Friday, September 21, 2007

Stewing in disconnectedness

Today was a tough day in the kitchen. I had woken up feeling like the world and I were functioning on clocks three minutes apart, and I felt the same way throughout the day. Adding to my general confusion and cloudy-headedness was a change of teacher. I find it hard to adapt to a new teacher at the beginning of a class, when I'm still learning basics. It was a little weird on Monday when Charles stepped in for butchering, but because it was a day based mostly on demonstration, it allowed us to get comfortable with his style and attitude in the kitchen. Today was different because we went straight to work under JJ and it wasn't an easy day.

The morning demos were fun, however, and extremely good. He started with a beef brisket (which I don't think I ever had before) and then demoed the four other dishes we would be preparing that afternoon: lamb curry, beef en daube, ratatouille and braised endives. I think that's the most we've been asked to make in an afternoon and amazingly, we finished fairly early.

I think the dishes came out well, overall, but none of them seemed up to the chef's standards. Everything was undercooked, overcooked, too thick, too thin... something. Nothing was right and it was very demoralizing, I think for the class in general. I saw a lot more grumpy looks on everyone's faces today than ever before.

I was appointed sous chef of my little group (including Ashish and Potter) and I simply let everyone do their thing asking only that we all check in with each other. Potter started on the beef, marinating the chunks in red wine in preparation for the cooking. It's funny, I've never cooked with wine on a regular basis and it's interesting to see the type of flavor it can impart in a dish. I think, on the whole, I favor the flavors that white wine leaves behind, which again is surprising because I prefer drinking red wine.

Anyway, we all watched as Potter quickly cooked up the beef for the stew and added in the additional ingredients. It doesn't seem like a particularly complicated stew. One thing about this one that was a wonderful and unexpected element was chef's recipe called for the inclusion of one orange peel. I think the right amount (which, none of us included properly) really gave the stew an interesting brightness and the essential oil from the rind helped create a fuller smell in the back of the nose. It was an unusual addition but one I am a huge fan of... I hope to find more dishes where I can include it. I think it could really be that great "ooh" factor for taking a simple dish up to a new level of taste and sophistication.

Another taste bud realization today was with the lamb curry tasting at the end of class. The curry that had been made in the morning demo was unlike any of the other curries because chef had chosen to finish the curry with a touch of heavy cream. In the past, I don't think I ever really appreciated how heavy cream can change the flavor of a sauce. I knew it would make it richer and creamier, but today it was clear that the curry with cream was also much sweeter, which helped combat some of the spice in the curry powder we used. I think a lot of people we uncomfortable with how spicy their lamb curries came out, however, while I liked the cream education today I preferred the spicier curry. For me it seemed to better match the meaty flavor so distinct in lamb.

Our ratatouille was very problematic. At first, there wasn't enough liquid coming from the vegetables and then suddenly there was too much. Chef kept coming by and telling us to put a lid on it to help create more juices, or take the lid off to boil off some of the liquid. It was a constant battle for our group and we were all wary of making the vegetables mushy or bitter. I've generally never really enjoyed ratatouille very much, I've always found it to be very bitter and/or mushy and exceptionally salty. However, today, it was like a new day for me.

I loved the ratatouille and particularly liked chef's addition of a poached egg cracked right into the dish with some cheese on top. I think it helps mellow some of the strong flavors that cooked peppers and bay leave and thyme can impart on the ratatouille. And I think that chef's suggestion of removing the eggplant's peel and seeds helped cut down on any bitterness I was avoiding.

Overall, today felt very much like a learning day. Every dish seemed to connect a few culinary dots for me, or present an idea to me, which was then reinforced by the quality of the finished product. It was also clear that cooking is just as much about patience and control as it is about moving quickly and multitasking. Chef mentioned that none of our dishes were cooked long enough, that all of our beef stews would have benefited from ten to fifteen more minutes of cooking time. I can kind of see his point, but at the the same time, I wanted to ask if maybe we didn't want our meats to cook for so long... would it still be a good enough stew?

Maybe it's me, but I like meat to have a certain crispness to it, a certain bite... which may be why I never really liked stews very much. There's such a fine line between cooked and overcooked with meat, I wonder if such principals still hold true when we talk about meat in a stew though.

Regardless, today's multiple dishes and long cooking time took a toll on the class. I think everyone was feeling pretty negative by the end of it and we were all glad to have finished early. I think the one thing that made me feel better about today, however, was remembering what chef Charles said on Monday: it's better to make a mistake now than to do it perfectly; today's success might have been an accident and when to try to do something again, you'll find yourself making mistakes left and right. Mistakes are better for learning.

It's true, I know. It just also makes for a tough learning curve.