Deep Dish Youth

What follows is my attempt at recollection, a memoir if you will.  My road from waiting tables in high school to fine dining line chef.  There will likely be detours on the way, or stray tangents.  The lessons I’ve learned, the things to pass on.  I’m going to try to start at the beginning.

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I think it’s common knowledge that I grew up in a foodie household.  My mother is an excellent cook and she used to be a professional in her youth, before I was born.  She also made the desserts for my wedding, which were perfectly amazing.

I spent a lot of time helping my mother in the kitchen while I was growing up.  I learned the basics of a kitchen, as well as an appreciation for some of the finer aspects of the culinary arts.  Of course, none of these reasons explain why I chose to work in restaurants instead of just throwing exemplary dinner parties like a sensible person.

In truth, the road to the back of the house was practical in some choices, desperate in others.  Though a passion for good food drives me, skill and need drew me deeper into the well.

I never wanted to work in restaurants.  Except maybe as the cool bartender or something, before I knew how much actual work was involved.  I wanted to be a rockstar/famous actor-director.  Or I was going to be a cult-of-personality writing sensation.  I think I even seriously considered black magic as a means to instant wealth.

Through hindsight I can call it foreshadowing, but in reality my mother begged, cajoled, needled and threatened dire punishment until I dragged my heels into Edwardo’s Pizza and the owner was kind enough to take a chance on me.  I worked there for most of my senior year of high school, waiting tables while doing homework and radiating teen angst.

I’ve really only got vague memories of that place.  I barely cared about it and didn’t fully appreciate even a meager paycheck or cash in my pocket.  I learned how to pour a glass of wine and fill a pitcher of beer without too much head.  I had to relearn that later, when serving beer became a bigger part of my job.

I also had my first taste of how people treat service professionals, from kindness to blatant disregard.  I got $10 tips on $10 checks and had $200 tables of ten walkout without leaving so much as a penny.  I can and will write a whole chapter on dining etiquette in restaurants, be they fast food chains or three Michelin starred.  But I don’t want to get distracted now.

 I had a taste of life as a service professional and I hated it.  On my feet for six to twelve hours, underpaid and underappreciated.  That I was a self-involved teenage shithead with no plan and no solid ambition probably didn’t help.

I should add that, being a good Chicagoan, I love deep dish pizza.  I wish that I had learned to make them while I was a that place.  That beautiful chewy, flaky crust rising up over glorious pizza, covered in thick marinara and stuffed full of cheese and goodies.  Spinach and pesto is my favorite from Edwardo’s.  Chicago’s?  Roast beef and garlic.  Giordano’s?  Sausage and spinach.  Gino’s East doesn’t stuff their pizza, but their cornmeal crust is nice.  I like their pizza with pepperoni.

Along with my disdain for making a living at the mercy of others, a foolish notion in its own right, I decided that rather than going to college I was going to move into Chicago proper.  Oh the stories that could be told from the years that followed.  Sex, drugs, booze and rock ’n’ roll, and a party that didn’t always end well.  I could probably fill a book just from my years living in the apartment known as the House of the Lotus Eaters.

I worked in a now-closed SF/F bookstore in Evanston for a while.  Then did some clerical work for a homeopathic clinic at the edge of Lincoln Park.  Another place deserving of a book to itself, between the doctors and the clients.  From there I went to a legit clerical position with a major non-profit, where I learned the hard way why I don’t do desk jobs.

Eventually, due to what amounted to a minor nervous breakdown, I left the non-profit and failed to find work.

I’m almost certain that I was a pretty unpleasant person to be around in those days.  Broke, hungry and usually drunk or high.  No savings and ever-growing debt on top of terrible credit.  I still wasn’t very good about forethought and planning, so I couldn’t pay bills or rent and I was about to get kicked out of another apartment.

Fortunately one of my close friends had just returned from a vacation in Yosemite National Park.  I was on the verge of full-blown panic when I called him.  He told me he’d think about my situation and call me back.

He did, about ten minutes later, with a brilliant suggestion.  Get a job at Yosemite.  He had met some folks that worked there and I would fit in.  He paid for the train ride and put me up at his place until I got hired.

I sold or stored my things, stripped myself down to the bare essentials.  I was going to live in the mountains so I didn’t need much at all.  I spent a couple weeks saying my goodbyes and I was off.  For the first time, I was leaving Chicago without knowing when I’d see it or the people in it again.

Even in the thick of the chaos that was my life back then, I understood that I was at a precipice.  Though I was running off half-cocked, I knew that whatever came next would change me.  I was getting back to nature, to gain focus and perspective.  More importantly, I was taking direct action, instead of just waiting for something awesome to just happen.  And so off to California I went.

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Next up (in no particular order)

– Lessons in Humility, the Road to Adulthood (or How I Stopped Worrying and Embraced the Mundane)

– Proper Etiquette For Dining Out

– Adventures at 10,000 Feet

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Oatmeal Craziness!

There I go promising a brand new post for the New Year and I completely neglect the blog for the first two weeks of January.  To the handful of people that read this, I apologize.  It was thoughtless of me, getting your hopes up and not following through with some witty repartee.  I’ll make it up to you this year, with more posts.  My friend Justin over at Idle Banter has volunteered to do a guest spot with me some time soon.  The subject?  Probably video games.  Exciting, I know.

But what I bring to you today are cookies.  Delicious, home-baked cookies for you to drool over and then make yourself.  I’ve been on a cookie baking frenzy lately, and I thought I’d share some of the spoils of war.

Oatmeal Craziness Cookies (or Field Cookies, or Breakfast Cookies)

This recipe I pinched from my mom, and then added a bunch of stuff to.  They are good, hearty oatmeal cookies chock full with delicious stuff.  I don’t know about you, but I like my oatmeal cookies full of as many goodies as I can sanely mix into the dough.  Dried fruit and walnuts give me the illusion of health food, along with the oats, but the chocolate chips remind me that I’m still cheating by eating a cookie.  For the record, these cookies also hold up well when hiking.

Oatmeal Cookies

3/4 cup butter (softened)

Delicious, aren't they?

1 1/4 cup brown sugar (dark)

1 egg

1/3 cup milk

1 1/2 tsp vanilla

3 cup quick oats

1 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 cup dried blueberries

1/2 cup walnuts (chopped and toasted)

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven 375 degrees

In a large mixing bowl combine your sugar and your butter, creaming them until you achieve an even consistency.  In a separate smaller bowl, beat your eggs, milk and vanilla together, then combine them with the sugar and butter, continuing to stir them until completely even.  In yet another bowl, mix your dry ingredients together thoroughly.  The dried fruit, walnuts and chocolate chips can be held to the side until the end.  Slowly add your dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, stirring until dough forms and no dry ingredients are visible, then mix in the extras.

At this point I like to let the dough stand, chilling it in the fridge to make rolling it into balls easier.  Cover a baking sheet with wax paper or spray it lightly with cooking spray.  Roll your oatmeal dough into 2 inch balls and place them at least an inch and a half apart, as many as your baking sheet will allow.  Bake them 10 – 12 min, until golden brown.

Let them sit and voila, delicious cookies.

On a related note, I can’t recommend enough the America’s Test Kitchen and Best New Recipe cookbooks.  Delicious baked goods, savory meals, you name it.  There is some shared recipes between the two books.  The former is in color with glossy pages, the latter is larger and more detailed.  Both have exquisite behind-the-scenes details, testing notes as well as technique recommendations.  I’m not generally a cookbook fan, but these two are so full of detail that its worth it for absolute amateur or seasoned vet.  Thanks to my mom for getting them for me.

Boozin’ up the food…

Alright, so I love to cook.  My earliest memories are helping my mom in the kitchen, be it with dinner or with baking or what have you.  I didn’t always make the best food, as some of my friends can attest, but I’ve always loved it.  Second only to finding new things to cook is finding things to do with booze in my food.  Whiskey, beer, wine, tequila, they have all wound up in my cooking over the years.  Finding a nice, heavy stout for chili, with just a pinch of Irish whiskey to bring out the flavors.  Or a good white wine for risotto, or a good red to poach pears in.  Alcohol has a place in food, just as it has a place at the table.

My most recent culinary creation is beef stew.  I know right, you probably think of Dinty Moore from a can, heated up on a hot plate in your college dorm.  Or you don’t.  I think of my mom’s homemade beef stew, and my dad opening up a can.  When I think of beef stew though, I think of something warm, hearty and delicious, perfect for a chilly autumn or winter day.  Beef stew is also great to make in large batches and freeze, portion-friendly, for lunches or quick dinners.

Everybody does it differently, I’m sure.  I didn’t follow any recipe, though I did have a nice chat with my mother on what we like to put in stew.  And it was my mother who gave me the idea for beer.  Granted, she suggested Guinness.  Guinness is a very lovely stout, very easy to come by, but isn’t quite the flavor profile I want out of a stew.  I’m a fan of ales, usually the hoppier the better.  What I found though was absolutely delicious.  Kona Brewing Co. has a limited release beer called Pipeline Porter, brewed with Kona coffee.  A porter being close cousins with a stout, and liking coffee as much as I do, I figured I’d give it a crack.

Beer in hand, the next dilemma when planning stew is the cut of meat.  There is always a reserve portion of ‘stew meat’ from a cow.  Usually chuck or something, its the part of the cow that is toughest, and thus warrants being slow-braised to make it palatable.  Pardon my language, but I believe that to be horseshit.  Why not just get something nice?  Do you want your pot roast to be tough?  Your steak?  Hell no.  So I picked up a nice, well-marbled tri-tip roast.  That’s right, tri-tip.  Only the best for my stew.

So let us run over the ingredients here:

2 lb Tri-tip roast

3 cup carrot

3 cup celery

1 yellow onion

4 small Yukon Gold potatoes

1/2lb sliced Baby Bella mushrooms

6 cloves garlic (whole)

2 tbsp dried thyme

1 tbsp dried oregano

1 bottle Pipeline Porter

48oz Organic Beef Stock

Salt & Pepper to taste

So first things first, cube your beef.  I made nice bite-size chunks out of it, then dredged it in a combo of AP flour, salt and pepper.  Dredging, for those who haven’t heard the word in this context, is when you coat your meat in the flour mixture before browning.  Gives it a nice crispness, a little extra flavor and is great to help thicken a stew.  So right, cube your beef, dredge it, then brown it lightly in a saute pan.  Throw it in your crockpot.  Did I mention that this is a crockpot recipe?  Don’t own a crockpot?  You can find a workable one for $20 at Target.  You definitely want to  buy one, and not just for this recipe.

Where were we?  Right.  Brown your beef, chuck it in the crockpot.  Now we can start on the veggies.  The onion, you should slice into 1/4in strips.  I like them cut lengthwise for appearance, but you can dice them if you’d like.  Add a little more oil to your beef pan (don’t clean it) and saute your onions until they start to color a little.  They’ll soak up that flavor from the beef, to help put back into the stew.

Next we have carrots, celery and potatoes.  Carrots, onion and celery are stew and soup essentials.  I like getting baby carrots and slicing them into 1/4in or 1/8in rounds.  Celery can be chopped to a similar size.  I used Yukon Gold potatoes, with a medium dice.  And I was super lazy and bought pre-sliced mushrooms, of the Baby Bella variety.  Add all your veggies into the pot.  Now you have a great huge pile of veggies and meat.  Add your herbs (thyme and oregano), and open two bottles of beer.  Pour one bottle of beer into the crockpot.  The other is for you to drink.  Add your beef stock on top of that.  Now you’re done.

No really, that’s it.  Turn your crockpot on low, cover it and let it go.  If you want to thicken it some, mix cornstarch with cold water until smooth.  I added about a cup of the cornstarch mixture.  And you can just leave it alone.  I let my stew cook for something like 12 hours covered on low, and it turned out beautifully.  I even took pictures for you.

So all total, the prep time is about a 1/2 to 1 hour dependent on how quick you are with a knife, whether you’re trying to cook something else at the same time, whether you have children, pets or spouses underfoot, etc…

I’m serving mine with some honey cornbread, to provide a sweet counterpoint to the savory stew.  Hope you enjoyed this, and if you attempt it, let me know how it turned out.