So You Want To Be A Waiter

The best book on waiting tables that you have never read – yet

Tag Archives: flavor profiles

Culinary term of the day – miso

Miso. A simple thing, this aged, pureed soybean paste. And yet, it is quite complex in its own way.

According to the book, “How To Cook With Miso” by Aveline Tomoko Kushi (©1978, Japan Publications, INC, ISBN 0-87040-450-4), miso “contains living enzimes which aid digestion, and provides a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, vitamins, minerals, and protein”.

Miso is also in integral part of Japanese culture. Not only is it seemingly ubiquitous, it also plays an important role in the harmony that the Japanese follow in food preparation and consumption. It is an important ingredient in the concept of yin and yang in food (that is a subject that is beyond the purview of this article; if you are interested, I suggest that you do some Googling). It also has impact on health, as it can be used as a healing paste, or as a tonic to counteract the effects of too much alcohol or tobacco use.

But we in the West seem to only encounter it as the broth in starter soups at sushi restaurants.

I predict that miso will become a “buzz ingredient” in the near future. We’re already seeing some forward-thinking Western chefs incorporating it in more and more dishes. We’re seeing it incorporated in salad dressings and fish broths. It’s a flavor that hs been recognized as a great carrier for “umami”, the famous “fifth flavor profile” of savoriness. When miso broth is augmented with kombu (a specific type of dried seaweed) and dashi (dried bonito flakes), umami is allowed to bloom, especially when you add mushrooms, another ingredient with massive umami characteristics. Addionally, miso has its own umami flavor components.

This is the form that we see it in the sushi restaurant starter soup, that cloudy, rich broth with a couple of slivers of shiitake mushroom and scallions. This soup usually starts with a kombu and dashi stock, and miso is added to give it body.

But miso is more than just a great addition to soup. In the sushi restaurant, we often see it as a major component of the dressing that tops the simple starter salad that accompanies many meals. Restaurants as mainstream as California Pizza Kitchen and Applebees and high-end places like The French Laundry and Nobu have incorporated miso into their menus. Many mainstream restaurants have an “Asian salad”, and it’s almost a certainty that miso is used in the dressing. It gives that slightly earthy quality that one prizes in Asian dressing. And  Nobu Matsuhisa, chef-owner of famed restaurant Nobu, has a signature black cod and miso dish that has become famous.

So, how do you encounter miso in the wild? It’s normally found in plastic wrapped bricks. It almost has the feel of fresh mozzarella; a sort of sensuous pliability. It’s both soft and firm.

What kinds of miso are there?

First of all, it doesn’t have to be fermented soybean, although that’s the most common type that we encounter. It can be made from fermented rice or barley or several other grains, and any of these grains can augment soybean miso. The two most common types of miso that we find in the US are red and white miso. However, as I’ve said, there are several versions of miso. Miso is often made in Japan according to family traditions and each family has their own way of making miso. Here are the different kinds:

Kome miso (rice miso), mugi miso (barley miso), misozuke (miso with pickled vegetables), name miso (salt and eggplant or melon), Tyougou miso, (mixed miso, or miso made from multiple sources), red miso (aged miso), and white miso (normal miso). Occasionally, you come across yellow and black miso as well.

Each miso has its own flavor characteristics. Most of the time, US chefs and cooks will choose between red and white miso. However, don’t be misled, “white” miso isn’t usually white. It’s a lighter shade of “red”. Actually both kinds of miso usually appear to be red-brown. White miso usually looks more beige than white while red miso is more brick-red. And there are variations in all colors, depending on the type of processing and aging involved. white miso is usually sweeter, while red miso has the earthier flavor and lasts longer in storage. white miso usually has a higher proportion of white rice and is better suited for dressings, while red miso has more soybean content, is aged longer and has a more robust and complex flavor perfectly suited for hearty soups and can be used in sauces and braises.

And I think that it’s in main dishes that miso will become a star performer in the future as Western chefs learn its unique properties. Here’s a good example of miso being used as a glaze for halibut:

http://www.grouprecipes.com/46666/citrus-red-miso-ginger-glazed-halibut.html

How is miso made?

It starts with koji, a “starter” of fermented barley, rich, wheat or soybean. Koji is roughly akin to sourdough starter, or the yeast/grain/carbohydrate combo in alcoholic products. The ingredient that koji is made from determines the type of tofu because soybeans usually comprise the bulk of the miso. Koji is then combined with soaked and steamed soybeans and salt. Depending on the type of miso being made, the levels of the various types of koji are adjusted up or down. All miso is aged to a certain degree because additional fermentation is required. For white miso, fermentation is limited to a few weeks, while red miso can be aged up to 18 months.

So, what is the takeaway from all of this?

Miso is an ingredient that will become increasingly prominent in Western cooking and more and more of the general public become exposed to it in mainstream restaurants. We’re already seeing it happen. As a waiter, you should at least know what it is, what its flavor profile is, how you can use it tableside to market dishes that include it. Many of your guests have heard the name but have no clue what it is. It’s your job to gently educate them.

And I hope that more and more of you home cooks incorporate this lovely and nutritious ingredient in your own cooking.

Viognier

It’s French., It’s sexy. It’s a rising star. It’s Viognier.

Pronounced “vee own yay”. it’s a white varietal that has long been famous in Europe, especially for it’s use in Condreau, one of the more exotic French whites. I say “exotic” because it’s flavor profile is different from the typical Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc/Pinot Grigio-based wines that Americans have become accustomed to. If there’s a white grape that most closely resembles it in terms of flavor notes, I’d say that it’s Riesling, although Riesling is sweeter than Viognier. Viognier is usually described as “perfumey”.

Viognier at its best produces a floral, rich-tasting wine. It’s not done as often in an oaky style because oak can deaden the wonderful floral, tropical fruit and spice notes, but there are Viogniers that feature oak flavors.

Due to the increasing US consumer’s expanding interest in wine and a desire to get away from the usual suspects, Viognier is on the upswing here in the States. This is a good thing since Viognier almost vanished from the wine world back in the 60s. Not only has it made a bit of a comeback in France, where only a relative handful of acres were devoted to Viognier plantings, it’s starting to make a foothold in California.

Like Pinot Noir, it’s a fussy and hard-to-grow grape. If proper care isn’t taken, it can produce a flat, somewhat flabby wine. But when it’s done correctly, it produces a full-bodied white with such floral notes as apple blossoms, violets, honey, honeysuckle, jasmine and roses, spicy notes such as mint, tobacco (!), anise and vanilla, and unctuous fruits like guava, earthy fruits like pears and apricots and tropical fruits such as pineapple and mango. As you can see, it shares some of the flavor characteristics of Riesling, but without the sweetness. There are two other things that it shares with Riesling and those are it’s luscious, oily mouthfeel and nose. When oak is employed, it’s often of the more “buttery” kind.  These characteristics can move a guest who likes the “fruitiness” of Riesling to the drier and more food-friendly Viognier.

So, what do you pair with Viognier?

They go well with salad-based dishes.  They are one of the few wines that pairs well with Oriental food, especially spicy Thai dishes, and they pair well with coconut spicy curries (I don’t find it as good of a match with Indian-style curries, but that’s a personal choice). They go well with fatty white fish like sea bass and halibut. And they are marvelous with fruits and fruit sauces.

We’re starting to see dessert wines made from Viognier. Since Viognier isn’t particularly susceptible to boytritis, growers usually rely on late-harvesting and manipulation in order to produce a sweet product.

Viognier doesn’t produce a wine conducive to aging. It should usually be drunk within 3 to 5 years because it tends to lose it’s “perfumey” character.

We’re increasingly seeing Viognier used in blending with Chardonnay because it brings a lot of freshness to the sometimes overbearing qualities of Chardonnay. It’s also used in exotic blends like Conundrum (I only suspect this since they don’t really list their varietals).

I’m not going to recommend any particular wines since it’s likely that if you’re even lucky enough to have Viognier on your wine list, you’ll only have one or two to choose from. The best thing to do is to buy a couple of them from your local wine store and get familiar with the flavor profiles. Or perhaps you could convince management to do a tasting.

It’s time for you to add Vigonier to your wine palette.

Image courtesy of http://wine.appellationamerica.com/

Wine of the day – Shiraz

Shiraz – named after a city in Iran of all places. It’s also known as Syrah, which is the name of the grape. The name Shiraz is courtesy of our Australian friends and it used to be that they were about the only ones who used the term. But American vintners have seemed to have started riding the Australian coattails because they have been really successful in calling it Shiraz and we Americans certainly will ride any successful marketing coattails. So now you’re seeing such wineries as Beringer, Francis Coppola and Geyser Peak marketing their Syrahs as Shirazes. I predict that the trend will continue to accelerate. In fact, I think that Syrah will eventually be the rarity. The French refuse to budge though because they are known as the premiere bottler of Syrah in their Rhône region (named after the great river which runs through it). No new world marketing trend will change that fact.

The Aussies also pronounce Shiraz a little differently than the rest of the world. They pronounce it Shir- AZZ, whereas we pronounce it Shir-OZ. The latter is the more “correct” pronunciation, if you are trying to pronounce the name of the city. The latter is what you will hear mostly in the US unlike you’re like me, who likes to pronounce an Australian Shiraz the way the vintners pronounce it. I use the American pronunciation for Shiraz produced anywhere else. But that’s just me.

So, what is Syrah/Shiraz?

The grape comes from hardy rootstock which is late budding but doesn’t ripen too late.  According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it is “conveniently late-budding and not too late ripening”. According to the same reference, “Its deep, dark, dense qualities are much reduced once the yield is allowed to rise and it has a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left too long on the vine”. This explains the wide price variation between, say, Penfold’s Grange (at hundreds of dollars a bottle) and their Thomas Hyland Vineyard wine (which only costs tens of dollars). Another good example is Hermitage (please pronounce it air-ma-TAHZE, as the French do). This is one of the most expensive bottlings of the great Rhône region. It’s only a 311 acres region in the Northern Rhône and there are a handful of producers who produce it. However, Syrah is the predominate grape in all Rhône regions, from Côtes-du Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You will also obviously find it in the famous “Rhône Rangers” of the West Coast, like Tablas Creek of the Central Coast.

So how would you describe Syrah/Shiraz? Well, to me, it’s similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body. Full-bodied and dark, it’s more fruit forward” and juicy. It’s usually firm and well-structured and not quite as tannic as Cab Sauv. It’s got lots of dark fruit, especially fruits like blackberry, plum and black cherry, and they tend to be fairly spicy. They can be peppery or chocolatey or both; they can have clove, licorice and vanilla. Leathery notes aren’t uncommon.

Cool climate Syrahs tend to be more “elegant” with a richer flavor profile (read Northern Rhone,  coastal and higher altitude California and the extremely rare Australian boutiquey vintner), while warmer climate-grown Syrahs are generally “bigger”, “jammier” with some “lighter” fruit flavors like blueberries and raspberries. This is the predominate style of Australian producers due to the fact that their growing regions tend to be hotter. 

West Coast producers have generally followed the australian model, since they are the most familiar to the US consumer, but there is an increasing trend to go after the Northern Rhône style. Since California has both types of climates available to it, the vintners there can produce according to their geographic and topographic constraints. Syrah works in both warm and cool environments, and each offers advantages that should be factored into the production. Cool climate Syrahs have been more of a challenge because US consumers have been conditioned by the success of the Aussies as well as the fact that more people can afford to drink wines from the southern Rhône and are more familiar with the style.

Australians probably grow the highest percentage of Shiraz to the rest of their output. It’s ubiquitous. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because there is plenty to choose from. It’s bad because yields are often too high and the varietal loses some of its character and it can be flabby, “underspiced”, overcooked in hot years, etc. Look first to established producers like Penfolds, Wolf Blass and D’Arenberg. This isn’t to say that others aren’t good, but these producers tend to be pretty consistent within their various niches. However, if you want to hit a home run virtually every time, look to Mollydooker (usually one word but even the winemakers make it two words on occasion). The name is Aussie slang for a left hander (and can be used to describe a “left hook”) and that’s what the wine will give you. Big, juicy, spicy and never “flabby” or tired, the various bottlings have never failed to satisfy. They are certainly “in-your-face” but never in a bad way. The winemakers, Sarah and Sparky Phillips, they first became well-known outside of their home country with the famed brand,  Marquis Phillips. The Phillipses are clever marketers, creating memorable names for each of their specific blends, and they tie a cartoon version of the name on the label. Some of their most famous offerings are “The Blue-eyed Boy”, “The Boxer” (there’s that left hook thing working for them), “Two left Feet”, “The Maitre D’ “, and “Carnival of Love”. If you’d like more info on this up-and-comer, here’s their website where you can click on each of their offerings and the labels and bottles.

http://www.mollydookerwines.com.au/web/trade_info.cfm

They have various blends of Shirazes and Cabernets, so you might need to google the specific wine that interests you, since it’s hard to find specifics on some of the wines at the Mollydooker site itself.

So, what should we pair Shiraz/Syrah with?

Think Cabernet Sauvignon. You want to pair the average Shiraz or Syrah with fatty meats, stews, lamb, game, etc. Obviously, if you know your various styles, you can fine tune it even further. For instance, you might not want to pair a big jammy Australian Shiraz with a rare tuna steak, while you might handily recommend an Hermitage or Cornas (a region close to hermitage in the northern Rhône) because the jamminess won’t overwhelm the flavor of the tuna. I’m not saying that you can’t pair a warm climate Syrah with tuna. For instance,  Côtes-du Rhône is blended with at least 40% Grenache, which tends to soften and reduce the body of the wine.  Therefore, it can pair nicely with something like tuna or salmon.

But, in general, you should recommend Syrah/Shiraz as you would for any other full-bodied red. Believe it or not, it’s great “picnic wine”, especially if you’re eating BBQ, ribeyes or juicy burgers. Fat and Syrahs work well in concert with each other.

So go forth and sell Syrah/Shiraz with confidence. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope that I’ve given you the right thumbnail sketch to help you when someone is looking for a good red wine to go with their prime rib.

Famed chef Thomas Keller eats some of the best chicken wings anywhere in Nashville

From The Tennessean:

Chef Thomas Keller braves the heat at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

By Jennifer Justus • THE TENNESSEAN • March 31, 2010

The meticulous French-style chef, one of the most respected in the nation, has intense dark eyes that could sear a sloppy line cook faster than a filet in a hot pan.

But sitting across from him at the lunch table, I watched as a single tear rolled down his cheek.

He dabbed it with a paper napkin.

And then he reached for another bite of hot chicken.

I didn’t mean to make him cry. Really. But I admit that when I heard the famous chef — he of the James Beard accolades, the Michelin stars and the collection of posh restaurants from Napa to New York — was headed to Nashville for a book-signing, I knew Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was where I wanted to take him.

No question, fried chicken is hot right now. Just last week, movie star Gwyneth Paltrow gushed about eating fried chicken in Nashville on her GOOP.com blog, and glossy national food magazines have devoted photo-laden spreads to the humble bird.

But in Nashville, chicken has always been hot. Spicy hot, that is — the kind of heat that comes with a Scoville rating. So I was keen to hear what Chef Keller thought about our version. I also hoped to hear more about his Buttermilk Fried Chicken, a recipe that has its own cult following, and the emotional significance of chicken, which he talks about in his latest book, Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, Nov. 2009, $50). Chicken, after all, is the last meal he ever prepared for his father, and the first recipe in the book.

Read the rest of the article here:

http://www.tennessean.com/article/20100331/FEATURES02/3310340/Chef-Thomas-Keller-braves-the-heat-at-Prince-s-Hot-Chicken-Shack

This article about the famed chef-owner of The French Laundry and Per Se is really a good read and has a nice ending, so I recommend that everyone read it.

Menu loyalty

What does this mean and what does it mean to a waiter?

Basically it means using your menu knowledge in order to build guest loyalty.

It’s loyalty to the menu from the waiter which in turn builds guest loyalty to the menu and, by extention, to the restaurant. while service is generally considered to trump the food in a restaurant (this verified by countless surveys and studies in the industry), the food is still where the rubber meets the road.

When the waiter can communicate the passions of those who create the food through their hard labor, they complete the package. Not only do they represent the Chef and his crew, they also represent the guest in that they can act as a guide to offer the exact meal that satisfies the guest. Too many waiters take a passive approach and this does no service to the guest, the kitchen and the restaurant itself.

By knowing the menu and the components that create the synergy of a meal, the great waiter acts as a tour guide and consultant – the goal is to match the guest’s preferences, biases, and intention with the menu. When you can identify those needs of the guest and pull from an extensive menu the perfect meal, the waiter performs the ultimate service. It isn’t enough to act as entertainer, babysitter and order taker. To put the cherry on top of the sundae, the waiter must discover the perfect meal hidden in that menu.

How does the waiter do that?

By creative and accurate descriptions of the food through “selling the sizzle”, answering questions about exotic ingredients, identifying potential landmines such as allergies, dislikes, and, dare I say it, weaknesses in certain dishes. they do it by highlighting standout performers, using descriptive and mouthwatering adjectives and passing along an enthusiam for the food and talent of those who have created the food.

You can only do this is you have a mastery of everything that goes into each dish. Once you gain this knowledge, you can effortless communicate the quality of your menu offerings, whether it be the humble hamburger or the most elaborate iconic dish. You bring your knowledge to bear in order to bring the menu to life.

Never let your responsibility in this regard lie fallow.

Culinary term of the day – various cooking methods pt. 1

I see some waiters’ eyes glaze over when they are given daily specials in pre-shift. Sometimes they simply parrot the words that have been told to them – “We have roasted ossobucco with chanterelle mashed potatoes with a balsamic/basil/cherry reduction”. Or “Tonight we have sous vide salmon with braised leeks and stir-fried root vegetables topped with candied walnuts” – you know, the Chef always wants to throw in some sort of word or phrase which describes the cooking process. More perceptive waiters use their knowledge of these various cooking techniques to help them either describe the dishes or actually sell them.  In the event of a food contest, this can mean the difference between first and second place.

Have you ever thought about what these words mean, or are they just words to memorize?

I thought I’d go through some of the words and give a thumbnail sketch of each cooking type.

Grilled – this one most people know because of their family “barbeques”. Grilling is cooking over hot direct heat.  It’s usually done on some sort of wire rack (grill) which adds “grill marks”. Grilling can be done while covered, but usually the heat comes from beneath and from the rack that the food sits on. Grilling is a relatively fast cooking process. It tends to sear the outside of whatever is on the rack and, if there’s a high sugar content in the food such as is the case with carrots, you’ll get some caramelization. It goes past searing though because the food continues to cook on the grill. Grilling is usually done only with firm items due to the tendency of delicate items to fall apart on the grill. Grilled items usually have to be turned and can stick to the grill surface, so the food needs to be able to hang together when turned or flipped.

Sautéing is the cooking of food over a stovetop element in a skillet-like pan using a small amount of oil or other liquid. What Americans call a “sauté pan” is not what the French call a sauté pan, and heck, they invented the word, which literally means “to jump”. An apt description of the process if you’ve ever sautéed over high heat. 

A traditional French sauté pan looks nothing like we are used to here in the States. It is a large pan with straight sides instead of a smaller pan with sloping sides. Here is the French version:

I have one that looks just like this in my own kitchen, although I don’t have the matching lid.

Here is what many Americans call a sauté pan:

In fact, this is what your friendly neighborhood sauté line cook will use to cook a lot of what comes off the sauté line. Any waiter is familiar with stacks of these pans sitting above the stove. They are useful because they have sloping sides and are light which allows for easy tossing of ingredients. It is more properly called a “fry pan” or a skillet, but pans of this shape have been called “sauté pans” by home cooks for years.

Sautéing is a quick cooking process as well. It’s done over medium high to high heat. You can sauté in a small amount of oil as you do when you use a wok, or you can actually “deep fry” in an inch of oil, although technically this would be “frying”. If you are cooking something like a breaded veal scalloppini, it’s considered “pan sautéed”, not fried because the cooking time is short. If you are frying chicken, well, I guess the term “fried chicken” gives it away.

Sautéing is often a prelude for other cooking techniques. For instance, if you are using a traditional French sauté pan to cook a whole chicken, you might sauté aromatic veggies in oil first, then brown the skin of the chicken over high heat, then add some stock, cover and finish cooking in the oven by pot roasting.

As I’ve already implied, we can lump stir-frying into the sauté category. It’s just a specialized version of sautéing.

Speaking of roasting, this is a word that we use all of the time. but what is it really? When you try to define it, one fumbles for words because it’s one of those concepts that “just is”.

Roasting implies oven cooking at high direct and indirect heat. Most roasting is done at 400° – 500°. Any lower and you usually think of it as “baking” (and we’ll discuss this as well). But the key to roasting is the presence of fat, whether integral to the item being roasted such as the fat under the skin of a chicken or the marbled fat in a veal chop or whether you have to add fat in the form of oil as you do when you roast vegetables. Roasting caramelizes and keeps food savory while building flavor. While you can certainly roast fish, especially firmer fish like monkfish and swordfish, it’s not a common way to cook fish. Sometimes you might technically roast fish after pan searing it, especially if it’s a thick filet, but you usually don’t hear the term “roasted fish”.

Speaking of pan searing, searing is simply the application of high heat with minimum or no oil. It’s very quick and doesn’t actually “cook” the item that is being seared. All it does is sear the outside, leaving the inside basically raw. for items like tuna or filet mignon, this is a way to cook ultra rare. sometimes, as in the previously mentioned case of roasted chicken, it’s a prelude to other, slower cooking methods. It’s done to provide color and to seal in juices, although Harold McGee and other “food scientists” question how much this really happens. You can sear on a grill or you can sear in a pan or a flattop.

In the next installment, we’ll cover terms like “baking”, broiling”, “basting” and “steaming”.

Why are we doing this?

As someone who serves food, you should be aware of the different cooking techniques and how and why they differ. This will give you additional insight into helping someone decide between different dishes and, who knows, some people might actually need an explanation of what “braised leeks” means. the more that you know off of the top of your head, the more confident you’ll be tableside. And just because you might work at Red Robin doesn’t mean that knowing this stuff is superfluous. Perhaps you might be ready to move to an “American bistro” type restaurant.  sometimes, managers like to ask questions to determine how much a prospective waiter knows about food in general. I actually had one ask me if I knew the “mother sauces” once. As you move up the food chain, the more you will need to know about food and beverage.

Culinary term of the day – gastrique

No, gastrique isn’t a digestive aid. Well, not in the traditional sense, at least.

Gastrique is a sauce variation, created by the reduction of vinegar and sugar and usually includes a fruit component. The sugar is usually caramelized. Sometimes a gastrique is simply vinegar and caramelized sugar and it’s added to a fruit component that exists in a dish (for instance, you might have duck with cherries and a gastrique is added in order to combine with the cherries and bridge the gap between the fruit and the meat) and sometimes fruit juice or straight fruit is added directly to the gastrique to creat a “fruit sauce”. Occasionally, you might find the addition of wine or port to the basic gastrique.

The most common fruits used are lemon, oranges and tomatoes, although virtually any fruit can be used.

Gastriques aren’t usually “sweet”, per se. When you caramelize the sugar, it reduces the sweetness.

A gastrique is useful for adding acidity to a dish and is a nice change from heavy cream or roux-based sauces.

Cookbook of the day – The Cook’s Bible

The Cook’s Bible: The Best of American Home Cooking

by Christopher Kimball

Publisher – Little, Brown and Company 1996

ISBN 10: 0316493716

ISBN 13: 978-0316493710 

Christopher Kimball is the bowtied, avuncular founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and can be seen as the host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen on PBS.

The premise of his various media is a test, or trial and error approach to solving the world’s culinary mysteries such as how to achieve the perfect pie crust or “how do you create the perfect blueberry muffin?”

To this end, we find the book The Cook’s Bible.

This is a very useful look at not only creating “the perfect dish” but also a quick and dirty comparison of various cooking implements, the type of tests that you find in Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine refreshingly devoid of advertising. Kimball also answers the questions that have puzzled us through the years, such as “What’s the difference between baking powder and baking soda?” and an explanation as to how cornstarch and flour thicken sauces.

Many of the trial and error tests include outcomes of various trials, with the results listed sequentially. This is very useful indeed.

However…

I did find two fairly serious flaws in the book. The first is the command that you shouldn’t wash, rince or soak rice first. Well, that’s not the case with jasmine or basmati rice. Basmati rice in particular must be rinsed 4 or 5 times, until the water turns from cloudy to clear. This is done for several reasons – first, imported basmati often has the occasional tiny pebble or twig left in the bag. You want to get rid of those. Also, some basmatis are polished with talc or glucose and you want to get rid of that as well as well as additional starch. Some people say that basmati should be soaked; I’m not one of them. Kimball and his crew outline the various methods of cooking rice, but didn’t hit on the way that I’ve found that works best for basmati – simply put, you put about an inch of water above the rice (I was taught an index finger first knuckle by a very good Indian chef), add some ghee, oil or butter, toss in a bit of salt and bring to a boil. As soon as the water is boiling, reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover and walk away for about 12 minutes. Don’t uncover it until at least 12 minutes. At that point, you can check it for small “steam craters” on the surface of the rice (small pockmarks where steam has escaped. Normally, the rice is just about ready at this point (unless you’re cooking mass quantities, of course). To check to make sure it’s ready, you take a chopstick and carefully part the middle of the rice and see if there’s any liquid remaining in the bottom. If so, return to the heat and leave it covered for another 2 minutes and recheck. Normally, by the second check, it’s done. You want to be careful to disturb the rice as little as possible. The great thing about this method is that the “inch of water above the rice” method works consistently for any reasonable amount of rice and any reasonably shaped saucepan (I’ve never tried it for rice for 10 though).  No measuring required. No precise measured ratios between rice and water. Once you get the hang of what “an inch above the level of the rice” looks like, you’re home free. My rice always comes out perfectly and never over or undercooked or stuck to the bottom of the pan. This works with either basmati or jasmine rice.

My second quibble is with his description of barbecue. Well, not so much with his description of barbecue itself, but his “blow by blow account” of cooking a 3.75 lb Boston Butt. First of all, he was waaaay too dainty when it came to air and grill temperatures. Even the most conservative, hidebound, Luddite know-it-all BBQ’er knows that 225 degrees is just fine. Trying to keep the temperature around 200 as Kimball did just slows things down and doesn’t help anything. Also, he found that the temperature had dropped from 145° to 140° at one point, leading him to speculate that he had taken the internal temperature at the wrong place. What he didn’t know, but any halfway experienced BBQ’er knows, is that there’s a plateau point in slow cooking where the temperature either stays the same or even drops for an extended period of time. that’s one of the first things you learn when cooking Boston Butt – that it generally plateaus at around 140° for an hour or two, and oldtimers caution newbies not to panic and crank up the heat – it’s just part of the process. But the final nail in the coffin is that he served the Boston Butt sliced at 145° and proclaimed it “the best barbecue he had ever tasted”! Well, maybe that’s what passes for BBQ in Vermont (or even Boston, where his empire is based), but I can’t imagine a 145° piece of Boston Butt being even edible. You see, Boston Butt is highly marbled and dense. It must be cooked to at least 180°, and that’s if you’re going to slice it. All of the connective tissues and fat must be rendered first to keep it from being tough. And personally, I cook it to the point where it can be pulled, which is a minimum of 195° (I usually like to go to 200° – 205° to assure maximum elimination of solid fat and connective tissue). I guess it’s also hard to find larger cuts of Boston Butt where he’s from (ironic that he claims to mostly only find 4 lb’ers of Boston Butt in Boston of all places – here in the South, the most common size is between 6 and 9 lbs). No, he definitely missed the boat all around on his section about BBQ’ing. He specifically says, “For barbecue, the experts say that the heat should be kept at a steady 200° – not 250° or 275°. This is hogwash. Paul Kirk, one of the most successful BBQ’ers says between 230° and 250° and Ray Lampe goes with an even higher temperature for pork butt (the cooler name for Boston Butt) – 275°. I’ve participated in the most widely read smoking forum on the web and most people talk about 225° – 250°. And I’ve discovered that for larger butts of 6 lbs or more, you can go for the first 2 – 4 hours at 300° without any problem (of course, your bark will be black, but that’s the perfect bark where I come from). Christopher needs to do a little more research. Perhaps he has, since this book is about a decade old. Oldtimers will bust me for the 300° comment, but I’ve done the trial and error thing as well, making notes all along the way, and my 300° – 325° initial temperatures and rendered perfectly moist pulled pork time and time again. the thing is, the last half of the cooking must be done at the more conventional temperatures – I like 225° once I get to the halfway point (I figure about 1.25 – 1.75 hours per pound – every Butt is different due to shape and density – I’ve had it take as long as 2 hours per pound before).

In any case, there’s a lot of useful information in this book, but be careful about some of his proclamations. I guess it would be trial and error for that as well.

Why all of the talk about cookbooks and food…

…on a waiter’s website?

Well, I love a good cookbook and I like food.

But there’s a bigger issue. The more interested you are in cuisine and the better informed you are about food, the more poised and confident you’ll be as you stand tableside and field questions and transmit a love of the dining experience and good food to your guest.

As a conductor must read music, so does a great waiter need to have a command of his or her menu. and that includes areas outside of the menu as well, for you never know when a chef’s special will have an unfamiliar ingredient or cooking technique. If you don’t know what a confit is (or don’t care when the chef explains it during pre-shift), you won’t be able to communicate it to the guest, or you’ll end up hemming and hawing and tap dancing.

And that’s not good tableside bearing.

Diners can smell blood in the water. They can also sense when a waiter knows his or her stuff.  Is a great waiter ever stumped? Yes, it can happen. You might be asked a question that you don’t know the answer to.

The key is giving off the aura that you know everything about food. It’s how you talk about it, it’s how you communicate flavor profiles, it’s how you answer questions on your feet.

Even waiters who serve in restaurants with fixed menus and no daily specials can benefit from food and alcohol knowledge.

And that’s where study comes in. that’s where exposure to different cuisines come in (even chain restaurants have started using some exotic ingredients.

Cookbooks can help you learn about different techniques, cuisines and ingredients.

Reading this blog can help you. Going to culinary sites that this blog points out can help you.

You are in charge of your career. Just coasting through shift after shift won’t help further the career.

I’m just sayin’…

Cookbook of the day – Asian Grills

 

Asian Grills

by Alexandra Greeley

Publisher Doubleday; 1st edition (April 1, 1993)

ISBN 10: 0385422121

ISBN 13: 978-0385422123

The book is a sleeper. Unassuming at first glance, this cookbook actually covers virtually all of Asia, including Indonesia/Bali, Malaysia, Singapore, the Treasure islands, Laos, Myanmar and, of course Thailand, Japan, India, China, Hong Kong and Korea. She even visits Macau and the Philipines, both usually left out of the discussion of Asian foods.

Grilling has always been an essential part of all of these cuisines and author Greeley surveys each area with a nice mix of dishes, not all of which are necessarily grills. she offers a personal perspective and knowledge of each culture and her thumbnail sketch of each area is valuable to those of us who will never visit.

She has a well-rounded glossary and she draws distinctions between similar ingredients in different countries, warning when substituting one for the other will dramatically change the character of the dish. She distinguishes between Singaporean and Malaysian Laksa, for instance, although she only gives the recipe for the former. It would have  been nice to have both recipes. Her Thai green curry seems reasonable (I haven’t made it) and I would have liked to see a red curry recipe as well. She has a red curry dish, a grilled duck recipe, but it uses a commercial red curry paste. Of course, Thai curries are usually used more in “stews/soups” type of preparations, but it’s nice to see it used for grilled dishes as well.

I’m anxious to try the Grilled Balinese Duck, a banana leaf wrapped smoky/spicy duck cooked directly on low coals for 8 – 10 hours.

I highly recommend seeking this book out, It will expand your horizons greatly and any of these dishes can be cooked on a decent sized kettle grill. Well-written and well-researched, this is an enjoyable survey of the world of Asian grilling.

Balinese grilled duck. Photo by Jean Marc D at Yelp.

http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/l2CuOXGfLMzNQ-mSf8ylKA?select=0Cc-isET5wNucxwMTGxWaA