Take Back the Basics: Intro

Depending on where you are, it’s that time of year again when people are either back in school or preparing to go back, usually by going on one last summer vacation and/or going “back to school” shopping. After a long vacation here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” I’d like to announce that the blog is back again – or will be on September 2nd, when I start my “Take Back the Basics” series.

“Take Back the Basics” is my take on the Cooking 101 course. I haven’t done much of it (it’s been sprinkled here and there, usually under some culinary history/trivia), and, since this is the time of year when high schoolers and college kids move on to the real world, I figure, “Hey, why don’t you make it a semi-regular segment?”

So this is where I am: every Tuesday (or depending on whether outside obligations don’t distract me), I’ll be teaching you the basics of cooking, from learning what kind of kitchen supplies and ingredients you need to how to make your own sauces to learning proper nutrition. Think of it as the culinary arts/home economics (or “home and life skills,” if you want to be politically correct. I know some schools do refer to the home ec class as such, but that could be hearsay) class you wish you had: one where the teacher doesn’t bore you, the lesson plan is up-to-date, you learn a lot because it has a goodly amount of visuals (both in pictures and the way I write), and, most importantly, I allow critical thinking and asking questions in case I misinform you or omit something that’s vital.

So, enjoy your last week of summer (and Labor Day), and I’ll see you in class on September 2nd!

–Canais “PhillyFoodie85” Young

Happy Holidays To All My Readers

I think the title says it all. The next blog post won’t come until next week, since it’s going to be New Years’ and what better way to start the new year than with a new blog post?

I also got an early Christmas present on Monday when I got an acceptance email to Philadelphia’s COOK Masters program for cooks (and now food writers) who have the drive and culinary skills, but need more experience and professional connections. Here’s a look at what the program is like: http://vimeo.com/61282616

I start the program on January 13th.

In the mean time, enjoy these photos of the food I made when I was at Job Corps:

Breast Cancer Remission Celebration Cake with Coffee Frosting Foreclosed Gingerbread House 1 Foreclosed Gingerbread House 2 Shrimp and Lime Pate en Croute Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter Stuffed Mussels and Polenta

Happy holidays and happy 2014!

Operation Thanksgiving 3: More Turkey Troubles (or Me Against The Kitchen)

Welcome to part three of “Operation: Thanksgiving,” your guide and my spin on that holiday that will pack your digestive tract tighter than the overhead luggage on an over-booked flight home. Last time around, I got into some cultural history about the holiday and how the goofy-looking turkey went from being domesticated by ancient peoples to carved by modern man (or woman) for an autumn holiday sandwiched between the garish, sugar rush of Halloween and the cold, yet heartwarming lull of Christmas (or Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish, Ramadan, if you’re Muslim, or no holiday if you’re Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or you’ve long given up on holiday cheer and want everyone else to know it).

Today, we’re going after the popular dishes of Thanksgiving, specifically, some subsitutes, new spins, and the right way to cook dishes you can’t do without…which means, “Yes, we will discuss how to make that turkey come out a little less dry so your critical relatives can get off your damn back,” which is the subject of today’s post.

Now, cooking for large crowds (what’s known in the foodservice biz as “high-volume service,” whether you’re serving the cream of the social crop at a fine-dining restaurant or serving the unfortunate souls who have to make due with soup from a homeless shelter. I’ve done both) isn’t for the weak or slow. You have to be on your game and make sure everything is prepared in time. You have to know how to do your stuff and do it well under pressure (again, a lesson learned from my Job Corps days). It also helps that you have others around you who can work as a team and also know what they’re doing. If you feel you can’t handle this, then don’t read and wait until the next entry. If, however, you are a seasoned Thanksgiving kitchen veteran or feel that you can handle it, then read on.

I’d like to thank the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, the writers of all those recipe books I poured through, and my Basic and Advanced Culinary Arts instructors who taught me well, as all my tips will be from these sources and it’s only fair to give them credit.

First up, the turkey:

This isn’t like the roast chicken you can make for Sunday dinner and use the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches and feeding the outside cats (and the indoor ones) who won’t leave you alone, despite that you’re out of dry and wet cat food. A lot of care goes into making a turkey the best anyone’s ever tasted, regardless of whether you’re serving to a large family or just you (or you and someone you love).

If you know me at all, then you’ll know that one of my major pet peeves is a dry turkey. Everything else on the Thanksgiving menu can be five-star, but if the turkey is dry, then that’s a major flaw to me. Part of the reason is because I have that need for everything to be right. Then there’s the fact that I want to show others that the two years of learning culinary arts at Job Corps weren’t a waste, even if I never get a job in that field (I can show my support for farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture, local growers, fair trade, and talented people who want to go to school to be five-star chefs, but don’t have the money or don’t know what to do to reach that goal, though), and the fact that I always get the hiccups whenever I eat dry turkey.

So, if this is your first time roasting turkey and you’ve been racking your brain on how to make that turkey moist, stop racking and start taking notes.

Let’s start off with why your turkey would end up dry. The most common reasons are either: (a) you overcooked the bird, or (b) you made a mistake in how it was prepared or while it was roasting in the oven.

You may have heard from cooking shows or dear old ma (or grandma) that a pat of butter under the skin or rinsing it is the key to juicy turkey. Well, you can tell dear old ma (or grandma) not to bother with her technique (no matter how many generations it’s been passed down), because you have some new tricks up your sleeve:

First, you need the right equipment:

a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.

This one has been with my family for years. We don’t have an inside-the-pan rack for it, but the turkey still comes out okay. The ones with the rack inside like this one…
…are good if you’re planning on turning the pan drippings into homemade gravy (which is simply your pan drippings, plus a flour/oil mix called a roux and some whipping cream if you want it smoother or have to stretch it).
Which leads me to my next secret to juicy turkey: your mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah,” named for a French field marshal and Louis XV’s ambassador, Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix). “Mirepoix” is just a fancy name for the aromatic vegetables cooks chop up to flavor soups, stews, sauces, and roasted meats. It goes by various names, such as “sofrito” in Spanish, “refogado” in Portuguese, “Suppengrün” in German, “the holy trinity” in Creole and Cajun cooking, or “włoszczyzna” in Polish. A common mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onions for every one part of celery and one part of carrots (though you can also add or substitute for other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, parsnips, celeriac, bell peppers, garlic, or tomatoes). What you want to do is chop your aromatic veggies into medium to large chunks (depending on how big the turkey is) and spread the chunks out on the bottom of the pan, creating a flat surface.
But the mirepoix can’t make the turkey juicy alone. You need to season the bird all over — including the inside cavity. Salt and pepper are your go-to guys, but you can use any seasoning you want. Most of the time, I’m a kitchen-sink seasoner when it comes to roasting poultry  (meaning, “I use everything but the kitchen sink”), but you (and I) have a special blend when it comes to turkey. A nice dry rub I like to use for poultry is salt, pepper, a whisper of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, some garlic (whether fresh and crushed or dry and powdered), some white pepper, and either basil or Italian seasoning.The spice rack (or spice section of your pantry) is your oyster; use it to your advantage. Do taste tests if you must to come up with a winning combination
It also helps if you stick an apple (Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are good. Save your Red Delicious for apple juice, apple sauce, or good, old-fashioned, out of hand eating) in the neck cavity. It keeps it juicy and imparts a fresh, fall flavor to it when combined with the cinnamon inside the bird. Or, you could do what I did four years ago and fill the cavity with dried cherries and fresh orange slices. It surprisingly came out good, but it imparted a very sweet taste to it that even I couldn’t handle.

Stuffing the bird also keeps it moist, but only if it’s a moist stuffing (read: it has broth/stock in it).
And last, but not least, some “dos” and “don’ts” for roasting your turkey:
  • Don’t truss the turkey. Trussing is when you tie the legs and wings of poultry together to keep its shape and cook evenly without drying out any of the extremities. You might be asking, “But Philly Foodie, how can you tell me not to do this if the goal is to have a turkey that’s not dry?” Well, in this case, trussing is a bad thing. The legs and wings are dark meat (which is from the active muscles of a bird) and dark meat doesn’t dry out quickly like white meat does. The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done. And if any of this sounds like sexual innuendo, I do NOT apologize, because it’s your mind that’s face-down in the gutter.
  • As much as TV, magazines, and your fellow home cooks make it seem glamorous and will pressure you into doing it, just say “No” to basting as your turkey roasts in the oven. The meat is covered by the skin and won’t absorb the juices, so why bother? Also, you will lose valuable heat by opening and closing the oven door a lot. Here’s how you combat this: For the first 20 minutes, roast the bird at a really high heat (450 degrees).  This will allow the skin to brown on the outside and lock in the juices. After 20 minutes, reset the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and turn the turkey upside down so the breast is on the bottom. Add ¼ cup of low sodium chicken stock seasoned with black pepper. This will act as a basting mechanism for the turkey. Since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it breast side down exposes it to less direct heat.
  • The phrase “Stick a fork [or knife] in it. It’s done” actually does more harm than good for Tom Turkey, so don’t do it. Why? You lose valuable turkey juice that way.  Some folks like to use the pop up meat thermometers which are fine when they work while others use the leg check technique (read: if the leg when you wiggle it is very easy to move and the skin breaks the bird is done).  You can also use the “20 minutes per pound” rule for a no stuffing bird or the “25 minutes per pound” rule for a stuffed one, but if you’re not good with math, then stick with the other two methods.
  • Do remember is that once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit whether or not it’s stuffed), remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to sit 20 minutes to keep the meat moist. If you carve the meat immediately, all the juices will run out and your goal to make a moist turkey will have been a fool’s errand.

In the next post, we’ll go through the side dishes, sauces, and biscuits. See you then, and happy eating!

Operation Thanksgiving

Dear Reader,

In less than two weeks, I’ll be drafted. Not to fight for my country, but to help my mother cook Thanksgiving dinner.

I come from a family where, despite being on the lower-middle class rung on the American social ladder, we always put out a decent spread — not just for Thanksgiving, but also for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. While searching for steady work outside the home, I became a kitchen guru for my mother (who, if she was in a culinary education institute, would be commended for her hands-on work instead of her classroom knowledge. For me, it would be the other way around, though my hands-on work is pretty good…just, not good enough for a professional kitchen. That’s why I want to either teach others about cooking — whether it’s being some cooking teacher’s assistant or having my own video series online), informing her of the tips and tricks I learned in Kentucky and California (mostly California), introducing her to new foods (particularly fruits she would never eat, like figs, star fruits, lychees, and passion fruit), and answering (to the best of my ability) any and all queries about cooking time, flavor combinations, and how to make the most out of meals without going over budget. Now, last year, I wasn’t as instrumental to the Thanksgiving planning as I could have been (why? I forget. I can assume it was because my mom didn’t need my help), but this year, it’s different.

From now until Thanksgiving Day, I will be chronicling my thoughts on Thanksgiving (both historically and through the eyes of a food blogger), the typical dishes served, and what’s changed throughout the years.

Sincerely,

PhillyFoodie85 (Canais Young)

Friday Video: Chef Valdet’s Meat Lesson

I learned more about foodservice and the restaurant industry at my advanced center in California more than I did at my basic center in Kentucky.

On one slow afternoon, my fine dining class was invited to a lecture on beef and beef cuts given by Chef Valdet Jakubovic (everyone called him “Chef Valdet” because…well “Valdet” sounds more like a last name than “Jakubovic” does, even though “Jakubovic” is a Russian last name). This is the footage I caught on my camera phone. Forgive the crappy sound.

The First Post

My two years spent outside of Pennsylvania learning culinary arts at two Job Corps centers (and getting my driver’s license, strengthening my communication skills with people, and trying to be a more well-rounded person with a wider circle of friends, but mostly it was learning culinary arts and everything it entails — sanitation, teamwork, knife skills, etc) has left me wanting homemade meals and “from scratch” versions of foods that I could easily get at any restaurant, supermarket, or convenience store. While most will argue it’s because of health reasons and how pre-made stuff comes loaded with artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup and other things that are contributing to the obesity epidemic in this country, my reason for wanting to cook things from scratch is simply because it tastes better. Sure, I’ll enjoy the occasional take-out or freezer appetizer, but these days, it’s more out of obligation to my family rather than laziness. I don’t want to live that way anymore — and neither should you.

That’s why I named this blog, Take Back the Kitchen. Because you — my reading audience — and I — the writer — want to rebel against the iron grip that fast and frozen convenience foods have had on our shelves, pantries, and refrigerators. You want to know what you’re eating, whether you want to eat healthy for life or turn your home menu around and give yourself and/or your roommates/family something good to eat that doesn’t require you uttering the words, “Hello, do you deliver?” or “Yes, I would like fries with that.”

Now, I don’t expect you to change your eating habits overnight. Don’t firebomb a ShopRite just because I spent time in San Francisco with the granola crowd at the bayside farmer’s market and am telling you that organic, grass-fed beef beats the cornfed, hormone-pumped stuff any day of the week. I don’t want to hear that I inspired a jihad against people who prefer McDonalds over Trader Joe’s. This blog isn’t about that. It’s more about being more mindful about what you put in your body. As someone who has worked in a kitchen setting both on and off the Job Corps Center campuses, I’ll be there to not only give you good recipes, but also helpful tips and tricks of the kitchen so, with a little practice and ingenuity, you won’t have to use convenience food as a last resort (unless you really, really screw up — and, don’t worry, it happens to the best of us).