Q: Chefs seem to do everything so effortlessly. Have you ever made any cooking mistakes?
A: Any professional who says they have not made mistakes is lying! I have made my share, and some of them still burn bright in my mind. It seems like the more complicated the recipe or the more time-crunched I am, the higher the chance I will goof something up somewhere. And you know I love a good, difficult recipe, so that ratio is right up there.
When I was newly married, I made a concerted effort to prepare delicious meals for my husband as often as our tiny budget would allow. One night, I was making my first roast beef and wanted to make gravy for the mashed potatoes. I called my sister for advice, but did not write down her instructions, as I was confident I would remember them.
When it came time to add the flour to the drippings, I added two cups instead of two tablespoons. It got so thick so fast. I tried adding milk, but just could not thin it down. That night at dinner, I told my husband I did not know what I did wrong. I had followed my sister's recipe exactly.
Bill said, “Well, we could always sell it to the highway department to patch the potholes!” Perhaps, I shed a few newlywed tears over that gravy ... .
The first day of baking at Le Cordon Bleu, we were making rolled cookies called diamonds. We had to use our brand-spanking-new, razor-sharp Wustoff knives to cut slices off a (poorly) rolled section of cookie dough.
I cut my finger immediately. I was so mad; who cuts their finger on the first day of class? I tried to get it to stop bleeding, but it would not. Blood was getting everywhere! Finally I went to Chef and showed him, and he directed me to the first-aid kit in the hall.
After bandaging, I was already behind the other students. Time is very important at LCB, and you can fall behind so easily. It was only the first day, for heaven's sake! So I quickly continued where I had left off. In a matter of seconds, I sliced another finger, only this time deeper.
Oh, my gosh! The group of mean girls were pointing to me and laughing among themselves. (I am not making this up. There was this group of horrible girls who just treated everyone so bad, especially moi. Why? I could have been their mother. But this is a whole other story for another column.)
I was so mad at myself — cutting myself slicing cookies! So I wrapped my finger in my towel and kept going. Chef came over to check on us a few minutes later, and, although I was hiding my hand, he saw the droplets of blood in the dough.
“Mon Dieu, Laura,” he exclaimed, and grabbed my hands, looking for the cut. I started bleeding when he unwrapped my finger and this time he marched me over to the first-aid kit, and put a finger dam on it.
When I slunk back to my spot at the island, the mean girls were practically doubled over in that kind of silent laughter you got in church or in math class. The one where tears run down your eyes and your stomach hurts because you cannot laugh out loud. Remember? Yeah, that kind.
The third I want to tell you happened to a friend of mine our senior year in high school. Yes, I have other stories of my own, but this is too funny/horrible not to tell. “Susan” wanted to make dinner for her whole family. Her mother was so proud and let her make the whole meal by herself, from stem to stern.
Susan needed a few onions for the main course and asked her mom where they were. Mom said they were in the garage. So enthusiastic Susie marched right out to get them and proceeded to make her meal. That night, the whole family enjoyed a casserole and salad. Although the casserole tasted different from what they were used to, no one dared say a word and thwart Susan's new passion.
A few hours later, the whole family began dropping like flies. So all of these hurling brothers, parents and, yes, Susan herself, piled in the car with barf bowls and raced to the ER. Susan definitely never grew to be a master gardener; she had used tulip bulbs instead of onions for her tuna casserole and had given the whole family food poisoning!
Q: What is one of your favorite foods?
A: This is a question I get asked all the time. My answer is anything Italian! Pesto especially makes my heart — and tummy — go all a flutter. I call it green gold. It's almost as expensive as gold. Here is why.
Traditionally, pesto is made with pine nuts and olive oil, as well as garlic salt and, of course, the best herb in the universe, basil. Right now, pine nuts are at an all time high of $30 per pound.
Why? There are several reasons, one being that actual nuts are snuggly nestled in the pine cone. After the workers pick the pine cones, they must heat the cones so they open and the pine nuts can be shaken out. Then the nuts must be spread out and cooled off, sorted through and all the things they do before weighing and packaging them.
I always held a sepia-toned vision of gnarled old men, adorable dark-haired children and beautiful buxom women stealing kisses under the trees from their lovers while gathering the pine cones. Then they would have a big pine nut harvest celebration under those trees after it was all over, with the whole village attending, including the town priest. Pesto would be spread on everything, pine nuts tossed in the salad and sprinkled over the fish.
Well, just forget that image right now. Most pine nuts are harvested in China these days. This is because they have immense forests and cheaper labor. The expense of shipping over that huge ocean adds to the price, but it is less expensive than harvesting them in Europe.
Some people have adjusted by using walnuts or other nuts in pesto, but pine nuts are the nuts from days of yore. How is pre-made pesto only about $6? Just read the label, and you will see that many, many other ingredients are added to lower the price. Once you make your own pesto, you will forever regard a bottle of pre-made pesto as a grenade with the pin pulled out.
1 cup extra virgin olive oil, first cold pressed
4 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
6 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, shredded
Toast the pine nuts and let them cool while you prepare your garlic cloves. (Toasting seems slow, but as soon as a few start to brown, it goes very quickly. Keep your eye on them and do not burn up those expensive nuts!)
In a food processor, add the garlic cloves, basil, salt and pine nuts. Process until you get a thick green mash. While the processor is running, slowly add the olive oil. Add the Parmesan cheese at the end.
Keep at room temperature if using that day or freeze. Do not heat up. If frozen, let it come to room temperature, then serve over everything in your house.