Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cucina del Sole - another celebration of more food...

I was really unimpressed with today's cook, demonstration and recipes. While I'm sure that Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a great writer (I can't make any comments otherwise, I've never read anything she's written), she's an appallingly bad cook with bad recipes.

We cooked a lot of food today, under her supervision, for the evening demo on her new book regaling the joys of southern Italian cuisine, specifically from the Puglia region (the heel of Italy's boot). While I have no doubt that southern Italian food has often been forgotten in the shadow of the more commonly seen northern Italian food, I don't think that Ms Jenkins' demonstration won any new supporters for the cause. The food we made was always a little lacking, needing something to bring it alive. Most of the tastes and textures that evening felt two dimensional and uninspired a claim many Italians would take offense to, I'm sure.

Before I go any further, it's also entirely possible that the food was lacking due to our own inept cooking skills and lack of fresh ingredients. Given that Italian food has such a dependence on fresh ingredients, specifically tomatoes and herbs, it's probable that the tomatoes we used we less than perfect given how far they likely traveled to reach us in New England in November. My question, though, what do the Italians do in winter?

Back to the food, Jenny and I were tasked with making the focaccia for the evening, something that wouldn't ordinarily be possible in a six-hour window, but was helped along greatly by Kevin making a starter dough/yeast-thing the day before. If it hadn't been for the overnight fermentation that the starter had been given, our focaccia wouldn't have had nearly the same kind of rise needed.

After a confusing start to the day, Jenny and I began the somewhat complicated process of making the golden semolina bread that would be used to make the focaccia that would be used to make the focaccia with tomato and ricotta topping. It was a bit like the little Russian dolls that each fit within a larger one, each one begat another recipe from somewhere else.

Using the starter dough that had it's first rise overnight, we had to punch down the dough and then add flour and warm water until the dough began to firm up and come together easily. Once it reached that stage, it was time for us to take it and knead it vigorously until the dough is no longer sticky, but more soft and silken (the book said like 'an earlobe'). Luckily, we were able to use the very large commercial Hobart mixer for the task, if not for that, I don't think Jenny and I would have had the ability to make the bread in time for the evening demo. Not only would the kneading have taken much longer by hand, but it would have been simply exhausting for the two of us to put enough strength and energy into such a large batch of dough.

While Jenny slowly monitored the kneading process in the machine, I began to prepare all the ingredients we would need for the tomato and ricotta topping. For this particular tomato topping, we used canned tomatoes, because as Nancy explained, they are often far better than those that are out of season. It's so strange to me that of all the fruits and vegetables that can well, it would be tomatoes, a rather delicate piece of nature with a distinctively light flavor.

After the kneading, we left the bread to rest again for two more hours before we could move onto the the instructions in the focaccia recipe for shaping and forming into loaves. Jenny joined me and we continued our prep for the topping by thinly slicing julienne strips out of the whole canned tomatoes, a messy, slimy job. Part of me was relieved that we were using canned tomatoes, as it allowed us to skip the step of blanching the tomatoes for peeling, but I think using fresh ones might have been less messy.

I'm inclined to think that canned tomatoes would generally be better on top of focaccia because of it's slightly stronger and more intense flavor, even fresh tomatoes at the height of summer wouldn't hold us as well, I think. But I would like to try making the focaccia (maybe a different recipe) again in summer using fresh tomatoes to see if there is a difference. I'm certain that all the tomato topping I've ever had on store-bought focaccia was from a can (probably for cost reasons).

We also needed to force the ricotta through a food mill to make it slightly lighter and creamier. Nancy was very particular about the type of ricotta we needed to use, nothing too watery or thick, because it would affect the texture of the bread that it rested on. I hadn't thought the food mill would make much of a difference, but the ricotta did come out finer, creamier and just lighter in general. Once the ricotta did go through the mill, I also began to understand why the water-level of the cheese mattered and how it would have made the cheese different had it been wetter.

By time we'd chopped up the olives and grated the cups and cups of parmigiano reggiano, the focaccia was ready to be portion, shaped and rolled out into the baking sheets to be covered and baked. It was almost shocking to see how much dough we had to negotiate with, particularly since it had been allowed to rise twice, it had swelled to amazing proportions. We both pulled the dough out of the mixing bowl and tried our best to cut the unruly mess into five same size portions (I failed and was told by Jenny to focus on putting the topping on the bread).

Although I tried to put the topping on the bread in a slow, methodical way, it really wasn't working very well. Once the dough is rolled out onto the greased sheet pan and dimpled with our fingers, we needed to liberally (the book says lightly, but Nancy in person disagreed) spread olive oil over the dough. Then, I needed to spread a layer of ricotta over the top and stud that with the chopped olives and julienne tomato slices, followed by another drizzle of olive oil and then a little seasoning, some oregano and finally the cheese and an extra splattering of olive oil (for luck, I'm guessing.

It became very obvious after the first focaccia that trying to complete all these steps in an orderly manner would be very time consuming and an exercise in futility, so I rolled up my sleeves and used my hands to slather on the olive oil, layer on the ricotta, olives and tomatoes, seasoning and extra cheese. Unfortunately, we started to run out of tomatoes (I don't think the portions on the recipes are nearly enough for the type of topping that Nancy intends for the completed bread to have) and had to start using the leftover pulp from the canned tomatoes. Thank GOD we had thought to save it because we were running out of tomatoes on bread loaf number 2, we wouldn't have made it without that pulp.

After all five had baked off, we took them out to let them rest for a few minutes before cutting them for service. The bottoms were nicely golden and browned from the oil, giving the bottom of the loaf a nice slightly nutty crunch. Unfortunately, I think we either over worked the dough or didn't let it rise enough because the bread seemed to lack the fluffy springy texture normally found in focaccia. Either way, it was a little disappointing given the effort we'd put into our bread.

It didn't seem like the other dishes of the evening were particularly well recieved either, more than a few of the people that came left entire servings of food on their dishes (particularly the fish course). Maybe the southern Italian aspect of the food was too foreign to the evening participants, or maybe the recipes weren't the greatest, it's hard to say. I feel like it was a very challenging night, cooking with (and I use that term very loosely) someone who wasn't a cook themselves. It seemed like at one point, Nancy would at least demonstrate how she envisioned her dish, but it never happened. I think it was a very disjointed night because it was the first time we truly lacked a more experienced voice in the kitchen.

Let's hope Monday's demo with Mary Ann Esposito works out better, rumor has it she's doing southern Italian food too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We failed Jody Adams.

We had a great day with Jody Adams of Rialto, even though it was the first time in class history we didn't finish, we were all so disappointed. To be fair, it wasn't completely realistic that we would finish in time, after all, each team was doing all of the menus and we got off to a slightly late start because Jody was stuck in traffic. That being said, I still think we did well, tried our best and turned out some delicious food, thanks to Jody's fabulous recipes.

Today's menu called for three different doughs, tart, pasta and erbazzone, so we immediately knew we should start on those first, while we waited for Jody to arrive. Just as we were all finishing up on that, Jody arrived and gave us all a quick run down of the menu, where they came from and why they were on the menu. It was interesting to see someone who, although not Italian themselves, embrace Italian food so wholeheartedly. Sort of like Ana Sortun and her love of Middle Eastern food.

Catherine and I finished making the our dough at the same time so we both moved on to the baby chickens so we could get them marinating in the balsamic vinegar ASAP. Breaking apart the chickens was very fun, as disturbed as that makes me sound. It gave me great practice for taking apart chickens because I was able to do it on a much smaller scale and really see the animal as a whole, something that doesn't happen much with the larger birds.

Once those were in the marinade, I started to work on the cipollini and cook them down with some Cabernet vinegar and sugar so they'd become nicely browned and caramelized. The onions provides a lot of the sweetness, but because they were so large, we decided to throw in some sugar too. The best thing about the cipollini is that because they could be served at room-temperature and could afford to sit aside while we worked on the rest of the food.

For some reason, I just couldn't get the onions to cook through, so I needed to keep adding water so that the onions could simmer while the liquid continued to reduce. I did this at least five times before the onions were even close to done. Unfortunately, the worst part that the final simmer and reduction was that I completely forgot about the onions and unfortunately, the onions reduced to much and the liquid started to burn, giving the onions a slightly bitter flavor. Oh well, they still tasted wonderful, cold or hot, and made a great new dish for anti-pasti.

Even though Jessica was working on the fillings for the pasta, Catherine was working on the stuffing for the erbazzone and I was finishing off the onions, rolling out and baking the pie tart, we still felt like we were very behind on everything. Thankfully, we weren't the only ones, because by time 4:15 rolled around Jody decided that it wasn't going to be possible for all of us to complete all the various dishes. Instead, Jody decided that she would demonstrate each of the dishes so that at least we could all taste it.

Beginning with the onions and fritters, Jody started plating dishes using whatever group had finished it, because, at very least each group had nearly completed one of the dishes. Plating the fritters, cipollini, shaved Parmesan and prosciutto, finishing it with a drizzle of the syrup left over from the onion reduction. The mixture of flavors on this dish were so familiar, so sharp and so explosive, it seemed like it was the first time I'd ever eaten. Not only was there a contrast in temperature, but texture and flavors: sweet onions, salty fritters, creamy cheese, fatty prosciutto.

Even though we all felt defeated because we weren't able to finish the entire menu, tasting the first dish made it all alright. The entire class was so amazed by how good the dish was I think it lifted everyone's mood.

Since we had snacked on the erbazzone as soon as they were finished (so delicious), we moved straight onto the Balsamic chickens with beets. Jody threw the entire bird onto a hot pan and pressed it down in weights so it would cook more evenly. After cooking the bird on both sides, Jody deboned the chicken (only the ribs, not the wings and legs), cut it into pieces and plated it with the roasted beets and some quickly sauteed spinach.

This dish was fantastic. Really simple but full of flavor and spice and color, it felt familiar and comfortable, a real achievement. We all loved the way the balsamic marinade tasted (and it was good to see the appearance of fennel seeds again after our sausage day with Charles so long ago) and thought the mix of the spinach and beets really helped enhanced the deep flavors of the vinegar. I think a lot of us bounced happily back and forth from the first course and the chicken course. It all fit together really nicely, too.

Unfortunately, none of us did get around to making the entire caramel tart that day, so we didn't have the chance to taste it. We were able to taste the caramel filling which had big chunks of nuts and almost entire figs in it. It was very earthy and perfumey, slightly bitter and very organic tasting. I think the large chunks of nuts and huge pieces of fig helped break up the (otherwise) overwhelming amount of caramel. Most interesting, I think, was that we added bay leaves (a lot of them, actually) to the caramel when we were making it. Ever since John V. told us that bay leaves had a rather strong aroma, I'd been reluctant to use much of it at all, and was very surprised to be including it in caramel and using so much of it. When I really thought about the flavors of the caramel, it really hit me just how perfectly the bay leaf melded with the sugary caramel. It took something that was so out of this world sweet and brought in some savory, made it more real and meaty. It was really incredible and very delicious.

Although we didn't finish all the recipes today, I think the class and the food we had left a big impression on us. I'm certain I'll make the balsamic marinated chicken for the rest of my life and I know that a lot of people in class simply fell in love with the cipolini onions today too. I think those onions would make the perfect side dish to a lot of great meals.

Maybe I should make the chicken and onions for dinner...

I think Jody also showed us her way of approaching Italian food: understand the essential ingredients, the whys and hows of the way they are used, and mix it up. It's a great way to approach a lot of things in life.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau

I was reminded again today why JJ has to be one of my favorite personalities, cooking or otherwise. There's something so lovably pompous about his Frenchy-ness it's really rather endearing. JJ returned for something I'm sure is near and dear to his heart, Beaujolais nouveau. And I was thrilled to see coq au vin on the menu, I'd be devastated if we'd completed this entire course in classic French cooking techniques and I never once made a coq au vin. It'd seem very wrong to me.

Also on the menu today was French onion soup and a simple apple tart that was magnificent, as far as tarts go. Actually, a great example of why JJ is so great: he asked us if we'd done a French onion soup yet, so we replied that we had with John. JJ pauses for a moment, shrugs and says, "It doesn't count. He's not French."

So, for the remainder of the morning, JJ makes all three courses, explaining the different steps and how to do it, beginning with breaking down the chicken and browning it in the pan. Meanwhile, he parboiled some salt pork and chopped the rest of the ingredients for the coq au vin. Once everything was well browned, he took out the chicken and browned the vegetables and salt pork, again, until well browned. Once everything was transferred to a large pot, he deglazed the pan with some red wine and poured that into the same pot. An entire bottle of wine later, the pot was filled and the lid put on top so it could simmer for about 40 minutes.

Catherine and I were both confused it was such a fast process, I think we'd both heard that coq au vin is supposed to take hours and hours--is this wrong? Is it like the myth of a turkey needing to roast for six hours? If I ever met someone who told me they roasted their turkey for six hours, I'd make a mental note to never eat their cooking. Some would say that's elitist, I say that life's too short to eat really bad food.

Cut to Catherine and I making the exact same dish three hours later and trying to do it all as well as JJ, a ridiculous aspiration, but ours nonetheless. The pans we used were uneven meaning some chicken browned faster than others, the heat was a little high making patches of chicken meat stringy and for some reason, it took so much longer than JJ's chicken had. JJ's chicken seemed to brown up quickly in the morning, but for us, it seemed to take almost 20 minutes before we could get a good color on the chicken.

Of course, it also didn't help that all the prep required for the dish took us forever to pull together. That's the only time I would say that JJ's dish might have been easier because he was able to pull all his ingredients from a tray prepared by Kevin. We should all be so lucky! By time we'd gotten to the stage where we combined everything into a pot, it had already been two hours.

Anyway, back to the morning demo with JJ where he showed us his faux puff paste dough, which came together laughably quickly and showed us how to prepare the tart dough and crimp the edges. I couldn't believe how easily his dough came out (and later on, how good it was). Although I love puff paste, if I can make something almost comparable in a fraction of the time, I'm there. After fanning out thinly sliced apples around the dough and sprinkling it all with some sugar, it was ready for baking. This really was the easiest tart in the world. The majority of JJ's time was spent preparing the apples and arranging them on the dough. When they came out of the oven and we could all finally have a taste, we were all bowled over by how good the most simple apple tart could be. Lots of us fought over second pieces, it was that good.

In the afternoon, I did the dough for our group and, gratefully, it came together just as easily for me as it did for JJ. It really was the easiest dough in the world to make - buttery and flaky without too much effort. After bringing it together, we needed to let it chill, so we started on the onion soup.

Caramelizing the onions for the soup always takes a long time. For the first seven minutes, nothing happens, not even a little color, and then it seems that suddenly they start to get some great color and you're off the heat in another four minutes. Talk about delayed reaction. Then I tried to deglaze the pan, but there just wasn't enough liquid because it would evaporate before I could get all of the browned bits stuck to the pan. I had to keep adding more and more white wine to get all the flavor. I was worried that the soup would become too boozy because of it, especially since there onion flavor was lacking after I added in the chicken stock. I just hoped that after it had a chance to simmer and reduce, the flavor would concentrate and make a better tasting soup.

Naturally, watching JJ cook the onions for his soup in the morning, I felt it came together far faster. It looked rich and fully flavored before they even added the chicken stock and didn't need to be reduced to develop the proper flavor. Regardless, the really interesting twist on the soup came afterwards. Instead of floating a crouton covered with cheese on top of a small bowl of soup, JJ mixes things up a bit and layers in the croutons and cheese making it almost like a bread pudding by time it comes out of the oven. This change in texture creates a heartier soup that feels more complete, which sounds strange, but after having some of JJ's soup, it made all the other onion soups I'd had before seem incomplete, like all of them should aways be finished this way before being served.

Our tart came out well, except the top didn't look brown enough. JJ explained this morning that occasionally the tart's top may not gain as much color as you'd like, at which point he said we could put them under the broiler for a few minutes. Because our tart hadn't developed the color on top, JJ decided to put our tart under the broiler for us... and then he burnt it. Sabotage!

I think when it came time to sit down to dinner, it was 4:30pm, which means it took us three and a half hours to do the same amount of food that JJ did in an hour thirty. Typical Frenchman! :)

Of course, I love JJ and I have a lot of respect and admiration for him. I only hope to be as effortless a cook as (he seems to be) one day.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chinese food and Chinesesque food

I've been looking forward to Chinese food day for a long time. I was hoping to learn some fundamentals about Chinese cuisine that I probably already knew, but didn't know I know... you know? I had hoped today would be one big "ah ha!" moment for me.

I really enjoyed listening to Helen Chen this morning. I thought she was a great teacher and gave us a helpful overview of Chinese ingredients, and how to buy/find them. Like Leo Romero, she also touched a bit on the different regional cuisines that could be found in Chinese culture. I though her well organized and thoughtful in her approach to teaching us as much useful information as possible in such a short period of time.

My favorite part of it all was her explanation of why things were done the way they were. From wok shapes to why we stir-fry and why we don't eat beef. I don't know exactly if her theories were necessarily historically accurate, but I thought her point of view to be an reasonable assessment of what probably happened.

The dish (twice-cooked pork) she made for us didn't translate correctly into the name she gave it (chungking pork) which I thought was a little weird and pointless, but it turned out pretty good. Jenny took far bigger issue with it than I, but that's one of the reasons I find her so entertaining. Helen cooked the dish quickly in front of us, explaining each step and seasoning as she went. I'm glad she went through the effort of explaining the differences between the actual Chinese use of cornstarch and what western cuisines think is how the Chinese use it. Nearly every chef that's come in and talked about thickening agents with us said that Chinese food often uses a cornstarch slurry to thicken sauces, but, I've mostly noticed that in Chinese-American food restaurants, rather than in authentic food. Most dishes do include some cornstarch, but it's not in the form of a slurry, rather it is dusted over the protein part of the dish to help keep the meat tender and juicy.

When Helen talked about her mother's cooking legacy, I was reminded of my own family's recipes. I'm pretty sure we don't have any recipes for anything written down. I can only vaguely remember the recipe for my family's food and it's been years since my mom's cooked anything. My grandmother, the only remaining cook in the family, isn't one for recipes, she just knows instinctively. I think if I asked her about her food and to give me approximate values of ingredients, she'd just ignore me. It's just not done, but I'd hate for it to be gone when she passes away.


The afternoon, however, wasn't at all what I expected. After the morning session, I assumed that there would be a continuation of the general theme, but I think the afternoon session of cooking was geared more towards Chinese-American food. Most of the recipes were distinctly Americanized food, which is fine, but not what I was hoping or expecting from the afternoon.

The recipes for the day were beef lo mein, sui mai-pork dumpings, stir fry vegetables and fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Breaking into four groups, we each did one recipe--we did the dumplings.

Dumplings are a catch all phrase used to describe most Chinese food in a wrapper concoctions, but it isn't at all accurate and I was hoping that Bik would talk about it a bit. The differences between steaming, panfrying, boiling and in a soup, because every single one has different properties beyond cooking methods, but in the make up of the stuffing and the shape and thickness of the dumpling skins. Bik kind of lumped all of them together in class today. I admit I might be a little picky because my family takes dumpling making (and eating) fairly seriously.

Just so that we're all clear though, a quick run down:

Dumplings (mandarin: jiao-zi): standard term for meat-filled round wrappers that can be pan-fried to make pot-stickers (mandarin: guotie) or boiled/steamed in water (mandarin: sway-jiao) and served without a broth, but with a dipping sauce. Generally, wrappers are folded in half (some may have a special crimping or something), skins are slightly thicker than wonton wrappers to stand up to the pan-frying.

Wontons (mandarin: whun-dun): refers to meat-filled square wrappers, boiled and served in a soup or broth. Fried dumplings are a Chinese-American food, not a traditional cooking method for Chinese wontons. Generally, wonton wrappers, like dumplings, are folded in half (some have special crimping), but wonton skins are generally thinner than dumpling wrappers.

Siu-mai (mandarin: siao-mai): meat-filled wrappers that look like open purses. These are steamed and sometimes served with a dipping sauce. Unlike dumplings and wontons, the skins of these are not closed to seal in the filling, rather they are gathered at the top and the filling is exposed. Not a traditional meal food, but rather apart of dim sum (which has lots of different types of dumplings.

I'm all business when I talk about dumplings, I think I get it from my mom. But it's important that people know the difference and not use the term interchangeably, nothing frustrates me more.

I'm not particular about filling because there is no right answer, it's purely personal. I ended up teaching my group (and the whole class, I think) how to fold dumplings and wontons. It was a lot of fun and from the way it turned out, probably one of the easier dough-related crimping techniques we learnt. Even Catherine, notoriously uncoordinated in such matters, made pretty dumplings and wontons.

Everyone was anxious to eat the dumplings, so we started to cook them. The recipes only called for the dumplings to be steamed, something I very rarely do, I only ever make pot-stickers or have them boiled in water, so it was good to gain some experience there. The class wanted to see how pot-stickers were made so, I demonstrated for everyone. I don't like steaming dumplings and wontons because I find the skins end up sticky and tacky, a very unpleasant texture and taste. Either way, I hope I helped the class learn a little more about dumplings, wontons and sui-mai.

We watched as Bik made the rounds to all the groups and did a demo of the food. I've never known what lo mein and chow mein was in Americanized Chinese food, so it was interesting to see beef lo mein being made. I can't imagine what the original Chinese version of that was, but there was the Americanized one, for better or worse. I thought this pretty vile and avoided it. It was too salty, too thick and too goopy for my tastes, Chinese food or not.

Stir-fry vegetables were pretty standard fare until we got to the sauce for the dish. I should have asked Bik why she wanted to us to include oyster sauce in the dish. I know that oyster sauces is used in cooking, but I wondered why it was needed here and what it did to the flavor of the food. I wish I had remembered to ask her.

The Vietnamese spring rolls were my favorite dish of the afternoon, likely due to it not being a Chinese dish and my love of all things Vietnamese. The filling seemed to be a variation on a Chinese roll, but the mint, cilantro and dipping sauce helping bring the flavors of Vietnamese food out. I'm happy to have the recipe for that dipping sauce now, I'd seen it done before, but completely forgot the recipe. It's the best cultural condiment I've ever come across and will always have a home in my kitchen.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with today. I would have found it more accurate to call the afternoon session, Chinese-American food, because all it was to me was food found in bad Chinese restaurants across the US. Mike jokingly said to me that he learnt more from me today than from the teacher. Whether or not that's true, I feel like this afternoon could have been better spent on something else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Menu creation isn't for the weak!

Joe Carlin came in today for a little lecture on food and cookbook history in the US. Although he could be a little dry at times, I enjoyed the lecture and the sample recipes he brought along so we could see how cooking styles have changed.

As someone in the gastronomy program, I'm always wondering what others do with their interest in food. Some graduates, like the Modern Food Issues guy, haven't included their masters in their day job, but rather, keep it as a hobby. It would be wonderful to see someone who's done something with their degree.

Joe clearly had a formidable knowledge of food history, particularly in New England, and I think his enthusiasm for the topic was quite infectious. I'd love to start seriously collecting cookbooks, like he does, but from a different era or with a different theme. I would like to go to the Schlesinger Library for their book sale, too bad it's on the same day as the class final project!


This afternoon, however, we did get to see where culinary program graduates land. Nicki, a former graduate and kitchen assistant, came in today to help Jeff Fournier of 51 Lincoln teach the afternoon class. In fact, Nicki was recently promoted to sous chef. She seemed intense, but very sweet. I hope she does well.

We had a varied menu today, some items were classic and comfortable (pumpkin flan) while some where definitely a bit of a shock (watermelon steak). I was excited at the concept of the watermelon steak for sure, I think a lot of chefs try to do new and unusual things with food, but take away the essence of the ingredients in the meantime. I was hoping that Jeff's watermelon steak wasn't going to turn out that way, especially when he said that it would look like a tuna steak and taste a little like foie, two statements that don't really instill a lot of confidence in a consumer.

We started with the watermelon steak because it would take the longest amount of time. He chopped a very large watermelon into three large discs, trimming them off so they would sit properly in the hotel pan and cutting off the rind. After a little seasoning with salt and pepper, we just drowned them in cream sherry, butter and water and threw them in the oven for a few hours. I couldn't even believe how simple it was, but I wasn't sure what to think about the ridiculous amounts of butter we placed in the pan.

Once the watermelon started going, Jessica and I started to do the rest of the ingredients for the watermelon steak dish, including eggplant chicharonne and confit cherry tomato. I liked working on the eggplant because I was introduced to a lot of new ideas, like a chicharonne, which is basically deep-fried slabs of pork (like bacon). Applying the same cooking method to an eggplant was fun and resulted in a very different tasting vegetable. After cutting the eggplant into large wedges with little incisions in the meat, we tossed them with sliced onions and sazon, a sort of Mexican spice mix (which is probably mostly MSG), and roasted them off so get rid of as much moisture as possible. Once most of the water was cooked out, we would be able to throw them into fryer and crisp up the outside of the eggplant.

The tomatoes, I thought, were going to be similar to the tomato confit that we had made with Michael Leviton. The purpose of those were to really enhance the flavor of the tomato, especially useful when it was out of season. I thought those tomatoes turned out a little on the sour and tart side, rather than having the fullness of a tomato, and I didn't like them much. So I was pleasantly surprised when these turned out so well. I think the difference is that these weren't really much of a confit, really. They weren't cooked slowly at a low temperature at all. They were quickly sauteed and finished off in the oven, until the cherry tomatoes just started to burst a bit. The resulting tomato was full of juice and flavor and when you bit into it, the concentrated flavors exploded in the mouth. Really yummy stuff.

The other groups had worked on other recipes throughout the day and when all the mise was done for a recipe, Jeff would demonstrate it for the entire class. The first item we tasted that day was a bit of a glorified bar snack, which is not in anyway a bad thing. We started with BBQ rubbed and beer steamed shrimp. The rub, which was very intense and strong, made the shrimp a dark brown and red color that stuck to your fingers and worked really well with the light yeasty quality of the beer (which Jeff made a point of saying it had to be very watery beer, he used PBR). When they were done, they were so coated in spices they could have easily been mistaken for chicken wings. The shrimp was cooked perfectly (which, I gotta say, some chefs have overcooked their shrimp in this course) and very strongly flavored, which was somewhat balanced by the toasted white bread triangles on the plate (they also served as a great vehicle for sauce eating).

Next, we served up our watermelon steaks, which at this point had shrunken down making the watermelon actually look a lot like tuna steaks. Jeff carved up the steaks into wedges and pan fried them quickly, while I finished the eggplants in the fryer. Once plated, the watermelon, eggplant and tomatoes gave a great range of flavors on one plate, the bitter salty crisp of the eggplant, the juicy brightness of the tomato and the dense meaty sweetness of the watermelon. They were fantastic together, it was a great example of taking some very disparate ideas and combining them in a successful way.

I was really impressed that the watermelon still tasted like watermelon. While I was definitely weirded out by the watermelon steak being (1) warm and (2) savory, I was really pleasantly surprised that the essence of the watermelon had held up. It really was a watermelon steak, not a piece of watermelon with so much seasoning that it was mostly a vehicle for other more traditional steak flavors. I don't think I'll make it (or order it) but I'm glad someone out there really gets that doing creative things with food doesn't always involve making it unrecognizable.

My favorite dish of the day was the hanger steak with jalapeño jam. OH my holy goodness. That jalepeno jam was fantastic and something I would love to jar and give to friends. Jeff said that it wasn't the greatest because it hadn't had a chance to really come together yet and that it would be better after it cooled down entirely, but we were all huge fans of it anyway. The combination of spicy and sweet is something we've really had a chance to see in a few incarnations this semester, but this was one of the more inventive ones for sure. The best part was that the jam really compliented the steak and it felt like it enhanced the steak without over powering it.

The pumpkin flan was lovely, creamy and luscious with just a hint of the pumpkin flavor. They flipped out of the molds beautifully and were just perfect -- I don't think anyone was expecting them to be so good and we were certainly all very, very full by the end of the day.

Also, it was nice to see that the menu of items we were cooking today had an overall theme of Latin inspiration. The strongly seasoned and grilled-like taste with the cumin and commonly found spices in the shrimp, to the eggplant seasoned with sazon and inspired by chicharonne, to the jalapeno jam with the steak and finally to the pumpkin flan for dessert. It was clear the menu was thematic without knocking you on the head with the concept.

I think beyond the unusual application of cooking techniques and flavors we touched on today, we really learnt about keeping a menu similar yet different. It certainly something that Jeff successfully accomplished without having to compromise the very strong qualities of each dish. They worked well alone, but together, it melded into a really well constructed taste profile. I hope to be able to include the same vein of thought into my final project.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Foaming at the mouth!

I don't feel like I did any cooking today, it felt more like I was back in high school chemistry playing around with stuff, only difference is we got to eat our creations.

Jason Santos came in to teach us a little about molecular gastronomy, a subject that a lot of the chefs have had strong opinions on, with most of them agreeing that its 'stupid' (to paraphrase). While I see their point, I still think it's interesting to view food from a purely scientific, play with your food way and enjoyed messing around with assumptions and traditions, all in the name of fun.

We made coconut and mango sunny-side up eggs, carrot cheese noodles in soup and strawberry caviar with cold coffee espuma over donut pancakes. The oddest part was that although we were creating food, none of it seemed remotely food related. Chemicals, testing consistency, blending, it was all very clinical.

Using chemicals all found in nature (or so he said) we changed up some ideas and flavors, it was a little like playing with edible play-doh.

For sunny-side up eggs, we used coconut milk boiled and pureed with carageenan and xanthan gum. Once it was poured out onto the dishes, the mixture set up very quickly, taking on the shape of the pour and setting up an 'egg white' for our eggs. Jason, to match the compliment the flavor of the coconut, had us use mango juice for the yolk. This had a longer process, but came out with very cool results. Using mango juice blended with a boiled mix of alginate and citrate, we dropped little spoonfuls of the cooled mix into diluted calcium chloride. The reaction between the chemicals allowed the mango to become a little sphere, encased by a very delicate skin of it's own juices. It's almost like how an egg yolk is kept together using a thin invisible membrane, the mango mixture reacts with the solution to form a membrane. Jason mentioned that the longer you left it in, the firmer the outside (and eventually inside) would become. We decided to leave ours in for a little while so they wouldn't break apart when we took it out and rinsed off the chemicals in a water bath.

When everything was set and ready to plate, it was unnerving to see the mango yolk sitting on the coconut egg white, the two elements together really did look like an egg. It was a fun little mind and taste trick - I think if someone just cracked into it not knowing that it wasn't a real egg, they would have been shocked. Unfortunately, it certainly looked a lot better than it tasted, although part of the reason may have been that we used mango juice instead of puree and coconut milk instead of the thicker (and fattier) coconut cream. If we had used the more concentrated, thicker textures of both I think it would have had a much stronger and more vibrant taste. I just don't know what you'd use it for.

Carrot cheese noodles sounded pretty gross to me from the beginning and it wasn't really a visual trick either, it was a very strange texture and flavor change. The final result was to have the carrot noodles in a dashi broth. I didn't really understand the rationale behind this, because it's not as though cream cheese and carrots are a natural flavor pairing to dashi, a traditional Japanese broth. When we had finished making the dish, it certainly looked beautiful because of the bright orange contrast to the translucent brown broth, but it tasted just awful to me.

After boiling some methyl cellulose and carrot juice, the mixture was added to softened cream cheese and simultaneously whisked and cooled to 50 degrees. Once it was ready, the batch was transfered to a squeeze bottle and squeezed into the dashi in long, bright orange strands. The noodles were soft and slippery and didn't have much structure--if you tried to pick one up with chopsticks, it just felt apart. This was a fun trick and would probably work great with some other noodle/soup combinations, but this one didn't work for me.

The donut pancakes with strawberry caviar and espresso espuma was a disaster for our group. The technique for the strawberry caviar was very similar to that of the mango egg yolk. I blended and strained fresh strawberries to make a juice that could be combined with a sodium alginate solution. Once the mixture was cooled, we tried to use a squeeze bottle to create droplets of the strawberry stuff into a calcium chloride bath, hoping it would create the same protective membrane it did on the mango juice. Unfortunately, somewhere between measuring out the ingredients and dropping it into the calcium chloride bath, the juice mix became too thick making it difficult to get nicely rounded droplets. Instead, because of our thicker liquid, the droplets all developed little drop tails, making our caviar look much more like pink tadpoles.

Both the coffee espuma (or foam) and donut pancakes weren't as scientific as I thought it would be: the espuma was mostly just coffee with gelatin squeezed out of a spray can, while the donut pancakes weren't anything 'usual' at all, just pancake batter made with donuts. I don't know where I got the crazy idea that we'd be using strange anti-heating devices or something, probably just a result of my overactive imagination. Funnily enough, I thought the least molecular of the foods we made today were the best. The pancake batter was a great twist on an old standard, and I liked the play on words Jason did by adding the coffee foam to make coffee and pancakes.

Today was a fun day, but I couldn't help but feel that all of it came at the expense of flavor. None of the foods that were made with chemicals had anywhere near the same levels of flavor intensity as (1) the real thing or (2) the foods made with no chemicals. It really just reinforced the idea that molecular gastronomy was a trend, fashionable because it's unusual but it does nothing to add to the overall craft of cookery. On the food trend scale, I'd probably rank this well below fondue, at least that still had the taste of good food.

If I had the chance to work with these things again, and I'd love to, I'd really try and use extremely flavorful ingredients to help intensify the flavors. I don't know if it was because we didn't use ingredients with concentrated flavors or if it was the addition of chemicals, all I know was everything tasted slimy and faintly of a food I sort of knew.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Frenchness with Jacques & Jean-Claude

The anticipation at the beginning of this week was enough for everyone to be a little on edge. The big day had finally arrived and I think a lot of us were questioning our skills and whether we felt good enough to be preparing a meal where guests paid $500 a head. I couldn't help but wonder how realistic the pricing was, after all, the most expensive set menu in America was $400 at Masa in New York. I'd gone to the French Laundry earlier this year and it was $240 a head and it's routinely voted the best restaurant in the US and is always featured at the top of international restaurant lists.

Obviously, the inclusion of priceless wines helped buffer the cost, but then, I think most of the guests that did pay were paying for the privilege of dining with Jacques Pepin and having some specularly Jacques food. So, Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama be damned, we're chargin' $500.

When Jacques and Jean-Claude arrived, we were all a buzz with nervous energy. I've never heard the class so quiet (much to Paul's dismay). He came in a chatted a bit about technique and skill while Kevin prepared the various items he would demonstrate for us. Everyone at that point was just too nervous to say anything, but luckily, Jean-Claude came in and broke the ice, making a crack at Jacques' expense. Everything else seemed move more organically from that point on.

But, man, there's nothing quite like watching Jacques Pepin take apart a chicken. I've often joked that this class should be renamed "1001 ways to take down a chicken," and today was different. Jacques showed us how to entirely debone a chicken while leaving the chicken flesh and skin in tact for stuffing and rolling (in this case, we were making ballantines). It looked easy enough, of course, but by time I had to start on my own chickens, I'd lost my mind and all rational thought. I remembered some, but not all, of the steps. And, making it worse, I forgot the order of some of the steps. It took about ten minutes for me to take apart my first chicken, and the last half the procedure went by in a flash because Jacques saw me helplessly floundering and took the chicken out of my hands to demonstrate.

I attacked my second chicken with optimism and the hope that having just watched over Jacques' shoulder how it was done it'd go much faster with cleaner results. I was only mostly wrong. It did take me much less time to take apart this chicken, and I remembered more of the steps, but (and I dont' know why) I felt afraid of the chicken. I was worried about breaking it, which in retrospect, I understand is a ridiculous concern for someone holding a dead chicken (or a carnivore). Regardless, once I recognized and got over it, it went pretty smoothly.

It was a confusing day in many ways because none of us were assigned to any particular project, but rather just bounced around hoping to get everything done and be useful. I stayed on chicken duty for the majority of the afternoon, helping season and mix the sausage-based stuffing that would fill the chickens. Eventually, I helped stuff and tie all the chickens together, something that came very easily to me because of my preference for roasting things at home. We seperated all the chickens into two batches, because we had two evenings of demonstrations, Jacques and Claude wanted us to do all the prep we could for both evenings, so that Wednesday could be mostly devoted to making the big dinner on Thursday night.

The menu for the technique demonstrations was simple but very warm and comfortable. The first course was a slice of a French-style omlete on a bed of salad greens and a slice of toasted baguette spread with chicken liver pate. The second (and main) course was a slice of chicken ballantine on polenta with a little gravy. The final course was a simple dessert of citrus segments on a raspberry coulis.

It was a busy day and few of us were able to really get involved in the various aspects of the dinner. I was able to watch Jacques cook and put together the chicken liver (which, was simply divine) and demonstrate how to make a perfect French omlete. We also all watched Jacques peel and segment cirtrus fruits with a knife and by the end of the week most of us were fairly proficient at it (mostly because we'd done so many). I stuck to the chicken prep (although didn't cook them -- in the end Potter seasoned and browned them up on the stove before throwing them into the oven for an hour) and when it came time to plate and get the dishes out, I was slicing bread and prepping pate. Somehow on these demo nights I always seem to be the one slicing bread, I have no idea why.

The demonstration (on both nights) went well, no major hiccups and lots of very positive feedback. I think Claude wasn't particularly happy with the way the polenta turned out the first night and committed himself to find a better quality product to use the second night. I volunteered to be Jacques' assistant the second night, but to no avail. I sat up there with every anticipation of being helpful, but it was clear I wasn't his favorite of the class and wasn't really has helpful as I had hoped to be.

Because we had taken care of all the food for the Wednesday night meal on Tuesday, we all spent Wednesday working on the very extensive menu for Thursday night. I teamed up with Ashish to help clean and trim the sweetbreads that would eventually need to be breaded and pan-fried for service. Again, we all bounced around and tried to be helpful, I found myself segmenting fruit, making candied orange and grapefruit peel, forcing raspberry coulis through a food mill and cutting bread (again!) for the evening demo. Because I offered to help during the demo (see above) I also spent a lot of time gathering all the items Jacques would need for the demo, running around for various types of produce and equipment.

I liked watching Jacques 'perform' for a crowd. It was clear that he was getting tired from two days of cooking with another one still to come, but he came to life. It was obvious why Jacques ended up being the celebrity of the duo, he really fed off the energy of the crowd. My favorite moment of the evening was when he started taking questions and someone asked, "I read in an interview once that for your last meal, you'd have a hot dog. Is that true?" Jacques' response was witty and quick: "Well, yes. But I imagine my last meal would take place over several years."

By Thursday, we were all pretty comfortable with Jacques and Claude. I remember after the second night, Potter, Ashish and I were sitting around and talking, revisiting the insanity of being able to cook with Jacques, when Jacques wandered in looking for a beer. We all paused in conversation and watched as he showed us how to pop a bottle top off a beer with a spoon. It was pretty cool and we all enjoyed seeing a more casual Jacques. In the end, Potter, Jason and I stood and talked to Jacques and Claude for a few minutes about food and art. Even Jason was a little starstruck, I think.

We all got straight to work on Thursday, finishing prep, baking off the rest of the tartlet shells, and preparing the various elements of each dish. I spent most of my day preparing the corn puree for the sweetbreads, making more candied peels and segmenting more grapefruits for the dessert. Two hours before dinner began, we all gathered together to see how Jacques and Claude had planned to plate each dish, on which plates and when things would go out.. I worked with Ashish all night, beginning with hors d'oeuvre of clam fritters, dropping the batter into screaming hot oil and hoping the rounded shape that Jacques had been able to magically achieve would come out for me (it didn't). They cooked up pretty quickly, but we had to keep adjusting the fire under the pan because we didn't want the outside of the fritter to get too brown before the inside had a chance to cook. It was hot, slow work and we couldn't take our eyes off the pan for a minute.

Once all the fritters were cooked, we all walked around to look and taste some of the other items. My allergy to oysters prevented me from trying the oyster rockefeller, and I avoided the tapenade because of my dislike of olives, but I felt totally in love with the smoked trout on scrambled eggs. They were so good, I must have downed five or six spoonfuls of the stuff. I think the most important lesson I got out of working with Jacques was the magic of a perfectly cooked egg. The size and shape of the curd and how it can totally change and affect the way an egg tastes and feels in the mouth.

Once everyone was sitting in the dining room and the soup was starting to be plated, Ashish and I went back to the stove to make the sweetbreads, the next dish. Each pan was started with a huge chunk of butter and a good glog of oil, once it was hot enough, we filled the pan with the seasoned and breaded sweetbreads and let them toast up. Not only was this excruciatingly hot work, but it was delicate work, as every sweetbread threated to fall apart whenever it was picked up and turned. Once they were all cooked through (it took three batches of four pans between Ashish and I), we moved the chantrelles, duxelles, warm corn puree, truffles and sauce over to the plating station for assembly.

First, a bed of corn was poured out. Then, a small pile of duxelles was placed in the center, and covered with a palm sized piece of sweetbread. On top of this we placed a small pile of sauteed chantrelles. We sauced the corn puree and finished the top with two small shavings of fresh black truffles. The entire plating process felt like a blur, we were moving so fast so we could get the food out as hot as possible that I don't remember much of how it got done. I do remember stopping as the finish touches were placed on the last plate and thinking it looked pretty wonderful. We all devoured this plate with reckless abandon, it was just too good, especially to someone like me who has always been a devoted lover of sweetbreads.

Next up was the roasted squab with pea-and-lettuce stew. This sounded unappealing to me and didn't look very appetizing, but it was delicious. The brightness of the peas were great against the lettuce which wasn't at all what I thought it would taste like, and the squab's gamy flavor was actually an asset to the overall flavor of the dish. I don't ever remembering how or when all of the prep for this dish got done, but somehow it came together at the end and it was so good.

The salad was a simple mix of herbs and mesclun greens in the center of a plate with four different types of cheese, candied walnuts and an apple wedge. It sounds very simple, but I have to mention the apple. It was a revelation. It was a golden apple that just cut into a wedge (skin on) and sprinkled with lemon juice and cracked black pepper. I'd never considered apples in a savory way before, but this really lit me up from the inside out.

Finally, we served he raspberry sorbet in chilled martini glasses, with the chocolate tartlets that were dusted with powdered sugar, both were garnished with fruit segments and candied peels (one of each kind). I may sound like a broken record, but the sorbet was fantastic. Bright and clean, sweet without being overwhelming and just really satisfying.

The most important thing I saw from this was how familiar and comfortable all the food we served was. It wasn't about being pretentious or using the most expensive ingredients, it was about cooking food properly and letting the flavors of each one enhance the other. There was nothing in this meal that was really new in terms of flavors and textures and I liked that. I've often thought that food doesn't have to be new to blow you away, it just needs to be good.

I've never been a food snob, I like fried chicken far too much to call myself one without feeling like an impostor. I've always said my favorite food is the simple clean food that makes sense, little a-ha! moments when you realize something pretty simple that seems obvious now but would have never occurred to you before now. I know a lot of people that have that moment with a jar of Nutella, for me, the magical moment occurs with a good bowl of Vietnamese pho.

I think the reason Jacques, Thomas Keller and other famous chefs have reached success is that more and more people miss the idea of good food prepared well and in a simple manner. Its the magical and familiar moment when you have a great roast chicken or a freshly made plate of fries, it's good food done right. I think it's a great trend that we're seeing with chefs paying attention to these details, but it's probably a sad comment on the food available to consumers when the best chefs in America are making the food our parents grew up eating because we don't remember what Real Food tastes like anymore.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sugar-overload ... two days in a row.

We spent Wednesday and Thursday working with Cindy this week, beginning with pies and ending with all things chocolate. Between pastries with Janine and two days of baking with Cindy, it's a lot of sugar we're having this week.

We started Wednesday with a quick lecture about the properties and types of pies that can be made. I'd never really thought about pies in such depth before, but I suppose there are different structures to pies, some have tops and bottoms (fruit pies) and some have only bottoms (pumpkin pie). I know that a crumble isn't really a pie, but I think at this point it's really a batter of distinction of the types of ingredients in the crumble. End of the day it doesn't really matter, all I like to eat is the crust anyway.

Actually, the most interesting part of the morning was talking about the difference that different fats can make in a dough. Butter which tastes better in pie dough/crust doesn't provide the same kind of lift and stretch as vegetable shortening, which can leave a funky taste in your mouth. I never realized there could be such large taste and texture discrepancies based just on the fats being used, but we were able to see it all first hand because we'd be making pie doughs with a mixture of fats today, but also because we were going to taste a few different pies Cindy brought in. I think it really illustrated the differences, because the pie from Shaw's was clearly made with inferior quality ingredients and left a gummy feel in the mouth.

Which is why I was surprised to see that Cindy's recipe for pie dough still called for shortening. She had seemed so against it, although admitted that for large operations, butter simply wasn't cost efficient. (In the end, Jessica tried to make the pie dough with only butter and it was good, but I don't think it was as substantial a difference because we weren't using some scary generic-brand shortening when we made our blended fat dough.)

While the dough chilled, we prepared the fillings for both the apple pie and the pumpkin pie. In the end we used a filling very similar to the one we used for the apple strudel a few weeks ago, thinly sliced Granny Smith apples with traditional seasonings. Another thing that I had always thought traditional for apple pies was dotting the filling with a little butter before finishing with the top crust. But when we filled the bottom crust with the filling and placed the top dough into position, we didn't place any butter into the filling, is that wrong? I'm not really sure what the addition of butter into the filling does, maybe it just adds a fuller flavor or caramelizes the sugar a bit better.

We pinched off the crusts to seal everything in, poked a few air vents and started to bake. The pie looked perfect before the baking and knowing that the apples would be cooked down by the end of the baking procedure. I think next time I bake an apple pie, I'll use a few more apples and bulk up the filling so that by time its all cooked down the apple pie doesn't look sunken.

While I did the apple pie, Catherine worked on the pumpkin pie filling to be poured into the third pie crust we had ready. The pumpkin pie filling was much runnier than the filling I typically make, which is likely why it too much longer for the pie to set in the oven than any pumpkin pie I ever did.

By time we took both the pies out of the oven, Cindy wanted to leave and told us to wait until tomorrow to cut into the pies. Most of us were pretty reluctant to wait when there were freshly baked hot pies infront of us, but we waited anyway. In the meantime, each group made ganache to be used the next day for truffles.


This morning we did something I had always wanted to do: a chocolate tasting. I always thought it'd be a fun test, something akin to a blind wine tasting (actually, I'd heard there was a place in California doing olive oil tastings, which I'd love to do). After a quick run through of the history of chocolate and the different forms and types of chocolate, we were all able to sit and taste nearly 20 different chocolates.

I never realized ow hard it would be to taste that many chocolates together, especially since I'm not much for chocolate or sweets. After a few unpleasant, almost mouldy tasting chocolates, I wanted to stop, but kept going and drinking a lot of water. There's a fullness you get when you eat certain, very strongly flavored food--particularly mushrooms. It's an artificial fullness that makes me feel nauseous.

By time we hit the kitchen, I think we were all a little grossed out by chocolate, and if not, we soon would be because frankly, there was just ridiculous amounts of chocolate.

First we made molten chocolate cakes, which, of course we made before with Carlos Roderigues, but Cindy wanted to show us a way to make them without having raw cake batter. Cindy's personal take on serving undercooked chocolate cakes (as molten chocolate cakes) was, "totally disgusting and irresponsible." While I wouldn't go that far, I can understand her point of view, so it was good to see a different option for a molten cake.

So, what's her secret? She makes little chocolate cakes and just before the center of the cake gets baked through, she drops in a generous plain chocolate truffle to give the molten chocolate. Once it's all turned out onto a dish, the seam that had the truffle pushed into it is on the bottom and ready to serve. I don't know how this tasted (I'd pretty much given up on eating anymore chocolate at this point), but it looked exactly the way the cakes should.

To finish the day, we made truffles, which I've made plenty of times before. I used to make them for friends during the holidays, it's an especially perfect host(ess) gift for cocktail parties. After a few truffles, we ran out of dark chocolate to melt into ganache to cover the truffles, so we had to switch to milk chocolate. Some people said they didn't notice much of a taste change, but I think the milk chocolate made the truffles taste fatty rather than intense and chocolaty.

We had our choice of finishings for the truffles. Jenny wasn't picky about the final step of the truffles, so we tried something a little different inspired from our pastries day with Janine and mixed cocoa powder with some chipotle powder. The end product was fantastic, spicy and creamy, and the perfect truffle. It's made me think about different rolling options for the truffles next time I make them. I'd love to try and make some Earl Grey tea infused chocolate, I wonder how...? I should ask next time.

(P.S. OH! I could make a tea with the cream I need to melt down the chocolate for the ganache. NICE!)

(P.P.S. Today was the last day with Cindy - I guess I'll have to ask Janine next time she's teaching.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fudgy, delicious brownies with Janine

Today with Janine was fantastic, I really felt like we did a great day of baking and we used all sorts of different techniques to create each of the final products. And, as always, it's good to see a culinary arts graduate and see where they've gone and where they are now.

The morning started well, I think Janine is a great teacher. She was clearly very organized and had planned and researched her lecture thoughtfully, in fact, the best part was when she repeated important facts or concepts so it could sink in. It sounds so simple and stupid but it's really helpful when wrangling new, unfamiliar or complicated concepts. I felt like she enjoyed being in the class with us and felt a personal sense of pride and satisfaction when we produced some great food.

Janine also brought in little tasters of all the pastries we would be making that afternoon - it was so great. Brownies, chocolate macaroons, lemon pistachio cookies, key lime bars, diamond sable cookies and graham crackers. They were all delicious and resulted in an early morning sugar crash that made us all a little useless at the start of the afternoon session.

I loved the graham crackers we made. It had never occurred to me that graham crackers were something you could just make at home, but they turned out perfectly and felt more organic and natural than the ones that traditionally come in boxes.

The lemon pistachio cookies and diamond sable cookies weren't the easiest cookies to make and since I'm not the biggest fan of shortbread butter cookies, I wasn't crazy about them. I feel like all the effort of creaming the butter with the heel of your hand against the board and mixing in the sugar, etc., just seemed a lot of effort. I wonder why we couldn't the creaming in a machine? I should make a note of that and ask Janine the next time she comes in.

The chocolate macaroons were also a little more work than the average chocolate chip cookie. Making the chocolate wafer parts of the chocolate sandwich was a disaster. Our oven wasn't even close to the right temperature so the puff of the cookie didn't properly rise, but it also didn't complete baking. The centers of the cookies were still wet everytime we took them out to check on them, so we'd put them back in, but it never seemed to penetrate the cookie. Eventually, we had to give up because the rest of the cookie was starting to get too dry. I'm sure that in my own oven at home where there is a better and more consist oven temperature for the cookies to bake through. In the end, our cookies were cracked on top, fudgy and chewy. They still tasted great, but with the addition of the ganache in the middle our cookies ended up even soggier.

My favorite part of the day was the key lime bars. I think they were a great twist on the traditional lemon bars and the tartness really worked very well, because the key lime flavor has a natural sweetness too. The time and effort it took into creating all the different layers was totally worth it in the end, but we changed one aspect of it, I decided to not dust the top with toasted, shredded coconut like Janine had. I don't like coconut so much but the bars are just perfection. I'm totally taking the this dessert to my next party.

The brownies were clearly everyone else's favorite part of the day, particularly because we were all kind of fighting over which group got to do which variation on the brownie recipe (plain, chipotle, dulce de leche and espresso flavored). Since we're the loudest we ended up winning the chipotle recipe and they turned out brilliantly. Potter was completely awed by the fabulous combination while I was awed by the great brownie recipe (although I loved the spicy, smoky flavor in the chocolate too).

It was so wonderful to find a recipe for brownies that were more fudgy and chocolatey than cake-y. I normally find most brownies too dry and crumbly, more cake like than fudgy and there should be a difference. It's like when people don't make a difference between muffins and cupcakes, muffins should have a fluffy density and be far less sweet than cupcakes. A cupcake isn't merely a muffin with frosting!

I loved today with Janine, she was a great teacher and the recipes she had us do were clearly well-thought out so that we could do a good variety of techniques. I really appreciated the effort she put into teaching us and I was really happy with everything we made. I can't wait until Janine comes back.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Indian food... with the executive chef of Au Bon Pain?

I seriously wonder if this class isn't secretly called "101 Ways to Break Down a Chicken" sometimes. For every chef we've done chicken which (and that's a good number of them) they've shown us their own technique for breaking down a chicken, who knew there were so many options?

I enjoyed today with chef John, he was a good teacher and clearly had a lot of knowledge about Indian cuisine and Indian food in general. He explained a little bit of information about how the regional food of India varies, even within the same region because of religious groups. I'm all for it, the possibility of eating three different local cuisines based on regional agriculture is a far more efficient use of resources than most other countries.

We did a few different dishes from different parts of India today: parantha and tandoori chicken, and curry shrimp and lemon rice with peanuts. Presumably, the curry shrimp is from the southern part of India, based on the inclusion of seafood.

We started by working on the dough for the parantha and the marinade for the tandoori chicken. Chef mentioned something interesting while we started, saying that the food found in Indian restaurants is like a strange sub-grouping of Indian food, it's not food that is eaten anywhere else, generally, only in Indian restaurants, even in India. I've eaten in Indian restaurants in India - he's right, it's the same menu. It never occurred to me that would be happen within a culture (it's different if a cuisine has adopted because of local influences, Chinese -American food exists only in Western areas) but there you have it.

The dough was very soft and very oily, a very different type of dough than we'd been used to working with. It didn't matter if this dough cold, it just needed to be rested at room temperature for a little while. I'm certainly very appreciative of low-maintenance dough making, I think home kitchen temperatures can be difficult to control and inconsistent, so doughs and batters that don't care are more user-friendly and more likely to actually be done again in my house.

The marinade for the chicken was very pungent, in a good way, but still very pungent. That was a lot of spice for only one chicken, and I thought we could have cut back on it a bit. (Later on, Thomas actually realized that he did have the recipe portions off a little and we were to cut back a bit on the spices and increase the amount of yogurt a bit. Vindication!) After breaking down the chicken and removing the skin the way Thomas had shown us (his method had to be the most graphic, it really reminded you of it being a living creature earlier), we made incisions along the meat to help it cook faster and more evenly and rubbed a paste of lemon juice, salt and chili powder all over the meat and let it sit while we made the rest. Mixing mace, cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, ginger garlic paste and yogurt, we made the second stop for the chicken and dropped the pre-rubbed chicken in, where it would sit until we were ready to cook it. This was a very messy procedure but I really enjoyed doing it. Cooking needs to be tactile, I'll never understand people who are uncomfortable touching food.

Next, we prepared the filling for the parantha, which could be set aside and left to cool. This was probably the easiest thing we'd done all day - a very simple mixture of smashed potatoes with cilantro, ginger and chilies. Again, this bread is so simple, I'd certainly be happy to make this again at home.

I think a lot of us assumed that Indian food was complicated and hard to make at home, I did. Maybe it was because of all the spices and herbs needed, but I never would have thought it would be a quick and easy process. All day, I kept feeling like we weren't doing things right because it was all coming out so fast. I wonder if anyone else felt this way.

The demo for the shrimp curry with coconut was the most surprising of the day, the technique was very similar to Chinese cooking, a quick sauté and a general idea of the cooking time of foods is all you needed. This was the best dish of the day, because I think for a lot of us, southern Indian food is a new type of flavor. The addition of coconut milk and the sweetness of this curry reminded us of Thai curries, although it should be the other way around given that curry originated in India. I also think it's a little unusual how little substance there was in the curry (just shrimp and diced tomato), I know it should be eaten with rice, but it doesn't seem like enough stuff. Maybe, I'm becoming more and more westernized!

We served the curry over the rice (which was tossed with turmeric powder, butter, peanuts and lemon juice) and it was just perfect. I think the flavoring in the rice actually made it feel like a complete dish, although I'm sure that if we had only plain rice, it'd be delicious too.

Chef starting cooking all of the tandoori under the broiler while we finished up making the parantha. Portioning out the dough into smaller rounds, we rolled it out into a small disk and filled it with the potato mixture we'd made earlier, then bunched the dough around it. It actually looked a little like a change purse.

Next, we had to roll out the filled round of dough, which is a lot harder than it looks. Ashish told us that it was actually an old-fashioned test of a girl in India, to see if she could make parantha without having any of the filling fall out. If it came out perfectly, she was ready to be married off... I'm apparently never going to get married off. All of my paranthas fell apart and looked like a doughy, potato-y explosion in on the rolling board, in the pan and on the plate. And I kept burning them in the pan! I don't know if it was the heat, if I didn't dust off enough flour or if there wasn't enough oil, but the wonderful puff and lift that we saw in the bread when Thomas did his demo never happened for me. So sad. Well... at least it still tasted good.

The tandoori chicken was too strongly spiced for me and was glad to know that it wasn't me and Thomas agreed, scaling back the spice mix and adding some more yogurt to the marinade. It was very good though, and much juicier than most restaurants. Most of the times I've ordered tandoori chicken in a restaurant, the meat is very dry, even the thigh meat. The breast meat here was a little dry, but I think if I did the recipe again and added in the extra yogurt that Thomas mentioned, it would help tenderize and soften the breast.

Overall, it was a good day. I think Thomas imparted a lot of food and cultural knowledge on us and really gave us a good overview of how diverse and complex food from India can be.

We ran out of time, otherwise I would have liked to ask him about working for a company like Au Bon Pain and what that means in terms of production and food, particularly given how many countries the chain exists in. I would like to know how, if at all, he creates special local dishes for the different chains, because I imagine that other locations may not always need or want to have New England Clam Chowder on the menu. Of all the chefs we've had so far, I think he's the one working for a company with the widest reach, ,I think his view of the food world from there would have been really interesting for us to hear.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mexican & Nuevo Latino

We had a decidedly Latin American day today (is that the right term? After the mini-lecture/scolding Leo Romero gave us, I'm nervous about using any term incorrectly or offensively!). We started with a morning lecture and demonstration on regional Mexican cuisines, their origins and a short history and culture lesson on ethnic sensitivity.

I think the most compelling part of Leo's lecture this morning was his overview of various foods indigenous to specific regions of Mexico and how it affects the regional cuisines. For example, in the northern areas of Mexico, closest to Texas, there is a larger emphasis on wheat and cattle farming so flour tortillas and beef play a larger role in the local cuisine. The state of Veracruz has a long coastal boarder off the Gulf of Mexico, so seafood is more common in the area's dishes. It's obvious that Mexican food in the US doesn't represent many of the varieties available in Mexico. It's clear that it's not just Chinese food that has a weird hybrid version of itself in the US.

Leo also help clarify a few things I'd been confused about today, particularly in terms of salsa and rice. Whenever I made salsa at home (or at least tried to) I always found that the raw onion flavor would overpower all the other ingredients - not surprising, but frustrating. I always assumed it was because I used too much onion, but when I tasted the salsa that Leo made I realized that it was a matter of marinating the onions (whatever kind you use) in vinegar to help take the edge off the rawness. Very helpful for future attempts at salsa.

And watching him cook the rice was a real eye-opener. I don't think I would have ever thought that Mexican rice gains its flavor by first sauteeing a bit of salsa with the uncooked rice grains until they are toasty brown. It's only after the addition of peas that water (or chicken stock) is added and the rice is steamed. The thought of sauteeing the salsa never crossed my mind, but it really makes a lot of sense. It's an excellent combination of flavors that can be used fresh or as a base flavoring agent. While I don't intend on making Mexican rice anytime soon, I'm glad to know the secret to the flavor.

For lunch, he made an roasted pumpkin seed puree which he served with warm tortillas and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Although it doesn't sound particularly appealing (or filling), the dish was excellent and very satisfying. The seeds took on a creamy texture and the nuttiness of that sauce enhanced some of the sweetness in the corn tortillas. The hard-boiled eggs were cooked properly, so the yolks weren't at all gray or gritty. I really enjoyed the dish and would consider making it at home (once I got a blender).


Carlos Rodriguez was a gem, in my opinion. Despite a bit of chef (and male) bravado, he was a great teacher with a lot of patience and respect for us as students. Some chefs have come in and made us feel stupid, even belittling us, when we don't know something or do something wrong. I think Carlos was a great teacher because he would come and watch us doing something, not necessarily wrong, but perhaps not the most efficient way possible, and show us his method. Sure, other chefs have done the same thing, but Carlos never approached us with a "why the hell are you doing it that way?" but, rather with a "this works for me, let me show you, see if you like it" approach. Not only were people more receptive to it, but I think it showed that he was more open-minded and was willing to acknowledge that other chefs may have demonstrated it in a different way.

I also appreciate his candor about his life, his work and his restaurant. He was the first chef who really opened up to us about food costs, what it's like to cook, when he's been stressed out or had emotional breakdowns on the job. It made it very real for us and gave us a window into the world we might be entering. The chefs from Al Forno tried to tell us a bit about their lives, but the way they told us about it, it was almost confrontational: "You'll be miserable. You'll never have personal lives. Your marriage will fail. You'll be a terrible spouse and parent."
Carlos was really honest and I think it was clear from his passion for food and producing 'nuevo latino' cuisine he loved what he did, even if it kicked his ass sometimes.

I had the opportunity to make lamb empanadas, a dish that I love because of its portability and its possibility for endlessly delicious fillings. I also love that every cuisine in the world has some kind of dumpling-like food, so it was fun to make another culture's turnover/dumpling/what-have-you.

Making the filling and the dough was unexpectedly simple. I somehow convinced myself that the dough was going to be a big, complicated mess and need to rest and roll and... and... and...! I was so glad when after a few minutes of sitting there, it was ready to go and easy to roll out. I thought I was on a roll until we got to the part where we had to close them. Carlos showed us the way to do it, but I don't think any of us got it to look like his. They were all mangled and butchered looking, not at all consistent. I thought it would be easier because I'd made so many dumplings in my life, but apparently not all crimping techniques are created equal.

We deep-fried our empanadas, but I think if I made them again at home, I'd bake them off in the oven. The deep-fried empanadas browned very quickly and turned out perfectly, if not a little bit oily. We served them with a light salad and a mint flavored dressing, that matched the lamb filling very well (funny thing was Leo Romero just talked about how much he hated lamb and mint together this morning).

The next group was making a tuna cerviche with seaweed salad. Carlos explained that the acids found in cerviche didn't actually 'cook' the seafood, so much as it cured it a bit, changing the texture of the flesh. He dropped the slices of tuna in the acid for just a minute instead of letting it just marinate, sitting in the juice. He explained that if you left it in there too long, it would change the texture of the entire slice, rather than just the outside, which gave us a better contrast of textures and flavors. The tangy cerviche tuna over the cool and creamy avocado sauce and the spicy seaweed salad was the perfect blend of textures, flavors and mouth sensations. I think this was exactly what Ana Sortun was talking about when she said that taste isn't only found in fat, but can be added using seasonings. She happened to use spices and herbs (that really didn't agree with me :( ) but, Carlos' flavor profile was perfect, not too busy, pops of contrasting flavors and textures. I think that the flavors in this dish while strong on their own also worked well together -- better, I think, that the flavors in Ana's dishes.

The entree of the afternoon was sugarcane tuna with yucca(?). It wasn't my favorite dish of the day, but what I liked was that it followed the overall theme of the menu but wasn't too matchy-matchy. It was light and flavorful, but this was distinctly meatier than the other two courses which were much lighter in texture and flavor. Carlos felt we should all sit down and eat this course together over some wine so we could ask him questions about his restaurant (opening a second one in Brookline Village), career (wants to retire eventually, doesn't know when) and aspirations (him and a friend sent in video applications for Top Chef).

While we all picked his brain, the final group brought out the torta fluida with mango sauce. The torta fluida was like the best pot of melted chocolate in the world, but for me, the big winner was the mango sauce that had flecks of chili peppers in it. It was sweet and spicy, a really nice balance for me. The chocolate was great, but a little overcooked because they had been done in the convection oven, which does everything at a crazy speed.

I really enjoyed our afternoon with Carlos. I thought him one of our best teachers so far and a genuine person.

Postscript: We went to his restaurant in the South End - what a terrific meal at a pretty fantastic price too. I had the lamb special which was great and the torta fluida which was far better than the one we'd had in class. The true stand out was the pork arepa that was just spectacular. I'm still dreaming about that pork... four days later.