Questionable Tastes TM_QT_SCHNTZL_FI_008

Not long ago, following an exhausting and not-prosperous work trip, my flight home from Bilbao was delayed seven hours by a terrible wind storm that shut down several European airports. I spent five of those seven hours stuck in a line of hundreds, while two overwhelmed workers at the Lufthansa desk ever-so-slowly attempted to reroute 300-plus passengers. As the line trudged forward, I watched the board helplessly as flights departed, one by one, to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Lisbon, all connections that would have gotten me home. I had an important meeting in the morning, and then my son’s first soccer game, which I’d committed to coach. As the hours passed, I knew I would miss both. By the time I reached the front of the line, there was no way across the Atlantic until the next day, and I was assigned an evening flight to Frankfurt. I was given a handwritten voucher for a hotel, and another voucher for a free dinner.

When I arrived, it was dark and rainy, and a taxi took me to a hotel in the middle of an industrial park in a suburb called Mörfelden. After checking in and explaining to my son that I would not be home in time, and hearing my boss’ dismay at my absence, I slumped down to the hotel’s overlit restaurant and grabbed a menu. I was a wreck. My career had suffered some recent blows and this trip was supposed to help turn things around; but it hadn’t. In any case, I badly needed some comfort food, and the first item that called out to me was wiener schnitzel. “Yes, please, may I have some wiener schnitzel,” I said, and presented my voucher. The stern waiter sneered and pointed over to a pathetic buffet: some stale rolls, a congealed soup, and a platter of rubbery chicken that had been sitting out for hours. This, apparently, was the Lufthansa Stranded Passenger Special that my voucher covered.
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Cooking TM_CK_SMMRSLO_AP_001

I’ve never been much of a summer girl. I like going to the beach, wearing flip flops, and the smell of sunscreen, but the heat always gets me (plus, growing up in New England, I’m a sucker for fall). As a home cook, I’m torn when it comes to summer cooking. The season is bursting with fresh, readily available ingredients, but trying to cook a feast indoors in the midst of the summer heat is dreadful — not to mention wanting to spend time outside in the beautiful weather instead of stuck in my kitchen. And ever since a traumatic barbecue incident which ended with my father having to hose down the grill (shrimp and asparagus included), my outlets for summer cooking are limited. That’s why I turn to one of my most trusted kitchen tools when the summer heat blazes: my slow cooker.

Yes, the appliance you might think is only good for pot roasts or hearty cold-weather stews is a lifesaver during the summer. Tucked away in the corner of my kitchen counter, it cooks for hours on its own without me having to hover over a burning flame or open a hot oven. It also keeps me safely away from the grill and allows me the freedom to enjoy the sunshine without having to be tied to my kitchen.
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Letter From California TM_LC_WCBURG_FI_001

Every few months, I read a headline like this:

THERE IS A NEW BEST BURGER IN LOS ANGELES BEING MADE BY A CHEF WHO HAS A BURGER COUNTER INSIDE A ROSEMARY BUSH SO THE BURGER IS INFUSED WITH ROSEMARY!!!!! EAT IT NOW!!!!!

We’re all savvy enough to understand that no matter how many “best burger” articles and lists and listicles are released, there is no real “best burger,” right? There is no best burger in America, there is no best burger in California, and there is no best burger in the city I live in, Los Angeles. Articles like this are 50% useful (they do point to tasty burgers), and 50% brain candy, riling up the internet audience to agree, or disagree, or sigh and close that browser tab.
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Cooking School TM_CS_SIMMER_FI_001

If you ask James Feustel and Jonathan Deutsch, the way we learn to cook is all wrong. Faculty and students at the Drexel University Center for Hospitality and Sport Management have embarked on a project to create a new type of culinary text. Rather than teaching classic French recipes, the book teaches proper cooking by method, and then applies the learned method to a variety of dishes from around the world. Each installment will bring a new technique to master, and new recipes to enjoy and perfect. Welcome to Cooking School.

We all have that relative or friend who, after presenting yet another flawless dish, claims to have no idea how to cook. “I just followed the recipe,” they’ll say, as we devour their jams, macarons, or pickles. When you learn cooking by recipe, you risk becoming a step-following technician. First do this, then do that and voila! We think there’s a better way. By starting with culinary techniques – digging into what’s really happening when you braise or sear – you can develop a deep understanding of how to cook. Once you understand that, you can get to what to cook (with or without a recipe) later.

We begin with what is arguably the simplest of methods. Simmering requires only a pot, heat, some liquid, and some food, but is too often done poorly by cooks watching the clock rather than the food.
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Ingredient TM_IN_CHOCDIN_FI_001

Who says you can’t have chocolate for dinner? I don’t mean devouring half a dozen Twix bars and counting it as a meal. Polishing off an entire carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream by yourself doesn’t count either. I’m talking about using chocolate as an element in a savory dish. Yes, chocolate playing the role of something besides sweet.

When we think about chocolate, we almost always think of desserts. But chocolate, in its raw form, is anything but sweet. And utilizing it as a savory ingredient is anything but new. Over 2,000 years ago, before it was ever combined with sugar to make the confection we’re most familiar with today, the Aztecs and Mayans consumed chocolate in the form of a thick, bitter drink. Cacao beans were fermented, roasted, and then mixed with water and spices to make xocoatl, from which chocolate originally got its name. Chocolate has been, and can be, more than just a candy or dessert.

Incorporating chocolate into your dinner meal isn’t as challenging as you’d imagine. Plenty of savory foods have a natural affinity for cocoa-based flavors. Consider the classic pairing of chocolate with spices and chilies in a Mexican mole sauce. Or take gamey meats like lamb and venison, which marry well with cocoa-driven richness. Often times, the bitter notes in dark chocolate work to highlight hidden flavors and assert depth in a dish that was otherwise missing it.
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Ingredient TM_IN_CHILE_FI_001

Halfway into my first real Midwestern winter, it’s taking some creativity to figure out how to do warm, comforting meals night after night without everything tasting too rich, hefty and well, boring. There are only so many soups I can blend without craving something chunky and textured, and don’t ask me to make yet another delicious but depressingly dull roast.

Enter the dried chile pepper. Most commonly known for their starring roles in salsas and sauces, dried chiles are a great way to bring heat, complexity and warmth to any dish, without the weight of roasted veggies and thick stews.

Living and cooking in Texas for the past eight years, I generally took the nuances of many varieties of chile pepper for granted. Since moving up north, I’ve noticed that many menus in the Midwest tend to lump all kinds of dried peppers into one generic “chile pepper” category. Yet each kind of pepper has a unique personality, and once you become adept at incorporating them into your meals at home, it’s easy to appreciate the subtle nuances between the guajillo, pasilla, chipotle or ancho.
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Ingredient TM_IN_KOREAN_FI_003

“Westernizing a cuisine isn’t all that challenging,” said Jonathon Deutsch, program director of Drexel University’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management. “You take an ingredient, add a new sauce, and make it your own dish.”

That may be true in theory, but after decades of Asian fusion experiments and attempted innovations, the list of success stories when East meets West is a relatively short one. Asian fusion, after all, is a wide umbrella that includes items such as Cheesecake Factory’s SkinnyLicious® Asian Chicken Salad, California Pizza Kitchen’s Thai Chicken pizza, and Buffalo Wild Wings’ Asian Zing® wings.

Still, nothing seems to extinguish the burning desire of the American chef to bring Asian flavors into mainstream Western dishes. Which is why I recently found myself in a kitchen with a bunch of Drexel culinary students and their professor Mike Traud as they prepared their final projects for the term’s Korean Cuisine class. The assignment was one we all imagine lies behind Subway’s Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Sandwich: Create a take on a classic Western dish using Korean ingredients. MORE

Forgotten Foods TM_FF_INVALID_FI_003

I can’t figure out where to get a lump of coal in September. In Los Angeles. In 2013. Not activated charcoal, which is sometimes used by present-day hospitals to help suck up ingested poison. But a plain ol’ lump of dirty coal, like you would use in the 1800s to fuel your stove and give your home that lovely soot smell. This is a problem, because according to a woman with too many names — Lady Mary Anne Boode Cust – in her 1853 title The Invalid’s Own Book, boiling a walnut-sized lump of coal in an pint of milk until it gets thick is “a very nutrative* food, and easily obtained.”

Well, at least for me, that second part is a lie. And sweet jeebus – coal milk? As if it didn’t already suck to get sick in the 1800s and early 1900s. MORE

Bookshelf

East Meets South

Korea meets Kentucky in Edward Lee's Smoke and Pickles

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One of the things I’ve learned over my long career as a cookbook appreciator (I started buying cookbooks with my allowance when I was eleven) is that some cookbooks feature terrific stories and lousy recipes. Others offer the reverse. They are bursting with highly usable, carefully written recipes, but offer very little in the way of personality and humanity.

It’s a rare cookbook that manages to walk the line between good storytelling and an accessible recipe collection that truly works. Smoke & Pickles, a recently released volume by former Top Chef “cheftestant” Edward Lee, straddles that line with ease. MORE

Bookshelf

Every Grain of Rice

Simple, healthy Chinese cooking that's better than (and almost as easy as) takeout

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My grandma Bunny had a rule about dining out. She believed that if you were going to eat at a restaurant, you had to choose one that served food that you weren’t able to make at home. In Bunny’s case, that meant that she passed on the Italian and American joints in her neighborhood and opted instead for Mexican, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

This always seemed to be me to be sound advice and so, throughout my adulthood, I’ve always made a point to seek out restaurants serving food that was outside my own skills as a cook.

I’ve always found Chinese food to be a particularly mysterious cuisine to cook at home, with all the different sauces, spices, and fermented condiments. So in the past, when I’ve had a craving for flavorful beef with tender crisp broccoli, or cold, spicy noodles, I reached for the takeout menu. MORE