Monthly Archives: July 2004

Cooking School Journal: Cheesy Dates

This Sunday is my midterm. We all need to arrive with two hors d’oeurves, prepared and plated, to somehow wow and woo Chef, a woman who has seen and eaten it all. As a test, I had a small cocktail party here last Saturday. I methodically cooked all day with the amazing help of Joe, my newly recruited sous-chef. We all had a great time. We drank wine and beer and sampled each plate. I was sweating and nervous as the reviews came in. Several ‘wows’, a few nods of enjoyment and only one dish in which the feedback was less than favorable. All in all, it was a success.

The winners? Bacon-wrapped dates and Oysters Jules. The bacon-wrapped dates recipe is one from a restaurant here

AOCs Bacon-wrapped Dates

AOCs Bacon-wrapped Dates

in LA called AOC. I had them last December,  and they were so amazing I’ve thought about them ever since. There is something to them besides the date and the bacon that I couldn’t put my finger on; a salty and slightly piquant essence. I tried a little soy sauce. I also tried some brown sugar, but I could never recreate it.

One night while I was talking with Chef about AOC, she remarked that she really liked it but she wasn’t totally ‘wowed’. She qualified it by saying that she was dining with only one other person and with a place like that, where you’re ordering little dishes, you need at least six people.

I was so lucky that when we went, I had six foodies. I was in charge of ordering the wine (I made some pretty good choices). We ordered at least a dozen small plates and enjoyed them all. But the true standout was the bacon-wrapped dates. It is a dish that sounds so simple, but like most simple dishes its taste lingers long in your memory.

I needed an hors d’oeurve. I needed to get that recipe.

First stop, the AOC website. No recipes. But what I found was a contact link to the chef at AOC, Suzanne Goin, one of the most respected chefs in LA, if not the country. She is a  James Beard Award winner, and as I sat there, prepared to click on her link,I hesitated.  I thought to myself, “She’ll never reply. I know I’m going to get an auto-reply. And if I don’t get an auto-reply, some weird admin-assistant is going to reply to me. Yuck!”

But those dates were so damn good, I thought ( after a couple of glasses of chardonnay), “What the hell.”

On Jul 14, 2004, at 6:18 PM, Julianna wrote:

I’m sure you don’t give out your recipes…

I have a midterm in my culinary school where I need to bring two hors d’oeuvres.

I first tasted your bacon-wrapped dates last December, and still dream of them almost everyday.

I’ve tried to re-create your recipe in my home kitchen, but I’m missing something (I even went crazy once and tried soy sauce).

If you could point me in the right direction, I know I would get an “A”.

Thank you.


Jules Walters

So I sent it. “She’s never going to reply to me,” I thought. “Who the hell do I think I am?”

Chef Goin

Chef Goin

But lo and behold, when I checked my email the next morning, this sat in my inbox.

dear jules

i’m so glad you enjoyed the dates…

here is the recipe…..

definitely cook them on a roasting rack so they don’t just stew in all the fat that will render from the bacon….we cook them in the wood burning oven but a hot oven or even toaster oven works too

good luck

suzanne goin

A.O.C. restaurant

Roasted Dates with Parmesan and Bacon

Serves 4

  • 16 Dates
  • 1 Hunk of Parmesan, approx 1/4 pound
  • 16 very thin slices Apple Smoked Bacon
  • a few Parsley leaves

Preheat the oven at 500 degrees.

Cut a slit in each date lengthwise and remove the pits. Use a dull knife to chunk random hunks of parmesan (slightly larger than the size of an almond) off your block of cheese. Place the cheese inside the date. Press the date together to “close” it.

Wrap each date with a piece of bacon

Place the dates on a roasting rack on a sheetpan. Cook the dates in the oven until the bacon is crispy, about 10 minutes.

Place in a bowl and scatter with the parsley leaves.

Serve immediately but be careful… they will be hot inside!

I couldn’t believe it! I bounced off the walls for 20 minutes. Although I tried to explain to the kids why I was so happy, they just didn’t get it. I emailed Hillary and Ellen and Sara and Karen and Joe, the people who first ate those dates with me. They all shared in my excitement, amazement, and joy.  And none of us could believe that it was Parm that was perplexing me. How could I not recognize Parm, for crying out loud?!? It was a food lover’s bonding moment.

So a few nights later at class, when things were quiet for a moment, I walked up to Chef and mentioned that I had the recipe for the dates from AOC. “Oh, really?” she said. “In a cookbook?”

“No,” I said. “On-line.”

“Is it on a website?”

“No, I emailed Suzanne Goin.”

“Oh!” she said, her eyes now locked with mine. “Do you know her?”

“No,” I said.

“Have you taken a class with her?” she said, still staring straight at me.

“No, I went onto the website looking for the recipe, and there was a link for her email. She replied in just a few hours. Do you know what the secret is?”

Chef replied, “Perhaps. Is it cheese?”

“Yes. Parmesan. You stuff an almond-sized piece of Parmesan into the date, wrap it in bacon and roast it on high-heat on a rack.”

She looked at me so intently. Her eyes rolled up as she thought to herself, and then her eyes met mine again and she said, “Jules, I have a newfound respect for you.”

More later.

Cooking School Journal: Puff Pastry II… II

Puff Pastry II… II

After destroying my car, I got the kids to camp in one piece. I headed straight for class and was lucky to arrive at the same time as Chef. My pastry was looking pretty good (coffee grounds, temp and all).

I was nervous anyway. I was joining the Wednesday class and a group of strangers. This is Bigfoot’s regular class so I was relieved when I walked in and she wasn’t there. But everyone else was a stranger.

After a demo of cinnamon rolls by a student (apparently a demo is something we will all have to do at some point), it was time to break into groups. She divided the class in half. I was with a group that, in hindsight, was not the one I wanted to be in. They were a bunch of bitchy ladies. I was given several rolls of the eyes, ignored more than once and even walked up twice to see someone catch a glimpse of me and say “shhhh.” Nice.

The other group was across the room eviscerating fish. They stood in a circle around the prep tables laughing, smiling and telling each other how great they were. The other group was way better.

But, I just donned my invisible cloak, the one that reads, “F*ck off” in 36-point Helvetica (invisibly, unfortunately)and kept cooking.

My first job was to roll out my pastry dough. I was the only one smart enough to bring one that was not frozen. Everyone else had to use store-bought because they brought theirs in frozen solid. Idiots. Didn’t they realize that all you had to do was refrigerate it,  then dump coffee all over it, crash your car into the garage door, chase your dog all over town while leaving the pastry to defrost in the car?

I was nervous rolling it out with the TA watching. She helped me divide it into two and roll them out 1/2 (or maybe one) inch thick and gingerly place them on two parchment-lined baking sheets.  When I was done, she told me to write my name on the parchment so that we would know that it was mine.

“I’m not so sure that I want to know which is mine.”

She looked at my pastry and with a positive nod in my direction said, “Oh. I think you do.”

Hmmm. Maybe it’s good. Must be the coffee.

We made chicken pot pies. After boning and chopping whole birds, we browned them then removed them from the pan. We deglazed with port, then added wild mushrooms, shallots and cream. It boiled and thickened. We added butter and then returned the chicken to the pan. Yum! It tasted wonderful (after adding about 17,000 tablespoons of salt and a little pepper). Its only drawback for me is that port plus cream yields a sauce that much resembles Pepto Bismol in color and texture. Maybe Madeira, sherry, or white wine would have worked better? I don’t know.

Then we put the mixture into glass bowls. We painted the edges of the bowls with egg wash and covered them with circles of puff pastry sealing it against the wash. They puffed beautifully in the hot oven. I was starving and more than happy to pierce the hot, flaky puff, let the steam escape and then dig into the chicken.


The next dish was filet of trout en croute. You place a filet of seasoned trout in the center of your pastry, top with scallop mousse, add another layer of trout and then fold the pastry over to seal. After that the fun begins. We trimmed and decorated our pastry to resemble a fish, scoring with the dull side of the knife to make gills and using the large end of a pastry tip to make the scales. The peppercorn eye was the best part. When it was done it looked just like the star of finding Nemo (no, not Albert Brooks, the animated fish). Wash with egg and then put it back in the fridge to chill again. Those butter layers have to stay cold or they just won’t puff.

In the meantime, Chef made Palmieres and sweet pastry twists which sadly went uneaten because we were all still craving an insulin shot from the samples of cinnamon rolls.

The ovens were packed with fish that weren’t puffing. Some were as big as Marlins, others lay in the oven like limp goldfish. Mine was still in the fridge.

Time was getting short. They had a teen cooking class coming in at 2:30pm– just a mere half hour away. We all began furiously cleaning the kitchen and watching anxiously at the clock and the fish. At 2:27 with the room clean and my Nemo in the fridge I asked Chef if I could take mine home to bake. She reluctantly agreed.

When I came home, I was so proud of the little guy. But, I was so full and knew that I couldn’t eat it. The calories in the cinnamon roll alone meant that I couldn’t eat for the next three days, not to mention pot pie!  Joe would rather eat our poodle than trout, and the girls won’t eat anything that’s not made out of semolina flour and doused in reconstituted powdered cheese. They were all getting ready to head off to the Brownie Troop 471 pool party anyway.

Ding! Lightbulb. I’ll give it to the Brownie moms. They’ll eat anything.

I whipped up a beurre blanc sauce with lemon and tarragon and put my fishy into the oven. My name still sat on the parchment. Please God! Let this fish puff!

And, it did. It was glorious. I placed it on a platter, encircled by beurre blanc with a few sprigs of tarragon from the garden as garnish. Joe and the big girls raced out the door. I gave Hannah leftover mac and cheese.

When he came home he said that they all loved it.

“Did you slice it on the bias?”


“But was it enough of a bias that the people who got the head and the tail had fish in theirs and not just a plate of crust?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“How was the sauce?”


“No, did they say anything about the sauce itself?”

“Umm. Yeah. I think so. I’m not… well, I think so.”

“They didn’t like it. ”

“Jules. It was good. They all liked it.”

“Even Emily?”

“Who’s Emily?”

“Emma’s mom. Emily! You know the one you volunteered with in art class all of last year.”

“Jules… everyone liked it. It was really great.”

“Did you accidentally leave it in the car and never serve it?”

“I’m going to bed.”

Oh thank God. It was good.

Cooking School Journal: No Evite

7/25/04  E-mail Invitation to My Closest Friends

So, as most of you know, I’m halfway through this really annoyingly difficult cooking school. My midterm is to bring in two hors d’ouevres on 8/1, upon which I will be graded. So, I was hoping that you’d be willing to come to an hors d’oeuvres tasting on Saturday, July 24 at 7 pm. You are absolutely required to eat and drink on my behalf.

The only caveat is, besides short notice, that you give me feedback on my cooking. I’m sure I can count on your brutal honesty. 🙂


8/02/04 E-Mail Follow-up:

So we had a lot of fun, and we missed a lot of you.

Just in case you were curious here is the menu…and the winners:

  • Shrimp skewers with jalapeno cocktail sauce
  • Grape tomatoes stuffed with pesto and goat cheese with a basil sprig
  • Korean beef skewers
  • Phyllo cups with wild mushrooms in Madeira reduction
  • Phyllo cups with bleu cheese and walnuts topped with pears poached in port
  • Applewood-smoked bacon-wrapped dates
  • Tuna tartare on crispy won ton squares topped with tobiko caviar
  • Maine lobster roll sliders
  • Oysters Bingo a la Jules: oysters on the half shell baked with spinach and Parmesan and aioli.

The winners:

The dates and the oysters….

Yummy! Thanks. And wish me luck!


Cooking School Journal: Puff Pastry II

Well, puff pastry II was…  interesting.

Joe was in DC Monday and yesterday, and I was with the girls. I missed Monday’s class, but he and I had worked it out that he would stay home Wednesday, and I would take a make up class.

Yesterday I was determined, regardless of two hot tired girls and a toddler with a cold, to make my homework: puff pastry. There is no worse time to make puff pastry than the late afternoon when the outside temp is 96 degrees, your air conditioner is exhausted and spitting out room temperature air, your thermostat reads 83 and you have a snot-ridden sick 2 year-old literally hanging off your leg crying.

I persevered long enough to make the butter block and pastry dough. I patted them each into squares between sheets of plastic wrap and fridged them. The whole time Hannah was screaming out the front window, “Owie, owie. My mommy is giving me owie’s,” a mantra that she has quickly learned will cause me to reward her in anyway I can, just to get her to stop. Yeah, I gotta work on that.

But by 11:30 pm Hannah had cried herself to sleep, and I had properly rolled, folded and fridged the dough the required four times. I needed one more fold before class.

Joe’s plane was delayed. He was supposed to fly out at 5 pm my time. We had a nice chat and said good night. As usual, and you all know how I feel about air travel, I got choked up, said a prayer for his safe landing in L.A., and then began imagining the worst in all of its gruesome details. hindenburg

That healthy exercise is usually followed up by my wondering which of my black suits is clean from the drycleaners. And then, when it’s a really long flight, I wonder if it makes more financial sense to take the life insurance and pay off the mortgage, or invest it. That is usually followed up by long detailed images of how my life would be totally ruined regardless, and the kids would be scarred for life.

Luckily, I was distracted by a phone call from Arthur. He and I laughed for an hour and a half. Before I knew it, all my world’s problems were solved, and  I thought Joe was flying over the midwest.

Joe’s flight was, however, VERY delayed. When he didn’t arrive home at 11pm, I was sure the wreckage was somewhere over Nebraska.I poured myself a couple of stiff drinks. I finally went to bed after 2am, and I stayed in that twilight sleep state until he finally came in with suitcase rolling behind at 3 am. “Oh thank God”, I thought to myself and then (without even a ‘hello’) turned over in the bed and had the best five hours of sleep I’ve had since the mid-eighties. When I awoke, I had lost three pounds in saliva alone.

Oh sh*t! It’s eight o’clock. Lilly came in to wake me up. I told her to get dressed. And closed my eyes.

Oh sh*t! It’s 8:17. Lilly was dressed, Hannah was stirring and Lucy was still asleep. I told Lilly to wake up Lucy. And closed my eyes.

Oh sh*t! It’s 8:25. Lilly and Lucy were dressed, and I told them to get Hannah dressed. And closed my eyes.

Oh sh*t! It’s 8:34.  Now I’m screwed ,but the last thing I want to do is wake up.

Finally, at 8:40 am, I dragged myself out of bed. I showered, dressed, put on my indispensable lip liner (it’s all about the lip liner) and headed downstairs in a fog.  All I could think about was getting that puff pastry out of the fridge for 15 minutes to do one more fold. Blindly, I placed it on the counter and then headed toward the coffee maker.  I ground the beans (Peet’s Major Dickason’s– the best), scooped them into the filter, filled the the tank and  turned it on.

I then headed back  to the puff pastry. I unwrapped it and patted it with my hand to test its temperature. When I looked down, through my sleepy eyes I saw  a perfect handprint made of  ground coffee on the surface of the dough.

Oh sh*t!

It just got worse from there.

I fed the kids the worst breakfast of all, sugary cereal and skim milk. They ate it with gusto. I grabbed my stuff, scurried them to the car in the garage and told them to buckle in. They were going to camp — late.

“Where’s my towel?”

“Where are my goggles?”

“I’m still thirsty.”

The out-the-door chorus began.

“Just get in the car!”

While they buckled in, I feverishly tried to use my pastry brush to remove the coffee out of my dough. I rolled it hastily one more time, folded it into thirds and wrapped it tightly.  I bagged it and ran to the car… with it,  towels, juice boxes and goggles in tow.

I jumped in the front seat, opened the garage door, turned and asked the kids if they were belted in. Then I threw it into reverse. It was 9:24. Class started at nine and so did camp.

I hit the gas only to hear the horrendous sound of crumpling metal.

I hit the brakes and turned around expecting to see one of the kid’s bikes twisted around the axle.  No. I had left the trunk liftgate wide open yesterday unloading the groceries, and I had just crushed it in the garage door.


I made sure the kids were okay and  ran inside to get Joe.

He was at the sink trying to focus on shaving with two very sleepy eyes.

“I just killed my car in the garage door,” I said.

“Oh sh*t!” He replied.

But he just stood there half awake, razor in hand trying to stare at me through his eyelids.

“No. I need you to come fix it.”

“Oh sh*t.”

As we got to the bottom of the stairs, Lucy opened the interior door to the garage. “Mom! I need my goggles!”

The dog quickly slipped past her with Joe and I screaming, “Oh sh*t! Rocky! Come!”

I prodded her out the door and told her to get into the (insert positive parenting request here) car.

I canvassed the immediate neighborhood on foot calling for the dog, sweating and freaking out. I’m going to kill that damn dog. Meanwhile Joe separated the trunk lid from the garage door. He was attempting to remove all of the pieces of metal and plastic that were now hanging off of the car. The entire time he was worried that the neighbors would catch a glimpse of him adorned in shaving cream and bath robe.

Ten minutes later, we got the dog back. I dragged him to the house by his collar. The kids were loaded in the car. My puff pastry sat perfectly balanced on the center console– too warm. The trunk lid was shut.

I took a deep breath and drove the kids to camp and myself to school in what’s left of my SUV.

Cooking School Journal: Eats, Shoots and Leaves

So, I am starting to get some feedback…

I am quite promiscuous with my commas apparently. I’m also overly zealous with ellipses, and am parenthetically challenged. Although I’ve chosen to write these missives in e-mail form, the most forgiving grammatically, I am quite aware that my grammar sucks.

Let’s not forget that I am the product of the L.A.U.S.D., and I have bad grammar.

Perhaps the problem is that my most influential English teacher was Mrs. Lightfoot. She believed herself to be a hippy, but truly she was a girl from the white suburbs that happened to marry an American Indian (begin smoking your peyote now).

We spent a lot of time not discussing the Fitzgerald, Salinger and Capote novels the curriculum outlined… but we had long discussions, led by the surfer in the back who couldn’t remember his own name, about the great literary contributions of Carlos Castaneda and Hunter S. Thompson. One memorable class we all hiked to the nearby state park to  “hug the Earth”. We all got on our bellies, arms outstretched, feeling like total a**holes.

So, please forgive me. My grammar is less then stellar. Most of my writing in college met the professor’s desk unblemished only to return with a terrible case of scarlet fever…red sharpie everywhere.

So e-mail, for me, is the best medium. The specifics of proper English Grammar seem inconsequential in a world where people text, “u r gr8.”

At least the message is loud and clear, no matter the medium. McLuhan take note!

In this day and age, even a comma-whore like myself, can sound smart. Right?


Cooking School Journal: Bigfoot?



So when I had last left you, my mouth was coated with a film of olive oil, and my tongue was fuzzy from one too many unidentifiable vinegars. Chef and I had bonded in some weird sorority-style hatred of Crazy Linda.

That night I finally got my chef’s coat (well, actually it’s a cook’s coat-plastic buttons). But it is embroidered with my name. I suddenly felt very important.

It’s funny how uniforms make you feel empowered. I remember how it felt in college to have a microphone in my hand. I would be instantly transformed from the shyest gal on campus into “roving reporter”. My favorite day was covering the opening of the Pan-Pacific Library at USF. I was dressed in my finest suit, pantyhose (!) and pumps. After talking with Amy Tan, I made my futile attempt to interview Chinese President Jiang Zemin about the massacre on Tianmen Square. Like that was ever going to happen!  After he was whisked into his limo by his security detail, I turned my sights on then Mayor Frank Jordan.

“Can I get an interview from a fellow alumnus,” I called out like a walking Chee-toh.

He took one long vertical glance from the tips of my toes up to my hair-do and smiled. “Why sure,” he said sweetly.

I asked him about ten dumb questions which he answered as if he had rehearsed. Then he squeezed my arm, winked and left.

I felt like I was on top of the world.

It’s my little league home run story.

It was all because of the mic.

The mic gave me confidence.

So anyway, standing there in the hot kitchen, with my new stiff uncomfortable jacket, I felt like a real cook.


She divided the room into two groups. I was with the giggling gaggle, and the boys were with Crazy Linda and Anna.

We had Steak salad, Salade Nicoise and a Smoked Chicken and Bufalo Mozzarella salad.

Sabrina the home-schooler began smoking the chicken breasts on the stove top smoker. I hate smoked meat. It figures that she was all over it.

Alice and I worked on the steak salad. It sounded good to me… steak and some other things.

I was in charge of grilling the steaks. Alice and I have come to a certain understanding that she’s in charge of veggie prep, and I do the meat.

I trimmed the NY strips until they were an almost perfect rectangle of meat. I generously bathed them in salt, pepper and olive oil and let them sit on the counter until they almost reached room temperature. God! They were gorgeous.

As they sat, Alice and I cleaned, chopped and sliced our veggies and then put them in the fridge to chill. We also put our salad plates in the freezer to chill. You may not realize it, but the temp of your serving plates is so important. If you are serving pasta, warm the bowl. If you’re serving salad, chill the plate. Also, don’t forget to chill the lettuce…it crisps it and makes it so much more refreshing.

I never paid much attention to temperature before this course and a conversation with my friend Sara last year. She had just been to a great restaurant in LA and made a point about how they had all of the temperatures correct.

Sara’s a total foodie. She’s been a recipe tester, test kitchen manager, worked in food photography and journalism and now is buyer of charcuterie for a very high end grocery market. Jesus! Talk about a dream job; buying and tasting cheese, pate, sausage. I know she works her ass off and travels a lot, but Christ!

But she made a point of telling me that the food was excellent, the service was great but most importantly the temperatures were all perfect. She was emphatic in her point and waited for me to agree whole-heartedly.

I had no idea what she was talking about. I stared at her blankly as she waited for my nod of approval.  An awkward silence fell upon us.

Crickets chirped in the background. And I think a tumbleweed rolled by.

She sighed and very slowly explained to me that she had had a frisee salad napped with vinaigrette. The lettuce was perfectly chilled and crisp and the plate was almost frozen. It was topped with a softly poached egg that was steaming hot. As she broke the egg with her fork, the yolk …well, the yolk… umm the yolk.

I’ve just spent ten minutes sitting here trying to remember how she described that yolk pouring onto the lettuce. I can’t remember her exact words (they were good) and anything I’ve tried to write just can’t do it justice. Let’s just suffice it to say that after she told me what that yolk did to her salad, I felt like I needed to smoke a cigarette and go to confession. Or even better yet, smoke a cigarette IN the confessional. It was that good.

Then, she retreated back to my level. She explained it more simply. She said that when she ordered her coffee, the cup was pre-warmed and the coffee was hot enough to stay hot until her last sip, but not so hot that it ruined the coffee beans. So satisfying.

It has inspired me to try to pay attention to temperature as much as possible, so Alice and I chilled our lettuce and I heated the grill pan over high.

There was a lot of pressure with this salad because this recipe is Chef’s favorite.

I wanted to do this one right.

Trimmed and seasoned, the steak sat ready until that grill was so hot that it was about to melt. When I put the first strip down it sizzled. Yes!

I put the second one next to it. I hemmed and hawed about putting the third and last next to it. I want them to all be done together, but I didn’t want to over-crowd the pan, cooling it down and leaving the steaks to braise in their own fat. The last steak was smaller than the others, and I finally decided to leave it for a second round.

I grilled at one angle and then turned them on the diagonal. This creates the “X” marks on the outside. When I flipped them  the grill marks were perfect. Chef sauntered by, “Very good. Steaks are trimmed and seasoned and you are making beautiful grill marks.”

I beamed.

When all the steaks had their marks, I calmly put them into a 300 degree oven to cook through to medium.

Like a conductor, I waved to Alice with my tongs and said, “You can prepare to plate.” (Who the hell do I think I am?)

However, when she had the salad plated and turned to me for the steak, I checked the oven for the third time. I couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long for the steaks to cook through.

Perhaps it would have helped if I had put the steaks into the LOWER oven that was now sitting empty at 300 degrees instead of the upper oven that was cool enough to climb into and read a novel.

Sh*t. Sh*t. Oh sh*t. Sh*t.

Alice was starting to look a little panicked and irritated. That really sucked because she has been my ‘friend’ throughout this whole process. In fact she brought me a gift that day. She has been wearing a hat that says, “Got Wine?” It’s in the same font as the “Got Milk?” ads, and I love it. She brought one for me and it’s my new favorite hat.

I told her it would be 5 or 10 minutes. I thought she was going to slap me with her tongs.

We put the plates back in the fridge, praying that the lettuce would not become soggy from the vinaigrette.

In the meantime, we decided to help Sabrina and Ashley finish the Nicoise. It’s a pretty big job, like The Cobb. Blanched and marinated veggies, seared tuna, hard boiled eggs, olives, there are a lot of components. They were happy for the help.

Finally the steaks felt medium to the touch, and I pulled them out of the oven. It was time to let them rest and let the juices absorb back into the meat. In perfect conditions, that should be at least 10 minutes, but Chef was starting to wonder (out loud) where the steak salad was. The asparagus salad with goat cheese vinaigrette was already up. (It was really tasty.  Lance is a god).

I let them rest for 6 minutes and 43 seconds. I was anxious that they were going to be “too medium”. Or even worse, not “medium” enough. However, when I thinly sliced them on the bias, they looked so beautiful that I thought I was going to cry.

Rob, our TA for the day, is a line cook at two of L.A.’s most popular restaurants and told me that the steaks were perfectly cooked.

Just like when I interviewed Mayor Jordan, I felt like I was wearing someone else’s suit. Could it be that I have actually done a great job?

We plated our salad. Romaine and Bibb lettuce were (already!) gently tossed with vinaigrette. They were topped with a mound of  sweet onions thinly sliced and tossed with  the same vinaigrette. The slices of steak were fanned around the mound of onions and garnished with cilantro. Amazing. It was really good.(But between you and me, if I wanted to take it up one more level I would have topped it with crispy maui onion strings, sparked with spicy chili powder, as a garnish….mmmm).

Chef nodded as we presented it. No praise. No criticism. Just a blank nod.

Sometimes, however, silence is golden.

How I wish I could impart that to Crazy Linda! She had her dirty index finger plunging into everyone’s vinaigrette for a taste,  along with some crazy story about her triumphs and tribulations as a caterer. Everyone was irritated.

When Ashley finally began plating the Nicoise, which by the way was pretty damn good, it was 11:15 pm.  Linda hovered around them mercilessly, chatting up a goddamn storm.  She stared at Ashley, who was still plating and asked abruptly, “Have you ever had a Nicoise salad?”

Ashley continued to perfectly place her haricot vert as she answered without even looking up, “Of course I have.”

“In EUROPE?” Crazy Linda stabbed.

“Well, since I haven’t been to Europe, no”.

“Oh yeah. It’s much better in Europe,” she chimed to the room as Ashley carefully carried her platter to Chef for grading.

I turned to John and Lance. They were finished and had begun cleaning up.

“She never shuts up,” I muttered through my teeth.

“Who?” John whispered back.

I rolled my eyes Crazy Linda’s way.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh. Bigfoot? Yeah.”

They’ve made up nicknames, too! *tee hee*

Cooking School Journal: Oil & Vinegar

Oil and vinegar

Oil and vinegar

I missed the “Game ” class, and then we had the Independence holiday off.

Sweet relief.

I was worried that everyone would think that my absence meant that the ‘Pastry Cream Incident of 2004′ had gotten the best of me. Well, honestly, I was wondering, too.

But, no. Like clockwork, Monday the 12th came around and I started to prep the girls’ and Joe’s dinner (I set the BBQ on fire). Joe came home shortly thereafter,we all kissed goodbye, and it was time to go back to school.

I changed from my tank top and shorts-scary I know. I put on my required long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes and grabbed my baseball cap. The cap is an horrendous piece of ‘Swag’ from one of Joe’s eight-million events that says on the brim, “We CAN win!”

Ouch! But, it perfectly matches my Gap tan cargo pants. So, whatever!

It was 400,000 degrees in L.A. on Monday.

I thought the class was going to be “puff pastry II”. The thought of 4 industrial ovens set at 400 degrees was totally bumming me out. I’m already over-heated.

But, when I arrived, greeted extremely cheerily by all: Sabrina the Home Schooler, Ashley, Nora the Locksmith, L.A. Gear Alice, Not Gay Lance, Cameron, Anna and even Crazy Linda. I was shocked. Did they miss me? Or am I about to be voted off of the island.

PLEASE vote me off!

I learned that tonight was “Salad II”.

Oh thank God. Something Cold! And after the heavy dishes of the last few classes I have to add: Oh thank God. Fiber!

We spent the first two hours listening to a very long lecture by Chef. They keep seeming to get longer– or maybe it’s just getting hotter. We also had a blind tasting of several flavors and varietals of vinegars and oils.

We each had a plastic cup filled with forty pieces of cut straws, a tiny cup of sugar and Chef was passing out one ounce samples of vinegars and separate cups of oils. With our fingers on the top of the straw, we trapped a taste of each sample to drop onto our tongues.

We were supposed to blind taste and identify each drop like a Master Sommelier.

“I taste almond or no– hazelnut. That’s definitely hazelnut oil,” I said confidently to the first sample.

Chef’s eyes rolled, “That’s supermarket-grade olive oil,” she said.

It went on like that for forty minutes.

“I taste notes of fig,” I would exhort.

“Yeah. That’s malt vinegar,” she would explain, unable to even look in my direction.

Obviously I had too many Marlboro Lights in the 90s  to distinguish the taste of anything except a Marlboro Light.

Alice was sitting next to me. She was a blind-tasting god. 70% Wow! Even faced with a combo of grape seed (as I learned, any oil that is bright pale green is obviously grape seed oil) lemon essence, mango, and coconut extract. She nailed it.

Show Off.

To save the day…

Lance gave us the most beautiful homily about sherry and sherry vinegar.

Our tax dollars brought him via the U.S. Navy to a wonderful 20 months in Andalusia.

Yeah, yeah, protecting the world, living on a boat, less than minimum wage, prepared to die for my family…whatever. I was totally jealous. Sipping sherry from barrels in the “Sherry triangle” sounded like heaven to me.

I could have listened to him all night, but suddenly Linda was chiming about her latest crazy experience that had nothing to do with any of us or anything we had to do tonight. I was annoyed. Chef was getting annoyed too.

As Crazy Linda clamored on about an ongoing fight she’s been having with a “Japanese Buddy” of hers, regarding the smoking point of sesame oil (which one should never cook with anyway), Chef finally cut her off. Then, she passed me vinegar number 15A.

“Thank you!”, I said looking her straight into her eyes. We, for the first time, agreed.

I took my taste. “Balsamic, of course.”

“Apple cider,” she replied. Damn!

When the tasting was over, I scored a very below average, and we broke into groups.

She divided the room in half and told us to cook.

I quickly donned my chef’s coat and washed my hands.

When I emerged from the ladies room, I saw Chef yelling to the room, “Where is Jules?!”

“Jules?!” she bellowed.

“Oh God!,” I thought. Not only was I going to get it for having the lamest palate in North America, but now she’s going to ream me for being a total bitch at the “pastry cream” class.

I tentatively approached her.

“Yes?” I said meekly, prepared for the worst.

“Jules, I need to know. Was I totally rude?”, she whispered.

All I could think about was how sh*tty I felt last class.

“Uhh, What?” I replied in all of my eloquence.

“To Linda,” she said.  “Was I too rude?”

Oh thank God. It wasn’t about me! She was looking for some sort of sorority-like bonding moment.

My reply…

a bold, flat, ” I don’t think you were rude enough.”

She nodded happily in my direction,

For one weird, sick moment we were on the same page.

Cooking School Journal: Game



I missed the class before Independence Day. It was Game. Yuck.

People have been trying to get me to Saddle Peak Lodge, Josie’s and Manka’s Inverness Lodge.  I always gracefully bow out. They are famous for their Venison and Buffalo preparations. For some odd reason, I’m more comfortable eating a raw octopus tentacle than a perfectly prepared venison steak surrounded by blah blah blah reduction with a puree of blah blah blah and garnished with an essence of locally-grown blah blah blah.

Forgive me.

So, when I woke up on the morning of the Game Class, I was less than excited to go. I went about my daily routine giving myself a mental pep talk: Go! It’ll be a new adventure, regardless of how disgusting it is.

I dressed the kids and fed them their breakfasts. Joe wrangled the big girls into the car and took them to summer day camp. I promptly began cleaning the house as Hannah watched the Wiggles.  While I was carrying out the trash through my downstairs bathroom, I noticed something  from the corner of my eye. There was something floating in the toilet.

“Jesus. What part of ‘flush’, do these kids not understand?!” I thought to myself.

But when the peripheral glance became a full on examination, I discovered a giant RAT floating, dead and bloated in my toilet. Yes. That’s right! RAT!


I threw down the trash and ran out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. I immediately called Joe, who to this day has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder from the “rat in the driveway incident of 1997”.  The tone of my voice led him to believe that the Manson family had come into the house and was trying to kill me.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I yelled into the phone while trying to catch my breath. It’s a– a– a– giant– rat in the toilet!”

He was so relieved to know that it was merely a rat and promptly began to mock me. Isn’t marriage great?

Relief, however, turned to trepidation when I informed him that he needed to come home on his lunch hour and dispose of it. The mocking ceased.

I grabbed Hannah and drove as far from the house as possible. We spent the next couple of hours at the beach in Ventura. There are no rats on a beach. Right?

When I returned to the house, Joe was gray, trembling and struggling for breath in our driveway. He was wearing a hat, goggles, face mask, work boots, work gloves and a leather jacket.  The rat had been removed.

The Rat Hunter

The Rat Hunter

The hypothesis is that it was trapped in the sewer, died and made its way to our toilet bowl.

Ironic, that in these damn low-flush toilets (now mandatory in California), that take at least two flushes to swallow a piece of paper,  somehow a dead five-pound rodent can make it through.

Neither Joe nor I ate for two days. This is the first time I’m actually able to talk about it.

So when it was time to grab my syllabus and recipe chart, the thought of cooking up rabbit just struck too close to home. I totally flaked on class.

Oh, and by the way, for Christmas this year, Joe and I would love a new pair of bbq tongs.

Cooking School Journal: Pastry Cream


Everybody loves pastry cream. It’s that yummy stuff inside an éclair or the base for your favorite fruit tart.

It’s so beautiful to look at and bite into.

Cream Puff

Cream Puff

There’s nothing better than an éclair or cream puff balanced perfectly in your hand. You open your mouth, bend forward and bite down. It’s quickly followed by a gentle swipe at the side of your mouth and a hopefully unnoticed suck at your index finger. You can’t let any of it go to waste. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. A gorgeous custard with the sublime taste of vanilla, egg and cream.

That’s pastry cream.

It was my recipe last class.

We broke into three groups. One had to make a genoise cake (think jelly roll) to turn into a bouche de noel. The other, piped pate sucree (think cream puff or éclair shell), and the last was mine. It was the easiest of all, the pastry cream.

I carefully read the recipe and decided that I was going to baby this baby until I was left with the ultimate nectar of the gods.

Thirty minutes into it, I was still standing over the stove, simmering the split vanilla bean in whole milk and cream. It smelled so good, that I thought I was going to cry.

My group kept commenting in anxious anticipation (in the kitchen, timing is everything): “That needs to come to a boil and then simmer!”

“I know, but I don’t want to rush it,” I replied smiling.

When I finally felt like the vanilla bean and the milk had come to some ethereal harmonic convergence of taste, smell and mouth-feel, I turned off the heat.

It was time to do the dirty work.

4 egg yolks plus one egg.

For years I’ve separated yolks from whites with a variety of contraptions: plastic utensils named for just that purpose, two spoons, the shells themselves… but nothing beats the human hands (add caveman jokes here). Break the egg into your hand and let the white slip between your fingers. Cradle the clean yolk in your hand and add it to your recipe.

I was so enamored of my pastry cream that I went the extra mile. I carefully plucked off all the imperfections of that yolk.


I gently pulled off each umbilous and blood vessel with the conviction of a cardio-thoracic surgeon, until I was left with a glistening golden yolk to plunk into the Kitchen Aid.

I beat the yolks with ¾ cups of sugar and 60g of cornstarch until it was a smooth, pale yellow.

It was time to temper.

Was the milk too hot? I shook in my boots.

I poured half of the milk into the eggs and then poured the egg-milk mixture back into the saucepan for the most gentle simmer.

The entire time I was praying as I stirred constantly, “Please God, don’t let this curdle.”

Whenever you introduce a starch into any mixture it has to cook for a long time to lose the starchy flavor. That is why a béchamel, properly done, can take twice as long as you think it should.

I wanted this pastry cream to taste like anything but cornstarch. To do that, I was going to have to let it cook very slowly.

“Is it done yet?”

“Is it done now?”

“How’s it doing?”

My group members were relentless, and I felt like I was at home with the girls.

Like a flash in the corner of my eye, I saw Chef looking at my pastry cream.

“It needs to boil,” she said as she jacked up the heat on the industrial range to high.

Sweat poured from my face as I stirred like a maniac.

Her protégé, Roger (a forty-year old obviously following in Paul Prudhomme’s footsteps; he’s at least 400 pounds), pointed his swollen finger in my direction. “You need to stir faster or it will curdle.”

I tried to ignore him as I whisked furiously. It was futile. I watched my perfect pot of custard turn quickly into scrambled eggs.

I was so frustrated but not yet ready to give up. My arm was burning.

Chef was standing beside me as Crazy Linda swooped from the rafters like a frickin’ rabid bat (I didn’t even know she was there).

“Isn’t that ruined? Didn’t she just do it totally wrong?” she screeched.

Chef leaned over. “Oh yes. That’s ruined.”

I threw my spoon down and glanced at them so meanly that I thought my eyes were going to combust. The whole time I was carefully avoiding the Irish Curse that was perched on the tip of my tongue. My eyes burned, and I had that lump in my throat. It was all I could do to quell the quivering of my chin.

Chef’s eyes met mine, and she knew I was enraged.

I shoved the pot to the cold back burner, grabbed my things, left the kitchen and stormed out to my car. I stood alone in the parking lot, keys in hand.

I wanted to go home.

I wanted to see Joe smiling.

I wanted to see my kids sleeping in their cute little beds.

Screw this.

At the end of this whole thing I’m still going to be making kid-friendly chicken nuggets and mac ‘n cheese five nights out of seven, but hey I will be qualified to take a line cook job at $10 an hour. Woohoo. Childcare costs $15 an hour. What’s the point? All this frustration for what?

I stood next to my car and took a long deep breath. The cool air and the silence calmed me. Suddenly a voice from nowhere (but everywhere) said…

“Just show up and do the work, and everything will be okay.”

I looked to the sky. Thanks voice! Where’ve you been for the last 15 years? Christ!

I swallowed the cool breeze and my pride. I wiped the tears from my eyes, and I gracefully walked back into class.

Chef was in the midst of prepping her “Pastry Cream Demo”. (salt in the wound anyone?)

I sat quietly as she showed us how it’s about cooking it VERY slowly and vigorously stirring.

“You can’t be lazy about it.”

Meanwhile, the T.A. scraped my scrambled eggs from the pan into the trash.

“Who did that?” NGL whispered to Ashley.

“It was Jules,” she replied in a stage whisper.

I endured it all.

At the end of the night, I cleaned and packed my things.

Chef came to me and while trying to be chummy said, “Jules, if you don’t make mistakes then I don’t get a chance to show off.”

“Well, luckily I give you a chance to show off each week.”

Something’s Fishy

Home-schooler and I prepared our stations. Our partnership was less skipping-off -to-the-swings, and more a skipping-off-to-the-enormous-salmon.

Our recipe was a marinated salmon. It was a great recipe for us. We worked on the marinating part together, but then were given free range to present individually.  Again, the working together part was not so great. A lot of whiny insipid questions were followed up with passive aggressive finger-pointing. My God. How can one make such a simple task so friggin’ complicated!

This recipe was basically a ceviche. Raw, well-trimmed and thinly-sliced salmon is dressed in a citrus, oil and herb marinade. So Home-Schooler and I, marinated our salmon fillets in onion, lemon, basil and chiles for 15 minutes until it was “cooked”.  The acid reacts in a way that  “cooks”  the fish; accent on the ‘ ” ‘.

I never order ceviche. If I’m not in a sushi bar, raw things do not pass my lips.

(Well, except for that time in college where my date took me to an Ethiopian restaurant. I was  trying to look very cool and gourmand while I scooped up raw minced beef in injera. The whole time I was worrying about the operating hours of the school’s medical clinic. Could  I get antibiotics to kill the E-coli on a Sunday?)



Raw– unless it’s sushi, where their job is ‘raw’–  is not good in my book.

But ceviche is apparently sublime to the other half of the hemisphere, so who am I to judge. Most importantly, it was our assignment and after the stock success, I want to do it right.

Our instructions were to simply serve the salmon on a plate garnished with diced tomato and sliced avocado. Home-schooler did it to the letter; a tidy mound of marinated salmon with a fan of avocado topped with tomatoes at its side. She received a nod of approval and a smile from Chef, and was beaming.

Watching that nauseating exchange, I threw caution to the wind. Something came over me, and I decided to take it up a notch.

I reached deep into my backpack and grabbed my pastry rings.

Trusty pastry rings

Trusty pastry rings

I thinly sliced an entire avocado half and placed my 3″ ring over it. Chef caught a glimpse of my actions through the corner of her eye and headed to my station.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m plating.” I replied.

Her eyebrow went up as I attempted to fan the slices of avocado into a tidy circle around the interior of pastry ring.

I then plopped the salmon, tossed with thinly-sliced onion and dressing, into the center of the still-surrounded avocado ring.

“What makes you think it will hold?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I said lamely, as I garnished the mound with a teaspoon of tomato concasse.

We both stared in suspense, as I slowly raised the ring upward.

The avocado circle remained intact and beautiful, acting as a cup to display the glistening pink salmon.

We locked eyes for a millisecond before she turned away.

“Class! Please come see! A lovely presentation of one of our recipes!” she chimed.

Everyone was talking. No one heard.  No one looked my way.

I carefully carried my plate to the demo table. It remained intact. I was just as surprised as she was, and feeling pretty good.

Chef did not comment again, but she did not have to. I took a risk. And I know that  it paid off.