Friday, February 24, 2012


I was inspired by Justina’s blog post today at Morning Bray Farm.  She’s tired of a long, colorless winter, so she brought out some beautiful pictures of flowers from back in the sunny months.

This got me to thinking about all the folks out there who are actually having a winter.  I know some parts of the midwest and northeast have had big piles of snow dumped on them.  But we here in the Piedmont of North Carolina are still waiting for winter to start!  We’ve had a few strings of nights in the 20s and days barely above freezing, but that ain’t nuthin’ compared to what winter is supposed to be.  Amiright?

So as spring comes barging in early, I thought it would only be gracious of me to share a little of the color we have right now.

While some of the grass has gone dormant, there’s been plenty of green for most of the winter.


I started my search for color in my own backyard.  The bulbs have been slowly readying themselves for weeks now, and began to bloom sometime last week.



The Carolina jasmine which looked to be dying last summer is making a comeback.


Oh, and let’s not forget these little fellows…they still count as flowers!


(Did you know that dandelions were brought to North America by the British as a food crop?  We should be eating our lawns, not spraying them!)

I decided to take my camera with me on my evening walk/sniff with Rosie, to see what other colors I might come across.  Here’s a gratuitous Rosie shot, because how can I not?


Off to the park…I love this variegated whatchamacallit bush.  The leaves are edged in yellow, though it doesn’t show up that well in this muted light.


But then as I entered the park, I saw this early-blooming explosion!


I was so overwhelmed, it was hard to keep the camera steady. Smile  I'm not sure what this is; some kind of apple or crabapple.  But it blooms weeks before any of the other flowering cherries do around here.  Oh, and it smells lovely.

Did you want a closer look?  I thought so.




Next I noticed the yellow-and-green of the lichen on a tree.


And I knew that some of the hardwoods around the park had burst their buds a couple of weeks ago.  But I hadn’t noticed this yet.


Sorry it’s fuzzy—I blame the lowering light for a longer-than-expected exposure.  But I still think the color is worth sharing.

And, if you look closely enough, you can see a little bit of pink in these clouds.


Then I had to put the camera away and pay attention to Rosie, as we were entering snack goose-poop territory.  Here’s hoping for a little color in your weekends!

Monday, February 20, 2012

That Time of Year

I went outside to give Rosie a good brushing. Next thing I knew, I had a hoe in my hands and dirt in my hair.

I've got a long way to go.  This plot is too big for just me, I've decided.  Not sure what I can do about it.  Maybe plant half of it in pumpkin and summer squash.

Rosie found the proceedings very boring.  I didn't even finish brushing her properly.  Sounds like early onset Spring Fever, if you ask me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


That’s not a metaphor.  I finally got to finish up a project today, and, inspired by Natalie at Chickenblog, thought I’d share my little craft.  This is going a bit off my usual topic, and unfortunately, this project is not nearly as pretty as what Natalie and her family get up to!

It is, however, a re-use / recycle kind of project, so there is that.  This one starts with lint!  Yes, lint, stuffed into cardboard egg cartons.


We’ve been saving our lint like obsessive hoarders for months and months.  We had four of these cartons packed full of lost bits of towels, sweaters, socks and probably more than a few Rosie hairs.  That’s ok, hair is nice and flammable, too.

The second ingredient is wax.  We wanted paraffin, but this is what we found at the craft store.


We did this same project last year, using the melted-down bits of candle stubs and tea lights with burned-down wicks.  Unfortunately we haven’t burned enough candles this year, so we had to shell out some cash.  We bought two of these one-pound blocks, and it wasn’t quite enough for three of our cartons.  Next time I’ll know to go ahead and get the four-pound block.  (Warning: for a thrifty craft, this wax can get expensive; these blocks were $6.99.   I think I’ll keep my eye open for paraffin, and see if it’s any cheaper.  Or make an effort to take more candle-lit baths.)

Time to melt the wax!


(*Note: DO NOT DO AS I DID.  Turns out this wax is flammable above 300 degrees--so putting in an oven with an open heat source is very dangerous.  Use a double-boiler as recommended.  Thanks to Dreaming for pointing this out in the comments!*)

I cut it into smaller chunks, and melted them in the oven in a disposable pie tin we happened to have around.  Last year we used a small saucepan on the stove, and it was a bit of a pain to clean.  It would be nice to have a junky pot you don’t really care about for this step, as the stovetop is more direct and efficient—plus the saucepan was easier to pour from.  Notice I put the wibbly-wobbly pie tin on a sheet tray for more secure handling.  This also came in handy after pouring the wax, since some dribbled down under the bottom of the tin and cooled there.

While this was melting, I tore the lids and tabs off the egg cartons and set them in a sheet tray, too.  There will be extra wax coming out the bottoms and dribbling off the sides, so you want to protect your work surface.


Well, they almost look like aracauna eggs, right?  Maybe a bit…squishier.

I don’t have a picture of the next step, pouring the wax over the eggs lint.  That’s because I was busy wrangling hot wax, duh.  It was a multi-step process.  I’d pour as best I could, put more wax in to melt, then as the overflow cooled on the cartons, I’d peel and scrape it up and put it back in the oven with the melting wax.  (Miss Chef’s metal pastry scraper was just the perfect tool for this.)

As I said, this is not a pretty-looking craft…


…though I did like how this fancy-pants wax makes them kind of shiny, lol!

After things cool down a bit, you can tear the individual egg pockets apart, and voila—a perfectly ugly little firestarter!


Yeah, maybe not the best thing for prettily-packaged homemade gifts.  On the other hand, you can do the same thing with pine cones, which can be prettily-packaged.  We’ve tried that, too, but I think they need multiple wax dippings to get enough of a coating on them.  We haven’t used the ones we made, so I’m not sure how well a single coating works, and don’t feel like advising anyone on those.

Anyway, regardless of their unattractiveness, these little lint bombs are surefire at…ensuring a fire.  I crumple up some newspaper, put one of these on top, and then teepee the kindling over it.  If properly soaked, the firestarters will burn for five minutes or so, enough to get your wood caught well.  (Notice on the one on the left in the picture above, you can see the darkness where the wax soaked into the cardboard.  That’s what you want.)

Finally, something from our kitchen that doesn’t leave you hungry!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Chef’s Wife

When I began this blog, one of my hopes was to let the world in on life with a professional chef.  As it turns out, I've hardly skimmed the surface.  After years of giving slight mentions of what's going on in that part of our lives, I've discovered it’s a task that requires me to sit down and actually focus on what it is that makes this life different than most.  Turns out, there's a lot to say.

I think the first step in understanding how to remain married—happily—to a professional cook is understanding the tribe of cooks.  As in most demanding careers, there are certain characters that seem drawn to a life on the line.  Anyone who knows the name Anthony Bourdain, or has spent much time watching a selection of chef reality shows has an inkling of the type of people I'm talking about.  But to my mind, it all stems from a first, basic characteristic: chefs are ambitious.  Good chefs are driven.  Excellent chefs are passionate.   And all of them may border on crazy.

But let’s analyze this ambitious, passionate drive.  Because it can manifest itself in infinite ways.   A chef may become passionately meticulous, narrowing his focus down to a single, carefully and obsessively arranged dish.  Others are ambitious for career progress and acknowledgement, campaigning to move quickly through the brigade system in order to take charge of their own kitchen and menu.  There are chefs who are driven towards change, bringing their customers along as they explore and discover new ways to consider what a meal means, or how traditional Italian can be updated and adapted.  Above all, the chefs I know are passionate about the food—local food, cutting-edge flavors, hyper-fresh seafood—it doesn’t matter what kind, but the food is the reason, the beginning and the end of every day they slide into their grease-encrusted no-slip clogs.

However this drive emerges in your chef, it is likely to result in a burning desire to keep working when most normal people have had enough.  I only know a handful of chefs personally, but the most successful ones—that is, the ones who have managed to comfortably support themselves and a family through their work in a kitchen—can fairly be categorized as workaholics.  When Chef Bonaparte was head of the culinary program, he routinely spent extra hours in the school kitchens in preparation for special dinners with various organizations.  I remember him gleefully showing off a cooler full of curing dry sausages and pepperonis he was preparing for a visit from Alice Waters or a farm dinner.  Extra hours in the kitchens, away from his wife and daughter, because...because, well, if you saw the knowing smiles from the other chef instructors when his name and the words "cured meats" are said together, you'd understand.  And don’t think he’s an exception—he’s just the first one to come to mind.

I’m sure that you can begin to see a bit of what a chef’s spouse must be prepared to accept.  Not only will your cooking fool of a partner be working long hours, but they will be precisely the hours during which most families come together.  Kids home for a weekend?  Your chef is gone, prepping for the arrival of all the families who are capping off a day of relaxation with a great dinner.  A night to spend quietly at home, no meetings, practices or errands?  Your chef will be at the restaurant, feeding the families who looked at each other after a long day at work and said “Why don’t we just go out tonight?”

Mother’s day?  Gather the kids and go on to Grandma’s house, because Chef Dearest will be working a double that day.  Christmas?  If you’re lucky, your chef will be home on Christmas Day.  But the company parties, church gatherings, family travel and cookie exchanges that lead up to the big day will all have to be done without her.  Because those weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s belong to the restaurant, not to you. 

Valentine’s Day?  Don’t make me laugh!

Not only will you be missing your chef on nights, weekends and holidays, but you’ll be missing your partner.  Remember, any good marriage means sharing kisses and day-to-day routines.  So when Miss Chef essentially disappears from my life during the holidays and the biennial restaurant weeks, my life becomes harder too.  There’s nobody to help with the laundry and dishes.  The house is invariably dark when I get home.  On my own busy days, I have to rush home after work to let the dog out, or be the one to plan ahead and find someone to feed and walk her.  (Being a chef’s dog is no picnic, either.)  Lawn mowing, vacuuming, mail, communication with family and friends all become my total responsibility.

And let’s not forget mealtimes.  I’ve learned to bite my tongue whenever someone invariably sighs “I’d love to have my own chef at home.”  Yeah so would I.  When Miss Chef’s schedule revs up, I have to guess what she might require from the grocery store, re-learn how to cook for one, and try to figure out what she might be able to eat in the car between jobs or in the kitchen between rushes.  It has to fit in a reasonably small container, be edible at room temperature, not require a fork and contain a hefty amount of calories with a balance between starch and protein.

Anyone can be a chef’s wife or husband—all you have to do is marry one of them.  (Good luck with their getting enough time off for a wedding, much less a honeymoon).  But to really thrive as a couple, there are responsibilities one has to accept.  First, it’s essentially important to learn what drives your chef.  There’s got to be something that makes all the ridiculousness worthwhile in his mind.  It could be the pleasure of serving a dining room full of happy customers.  Maybe it’s more the recognition of peers, gaining the respect and admiration of titans in the field.  For some it’s the glow of creating something new, in the same way an artist continues to grow and experiment with her work.  It might be forming a network of ties within the community, bringing together farmers and diners, kids and food, cooks and students.  It could just be the glare of the spotlight—an actor who loves to play with fire and knives.   Whatever it is, knowing it helps the chef’s spouse understand when it’s time to push her back into the kitchen and when to suggest she step back a little.

Next, it helps to really learn about the job…to visit the kitchen and understand the noise, the heat, the odd coworkers.  I’m lucky that I can dip a toe in by working occasionally with her, but getting a glimpse into the kitchen helps at least get a feel for this odd environment where a chef spends his or her time.

I also think it’s especially important to listen to the work stories.  This is often the fun part, but can also be difficult to accept at first.  The working conditions and hours are ridiculous, and in any “normal” job, OSHA would be in there in a flash.  The heat in the kitchen soars well above 100 degrees all summer, and nobody wants to know what the humidity is.  Expecting that required break just because you’re working a ten-hour shift on your feet?  If the executive chef’s not getting a break, neither are you.  Health care?  I think we have some bandaids behind the microwave.  Benefits?  Good job kid, here’s a beer at the end of service.  Yeah, you’re dehydrated and have a 40-minute drive home, but don’t be a p***y if you want to keep everyone’s respect. 

Then there’s the abuse.  Hazing, camaraderie, team-building, call it what you want, but even in the most family-friendly kitchen, behavior will raise eyebrows.  Miss Chef and Chef Adam have given each other huge welts with wet towels snapped well above the knees.  And that’s when they’re having fun!  The language in the kitchen is different, too.  Of course there’s the jargon—fire a ticket, eighty-six a menu item—but there’s the other language.  The one where the asterisks come out of that word in the last paragraph and no one even notices.  When you’ve got all those half-crazy people working in those inhuman conditions, the relationships are equally passionate—love and hate in equal measures.  No joke.  And you can’t know any of this unless you listen to the stories.

Knowing the inside of the life is part of the reason I actually enjoy being with my chef.  Because you know that, in spite of all the missed holidays and lonely hours, I wouldn't trade my girl in for anything. Why?  Well, for starters, seeing Miss Chef happy and excited as she describes a new appetizer she's developed lets me know she's fulfilled in her work. And in spite of the many peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich dinners I've eaten alone, there are plenty of nights when I get to enjoy a juicy roasted chicken with unusual vegetable combinations perfectly prepared, all swimming in a beautiful sauce.  Not to mention the occasional samples that make their way home, inside invitations to wine tastings and special events, and easy access to any number of specialty foods.

But what I really enjoy is getting to know the people she works with. Whether it's chefs or servers, very few boring people make their living in the food industry.  First, you can't survive this industry without an excellent sense of humor.  Second, restaurant diners bring all their quirks and dramas with them, and you can see everything when you're one of the few in the room standing up.  As a result, chefs have some of the most surreal stories to share, and most of them a gift for story-telling laced with a dry, knife-sharpened wit (and maybe some profanity).  Sit some down with a few drinks, and you can cancel your satellite tv. 

Now being a supportive, understanding spouse to a professional chef does require some sacrifices and responsibilities--but these responsibilities go both ways.  No matter how reasonable and supportive her family may be, the chef has a responsibility to remember that family is a major part of the puzzle.  I am lucky; Miss Chef has always made a strong effort to carve out time for me, for us.  That makes it easier for me to let her disappear into the kitchen between the third week of November and the first of January.  I am happy to make sure her chef pants are washed or she has enough bananas for the week, because I know when she has a half-day free, it will be dedicated to us.  If she didn’t constantly remind me that I am at least as important as her job, I would be too resentful to do any of that, much less let her go every day.

It’s a delicate balancing act.  It cannot be done by one side or the other.  It requires constant communication of all sorts, verbal and otherwise.  As a chef’s wife, you have to get it, get the job, the passion, the people, the rhythm of the life.  Even though it’s not your job, you have to love it or hate it.  I imagine there are plenty of chefs out there whose spouses have little or nothing to do with their jobs.  But I can’t imagine they are as happy as my chef and I.

Postscript: So how was our Valentine's night?  Rough, very rough.  My evening started with a server telling me Chef was stressed and "barking out orders," and ended with a woman popping her head out of the bathroom as I headed out the back door, to inform me there was "poop all over the floor."  I also managed to get in trouble for leaving without saying goodbye to Miss Chef.

Which is why, once we were finally snuggled in bed, drifting off to sleep, I quietly wished her "Crappy Valentine's Day."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Art of the Omelet, Part II: Alternatives

Section I : Misses and Hits

Miss Chef and I enjoyed a slow morning today.  We woke up late and stayed in bed talking, catching up on the last few days.  After sharing stories about coworkers and customers, I said, “I’m hungry.” 

Then, wanting to support Miss Chef in her drive for self-improvement, I continued, “You could make me an omelet.”

Soon thereafter, she was indeed in the kitchen, pulling out dairy products and our best, heavy All-Clad pan.  I, of course, pulled out the camera.


She heated the pan thoroughly, then put a big ol’ hunk of butter in to melt, making sure it coated the entire pan.  Then she poured in the eggs.  As they cooked, she pulled the edges back and let the uncooked liquid ooze over it to hit the hot surface.


But it wasn’t working right.  “It’s sticking really bad,” she announced.  Once the egg begins to set, it should slide across the pan, allowing the cook to flip it easily.  The sticking apparently is a symptom of one’s pan not being hot enough.  As I watched her swirl her spatula right through the custard, breaking up the disk-like shape, I had to ask, “So, I’m eating...


…scrambled, huh?”

They were good scrambled eggs, though.  And while I was digging in, Miss Chef was cracking more eggs!  “Are you going to make me eat four eggs this morning!?” I had to ask.  Because I don’t think I’ve mentioned recently that Miss Chef does not like eggs.  She wants to make a perfect omelet, but not to eat it.  Just to be able to say she can.  And to feed to me, of course.

Don’t get me wrong; I like eggs a great deal.  But there’s this whole high-cholesterol thing in my family, and I’m quite aware that a single egg has 50 mgs. more than the daily recommended allowance.  I was working my way through two eggs already.

Of course, it was too late, and Miss Chef soon had another omelet working.


She had turned the flame up and let the pan heat some more before adding her butter and pouring in the egg & milk mixture.  This time it did not stick, and she did come out with the appropriately-formed final product.


Sort of.  It’s still a far cry from a good omelet, though.  See that lumpy texture?  That means a tough skin on it--now the pan was too hot.  The bit showing under the bottom is more what she’s looking for—smooth and tender, with just a bit of…fluff to it.  The omelet I’d had at Customshop was like that all the way around, inside and out.  (If you look at the picture above this one, you can see that tough texture forming already.)

I've seen Miss Chef make better omelets than this, and I consoled her by suggesting she just had to get used to the stove and the pan in relation to omelets.  And no, I didn’t have to eat it.  Miss Chef tasted some, I tasted some and Rosie tasted some.  Even the dog enjoys the benefits of living with a chef!

Section II : Other Options

So, what to do with the remaining 8 eggs or so we’d bought a few weeks ago?  It was time to use them up, but neither of us was terribly interested in day after day of omelets.  Once again, it was time for quiche!

Miss Chef whipped up a quick custard base—one part egg to two parts milk.  That’s about 1/4 cup of milk per egg—but it’s probably easier to scramble the eggs first and eyeball the addition of milk.


This is the custard base.  It’s seasoned with salt, pepper and…what’s that crumby-looking stuff on top?  Nutmeg.  It’s a nice additive that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it, but adds some depth of flavor.

By the way, have you ever seen a whole nutmeg nut?


The nuts are about an inch long.  The one on the right is a cross-section, after being run across the microplane.  Isn’t it cool-looking?  By the way, a microplane is one of Miss Chef’s essential kitchen tools.  I thought using whole nutmegs was something for rich foodies, with granite countertops and six-burner Viking stoves.  But the nuts last forever, the microplane should be in your kitchen drawer anyway, and the scent of freshly-ground nutmeg will convince anyone they’ve waited too long to do this.

So, back to the quiche.  As usual, Miss Chef had to run off to work, so she left me set up with a sort of quiche kit.  We had already lined the deep-dish pie plate with a pre-made crust (yep, no shame in using Pilsbury).  She had peeled and diced a large baking potato, then boiled it briefly and drained it.  (Of course her diced potato looks better than anything I’d do.)  This went onto the crust, along with a generous helping of frozen broccoli.


Hmm.  Not so appetizing at this point.  Miss Chef had also shredded a buttload of cheese.  Can you tell how many different kinds she pulled out of the fridge?

Probably not.  There’s both slices and regular shredded of swiss and cheddar, along with some leftover goat cheese, and possibly some gouda.  Not sure if that made it in.  What I’m trying to say is, don’t worry about what kind of cheese you’re supposed to use.  We used leftovers plus some cheddar purpose-bought.

Once Miss Chef was out the door on the way to the restaurant, I began the assembly process.  My assignment was simple: brown some sausage…


(Alas, we had been too lazy to get to the market for some Grateful Growers’ sausage, so we had to make do with Jimmy Dean.  After reading Jenna’s recent pork tragedy at Cold Antler Farm, I honestly said a little apology to the pigs whose flesh I was preparing—apology for supporting an industrial meat system that had undoubtedly cut off the tails of these piglets, crammed them into unspeakable conditions, fed them an unnatural diet and injected them with hormones and antibiotics.

Hey, if I’m not gonna do the right thing and buy humanely-raised meat, I want to keep my eyes open as to what I’m really doing with my money.)

Ok, end of lecture.  Sausage done, I added it to the quiche shells…


…layered on the cheese…


…poured on the egg mixture…and quickly realized there wasn’t nearly enough!  The custard mix should rise just below the solid ingredients.  They shouldn’t be swimming in it, but it should be apparent that this is an egg dish, not a sausage-and-cheese dish with a bit of egg around it.  So back to step one I went, scrambling up the rest of the eggs with some milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg and pouring that over, too.

And it still wasn’t enough.

At which point the confident cook shrugs her shoulders and opens the oven door…only to realize that when she’d preheated the oven to 350 degrees, she’d hit the wrong button and the oven was still cold.

Whatever.  I simply started the oven, successfully this time, slid in the quiche—appreciating the fact that for once spillage wasn’t an issue—and set the timer for an hour.  I had to add another ten minutes or so at the end, but I was happy to see that the rising power of eggs had come to the rescue!


I may also have cooked it a little long.  I was just looking for the custard to be fully set—it really shouldn't be browned like that at the top.

But you know what?  Quiche is a really hard dish to mess up.  And so versatile…remember the last ones Miss Chef made included a roasted red pepper, spinach and goat cheese?  Once you’ve got the custard base down, the flavor combinations are endless.

We’ll probably freeze one of these, as I eat my way through the other.  I plan on bringing a piece to work for breakfast for several days.  Bet I’ll have some jealous coworkers…right, Kelly?

Update / correction:  So, it turns out the center of the crust didn't cook through.  We should have "blind-baked" it first; putting it in the oven to bake empty for 15 minutes or so before filling it.  Whoops.  In the meantime, I'm reheating my piece in a pan on the stove over a low flame.  Maybe that will help.

Oh, and for our Superbowl snacks?  Miss Chef's planning on preparing a big pot of homemade mac'n'cheese with bits of chicken, peas and broccoli in it.  I don't plan on documenting that; I'm just telling you that to make you jealous.  :-)

And on a totally unrelated note...I've started back to the gym seriously this month and started yoga classes.  I don't know why, I thought that might have some relevance here...