Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ServSafe Finale & Frying

Today was our ServSafe exam... a fairly useless exam in terms of what its trying to test us on. The questions were varied from the ridiculous:

What is the best way to dry your hands after washing:
a) wipe you hands on your apron
b) use a single-use paper towel
c) shake them vigorously in the air
d) wipe them on your clothes.
(This was a real question, seriously!)

... to the randomly difficult and precise. Many of the questions were strangely worded and made me wonder if the person writing the exam even knew the material or if they were just looking at a basic fact sheet/ServSafe overview and pulled the questions from there. Either way, I don't think the exam accurately tests us on our knowledge of sanitary and proper food handling techniques.

While I do hope I pass the exam (no one likes to fail even the seemingly unimportant ones), I don't think I'll retake it if I don't. I don't personally plan on working in a commercial kitchen in the future, but I am glad I know about food temps and time-temperature abuse now. I also thought the whole section on various food parasites, toxins and bacteria was particularly interesting since I can't go a month without food poisoning of some kind. Now I can self-diagnose!

And, I'd like to point out that I have a great deal of appreciation for the health inspectors out there today. Doing the unpleasant jobs so that the public can go out and eat with a certain amount of trust and comfort. But personally, I can't imagine pursuing a career in that field. I think I'd curl up in a ball a weep if I had to spend my days looking for mice droppings and checking the temperatures of stock.


The afternoon class was with a new chef with a drastically different style to our previous instructors. John's been kindly and egalitarian in his approach to teaching while JJ's unmoving standards and quick wit have been great to encourage a better chef within each of us. And, I've really enjoyed Charles' no-nonsense business-like style, which obviously reflects someone with an immense knowledge of food. Michael's a very different creature in the kitchen, equal parts happy, tactile child and rigid, anal chef. It's a strange combination after the rapport we've developed with some of the other teachers and I think we're all very aware that Michael will not likely be easily impressed by our efforts.

For his first subject with us, Michael focused on frying. Lucky for us, there's only on fryer in the kitchen, so it was more of a demo day than a cooking day. Once we all prepared all the necessary flour dredges, batters and proteins, we gathered around the fryer for a lesson of science and cooking. Michael was quick to explain about the importance of the right oil temperature, the right type of oil and the way oil changes with cooking. It was surprising to me, because I'd never assumed that oil could be 'spent' or used to the point of uselessness. Also, the idea of flavors lingering in the oil became much clearer, because I'd always assumed that foods would only flavor each other if they were cooking at the same time next to each other, I never knew that order of cooking mattered more than if the oil was used at the same time.

We started the day making french fries and potato chips because fries would have to be cooked twice and potato chips would be quick and a good way to explain about oil, water and bubbles. General idea: the bubbles that emerge are the water droplets escaping from the food, which is why at the beginning there are lots of violent bubbles and towards the end, the rapidity tapers off because the water is almost gone. He whole idea was very well illustrated with the potato chips because we want to push out all the water for the chip to be crisp, so we would cook and flip the chips until there were hardly any bubbles surrounding it at all.

The chips turned out great, even though the slices weren't all of a consistent size. We did use two different types of potatoes, russet and red, just to see how they would turn out and how the starch levels within them would affect the final product. I think the class was mostly divided about the chips, there wasn't a huge preference for either potato. There was a marked difference, however, in the preference for russet potatoes when we got around to tasting the french fries at the end of the day. I think the starch in the russets allowed for a lighter, crispier fry, whereas the red potatoes were too heavy and a little gritty.

We all got to try our hand at frying up some chips and standing above the oil, you can't help but feel nervous, particularly since you're well aware that the oil is screaming hot, even though the surface of it is so calm. Standing above it, though, it didn't get as hot as I thought it would. The grill was much hotter, probably because it was a radiated heat whereas the heat from the fryer was concentrated in the oil. Amazingly, I only got splattered on a few times.

The fried clams were a little salty, but good. I have a feeling that the fact the clams had been soaking in a brine and barely rinsed made them saltier than they needed to be, but they turned out well, crunchy and light. I personally wasn't crazy about them, partly because they were salty, but also because they seemed pretty pointless. The clams were small and could hardly be noticed under the batter, it seemed like a rather extravagant carrier of batter. I wonder if you can fry just batter... does that work? I bet it would taste roughly the same. If given a plate of fried clams or fried batter, I doubt I'd be able to find much of a difference.

Michael did change up some of the batters today, using different flours and coverings for the crusts, like oat flour and semolina. Each one provided a different taste or texture. I think the semolina made for crunchier and more golden colored food while the oat flour gave a sweet nuttiness and thickness to the batter.

Another thing he explained was how knife skills can affect the quality of a sauce, such as remoulade. Good knife skills can ensure that all the various ingredients are the same size and not too small so that when it's eaten the different ingredients create little pops of flavor in the mouth. I thought this description was a great way to illustrate his point, little explosions of variety on your tongue sounds perfect.

We made a Thai influenced lime-green curry remoulade which was difficult to distinguish from the plain one. I think it might have been made wrong, because nothing about a lime-green curry should be subtle or hidden, at least that's what the title suggests. And in comparison to another Thai influenced dipping sauce he made, the red curry vinaigrette, it definitely didn't have nearly enough flavor.

The vinaigrette was a sort of twist on the traditional buffalo sauce on chicken wings. We fried up two batches of wings, one dredged in semolina and one in seasoned flour, and tasted them before the sauce to see if there was a difference in dredges. On the chicken wings, I don't think there was much of a difference, both were crisp and light and really delicious. And after the winds were tossed in the sauce, there didn't seem to be much of a difference at all, both tasted equally as yummy. I think the only thing that really made his wings stand out was that they were soaked in a brine for at least an hour before dredging and cooking, giving additional flavor and seasoning to the chicken wing. If I was to repeat the recipe though, I think I'd go a little easier on the salt level in the brine because these wings were just on the verge of being too salty. Maybe I'm too sensitive to salt? Michael says I'm "salt naive." I love the cooking world, even descriptors sound exclusionary and insulting.

For the fruit fritters we used apple slices and dredged half in all-purpose flour and half in oat flour to see if we could really experience a difference. The apples in oat flour were so obviously different even before we tasted it. The batter from the oat flour was much thicker and because of the drag from it, left us with very smooth looking product. The oat flour was also a darker brown, not burnt, but an even dark gold. I think even though the oat flour looked better, however, the final product wasn't great. The batter puffed a little too much and didn't stick well to the apple slices making them fall away from each other from the first bite. The batter also tasted like pancakes because of the fluffy, light consistency that it seemed more like apple pancakes than apple fritters. Even though this wasn't my favorite thing of the day, it served as an interesting science experiment on the different qualities flour and batter can assume.

One moment of the day that was a little strange was when Jenny asked about his training, if it had been in a culinary school or if he had apprenticed, etc. He explained his (very) impressive background and training (which was a more traditional, work through the ranks, learn the French way). We were bowled over by the list of chefs and restaurants he'd worked under. Oddly, though, he started to move into a mini-monologue about his general disdain for culinary schools, how it produces people that think they can cook when they don't know a thing... it went on for a few minutes before he caught himself, actually. After about four minutes, I think he realized where he was and what he was saying and finished with, "except for this program, you learn good basics here."

Anyway, after this awkward moment, we started to make the corndogs, which was great fun. It's always nice to take a break from the elegance and prestige of "grown up" food and revert back to childhood. I don't know a single person that doesn't think back to carnivals or fairs without remembering corn dogs. Well, actually, I take that back because it turned out that Catherine had never had a corn dog before. I can imagine that the idea of miscellaneous battered items on a stick from a random place can be quite unappealing when you're a child.

The freshly made corn dog was just great though, none of the weird microwaved quality that we've all become accustomed to because we seem to only have frozen corn dogs anymore. The batter was lighter than their frozen cousins and softer, but most noticeable was the change in the crispiness (of course!). It was great to remember that it's not totally wrong to have something a little unhealthy - and I'm sure it's far less damaging to your health when they're freshly made like this.

My one issue with all of the items we made today (with one exception below) was that everything seemed so salty to me. Again, Michael said that I was salt naive because I never grew up in a house with much salt, but I felt like nearly everything we made could have done with less salt, particularly since the frying added a certain amount of saltiness. Then again, I recently heard that all fried foods need salt. Who's right?

The tempura was the only food that I felt wasn't as salty as the others, which I think was due to the nature of the batter and the dipping sauce. It was smooth and almost refined, which almost explains how I feel all Japanese food can be described. They take basic cooking techniques and foods and heighten it to a level that's almost like art. It was so interesting to see a batter that was light and almost airy, a huge contrast to the dense and doughy feelings of the other batters. A strange mix of the complex and simple, it was definitely the most deliciously comfortable fried food of the day. interesting to watch, worked out well. Didn't know the batter was so simple thought it more complex, but realise is just the temp of batter and technique.

Overall today felt more like a science lab day than a cooking day, particularly because of the way Michael approaches the subject of food and cooking. He takes a very scientific approach to it all, assuming a hypothesis and testing it out to draw conclusions. I think in the future, I'd like to try to test various methods other than frying to try and achieve that fried texture. We talked a little about how well baking the chicken wings would work, partly because I'd like to try them at home and don't have a deep fryer, but also because I don't think the fryer really adds that much.