Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Starches! Starches! We don't need no steenking starches!

We started the morning with Michael not talking about this afternoon's class but rather about taking care of your knife. Since we've started school, Chef's have emphasized that each one of them will have a different idea of how things should be done. So far, most of the chefs have agreed on their cooking techniques and styles with little conflict, except when it comes to knives.

Everyone of them has a completely different idea of how to sharpen a knife. And each of them has their own little philosophy on the matter, too. For some of them it almost seemed like it was more important than their cooking philosophy. Either way, hearing Michael's take on Japanese knives vs. German knives was interesting. I'm inclined to agree with him, although I think that might have more to do with me being Asian than a completely logical argument (I think his rationale is sound but it's missing a few valid counter-points).

(For the record, his basic idea was that in the warrior days, Japanese swords were able to cleanly slice off a person's head, while European swords had more heft and were more likely kill someone by sheer brutal force. Based on this early artistry, he felt that the Japanese had a distinct historical advantage.)

For the sharpening demonstration on his water stones he used my knife and angled one side of the blade more than the other side. He believed that oil stones were (1) very dangerous because of the slickness of the mineral oil, (2) very unsanitary because the stones could never properly be cleaned. I agree, mostly, and from watching the various chefs show us how to sharpen the knives, I like the water-based feel and method of using the water stones best. His seemed the easiest technique to replicate, the easiest method to maintain and the cleanest overall.

During class this afternoon, with the jealous eyes of my class watching me, I had the best knife with the sharpest edge I'd ever experienced. It was wonderful.


I didn't eat breakfast or lunch today because I've begun to realize that I can't eat at mealtimes anymore, I have to kind of roll with foods of the day. So, to avoid the feeling of being overstuffed and feeling heavy, especially on starch day, I prepped by avoiding all food.

Because it was starch day, we did two types of potatoes, a couscous and a fresh pasta. First, we did the potato mousseline which is a super buttery and very smooth version of mashed potatoes (Michael referred to it as 'mashed potatoes on crack'). We boiled the potatoes and made mashed potatoes the way you normally would, except once they were done, we quickly pushed them through a ricer to give us a nice fine finish. Everything up until this point is only slightly different from a traditional mashed potato recipe. The rest of the ingredient list doesn't deviate much either, just cream, milk and butter. Except in portion.

For mousseline, we whisked in half a pound of melted butter for every 3/4 to 1 pound of potatoes. That's the craziest ratio of butter to food I've ever seen. I think it'd be more accurate to call it a cream of potato-flavored butter.

Naturally, I'm not saying it wasn't really, really good, I'm just pointing out that a recipe that calls for 50% of the overall weight to be in fat isn't going to taste bad.

Also, at one point while whisking in the butter I asked if it was really worth all the extra effort to make potato mousseline over a regular mashed potato. Michael looked at me like I was crazy, which, is becoming a normal thing these days, and said I needed to try it. Although I did love the potato mousseline, I still don't think its necessarily worth the extra effort. I might do it again for a special occasion, but I think most people are sentimentally attached to a more traditional mashed potato and my guests would be very upset if I made this for Thanksgiving.

We also made some roasted little potatoes, which I think we've all basically done before. I do them all them time, but I've never done them at such a high temperature. I did like the extra browning that came with the higher temp but I couldn't believe how long we kept the potatoes in there at that temp. Have I been under cooking things my entire life or is there a reasonable variance in how done people like to have their foods? I mean, some would argue there should be no more snap left in broccoli, but for me if I don't have to chew, it's far past acceptable.

(Post Script: I've been trying this new high temp potato roasting at home now and I love the results. I generally get crisper outer layers and nicer, softer insides, almost like a well-cooked french fry. I suppose Michael might know a thing or two about food...)

The couscous we made smelled wonderful, really complex and aromatic, just gorgeous. We boiled a seasoning concoction of Michael's he called Moroccan Magic that included cinnamon, all-spice and cloves, just a really interesting variety. We poured the tea over the couscous and kept it in warm location while it absorbed the flavors. As soon as the couscous started to absorb some of the liquid, you could see the change in color. It moved from a light yellow into a variety of shades between gold and yellow and brown, from all the seasoning. It just looked like beautiful little pearls.

Michael also put a lot of emphasis on breaking up the couscous lightly with a fork so that each individual grain was loose and separated from the pack. But he raked the couscous so delicately, it was almost like he was maintaining a Zen garden. I don't know that I would have done that myself. I've certainly seen other people fluff up couscous, but it was more of a swift rake rather than a slow sift.

Regardless, the dynamic of the flavors in the couscous could only be smelled at the beginning. As the couscous came to room temperature, I found it to get increasingly drier and uncomfortable in my mouth. It was almost like we hadn't added enough water and once I put the couscous in my mouth, it tried to absorb whatever liquid was available. I also wasn't able to taste any of the seasoning that had be used in the water to rehydrate the couscous, which was very disappointing. It felt like we all used relatively little water for our recipe, because whenever I make couscous at home (granted, it's not often since it's not one of our favorites) I'm always a little surprised how much water can be absorbed by the grains. It's also entirely possible that couscous is supposed to be a drier grain and I've just been doing it wrong.

We also made a risotto today (I never thought I'd make so many risottos over a four month period in my life). This has always been a topic of much debate amongst cooks, how long to cook it, what to use for the liquid, etc. I think the entire group was thrown when Michael told us to cook the risotto over high heat, I know Catherine was really confused... and showed her displeasure to us by making a colossal mess :)

Although I'm no great authority on risotto, to me, it seems more logical to cook the risotto over medium heat so that the grains have time to cook without becoming too starchy or mushy. I think over high heat, the liquid evaporates too quickly and can make the cook anxious. That, with the constant stirring, can be a very stressful situation, particularly over an extended period of cooking. I'm not very picky when it comes to the texture of the risotto, when people talk about individual grains of rice, I don't know what they're talking about. It's all rice to me, I'm more concerned about flavor.

In the end (also known as the tasting), however, only one group cooked their rice properly so that the grains were still their own, but contributed to the overall mass. The others were, so said Michael, overcooked, too brown or too starchy.

Also, with all of these dishes, we were trying to find the right time to salt everything. Various chefs take very difference stances on the subject and we find that every time we try to guess, yet another chef tells us why we're wrong. It's a little frustrating at times. If we season as we go, then we're developing the flavors of the food and not just a salty note at the very end. But what about things like mushrooms and vegetables? Won't that draw out too much moisture initially and make the end product mushy and unappealing? And, I have to say, when we're trying our hardest to cook recipes we don't know with a group of people, if it's not explicitly on the recipe, I don't know that many of us remember to do it.

The end of the day was dedicated to the fresh pasta we made. I haven't had fresh pasta in a long time. So long, in fact, that I don't know if it was even this millennium. We had so much fun making it, although the pasta machine was a little unruly at times. Watching the length of dough get thinner and longer through each roll through the machine was great because we could see the progression of events:

Pile of flour and ingredients -> kneading gooey dough -> forming doughy lump -> rolling doughy sheet -> pasta!

And actually, teams of three ended up working very well because they got so long we needed people to help support the dough going into the machine and coming out. Eventually, we all ended up with so much pasta dough, we were able to play around with the dough we weren't using for the raviolis. We decided to make fettuccine and toss it in some olive oil and Parmesan cheese (again, I forgot to salt it until after I tasted it).

With the dough we did use, we made butternut squash filled raviolis. We had roasted the butternut squash earlier in the day for almost two hours in the oven before making it into a puree. I'm not sure what was added to the puree, but it was creamy and very autumnal. I don't think I really got the knack of filling and sealing the ravioli correctly. I always lumped too much on and it ended up oozing out the sides. Some of them fell apart in the boiling water, but I found it hard to seal them well, because I would try and press out the air bubbles but accidentally squeeze some of the filling. Then, I would overcompensate and not press the two sides together firmly enough.

We cooked the pasta in a LOT of well salted water (at least that rule has been consistent amongst the chefs). I've never cooked anything in that much water, at least proportionally to the amount of food I'm cooking in the water. I've also never placed that much salt in anything I've ever made. (As mentioned before here and here, I'm a hesitant salter.) The great part was that because they were fresh pasta, it took only a few seconds to cook and had a great buttery to them. Michael was right though, it is hard to get a good bite out of fresh pasta like you can out of dried. I imagine that's why dried pasta is still a popular item.

The ravioli was tossed in a brown butter sage sauce that was a really nice compliment to the butternut squash. A great, clean feeling autumnal dish.