colonial America indentured servants in New England demanded a clause in their contracts not to be fed too much lobster - a burden many of us today would gladly welcome.

 

A Blank Slate

The delicate flavor is actually the perfect blank slate for the creative chef.  Nearly any sauce pairs easily.  Plus, the firm flesh and low moisture content lends itself perfectly for breading or batters - holding up well even in deep fryers.

Pollock also has a few more things going for it. These days savvy diners, especially Millenials, don’t just indulge, they look for enjoyable foods that also give a little extra.  They want to know if seafood is sustainable, wild caught, and even good for you. In this case, 400-500 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids per three ounce serving.  This “good fat” is considered essential and experts believe it can help ward off age related diseases like Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes. And yes, to your diners’ delight, Alaskan Pollock is both wild caught and sustainable.

 

The Alaska Angle

More and more diners also want to know where their food was sourced from. The Portlandia skit where they make light of the farm-to-table movement and the journey Colin the Chicken made to their plate may have been funny, but there is more than a grain of truth to it.  The Alaskan fisheries, where American Pollock comes from,  are some of the best managed in the world.  Strict quotas and regulatory oversight ensure that the fishery will be productive for generations to come, providing good jobs.

There is even more to that Alaskan angle. Marketing research indicates that adding “Alaskan” or “Wild Caught Alaskan” can significantly increase sales over a menu item simply described as “Pollock.”  Diners are also willing to pay a premium for dishes labeled “Alaskan” over those that aren’t, a huge benefit in times of tight margins.

 

Budget Friendly

Also, Pollock won’t destroy your budget.  It is increasingly difficult to maintain quality and portion size without changing your price points - a real challenge in the face of stiff competition at all levels of dining in the restaurant industry.  Relatively inexpensive compared to similar wild caught white fishes, pollock can help you control your food costs while maintaining quality.

Pollock has come a long way.  Once out of favor, changing palates and increased awareness of environmental and health benefits point to it being the next hot fish.  Maybe it’s time for you to consider adding it to your menu.

October 31, 2016

How to Open on Thanksgiving Without Making Your Entire Staff Hate You

By: Piet E. Jones

Thanksgiving_foodcentricGreat, you’ve decided to open for Thanksgiving. Now the next question, how do you pull this off without sending staff morale into the basement? Competition for both front- and back-of-house staff is fierce, especially for experienced and competent employees. Sure, you may get through the holiday without anyone actually quitting, but a month or two down the line when the new locavore bistro around the corner opens or there’s a position at a downtown high-end hot spot, your staffers may remember not being able to spend a holiday with their family and be more open to making a move. Watching that sous chef you’ve spent the last year training and grooming or the bartender who created your hot cocktail program walk out the door represents a lost investment and can be disruptive to your future earnings.

Striking a balance for both the business and your staff is key. Some restaurants, especially those in hotels or resorts, are expected to be open. Others have a long history of holiday dining. Employees recognize this but, in terms of your staff, make sure days like this aren’t taken for granted. A few relatively simple steps can go a long way toward making them feel better about missing time with their families.

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June 13, 2016

Step Outside the Box and Inspire Summer Sales

EggsBy: Piet E. Jones

Summer is here. Warm days and long evenings. Extended weekends full of holiday cookouts, grilling with friends and unless you’re lucky enough to be a tourist destination, empty tables. What can be done to keep that revenue flowing during the off season?

You could start by thinking outside the box. The box being your restaurant. And outside being, well, outside. In today’s busy world, people love weekend cookouts and holiday barbecues, but many don’t have time to make a dish to bring. Add to that the increasing sophistication of people’s palates, along with a desire to show off to friends, and suddenly that quart of three-bean salad from the grocery store just doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

Why not take advantage of the season and offer your menu as an alternative for all these needs? Look to your side and appetizer menu, even your dessert list, and let your imagination run. Got garlic mashed potatoes as a side? Maybe you’re well known for your gruyere mac-n-cheese. You probably already make these items in bulk—why not offer them in portion sizes perfect for picnic tables? Some items might not even require reheating. Your green bean and bacon side with a mustard vinaigrette? It’s just as good served cold as it is hot.

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July 14, 2015

News You Can Use to Plan Your Next Move

Crepes_sizedWhen we see an important trend or two or three or four we just gotta weigh in, you know, before the trend is passé and everyone’s on to the next big thing. Last year, we were writing about food trucks and how they rolled into towns giving restaurateurs a venue to try out a new concept without major expense. Now we look at the next evolution in the process, along with some other noteworthy game changers.

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June 16, 2015

Fast Casual Foods of India: Who Will Wrap It Up in America?


Fast_Casual_IndianThe cuisine of India has always been somewhat of a tough sell to American consumers, who seem to either love it or hate it without much in-between. For those who love it, especially vegetarians, the combination of spices, often with a little heat from chilies, presents a bonanza of choices. For those on the other end of the spectrum, the extensive menus, unfamiliar spices and flavors, and yes, murky food colors, are too daunting to try. Yet slowly but surely, Indian foods are making mainstream inroads. Naan, for example, has become as ubiquitous as pita bread even at the big box groceries. And then there’s curry. Sure, everyone knows what it is. It’s something and something, with some sort of spices and sometimes sauce.  Or, it’s that powder on the spice shelf with a label that says—wait for it—curry.   

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January 19, 2015

Staying Up-to-Date with Consumers’ Conflicting Needs

Caviar deviled eggConsumer food demands are all over the map these days. A curious mixture of health-driven, convenience-driven, and taste-driven, diners want it all at a restaurant. They want to veer from something comforting, to something healthy, to something decadent—and back again.

No one can cater to everyone, but restaurateurs can check out these possibilities if they want to satisfy those wacky needs.

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December 30, 2014

What's On The Menu: 2015

Grasshoppers
Will we see you eating bugs in 2015?

This is the time of year when everyone looks into their crystal bowl for restaurant trends in 2015. Some of them are obvious—the increased use of technology-at-the-table for instance, so that customers can order, entertain themselves and pay their bills on a restaurant-supplied tablet—all without ever making eye contact.

Then there are those calorie counts that must be included on menus in restaurants with 20 or more outlets, movie popcorn, vending machine foods and alcoholic beverages. This one is interesting because it may—or may not—lead to consumers making more informed choices. Or it might scare them away altogether, like drinking that morning coffee without that morning pastry (sigh!). Restaurateurs are already offering smaller portion sizes (mini scones, two-bite desserts) and reconfigured menu items to make dishes lower in fat and calories.

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November 17, 2014

Everything Old is Nouvelle Cuisine

Small PlateTo be au courant these days, look no further than those restaurants that specialize in “small plates,” or “shared plates.”  If you want your own food, forget about it. At a recent visit to a hot new restaurant, we nearly took off someone’s arm wrestling for that last mouthful of a thumb-size crab cake.

The dishes at shared plates restaurants are meticulously prepared. Instead of spooning a sauce over the dish, it might be dolloped on the plate in a decorative swirl. The chef gets to exercise his or her creativity and the diner gets a one-bite beignet with slivers of mushroom artfully placed, or as a friend likes to call it, “tweezer food.”

But the idea of the small precious food perfectly plated is hardly a new one.

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