Travel

Kitchen Tech Saturday: My Kitchen

Hi folks!

Today’s Kitchen Tech Saturday is a little different. Today, I’m talking to you about a web page that doesn’t specifically have anything to do with food, or cooking, or food policy. It’s my Patreon page, and it’s a tool I’ve added to my toolbox to help hold me accountable for my consistency (or lack thereof, thus far).

I’ll tell you more about Patreon in a minute. But first, a little update on what’s going on with me.

I’ve been in Chicago since the end of February. I’ve been working part time to pay the bills, cooking as often as I can, and trying to get out into the world to experience the food culture of this Windy City, but not everything has gone exactly according to plan. Chicago is expensive, and I actually live pretty far outside of Chicago proper (25 miles from the nearest park and ride train station), so getting into and out of the city as much as I’d like has been prohibited by the cost of just… doing it. In other words, I can pay my bills, but not much else.

My time here in Chicago is coming to an end. I head back to Colorado for a week on April 30th, then onto the next adventure, hopefully somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California. I’ll be doing it all on a shoestring, and quite honestly, I’m not sure the money is going to stretch as far as I want the journey to go.  I’ve come to realize that if I want this blog to become the multi-media, multi-platform COMMUNITY that I’ve envisioned, I’m going to have to put more into it than just the extra $20 bucks I scrounge up here and there.

Enter, Patreon. It’s a website where creators of all types can invite micro-investors to be patrons of the work they’re doing. And when I say micro-investors, I’m talking… as low as $1 a month. How can $1 a month possibly help? Well, if 20 people invest $1 per month, I can create two recipe based blog posts that month. If another 10 people invest $10 per month, I can create two blog posts each week, PLUS be able to produce additional food policy, food activism, or food system related content for the blog and social media. I am very good at making dollars stretch, and those dollars… trust me, they add up.

Why Patreon? Because I want those who support me to be a reflection of the values of this blog. I have been approached with opportunities to do sponsored posts for products and to start running banner ads on my site. But… the products involved were not ones I believe in. They were made with ingredients that are harmful, and/or with processes that create damage to our bodies and/or our environment. I would not be able to control the advertisers promoted in the banner ads, and there are definitely companies whose values don’t align with what this blog is about.

Utilizing the Patreon platform requires a huge amount of trust… from both sides. I have to trust that my patrons will continue to support my work, as long as I continue to produce it. My patrons have to trust that I will consistently provide them with content that is relevant, informative, educational, and entertaining.

This is way bigger than fund-raising. This is me, setting a powerful intention to continue to create, come hell or high water, every week. This is me saying, “You can count on me.” This is you, saying, “You do the work, and I’ll continue to invest in content I enjoy and appreciate.”

It’s not easy to ask for… anything. I have friends who have built successful networks that support and promote their work, and I’ve always wondered what sort of magic it takes to put yourself out there like that. And then, of course, I realized there’s no magic. You just have to put yourself out there. Yes, like that.

I’ve built some more immediate rewards into the investment tiers… things such as the opportunity to more directly influence the development of content, exclusive access to patrons-only content, and personalized video walk-throughs. Notice something? All of those rewards require me to make content. I literally cannot stop creating without breaking our trust, and I’m not about to do that.

I have a big vision for what I’m Gonna Cook That! can be, and you’re a part of that.

Please click here to join me in building that future.

Inspiration Kitchens

It’s a busy morning in the Inspiration Kitchens classroom kitchen. As chef instructor Jay Bliznick walks the class through its first assignment, a basic French bread, his students begin reading through and writing down the recipe. This morning they’ll not only make bread, but also learn the process for making pate choux dough, bake several dozen chocolate chip cookies, roast chickens for chicken salad, learn how to break down a whole fish, then turn THAT into a lesson on en papillote cooking.

He encourages them all to read every recipe at least three times before they even start gathering their mise en place, to make sure they’re clear on each step. That’s a good kitchen tip for every cook, but for these chefs-in-training, it’s just one of the building blocks in a foundation of professional kitchen habits—sanitation, communication, kitchen safety—the Inspiration Kitchens program aims to instill in its students.

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Inspiration Kitchens was founded as Inspiration Corporation by a former Chicago police officer, Lisa Nigro. It started in 1989 as your basic food distribution project—handing out sandwiches and coffee to Chicago’s homeless men and women. From there, it blossomed into a program that not only gives students who have experienced homelessness, addiction, and poverty a set of professional skills intended to help them improve their circumstances, but also the social services required to set them up for success in the program, and beyond.

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The 13-week course, which includes both classroom and on-the-job training through Inspiration Kitchens’ restaurant and catering service, is free to students, but this is not a hand out. There’s a big commitment required from both sides for the process to work. Inspiration Kitchens provides the training, tools and equipment, help with transportation costs, and job placement assistance; students have to show up to class on time every time, which means they need to make sure obstacles at home, such as childcare or other family comittments, are buttoned up before they start the program. As a result, some students have had to leave the program and come back a time or two before achieving completion. The payoff for all their focus and determination can be big, though. Many students leave the program with jobs in some of Chicago’s best kitchens waiting for them.

Student Erica Payne, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, started the program in December and is close to graduation. She eventually wants to own her own bakery, making sales through a website vs. a traditional brick and mortar operation. But, she knows for that dream to become a reality she has to stick to the plan she, Chef Jay, and her counselor have worked out. So what’s next for her? More training.

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“Inspiration Kitchens is a great jumping off point. We learn the basics… They’ve suggested I go to the French Pastry Institute. They think I would do well there. Then, I want to buy some property…maybe travel before I settle down and start my business.”

Chef Jay acknowledges that for students like Erica, who came into the program with their passion already well developed, Inspiration Kitchens isn’t so much lighting a fire as it is helping to keep the flame burning through all the hard work, “They have a passion for food… they’ve led themselves to the opportunity.”

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However, it’s the students who have come into the program without a clear idea of an end result that Chef Jay sees as the most exciting challenge, “Those are the ones who I want to thrive. I want them to be able to taste something they’ve never tasted for the first time…My challenge is to try to bring out the passion that maybe has lie dormant, or maybe they didn’t even know they had.”

Inspiration Kitchens is located at 3504 West Lake Street in Chicago, near the Garfield Park Green Line stop. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Brunch and Dinner on Saturday; and for Sunday Brunch. Reservations can be made through the website. Full service catering is available for corporate events, private parties, and weddings, with event space available on site.

Giving back in the Lone Star State

Hi all!

I’m in Arkansas now. Visiting friends and looking for my next volunteer opportunity. I spent a week and a half with family in Northeast Texas, and while I was there, I got the chance to help MasterKey Ministries distribute fresh fruits and veggies to over 100 families in Grayson County, Texas.

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Every Friday, MasterKey receives a truck full of produce from the North Texas Food Bank. Volunteers rush to get boxes off the truck as quickly as possible so they can start sorting and dividing it for the two hour pick up window.

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Last Saturday, folks showed up hours before our scheduled 10am start time. By the time I arrived, cars were lined up down the street for several blocks.

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I got the chance to chat with organizer Crystal Brooks, who told me that while MasterKey has only been doing these Friday morning events since the beginning of the year, they opened their food assistance program in 2014 and their “everyone is family” approach has been a part of their mission since day one. On Saturdays, Brooks helps run a “clients choice” food pantry, where Sherman residents who meet the income qualifications can walk right into the pantry and take what they need for the week. They’re greeted by name, escorted back, and given the freedom to shop just as they would at the grocery store. That’s a unique experience for most clients, and one MasterKey is committed to continuing to provide, no matter how big their client list grows.

Along with food assistance, MasterKey also offers an after school program; adult education programs like ESL, GED prep, and Citizenship courses; as well as summer learning programs to help kids maintain their “educational edge” while they’re out of school over break.

I’m so glad I got to help out last Friday. The group of volunteers, some new and some who had a few Fridays under their belts, were so warm and welcoming. What also really made me happy was that so many of the volunteers brought their kids along, and those kids hopped right in, helping us sort oranges and break down bags of carrots and potatoes, without hesitation.

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I personally believe this kind of volunteerism is such a privilege, and knowing that these kids are starting to recognize that early is, well, not to be too cheesy, pretty damn heartwarming.

I am not a chocoholic…

NOTE: This post is not sponsored. I wasn’t given any free product. I just really had a lightbulb moment at this little shop. They were incredibly warm, welcoming, and generous with their time and knowledge, and I wanted to share my experience.

I have never considered myself a chocoholic. Therefore, beyond what little bit we learned during my semester in Latin Cuisine at culinary school, I’d never really had an overwhelming interest in learning more about it. After this week’s visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico, however, I’ve realized that maybe I’ve just been eating the wrong chocolate. I’m hooked, you guys. I’m hooked on the good stuff… and I want to know more.

I think, in this age of Let’s All Get Educated About Food, most of us are aware of the differences in the Hershey bar you grab as you’re checking out at the grocery store and the stuff you might get from the Godiva store in the mall on Valentine’s Day. However, from the moment I entered Kakawa Chocolate House, or, well, let’s back up, from the moment I dove into Kakawa’s website, while doing research for my day trip to Santa Fe, my cluelessness about what really makes “next level” chocolate became painfully apparent. I’ve quickly learned since then that the good stuff (the BEST stuff) may not come from a big, expensive factory full of fancy pants machines, but rather, from the tiny kitchens where its made by hand, by small groups of chocolatiers who care more about each and every batch of chocolates they produce than you or I might ever care when we eat it. All we know is that it’s something special. But, if you want to know more, they’re happy to teach you.

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Tony Bennett, the owner of Kakawa Chocolate House for the past five years, was in the fashion business when he bought the tiny shop nestled among the prolific art galleries along Paseo de Peralta. He was looking for a business opportunity, but hearing him talk about his team, and seeing his face light up when he looks around the shop, it’s clear he loves being there and he’s proud of every piece of chocolate produced.

“We don’t use any machines, other than the tempering machine… We blend all the chocolate in house.”

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As I’m writing right now, though, I realize I’m burying the lead. Let’s talk about my “A-ha!” moment, which happened when I was handed a tiny mug of Zapoteca chocolate elixir topped with a generous dollop of house made whipped cream.

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Swiss Miss Cocoa this is not. Made from 100% chocolate and a just a little coconut sugar, it’s bittersweet, fruity, and rich, and one sip tells you this is probably what chocolate is supposed to taste like.

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Kakawa has over 18 different elixir blends that include a few more modern takes, as well as traditional Mesoamerican blends like the Zapoteca, European blends based on historic recipes from the Italian and French royal courts (try the Marie Antoinette blend!) and even one developed by Thomas Jefferson. Their selection spans the history of chocolate, and if you get the sense that its past is as full, rich, and complex as the chocolate itself, you’d be right. I highly recommend reading through the origin story provided on the website as a great primer. If you’d like to dig a little deeper, The History Channel website has a super informative section on the history of chocolate that takes the story even further.

If, after doing all that reading, you’re ready to have your own “A-ha!” moment about chocolate, Kakawa ships their granulated elixir blends all over the U.S. via website ordering, and internationally by calling the shop.

Things in bowls…

As I write this, I’m listen to the popping and crackling of a fire burning in a little black stove in the corner of the room. It’s different from a fireplace, which, in my mind at least, evokes nostalgia and maybe a touch of romance more than anything else. But, the fire that burns tonight is one of necessity. It requires attention– poking, prodding, stoking, and feeding. It’s the fire that warms us, that heats the water for tea, that warms through chunks of leftover cornbread, and keeps a large pot of split pea soup bubbling away. This home is not without some modern amenities, but when this little stove can do so much with so little, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.  Like a ballerina dancing a steady, controlled adagio so slowly that you are somehow a little surprised when she’s made it to the other side of the stage, I’ve barely noticed that time has seemed to march backwards a little. I don’t feel inconvenience, or “without.”  Just… I’m not sure what the right word would be. Content? Sure? Serene? I do know I’ll miss that little wood stove when it’s time to move on.

My time here in Taos, so far, is making me thinky. Very, very thinky.

I’m thinking a lot today about things that cook in pots, and meals eaten out of bowls. Those soups and stews and braises cook for hours. They’re the things we cook when there is still so much work to be done. While chores are finished, projects moved forward, emails checked and answered, phone calls made, homework done, blog posts edited, snow to be shoveled… whatever it is that needs to be accomplished, these pots of things simmer and bubble away, filling the house with promises of an end in sight. When we finally sit down, bone and/or brain weary, to a bowl of comforting… whatever it is that’s been cooking in that pot all day, it feels like the logical, natural conclusion to something.

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Our soup feels somehow even more fulfilling because the peas, and the carrots, for that matter, came from the ground right outside the front door. It’s a big pot, and we’ve revisited it multiple times over the past couple of days. I’m not bored with it yet, and am actually a little sad knowing we’ll hit the end of it soon.

I ventured into town today, and, fortified against the cold with an Americano spiked with cinnamon and chile powder (called The Coyote), wandered around Taos’ central plaza. After a little bit of shopping, lunch was yet another meal in a bowl– a fiery green chile, thick with tomatoes and potatoes and a delicious broth that delivered on both heat and flavor.

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My server warned me, “It’s really spicy,” and kept coming back to check on me to make sure I was ok. “Geez, you’re a trooper.” I ate the whole bowl, and every last shred of the homemade tortillas that came with it. I’ll admit, it took another hour for the last vestiges of heat to fade away, so maybe I’m not so much a trooper as I am a glutton for punishment.

I’ve had some interesting conversations about food with the locals here. There’s a strange dichotomy that comes from living in a place that supports both a thriving locavore community as well as native culture, but also the hesitant necessity of big chains. I’m still learning, so maybe I’ll hold back on pontificating any further until I’ve gotten to dig in a little more. I really don’t think a week and a half will be nearly enough time to learn it all, but isn’t that the way? For now, I’ll just enjoy the lessons as they come. Hopefully there’s more to learn from the things that come in bowls.