Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan
Learning is one of the most important activities of your life. Most stews reach a point where they want to learn more sophisticated service abilities. In order to advance service skills, working on meal preparation and planning with the chef is a necessity.
Knowing recipe ingredients is crucial when considering food allergies and preferences. Appreciating how each dish is prepared and describing it in a way that creates anticipation adds to the pleasure of dining. Servers should be able to explain what the dish is, pronounce the name of it correctly, know where it originated, be aware of special ingredients or preparation techniques, and even tell guests what it tastes like and how it’s meant to eaten.
Being well-informed about the menu makes eating more fun. For instance, knowing a bit about the ingredients of a Caprese salad adds to the enjoyment of consuming it. The popular dish Insalata Caprese originated on the enchanting island of Capri. The arrangement of ripe red tomatoes, thick slices of mozzarella, and green basil leaves is a visual representation of the tri-colored Italian flag. Traditional Mozzarella di Bufala is made from the milk of domestic water buffaloes in the Campania region of Italy. Add a drizzle of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar to complete the dish.
A very nice, exclusive vinegar is Aceto Balsamico di Modena. It comes from grape juice that has been cooked down and carmelized to create a robust flavor and syrupy texture before it is aged in cherrywood, chestnut and ash barrels for 12 to 100 years. There is a lot of history in this simple dish.
If you’ve been to Barcelona, you have probably enjoyed paella at least once. There are many versions of the dish. According to an online article in Saveur magazine, the earliest ones were made with local ingredients according to regional eating habits. Paella is named after the wide, shallow pan it is cooked in.
As the story goes, paella was a Sunday meal that men of the village prepared while the women were at church. It was cooked outdoors over an open fire. Components varied, including chicken, rabbit, beans, vegetables and seafood, but rice and saffron were essential. Rice dishes were favored since the Moors planted the grain over 1300 years ago.
For centuries saffron has been used as a medicine, a spice and a textile dye. One grain of saffron can color 10 gallons of water. In higher concentrations, it is used to dye the orange robes of Buddhist priests. As a spice, it adds a pungent, earthy flavor. Saffron comes from the crocus plant, and it is expensive. Cultivation and harvest are done by hand. Each flower yields three wispy red threads. It takes 4,500 crocus flowers to make one ounce of saffron spice. It can remain fresh in an airtight container for several years. Spoiler alert: That “yellow rice” mix from the grocery store probably contains more turmeric and MSG than real saffron.
A good exercise for stews is to research recipes, then think about presentation and wine pairing. Most wines will do well with foods from the same region the grapes are grown in. A wine from the Amalfi Coast in Italy probably pairs well with Insalata Caprese. Tomato is acidic, so other acidic wines will be a good match. A light, acidic Pinot Noir or Lambrusco di Sarbara from the Modena region would work as a red, and a Gavi from Piedmont or Sauvignon Blanc would work as a white wine. Rose or Prosecco might be fun, too.
For the paella, the ingredients of the dish vary, so a good pairing depends on whether it contains rabbit and chicken or seafood. A young, light, fruity tempranillo or a dry rose would work with most versions. A full-bodied white such as a Chardonnay would go well too, especially with a seafood paella. Rose or a dry sparkling wine are other options.
Lifelong learning is important. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn from your travels and the people around you. Ask questions and use the knowledge you gain to advance your service skills and move up the ladder of success. Life never stops teaching, and what you learn can never be taken away from you. Make work more fun. Love what you are doing or learning to do.
Alene Keenan is former lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.