Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"It's a veg-e-ta-ble!"

I was so glad to finally get to vegetable day today. I don't think my body can process that much meat on such a consistent rate. It was definitely time for a little change up to the menu because I could feel that my body needed the break. Although, having now cooked everything, I'm realizing it wasn't much of a break at all since everything was cooked in obscene amounts of butter. Oy.

We started the day with a tomato confit, removing the skin and seeds, coating them in olive oil and letting them bake down for several hours. While I understand what Michael was getting at (reducing and concentrating flavors, allowing you to continue using tomatoes when they're not in season), I didn't really see the point in it. I didn't feel like it brought out a lot of the tomato's flavor at all, if anything, I felt it brought out some of the negative qualities of the out of season tomato. However, I was glad to get the change to experience scoring, boiling and peeling the tomatoes though. Some strange twist of fate in the past few weeks has gotten me away from all the teams that needed to peel and endless piles of tomatoes. I was a little worried I'd never get the chance!

Now that I've done it though, I don't imagine I'd do it at home. It's extremely time consuming for something that doesn't fundamentally change much. If a recipe called for peeled tomatoes and was dependent on the missing skin, I'd consider it, but I don't think this excerising of the skin will become a regular activity in my kitchen.

I liked the recipe we used for the pan roasted carrots, even though when I read over the ingredient list, I didn't think I would since I don't like carrots very much and I'm not a fan of raisins either. Somehow, together (along with the capers and other things) it turned out really well, even though I'd probably use fewer capers next time because the salty brine of them was a little too much for comfort. I think I liked the raisins more this time because Michael actually soaked them in hot water to rehydrate them slightly, which made them juicier and a little sweeter. It probably also helped to remove some of the strange powdery covering raisins sometimes have.

When we cooked the carrots, we did so in two separate batches. I'm assuming we did this because we want the carrots to cook evenly and thoroughly, so making two smaller batches allowed us greater control. But I'm also wondering why we couldn't have cooked all the carrots together in one larger pan over a medium-low heat. I can't imagine that it would have done harm to the carrots - I must remember to ask Michael next time he's in. I also pulled the carrots from the heat at the point of doneness that I prefer, however, when we were tasting the different carrots, Michael said they were undercooked. My question is, is there a sweet spot of doneness where the food is cooked but not overcooked? My Chinese heritage instilled in me from early on that a vegetable without a crunch is overcooked. Cook I have cooked the carrot longer without going to mushy? I don't think I could have, but I'd like to know Michael's (and other chefs') perspective on this.

Another thing that stood out at tasting was that our carrots were much larger than those from the other groups, thanks to me. I'm notoriously bad at estimating cut sizes, and drastically overestimated how large a 1/4 inch dice was. In my defense, at least the carrots were consistently oversized! Ashish mentioned that he bought a large bag of carrots and practices every morning so that he can be perfect for when Jacques Pepin arrives. That's the kind of dedication and planning I wish I had the motivation to do. (Note: I've now bought the carrots and they are sitting on my counter doing nothing because my motivation only got the carrots into my house and not onto a cutting board! 10/22)

Also, I felt that the dish was a little oily, we not only cooked the carrots in butter, but we added more at the end to combine and heat all the ingredients together. I think it just contributed to an overall too much butter feeling to the dish. End of the day, they're vegetables and should taste and feel like vegetables. Michael also said that our carrots were underseasoned, a continuing theme for me in his classes, but I felt like it was fine. It seemed to me that the other carrots were extremely salty, after all, we had to salt things keeping in mind that we were also going to add capers. I don't think I'll ever come to a compromise with Michael on this one, everything he makes is just so salty to me.

Actually, Michael had the same criticism for another dish my team made (this one I didn't cook, however) saying it was undersalted and undercooked. Again, I have to disagree with his assessment of our dish. I don't think I'm being bias, but I felt like the vegetable should still have a crunch to it, almost as a nod towards freshness.

I like cauliflower, although I don't eat it much, and I liked the kick of gremolata and the unusual combination of capers into the dish, but I don't think this dish sat well on the palate. I feel like the contrasting textures and flavors and the use of capers just made for an unappealing jumble of vegetables and flavors. Again, I might be too strongly influenced by the Chinese way of cooking vegetables, but I just couldn't see a greater value to this dish. I do appreciate how it's made me think about vegetables and cooking them, though. I think it's forced me to re-evaluate why I prefer vegetables the way I do and whether it's actually the best way to eat them. I definitely think I could include more variety in the way I cook vegetables and the idea of pan roasting carrots and cauliflower is very appealing, but if I remake these dishes at home, I don't think I'd add quite as many ingredients. And definitely not as much salt as Michael would want.

But, the lowest point of the day for me was the puree of celeric root and parsnips. Two vegetables that make me shudder from the very depths of my foodie soul. I never particularly liked celery, although I've tried several times through the years to warm to it. When I was little, I'd spread on peanut butter or cream cheese to make it taste better (I don't know why, I don't like peanut butter either) and it never worked. So, when I was cutting the celeric root that smells more intensely and more strongly than celery, I had a bad feeling about it all. Cathering assured me that cooking it in milk would soften the flavor, but I totally disagree. I could barely stand to put a drop in my mouth, I don't think I'll ever revisit that dish. Blech.

At least we ended the day on a slight plus with the haricot vert salad. I think I liked the idea of this salad but I don't think it came together well in execution at all. The peppered walnuts that were made to be added into the salad were just too strongly peppered and actually hurt to eat them. When they were combined into the salad with the dressing, the fats from the oil helped soften the blow of the pepper, but it was still too strong of a flavor. My group was too overwhelmed with the peppery flavor we actually only added in half of the amount listed in the recipe.

I did think it was interesting that we blanched the beans before eating them to help ease some of the bite and rawness in the beans. But I think we might have blanched them a touch too long and ended up a little floppier and soggier than we would have liked. Funnily, this was the one dish he said we cooked right... ha! You never know.