Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who could run home and blog complaints about their job every night and make up little nicknames for co-workers so as not to get caught but I just can't do that.

Lately though, I have been feeling like I am much more dedicated to my job than my job is dedicated to me. I would do ANYTHING they asked me to do, stay as late as they wanted me stay, work as many days/hours/weeks/months as they requested, but yet they seem like it is such a burden to them to help me grow as a cook. They know I want to be the best, yet offer so few opportunities that allow me to learn and grow and become better. So frustrating. The more I give the more they take and offer nothing in return.

Don't get me wrong, I love my work I'm just not so sure how much I love my job anymore. I just wish they were offering me more challenges and pushing me harder. I went to this place for opportunity and right now I feel like rather than moving forward I'm simply moving laterally. For me, its never acceptable to just be on cruise control and coast through life/work. I NEVER want to just settle. I know they appreciate all that I do but is it selfish to want challenge over appreciation? Honestly, I'd rather be pushed and proded than thanked right now.

But, in an economy such as ours I refuse to be the girl who complains about having a stable job that offers me a decent wage and insurance benefits. I am so lucky to have what I have. On the other hand when I go to my boss(es) begging them to push me harder, to challenge me more often and never to hold me back I expect to see effort on their part if they really care about my future as a cook.

Everyday I try to find the smallest opportunities to learn SOMETHING. It's becoming harder and harder. So for now I will continue to work as hard as I possibly can and prove myself as a passionate cook.

Rant over.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Essential Kitchen

I decided I would do a 2 part blog series on things I think every great home cook should HAVE and things every home cook should KNOW. As a professional cook sometimes you forget how different home cooking really is. But, there are essential tools that will make the home cook's experience in the kitchen even more enjoyable.

None of the items are incredibly expensive but some are certainly splurges or items that must be saved for. I will include approximate price for each item and why it made my list. I'm also going to omit things I consider "basics" every kitchen should already have - wooden spoon, spatulas, cutting board etc.

Today we are inundated with gadgets for the kitchen claiming to make your life easier. If there is one bit of advice I can give it is not to waste your money on gadgets. Think back to the delicious meals your mom or grandma used to prepare and remember she never had any of those silly tools. Instead, spend your money on a few great essentials that will carry you through the years.

Tools Every Home Cook Should Have

1. A good quality French knife and a steel. This can be an investment as a good quality knife will cost about $100 but, if you take good care of it, it should last for years. As a woman I prefer Japanese made knives as they are lighter and seem to "fit" better in my hands. I use an 8 inch Global brand knife and love it. The knife and handle are all one piece of stainless steel. It is incredibly easy to wash and maintain and I can't speak highly enough of this knife. For a home cook I recommend nothing longer than an 8 inch blade and nothing less than 6.5. You don't have to go with a Global brand but it is personally my favorite. Another great Japanese made knife that you may like is the Shun. Obviously, German made knives are the most famous but, for me, they are just too heavy in the hand. I recommend buying a knife from a store that will let you actually let you cut with the knife before you purchase it.

It is also important to own a steel and know how to use it. A steel is not to sharpen your knife, but rather, to hone and align its edge. You must also have your knives professionally sharpened or learn to use a sharpening stone. Use your steel every time you begin to cook or in between lengthy cutting projects. To use your steel first make sure it (and your knife) are clean. Hold the steel in your non-dominant hand and run the knife over the steel at a 22 degree angle. Start with the heel of the knife against the steel and pull the blade towards you. Make sure to hone both sides of the blade. Watch this video to really see how it is done.

2. Fine Mesh Strainer. I would like to put a chinois on this list but a true chinois costs roughly $85 and that is just ridiculous. I don't even have one at home. However, a fine mesh strainer can get the job done pretty well for lots less money. Using a mesh strainer to strain cream soups or sauces will change the way you think about soup and sauce. The difference between eating a strained soup or sauce is like the difference between eating velvet and corduroy. You'll love it. For home use a 5 to 8 inch mesh strainer will cost about $15

3. Microplane. If you've never seen a microplane it is basically a fine grater on a handle. This is the perfect tool for zesting citrus fruits, grating ginger or garlic and grating super hard cheeses like Parmesan. These graters are super sharp and make zesting really easy. If you don't use them everyday (like I do at work) they stay sharp for a long time and you shouldn't have to replace them often. A microplane will cost about $16 at any kitchen store.

4. Stand Mixer. This one is another investment but one that is well worth it. A good stand mixer will cost about $200-$250 but is another tool you should never have to replace if you buy quality. When shopping for a stand mixer look for one with all steel gears. I use the KitchenAid Pro500 which retails for about $350. This is a bit more than most home cooks need but was a better choice for me. The pro version of the mixer features all stainless steel, a larger capacity, a better dough hook, and rather than having a tilt head the bowl lifts & lowers - which I prefer. I also did not pay full price for this mixer and if you look out for sales or go to stores like Marshall's or Khol's you may be able to find a great deal like I did. Having a stand mixer will save you an amazing amount of time in the kitchen as it frees up your hands to do other prep or cleanup while mixing.

5. digital scale. Digital scales are a great addition to any home kitchen. Weighing ingredients rather than measuring in volume makes for a better recipe especially when baking. Try to get used to weighing ingredients and you will see more consistent results. Basic digital scales cost about $20 and will be just fine for the home cook. If you can't find recipes that list ingredients in grams or ounces use an online recipe converter to change your recipes.

6. heavy bottomed pan. This is another tool that can be a bit of an investment, but again, one that lasts a lifetime. Heavy bottomed stainless pans are much better than aluminum pans. They provide more even cooking and won't discolor light colored sauces or soups when whisking (aluminum pans can cause light colored foods to turn grey). If you can afford it get both a sauce pan and a saute pan. You won't regret it. Stainless pans aren't "non-stick" so you might have to do a little scrubbing when you wash but they also allow you to deglaze and make lovely pan sauces after roasting meats. A 3 quart saute pan (great size for home cooking) retails for about $200 but again LOOK FOR DEALS. You can get a 3 qt saucier for $150-$200 as well. Just as a note when I say the pans are heavy I mean it. Pick it up in the store and make sure its the real deal and avoid aluminum at all costs.

7. Hand Immersion Blender. This may also be called a "stick" or "wand" blender. This little tool will be your best friend once you get one. Its great for making a quick morning smoothie as it only needs a quick rinse to lean. Its lightweight, easily stored, and much less intimidating than a blender. Don't get me wrong blenders have their own place in the kitchen but the immersion blender is just awesome. This hand blender can be used to puree soups, sauces, make whipped cream or mayo etc. Some of them (like mine) even come with other attachments like an electric knife (I've never used), whisk (awesome), and a chopper tool. Mine with the attachments was $40 but you can find one without the extra tools for about $30.

8. Spice Grinder. This is on my "I want" list but I really believe its something every cook should have and it is a money saver in the end. Buying spices in bulk that haven't been ground is cheaper and helps keep your spices fresher longer. Having a grinder also allows you to choose how course or finely ground your spices are. A Krups coffee/spice grinder retails for $20-$30.

9. Stock Pot or Dutch Oven Or both really... Making your own stock saves money and tastes better than store bought. Most home cooks won't be making 5 Gallons of stock at a time so using a Dutch Oven works well too, as long as you have enough room to cover your bones completely with water. Dutch Ovens can also be used to make stews, roast chickens etc. I love both my stock pot (for making large batches of marinara, soup or stock) and my dutch oven for all the other reason I listed. My 12 qt stock pot is aluminum so I use it strictly for broth soups, stock and tomato sauce and it cost about $20. Dutch ovens can range drastically in price so just do your research. Some Dutch ovens are made entirely of cast iron and can be used both indoors and outdoors.

10. Swiss Peeler I actually never knew what this type of peeler was called until I went to write this blog. I usually just call them the peelers that look like disposable razors. You may also hear them called T-peelers. These peelers are awesome. This is one of the only tools grandma probably had that I think should be upgraded. These peelers save you tons of time, are very sharp and super cheap. You can buy them in a pack of 3 for $10.

So that is my list of 10 essentials and if I could add one bonus it would be the Japanese Mandolin. They retail for about $20-$30 and are great for making perfectly shaved or julienned veggies.

Happy Cooking.

And, since the holidays are approaching if you saw something on this list you've just gotta have... write a letter to Santa! I'll vouch for you and tell him you really need it and you've been a very good girl/boy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

just for fun

This year for Halloween some of you may be having trouble finding a cool costume. Might I suggest something... I know everyone wants to be trendy and make a statement at Halloween so here's a costume that is sure to spark a conversation about current events and politics.

How about dressing up as Frankenfood??

Make a statment against GMO's this Halloween!

Just for laughs here are some photo suggestions. I especially enjoy the "frankendog"


Morning Glories and Queen Anne's Lace are baptized by the wind. These inspirations are my saving grace in the times we're livin' in.

-William Elliott Whitmore

Unfortunately, I haven't been feeling too inspired lately. I think I need a muse. Can women even have muses?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monsanto is in big trouble


As many of you may know, Monsanto faced a class action lawsuit in 2003 in Anniston, Alabama. The suit had to do with chemical dumping and other pollution that left people in the town with severe health problems. Monsanto reached a $700 million settlement in this case.

It seems the same is happening again, and this time it's here in Illinois and much closer to Monsanto's home-base in St. Louis.

Over 80 years ago Monsanto incorporated a village by the same name along the banks of the Mississippi River. The village was (and is still today) ruled by the Sauget family, with the Monsanto company holding their grasp on local taxes and regulations. In the beginning, the Sauget family set their own environmental standards and the village of Monsanto was seen as a mecca for industry.

Today, the village name has changed to Sauget and the citizens of the small village are sick. Cancer, lung problems, and other health issues plauge the community. A group of citizens and several lawyers (including one from the Anniston case) are working to sue Monsanto and other industries released toxic PCB's and dioxins on the community.

Plaintiffs in the suit feel they were misled by the big businesses regarding the dangerous/hazardous nature of the substances being released into their community. Due to the population density of Sauget the problem could be even worse than that in Anniston.

Sadly, it seems that Monsanto's MO is to target communities where people are poor, less educated, and less likely to have a say in society. Hopefully, this lawsuit will draw even more attention to the heinous acts of this awful company.

And, just to be objective here I'll give both sides of the story - Monsanto claims this lawsuit has no grounds and the plaintiffs are merely after their money. Oh, thats right, I forgot they can do no wrong.

Get the full story here


I posted a blog recently reviewing my favorite restaurant - Lula Cafe - for some reason it appears under a post on August 7, 2009. Please go back and read my review of a lovely little spot!


"In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations ... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

—Great Law of the Iroquois

A group of Iroquois Native Americans in 1914

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Lately I've been thinking about how I got to the place in my life where I am right now. If someone had asked me 3 years ago what I'd be doing for a living my answer certainly wouldn't have been cooking. It seems crazy to get PAID to cook food.

Many of you may not know that just about 3 years ago I was in my senior year of college at the University of Illinois at Chicago pursing a degree in psychology. From as long ago as I can remember I always wanted to help people so it seemed a natural progression to go into the field of psychology.

I always loved to cook. It was something I grew up watching my grandma and my mom do and I knew good food made people happy. During college when life was stressful I would cook. It was a way to calm down and connect. Cooking was a form of instant gratification. Never a career path, always a hobby, sometimes a joke. Anytime studies got rough I would joke that I was going to drop out and open a restaurant.

During a summer away from college working as an Environmental Education director at a summer camp I had a lot of time to think. I had the opportunity to cook for a lot of staff members at the camp as well as many of the children. I knew in the back of my mind psychology was an interest not a passion and I knew in the back of my mind that cooking made me happy. The realization came to the front of my mind when a 9 year old asked me "Are you a chef?"

That question hit me like a ton of bricks. Why aren't I a chef? I couldn't formulate a reason. I spent the next several weeks going over and over this question in my head. I spoke with some friends and co-workers and made my decision.

When I returned to Chicago I made the choice to leave UIC and pursue a culinary degree at Kendall College. It was a huge crazy step but I had never felt better. I took a job as a breakfast cook at a bed & breakfast and began my new life.

Even at this point I still had no idea why I wanted to be a cook. I just knew that I loved it. I didn't know what I wanted to do with a career as a cook and was worried I wouldn't feel fulfilled without "helping people.

When the problems with Monsanto began to really come to a head for my parents I felt a lot of mixed emotions. I was scared Monsanto would sue my dad and take everything he's worked so hard for, I was angry at an evil company, I felt helpless being so far away and not there with my mom and dad, and I felt guilty for having a job that wasn't in jeopardy.

But, it was in these moments that I realized why it was my destiny to become a cook. I am the farmer's daughter who grew up to be the cook. I live in both worlds of food now. Where food comes from and where food goes. I am in the best possible place as a cook.

And, it was in those moments that I realized I can help people as a cook. This blog has become my way to not feel scared, angry, helpless and guilty. I realize more and more each day what my role is and will be. As a cook and an educator. Even in the passing moments at work when I'm able to talk about what kind of greens we are cleaning because I've seen them growing in my mom's garden. Or when someone has a question about Genetically Modified foods. I am helping people.

Thomas Keller says there is no such thing as perfect food only the idea of it. And our role as a chef is to strive towards perfection not to achieve it, but rather, to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about. For me this rings very true but for me it goes beyond making people happy with eating the food. I want people to have the experience of food.

To have just one guest who understands their meal came from a farmer's field or a gardener's greenhouse not from my kitchen would mean success to me.

So, now I am a cook and I have my amazing parents to thank for their support in my decision.

To my grandma for always cooking and letting me help

To my mom who taught me that tomatoes come from your garden not the grocery store and for introducing me to the vidalia.

And to my dad for showing me what real work is. For getting up before the sun and working until the work is done.

And, both of my parents for doing something they love even if it means they'll never be rich.

Dad, no matter what Monsanto does to us, everything you've worked for you've earned and that is all that matters.

I am a cook. Today, I understand why.

Friday, October 2, 2009

One Small Victory

And I'll take it!

On September 22nd a US District Court in Northern California ruled against Monsanto's Roundup Ready (GM) Sugar Beets!

The Court ruled that the USDA had not adequately evaluated the environmental and economic risks of the sugar beets. The USDA did not prepare an environmental impact statement before 1.1 million US acres were sown with Monsanto's beets. This is not surprising considering Monsanto's infiltration of the USDA.

But, at least the Court has woken up to Monsanto's history of bullshit.

The dangers of these beets are two pronged. Roundup Ready products promote the growth of weeds that are extremely tolerant to weed killers and are not easily erradicated by conventional means. Also, organic and conventional beet farmers are at risk of cross-pollination due to wind when GM sugar beets are planted in the same area. Obviously this damages the integrity of the REAL food being grown in a conventional manner.

The Court ruled that the USDA must do a rigorous report of the environmental and economic impact of growing these beets and be ready to present information in October. Unfortunately, in my opinion, one month is not adequate time to do a "rigorous" study of anything...

As usual, Monsanto is sweeping this under the rug. Stating the ruling is about "procedural" problems and not questions of food safety.


Well, it was a small victory, and I'll take it!

Thanks to Cathy @ The Fund for making me aware of this ruling.

Get To Know...

Sherry Vinegar - en espanol vinagre de jerez

Prior to working in a restuarant I was not exposed to the vast array of vinegars available on the market. Today, I would like to focus on a vinegar I have come to appreciate very much in the last couple years.

Sherry vinegar is a wine vinegar made from sherry (duh). It is produced in the Cadiz provence of Spain and must be produced in the area between three Spanish cities referred to as the Sherry Triangle. Many laws dictate what vinegars may or may not be called Vinagre de Jerez (similar to the laws regarding what sparkling wines can be called Champagne).

To be a true Sherry Vinager it must be aged in American oak barrels within the Sherry Triangle for a minimum of 6 months. There are 3 levels of Vinagre de Jerez. Vinagre de Jerez Reserva is aged a minimum of 2 years. Vinagre de Jerez Gran Reserva is aged a minimum of 10 years. Any Sherry Vinager aged 2 years or less is simply Vinagre de Jerez. At the restaurant we use Cepa Vieja a Reserva vinager. It retails for about $20 for a 17 ounce bottle and can be ordered online.

Sadly, Sherry Vinager used to be considered a failure in the bodegas which sold Sherry. When Sherrry had undergone an acetic ferminatation and turned to vinegar it was esentially garbage. The vinegar was sometimes given away to the staff of the bodega or put in storage away from the sherry. Some say there are barrels of forgotten sherry vinager that are aged over 50 years in the region. It wasn't until the French discovered great uses for Vinagre de Jerez that its popularity as a vinager increased. Today, the French are still the largest users of sherry vinager in the world.

I find sherry vin to be particularly complex and flavorful rather than just harshly acidic like many vinagers. It is a great vinegar to use for a vinagrette and pairs really well with lots of veggies.

Sherry vinegar is also an essential addition to a great gazpacho. It gives that extra oomph some gazpachos are lacking.

Recently, I used sherry vinegar to add a much needed burst of acidity in a cream of mushroom soup and found it worked perfectly. It also matches well with black truffles.

This week try to experiement with vinager in some way. If you're making a dish and it lacks "something" that something might be acidity! Vinegar can bring out rich, complex flavors in soups and casseroles. Don't be afraid of the acid!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009


"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it's liberty and interests by the most lasting bands."
Thomas Jefferson

picture borrowed from gourmet.com i just love it!

Monsanto News

Not much has changed in the way of Monsanto. They are still an evil, bullying company. But, it seems that recently people are opening up their eyes even more to the destruction they are causing throughout the Unted States and the world.

On August 7th the Organization for Competitive Markets drew a record number of farmers, ranchers, seed distributors and seed cleaners (like my dad) for their conference regarding anti-competitive behaviors by companies (Monsanto) in the agriculture industry. Most importantly, the conference was attended by two top Obama Administration officials given the task of (finally) enforcing anti-trust laws which were ignored by the Bush Administration. Both the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture were in attendence and announced major changes on Agriculture anti-trust and competition. Both the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture will be hosting workshops to get feedback from farmers to truly find out the impact anti-competitive behavior has on the consumer.

So far, this news has stayed out of major media and when doing searches I haven't found many other bloggers mentioning this big shift either. I must say, Monsanto has already done plenty to implicate themselves and draw a closer look from Washington.

In a September 30th article in the Olney Daily Mail Steve Hixon (my daddy!) was quoted as saying he sees this as a positive step and has "expectations that the Justice Department will finally enforce accountability" http://www.olneydailymail.com/news/x1991993902/Study-of-seed-issue-draws-plenty-of-interest

Although I personally would rather see the elimination of Genetically Modified foods and Monsanto Corporation, this certainly is a step in the right direction in offering farmers more choices when it comes to purchasing seeds.

Here's to hoping some of the CHANGE President Obama comes to agriculture in America.