|When Chefs and Efficiency collide
||[Jan. 9th, 2011|11:17 am]
In a way, I have the perfect personality to be a personal chef. (Sadly, I did not have the knees and finger joints for it.) Yes, love cooking, love trying to new things, a well-developed sense of flavors, textures, and the ability to take techniques/skills learned in one place and apply it to other situations. Which could apply to many cooking careers. But personal chef -- to be successful -- also requires a certain admiration for, and ability to apply, efficiency. In both money and time. Because in most cases, you are being paid to deliver a fairly consistent product that meets certain standards, within a fairly fixed time frame and dollar amount. When you are paid $400, say, to deliver a certain number of meals, in a certain number of portions, with a given portion size, you can spend three days developing the menu, you can experiment with different techniques risking the possibility that you'll have to start over, you can pull out all sorts of obscure and expensive ingredients, shop at seven different speciality shops, you can spend all day making three different homemade sauce bases. And at the end of the job, you will have made $5 an hour. |
So, you need to marry "really good food" to smart food costing/menu development and very efficient prep/cooking labor. Which I could do. One of my efficiencies was to develop a recipe that was the BEST of whatever it was -- Ropa Vieja, Meatballs, Eggplant Napoleons. Once it was developed, that was IT. No more messing around. No altering ingredients (unless I couldn't find something/forgot something.) I wanted recipes that I could make without thinking -- fast, foolproof, that delivered good consistent results.
Technically speaking, they all could be improved -- and here's why a lot of chefs can't cut it as personal chefs -- there were ALWAYS more expensive ingredients that could be used, more labor intensive techniques. But I knew my audience and knew that I needed to make a living. So, I drew that line: Good Enough. And Good Enough, frankly, was pretty damn good. Once I'd arrived at that recipe, I'd move on and work on finding the next recipe to resolve as "Good Enough".
Admittedly, personal preference plays a role: my Perfect Cornbread Recipe might not be sweet enough for some people. Too yellow for others. Too bad. It's awesome enough and there's no need to look further. Don't get me wrong, I'll add cheese, green chiles, bacon, sauteed vegetables from time to time. But the base recipe? No need to try another one. Sure, there's a slim possibility that there may be another recipe that's just a teensy bit better...but I've got a lot of things on my to-do list, and obsessing over cornbread is not one of them.
The fine folks at Cook's Illustrated will do that. Because they get PAID to do it. You want me to try another recipe? You can PAY me to do so. Otherwise, I'm done. (Besides, you know, their recipe is...pretty much just like the one I use. So there. Hah.)
I am very uncheflike in revealing who I stole the recipe from. In this case, Rick Rodgers and his wonderful book "The Turkey Cookbook". Here's the Code for crediting recipes: when you make significant changes, and you basically just used the original recipe as a jumping off place, you can claim it for yours. Or, if the recipe is so basic, so repeated in so many places, that although you started with a recipe from someone else's collection, you could easily find that exact same recipe in several other dozen places (not the internet, we don't count the internet, since like many "facts" the internet finds something published somewhere and then repeats it, all over the place, so that one fact or recipe or statistic is ganked from one place and then repeated so often it can seem, within days, as if it's long-established truth. (For you literal Bible interpreters: like God did with fossils.)
Anyway -- you grow impatient -- and I have a life to get back to. I give Rick full credit for this recipe, because I really have felt no need to mess with it, beyond stuffing extra ingredients in it from time to time. My only quibble with him is that cornbread is one word. Pbfft. And the extra comments are mine. Because he seems like a NICE person who wouldn't browbeat you. Plus, his instructions have way more "traditional/instructional" comments. I only put those in when: I'm being paid to do so; and when I'm writing it out for someone who knows nothing about cooking and I'm feeling tenderhearted.
It makes a lot. Freeze the second portion or take it to work. Your co-workers will love you.
Rick's Melt in your Mouth Corn Bread
2 cups yellow cornmeal
(Seriously, don't chintz out here. Go with stoneground. This is cornbread, not cake. Heaven knows, you no doubt need the fiber. Get thee to the crunchy granola or upscale grocery store. Even Safeway carries Bob's Red Mill in their "crunchy granola baking ghetto section"...separated from the conventional ingredients, because no one wants miscegenation in baking! I'm pleased that I had to look up how to spell that. Someday, I hope only historians would have a clue what it means.) But enough editorializing.
Let's start over...
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 cups flour
2 Tbs sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
3 cups buttermilk, room temperature (low fat is fine. Fat free is an abomination.)
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted and cooled. (Used in two different places, so don't be in idiot and get carried away the first time and put it ALL in.)
3 large eggs, room temperature, slightly beaten
2 round 9" cake pans or 2 8x8 pyrex squares or one 9x13ish rectangular cake, pyrex, eartherware dish.
Oven at 375 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients. In another bowl/large measuring cup, whisk together the egg, buttermilk and ONLY 6 Tbs of butter. (If you failed to follow the instructions and the egg and buttermilk were actually still pretty chilly, the butter will congeal in clumps. Your penalty for not paying attention? Whisk it really HARD, Bobby, and break them up into small clumps. It'll be fine. But focus, okay?)
Divide the remaining butter between two pans, or if using one 9x13 pan, pour it all in. (Hint, when using pyrex or earthenware, put your pan in the oven when you preheat it. Cold pan into hot oven is leading cause of broken pans) Swirl the butter around the dish so it gets into the corners. Put it back in the oven and bake until the butter is hot, about 2 minutes, while you're doing the following:
Make a well (not a BP/Halliburton well, just a little depression) in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Blend with a wooden spoon until just smooth. Don't beat it to death; let it keep a little air and structure, fer crying out loud.
Open up the oven and take out the pan(s). If you were smart, you would have left the stovetop free for this. But hindsight is 20/20, right? Eventually you will learn to read through the whole recipe AGAIN right before you start making it. So run over there and get a cooling rack or trivet to put the hot pan(s) on. Don't do it while the pans are in the oven. No one wants to explain the severe burn on the top of their hand for the two freaking weeks it will take to heal. Not that I know that from experience....
Pour the batter in the pan(s), dividing evenly, if using two pans. Pour it in the middle of the pan, so that you're pushing the butter out to the sides. Isn't that cool? Lazyman's pan greasing. (Now's a good time to tell you that if you want to reduce the artery cloggingness/calorie load of this recipe, you can just manually grease the pans, and reduce the melted butter to just 6 TBS. Still good, just not AS.)
Bake 25-30 minutes until an inserted toothpick comes clean. (timing will vary depending on what pan, your oven, the alignment of the stars, so don't panic if it takes a good ten minutes more or a few minutes less.) Cool in the pan at least 5 minutes before cutting.
You can add 2-3 cups of stuff without screwing up the recipe: grated cheddar, chopped green chiles, cooked bacon (go ahead sub some of the bacon grease in for the butter), sauteed vegetables like zucchini, tomatoes, etc, the veg is good if you want to reduce the calorie load, but still have cornbread. You can add thawed or fresh parboiled corn kernels, if you want, but personally, I find it just gives the cornbread a creepy "are there rubber bands in here" texture. But you do what you want.