Wednesday, September 19, 2007
We returned to school with fresh meat, waiting for our knives. Our instructor gracefully dismembered a whole lamb, making it look as easy as slicing bread. When it was our turn to clean the lamb and cut it into cubes for stewing, we learned that it wasn’t so simple. With such an expensive product, one wrong cut could be a catastrophe. I nervously sliced into the lamb’s silverskin, wincing as if I were cutting myself. The process was awkward and stressful, but my confidence grew with each cut. It didn’t hurt that I was working with a partner, and I let her take a go at some of the more difficult parts. I left the class eager to cut more meat.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
I survived my first week of cooking school. To be honest, this wasn’t that much of an accomplishment, since Monday was orientation and Thursday Rosh Hashanah. Still, I was truly exhausted by the weekend’s arrival, though more from preparing a large holiday meal than from the toils of school.
Most school days are organized into two parts. In the morning, we attend a lecture and demonstration on what we will be making in the afternoon’s session, where the twelve students break into two teams and cook. Each team is lead by a sous chef, a distinction which is assigned to a new student each day.
Tuesday and Wednesday’s classes were dedicated to stocks and soups respectively. The class on stocks was more about getting acquainted with the kitchen, and no insights into the secrets of stock-making were offered that you wouldn’t find in any cookbook. Still, the experience of making stocks in class was wildly different from home cooking. Organization is imperative, as we were cooking many dishes simultaneously, and the quantities of food involved were much larger than you would need in the typical home kitchen. My team didn’t read our recipes as closely as we should have, so there was some confusion while cooking, and we forgot to sweat our fish stock’s mirepoix before adding the liquid. I was reminded of a passage from A Debt to Pleasure, where at the end of a recipe for an Irish Stew of layered potatoes, onions and lambs, the reader is instructed to sprinkle each tier with salt and herbs. The narrator explains that, “You will of course not be able to do that if you have been following this recipe without reading it through in advance. Let that be a lesson to you.” Fortunately, our omission had no discernable effect on the final product.
I wish I could say I was more organized on Wednesday, when I acted as my group’s sous chef. I tried to learn the recipes for consommé, French onion soup, and butternut squash soup before the class, but despite my efforts, I added flavorings for the squash soup at the beginning of cooking rather than after cooking, as the recipe suggested. Again, the mistake resulted in negligible consequences, but I was disappointed that I was unable to keep three simple recipes in my head. I’m sure this will become easier with practice.
Probably the most exciting dish we’ve prepared thus far is consommé. Consommé is made by combining a mixture of whipped egg whites, tomatoes, mirpoix and ground beef with chicken and veal stock. The egg whites bind together and form a raft at the top of the broth, bringing with them all the soup’s cloudy impurities (this method is also used to clarify wines). The acid from the tomatoes also helps to create a clearer stock. I hear that the addition of egg shells makes the consommé darker and more flavorful, but this practice seems to have gone out of fashion. Our consommé’s raft took a long time to form, and I became quite nervous that I had done something wrong. But, sure enough, the mixture finally did come together at the top of the pot, resulting in a perfectly clear liquid.
The real fun of consommé is the garnishes. Chef John explained that there are over 300 types of consommés, each distinguished by its own topping. The 2003 edition of Larousse Gastronomique only lists fourteen types of consommé; the Escoffier Cook Book lists 88; and La Répetoire de la Cuisine lists 189, so I’m not sure exactly how Chef John arrived at 300. Still, we can all agree that there are more individually named consommés than the average consommé enthusiast will ever sample. I read through a bunch of them, and the one that seemed the most appealing to me was consommé profiterole, which is garnished with small foie-gras stuffed pastries. Unfortunately, we won’t cover pastry until the end of October, so for now I’ll have to practice my knife skills and enjoy consommé brunoise, topped with vegetables cut into a 1/8 inch cube.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
I eagerly arrived at
My relationship with the new knife is off to a rocky start. While cleaning it for the first time, I cut two of my fingers. Maybe the knife knows that I settled, and was seeking its revenge. I resent the injury the knife inflicted. You cut me, Global; you cut me deep. I hope that we will be able to work out our issues over the semester. If not, I can always register for a MAC when I get married next year.
I am officially a student at
Sunday, September 2, 2007
This isn’t to say that my vacation from posting is due to an absence of inspiration. I have spent a good deal of the last month in the kitchen, enjoying the August harvest’s bounty. I made a delicious coconut rum cake, which was probably the most beautiful cake I’ve ever baked. My hand still bears a scar from a tiny mishap opening the coconut, but the cake was definitely worth this minor disfigurement. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of the cake, but it looked exactly like the photograph in Gourmet.
I also made a horrible grilled tuna with tapenade butter. While the seasoning and cooking were successful, the fish was Trader Joe’s deep-frozen tuna for the palateless cheapskate, which was probably the worst tuna I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. I was quite optimistic about the tuna, because of many delicious meals from Whole Foods’ deep frozen sushi-grade tuna, but the Trader Joe’s version hardly seemed like the same species of fish. It was stringy and flavorless, and for the first time in my life, I understood James Beard’s oft quoted remark that, “Tuna is a fish that I think is better canned than fresh.”
I will try to be better about the blog, and hope I will have the stamina to chronicle my adventures at cooking school. Until then, I plan to enjoy my last week of freedom with a great deal of sloth, as well, I’m sure, as my usual share of gluttony.