Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


New Favorite Thing: Hidden Kitchens Podcasts

I haven't done a plain old-fashioned passionate rave for a while, so it's probably about time.

Now, I admit, sometimes I'm slow to catch on to stuff. "Hidden Kitchens," a terrific NPR mini-show that sometimes appears buried within Morning Edition broadcasts, is sort of a case-in-point.

I'd heard a few of the shows in the past, but I just never got around to subscribing to the podcast. Silly me!

In the mere minutes each episode contains, the Kitchen Sisters plunge a listener into worlds that contain so much more than cooking and food.

Peppered with music and history, voices and visions, "Hidden Kitchens" adventures range from the past to the present, from Outer Space to a Louisiana prison.

Do yourself a favor and check out some of the audio on the website. Everything from 2004 onward is archived. The stories are fascinating and the recipes are beguiling...

I'm looking forward to trying out the allspice-spiked lamb stew recipe from a recent episode on Basque sheepherders.

Miss Ginsu

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Day 13: Name that Cookie

This post marks Day 13 of Miss Ginsu's 2007 Advent Calendar. To click into other days and other projects, use the calendar page to navigate.

My dad's family grew up poor. Six kids in an uninsulated shack. My uncle and his brothers were all stuffed into the attic, and he told me he remembers that on cold winter mornings they woke up with frost on the blankets.

Grandpa built the place himself and worked a series of odd jobs to support the family.

Grandma cooked, sewed, cleaned and did everything from scratch, from home-brewed cough syrup (rosehips brewed with honey and brandy) to the kids' haircuts and clothes.

I know everyone waxes nostalgic about their grandma's cooking. It's like a national obsession. I'm not sure whether it was more a lack of skill or a lack of quality materials, but my grandmother was a terrible cook. I just can't get on board that "Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go" haywagon.

Though she was far from Martha Stewart, I still remember with enormous fondness the gifts she made for everyone every Christmas.

We'd all arrive for Christmas Day dinner to find a long line of red cotton stockings labeled in permanent marker with our names. Inside, she'd stuff hard candies, oranges and shell-on nuts.

name cookies

Additionally, each holiday brought a new round of grandma's famous name cookies. She'd bake everyone in the family a rock-hard cookie as big as your open hand and frost it with something akin to sugary plaster. Every cookie was iced in grandma's shaky hand with flowers, decorations and your very own name.

She individually wrapped the cookies in plastic, slipped each inside one of the margarine boxes she'd saved up throughout the year (nothing went to waste in that house), and stacked them in the freezer for presentation on Christmas Day.

My cousin and I were kids, so we'd spend hours gnawing happily at the edges. I have a feeling my aunts and uncles saved their name cookies to toss out at the soonest private opportunity.

We all had good fun at the expense of grandma's cooking, but truthfully, grandma died soon after my senior prom in high school, and I still miss those awful cookies.

I loved name cookies not for their flavor, but for the feeling of love and individual recognition they gave me each holiday season. Even in a shack filled with smoke, tension and far too many people, I was remembered. I was known.

Every December meant my very own name on a homely red stocking and a marginally edible cookie. All made by hand by a grandma who loved me.

This year, I won't be sewing any stockings, but I'm making name cookies as a gift for some folks at work that I want to recognize and appreciate.

Like grandma's, my name cookies will demonstrate thought, effort, resourcefulness and a love of homespun craft. Unlike grandma's cookies, my name cookies will be tasty. Unlike grandma, I have good kitchen equipment and the resources to buy real butter, good flour, farm-fresh eggs, good spices and pure vanilla extract.

You can the basic version of the Wonder Dough recipe I mentioned the other day, or the gingerbread cutout cookies below.
Gingerbread Name Cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup dark molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves

For the icing:
2 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

Optional Decorations
Raisins or chocolate chips
Food colors
Colored sugars or other edible sprinkles

For Gingerbread Cookies
1. Cream the butter until smooth. Blend in the sugar and eggs.
2. Mix in the molasses and vanilla.
3. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture in three batches, mixing after each addition.
5. Flatten dough, wrap in waxed paper or plastic and refrigerate 1 - 2 hours.
6. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
7. Roll dough out on floured board about 1/8-inch thick.
8. Cut large circles with a big cookie cutter, or cut the dough the way grandma did: use the cut edge of an emptied and well-cleaned 28 oz can.
9. Place cookies onto a cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool in the pan 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool fully.

For Royal Icing
Beat the egg whites with the vanilla extract until frothy. Add the sifted powdered sugar and beat until stiff and glossy. If desired add food color. Transfer to a pasty bag and pipe on cooled cookies. Allow 2-3 hours for the icing to dry.

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Recipe Rock Star #6: Hack your way out of the weeds

Plate Lineup
Plates pile up along the meat line at Tabla. More food photos: MissGinsu @ Flickr.

The Recipe Rock Star is a cooking tutorial series meant to make you a better home cook. It's essentially kitchen hacking.

So far, we've covered one focused minute, mise en place, the importance of quality, the proper tools for the task and small stuff that makes a big impact. These aren't necessarily ordered, so feel free to read, review, skim or skip. Now then...

#6. Hacking your way out of the weeds.

Anyone who's read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential can probably recall the phrase "in the weeds" (which has a few more profane variations which I'll leave to Bourdain to explicate).

Being "weeded" (as we often say) is a situation that occurs in any deadline-driven vocation. You work in graphic design? You work in editing? You work as a tailor? Any overwhelming pileup of projects or work orders on your desk (or work bench, or stove, or in-box) is clear evidence of being in the weeds.

In a kitchen, a cook who's in the weeds is a danger to everyone on the team. Hungry customers are unhappy, making the waitstaff unhappy, making your expediter unhappy. The other cooks begin to fall behind. The plated food turns cold, or melts, or burns, waiting for one crucial element of the dish. There's often screaming. Or panic. You're much more likely to burn yourself. It's really unpleasant. Nobody wants to be in the weeds.

For the home cook, being weeded isn't generally a dinnertime situation. It's a dinner party situation. "In the weeds" is guests knocking at the door (early, of course) just as you're hit with the realization that you forgot to turn on the oven two hours ago. Thus, your roast is raw. Meanwhile, your sauce is burning, your mousse is melting, your child (or roommate) has burst into tears, the cat is batting appetizers across the floor, there's a line of ants marching in across the windowsill, and there's terrifying sparks flying out of the microwave.

I know how it is. I've been in the weeds. I'll probably be there again. But for the moment, I can offer five pieces of tested advice that actually apply to any vocation in which a person might find suddenly himself in the weeds.

How to Hack Your Way out of the Weeds:

1. Stay calm.
Control your breathing. This might be the most difficult, most counterintuitive act in a high-pressure situation, but it's the most crucial. A well-oxygenated mind is a clear mind. A clear mind is a creative, productive mind. And with the extra boost of adrenaline you'll get from feeling stressed, you might find that you become shockingly productive. Super-powered, even. But first, you have to be calm. As soon as you begin to feel pressure, make your breathing the first thing you check.

2. Prioritize.
Even if it seems like everything needs to happen at the same time, you need to make some decisions. If you really can't choose between tasks, just start somewhere. Do something. Priorities should immediately become more clear as you dive into action, and simply doing *something* will help you begin to dig your way out.

3. Ask for help.
Once you're calm and you know your priorities, you can (and should) ask for help. You'll even have the presence of mind to tell that sainted helper what, precisely, they can help you with. That's key.

4. Repel distractions.
When you're in the weeds and there's someone or something within your radius that isn't helping you, there's a good chance he/she/it is simply distracting you. In the kitchen, the distractor could be a clueless intern, a jittery waiter or some ill-placed pan of onions you're supposed to dice by the end of your shift. See if there's a way you can quickly, gently dispatch the distraction until you're out of the weeds. It's better to have the extra mental and physical space.

5. Clean up and get organized.
As soon as you possibly can (and forever thereafter), work on getting your ducks (whatever variety of ducks those may be) in a row. Make sure your work surface is clean. Make sure your tools are sharp. Make sure your backup is in top condition. Look for ways to make your work more efficient. These are the things that help you get ahead and stay ahead. Though it might not always be possible for the clean and organized worker to avoid getting weeded, as Chef Floyd Cardoz always used to say, "The messy cook is always in the weeds."

Next time, we'll behold the power of presentation.

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Missives from Miss Molly: Last call at Montali

caprese garnish
"caprese garnish" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

dami, eva e minty carrot sorbet
"dami, eva e minty carrot sorbet" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

fichi ripieni con crema gorgonzola
"fichi ripieni con crema gorgonzola" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

In this final letter from her ever-exciting post in beautiful Umbria, Italy, Miss Molly and her motley kitchen crew once again push out plate after plate of beautiful vegetarian cuisine despite a tearful screaming match, a wild boar on the loose, a motorcycle accident and much public drunkenness.
Ciao Regazzi!

Well, my summer in Italy is coming to an end. It was pretty eventful week last week. Just wait... it's a good one.

Sandra yelled at Judit, and if you can recall, Judit shakes like a leaf. The poor thing started crying, and Alberto came in and yelled at both of them. Unfortunately, I was the only other person in the kitchen and knee-deep in polishing glasses, so I couldn't really put them down and walk away. I didn't quite know what to do.

Sandra yelled back at him. She was always a bitch to Judit and had it in for her from the beginning, but no one knows exactly why. I mean, Judit is this cute girl from Hungary who is on a scholarship to go to school in Italy. She's at Montali to earn some money over the summer to continue improving herself and education. Sure, she hasn't done the best job in the world, but the girl puts in one helluva effort. What more could you possibly ask from someone?

Anyway, Sandra and Judit share a room, so we took Judit to the castle and had her stay with us. Sandra took off in the middle of the night. So I guess she's not part of my restaurant dream team anymore.

A few days later, Sandra came back, I guess to get her paycheck or something, and told Chef that Judit was having an affair with boss! Can you believe that? Remember I wrote about that a while back? First she had the balls to come back and ask for money, and then she said something like that. Any respect I had for her and her hard work went down the drain at that point.

A few nights later, Jaro took the Honda 600 home, but he couldn't get it started right away, so we said that when we dropped everyone off back at the castle, we would turn around and go back to Montali if he hadn't arrived yet. We saw the light coming up the road, so Josh and I waited for him. Jaro pulled up and started stumbling around and told us he had fallen off the bike when a wild boar jumped out in front of him.

I didn't believe him. We joke around like that... but then I saw the blood (See the photos here. Don't worry—they aren't gory). We helped him up the walk and when we got into the light, the blood was only from a couple of scrapes... not too bad. Then we realized how drunk he was. He didn't go to work the next day because of some internal bruises, but nothing serious. Chef and Alberto are babying him, and he's soaking up every last drop of it. It makes me want to barf.

Janko doesn't like Sara because he says he acts like she is in kindergarten. In the kitchen, she has the attention span of the kindergartner, but Eva (who has the day off with her) says she seems totally competent outside of work and doesn't know why she's like that inside the kitchen. Sara drove to the store yesterday and when I walked in the house, I noticed a 22oz bottle of beer she had finished on the counter before she left. Is the whole world drunk and I'm the only one who's sober?

We had a really good night last night. Really smooth, good-looking food and no stress. I am really going to miss this place. I enjoy working here very much, and it's too bad that it took me so long to adjust. Now that it's over, I feel like all my complaints have been are trivial. To use a cliché: hindsight is always 20/20.

It's so beautiful and peaceful out here, and not having internet access regularly is not as bad as seemed at first. The boss and chef are fun people who love life and I'm totally in love with their son, Damiano. He's one cool kid.

My hair cut went great. It was difficult to tell them what I wanted, but we got it accomplished. If I could, I would fly here every four months just to have Marco do my hair again. The town of Tavernelle is lucky to have him.

I'd like to close my last travelogue by saying a few nice things about the people I'm ending this adventure with:

Janko: A great great cook with a great sense of humor. He taught me how to just work and not to bitch about it because it's not that big of a deal. I learned this just by watching him.

Eva: so classy and intelligent. I never know what she is thinking, but in a good way. When someone starts acting stupid, she is the last one to roll her eyes. She's great fun to be with and I think she is going to go far in life.

Jaro: Also great fun and funny. I think his Mr. Bean voice makes everything funnier than it actually is, especially when he sings.

Judit: She's always scared as hell but does it anyway. I will miss her very much and I wish her well in her studies. Bravo to her for working at it.

Josh: Always willing to listen and think about it... An admirable quality.

Chef: Her passion for life is contagious. She's a happy person and works her ass off. She always listens and genuinely cares about other people, and this 50-year-old woman has more stamina than I do. I'm lucky to have worked for her for this short amount of time.

Boss: No matter how "stressful" his job is, it's been great fun to get into verbal sparring matches with him. When all is said and done, he has created a pretty special place here at country house Montali.

And last but not least, Sara: A free spirit who always wants to please. She's been nice to everyone, and harbors no hard feelings. Bravo to her, as well.

Thank you all for listening to my rants and raves, my highs and lows and reading my most personal thoughts. This has become an immense experience for me, and much more personal than I ever anticipated. And yes, everyone was right: I don't want to leave.

See you in America soon!

With deepest gratitude,
Miss Molly

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Missives from Miss Molly: 20 Questions & Limoncello

their view of the parade
"bitter greens with caramelized cippolini vinaigrette and fresh figs" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"gelato in Tavernelle" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"i love this place" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

Miss Molly, a cook I worked with at Tabla in New York, sends along one of the last few postcards she'll write from her summer-long post at the ever-so-upscale Umbrian restaurant and inn, Montali.

This note finds our dear Molly winning at Alberto's homegrown Quizbowl, reveling in kitchen-slave solidarity and falling in love with the world.

Okay, only one or two more left. Work has steadily slowed, which is nice. As of the past few days, the only special diets we've had is the kosher family (the koshies) which like I said before wasn't so bad to do, because we can make everyone's meal kosher, but they left today.

Anyway, so we come back from siesta on Tuesday and right away Alberto starts undermining the chef in front of everyone and immediately afterward starts asking me stupid questions like what the capitol of Iceland is. Our relationship is more or less built on sassing each other and his wanting to see how far I’ll go with the patriarch of the Montali kingdom, and usually it's fun, but it also usually does not come out of left field. So when I answered, he acted all shocked that a stupid American would actually know such a thing, and then he starts asking me exactly what they taught us in school history-wise, and I haven't been in school in 9 years, so in that moment all I could remember was Mr. Alderson’s American history class when I was a junior in high school. I told him I didn't really remember. He can be a real pompous jerk sometimes.

Too bad for him that I couldn't care less about what he and his nationalist ass think about me and my mouth and brain. Plus, I didn't have to pay someone money for three years to be my spiritual leader to learn the same things I’ve learned spiritually by working in a kitchen for three and half years.

So later that evening I’m plating this dish, putting sauce around the ring molded rice to be exact, and Alberto starts freaking out at me to not get sauce on the rice. He kept trying to tell me this way to do it and I didn't understand what he was exactly trying to say and for him to show me how he wants it done so I can follow is movements.

He said I didn't understand because I wasn't listening. I finished fine, and his anger only affected me because it was on top of other girl problems I started having about three hours before. Plus, I’m not one to totally freak out. It’s just annoying. And he is the boss, and I do work for him... I just sucked it up like a good cook should do.

When we arrived at the castle after work and Jaro handed over the keys, he gave my hand a squeeze and i just remembered how good it felt to have the human contact that I so often isolate myself from, and it was his way of saying it was okay. And I was okay, before that, but it was still just nice.

Uuummmmm what else? I was better with Sarah this week. She still gets annoying. She's one of those people who take one sip of alcohol and her whole personality changes. Mostly I feel bad for her. I’m learning to be tolerant, of her and other things that annoy me. I don't want to be one of those people. The boss seems to think she is really passionate about cooking and to quote him exactly, "since she's Italian, she already had a really good palette. Italians can tell with their mouth all the technical aspects of cooking."

This made me realize I need to travel around Italy a lot more and meet new Italians because I do not want to go back to America with this tainted version of Italy as my last impression.

Josh is his same gloomy self. Too proud and a bad attitude. Someday he'll have his ass handed to him and he'll learn. Maybe he's just been at Montali too long. On a positive note, he has some pretty decent music which he so graciously put on my computer. Also, when I’m not put off by his constant know-it-all cynicism, he can be insightful.

Ester started spreading rumors that boss was having an affair with Judit. A few people believed them for about a week, and when she said something after that about Eva, we knew she was lying. About once a week, Eva comes over to me and Sarah's apartment after work and we sip Limoncello and maybe a few Coronas. It’s pretty fun and we do the stereotypical girlie thing like talk about the drama that surrounds the 10-person team at Montali. It gives me a sense of sisterhood, something I only really feel when I go see my girls out in California. I need to be more open to that when I get back to New York.

At night, I sit by my window because I can watch the people walk by around the castle. I usually let the breeze cool me off after 15 hours in a hot kitchen and listen to music or watch the Golden Girls. And I always get that familiar overwhelming feeling of love. Like I love Eva and Jaro and even Josh and Sarah and Janko. They are fun to work with and we have a good time and I feel lucky to have that in my life.

I am lucky to feel sad that I probably won't ever see these people again after two weeks because that means they have touched my life in some sort of special way. And the chef tells me weekly that she is going to miss me a lot and how she is going to open a nice bottle of wine on my last night. And Josh and Jaro and Eva say we are going out to party on my last night. And I feel celebrated and loved and happy and sad and thankful... The last time I can distinctly remember feeling this way was when I was 14 and my mom threw me a surprise birthday party at "Hungry Burger." It just feels so good... and I didn't even have to pay a spiritual advisor who will eventually leave his body to learn all this!

On a lighter note, I just wanted to note that I’ve never felt such beautiful clean rain in my life before, and to document that all last week we had a thunder storm pass through almost everyday for about two hours followed by beautiful sunsets and clean, clear skies. The other thing I wanted to note, was the color of the eggs we have here. They are so bright orange; Like if they were a Crayola, they would be red-orange. I am posting a picture of one of the yolks, but I don't think it shows the true intensity of the color.

Okay, I think that's all for now folks. I’m getting my hair done next Thursday.... just cut and a few highlights, but it's by someone that doesn't speak English and I don't speak Italian, so we'll see how it ends up. Stay tuned!

Love, Molly

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Missives from Miss Molly: A taste of traditional Tuscany

their view of the parade
"their view of the parade" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

man and ox
"man and ox" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

bigne con crema di funghi
"bigne con crema di funghi" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

Drawing near the end of Miss Molly's cooking adventures at the highly improbable —but ever-so-upscale—Montali (a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria, Italy), we watch our young heroine dine on Tuscan traditions, discover that co-worker Sara is a closet drunk and ponder the takeaways from this summer of sweat and searing stoves.

Ciao regazzi,

I know it's been a few weeks since I wrote last. I can't remember too well where left off. I’ll start by saying we are in a really, really busy week. Not only is the hotel full, but we have reservations from outsiders every night as well.

And to top it off, we have five to six people with special diets, like one is strictly kosher, meaning we had to buy separate plates, pots and pans and knives and utensils etc. Which isn't so bad, but we also have one who can't eat onions, and one who is allergic to eggs and alcohol. It gets confusing as we have to make four separate dishes that are the same but with restrictions.

It’s time-consuming and we only have five burners on the stove. So far, so good, though. We just have to repeat to our chef and to ourselves exactly what we are making over and over and over again.

I just repeat my usual mantra of "This will make me a better cook. This will make me a better cook." I’ve said that to myself for so long now, I can see an improvement in stressful situations.

Last Sunday, there were only two people on the book, so the chef gave everyone a half day. We split the day into shifts, and Eva, Josh and I took the morning. We went to Citta' della Pieve, and they were having some celebration of some medieval thing and were doing so by having a parade. After that, we drove to Toscana and had a "traditional Tuscan meal".

It was a nice day and even nicer to hang with my coworkers on a social level. Thank god we got the morning shift, because if I had to spend the day with Sara, I would have died.

I know, I know... I liked her a lot at first, but everything went downhill when I heard her straight-out lie to the chef to cover her ass. If there is anything I can't stand, it's someone who lies.

That was a while ago when we realized Sara drinks a little too much. She went out one night, drank way too much, told the chef she only had one beer and didn't know why she felt so bad and she got sent home. And then she broke a glass, didn't sweep, and blamed it on Judit the next day when chef lectured us about leaving shards of glass on the marble countertop. Plus, she gets wasted drunk at work. But I digress.

Eva, Josh and I had a really nice time and I’m glad I got to hang out with them. I’m really going to miss Montali when I leave. It’s hard work, but I like working for the chef and think she and Alberto have done a really cool thing. I’m glad I took this opportunity and really, really hope to do something like this again in the future.

I’m trying to figure out what exactly it is that I am taking away with me, but haven't come near a conclusion. I suspect that will happen in retrospect.

I also feel like when I return to New York, I will be starting all over again there, too. At first that scared the hell out of me, but now I am looking quite forward to it. Some people will be there, some won't. And like everything else in my life, the only constant is me and my family.

Ciao for now,

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Missives from Miss Molly: Lost in translation

stretching the strudel dough
"stretching the strudel dough" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

inside of my zucchini strudel
"inside of my zucchini strudel" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

me and my zucchini strudel
"me and my zucchini strudel" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

In this edition of Miss Molly's cooking adventures at Montali, a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria, we find Molly making strudel, upsetting the new guy and finding messages from God in the library.

Missed the last few? You can find Molly's past postcards here and here and here and here and here and oh yes... the first one is here.

I only have 6 more days off, which means I only have six weeks left here!
Hurray for me! My first month here, I was pretty sure that I wasn't going to stick it out this far, but I have! A personal triumph in the life of Miss Molly Rebecca Louise Del Monte I.

Life is good. I'm a third of the way into my 6th book this summer, i've seen Seasons 1-4 of the Golden Girls twice, and I can confidently say i've kicked my addiction to the internet.

I had this cool idea to do a slideshow on making a strudel, but flickr.com puts pictures in any order it wants. So if you want to see a tired Molly with black circles under her eyes, you can check them out.

Here's the newest members of the cast:

Sondra: she is from Ecuador originally, but now lives in Perugia while she is not residing at Montali. She is really really great and I'm excited that I can speak Spanish with her, though my Spanish and Italian are starting to get mixed up. But I like to stay in practice. She works really, really hard and does a really good job. By the way, she cleans rooms and does dishes and helps clean the kitchen. In my imagination, she will be part of my restaurant dream team, along with Tan Tan and Chi Chi and How How (to be diplomatic where I cannot!).

Judit: she is this tiny girl from Hungary who also now lives in Perugia. She helps clean rooms, does miscellanous work, and serves on Jaro's nights off. She speaks okay English, fluent Italian, has a lisp and shakes like a leaf whenever anyone speaks to her. I resist the urge to cradle her in my arms and tell her it's going to be okay because she is the sweetest thing I've ever seen.

And last but certainly not least is: Janko. He is the third and final Slovakian who has worked at Montali for the past five years. He just arrived from London where he was working in a high-volume restaurant where the majority of the food was heat and serve. He hated it, so after six months he called up Alberto and asked if he could come back for the season. While i find it difficult to talk with him (because of accents, important voice inflictions etc.) he is a really great cook and I'm glad he's there because experience-wise it puts me in the middle, and that is where i want to be in any restaurant. That way, I can always have someone to learn from (chef excluded, of course).

Anyway, I told him last night that I was really glad he was there because he works really fast and good and does everything everything everything without being asked or complaining about it and that I appreciated it. Janko is the serious cook I aspire to be. Back to my point though, I told him that and either he thought I was being sarcastic or something got lost in translation. I tried to explain myself but it was one of those times that the more you explained, the worse it got. So I just shut up.

While I was searching the Montali library for a book to read, I came across a 2004 Lonely Planet guide for New York City. I flipped it open to a page with a picture of Greenwich Village! It was my neighborhood! My heart soared! I found a map in the book and I showed everyone where I lived. It was probably silly to them, but I was so excited to see it. Like God's way of telling me I'm almost there! I stayed up most of the night reading the guide's pages to the culture, history, fashion and dining etiqutte of New Yorkers. So I guess technically I'm a third of the way through my SEVENTH book. God I love that town!

Not too much exciting news in this update, nor have I had any epiphonies since the last time, but there you go.

Ciao regazzi belli!

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Missives from Miss Molly: High drama & lasagna

crudite, again
"crudite, again" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

Umbrian sheep
"sheep we see every day on the way to work" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

"croquante" From thisismolly photostream at flickr.

In our last postcard from Miss Molly (a young American cook working at a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria), we vicariously experienced the World Cup win and a bit of homesickness for the food of good old NYC.

This latest post finds Miss Molly rejoicing at the loss of her nasty roommate, getting some praise from the chef and taunting us with promises of "the best lasagna you will ever eat in your life, period."

Okay, so the British monster got fired, and excuse my language, but I have no other words in my vocabulary that will do her justice. She was such a bitch, and I'm so glad she is gone.

She was there for five days... not even a full work week. Never in my life have I ever seen anyone more arrogant. She and Josh were fighting when it happened. (Not that Josh is some kind of saint or anything. I've minced words with him on more than one occasion.) I heard them fighting in the back room, went and got the boss, and he was more than fair with her and she just kept barking at him.

It was actually pretty funny. You see, Josh is the kind of guy who says really stupid remarks under his breath. Anyway, I've no doubt that whatever il mostro was yelling at Josh about, it was not undeserved.

I slept every siesta this week. I was tiiiiiired. On Tuesday, it was just Sara and I, and Sara is great. She's totally eager to learn and usually does things right. I like her a lot but she is still really slow, and doesn't know a lot about cooking and basic maneuvering in the kitchen.

We ended up having 21 people for dinner, which I know doesn't sound like much, but when it's at Montali Country House and when it's just you and someone with hardly any cooking experience, you really get pushed to the limits. And I did. 8 a.m. until midnight, with less than a 2-hour break. And it was just Sara and I for the first half of the day, and I had to make lunch for customers, and I did it, and I hauled ass and it felt really good, like I'm finally getting into the rush again when you just do everything good and you do it without thinking and the pressure is on but you don't freak out because you can handle it and everything you do you hope your chef sees because you know you are doing it the way she wants...

She shook my hand again this week and pulled me aside for a little inspirational talk. I finally feel like we are on a team, the chef and I. The talk was something I've been waiting to hear my whole life, and I always thought that when my employer pulled me aside to give me that talk that my heart would fill with glee, and that's not how I felt. Maybe this was just the outskirts of the talk I've been waiting for. Yeah, actually I think it was. Nonetheless, it still felt really good to hear. That is, until Josh walked up. At that point, just I pointed out how pregnant the cat looked.

The food is starting to appeal to me again. I think it's due to the fact that I'm putting more of my heart into what I am doing. I wasn't too into this ultra-refined stuff when I first got here, but then I started thinking about Thomas Keller and how his food must be or Daniel or Jean Georges and how they got started and the attention that they all at one time or another put into their food. Not that I want to ever
open a four-star restaurant, because I don't think that's my style, but I do think it's important to aspire to be the best you can be and if that means working 84+ hours a week doing painstakingly detailed work then so be it.

The British monster left behind a book on Umbria. I was happy to know we are now in the hottest and driest part of the year. Thank god because it is sure hot and dry! The rolling hills are covered with sunflowers and it's beautiful to see. This week they looked a little wilted, so by next week, I'm sure they will be almost dead.

I've been thinking of a few recipes I can email back... Most of, well all the stuff we make here is either not for the home cook due to technicality or the use of specific tools or the lack of my ability to sit here and write out the procedure.

Our tomato sauce is really good and simple, but I am going to assume that most of you do not own a food mill. Or this red pepper side dish thing we make that is insanely retarded (that's slang for really, really good). I just can't write it all out.

Maybe if I get some special requests, I'll take and hour or so of my free time on my one day off a week and write the recipe for "the best lasagna you will ever eat in your life, period and it ain't no casserole, neither," but I doubt most of you are going to take the time to roll your own fresh pasta or seed 60 cherry tomatoes (or as they say in Italy: cherries tomahto). Just kidding, you don't have to seed cherry tomatoes. I just threw that in for good measure. You could also just buy fresh pasta. Or maybe I'm just totally underestimating you, my dear fans.

Forgive me.

Okay, until next time...
Ciao, amoribelli!

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Missives from Miss Molly: Dreams of pulled pork

"Mine's better." From the thisismolly photostream at flickr.

When last we left Miss Molly (a young American cook working at a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria) she was stepping out for cured meats and finding little love for the flow-busting siesta.

In this edition, we find Miss Molly experiencing a not-so-pleasant roomie, an expat Fourth of July and the Italian World Cup victory.

Ciao, My favorite Americans!

Finally got into the swing of things and made nice with Josh, the other American. (We had a rough patch in the beginning, but now I am thankful for everyday he is here.)

They finally hired two more people: one girl who's name is Sara and she is from Pescara(?). I like her a lot. If we could communicate, I think we would be best friends. She inspires me to pick up my "Italian in 10 days" book.

The other girl is Juliette. She is from London. She is also my new housemate. To put nicely what I think about her so far, I'll say this: the upside is I now have a real bed and my own room with a lock.

I have gotten the hang of the recipes and how the chef likes her food to taste and her kitchen run, and also figured out how to find the streamline in a highly disorganized work environment. I started to bitch about it, but instead I told myself (again) "This is a short amount of time.... I'm here to learn how to work in a different type of kitchen."

I'm still making all the breads, which I hope to pass off to Sara. She has made a few and they have turned out to be extraordinary. I also make all the savory doughs. I'm really getting the hang of that, as it is something I feel I struggled with in my last job when I did pastry.

The most exciting things that have happened:
* We got out at 10:25 last night.
* I got to drive Josh to and from Chiusi (where the train station is).
* I have my own bed and bedroom.
* I have earned chef's trust in my cooking ability.
* I have mastered a recipe or two (after cooking them 5 times).
* The chef shook my hand after a really busy night when it was just me and the two new girls (read: Sara and the British monster).

It's pretty lonely out here. Like, I think this is the loneliest I have ever been in my whole life. I'm definitely building relationships, especially with Josh because we don't have to talk loud and slow to each other. But no one has any social time together, unless we want to go to the bar 20 minutes away after work and drink. Not too appealing to me, nor the others as any extra sleep we can get is like gold.

We celebrated the Fourth of July by blowing up a red, a white and a blue balloon. We ate popcorn and drank a beer. (But I dreamed of bbq pulled pork sandwiches. I also dreamed of Aunt Anne's Sonoma County lamb chops with rosemary. And a cheese burger cooked medium with Grafton cheddar. And a Gray's Papaya "Recession Special." And burritos. Mmmmm. Burritos. And Clover Stornetta 2% milk. And Taco Tuesdays. And Sausages with sauerkraut... Oh, sorry. I lost my train of thought.) Anyway that was about as American as we could muster in this place Italians like to call Tavernelle.

The World Cup was celebrated in a way that I have never seen before in my life. everyone was jumping and clapping like... like.... I can't think of an American custom to compare it to. Like the entire country had just won the lottery or something.

I secretly hoped France would win.

2 1/2 more months...

Until next time amici,

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Missives from Miss Molly: Siestas and Salty Snacks

pancetta e pecorino
pancetta e pecorino from thisismolly on Flickr.

More from Miss Molly, a young American cook working at a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria. Today: cloned cookies, cured meats and the siesta report.

Last week I ate meat for the first time since I've been in Umbria.... check my photos out. I had this crostini with pancetta and pecorino.... I'm not sure if it was really good or if I was starving for protein, but it was amazing. Umbria has a special pasta called umbricielle [sic] and it's sort of like hand-rolled spaghetti, but a lot thicker. It has great texture and I loved it. The bread here is not made with salt, and while it's a little weird at first, but I find that by the time I finished eating whatever it is I was eating with bread, I feel strangely satisfied and I think I might like it that way.

Another thing I've found I enjoy here are these snacks by the brand Mulino Bianco. I think Barilla puts it out. There are a million little sweet chocolate pastry things you can buy, but after trying a chunk of them, Eva (my housemate) and I discovered they are all the same thing, just different shapes.

Siesta... it's great in theory, but doesn't fly too well with an American like myself. Just when you get cleaned up from breakfast, all the breads for the day made and just as you start to get on a roll for your production for the day, you have to stop for two hours. We go back to the castle as the entire town of Tavernelle is shut down, so all we can do is nap, read, shower, sit in the blazing hot sun on the lawn/weeds/insect and creepy crawl-y things haven, count the mutant bugs in the apartment or snack on our various Mulino Biancos or cured pork product stashes.

Oh yeah, I had to give up my little room with a phone to move back to the castle. I feel a lot more camaraderie with my fellow employees, having to arrive and leave work with them every morning, siesta and night.

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Missives from Miss Molly: Hot Kitchen, Hard Times

fresh food
mmmmm... fresh food! from this is molly at flickr.

The latest from Miss Molly's cooking adventures at Montali, a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria.

Today: Molly feels the heat and has an ABC After School Special moment.

I feel like I am working at one of those places that you read about in those books they tell you to read in culinary school, (save the Michelin star).

You know which books I'm talking about... The ones where the 12-year-old apprentice works his ass off for some temperamental European chef for 10 years and then moves to America and opens up a four star restaurant. Yeah, one of those.

Except I'm not going to stay here for ten years, so what I'm getting is just a taste. Week two was especially difficult for me. Like, I thought I had adjusted after week one, but week two proved I hadn't. I wanted to leave. I didn't want to be here anymore. I was tired, I wasn't liking the food, I wasn't into my employers. I ranted and raved. I wanted to go elsewhere. I wanted to do something else. I still want to do something else, but after I finish my commitment here.

Alberto.... He stands oh-so-high on his soap box, that once I realized Eva and Jaro felt the same way about him, he became quite tolerable. He talks to me like this is my first time ever working in a restaurant kitchen. I humor him. He likes to lecture (and I stress the word LECTURE) about how Americans do not have a good palate, how great Italy is and how stressful his job is.

Okay okay okay. I get it. I can't relate why serving customers is so difficult because I've never done it before. But your life can't be too stressful when you take your Honda 600 to Perugia to buy some grass and then lay in a hammock and smoke cigarettes all day only to wake up, put on your clothes from Milano (which he never fails to tell us), have a drink or two, serve customers for no more than three hours and then sit in the patio talking about yourself and sipping on 1000-year
old-port. Disclaimer: the grass thing is pure speculation.

As for my fellow cooks, Roman took off last Friday without so much a word to the chef or boss. I guess he was hired as a server for 800 a month and when a spot opened in the kitchen he took it a week or two later. When payday came around and he only recieved 300 with the rest promised to him as soon as they hired another cook, he decided to take off.

I went with him and a few others to drive him to Perugia where he had some friends and an apartment waiting. This happened right after my temper tantrum at the end of week two and I'd wished I'd had the balls to do the same thing. Later that evening, this overwhelming feeling of guilt struck me as I, along with everyone else, returned to work and couldn't say anything to chef or boss about it. I half felt like an accomplice simply becausI i went along for the ride. (My dad says this means I have strong values, my mom says not to let this get to me.)

At the end of the evening, it hit me. I'd had the balls to stay when all I wanted to do was take my credit card and run. Like everything else in life, it is what you make of it. It's hard to remember that 100% of the time though.

To me, guilt is one of the worst things to feel, coming in a close second to abandonment, nausea and cramps. I decided not to feel that way anymore and that 3 1/2 months of my life is nothing in the grand scheme of things. If anything, I feel that it's not long enough in terms of where I want my career to go.

I just have to remember that next time life throws rocks at me.

A few mantras that have gotten me through the difficult time:

"You're a swimmer, Molly"
-PH, 2006

"Hard work and misery are the backbone of a strong, resilient character. It's still worth your attention."
-DCP, 2006

'I like you, but I don't think you should cook. You should work the front of the house."
-FC, 2004

Anyway, Eva, Jaro and I all have some great laughs on a daily basis. They are both from Slovakia but speak pretty fluent English. They say I'm harder to understand than the other American who is originally from the Midwest. The point is though, as long as you have a hearty laugh everyday, there is no way that day will be unbearable. (Awwwww! I just had a Doogie Howser moment!)

In the next Missive, we'll get the food update...

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Missives from Miss Molly: The Daily (Espresso) Grind

"Cappuccino di Aspargi: Chopped asparagus stems that were sautéed with shallot, a surprisingly yummy veg stock and tips that were halved and sauteed in butter. The top is plain whipped cream." from thisismolly at Flickr.

Welcome to the second edition of Miss Molly's cooking adventures at Montali, a vegetarian restaurant and inn in Umbria.

Today: cappuccino, warm panini with buffalo butter and Mexican Death Oil...

My day:
8 a.m.
In the kitchen. Make caffe, cook breakfast, make ciabatta (I think I might be the best ciabatta maker in the world now, but I'm not sure) and panini (not the sandwiches, the rolls). Set the kitchen for service for breakfast for 2 to 8 people, wait for chef to tell us that night's menu.

8:30 - 9:30
Wait for guests to come, drink CAPPUCCINO (my new favorite drink... I'm convinced every coffee lover needs to go out and buy Lavazza brand coffee). Turn bread and clean clean clean (PS: cooks do dishes, clean glasses, sweep floors... no porters/dishwashers here. The servers help out, but since there is not a dedicated position for the task, pretty much everyone does it.) Clean up after breakfast service.

9:30 - 1:30
Get menu from chef and start prepping. Bake off bread. Clean, make lunch for 7 people unless guests request lunch.

1:30 - 2
Eat lunch. Roman bought habaneros and made "Mexican Death Oil" which we put on EVERYTHING. We usually eat leftovers from the night before, or pasta, or leftover pasta. We snack on warm paninis with buffalo butter. Usually we eat pasta though. And eggplant. And sometimes pasta. But usually, it's pasta.

2 - 3:30 or 4 or 4:30
SIESTA!!!! This is usually when I shower, read or nap. We are totally cut off from the outside world. I have no idea what's going on in New York or the world. Josh checked the Times on his day off and reported back that more troops have been killed in Iraq.

4:30 - 5
Cappuccino! Cappuccino! Cappuccino! Someone told me that when I go to Italy NOT to order a cappuccino after breakfast-time. That the Italians would look at me like I was crazy. I can't help it though. They are sooo good. My favorite part is eating the foamed milk at the end with a spoon. MMMMMmmmmmm foam.

Finish everything for dinner and set up for service. Usually we have a glass or two of wine or some spirit like housemade Limoncello. And we drink this while we work. According to Alberto, we have the most expensive and best wines.

Start service. I wish I had more pictures of the food.... I'll take more this week. Anyway, check my photo site and hopefully I'll have been able to post my new ones. Mostly they're of the views and the grounds, and to you they might look all the same. Anyway, they are really pretty to me.

We also try to start cleaning at this point too, so we can get out as early as possible. We make guesses as to which time we'll leave and it helps with the morale and camaraderie amongst the cooks.

Of course, Alberto is always there saying something to prolong our work period because "No one works as hard as me or my wife" and "She works 20 hours a day for seven months without a day off" (which isn't true at all, well not the extremities of it anyway) and "My wife is here before you and after you..." and "My wife my wife my wife...". She does work very hard, though, and she is great at what he does. I've never heard her complain.

The earliest we've finished is at 10:30 and the latest around midnight. I'm really really enjoying this. The people are nice, the chef is nice, and the grounds are beautiful. The food is DELICIOUS and refined and rich and technical and creative and approachable, and 100% artisanal and lovely. I kinda wish I had signed up for the whole season... but maybe next summer I will find myself in another part of Europe making prosciuttos and salamis.

I sleep really well every night. I eat well everyday. And I write everything down and put as much as a possibly can into my work day so I won't lose a drop when I leave here. It's really really really cool.

I wish I could share the yumminess with you all. My words do not bring it to light. Uuummmmm... until next time?

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Missives from Miss Molly: A Far-Flung Cook Lands

torture, from the thisismolly Flickr photostream

Though I'm dog tired and up to my eyeballs in a big recipe project, I thought ya'll might enjoy the entertaining missives graciously offered up by Molly, a young American cook of my acquaintance who is presently working in a vegetarian kitchen at Montali in the Umbrian region of Italy.

Don't miss her pics at Flickr... full-on kitchen access and food porn.

Today: meet the cast of characters.

ahhh... my first week of work finished. I started off a little slow and disoriented, but finished feeling really well.

About the kitchen:
Pretty small. Smaller than my last job, but completely set up different. As soon as I figure out how to use my laptop at one of the three public computers in this town, I will post more photos. Hopefully that will be today.

The people:
The chef is great. Her name is MaLu (short for Maria Lucia blah blah blah blah blah- she seriously has like 7 names, I think.). She is originally from Brazil, but has lived in Italy for, I don't know, 30 years? She is 50, but does not look a day over 35 and is tall and slender and beautiful and a genuinely warm and caring person. And she is a great chef to boot.

Josh is an FCI (ed: French Culinary Institute) alum who graduated in December. He lives in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn) and will be here for the entire season, which is 7 months. He's also a really nice guy and the only other American here.

Roman is from Mexico... I forget the town but somewhere near the Texas border. He is going to go to culinary school in Perugia (the capitol of Umbria) in October.

Eva is from Slovakia and she is kinda like a server/dishwasher/maid. She speaks pretty decent English and pretty decent Italian. She's pretty quiet and mostly converses with:

Yaro. He's from Slovakia as well and is really funny. He's a dancer and has one of those kinda crackly voices.

Binario works only in the morning and I think just does laundry and cleans the rooms. She is from Sardinia and if I spoke Italian, I guess I would hear her thick Sardinian accent. She doesn't speak a word of English.

Esta is from Nigeria. She speaks English pretty well and I think she does the same thing as Binario. She is a cutie pie and a half and wears this Adidas-kinda jacket with the word "freaker" written in old English across the back. I'm not too sure what a freaker is, nor am I sure if Esta does either. But it's there!

And last but not least
Alberto. MaLu's husband. He speaks fluent (British) English and is pretty patronizing. He constantly talks about how great Montali is and his wife is and how we are so privileged to be here and BMW won't stop sending him things and how the food is so molecular and cutting edge (ahheemmbullshitcoughcough). I'm not trying to put the guy down, he's nice.

Check back! Tomorrow we'll learn more about the cooking, the eating and the drinking...

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May, and the crisper goes mad with spring fever


J left on Sunday for sunny Spain, and it's been cold and gray here in New York ever since. (Check the weather reports and you'll see this statement is not simply the skewed view of a pining girlfriend.)

While I labor in the industrial zone in Queens, he sends me notes that go like this:
I made a picture of today's picnic lunch for you, but my internet connection isn't good enough to upload it. The place where I bought the food was like the prepared food area of a Whole Foods, only better appointed and staffed by grown-ups. They had several counters, each with some sort of focus (breads, savories, pastries, chocolates). The items on sale were priced by the kilo, save some things that are typically sold in slices, such as tartas and quiches.

When I selected my veggie quiche, the quiche-lady wrapped it in butchers' paper, tied the parcel with a string, then handed me my food and a small placard on which she wrote the price in grease pencil over a space labeled with her counter's name (there was one slot for each section). When I was done, I took my parcels and the placard to the door where I was charged for everything at once, after which the clerk erased (i.e. wiped clean) the placard and placed it in a stack to be returned to the counters. The quiche, which I ate in the big park by the Prado, was excellent.


Ah, for a leisurely life of sunny picnics and charmingly wrapped quiches!

Meanwhile, back in Gotham, my crisper drawer is mad with spring fever. I brought home fresh spinach, strawberries and local grouper for a solo Friday night fish feast and discovered that every shallot bulb, garlic clove, onion, shallot and scallion in the bunch sprouted green tops and depleted the white bits I'd normally use in my sauté.

Sitting in the cool darkness of the refrigerator floor, how do they know it's springtime? They didn't do this to me two months ago. Suddenly, it's May, and all the aromatics in the household are suddenly inspired to burst into fresh sprays of chartreuse sprouts. I've been wishing for some space to garden, but this wasn't quite what I'd had in mind.

I was disoriented and dismayed until I remembered that green tops are just as yummy and useful as white bulbs. So then, marching on to dinner:

Montauk Grouper
with a quick brown butter sauce, sliced green shallots and fresh cilantro chiffonade

Spinach-Strawberry Salad
with toasted walnuts, Israeli feta and a balsamic vinaigrette

Three small chocolate-chip cookies*

Easy, quick, delicious, seasonally appropriate (except for the cookies, but when are cookies ever in season?), and a good use of my newly discovered refrigerator garden.

I won't join J. in the sunshine for another week, and every day until then is scheduled for darkness and rain. That said, as long as the market is full of fresh produce and my refrigerator remains rich in garlic and shallot sprouts, I can't help but feel the daily pulse of spring on my dinner plate.

*Cookie Tip for Single People: Next time you bake chocolate-chip cookies, make extra dough, chill it down, form the cold dough into fat discs the size of slightly squashed golf balls and keep 'em securely wrapped in your freezer. That way you can just take out two or three at a time. Bake frozen cookies in an oven preheated at 350°F for about 12 minutes. Presto! Fresh, hot cookies with no need to commit to a whole dozen.

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The Birth of an Entrée

Alas... my digi camera is dead dead dead. Mourning its decline, I perused my archives and thought y'all might enjoy this little "back of the house" tour from the perspective of a veg cook (one of my kitchen stations back in the day).

Keep in mind, we're not talking short-order slapdash here. This ain't no Denny's. This is how it's done in a *good* kitchen.

It's the foundation of your station. You never find a line cook in a high-end kitchen just standing around. There's always something to chop up or clean up. This is Davey making quick work of a ginger julienne.

Mis en place (mees-ehn-plahs).
It's all about prepwork and organization, folks. In this cooler drawer (called a lowboy) we find lovingly trimmed turnips, boiled potatoes, lamb bits, braised squash with mustard seeds, toasted coconut, blanched green beans and brussels sprouts, and on the upper left, roasted shallots, turnips and cauliflower, methinks... I can't remember what that reddish-colored stuff is. The meat cook made that.

On fire.
When you hear the order come in, down go the pans. This is a chickpea panisse for the lamb dish. You'll note the blue "side towel" in my friend's hand here. You don't see hot pads or oven mitts in professional kitchens. You see side towels, and god help you if you don't have a dry side towel, because you'll learn the conductivity of water in a heartbeat if you grab a hot handle with a wet towel. Zow!

The lineup.
These plates just came out of the warmer, so they're still pretty warm on the fingers. The veg generally goes in rings to shape it while it waits for the meat cook to finish slicing and fanning out the meat.

The product.
Here we see the lamb veg (turnips, potatoes, leeks and bits of lamb roast) and the afore-mentioned chickpea panisse just before the meat cook makes his addition. You'll note that my veg plays backup to that juicy spread of lamb. All this dish needs is a drizzle of sauce, a garnish, and an approval by the chef. I'm actually hungry just looking at it...

Chef puffs his cheeks, deep in thought.
Nothing goes out without scrutiny from the chef or whichever of his sous chefs happens to be manning the front line. He's got a whole palette of funky garnishes he can use to give your entrée a finishing touch. You know... stuff like finely chopped chives, cilantro chiffonade, mint chiffonade, microgreens, fried ginger, fried lotus root strips and the like.

Just in case any of this makes you hungry, all these photos were taken in the kitchen at Tabla (Corner of 24th & Madison, NYC). The chef is Floyd Cardoz, and the disembodied hands belong to my brother in arms, Dave S.

Miss Ginsu

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