From the ashes: Potato cakes with Parmesan and parsley

I recenly finished Michael Ruhlman's Making of a Chef and have made it about half-way through part I in Soul of a Chef. One point Ruhlman returns to over and over is a cook's ability to fix something ruined (all the way until it's burnt, from which there is no return)--on the fly, under pressure. According to many instructors at the Culinary Institute of America, according to Ruhlman, it is this ability that is crucial to a professional cook's success.

I am not a professional cook, not by any stretch of the imagination. This is probably why it took me over 12 hours to figure out how to rescue some abysmal mashed potatoes, but rescue them I did. I fixed it and came away with a dish not just edible, but delicious, hearty and something I would be proud to feed my family. And all you need to start with is ruined mashed potatoes.

I ruined my mashed potatoes before I even began the cooking process. After peeling the potatoes, I failed to cut them into even pieces, so they didn't cook evenly when I boiled them. Some were perfectly done (the small ones), but several were woefully undercooked. I probably could have found the undercooked pieces, microwaved them briefly and then continued mashing, but I was being stubborn, and dinner had to be served. Unfortunately, the potatoes were heavy--gluey--and were contaminated with small pebbles of undercooked potato. However, those same undercooked bits become a wonderful texture enhancer when the mashed potatoes are flattened to cakes and baked. And the preparation couldn't be easier:

Potato cakes with Parmesan and parsley
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  • While the over heats, form the mashed potatoes into disks about a quarter-inch thick (using golf-ball-sized rounds)
  • Sprinkle grated Parmesan cheese on top of each round
  • Dust a sheet pan with corn meal (mashed potatoes can be surprisingly sticky!) and place the discs on the sheet pan
  • Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, then switch on the broiler
  • Move the discs to the top oven rack and broil for about 2 - 3 minutes or until they get nice and golden brown on top
  • Plate and sprinkle with parsley flakes. You can also garnish with a dollop of fresh sour cream (which is an awesome touch, by the way)

So what saved me? Critical thinking and a passing familiarity with some cooking fundamentals. I knew I had to figure out a way to finish cooking the undercooked potato bits without ruining or overcooking the remaining bits. I also knew I had to change the texture of the mashed potatoes. The easiest way to do this was by crisping them. I probably could have pan fried the cakes and come away with something that tasted good, and might have gone that route if I was in the restaurant business. It certainly would have been faster and might have made for a more savory cake. But I wanted to try for a healthier outcome usual. For once, at least. So I had to go the baking route. The problem? Baking to golden brown meant a terrible inside--heated to mush. That's why I finished up in the broiler.

Cooking isn't rocket science. Organic chemistry, sure. Thermodynamics....all right. Yes. But it's not difficult organic chemistry, and you can do wonders when you begin to understand and internalize some basic cooking principles and allow yourself to think critically about the things you put on plates.


USDA issues massive beef recall

The USDA has issued the nation's largest beef recall.
A slaughterhouse that has been accused of mistreating cows agreed Sunday to recall 143 million pounds of beef in what federal officials called the largest beef recall in U.S. history. Keith Williams, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman, said investigators have found no cases of illness related to the recalled meat. But Dick Raymond, the undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, said there was a "remote probability" that the meat from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, California, could cause illness in humans. The amount of beef -- 143 million pounds -- is roughly enough for two hamburgers for each man, woman and child in the United States. The largest U.S. meat recall before Sunday came in 1999, when about 35 million pounds of product possibly contaminated with listeria were ordered off shelves. USDA officials said that was Class I recall, involving a known risk to human health. more...
The slaughterhouse has also been accused of abusing cows and slaughtering the lame and infirm. It doesn't have to be like this. While we may argue long into the night about "humane" slaughter, I don't think there's any doubt things can be better than they are now.


Puff Pastry with Milk Chocolate Sauce

February food column as it appeared in Satellite Magazine

Puff Pastry with Milk Chocolate SauceLet's assume for a moment that Valentine's day wasn't created by card makers to get them through the lean period from Christmas to mother's day.  Let's assume you're not going to spend Valentine's day in a bleak, cramped apartment listening over and over to "If You Don't Cry" by The Magnetic Fields.  Let's assume you want to establish a dash of romance in your life and do something nice for your Valentine.  Take her to dinner.  Treat him to a day at the spa or a nice massage.  Let's assume you've decided to forego the cellophaned box of chocolates in favor of puff pastries drizzled with a milk chocolate sauce.

Puff pastry ingredients

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons butter (yes, use butter) cut into small, uniform cubes
  • 3/4 tablespoon sugar (you'll want to sweeten to your own tastes)
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 2 eggs, kept separate (to be added later)

Chocolate sauce ingredients

  • 1 + 1 cups Chocolate chips
  • 1 cup milk or cream


  • Medium sauce pan
  • wooden spoon
  • large mixing bowl
  • cookie sheet
  • parchment paper

Add the water, sugar, salt and butter to a medium sauce pan over medium-high to high heat.  When the mixture comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and add all the flour.  Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the flour is incorporated and the dough pulls away from the sides of the pan.  It should form pretty naturally into a ball.  Dump the dough into your mixing bowl and let it cool for about five minutes.  While the dough cools, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and cut the parchment paper to fit the cookie sheet.

Once the dough has cooled, stir in one egg.  Here, you might thing you've ruined evertying.  The egg will break apart and turn the dough into a soupy mess.  But keep stirring!  The egg will incorporate and the dough will come back into a nice ball after a while.  Then add the other egg and repeat the process.

Once you have incorporated the eggs, the dough will be very soft.  Spoon it into a plastic bag (if you have a cake bag and round decorator's tip, all the better, but you can get away with a standard, zip-top sandwich bag), cut a pea-sized hole in one corner of the sandwich bag and pipe the dough out in small mounds about the size of a ping-pong ball.  Keep them about two inches apart.  Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes; then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake another 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool on the stovetop.

During those 20 minutes you can make your chocolate sauce.  Mix 1 cup milk and 1 cup choloate chips in your mixing bowl.  Microwave for approximately 45 seconds, until the chips begin to soften.  Mix the two together vigoursly with a wire whisk.  At this point, the sauce will be pretty runny.  To thicken up the sauce and make it more chocolately, stir in small handfuls of the remaining chips--if its consistency and flavor suit your tastes, however, then you don't need to add any more chips.  .  Use the whisk to drizzle the chocolate over your bite-size pastries. 

You'll have a ton of chocolate sauce left over.  What you do with it is up to you.

Anyone can schlep out to the local pharmacy and buy a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a cheesey card (If you decide to go that route--the box of chocolates route--at least visit one of the local chocolatiers.  There's no sense in paying good money for 30 - 40 waxy little nuggets filled with fruit-flavored pastes of different consistency).  Be different.  Cook for the person you love.  Cook for the person you want to seduce (it can often get you a lot further than the heart).  Or just cook for yourself.  It's calming, and it'll make The Magnetic Fields that much better.


2004 Lavradores de Feitoria Vinhos de Quinta S.A.

2004 Lavradores de FeitoriaColor: a deep ruby color with slight purple to lavender at the edges

Nose: Strong, jammy fruits with hints of blueberry syrup and the slightest of grassy overtones

Palate: Lithe mouth feel with excellent structure. Not heavy on the flavors and comes with the characteristic minerality of many old-world wines. Good, dark-fruit flavors.

Finish: Excellent finish. Rich smokiness and a hint of licorice on the tongue. High tannins sweep the mouth the clean.

Another definite food wine, and a great find from Portugal.