Chef David Talks CHEESE!

Dear Cooking Comrades,

Cheese courses are always terrific (it gives you an easy course to put forward with minimal prep).

The Europeans always have cheese as the final course:  dessert course, cheese course, then coffee.Americans always want:  cheese, then finally dessert with coffee.  For my money, how can you eat pie or cake without a cup of JOE???  But when we’re in Paris we do it their way!

Typically, cheese tastings go from the most mild to the strongest, around the plate or cheese board, like the face of a clock.  We always serve at least 3 to 4 selections.  We try to vary the taste and texture of the selections:  Serve a soft creamy type (like a brie, or our homemade mozzarella); a mainstream cheddar (for those that like a familiar favorite); a hard/aged cheese (like a Parmesian Reggiano); and a blue cheese (Stilton, Danish blue, Maytag).


We never serve only strong-flavored cheeses (the ones that are indelicately referred to as “stinky feet cheeses”), but vary the flavor profile for a more satisfying and interesting tasting experience (unless you know your entire crowd LOVES stinky cheeses).


Looking for a variety of color in your selections is also visually more interesting.  A Sage Derby has green veining, an traditional orange cheddar, a highly veined blue cheese, etc. all provide varied eye appeal on the cheeseboard or plate.


Often we’ll also mix in a chevre (goat cheese), or a sheep’s cheese for the tang and variety (roll a log of chevre in fresh chopped herbs from the garden).  Offering a smoked cheese can also add variety to your selection.


Sometimes it’s fun to feature local cheeses that are new to your guests and allow them to sample something unique to your area.  Or feature all regional cheeses to go with a menu theme, like all Southern Italian, all Provencal, all Nappa Valley.  For the record, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, or Kraft Singles don’t go on a cheeseboard!


To shake things up, we will create a little cheese dish, like a baked cheese puff with olive, a petite cheese ball, a tiny cheesy biscuit, stuff dates with a soft herbal cheese, or make a savory cheese panna cotta (a recipe I created for the American Dairy Association) to go with some of the sliced cheeses.


Other Components:

  • Fruit, or dried fruit (bunches or grapes, sliced pears, or dried apricots or cranberries)

  • Nuts like walnuts, almonds, or pecans

  • Olives are great with the cheeses

  • Pickles, or cornichon are also great

  • Sometimes jams — like fig jam, tomato jam, etc. are fun to put in a little tub or crock on a cheese board with a spreading knife

  • Plus small crostini, homemade crackers, or a flat bread, typically accompany these. Usually folks are getting full by the time the cheese comes around, so we try not to serve too much bread, or make the cheese course carb-heavy at that point of the meal.  Light crackers or breads are best.

  • We typically garnish the plates or cheese boards with flowers or rose petals for color

  • Port Wine served in small glasses with the cheese course is heavenly.  Although some folks prefer Claret, or Champagne/bubbly with cheeses.

We either make up individual portioned plates for each guest, or we will take a large wooden cutting board and use that for cheeses and put it in the middle of the table, or pass it around.  Sometimes I will have a small stack of plates and bring the cheeseboard to the table and then I portion each plate based on the guests’ preferences (“no blue cheese” “lots of brie”).  This customizes each plate, and it avoids having to pass a heavy, cumbersome cheeseboard.

 

Typically, a portion of each cheese is about 1 to 2 ounces (that’s about a small 1 1/2- to 2-inch square of each selection).  Also, a couple of 12″ by 12″ marble or granite tiles from Home Depot or Lowes are cheap and make great cheese boards (beware they do crack and break if dropped, and you must hand-wash them, but they are pretty cheap to replace and look beautiful on the table).  For a long table with many guests, we may do two or three cheeseboards for the table, so that the boards are within easy reach of each guest.


The traditional way to serve cheeses is at a cool room temperature.  If cheeses become too warm they can melt or they will start to “sweat” or leach droplets of fat on the slices and it’s not very appetizing.  But the cheeses shouldn’t be served cold.


Technically the experts tell you that you are supposed to have a different knife for each type of cheese.  And make certain they are knives that are up to the job.  Don’t use a dinner knife for heavy, dense, aged cheeses!


For cheeseboards, we typically cut half the wedge of cheese up into slices for the convenience of the guests and put the remainder of the wedge on the board.  If it is a cheese known for its unique rind, such as the chevron zig-zag pattern of a Manchego, or the pinpoint writing on the Parmesan Reggiano, we make sure the rind is on the wedges, with enough of the rind stripped back for clean slices, but enough rind left to show the pedigree of the cheese.


We always include a few forks on the cheese board to easily pick up slices of cheese.  For crumbly cheese like blue cheese, we will crumble up a pile of the cheese in front of the wedge for easy portions.


So for your next fancy dinner, blow your guests away by adding a cheese course, it doesn’t take a lot of effort and it seem so civilized to savor some wonderful cheese and fruit at the end of a wonderful meal.


Yours,

Chef David

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Chef David Guest Blogs for Noted Journalist, Lee Woodruff

Chef David recently wrote a guest blog for noted journalist and author, Lee Woodruff, sharing his story of the intensive culinary program that he created for vets and active soldiers based upon the Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes!) series.

Woodruff and her husband, television journalist Bob Woodruff, have a keen interest in helping returning vets as Bob was seriously injured by an IED while covering the Iraq War.

They are the founders of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, whose mission is to ensure our nation’s injured service members, veterans and their families return to a homefront ready to support them.

To read all of Chef David’s blog and see photos from the inaugural culinary training program, click here or paste this into your browser:

http://www.leewoodruff.com/food-for-thought2/

 

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Why Do We Cook?

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Why do you cook?  What drives you to prepare delicious food?

They say you either become a chef to feed yourself, or you become a chef to feed others.  I think my motivation as a cook is a little bit of both.  I love to eat, but I also love to cook for folks.  In fact, I’d honestly rather be behind the scenes preparing a meal than actually sitting at the table eating it.

In the kitchen powering the proceedings, I feel like the unseen motor humming under the hood of a car and making everything move, taking everyone to their final destination of dessert, coffee, and great conversation.  I love an evening that ends with walking guests (with full stomachs) to their cars and standing in the driveway waving goodbye to them.

About a minute-and-a-half after we start to cook on a regular basis, we start to ask ourselves why we cook.  Thought comes in, self-examination begins, and we turn to introspective staring at our belly-buttons to figure out what ties us to food and our desire to prepare it.  We’re looking for an answer beyond just cooking to survive.

Why do you cook?  Did it start out of necessity to feed yourself or your family?  What is the gravitational pull that keeps bringing you back into the kitchen?  What makes you carefully purchase items, or grow special ingredients, or spend time at a farm stand?  What motivates you to take those building blocks back home and turn them into a creative and memorable meal?

Certainly in my instance I wasn’t a born cook.  Not by a long shot.  I grew into being a cook.  Sometimes I was praised for something I cooked and realized I might have a knack, an aptitude, an ability to prepare food.  In between the praise, I ate a lot of mistakes!  Often I was the brunt of jokes born from some culinary fiasco.  For me, every time I failed in the kitchen I kept returning to try to correct the failure – attempting to make the recipe better – becoming more efficient and savvy in the kitchen.  I wanted to take charge.  The kitchen was mine!  And frankly, no one was fighting me for it.

For me, embracing cooking helped me fight loneliness and eased me through a really tough time in my life.  The act of cooking continues to help me negotiate rough patches in life.  It gives me a productive activity that allows me to think things through.  I am so grateful at my core to be able to cook.  Why do you cook?

Yours,

Chef David

 

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If This Floor Could Talk…

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

I was looking at the old wooden floor of our kitchen the other day.   We had guests coming over and I was cleaning up for company.  You know the old adage, “If you want a clean house, throw a party.”

The kitchen floor looked so worn, grooved, scratched, even discolored in spots.  And for a crazy minute I felt ashamed.  I thought how awful to have these old, tired floorboards.  Although the floor is over 100 years old, we had it sanded and refinished not even 10 years ago; it was beautiful.  What happened?  I was suddenly deeply embarrassed.

I started to think of how the floor got so beat up in the last decade: The seasons of snow and ice; mud and puddles; fresh-cut grass sticking to my shoes; and tracking in Autumn leaves.  The endless parade of work boots, kitchen clogs, dress shoes, stocking feet and bare feet all assaulting the floor every day.  It has endured endless moppings.

I began to recall all the cooking and baking that went on; the parties where everyone gathered in the kitchen; the daily pets and paws; family and kids running through; the hundreds of weddings we catered and hosted with brides standing in the kitchen, waiting to walk the garden path to their future husbands.  And how about taping an entire DVD cooking series with cameras, lights and crew shoehorned in the kitchen for months – that couldn’t have helped that poor floor.

With a dawning epiphany, I said out loud, “What good is it to have a big, old kitchen if you don’t use it?”

I’ve begun to accept that our kitchen floor won’t be featured in a design or architectural magazine.  It may not be the envy of anyone anywhere.  But we’ve used it.  We’ve shared it.  We’ve enjoyed it.  It still holds us up.  Our kitchen is not a museum, it’s not a status symbol, it’s a kitchen – and we’ve made the most of it.  The pride is in the food that is created here.  If this floor could talk. . . .

The kitchen floor reflects the footsteps of our lives.

Chef David

 

 

 

 

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Aunt Bea has Up and Gone

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

I’m nosey, so I always ask folks how they learned how to cook.

The answer used to be “mom,” “grandma” or “I grilled with my dad.”  Now more often than not the answer is, “I don’t cook,” or more heartbreaking, “I can’t cook.”  I find that so sad, because I know the sheer happiness of the kitchen.

Mom is working and trying to keep it all together.  Grandma is on rollerblades with her boyfriend Spike.  Aunt Bea is no longer in the kitchen.  In fact Aunt Bea has up and gone.  The kitchen represents panic or drudgery, instead of joy and creativity.  Home-and-hearth has become a drive-thru window.

We realized in creating “Learn How to Cook (and eat your mistakes)!”, that the traditional ways folks used to learn how to cook are going the way of the printed book and the dinosaur (or is that Dinah Shore?).  The great chefs of Europe learned to cook through the apprentice system – that means while they worked their way up through the ranks of the professional kitchen they observed and were shown things; someone taught them by example.  That’s what I love about showing folks how to cook via video; it’s the same premise.

Thank heaven for “digital learning” – you can learn when and where you want:  At night when the kids are in bed; on the weekends when you can be a weekend kitchen warrior; during a blessed quiet day.  That’s what I think is so fantastic about DVDs and streaming content.

And what’s more, you can’t really unlearn what you’ve learned (although luckily the videos do provide a refresher – over and over again – if you sometimes forget details like I do).  Here’s a way to regain the legacy of cooking to pass on to your kids and fill in that synapse of not learning to cook from a parent or grandparent.  And you can’t really forget how to cook, it’s like riding a bike:  balance; timing; learned instinct.  The more miles on the tires the more confident you become.

I think all of us can always learn something new in the kitchen.  I am always studying and trying new things.  The minute I think I know it all, I miss out on what’s next.  I guess I have a lot of miles on my tires!  But there’s always someplace new to go.

Yours,

Chef  David

 

Photo – CBS Paramount Television
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Goodnight, Irene!

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

Hurricane Irene visited – well, I guess you’d have to say she’s was a tropical storm by the time she reached upstate New York.

It rained.  It really rained.  For hours.  I felt like Noah.  I was ready to build an ark and collect two of every kind.  The creek ran like a river; we saw bales of hay from the farm next door being swept away by the creek that roared.

During the storm, I went out and checked the basil in the garden – it was getting battered, so I decided pesto was in my plans.  I also picked all the apples I could get to before they went to mush.  Applesauce is also in my plans.

Irene was even a meaner gal to other parts of the eastern seaboard.

Isn’t it funny how a storm stops your busyness, cancels your immediate plans, makes you focus on things that are most important:  Food, water, shelter, your kids, your pets, your family – and hoping the well pump doesn’t go out so you can wash the stink off of you, and perhaps flush your toilets.  Normally, I forget the true grace in a hot shower or flushing the john.  You know, real jet-set glamour stuff!

A good storm reminds us that there’s something bigger than celebrity weddings, political feuds, or reality TV with folks behaving badly; there’s something bigger than ourselves.

All of you that planned ahead, heeded warnings, were smart and resourceful and weathered the storm, I’m so proud of you.  And thanks to all the folks that helped someone out during the storm.  People helping each other – it’s built into most of us.  In a storm, no one cares how much money you have in the bank, where you go to church (or if you don’t), who you voted for, what your clothes look like, or what school your kids attend – it’s just about getting a fallen branch off the road, a car out of the ditch, a scared and wet dog back home, or sharing your jug of water with a neighbor.  A storm gives us examples of the best that people have to offer each other.  And when I was mopping up the water in the basement, a sense of humor helped, too!

The next day after the storm passed, I went out to photograph the creek and some of the destruction.  Trees were uprooted, big swathes of land cut out and missing because of all the water – I’ve heard folks call it “the water taking the land back.”  Other than some damage, the creek was beautiful again – not nearly as angry as it was.  As I got out the wheelbarrow to start cleaning up, it was so green and gorgeous and the perfect temperature.  One of those days that you say, “I wish the weather was always like this day.”  Irene was gone, but we were here.  Goodnight, Irene!

Yours,

Chef  David

 

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The Summer of My Discontent: Survive or Prevail?

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

I’ll be honest with you – without turning this into a weepy confessional, or over-sharing (we have Reality TV and daytime talk shows for that), it’s official:  I have the summertime blues.

You know the song, “There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”?  I’ve been living it.  And I’m usually a really upbeat person, or I work hard to be.  So it stinks like rotten fish.  Did my sense of humor disappear in a heat wave?  Exactly how do I find my way back to hunky-dory?  Maybe you know the feeling.

And then I look out the window and see the apples in the trees.  They’re small and green, but they keep growing.  They still plan on turning red, coming into full sweetness and nourishing someone.  They grow because they must.  Could they get bugs or worms, get hit with a hail storm, or suffer an early frost?  It’s possible.  But those apples still grow, and ripen, miraculously without worry.  They somehow know that it takes time and toil to come to fruition.

So like Sir Isaac Newton, who had to have an apple bean him on the noggin’ to figure out gravity, the apple has taught me hope.  Bingo!  That’s the cure for the summertime blues:  Hope.

Here’s the thing of it, by stopping to consider an apple tree, we gain the perspective to prevail, not just survive.  Surviving is getting something to eat on the table with little effort, scarfing it down with little awareness and enjoying it very little.  Think of the heartless ping of the microwave.  Prevailing is cooking with inspiration and savoring it.  It can be simple and quick, but simple can be thoughtful and delicious.  Maybe sitting at the dinner table awhile longer and taking a breath.  Reading one more page of a book we’re enjoying.  Taking a second to call a friend.  Counting fireflies.  Allowing time and space to propagate hope.

Setbacks take time to register and get used to before we can move forward again.  Discouragement has to settle before we can step over it.  At times hope seems impossible, yet like an apple hanging from a tiny stem we can hang on, too.  If I can argue with another old song, God did make little green apples.  It gets better.  Hope – like the long days of summer –  becomes more.  It’s an 8 pm sunset.  It’s a ripening apple.  It’s something bigger than our current circumstances.

If you find yourself with the summertime blues, shatter your routine of just surviving and prevail with the hope and the astonishing miracle of a growing, ripening apple.

Yours,

Chef  David

 

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Taste as You Go

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

What’s the difference between a chef and a home cook?   Chef’s taste as they cook; building flavor a little at a time.  A few herbs, a little salt & pepper to start, then subtly adding and growing flavor as they go.

I always keep a little red bucket of tasting spoons on the kitchen counter to taste and taste again (no, I don’t double-dip a dirty spoon!).  I suggest putting out some spoons in a holder – mine are an embarrassing mish-mosh of miss-matched spoons.  Keep them out and handy; within grabbing distance.  Use them to monitor what you’re cooking and to taste throughout the cooking process so you know where you’re headed in terms of flavor.

Remember, you can always add more seasoning, but it is virtually impossible to remove it.  Eureka!  That means gently enhancing the taste, allowing for flavors to cook down and concentrate, leaving room to add more seasoning at the very finish of the dish just before serving.  Just enough seasoning to boost, but not overpower your ingredients, that’s when you have the control and discipline of a chef!

When you taste, ask yourself what the dish is missing, what does it need?  Is there more of a certain ingredient you need?  Or do you want to introduce a new ingredient to balance the flavors so they’re just right?  The question, “What does this need?” cuts to the core of finishing a dish to your satisfaction.  Sometimes the answer is that the dish doesn’t need a thing – then it’s time to STOP while you’re ahead.

And how about tasting for texture?  No one really likes mushy pasta – unless you’re 3 years old and like it from a can!  Most of us tend to like a little firmness to our pasta – al dente, or “to the tooth.”  How can we tell if the pasta is cooked, but has that partially firm bite, unless we taste it?  Vegetables are a perfect example of something we should also taste for perfect texture (do we like crispy veggies, or do we want them more tender?)  So don’t forget to check textures when you taste.

Sure we taste for flavor and texture, but we also taste for doneness.  Tasting is a great way of discovering whether something is cooked to the level of doneness we want.

Be aware of the phenomenon that some cooks encounter when they taste as they cook, they don’t have as much of an appetite for the finished food when it hits the table.  In fact, after cooking a banquet for 150 guests, I can barely bring myself to eat the food!  It’s the cook’s curse.  Although, I find that I enjoy the leftovers the next day, when I’ve had a break from the food I’ve been making.  Sometimes I’m just too close to it.

A great novel is built writing words a little at a time, a great dish is built using ingredients and seasonings a little at a time – to ultimately culminate in a cooking triumph!

Taste, taste, taste!

Yours,

Chef  David

 

 

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There’s more than one way to dance a Tango

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

There’s an expression, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”  A cliché essentially meaning that there has to be a leader in the kitchen – a visionary; a final arbiter on any task.  I guess that’s why there are executive chefs.

Yes, when cooking with someone else in the kitchen, there can be power struggles over the salt shaker, or the best way to cut an onion.  I have some wonderful friends that I love, who are control freaks in the kitchen (kind of like me).  There is no give, or exchange, or flexibility when cooking together.  So we don’t.

I have other friends that when we cook together we have a shared vision for a fantastic meal.  We work together to accomplish the meal as a whole and it is an incredible experience right down to the eating and even doing the dishes together.  I know some couples and family members who happily cook together in concert with the beauty of a choreographed dance; everyone with a task and a goal.

Food police, picky kids, grumpy spouses, a mean mother-in-law, or well-meaning, but bossy friends can all question us and discourage our creativity in the kitchen; forcing their culinary agendas on us.  It’s nice to stay flexible because we can learn from each other, but it’s not nice to get bulldozed and micromanaged in your own kitchen.  Takes the fun right out of it.

Here’s the thing of it:  Cooking is interpretive. Last week we were doing a cooking demonstration and I was talking to a young cook.  The beginner apprehensively said, “Chef David, I hate to say this, but I would add some spicy peppers to this dish.”  He was shocked at my response.  Instead of ripping his head off – and telling him it was my way or the highway and how impressive my resumé as a chef is – I said, “Hooray!  That’s exactly how you should be thinking.  Personalize recipes.  Ask, ‘How can I make this recipe better?’  Think for yourself.  If it tastes good, go for it.  You are the cook!”

Someone once said a recipe is a blueprint or a guide, not a prescription that has to be followed to a “T.”  (I suppose the exception is baking, which requires that we measure and follow a recipe more accurately until we have it down pat – and then we can monkey with it.)  Make recipes your own.

Anyone who claims they have the one and only way to delicious food – a culinary messiah – needs a real ego check.  There’s more than one way to dance a tango!  There are avant gardist that want to create smoke with the fragrance of roast chicken.  I admire them, but personally I would rather roast a chicken.  There are purists who want to make a recipe in the absolute traditional fashion without any additions or modern touches.  I also admire them for being archivists, but I personally can’t avoid updating classics.   There are cooks that want to try and reinvent food, and thank heaven for them.   I just want to teach folks to make food that tastes good.  I know my style, I know my mission and I know my palate.  And you will too.

Whatever your cooking style, as it starts to emerge and reveal itself, don’t forget that the goal is to make food that tastes good.  The first question should be, “How does it taste?”

Yours,

Chef  David

 

 

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INGREDIENTS or HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

Dear Friends and Cooking Comrades,

Welcome back home!

We are getting into the season where the garden grows, the farm stands open, the U-picks have something to pick.  LOCAL becomes much more than a buzz word, a dreamy ideal, or something trendy.  It can actually become a reality:  something we can eat.

Cooking with produce is a thrill when it hasn’t been picked too early, when it doesn’t have to travel for days or weeks on a truck, when it has peak flavor.  That’s when we really have to simplify our cooking and stay out of nature’s way.  We don’t need to try and coax flavor out of a sullen winter tomato, the summer tomato is present in a full spectrum of flavorful glory!

Do I season my ingredients a little differently in summer when things are full-flavored?  Yes.  Do I serve more fresh, lightly blanched, or raw things on the table?  Yes.  Do we do more outdoor grilling and simplify our menus?  Absolutely.

Taste your garden or farm-fresh items for sweetness, for acidity, for flavor and then work with them accordingly.  The subtle differences are incredible.  The brilliance of the summer cook is staying out of the way and letting ripe and ready items show off.  Doing less with just-picked ingredients that are packed with flavor, makes you an easy genius in the kitchen.  It is the reward of restraint.  There is nothing I can do as a chef to improve slices of ripe tomato sprinkled with a pinch of kosher salt, or the crisp snap of a garden green bean, or the first bite of a fragrant peach when the juice runs down your chin.  And don’t forget all the variety of fresh herbs, like a painter’s palette, ready for experimentation.  I just stand back in awe.

And if you’re not the farming type, remember the cost of a little bunch of cut herbs is expensive at the market, compared to growing a few flavor-enhancing plants yourself.  How about planting a few herb plants like thyme, basil or rosemary?  This gives you a fresh snip of herbs until autumn, for your spur-of-the-moment inspirations in the kitchen.  Even if you only have a small patch of ground, or a window box, or even a window sill, herb plants pay for themselves.  Do it now, before summer is bolting and you wish you had.

Summer produce makes my heart race with possibilities and makes my mouth water at the thought of it.  Make sure you take advantage of it and savor it!

Yours,

Chef  David

 

 

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