Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cooking with Michael Symon

In the foreword of Michael Symon's Book, Live to Cook, Bobby Flay writes, “Michael Symon is cooking…that means the aroma of sizzling pork is in the air!”

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend an evening cooking and dining with celebrity chef Michael Symon, and as nothing less would be expected from a chef with the words “Got Pork” tattooed over his heart on a banner carried by two piggy angels, the scent of sizzling pork goodness laid gloriously in the air that night. The star Cleveland chef and restaurateur, Iron Chef and co-host of daytime food talk show, “The Chew,” was cooking juicy breaded bone-in pork chop Milanese, and that was just one of the delicious dishes that he made.

A friend of pork is a friend of mine. And clearly, Chef Symon and I are BFFs now.
The intimate event was hosted by Bounty paper towels for a select group of bloggers, media, and two lucky Facebook fans, who won an expense paid trip to New York City to meet Michael simply for “liking” the brand’s page (not a bad idea if you’re interested in similar perks in the future!). The “Bring it! Dinner,” as it was called, took place a few stories up in a bright orange open kitchen in a Manhattan loft, where Chef Symon led an engaging interactive cooking demo, with a full dinner following. The most fun for me was getting to tie on an apron and participate in making zucchini fritters or keftedes with feta and dill. Standing in a room full of cooks learning from an accomplished chef made me feel as if I was in culinary school again—a feeling that I very often miss.

In the beginning of the evening, Chef Symon noted that he does not endorse too many products, but joined with Bounty because it is something that he uses in both his personal and professional kitchens every day; not just for cleaning up, but as a tool. When making the fritters, we grated the zucchini right onto a sheet of paper towel and then used it as a makeshift sieve to squeeze as much of the moisture out as possible. Zucchini contains a lot of moisture; making sure that it is fairly dry is important when making fritters, because the less flour that needs to be added to the batter, the better it ultimately tastes.

You may not see them as more than something to dry your hands with, but paper towels are very handy kitchen tools. Absorbent towels are always an effective way to drain oil from fried items. They are also a great way to keep certain foods fresh and eliminate waste. Have you ever noticed that fresh herbs are often sold in amounts way larger than what you need for one recipe? Wrap them in lightly dampened paper towels and refrigerate to help them to stay fresher longer. The same thing goes for salad greens (lay the towel on top of loose greens like spinach or mesclun).

While frying pork chops at the front of the bright orange kitchen, Chef Symon answered questions and discussed his approach to food and cooking. “Local is my first goal,” said the chef, who builds relationships with farmers and suggests that the number one products to buy organic are milk, eggs, butter and cheese. His recipes are made up of short ingredient lists to highlight the natural quality and freshness of the food itself. Salt, pepper and a squeeze of fresh lemon are mainly all that’s ever needed to season or enhance.

As often reflected on his menus, Chef Symon’s also got some good culinary genes. With a Greek and Sicilian background, he first discovered his love of food and cooking in his mother’s kitchen, making dishes like baklava and lasagna. Even as a celebrity chef and restaurateur with several restaurants, Mom’s lasagna still remains at the top of his list. “Food that brings me back to my childhood is always my favorite food,” said Symon.

Crispy Gnocchi with Morel mushrooms and Spring Peas. The lightly toasted, fluffy ricotta gnocchi were the hands down favorite at my end of the table.

Zucchni Fritters with Feta and Dill. Served with a light Greek yogurt sauce for dipping.

Pork Chop Milanese with Arugula and Tomato Salad

Delicious! It’s not every day an Iron Chef cooks you dinner. The best thing about Chef Symon is that you can tell that he is crazy about what he does. He can’t even hide it if he wanted to. His passion for food bursts out of him like his contagious laughter. In the hour or so that we spent with him, I felt that he was more chef than “celebrity chef.” The entire time he was genuinely smiling and laughing; as he says, “living to cook,” and loving it.