Movie ‘Chef’ Captures a True Love of Food

After working long hours on Mother’s Day, my son, a cook at a respected restaurant chain, told me he hated it.

“Well, would you want to do something else?” I said.

He looked shocked. “Are you kidding?”

That exchange came to mind as I watched “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s charming and funny movie about a chef who quits his restaurant job and winds up happily selling Cubanos from a food truck, reconnecting with his 10-year-old son in the process.

Cooking is one of those professions that require a huge helping of passion (or  insanity).  You stand on your feet for long hours in a hot kitchen, work like a fiend, routinely get yelled at, suffer cuts and burns regularly, and work nights and holidays.

Unless you own your own place and you’re at the top of the food chain (Grant Achatz of Alinea, for example), you have to cook what your boss and the customers want rather than what you’d really like to cook. In “Chef,” chef Carl Casper quits his job at a prestigious Los Angeles restaurant when the owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists he continue to cook what’s on the menu and what keeps the seats filled: “Be an artist on your own time.”

Thanks to a Twitter war with a prominent food critic, Casper can’t find a restaurant job and ends up buying a food truck. Cubanos, the tasty Cuban pressed meat and cheese sandwiches, are a far cry from what he’s been cooking, but he’s happy to sell them because they’re the best Cubanos, and that’s all that matters.

“Chef” is a movie, not real life, so the kitchen seems to be staffed by a grand total of four or five people, and Casper seems to magically acquire permits in short order in various cities for his food truck. But it’s intensely realistic in the way it captures the love of food that drives every chef. Whether it’s an upscale version of carne asada, barbecue in Austin or beignets in New Orleans, the chefs rhapsodize, close their eyes, drink in the taste and smell of what they’re eating. We can practically taste the food as well, given that “Chef” serves up a healthy dose of food porn alongside its humor and heartwarming story. Don’t go see it if you’re hungry; your stomach will start growling 15 minutes into the film.

Not Your Mother’s Tuna Noodle Casserole

We all have our favorite comfort foods, and one of mine is tuna noodle casserole, that time-honored combo of noodles, tuna and peas in a creamy mushroom sauce.

In the traditional (read ’50s housewife) version of this dish, the sauce is supplied by a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. And if convenience is the No. 1 consideration, that’s the way you want to make it.

But I’ve got this thing for mushrooms. Good mushrooms. So my version of tuna noodle casserole includes a from-scratch sauce made with real mushrooms. I chop up fresh button mushrooms and flavor them with a bit of dried shiitake or  porcini.

That’s as upscale as I get. This is supposed to be comfort food, after all. But you could fancy it up even more by using fresh tuna, grilled or pan-fried and cut into chunks, and tossing in some fresh herbs. As for the noodles, use the traditional egg noodles or substitute rotini, farfalle or penne.

If you’re in a hurry or prefer your tuna noodle casserole creamier, serve it as is out of the pan. If not, scatter some bread crumbs and Parmesan over it and bake it till the top gets a bit crusty.

Not Your Mother’s Tuna Noodle Casserole
Author: Ginger
Serves: 8
Flavorful mushrooms in a homemade sauce fancy up that old comfort food, Tuna Noodle Casserole.
  • 1 pound dried egg noodles or pasta (such as rotini or penne)
  • [i]Sauce:[/i]
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
  • 3 tablespoons dried shiitake or porcini mushroom pieces, reconstituted in 1/2 cup water (save the liquid)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon seafood seasoning (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk or half-and-half
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2  cans tuna in water, drained and chunked
  • 1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • [i]Topping (optional):[/i]
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  1. Boil the noodles according to package directions. About a minute before the end of the cooking time, toss in the peas. When noodles are cooked, drain.
  2. While noodles are cooking, make the sauce. Heat the butter in a large pot, then add the mushrooms, onion and seafood seasoning. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring, or until softened. Sprinkle with flour and stir, then gradually stir in the mushroom soaking liquid and the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens to the consistency of a creamy soup.
  3. Add the drained noodles to the pot and toss with the sauce. Add the tuna and peas and toss well. Cook until the peas are heated through.
  4. If desired, spoon the noodle mixtured into a buttered casserole dish or pan. Toss together the bread crumbs, Parmesan and olive oil, and sprinkle over the noodles. Bake in a preheated 375-degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until top is lightly golden and turning crusty.


Croque Monsieur: a Recipe for Heaven

So, I’m watching the DVD of “It’s Complicated,” with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin (a movie I recommend, by the way), in which Streep’s character, Jane, owns a bakery-cafe. She’s making dinner for Adam the architect (Martin) and serving Croque Monsieur, the classic French hot ham and cheese sandwich. Adam’s telling her how delicious they are and I’m sitting there thinking, “It’s been forever since I had a Croque Monsieur.”

So the next day I whipped up some, and they’re just as delicious as I remember. While there are quite a few variations on this bistro classic, I prefer my Croque Monsieur close to the original: ham and cheese on good bread, generously buttered and broiled until crisp. Sheer heaven. As a bonus, this is just about the easiest dinner you can make.

Serve these with a simple salad. I made a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and baby greens, tossed with a red wine vinaigrette.

Croque Monsieur
Author: Ginger
Serves: 4
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence or other dried leaf herbs of your choice (tarragon, basil, sage, etc.), to taste
  • 8 slices good bread
  • 4 ounces top-quality baked ham, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups grated Gruyere or other Swiss cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  1. Preheat the broiler on “low.”
  2. In a small bowl, mix together the mustard, mayonnaise and herbs. Place 4 of the bread slices on an ungreased baking sheet, and spread the mustard-mayonnaise evenly over them. Top with the ham and sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese over each bread slice. Top with the remaining bread slices. Using 1 tablespoon butter per sandwich, spread both sides of each sandwich with butter.
  3. Broil for 5 minutes, then turn and sprinkle the sandwiches with the grated Parmesan. Broil another 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sandwiches are golden and crisp. Serve immediately.

Savor the Flavor of Herbes de Provence

Years ago, my husband returned from a business trip to southern France bearing one of the finest gifts of all: a generously sized burlap bag of herbes de Provence. When the bag was finally empty, I shed a tear—not so much because the herbs were gone, but because I couldn’t hop on a plane to sunny Provence and replenish them.

Ever since,  herbes de Provence has ranked as my favorite herb blend. The French combination of dried thyme and other herbs brings out the best in so many dishes. Besides thyme (the one essential ingredient), herbes de Provence typically contains lavender, fennel, savory, basil, and rosemary, and may contain tarragon, basil, oregano, chervil, sage, mint, and/or marjoram.

Along with the other sweet herbs such as fennel and basil, sweetly perfumed lavender  helps offset the sharp flavor of the thyme.

All of these herbs thrive in sunny Provence, though cooks traditionally used them individually. In the 1970s, spice companies created herbes de Provence as a blend of favorite southern French herbs.

Use herbes de Provence to season roast chicken, potatoes, cheese omelets, vegetable soup, fish, and just about any other dish that would taste good with thyme or rosemary.

I especially like it on roast chicken. Loosen the skin on the chicken breast and drumsticks and use your fingers to smear a blend of olive oil (or olive oil and melted butter), smashed garlic and herbes de Provence under the skin. Rub some of the olive oil mixture on the outside of the skin as well, and roast. Yum!

A Buttery Wild Salmon Chowder

So, I had some wild salmon in the freezer. Normally I wouldn’t freeze it but I had bought a big package of it, then discovered there was no one home that day to eat it (teenage kids, you know).

I also had a taste for butter after finally seeing “Julie & Julia,” about Julia Child’s years in France and about the blogging lass who made every recipe in “The Art of French Cooking.” (Didn’t care all that much for the movie, but that’s another story.) Julia Child had no use for health food or people who badmouthed butter or red meat or anything else delicious. “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream” is one of her oft-quoted maxims. (She was referring to a specific recipe, but who can help but expand the sentiment to embrace food, and life, in general?)

Better yet, use both. So, I thawed the salmon,  got out the butter and cream, and went to work. The result was an outrageously good salmon chowder. If you’re one of those people who fear butter and cream, this is not the recipe for you. If you’re one of those people who love cream, butter and real salmon, not necessarily in that order, this recipe will have you licking the soup bowl.

Cooking the salmon before adding it to the chowder adds a step, but don’t skip it. It makes this chowder.

Wild Salmon Chowder

Makes 8 servings

  • 2 to 2 1/2 pounds wild salmon fillets
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup finely chopped onion
  • 6 cups chicken broth or seafood stock
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay seasoning), or to taste
  • 4 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup canned or frozen corn kernels
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • Salt and white pepper to taste

Minced fresh parsley, finely chopped scallions or minced fresh chives for garnish (optional)

Cook the salmon: In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the salmon, skin side down, and cook over medium-high heat, turning once,  until the salmon is just cooked through (it’s best if the fish is still a bit red in the center of the thickest portion). Remove the salmon from the pan. Do not discard the pan drippings. Remove and discard the salmon skin and separate the meat into bite-size chunks. Set aside.

Make the chowder: In a soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until translucent. Stir in the broth, water, seafood seasoning and potatoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cook over medium-low heat until the potatoes are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the corn.

While the potatoes are cooking, heat the reserved salmon pan drippings in the skillet. Stir in the flour. Stir in about a cupful of the hot cooking broth from the soup pot, then stir in the cream. Cook over medium heat, stirring, to make a smooth, somewhat thickened cream sauce. (If the flour is lumpy, whisk the sauce thoroughly.)

Add the cream mixture to the contents of the soup pot and stir. Stir in the reserved salmon and cook over medium-low heat just until heated through. Season with salt and pepper, garnish as desired, and serve immediately.

A Sassy Autumn Slaw

After a trip to Costco, I wound up with what seemed like 400 pounds of baby carrots in my crisper drawer. There are only so many carrots one can munch on, so I decided to make a colorful sweet-and-sour autumn slaw: lighter on the cabbage, heavy on carrots, and with a bit of apple to sweeten it. A lemon-ginger dressing brought it all together nicely.

This would make a nice side dish for Thanksgiving.

Autumn Slaw with Lemon-Ginger Dressing

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 cups shredded or grated carrots
  • 1 cup shredded green cabbage (preferably savoy)
  • 1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled and finely chopped
  • Dressing:
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons honey (or sugar), to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil, to taste

Toss the carrot, cabbage, and apple in a medium bowl.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, honey, salt, and ginger. Gradually whisk in the oil. Pour enough dressing over the carrot mixture to moisten it thoroughly, and toss to coat.

Kale: Show It Some Respect Already

“What is this?” asked the produce market cashier, holding up the bag of dark leafy greens.

“Kale,” I replied, wondering yet again if more than six people in America know what this vegetable is and that you can actually eat it. I’d wager that most Americans know kale only as that frilly, dark green stuff they use to decorate salad bars, or the pretty purple and green frilly ornamental plant that survives in the garden well into winter.

Kale is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables—it don’t get no respect. That’s a shame because not only is kale outrageously nutritious (an outstanding source of vitamins A, C and K, and a good source of iron and calcium, for a mere 15 calories per 1/2 cup cooked), but it’s more mildly flavored than many of its cabbage-family cousins and adapts easily to all sorts of food companions and flavors.

A fall and winter vegetable, kale goes well with hearty partners such as sausage, bacon, beans, sweet potatoes and potatoes, and with strong flavors such as garlic and hot pepper. I like it finely chopped in omelets, chopped into salads, and as a side dish on its own with some olive oil and garlic. Irish colcannon, the famous potato dish, is often made with kale rather than cabbage. Kale is also an excellent addition to soups. Try it in a marvelous minestrone.

To prepare kale, strip the leaves from the stems unless you’re using it in soup (the stems tend to be tough). You can freeze the stems to use in homemade stock, or just put them on the compost heat. Chop or slice the kale leaves. While kale can be used raw, its frilly edges can be a bit on the tough side, and it’s easiest to eat when cooked until wilted.

Here’s my standard recipe for kale as a side dish.

Garlicky Kale

Serves 4

  • 2 bunches kale (about 1 pound total)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered or minced
  • 1/3 cup chicken broth or water
  • Salt (preferably sea salt)
  • Hot pepper flakes (optional)

Strip the leaves from the kale. Discard the stems. Roll up the leaves and thinly slice them crosswise.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a saucepan. Add the garlic and cook just a few seconds, until fragrant. Add the kale and cook, tossing the kale to coat it with garlic oil, for about a minute, or until the kale begins to wilt. Add the broth or water, cover the pan, and cook over medium heat for another 6 to 8 minutes, or until the greens are tender. Season with salt and hot pepper flakes.

Variation: Cook 2 strips of bacon until crisp. Drain the bacon, reserving the bacon drippings, and crumble. Substitute 1 tablespoon of bacon drippings for 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and proceed with the recipe as directed. Just before serving, top the kale with the crumbled bacon bits.

All in Favor of Slimness, Please Stand Up

Want to lose weight? Get up out of that chair! The scientific evidence is piling up that sitting is linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. People who stand more tend to be leaner and healthier. Obviously, if you sit around a lot you probably aren’t exercising much, but exercise is not the only factor.

Apparently, the mere act of sitting shuts down circulation of an enzyme called lipase, which helps muscles absorb fat. Physiologists have found that standing up engages muscles and promotes the distribution of lipase, which helps the body process fat and cholesterol. Standing up also uses blood glucose and may help prevent the development of diabetes.

Sitting down, on the other hand, shuts off lipase. According to researchers quoted by Science Daily, sitting around too much can double or even triple the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is true even without factoring in actual exercise. Merely standing instead of sitting can burn an extra 60 calories per hour.

And all this time, I’ve been nagging my son to snack at the kitchen table instead of wolfing down food while standing at the counter. Who knew?

Garlicky Chicken and Fresh Tomatoes

Sometimes the simplest, last-minute meals turn out better than something you’ve planned for ages. I was making a healthy dinner for my Mom and a couple of my siblings last weekend. I had chicken breasts, some cornmeal, and some fresh Roma (plum) tomatoes from my patio container garden.

Feeling in a Mediterranean mood, I first cooked up some polenta, which seemed like a nice change from pasta. Then I cooked the chicken breasts with olive oil, lots of garlic, some onion, some tomato sauce, and fresh garden tomatoes. It tasted divine and was a big hit.

Here’s a recipe, of sorts (I didn’t really measure anything). Feel free to improvise. You could add chopped fresh parsley, chopped black olives, or some chopped bell peppers to the chicken. And of course, you can save a lot of time by buying ready-made polenta, or by substituting pasta.

Chicken and Fresh Tomatoes on Polenta

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole-grain cornmeal (coarse or medium grind)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oilChicken:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup coarsely chopped onion
4 to 5 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, cut in half crosswise
About 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning (or use some fresh herbs if you have them on hand
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
3 to 4 fresh plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt (optional) and pepper to taste

To make the polenta: Bring 3 cups of the water and salt to a boil. Add the remaining cup of water (cold) to the cornmeal and stir to moisten it. (This step is optional, but helps keep the cornmeal from lumping when you add it to the boiling water. If you prefer to skip this step, bring all 4 cups of water to a boil.) Gradually stir the cornmeal into the boiling water. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes, or until the polenta is thickened but still creamy and comes cleanly away from the sides of the pan when you stir it. If the polenta begins to thicken too much, add a little more hot water. Polenta doesn’t need to be served hot, so you can set it aside while you make the chicken.

To prepare the chicken: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onion. Cook over medium-high heat until translucent, then add the garlic and cook a few seconds until fragrant. With a slotted spoon, remove the onions and garlic to a plate.

Add the chicken to the skillet and brown well on both sides. Then add the onions and garlic back to the pan, along with the tomato sauce and Italian seasoning. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the chopped fresh tomatoes and season with salt (if desired) and pepper.

Serve the chicken over scoops of the polenta.

Salade Nicoise Just Right for a Summer Day

One of my favorite summer dishes is my version of Salade Nicoise, the French salad made with tuna, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes and green beans. It doesn’t require much cooking, it’s served cold, and most importantly, everyone in our family likes it.

The French original is a composed salad, with the various components kept more separate. Mine is a bit more of a mishmash, with potato salad sitting atop greens and tuna salad atop that. I generally make my own vinaigrette, flavored with a bit of garlic and mustard, but a good bottled vinaigrette or Caesar-style dressing would work just fine.

It is a bit of work to prepare all the ingredients, but you can prepare them in advance and assemble the salad just before serving. The recipe traditionally calls for canned tuna, but for a really nice flavor, you can substitute grilled fresh tuna, cut into chunks.

Salade Nicoise
Recipe Type: Main Course, Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
  • 4 medium boiling potatoes (about 1 pound total)
  • 1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed
  • 2 handfuls torn lettuce or mixed greens (optional)
  • 1 large tomato, cut into 8 wedges
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half lengthwise
  • 8 to 12 black olives (preferably Nicoise style)
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tuna packed in water, drained
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vinaigrette (homemade or bottled)
  • Parsley and/or capers for garnish
  1. Place the potatoes in a pan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, or just until they can be pierced easily with a fork. Rinse under cold water. When cool, peel potatoes and cut into chunks or slices. Set aside.
  2. Meanwhile, cook green beans in boiling water until tender-crisp, about 7 to 8 minutes. Rinse under cold water, drain and set aside.
  3. Just before serving, assemble salad: Make a bed of the lettuce or greens on a large platter. Top with green beans, arranged end to end around the edges of the lettuce. Arrange tomato wedges, eggs and olives decoratively around edge of platter. Toss the potatoes with vinaigrette, salt and pepper to taste. Mound in the middle of the platter. Moisten the tuna with a little of the vinaigrette and mound it on top of the potatoes. Scatter chopped parsley or capers over salad. Serve immediately.