JenPlans Pro Interview Series: Professional Chef

I am so excited to kick off my Pro Interview Series! I have always been curious about what other people’s lives are like and what they’ve learned from their career path that can help others, whether it’s the culinary world, personal finance, health and fitness, mental health, business, crafting, music, home design, or anything else.

A while back, I asked my Instagram followers what they’d ask a professional chef if they had the chance, and I brought all of those questions (and more!) to the wonderful woman behind the blog, Cooking In Pearls, Lindsay Callaway.
Cooking In Pearls

Lindsay is a classically trained chef working for a corporate catering company by day and blogging by night. Between working, decorating a new house, enjoying newlywed life, Lindsay keeps busy creating new recipes and mastering old ones! Her favorite food is pizza and she considers candy a food group. Lindsay loves spending time with her family and her perfect night is spent at home with her husband and a glass of wine.

Get comfortable, grab a cup of coffee (or glass of wine!) and join us for her interview below!

What equipment/cooking tools do you think everyone should have in their kitchen and why?
Tongs, spoonula, cast iron/dutch oven, foil. Random tools but I couldn’t cook without them! Tongs are so versatile and I use them almost every time I cook. A silicone spoonula is my version of a wooden spoon. I rarely use wooden spoons because I feel like so many aromas get absorbed by the wood and I never feel like they get “clean” enough. Spoonulas are great on non-stick surfaces because they don’t scratch but they also don’t melt so you can use them for anything like stirring hot sauces and soups. I love a pan or pot that can go from stovetop to oven. Searing on the stovetop and finishing in the oven is what pro’s do, and you can do it too! Foil is amazing when it comes to clean up-anything that sticks to it just gets thrown away. I use it every chance I can!

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets and what kind of cooking pan is your go-to?
A wine opener. I couldn’t live without one! Also, a regular nonstick sauté pan is my favorite for everyday cooking. Cleanup is a breeze and cooking over-easy eggs couldn’t be easier. In addition to that, there’s nothing quite like the crust of a steak seared in a cast iron skillet. I split my time evenly between the two pans.

What foods should be in everyones fridge and pantry?
There are several things I always have on hand and those are: chicken broth, garlic, onions, pasta/rice, fresh herbs. These ingredients always come in handy for those last minute meals. The thing I love most is not knowing where I’m going to take any dish…these ingredients can be used in any cuisine type and for any day part. Of course I also always have cheese, eggs, greens, and meat…my husband wouldn’t think it’s a meal without some meat.

What skills should every home chef have?
Basic knife skills! The first thing I learned in culinary school was how to hold a knife and the proper way to use one. This simple skill will give home cooks more confidence and lower the chances of an injury!

How would you suggest improving knife skills?
At most culinary stores like a Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table there’s a knife specialist you can ask! There are also some great demos on YouTube…but I’ll post one on my blog in the near future. It’s not hard but once you can hold a knife, the rest is easy peasy!

How do you meal plan?
I find it very difficult to meal plan because I get a craving for something and have to satisfy it then and there…it’s hard to plan for cravings! I like to grocery shop on Sunday and prep anything I can so that the week starts off on an organized note. I often freeze my meat for the week and pull it the night before to thaw, that way it won’t go bad if I don’t use it within the first couple days of the week. I’d love to shop every day if I could but busy weeks don’t always allot time for that. Also, writing my weekly menu out on a chalkboard or piece of paper somehow feels more official for me which helps me stick to my planned meals but of course the last minute frozen pizza or take-out happens.

Do you ever get in a same-dinner rut? What do you do to break out?
Absolutely, it’s so easy to fall in a rut! I look through food magazines or peruse Pinterest for what looks good and I’ll put a spin on it. I also keep a running note on my phone for what sounds good so when I’m in a serious rut I look through that growing list for inspiration!

What advice would you give someone who wants to learn to cook but doesnt have any experience?
You don’t need any experience! So many great cooks don’t have any formal training but learned by observing family members cook. Grab a fun food magazine or start reading blogs. There’s great stuff out there! One thing to note is what kind of cook you are. There’s the “baker type” that want exact measurements and weights, and likes to follow a recipe to a T. I consider that group the “methodical” cook. The other side (my side) is a bit more relaxed going by a pinch here, an eyeball of a “cup” there. If you don’t have an ingredient don’t panic, just sub it out. There’s no right or wrong way but knowing what you prefer can help by finding like-minded cooks to learn from.

What would you make for a small dinner party with a few friends?
Something super easy! There’s nothing worse than slaving away in the kitchen while your guests are in another room catching up. I like to have a few snacks around, like a cheese platter, a bowl of nuts, and maybe a dip or an easy room-temperature appetizer that you can make ahead of time. The entree would depend on the season but for summer, I would say veggie and meat kabobs with some rice pilaf, and a salad. You can cook the pilaf before your guests come and hold it warm, skewer the kebobs in advance and cook them off after your guests arrive, and a salad because you can layer it in the morning and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to serve. I would also have it outside, in a cozy setting near the grill so you don’t have to miss a thing!

Whats your favorite restaurant and menu item?
There’s a ramen spot in San Diego just down the street from the airport called Underbelly that I absolutely can’t stop thinking about. I discovered it while traveling for work several years ago and every time I travel to San Diego I have to stop there immediately after landing and go once again on my way to the airport. It’s just so good and the atmosphere is cool but I think it’s nostalgic eating out of a huge bowl with chopsticks and drinking the broth from the side of the bowl, especially since I don’t make ramen like that at home!

Whats your favorite thing to cook?
I honestly cook pretty healthy for the most part and to me, I cook quick boring stuff throughout the week! I love to cook with bright colors and vary the textures, like turkey lettuce wraps with toasted sesame seeds and thinly sliced bell peppers. There’s nothing better than having a quiet weekend spent at home cooking up something delicious like hearty slow braised short ribs with risotto. Clearly, I don’t have a favorite but love any time spent in the kitchen!

What is your go-to quick and easy meal?
I think I make Mexican food at least once a week. I love tacos and fajitas and for a quick weeknight meals, these are certainly my go-to. I love roasting a whole chicken on a Sunday and shredding the meat for a quick versatile protein throughout the week. Taking the chicken and adding taco seasoning, a little chicken broth (or beer) and warming it through makes delicious tacos! I also love grilling throughout the week because it takes less than 15 minutes with almost no cleanup. BBQ chicken, burgers, flank steak, port tenderloin, the possibilities are endless!

Do you ever eat any instant food or frozen pre-cooked meals?
Of course! Frozen pizza is plentiful in my home and there’s nothing wrong with a frozen dinner. I used to look forward to nights my parents left us with a babysitter because we always got to have a TV dinner (if you don’t know what those are, shame on you!). I’ve got a sweet spot for hot pockets, toaster strudels, and bagel bites. I have no shame.

Whats your best tip for knowing when meat is done?
Thermometers aren’t always accurate depending on whether it’s calibrated or not. (What does calibrated mean? Check out my blog post on calibration to learn more!)  I like the palm method. A quick press is a good indicator. If you lightly make your hand into a fist and touch your thumb to the tip of your pinky and feel your palm near the thumb…that’s what a fully cooked piece of meat should feel like. It’s firm and bounces back when you press it. Now take your thumb to your ring finger and press your palm again, a little softer, not as tight. That’s about what medium-well feels like. Thumb to the tip of your middle finger would be about medium, and finally, your pointer finger and thumb would be about medium rare. Leave your hand limp and feel that same area, that’s what rare feels like.

Can you share any tips for grilling vegetables?
I like to get a nice char on the outside and cook it quickly so the inside is still tender with a bit of a bite. I always drizzle my veggies with a little bit of oil whether that be olive oil or coconut oil. Toss to combine and season simply with salt and pepper. This helps keep the veggies from drying out and also prevents sticking. I always cook my veggies separately than meat because they cook at different times. This is true for kebobs too, skewer meat separately from the veggies!

What kind of cooking would you recommend for someone who lives in a college dorm room with limited access to equipment?
A slow cooker. These things are amazing in so many ways! Truly a game changer. You can literally put anything in it and walk away…for hours! All you need is a cutting board, a knife, and an outlet. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and appetizers can all be made in this amazing appliance.

What knife would you recommend for a child who wants to learn to cut (supervised, of course)?
A butter spreader with a flat edge, it can cut soft items without any sharp edges. Always be around to watch little ones but it’s a great way to start them early! Have them tear lettuce, wash produce, or help stir batters. Any time they are helping you cook will get them to at least try it, since they helped make it!

If you could only keep one spice on hand (besides salt and pepper), what would it be?
Besides salt and pepper, I’d say red pepper flakes. They add just a touch of heat that I love, and adds a depth of flavor without adding sodium or fat.

What is your favorite seasoning?
Hmm…salt is a no brainer but I’m also torn between herbs de Provence and Montreal steak seasoning. I use each on just about everything. I also love cumin…a spice that seems to be very hit or miss with people’s palates.

Can you recommend an affordable knife set?
It honestly doesn’t matter what brand the knives are, it’s all about how it feels in your hand. Hold it and feel the weight, is it a comfortable grip? Is the weight manageable without feeling like it’s weighing your arm down? As long as the knives are sharp, any will do. I suggest taking them to get sharpened at least twice a year and regularly correct the blade with a honing/sharpening steel.

Big thanks to Lindsay for allowing us to peek into her life as a chef! To follow Lindsay’s cooking adventures, be sure to visit her blog, Cooking In Pearls, and follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter!

 

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First week of Whole30

This first week of Whole30 has been such a valuable learning process for me!

Some history: My brother has been encouraging me to do this program for a while now. I always said no because I was scared I’d fail and honestly because I didn’t want to give up the food I love. I love food. I love eating. I love events that revolve around food. When I know I’m going out to eat, I look up the menu online ahead of time to read every single thing and decide what I’m getting then drool until I go. That’s how much I love food. A few weeks ago, he came in town and stayed with me for a few days and finally convinced me to try it (and said he’d do it too, long-distance). I also roped my always-a-good-sport husband into the program.

Whole30 Image

Why’d I say yes? A few reasons. I’ve been a lifetime member of Weight Watchers for 13 years. I joined in college to lose the freshman 15, went back after each of my three children were born to lose the baby weight (successfully), and have maintained pretty close to my goal weight. I love Weight Watchers and will always recommend it, but I was ready for something that was solely focused on healthy foods. I’ve been feeling sluggish lately and the scale was stuck despite “eating mostly well” and exercising. I want to break my love affair with food. Not because I don’t want to keep loving what I eat, but because I don’t want to love things that are bad for me. I need to retrain myself. I’m also a very competitive person (with myself) and really don’t like feeling like I can’t do something. Because I can. I can do anything. And so can everyone.

Fast forward: So after I clutched my coffee with crack-creamer and shoveled donuts in my mouth, I logged on to www.whole30.com and started reading. These are the things that stuck with me: “Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it . . . so how do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you? Strip them from your diet completely. Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days.” Ummm. LIGHT BULB. “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.” LIGHT BULB. “there may be other foods that you find are not psychologically healthy for your Whole30. Use your best judgment with those foods that aren’t on this list, but that you suspect are not helping you change your habits or break those cravings.” LIGHT BULB.

Noticing a theme? The PSYCHOLOGICAL relationship with food is also being addressed. I love this. This is not about creating your favorite junk foods with Whole30 ingredients and pretending it’s healthy. It’s about really, truly, eating clean. And feeling good about it.

The food: I printed off the grocery list and started thinking about meals. You don’t have to get fancy or eat a bunch of stuff you’ve never tried (though it’s been GREAT trying new foods). I looked at Instagram pictures tagged with #Whole30. I made a list of easy dinners I know I could make. I went to Sprouts (comparable to a Trader Joe’s or small version of Whole Foods) and stocked up on produce and healthy proteins. More on meals in a bit.

The first week: The first day was awful. I was SO excited to start and stayed compliant, but I skipped coffee because I didn’t want to drink it black, and if you go from drinking four to six cups of coffee each morning to zero, I will tell you a secret. It hurts. Also, when you completely cut processed sugar out of your diet, that doesn’t feel great either. So around 2 p.m. I started getting dizzy and feeling nauseated. I’ll spare you the details but basically I was literally sick to my stomach from about 4 p.m. on, and for the first time in 10 years, had to call my husband home from work because I physically couldn’t care for the kids. WHY DO PEOPLE DO THIS TO THEMSELVES? Then I realized . . . huh. These things I was putting in my body were so significant that it made me physically sick to remove them. I was literally dependent on crap. Our bodies were not made to depend on crap. They were made to depend on real food. Food is fuel. That was a big eye-opener and one of the things I’m happy to have learned right away.

Photo Jun 07, 12 00 42 PMBreakfast: I have a weird texture issue and cannot eat eggs unless they’re on toast. Like in the same bite. (Weird, I know). So eggs are out for me. I also am/was not a breakfast eater, but without my morning coffee (wasn’t ready to try it black), I decided fruit and some cashews or almonds (or almond butter) were good.

Today I made a big brunch for the family and had fruit and compliant bacon (not cured, no sugar added. Did you know most bacon contains sugar? I didn’t.

Photo Jun 03, 5 32 33 PMLunch: These have been the hardest for me. I’m by myself with the kids all day and it’s so easy to make a sandwich and I can’t eat a salad every day. I bought a big container of shredded rotisserie chicken from Sprouts and kept it in the fridge all week. (Lasted three to four days, then I bought a second container). My lunches were pretty much the same every day: Chicken, half an avocado, some fruit, almonds or cashews, and sometimes raw carrots. You can eat compliant lunchmeat (check the ingredients!) on Whole30, but it’s fairly expensive, so I skipped it this week. All in all, it was repetitive but good.

Photo Jun 04, 11 48 44 AMPhoto Jun 04, 5 07 12 PMPhoto Jun 04, 1 16 44 PMPhoto Jun 05, 7 57 00 AM

Snacks: Mostly fruit, cashews, almonds, avocado with a little sea salt and roasted sweet potatoes.

Photo Jun 05, 6 43 03 PMDinners: The first night, I was too sick to eat. Two of the nights, I had lunch repeats. The other dinners this week included Philly cheesesteak-stuffed peppers (minus the cheese), grilled steak and zucchini with baked potatoes, grilled boneless pork chops with roasted vegetables, and a chipotle salad (lettuce, chicken, pico de gallo and guacamole). See end of post for recipes!

 

Whole30 Dinner

Overall reflection: I’m so glad I’m doing this. It’s SO HARD, but I am breaking my dependence on crap food, eating SO MUCH MORE healthy food (especially fruit and veggies) than I ever have,drinking more water, being more thoughtful (am I hungry or just bored?), and really fueling my body. I’m setting a good example for my kids. My blood sugar is so much more stabilized – I don’t feel that up and down and food coma you feel after eating. That part is crazy to me. It’s going to be hard to stick with this for another 23 days, but mentally I’m just taking it one day at a time. I can do one day. I can do that 23 more times.

Do you have any questions for me? I’d love to answer them! Comment below and I’ll answer them in my next Whole30 post!

RECIPES:

Philly Cheesesteak-Stuffed Peppers (minus the cheese):Whole30Food

Ingredients: 4 green bell peppers, two yellow onions, half a pound of compliant roast beef sliced thinly, a splash of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), salt and pepper.

To Prepare: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut peppers in half from top to bottom and remove stem and seeds. Drizzle with EVOO and season with salt and pepper and pop in the oven. Caramelize onions in a little EVOO (this will take about half an hour). Remove onions from pan and crank heat to high. Tear up roast beef and toss in the pan to sear. When all the meat is seared (will only take a minute or two), add the onions back in and mix everything up. Pull your peppers out of the oven and fill each one with the roast beef/onion mixture. Serve!

Roasted Veggies:

Ingredients: 1lb carrots, 4 red potatoes, 2 onions, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), herbs de provence herb mixture

To Prepare: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season and sear all vegetables on high heat in a little EVOO and put on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pop into the oven for an hour, flipping everything halfway through. Serve with grilled pork chops or meat of your choice!

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Picky eater tries Whole30

I’m writing this the night before I start Whole30, which is a 30 day commitment to only eating whole, unprocessed foods. (To learn more about Whole30, click here.)

Whole30Sheet

I decided to do try Whole30 for two reasons. I’ve been following Weight Watchers for 13 years (of which I’m a HUGE fan and which has helped me lose the baby weight successfully three times), but over the last few years, I’ve felt a major decline in energy. After blood tests came out normal, my doctor said my fatigue is likely from my environment (mom of three kids age four and under), and to try to improve my exercise and diet. I like the structure of Weight Watchers but want to try something more rigid that didn’t include shakes or supplements (not knocking them, they’re just not for me). I’m going to try Whole30 and then gradually reintroduce certain food groups to see how my body responds (I’m guessing dairy will be a difficult one). The other reason is that I’ve become much more of an emotional eater recently and I really need to get a grip. I love food, it’s the part of my life I feel like I can indulge in that doesn’t require a lot of time or effort, it’s the focus of most family celebrations and it’s fun and relaxing to prepare. I don’t want to stop enjoying indulgent food – but I want to stop making that food the center of things that bring me joy.

I don’t doubt my willpower or my ability to meal plan. My biggest challenge is that I’m extremely picky (actually, I’m fairly certain I have some sensory/texture issues), and that limits what I will be eating from the Whole30-compliant foods. I won’t be eating eggs as part of my Whole30 experience, which are a HUGE part of what I see when I look at Whole30 meals. I’m nervous to give up coffee for a month (or at least to try and drink it black) because I have about 47 cups every morning. I love cheese. Enough said.

Whole30ShoppingListMy prep work included reading about the program on whole30.com and then printing out the shopping list, grabbing a pen and meal planning. I searched #whole30 on Instagram for meal ideas because I’m a very visual person and that helps me feel like there are a lot of options. If I can see what other people are eating, it makes me feel a lot better.

I’m looking forward to cleaning up what I put into my body and seeing if it makes a difference in how I feel! For good measure (and possibly because he knows me well enough to know that I need a buddy), my brother is doing this with me (long-distance from Houston), and I’ve dragged my always-a-good-sport husband along for the ride, too. I’ll report back soon on how things are going. 🙂

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Stocking the freezer

The cycle is pretty much the same two to three nights a week in our house. I have an ambitious plan to make a nice, home-cooked meal and have it on the table when my husband gets home from work. Four or five o’clock rolls around and it’s time to start prepping, but with three unpredictable small kiddos, I just can’t always step away to get started. One of two things happens; either I make nothing and we do a fend-for-yourself night, or I start cooking after he gets home and we eat super late. Both of those scenarios stress me out.

I’ve pinned a bunch of freezer meal ideas on Pinterest, but I’ve never tried them, and I’m always worried I’ll make something in bulk and then not like it. I decided to jump into the freezer meal world and just start easy and simple. The older I get, the less fancy I try to be (should it be the other way around? Oops). I decided to pick three meals we already make and like, and start there.

Stocking the Freezer

Here are the things you need to think about when you plan to cook in bulk for the freezer:

  1. Space available to store food
  2. Containers/food storage items
  3. Time available to prep and make food
  4. Cost

Once you’ve determined what you have to work with, pick a few meals you already cook and like. I have learned that starting small and easy makes new things less intimidating. I picked Beef Stew, Chicken Fried Rice and Chicken Pot Pie for my three meals. I think they freeze well and they also have a lot of crossover ingredients that make prep really easy (carrots, onions, etc). You save time and money when you can stretch ingredients over several meals.

First up, making a shopping list. Inventory what you already have and then create a list of what you need, including quantities.
I recommend prepping everything the day before you actually cook/assemble so that it doesn’t take up one big block of time. I cooked the chicken in the crock pot with chicken broth or water all day, then removed and shred for the chicken fried rice and chicken pot pie. I peeled and cut the carrots and onions, diced the celery and made rice in my rice cooker. I put everything in airtight containers in the fridge so that it was all ready to use the next day.
Containers FreezingBeef Stew

Once it was time to make the meals, I started with the one that would take the longest – the beef stew. I always sear my stew meat before throwing it in the crock pot. It gives the meat more flavor and locks everything in. I might become more adventurous in the future (and feel free to use your own recipe!) but I just took a beef stew seasoning packet from the store, threw the beef, carrots, onions and potatoes in the crock pot, mixed the seasoning packet with 3-4 cups of beef broth and poured over the food. I cook 8-10 hours on low to make sure the meat breaks down properly.

Once it was done, I ladled into 32oz freezer containers, label with the expiration date and put them in the freezer. Easy! When it’s time to call on this freezer meal, just pull it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before you want to eat it, then about half an hour before dinner time, throw it in a pot on the stove with about ½ cup of water and cook until heated through. If you want to cook directly from the freezer, just give yourself more time on the stove.
Chicken Fried Rice
Next up was the chicken fried rice. After years of watching hibachi chefs make this one, I just tried to replicate what they did. Cold rice, diced carrots and onions, a scrambled egg and some of that shredded chicken are all ready to go. I cook the vegetables on a hot griddle in a little butter first, then add the rice, chicken and egg right right in, mix everything together, sprinkle with garlic salt and a little pepper and then pour soy sauce over the mixture. Once it’s all done, I put them into those same 32oz containers and label with an expiration date. Done! Thaw in the fridge the day before and just heat up in a frying pan to kind of re-fry the rice.
Chicken pot pie is last. I use this recipe (link), pour them into disposable single serving foil bowls or mini meatloaf tins and cover with unbaked pie crust, cutting slits along the top for steam to escape. I cover them with foil and pop them into the freezer, again with the expiration date (for these, I also write “Bake for one hour at 400 degrees” so I don’t forget).

If you’re unsure how long food will last in the freezer, use this guide: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html
I always label with expiration dates instead of “made on” dates because it’s easier for me to know how long I can use food.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with recipes you love or try new recipes! Ask friends and family if they have any recommendations, too. You’ll be happy you have a full freezer on nights you don’t have the time to cook but want a home-cooked meal. Bon appetit!

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