Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fry Day

You'll have to excuse the quality of these photos; I found myself with only a camera phone in class on "fry day," and I just had to take an image to remember this smorgasbord of Southern- and deep-fried cuisine. From left to right we've got fried okra, French fries, hushpuppies, Southern-fried chicken and Southern-fried catfish. Just like last week, class went smoothly. It was fun for the second week in a row, and now I think I can relax and enjoy things without the anxiety that I may start the culinary school building on fire--although maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Frying suprised me. There was a little more intuition than I had originally thought, subtle things like not letting the oil get so hot it burns the outside of the chicken before the inside cooks and that the quality of the oil counts. We used butter and lard (something I would never ever ever use on my own, but as Chef said "It's all oil, every oil is just as bad as every other oil, more or less."). The chicken and the fries were the best parts of the day's production. The skin was cripsy and seasoned while the inside was tender and flavorful--nothing too greasy. The fries, who doesn't love fries, were done by the two-fry method, which meant we partially fried the potatoes in oil, let them rest and finished them off at a higher temp. The outside was again crisp while the inside held together with potato goodness.

Chopping and dicing is going better as well, but I still didn't really see the point of chopping things to complete uniformity that is until Tuesday night when I was eating at Mother India, which is this great Indian restaurant but also a total dive. Someone had diced the carrots macedoine (which is fancy for small dice), a one-fourth-inch cube. I couldn't believe it and was incredibly impressed that someone had taken the time. The presentation was nice as the carrots and the peas were about the same size. Who knew that an ethnic eatery would convert me to a firm believer in classical knife skills?

Monday, September 27, 2010


After several failures in the kitchen (including continuous failure with trying to flip eggs), I think I was due for some sort of marginal success. Let it be known that I can make risotto.

True, I already knew I could make risotto, but this was a win I needed desperately. I was self-conscious and defeated in that commercial kitchen and running low on pep elsewhere. Wild mushroom risotto was a nice confidence booster. I've made risotto many times, so I get the basic premise of feeding the oiled rice aromatic stock periodically and massaging it with a spatula into creaminess. This by no means meant that I had the risotto in the bag. In my group of three, I was solely responsible for the risotto, which included simmering stock, roasting garlic and making parmesan crisps all in less than three hours. The list of ingredients was extensive and involved three different kinds of mushrooms (dried morels, porcini and buttons). But I did it. The rice was creamy and flavorful. The mushrooms added just the faintest sweetness, which I learned to enhance by adding lemon juice. The steamed soy beans and the mushrooms gave the dish an Asian depth to a traditionally Italian item. There was so much I learned: like how easy it is to make parmesan crisps (bake a pile of parmesan cheese until it melts together), about homemade stock (it doesn't take as long as I thought), and the incredible importance of mise en place (another extra fancy French word that basically means preparation and which I basically suck at as a general rule). Maybe, just maybe I can do this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Fancy French Words Like Julienne and Gallette

Before this week's Culinary Foundations class, we were all tasked with slicing one entire pound of planks for making julienned carrots. Never before did I know that to julienne doesn't just mean to cut something into thin square-ish slices, it means to cut something into a thin square slice that measures one-eighth inch by one-eighth inch by two inches. What I want still don't know is when it is absolutely necessary for vegetables to look like they've been squared off by a planer.

My pound received a C. I blame the carrots. They were thin and bendy even before they were julienned, which means they were even worse once they had been sliced. Needless to say, I am getting better at chopping, even though I did slice my finger a little bit today (it had to happen). I got pretty winded in the hour-plus time I stood going to town on the carrots, and I didn't stop then. Taking advantage of inspiration to cook, I made two apple gallettes. There I was at the kitchen table wheezing and kneading flour and water into tart dough. It just seemed appropriate. The leaves are just beginning to change, only on the outer layers of trees, and it's time for baked apples and soup.
Gallettes are so pretty, even the name is so French and quaint. Beauty is one of the main reasons I'm drawn to pastries and desserts--this girl will not be making sloppy rice pudding. The dough turned into a nice crisp crust on the edges but soaked up the syrupy juice from the apples on the bottom. The tart apples gave way to sweetness with a little help, and all this is missing is a little ice cream.

Apple Gallette: from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook
Pate Brisee Crust:
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 stick cold butter
1/2 cup cold water

Apple filling for two small gallettes or one large:
3 apples, thinly sliced (one-eighth inch)
juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 egg, beaten
sanding sugar (optional)

Blend the flour, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Slice the butter into 1-inch tablets. Incorporate the butter into the flour using a pastry blender, mixing until the product is crumbly. Slowly pour in the cold water a little at a time, stirring and lightly kneading to incorporate. Add water until the dough holds together.

Divide the dough in quarters (or halves). Flatten into a round disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a least an hour.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 and put sliced apples in a medium bowl. Pour lemon juice over the apples. Toss apples with sugar, cornstarch and salt.

Take out your dough. Turn out on a floured surface and roll into a 8-inch round (or 14-inch for a larger gallette) that is about one-eighth-inch thick. Place on a piece of parchment paper and on a baking sheet. Arrange the apples in the center of the dough leaving a two-inch border. Fold over the border, overlapping when needed, pinching the overlapped portions together so the juice doesn't leak out onto your parchment like mine did. Paint the edge of the crust with egg. Sprinkle with sanding sugar and bake for one hour or until the crust is golden brown and the juice is bubbling.

Monday, September 20, 2010

An Homage to a Pneumothorax

Life has been going pretty fast for me without much time to think. I used to stare up at the ceiling tiles at my old job, I don't have time for that or the daily walks through the (ugly) industrial park. It's all work and school, and it's a bit overwhelming all without a moment to catch ones breath.

Well, life has the good humor to take that away from you in a moment. I hate to be melodramatic when I write because it comes out so cheesy, but what happened on Friday afternoon was my left lung collapsed just walking around at work. The funny thing about breathing is that you rarely think about it except when it doesn't come easy. I suppose it was a good weekend for sitting and doing absolutely nothing. It was rainy and cloudy and fall just rolled into town with a thunderstorm. It's my favorite time of year, and I'd hate to miss it being in a rush. At this point, it's guaranteed that I won't be going anywhere fast for the next couple weeks.

Early to bed on a Saturday, early up on Sunday. I spent the afternoon reading for class and sipping tea with some candles illuminating the coffee table--it seemed only appropriate. Right now, some of my tomatoes are slow-roasting with garlic and time in the oven. The apartment smells divine. The tomatoes will be plump with syrupy juice ready to burst. And I've got a moment to sit. To sit and think about things like breathing even when it hurts. And cooking even when things don't turn out right. And loving when it's scary and finite. And starting things you may not be able to finish. But this time I don't think I can breathe/cook/love/start.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On Steak

After Tuesday's steak fiasco, I thought it best I give grilling another go. I feel fairly certain I won't ever be working the line at a steakhouse, but you never know. And knowing how to cook a steak without killing someone is a skill that might come in handy someday. And let me tell you that as stress-inducing as class has been that is how relaxing "studying" is. Cooking for and with people, I think, will always be one of my favorite things. It's right up there with sleeping and drinking wine. And thankfully, I have a number of friends ready to help me study for culinary school.

With two big ribeyes from Wohlner's wrapped up in my fridge, I called on Liz and Sean to come to the rescue and help me eat the meat. I like steak. A good steak is simple; it consistes of a nice cut, salt, pepper and a little bit of oil and yet the end product is complex in flavor. Even considering this, I am not a big fan of steak. First of all, there's just always something else I'd rather eat. Like vegegtables. For me, meat alone is lifeless, but served alongside sauteed or braised vegetables and you've got something.
Because I don't currently have a grill (a travesty, I know), I had pan sear the steaks to medium rare, which involves heating a sauce pan (or sauteuse, as I now snobbily know) until scorching in a 500-degree oven, searing the seasoned and oiled steaks for 30 seconds on each side before popping it the 500-degree oven to cook for 2 minutes on each side. My steaks were pretty thick, and this didn't quite do the trick. But this time I recognized that they were still raw and threw them back in the oven for a bit. They came out tender and juicy and, as you can see below, medium rare.
I served them with a side of creamed spinach that Chef O'Donnell apparently pilfered from some famous steakhouse in New York. The spinach was more the sort of thing that you dip tortilla chips in, which also meant it was really hard to stop eating. As I was stirring together the concoction of wilted spinach, cream cheese and yogurt (instead of sour cream) I decided the dish was missing some toasted pine nuts. I was right. Topped with parmesan cheese and scattered with pine nuts, the spinach seemed more like an American version of Florentine classics verses the spinach and artichoke dip one gets at a bar and grill.
Even better than the cooking was the eating and wine drinking. Liz, Sean and I made quite the ruckus going on about boys and girls and love and whatever other topics one covers after a satisfying meal. All these things, the prep, the cooking, the serving and revelry-making, that is most definitely why I come to the table night after night.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Epic Fail

Culinary Foundations causes me a fair amount of anxiety. The night before class I was up ironing my uniform, double checking my supplies and going through my already-completed homework to see if I missed anything. Same story when I was walking out the door. Turns out the thing I forgot wasn't my homework or any part of my uniform, it was the day's recipes.

I expect even more anxiety before next week's class because this week was a complete and total disaster. The assistant chef described it pretty accurately as a clusterf***. Thankfully, it wasn't just me. Only two people in the class of 15 actually wrote down notes for the four recipes we were responsible for reproducing today. Chef Tim demonstrated Pommes Anna, a classic dish of sliced and crispy potatoes, and then set us lose on Pommes Duchesse, twice baked potatoes and a creamy baked spinach dish and that's not even considering the steaks. I jumped in a group of very capable boys whose names I didn't have time to catch until the end of class because we were running around boiling water, sauteing onions and making a general mess of things for the next five hours.

Our Pommes Anna did not fall out of the cast iron skillet in a lovely floral pattern the way they were supposed to. Our twice-baked potatoes didn't even get baked once, and while the spinach and Pommes Duchesse looked alright, they were completely lacking in all flavor. What had come of the cheese, the salt and the pepper? The steaks were the only things that turned out--all completely thanks to the boys who were practically running each other over to get away from the potatoes and onto the grill.

But, but, through a miscommunique, we only plated one serving of steak, potatoes and spinach. We got to the tasting and the chef looked at our empty places and sent me and two of the guys from my group back to the grill. There were exactly three steaks left in the fridge, which we haphazardly grilled. My first presentation to the chef was a completely raw but carmelized New York strip with perfect grill marks--the only good thing about it. I had tested the temperature of the meat on the grill and it registered improperly as much much much hotter than it actually was. I sat at the grill turning and poking and sighing until I was the last one there with my medium rare steak serving the chef who said he would take it even though it was undercooked. I thought for more than a few moments toward that I might cry. I coped by imagining lying my head on the steering wheel of my car and heeving heavy tears, thinking quite poorly of my skills and wondering what in the hell I was thinking going to culinary school. This is nothing like cooking in my own kitchen. It's frenetic and nothing I make tastes good. But by the time we had finished cleaning, the moment had passed. It was a "there's no crying in baseball" moment. There's no crying in the commercial kitchen. There's certainly plenty of reasons to cry--I made the worst steak ever, that cow died to make nothing delicious--but that's just it, there's just no crying.

If I were 22-year-old Lainey, I would be having a complete existential crisis at the moment. But somewhere in the past four years, I stopped flipping out as if the world were coming to an end and I just reimagine the world--probably as it will never be. I live a lot in my head. Obviously, I will not be working at a steakhouse. I don't know exactly where I'll be, hopefully, it will be in at a home writing about food and people. Or maybe it will be a nice, happy, open kitchen that serves caprese salads and cheese plates with mini gherkins alongside house wine. My sister, serendipidously, sent me a link to this cafe she discovered in London called Look Mum No Hands! It was opened by cyclists who love good food. Allison saved the day, because while I now have the utmost respect for the steakhouse, what I really love is a niche cafe.

And when all else in my mind fails me, I will go to this moment, sitting outside at a street cafe in bustling Madrid sipping this exact coffee.

Even with all the people running around in the street, that is such a quiet memory for me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lessons in Flipping

"Studying" for class, and you might guess, involves a fair amount of eating. I'm still working on egg mastery, and as you can see based on the picture below, I have not perfected the art of flipping an egg.
Chef Tim made it look so easy, just sliding the egg out of the pan, coaxing it into a gymnastic manuever and setting it down gently and unbroken to cook on the opposite side. In class, he instructed one of my lab partners to flip his egg right after his perfect dismount--and she nailed it. She passed the egg and pan off to the next person who flipped it right onto the floor. Back at our work stations, I tried my hand at flipping to a small audience of four and managed to toss only half the yolk on the floor. It's apparently all in the wrist.

Sunday afternoon, I gave it another go with what seemed like perfectly good eggs. However, there must have been something wrong with them because all they did was this:
And then this:
No self-respecting egg would ever act in this manner, falling apart and slopping all over the place. Whatever is the world coming to? No matter. They still tasted good even if they would have failed me out of class.

Chef Tim said of fried eggs, "It's a basic skill, but could you call yourself a chef if you couldn't even flip an egg?"

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Botulism Is Bad

As I was reading through the first assigned chapter out of the text for my culinary foundations course, I realized how lucky I am to be alive. Though that luck may run out once I eat these canned tomatoes because I'll probably get botulism from bacteria toxins. My home kitchen is a hotbed for mold, bacteria and viruses ready to wreak havoc on my intestinal tract.

Canning tomatoes was probably the most sanitary thing I've done in my kitchen. I sterilized the jars and lids in hot water for probably 30 minutes. I added extra lemon juice to add extra acid the pot of already acidic stewed tomatoes, which was actually closer to the consistency of tomato soup--this is what happens without a recipe. The tomato slop went into the sterile jars. Lids on, the jars went into a vat of boiling water for 15 minutes, which I now know far surpasses the minimum temperature required to kill bacteria in vegetables. Still, I doubt Chef O'Donnell would eat my tomatoes, and that man knows what he is doing.
I was a hot mess the first day of class. Thanks to my own idiocy, I thought classes started on Wednesday. Why would they start on Wednesday when it would make more sense to start the day after Labor Day? Right, they wouldn't. Katy saved me from missing the first class and getting kicked out for that reason. Maggie saved me from getting kicked out from not having a uniform. I showed up the first day, and everyone was wearing the proper chef coat, chef pants, skull cap and apron. I had just the coat donated from Maggie's brother. Like I said, hot mess. The chef docked me a few points and tossed me a hair net. 
The lesson of day one at culinary school could be summed up as "forget just about everything you knew about cooking because it was at least off if not totally wrong." You think you know how to make scrambled eggs properly until you've tried Chef O'Donnell's eggs. I am not exaggerating when I saw that they were mind blowing, at least for me. It was so simple. Hot pan, add a teaspoon of canola oil, whisk two eggs until they are completely homogenous (and I mean no unblended egg whites), add the eggs to the hot oil, let sit for just a moment, scrape ever so gently with the corner of a spatula, season lightly with salt while still scraping, just before it becomes completely solid, remove from heat and toss in about a teaspoon of butter, fold it in. Pour the eggs from the hot pan and serve.

These eggs were creamy, just barely salty, and as one student noted, tasted a little cheesy. But after my bite was gone, a flood of sweetness washed over my entire mouth. The eggs delivered even after they were gone. Yes, these were eggs that someone would pay for, but now I don't have to because I can do it too.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Back from Peru

I'm back. After quite the hiatis: a week in Peru, five days in Minnesota's Boundary Waters and a week of finishing up things at Home & Away and getting ready for school and a part-time job. I do not feel prepared at all, but classes will not wait. Life pushes me on, and Culinary Foundations is tomorrow from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. I'm still breathing and actually not that stressed.

My two-week vacation was amazing. I couldn't stop staring at the mountains in Peru. I even got to hike up one of them. The people were fantastic, especially in the little Andean villages. And the food, lord the food. The Incans are apparently the source of everything good and tasty in the world--so said our overly proud guide. I don't disagree when it comes to ceviche, savory sauces and quinoa. I've had quinoa a couple times before, but this trip to Peru put the wholesome grain on my short list. This recipe is directly inspired by some quinoa salads that we were served--and I made it without a recipe.

I just love the texture of that quinoa--it's soft like rice but has this barely-detectable crunch to it. And here's the big draw: It's the only complete source of protein in the natural world that does not come from meat. Take note all you vegetarian friends. Supposedly, you could live on quinoa alone--plus it's a really fun word to say. This salad barely made it to a Labor Day party--my friend Liz and I could have downed the entire thing without a little self control.
Peruvian Quinoa Salad:
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water
olive oil
2 garlic cloves
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 large tomato
1 bunch of cilantro
juice from 1/2 a lemon

Cook the quinoa according to directions in salted water. One cup of dry quinoa makes about four cups cooked. It cooks like rice, so you don't have to drain it.

Place cooked quinoa in a serving bowl. In a saute pan, heat olive oil. Cook diced garlic for a couple minutes until lightly golden brown. Pour over quinoa. Dice Tomato and cilantro. Toss with the grain. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.