Where the heck have you guys been? I’ve been waiting to tell you all about the last few weeks of class but…oh….wait, it’s me that’s been absent, not you. Woops!
Well, it’s been a heck of a few weeks, where do I start? We finally moved into some more “normal” types of food in this second half of the quarter. We covered risotto and making fresh pasta, both of which I love and am convinced that I will one day be a total expert on.
We revisited our friends of the sea and worked with some flounder, clams and mussels. I had a difficult time with the mussels. As you can imagine, they’re still alive when they come in to the kitchen. You have to wash them off and clean up any beards and the fresh water from the sink basically suffocates them so their shells open up a little bit in an effort to breathe. I found this pretty hard to do. I have been dealing with chicken and beef and whole fish, but none of them were alive when they came into the kitchen. So needless to say, I did not enjoy making the mussels mariniere.
The following week I made the most delicious beef stroganoff I can remember eating. I am enjoying my temporary hiatus from vegetarianism, but I don’t plan to be an omnivore full time once I’m done with this class. I am taking advantage of the situation because the likelihood of me recreating some of these meaty dishes for myself is quite low.
We also made ricotta and mozzarella cheese – easily two of my favorite things we’ve done so far this quarter. Ricotta is the easiest thing in the world to make and as my chef said, “learn how to make it and you’ll never buy it from the store again”. Truer words have never been spoken. I already made a second giant batch that I used in a pasta dish a couple weeks ago. It was heavenly!
I also had my first total failure. I completely scorched my beef bourguignon – a dish that I had been looking forward to making and using my omnivore grace period to eat. I totally decimated it. I didn’t have enough liquid in my pan when I put it into the oven and I never checked up on in until an hour in, and by then the devastation was complete. Lesson learned: always check your oven and check your food 5-10 minutes in to make sure it’s not overcooking. It was a sad loss.
I have only three more classes left this quarter, so there is still a bit of ground to cover, but I am looking forward to a break in the latter half of this month. This schedule combined with the awful winter is wearing on me and I am ready to kick back and relax a bit!
The last couple of weeks of class have been the least exciting of the whole program so far. I’ve seen them as sort of the necessary evil one must go through in order to get to the more exciting part in the upcoming weeks. We’ve covered a lot of different topics, but nothing has really captured a ton of my interest.
We spent one night on sandwiches and made a Rueben, Monte Cristo, club sandwich and a veggie wrap. It was an insane amount of food to make in one night. For just a bunch of sandwiches, there’s an incredible amount of work to do. I ate none of them save for one small piece of the Monte Cristo. I had never had one and at that moment, it just looked really good and I knew I’d never order something like that at a restaurant so I gave it a try. To my surprise (or, why should I be surprised that something deep fried wouldn’t be good), I found it to be pretty divine. An excellent choice for hangover food if one is in search of something of that ilk.
School is back in session and this quarter covers hot and cold methods of cooking. The first 5 weeks will be spent on cold food preparation, otherwise known as garde manger, and the last 5 weeks will cover hot food preparation. A sampling of the items we’ll work on includes sandwiches, canapes, pates, terrines, seafood platters, and salads; and methods such as stewing, braising, grilling, sautéing and pan searing. The menu of foods we’ll prepare is wide and varied, and a few of them, I’m not sure how I’ll get through. Terrine? Pate? Chicken liver parfait? Eeeeck! None of the above sound appealing whatsoever, but I’ve been surprised by things before, perhaps I’ll be surprised again.
These last two weeks of class covered a wide range of topics from hollandaise, to duck a l’orange to French onion soup. I liked the hollandaise the least, and would say the duck was my favorite. I think I’ve only had duck a l’orange once in my life before, but what I made in class was sooooooooo good. I would actually consider making this again just for myself someday.
On hollandaise night, the chef broke my sauce on purpose, just so we could show the class how to save it. If you find yourself in this situation, toss another egg yolk over the heat (using a ban marie or a stainless steel bowl over a boiling pot of water) and then slowly mix the broken sauce into the fresh yolk. That should take care of it.
Tomato sauce is not the same as marinara. Say it with me – tomato sauce is not the same as marinara. If there is one thing that was made clear to me this week, it was this very point. On Tuesday night we made tomato sauce, as in one of the five mother sauces – not marinara. You can make marinara from tomato sauce, but it is NOT marinara sauce. Everyone clear on that point now? Good, let’s move on.
The other thing I learned about tomato sauce is that it’s really freaking good. It’s laden with animal product (salt pork, bones, chicken stock), but it is really flavorful. As much as I love to modify recipes, I’m not sure how I could possibly modify this into a vegetarian friendly version and keep the same depth of flavor. The deeper into this program I go, the more exposure I’m getting to a whole new flavor profile that I’ve been missing out on as a vegetarian. (Not to say that vegetarian food isn’t delicious or elegant or lacking in depth or complexity, it totally has all of that.)
Things are getting saucy! That’s the best description for the last couple classes. We’re learning how to make the mother sauces, which are the backbone of many traditional and contemporary dishes. The mother sauces were defined by Auguste Escoffier in the early 20th century and remain staples of every kitchen (and culinary education) today.
In order to get to the sauce, you have to start with the roux. Roux is a combination that’s equal parts butter and flour, whisked together in a saucepan over mild heat to one of three consistencies and then added to the base of your sauce as a thickener. There’s white roux, which is the thickest, blonde roux that’s slightly thinner and brown roux, the thinnest of the three. Depending on the type of sauce you’re making, you will use a different roux. White or blond roux would be used for lighter sauces and brown roux would be used for the darker or brown sauces.
Week 5 officially marked the mid-way point for the quarter. I’ve barely noticed the time going by, this has been so much fun!
This week we continued working with seafood and made one of my all-time favorite dishes, shrimp scampi. We also started to dig into working with butter, which is why scampi was the best choice possible. We clarified butter and made two types of compound butter. I never understood what the point of clarifying butter was, but you do it to remove the milk solids so you’re left with pure butter. It makes a difference in the end result of the final dish. You can pretty much use clarified butter in any instance you would use regular butter. (Except for baking, I am unsure if that’s an ok substitute.)
We also had an unofficial knife skills test. I use the term “unofficial” because it was a test for which we were evaluated, but this program is not a degree program, so grades don’t count. And boy am I lucky they don’t. The test consisted of trussing then breaking down a chicken into eight pieces, bone on the breast, and various cuts of different vegetables. I was a little intimidated about the chicken because I missed the demonstration class, so, never in my life had I broken down a whole chicken. I figured it couldn’t be that hard, just go for the joints. Turned out I was pretty darn close and did pretty good with my first few cuts.
Here fishy fishy! That was the theme for this week’s task – fish Monday, fish Tuesday, fish everywhere. Monday’s class started with the demo on how to filet striped bass and flounder. These fish were chosen specifically because one is a round fish (bass) and one is a flat fish (flounder)*. I’ve never once touched a fish, living or dead so I was a bit hesitant to dig in there and grab one of these guys. But just like last week with the game hen, I sucked it up and went to work.
The technique is actually pretty simple – given that you have a sharp filet knife and know exactly what to look for. One cut at the tail, a cut just behind the head, and one smooth slice down each side to detach the filet. Not so easy the first time around, but we did the same thing on Tuesday and having done it two nights in a row helped – Tuesday was much easier. Not to say that I did a beautiful job, but it was easier.
What I’m loving about this class is that each week builds upon everything we’ve learned. We’re going through mirepoix like it’s going out of style and with each batch, my cuts are getting more and more precise. I executed my first totally perfect small dice on a carrot this week, and that felt awesome.
In week 2 we finally got to cooking something that we could take home. We practiced julienne cuts and were introduced to tomato concassé (con-ka-SAY). We also got into stock making and made a vegetable stock.
The leek was our victim for practicing the julienne cut. We used the cut leeks to make a gratin that was oh so simple and delicious! It will likely become a staple comfort food for me this winter.
With the tomato concassé, we made a Portuguese sauce. Concassé means peeled and seeded, so that’s exactly what this sauce is mostly comprised of – peeled, seeded tomatoes. It also has a bit of onion, garlic, basil and parsley. It is super light and really flavorful. Toss it over a bed of small pasta like ditalini, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good meal.
Class is back in session and this quarter, it’s all about the basics. The next 10 weeks will cover many of the fundamentals every chef needs to know in order to build their skill set. My first impression is that I’m really glad I got the baking and pastry class first – I had something delicious to take home on the very first night. By contrast, on the first night of this quarter, our time in the kitchen was only enough to chop 1 onion, 1 carrot (small dice, to be exact) and mince a full bulb of garlic. Not very sexy, but very necessary – getting these fundamental things down pat will lay the groundwork for more advanced techniques.
Our lecture periods so far have been a bit longer too. There is much to learn about the history of cooking and the kitchen, but I think we’ll start to see more kitchen time the further we get into the quarter.