Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ghetto Lox

So, I was flipping through Olive, a British food magazine that I really enjoy (though my favorite is Fresh, also British, which makes me yearn to live in England and puts pretentious Briticisms such as "I’ll suss it out" in my daily vocabulary, regrettably making some people think I want to be Madonna who wants to be British. But I digress) and saw a recipe for home-cured salmon.

Hmm, I thought, salmon being one of my favorite things. It was very simple: take a couple pieces of salmon with the skin still on one side, rub some salt and sugar and black pepper all over both sides, arrange the pieces facing each other, skin side out, and wrap tightly in plastic, keeping in the fridge for 24 hours, turning once. It intrigued me, as there were no tools (other than a refrigerator) and no acid like you might use in ceviche to "cook" the meat.

I tried it. Only I forgot about my little culinary experiment and didn’t get to it until 48 hours later. It was not all pink-orange translucent and inviting like in the photo. It was... uhm... odd. It looked like, well, still raw salmon. In the mouth it was sort of like chewy salmon pudding that was reluctant to be parted from its skin. I’m pretty sure it was, for all intents and purposes, very much sashimi state, albeit not sashimi quality.

I ate half anyway and, being unable to waste food, wrapped the other half and threw it back in my fridge. In the back of my fridge, to be precise.

I found it last night, about two weeks after my first foray into home curing. I regret to say that a fortnight in my fridge did not improve it either in texture or taste but, on the other hand, it didn’t smell off yet and I, quite obviously, didn’t die from eating the second piece. Which of course I did. Hey, wild salmon at $7.69 a pound is not going into my trash unless it crawls there on its own.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

U Can't Touch This

Aside from doing the Chef’s Table, this week I’ve been working in the bread shop for the fancy-pantsiest of the fancy-pantsed restaurants at the hotel. The top guys are all French, while the bakers are Croatian and Moroccan, so most conversations involve some degree of charades, pointing and special effects noises to convey meaning.

It hasn’t been the most exciting rotation because, as the sweet young French guy in charge of me (whom I'll call M) put it, "I prefer you no touch ze bread." Hey, I can understand. If you’ve got someone paying $400 for a meal, you don’t want their dinner rolls to be gummy or crooked or anything but perfect. They have been very nice, however, in giving me the scraps to practice with, so I get to go off in a corner of the bakeshop and work on rolling and sealing and such.

As a bonus, M lets me bake off the scraps and then take them home (I have a freezer full of saffron brioche and basil focaccia and no, you can’t have any). So I do sometimes feel a little like a kindergartener, but to be honest, it could be much, much worse, since I’ve heard horror stories about externs getting locked in a basement doing nothing but peeling carrots for their entire externship.

And besides, on Thursday, when there was a sudden rush, the French guys all left the room to deal some, I dunno, quelle crisis! and the Croat guy tossed me a piece of dough with a wink and let me try doing the dinner roll for real. By the time the French guys came back, I had half a sheet tray done. M said "first time, very good" and, more importantly, allowed my little baguettini to be baked along with everyone else’s, and sent for service.

People were served bread I shaped! The thrills in my new life are odd, but no less satisfying than, say, seeing my name in print.

I love working with M whether I’m allowed to egg wash his pain au lait or simply told to stand and watch and not touch anything, because M is very, very special to me. He is the first left-handed baker I have ever met. Now, this may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, when you are trying to learn a skill to which you do not come naturally, trying to learn it from someone who is other-handed makes the task that much more difficult. So, within seconds of watching him shape a baguette, I realized that all along it had felt so foreign to me because I was moving my hands in the wrong direction as I made the bottom seam. Duh!

Working with M also has its moments of hilarity. He is just off the boat, or the plane, as the case may be, and only moved here from France a couple weeks ago. Sometimes he’ll tell me to get something, using the French word, and when I say I don’t understand, he’ll repeat it, louder, which makes me laugh. Or there was the time when I asked where to put my tools, my very first day there, and he said "on ze floor."

"On the floor?" I asked, thinking I hadn’t heard right. No way could the cleanliness-obsessed French tell someone, even a student, to put her tools on the floor.

M made a pained expression and said "on ze... floor. ze fleur... put it on ze flo-o-or. Ze flow-er. Flow-er. Flour."

Oh, I realized, put it on the flour, as in the bag of flour under the sheeter. I said ok and did so, but M still stood there, repeating the word as if to retrain his Gallic mouth muscles.

"Floo-or. Floooo-or. Flour."

This went on for more than a minute.

Then there was the time he stepped out to go to the bathroom, he said. When he came back, looking very concerned, he gestured out the door, the way he had come, and asked the Croat baker "Hey, how many time you touch?"

We stared at him.

"This week, how many time you touch?" he asked again, a little more urgently.

We were all thinking the same thing, the Moroccan, the Croat and I, which was, what the hell? Weren’t you just in the bathroom? What were you doing there? No wait, don’t tell us.

"In two weeks, how many time you touch?" M demanded. "Me? One thousand. You?"

The Croat, who is saucy to begin with, lost it at this point and began howling with laughter, suggesting that if M was "touching" a thousand times every two weeks, perhaps he had a problem and needed a girlfriend.

It took about ten minutes to decode M’s Frenglish and figure out he had gone, on the way back from the bathroom, to pick up his first paycheck and, having miscalculated his wages based on the exchange rate, found it to be smaller than expected. I’ve since learned that "touch" is his default verb, which slips in whenever the verb he wants eludes him, usually without him realizing it. "How much do you earn?" become "How many time you touch?"

Of course, while M grumbled the rest of the day about being able to earn more in France working fewer hours (he puts in at least 12 a day here), every five minutes the quiet of the bakery was interrupted with a chuckling Croatian purr asking no one in particular "Hey, this week, how many time you touch? Me? Thousand times."

A Confession

Okay, I’ll admit something I haven’t said before. As I’ve gone through school and now through many of the outlets at the hotel, I’ve been unsettled by the number of people who, not to sound too elitist (but, well, okay...), have an utter lack of passion and, even worse in my book, zero curiosity. I’m thinking here about classmates who refuse to try any food they haven’t already had (let’s review... these are people training, theoretically, to be chefs... it’s like a Lit major refusing to read a new book.). I’m thinking about a guy I worked with in the bakery whom I liked, despite what I’m about to say about him: his sole source of information about the world was Fox News, which he took as gospel. We had many a long, tedious (for me) conversation that usually began with him provoking me with a statement along the lines of "The only reason other countries hates us is because we’re the greatest country in the world."

Where do I begin with that one? How about countries don’t hate countries, individual people in countries do, ok?

But I digress...

Anyway, the last year has been an adjustment because I got spoiled working in journalism, being surrounded by people for whom curiosity is a job requirement. Not to sound elitist again, but I’ve been regularly disappointed by most of my peers at school and now at the hotel in this regard. The exception, particularly at school where I have much greater interaction with them, has been my chefs, who all read and travel and speak a bunch of different languages and seem driven by both a passion for their craft and a need to learn more about everything around them.

Which is why I want to mention my favorite place that I’ve worked so far at the hotel, which happened to be the pastry station for the fancy-pantsed VIP dining room and its room service offshoot. It was my favorite place not because of what I did (mostly prep work, with one exception, since they didn’t want to trust finished product to a student, which I understand), but because of who I worked with.

The guy running the station was from Missouri, and originally majored in biology with a plan to become a reptile specialist "way before that Crocodile Hunter guy was big," as he put it. During his sophomore year, however, he had an existential crisis about what to do with his life and decided instead to become a chef. So he up and moved to France, learned the language, supported himself working as a personal chef to a wealthy family while attending Le Cordon Bleu (the original, big deal one, not the spin-offs here in the States). Since then, he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the biz and even turned down a job in NY with a very big name because he felt they wouldn’t get along.

Have I mentioned the guy just turned 27 a couple days ago?

Yes, he has a touch of ego, but in the funniest way... when a new chocolate souffle recipe he thought up on the spot was put on the menu by the pastry chef, he danced around the room singing "This is why, this is why, this is why I’m hot!" Then he declared he was going to go wild on the town, paused and said "who am I kidding? I’m going to go home, make myself a rum and coke and fall asleep on the couch."

(That I learned on my first day he and I like the same kind of rum, Gosling’s Black Seal Black Rum, has nothing, really nothing, honestly, to do with my approval of him. Well, maybe a little, but mostly because when we were rum-inating on the topic, he said "one time when I had too much of it, I drew an anchor on my arm with a Sharpie. Arr.")

At the same time, he was a tough but encouraging boss. When my madeline recipe came out a few grams (not ounces, grams) short, he calmly said "That’s ok, don’t worry about it. You just get to make it over again." When he showed me stuff, he explained everything, start to finish, and would ask me things to see if I was thinking, like "why would you not want more gelatin in this?"

After overseeing me through every step of the apple tarts guests received as part of a welcome basket in their room, he let me do it on my own, too, instead of micromanaging students the way some do. (I’ve become the queen of sheeting as a result, sheeting being the process of feeding dough through a sheeter that rolls it ever thinner until it’s tart-worthy.)

Every day when I arrived, he stopped what he was doing, shook my hand and welcomed me. When I left, he shook my hand again and thanked me for a good day’s work. It’s a small gesture, and he did it for everyone who worked for him, but it conveys a kind of professionalism that I admire (as an aside, I think it’s a French thing, as I’ve noticed all the French chefs I’ve worked with do that).

When I asked what he wanted to do next, he said he was thinking of going someplace where he didn’t speak the language and couldn’t even read the alphabet, just to give himself that charge you get when thrown into a new and overwhelming situation. Huzzah!

When he complained about how guests just wanted bigger portions with smaller flavors (vanilla or chocolate, please, maybe banana if they’re feeling a bit adventurous), he lamented "they’re not like you and me. They don’t know food. They don’t care about food. They just want a big dessert to show off to the next table, like their big car and big house and big designer suit."

I love this guy! But seriously, aside from really liking the calm yet focused way he ran his kitchen and his attitude towards life in general, knowing him gave me hope, as corny as it sounds, that there are more intellectually curious, talented and rum-loving kindred spirits out there in this new industry I have thrown myself into.

Here’s a shot of the Boy Wonder showing me a plate up of a molten cake (note his perfect quenelle, damn him...) and exhibiting the classic hunched-over, suffering-for-his-art posture of a pastry chef. I didn’t see it at the time, until I was downloading the photo, but look at the grace in his left hand. That’s something I’ve noticed about all the really talented pastry chefs I’ve seen in action. They may be blustery or oafish or whatever, but when it comes down to working, they get a bit balletic in their moves. It’s a small gesture (like shaking someone’s hand), but to me it speaks of craft and centuries of tradition that can’t be replicated by machine, at least, not yet, and hopefully never.

The Pastry Pirate's Book/Movie Club

Hey, if Oprah can have one...

Anyway, I just wanted to recommend the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, if you haven't read it already. I'm halfway through and utterly riveted. It touches on everything from industrial agriculture and the obesity epidemic to the sex life of corn (much, much more fascinating than you might think) and the lie of "organic"... of course, it makes me feel like I can't in good conscience eat or cook with anything I didn't grow myself, but it makes for thought-provoking, well-sourced reading. He's a pretty funny guy, too.

In the movie department, rent "Vatel" if you are in the mood for a period piece about a French pastry-chef-turned-steward during the Sun King's reign. Plus it's got Tim Roth as, what else, the depraved, repulsive and thoroughly villain. One of our instructors at school had recommended it, and I finally found a copy. Vatel was a real guy, by the way, and has the distinction of being one of the first "named" pastry chefs in history.

Have Your Rum and Eat It, Too

Saturday was the second Chef’s Table I’ve participated in during my externship. While the first was a formal, plated dinner for 12 chefs, this one was a reception style with 30 guests and "action stations," which just means that we did something to finish the dessert in front of our customers (I always think of running into a walk-in and bounding out in a cape like some kind of super action chef when I hear that term).

The tasting was set for noon, so we all arrived early in the morning to prep. One thing led to another, however, and it kept getting pushed back – in the end, it was at 4 p.m. It was tricky to hold all our food for that long, but in the end I think mine went ok. (I felt bad for the culinary guys who were making lamb and other foods that just don't survive a four-hour delay with any kind of quality.) Here’s a group photo of my contribution:

The theme this time was "international" (which isn’t much of a theme at all when you think about it). I went with four desserts of my own design (described below). I have to give my chef huge props (he is such a sweetheart) because he was the first one there, stopped at every station and asked every student (there were six of us, three culinary and three baking/pastry) all sorts of questions, and he ate a little of everything. In some cases, he ate a lot. While I like it when my cooking brings a smile to the face of friends and family, I have to admit it’s even more gratifying to watch an internationally known chef scarf down my panna cotta and rum financier in their entirety while making excited little cooing noises of pleasure.

The executive grand poobah chef also came through, with one of his underlings. Big Chef ate everyone’s displays instead of letting us do our whole "action station" deal. He took one bite of everything and then passed the plate to his underling and moved on without even looking to see if the guy had a grip on it. At that point, the underling would take a couple bites of the leftovers. It was pretty funny to see, sort of "Devil Wears Prada" but in baggy whites with no cute accessories. That said, Big Chef seemed to really like my scone, and linger over it more than I expected.

Now, my chef had noted (not in a bad way) that there was a lot of rum in one of my desserts. I said that was the point of it, after all. But later, when it was all over, one of the culinary guys came back to the dessert station and said "who made stuff with rum? All the chefs were complaining that they were going to work drunk after eating it."

Well. I think my job here is done.

But seriously... the other two baking and pastry students teamed up to do a bunch of Asian desserts, but I elected to go my own way (shocking, I know). Here is my menu:

The Brit: playing off the idea of a cheese plate instead of dessert, I did a Stilton and walnut scone with chive creme fraiche. The chef running things got me 20 pounds of the most awesome Stilton but alas, I had to return what I did not use. I thought it turned out a little too salty, but guys especially seemed to like this one.

The Lebanese: I based this on a dessert I had at Ali Baba here in Las Vegas, shrunk down to bite-size. It’s a semolina dough filled with sweet al-kunafi cheese and soaked in a syrup of saffron and rosewater. I thought it was the least attractive visually (I think it's downright homely), but it was very popular. I nearly ran out! My chef seemed to like this one in particular, while another chef grilled me on how I made it, where I got the idea, what exactly was in it, and so on, while he devoured it. I always take chefs demanding more information as they eat as a good sign.

The Sicilian: this was the biggest butt pain of the bunch. It’s a Limoncello-rosemary panna cotta ("I see you put a lot of Limoncello in this too, eh?" noted my chef) with blood orange supreme. It was a pain because the panna cotta was so delicate that it was tough to remove it from the fleximold without smashing or denting it. In the end, it involved a lot of running back and forth to the freezer (I’d get one out, then take the tray back so the rest could firm up and not be damaged). I had a lot of ideas for the garnish but none worked. In last minute desperation, I thought well, what else is Sicilian? And I remembered that storied Italian isle grows most of Europe’s blood oranges. Well, there you have it. I know this is a very simple plating, but I like the minimalist white-on-white and rigid geometric lines, played around a bit with the vibrant colors and curves of the fruit garnish. Oh, crap, I’m becoming a hopeless food snob, huh?

The Pirate: yes, that’s what I called it, and I just giggled seeing it written on the menu. It’s a rum and lime-soaked financier (lime to ward off scurvy and rum because, well, what part of "pirate" don’t you understand?) with a ginger preserve center (ginger relieves sea sickness!), topped with a rum and honey marshmallow (arr! more rum it is!) bruleed to order (yay! what’s more piratical than finishing a dessert with a blowtorch??) and garnished with a pineapple chip "petal" that is supposed to evoke the dashing feather in a pirate's hat (at least a well-dressed pirate). The pineapple, actually an oven-dried disc of fresh-cut fruit, was supposed to be crispy and serve as a base, but they never got the right texture. Faced with a tray full of limp roasted pineapple discs, I decided to contort them into the shape of a rose petal and stick them into the top of the hot, just-bruleed marshmallow. My chef loved the result and wanted to know how I did it, because looking at it, I don’t think it’s apparent that I screwed up a crispy pineapple chip base and needed to use them up somehow. Considering it was a last-minute decision, I have to say I'm pretty happy with how it came out, and that all 40 of them were identical.

And finally, speaking of "all 40 of them," here's a shot I just happen to like of my panna cotta awaiting service, staying cool and creamy (my PC are on the center right... on the left are the green tea cakes and sweet potato cakes the other pastry students made, and far right is some amuse bouche one of the culinary students made but forgot to serve!

C.H.A.O.S. Mission Statement

A brief rant/tangent (a ranget!) if I may...

This week I couldn’t escape the media to-do over Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer recurrence and whether her husband was a godless bastard for abandoning her in her hour of need to run a presidential campaign. (Although I was glad it got the media pack off the fed firings case – what’s the obsession with eight lawyers losing their job when there’s buckets more real woe in the world?)

What vexed me most was that they kept replaying (at least on NPR) her carefully scripted press conference which included her statement "every time you get something suspicious, you go into alarm mode. Every cancer survivor that you know personally has exactly that experience."

Excuse me? Elizabeth, I’m truly sorry that your cancer has returned, and you have my best wishes for successful treatment, but no, you do not get to speak on behalf of all cancer survivors, especially if it’s to make statements like that.

I’m sure some, perhaps many people who’ve had cancer feel the way you do, but not all of us go running to the doctor assuming a hangnail is a malignancy, and your words, broadcast to millions, reinforce the Eeyore stereotype and make it harder for those of us who do not share your attitude.

When I’ve gone to the doctor for everything from bronchitis to a broken arm, when they take my history and find out I had cancer, I always get the patronizing "now, now, who’s my brave little survivor?" crap, or, just as bad, the eye-rolling "just because you’ve got a screaming headache doesn’t mean your cancer is back" even though I never suggested a connection! (Thanks to the one doctor who took me seriously ... and sent me for an eye exam. Now I don’t get headaches and instead get to rock the Tina Fey sexy librarian look.) As I told the ER doctor who wanted to shake my hand when he found out I’d had cancer (really... while I was laying there with a broken arm), "cancer does not define my life. Let’s move on." I probably shouldn’t add that the very next thing I said to him was "now give me some fucking morphine!" but oh, nevermind.

Yes, I am pretty wound up about this, and quite frankly if she makes more comments like that I may have to kick her ass, cancer and all, but trying to channel my energy in a more positive direction, I have decided to form an organization that will tackle the irritating stereotypes that surround cancer: Cancer Haters Against Over-Simplification. As the founder and president of CHAOS, I am available for all media interviews. Basically, journalists can ask the usual insipid questions to the usual talking heads (NPR had a segment after the Edwards announcement on "can women who’ve had breast cancer live without fear ever again?" Uh, yeah. They can. I do it every freakin’ day, though for the record, I think "breast cancer" sounds so terribly stodgy, which is why I prefer the term "titty cancer." But I digress. Again.). After they make their horribly oversimplified pronouncements on behalf of all cancer survivors everywhere, I can follow-up with: "actually, while many cancer survivors may feel that way, not all of us do. ‘Cancer’ itself is just a general term for abnormal cellular growth, and encompasses an enormous range of manifestations. You can generalize the disease by calling it cancer, but don’t generalize the people who have it, lest ye be smited."

Whew. Ok. Better now. So, to review: it sucks that your cancer came back, Elizabeth, but given the amount of media attention paid to your statements about it, please craft your words with greater care. I doubt you would think to make statements on behalf of "every woman" or "every American" or any other groups to which you can claim membership, so don’t do it with cancer survivors. Not only do we not all share your feelings, but some of us get quite ornery about it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

My Vegas

Having lived here for more than three months now, and having had friends visit and ask for ideas on what to do, I feel I can comfortably suggest an itinerary for anyone planning a visit to Sin City and its environs.

My first tip would be to spend as little time as possible on the Strip. Okay, everyone should take a cruise, preferably on the top deck of the double-decker bus called The Deuce, up or down Las Vegas Blvd, preferably in the daylight when the dichotomy of fantastical artifice and Midwesterners in polyester can be most fully appreciated, but don't park yourself in your hotel for your stay.

Rent a car. You can spend ("waste" is perhaps a more accurate word choice) hours waiting for the CAT buses (I have. I know.), but unless you have the luxury of unlimited time, having your own wheels is infinitely more efficient.

When renting a car, keep in mind the following demographics:

80% of drivers on Las Vegas roads are recent arrivals from California who think nothing of making left turns from the right lane, swerving into your lane for no reason and pulling u-turns because the road they were on just, like, didn't feel right, you know? Also, for Californians, that special breed of driver, green means go, yellow means go faster, and red is, like, such a pretty color.

15% of drivers are other tourists like you who have no idea where the hell they're going either.

5% of drivers here are native Las Vegans (that's Vegans, not vegans...) who harbor deep animosity towards Californian transplants and tourists, and will seek to destroy you, or at least cut you off, at any given opportunity.

Once you've got wheels, here are some things to do:


The Liberace Museum (Spencer and Tropicana, free shuttle service from the Strip): say what you will about the man, but he was a classic showman who knew the value of a spangle here or there (or everywhere). Make sure to take one of the tours, where a kindly old lady will give you all sorts of extra information about the only man ever known to mix Chopin with sequined hot pants.

The Atomic Testing Museum (on Flamingo, between Paradise and Swenson): while the Ground Zero Simulator is a let-down (flesh does not actually melt off your face or anything), they've got loads of Cold War propaganda, including Department of Defense videos, that will have you both laughing and shivering with terror. Always a refreshing combination.

Lake Mead (20 miles east of town): Red Rock, 15 miles west of town, gets a lot of visitors for its scenic loop drive and numerous day hike possibilities, but I like Lake Mead better for its vastness and variation. Start at the Alan Bible Visitor Center on its south edge, right by Hoover Dam, and take the north Lakeshore Drive all the way to Valley of Fire State Park, which I found more impressive than Red Rock and less crowded. It's a beautiful drive with plenty of pull-offs for impromptu hikes. If you've never seen Hoover Dam, you should at least do a drive by, to marvel at the engineering, speculate on the daily lives of the men who built it and, of course, giggle as you change time zones crossing back and forth over the dam, which separates Nevada from Arizona and Pacific from Mountain time zones. Just to the east of the Alan Bible Visitor Center for Lake Mead, by the way, is a nice walk along the old railway that brought supplies and equipment to the dam site. Great views of Lake Mead, and lots of bats in the old tunnels.

Cathedral Gorge State Park: ok, it's a bit of a haul, about two hours' drive north, but this small and usually empty park has neat hiking opportunities and its cool rock formations, unlike the the Strip, are 100% natural.

Zion National Park: another bit of a drive, this time two hours to the northeast and into Mormonistan, also known as Utah. This is a must-do if you are into hiking, breath-taking scenery and/or being humbled by nature. Do the scenic drive and also the tunnel leading to the east end of the park, another New Deal era construction marvel, but make sure to get out of your car and do some walking, too. Recommended hikes: Angel's Landing if you're not a wimp, Canyon Overlook and The Watchman if you worry you might be a wimp but still thirst for adventure, and Sand Bench Loop if you know you're a wimp and just want a nice, scenic albeit utterly flat and grounded stretch of the legs.


Red Shoe (Sahara, past Valley View): if you want a memorable souvenir of Las Vegas, go here and buy yourself a pair of stripper shoes, which they carry in sizes up to a women's 13 (men's 11... hey, I don't judge). Be sure to check in the back of the store, on the left side, for clearance items that are often 75% off and available in larger sizes. Women who wear a 7 or 8 are probably like, so? But my fellow freak-footed sisters walking around in size 12 and bigger, you know we cherish the cheap thrill of finding six-inch platforms in our size, on sale no less.


Firefly Lounge (Paradise, north of Flamingo): Open till the wee hours, this tapas bar was featured on Rachel Ray's "$40 a Day" show and yet is still cool. Delish blood orange mojitas and an extensive and tasty (and pretty affordable) tapas selection

Ali Baba (Eastern and Pebble): You definitely need your own wheels to get out to this place, a good half-hour drive (in light traffic) southeast of The Strip, but it's worth it for fabulous and authentic Lebanese food. The overenthusiastic band on weekend nights needs to learn volume control (though they're very good), but the fresh and perfectly done dishes more than make up for temporary deafness.

SeaBlue (in MGM Grand): This is my favorite Strip place to eat at because I like foods with pure, clean flavors and not a lot of frou-frou or gratuitous foie gras, which I don't care for to begin with. SeaBlue does a phenomenal job with seafood, especially the octopus tandoori and ahi tuna kibbeh, the grilled barramundi and succulent Maine dayboat scallops. I really like the direction the new pastry chef is going, too: try the lemon semifreddo with strawberry soup if it's offered.

Sunflower Market (Tropicana and Pecos, though there are other locations around town): for picnic lunches or grocery shopping, the Arizona-based Sunflower chain is second only to the divine Trader Joe's (also in Vegas... I go to the one at Sunset and Green Valley) for yummy yet affordable victuals. Sunflower has a much better produce and dairy section than Trader Joe's, too, though their cheese is to be avoided (too many times I had to return old and moldy product...).

Yo Ho Ho and All That

As I'm moving back to New York in a month, I've begun to whittle down my pantry, including my booze. While I never drink to the point of being drunk (and I don't drink at all if I'm driving), I do like to experiment with different flavors and try new things, all in the name of professional research, you understand. As a result, I've acquired a number of random bottles (and surprisingly good $2.99 Chilean wines from Trader Joe's... sigh... I love living near a Trader Joe's). I'm now working on using them up so I won't have to fret about packing or pitching them when I move. With that in mind, here's my favorite creation of late, followed by two more old friends (I don't know if these drinks exist outside my kitchen already and have "real" names, but here's what I call them):

The Pirate's Quenelle

12 oz. bottle of ginger beer, chilled (Target sells a surprisingly tasty one under the Archer Farms brand)
2 oz. Amaretto or more to taste
2 oz. dark rum (I prefer Gosling's Black Seal Black Rum) or more to taste (I'm in the "more to taste" camp for both liquors, but you've got to set your own limits)
1/4 lime, in wedges
Pineapple Sherbet
Squeeze lime juice into glass and toss in the wedges themselves. Pour in ginger beer and then the booze. Give it a twirl with a mixer or, if you're low-budget like me, a chopstick. Garnish with two quenelles of pineapple sherbet... quenelles are those fancy football-shaped scoops that you see in finer restaurants, and quite frankly, I suck at them. But I am practicing, and by adding a quenelle or two to this drink, you see, it suddenly becomes "work-related practice" rather than drinking rum on my own in my apartment, which, quite frankly, sounds a bit sad. Feel free to scoop your sherbet, or omit it altogether if you prefer.

The Bloody Good

3 parts blood orange juice (regular orange juice won't work, though to be honest I hate regular orange juice in general so I'm probably not the most objective judge of that)
2 parts Limoncello
1 part vodka
2 T fresh sage, crumbled - or chiffonaded, if you are a chiffonade maniac like I am
Mix liquids and 1 T sage in shaker with ice, strain into martini glass, strew rest of sage on top. Personally, I freakin' love this one, though in general I love anything with blood orange, Limoncello and/or sage.

The Swamp Thing

3 parts green juice such as Trader Juice's Green Plant or Odwalla's Green Machine... you know, the scary stuff that looks like grass gravy and contains things like wheat grass and spirulina.
2 parts Limoncello or Orangecello
1 part vodka (optional)
Mix in shaker with ice, strain into martini glass. It looks ghastly (great for Halloween) but tastes delish, especially if you like sweeter cocktails. If you like really sweet cocktails, omit the vodka. Garnish with a gummi worm if you're feeling kitschy.

How Antonio Banderas Saved Las Vegas... Maybe

My spur of the moment trip to Mexico ended on a very weird note. Mindful of the "no liquids over 3 oz. in carry-on" rule, I refrained from buying any edible (or imbibible, if that's how ou spell it) souvenirs... until I got to the Puerto Vallarta airport heading home.

In the gate area, past security, I found a jar of "wine-flavored goat candy," though in reading the ingredient list I saw there was no wine, only rum. I figured it was carjeta, a sort of dulce de leche made with goat milk and rum, and decided I needed it. It was sealed and wrapped and I had the receipt showing I'd bought it in the "secure" area of the airport, so I figured all would be fine.

I got to Denver and was enroute to my connecting flight to Vegas when my wine-flavored goat candy aroused the suspicions of that crack security force that is TSA. It was almost funny watching them, the very tripwire of American defense, puzzle over the jar o' goaty, rummy goodness, shaking it, holding it up to the light, scrutinizing my receipt and generally looking confused. They kicked it up to their supervisor, a short, weasel-like man with a buzz cut who just reeked of the attitude of "I may have failed the exam for my local police academy six times, but dang it, I done got me a job tellin' people what to do!"

He, of course, disallowed my wine-flavored, rummy, goaty ambrosia on the count of it being a 10 ounce jar, clearly over the 3 ounce limit. When I pointed out it was purchased in a secure area and still sealed, he actually smiled, clearly relishing his power, and said "No way."


I went back out of the security area, grumbling to the nice but clueless TSA drone who escorted me that this whole policy is folly. What's to prevent, say, four different people traveling ostensibly as individuals from each bringing three ounces of whatever chemical toxin they fear aboard and then pooling it once the plane is in midflight? What about the fact that they allow PediaLyte and milk in excess of three ounces for babies? You think someone "committed to the cause" enough to kill him or herself won't mind taking junior along for the ride? Drug mules swallow vast quantities of product or stuff it in various body cavities to sneak it aboard... a terrorist wouldn't do the same? Spare me.

I actually said all this to the TSA drone and she sighed and nodded, agreeing with me. I muttered security was being co-opted by a witless bureaucracy and she said "you have no idea how bad it is."

Oh, that's reassuring.

As an aside, I watched passengers, including myself, dutifully take off our shoes without even being told to do so as we approached the security checkpoint, all because one C-grade would-be terrorist more than five years ago got past the French, those paragons of home defense, with sneakers that were truly the bomb. I know, I know, questioning authority is like so totally unpatriotic, but it vexes me terribly. I'm terribly vexed.

Once back in the "unsecure" area, I took an extra Ziploc bag I happened to have, poured about eight of the ten ounces of rummy goaty goodness into it, put it with the rest of my toiletries and yes, passed through security with no questions asked. Because, you know, an unlabeled, resealable bag of eight ounces of brown goo is so much less suspicious than a sealed, commercially produced and purchase point-verifiable jar of rummy goat candy.


I was, as one might surmise, fairly vexed about my goaty goodness contraband when I boarded the plane. I had an aisle seat, and sat down next to, uh, trouble. The woman in the window seat was 50-ish and a business traveler sort. The guy sitting between us, hunched over and rocking back and forth, lips moving silently as if in prayer, wearing a heavy coat despite the fact that he was sweating, was a 20-something South Asian guy with a beard.

Now, I tried very hard not to be a xenophobic, racist bee-yotch, but this guy made me really nervous. I thought "wow, it must suck to be a south Asian guy who's just a nervous flyer," but I couldn't stop thinking that he might be up to something. I wondered if some people aboard the London Tube a couple years back noticed nervous South Asian guys and thought "oh, I won't raise an alarm, I'm just overreacting" before they were blown to bits.

You may likely think I was overreacting because, after all, he was checked by security, wasn't he? And to that I say "eight ounces of contraband rummy goaty goodness in my carry-on, stuffed in an unmarked bag between my lip gloss and eye moisturizer." Getting past America's Tripwire is not difficult.

I'll admit it. I was scared. When I realized he would have made me nervous, acting the way he was, if he had blond hair and blue eyes and a freakin' Nascar baseball hat on (actually... that might have made me more nervous), I decided I couldn't just sit there. By now, the woman in 15A was looking at him, looking at me, looking at him and then looking back at me like "what should we do?"

I was already thinking "hmm... if he reaches into his coat pocket with his right hand, I can elbow him in the sternum with my left and then tear out his windpipe with my right..." I was also thinking "hmm, terrorist attack on Las Vegas... Now that's a nice big fat target representing the moral turpitude of the Great Satan, isn't it?"

As the plane pushed back from the gate, I couldn't just sit there. So I asked him, very nicely, "Excuse me, are you ok? You look like you're not feeling well."

He said he was fine, thank you for asking, but seemed uneasy. I just kept asking him questions, hoping that, if he was a bad guy, he'd been, uhm, classically trained, and would recognize that I might just be the sort of person capable of pulling out his windpipe at will.

He was a native Pakistani studying medicine here in Vegas and had been visiting a friend in New Mexico. First he didn't want to tell me who or where, but eventually, probably in hopes of just shutting me up, he said it was a friend in Albuquerque who did a lot of gemstone trading in Peshawar. I thought hmm, there's a nice cash industry that often funds terrorists, but said nothing. When I asked if he went back to Pakistan he said yes, often, and I had to restrain myself from also asking "been on any monkeybars lately?" (why is it that those terrorist training camp videos always have guys on monkeybars?)

He swung wierdly between wanting very badly to tell me about Islam (which was actually interesting and I learned a lot) and distractedly not wanting me to talk to him, but I pressed on, because it was the only thing I could think to do to calm myself at this point, other than the whole windpipe thing, which would have had other consequences.

I told him a little of my travels in the Middle East and Central Asia and how I sympathized with the media's gross generalizations about the Muslim world (see? Don't kill this infidel! I can be of value to your cause! Sort of!). He seemed very pleased with this and started to talk about history, including how he was fascinated by Central Asia and the legacy of the Mongols. Hey, he brought up the Mongols, not me. I figure he couldn't be all bad.

We talked a little about how the schism between Shi'ite and Sunni is being exploited purely for political purposes. He was willing to talk about Iraq, but not Musharraf or Pakistan, or Afghanistan for that matter, and when I asked if resentment for Musharraf's loyalty to the US was fomenting increased radicalism among Pakistani youth, he paused for a long moment and then said "that's an interesting question" but wouldn't answer it.

Then out of nowhere he said that if he wasn't studying to be a doctor, he would be a historian, and that his favorite period was the Middle Ages and "the Dark Ages, only they weren't really dark in the Muslim world." Preaching to the choir, my brother. I agreed and remarked on how so many of the things we enjoy or use in the West, from math to sherbet, came out of the Middle East, brought back by those rapacious, pig-eating Crusaders. This excited him very much and he nearly bounced up and down in his seat, saying "Thank you! I can never say things like that because I am a Muslim so no one believes me, but it's true!"

Then he added that he got frustrated no one, not even his parents, seemed interested in that period, and that he'd even given them the book "Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crichton, hoping they'd read it, but they had no interest. Now it was my turn to bounce up and down in my seat as I told him I'd not only read the book, but also loved the flawed yet wonderful movie made from it, "The 13th Warrior."

He professed his love for the movie as well, and we had a weird, gooey, mooney-eyed moment basking in the shared glow of thoughts of Antonio Banderas as an Arab poet who gets essentially kidnapped by a bunch of burly Vikings tromping off to kill stuff.

All I could think was: I finally find someone who loves that movie as much as me and it's a guy who's probably going to blow me up or shoot aerosolized anthrax up my nose.

Actually, I was also thinking: how cool that I finally found someone who loves that movie as much as I do. But one false move and I'm still tearing out his windpipe.

Anyway, after bonding over "13th Warrior," we had a pretty easy conversation until the plane began its final descent. He got all sweaty and nervous and distracted again, even though he said he wasn't afraid of flying (I asked). I started asking him about the Hajj, and if he'd been, and he said no, but that he hoped to go in January. I replied: "Oh, I hope you do! That's something to really look forward to!"

Shameless, I know.

The plane landed, and they made the announcement that people could use their cell phones. He got his out and inputted I swear like 20 digits, but didn't press "send" or "call" or anything. This freaked me out. He sat there with his thumb hovering over the "call" button, watching as the plane drew nearer to the gate. I thought, is it the detonation code? I leaned over to look at the screen (if it was some binary code, that was going to be it. It was going to be windpipe time) but he covered it with his hand. Ok, so I'm nosy, but I'd rather offend him than get vaporized.

I yammered on and on about how excited I was for him to go on the Hajj and how much I'd learned from him and how wonderful it was talking to him and yadda yadda yah until we got off the plane and went our separate ways, me as quickly as possible to the bus stop just in case, well, you know.

He never pressed the "call" button, at least not that I saw. It was all very unsettling. Maybe he was really poised to do something bad, and didn't because I wouldn't stop yapping. Maybe he was heading down that path, and maybe something I said made him rethink his motives. Maybe by reminding him that Vikings and Arabs learn to get along in "13th Warrior," I gave him hope for a similar reconciliation between our cultures. (Hey, it could happen.)

Or maybe he's blogging right now at JustANervousSouthAsianFlyer,Ok? about yet another run-in with some crazy paranoid American chick. I can imagine his post:

"This paranoid, xenophobic infidel tart would not leave me alone, and I feared she would go all Tae Bo on my innocent ass and try to tear out my windpipe or something, so I brought up the Mongols and '13th Warrior.' That always seems to calm the would-be heroic spinster types. Why won't they just leave me alone?"

My Name Is Carpaccio

I decided to restart my blog while on a last-minute vacation. I'd been working more than two weeks straight without a day off when my chef (the Frenchman of a Thousand Moods, most of them wonderfully charming, some of them Darth Vader-level intimidating... don't get Chef angry, ok?) said I could have a four-day weekend. In his outrageous French accent (everytime he talks to me, I have the uncontrollable urge to reply with a Pythonism along the lines of "your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries!"), he told me "why don't you go somewhere, eh? Go to Kul-ee-fornya maybe, eh?"

Instead, I decided to go online and play package deal bingo, hopscotching between various sites until I found a deal. So I would up going to Bucerias, Mexico, a small village just north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. I got a ridiculous two-bedroom, three-bathroom suite (I never did find that third bathroom, the place was so huge) for less than the Puerto Vallarta hotels wanted for a small room in the middle of Gringo Central. My hotel was right on the beach and I spent three days doing nothing other than reading and fighting the urge to go hiking or rent a car and find some obscure archeological site to roam around. It was odd doing nothing for three days, but also what I needed as I find Las Vegas to be stressful and unappealing, and my externship to be rewarding but intense and sometimes overwhelming.

The only annoying thing about my trip involved Homeland Security and their stupid "no liquids over 3 oz. in carry-on" rule. I didn't want to check luggage, since I didn't need to and also didn't want to lose it making my connection in Mexico City, so I packed what would fit into a Ziploc bag. That meant leaving behind both sunscreen and my beloved DHC Micro Skin Water, a refreshing aerosol spray of purified water and essence of things like bladderwrack, which is really far nicer than it sounds. I figured I'd buy sunblock in Mexico... not knowing that they would be charging outrageous sums for it, or that they would have a limited choice of stuff with a lot of unpleasant chemicals. So I winged it, going for some unprotected sun exposure. As a result, even though I tried to move into the shade and change positions and all that, I got a streaky tan that left me red and white all over, looking like all I needed was a drizzle of olive oil to be served up as human carpaccio.

Here is a view, essentially, of my long weekend:

Here's a view of the hotel grounds from my private patio:

The only thing I did, other than read Gordon Ramsay's autobiography and Douglas Adam's posthumous "Salmon of Doubt," was take the local bus into Puerto Vallarta one morning. Actually, I took two local buses, as I had to transfer midway. On the first bus, a guy boarded and tried to sell everyone vitamins or some kind of medication that cured a long list of ailments from depression to impotence to high cholesterol (not sure about the specifics, as my Spanish is improving but not that great). On the second bus, a guy with a guitar got on and regaled us with Mexican folk tunes, even though 95% of the passengers were locals and not gringo tourists prone to tipping.

I wandered around Puerto Vallarta, stopping for a late breakfast at a charming place right where the Rio Cuale arrives at the ocean. I had an apple and pecan crepe with a Bailey's Irish Cream sauce and strawberries. When the plate arrived, I was surprised at the effort put into the presentation, and felt I needed to photograph it. Then my increasingly picky food snob instinct kicked in and I couldn't help but notice the maraschino cherry and blobs of green kiwi reduction were completely gratuitous and worked against the rest of the dish, while the mango and strawberry puree was at odds with the apple-nut crepe and Bailey's.

Of course, I am not yet such a snob that I didn't eat every last bit of it.

In Bucerias itself, I had a lovely grilled snapper filet with tons of garlic (in a good way) one night on the beach at Aduato's Beach Club, plus a free frozen guava margarita, courtesy of the server who found my attempts to speak Spanish amusing (I made myself speak only Spanish, whenever possible, for most of my trip). I had a truly lousy meal another night at the "in" place to eat in Bucerias, Mark's Grill, where my lobster chile relleno was soggy and poorly seasoned (and garnished grotesquely with the poor lobster's antenna thing stuck straight in the top of the relleno like some kind of last desperate grasp for freedom), and my ginger-citrus creme brulee had not only neither ginger nor citrus (the dominant flavor was, uh, cream), but was so overcooked that the egg proteins had begun to separate from the cream. Sacre bleu! When I mentioned the brulee's lack of flavor, the server got all surly with me. He was not tipped.

One lackluster meal aside, however, it was a wonderful break, though a little sad because reading "Salmon of Doubt" I was reminded what a funny, smart and engaging writer Adams was, and it vexed me that he died in his 40s with so much more to give while some people, like, oh, I don't know, certain presidents of certain united states, still live and breathe despite questionable contributions, to put it ever so mildly, to humanity.

Catching Up Is Hard To Do

When the original Pastry Pirate blog shut down last fall, I was in the middle of baking and pastry school and focused on getting ready for my 18-week externship working in Las Vegas... Since then, well, to use one of my favorite quotes from my favorite movie ("The Princess Bride"), "I ess-plain. No. There is too much. I sum up."

School wrapped up in late November and I set off for Vegas soon after, starting at one of the major Strip hotels on December 12. I have to say that my externship so far (I've still got a month left) has been a phenomenal learning experience, and some weeks I'm exposed to so many different and exciting ideas, methods and philosophies (not to mention expensive equipment and exotic ingredients!) that sometimes I worry my head will explode. I've seen, for example, about ten different ways to make creme brulee.

Every week, I rotate to a different department in the bakery or a new restaurant, so I've done everything from buffet production (a couple thousand fruit tarts in one go, followed by equal numbers of tiramisu cups, cheesecake slices and so on) and finishing room work (dipping strawberries in chocolate, making platforms out of of chocolate for showpieces, etc) to plating desserts in some of the hotel's restaurants.

In general, it's been a terrific and positive experience, aside from the occasional personality conflict, which I've tried to handle with a calm smile (and the thought "I'll get you later, when you least expect it..."). But seriously... the staff in the bakery have been very warm and encouraging to me, as have most of the people in the restaurants. I've learned how the personality of a chef can tremendously impact the entire environment of a kitchen. My least favorite restaurant experience, for example, involved a kitchen one by an exceedingly sour and angry chef whose hateful, black-eyed glare and inability to say anything positive put the entire staff in a state of tense silence. Close to tying for last place was a restaurant run by a spiky-haired Dude who looked and acted disturbingly like Jason Bateman's dudely sportscaster character in "Dodgeball." In his kitchen, overgrown boys threw things and randomly accused each other and innocent bystanders of being "motherfuckin' faggots." Uh, yeah. That's professional. Jerks.

On the other hand, the executive chef of one of the bigger restaurants not only worked the line (instead of standing in front of his cooks, hands on his hips, scowling like the Angry Guy), but kept things calm even though the place was turning more than three times the covers (customers served) of either of the aforementioned restaurants. When chaos threatened, the chef would just say, in a loud but calm voice "Let's go, gentlemen" or "Hustle, hustle, hustle." I have a lot of respect for a head chef who is not only willing to sweat beside his cooks on the line, but also behaves like the person in charge without dissing his underlings. It's really not that hard to do (the respect thing, not working the line while simultaneously expediting -- calling out orders as they come in -- and keeping an eye on plates as they go out. Whew.).

As part of my externship, I also have to do tastings called Chef's Table. The externs (at any given time there are a half dozen of us, both pastry and culinary, floating about the hotel) are given a theme and we each have to come up with a course on our own that fits with what everyone else is doing. We serve the food to the head executive grand poobah chef and a dozen or so other invited guests, all head chefs from various parts of the hotel (which is the largest in the world and employs more than 10,000 people, nearly half in the food and beverage deparments).

For the first Chef's Table back in January, the theme was Asia and, as the only baking and pastry student at the time, I had the dessert course all to myself. I did "Dessert Dim Sum: Western Classics, Eastern Flavors" and basically took a bunch of extremely traditional French and Italian pastries and desserts, shrank them down to bite-size and changed the flavor profile to something with more of an Asian theme.

I love process (boy, how I love process!) so here's a shot of the plating in progress:

And here's a close-up of the finished product. From top, clockwise:

digestif of basil seed drink with microbasil garnish (in glass)

mini Paris-Brest with green tea, almond and sesame flavors and mulberry reduction
ginger and lemongrass napoleon (with my first ever pulled sugar garnish!! It's supposed to look like teeny purple chopsticks. It was so much fun doing it, because I find I love working with sugar... I love the danger of it (getting burnt with sugar is much worse than getting burnt with, say, boiling water, a hot sheet pan or even a blowtorch because the sugar burns through the top layers of skin and keeps going down into you, at least until you run, shrieking, to the nearest cold water source...))

mini Pithivier with purple yam filling (instead of the traditional frangipane) and jellied cream of coconut

coconut-lychee pannacotta with grass-jelly reduction and a five spice biscotti

The plating is a little rough, I know, but I think it's not a bad start. The next Chef's Table is set for this weekend, so stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Return of The Pastry Pirate

I'm back.

The Pastry Pirate returns in what I hope will be leaner, meaner form. My objectives remain the same as they were for the old, original Pastry Pirate blog (now lost to the dark waters of Davy Jone's eLocker): to share the experience of making a career change "at my age" and plunging into the world of professional pastry stuff.

That said, I've given myself a few restraints that are designed not only to make the blog more readable, but also make me a better writer. For starters, I'm going to attempt to be more big picture (less "and then I did this, and then he said that") as well as less gossipy. Note: less gossipy, not less catty, because where's the fun in that? Also, in what longtime friends will recognize as a huge sacrifice on my part, I am going to (attempt to) keep entries to no more than 1,000 words. A thousand words may seem like a lot, but trust me, I can drop a couple thou the way some people chew gum.

So. Watch this space.