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Zen and the Art of Staff Meal

One of the most difficult tasks in a professional kitchen is the minimization of waste and the effective practice of kitchen economy.  The french term garde manger literally means “keep to eat.”  In a kitchen it is the station where a beginning cook usually starts, and is responsible for all the cold preparations, such as terrines, pates and cured fish and meat.  Traditionally these delicacies are made from the scraps and by-products generated by the other stations, such as meat and fish trimmings, organ meats, and vegetable trimmings.  Items that can’t be incorporated into a menu offering may be used for staff meal, more commonly referred to as “family meal.”

I always find it funny when people assume that cooks always eat well, or gourmet.  The other day my dinner consisted of cheese fries and a scoop of coffee ice cream.  The reality for me as a beginning cook is that I am up to my neck in student loans, and I have two geriatric cats whose vet bills are through the roof.  For the most part my only meal of the day is probably family meal, so all I care about is that it’s simple and delicious.

Some larger restaurants have cooks solely responsible for family meal, but not where I work.  There, the line cooks are also responsible for family meal.  On a busy night, that responsibility can get passed around like a hot potato.  I have a million things to do to be ready for service and on top of that I have to make family meal? But I’ve actually grown to enjoy making family meal.  You see, there is a lot of pressure to perform when you are cooking for paying customers at a Michelin starred restaurant.  Expectations are high and it is your job to fulfill them with every perfectly executed, perfectly identical plate you send out.  By comparison, making  family meal is actually kind of relaxing, like cooking for friends at home.  I follow a simple mantra:  stick to what you know and like to eat.  In fact, the more familiar the better – and for pete’s sake if it’s something you’ve never made before, there is no shame in starting with a recipe.  With all the other things I need to do every day, there’s no time to waste trying to be the next Wylie Dufresne.

To make family meal as stress free as possible, I always take note of recipes in books or magazines that make use of the items we always seem to have for family meal, and can be made with inexpensive ingredients we always have in house.  Also as I cook, I make note of any new tricks I can add to my arsenal.  All recipes contain techniques that can be applied to new situations and ingredients, and boy do they come in handy trying to figure out how to make something tasty from randomly discarded food items.  Sure, there are a hundred and one things you can do with chicken wings, drumsticks, and ground beef.  There’s Buffalo wings, Southern Fried Chicken, Beef and Black Bean Chili, Beef Gyros, Sloppy Joes, and Lasagne.  But what about fish scraps, beet greens, Swiss chard stems, and just the disgusting yellow hearts of Brussels sprouts?

A few months ago, the restaurant closed for five days for an on-location film shoot.  So a few days before Hollywood arrived, I was handed a crate full of brussels hearts, beet greens, and swiss chard stems and told to make sure they somehow got used for family meal before the movie shoot started. Because we had a couple of vegetarians on our front of house staff, I would usually try to incorporate these trimmings into hearty vegetarian options instead of simply making them into side dishes. I found that a Vegetable Torte was an excellent way to make use of the swiss chard stems, and eggs leftover from brunch.  More recently I used the recipe to get rid of leftover grilled leeks, peas, and potatoes.  To make my life even easier, I just omit the pastry crust and call it fritatta.  This made the vegetarians on staff quite happy.  One of our line cooks also brought a recipe from his last restaurant for Grilled Swiss Chard Stems dressed in a broken sherry vinaigrette with chili pepper flakes, which was also a crowd pleaser.

So what about those darn beet greens and brussels hearts?  Well, I love Indian pakoras, or vegetable fritters.  Made with potato, cauliflower, or spinach and onion (my personal favorite), they are absolutely delicious with fresh mint chutney.  Throw in a little mulligatawny (lentil) soup and nan bread and you’ve got a meal.  Voila, there was the solution to my beet green and brussels hearts challenge – vegetable fritters.  I simply substituted wilted beet greens for spinach, mixed them with grated onion in a flour and egg batter, and fried those babies up.  I blanched the brussels hearts in boiling water, then coated them in seasoned flour.  They fried up just like cauliflower pakoras.  Both were a hit.  The beet green fritters were crunchy on the outside and kind of custardy on the inside.  The brussels hearts were also nice and tender on the inside with just a little crispy crust.  They were so simple to make, and after all, deep frying makes just about anything taste better right?

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