Archive for February, 2010

Robotic Cooks Being Developed in Pittsburgh

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Aurora sent me a link to a NY Times Article about robot cooks.  My first reaction was the same conclusion that the article reached: robots might be able to perform tasks but they would never be able to react to the subtleties involved in making a really good meal.

Part of what makes cooking such a uniquely human task is that half of the challenge is reacting to developing situations: interpreting based on smell and taste how and what ought to be changed or added in order to get a better result.  Hearing a sizzle that’s just a bit louder or quieter than it ought to be and adjusting the heat down or up to rectify the situation.  Adding more (or less) [garlic/ cinnamon/ pepper/ etc.] based on who one is cooking for.  Using a different vegetable today because the one that the recipe calls for was underripe/ overripe/ looked as if it had gone through combat to arrive at the store, whereas something entirely different appeared to be at the peak of its freshness and flavor.  So many small things add up to make the preparation of a meal more than just a task of drudgery…the bits of inspiration that put the art into culinary art.

Oddly enough, the article made only brief mention of one task that robots may be ideally suited for: cutting vegetables; and no mention of other tasks at which I believe robots might excel: grilling steaks to perfection (with the advantage of infrared heat sensors) and baking (with the advantage of exact measurement capabilities and the potential to be outfitted with unique appendages ideally suited to kneading and/or mixing–and perhaps even being designed with an internal oven).  Those tasks would, I believe, generate the enthusiasm the researchers hope to produce in the general population.

So, I’ll just throw out there, since some of this research is happening at Carnegie Mellon, right here in Pittsburgh, that I’m available as a culinary consultant if you need someone to help develop standardized procedures for culinary tasks that are beyond your level of cooking thought.  There’s no shame in getting expert help, you know: I certainly would turn to one of you if I needed a robot, so you guys might as well turn to me if you need help in the kitchen. I can show you the knife skills you would want to emulate in robotic form, and demonstrate techniques that you can program your robots to do, whether grilling steaks or kneading bread.  I can help give your robots the pizzazz they need to get the public enthused about their capabilities, and get them to produce the better quality food that will keep the public coming back for more.  Reasonable rates–please inquire via email.

Sugar On Snow

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

We’ve gotten a lot of snow in Pittsburgh lately.  It’s gummed up local roads and is starting to turn brown in places, but since more snow keeps falling, much of it still has at least a veneer of white.  As I look out the window onto snow-covered streets, my mind turns to Sugar On Snow, a food I wish I had made on the weekend of February 6, when we were getting hit with 20 inches of white powder.

The dish starts with a pot of newly fallen snow, straight from the sky.  Onto that, one pours puddles of hot (pure) maple syrup.  When the hot syrup contacts the cold snow, it hardens into a kind of taffy that is sweet and gooey.  After eating several puddles of syrup, one may find enjoyment in the saltiness of a dill pickle, which should cleanse the palate in preparation for another round of sugar.

Sure, one could always make this with shaved ice…but (a) I don’t have an ice shaver and (b) it’s not quite as fun.  But then again (c) there’s no more major snow falling [I hope] so, as a result, (d) I’m sitting here thinking and wishing instead of making and eating.

Oh well.  Next time, I’ll try to remember this and collect the snow while it’s still falling and have myself a tasty little sugar explosion.

Get Educated About Your Coffee

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

I began to learn about coffee at La Prima Espresso.  This was several years back, when I was looking at a vacant property near my house and wondering what might go into turning it into a coffee shop.  I figured, ask the experts, and went down to the La Prima Roastery to ask some questions.  They answered all my questions, plus several that I didn’t even know to ask, and sent me away with some samples so that I could taste the difference between different coffees.  Ultimately, the coffee shop thing never happened (anyone want to invest?), but the samples definitely paid for themselves as far as La Prima is concerned, as it’s rare that I visit the strip without buying some of their wonderful, small-batch roasted coffees.

If you would like to learn more about coffees, La Prima has a monthly Saturday morning class at their Smallman Street Roastery where they walk interested folks through the coffee process, from green beans to roasted & ready, to storage, to brewing, and beyond.  The cost is $10, but includes biscotti and a half pound of coffee—so the way I see it, you pay for the coffee and the cookies and get the knowledge as an added bonus.

And believe me, the knowledge is worth it.  Once you understand the differences between types of coffee, you’ll never look at a brightly-colored, 2-pound plastic tub of mass-market pre-ground again.  At least, not without silently wishing it were a better coffee you were being served.

Classes happen the first Saturday of most months, with the next class scheduled for March 6.  For more information: http://laprima.com/news.html or 412-565-7070.

Groaners On Rye

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

In her later years, Glinda the Good retired to the seashore and spent her days lounging on the beach…

…she became a sand-witch

Speaking of the ocean, what sort of sandwich is best at sea?

A submarine!

There’s a sandwich shop that features a 12-inch roll stuffed with slices of heart, liver, and kidney!

They call it the ‘organ grinder!’

What do you call a joke about a sandwich?

A Pun-ini!

Easy Cream Of Mushroom Soup

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

If the words “Cream of Mushroom Soup” conjure for you images of thick glop from a red can that you mix with milk to make chicken casserole, you haven’t had the real thing.  A freshly made batch of Cream of Mushroom is a delightful experience.

Cream Of Mushroom Soup

yield: about 6 cups of soup

  • 12 ounces mushrooms, sliced (feel free to use whatever shrooms or mix of shrooms you like.  I like to mix crimini and button, and if I have them available, I’ll do a few oyster, shiitake, and /or wild harvested mushrooms [in season] if I have them available)
  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter (I know, it sounds decadent… but the shrooms need to be browned in batches so as to allow them to saute and not to steam; and the flavor just can’t be replicated using oil.  And, you need a fair amount of fat in order to properly create the roux that is responsible for thickening the soup.  What else can I say?  Just don’t eat it every day.)
  • About 1/4 to 1/3 cup of flour (This will be a flexible ratio that you’ll have to use your judgement on.  See the instructions when it comes time to make the roux around the mushrooms, in the main part of the recipe [below])
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • About 5 cups of stock (Chicken or vegetable.  This obviously isn’t a vegan soup but it can quite easily be vegetarian.)
  • About 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream (No, you can’t use milk.  You can get away with light cream if you want),
  • Pepper to taste (I used a mix of freshly ground black, white, and green peppercorns.)
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/3 cup Fresh rosemary, finely minced

In a big soup pot, melt 1/2 stick of butter.  Crack some pepper into it.  Add 1/3 of the mushrooms and salt to taste.  Saute, stirring constantly.  When mushrooms have browned, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and let sit to side while you repeat the process twice more.  When the last of the mushrooms have cooked, return all mushrooms to the pan.

Stir flour into the mushrooms until they are well coated and the flour has combined with the butter to the consistency of wet sand.  Don’t add all of the flour at once–add it gradually until it looks right.  Then, stir the mushrooms and flour together until the smell of popcorn wafts from the pan.  This smell is indication that your roux is ready.

Deglaze with the white wine.  Stir it in as it boils and gets absorbed.  When the pan is prtty much dry again, stir in the stock.  Make sure that you get all of the roux incorporated into the liquid–scrape the corners of the pan with your wooden spoon and make certain!  Otherwise non-incorporated roux can scorch on the bottom of the pan.

Let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then, stir cream into soup until the soup.  Finish by stirring in the fresh rosemary and turning off the heat.  Serve immediately.