Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Far From My Vegan Days

I stood in a refrigerated room at Kinnealey Quality Meats, trying my best to appear like a tough chef and refrain from shivering. It was the end of an hour-long tour, and I was chilled to the bone. Still, things were much better than I expected. My experience with commercial meat purveyors had been limited to a traumatic reading of The Jungle, so I was anticipating serious blood and gore. Instead, Kinnealey’s was a clean and, dare I say it, appetizing environment. There were no sides of beef hanging oozing onto the floor (most meat is now butchered into smaller cuts at the slaughterhouse to save on shipping fees). The storage rooms smelled of sanitizer; the only carnal aroma in the entire facility was in the dry aging room. Maybe things would have been different if I visited an actual slaughterhouse, but Kinnealey’s completely contradicted the many accounts I'd read of the food industry’s unsavory side.

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

Stocks and Soups

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

First Day of School

I eagerly arrived at Boston University’s cooking school yesterday, armed with my chef’s jacket, thermometer, timer, and new Global knife. After much agony and research, I finally decided I wanted to buy MAC knife. Unfortunately, my decision took a nontrivial amount of time, so the day before school started, I still was without knife. Alex and I went to Tags, Crate and Barrel, and Bed Bath and Beyond, but none of the stores sold MACs. Time was running out, and the Patriots’ opening game had already started, so I settled for a Global, my second choice.

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 Boston University’s culinary school. The opening day was dedicated to the administrative minutiae of all first days of school. We were introduced to the primary instructors, went over the syllabus, took a tour of the kitchen, and roasted bones for the beef and veal stock that we will complete tomorrow. While much of the material covered today was quite dry, the course of study promises to be thrilling. More often than not, classes will be taught by guest instructors, including Masaharu Morimoto, Jasper White, Jacques Pepin, Helen Chen (Joyce’s daughter), and an array of chefs from Boston’s best restaurants. The two primary instructors, John Vyhnanek and Jean Jacques Paimblanc, were quite impressive themselves, both with distinct teaching styles. I am eager for today’s class, when I will start cooking, and hopefully have more to report.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Last Week of Freedom

This is my last week until cooking school begins. I realize I have been somewhat lax in my blogging, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that it has been a month since my last post. I hope this will all change once school starts, when I will undoubtedly be boiling over with amusing stories. Unfortunately, when you have many stories to write, you usually have no time to write them.

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.