Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The perfect meal?

Our challenge for final project was to make a three course meal in three hours out of anything we want. We were given a list of items that we would be allowed to use out of the kitchen's pantry, but any additional items we wanted to use had to be purchased with our own money. I was reluctant to rely on many of the items on the list because I was going towards the end of the day and there was no way to be certain if the items I would need would still be there and in the full amount that I would need for my recipes.

The menu for my final day was something that came from a variety of sources, but more than anything I wanted my menu to be a reflection of who I am and a little bit about my life thus far. I thought about trying out various dish ideas that I'd thought up during the class that had a bit of the East-meets-West. I'm reluctant to use the word fusion because I feel that the term has proven to be a dirty word in the food world as few restaurants have executed successfully on the concept. I hoped to find a way to meld more classical preparations and techniques with the flavors and tastes that I'd been used to growing up in Asia.

One of the first dishes I'd ever thought up was a twist on the classic beef wellington (or the Indian lamb saag, depending on how you look at it). I thought about how most times Indian curries are eaten with a bread like naan or rice and wondered if it would work if the dish was deconstucted and reconstructed in a different way. My idea was to use wrap a boneless rack of lamb (or a lamb tenderloin) in a puff paste and serve the lamb wellington over a bed of the saag, thereby incorporating all the elements of the lamb saag dish but in a new way that felt new but familiar. Finally, I thought to finish it with a touch of sweet mint oil to kind of tie back in the British flavor and intent.

I really fell in love with the idea of this dish because it spoke to me. I liked the intermingling of British and Indian ideas on one plate, the kind of commentary it provided on the way Indian curries have become such an overwhelmingly popular facet of modern British culture. I tried to construct an entire meal from this very basic idea. Having been raised in Hong Kong and being able to experience the British rule and eventual handover to China, the idea of British influence and colonial life has played an important role in my life. I came up with the idea of a menu called "Rule Britannia" which incorporated dishes from several past colonies, a kind of play on the idea in food form. But structuring a meal around such an intensely flavored and heavy main course proved difficult to me and I wasn't sure how best to execute it.

I did actually think of a starter (sort of) course that would have fit the theme of "Rule Britannia," but while the political and social reference would have worked fine, I don't think the flavors would have given me a complete meal, taking away from the ultimate experience. I'd wanted to include a dish that would represent Hong Kong and my immediate thought was to include a dish I would call 'dim sum.' It would be small (one bite) servings of all my favorite Cantonese (or Chinese) dishes that would traditionally be served as main courses. It was almost like a tasting menu of Chinese food, including a Chinese soup spoon of Cantonese-style steamed fish, a single serving of Peking duck, and a chicken 'lollipop' stir-fried with dried Sichuan chilies.

Although I'd love to try and make this one day, I knew that this would prove to be too much and not work well together. Not to mention that I still would need a dessert that fit my theme. From here, I decided to make my menu simpler, cleaner and less complex. I wanted the title of each dish to be short and self-explanatory. I dislike the idea of having to read an entire description of a dish, it should be easily summated in a clever title. I was committed to the Peking duck and felt I should include it on my menu at any cost, so using this I began to hash out the rest of my menu.

I wanted to serve a main course and a dessert posed the problem to Jason, who promptly recommended several impossible dishes. After a few more, he came up with a gem of an idea: Chinese egg custard tartlets. I found this a little strange (because he doesn't care for them) but really attached myself to the idea rather quickly. Of course, my main problem was that I'd never made them before, but given that I'd never made Peking duck before, I wasn't opposed to complicating my life that tiny bit more.

The idea of the main course came, luckily, from a classmate. Just a week before when some of us had stayed behind at Eastern Standard to eat lunch, we started to talk about what we wanted to make for the final project. I mentioned I was thinking about making Chinese food and Jenny said that she'd made hong sao rou the night before from a cookbook that she had written by a Westerner translating recipes from her Chinese cook while living in Asia. I'd heard of this book before and was immediately curious. I asked her to forward me the recipe, partly in hopes of being able to use it for the final project but also to make at home (this was a favorite of mine growing up, but was limited to special occasions because of my mother's perpetual dieting).

To be honest, I'd thought about making this dish, but didn't have a recipe I knew of and had no way of finding out a family formula. My mother was certainly a good cook, from what I can remember, but she never enjoyed being in the kitchen. She hated it and preferred to stay as far away from the stove as possible, so clearly, going to Mom wasn't an option. I am grateful that I now have a recipe I like enough to make it for my own mother, if she ever dares to eat it.

The weekend before the final project, the menu was really coming together in my mind and I had been able to pick the brains of the visiting chefs and get some ideas on how to execute my dishes. I shopped for all my ingredients the Friday before the final project and bought enough that I would be able to practice twice over the weekend and have food for the actual final.

Using Kevin Crawley's menu idea from h'orderves day, I decided to confit duck legs instead of roasting a whole duck. I knew there would be no way for me to roast an entire duck in three hours and it almost felt like a moment when life intervenes to give you the answer, the day Kevin showed up and made us quick confit duck legs for profiteroles. I'd never made a confit of anything before, but since I'd also never made traditional Peking duck before, I figured it was a wash.

I bought the buns, I admit, and never had any intention of making my own. The bread would have been impossible to make in the time allotted and, well, I just didn't care to make it. I easily could have used flatter tortilla-like pancakes (as is traditionally served with the duck) but wanted something more filling because my Peking duck would be more meat (and less about the skin, which is, again, traditional). The fatty texture the duck meat would have because of the confit, would be, I felt, too much against the rather flavorless tortilla thing. Also, personally, I love those buns.

The test run resulted in VERY salty duck meat, so I adjusted the proportions for the second run cutting the salt by half and adding in 50% more sugar into the rub and it came out beautifully. I knew I that adding more sugar wouldn't hurt because the salty flavor from the hoisin sauce that is served with the duck and the blandness of the cucumber and bun would help balance out the rest. I also added slightly more scallions on the second run because of the fatty and full feeling of the duck and bread I wanted something to cut through it a bit and give it a freshness.

I played with a variety of different cuts of meat for the main and ended up not liking the way the meats would come out when they weren't so clearly layered with fat, so I stuck with the pork back. The first run through for the meat, the sauce came out more gummy and tacky in the mouth and gave it an unpleasant mouthfeel. On the second run through, I changed the proportions of dark soy and light soy to give it a slightly lighter feeling and it worked very well. Jason and I both thought it needed some kind of starch to help balance the dish that was traditionally served with rice, so I decided to add some taro root. I hoped to make a bird's nest on the day of the final project, but since I don't have a deep fryer at home, I made fried shredded taro just to see how the taste and texture would go with the pork. It was perfect and I think the nutty more distinctive flavor of the taro helped give some additional interest to the dish. I was very pleased with the dish on the second run and felt pretty good about things.

The last dish was something I had to kind of come up with on my own. I wanted to have a dessert which proved to be difficult since Chinese people don't eat a lot of sweets. And after choosing to do the egg tartlets, I wanted to be able to approach it differently because I wanted to keep with the "twist on" theme that was going through my menu, but also because I wasn't entirely convinced that I would be able to execute well on the tartlets.

It's difficult to ensure a crisp bottom on those tarts and I didn't want to run the risk of messing it up when it came down to it. I think the idea of separating the two elements came when I was reading up a bit on egg tartlets on wikipedia and remembered how good and popular the caramelized tartlets in Macau were. The final nail in the idea came from Jason, again, when one day he was helping me come up with ideas and said, "Well, isn't the thing filled with the eggy thing you brought home with the sugary top?" It was a flan, which, is essentially the same idea as a creme brulee, without the brulee. That's when I thought it would work for me to do a deconstruction of the Macau version of the tart and make an creme brulee and two puff paste cookies with rock sugar glazed onto it.

I did the first run on the Saturday before the project. I timed the entire thing to make sure I'd have enough time to complete everything. I ended up with an extra 30 minutes and felt confident that I'd have enough time to finish and plate everything. Based on this (and my immensely lazy attitude) I chose not to replicate everything again on Sunday, but rather just refine the recipes based yesterday's execution.

By time Wednesday rolled around, I was ready to go and brought in every little thing I would need for the project, right down to the salt and pepper. I didn't want to waste time having to scavenge for the ingredients and thought it would be better for me in the long run if I used all the same ingredients for the final that I used for the test runs.

Everything came together fairly well, actually. I was pleased with the way the duck came out in the end. I think they looked good and tasted pretty good. And most satisfying, I was finally able to do one of the dishes I'd been thinking about for so long. (One day, I'll get to doing that lamb wellington dish too.)

I thought the pork was a little overcooked and I know why. The timer I had going on my pork stopped after 30 minutes and I kept the meat cooking for 20 minutes longer than I would have liked. If anything, what I should have done is pulled the meat off the fire ten minutes earlier than I had at home to compensate for the discrepancy in the stove's BTUs. My home stove certainly doesn't have the same kind of power. Luckily, not every piece of meat was overdone (at least in my books, no one else seemed to complain) and I was able to serve exactly one piece of meat to each judge (six in total).

I tried doing the bird's nest but it wouldn't hold the shape I wanted it to hold in order to cup the pork and sauce. I started second guessing my idea of a bird's nest also because I was wondering if the sauce and heat from the pork would make the taro lose its crunchiness ruining the contrasting texture I was hoping for. In the end, I stuck with the presentation I had made at home and simply fried up some finely shredded taro root. I don't think it LOOKED that great, but I think it tasted pretty good.

Finally, the creme brulee and puff paste cookies.

The puff was a little dry, but because of the way I was using it in my dish, it didn't really seem to matter. I made two creme brulee to begin with and didn't like the way the first one came out, so I washed out a ramekin and redid one entirely from scratch. It came out looking much better. I think I'd over whipped the first one leaving the end result with an uneven surface because of all the air bubbles. The crust on the creme brulee came out beautifully as well. I think this was my favorite dish of them all. It was a genuine favorite of mine that really kept in theme of the whole idea of deconstructing/reconstructing and mixing flavors and techniques. I'm probably most proud of this idea.

In the end, I think my menu was extremely well received by the judges. I'd put a lot of thought and consideration in my menu's overall theme and made it a true reflection of who I am, where I'm from and my personal interests and cooking style. I think that my success was based mainly on how much of myself I put into the project. The criticisms I received were totally valid: I should have made my own buns, Peking duck is about the skin, I should have included some crisped skin, and, I should have tried to skim off some of the fat rendered out in my pork dish because after it cooled it was very visible and not that attractive. Going into it I recognized these were the problems with my dishes, so the comments weren't really upsetting, but rather reinforcing what I already knew.

Now for a moment of gloating:
- My beloved snooty Frenchman, JJ said of my creme brulee, "this was perfect, eh? Very good."
- Charles said of my duck, "this was a great idea, and something I'd consider serving at the club," of my pork, "great choice of cut and really delicious," and finally, "you were the first person today who gave us the right portion sizes." (Ironic, since I'm the fat one!)
- John offered to marry me (I'm not sure based on what, so I'm going to assume it was the whole thing)
- Michael, and this was a real shocker for me, wrote "YUM" on my evaluation sheet. I nearly passed out. Praise from Michael is a feat indeed.

Final (average) score: 5/5

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


We had a little bit of a hectic day today, I think we all had a little confusion about what was supposed to happen in terms of graduation, etc. We were all anticipating that all the dessert we made today would be saved for graduation and served only then, unfortunately, I don't think Janine knew our plans so it was a little difficult to communicate what needed to be done at a different stage when Janine was anticipating everything to be done today.

That being said, we still got it all done and had a good amount of dessert ready and waiting for us by time prep for graduation came around. Keeping in theme with yesterday's bite sized treats, today was all about mini pastries that were small enough for you to eat fourteen without a second thought--dangerous but good. Each group was also to make every single recipe (with slight variations, of course) which was certainly possible in the time, but didn't help with the confusion already taking over the class.

As a final ode to trios, Potter, Catherine and I paired up one last time to do the pastries and considering the three of us are rather undisciplined when it comes to measuring and timing, it can be hard for us to work together on something more precise like baking, but there you have it. I started in on the mini-cheesecake while Catherine made the dough for the chocolate-coconut tartlets and Potter began work on the mini-brownies (with chiptole, of course).

The crusts, while made of a basic mix of butter, sugar and graham crackers was very complicated because of the way they needed to be formed in the shells. Janine's technique, which she got from someone else, was to use plastic wrap between the crusts and the baking tray so that the cheesecakes could be lifted out uniformly and easily without affecting the appearance too much. It worked well, in the end, but the process of getting there wasn't easy.

Janine suggested that for every row we use a different piece of plastic wrap, mostly so we didn't lose our minds trying to make it work with just one large piece. We sprayed the entire sheet with PAM and started trying to line every cup with the wrap as cleanly and with as few wrinkles as possible. This really did prove to be difficult because every one that you worked on would inevitably dismantle the one previous, it was a strange little exercise in physics and patiences, but I at the end of this course, I'm finding that all of cooking is a strange exercise in science and patience.

Once everyone cup and row was neatly taken care of, the extra wrap needed to be trimmed away with scissors before the crusts could start being filled, which again would require a great deal of patience since the motion of the cutting was enough to pull out the entire strip of plastic wrap. The crusts were a breeze, in contrast, with each one requiring just barely a teaspoon of crumbs to form a solid and compressed crust shape. I was looking forward to this immensely, they were already looking precious (in a good way).

The lemony cheesecake filling was easy enough, a very simple creamy filling that was just enough to make about 40 cheesecakes. I had originally come up three cakes short, but Janine said to make them up with some from each cake. It actually helped them all come out much better because they it gave them a better finish and less sink in the middle. Lesson of the day, under fill cheesecakes just a touch and they'll come out much better. Once they had baked up (in a water bath), they were left to cool in the molds while we made some white chocolate lemon curd to top them with and some lemon confit for garnish.

Catherine, meanwhile, had baked off the chocolate tartlet shells and wrapped them carefully to be saved for graduation, with the rest of the class. Potter's brownies were also done and ready to be packed away for finishing closer to Saturday, so both of them pitched in and helped me get finish up the curd and confit for the cheesecakes.

Once they were all cooled (cheesecakes, curd and confit), it was time for assembly. Janine showed us how to place all the elements together, taking a little cheesecake and putting a fluffy dollop of the curd and topping it with two perfectly trimmed pieces of lemon confit. They looked fantastic and not overwrought (like yesterday's mushroom-filled crepes), but oh MAN they were just delicious. Perfectly lemony without being too tart or too sweet to compensate for the naturally tart lemon-ness. It was just so good and creamy and ideally sized. I think it would be hard to replicate such a well-balanced flavor profile on a larger scale so I was really impressed that Janine's recipe didn't just taste good but it really utilized the shape and size well to maximize the potential of both. I think if I made a full-sized cheesecake with the same idea it could be too much, especially in terms of the curd and the confit, but when talking about a small bite-sized treat it was a really good balance of cheesecake and curd. Really beautiful.

This idea of using portion sizes to your advantage is something I've really been thinking about more and more lately, especially when I think about Thomas Keller and his application of the law of diminishing return in food. The first bite is always the most enjoyable, and then it progressively becomes less and less enjoyable. Keller's approach to it is to only give two or three bites, always leaving the eater wanting more and never tiring of the food. It derives maximum pleasure because of the residual longing.

I'm definitely going to keep this idea of the perfectly balanced bite in mind for the future... maybe even tomorrow for my final project.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Complete Bite

We'd started the day meeting at Eastern Standard talking with Garrett Harker learning about the business-side of starting a restaurant. It was so interesting to really learn about getting the businesses started, particularly from a non-cook person with that point of view. Most specifically, I was glad to be able to ask a bit about the brainstorm and development process during the initial idea stages, not just scouting out a location, but the steps needed to determining what makes a good location. Also helpful was all the questions Garrett answered about how the restaurant handles openings and it's day-to-day public relations. Although I love the cooking, it's really helpful to develop a more well-rounded view of the restaurant industry, because most of us are unlikely to enter the restaurant industry as cooks, I think we all have different ways we hope to approach the industry.

Listening to Garrett explain how they worked through the process of developing the idea of the restaurant, the design process, how they decided the menu, etc. I think the most important thing that we really gathered from the conversation was that it's not a decision of a life that should be taken lightly, it's certainly a very important and costly decision. In the end, I think that Garrett's experience and 'clout' (if you want to call it that) really helped him in the end find the investors and help establish the type of relationship that they will have in the business.

Afterwards, we stayed at Eastern Standard to have a quick lunch. Of the group, only Potter had really eaten there several times and we all wanted to try the food and get an idea of what it's about. Unfortunately, we had to rush a tiny bit in order to make it back to class on time for an afternoon with Kevin Crawley.


Working with Kevin today was like having a huge injection of energy. After we worked with Jacques and Jean-Claude, it's seemed like the class has been a bit sluggish and less interested in details, making deadlines and just making it happen. Kevin's energy level is just so intense and so infectious that it's nearly impossible for anyone around him to not feed off of it at least a little.

We started the day talking through the recipes and telling Kevin a little bit about ourselves. It was like the craziest one-sided conversation with topics ranging from German idioms to fine art and painters to drugs to writers to travel to.... endless topics. I joked later on that listening to Kevin is like a masters class in pop culture, he's a very energetic speaker but also a very varied conversationalist, it was truly enjoyable to hear him just talk.

After we all spoke for a good hour, we had the startling realization that we needed to get on with the cooking because we weren't going to have nearly enough time to get it all done (especially the duck confit group). Paige, Jenny and I worked together on the mushroom crepes that would eventually be rolled into small, filled tubes and tied off for presentation. To begin with, I started chopping an obscene amount of mushrooms while Paige made crepe batter and watched Kevin season a pan for crepes so that we could compare using a non-stick and a well-seasoned pan (for the record, I think the seasoned pan worked better, just enough sticking power for it to grab the batter, but it still came off easily).

I think I chopped close to ten pounds of mushrooms to make the duxelles filling for the crepes. I was expecting that we would need a lot of raw mushrooms given how much they tend to cook town and I was hoping that the amount that I had made was going to be enough. After putting them all through a robot coupe to get them into a fine dice but not quite a puree, we sauteed the mixture in a pound of butter (no kidding) and shallots. The mushrooms cooked down a bit, but not as much as I thought, they probably just replaced the water with butter fat. The mushrooms were cooked through with a little cognac within ten minutes, so Jenny and I hopped over to Paige's station and helped her finish making crepes.

I've never made crepes before as I'm easily intimidated by batter-type foods, particularly those that require a specialty cooking technique (for me that means everything that requires more equipment than just a pan and a dash of oil). Also, crepes are notoriously difficult to perfect and takes a lot of practice than I often have patience for in my home kitchen. I was glad that my first time out I would be under the supervision of the Paige, whose crepes were coming out beautifully. My first crepe was a complete disaster that I ate just to hide the evidence. Naturally, Kevin assured me that the first crepe is always thrown away, but he quickly withdrew his thoughts when I messed up crepes two, three and four. Before I started on number five, Paige nicely suggested I move on to something else before we ran out of batter and ended up short on the crepes.

Jenny cut the crepes down to size so that each crepe gave us two small rectangles of a consistent size for us to roll the duxelles into. I filled every crepe with a small mound of the duxelles, rolled it and sealed it with a spread of sour cream (Kevin would have preferred for us to use creme fraiche, but we couldn't find any in the kitchens that day). Once rolled, with the seam side down, we took strands of lightly blanched chives and tied the rolls in the center to look like tiny sleeping bags or presents. This was so painfully fiddly and slow going I was sure that I was going to hit thirty before finished all 140+ of these little rolls, even with Jenny and Paige doing it with me.

Once completed, I thought they looked pretty fabulous and ready-to-go, but Kevin had other plans. After the knots were tied onto the little crepe packages, he wanted us to place a tiny dollop of sour cream onto the knots and finish each one with very tiny, finely julienned pieces of truffles. This was a very tedious task because of the tiny droplet of sour cream and because it was so difficult to place the tiny truffle pieces onto the cream in an artistic fashion (Kevin's looked the best, frankly). In the end, the little garnished rolls looked precious but were not the best tasting of the lot, which I think belonged to the duck confit profiteroles.

Truffles are a very strong flavor in a person's olfactory system and a little bit goes a long way. I think the inclusion of truffles and/or truffle oil in the crepe batter, the duxelles mixture, the sour cream for sealing and for the garnish was just too much. It was hard for me to eat more than two or three of these without having a bit of a truffle overload. I think it would have been better balanced had the sour cream and duxelles gone without and the truffle flavoring.

The duck confit profiteroles on the other hand were a study in well-balanced flavors and textures. The soft, fatty texture of the meat contrasted well against the airy, crisp profiteroles and cold, slimy and lightly crisp fruit salsa. But the balance of spicy (duck seasoning), sweet (banana-mango ketchup) and tart (fruit salsa) really went a long way to making this feel like a complete thought in my mouth. It left me satisfied and wanting more, something I think all chefs hope to achieve.

I liked that Kevin was all about creating a full experience in just one bite. Obviously there were some more successful executions than others, but overall I appreciated the message he was sending: the perfect bite can exist.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Woooooooo bacon!

Raymond Ost of Sandrine's came in today to give us a little demonstrate Alsatian cuisine. He was a warm, friendly, really great guy and genuinely seemed to love cooking and food. He also seemed to be a dedicated chef, particularly given his very traditional apprentice-style training.

Although he had a limited amount of time, demonstrated three great dishes. The first and second dishes were sort of like variations on a basic idea, an onion and bacon tart. The first, a tarte flambee, is the best breakfast I could ever think of having on a cold wintry day, for example, today. I was so glad that I missed breakfast this morning, because I needed all the space in my stomach for the tarte flambee. The paper thin, crisp crust was perfect underneath the creamy mixture of fromage blanc and heavy cream, and oven toasted onions and sauteed bacon. I can't believe that I've been alive for this long and haven't had something so perfect, yet so simple.

Raymond mentioned that tart flambee is generally a dinner item, but I think its great anytime, for breakfast, as a midnight snack or even after a late night of drinking. I'm a little disappointed that he didn't have a recipe for the dough, though. Just flour and water - I think I'll be spending most of my holiday trying to figure out that dough, just so I can make this at home. Not everyone can import the pre-made tart shells from Alsace! Raymond was lovely about it though, left us loads to use for graduation and even offered to sell us tarts at cost. I just wanted to hug him.

Raymond also said that the tart would be much better with wine, which I assumed to be a ridiculous French ploy to make us drink wine, but it really did open up a new range of flavors when we had a taste of the wine (even though it was Charles Shaw). I think it helped cut through the fullness of the bacon and onion, and it was simply delicious together.

The second tart he made was in a more traditional tart shell that was a little more crumbly. He filled it with a mixture of sauteed onions and bacon again, but because it needed some kind of binding, he used a bechamel sauce. Not only did it help thicken everything up, it gave it a great creamy texture. Raymond also made a great point when adding in egg yolks, he explained that it would help brown the food. (As a side note, Raymond explained that milk actually helps make dough shiny, very interesting.)

I didn't like this one quite as much as the tart flambee, I think I like the crisp of the dough on the first one much better.

The last dish is something I plan on recreating as soon as possible -- mussels in a saffron cream sauce. It was so simple and much more satisfying than mussels in a white wine broth. I felt like once it was in a cream sauce it made it a more complete meal. A simple softening of onions and garlic with the addition of white wine, cream and saffron for the mussels to steam in. This with the tart flambee was the best meal we'd had for lunch over the entire course.

I hope to go to Raymond's restaurant soon and eat tart flambee until I explode. They way it's supposed to be done.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery." -- Mark Van Doren

I’ve never been more disappointed in the program than I was today. I’m fairly certain I don’t feel alone in this either because a few of us talked about why we were so disappointed.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the morning session about food writing, I thought that was pretty interesting and thought Ms. Copps to be a very energetic and animated person, so this morning was a lot of fun.

The afternoon session, however, was market basket with Michael Leviton and I don’t think this class was used to its full teaching potential and am really disappointed with that. I really like the idea of market basket because it gives us a chance to really integrate the recipes we’ve learnt in with our own modifications and helps us fully process what we’re learning and using with each recipe. I also think Mike had a great point when he said that market basket should be done once a month so that we have a chance to put our knowledge to use, rather than having just a rush of it at the very end. I think we’d all learn more and I think we’d more fully synthesize what we’re learning and why each aspect of the techniques and cuisines we’ve learnt has value to our overall skills. The one addition I would add to Mike’s suggestion is that I think we should be allowed to bring in recipes, obviously not with the intention of copying one word for word, but I think because then we can pull different things we liked from different days/chefs and really make something our own.

For example, today, I wanted to make a caramel apple dish and was inspired by the caramel sauce we’d made with Jody Adams of Rialto last week. I was going to use a portion of her recipe to make the caramel, but leave out the rest and make it my own. Isn’t that what creating is about? Having a base and using that as a launching point for your own ideas? I completely understand why we need to learn not to rely on recipes, but as many of us are still starting out, few of us have had the opportunity to repeat these recipes and know them from memory.

I really think Mike is right with his suggestion. Each month, to be able to do this would really enhance the learning and I think make us better and faster thinking cooks when we come out. I hope it’s something that is considered for the future.

Anyway, back to this afternoon. We all had to include in our dish, a small chunk of halibut fillet, a small piece of pork tenderloin, an apple, onion, carrot and celery, other than that we had free run of the kitchen (which, today, wasn’t much). After some thought, I created a fast puff paste dough (from JJ’s recipe last week) and planned on making either an apple tart or an apple tarte tatin. I started on that right away so that the dough could rest in the fridge.

While I did that, I thought about what to do with the remaining ingredients. I often make pork tenderloin at home either stuffed and rolled like a ballantine, or cut into medallions, breaded and pan-fried with a with sauce. I considered doing these dishes again, but I felt like it was important to take advantage of the time and space available and do something different and a little further out of my comfort range. After all, what would be the value of doing something I already knew well how to do before started this class? Shouldn’t I be experimenting with techniques and flavors and trying to expand my horizons?

I contemplated doing the entire loin with a herb and spice crust, then roasting it until done, but I’ve never liked over-thought or over-complicated dishes that took away from the actual food. I wanted to keep it really simple and comfortable with familiar flavors, so I chose to roast the tenderloin with a thick, spicy mustard coating so that the pork would be well supported with a simple flavor profile. To balance the heat of the mustard, I added caramelized onions to add sweetness, and then a little whipped potatoes for starch and creaminess.

With my main and dessert courses planned, I had to figure out what to do with the halibut. I originally wanted to do a soup, but decided against it after Michael gave me a look of sheer “what the hell is wrong with you?” when I ran the idea past him, but mentioned I’d never really made soup before. Apparently, not making soup was another strike on the long list of Michael’s why-you’ll-never-be-as-good-as-me list. I’m climbing the charts on that list, and how!

So I reconsidered and thought that poaching the fish would be a nice change for me and something I have never done before or after the class with JJ. I decided I would poach the fish in a flavored white wine (carrots, celery, butter, water, white wine, lemon juice and zest) a technique that would take a matter of moments and be a nice and light start to the roast pork. Under the fish, I added a warm fennel and celery slaw, which I hoped would help brighten up the fish with the crisp, clean flavors.

My final product was certainly not the best I’d ever done, but it was done exactly on time, plated on hot plates (a little too hot, actually) and a stretch from my comfort-zone. I knew I’d made mistakes, but I also thought I’d made a pretty good effort of (1) staying seasonal, (2) having an overall theme for the menu, and (3) trying to apply new techniques to the project. I was trying my best to adapt and create within the boundaries. But (and I think this goes for everyone, but I can’t be certain) I knew it wasn’t perfect and wanted to hear feedback about what worked, what didn’t, what was missing and how it could be tightened up as a complete dish and/or menu.

Of course, doing it was a learning experience and I certainly took a lot away from today’s cooking, but I wanted feedback. Was my menu seasonal to others? I knew it was to me, but did everyone else see that? How was my seasoning? Did the mustard and the pepper on the pork make it too strong, or was that ok? Things like this are things that only others can tell you and why being in a class with others that obsess and think about food as much as you is so great.

Once everything was presented, Michael asked everyone what we learnt today from the experience and we responded with the moments of self-realizations we’d all had (also known as mistakes). And after a quick conversation about cooking styles and garnishing, we went down the table and each person explained what they had created. It was great to see the variety of food and flavorings that each person brought to the ingredients, there were certainly 12 different pork dishes, 12 different fish dishes and almost 12 different desserts (we had two pairs do apple tarts and apple tarte tatin). While I didn’t think that my dish represented me as a cook at all (I don’t like fennel and I’d never cook anything at home that took that much time) it did represent my personal cooking style: simple, clean, direct. When I look at a recipe and the list of ingredients is more than ten items, my mind starts to wander a bit.

While we all tasted each others’ food, it was good to hear feedback, but everyone was talking about what they did wrong or how their cooking went that day that I don’t think a lot of people got feedback about their dishes, specifically. And Michael didn’t really seem to have a lot of helpful feedback. There were some obvious criticisms that didn’t need further explanation, like ‘that’s overcooked’, well we know how to fix that, but I was hoping to hear about seasoning. Did my mustard crust work? Was the pepper too strong? What could I have done better with my fish?

Michael’s strength has never been constructive criticism, it’s been closer to smug judgment. I KNOW I don’t know everything, that’s why I’m here. Tell me what I can do to make it better, teach me. Teach Me.

I’m just really frustrated with the day. Maybe we ran out of time, I probably would have taken too long to go through everyone’s menus and dishes, but then, we could have done one less course and/or had a little less time. But the worst part of the day was when Michael said that we shouldn’t “overreach, do things that you’ve done before because you’re less likely to fuck it up.” What does that mean? Don’t try new things? Don’t try and do something different that you’re not familiar with? Doesn’t that defeat the whole idea of going to school, learning and just improving… in general?

Maybe he's just talking about next week's final project. But, for today, I wanted to try to do something different that was out of my cooking comfort level and for me it was a critical aspect of my learning experience here. I can say with total confidence, I’ll never forget how to poach something ever again. And, in retrospect, I can say that I should have sliced my pork for plating. I also know now that plates can get too hot and I need to keep a closer eye on that in the future.

What I can’t say with total confidence is why my potatoes were so starchy, why its ok to serve pork tenderloin at a medium doneness or why the caramel I did try to make turned out badly, when it had worked so well for Jody the week before.

I’m certain that Michael is a fantastic chef with a great deal of knowledge and training. But, with his attitude towards culinary schools and his less than ‘carpe diem’ approach to today’s teaching opportunity, I wonder why he teaches at all.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Italian food, day three: Mary Ann and Guy Esposito

Maybe there's something in the air, or maybe it's a combination of the snow and cabin fever, but everyone was in a very strange mood today. Some were short-tempered, some were a little wacky, but I think everyone felt that things were a little off today. Luckily, Mary Ann and Guy were late from the snowy roads and didn't have to watch us learn to tie our shoes again.

There weren't too many recipes to do for the evening's demo, so we split into just three groups today. We all assumed it wouldn't take very long to do everything, after all the name of the book is slow and easy cooking! In the end, though, I think the lasagna was more stressful than any lasagna I'd ever made before. There was a frantic energy making the tomato sauce and pulling together all the ingredients, it was like we all forgot how to work efficiently and cleanly, or just think at all.

I started on the tomato sauce, which we had to double for the evening, and it felt like getting it through the food mill and the sieve took forever. The food mill helped us get a finer puree on the tomatoes, while the sieve removed any left over skins or seeds that would have made the sauce bitter. The following steps were easy as well, but again, it just seemed to take much longer than usual.

After chopping all the onions, I started to sweat them in two large pans because I was afraid all the tomato sauce wouldn't fit in one pot. As they slowly softened, I minced the garlic and gathered the rest of the ingredients, red wine, whole basil stems and sugar. I couldn't believe how much sugar needed to go into the sauce. I occasionally put some sugar in with sauce if the tomatoes are out of season or too tart, but a half cup of sugar for both sauces felt like an awful lot. We let it simmer for 15 minutes and the sauce was done (and still really sweet). Mike, Potter and I were all a little thrown by the sweetness of the sauce, we were all worried I had done the recipe wrong, but it turns out that it was fine. Mary Ann came by and did a few taste tests and thought we did a great job, but that the sauce was a little thin because of the type of canned tomatoes we'd used.

Potter was working on the ricotta filling, while Mike cleaned up the cooked, fresh artichokes to be included in the ricotta. I really enjoyed working with the artichoke with Mike because it was my first time using and cleaning fresh artichokes. I never grew up making artichokes at home because it's not a very prominent ingredient in Chinese food. I certainly enjoy it, but whenever I see them in the store, I feel like it'd be so impractical for me to buy them and make them because I wouldn't know how to clean them and would feel like I'm wasting a lot of it. I dislike nothing more than feeling like I'm wasting good food and money.

Mike walked me through the cleaning process of the artichoke, I have to say, it really is a measly amount of food for the size of the sucker. I guess people view it like I view eating crabs, eating it and finding the meat is part of the fun.

Once everything was in place, we moved our mise up front and began the assembly process. It's always at these moments when you start feeling calmer because you're in the final stretch. It's a false sense of security that lulls you in, but then you realize that you're short on tomato sauce, ricotta and mozzarella, the frantic feeling comes back and the three of us were back to scrambling for things.

And poor Kevin! We had to send him out into the cold, miserable snow storm to get us fresh mozzarella balls for the lasagna. For some reason, the mozzarella wasn't on our copy's recipe but it was on Mary Ann's and it created a great deal of confusion, especially later on when I was trying assemble everything for her lasagna demo. (I later figured out the discrepancy in the recipes: Mary Ann was using the lasagna recipe for skillet lasagna while we were using the one for baked in a dish lasagna. Poor Mary Ann! She thought the books were all printed wrong!)

Luckily, the time it took for Kevin to get the cheese for us was just enough for us to make an additional batch of tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. We slipped all four lasagnas into the oven just before five, giving us just enough time to get them baked, cut into the right portions and placed back in a low oven for holding.

In the meantime, Guy Esposito (Mary Ann's betrothed) gave us a quick and dirty overview of wine tasting and regional Italian wines. He knew so much about the different regions' soil composition and why it's so good for each of the varietals. The most interesting part of his talk with us, though, was his techniques for tasting wine.

First you had to know the five Ss:
1 - See
2 - Swirl
3 - Sniff
4 - Sip
5 - Savor

Then, his added tip (and I liked this one) was to take the wine into the back of your mouth and literally chew on it. It helps aerate and move the wine around your mouth, hitting up all the different taste areas on the tongue. Guy also made a great point about 'tasting' wine, we don't actually taste things with our tongues, we can sense the basic tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami/savory, but the actual tastes of fruit and whatever else, comes from the olfactory as a whole. I'm so glad that Guy pointed that out, it's a quirky and random point of clarification, but it's a good one.

We moved back into the kitchen to finish up final prep for Mary Ann's demo and for plating. Our lasagna was up first and each piece of lasagna needed to be finished with a little more sauce and a little fresh basil chiffonade. I was so glad to be able to do the chiffonade, actually, because I'd only learnt this great slicing technique from Jeff Fournier (actually Carlos Roderigues had tried to teach it to me earlier, but it didn't click for me then) it two weeks before and I really wanted to have a bit more practice at it. I've gotten pretty fast at it too! If nothing else, my knife skills are rockin' after this course.

I've started to really enjoy plating part the evenings now. There's a really simple satisfaction to knowing that there's standard look that we're working to achieve as quickly as possible. I love the factory line feeling, it really reminds you your apart of a team and it makes you feel almost like you're doing real work.

I didn't love the lasagna, but I did enjoy the change up in the flavor with the addition of the lemon zest. At first I couldn't place the flavor that was so unusual, but it gave the whole thing a light clean crisp feeling, a great change from the normal density of a traditional lasagna. Although it was a good flavor and provided a great lightness to the food, I don't think I'll be using it very soon. I like the idea, but the flavor was just too weird for me to handle. Somethings are better left familiar and comfortable.

The braised beef with carrots and cauliflower was nice, especially the end consistency of the meat, but I think it needed just a bit more salt in the dish. I think we were all expecting the carrots and cauliflower to be mushy but they ended up being perfectly stewed. It was a nicely cooked dish overall, I feel like it just needed a bigger flavor, or at least a little punch of flavor and/or pop.

Mary Ann and Guy were a great couple, I think Guy was more 'teacher' today and Mary Ann was a group leader, but we still got a lot done and were still able to learn about Italian wines. We were all pretty happy to have the opportunity to have some good Italian (especially after last week's debacle).