May 14, 2013

Chef Brian Wilke's Home Kitchen

A few months ago, I thought it would be cool to start a series of posts called "Chef's at Home" which would feature Culinary Instructors in their home kitchens talking about what inspires them and what they love about cooking at home.  I started out with Chef Wilke.  Wilke founded OCI, the cooking school where I've worked now for over four years.  I'd met him over 10 years ago at another culinary school in town and he's constantly amazed me with his Rock Star attitude and how he exudes passion and confidence in the kitchens at school.

Chef Wilke's wife Jill greeted me warmly at the door when I first arrived to take photos. She pushed an antique, thrifted cup of French pressed coffee with cream into my cold hands as she led me into the golden glow of the kitchen. The fragrance of onions sautéed in butter and warm croissants from a local bakery infused my senses and the chill of the damp, grey Portland weather vanished behind me as the door closed.

Chef Brian Wilke is the co-founder of a small, locally-owned culinary school nestled in the heart of the Goose Hollow neighborhood in downtown Portland Oregon. He's been teaching and cooking for over 30 years, and has influenced and mentored an enormous number of young cooks who make up the thriving restaurant scene in Portland. He values local, independently-owned businesses and restaurants and is a part of the pulse that makes the food scene in Portland such a Mecca of unique cooking styles and people.

There is a story behind everything in this culinary jewell box.  Even the bar-stools, where guests can cozy up to the counter to watch and eat, are works of art from re-purposed wine barrels -- a treasure Brian and Jill brought home after from a winery weekend in Walla Walla.


A well-oiled, gracefully curving butcher block counter separates the dining room and kitchen -- Wilke salvaged it from an old Portland bakery and refinished it to be an appealing and practical focal point. He chops away on the surface, deftly wielding his cherished Kramer knife, making short work of the buttery slab of salty Olympic Provisions bacon and turnips from a local farmer’s co-op called Wealth Underground.

Everything in this space, from the appliances to the utensils and ingredients, are beautiful and have purpose.   Chef Wilke and Jill are practical in their approach to cooking, design and living but embrace the artistic side of their surroundings with equal love and creativity.  To the left of the stove is a collection of mortar and pestles.  Each corner  of the kitchen showcases the rare combination of utilitarian still life.

A small ceramic tray neatly displays the most used, staple ingredients: two kinds of salt, an aged balsamic vinegar, onions and shallots, and a re-purposed bottle of wine used to decant high quality olive oil.

The bottle of 1981 Opus wine on display was shared with his father over 25 years ago in Chicago and is a loving reminder of that memorable meal.

I couldn't help but ask about the graphic design of a face drawn onto Chef Wilke's tee shirt. 
Brian looked at me with a lopsided grin, and I knew I was in for a good story. The tee shirt portrait is a custom rendering of Blues artist Professor Longhair known as the “Bach of Rock and Roll.” Brian explained that Longhair taught himself to play using a piano that was missing several keys. Because of, rather than in spite of, his lacking instrument, he created music that was solely his own — a wild mix of New Orleans jazz and blues fused with Cuban beats. Wilke listens to Professor Longhair on vinyl record albums when he cooks at home, the music inspiring him to make incredible food from the carefully curated contents of his fridge and cupboards. His cooking philosophy is based in part on the simple idea of using quality, local, fresh ingredients to create nourishing and delicious food.

Like Professor Longhair, it's all about knowing how to make something great out of what you've got.

What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
"I guess the efficiency is the most important thing. I really did design it as a professional kitchen would work so everything is accessible--the tools, the ingredients... it's really really compact and efficient for a one person kitchen."

What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
"It's gotta be my Kramer knife. The last time I checked, there was a 2 year waiting list... this guy builds knives by hand. He's a master blade-smith I bought my knife before he got famous, then he was in Cooks magazine or something like that and now his knives are coveted. I've had every knife out there and they just cut differently. This is my favorite by far."

What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in your kitchen?
"Bikram and his family from Nepal came over one night. Bikram is the Nepalese first term chef instructor at the school and I've known him for over 20 years. He's one of my best friends. It was rather nerve-wracking to prepare food for his father, uncle, aunt and cousin because he's such a phenomenal chef... and I thought for a long time about what I could possibly make for these people. Then, I thought, screw it man, I'm just going to make Nepalese food. I mean, what am I gonna do? Serve Italian? Either it'll be okay or I'll make a complete ass out of myself. We actually ate sitting on the floor in the living room and it was one of my favorite nights of my entire life."

The biggest challenge for cooking in your kitchen?
"The same as my favorite thing-- it's small. When you get rockin' and rollin' in there, if you have more than one person it gets pretty dicey."

How would you describe your cooking style?
"Definitely "Black Box." (Author’s note: The "Black Box" test is a final exam in culinary school where students are given a few random ingredients and expected to create a meal or course using techniques, methods, herbs, spices, and fats from the restaurant pantry). Fresh ingredients and solid technique. Food is the only thing that affects all 5 senses and when you put things together while considering all five senses, you can pull a great meal together. My mom really inspired my whole interest in cooking. She used to put out braised meat, then smaller serving dishes with all kinds of ingredients like rice, chow mien noodles, onion, pineapple, scallions, coconut, peanuts... you know, 20 different things and you could just build your own meal from there. As a kid, I learned so much about what goes together and it inspired me to experiment. It was also a really cool way to feed a large crowd. It encouraged communication between everybody and was a magical dish that carried so much imagination, conversation and inventiveness."

Best cooking advice or tip you every received?
"George Thompson was my culinary mentor and we still teach together today. He really taught me about the whole "taste and aroma" idea. What we call "taste" is really much more about aroma... once you understand the intricacies of how they work together, that last little attention to spices and flavor makes the difference between good food and great food. It's genius how he breaks that down."

The view from Wilke's kitchen window just over the sink is of his chickens.  Practical and interesting, an egg-celent and egg-clectic addition.  Very Portland.  Very Chef-ish.

April 24, 2013

Dark Chocolate Bacon Brownies

I've worked on the administrative and admissions side of culinary school now for the last 10 years and although I myself am not a professional cook, I definitely share a passion for creating delicious, satisfying and unique food with others.  One of my most memorable students from many years ago whom I stay in touch on Face Book is a cool guy by the name of Michael.  We try to impress each other with our knowledge of All Things Bacon and he's been reminding me for the past several weeks that I'd promised to test out recipes for Bacon Brownies and get him the recipe. I've finally created an almost perfect batch...

This particular recipe is only 'almost' perfect because even though these smokey delectable bacon-y dark chocolate brownies have an ideal balance of gooey-chewiness and cake-ness, there were a few things I'd do differently to make them even better. 
(don't fret lovelies.  I'll add those notes as I describe the process.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure the bacon itself was crispy and not rubbery or too under done.  I researched a few recipes online and found that baking several strips of bacon on parchment on a shallow cookie sheet produced the results I was aiming for.  I ripped off a stretch of baking parchment paper, (or you could use aluminum foil of course) and set out the bacon about a half inch apart on the sheet and put it into the cold oven, turning the temperature to 400 degrees after shutting the oven door.  There were several methods posted online, but starting with a cold oven seemed a popular trick.  I watched the bacon carefully and it was about done after 19 minutes.  ( a few minutes more if you buy thick cut bacon)  Once the bacon was perfectly crisp, I used tongs to remove the strips and let them cool on a brown paper bag before cutting into smaller bits.  I drained the clear fat off the parchment through a fine metal mesh strainer into a jar to use in the brownie recipe to replace a bit of the butter too, which was an extra step that made a flavorful difference. 

I scoured the internet for the best brownie recipes and came up with the winner which was the Alton Brown Cocoa version.  I slightly altered it using half the amount of butter he recommends and replaced it with the lovely warm golden bacon fat.  Honestly, I think it needed even more bacon flavor.   So next time I plan on adding a couple more tablespoons of bacon fat for an extra smokey-baconish kick.

Another change I would make is I would mix the bacon bits right into the batter rather than sprinkling them on top before baking.  I think they would stay more moist and flavorful.  Since I put them on top when I baked the batch pictured above, it slightly over cooked the bits making them too dry and not as flavorful. 

Still delicious.  The next bacon/brownie experiment will be Dark Chocolate Stout Bacon Brownies for Father's Day.  I'm already daydreaming about adding in some Guinness and chunks of Moonstruck dark chocolate bits.

I doubt I'll have any shortage of taste testers.

Dark Chocolate Bacon Brownies

  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup sugar, sifted
  • 1 cup brown sugar, sifted
  • 4 ounces melted butter
  • 4 ounces salvaged bacon fat, (still melted)
  • 1 1/4 cups high quality dutch process cocoa, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup cake or all purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  •  5 strips oven baked bacon (chopped)

  • Grease 8" square baking pan with soft butter and dust with flour.  Tap off excess flour into the sink.
    1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees
    2. In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the eggs at medium speed until fluffy and light yellow. Add both sugars. Add remaining ingredients, and mix to combine.
    3. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch square pan and bake for 45 minutes. Check for doneness (desired goo-to-cake-balance) with the tried-and-true toothpick method: a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan should come out clean.

    April 22, 2013

    Baked Ricotta with Roasted Garlic and Lemon

    I'm a huge fan of the classic appetizer, warm Parmesan and artichoke dip.  To be perfectly honest, I pretty much swoon at the mention of just about any warm gooey-cheesy type of food, and though I could probably become a vegetarian, (with the exception of bacon) I doubt I could ever become a full fledged vegan due to my addiction to cheese.

    I discovered this quick delicious dip online a few weeks ago while reading an article about a new cookbook called "Cook Like a Rock Star" and tried it out on the fam.  Everyone loved it and it disappeared rather quickly.  I recommend doubling the recipe and storing a bit of it in the freezer or fridge for a last minute appetizer when friends stop in.  Crackers or thinly sliced baguette pieces toasted in the oven while the cheese warms up are perfect for scooping. 

    Baked Ricotta

    2 cups ricotta cheese
    3-5 cloves roasted garlic cloves
    1 sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped
    1 lemon, zest only
    3 tablespoons olive oil (plus a bit for drizzling on at the end)
    1 pinch red pepper flakes
    2 hefty pinches sea salt

    Combine all ingredients together in a large bowl and mix well. 
    Scoop dip into a buttered baking dish (I divided it into 2 small oven-safe bowls)
    Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes until lightly browned and hot.
    Drizzle with some good olive oil and top with a bit of rosemary.

    April 19, 2013

    Cheers to Friday

    Over the weekend I'll be posting a few recipes I've been working on.  Stay tuned for a fab oven baked ricotta-lemon-garlic cheese dip that is out of this world and perfect to keep on hand in the fridge, ready to go whenever you need a bit of comforting warm cheese.  (which for me is just about always)

    April 9, 2013

    Dropping a Little Acid in the Kitchen

    Working at a Culinary School is a huge benefit in terms of gleaning awesome tips and ideas about cooking from people who know the inside scoop.

    One Golden Rule mentioned to me by more than one chef:

    If you taste a dish and you know it's missing something but your not sure what, it's probably acid.  When I interviewed Executive Chef Brian Wilke, one of the founders of Oregon Culinary Institute a while back in his kitchen at home, I noticed he had a wire basket near the stove filled with lemons.   He often uses a fresh squeeze of lemon to balance and enhance flavor in soups, sauces and marinades, then scrubs down the butcher block counter top with a little sea salt and the leftover wedge when he's done cooking dinner for his wife.  In a professional kitchen, and at home, full utilization of product is ideal.

    On Sunday, I finished off our Easter ham by cooking up a bowl of split pea soup with fresh thyme.  It seemed to be missing something though, and I sliced off the end of a lemon, squeezed the juice into the pot and Voila!

    Perfect flavor.

    I even saved the heel and scrubbed my butcher block island as well before plunking the well used bit of fruit into the compost.

    Chefs are practical and brilliant people.  

    April 5, 2013

    The Treasure of Family Cookbooks

    Last month, I had a super exciting opportunity to chat in-person via a super cool Google Hang Out with Nigella Lawson, Julia Moskin from the New York Times and a home cook from New York as well as one from Scotland.  It was an amazing experience.  Before the actual "live" video began to roll, the three of us regular-old home cooks chatted it up and laughed about things like photographing everything we eat and cook, how tiny Amanda's kitchen is and what exactly Preston was sipping in his coffee mug.  Julia Moskin asked that we come up with a sort of backup question, in case there was time left after chatting with Nigella about the Italian casserole recipe we all tested out.  The question was, "What is your favorite cookbook of all time?"  Preston was the youngest in the bunch, and although he treasures his Nigella Collection, he mentioned that he had relatively few actual books, and finds most of his recipes and ideas for cooking online.  I imagine this is so with many people these days.  I mean, so many weekdays, right about 5:00, I find I find myself surfing on my work computer to figure out what to make.  I look up recipes on my smart phone and iPad and subscribe to the New York Times Dining and Food articles online.  I follow several food blogs that offer up not only fabulous recipes, but they inspire me with gorgeous photographs and I tend to enjoy the "voice" or tone of the writer, and feel like they are a friend in the kitchen advising me about what to make.  At home, I have a laptop on the kitchen counter that I often look up recipes from Epicurious, Bon Appetite and Food and Wine.  But I'll always have use for my shelf of well loved, actual paper and ink cookbooks.  When Julia asked us to be prepared for which cookbook we would take with us to a dessert island, I had a few ideas.  
    But on Tuesday this week, I was given a gift that I will treasure for as long as I cook.

    When I stepped through the door of my husbands parents house for dinner, his mother hugged me tightly and quickly ushered me into the dining room.  She reverently pressed into my hands a cookbook that she had owned for years and years, and was now passing on to me:

    I was speechless.  I gently opened the book, and saw, there on the first page, Julia and Paul Child's autographs.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I would have been tickled to death to be the second owner of this classic cookbook even without the precious signatures because I'm a HUGE Julia Child fan.  I was given The Art of French Cooking a few years ago, and of course have read just about every book written by and about Julia Child.   But this particular book is going to be cherished more than anyone can know.

    As convenient and inspiring as Food Blogs and great Culinary Websites are, I have to admit, the feel of a cookbook, the tiny sploshes of sauce or wine left on the page of a frequently referred to recipe, and the knowledge that someone you love once used it to cook those particular recipes for their family, is such a romantic notion that I will always be a loyal fan of actual books.  So many times, at almost every family gathering, holiday, celebration and meal, there is a dish that is a "family" dish.  A recipe that's been handed down.  My husband remembers his grandmother vividly as he bites into the particular one-sheet lemon cheesecake that his mother makes for him still every year on his birthday.  My grandmother made something called "Volcano Meatloaf" that I remember so clearly from childhood.  My mom used to make it, and imagining a wedge of the stuff on her Blue Danube china makes me smile.  When I am wanting to conjure up memories or comfort myself, I always think about and sometimes cook the things I remember my mother making.  My favorite cookbook from my own mother is a tattered handwritten spiral booklet baptized with chocolate sauce and molasses.  She gave it to me on the day of my wedding to my first husband when I was just 21.  Recipes from my grandmother, great aunts, mother, neighbors and even things I used to cook when I was in high school are listed there.  Just seeing her neat and rounded handwriting is reassuring.

    A few months ago, my ex-mother in law, who is very dear to me and who is a woman who can make an excellent soup out of just about anything, gave me the cookbook she used as a young bride, back in the late 1950's: 

    Just about every single day, I check up on the online site, The Kitchn.  Recently, there was a great article about the difference between online recipes and good old fashioned cookbooks...

    What's your preference?  Do you have a favorite dog-eared, creased and spattered hand-me-down that you treasure?

    At first, when the editor of the New York Times Dining and Wine guide asked me to think of my favorite cookbook, I entertained the notion of telling her something trendy or impressive.  When I really thought about it, to be perfectly honest, my favorite books are a hodge-podge of recipes that I've made for family or these books that my mother, my mother in law and my grandmother's have recommended and used. 

    I can only hope that one of my kids will grow up to love cooking as much as I do.  Then I can pass my collection on to them.

    April 4, 2013

    Thought for a Thursday

    The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose in life is to give it away.
    Pablo Picasso