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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Days with JJ (Poaching & Simmering)

I was sad to learn that today was our last class with JJ for a while. He's got to be one of the best food personalities in the world. He's very funny and very French (in a good way, I swear) and an amazing chef.


At first, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't think he'd be a great chef. I based this horribly incorrect assumption on the idea that he had worked for Legal Seafoods, a chain that I would charitably call a fancy Red Lobster. I've never enjoyed a meal there, I always thought the food was over cooked, lacking in freshness and uninteresting. These prejudices to the restaurant carried over into my initial judgment of JJ. All I can say is: Thank God I was wrong.

What a phenomenal chef! Everything he made in demos and during class was so much better than anything we ever made. This, of course, makes him a great cook... but what made the dishes better were impossible to explain or pinpoint, it was an elusive complexity of perfection that ended in such beautiful simplicity. I don't think I have the language skills to explain it.

Anyway, on to the food!

We started the day with chicken liver mousse because after we cooked it, we needed to let it cool for as long as possible because it would enhance the flavor. I didn't think it would make much of a difference, but after tasting the morning demo mousse after it was chilled properly it was much better. It lost the gamey, gritty quality and became a far more refined. I also think the overall flavor melded together much better. It was definitely a better product, but, of course, JJ's was the best.

The most surprising part was probably the way the cognac disappeared in the mousse. I generally don't like the taste of the liquor but somehow it blended so well with the mousse, it was hard to believe. I could taste it but at the same time I couldn't, it was so very strange. I want to explore more foods with this complex use of flavor.

I found the chicken a la creme more complicated than I had thought it would be but also surprisingly simple (in ingredients). I'd never poached anything before (I can't believe that! but then again, when I think of foods and making dinner, poaching isn't something that comes to mind immediately) and I didn't know that there should be wine in the poaching liquid. I always assumed that the liquid was generally water. Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that the poaching liquid should be flavored to impart fuller flavors into the food being poached. Something akin to salting pasta water.

I didn't expect the chicken to cook up so fast either. I thought poaching was a slower cooking method but the chicken cooked up very quickly. I found it very difficult to maintain the right level of simmer because the steady low flame kept going out. If the flame was too high, I was afraid the chicken would cook too quickly and leave stringy, fibrous chicken breast.

Typically... my sauce was a mess. I can't seem to make my butter sauces hold, they always separate. I know this means that I've applied too much heat, but I don't know how, as I try to keep the pan off the fire.

The other sauce, the tomato balsamic dressing, turned out great. Really creamy and rich with a good balance of acid and fullness. I hope JJ's water trick for helping an emulsion stay suspended really works because I'm looking forward to being able to make and keep a lot more salad dressings this way.

Funny thing is JJ mentioned that this is the only dressing that they use at Legal Seafoods these days (although there might be some variation) and I can't remember any of the restaurant's dressings having such a depth of flavor. Again, it's JJ's special touch! Can that man do nothing wrong?

Unlike the chicken, the poached salmon came out really well. After practicing our knife skills skinning and boning the salmon steak, I circled the two sides of the center cut into each other (kind of like a yin yang symbol) and stuck in a few toothpicks to keep it together, which I'd seen JJ do earlier in the day. Unfortunately, I was nearly impossible to remove the toothpicks after the salmon was poached. I mangled up the salmon pulling them out making all the earlier effort of having a pretty steak pointless. At least it helped cooked the salmon evenly.

It really did come out perfectly cooked though, wonderfully flaky and buttery. It's certainly something that I'd like to do again at home. It'd be fun to try the poached salmon with some different sauces and finishing touches. The recipe had called for the salmon to be slowly poached in the oven, but we tried it on the stove and found it much easier to manage than the chicken had been.

Unfortunately, true to my sauce curse my beurre blanc fell apart! Again! AGAIN! I think for my my streak of beurre blanc bad luck is from the stopping between steps. Everytime I've had to make a beurre blanc, I've had to stop after making the reduction and come back to it afterwards to finish it and add the butter. I think this segregation of steps makes me more paranoid and I feel the need to reheat the reduction before adding the butter, further reducting the reduction and making the pan too hot for the butter to be introduced.

After realizing this, however, I still couldn't make my sauce magically reform. Except JJ could! I showed him my sauce and with a whisk and a flourish of water dripping from his hand, me brought the sauce back from its separated, broken state. It was the coolest thing in the damned world. He truly is a genius.

The artic char in parchment was a fun deviation from our 'follow the recipe' format we'd been doing. Since we were all able to do our own takes on the fish, we got some great varieties of fish when it came to tasting. Everyone's was very different, even the ones that should be the same because they followed JJ's recipe were slightly different from each other. What I really couldn't get over was how insanely easy the whole process was. I'd forgotten to cut my filet into smaller slices, and I still think it turned out fine, but the whole seasoning and folding process couldn't have taken more than a few seconds and it waited patiently for us for a good while before we slipped them into the oven. I hardly had time to place the fish in the oven before it was time to take it out again, perfectly cooked. JJ jokingly referred to the dish as the ideal date meal, but after making it and seeing how easy and impressive it looked, I'm inclined to agree.

This is definitely something I would want to try at home, perhaps with a white fish though. Something a little lighter and flakier with a different set of flavorings. I had thought during class it would be an ideal way to cook Cantonese steamed fish on a smaller scale. With just two people to cook for at home, it isn't always practical for us to cook up an entire fish.

Finally, in a funny moment of repetition from the previous night, we remade poached pears and again JJ gave us some leverage with this one. Our group chose to do recipe with white wine because the previous night Al Forno poached their pears in red and I thought they were just awful. JJ did poach his pears in red wine and oddly it turned out beautifully. Yet another example of his weird and magical touch.


Meanwhile, our white wine poached pears were UNBELIEVABLY good. The only way I can describe our pears is to say that eating them and tasting the leftover poaching syrup was like sucking from the wine bottles of the heavens. It started with Stephanie mixing together the poaching liquid and ended with Catherine doing something magical with Grand Mariner and candied orange peel. The entire dish came together beautifully.

Of course, JJ in an act of defiance, I'm sure, dribbled a little of the red white reduction on our pears and with the whipped cream he had made for us, it was damn near the best thing I've ever had. I still weep at the memory of it.

Italian food (via Greek and Irish ancestry)

We started late today to compensate for the late night we would have working with the chef-owners of Al Forno. It turned out to be a really fun day, working and cooking in a kitchen is more fun when there are real people enjoying the fruits of your labor. It was also a good break from the daily schedule of classes, particularly since we were able to ask them questions about the restaurant business. Johanne and George (and David) were really fun and funny, and they were so patient with us throughout the day.

One of the most interesting (and important) things they really talked about was how different the restaurant industry was from when they started 28 years ago, "we had the grace of starting very small and growing slowly over time." To them, restaurants that open today have to start with a bang and have an immediate devoted clientèle, a wholly unrealistic situation for most restaurants.

One of the topics George focused on the most, however, was how hard the restaurant industry could be. It was almost like a PSA against getting into it; if you want to be in this business... don't have kids! don't get married! don't expect a normal life! don't except money! don't expect anything! Granted, it's always a necessary point for people to understand, but I feel like his attitude was a little too hardcore. I think the essence of his statement was, we do this because we love food and we love to cook, not because we wanted to be on the Food Network, or because we wanted to be rich and famous.


To be fair, they didn't say don't get married, they said, try and have a partner that is in the food business because they'll understand how much time your job demands. But, as I was saying to Kevin later on, I can't imagine being married and running a business together. Wouldn't you drive each other nuts at one point? And, what's left to talk about at the end of the day? I'm sure there's a positive side to it I just can't see right now. I wonder if that's a telling statement about my relationship!

Anyway...

Today's Menu
Crostini with Lemony Split Pea Puree
Summer Chicken Cacciatore
Red Wine-Poached Pears with Poire Mascarpone and Whipped Cream

So, my little group of four ended up doing the pears, which basically meant that we peeled and cored 54 pears in the course of an hour. To be honest, it wasn't that bad and there are far worse things go home smelling like than pears, but it was slow going and we all worked at different speeds. I think we were all at a bit of a loss when first told to peel and core the pears, but watching Johanne do one entire pear gave us a standard to work off. It was also great because she would come around every few minutes to check on our progress and help us or give us tips on efficiency whenever possible. George also gave some words of kitchen wisdom, "don't brake the chain of command" and "do it as fast a possible without doing a bad job."

One thing that was amazing to see was the quantity of food needed for each dish, even though we were only serving 70 people. Fourteen pounds of mushrooms for the pasta and it wasn't even a major ingredient. Nine bottles of wine for the pears to poach in, 11 cups of marscapone cheese for the dessert... the craziest part was once everything was brought together, it never really seemed like enough. Fourteen pounds of sliced mushrooms doesn't amount to much, really.
I'm sure it's something that I'll get used to but in the meantime, it's still a lot to wrap my head around.

Although we had recipes to work off, all of them were adapted and changed while we were cooking. For example, the pears we had were hard and under ripe, which was great for peeling and coring, but meant they weren't as sweet and would need more time in the pot. I rarely cook what I feel like eating, generally I cook whatever looks freshest, but seeing them adjust recipes to compensate for produce that didn't meet their demands was really interesting. Obviously in a commercial kitchen, you don't have the luxury of assuming all your produce will be perfect when you get it. Watching them adjust and fix things to match their food was a helpful reminder of being flexible when you cook, even in a restaurant.

While we let the pears poach in the wine, we moved over the the team working on the chicken and helped them slice mushrooms and do some general clean up/set up before the evening demo and dinner.

(On a side note, today I found out about a local bakery that I'm looking forward to visiting, Clear Flour. I'm especially excited to try their baguettes and sourdough loaves.)

Overall, I thought the demo went well. The guests seemed very receptive to the meal and enjoyed the presentation and wine pairings. I would have liked to see more of the demo, but staying behind in the kitchen was helpful for us because we got to see how David timed his meal between courses, and how we was keeping track of things going on around him, even if he couldn't necessarily be apart of it. I only wish I could have heard why the wine lady chose the wines she did for the meal pairings, I always think that wine parings are such a personal choice but hearing her rationale would have been very educational for us.

(To be honest, I didn't think any of the wines were particularly great. They weren't particularly memorable for me and I don't remember, but I didn't see an outstanding pairing at any point.)

Of the dishes made, I liked the split pea puree best. It had a great crisp, clean flavor and was a great alternative, I think, to hummus or another type of antipasti. Even though it's not in the recipe, I think what made it great was the mint garnish, otherwise, it would have been too heavy and bland for me.

The pasta was cooked perfectly, of course, and when tossed with the mushrooms and chicken sauce, made a light, almost seafood-esque dish. Something akin to mussels in white wine. The chicken wasn't my favorite of the night, the only thing I really noticed was the acidity of the jalapenos and the flatness of the sauce (I guess the mushrooms in the pasta really helped make it more dynamic and earthy). But then we got to the pears...

Oh, the pears. After all the peeling and poaching, you'd think they'd turn out better. To me, the dessert tasted like sugary prune juice with a heavy pulp. Maybe it was the less-than-stellar choice of wine (damn you Charles Shaw!) but the pears were just... ugh. I could barely bring myself to take a second bite, even with the Poire marscapone cheese and the whipped cream. Overall it was just too sweet (probably our fault, we might have added in too much sugar in the whipped cream) and too prune-y.

But I learnt a lot today and had a good reminder about how tough the industry can be. I've never wanted to work in a professional kitchen, I don't think I could take it, but part of me hopes I'll at least get to try it for a little while.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Garnishing for a slow, painful death

Today may have been one of the worse days ever there was. It was epically bad. It's the kind of painful day that I'll recount to my kids and their kids. It was just dreadful.

It's started positively enough (maybe that's why the negative twist in the afternoon seemed so much worse) with JJ and garnishing. It was so much fun to take food a little less seriously than we had since starting school and I was excited to just play a little. For the first ten or fifteen minutes, we watched chef demonstrate all the different techniques and show us some garnishes he'd prepared the day before. Some seemed much, much easier than others, like the onion blossom (basically the same as an battered and deep-fried onion blossom) and the leek pompom. Both were really more about the consistency and location of slices into the vegetable than they were about any artistic creativeness or carving skills. I managed to make a pretty decent onion blossom, but when I showed it to chef, the inner Frenchman proclaimed it to be not good enough. Sigh.

The one thing chef mentioned that all of us should be able to do was the tomato peel rose. So after the disappointing onion blossom, I started on the tomato. Peeling it was harder than I thought it would be, but I was extremely happy that I was able to actually peel the entire thing in one long strip. I'd tried several times with an apple in the past but to no avail. Even though I cut off the end prematurely (I should have sliced off the bottom part to give it a better base) I think it turned out really well. I'd love to try it again but I don't think my student's budget will allow for foods to be used purely for decoration. Maybe I'll revisit it when I make a little more money.

Some other things he showed us left the class pretty much speechless and realizing how over matched we were by chef's ridiculous knife skills. There was a carved vase made from a butternut squash, a few roses carved out of beets, a daffodil carved from summer squash, flowers from acorn squash shavings, sculpted mushrooms; it was just an endless jungle of beautifully designed foods.

Feeling confident after making a rather spiffy looking tomato peel rose, I decided to try my luck carving the rose. I decided to do a test run on the top end of a butternut squash. For a first round try it turned out pretty well. I was only able to carve out two rows of petals before I completely destroyed the center. The rose looked bulky, rough and very square not at all like the lovely and delicate rose shaped beets. Even the petals on the beets looked like the soft textured petals on a rose. After seeing where I went wrong on the first rose, I decided to give the beet rose a try. I think my end result was an improvement from the first one but I think that I would have done better if I had a lighter knife. I think a lighter knife would give me more dexterity and I would have to worry so much about gripping it well enough. (I think I could have probably done a better job of not stabbing myself in the hand so many times too if I had a more appropriate knife for the job. Oops!)

But the fun of the morning didn't last. After everyone tried their hand at the various garnishes we had a quick lunch and prepared ourselves for the four hours of health inspector fun. Ha...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mmmm... meaty, saucy goodness

Today was a nice return to the format I've been so accustomed too. Unfortunately, three members of the class were out today, making for an faster kitchen but also a emptier one. I've been particularly looking forward to saute and roasting day for a while now because I'm quite the adept roaster and would like some techniques to improve my skill and final product.

I like to roast chickens every week and I rarely deviate from my standard fix, but today we were able to make a roast chicken using chef's seasonings and using his cooking method (which were a real surprise to me). After we placed some thyme, garlic and S&P in the cavity, we trussed the chicken (which, no matter what will always illicit giggles from me) and placed it on its' side onto a wire rack which hovered about an inch or two above a sheet pan lined with foil, and threw that into the oven for 40 minutes. After that time was up, we took out the chickens, moved them onto their other side and filled the gap between the wire rack and the sheet pan with mirepoix. Then we roasted for another 40 minutes.


After this, we were supposed to place the bird breast side up and finish it in the oven for 15 more minutes. I say supposed to because my group decided to just take the chickens out and skip the last 15 minutes. We had stuck a thermometer into the thigh and saw a 155F which is about when I'd normally pull a chicken out and let it rest. I think another 15 minutes might have made some beautiful looking skin and whatnot, but I don't think its worth the sacrifice in terms of juicy meat. I think I'll always believe that flavor trumps presentation (of course, I don't work in a restaurant... yet).

Even though we pulled the chickens early, I think they still ended up with a nice crisp brown skin. I normally roast my chickens in a Pyrex with lemons and garlic and cover the whole thing with foil. It partly steams the chicken, I guess, but it leaves me with lots of pan juices (which are wonderful to soak up with some toasted croûtons) and moist meat all around. Unfortunately, it'll never win awards in terms of crisp skin and presentation, but for a home cook, I don't think it's that important.

Seeing this other method was very interesting to me. I not only got to see how much flavor just a little seasoning could impart, but I also got to dispel a long held belief that traditionally oven-roasted chicken ends up dry. At this point I've only eaten the thigh and leg, but I'm hoping the breast holds up to the same standard as the dark meat.


(P.S. The breast was... ok. Not super juicy but not terribly dry either. I'll definitely try it all again but cook it for less time.)

My chicken in tarragon sauce was just a mess. I never thought I could mess up a dish quite as much as I did. I think there was a lot of confusion because the morning demo didn't match the directions on the recipe and we weren't sure which one to follow. Chef wasn't entirely sure either, but he tried to explain to each of us what needed to be done. At presentation, we all stood around our dishes and took turns telling the class what went wrong (which made me feel a little better about things, at least I wasn't the only one that messed up!).

I can detail exactly what I did wrong at each stage:
1) At prep, my brunoise wasn't small enough or consistent enough and I think I had too much of it overall.
2) During saute, my pan got too hot and while I tried to correct it my removing my pan from the fire, I don't think there was much I could do about what had already been cooked at the high heat. It was later very obvious in the striations in the muscle/meat. I still can't believe that chicken can be cooked at such a seemingly low temperature, but next time I'll know to have some more faith in the process.
3) I removed my chicken breast and drained the fat fine. But after that everything just went into the pan in the wrong order. I added the shallots and wine and started the reduction, which went fine. Then after I added the chicken stock to reduce, I think to reduced the sauce too far and was left with too little in the pan. At that point I started to get flustered and really lost my footing (I should have just taken a breath and re-read the recipe), I added in the veggies before the cream (wrong!) and before the chicken (double wrong!). Then, realizing my mistake I threw in the cream (wrong!), tomatoes (oof...) and chicken (oy vey!) and hoped for the best.
4) I was only supposed to put the chicken in the sauce before the vegetables were added to let it re-warm and get coated by the sauce. At this point in my sauteed chicken debacle, I removed the chicken and plated it, then dumped the chopped herbs into the sauce, swirled for a second and poured it over my chicken. Completely forgetting to season the sauce AND add the butter to finish the sauce.


So, that's what went wrong. Everything. I lost my mind, all logic and reason and went crazy. My chicken was a little stringy, the sauce was undercooked and unfinished and oh... totally sucked in the kitchen.

On the plus side, chef used the rotisserie to make roast beef for us:


And showed us how to make a yeast dough for us to form rolls. My roll was so cute I refused to eat it. Instead I just kind of stared at it in loving awe. It was the one thing I did perfectly today.


My inner carb lover was clearly dominating today.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Stewing in disconnectedness

Today was a tough day in the kitchen. I had woken up feeling like the world and I were functioning on clocks three minutes apart, and I felt the same way throughout the day. Adding to my general confusion and cloudy-headedness was a change of teacher. I find it hard to adapt to a new teacher at the beginning of a class, when I'm still learning basics. It was a little weird on Monday when Charles stepped in for butchering, but because it was a day based mostly on demonstration, it allowed us to get comfortable with his style and attitude in the kitchen. Today was different because we went straight to work under JJ and it wasn't an easy day.

The morning demos were fun, however, and extremely good. He started with a beef brisket (which I don't think I ever had before) and then demoed the four other dishes we would be preparing that afternoon: lamb curry, beef en daube, ratatouille and braised endives. I think that's the most we've been asked to make in an afternoon and amazingly, we finished fairly early.

I think the dishes came out well, overall, but none of them seemed up to the chef's standards. Everything was undercooked, overcooked, too thick, too thin... something. Nothing was right and it was very demoralizing, I think for the class in general. I saw a lot more grumpy looks on everyone's faces today than ever before.

I was appointed sous chef of my little group (including Ashish and Potter) and I simply let everyone do their thing asking only that we all check in with each other. Potter started on the beef, marinating the chunks in red wine in preparation for the cooking. It's funny, I've never cooked with wine on a regular basis and it's interesting to see the type of flavor it can impart in a dish. I think, on the whole, I favor the flavors that white wine leaves behind, which again is surprising because I prefer drinking red wine.


Anyway, we all watched as Potter quickly cooked up the beef for the stew and added in the additional ingredients. It doesn't seem like a particularly complicated stew. One thing about this one that was a wonderful and unexpected element was chef's recipe called for the inclusion of one orange peel. I think the right amount (which, none of us included properly) really gave the stew an interesting brightness and the essential oil from the rind helped create a fuller smell in the back of the nose. It was an unusual addition but one I am a huge fan of... I hope to find more dishes where I can include it. I think it could really be that great "ooh" factor for taking a simple dish up to a new level of taste and sophistication.

Another taste bud realization today was with the lamb curry tasting at the end of class. The curry that had been made in the morning demo was unlike any of the other curries because chef had chosen to finish the curry with a touch of heavy cream. In the past, I don't think I ever really appreciated how heavy cream can change the flavor of a sauce. I knew it would make it richer and creamier, but today it was clear that the curry with cream was also much sweeter, which helped combat some of the spice in the curry powder we used. I think a lot of people we uncomfortable with how spicy their lamb curries came out, however, while I liked the cream education today I preferred the spicier curry. For me it seemed to better match the meaty flavor so distinct in lamb.

Our ratatouille was very problematic. At first, there wasn't enough liquid coming from the vegetables and then suddenly there was too much. Chef kept coming by and telling us to put a lid on it to help create more juices, or take the lid off to boil off some of the liquid. It was a constant battle for our group and we were all wary of making the vegetables mushy or bitter. I've generally never really enjoyed ratatouille very much, I've always found it to be very bitter and/or mushy and exceptionally salty. However, today, it was like a new day for me.

I loved the ratatouille and particularly liked chef's addition of a poached egg cracked right into the dish with some cheese on top. I think it helps mellow some of the strong flavors that cooked peppers and bay leave and thyme can impart on the ratatouille. And I think that chef's suggestion of removing the eggplant's peel and seeds helped cut down on any bitterness I was avoiding.

Overall, today felt very much like a learning day. Every dish seemed to connect a few culinary dots for me, or present an idea to me, which was then reinforced by the quality of the finished product. It was also clear that cooking is just as much about patience and control as it is about moving quickly and multitasking. Chef mentioned that none of our dishes were cooked long enough, that all of our beef stews would have benefited from ten to fifteen more minutes of cooking time. I can kind of see his point, but at the the same time, I wanted to ask if maybe we didn't want our meats to cook for so long... would it still be a good enough stew?

Maybe it's me, but I like meat to have a certain crispness to it, a certain bite... which may be why I never really liked stews very much. There's such a fine line between cooked and overcooked with meat, I wonder if such principals still hold true when we talk about meat in a stew though.

Regardless, today's multiple dishes and long cooking time took a toll on the class. I think everyone was feeling pretty negative by the end of it and we were all glad to have finished early. I think the one thing that made me feel better about today, however, was remembering what chef Charles said on Monday: it's better to make a mistake now than to do it perfectly; today's success might have been an accident and when to try to do something again, you'll find yourself making mistakes left and right. Mistakes are better for learning.

It's true, I know. It just also makes for a tough learning curve.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Heat of the Grill ... and celebrity.

Because lecturing about grilling and broiling was non-sensical to chef John today, we ended up talking about various questions we'd accummulated over the past few days and we all discuss one particular article in the Sunday Boston Globe Magazine about the price of food relative to the price of a menu item.

It was an interesting discussion and one where it was clear that each person in the class had their own opinion on the matter. Jenny, the ex-food writer, thought it was a substandard piece of writing and disagreed with the piece. I was called upon as the ex-public relations person. I have to say that as a PR person I would have body tackled my client before I let them do an interview like that saying what they were eventually quoted as saying. I couldn't believe it! It's hard for me to understand how people can let themselves say such abrasive comments without a second thought. Jody Adams and some of the other local chefs came off as incredibly arrogant and almost delusional in their self-love. I really couldn't believe that these chefs took this interview without some prep or idea of how interrogative the reporter would like be on this subject.

I personally am of two minds over the matter. While I don't think it's right to charge that much for a steak ($43) in Boston, I do believe that restauranteurs have a right to charge whatever they please in their own establishment. If it fails at that price, the market will have taught them a lesson. If, conversely, it does well, then, clearly the public needs to be taught a lesson.

I think food in Boston (and this is coming from someone who has only just moved back) is experiencing some growing pains as it tries to compete on a world-level. It's simply isn't there yet. That's not to say there isn't so quality food out there, nor does that say there aren't great chefs in the region, all I'm saying is they don't have the creativity, sophistication and necessary breeding to take their food to the next level... yet. But I also think that Boston, as in all other aspects of it's culture, has a bit of a chip on its shoulder and chooses to take the "I'm staying where I am because I like it here, I don't care about that high-end stuff" approach to the topic. It's the kid sibling argument, but a valid one. Something can only be second-best if they choose to compete with the top.

----

When we got into the kitchen today, we has a short discussion on how to prepare our mise-en-place for the day. We needed to filet a salmon (very complicated), create a burger, get our steak ready, prepare our flounder, chicken breast and tomato. It was a simple prep list but one that, for some reason, took the class a bit of time to accomplish. I think it just came down to us (1) not being in the kitchen for a few days and (2) working on our own for the first time and realizing we couldn't get someone else to do one of the preps.

The chicken proved to be a pain to pound thin. I was constantly worried I was applying too much weight while pounding thin and then I became worried that it was getting unevenly thin in certain parts. Eventually, I had to just put the mallet down and walk away from it. The flounder and salmon were very easy to prepare after we had cut filets.

Creating the burger was something new for me, as was the technique that chef showed us for putting the steak on the grill. We compressed the burger together into a tight ball and simply pressed it down. In the past I'd favored keep the burger light, but seeing as how juicy and delicious the burger turned out this time, I'm inclined to say that the compacting of the meat really helped. What was most strange for me was when chef explained that we should push together the steak to try and replicate the muscular structure that it likely had when it was back in the cow. He said it would make for a more visually appealing steak. I don't know how true that is, but we did it anyway. I still don't feel like I noticed a perceptible difference and if it doesn't do much in terms of flavor, I'll likely skip the step in future. Maybe next time I'll not reshape it and compare the two steaks. Maybe there will be a clear winner.

When it came to me to grill, I was nervously excited. I don't know why. I think grilling is the one thing everyone thinks they do well but no one actually does right.


Grilling the chicken was easy, and I was really taken aback by how juicy it still was. I generally have very low hopes for grilled chicken breast, it's so often dry and flavorless. I still think it wasn't the of the group, particularly after it cooled down, the chicken was still dry.

I also wasn't a huge fan of the salmon, although that might have come down to personal preference. It was amazing to see the salmon remain so well intact during grilling though. I think I prefer a broiled marinated salmon filet. The flounder on the other hand was great, buttery and creamy and not at all what I expected to come out of the broiler. (I think the copious amounts of butter I put on it helped too.)

I was totally blown away by the burger though. Oh holy goodness, it was amazing. I'd be craving a good burger for weeks and 'lo there it was and cooked by me! I think compacting the meat helped it cook evenly and even helped distribute the juices well. I could believe all it had was a little salt and pepper on top-not even in the meat, just on top! Shocking! So easy and so good, but so few people get it right. I'll never make burgers any other way again.

The steak was alright. I feel like it would have been a better steak if we'd had thicker cuts of meat. Of course, I could be bias since I rarely eat steaks. I think, though, if we'd had slightly larger steaks it would have been easier to cook it to the various degrees of done-ness. I will still try the same techniques next time though.

I can't imagine how the grill station cooks can handle the heat night after night. It's just a high-pressure situations made worse by the awful conditions. Chef told us that for years he'd a sinus problem his doctor just couldn't figure out. Once he stopped standing above a grill for a year, however, it simply went away. He thinks he just kept burning his sinuses with the heat from the grill. What a frightening thought! That's one occupational hazard I don't think many people would think of when considering the dangers of professional cooking.
Wonder how grill station cooks handle it.

The rest of the day, the class practiced their dice and cuts. We were to do a brunoise, a 1/4 inch dice and a julienne. I really struggled with this part of the day. Most of my carrots ended up rectangular and never perfectly square and they were always too small or too big. I need to work on my ability to estimate sizes, I couldn't guess at what a 1/4 inch of anything would look like. Paul suggested I just stare at a ruler for a while. I think it'd be best if I just carried one around for now and took it out occasionally to compare to things. By doing this, I can get an idea of what things in my natural environment are sized as and be able to judge more accurately in future.

In the meantime, I should go buy a ten pound bag of carrots to practice on.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A dry dry day...

Today started with a ServSafe class with John, possibly the driest person alive. The entire time he was talking I wasn't sure if he was being very very very dry and sarcastic or if he was just being himself. I kept feeling like I should be laughing, but I didn't just in case. He just had the strangest sense of humor.

Regardless, the morning dragged on because all he basically did was reread the ServSafe manual back to us. I was so frustrated that I had made the effort to read the whole book before class, had I known I would have just waited for the class and taken notes. I hope the next class is more helpful about what to expect in the exam, etc.

He kept emphasizing that the exam (as well as practical hygiene in food) was all common sense. While I agree, I also think that there's a lot of particulars about their rules that should be pointed out. Like the time in which a stock should be cooled down and the temperatures. I'd like to know what the rationale is behind some of the rules and regulations. I also think it'd be interesting to know what most health inspectors find to be the most common fault in commercial kitchens. I think knowing these things would help us find out what is the most commonly misunderstood part of the process.

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The afternoon trip to the winery was very interesting. I'd been to several wineries before in California, but I'd never been able to walk in the vineyards and really look at the grapes and learn about the problems and processes involved in growning grapes. I didn't know there were so many pests! It almost makes you wonder why anyone would bother starting a winery in the first place. Between the Japanese beetles and the birds, it seems like the problems are never ending.

While we were standing there, they were explaining about how they trim back the leaves and grow the grapes so they can maximize their time spent in direct sunlight. I thought it was interesting to see their efforts in agricultural engineering that wasn't really based in science so much as personal experience. I was also surprised to learn that despite all the growing of grapes they do, they didn't actually produce my wine from their own grapes. Granted, their yield probably can't produce much wine at all, but I still thought it odd to establish a winery and spend most of the money and effort importing grapes from the California coast. I wondered why he didn't just move to California and become a vintner.

Regardless, the beautiful location of his home was only enhanced by the rows of grapes. Looking at how many rows there were, I couldn't believe that all of it could be realistically managed year-round by only two people. I'm still wondering how feasible an operation like this would be if Tracey wasn't so dedicated. It's clear that the wine from here has become more the just a job for both of them, it's become a personal goal to see the wine turn a profit and gain more recognition.

What was also amazing was experiencing Kip's incredible knowledge of wine and wine history first hand. It's clear he's extremely well read on the topic and that he's spent his time reading and re-reading everything there is out there on wine, it's history, culture and theory.

The tasting was fun as well, if not a bit awkward. I don't think anyone in the group felt comfortable enough to really make any comments on the strength of the wine, leaving us with long moments of awkward silence as we all stood around tasting their wines. I think we all thought it'd be disingenuous to proclaim it a great wine. I thought that most of the wines were young and immature. I think their pinot noir needs another year or two in the bottle. It would help mellow out the sharpness of the wine and create a fuller more well rounded wine.

I didn't think I would like the riesling, but found it to be pleasant. I was expecting a much sweeter wine, but the way he'd made his riesling it was more dry and crisp. I assume that the main reason I wasn't particularly enamoured by any of the wines was because they were pure varietals and I've become quite accustomed to blends and balances from other varietals. An entire bottle of just one varietal is a challenging wine to make. I think he's done a wonderful job trying to fine the best balance possible.

Ride home was interesting, I ended up having a great conversation about the slow food movement and it's ideologies with Catherine. I really enjoyed the conversation and feel like I've found a bit of a kindred spirit. She's sharp and passionate with a background that shares an interest with my own in sustainable, environmentally conscious food and consumption. She mentioned I should read the Omnivore's Dilemma--a definite next on my list of books!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Everything in mooo-deration?

Today was a bit of a change from the last week, but it's good. I think the class is starting to gel has a whole and we're starting to get each other's quirks. Everyone has said that we have worked extremely well together as a class. I find this really surprising. Not because I expected there to be some huge problems in the class, but because I never thought that a group of people in a class to learn the same thing would create a lot of conflict. I guess you never really know. But it's good to be apart of a group that seems to bounce along together. I'd hate to feel uncomfortable in a room full of knives.

The morning field trip to Kinnealy's was very educational. I think I learnt a lot that I wouldn't have expected, and I think I've realized a few logical and obvious things about the meat industry that I probably wouldn't have thought of had it not been for the trip. Namely: rigor mortis, aged beef and the delay from slaughter to shelf.

In retrospect, it's only logical that a cow, like any other animal would experience rigor mortis, but somehow it never occurred to me as a part of the slaughtering and butchering process. Thinking of it now makes the whole process even more dark and almost lusty. It's very humbling to really think about death from such a honest and generally gruesome point of view. I had always approached it in a very clinical matter, but knowing more about the death and thinking about the process more honestly has made me really hold meat eating in a higher regard. I'd always believed that animals that are killed should not be wasted, but now I've changed my thought process from not wishing waste to not wishing excessive killing. There's nothing worse than having meat go to waste.

Walking around Kinnealy's was also amazing, particularly to hear Jimmy (I think was his name) talk about the number of employees that had worked there for years and years. I'm sure they make a decent wage, but the idea of spending hours in a cold room handling nearly frozen meat is just too much to bear. I doubt I'd last very long under those conditions.


After a short detour to Flour (had the lamb sandwich - unbelievably good) with Potter, Catherine and Kevin, we returned to class for the butchering lesson where we watched Chef Charles fabricate a lamb carcass (with my boning knife!).

Watching someone take apart an entire lamb is a pretty intense experience. I highly recommend it. It's a strange feeling of primal satisfaction mingled with intense guilt and hungry morbidity. Hearing a saw cut through bones and watching my boning knife slice through flesh makes you appreciate the difficulty in taking apart an animal. It's not for the faint at heart, or the out of shape.

Anyway, I was trying to keep up and remember all the names of the different cuts, sirloin, loin, ribeye, chop, chuck... it's insanely difficult to remember all of the cuts in one viewing. I tried to relate the various cuts to where they would be located on my body, but Catherine pointed out it was a little weird. I'm fairly certain I know where the flank and ribs and chuck come from on an animal, but I'm still a little confused about the tenderloin and the various other loins.

One question I had after class was why--why do we cut above the 13th rib? What's the point? Wouldn't it make more sense to keep the ribs together in entirety? Wouldn't that also allow for that extra elusive rib chop?

After watching the lamb get fabricated to managable pieces, we were tasked with removing silver skins and cutting the additional pieces into chunks for lamb curry (to be made on Thursday) and lamb sausage (for some future class). Despite spending over 20 minutes on trying to remove the silver skin, I couldn't seem to cut it just right. Clearly, my knife was being effectively used by chef, so I couldn't blame it on the tools. I could only take off little piece by little piece even though I'd seen chef do it my simply sliding a knife right under it. I'll continue to practice at home, particularly now that I know what can cause a piece of meat to be so inedible.

Trimming the fat off, on the other hand, was extremely easy. The knife almost guided my hand so that only fat was removed and the lean muscle was left intact. But lamb is a very fatty piece of meat and soon there were little pieces of lamb fat all over the kitchen and on the floors making it very slippery. What I wondered is why lamb meat doesn't marble with fat like that of a cow. Why does it lay on top of the muscle? Chef wasn't able to answer that, but he did show us the differences in the fat. Caul fat is a flakier white fat found deeper in the lamb and is better when making lamb sausages. The outside fat, he said, could be very dangerous if not trimmed properly, particularly on the grill where flare ups can become a serious problem.

By time we moved on to chicken, I was more confident with my boning abilities. I often handle entire chickens because I invite friends over every Sunday for a roast chicken. I'm accustomed to handling and trussing a chicken; and I've also gotten quite good at carving a chicken. So when chef asked us to truss and then fabricate a chicken, I felt comfortable doing the job well. He show us a variety of ways to truss a chicken, and then, he showed us something that nearly blew me away in its simplicity and brilliance: cutting a leg between the bone and Achilles and tucking the other leg into the hole. This, for me, was one of those "OH MY GOD!" moments where you're shocked at the simplicity of it all and stupidity of having not thought of it before. I'll say right now, it's damned near changed my life.

Fabricating the chicken wasn't too difficult, although it took me a few tries before I could identify what the 'oysters' were between the thigh and body. It was also challenging to crack the breast bone and vertebrae the same way chef had to remove the wishbone. My hands kept slipping and not cracking the right part. In the end, I think my chicken breasts looked slightly worse for wear. Comparatively, chef Charles was next to me fabricating entire chickens in less than a minute... what a show off! :)

Luckily, at the end of class my knife (desperately in need of a sharpening after taking apart a lamb and several chickens) and I were ready to take a shot at using the whetstone. Watching chef show us the basic movements and explain to us the sounds that should made while sharpening helped immensely. I think my boning knife as a new lease on life.

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After class most of the students stayed to attend the wine tasting class with the very quirky teacher. He gave each of the four tables 16 paper cups with lids and asked us to blindly smell and try to identify the contents of the cups. Most of us were able to identify the food related ones easily, but there were some that were very frustrating (canned green beans) because we knew the smell, we just couldn't place it.

It was amazing to see how different people responded and picked up on the different smells in each of the cups. Some people found some things to be very citrus-y and others found them to be devoid of any smell. It really actually made me think about how that can affect how people taste food--what does an orange smell like to someone else? Do we smell the same things? Definitely an idea worth chewing over.

Wines were terrible though! I thought I had be totally spoilt by the array of wines available in California, but (and thank God!) the teacher explained that he actually exaggerated different qualities in the wine by adding in acid, etc. It was an excellent way for him to explain how to pick up on the different feelings of the wines though. I was still a little disappointed by the wines he chose to end the class with... maybe I was spoilt by choice in California...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Don't get saucy with me... Bernaise!

I have a new found respect for Sunday brunch line cooks. As I write, I'm in crippling pain after making a hollandaise today. Who knew it required to much work? I was so cramped up from the whisking that when it came to seasoning I couldn't move my hand out of the claw-like position I had cramped into during whisking! I felt like a mutant. Thank God for a left hand!

I was also horrified (and vaguely impressed) with just how much butter is required for these sauces. It almost justified the effort involved in making the sauce since the calories that it burnt MORE than made up for the intake. I was also surprised by the consistency of the hollandaise sauce at the end, I hadn't thought it would end up so custard-like. I always imagined it to be somewhere between runny egg yolk and a slow-moving, thick olive oil. I found it actually slightly off putting to find the consistency closer to a gelatinous mayonnaise. At first, I had thought that I had overcooked my eggs, but chef said that the custard feeling and look to the eggs was what I should be aiming for.

Unfortunately, having now realized just how much butter is in hollandaise I'm rather disgusted by it all. The idea of all that butter being suspended in egg yolks gave my heart a little flutter of disgust, particularly upon realizing just how much fat and cholesterol was in every bite of those past eggs Benedict. In the future, I think the only way I could justify eating my favorite brunch dish would be if I make it at home myself, balancing out the fat intake... too bad I can't make a good poached egg.

The beurre blanc was a completely different monster for me. When we had begun making the sauces for the day, we all reduced out vinegar/white wine mixture for the beurre blanc, then moved on to making (and finishing) the hollandaise sauce before returning to the reduction. For me, the staggering of the beurre blanc stages made it difficult to complete the sauce properly. I had reduced the liquid a touch too far at the beginning, which could have be salavaged if I had added the butter right away, but because we let the reduction cool, trying to bring the reduction back up to temperature and adding the butter ended up cooling the pan too much. Then, in a complete rookie mistake, I forgot the cardinal rule to not let it boil or bubble up... and the whole thing separated on me.

One look and I knew it was gone. I was frustrated but felt I learnt a valuable lesson: don't take your eyes off your sauce! I'll certainly be more careful in future. Luckily, there was enough time after cleaning up my sauce that I was able to start over again. This time, it came together beautifully.

Chef and Kevin had also made a brown sauce from our veal stocks from yesterday. I was surprised by the flavor, it wasn't as intense and rich as I had hoped it would be. Are brown sauces supposed to be fuller in flavor? Everyone else seemed to think it was a great sauce. I would like to see if other brown sauces are more flavorful. Should the sauce be stronger than the food or should to play nicely with the other kids on the plate? I used to think that sauces should be minimal at best, but the French always seemed to have a more aggressive attitude towards sauces. At this point, I don't know if I still believe in minimalism, but I'm pretty sure I'd move away from such intense sauces.

In the morning demo, Chef made a blond roux and a brown roux. I couldn't believe how long the blond roux cooked. At home, my blond roux (when making a bechamel) never took much longer than five minutes. I never thought they turned out grainy or flour-y either. Twenty minutes seems excessive and almost makes the color too dark to be considered a 'blond.' Next time I make a bechamel, I'll leave it on for 20 minutes and see if it really makes a flavor difference.

P.S. Perhaps the nuttiness released from the cooked flour enhances the flavor? Thinking over the logic now, it would seem that a good bechamel should have a nutty quality, particularly since most recipes include nutmeg. Even still... I don't know how nutty I want my bechamel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Soup's On!

Soup day in the kitchen today and I have a newfound respect for lentil soup. Unfortunately, I've also confirmed my dislike of French onion soup.

Chef demo-ed lentil soup for us in the morning which gave us enough time to each have some shortly after lunch. It was really hearty and nutty without being thick or heavy. I've never enjoyed lentil soup, I think in the past I've generally had it overcooked so that the lentils were breaking apart. It was so enlightening to have a well-made soup that hadn't been suspended in a bain-marie for hours.

Today's kitchen practical was a little more chaotic since we had to make beef consommé, butternut squash soup and French onion soup . On top of the confusion cause by the kitchen rotation, there was some confusion about how many of the three soups we were to finish with at the end of the class. In the end, it all worked out well but the first five or ten minutes felt like a mad scramble by half the class and a dazed confusion by the other half.

We started with the beef consomme, which was something I was very interested in seeing. I understood that the mixture we were putting in would clarify the soup but I couldn't (and still can't, really) really wrap my head around the chemistry/physics of it all. I could hardly believe my eyes when the soup came out crystal clear and almost silky. Also, it tasted amazing; meaty and full but light and crisp.

Even though our butternut squash soup was far thicker than everyone else's, it was far and away the best tasting because of a little mistake made my Chef and unnoticed by us. After cooking the squash tender and using the immersion blender, we thought our soup was looking too thick. Chef told us to add in some chicken stock to thin the soup. What none of us remembered at that time was that the soup was supposed to be vegetarian and we should have added water instead. Eventually, our soup ended up with a consistency similar to baby food but it tasted excellent. The other (vegetarian) soups were bright and flavourful but tasting the difference between those soups and ours, it was clear how the addition of even a little stock could completely change the taste palette of a dish.

Lastly, the French onion soup. I found this soup to be more challenging than the others because of the patience it required, particularly when waiting for the onions to brown. It was hard to just let the onions go in the pan, I constantly felt like I should be stirring and checking on it because I knew if the onions burnt it was ruin the soup. While I was waiting for the onions to brown I noticed that my onions were very uniform and finely sliced--I couldn't believe it! Chef had shown us the proper way of slicing an onion the day before, but I hadn't thought I'd be able to execute it properly for a long time. I was actually very proud of myself for that. I had always thought my knife skills were subpar, so this was a nice little ego boost (particularly helpful in a self-esteem challenging week).

The soup turned out well and looked only slightly sunken (the crouton and cheese, that is) after coming out of the salamander. Even though I was able to season this soup to my liking, I can't help but feel that onion soup is generally too salty. I don't think I'll ever be a big fan of the soup... but I definitely love the bread and cheese.

I can't wait to try making the lentil soup for some of my friends!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sous-what? Oh dear...

I did feel better Tuesday morning, but was nervous since I knew today would be our first day in the kitchen. How would I measure up? I figured we'd take it easy on our first day and the team effort involved in making stocks would allows us all to ease into life in the kitchen. And everything was fine during the morning lecture. We were shown how to hold a knife (I knew I was holding it the 'correct' way from a previous class) and the various ways to cut an onion (who knew slicing was done that way?). As time approached for lunch and eventually kitchen time, I got slightly more nervous, but by time Chef appointed me sous chef for one of the teams I was a twitchy nervous wreck.

Luckily, the tasks were straightforward and I had a very willing crew. Chef was very clear with timing and instructions, so I was able to easily translate them to my team. At one point, I worried that I had done something wrong to the chicken stock because it was so fatty and oil, but Jessica reminded me that we had yet to skim it.

In fact, the only 'mistake' we made was following the directions in the book more closely than even the other team or Chef had anticipated. For the fish stock we made, the textbook said that we were to sweat the mirepoix first in clarified butter, which we did. The other team missed that step, but the slight difference in preparation allowed us to actually taste the difference afterwards. (A surprisingly big yet subtle difference.)

The only stock no one particularly enjoyed tasting (or smelling) was the court bouillon. I think none of us were prepared for the sharp tang of the vinegar when all had our tasting--each of us puckered.

Although it's only been two days, I'm beginning to see what the others in the class are like and how they work. I think it's possible that the kitchen actually emphasizes people's personalities... I'm interested to see how friendships work themselves out in this group.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Master of the Universe! ...or Gastronomy, whatever.

I started grad school today. A fascinating and eerie return to my alma mater, Boston University. It's always weird when you return to a place that was locked in a very specific time/memory. Everything feels like it should be the same and you crave the familiarity, but yet because you are coming back, you also seek out the new memories. For me, it feels somewhere between a restless dream and a nightmare. Creating new memories, for me, only serves to highlight how far away the old ones really are.

And it feels strange because I'm apart of the school in a completely different way, participating in a program I never knew existed. It's like discovering a random secret about a lover, it's exciting to know there are still undiscovered things to learn, but it also brings out a certain "what-else-don't-I-know-about-you?" insecurity. I'd love to learn more about this school, but as of now, I'm still processing the overwhelming amounts of new information.

What is thrilling (and terrifying) however, is that as apart of this program I am able to take a culinary arts certificate class. At first I had my doubts about this class, as you only gain a certificate from the program. How challenging can it be? Particularly when you look at some other (only culinary) programs that run over a year. But after seeing the schedule for the next few months, I've been firmly put in my place. It's a challenging course, despite it's seemingly shortened schedule, and I've no doubt it's going to kick my ass.

We spent the day looking over the initial information packet, learning kitchen rules and touring kitchen. The information packet conversation was the first real "oh geez, this is for real" realization of the day. Not only did our syllabus dictate a rigorous daily schedule, it detailed some awesome upcoming opportunities, none more so than having Jacques Pepin as a teacher. I worry that my giddy excitement for that will end up looking less "I am a composed and professional cook" and more screaming-schoolgirl, a la 60's Beatlemania.

And while the list of chef-instructors coming in is extremely exciting, my jaw completely dropped when I saw that Morimoto was coming it. It dropped and I screamed (internally, of course). I couldn't believe it! I expected to see local well-known chefs and Jacques Pepin (since he was one of the creators the program) but Morimoto was an unbelievable surprise. I'm thoroughly looking forward to that day.

Overall, I was totally overwhelmed today. Sunday night before the first day I had had a complete panic attack. Insecurities swirled around my head all night, I questioned everything, "what if I'm not good enough?" "what if everyone's better than me?" "what if I make a fool of myself?" and perhaps most scarily, "what if this isn't what I really want to do?" Patient as my friends were, none of them could do much to make me feel better.

Seeing Pepin's name on the schedule the next day helped a lot.