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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Puff, the magic pastry

Finally! The conclusion of the puff paste day. Cindy said that it's best to let puff paste set up overnight, and that was about a week ago, so we're ready to use the puff we've made and see what happens.

We did two things with the puff paste today, we made fruit tarte tatins and napoleons, both use puff pastries, but because they're applied in such different ways, we got to see bake off the puff dough to two totally different ways and learn a bit about how puff works.

We started by making the pastry cream for the napoleons because it would need to cool before we could spread it onto the puff paste. Last time we'd made pastry cream in class, only half of us got to because they were making fruit puffs and eclairs (which they eventually turned into diplomat cream), so I was happy to get a chance to learn. And of all the things we made today, this was probably the most stressful because of the technique involved and the anxiety I had about overheating the cream and cooking (and curdling) the eggs, particularly since I have a terrible history with sauces.

After we heated the milk and sugar, tempering the eggs made me nervous. Cindy said there wasn't really a need to temper the eggs if we just did it slowly and whisked fast, so I did and nothing happened. I knew the consistency I was looking for and didn't know why the addition of the cornstarch and egg yolks didn't instantly thicken the cream. Ashish told me to keep going and just wait, it'd come together really suddenly in a few moments.

It totally did. It happened randomly after two minutes of worry, it just thickened. I kept going for a little longer to make sure it was thick enough, removed it from the heat and finished it off with the vanilla and butter. It turned out well, although I think it might have been a little thinner than we wanted, when it came to napoleon construction time, but I was pretty happy with it my first time out. Set aside, let cool.

Prepping for my apple tarte tatin was easy, particularly since I've had so much experience with apples and pears this semester. I've gotten pretty good at peeling, coring and cutting apples. Cindy showed us a demo of how to arrange the apples in the little pan with butter and sugar underneath, which was a little different from the way I'd seen it on a cooking show the previous week. They had quartered the apples but chose the stand them up rather than lay them in a circle around the pan, the way Cindy showed us. I asked her if there was a difference, but she said it was really a matter of preference. The more I think about it though, the more practical Cindy's method is because we don't need an especially tall rimmed pan for her method and it allows more of the overall apple wedge to be cooked and covered by the caramel.

Off I went! A good helping of butter, a very generous covering of sugar and then the artful arrangement of apples in the pan. I let it just bubble away for a long time, as Cindy's tarte tatin turned out perfectly and hers almost looked burnt in the pan. Just before it became totally black, I grabbed the puff paste (already sized to the pan) out of the fridge, dropped it on the apples and threw the whole thing in the oven. Easiest and most delicious dessert, ever.

Potter decided to try bananas instead of apples and his tarte tatin came out beautifully. The pairing of caramel and bananas was perfect with the flaky dough. It actually reminded a lot of us of a twist on bananas foster. Potter should have poured some booze on it and set it on fire... I wonder if Michael Leviton would consider flambe a garnish.

It was actually at this point Cindy said something that was an 'ah ha!' moment for me when baking off puff paste. She said to look at the whitest part of the dough when checking for doneness, not the brownest, because we want to make sure all the dough is baked. A seemingly obvious instruction, but it's really going to be helpful to me in the future as I make puff pastry.

I was really happy with the way my tarte came out. It didn't flip out totally perfectly, a few apples stuck to the pan, but it still looked appetizing enough to me. Besides, I have an excuse now to keep practicing!

Baking the puff pastry sheets was a little more labor intensive, but still not what I would call complicated. We had to let the puff paste bake off in an oven for a few minutes on a baking sheet until it rose up with lots of air bubbles. Once it got to that point, we had to put a piece of parchment down on top and put another sheet pan on the puff to deflate it a bit while it finished baking.

I thought it would completely destroy the light, flaky layers, but amazingly, the puff paste was strong enough to lift the top sheet pan up a little creating an almost flat puff paste with visible layers inside.

After letting this cool for a long time (if it was hot, I think putting the pastry cream on it would have trapped in some of the steam and made it soggy), we smothered on a very thick layer of pastry cream. I thought it was too much until Cindy came by and said that it needed way more on it. I couldn't believe how much she wanted us to put on it! I put more on it between the middle and top layer of puff but it seemed a little funny to me.

Even after all the additional pastry cream we added in, I felt the napoleons were a little lacking. The contrast between the puff and cream wasn't enough to keep my interest level, I think if I make this again, I'd do something more along the lines of the fruit puffs we made our first day working with Cindy. I'd be much more interested in that, I think the flavors of the fruit really make it a more complete dessert.

In the end though, I was really pleased with the way our puff paste turned out. When we cut it into sections you could see all the layers folded into the dough. It was so satisfying to watch it bake up, knowing that our puff paste had all those great buttery layers in it. I fully intend on having a big batch of puff paste in my freezer at all times from now on.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oleana & Siena Farms

Demo day with Ana Sortun of Oleana! I wasn't sure what to expect because I was familiar with Oleana's flavor profile and menu, so I was surprised to see the recipes for today having a distinctly Middle Eastern slant. Although I had lots of Turkish and Armenian friends in college, we never really ate it much because it wasn't easy to find in Boston. I guess we just missed Ana's opening of Oleana back then. So, I wasn't very familiar with the foods, but I knew they were all heavily spiced and used a specific combination of spices and oils that may people would have never thought to put together, which I thought would make for an exciting meal.

It was also great to see her bring in produce from her and her husband's farm. I've noticed that a lot of the chefs that have come in say that we should all be trying to buy locally, but most are happy to just give Kevin a shopping list and not really consider where their produce and meats were coming from. I was really pleased to see a chef who really did walk the talk and brought in some of her own produce to really demonstrate the difference.

Ana started the afternoon with a discussion about the new and different ingredients we'd be seeing today, for example, argan oil, and how they apply and a little bit of the history behind it. She also touched on why she loved Middle Eastern food and her philosophy behind it was that you can make food taste good using fats like cream and butter, or you can add flavors using spices and herbs. She preferred the idea of adding flavorings because you can eat food and not feel uncomfortably full and unpleasant afterwards, a full flavor without the fatty feel. I completely agree with her, sometimes I want to eat a cheeseburger, but I don't have one because I want to avoid the unpleasant feeling afterwards. However, I'm not a fan of really intensely spiced foods, so while I completely agree with her theory, I don't necessarily agree with her choice as an alternative.

We had a fairly extensive menu today so we were split according to the demands of the recipe. I was on beet salad duty, with a little help from Catherine. The beet salad used very thinly sliced roasted candy cane beets from Ana's farm, arranged on a plate, drizzled with a dressing and served with quenelles of flavored goat cheese and chopped cilantro.

Catherine whipped together the fresh goat cheese, sliced almonds, diced dried apricots and minced scallions that will be served on top of the beets and dressing. While the beets were roasting in the oven, I made the dressing for the salad with sherry vinegar, lemon juice, honey, finely minced shallots and garlic, extra virgin olive oil, argan oil* and rose harissa**.

The harissa was a really thick, intensely flavored paste that had a thick layer of deep red oil resting on top of it when I opened the jar. I couldn't believe how much of it I was using, especially because one drop of it was already a lot of flavoring. In fact, because the harissa and sherry vinegar was quite strong, I needed to add in extra honey to help balance it out.

When the beets were ready and slightly cooled, we took a towel to them and started taking off the dirty skin. Ana explained that its best done warm to hot because once the beets got too cold the skins wouldn't fall off as easily anymore. Then, it was on to slicing the beets on the mandolin. I'm always happy when I can use the mandolin. I think it's because growing up in a household of Chinese food, there weren't a lot of opportunities to use cool, dangerous looking gadgets, so I'm sort of making up for lost time. The one problem with the mandolin, however, was that it would loosen after a few slices and need to be readjusted. When the beets were sliced they looked really nice, because the color hadn't bled so much that you couldn't see the original colors. Each disk actually looked like a little rose patterned stamp and seemed almost appealing to me (I don't like beets one bit).

Once all the mise-en-place was done, Ana showed me how she wanted the beets plated with the dressing, goat cheese and cilantro. We arranged the beets around the plate, slightly overlapping each slice onto the previous one. I think the color and the arrangement on the plate actually looked beautiful, something like an unusual rainbow rose:

Once it was done, we drizzled it with a bit of the harissa vinagrette, then placed quenelles of goat cheese around the plate and scattered some chopped cilantro on top:


As much as I love Ana, I still don't think I like beets. Independently, I liked the goat cheese and I thought the dressing, although strong, was really nice. I don't know that I liked all of the food together, either. It seemed like there might have been too much going on because there was a strong, robust flavor coming from the dressing and the goat cheese and the beets and the cilantro and it felt like they were combating each other a bit in my mouth. I liked pop flavors, but I think this dish might have been a touch too busy for me.

The other groups worked on the other courses served starting with some watermelon radishes served with a Middle Eastern condiment, cacik:

I didn't get to taste this because it went out while I was plating the beets. A lot of people mentioned that Ana put a surprising amount of the cacik the the radishes, but that even though the taste of the cacik was intense, it went well with the peppery radish flavor.

The beef kofte with green tomato, butternut squash and leeks was probably the biggest surprise of the evening for me. The seasons that were added to the beef made it taste like lamb! Maybe it was just the spices used were spices I generally taste when I eat lamb, but I couldn't help but feel like the little meatballs were made out of lamb, even though I knew they were from beef. I think these meatballs were really good, I liked the flavor a lot. I think the butternut squash, leek and tomato sauce that went with it was a little unusual because of the sweetness from the squash. I also thought it didn't seem to match the rest of the meal visually, because the first two courses had been so vibrant and intensely flavored.

I also found it interesting that it was served over crisped up flat bread and not with it. It didn't taste bad at all, but it was an fun twist on how to incorporate a starch into the meal, instead of falling back on bread or rice or something. This dish actually introduced us to another seasoning, pomegranate molasses, which was drizzled over the dish just before it was served. It gave a really nice sweet and tangy kick to the dish, lightening it up and making it seem fresher, they way mint, lemon or cilantro can do for dishes in other cuisines. I liked the lightness and really thought it changed the whole flavor concept of the dish. Really lovely.

The dessert was a kind of nut turnover with a simple dough and filled with pistachio paste called a pistachio katmer that was pan fried just before service and served with marscapone cheese. Just like the other dishes, it had a very intense flavor right off the bat, but the addition of orange blossom water actually killed the dish for me. After the initial first taste mellowed, it gave way to the orange blossom water, which I love... just not to eat. It made me feel like I was eating perfume and didn't feel right at all in my mouth and on my tongue. The taste of it really confused my palette.

It actually reminded me a bit of baklava, another pastry/nut dessert item. I think I like baklava more because it has the same initial burst of nutty flavor, but doesn't have a strange (to me) after taste.

I really enjoyed working with Ana, I think she had some really interesting food philosophies and I respected her style of cooking, even if I didn't like the specific flavors she used. I think she's been one of the few chefs that have come in and really shown us what they're about and how they're sticking to their beliefs day after day.

Today made me think about food in a different way and I appreciate Ana's motivating force.

* Argan oil is an oil produced from the fruits of the Argan (Argania spinosa) a species of tree endemic to the calcareous semi-desert of southwestern Morocco. The most labour intensive part of oil-extraction is removal of the soft pulp (used as animal feed) and the cracking by hand, between two stones, of the hard nut. The seeds are then removed and gently roasted. This roasting accounts for part of the oil's distinctive, nutty flavour. The traditional technique for oil extraction is to grind the roasted seeds to paste, with a little water, in a stone rotary quern. The paste is then squeezed between hands to extract the oil.

** Harissa is an Algerian, Libyan and Tunisian hot red sauce or paste made from chili peppers (often smoked) and garlic, often with coriander, cumin, and/or olive oil. It may also contain tomatoes. It somewhat resembles sambal and chili sauce. One well-known and expensive variety, "rose harissa" also includes rose petals. It can be used as an ingredient or a condiment.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Liquid gold (a.k.a. olive oil?)

I haven't been feeling great lately, I'm feeling very tired and beat down lately and I can't understand why. I don't think I'm coming down with anything because I have no obvious symptoms other than fatigue, but my head is definitely cloudy lately. I still wanted to try and make it through the day though...

We all met at 10am at Taberna de Haro on Beacon St for a morning of learning about the tapas culture of Spain. I had eaten here before and while I thought the flavors and menu items were good, I was turned off by the (what I thought were) excessive amounts of olive oil on all the food. Some dishes came drenched in a good extra half inch of olive oil, something I wanted to ask about in class today... at least, if it didn't seem too insulting.

We all gathered in the restaurant's tiny kitchen to make two dishes: a vegetable tumbet (a layered, half-lasagna half-ratatouille type thing from Mallorca) and pan-fried quail with garlic. Starting with the vegetable dish, we prepped the ingredients to build the tumbet, slicing green peppers, eggplant, and red peppers to be pan-fried and preparing tomatoes concasse (yay! I used a French cooking term) for the tomato sauce that would hold the whole creation together.

When they were all fried, Deborah (was that her name?) took a large 3" deep baking dish and started to layer the vegetables and sauce together until the entire casserole was full. It wasn't a slow process, but it was a little more time-consuming than I think a cook could handle during the dinner service. I think at this point a lot of us were thinking about how much olive oil had been used and how oily everything seemed. We had cooked each of the vegetables individually in a lot of oil and during construction, there was certainly no mistaking the oil dripping off the vegetables. Scarily, there was still quite a bit of olive oil left at the bottom of the dishes that had been holding the vegetables too.

Funnily, Deborah actually explained at that point about her very liberal use of olive oil in, on and with all her foods. While she believed that olive oil had a great deal of health benefits in a diet, her main reason was that in Spain, extra olive oil was not only welcome by customers, it was an extra touch provided by charitable and generous cooks too be soaked up with bread and enjoyed. I think I see her point and appreciate that it's her way of continuing the tradition of Spanish cooks, but it's not something I'll be able to adjust to easily; I'll definitely keep it in mind for the future.

Once the vegetables were ready, we threw it in the oven so that the water could evaporate a bit and the entire thing could be turned out (which is what tumbet means) onto a serving dish and hold it's shape. On to the quail!

Now, I love quail. There's something immensely satisfying about eating something so small and delicious. I feel the same way about snails, actually, small, but so good. A perfect example of a morsel, in my book. Bite-size (or thereabouts) and lovely. So, quail with a lot of garlic was going to be a hit with me, no matter what.

We seasoned the quails with a little salt and pepper and placed them in a screaming hot pan with a little oil. Once the pan was filled (about eight quails) the roar (is it still a roar when the sound is a sizzle?) was deafening and blocked out all other sounds. It was a lot like a white noise machine, a it really gave me a great indication of how to hear cooking the way a lot of the chefs have been talking about. I've gotten to the point at home when I can hear when something needs to be turned, but being on top of the quails was a great way to really drive that point home. I could hear the way the volume of the sizzling went down after a few minutes, at four or five minutes, the sizzling was a soft hush and it was time to turn them and start the cycle over again. The quails turned out beautifully browned and crisp, a really delicious looking bird.

When all 24 quails had been cooked in the batches, we took out the birds so they could rest, and using the same pan, added in several handfuls of very thinly sliced garlic to cook a little in the leftover oil and fat. Once they were browned, a good splash of sherry vinegar (the good stuff) was added to deglaze the pan and cooked for a minute (to take off a little of the sharpness in the vinegar) before it was poured over the rested quails.

The tumbet didn't come out perfectly, Deborah said that it needed a little longer for it to really set well, but it was still an excellent vegetable accompaniment to the wonderful quails. Unfortunately, I still wasn't feeling well enough to eat much, but I can still tell that the quails were excellent and I have every intension in the world to make that dish a part of my normal cooking repertoire.

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Afterwards, the class trekked to the Brookline farmer's market to meet Chris Douglas and learn a little about local produce and seasonal produce. Unfortunately, my morning adventure at Taberna de Haro was all I could handle with my cold and stomach bug and I went home. :(

(Side note: I did go to Parish Cafe on Sunday and eat the Icarus sandwich, as an ode to the day I missed with Chef Douglas.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Strudel & Puff Pastry

We spent the morning learning about gluten development in doughs because we would be working with two types of dough that were depended on gluten's two proteins gliadin and glutenin to give it structure and strength. By combining flour and water and kneading it, we produced a very simple dough and if we washed away the starch surrounding it, we could see and sort of manipulate the webbing created by the gluten, getting an idea of the webbing. Pretty interesting stuff really.

From what I understand, gliadin provides the stretch and elasticity, while glutenin provides the dough structure and strength.

To start off, needed to start our puff paste dough because it would require lots of trips in and out of the fridge to let the dough rest between creating layers. We started with a simple dough of butter, flour, cold water and a pinch of salt, and rolled it out into a 1/2 inch thick, large square shape then let it rest in the fridge while we shaped the roll-in butter for the dough, which is basically a huge lump of butter (with a little flour) rolled to roughly the same shape and thickness of as the dough. Once the dough and the butter have rested and had time to chill, the butter is placed diamond-like on the square dough, and the flaps of the dough are folded over the roll-in fat and rolled together, flipped, folded onto itself by thirds and allowed to rest and chill again before the next rolling and folding (called a 'turn').

This process took a long time, particularly because of the time needed between each stage for resting and chilling. If we didn't let the dough and butter rest, the butter would begin to temper and melt, destroying the layers we were trying to create by doing all the folding and resting.

I'd never made puff paste before, so the process was really interesting to me and I was happy to have a chance to do it. I couldn't believe just how much butter was rolled into the dough. In this class, I've mostly been rather disgusted by the food we've made smothered in butter and even if I used to like it (hollandaise sauce comes to mind) after seeing just how much butter went into it, I haven't been able to eat it again. Oddly, I don't feel that way about puff pastry. I think it's because I can't really taste the butter in the layers, just the flaky deliciousness of the crust.

Next up was preparing everything for the apple strudel. I'd never seen a strudel being made, and I've never been much of a strudel person, so, again, watching and participating in the process was really interesting.

Potter, my partner for the day, made the dough for the strudel while I went to work slicing apples and preparing the filling for the strudel. I'll never get over how many apple and pear desserts we've made this semester. I've never been so sick and so enthralled by the apple before.

I never realize that strudel pastry needed to be so elastic, but it was obvious later on why it needed the elasticity. The dough was made with flour and a little fat, not much of anything else. The pastry is rolled out and stretched very carefully over the back of our hands on a large worktable draped with a tablecloth. We kept pulling at the dough slowly and what started as a small lump of dough ended up being this massive tissue-like dough that spread out well over seven feet by 5 feet.

Starting size:

Stretching the dough:

Cindy said that it should be so thin (evenly all over the dough) that a newspaper can be read through it. The eventual size and thinness:
Once the dough is to the right shape and size, we trim off some of the excess hanging of the edge of the table and place the filling along one side of the dough in a long, thing strip. Since the dough is so gentle and thin, it would be too risky to pick up the dough of the strudel and roll it with out hands, we'd likely end up with lots of little holes where our fingers touched the dough. Instead, we use the tablecloth that we'd be stretching the dough out on and lifted it to start the rolling process on the strudel:


Once it was all rolled we tucked the ends underneath itself and transfered the entire roll to a baking sheet and cut in some steam vents.

They turned out nicely, but for the effort, I don't imagine I'll be making one any time soon. The flavoring is similar to apple pie and apple turnovers and if I really need a flaky apple dessert, apple tarte tatin is a far easier option.

I'm glad for the experience though!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sushi? At these prices!? Meshugeh to ask so much for a nosh, they are!

We explored two very different food ideologies today, so it felt a little disjointed, but at the end of the day, I felt very clean.

In the morning we were able to go BU's Hillel House and discuss kosher and take a tour of the kitchens at the Hillel House. I'd always had a rough idea about what kosher meant, I knew the basic rules of no pork, no meat and dairy together, etc. But the laws surrounding slaughter were always a little vague. Rabbi Polak was very helpful in giving us a more specific (yet broad) overview.

I would have liked to know more about why some rules of kosher were created to begin with, but I imagine the Rabbi would have needed a much longer session with us, and he would have had to give us all a quick lesson in religious and world history. Jenny (although not kosher herself) did explain a few things, like why meat and dairy could not be consumed together (although you can have dairy before meat, but you'd need to wait six hours if you had meat first): it would be cruel and disrespectful to mix the death of an animal (meat) with the life of an animal (milk).

I also assumed that many of the kosher laws in the Jewish faith were important means of keeping the general population as healthy as possible way back when. But I certainly appreciate the philosophy of respecting the act of killing an animal for food. I was particularly interested in learning about the special care taken in keeping the knives used for slaughtering sharp and perfect so that the blade will not tear or drag on the flesh of the animal, ensuring as humane a death as possible.

Of course, there are some rules that I can't wrap my head around - the avoidance of blood. I don't completely understand how this is possible as most cuts of meat will always have some blood remaining within it. I can't remember when I cooked a piece of meat that a little blood didn't come out of it. I think only cuts of boneless chicken or pork (which is obviously a moot point). But what about beef? I'm a little baffled by this.

Although not every company necessarily wants to keep kosher, I can definitely see the appeal from a commercial stand point. After all, most kosher rules are basic principals of cleanliness. If a factory must sanitize and clean the facility, regardless, it's a marginal difference to go the extra step and make it kosher, enabling a large group of people access to your product.

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Sam the sushi guy is probably the most energetic and frenetic of all the chefs that have come to teach us, but he made some great points and really explained some of the intricacies that come with selecting, cutting and serving raw fish.

We started by watching him do a demo of prepping and making a California roll. He cut wide, thin ribbons off by going around the cucumber with his knife, stopping just before he reached the seeds. It was great to watch and he certainly made it seem easy, but when it was our turn to prep the cucumber for our rolls, I just couldn't even come close to getting it right. A technique like that (Iron Chef did the same thing too, but with daikon) obviously takes a lot more practice and time, but I can't imagine that I'll ever get to a point where I'm doing it perfectly.

Next we were cutting the avocado. The type we used wasn't a type I'd ever seen before. It was much greener than the ones I was used to, with a much smoother skin. I guess I'd never seen avocados outside of California before, because we only have and use Hass avocados that are ugly and brown on the outside, but almost always smooth and perfect on the inside (this also explains a lot because, when I'd seen recipes before that called for avocados, they always specified they should be Hass, a specification I now totally understand). Cutting the avocados was easier, particularly since it wasn't a completely foreign technique, but it was hard to keep the slices consistent and to keep the avocado from slipping around. His method for cutting the avocado was a little more complicated than I'm accustomed too, but I think that it probably yields more appropriately sized slices for sushi rolls.

The first roll was a little rough around the edges. I don't think I rolled it tightly enough and it didn't seem to seal properly either. Sam's secret, which I've decided is a good secret, was to touch the rice to the inside of the nori before rolling the rest of the way, ensuring a good seal. Grabbing the right amount of rice to begin with was easy for me and so was creating a small mound of rice at the top of the nori sheet. What tripped me up was how difficult it was to manipulate the rice down the nori so that it evenly covered it. I constantly felt like I was smushing the rice grains down rather than lightly petting them into position. I knew what I was doing couldn't possibly be right when I saw how broken up and mushed my rice became.

After sprinkling on a few sesame seeds and flipping over the rice and nori, the filling was easy. "Crab" meat sticks, cucumber and avocado evenly distributed down the center and then Sam's secret trick: taking one corner of the sushi, pull it so that it goes over the filling and that the rice makes good contact to the bare nori on the other side. After making sure that sticks, repeat with the rest of the roll until completely sealed in.

Naturally, there are other ways of doing this, but I think for beginners this is the best method. The first roll I made, I didn't roll it properly and because I didn't stick the rice to the nori, it was obvious after I cut the roll and the filling seemed loose. My two other rolls turned out much better...

... well, except that I clearly need to work on my spatial judgment, as my cuts were no where near 1/3 of rolls. After I arranged my rolls, they looked like a weird little sushi cityscape.

The nigri pieces were (strangely) much harder to master. I never would have thought that making a little block of rice would be so difficult. I found it hard to make the rice take on the right shape and be the right size. There was a delicate finger play I didn't seem to be understanding, even though Sam must have shown me (and the rest of us!) a dozen times.

Although my hand-eye coordination seemed lacking today, I was still able to learn a lot about what good quality fish means, because it's clear that Sam doesn't use anything he doesn't believe to be truly spectacular fish. The salmon was of a quality that I'd never had in the US, I couldn't believe it.

Sam also showed us (and emphasized heavily) the importance of presentation, especially when you're dealing with something that can be considered unappealing, like raw fish. He made a platter that was just beautiful, creating shapes and art out of fish, vegetables and rice. It was all very organic but clean. He really is a very artful man.

Growing up in Hong Kong and being lucky enough to travel a lot as a kid, I've had some great food in my time. Especially sushi. In Hong Kong, the salmon is of such good quality, I generally only have sashimi and I can eat it for breakfast. Since living in the US, I've avoided sashimi because I never know what the fish will be like, so I hope to mask the fish in rolls that have other fillings that make for an interesting roll. I can't describe how happy I am to find a place that has the quality of fish I miss when I'm not in Hong Kong.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Socially aware & comfortable food

Today was one of my favorite days of the course (at least, so far). We covered two topics near and dear to my fat little heart: socially responsible eating and Southern food. :)

Jason Ryan was a graduate of the master's program I'm attending and it was good to see someone who had gone through the program and hear a little about it. He explained that one of the classes left a huge impression on him and has changed his life quite a bit. The class discussed the economics of hunger and poverty (I think?) and made him think more thoroughly about where the food he ate came from and how it got to him.

This is a topic we talk about a lot at home. I never really used to consider the source of food very much, but I think living in San Francisco, reading more about food and the food world and eating at more and more locally focused restaurants has opened my eyes (and conscience) up to doing what I can to eat well and smartly. Speaking of smart, this is a topic of conversation Catherine and I have pretty often and from early on in the class. She recommended that I read the Omnivore's Dilemma, which I hope to get to soon.

One of the more interesting topics we discussed (albeit briefly) was the impact of high fructose corn syrup on health trends (not conclusive, only a correlation). I would love to read more on that topic in the future (and I'm hoping to take the class he took).

Another great thing that came out of that day: CSAs. I've been looking for a CSA to join since I've moved to Boston but couldn't find one. I've asked all the chefs, but none of them knew of any. Finally, though, Jason was able to suggest a website and a few CSAs that he subscribes to.

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There are few things in the world that please me more than fried chicken and southern food. Many women turn to chocolate when they're feeling down. I turn to fried chicken. I'm not too picky about where it comes from, I just want it. It's a constant, soulful craving.

... um, unfortunately we didn't have fried chicken today, so I don't know why I'm going on about this. But, like I said, this is a deep love. It gets me sidetracked.

Anyway, Barry Maiden was the chef today and his specialty is southern cuisine, which is obviously a sensitive topic, as every part of the American south has a different idea of the "true south." I know this because I found myself surrounded by Southerners in college and having to break up arguments on the Mason-Dixon line, BBQ, amongst other things. Anyway, Barry is from Virginia (I'm pretty sure) and is probably my favorite person in the course (sorry JJ).

We made some classics today and they were just spot on fabulous. The fried green tomatoes in buttermilk dressing was just spectacular. The crunchy and tart tomatoes was great with the creamy punch of the buttermilk. We actually served it all over a small salad with fresh cherry tomatoes, which gave the over all dish some great color and balance because of the contrasting types of tomatoes. It's a great and dynamic way to showcase the diversity of a food. Really great.

Next, we worked on the collard greens, which I haven't had in an extremely long time. I never really understood why they need to be cooked to a mushy pulp. Collard greens (and bitter leafy green vegetables in general) are prominently featured in Chinese food, and I know they have to be cooked for a longer period of time than other greens, it doesn't need to be reduced to a mush. We started off trying to render out some fat from a ham hock in a dry pot, and we cut into to ham hock help release the fat. I can't imagine trying to do this my own kitchen, the smoke alarms would be screaming for days if I did this.

After getting out a good amount of fat, we threw in some red pepper flakes, garlic and other seasonings and let them get nice and cooked into the fat, producing even more smoke (this time more spicy). We poured in some water, but I think some a little stock for extra flavor would be just fine and started throwing in the trimmed up collards. Those suckers really cook down a lot. Adding in one or two handfuls at a time and waiting a minute while they cooked down a bit, I eventually added in nine or ten handfuls of collards into a relatively small pot. We brought it up to a boil and then dropped it down to a simmer. I, personally, thought they were cooked through after 20-30 minutes (and tasted great), and while Barry agreed he said traditionally they need to be cooked for a good hour to hour and a half.

I think it turned out really well, although a little overcooked for my tastes. I don't, however, understand why anyone would drink the cooking liquid that southerners call the pot liquor. Theoretically, it makes sense, ham hock, delicious seasonings, etc, but no... it's still too bitter and hardcore for me.

My favorite of the day was the shrimp gravy (which is a major statement for me given that we also made chicken fried steak today). It was the most amazing thing we've ever eaten in class I think, and I'm fairly certain that everyone was a big fan. It was sweet and savory and salty and just perfect. I think a lot of us were surprised at how sweet it turned out, since we didn't add any sugar. Barry explained that good heirloom tomatoes really impart that special flavor that really makes the dish, normal out of season tomatoes wouldn't result in anything nearly as good. This is definitely a great dish. We served this on some grits, but I think this gravy would be just perfect with any starch, rice, pasta, potatoes... I want to eat this again right now!

One of the best things about today, particularly in relation to the shrimp gravy, was that we needed to make our own shrimp stock. I'd never made a seafood stock with shells before, so it was really helpful to see a recipe for it and do it ourselves. I was surprised to see that we really didn't need to have a large volume of shells to get a great flavor out of it. And I was really pleased to find that it doesn't really take long to make at all, much much faster than a traditional brown or white stock (of course!). I should ask Barry if has a recipe for converting the shrimp stock into shrimp bisque. Or, if he could tell me the proportions needed to make lobster stock and bisque. I imagine its roughly the same for the lobster stock and for the bisque we'd mainly need cream and a stronger broth.

Chicken fried steak was a toughie for us to do well today. I think it's hard to gauge the doneness of a piece of meat when it has a batter. So, our steaks ended up a bit further along than we had hoped, but it tasted quite good regardless. We all had a bit of difficulty trying to get the crust to stay on the steak too. I felt like the batter was just barely attached to the steak, just flipping the steak over in the pan while cooking would result in a break and loss of the crust. It was so frustrating. The steaks turned out better as we moved along, make me wonder if successful crust adherence had something to do with the cooking temp/temp of the oil. Or maybe the last few steaks I'd done had been sitting with the batter on it for longer allowing for more glue time? I'd really like to figure out how to improve the final product before I make a mess of my kitchen at home. I never would have thought that chicken fried steak would be one of the more complicated dishes I'd made. Pity. All the simple foods are the hardest to make well.

The Vidalia cream gravy we had with the steaks was another really eye-opening dish. Again, we added no sugar or sweetener of any kind to it and it came out amazingly sweet. The softball sized onions were so full of sugar, they totally changed the flavor of the gravy. When I first tasted it, I was so stunned because I'd assumed it would have a more traditionally onion-y flavor, but it was really interesting to see (again) how specific produce can be used in new, unusual or unexpected ways to really defy traditional expectations. I think that's a great philosophy / cooking technique to carry with me forever.


We all ate the main course together, chicken fried streak with vidalia cream gravy, collard greens, horseradish mashed potatoes and corn bread. A really great meal that felt homey and comfortable and full of all the great family style food known from the South.

Barry was one of the best teachers we've had to far. He's really great at explaining why he does things the way he does and what causes various reactions. He's thoughtful and decent and doesn't make someone feel stupid or inadequate just because they did something wrong or had a questions.

I can't wait for Barry's new restaurant, the Hungry Mother, to open up. I'll gladly go and support him.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I can be punny too

We mixed up the schedule a little today and exchanged a day of food writing and Southern food for a day of flavors and menus with John. I really enjoyed today, although I had been excited for food writing and Southern food, because it gave us a chance to slow down and be more traditional students.

We started the day with a quick discussion about how flavors can influence a dish and why its important for each of us to be able to reference smells and tastes quickly when we discuss certain herbs and/or spices. I've been trying to develop my ability to explore the different flavors out there but it's not the easiest thing, particularly in Asian cuisine, where flavors blend together seamlessly and give a different, newer, flavor that you never would have thought would be there.

We took turns smelling every spice we could find in the pantry, including garam marsala and Chinese five spice. We learnt about what spices were seeds of popular herbs (coriander & and which spices were connected (nutmeg has a webbing that can be dried to make another spice: mace). There were a few points when I was convinced I was going to have a huge sneezing fit because of all the crazy things I was smelling. For the most part though, I think I just totally over-stimulated my nose.

Moving on from the spices, we had fun tasting and smelling fresh and dried herbs. There were some herbs I'd never tasted or seen fresh before. I'd never had marjoram before and (rather stupidly) stuck the whole leaf in my mouth. I think fresh marjoram tastes like over perfumed shampoo, it was just awful. I'm sure I've had it before cooked into food but I'd like to learn more about the applications of marjoram in recipes so I can not be so negative about it.

We were then all tasked with making a risotto with a flavoring of our choice and see how they turn out. I chose herbs de provence and made a tea out of the dried mixture of rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, thyme and lavender. I used to strained tea as the cooking liquid for the risotto. The flavor could definitely be tasted in the rice, and it was surprisingly good and familiar, but I think if I ever do it again, I'll let the tea steep for longer and develop a stronger flavor (I'd probably want to use fresher herbs too...).


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In the afternoon, we were asked to create a menu for our pretend restaurants with a set list of proteins (salmon, chicken, duck, pork, scallops, steak, lamb and a vegetarian dish).

I've been chewing over an idea of a thematic tasting menu that touches on every continent, or at least touches on several different regions of the world. And because I have the most ridiculous sense of humor, I would call it something catchy. So, below is my menu...

"Around the World in Eight Entrees"

Broiled Soy-Ginger Salmon Fillet
with jasmine rice and sauteed mustard greens

Braised Duck Cassoulet
slow-cooked duck confit, white beans and farm sausage

Half-Shell Scallops au Gratin
Galician-style grilled whole scallops on a bed of roasted red pepper,
artichoke heart and green chili paella

Roasted Loin of Pork
stuffed with apple cranberry dressing, served with
caramelized Brussels sprouts, potato mousseline


Salsa Verde Cigars
shredded tomatillo chicken filled pastry rolls
over jicama and carrot slaw


Brazillian Beef Churrasco
"caipirinha" vinaigrette, braised kale,
yuca and manioc crisps

"Lamb Saag"
boneless rack of lamb in puff pastry over
spinach and garlic curry and mint oil

Eggplant Steak
served with a warm orzo salad and pan roasted asparagus


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Breaking bread for a little peace

Today was a difficult day. There were definite moments of awkwardness which were a bit distracting, I think.

We did break making today, with a couple from Connecticut. He is a bread maker and owns his own bakery (I think). She was one of the writers for a baking textbook, On Baking, and gave us an overview in the morning about the different types ingredients and techniques used when making breads. Differences in yeast, flour, temperature, processes, etc. I think on the surface it was a great pair of teaching, both practical and theory, but I don't know how well it came across.

We made a variety of breads today, all requiring different amounts of yeast, rise time, proofing time and baking environments. First we made a quick simple roll bread, slightly yeasty, soft and very spongy with a very soft, light crust. These were fun to form, taking lumps in our hands and rolling them between our cupped hands and the flat work surface, you got these perfect little balls that had a nicely sealed and formed bottom. We placed as many as we could into a round cake pan and let them proof together, making them all rise together in the pan. You could see the seams of the rounds meeting, but it was one entire loaf, really cute.


Most groups had bread that doubled in size, ours never did, for some reason, but ended up quite good anyway. It was a very light bread that I normally see in steakhouses. They always give you this huge loaf of bread for the entire table, a practice I never completely understood, since your next course is likely a very large steak.

We also made a pizza dough which smelled lovely and had a really great pungent smell from the yeast. Every group made their own pizza dough, but the pizzas we eventually made we actually made with the pizza dough the baker had made in the morning, allowing us to take home our own doughs (more on that later). Watching him shape the dough into small circles looked easy, and it was, as long as you started out with dough that was pre-shaped and in good condition. It was really interesting to see the dough take on the shape and slowly stretch itself out, knowing there was nothing special in the dough except a well controlled amount of basic ingredients at very specific temperatures.

The crust baked up nicely in the pizza ovens, I thought, but was unlike any pizza dough I had had before. It was crisp on the bottom, but overall, it seemed a little fluffy for pizza crust. It was a little biscuit like. If you bit into it, you could actually see the little tunnels of air in the bottom, making it look almost spongy. It wasn't bad at all, it made some nice pizzas with a good crunch, but it was unconventional. The dough that we had made in the groups and took home did actually end up much closer to the thin crust doughs I'm more accustomed to. I think allowing them to slowly rise and punch them down a few times let more air in and out making the dough chewy and thin at the same time. The pizzas we made at home ended up being perfect, even though Charles and Priscilla had said in class a pizza oven needed to be hotter than the home over could accommodate and should be baked on a stone. I did crank up my oven as high as it went, but I baked it on a tray and it turned out just fine. Really delicious actually. And it made the house smell wonderful.

We also made baguettes, which I'd never done before and certainly had no idea would be so complicated to make. Beyond making the dough, the rising, the punching down and the forming of the dough was hard. Making the little log shapes was surprisingly difficult, because a baguette should taper off at the ends. I think we were so used to trying to roll and shape things evenly that it was a little difficult to wrap our heads around changing the technique we knew. After shaping them, they had to rest again in the cloths. Eventually, we we able to cut them, to give them the distinctive pattern, and bake them. Baking them was actually more complicated than forming the dough because we needed to add humidity to the oven. The humidity helps the break form the hard, thick crust on the bread. I never completely wrapped my head around how much water needed to be poured into the pan in the oven. Does it vary based on temperature of oven, size of oven, time it takes to evaporate or number of baguettes baking?

The baguettes looked... not great. And we all couldn't help but taste them hot out of the oven. Big mistake. Not only did I singe almost all of my taste buds, the bread was just bad. Priscilla explained that breads couldn't properly develop all their flavors until they were closer to room temperature. It makes sense, of course, but it's hard to listen to logic when you see something right out of the oven.

We had so many that lots of us were able to take a few home. I threw them in the freezer, taking them out as needed and letting them defrost/warm up in the oven. The baguettes that were so unremarkable in class still looked bad but were really wonderful. Perfect amounts of fluffy and crunchy. It almost made me want to make them at home... an them I remembered how much effort was involved.

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We made the pizzas at home and they were great! I did one with mushroom and another one was a strange assembly of things Jason wanted on a pizza.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Harvey, Max Harvey. Fish dude.

We did so much today, I couldn't even believe it all when I looked over the list. We must have eaten hundreds of dollars worth of seafood. Max Harvey is the "fish guy" for the Summer Shack and a graduate of the culinary arts (not gastronomy) program. I always enjoy meeting people that have come out of the program because it gives us a glimpse into what we can get into in the future (assuming of course, you want to work in the restaurant industry).

He gave a quick overview of different types of seafood in the morning, but it was a very general overview, since we only had an hour and a half. He did show us how to open oysters and clams and explained the differences each type of oyster displays, to demonstrate his point, Jenny and a few others were the class taste testers. Ten years ago I would have gladly eaten one for breakfast at 10:30am, but since developing a random allergy to them six years ago, I couldn't participate.

*sigh*

Max did make a really buttery and creamy fish chower for lunch out of haddock we watched him fillet from the whole fish. It was actually really good, but, of course it had a bunch of bacon in it, so it wasn't rocket science. The best part of the morning was definitely when we started talking about aquaculture and fish and oyster farms. It was a particularly good conversation because I think Max was reasonable and gave a good presentation of both sides of the argument. I', all for preserving the waters and taking care of the earth, but to tell people to just stop eating fish or argue that one solution will solve all the problems is silly and frustrating. It was obvious that Max had considered all the arguments and was well read on the topic, so I think we all learnt a lot about responsible seafood farming techniques and how much farther the industry needs to go before saying we have a real solution.

Once we got into the kitchen, we were mostly left to our own devices. Today wasn't just learning about types of fish and shellfish but also cooking techniques for the different seafoods, something I think is really important, especially since it is a far more delicate and faster cooking protein that is confusing for a lot of cooks.

We started with breaded fish fillet lightly breaded in the one-two-three breading (flour, egg, bread crumbs) and pan-fried over medium heat in a cast iron skillet (which keeps the heat better, giving it better browning). They cook very quickly and brown up beautifully, it really felt that the time between prep and eating was minutes. A great technique for fast dinners and stronger fishes, like tilapia. I wish I remembered what type of fish we used for this today, it was buttery and juicy and creamy. I'm definitely a big fan.

Actually, one thing I did think was unusual about this dish was that Max (or rather, Jasper White's recipes) told us to use olive oil to cook up the fish. I was confused by the choice because of the lower smoking point of olive oil, but he explained that we're not really getting too hot and he thought the taste of the olive oil was better.

Next, we made pan roasted lobster, which required him doing a quick demo of how to take apart a lobster, which should always be alive when you cook it. Max ripped off the lobster's claws before chopping off the lobster's face (and essentially killing it). A few people in class weren't entirely comfortable with this, believe that it made the lobster suffer unnecessarily, but, since they are the cockroaches of the ocean I didn't put too much thought into it. My seemingly cold-hearted approach is probably why my group nominated me to kill our lobster. I don't chop off the face, I actually just crack my knife right down the center of the body. There's no point in avoiding it, it's gotta get done.

Cooking up the lobster was great though, we cooked the different parts at different times, because the tail would cook faster than the claw, something that's pretty common in Chinese cooking, but not something we've really talked about in class, which is a little weird, if you ask me. We finished the dish under the broiler and burnt the top of the lobster's shell a little bit, but it still tasted just perfect. This and Jacques Pepin's lobster fricasse recipe have to be my two favorites now.

While we worked on the breaded fish, some other groups worked on the oyster stew. I was grateful we didn't have to work on this because, well, I wouldn't have been able to do anything. Damned allergies! I was kind of curious how it turned out.

We made some panseared scallops and Max explained how few people know the how to tell what a quality scallops look like and taste like. Each group was given the opportunity to cook them however they wanted. Catherine decided to just drop them in a hot buttered pan for a few moments on either side. They came out with a light crisp browned outside and a warmed, but still raw on the inside. It was really creamy and barely needed to be chewed, they kind of just tasted really good and disappeared into my body. I've been lucky enough to eat great quality scallops a lot growing up in Hong Kong, so eating them again today was a nice little throwback to being a kid. I would eat them more often if they were a more efficient source of protein, less expensive and more satisfying.

Next we all steamed a fish for Jasper's recipe, 'steamed fish with scallions and ginger,' a traditionally Cantonese treatment for whole fresh fish. I've probably eaten this a few thousand times and prepared it several times, so I'm very familiar with the technique. It was a little unusual for us to use so much sugar in the sauce, but overall the class enjoyed it. I certainly thought it was fine, except for the sweetness perhaps. :)

At this point, we were so spoiled by our seafood riches that my mind started the whirl at the concept of all the foods we were preparing and eating over the course of four hours: shrimp, calamari, raw clams and the various sauces for them, grey sole, more oysters, more varieties of fish... I think a lot of us were feeling guilty from the feast. The only thing that got me through it all was the application of all the various techniques. We pan-fried fishes, pan-seared scallops, stewed oysters, pan-roasted lobster, raw clams and oysters, shrimp... the list goes on.

Because I wasn't really able to touch the oysters (and stayed away from the clams for good measure) I was happy to try my hand at doing some squid cleanup. Removing the tentacles and internal body, pushing down the cap of the body to squeeze out any extra innards, peeling off the speckled purply-gray skin and fins, removing the beak and plastic fin... it was a very quick but involved process. The worst was when the ink sac would break, it would cover the cutting board and your hands, but the distinctive smell, which is just awful to me, would linger on your fingers even after several washes. I can't possibly understand why anyone would like food with squid ink in it, just tastes terrible to me. At least the calamari turned out nicely!


Max had also brought along a Grey sole for us to try, so someone breaded it and pan fried it for all of us. It was a very mushy tasting fish, does that make sense? The texture was very soft and whatever the flavor is made it taste soft too. It was a strongly flavored fish, but the strong flavor made it taste soft. I imagine the gamy taste (if I can apply that to fish as well) makes it like lamb, some people like it some people don't. It's a specific flavor and isn't everyone's cup of tea. I didn't like it at all. I think I like slightly firmer fish that have a bigger flake, but I'm glad I tried it.

At the end of class, I asked Max if he could show us an example of worms in a fish. We'd read so much about worms in fish, but I had never seen one (to my knowledge) and wanted to know what they would look like, so that I could identify them in future. He cut open a whole cod expecting to find several worms, but he couldn't find a single one. He was really surprised, I think he said that cod generally has at least four or five in each one, just because of the waters they live in. But, that's our luck I guess, the one day I'm looking for them, they just aren't there.

On the plus side, Max gave Potter and I the fillets off the cod to take home. I made it a fish and chips night, breading and pan frying the fish instead of battering and deep frying it. The cod turned out perfectly. Huge chunks of buttery, white flesh. It was hands down the best piece of fish I'd ever had.

I wonder if Max wants to take on private clients on the side...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cambodian Power Brunch

Today was a weird food day, because as much as I love all Asian cuisine, I don't know how many times in life I can really handle fish sauce first thing in the morning. Obviously it wasn't actually first thing in the morning, but given how late I wake up these days, it might as well have been.

We started with a Cambodian food demo with one of the owners of the Elephant Walk, Nadsa de Monteiro. I like the Elephant Walk and have been there a few times before. I think in general, I'm a big fan of the flavor profile found in most South East Asian foods. I loved hearing more about Cambodian food in particular though. I think there's far too much attention paid to Thai food and not enough to the surrounding cultures. My personal love is really Vietnamese food, but I'm always open to hearing more about other cultures. She explained how Cambodian food wasn't as sweet at Thai food (which I didn't really understand, because she seemed to put A LOT of sugar into the dishes she made) and generally not as spicy.

She made a a pork soup, chicken dish and beef dish. All of them, I think, were pretty fabulous, but I was a particularly big fan of the soup. It had great depth of flavor and variety of textures which I think are two of the most important aspects of food and cookery that really separate Asian cuisine and Western cuisine. I'm glad others in the class were able to see another aspect of southeast Asian food.

We were also introduced to some cuisine specific ingredients, some I knew others I didn't. I'd never been very familiar with tumeric, but I'd never seen galangal before. It was ginger-y in smell and taste, but was more peppery than normal root ginger. It was a really interesting taste. In the finished dishes it tasted like a combination between ginger and garlic (kind of like a different version of shallots tasting like a combination between garlic and onion). I'd had Thai cooking classes before and so was otherwise familiar with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. The chef also explained to us the way Cambodians combine the ingredients into a base paste to flavor the eventual dish, using the fresh ingredients above and adding things like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. She used the paste as the start to both the soup and the chicken dish, but both tasted very different. Another paste we learnt about was prahok, similar to the well-known fish sauce, but is actually a paste.

The most interesting part of the morning, I think, was hearing about the chef's life as the wife of an ambassador. She lived all over and learnt to the various cuisines of different cultures. She studied Chinese cookery in Taiwan, and said that French techniques and Chinese techniques are really all you need in life. As a francophile and Chinese girl, I'm probably very bias, but I think that she is mostly correct in that opinion.

What a great lunch that day!

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Today was our first pastry day with Cindy Salvato. I used to want to be a pastry chef and spent most of time baking goods. I eventually gave up when I realized how much storage space I'd need for the all the equipment needed for baking. Anyway, I was excited to learn a bit more about pastries. I feel like it can be hard to learn more about baking because so much of it is conjecture and a matter of opinion, but at the same time so many people say how precise you must be when measuring out ingredients. I feel like it's hard to find a book that can provide a solid overview of different pastries and baked goods (not including bread).

Today we were in 'production' mode for this evening's seminar on tea. We made lemon meringue tarts, fruit puffs, éclairs, gingerbread cakes with lemon glaze and cranberry scones. We broke into groups and we worked on the lemon meringue tarts; I was in charge of the dough, while Catherine and Stephany worked on the lemon curd. The crust for the mini tarts was made with crushed pistachios that I had to first blend in the robot coupe so that the nuts could evenly distribute in the dough. Using the large Hobart mixer, I threw together the ingredients for the dough, flour, butter, sugar, salt, etc., and blended it until it just came together. Once it was formed into a large square, I wrapped it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge.

After the dough had rested for a while, we took it out and rolled it out into 1/4 inch thick sheets and then cut to fit into metal mini tart shells. As soon as we took the dough out, it was nearly frozen and we were worried that we'd left the dough in for too long. However, as soon as we'd started rolling out the dough, it started to warm up so quickly that the too cold temperature of the dough actually helped us keep the dough workable for a longer period of time. As soon as we'd filled the nearly 100 tartlet shells we needed to put in some weights and blind bake them. Unfortunately, when we took the out of the oven, we realized that the kitchen's pie weights included grains of rice that really work their way into the pastry. We spent a lot of time looking at each tart shell and scraping out rice grains embedded into the shells before we could pour in the lemon curd (normally, you'd just let the shells cool a bit before pouring in the curd - I think it's to keep the shell as crisp as possible even after the addition of the curd).

We baked them again to let the curd set, even though it was mostly safe at this point. There had been a lot of egg yolks in the curd, but Catherine and Stephany had whisked them with the lemon zest and juice over a double boiler 'cooking' the eggs yolks enough that they should have reached a safe temperature. After the curd set, we had to wait a little for them to cool again before we could place meringue on top, or else they'd just melt away.

We had to put the tarts back in the oven so that the meringues could toast/cook up. At this point I was a little worried that the shells of the tartlets would be completely overcooked and end up dry and crumbly, but they didn't. They turned out nicely, helped along by the copious amounts of butter, I'm sure. I personally thought the tartlets looked and tasted better without the meringue, but I think Cindy was going for a mini-lemon meringue pie look.

Although we didn't work on each of the recipes, at important points, gathered to watch the demo part. We saw the cake get glazed right out of the oven so that it could be absorbed into the cake. We also saw two groups make pastry cream for éclairs and fruit puffs. The pastry cream made by the éclair group wouldn't come together properly, so Cindy helped them turn it into diplomat cream, nearly the same thing at pastry cream really.

I've made éclairs and cream puffs a million times before and even though I thought that I'd made the wrong dough the first time I made pate a choux, I quickly realized I'd done it right. I think with baking, because it is so final (no tweaking after the point like in cooking), a lot of people are nervous when making things, always second guessing the results. I think it has a lot to do with confidence.

I wasn't a big fan of the scones, I was a little confused why the cranberries turned out so hard. I would have thought they'd be fine, perhaps they needed to reconstituted a little bit in warm water before they were added into the batter? I also didn't really understand why the scones were so dry and mealy, I think maybe the group doing it overworked the dough a little? I know that the gluten level and affect the way baked goods like this can come out. I think I'd like to try this again in my own but changing the recipe a little by working the dough less and reconstituting the cranberries before adding them in.

The best, however, were the fruit puffs. I've never made fruit puffs before, so it was interesting to see that group pull them together. They turned out beautifully, and I think tasted the best of all the desserts we made today. We didn't have enough time to make puff paste from scratch, so we used pre-made puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm, I think), cutting strips to provide boarders, then baked them off. Once those were done, they piped in pastry cream onto the raft-like puff shells and then carefully layered fresh fruit over the cream.


Unfortunately, by this point I was on such a huge sugar rush, I wasn't able to eat any more sugar. I was going to crash and burn from all the sugar pretty quickly, I figured anymore I'd pass out. :(

I'm definitely going to make the fruit puffs next summer, when all the lovely berries are back in season, especially now that I know taking a shortcut from Pepperidge Farm is acceptable!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Restaurant Day

Oof.

Today was one of the best and longest days we've had since the start of the program. It was a great day for us to really test our skills and become our own cooks. I think we were able to really see how we work together as a group and give us a sense of our overall skill sets and our ability to trust each other.

Even though the menu had a good range of cooking techniques and touched on all the mother sauces, it wasn't terribly complicated. We also lucked out that it was a buffet and not a dinner service as it saved us the time consuming effort of plating and presentation. I don't think we would have made it on time if we had to plate it all individually.

Mike and I were put on roast beef tenderloin which was to served with two sauces, a bordelaise sauce and horseradish cream sauce. Mike and I decided to divide the work, especially since I wasn't really going to be able to do a lot of heavy lifting with my hand injury. Mike worked on seasoning and cooking the meat in the rotisserie while I started in on the prep for the sauces.

For the proportion of sauce that we needed, I had to finely dice twenty-five shallots, which surprisingly took me a long time. At the same time I needed to re-heat 2 quarts of demi-glace. While I waited for the demi-glace to come to a boil, I also graded a cup and a half of fresh horshradish for the cream sauce. Because our sauces didn't need to be made for the last minute and because the meat was taking care of itself, Mike and I spent most of the morning bouncing around and helping others where we could.

An hour before service I started in on making a bechamel sauce for the hroshradish cream sauce and Mike pulled the beef from the oven to let it rest. I added the graded horshradish slowly at first while tasting it the whole time, but couldn't get enough kick from the fresh stuff, and had to start using the canned spicy horshradish. I never would have guessed that the fresh stuff would be less potent than the canned stuff. It seems like it would be the other way around. In the end, I used nearly two cups of fresh and half a cup of the canned to get enough flavor and spiciness into the sauce.

The bordelaise sauce took much longer than anticipated. The initial mixture of shallots, bay leaf, thyme, black pepper, and red wine took a long time to reduce down. John's recipe called for the red wine mixture to be reduced by at least half. We were reluctant to use a rapid boil for fear of burning the sauce if we were distracted or otherwise unable to constantly stir it. When the sauce had finally reached the right consistency, we added the tempered demi-glace. John had recommended that we bring the demi-glace to temperature to reduce the time it would take to bring everything to a boil again making the second reduction much faster.

After simmering for 15 minutes, we strained the bordelaise sauce through a fine chinois to remove the shallots, bay leaf, and thyme. The strained sauce was returned to pot to be finished with butter. Its around now I start getting nervous because I am an appallingly bad saucier. I have never successfully made a butter based sauce. They have a tendency of separating on me (through no fault of my own, of course). "I like the nuts". I called Mike over to finish the sauce because I did not want to take responsibility for a ruined bordelaise, and thank God, because Mike's separated a tiny bit, had it been me, it would have completely separated and we would have needed to start over.

Once both the sauces were in their serving containers and being held in a warm, undisclosed location, Mike and I set to work on carving the beef for the buffet. We were a little worried when we started carving it because we noticed it was a much closer to well-done than we'd hoped for. We lucked out a little when we saw the very center of some of the beef tenderloins were still pink and arranged those closer to the front of the pile to cover up our err. What's cooking if it's not about covering up mistakes occasionally? We used the juices that ran off the beef during carving to help pink it up a bit more for presentation, but we were still worried about what everyone would think.

Wouldn't you know it? The for the first time in my life I saw people as for well-done pieces of beef, it was the best timed mistake I've ever made in my life. People were relieved when they saw the meat was on the medium-well side with several of them saying, "Oh great! I normally don't like how pink the center is on these things."

I think our first time really working together went really well, we all listened to each other, worked together and pitched in whenever necessary. A promising view to the future and our final graduation meal together. After everyone had left, we ate together and got to try all the food that was made for the buffet. I was a really big fan of the salad, soup and arancini (risotto balls in sauce) that we'd made. And, even though I prefer rare cuts of beef, I think Mike did a great job seasoning the beef because each bite was very flavorful, I didn't really notice that it was cooked through.

I wasn't really a big fan of the steamed fish with orange hollandaise. I didn't like the heavy, buttery sauce with the light tasting fish. It didn't make sense to me and I thought the orange tasted out of place. The chocolate bread pudding didn't come together right, it wasn't custard-y and pudding-like enough to really be called a bread pudding and I didn't feel like the chocolate was fully incorporated enough into the dessert. I'm a lover of bread pudding, so I might have slightly higher standards, but it left me wanting real chocolate.

I loved the pear crisp. The pears inside had held their shape well and some pieces had a slight bite to them still giving the dessert a sense of freshness. I would love to make this again, I think it was the perfect Autumnal sweet.

I feel like today was the first time I really met some of my classmates. We were left to our own devices and because of that, we were all able to really be ourselves and talk freely about things and work together. I had a great day with the class and think we all lucked out, none of us are jerks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Little Miss Muffett...

We had a full day of dairy planned today starting with an extremely early cheese and wine tasting with John, an afternoon of eggs and an evening of more cheese. Too bad I missed most of it because I had to go to the emergency room and convince doctors and nurses that I really did injure myself making a souffle.

At least I made it though the morning. John gave an interesting lecture about cheese, the different ways they are made and how to conduct tastings and choose wine pairings. It was an a very eye-opening morning and I had another moment of simple clarity. Before this morning, it had never occurred to me that cheeses can be matched with wines from the same region. It seems like an obvious statement and a logical conclusion, but my it never occurred to me to do so. But, this morning was great fun, particularly trying to differentiate between the subtle changes in the cheeses and the hidden flavors, like dried cherries or walnuts. It helped slightly when we ate the foods with the cheese, like we did with the actual dried cherries and the pear slices, but some were harder to distinguish.


Some of the wines also matched better than others, but I particularly enjoyed the sparkling muscato with the blue cheese. The sharpness of the cheese was nicely complimented by the sweet, fizzy muscat.

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I love eggs. I think they are the most perfect meal addition, affordable, dependable, easy to use and very versatile. John did mention that there has been a change in size classification over the years, because eggs are getting gradually smaller. A jumbo today is not the same jumbo size of ten years ago. I wonder why that is - is it because we are using different chickens? is it because of what they're being fed? or the conditions they are living under?

I'd certainly like to learn more about that in the future.

Anyway, it was great fun seeing all the various cooking methods of eggs - I love it! The incredible, edible egg indeed. John demoed a bunch of different egg options, including an omelet confiture, an omelet filled with jam or jelly and dusted with confectioner's sugar. The idea was definitely kind of weird, but when he explained that it should be like a crepe, it did make a bu more sense. I tasted it and it was good but a little weird, the savoy egg feeling didn't seem to match the jelly that well.

He also explained the difference between a French and American omelet - an American omelet is cooked entirely dry in the center, while the French omelet had no color was was generally runny in the middle. I'd never been the biggest omelet person growing up, even though my dad loves them. I've started eating them more lately because they serve as an extremely satisfying meal any time of the day (of course, I'm making American omelets, my skills don't yet extend to the French yet).

I also had no idea that properly cooked breakfast eggs (over easy, etc) weren't supposed to get any color on them. I find that a little weird because don't see why it makes that much of a difference, but I'm glad to know the correct way they should be done. I wonder if the breakfast places I've always gone to know this and I just never bothered to notice or if they are just as clueless as I was. Interesting!

Flipping the eggs in the pan without breaking the yolks was one of the harder techniques we've had to try. Having to make breakfast for friends for years now, I've become pretty good at flipping eggs, although I also have a few casualties.

But, it all fell apart somewhere around the souffle making part of the afternoon. I was whisking the yolks together in the pan to make the base of the souffle, and suddenly my hand was throbbing and very painful. When I looked, the area was extremely swollen to really disturbing proportions.

I think it was from the excessive whisking over the past few days. The potato mousseline on Tuesday and making and whisking Morimoto's white miso sauce for forty minutes on Wednesday pushed my hand too far and put too much strain on my hand. So, it gave up and needed medical attention.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Morimoto yelled at me :)

We had the great chance to work with Masuharu Morimoto today. I think most people only know him from his Iron Chef fame in the US, but he's a restaurateur and has a lot of knowledge of other cuisines, including Chinese and American. We were definitely all nervous and excited abut the day, but I think most of us were worried out skills hadn't come far enough along yet.

And because we weren't particularly confident about our skills yet and we sad an unfamiliar menu, we started early today to try and get a few things done before Morimoto arrived. A few people started on the egg custard, while a few others began blanching vegetables for the salad. The fish, tuna and salmon, were mostly still frozen and needed defrosting before we could cut them (and we probably were all too afraid to cut fish without Morimoto first). When I arrived, I floated around and just tried to work wherever someone was needed and ended up landing on the white miso dressing for the bamboo salad.

Kevin and I weren't sure if the white miso he had was the right kind, so there were a few moments lost to researching the different options we had. We didn't want to presume the miso would be the right type, I think we were all a little afraid of seeming to disrespect the chef's recipes or ingredients. We were all nervous what his temperament would be.

After a quick online search, we decided to go ahead because I needed to whisk the miso and egg mixture together over a double boiler and because there was so much, it would need to be done in several batches for nearly an hour. Thankfully, I roped Mike into helping me out (and doing a lot of the whisking) otherwise I probably wouldn't have made it all quickly enough. In the end we had to whisk the very thick mixture for nearly 45 minutes.

Just as we'd finished, Morimoto arrived to check on what was going on. I think that if we'd waited until 1pm to come into class today, we never would have been able to finish all of the dishes on time. Unfortunately, all the work we'd put into the miso dressing was for nothing. In the end, chef said that the white miso we were using wasn't quite right. It was too dark and too salty, making the dressing far too intense for the salad. Chef decided to call a friend (who owns a sushi restaurant in MA) of his to bring us in the correct type of white miso. Until his friend arrived, Mike and I were tasked with slicing bamboo shoots in half for the salad because we needed a very specific number of shoots per serving (about 4 per person, nearly 100 people).

Morimoto also started to demonstrate how to slice salmon for sushi. It was amazing to see in person. It was clear that he had a lot of respect for the food and the art of traditional Japanese techniques because of the way he moved the fish, handled his knife and applied the blade to the meat. It made me think it was almost ritualistic sacrifice, trying to do as little harm as possible to the fish, because it would be wrong to waste any of it.

He made it look so easy, slicing the perfect portions with his knife gliding through the fish. So when he let us try, we were all very nervous. A few of us started off blaming our French chefs knives being the problem, but I think we all know we just weren't anywhere near his knife technique level. His knife was much longer than ours, and had a thinner blade, I think. He did offer to let us use his knife, but there was a rumor that his knife was well over a thousand dollars making us all very reluctant to touch it at all. Could you imagine being the one that dropped it? Ugh, my stomach is in knots at the thought of it.

We needed to slice tuna and salmon for two different dishes: tuna pizza and sugared salmon. The tuna pizza took little prep time, so we focused mostly on slicing the salmon correctly and beginning the process of making the salmon a dessert item. Mike and I laid out the sliced salmon and sprinkled a good amount of salt over the sheet trays, after five minutes, we were supposed to wash off the salt and dry the salmon. Well, I was trying to be delicate because (1) I didn't want him to think I was just throwing food around and (2) some of the slices weren't holding up very well because they were slices made from the class practicing their techniques. Anyway, when he came back after doing a quick demo of how to slice tuna, he saw that some sheet trays had not yet been rinsed and yelled at me for my slow pace. A little unnerving, but it makes for a far more interesting experience with him!

After the salmon was dried, we placed them all into hotel pans and soaked them in cognac for another five minutes. Drying 100+ slices of salmon quickly when they're falling apart is hard to do, and Morimoto pushed us to move faster, because some pieces will have sat in the cognac for longer than others. Amazingly though, he actually said, "Oh, well, maybe I was wrong and should have waited for the salmon to be in the pan before I poured the cognac." Mike and I couldn't believe that he would reconsider his own movements and suggest that he hadn't thought it through either. I really respected him for that, because most chefs would never think themselves as less than perfect. I don't think he was wrong, but it was very cool to see him think about different ways to approach a situation - no wonder he's good on Iron Chef.

Because he was doing two demos today, I was able to watch the first one and help plate for the second one. He was actually quite dynamic to watch in performance mode, although he definitely is a focused cook because there were times during the demo he would forget to talk and the room just sat watching (not at all a bad thing, really). At one point he used his knife to peel an entire daikon into one long, very wide, strip. It was amazing. Once it was cut, he rolled it back up and sliced them into strips that genuinely looked life fettuccine (which he then used to make the daikon fettuccine pasta).

I really enjoyed learning more about his childhood and path to becoming a chef, I'd never heard anything about his early life and only really knew about his time at Nobu in NYC before starting his own restaurant, Morimoto, in Philadelphia. His personality really came across though, he seemed pretty humble but knew that he had a great talent for cooking. He was very funny and made some cracks about himself, but talked really honestly and candidly about his rather unpleasant childhood.


Over all them menu we served was pretty interesting. I didn't love the bamboo salad (despite putting so much elbow grease into the dressing) but the crowd seemed to enjoy it. It was funny because a lot of people couldn't figure out what was in it. I really enjoyed the tuna pizza, with the grilled tortillas slathered in BBQ eel sauce, covered with slices of tuna and vegetables and finished with some mayonaise. I'd have a hard time saying it was really Japanese food though. I sorta liked the egg custard with shrimp (or maybe fish?) paste. It didn't taste bad, per se, but I wasn't expecting it to be sweet, so I was a little thrown by the flavor when I ate it at first. I think if I ate it hot and with a little rice or soy sauce, I'd like it more.

The worst was the salmon. Just absolutely awful. The traditionally oily feeling on a piece of fish had been taken away by the salt and cognac, making the outside look and feel a little like salmon jerky, even though the inside still tasted like raw salmon. The last step of the salmon sugar (which I missed because I had been watching the demo) was to bury the salmon in sugar seasoned with cloves and star anise. It tasted like oily, boozy, salmon jerky. Blech.

I think a lot of the crowd was disappointed we didn't make the daikon fettuccine because they all wanted to try it. I have to say, I was a little disappointed myself. It seemed to be the only dish that I would realistically try at home. Everything else seemed a little complicated or expensive (tuna in particular). But I did hear, and I completely agree with them, that it was just such a special treat just to watch him cook in person. The way he moved around, used his knife and cooked was so graceful, measured and elegant and really made me think that the Japanese have really understood the concept of making food and cooking a true art form.


This class has already changed the way I function in life, I'm increasingly efficient and mindful of my action. Conservation of movement and actions. Maybe at some point I'll move into elegance of actions too.