Category: opinion (page 2 of 4)

10 Things I Learned In Culinary School (That I Still Use Today)

It’s been three years since I attended culinary school in Moorhead, Minnesota. We were offered the opportunity to move to Iowa for my husband’s job right after I completed my first full-time year. While I have decided not to jump back into school again, I learned a lot that year that I continue to practice every day in my happiest place, my home kitchen. Here are some of my favorite tidbits of knowledge our culinary instructors taught us:

The first rule of culinary school: A falling knife has no handle. Seriously, friends. If you drop a knife, just step back and let it fall.

Be patient and let bread rise twice, once for flavor, twice for structure. Don’t rush the process unless you want messed-up bread. If you’re going for flatbread, that could be a different story.

Purchase “dry” or “dry-packed scallops.” Dry scallops are scallops, plain and simple. Wet scallops are soaked in sodium triphosphate solution that adds water weight and affects the flavor. Because wet-packed scallops absorb the solution, they are waterlogged when thawed and difficult to sear. Don’t hesitate to ask your fish monger or seafood department manager if they are selling wet or dry scallops. If he or she doesn’t know, buy them from someone who does (or a clearly marked package).

How to prepare dough by feel. Preparing pasta, bread, and pie dough became less intimidating when I could feel when the dough was ready. Our culinary instructors walked us through the processes, but the rest of the learning came from practice. Eventually, you will just be able to handle a dough and tell if it’s too wet, too dry, or just right.

Pie crusts aren’t scary! I didn’t attempt making pie crust before culinary school because I was afraid I’d ruin it. One morning in baking lab, I made pie after pie alongside my culinary instructor. It was one of my favorite learning experiences. I loved how she didn’t handle pie and scone dough too delicately. Her approach was not to stress too much. “Many people get themselves into trouble because they don’t add enough water,” she shared. Instead of sticking to recipe’s strict number of tablespoons of ice water, I add it until the dough holds together.

Make the leftover pie crust dough into something special. The excess pie crust you trim will become too tough if you try to roll it out again into another pie. Simply, do as our instructors taught us: Roll the dough into a flat sheet and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar. Bake and enjoy!

I can make roux in my sleep. At the time, I wasn’t enthusiastic about my soup and sauce class. Twice a week, we raced to the back room to drag out the portable gas burners and made roux-based sauce after roux-based sauce. It was the last class of the day, and so we always tried to pair-up with a competent partner and make that day’s assignment as quickly as possible. In hindsight, I have no idea why we were in such a hurry. The best part of this class is that I can make a creamy, roux-based sauce in my sleep. Biscuits and homemade gravy? No problem! A complex, savory veloute made from the drippings on the bottom of my crock pot? Easy enough. Mac & cheese sauce? Got it.

Cool down big pots of soup, safely, in an ice bath. Food safety class was a trip. Our ServSafe Food Handler book literally instructed us not to vomit into food. While this advice was really obvious, other details weren’t, such as the correct holding temperatures of food served inside vs. outdoors, the time frames of how long food can be held at the correct hot and cold temps, and the order food should be arranged in the fridge. Sometimes I wonder if I now too much about food safety for my own good. For example, I take special care to cool down pots of soup as quickly as possible before storing them in the fridge. There is actually a two-stage cooling process to minimize harmful bacteria in which food must be cooled from 141-70°F within two hours and from 70-41°F within four.

Parchment paper is your best friend. Taking the time to trace and cut out parchment paper to line your baking pans ensures easy removal and no damage. I roast my veggies on parchment paper, too. Potatoes have a tendency to stick to my pans. Flipping my baked fries is a breeze when I line my sheet pans with parchment paper.

Many foods can be fixed. There were so many times we ran to our instructors fearing we ruined a dish. They were almost always able to fix things. A few baking disasters were lost causes, but most of the foods were salvageable after playing with the seasonings and textures. Don’t give up. At least, not right away.

What’s your favorite piece of kitchen wisdom? Has a family member, friend, or employer ever given you a piece of cooking advice that you find yourself returning to frequently? 

Everything I’ve Ever Wanted To Say About Burgers

Disclaimer: Sorry Mom and Dad.

If you really want to bother me, overcook my burger.

The prelude to disappointment is when a restaurant asks you how you want your burger cooked and then it arrives well done, anyway. I always ask for medium rare and just hope it arrives a little south of hockey puck.

Growing-up, we ate burgers weekly and I avoided burgers into my mid-20’s because I assumed I hated them. I remember helping my mom divide one pound of beef into four balls and packing them into disks. We seasoned them with salt and pepper and placed them on the grill until they were charred on the outside and well done on the inside. It’s not that they tasted horrible; I just didn’t understand why anyone would go out of their way to eat a hamburger.

My perfect burger is simply a burger that isn’t messed up. There are burgers for every mood and occasion, but when I’m really craving a burger, I want a classic one. O’Connell’s Pub delivered our perfect burger this weekend. It was like my mom grilled us a burger on our deck and didn’t mess it up. Now, I’m left with intense burger feelings.

Use delicious beef! But not too lean.

Don’t overcook it.

Keep it loosely packed.

Season the beef, but cook it however you like.

Grill it or griddle it, I really don’t care as long as it’s medium rare and you do all of the things I just mentioned.

Take the time to toast the bun because, let’s be real, it only takes a second and makes a huge difference.

Hold the foccacia or ramen noodle or Texas toast bun and keep your wacky sauces for another time. 

Simple garnishes like raw onion and tomato are just fine and there’s no shame in the ketchup game. Crisp iceberg lettuce is OK, too. A good burger’s like good pizza. Too many toppings can be overkill. More guacamole, peanut butter, and chicken fried bacon burgers for everyone else!

Good burgers don’t have to be expensive. If your burger costs at least $12 and then I have to pay extra to upgrade the potato chips to french fries, I’m gonna get cranky. Especially if it’s overcooked. And double especially if it has canned mushrooms.

Much of a burger’s goodness is about the person who cooks it. Last month, I enjoyed a good burger at the Hilton Garden Inn by the Lambert airport. The chef cooked it to a perfect medium rare and served it with crispy, house-cut french fries. I’ve received far less burgers for a higher price and at fancier restaurants.

A simple burger cooked well is a beautiful thing.

The Eight Things Grocery Stores Do That Win My Love

As someone who enjoys cooking and trying new foods, I like grocery shopping. Living in four states around the Midwest has given us the opportunity to visit many different grocery stores. Something that is a normal part of the grocery shopping experience in one state or a certain chain might not be at the next. A recent visit to a deli counter brought all of my thoughts on grocery shopping to fruition and helped me identify eight things that grocery stores do that win my love:

1. Freshly Slicing Deli Meat To Order
Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer understands deli meat. In the episode The Slicer, he purchases a slicer for home use and highlights the glories of freshly sliced meat. “Look how thin that is, see, that’s all surface area. The taste has nowhere to hide!” he exclaims as he holds up a paper-thin slice of meat.

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There’s always episodes of Seinfeld on our DVR.

The delis that perplex me are the ones that showcase whole deli meats and cheeses, yet reach down and pull out a wad of pre-sliced meat or saran-wrapped cheese after I place my order. Sometimes I literally have no idea from which depths they pulled the meat or cheese and it’s like a terrible deli SURPRISE. Others surround their lunch meat logs with such vast, rippling oceans of pre-sliced meat that no one would have to actually operate the meat slicer during business hours for days.

Usually the pre-sliced meat is thickly cut and shaped into strange curls that are supposed to look attractive but actually make me really not want to eat them.

I like thick slices of Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham, but thin slice of sandwich meat. Plus, it’s easier to stretch thin slices into more sandwiches. I know the deli meat, pre or freshly sliced, is just going to sit in my fridge for the week, but I can’t help but wonder when that meat was actually sliced and like to pretend the slices have had less time to grow bacteria when sliced on the spot. And, gosh darn, freshly sliced meat just makes me feel better.

2. Keeping Produce Dry
Dry produce lasts longer while damp produce decomposes faster. Anyone who’s ever thrust their arms into a pile of waterlogged kale and fished for the least slimy bunch knows what I’m talking about. Inevitably, I always end up shaking the wet vegetation in a frustrated attempt to rid it of excess water, sending a wide shower of muddy water all over myself and the floor. Dry produce is happy produce and happy produce is for me.

3. Not Making Me Jump Through Hoops For Paper Bags. Grocery stores that offer paper bags without a hassle end their guests’ shopping experiences on positive notes. I admit that I need to remember to shop with my reusable bags more often, but sometimes I forget them or want a paper bag to collect recycling in my kitchen.

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I’ve encountered stores that have trained their Sales Associates to begin conversations with, “Is plastic ok?” or automatically pack groceries into plastic bags at lightning speed. I hated finding myself starting conversations with “May I have paper?” but knew that if I didn’t, paper just wasn’t going to happen. Obviously, grocery stores honor customers’ requests for paper bags, but customers might have to be speedy or straightforward to get them.

At one particular store, no matter how quickly I tried to ask for paper, associates always managed to fill at least one plastic bag that needed to be repacked into paper. On some occasions, I really did need that paper bag for recycling day, but on others I simply sighed and said, “Never-mind, that’s OK.” My requests for  paper bags are always met with a chipper “sure!” or “of course,” I can sense fear behind those smiles.

What exactly happens to those who freely dispense paper bags at these stores, I may never know, but, to those who do, I offer my thanks.

4. Selling Clearanced Items. I’m fond of grocery stores that offer clearance items, because clearance items are fun! Sometimes it’s a gamble and I end up wasting money on a product that was clearanced because nobody liked it. And other times I find a deal.

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At one store in Mason City, I got a kick out of waiting for the super expensive baking mixes to sell for half off, like the Crumbs Bake Shoppe Colossal Cupcake kit. I’ve also found many sensible items on clearance like canned tuna and hot sauces that aren’t anywhere near their expiration date.

5. Treating Customers To Samples. Because who doesn’t love snacks?

6. Providing Small Grocery Carts. Since I grocery shop for two, I don’t often need a big cart, anyway. Small carts make it easier to complete a small grocery shopping trip quickly.

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I push a grocery cart like I drive. Nothing drives me nuts like navigating a full-sized grocery cart between aisles and around displays. Not to mention, trying not to crash into the displays while I also struggle not to bump into all of the other people pushing giant carts and strollers. This is why I will literally do everything possible never to push a full-sized grocery cart. I will also do everything possible to never make more than one trip carrying groceries from my car to my house which is why I love that small carts limit how much I buy.

7. Setting Out A Mailbox For Customers. In Iowa, many of the grocery stores’ customer service desks are outfitted with USPS services where you can purchase stamps and mail packages. I loved that I could take care of my mail and grocery shopping in one trip. Although we had a mailbox at home, I often found myself carrying around letters I forgot to mail or stamp. I always appreciate it when stores provide something as simple as mail basket at their customer service desks.

8. Offering Express Lanes Managed By Real People.
I often run to the grocery store to buy a few items or grab that one ingredient that I forgot and appreciate express lanes. Not the self-service check-out lanes, but the express lanes for customers buying 12 items or less actually managed by a human.

Self-service lanes are supposed to be faster, but actually take me longer because I have no idea what I’m doing. One reason why I bumble around trying to find the right produce buttons and codes is that I don’t actually work there. Inevitably, I’ll hit the wrong button or place an object in an area that triggers an alarm and will have to wait for assistance, anyway. If stores offered even a small discount to customers who scanned, weighed, bagged, and processed payments for their own groceries, customers might use them with less hesitation.

How does a grocery store earn your loyalty or push you into the loving aisles of another?

Food Snob

As a new college graduate, I was a food snob.

I hated the idea of eating at a chain restaurant. My coworker felt the same way and we made such a terrible stink about our friend suggesting we eat at Olive Garden to celebrate a staff member’s birthday that we made her feel bad. She walked away from the conversation with a crumpled expression on her face saying, “Well, I like Olive Garden.” I’ve never forgotten the sinking feeling in my stomach from hurting my friend.

It’s not our food preferences that made us a food snob, it’s how we make others feel about theirs.

Marilyn Hagerty changed my life. I had lived in Fargo-Moorhead for about a year when her Olive Garden review first surfaced. Frankly, I thought she was nuts. Now that I’ve lived in the rural Midwest for going on four years, I kind of get it. Almost any new food business that moves into town is a hopeful sign of economic growth. It’s a new option and worth investigating. There’s also the fact that Hagerty is a talented, seasoned journalist who can like and write about whatever she wants.

Bismarck Crawl

Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Department of Commerce. Taken at the North Dakota Writers & Bloggers Workshop, June 2013 at Fireflour Pizza, Bismarck, ND.

That food snob inside me surfaced recently. Last November my in-laws announced they were leading us on a Joe’s restaurant crawl to celebrate my father-in-law’s birthday and I may have balked. Ok, so I totally balked. We were supposed to visit three Twin Cities restaurants in one day that included the name, “Joe” in their title, ending at Joe’s Crab Shack.

If it was my birthday, I probably wouldn’t choose Joe’s Crab Shack, but you know what? It wasn’t my birthday. I embraced my bib, sipped a colorful cocktail from a mason jar, and dug into a crab pot. It’s true that I enjoyed the food that I ate. Most importantly, my family was there and so I had a great time.

Just remember, it’s not my birthday and it’s probably not yours. I can play favorites, but never want to become so sophisticated that I can’t enjoy an evening out with loved ones at an Applebee’s.

I like purchasing organic butter from grass-fed cows and eggs from cage-free chickens. One of my vices is mango-habanero hot wings from Buffalo Wild Wings and I will never go to your Wildtree party, but if I have four dollars in my pocket, I’ll buy a box of your Thin Mints. So, does this mean that you must, too? Hell no. As food writer Jordana Rothman commented about the food culture of hate during the past year, “Let’s just all like what we like and hate what we hate in 2015.” 

Speak with your purchases and voice and pen for what you like and want to see. We can play favorites, but should aspire to do so with kindness.

What Details Make A Dining Experience Extra Special Or Extra Annoying?

Des Moines author, columnist and blogger Wini Moranville recently wrote about “What to Look for Before You Splurge in a Restaurant,” which gave me some food for thought.

After I read her piece, I’ve pondered the little things that make a dining experience extra special or extra annoying. Of course, I notice different details depending on the restaurant’s price range, but here’s what’s generally on my list:

Annoyances

  • Serving asparagus with the tough, woody stalks. This especially bothers me if I’m at a more expensive restaurant. If Rachel Ray can remember to snap off the tough ends of her asparagus each time she prepares them on 30-Minute Meals, you can too.

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  • Serving wilted or rusting lettuce: This is just so lazy. Especially if the lettuce is part of a salad or hamburger garnish, where I know someone actually placed the blemished produce on my plate by hand.

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  • Not providing salt on the tables: I maintain my viewpoint that withholding salt is arrogant, no matter the chef’s talent. I wrote a whole post on this topic earlier this year.
  • Telling not-technically lies: Phrases like “freshly-baked,” and “hand-rolled,” lead customers to assume a product is house-made, but can often mean that the restaurant receives frozen dough or pastries that they thaw and bake or form in the store. It’s not that I won’t eat these foods, I just think restaurants should call it like it is.

Thrills

  • Offering prices on specials: I appreciate when a restaurant lists the prices of their daily specials and/or encourages servers to automatically state the price of the specials. That being said, the burden is still on the customer. ALWAYS ask for the price of a daily special and never make assumptions. I’ve gotten burned by assuming that a special would be affordable or feeling too embarrassed to ask for the price in fear that I’d be considered “cheap.” I’ll never forget how I felt upon discovering that my waterlogged, baked catfish fillet special cost $30. Don’t be bashful.
  • Making customers genuinely feel like family: The restaurants that truly make you feel like you are apart of their family are special, whether lowbrow or highbrow. Sincere hospitality fosters loyalty and regulars. For example, Jake and I visit a Mexican restaurant in town where the bartender always remembers who we are and what we typically order. For all we know, there’s a different Mexican restaurant in town with better food, but we’ll be darned if we cheat on our favorite staff.
  • Offering creative-non alcoholic drinks: I realize alcohol is a huge revenue generator at restaurants, but I appreciate the places that offer creative, non-alcoholic options. Not everyone can drink or wants to drink for a thousand different reasons. People who choose not to drink alcohol deserve to have nice things to drink beyond soda, coffee, O’Douls, Shirley Temples, and Roy Rogers. There are evenings that I might pay a premium price for a high quality, non-alcoholic beverage. Mezzaluna in Fargo, ND comes to mind because the bartenders are happy to whip up the most beautiful non-alcoholic drink if you’d like one.
  • Honoring requests for extra spicy: This is just a personal preference, but since Jake and I like spicy food, we are thrilled when a restaurant will actually make food extra spicy. This is especially challenging to find in the Midwest, outside of a larger metropolitan area. We’ve begged for our orders to be extra extra spicy to no avail. Our theory is that restaurants might be hesitant to add heat, because enough people who requested extra-spicy had ended up sending back the dish for being too spicy. I’ve finally seemed to crack the code by adding the phrase, “You can’t hurt me. I promise.” Two for two, ya’ll!
  • Automatically providing tap water: I’m always appreciative when a server automatically provides tap water when we first arrive at a restaurant. Oftentimes, customers need to ask for a glass of water, while others seem to assume that a customer doesn’t want a glass of water if he or she orders a drink. I’m not sure about the reasoning behind how a restaurant decides whether or not to automatically offer guests water, but it feels welcoming to receive water without asking.

What irks you about a dining experience or makes it extra special? Do you think I’m completely off base with any of these points? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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