New beginnings

With the excitement of Basque Stage behind me I can honestly say I’m glad I wasn’t picked. Yes it was the opportunity of a lifetime. But life gives you so many opportunities that in the end it’s just one possible outcome in the grand scheme of things. I recently trailed at Sullivan Street Bakery, one of the best bakeries in the city. Sullivan street bakery is currently going through a growth period. They just added a new bakery downtown and are expanding the current bakery to include a dining area. It’ll be exciting to see the evolution of the company as it works towards its goal of becoming the best bakery in the world by 2015. The opportunity to be part of this team is invaluable and I feel very privileged.

So today I trailed at the bakery where they showed me the whole operation from the bottom up. I’m not officially hired yet, but I think I will be within another week or so. I’m going to document my progression within the company over the next year. My thoughts on baking, working, life, etc. When life closes a door, it opens a window. Or something like that.

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Mi Gastronomia

The other day I was browsing through the library and I stumbled upon a book by Ferdnand Point called Ma Gastronomie. I was just looking for a good book on French food and I happened to notice this one (with a foreword by Thomas Keller) and began to read through it. I was interested in what Chef Keller had to say about Point so I checked out the book. A couple of days later I was reading the New York Times when I came across an article by Mark Bittman on Ma Gastronomie about how Ferdnand Point built a gastronomic monument (his 3 Michelin restaurant, La Pyramide), how he helped modernize French cuisine (while always adhering to the fundamentals), and how he inspired dozens of chefs after him to continue to push the limits of gastronomy (i.e. Thomas Keller). I have only gotten through a few pages of the book so far, but I already feel greatly inspired. If you haven’t read this book I recommend doing so. Point’s recipes are not exact; they don’t have measurements or weights and require the reader to have a basic knowledge of cooking and technique. His recipes flow like a dialogue, as if he were right there talking you through it. The beauty of Ma Gastronomie lies in the name: my Gastronomy. Meaning that it is what you want it to be. These recipes are your own, just as they were Point’s or are Thomas Keller’s. Your gastronomical tastes dictate in which direction you will take them. Cooking is a lifestyle more than anything else; it should reflect you as a person. That’s the way food was for Point and the way the way it should continue to be today.

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An Ode to my Grandmother’s Cooking

In an effort to pay homage to my grandmother, I attempted to recreate a Dominican dinner the other night. After work I went to the Bronx to pick up some groceries for the meal. The Bronx is the best place to find platanos (plantains) since more than 85% of the population is Hispanic. Growing up, I ate a lot of rice and beans; it is the Dominican staple. It sounds easy enough, but to truly cook the rice and beans correctly takes years of practice and repetition. I did my best to capture even the minutest flavors of the dish by constantly seasoning and re-seasoning, using the right the ingredients, and cooking them all correctly. All in all it was a good meal (although it fell short of my grandmother’s!). But one success I did have was in making the tostones (twice fried platanos). Tostones are delicious and easy to make. They capture the beauty of Dominican cooking in their simplicity and taste.

Platano Masher

To make tostones you need green (unripe) platanos. Peel off the skin with a knife (they’re not as easy to peel as bananas) and then cut them into 1.5 inch thick cylindrical slices. Heat up 3/4 inches of neutral oil in a shallow pan for a few minutes and when the oil is hot add the platanos so the oil reaches about halfway up the plantain. Fry one side for a couple of minutes (until the color begins to lighten) and flip the platano to fry the other side. When the whole platano is lighter in color, take it out and place it in a platano masher (as seen on the right) and crush the plantain gently so it forms a flat circle. If you don’t have a masher you can use two plates to crush your platano.

Then put the crushed platanos back into the hot oil and fry boths sides until they are crispy. Take them out, put them on a plate with paper towels to drain; season them with salt and enjoy! A well made platano will be soft (but cooked) on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Platanos go well with anything. We usually eat them as an accompaniment with rice and beans. But they can be used as appetizers or snacks as well. I’ve only ever had them with salt (because that’s how my grandmother makes them), but you can always play around with the seasonings. In other countries, like Colombia, they are known as patacones and can be used as vehicles for plating other foods. The possibilities are endless! So go out and make some tostones and have fun. But be careful, they can be very addicting!

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Technique, Technique, Technique!

You can always get better. It’s an unspoken rule in cooking. If you think you can cook the best omelette in town chances are someone can do it better (If you don’t believe me check out Flynn McGarry. So it’s always a good idea to keep practicing because that’s what this industry is about; repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Have you ever seen Jaque Pepin quarter a chicken? If you haven’t, check it out; it’s beautiful. I would put it on the level of going to the opera or seeing a ballet at Lincoln Center. The irony of it is that cooking in itself is not artistic, but when you reach a certain level of technique, such as Jaque Pepin’s, it takes on an artistic  quality. As I’ve been told many times and have come to appreciate, cooking is a trade. It is not the cook’s job to take a chef’s recipe and tweak it or add some ‘artistic’ elements to the dish. It is the cook’s job to cook it right. Every. Single. Time. Consistency is key in cooking. Whenever I cook a dish I try to focus on my basic techniques such as my taillage or seasoning. What I’m looking for is the same end product every time. Nothing is more heart breaking than to go to a restaurant, order a dish, and have it be the most amazing thing you have ever eaten only to come back again a month later, order the same dish and have it come out mediocre. It ruins the experience. And to a cook, nothing is worse than sending out bad food. All in all, practice your technique everyday until it’s perfect. And then? Practice some more.

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Basque Stage Candidate Post: Duck Adobo and Coconut Rice

Food tells a story and everyone has a story to tell. Chicken adobo, the national dish of the Philippines, is part of my story. To me, Filipino food is the bridge between Spanish and Asian cuisine. It’s my vehicle for exploring new and exciting ingredients in Asian cuisine while still staying true to my cultural roots.

If I had to pick a dish that best defined me as a person and as a cook it would be this one. The reason this dish is so meaningful to me is because my grandmother cooks something so similar to it that it may as well be chicken adobo. I grew up eating her braised chicken wings and to this day every time I eat them I’m transported back to my childhood. I chose to use Long Island duck to replace the chicken in this recipe because I think the gaminess of the duck goes really well with the strong flavors of adobo. Also, I really like duck.

Coconut rice is very delicious and extremely easy to make. The coconut, to me, is a symbol of my tropical roots. It is a reminder of where I come from and how it can really help to elevate even the simplest dish to new levels. My mother grew up in the Dominican Republic and one of her childhood memories is eating fresh coconuts off the tree. Although coconuts are more of a coastal delicacy, they were still available in her town from time to time. Getting a coconut to sip on was sort of like what getting an ice cream is to kids today. I think the refreshing taste of the coconut helps to clean the palate after every bite of the duck, causing you to really want to take the next one.

I like make coconut rice using a fresh coconut. First off, you need to drain the coconut of any liquid by cutting into the eye with a knife; the liquid can be saved and used to make drinks. I like to reserve a little liquid for the rice itself to help accentuate the coconut flavor.

Our source of Coco Milk

Once you’ve extracted the liquid, hold the coconut as shown in the picture on the left. Take the back of a cleaver (or small hammer) and give a sharp blow to the side of the coconut. Turn the coconut and continue hitting with the cleaver in a rotating motion. Eventually you should see a fault line develop after which you should be able to pull apart the coconut into two halves. It takes a bit of practice to find the sweet spot, but once you find it the rest is easy as pie. Remove the pulp and blend it with an equal amount of boiling water to make coconut milk. Once you have the coconut milk just substitute it for water in a normal recipe for rice.

A Beautiful Bird: The LI Duck

I don’t like to buy pieces of poultry. It’s much more economical (and fun!) to buy the whole bird and break it down. One of the things I love about cooking is using as much of the product as possible. Complete product utilization fascinates me and it is one of the reasons I love using duck wings for this recipe. People don’t normally use the duck wings for much more than making stock. But why not cook them and serve them as appetizers? When you buy a whole bird there are a number of ways you can break it down and cook the parts. You could confit the legs, braise the wings, saute the breast, and make stock with the trimmings. The duck practically pays for itself.

I like crushing garlic with a mortar and pestle. It somehow makes me feel closer to my ancestors.

So here’s what I do when I make duck wing adobo: Break down the bird and reserve the other parts for tomorrow’s dinner; brown the wings and legs in a some neutral oil. Once the duck is browned and there are some sucs in the pan, remove the wings and legs and add some rice or white vinegar to delgaze. Then add crushed garlic, salt, and pepper and stir until the salt has dissolved. Put the duck back into the pan, cover, and cook about 20 minutes. Remove the lid, add some soy sauce, cover, and cook another 10 minutes. Remove the duck and reduce the sauce until nappant (thick, non-watery) consistency. Serve the duck over some of the coconut rice and coat with the sauce.

The finished dish: Buen Provecho!

Some sauteed spinach goes nicely with this dish. I like to saute my spinach with some garlic, salt, pepper, and a little lemon juice. The beauty of adobo is it goes well with any poultry dish. So if you ever need a quick appetizer to go with your main dish think about throwing together some good old fashioned adobo!

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Our Island, Our Seafood

First off, I’d like to say it’s strange to be in the running for a spot in BasqueStage. To have a chance of going to Europe, all expenses paid, and learn from some of the best cooks and chefs in the world is remarkable. To whoever earns a spot in Restaurante Martin Berastegui I wish them the best of luck and hope they live every day to the fullest.

So our outing the other day didn’t finish with the Big Duck. Since Long Island is itself, well, an island we decided to hit up one of the local seafood joints for lunch!

Image I love seafood. I always have. Part of it was because my grandfather was a chef and I grew up eating things like shrimp scampi, steamed lobster, calamari fra diavolo, and anything else under the sea! The other reason I love seafood has to stem from the fact that I grew up on an island. Some of my fondest memories are going crabbing with my best friends. We’d spend hours sitting at the pier with chicken drumsticks attached to string; waiting for the tension, the tug and pull of our prey! One of the reasons I love food and cooking so much is that the smallest bite of something can take you back to your childhood. I’ll always have a sweet spot for seafood and when I settle down one day I’ll make sure I’m never more than 20 minutes from the ocean.

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Basque Stage Candidate Video- The Long Island Duck

Sorry about the sound quality; it turned out to be a pretty windy day. So I added some subtitles at parts where the wind completely masked what I was saying.

My mother and I decided to take a drive out East to the Hamptons the other day because she’s always wanted to see the Long Island Duck. I thought it’d be a great chance to showcase a bit of where I come from and what we’re known for in the culinary world.

I won’t ruin the video, but I will say that Long Island was once the biggest producer of ducks in the United States. Sadly, there are only two remaining duck farms on Long Island. I hope that as the food movement in the US continues to grow people will be inspired to look back towards traditions, such as duck farming, and start to bring them back before they completely disappear.

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