27 December 2011

Day 79: Failure Dominoes

The funny thing about the bad days is that they start so well.

During the previous term, I started to write out production schedules for our cooking days to help me multitask.

In Foundations III, we're required to create them. I find them invaluable, since we're now creating complete dishes with multiple elements – protein, vegetable, starch, sauce, garnish – that have to be ready simultaneously. The simple process of writing a schedule helps me organize the tasks I have to do.

The only thing I can't plan for: a complete culinary belly flop.

Today, our dish was roasted rack of lamb with jus, ratatouille, and fried polenta cakes. Individually, pretty straightforward. It went like so:

Three sauce pots go on the burner immediately, two with chicken stock, one with water to blanch a tomato. Cornmeal goes into one of the chicken stock pots. Occasional whisking whilst I also...

Prep all my vegetables. Cube zucchini, cube eggplant, chop bell peppers, mince shallot, mince garlic, mince onion, mince basil. Make a bouquet garni, rough chop some more onion, carrot, celery, and leek for mirepoix. Grate some cheese...

Polenta looks ready. Butter, cheese, salt, whisk, then into plastic wrap, into the reach-in to chill and firm up. Moving along...

The last piece of ratatouille prep is tomato concasser, which means: blanch, shock, skin, core, chop. Then saute zucchini, remove, then the eggplant, remove, then all the minced aromatics and bell peppers. In goes some tomato paste, the tomato concasser, the bouquet, a wee bit of water and to the back burner it goes to stew.

Check the time, clean my station. Still almost 45 minutes until our serving window opens, about 15 until I need to fire the lamb.

Grab my lamb, remove the excess fat and trim off the bones to create that standard rack of lamb look. Start searing the trim for the jus, season the rack with salt and pepper, begin searing it off.

After it's nice and golden, the lamb goes on a roasting rack and into the oven. I allotted 25 minutes to cook the lamb, plus five to rest. I'm right on schedule.

I caramelize the mirepoix with the trim, deglaze, pour in some stock from that third sauce pot and begin to reduce the jus.

Temperature check on the lamb. 95-degrees. I'm aiming for medium-rare, which means take it out at about 130 so it hits 135 or so after resting.

I check and season the ratatouille, strain the solids out of the jus, clean my station some more, feel good. About five minutes later, another temperature check. My digital thermometer shows me...

145... 156... 164!

Way over. Way way over. I yank the thermometer, get the lamb out of the oven, but it's too late. Did I lose track of time? Did I not get the thermometer in all the way? Maybe I screwed up the reading by touching bone? It doesn't matter, I've killed the lamb. No saving it.


I move to the reach-in and grab my polenta, unwrap it... and it's paste. It didn't firm up. I undercooked it and instead of a polenta cake, I have corn glue.


I ask my chef-instructor what to do. He helps me spoon and dredge some loose polenta quenelles in flour, plops one into my frying pan. It flattens and cooks up into a semi-crispy pancake. It'll have to do.

Instead of five minutes crisping up my polenta cake, I spend almost 15 trying to turn the paste into polenta quenelles, then change tack and fry them into thin polenta crisps because they won't even hold that football shape. Probably because I put too much cheese; the parmesan is separating and oozing out into the pan.

That's 15 minutes while the lamb is resting, carry-over cooking bringing the temperature even higher.

I salvage three reasonable looking polenta circles and plate them. The ratatouille comes out splendidly, thank God, and then I cut the lamb. The mildest of mild pink color in the center. At least it's not leather.

I mount the jus with butter... and it breaks. Instead of emulsifying into a nice, thickened sauce, the butter creates an oil slick. I didn't reduce the liquid enough before adding the butter.

Screw it. I slap some on the plate and present.

I try not to fret too much about failure. I'm in school, after all, and that's sometimes the point.

Oh, I also randomly burned my wrist. I don't even know how, I just noticed it throbbing on my way home. Later, I'll think about how I wasn't patient enough with the polenta, and too patient with the lamb, and how I put way too much cheese in the polenta, and how I didn't turn up the heat high enough to reduce the jus, and how do I plan for possible disasters like this that unfold like dominoes?

For now, I eat and move on.

The ratatouille was pretty good.

26 December 2011

Day 76-77: Sausagefest

I was both proud and disappointed in myself after two days of making, stuffing, and cooking sausage. Proud because I was on team bratwurst and it was crazy delicious. Disappointed because in two days I didn't make a single sausagefest joke. Not one.

Maybe it was because our chef-instructor chided the room when he was demonstrating how to encase sausage meat and a few of my fellow classmates let loose with some laughter. Juvenile? Sure. But I was still hopeful I'd get in one inventive nugget about, oh I don't know, twisting my meat, or hanging it loose, or what have you.

Anyway, sausage. The basic recipe for any sausage is meat (or, I suppose, a meat-like vegetable doppelganger), fat, curing mix, spices, herbs, and aromatics. And they aren't kidding about the fat. Most sausages are emulsifications of meat and fat. Kind of like a vinaigrette, except you can stuff it into something and cook it and be thoroughly satisfied eating it with a beer.

The bratwurst I got to make is classified as a 5-4-3 sausage. Five parts meat and four parts fat emulsified with three parts ice, to add moisture and also to keep the sausage from cooking while it's run through a buffalo chopper. In our case, the meat was veal. And the fat? Bacon.

Bratwurst on the left, frankfurters on the right. Sweet and spicy italian sausages in the back.

Sausage party!

23 December 2011

Day 74: That'll Do, Pig

I don't know what it is about the faces of mammals, as opposed to fish or lobsters, that makes butchering such a visceral experience. Certainly part of it is that their faces are much easier to anthropomorphize than, say, the cartoonishly flattened look of a flatfish. Mouth, nose, ears, even the body of a four-legged animal isn't that far, anatomically, from us.

For me, it was the eyes of our wee little piggy, stuck wide open, that made my stomach squirm as my chef-instructor's saw came down to behead him, briefly making me want to break out into a soulful rendition of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" while the camera slowly pushes in on Babe's winsome, albeit dead, eyes.

The momentary uneasiness isn't nearly enough to shift my moral compass on the issue of stuffing my face with delicious animal protein. But I feel like I now know what all the farm-to-table, squeak-to-squiggle chefs are talking about when they wax poetic about respecting ingredients. I will certainly try not to let any more delicious cheeks go to waste going forward. In other words, sisig party!

Once the head was off, pig fabrication quickly shifted into pork lover's magic food porn time as one cut after another became visible. Count a few ribs in from the rear (to keep the tenderloins intact) and slice through the spine. Legs off through the joints. Then separate the tenderloins, sirloins, and ribs.

Just like that, I was staring at kalua pork, baby back ribs, St. Louis ribs, spare ribs, pork belly, pork chops, and ham. Really, how can you say no to any of that?

And then we chopped the head in half to expose the brain.



22 December 2011

Kitchen Lingo: 'Blanch, Shock, Drain'

Blanch, shock, drain
alternately: BSD

verb(s): To immerse an ingredient in boiling and, typically, salted water to partially cook. To then remove the ingredient from the boiling water and immediately place in ice water to stop the cooking process. To then remove the ingredient from the ice water to dry before it is integrated into a dish.
I suppose this could be three different kitchen lingo posts, but one generally doesn't blanch without shocking or shock without draining. That's how they roll.

Examples of BSD include green beans that will be used in a salad or asparagus before pouring on some hollandaise. It has the added benefit of setting the colors of produce. Because who wants pale, grey green beans?


21 December 2011

Day 69: The Tomahawk and the Paring Knife

The beef rib primal. Cut #103 if you care to order it in all its glory.
With beef, my preferred method for checking doneness is giving it a quick poke to test firmness. Unfortunately, when it comes to Fred Flintstone-sized cuts of steak, like the bone-in ribeye tomahawk steak, this will not do. The meat is too thick for this to be completely accurate.

We basically had three other methods for checking. There's the decidedly unsexy yet thoroughly practical thermometer method, the crude cut-it-open-on-the-bottom-and-see method, and then the method for the wickedly cool among us: jabbing it with a paring knife and feeling the temperature of said knife with your lips.

Seriously, how cool is that? Of course, for a novice like myself, it didn't turn out perfectly, as my ginormous hunk of weaponized cow ended up medium rather than the desired medium-rare. Still, the gist is this: insert a paring knife halfway down into the steak. Preferred point of entry is the non-presentation side a.k.a. whichever side will end up touching the plate. Give it a few seconds, then remove and place the flat of the knife against your lip.

A lukewarm to warm knife reflects a steak that's in the medium-rare to medium range, which is how one should eat this particular region of bovine musculature.
Cote de boeuf with beurre marchant du vin.

20 December 2011

Day 68: What the Kitchen Saw Thinks

A saw in the kitchen doesn't have a whole lot of uses. Thus...

When you think about it, it really should say, "I hate beef bones and really tough connective tissue!" but never you mind. The kitchen saw giveth things like tomahawk steaks.

Thank you, kitchen saw.

Day 65: Taking Fish By the Guts

Fabricating fish is, technically, a simpler process than fabricating chicken. However, two things make me never want to buy fish whole, no matter how much more economical it might be: scales and guts.

Scaling – descaling? – a fish is, again technically, pretty easy. Hold fish, sweep from back to front with knife, scales fly off. Therein lies the sticky, smelly rub. The scales fly everywhere. It's like an explosion of whatever fish scales are made of. They have amazing range and even better stickiness. I was scratching an itch several hours after the fact only to realize I had a single fish scale dried to my forearm.

Oh yeah, there are also the scales on top and bottom. The ones right next to the dorsal and pectoral fins, which have spiny protrusions that provide structure and can also poke right through your skin.

The other issue is the guts, which tend to stick to each other. There is only the matter of not slicing them open and unleashing whatever nasty stomach contents or green glandular fluids inhabit them.

Other than that, pretty easy. Score behind the fins, knife open the belly, yank and pull guts, follow the bones to fillet. Or you could simply buy fish in many of its fabricated market forms, which we also learned about.

Fun fact: a fish with its head, tail, scales, and guts removed is referred to as a "dressed" fish, in spite of the fact that it is most certainly as undressed as a fish can be before it officially becomes a steak or fillet.

Thank you, Internet.

16 December 2011

Food in Fiction: Boogie Nights

One of the things I love about Boogie Nights is how so many of the sequences can stand alone as brilliant little short films featuring quirky characters. Dirk coming up with his name. Little Bill and his wife. And Buck, played by Don Cheadle.

Buck isn’t the most quotable or memorable of the Boogie Nights characters. That’s probably why I like him so much. Hopelessly behind the trends. Passive aggressively in need of love. A sucker for seasonal novelty food. I can sympathize with the guy.

(Violence, language, and spoilers ahead)

Donut Boy (Dustin Courtney), Man With Gun (Allan Graf), Robber (Jose Chaidez)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Written & directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

09 December 2011

Food in Fiction: Home Alone

Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), Pizza Boy(Dan Charles Zukoski), Johnny the Gangster (Ralph Foody)
Home Alone (1990)
Written by John Hughes
Directed by Chris Colombus

06 December 2011

Day 63: Poultry is My Oyster

You know when cartoon characters are hungry and imagine other characters as food?

That's a little what it's like to suddenly know how to break down – or fabricate, as we say – chickens and ducks and pretty much any type of poultry. It's actually pretty simple: either removing meat from bone or going through joints.

The hardest part is the oyster, the little round bits of meat above the thighs on the lower back of the chicken, which are spoken of lovingly by people. It's requires a little digging with a knife, which is slightly tricky, but really isn't.

We also learned some basic classifications that you sometimes see at the store. They never registered with me before, but apparently they do mean something. A cornish hen is a 5-6 week old chicken. A broiler or fryer is a 9-12 week old chicken. A roaster is 3-5 months.

Knowing is half the battle.

Photo: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Kitchen Lingo: Bouquet Garni

Bouquet Garni (boo-kay gar-nee)

noun: A bundle of herbs that are used to flavor stocks and soups and removed before serving. Typically, parsley stems, celery, thyme, and a bay leaf wrapped up in the green portion of a leek and tied together. The herbs can also be sandwiched together between two celery ribs or wrapped up in cheesecloth.

02 December 2011

Food in Fiction: The Matrix

Mouse (Matt Doran), Neo (Keanu Reeves), Switch (Belinda McClory), Apoc (Julian Arahanga)
The Matrix (1999)
Written & directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski

For me, this is the best possible explanation for why everything tastes like chicken.

01 December 2011

Kitchen Lingo: 'All Day'

All day

noun: The total number of orders of a particular item currently being cooked. Akin to "that's all we got."
e.g. I've got two steaks for table 10, three for table 11 - five steaks all day.

29 November 2011

Day 61: Bitch, Meez

Our first cooking day in Culinary Foundations III was a runaway success. We roasted chickens, a relatively simple task, and made pommes puree, a process we'd done several times in Foundations II.

Our second day of cooking was a disaster.

In Foundations II we basically had up to three hours to finish whatever dishes were required for the day. We could choose the order and present them as soon as they were ready. By and large, each dish was a single item. Our roast chicken day was largely the same – chicken and potatoes as soon as we could knock them out.

The second cooking day featured service windows. In order to semi-replicate restaurant timing, we were given successive 15 minute windows, one for the first dish and one for the second. That's two dishes, each with a side and a sauce (or in one case, a flavored butter). Starting from scratch to the first window was roughly two hours. 15 minutes after that was dish #2. If the window closed and we didn't present, we'd get a zero.

The first dish was a sautéed chicken breast, which I started about five minutes too late and had to present undercooked. My chef-instructor sliced it, looked at it, and that was that. Can't taste something that isn't cooked through. The second dish was a grilled chicken breast, which I cooked properly to temperature but didn't season enough.

On the positive side: I can make a decent rice pilaf.

On the negative side, and the reason I lost so much time: I didn't mise out properly. There's a reason that phrase is used – everything in its place. I didn't have that, so I was running around like a mad man, back and forth across the kitchen to grab white wine or flour or tomato paste or whatever.

Each little trip probably took 20-30 seconds, but it added up. It also didn't help me stay on top of recipes, which meant I kept referring to my notes and kept losing more time.

Everything in its place.

25 November 2011

Lessons in ink.

The Voltaggio Brothers were favorites of the wife and mine during their run on Top Chef season six, which saw Michael best his elder sibling Bryan in the finale. Michael Voltaggio was, at the time, the chef de cuisine of The Dining Room at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. Before I had the chance to check the food out, he'd left to start what is now ink. in LA.

The first thing to like about ink. is the online reservation system. I didn't have to call, pray, and do a rain dance just to get a call back from someone (I'm still waiting, Animal). You pull up their website and it shows you which days within the next 30 are available.

As for the food? When Voltaggio won Top Chef, he did it with a solid dose of modernist flair. This is a guy who makes yeast-less brioche in the microwave by aerating batter in a whipped cream canister. And while that type of thing is fun to watch on TV, to be honest I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy it as an actual meal.

I did. And as a culinary student currently going through the greatest hits of traditional French cuisine (Butter! Bacon! Stock reductions!), I thought the food at ink. was inventive, but also a terrific example of balance. Voltaggio and his crew get pretty playful with their food, grabbing inspiration from all over the world and putting it in different contexts. Despite the tinkering, dish after dish featured great complimentary flavors and textures.

Also, everything tasted really good. Let me just get that out of the way before I get all food nerd describing flavor profiles and textures.

(The menu descriptions below are lifted from the website menu.)

kale, burrata, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin preserves, yuzu

There are also chunks of asian pear. The burrata was super soft, almost like popping a creamy mozzarella balloon. The preserves (spread at the bottom of the dish) were almost like peanut butter, and the seeds provided a nice crunch.

bigeye tuna, parsnip-sesame cream, grapefruit, soy gel

The only thing we had that could be accused of being conventional, though it was still good. The black cake/crouton things provided the crunch. What stood out for me was actually the soy gel. It helped season the tuna and the saltiness also mellowed the tartness of the grapefruit. I think if soy sauce was simply drizzled over, it would've muddled the dish. Up with gel!

spaghetti, giant squid, squash, hazelnut-ink pesto, piment d’espelette

I'll be honest, I didn't even know I was eating squid until after the second or third bite. Even with the server explaining the dish. For a minute, I kept thinking, "Why does it say spaghetti when it's fettucine?"

This was one of the more playful dishes and I loved it. Just a wonderful plate of pasta-less pasta. Also, another admission: I had to look up "piment d'espelette" when I got home. It's the pepper powder dusted over top.

brussels sprouts, pig ears, house-cured lardo, apple

I've made pig ears once, poorly. They came out like what they are: chewy pieces of cartilage and skin. So, this was a deliciously humbling experience. Crispy strands of pig ear, tartness from the cured lardo and the brussels sprouts, and sweetness from the apple.

Seriously, they make pig ears good. And brussels sprouts. Together. That by itself is worth noting again.

lamb neck, chickpea poutine, yogurt curds, chive purée

High class, modernist greasy spoon food! It's kinda like using ingredients for doner kebab and falafel in a dish that screams drunken American excess but is actually French-Canadian (that's what I think of poutine, anyway).

I've been reading a lot about chefs doing the high brow-low brow thing and this is another shining example of applying technique to a dish that you'd shovel in your face at 2am to help your body soak up copious amounts of alcohol. The lamb by itself was delicious. The chickpea croquette fries were light and crunchy and lovely. The yogurt curds, like The Dude's rug, really tie the room together.

berkshire pork, charcoal crust, macaroni and cheese, leeks

The charcoal crust was actually leek ash, so this dish contains leeks in three different forms: the ash crust of the pork, braised leeks, and crispy leek strands.

I'm pretty certain the pork was sous vide. It was extremely tender all the way through, with the leek ash supplying the smokiness you'd usually get from a seared crust.

The lone, elongated macaroni stuffed with cheese was good, but frankly I would've been satisfied with the pork and leeks.

grapefruit curd, avocado, cilantro sorbet, charred maple-lime

Again, balance. Tart and sweet. Maple can be really cloying, but charred maple with lime flavor cutting through? Quite lovely. Cilantro sorbet was nice and refreshing, too.

Food in Fiction: The Muppet Show

The Swedish Chef (operated by Jim Henson and Frank Oz)
The Muppet Show season 4 (1979-80)

21 November 2011

Kitchen Lingo: Mise

Mise (meez)
Shortened form of mise en place (meez ahn plas)

In French, it means everything in its place. Google Translate says it means implementation. But in kitchen terms in gets tossed around in slightly varied ways...

1. noun: Preparation done prior to cooking. Specifically, ingredients used for cooking. More specifically, ingredients that are ready to be cooked (washed, chopped, minced, etc.).
e.g. Are there tomatoes in our mise today? 
2. verb: To retrieve and/or prepare ingredients for cooking.
e.g. I'm gonna mise before I even think about touching the stove.
3. adjective: Used to describe any piece of equipment used for mise en place.
e.g. mise cup, mise tray, etc.

Butter in a mise cup, cut into small chunks to be used to mount a sauce.

18 November 2011

Culinary Foundations II in Review

My station prior to our final cooking practical.

I'm currently two weeks into my third term at Le Cordon Bleu, which is called (wait for it) Culinary Foundations III. I'm just now getting around to writing about Foundations II. Suffice to say, it's been busy and the learning curve keeps going up. But that's another post for another time (hopefully soon).

The end of Foundations II marked my 57th day of culinary school. The first 29 days, which were divided between basic knife technique and sanitation, featured almost no cooking aside from a poached egg and two emulsified sauces.

The next 28 days?

37 different items if you count basic elements that don't stand alone as food. Stock and clarified butter and the like. Those 37 items did include some crazy deliciousness like French onion soup, risotto, and glazed vegetables. Almost one-fourth of the items featured potatoes as a primary ingredient. (By the way, in a French cooking school they aren't French fries, they're pommes frites.) I was happily surprised by some things I'd never eaten before, much less cooked, such as a warm lentil salad and white beans Bretonne. And some things, well… if I ever see celery root remoulade on a restaurant menu, I will not be ordering it.

While in the midst of Foundations II, it was pretty easy to get lost among the dishes thrown at us. The basic routine – instructor demo one day, student cooking the next – didn't leave a lot of time for reflection. Looking back at my recipe cards, I can see how those 37 or so dishes contained a wide variety of cooking techniques that I can use more or less confidently as I move forward as a cook.

It's a little like learning grammar. Not the most exciting process in the world, but it's basically the root of everything one can do in a kitchen. Not that I'm a master of any one thing after a 28-day culinary relay race, but I think my point of view has definitely shifted from reading recipes to knowing techniques. And after that it's really just a matter of choosing ingredients. Once you've made one vinaigrette, you can pretty much take any variety of oil and any variety of vinegar and whatever other flavors you like and know what to do.

Take risotto. We specifically did a recipe for risotto milanese, but we also learned the basic risotto method, and I feel pretty confident contemplating flavors I can throw into that particular equation. I've done mashed potatoes a few times before enrolling, and now having done pommes puree in class several times, I can knock them out without measuring a single thing.

What stands out even more than dishes are the little techniques – making a reduction, sweating but not coloring onions, simmering till tender, seasoning to taste – that always used to trip me up when going off of a recipe in a book. I'm actually starting to rethink basic things I've been making for years, wondering if the order of steps can be improved.

Or at least thinking up pseudo-French names for things. That's another benefit from being in a French technique-based school.

Food in Fiction: American Beauty

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), Jane Burnham (Thora Birch)
American Beauty (1999)
Written by Alan Ball
Directed by Sam Mendes

Am I reading too much into this, or does the choice of vegetable reflect Lester's quest to reclaim his, ahem, manhood from the "mason jar under the sink"?

11 November 2011

Food in Fiction: Neverwhere

     The angel raised its glass high, staring at the light. "Drink it carefully," it advised them. "It is most potent." It sat down at the table, between Richard and Door. "When one tastes it," it said, wistfully, "I like to imagine that one is actually tasting the sunlight of bygone days." It held up its glass. "A toast: to former glories."
     "Former glories," chorused Richard and Door. And then, a little warily, they tasted the wine, sipping it, not drinking.
     "It's amazing," said Door.
     "It really is," said Richard. "I thought old wines turned to vinegar when they were exposed to air."
     The angel shook its head. "Not this one. It is all a matter of the type of grape and the place it was grown. This kind of grape, alas, perished when the vineyard vanished beneath the waves."
     "It's magical," said Door, sipping the liquid light. "I've never tasted anything like it."
     "And you never will again," said Islington. "There is no more wine from Atlantis."

first published in 1996

09 November 2011

Day 57: Glace a Vert

Today was our final day of Culinary Foundations II and our final cooking practical. One of our items was pearl onions glace a brun, or in a brown caramel glaze. A pretty simple dish, really – water halfway up, butter, sugar, a pinch of salt, crank up the heat until the water's gone and the butter and sugar caramelize to the desired color. Blanc or blond or brun.

A weird science experiment happened instead. I had randomly grabbed an aluminum pan. Apparently, one of the goofy chemical qualities of aluminum is that it turns stuff green. So, if you ever want to make a vegetable glace a vert, go aluminum or go home.

05 November 2011

Day 55: Salad Days

Mozza's Nancy Silverton recently wrote about the art of salads for the LATimes, and I think anyone who's had the sadness that is chopped iceberg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing would agree that, yes, even salad requires some thought.

We were given the following mantra in class. I'm not sure who said it originally, but it was written in quotation marks on a dry erase board, and when you're in school you write things down that are quoted on a dry erase board. Also, it makes sense.

"A good salad will employ complimentary and contrasting textures and flavors."

Apparently, there are three categories of salad dressing: oil and vinegar (a.k.a. vinaigrettes), mayonnaise-based, and cooked dressings.

A few other tidbits filed under the "I knew that but didn't know it had a name" category…

Bound Salad: Food bound by a thick (usually mayonnaise-based) dressing. Potato salad, chicken salad, macaroni salad, etc.

Composed Salad: A salad in which the elements are arranged, not mixed, on the plate.
Salade Nicoise, a composed salad.

How to Clarify Butter

To paraphrase Clarence from True Romance, it's better to have clarified butter and not need it than need clarified butter and not have it.

A quick primer on butter that one can learn in culinary school (or on Wikipedia): butter consists of butter fat, milk solids, and water. When you cook with butter and it starts to burn in the pan – like by the time you get to the third pancake – it's actually the milk solids burning. Clarified butter is butter sans milk solids and water.

In other words, unadulterated buttery goodness. And because it's a fat, it'll keep for eons. Pour it into a jar and throw it in the fridge for a rainy day. As a cooking oil, it has a really high smoke point. I find it easier to make hollandaise with it. Or use it simply as a dip for steamed shellfish like the Red Lobsters of the world do.


  • 1 lb. unsalted butter 
*Of course you can make more, but I wouldn't bother making less.


  • small saucepot
  • ladle
  • strainer
  • cheesecloth (or coffee filter or paper towel)
  • bowl to dump milk solids into
  • jar or plastic container with tight-fitting lid


Plop the butter into the saucepot. Well done, chef.


Melt the butter over medium heat.

Almost immediately, the butter will separate into its component parts. Skim the white milk solids off with a ladle. Try not to take any fat with it. After a certain point, it helps to let the milk solids bubble up and drift to the sides of the pot before skimming. If you're using this immediately, now's a good time to multitask.

Adjust the heat accordingly so the butter isn't at a rapid boil, lest the milk solids burn. You'll probably get most of them out before all the water evaporates. If the butter is still bubbling, then there's still water in the pot. Eventually, it'll look something like this…

It will smell warm and nutty and buttery. Refrain from bathing in it. If only because it's super hot.

Some of the milk solids will have stuck to the bottom of the pot and browned a bit. Try not to scrape them up. Ladle the clarified butter through a strainer lined with cheesecloth. 

Different butter producers may vary in their ratios, but (at least here in the US) you should have something in the vicinity of 12 oz. of clarified butter. Pour into your food storage container of choice (you may want to let it cool if using plastic).

04 November 2011

Food in Fiction: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

"There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls."

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
by John Le Carre
first published in 1963

28 October 2011

Chef's Pant or Pajama?

There are a lot of things I really love about our Le Cordon Bleu chef's uniforms. I really dig the chef's jacket, of course. The upper arm pocket is a sweet (and practical) place for pens. The hat's fairly slick. Even the neckerchief has won me over.

Not the pants.

Why? Because I was in a bit of a rush this morning and, in my haste, nearly put my pajamas back on instead of my chef's pants. So, what the hell, let's play a little game...

Chef's Pant or Pajama?

The rules of this game are simple: there are three pictures of pants. They are either pajamas or chef's pants. You decide. If you win, your reward is a silent chuckle and, perhaps, some understanding of my contempt for my own pants. 

Answers below. Ready? Go!

And the answers are....

  1. Pajama
  2. Chef's pant
  3. Pajama

Food in Fiction: The Silence of the Lambs

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster)
Written by Ted Tally, adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris
Directed by Jonathan Demme

27 October 2011

Recipe: Risotto Milanese

Apparently, a lot of saffron used to come through Milan, owing to the fact that the city is in a geographical sweet spot connecting Italy to the rest of Europe.

Some fun facts about saffron:
  1. A saffron thread is a stigma from a flower of the saffron crocus plant. Each flower contains three.
  2. One pound of saffron is roughly the equivalent of 75,000 flowers.
  3. Due to the fact that it's handpicked, and from aforementioned fun facts one and two, it's the most expensive spice in the world. Perhaps, also because...
  4. Today, most of the world's saffron comes from Iran.
  5. It's the defining ingredient of paella. It also makes for a fine risotto.

  • 1/2 cup short-grain rice (arborio is widely available)
  • 1/4 onion, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 5-7 saffron threads
  • 1/3 cup shredded parmesan
  • 1/4 cup (half a stick) cold butter, in chunks

  • medium sauce pot
  • small sauce pot


Warm the chicken stock in a small sauce pot until steaming. Add the saffron.

Finely mince the onion. The onion bits shouldn't be any larger than a grain of rice.


Use the risotto method, of course!

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil (and a pat of butter if you want) in the medium sauce pot. Sweat the onions for a few minutes, just until they start to get a little color. Add the rice and toss to coat in the oil/butter. Toast the rice for a minute or two.

Add the white wine and reduce until almost dry.

Add the stock 1/4-1/3 cup at a time and stir. Wait until the rice absorbs most of the liquid before adding more. It shouldn't be too dry before you add more, but it shouldn't be soupy, either.

Test a grain of rice as you get towards the end of the stock. Liquid should be absorbed all the way through, but you still want some bite. You know, the whole al dente thing.

When you're getting close, add a pinch or three of salt and stir in the butter and a little cheese. The cheese will thicken it up, so add a little more stock if necessary. It shouldn't pile up when you spoon it onto a plate. The word we used in class was "wavy." Go wavy.

Serve with more cheese. Sprinkle some minced parsley if you want to take a picture of it.

26 October 2011

Day 49: The Risotto Method

From stocks to soups to sides and now, finally, a solid food dish that could conceivably be a meal all by itself, risotto.

I don't remember the first time I learned about risotto, but I do remember thinking, "Wait, it's just rice?" Oh, the folly of youth. Because A) I can and have eaten rice for consecutive decades, and B) it's really, really tasty rice. Creamy and nutty and luscious and all that.

And it's customizable! Since Le Cordon Bleu is all about techniques over recipes, and risotto is a technique, our chef-instructor taught us the basic risotto method – in Italian, no less – with which one could easily make their own plate of creamy rice deliciousness. As my favorite Italian, a super plumber named Mario, would say, "Let's-a go!"

The Risotto Method
  1. Soffrito* - Saute aromatics. The word means suffer, so imagine onions weeping out their moisture.
  2. Riso - Add the rice. Coat it in the fat the aromatics are currently sauteing in and let toast a little.
  3. Vino - Wine, to deglaze the pan and add a wee bit of flavor. Cook until almost dry.
  4. Brodo - Broth. The liquid should be hot so as not to stop the rice's cooking process. Adding a little at a time promotes more even cooking.
  5. Condimenti - Butter and cheese and salt. And, if you're feeling sexy, vegetables and cooked meats or seafood.
*Not to be mistaken with the Spanish sofrito, although the basic idea is the same. This is the flavor base.

The condiment step is an obvious spot for getting creative, but really every step of the way can be switched up somehow. Different stocks/broths, wines, etc.

As for the rice, starchy short-grain varieties work best. Our chef-instructor recommended three: arborio, carnaroli, and vialone nano. I've read more than handful of recipes recommending bomba. I've actually made half-decent risotto using calrose, but that should probably be a too-lazy-to-go-to-the-store last resort.

21 October 2011

Food in Fiction: The Joy Luck Club

"She was chopping eggplant into wedges, chattering at the same time about Auntie Suyuan: 'She can only cook looking at a recipe. My instructions are in my fingers. I know what secret ingredients to put in just by using my nose!' And she was slicing with such a ferocity, seemingly inattentive to her sharp cleaver, that I was afraid her fingertips would become one of the ingredients of the red-cooked eggplant and shredded pork dish."

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan
First published in 1989

19 October 2011

Day 46: Behind the Musical Fruit

Today was a lecture/demonstration day. We were introduced to a variety of legumes, many of which need to be pre-soaked before cooking. There are a number of benefits from soaking beans, including shortening the cooking time and promoting more even cooking.

Soaking also reduces a sugar found in beans called oligosaccharides, which can cause the creation of gas once it hits the bacteria in your intestines.

In other words, the scientific explanation for why beans inspire malodorous arias from your badonkadonk is oligosaccharides.

The more you know.

Cored, Scored, & Chopped

The tips of my fingers are still sore. It's that weird hypersensitive numbness, when putting pressure hurts, yet brings a strange relief at the same time. I also have scabs underneath my fingernails, which is not something that's ever happened to me before.

I volunteered at a DineLA event last Friday, my first real professional experience as someone who knows both how to pronounce and actually do a brunoise. The event featured some real heavy hitting chefs – I almost plowed an ice cart into Sang Yoon – that I ogled from afar but didn't interact with. Le Cordon Bleu student volunteers were divvied up among the various chefs at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, and I ended up in the kitchen at Scarpetta, which might be the most beautiful kitchen I've ever seen. Expansive, organized, and just plain pretty. My stuck-in-a-corner phone camera photo doesn't do it justice...
...although the JJ Abrams-esque lens flare does provide some whimsy, no?

My first task was coring and scoring tomatoes, then blanching and peeling them. Of course I cut my thumb and middle finger inside of ten minutes trying to quickly slice the 'X' into each tomato. And then I didn't blanch them long enough. And on top of that, some of them were slightly underripe, which meant no amount of blanching short of full on destruction was going to loosen the skins. So, for about three hours, I was clawing at tomato skins, hence the scabs in places where I didn't think you could get scabs.

The prolonged, single task did give me the opportunity to observe the general flow of things. Scarpetta executive chef Scott Conant – yes, the Chopped guy! – was in the house. At one point he walked by as I was blanching tomatoes, pointed at them, and walked on. I'd like to think this was the Finger Point of Approval, but I figured he was checking a mental checklist.

The running gag of the event was the various line cooks asking me "So, how long are you here?" We were told we'd work until dismissed, which is what I told them, which they thought was hilarious in a you're-never-going-home-sucker kind of way.

Which was fine by me. I eventually moved on to other tasks and even got to sample some really fantastic food. A fried cheese appetizer on a bed of cherry tomatoes – I halved some of those, thank you very much – and a cavatelli pasta with braised and smoked chicken, mushrooms, and green beans. 
My general takeaway from the experience is that I'm still not fast enough in the kitchen. One of the cooks told me it comes with time, and watching them, I can tell it's as much about efficiency as quick movement. For example, cutting around the base of tomato isn't nearly as fast as a sharp stab and twist with the knife.

Not cutting yourself and having to deal with constant bandaid changes will also speed things along.

15 October 2011

Day 43: Silence of the Lobster

"We're going to get really medieval on lobster," our chef-instructor said.

And after a brief primer on how lobsters are essentially large insects, we did. No mercy.

The claws came off first. By hand, bent backwards and ripped apart like a wishbone. Then three knife cuts inside the first tail segment and off it went. The tail muscles flexed into a tight ball, as if the thing had a mind of its own and was pissed about the forced separation.

Knife tip straight down into the hard shell of the body, like a medieval knight vanquishing a fallen foe, then chopped through one end. Then again, through the front, and now the body was in half, spilling liquidy stuff – pasty fat, seawater? – before the legs got lopped off. Then I peeled the leg stumps back to expose and remove the gills.

The tail continued to writhe on my cutting board, a muscle memory protest. And it would keep on protesting, even after I skewered it (to keep it from curling) and up until in went into a hot saute pan.
Recollecting this feels a little cruel, but this is what happens to food that we eat. Too often we (consumers, that is) are way removed from the source of our food, so this was a good reminder of what being at the top of the foodchain entails. And shellfish are easy, by comparison. I've never slaughtered a chicken just prior to cooking it, for example.

Does it make lobster bisque taste better when you've fabricated (that's the nifty kitchen term) the lobster yourself? Yes. Yes it does.