Sunday, May 30, 2010

Do I? Don't I? The Customer Service Dilemma

Yesterday was quite a strange day. I started early and went to the pet store. I was recommended "At Your Service Pet Supplies" by our dog walker and I like to support local business whenever I can. I've been going there for about 12 months now and usually they are friendly and helpful. Maybe I was having an off day, or perhaps I had that "don't mess with me" look on my face, but I don't really think that was it.

I walked in and went on a mission to find biodegradable poop bags. After not finding any I went and picked up a big bag of dog food instead. I put it on the counter, and had to wait for the young girl to even acknowledge I was there even though she was only a couple of feet away from me. I asked her directions to the poop bags I had been unable to find, went and picked them up, then remembered that I also needed to pick up some straw for Princess Laya - my friend Rob's duck. So I wandered around but could not find what I was after. What I did find was an older lady who appeared to be an employee of the store, who, even though was watching me wander around looking for something, did not offer any assistance.

So I went back to the front counter, and waited in line for the unhappy girl serve the people in front of me. At that point, I knew that it wasn't me - the customers ahead of me tried some friendly banter with her and she just shut them down! When it came time for my transaction, she was officious, rude and unpleasant. I tried to ask her where the hay was and she cut me off by asking "debit or credit" so I gave up, paid for my stuff and left. So now I am in a quandry - do I continue do shop there even with Miss Bad Attitude?

But it didn't end there. I went to the BBQ festival in Boulder City to get a rib fix, thinking that because it was a competition bbq, the ribs would be awesome. WRONG! I waited for an hour and a half in the hot sun, only to get home and find that the ribs were dry, overcooked and chewy. Thumbs very down to Big T's BBQ. The funniest comment though was from the guy serving behind the counter. When a customer made it to the front of the line and asked the question "so who has the best ribs?" his answer was not "we do!". He simply replied "I don't really know 'cause I don't eat ribs, but I guess ours are pretty good".

What the?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

SATC2 Anyone?

Last night I was invited to the premiere of Sex and the City 2 and I totally went in prepared to launch a tirade on its frivolous nonsense. I was coerced into going by my friends Rob and Alex and I fought food poisoning just to go! I told myself that it would fill in an evening alone while Jet was away. But the reality was quite different; I loved every minute of the damn movie.

Carrie Bradshaw has always grated on me. I find her unquestionably selfish, her fixation with image is something I don't understand and her life has never been enviable to me. I watched the series on television from time to time and even recently saw the first SATC movie. None of which really did much to sell me on the franchise.

But this movie is entirely different; all 3 hours of it. The characters have finally got their acts together and they had fun collectively, individually and in their relationships (or lack thereof for Samantha). They had funny pithy lines, made fun of themselves (especially Samantha), and at long last, demonstrated some real-life emotion. I laughed, I cried, I clapped and I gasped and yelled "Boo" at Carrie during a very appropriate moment (I'm practicing my non-spoiler skills here). Every storyline tied together and made a full circle to completion. It had the potential to become a man-hater feminist movie, but instead these strong female characters acknowledged that relationships do take work, compromise and sacrifice, and if we choose well, some men really can get it right and make the effort worth the wait. And I should know - when it comes to choosing a man who gets it right, I have one.

The best part of this movie though, for me at least, was the location. It took me back to a place that makes my soul sing. Although they refer to it as Abu Dhabi in the film, it is actually Marrakesh. The last time I was in Morocco, she gave me food poisoning, but the will to experience this amazing country overcame the symptoms (temporarily) and I did manage to sneak in some fun and some very lovely photos and of course, some fabulous purchases. I was there for only a few days, but it was the most amazing sensation, a feast for my eyes, my ears, my nose. The heat enveloped me like a protective blanket while I strolled through the narrow paths in the souk and bargained down the vendors for a few new pairs of shoes. My green eyes and white skin almost got me into trouble a few times but my firm command of the word "no" finally came in handy. Watching SATC2 took me back to one of the most magical times in my life and made me smile from the inside out. So I am going to watch it again - but this time with tissues for the bits that I know will make me cry. Going to the premiere was a pretty awesome perk. Maybe living in Vegas isn't so bad after all...

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Tomato Soup Experience

While Jet was at work on Friday night, I had my friend Shelly over for dinner. I forewarned her that she was a guinea pig, and I looked up the tomato soup recipe from my Easy Low Carb cookbook. I should have learned that these recipes needed tweaking after my chicken recipe from last week, but no, I thought I would try another one because the photo in the book looked lovely!

Shelly was in charge of the grilled cheese. Until she arrived and asked me the "grilled cheese" question, I had no idea that that was the usual accompaniment for tomato soup. Maybe it's an American thing. Or quite possibly, it's a sly "I don't want you to eat cheese" thing that my grandmother enforced on me as a child. But it was all going very well until I had to remove the seeds. There was no way that using a spoon was going to work so I bit the bullet and used my hands - something that I would never have done, even a year ago. It was actually fun getting my hands dirty and the tomatoes were quickly seed free and in the blender, pureeing happily with some chicken stock.

Everything after that went smoothly, but the final verdict was that it was just too thin for a hot tomato soup. It definitely didn't need any lemon juice or lemon zest as it was already quite acidic and we added some sour cream and basil oil to give it some interest (I forgot to get pesto). This recipe would actually have been a lovely summer Gazpacho soup, served cold with some lovely roasted garlic. Mmmmmmm...

So I discussed my findings with Jet while we were driving last night, and he gave me so many options while we were talking that I felt like I should have been taking notes! He told me how to thicken it by starting with a roux and making a Tomato Velouté next time and how when I am making the roux I need to add cold liquid to hot roux to activate it and make it bind and swell to make it thick. Then he started talking about using milk instead of stock (which is how you make béchamel). Then he started talking about using rice as the thickener to make a bisque. Then he suggested that I roast the tomatoes first and make roasted tomato soup. And then I started to go into information overload.

And then he came up with a very interesting idea. Why don't I put myself through culinary school at home, using the CIA text book "The Professional Chef" as my guide? It would take me through every process, providing me instructions and recipes in a logical process. Jet would give me lessons to go with each chapter and provide me with additional information that he's gained through experience, then test me on my new techniques as I progressed. Then at the end of the book, he would give me a final exam. And with every technique and new skill, I could write about my successful (or my not-so-successful) outcomes. An interesting, and somewhat intimidating idea...

In the meantime, here's the tomato soup recipe that I used:

2 lb very ripe red tomatoes
1 to 1.5 cups chicken stock (adjust to the thickness you like)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pesto and sour cream

To skin the tomatoes, cut a cross in the base of each and dunk unto a saucepan of boiling water. Remove after 10 seconds and put in a strainer set over a large saucepan. Slip off and discard the skins and cut the tomatoes in half crosswise. Using a teaspoon, seed into the strainer them press the pulp and juice through the strainer and add to the blender. Discard the seeds. Chop the tomato halves and add to the blender.

Puree the tomatoes, in batches, if necessary, adding a little of the stock to help the process. Add the remaining stock, season to taste with salt and pepper, and transfer to the saucepan. Heat well without boiling. Serve in heated soup plates topped with a spoonful of sour cream, pesto (or basil oil) and a grilled cheese sandwich on the side.

What cheese do you use for the best grilled cheese sandwich? Everyone has a different opinion, but our friend Rick Browne, world famous for his barbecue expertise, his show on PBS, "Barbecue America" and his many books on barbecue, assures me that nothing beats a Velveeta grilled cheese sandy! I promised him I would put aside my skepticism and give it a try.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cooking Class #1.5

Ok, so I had to make it 1.5 because this recipe was done concurrently with the chicken and used exactly the same technique. This short rib recipe is a "Jet Special" and it, unlike my recipe post from Sunday, needs no alterations. And taste? Unquestionably awesome!

Short ribs are a dish that I had never had before I came to the US, along with a whole list of other amazing foods, if I'm being completely honest. There are so many ways to cook them, but the first time I ever had them was at a steak house here in Vegas and I was so amazed by the way the meat just fell from the bone, how the fat just melted in your mouth, and how the flavor was so rich and robust. Yet the presentation was so simple and unassuming: a pair of saucy ribs sitting atop some buttery mashed potato. Just writing that paragraph made me salivate.

Now that I understand the basic principles of making short ribs, I've found another recipe that I am going to try. But not this week - my new mantra is "portion control" and I have no control whatsoever when it comes to ribs so twice in one week is a bad idea for my waistline!

Jet Tila's Braised Short Ribs

2 lbs natural beef short ribs, cut 1.5 inches thick and trimmed
kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
vegetable oil, as needed
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup port wine
1 cup Cabernet Sauvignon (or any non-fruity, dry red wine)
2-3 cups beef stock or water
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste

Preheat oven to 350F. Season ribs with salt and pepper and set aside.

Place a large ovenproof braising pan over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the ribs and brown all sides. Remove the meat and most of the fat from the pan. Add the onion, carrot and garlic to the pan. Saute the vegetables until they begin to brown. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf and thyme. Add both wines and the oyster sauce to the pan and reduce the liquid until half of the volume remains. Cover the ribs with tomato paste and return them to the pan then add enough stock to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.

Cover and place the pan in the oven. Braise 3-4 hours or until the meat is tender and just begins to fall off the bone.

Remove meat from pan and let it rest for about 24 hours before reheating and eating!

*Some important notes*
Because we added oyster sauce which is very salty, you might want to use a little less salt than you would normally.

It's important to brown the meat first to give it that lovely rich color. Otherwise technically you are just boiling the meat, and it loses some of the depth of flavor and richness of color.

The technique where you apply a sauce (in this case tomato paste) directly to the meat after browning has a name. It's a French term called "pincer". The tomato paste is used to caramelize the outside of the meat, create a richer flavor, and to tenderize the meat and aid in the breakdown of the muscle.

And don't forget to read my previous blog entry about braising to get some cooking tips!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Big 5

Yes, I have a Jewish grandmother. Those of you who know what that means, will laugh knowingly right about now. Those of you who don't, will have a better understanding in a just a minute.

My Nanna and I talk once a week, mainly so we know that the other is ok, living so far from one another. Sometimes the conversations are long, and sometimes they are short. Sometimes I hear all the same stuff she had told me the week before and sometimes the news is new. But the questions, are always the same, and in one recent conversation, I got the "Big 5":

1. Have you run out of money?
2. Do you have any friends?
3. Why don't you get a job?
4. Is Jet happy with you?
5. Are you still slim?

I answered none of her questions, and this conversation was one of those short ones I mentioned...

The Nanna that asks the big questions

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cooking Class #1

Many years ago, I used to joke that I needed to marry a chef. At the time, this claim was in reference to my wheat allergy and I thought it would be AWESOME to have a chef in the house that could cook for me so that I didn't have to. Oh the irony!

Until recently, I had never asked Jet to teach me about cooking, I had never really cooked or even committed to cooking during our relationship and I had never felt the need to prepare food at home and would choose to eat out and make poor decisions when it came to what I ate. What I didn't realize when I joked about marrying a chef, was they don't want to come home and cook and really appreciate it when other people cook for them... even if they are being used as guinea pigs.

So I thought that with the new year, one of my resolutions was to tackle my fears. And one of my biggest? Cooking for my chef! Our first lesson together was braising and he taught me a few good tips:
  • Pat dry your protein before you put it in the pan to brown it. The less water your meat has when it's added to the oil, the less it spits at you from the pan. Alternatively you can coat the meat in flour which also lessens spitting.
  • The key to browning meat is to leave it alone. Give it time to get some good color before you start messing around with it and flipping it over.
  • I mistakenly put the lid on when browning and created condensation which meant that when I removed the lid, the water hit the oil and I was again spat at! The trick is to leave the lid only partially on.
  • Bone in -vs- boneless... bone in meat takes a little longer to cook to take this into consideration working out your cooking time.
  • Season, season, season! Make sure that you season with salt and pepper as you go, and taste your food as you go so you know how to adjust your flavors.
So my braising recipes came from two sources: a recipe book of mine, and of course a "Jet Special".

Chicken with Tarragon
Easy Low-Carb

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1 free range chicken (about 4 lbs) cut into 6-8 pieces
2 carrots, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
a sprig of thyme
2-3 sprigs flat leaf parsley
a bunch of tarragon
3 tablespoons sour cream
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

serves 4

Heat the butter and oil in a large saute pan with a lid. Add the chicken pieces and cook until brown, about 5 minutes. Work in batches if your pan is not big enough. Put the browned chicken pieces on a plate and season well with salt and pepper.

Add the carrots and shallot to the pan and cook, stirring for a minute or so. Return the chicken to the pan and add water to cover half-way. Add the thyme, parsley and a few sprigs of tarragon. Cover and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, strip the leaves from the remaining tarragon, chop them finely and set aside. Add the stems to the cooking chicken.

Remove the chicken from the pan and put in a serving dish. Remove and discard the tarragon stems.

Raise the heat and cook the sauce until reduced by half. Strain and return the saute to the pan. Stir in the sour cream and the chopped tarragon. Heat briefly (do not boil) and pour over the chicken. Serve immediately.

And here is my winning result! However, there are a few things I would change for this recipe:
  1. Drain most of the fat from the pan after browning the chicken. I didn't use the oil and just used the butter, and the sauce was quite oily even at the end.
  2. Add some extra simmer time if you are using bone in chicken.
  3. After straining the sauce, add a little sauce to the sour cream - not the other way around. That way, if it separates it's with only a little of the sauce and you still have a lot to work with.
  4. I halved the chicken quantity, but used the same herb quantity and it was very aromatic. 
My short rib verdict and recipe will be posted tomorrow!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


After 3 weeks away and some Mercury Madness, I am home to Jet and my little four-legged furry angels. My last week in the UK was supposed to be precise, carefully planned and timed with very small margins left for any mishaps. Wrong!

Right before I left Cambridge, Spencer and I had a conversation about travel insurance. He asked me the question of whether I had any, when we checked the BBC website and found that snow was forecast for duration of my visit. When I said "no", his eyebrows shot up and in a very fatherly tone, he recommended I look into it for the rest of this trip and any future trips I do - especially during winter. But I was feeling lucky. Ha!

As the eleventh hour approached, I dragged my overweight bags downstairs and sat up in my temporary bedroom, checking online for an up-to-the-minute weather forecast for Cambridge, London, Stansted Airport and Luxembourg. I was waiting for the National Rail page to open when I happened to look out the window to see tiny little snow flakes, falling from the sky. English trains don't like snow. Shit.

So in a flurry of snow, goodbyes, laughter and Spencer's shock at how heavy my bag was, Miche waved us off from the front door and Spencer and I set off in the camper, bound for the train station. By hook or by crook, I was getting to London. My plan? To drop my bags with my friend Cat, chill for a minute, then set out together to Stansted for our reunion with Kylie in Luxembourg. Our plane was supposed to land at 11pm which meant that we would be home at her place by 12.30am. Hmmm...

Spencer waved a frantic goodbye to me at the platform and directed me to platform 3 to catch the London bound express train at 12.28pm. Because of the snow, the train was not, in fact, an express train and deposited me in London at 2pm, where I picked up a Steak & Ale Cornish Pasty and a bottle of Pirate Water to quiet my noisy stomach. I hauled my bags into a cab whose driver took me the long way to Cat's place, and then accepted my tenner and drove away without giving me change! Cheeky git.

As I enjoyed my pasty, Cat and I checked the Stansted Airport website, the Ryanair website and the weather reports and decided that the only thing to do was to go to the airport early as everything seemed to be scheduled as normal. So we left with plenty of time to spare, chatting all the way, dropped my check in luggage at the desk and ventured through security. We found a restaurant to sit down and eat an airport dinner, then took turns checking the departures board. "Delayed - estimated 23:30". It was only 8pm. Ugh.

No-one would tell us anything and other passengers were getting irate. We had become the last scheduled flight out and not only did the restaurant kick us out, but all the shops were closed! Cat and I decided that if Ryanair cancelled the flight, we would just stay in London and I would try and bring my Las Vegas flight forward. But Ryanair wouldn't cancel because they are cheap bastards. We were sure that the flight would leave too late and break some kind of night flight regulation. Nope, we boarded at 11.15pm. This also meant that Kylie had to leave home at the same time we boarded to make it to Frankfurt Hahn airport for our arrival, and it also meant that because we arrived at 1.30am, we wouldn't be home until after 3.00am. While it was ok for me, the girls (and the kids) had to be out of the house by 7.45am which meant that they barely got 4 hours of sleep. Eeeek!

Cat, Kylie and I had a great (if a little tired) couple of days. Kylie's little boy has given us our very own vacation catchphrase "No Mummy"! We left early on Saturday morning and headed in snow to the airport. And even though I hate getting up early, it was still a fun adventure. Until we were almost at the airport, and food poisoning kicked in. Yuk.

I don't remember the last time I felt that horrific. I probably saw more lavatories in Frankfurt Hahn airport than anything else. I was so sick I couldn't even make conversation with Cat and would move constantly back and forth between our seat at the departure lounge and the bathroom. Our plane was delayed and I was hoping and wishing that the worst would be over by the time we had to board. But no. The worst was actually while I was on the plane. I could only feel extremely apologetic for the guy sitting next to me as I wretched into a sick bag during take off. And while I have a cross to bear with Ryanair and their management, they cabin crew were extremely nice to me while I was sick, and even assisted me off the plane.

Poor Cat thought she would have to either call an ambulance or take me to hospital. I thought maybe we could catch a taxi to London, but after finding out it would be well over £100 I miraculously felt well enough to catch the bus. A decision that turned out to be fine as the gentle motion of the bus sent me off to sleep.

So to cut an extremely long (and arduous) story short, the dinner that we had been planning for months at St John was attended by only Cat and Panu and I stayed home, too sick to even drink tea. And I wasn't even well enough to eat the next night either! But by the end of the following day, which was also my final day in London, I was ravenous so we went to Chinatown for soy chicken, duck and steamed gai-lan. It was awesome and the three of us inhaled that dinner in 15 minutes flat, only speaking pre and post poultry. A very worthy last meal.