Start Cooking and Protect Your FAA Medical Status
By Stuart Faber
For this issue, Flying with Faber becomes Cooking with Faber. I have spent my life chasing a variety of passions – my favorite, of course, involves being at the controls of any flying machine that will get off the ground. Engaging in the culinary arts would be a close second. Generally, if I am not in an airplane, I am in a kitchen somewhere in the world where I am operating “right seat” or second in command to some great chef who allows me, as a food journalist, to steal a few of his or her culinary secrets.
Whenever I am home, I spend a significant amount of time in my kitchen which is equipped with more gadgets than the cockpit of my airplane. I am a strident devotee to cooking from scratch with the exclusive use of the freshest and best ingredients I can find. I shun such things as farm raised fish, packaged vegetables (or, for the most part, packaged food of any kind), inferior cuts of meat or store-bought pie crusts. I don’t own a microwave. On those rare moments when I will indulge myself in a slice of bread (my “drug of choice”), I will gather my flour, yeast, instant-read thermometer and bake a loaf of artisan sourdough.
Home Cooking Saves Money and Extends Your Health
I want to emphasize that I am neither a physician nor a professional nutritionist. I have read numerous treatises on healthy eating and have worked with my trainer at the gym, who has had some formal training in nutrition. As a result, I have developed some sense of right-and-wrong when it comes to what foods I should or should not put in my body. I am, however, the first to admit that I don’t always follow my own advice. More than once, I have been caught red-handed downing a 24-ounce rib eye steak and ushering it through my esophagus with a hunk of buttered bread. I love to make my own pizza dough, cover it with tomato sauce made from scratch and throw it on a hot charcoal grill. I have been known to lick clean a plate with my homemade blueberry crumble pie next to which is a scoop of French vanilla ice cream made by me with the use of heavy cream and more eggs than a chicken could lay in a week.
In the past few years, I have discovered that I can indulge myself with these occasional treats if I do so in moderation. I have learned that the first few bites of the pie ala mode taste much better than the last few – so I savor the first few and share the balance. As I understand, that is the philosophy of some of the more popular diet programs such as Weight Watchers.
This practice seems to work for me. At this point in life, I am closer to my entrance into the octogenarian club than I care to admit. Yet, I am on no medication, my numbers are all within the range of normal, my weight and body index are just a few points outside of the normal range and, every two years when I present myself for my third class medical, the doc grudgingly tells me that I am healthier than he is – and he is over 30 years younger than I. My conclusion is that I must be doing something right. My secret is neither original nor esoteric. I try to eat correctly. I religiously visit the gym at least five times a week.
I have discovered that the exercise of my will power is much easier at home than in a restaurant. At home, I simply don’t keep tempting foods in the house. When I open a menu in a restaurant, the ability to control myself decreases with each turn of the page. My attention to the salads is quickly circumnavigated to the steaks and macaroni with three types of cheese. As I read the menu, the waiter places a basket of breads with a tub of freshly whipped butter within my reach. Before I know it, the basket is empty. Sound familiar?
As a consequence, unless I am reviewing a restaurant for one of my columns, I cook at home. A combination of these two dining venues has worked for me. Again, I want to emphasize my disclaimer – I am not professionally qualified to impart dietary or medical advice. I am merely describing what has worked for me and suggesting that you discuss these tips with your own health care person or persons and determine if a similar program would work for you. I can assert the following: cooking is fun, not time consuming, relaxing and extremely rewarding. The only thing I can think of as providing more satisfaction than seeing a luscious, juicy roasted mahogany-colored chicken come out of the oven is to observe the first lights of an ILS runway as I break out of the clouds just a few feet above the DH. As many times as I have engaged in each of those exercises, the thrill never decreases in intensity.
The Right Equipment is Essential
A good pilot would not consider installing cheap equipment in an airplane. The reliable, yet more expensive stuff always costs less in the long run – plus it could save your life. No one wants a cheap tire to disintegrate during a fierce cross-wind landing.
I will admit that there have probably been no deaths or serious injuries reported from the use of cheap cooking equipment. But I can assure you that great culinary achievements are much more commonplace with the use of the best equipment available. The most expensive is not always the best, however. Over the years, I have purchased and thrown away more pots and pans than I can count. Through the process of trial and error, I have gathered a number of favorite items. I have scores of pots, pans, knives and gadgets in my pantry, but I keep using the same items over and over again.
Saucepans, the workhorse of the kitchen, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A classic saucepan has straight sides and a flat bottom. One should have both two-quart and three-quart sizes. Most saucepans come with a cover. A saucier pan is a fancy name for a pan, which is more rounded. The width of the top is greater than the width of the bottom and the sides flare from bottom to top. I suggest a two or three court size. Whatever you select, be sure they are heavy and made of stainless steel. A heavy bottom is essential because it will retain more heat with less chance of burning the contents. The best models of pans (and skillets as well), have a bottom composed of two layers of stainless steel with a copper layer between them, or with copper as the bottom layer. The handles are also stainless steel and relatively cool to the touch. Even the rivets are important. They should also be made of stainless steel and as flush with the interior of the vessel as possible.
Skillets or pans should also be fashioned of bonded stainless steel. One important item, however, is an old-fashioned cast iron skillet. I have a 12-inch model that I acquired in college. The older they become, the better they are. They require some maintenance, but they have no equal when it comes to retaining heat and searing a steak or filet of fish. A household should have at least three skillets in sizes from 7” through 12”. A nonstick 12” skillet is a great investment. Just make sure that you use rubber or silicone spatulas with it so that you don’t scratch the nonstick layer.
Two other important cooking vessels are Dutch ovens and baking pans. Dutch ovens (the French call them French ovens) are big pots with handles on each side. The come in either oval or round configurations in sizes from about 5-quart to 13-quart and sold with covers. I love my 13-quart model, which I use for huge batches of chili. I have a cast iron model, plus a few enameled cast iron models. The advantage of the enameled Dutch ovens is that they are easier to maintain. Plus, on windy days, I often think of using my huge Dutch ovens as tie-down anchors. Or, they can be used as ballast if, after packing your plane, you have some CG issues.
A baking pan should be heavy and large. I use a 13 x 9-inch for roasting chickens, prime rib or meatloaves. Again, I suggest the enameled cast iron variety. Not only do they retain the heat, but after the roast is cooked you can place the pan on the stovetop and make gravy.
Many chefs consider the All-Clad brand as the gold standard of saucepans and skillets. I have several pieces in my collection and I agree that each one is excellent. However, I have gravitated to Le Creuset and Staub for both stainless steel and enameled cast iron products. Staub has a wide variety of enameled Dutch ovens, saucepans, sauté pans and other pots. You can see their entire line on www.staubusa.com. Le Creuset offers Dutch ovens, baking pans and other items in enameled cast iron as well as saucepans and skillets in stainless steel and stainless steel with nonstick interiors. Le Creuset operates stores in outlet malls where I have found many bargains. For example, I latched on to a $300 twelve-inch nonstick stainless skillet for $90. The item was a discontinued model, but that did not bother me. I use this skillet at least three times a week. You can find an outlet in your neighborhood at www.lecreusetoutlet.net.
Another important item is a high quality, well-balanced chef knife. This is the general utility knife used for everything from cutting up vegetables to slicing a roast. Sizes range from a 7” to a 12” blade. I prefer the 8” size. Again, you can spend from $10 to several hundred. I suggest either a Henckels or Wustof brand for under $100. I would shy away from all celebrity brands such as Emeril or Martha Stewart. In my opinion, you are paying for the name. I have had my knives for more than 15 years. I keep them sharpened and never lay them on a hard surface. As soon as I am finished with them, I wash them and put them away in a special protected container. These knives are as good today as the day I purchased them.
The last item which is essential for most cooking missions is a high quality instant thermometer. Hands down, the best you can buy is a Thermapen by Thermoworks. It is reliable to within one degree and provides a temperature in just under four seconds. I use mine for everything from testing the temperature of candy (which requires more than 300 degrees), to the temperature of a roasting chicken or grilled steak. The cost is just under $100 and worth every penny. They can be purchased directly at www.thermoworks.com.
For this column, I will offer a few of my tried and tested recipes, one healthy, and the other not quite as healthy. Most of my recipes require an expenditure of little more than 30 minutes in both preparation and cooking time. The roast chicken requires about 15 minutes prep time and about an hour and a half cooking time.
The most important advice I can provide is that you do all the initial prep at one time, not as you go along with the project. Lay each item out in the order of use and you will save volumes of time. The French refer to this as “mise en place.” Let’s call it “pre-flight.”
Below is one of my favorite fish recipes. Most fish contains omega-3 oils and most experts agree that these oils reduce the risk of heart disease and colorectal cancer. Ask your doctor, but I read about this in the Mayo Clinic website and that’s good enough for me.
Salmon and Lentils
Lentils, a member of the legume family, are surprisingly easy to prepare. They are loaded with protein, dietary fiber and Vitamin B1. Salmon, full of omega fatty acids is one of the world’s leading fish for good health. Meals like this should help you pass that next FAA medical exam.
A few tips: Chop the vegetables to about the size of a two-inch square. For chicken stock, the best is homemade, but a store-bought low sodium brand will do fine. One of the few times I used canned vegetables is when I use tomatoes. Good, ripe fresh tomatoes are hard to find. Most great chefs use San Marzano Italian canned tomatoes. They can be found in Italian markets. Coarse salt is sold in markets and is called kosher salt. Most great chefs use kosher salt.
1 cup dry lentils (preferably Lentils du Puy)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, juice included
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme
1 bay leaf
4 (4 to 6 ounce) salmon filets
Rinse lentils and set aside. In a large, heavy skillet over medium-heat, cook onion and celery in 1 tablespoon of olive oil for about 5 minutes until soft. Do not brown. Add garlic and carrots and stir for 1 minute. Watch garlic closely so that it does not burn. Add lentils, chicken stock, water, tomatoes, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf. Stir ingredients together and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium low, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are tender but not mushy. They should be slightly al dente. Remove bay leaf.
While lentils are cooking, place a heavy 12” skillet over medium high heat and heat for 5 minutes. Do not use a nonstick – ovens are not good for them. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. The secret to beautifully seared salmon is high heat. Rub extra virgin olive oil over both sides of the salmon and season generously with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Do not remove the bottom skin. Place filets in the skillet and sear on one side for 3 minutes. Do not move the filets for this period. Flip the filets and place the skillet in the oven and cook for 5-8 minutes until the filets are medium rare.
Spoon a generous mound of lentils on the plate and place a filet over the mound.
Fabe’s Bistro Roast Chicken with Potatoes
In high school, kids called me “The Fabes.” I have revived the name and use it in many of my recipes. This one-pot chicken dinner is always a hit. The instant thermometer is a must in this recipe. You don’t want to serve a medium-rare chicken.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 green or red bell pepper cut into quarters
1 whole (3-5-pound) chicken
1 tablespoon each of coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper & paprika
1 onion, chopped
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Butter a medium roasting pan with 3 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons oil. Place potatoes in a single layer in roasting pan. Mix salt, pepper and paprika together and season chicken inside and out. Rub the seasonings all over the chicken. Place rosemary, thyme, and garlic inside cavity of chicken; using kitchen twine, tie legs together to enclose. Rub chicken with remaining 3 tablespoons each of butter and oil. Place chicken on top of potatoes on one of its sides.
Transfer roasting pan to oven and roast for 20 minutes. Turn chicken onto its other side and continue roasting 20 minutes more. Turn chicken, breast side up, and add 2 tablespoons water to pan; continue roasting until juices run clear and the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 10 to 20 minutes more.
Carve chicken in roasting pan allowing the juices to combine with the potatoes. Serve from the roasting pan, spooning pan juices over potatoes.
Notes: I rubbed the chicken with the butter and oil before I seasoned it. That way, the seasoning stays on the chicken. I also moved the potatoes around the pan so that they had a layer of oil.
If you want some green vegetables with this dish, drizzle some olive oil over a half pound of fresh green beans or fresh asparagus and throw them on top of the potatoes for the last 10 minutes.
GRAVY: Remove chicken and potatoes from pan. Drain off all but 4 tablespoons of drippings. Sprinkle about 4 tablespoons of flour (no Wondra, please), over the grease and stir to make a roux. A roux is a combination of fat and flour. Mix until you can no longer see bits of flour. Then, scrape all the browned bits of stuff (called the fond) from the bottom of the pan. Mix with the gravy – this is the best source of flavor. Add about 1 to 2 cups chicken stock and bring to a boil. Stir constantly until it thickens up to just under a sour cream consistency. Season to taste. It will probably be salty, so don’t add salt until you taste it.
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If my editor allows, I will devote some future columns to some of my other favorite recipes from juicy standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding to fresh sour cherry pie. In the meantime, I am due for my FAA physical. I hope that my doctor, age 55, is still alive. Last time I saw him, he was overweight.