Last December, I read Delancey by Molly Wizenberg, a sweet and funny memoir about opening a pizza place with her husband Brandon. Molly, who writes the blog Orangette, portrays the unglamorous side and stress of owning a restaurant. It’s easy to romanticize the idea of being a restauranteur, especially with the onslaught of reality shows like Top Chef or profiles in Food & Wine magazine. I occasionally have fantasies of opening up a cafe, where artists and community members gather over good coffee and events. However, Delancey shows what happens before the doors officially open –from the fights between the married couple, the scraping together of money and second-hard parts to build the kitchen, and the exhaustive cleaning and prep work involved during the hours long after doors shut at 10 p.m. Owning a restaurant is not the same as the dream of hosting a dinner party with friends, Molly confides. It is more like hosting a huge Thanksgiving dinner for family, friends, and strangers. Every single night.
Reading Delancey did not make me want to open a restaurant or progress in the dreams of my cafe, but It piqued my interest in cooking again. It also renewed my craving for a good slice of wood-fired pizza. And surprisingly, a good salad.
Act 1: Starting with salad
As Molly created the first menu for opening night, she prepared a simple salad using local produce, sharp cheese, and a homemade vinaigrette. I’m not typically impressed by salads, but J & I learned to appreciate a really good salad. One of our favorite Italian restaurants serves a serious seasonal salad– sweet golden beets, Beemster cheese shavings, toasted nuts, and a citrus vinaigrette. We silently hoped the other person was done so that we could finish off the plate.
I never had a salad that made me care about it before. I had found the inspiring dish that would draw me back to the kitchen again.
Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Zucchini, and Feta via The Pioneer Woman
My aunts like to task me with bringing the salad to bring for parties and holidays. Maybe they think salad is easier to delegate and is a failure-proof potluck dish. I made this salad for my grandma’s 86th birthday last October at a beach house family event. I found this simple, refreshing salad from The Pioneer Woman, and I loved that it required less than 5 ingredients. It’s great to make in advance and keeps well during long drives.
Radiccio and Radish Salad with Pear and Parmesan via Orangette
I returned Delancey to the library, ready to make a REAL salad, and realized that I did not copy down any of the recipes from the book. I assumed Molly would post some of her newer salad recipes on Orangette, but I couldn’t find them. Instead, I found an older salad recipe on her blog that seemed just as refreshing and simple as the ones featured in her book. It was my first time experimenting with creating my own dressing, and it was fun. I usually grab a bottle of dressing from the store, but it goes to waste because I never make enough salad at home to use it up. I liked everything about this salad except for the radiccio itself. I had forgotten that leaves like radiccio and endives tasted bitter, so I would personally substitute the radiccio for shredded red cabbage. When I made this, I also used an apple instead of a pear.
Beet Salad with Oregano, Pecans, and Goat Cheese via Fine Cooking
It was my first time buying beets at Whole Foods and roasting them! It was odd to finally see what these vegetables look like in their raw form. I didn’t know they came with huge stalks of green. It was an easy process to cook and slice, but a bit messy due to the red beet stains. Also, listen to the recipe order and sprinkle the goat cheese on last before serving. My cheese bits were stained by the time I mixed everything together. Even though it looked red and pinkish, the salad was refreshing and delicious. I also used walnut pieces instead of pecans. The next time I make this, I’ll add golden beets and the actual beet leaves for an extra pop of color.
Lazy Salad: Literally, I throw together grape tomatoes with sliced Persian cucumbers from Trader Joe’s. If I have cheese or basil leaves, I use those, too.
Act 2: French Classics Made Easy
I decided to take my next cooking step and open up my kitchen and home. Making salad and dressing was a good start, but it’s more fun to share food with others and loved ones. Plus it adds the right amount of pressure to make something good.
I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the recipes that I’ve made from French Classics Made Easy by Richard Crausman. We received it as part of my husband’s Quarterly package from Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Chef (more about Ferriss later in this post). The Made Easy part of the title speaks to my preferences of easy, simple techniques and minimal ingredients. I started off by making a simple side of green beans in a garlic, cream sauce. Then, I tested the poached salmon recipe in a different cream sauce. How fantastically simple and versatile are cream sauces? You don’t have to worry about anything else except tossing the fish or meat in the oven, and it piggybacks on the flavors of the sauce. The sauce itself only has a couple of steps and ingredients – my favorite kind of recipe.
After making a few dishes from the book, I was ready to test some of the recipes on others. Every Christmas morning for the last five years, I host brunch for my family.
I decided to serve a simple menu from French Classics Made Easy: French omelettes with Gruyère cheese and a mushroom cream sauce, bacon, and a side of tomatoes and mozzarella with truffle salt. J and I have an Aeropress and a French Press coffee maker, so we also whipped up a few rounds of Bulletproof Coffee blended in butter (our breakfast staple). My mom said she felt like she was at a bed-and-breakfast joint, and I beamed. Cooking for others in my home is probably the closest thing I’ll have to running my own cafe anyway. And it feels even better.
Recipes from French Classics Made Easy:
Omelette au Fromage (Gruyère Omelet). Similar recipe via Food.com
Champignons à la Crème (Mushrooms in Cream Sauce). Online recipe via SavorSA
Basil Beurre Blanc (Basil Butter Sauce). Similar recipe via allrecipes.com
Gouda Béchamel Sauce via Food and Wine
Bulletproof Coffee via Bulletproofexec.com
Act 3: Sous Vide and Sunday afternoons
For Christmas, my husband excitedly received his gift at our front door — two enormous crate-sized boxes lugged upstairs by the poor FedEx delivery guy. It wasn’t from me. It had been a hefty investment in Tim Ferriss’s Secrete Santa Megabox – the ultimate mystery package. Among the random assortment of tech goodies, including bluetooth Sonos speakers, an electric Boosted board, and a humidifier, there were two items that especially resonated with me. An Andrew Zimmern enameled cast-iron wok and a Sous Vide Supreme! Vacuum sealer included! I tore open the Sous Vide Supreme box in excitement. It was understood between us that I could claim any culinary items that came in the Megabox.
“What is that?” J asked. We’d never seen one before. I just knew it was a fancy gadget for cooking food in water, and it was as large as a microwave.
I spent the next few days poring over the recipe books, researching articles about sous vide cooking, and watching the Sous Vide Supreme starter dvd. As summarized by many sites, sous vide cooking originated in France and is a method of cooking food in vacuum-sealed pouches using a water oven. The vaccuum seal also intensifies the flavor within the pouch, so only minimal ingredients are needed. The water oven is set to maintain a precise temperature, which allows for food to cook evenly and to keep warm until ready to serve.
There is less margin for error in overcooking food, such as steak. I can toss my steak into the Sous Vide at 140F, and leave it in there for 1 hour, even for 4 hours, and it will still come out perfectly cooked at medium. The method of cooking is used in many restaurants, even in Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. Keller had written a book dedicated to sous vide cooking called Under Pressure. The thought of learning a cooking technique that Keller advocates for was thrilling. And intimidating.
My world of cooking had expanded exponentially. I made it a goal for 2015 (and on) to learn how to use the sous vide, along with other cooking tools that have been sitting around my kitchen. My first test was cooking our New Year’s Eve dinner using the Sous Vide Supreme and the new wok. It took nearly 5 hours total, including fiddling with the water oven and the sealer, but I triumphantly pulled together a delicious meal: ribeye steak in brown butter and stir-fried green beans.
The possibilities seemed endless. I could use the Sous Vide to cook large amounts of food in advance, and thanks to the magic of the vaccuum sealer, the food could freeze for up to 6 months. There are a few downsides of sous vide cooking, such as the large amounts of water used in each session and that it takes a long time for the water temperature to reach 140 degrees. For busy weekdays, I don’t have 30 minutes to wait for the oven to warm up before I can cook dinner. It’s not a quick cooking method, but more suited for batch cooking on a Sunday or for a large group dinner. After a few trial runs, I devised a few sous vide cooking hacks.
One idea is to only use the Sous Vide roughly once per month, which would allow me to batch cook and freeze several packets of food during one or two sessions. If I need to use it for a second session, I save the water in a jug so I can re-use it a few days later. That way, my conscious is at ease given the California drought. Instead of using the sous vide to re-warm the food, I thaw the pouch in the refridgerator overnight, and re-heat the food in the oven. Because I can control the temperature and cooking times of the food using the sous vide, I cook the food to medium rare. By the time I reheat the food in the oven, it should be at medium or nearly well-done without overcooking too much. I researched lots of ways to reheat frozen or thawed food without sacrificing the quality and taste. Here, here, and here.
My secret weapon is not really a hack, but a disciplined habit. I spend Sunday afternoon cooking a lot. And listening to Pandora and podcasts. Lately, these have been on heavy rotation: StartUp, Pop Culture Happy Hour, The Tim Ferriss Show. Here’s the latest episode of StartUp:
I still spend 3 or 4 hours cooking on Sundays, but I’m more intentional about using different cooking tools and methods. One time, when I was really organized and focused, I had different meals cooking in the sous vide, the oven, and the stove top at roughly the same time. It doesn’t happen often because it takes so much damned advanced planning –finding recipes suited for each type of cooking method, finishing grocery shopping, and preparing all of the ingredients. Most of the time, I’m lucky if I can crank out a few extra meals that will last me from Sunday through Tuesday. I have to continuously remind myself that those 4 hours are worth it because I get a cooking break for a few days, and I save money by bringing lunch to work.
One of these days, I might be as organized as this blogger. Until then, I’m just happy that I found my way back to the kitchen.
I’ve compiled the links and resources from this post, in addition to a few others, into an online flipboard magazine: CONTEXT | Kitchen Stories.