A First Look

The compiling of a cookbook is a slightly more daunting task than I assumed. Sure, I’ve been working on gathering all my recipes – for the book and otherwise – but there’s an extra step in writing the book. I have to put all the recipes into chapters and try my best to format them identically and use the same kind of voice when writing them.

But wait, since I was the author of all the recipes in the first place, surely they all “sound” the same, right? I figured that would have been the case as well, but as it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Hmmm… Something about this first draft just doesn’t sound right…”

Since these recipes were all jotted down at different times in my culinary experience and with differing amounts of time for me to get the recipes on paper, and with different purposes in mind (writing for other chefs or my students for example…) they all really do sound amazingly different. So there’s been a lot of clean up going on with my computer. And as a chef, that editing time is time I’d much rather be spending in the creation of new recipes for the book!

But all is not lost. My first run through the book was completed yesterday. I had well over 100 pages (not counting things like dedications and an index which I’ve yet to write) but only 79 recipes altogether. For the record, I’m looking for somewhere around 125 or so recipes for the book.

Seeing that I was only 2/3 of the way there after working on this for the past few months was a tad disheartening. But there’s no going back now!

On the bright side, thanks to my recent efforts to compile all my recipes, I was able to search through those for other recipes I always meant to add. And since they were already “cleaned up,” there was little extra work that had to be done to place them in the manuscript!

It’s only one day later, and as of this morning, I’m already at 89 recipes! Soon I’ll have the draft I’m happy with, and we’ll enter into the next phase: Testing!

(Now’s a good time to volunteer for that phase if you’re interested…)

Chef Matt

Making Limoncello – Part 1

Ahhh Limoncello. Is there no greater drink to have after a nice plate of pasta and you’ve already done your share of damage to a bottle of Barolo? The problem with Limoncello though is that while it is intoxicatingly sweet and unbelievably delicious, it is also one of the more dastardly drinks out there.

You have that first sip, and the sweet ambrosia caresses your senses in a way that you haven’t felt since your wedding night. The second sip confirms that this drink in your glass is the lover you were always meant to be with. By the time you are done with your first small glass (it’s usually served an ounce or two at a time), you can’t imagine yourself ever consuming another beverage again. And just as anyone in their right mind would do when presented with such a life-changing experience, you order a second round.

This this is when the trouble begins. Hiding under that sticky-sweet facade is a potentially evil mistress who will take you for everything you’re worth. She’ll expose you and all your secrets to the world, naked, for everyone to see and mock. Don’t believe me? Just watch this:

That’s right, Mr. DeVito decided to Limoncello it up with George Clooney the night before, and by the time he made it on to the set of The View, his new favorite elixir was still wreaking havoc within his gut – and addling his mind beyond comprehension. It’s edited out in the clip above, but I do believe he refers to the man who was President at the time as “Numbnuts.”

All this is not for me to try and sway you from enjoying Limoncello. It’s wonderful stuff to be sure. And in fact I make my own! I just want you to be careful with it. She’s a fickle woman that Limoncello…

So this post is phase 1 of making the Limoncello. The process takes about 2 months when all is said and done, though the longer you let it age, the better. The photo essay below will take you through it step by step:

For phase 1, you’ll need the following items:
1. 15 lemons
2. A zester
3. A large bowl or plastic container – about 1 gallon capacity
4. A 1.75L handle of vodka (you can use Everclear too, but that’s harder to come by in some areas)

It’s now time to zest the lemons. All of them. Be sure not to get any of the white pith in there! You only want the zest – nothing else. Juice the lemons when you’re done, and save the juice for something else, but you don’t need it for Limoncello.

In goes the vodka. All of it. Just pour it all over the zest. Give it a stir, and slap the lid on the container or bowl.

That’s it for now folks! Keep the Limoncello in a cool, dark place, and give it a stir (shake, swirl) once a day, every day for the next month. I’ll write more then on what to do next!

If I had an endorsement offered to me every time I was drunk in public, I’d be rich too…

Of course, I’m always hoping I’ll be as lucky as Danny DeVito, and my Limoncello-fueled antics will result in me getting my own endorsement deal with a Limoncello distributor…

Chef Matt

P.S. The first month has passed. The journey on how to make Limoncello continues here…

Is It Really Suffering?

So in the process of writing my cookbook, I’m currently at the stage where I’m writing my draft proposal and compiling the manuscript. I plan on self publishing the book, so I don’t actually need to write the proposal, but it’s a good exercise in the process. It helps me clarify my thoughts about the book and give the whole project focus. The compiling of the manuscript is so that I can see how long the book is in it’s current stage, and the one thing I think I can tell right now is, I’m going to need to make it longer…

My test tonight: Butternut Squash Pasta with Goat Cheese, Hazelnuts and Arugula. Pretty to look at, but I don’t think it’ll make the final cut….

But the real inspiration that I have received by compiling the manuscript itself is that I see all the recipes in one place, and I see the recipes that I need to test again. Sure, I’ve given you all the assignment of testing one of my recipes for me so far, but I can’t have you do all the work for me.

I’m going to have to roll up my sleeves and do some of the testing myself.

Which means a lot of Italian food for my girlfriend and myself. And my family. And my friends. Simply put – if you know me, and you’re having dinner anywhere near me in the next months – you’re going to be eating Italian food that I’m trying out for my cookbook.

But I ask you: Is that really suffering?… 🙂

Chef Matt

The Recipe Box

An antiquated version of keeping all of one’s personal recipes together in one place, the recipe box is still a term widely used by all chefs as to where they go to find their own list of ideas, creations and notes on what works and what doesn’t.

I would keep them like this, but my handwriting is just so messy…

And I don’t seem to have one.

Well of course there are recipes that I have typed up on my computer – since I have to give my students something when they come to my classes – but there is no one central location for where all my my recipes are located.

There are the collections of recipes from my classes, and then my collection of recipes that other people have sent me that I’ve played with, and there’s of course the collection of recipes I’m putting together for my cookbook. But it was a class I recently taught at Open Kitchen that really shined a light on how much I needed a centralized “recipe box.”

The class was on the topic of Spanish Tapas – and uses a collection of recipes that we had used many times before. Over the many classes that I had used these recipes, I had improved them since some of them were just flat-out wrong in the order of steps and procedures that are listed in the creation of the dishes. So I re-wrote them, improved them, and sent the corrected versions to the person who maintains the recipes.

Well here we were many months later, and when I arrived at the event, there were the old, outdated, wrong versions of the recipes in the packets for the students…

Now there was little I could do for that event, but it made me think about my own recipes. I would hate to give my students an out-dated version of a recipe, but how do I prevent that? After a class, if I have an idea on how to improve a recipe, I make the changes to that class’s list of recipes, but the next time I offer the class, how do I know I’m pulling the most recent version of this recipe?

Pictured: The fun life of a chef.

And thus I have begun the monumental project of pulling EVERY SINGLE ONE of my recipes out individually, and creating a master recipe box for myself. Each recipe is housed as its own entity, with source information and notes about how it was created and other variations as well. Additionally, I’m making a spreadsheet of my classes which lists which recipes I need to pull when I’m compiling the handouts for a class.

Sure, it makes good sense, but the one thing that I’ve realized in the process: I’ve written a HELL of a lot of recipes in the past few years. I had no idea.

Maybe I should write a cookbook. Oh wait…

Chef Matt

P.S. Since this article is about writing recipes, and I mentioned Tapas, I figured it’s only fair I share one of my tapas recipes with you. So here you go:

Patatas Bravas

Arguably the best tapas recipe out there

Yield: Serves 4-6 as a tapas

For the Potatoes:
2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes
3 cups water
3 Tbsp salt
½ cup olive oil
To Taste salt, pepper, smoked paprika
For the Tomato Sauce:
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ ea white onion – diced
2 cloves garlic – minced
1 ea 15 oz can diced tomatoes (or whole tomatoes, crushed)
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 pinch cayenne pepper
To taste salt and pepper
For the Aioli:
½ cup mayonnaise
4 cloves garlic – minced
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

– Leaving the skin on the potatoes, cut the potatoes into 1” cubes – irregular shapes are fine – and place in a sauce pan with the water and salt. Heat over high heat stirring every once and again until the water just starts to boil. Strain potatoes, allow to dry some in the air.
– While the potatoes are cooking and cooling, make tomato sauce by heating olive oil in a small sauce pan, adding the onion and the garlic and sautéing until onions are translucent.
– Add the tomatoes, vinegar, paprika and cayenne, allow to simmer for 10 minutes, season to taste with salt and pepper.
– Make the aioli by combining mayo, garlic and oil in a small bowl – set aside.
– When the potatoes are cooled to room temperature, heat the ½ cup of olive oil in a large skillet, and fry the potatoes in batches until nicely golden on all sides. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate, and season with salt, pepper and paprika. Keep batches warm in the oven if need be.
– To serve, place a small mound of potatoes on a plate, top with a dollop of tomato sauce and a small dollop of aioli. Garnish with more paprika and/or chopped parsley if desired.

Note: You will likely have leftover tomato sauce. Save it for future batches of Patatas Bravas, or use it as a topping in places where you would normally use ketchup.

Dinner Party

As a culinary instructor, it’s rare that I actually get the chance to cook for a crowd. Usually it’s my students who are doing the majority of the work, or I’m doing a demo in front of a bunch of people, where I sometimes am using the ingredients I say I am, and sometimes I’m just faking it.

But all that changed last night when I had a chance to flex my culinary muscle and put together a top-notch dinner party for my uncle and a crowd of his friends. It all came out beautifully, and I actually had the presence of mind to photograph much of it as it happened.

So this post will be a little more in photo-essay form, and I tried to throw in a few “as it was happening” photos instead of a bunch of “beauty shots” of people’s food getting cold. 🙂 Of course I wasn’t able to take all of these photos, so it was my lovely girlfriend, Susan, who helped me out throughout the night, both serving the food as I plated, and taking some of these great photos.

Tonight’s Menu. I had these on the tables for the guests, and they were courtesy of Susan who made them look so nice. The theme was mainly based on my “French Farmhouse Dinner” class, which is truly a great class…

The appetizer was french baguette slices which I toasted with fine olive oil and topped with an herbed chevre, sultanas, endive and tarragon.

The first course was a Chilled Tomato-Tarragon Soup which I topped with an herb-garlic crouton and some tarragon creme fraiche. This was a recipe I learned while at Open Kitchen, but I modified it to really make all the flavors come in layers. It was fabulous.

A personal favorite of mine: Oysters Rockefeller. I teach a class on oysters as well as a class on shellfish, and this recipe is in both classes for good reason – it’s magnificent!

The next course was Sliced Duck Breast with Grapefruit Reduction and Brussels Sprouts. The duck breasts had to be sliced, sprouts finished and sauce added, and all really quickly. It’s these kinds of dishes where the chefs earn their money.

A finished plate of the duck. I forgot to turn the meat skin-side up on the first plates that went out to show the super-crispy skin I had made, so I had to go with this plating for the rest of them. But still, it looks darn good, huh?…

The stars of the show (yes, even more than the duck breasts…) were these braised lamb shanks on white bean stew. Falling-off-the-bone tender and perfectly seasoned, these were just awesome.

Dessert was my famous Rum Raisin Bread Pudding which I topped with my homemade Eggnog Ice Cream. This photo was one I took as they just came out of the oven and were still exploding out of the ramekins.

Actually topping the puddings with the ice cream was something that had to be done fast. Bread pudding right out of the oven is super-hot of course, and I didn’t want to serve puddles of cream on top of them. I had them run out as soon as each one was topped.

Job well done and mission accomplished. It was time to take a break and enjoy the extra lamb shank I made for myself. It was not only delicious – it was gone in no time flat. Can you see the exhaustion in my eyes?..

Remember, you don’t have to just read about these classes and parties! Contact me and I’d be happy to talk with you about doing an event with you!

Chef Matt

Fixing on the Fly

Last night I was teaching a class on Sustainable Seafood, which is something that I not only enjoy cooking, but is also something that is near and dear to my heart considering all the years I spent working at World Wildlife Fund. The menu looked great, but this class was not a series of my own recipes. Which can sometimes lead to a problem.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I’m the only one qualified to write recipes for my classes. There are many chefs out there that are more talented than me, and many times when I’m teaching classes with recipes that aren’t my own, I’m not only delighted with how good the food is, but also inspired to think of new things in different ways.

For example, in last night’s class, there was a curried mussel salad with potatoes and roasted red peppers that was really quite good, and a nice departure from the usual “Mussels Mariniere” that I usually cook.

A barramundi. They look better after they’ve been cooked.

But there was one recipe – for Roasted Barramundi with Fennel and Orange – that just wasn’t working out at all. The directions were all over the place and it was using several pans to accomplish a roasting of fish which should only have been done on one pan. Add to it the fact that there was bad phrasing, and ingredients that then disappeared from the list, and well, the class was flummoxed indeed when they reached the halfway point on the recipe.

The need for a rescue had arrived. So I stopped everyone from cooking – since everyone pretty much got jammed up at the same place – and said, “OK, everyone stop. I’m sorry, I know this recipe is a mess, so here’s what we’re going to do…”

Getting everyone to trust me, and go with a recipe based on my oral instructions is hard. Not hard for me, since this is what I did for years on the line, but hard on the students taking my class. They are not used to verbal changes and fixing things on the fly. And remembering this was key to going forward. Getting impatient would have made things into a real disaster.

“Why can’t you people follow the simple, 12-step instructions that I’m yelling at you?!?”

And this is the real difference between working in a cooking class and working in a restaurant. In a restaurant, I would need everyone under me to understand what I was saying, the first time I said it, and to make it happen immediately. This group of students on the other hand is in the class specifically because they can’t do something like that. They want to become better cooks, but they’re not ready to take instruction as if they were on the line with a 20-table back log of orders staring them in the face.

Long story short, we went slow and steady and worked our way through the final recipe. And it actually turned out OK if I do say so myself. But I also promised all my students that I would re-write and re-work this recipe for them in a way that would be easier, more succinct, and in my opinion, make a better final product.

And I’m going to share it with you as well!

Roasted Barramundi with Fennel and Orange

Yield: Serves 4

2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp kosher salt
4 ea blood oranges (or Valencia oranges)
1 ea fennel bulb – medium, stems removed, sliced, a few fronds saved for garnish
2 cloves garlic – minced
3 Tbsp olive oil – divided
4 ea barramundi fillets (about 4-5 oz ea)
1 ea shallot – sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 sprigs thyme – left whole
½ cup dry white wine

– Preheat oven to 400°F.
– Toast fennel seeds in a small sauté pan over medium heat until fragrant. Place toasted fennel seeds and salt together in a spice blender and grind together. Set aside.
– Zest two of the four oranges, set zest aside.
– Remove segments from two of the four oranges by cutting between the membranes to have clean, bright segments. Set aside.
– Juice remaining two oranges, set juice aside.
– In a large bowl, combine the sliced fennel, the garlic, 2 Tbsp olive oil and ½ of the fennel salt and ½ of the orange zest. Toss to combine and spread out on a foil-lined baking sheet.
– Roast fennel for 8 minutes, remove from oven.
– While fennel is roasting, brush barramundi fillets with remaining 1 Tbsp of oil and season with remaining ½ of the fennel salt.
– Push some of the roasted fennel to the side, and place the barramundi fillets amidst the fennel on the sheet. Scatter the orange segments around the fennel and fish, and return to the oven until fish is cooked through and fennel is tender – about 10-15 minutes more.
– While the fish is finishing off, place the reserved orange juice, shallot, pepper corns, thyme, white wine and remaining ½ of the orange zest in a small sauce pan. Simmer over medium-high heat to reduce by half, and then strain sauce.
– When fish is cooked, remove from oven, transfer fish and fennel to a large serving tray, and spoon sauce over fish fillets. Garnish with reserved fennel fronds. Serve immediately.

Also look for this MSC certification logo on fish you buy as well.

Chef Matt

PS For more information on sustainable seafood, and the right fish to buy, be sure to download a free “Seafood Watch” card from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Leftovers – Blessing or Curse?…

A chef’s fridge is a full fridge. No way around that. But is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

On the one hand, I always have lots of great leftovers to dive into when I want to eat, but am tired or in a rush. (Note, I didn’t say, “when I don’t feel like cooking.” I pretty much always feel like cooking, it’s what makes me a chef…)

On the other hand, having lots of leftovers means there is little room for new food, and I am forced to eat lots of leftovers before I can start new projects. And of course, even though the food was great the first time around, it’s never as good as a leftover.

Pictured: Just two overstuffed shelves in my fridge.
Not Pictured: The cheesecake swirl brownies and fresh sourdough bread I also recently made…

So I ask you all my readers, is a fridge full of great leftovers an awesome thing to have for the ease of great, easy meals? Or is it a pile of food that takes up space and will ultimately end up in the trash?…

Chef Matt

I Know Where You Live…

Well, as long as I have your address I will. But I guess that’s true for everyone, huh?

I was so excited about getting a good picture of my new GPS, that it appears I drove into a snowbank… You think my Garmin would have warned me about that…

The point of this is that there is one thing that a cooking instructor needs that a chef in a restaurant most likely doesn’t – and that is a GPS. While as a chef, I would report to the same restaurant at the same time every day, the life of a cooking instructor has me scouting out new locations all the time. People’s homes, hotels, schools, restaurants, you name it. MapQuest has seen a lot of traffic on my computer before my walking out the door.

Well that’s all in the past now! Gone are the days of my scribbling down directions on the back of a used envelope based on what I can only guess is the best way to get to where I’m supposed to be. Instead, the new era of getting to my appointments via the most eco-friendly route has begun. And the money I save there will help to off-set the cost of the GPS of course…

And of course, I can save places where I teach, and thus know easily how to get there once again when I realize I left one of my whisks behind…

Chef Matt

At Least My Nephew Gets It…

Me cooking with my nephew Trajan. (From several years ago – I need an updated photo, don’t I?…

Sorry folks, this was too cute, so I had to share here. My sister-in-law wrote me to tell me all about how my nephew, Trajan, is full of great quotes (he’s at that age…) and he’s been talking about my cooking as of late. Here is what she wrote me:

“On Monday, we were at Whole Foods again and he saw the ‘eye fish’ (a whole fish – has an ‘eye’ still in it…) again and stated that, ‘there is nothing in the whole world that Uncle Matt cannot cook.’ He was very emphatic. Then, this morning, he told John (my brother) that John was more fun to play with than mommy, to which I responded, ‘but who cooks all the food?’ He replied quite quickly, that it was ‘Uncle Matt’.”

Awwwww…… You know, with a nephew like this, who needs legions of adoring fans?… 🙂

Chef Matt

Healthy School Lunches

Let’s take a second to get this blog back on track. The whole point of starting this blog back in 2006 was to give you a sense of my experiences becoming a chef, and now chef instructor. And I’ve realized that most of my recent posts haven’t been about that at all. So it’s time to bring you up to speed.

This is how we roll burritos kids. Now go yell at the people at Chipotle!

As I continue to try and find more venues in which to teach, I reached out to my local Whole Foods Market to see if they wanted me to do some cooking classes there. I knew this was something they did, as my executive chef at Open Kitchen – Chef Bernard – taught a class there himself one afternoon. (While I was left to man the restaurant of course…)

Upon becoming an independent cooking instructor, an email was quickly fired off to Whole Foods asking if I could teach there. It received no response. It wasn’t until I went into the Whole Foods in my chef’s coat to buy some branzino for a class that someone stopped me and asked if I was a chef. I said I was indeed, and she introduced herself as Claire, the new head of the cooking classes at that Whole Foods.

I guess that explains the lack of response: I was firing emails to an unread inbox.

Was I really holding the attention of children while cooking? Unheard of!

Long story short, she asked if I would be interested in teaming up with a local elementary school to do a presentation on healthy school lunches. Well, even though this was for no pay, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to do something so linked to my cooking idol, Jamie Oliver. I whipped up some recipes, and we held a pair of classes last night for kids and adults alike.

The real challenge was to see if the kids would like it. And by “it,” I mean the presentation as well as the food. Well, asking kids what their least favorite food was helped to break the ice as many hands shot up into the air to exclaim that they hated broccoli, Brussels sprouts and onions. (The one kid who said she hated “Peanut Butter and Jelly” took me by surprise I have to admit…)

But making dips for fruits and veggies, black bean and rice burritos and pasta salad all were a ton of fun in front of the kids, and they loved it! The highlight of the evening for me was when I walked around the tables after one demonstration and there was a child of 4 years old devouring her fruit with my yogurt dip on it. I asked the parents how they liked everything, and they just kept staring at the kid eating the fruit. I looked at the kid and asked, “So, you like that?” She nodded, and kept on eating.

I looked back at the parents, and without taking their eyes off her they said in total amazement, “She’s eating FRUIT!! She NEVER does that!!” I looked back at the kid, who fired down two more pieces of cantaloupe.

So very cute.

I’m going to call that a success.

And while I want to thank everyone at Whole Foods for being so accommodating to me, and the PTA at Chesterbrook Elementary for being nice enough to invite me, I want to say a special thank you to the kids who made me a wonderful thank-you card that they all signed.

Sorry, I think I have something in my eye…

Chef Matt

PS Since that recipe for my yogurt dip was such a hit, here it is for you all as well!

Sweet Yogurt Dipping Sauce
This sauce mixes together a series of flavors that go wonderfully with yogurt. Be sure to use Greek yogurt which is lower in moisture, and makes for a better dipping sauce.

Yield: ~2 cups

2 cups Greek Yogurt (low fat)
3-4 Tbsp honey
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fresh lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract

-Mix together yogurt and 3 Tbsp honey in a medium sized bowl. Taste and see if the sweetness is at the desired level. If not, add more honey until the yogurt is as sweet as you like.
-Stir in the cinnamon, lemon juice, lemon zest and vanilla. Taste again and adjust for sweetness if desired.
-Store in an airtight container in the fridge, and use as a dipping sauce with any fresh fruit or on Graham crackers.