30 September 2011

Day 32: No Whistling in the Kitchen

Culinary history feels like a loose collection of urban legends that have been around long enough to become apocryphal half-truths. For example, our textbook says the folds in a chef's hat were "said to represent the number of ways a chef can prepare an egg." It's the kind of phrasing people use to absolve themselves from the fact that they have no idea who said it. If I'd read that on Wikipedia, I'd immediately add [citation needed].

But hey, urban legends can be fun. Our chef-instructor regaled us today with the origin of the No Whistling rule. Among unwritten rules of human behavior, it's several notches above friending your parents on Facebook or hitting on 17 and you're in the first position at the table. In other words, really bad. A reason to get fired. At least if you're in a proper French kitchen.

So the story goes, there was a hellacious French chef who would physically abuse his cooks. It got so bad that the cooks began to plot his overthrow, maybe call in an Italian cook who knew a guy who was the best at these kind of things and bada-bing, fuggedaboutit. (I'm embellishing. Look, that's what you do with these things.)
Chef Léon sets up his station, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, the go code to eliminate the chef was whistling a particular tune. Oh, let's say, La Marseillaise. But, unfortunately for our hapless, put-upon cooks, the devious Chef Bad Guy uncovers the dastardly plot and, when the first cooks begin whistling, they are summarily fired.

To this day (as any proper urban legend will conclude), whistling in the presence of a French chef will get you canned immediately. Which apparently, is kinda sorta true. At which point you return home and try to learn yet another method for cooking an egg.

In actual, practical culinary lessons we learned today was this little nugget: serve warm food on a warm plate. Serve cold food on a cold plate.

No origin story there. It makes sense.

Food in Fiction: The Godfather

"Hey, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it, you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar, and that's my trick."

Clemenza (Richard Castellano)
written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on Puzo's book
directed by Francis Ford Coppola

26 September 2011

Week in Review #5 + #6: Callousness

I've been pretty much hunkered down studying/practicing for the last two weeks, which is why I didn't get a Week in Review out last week. When I first enrolled, I wasn't sure how much traditional studying, report writing, and test taking there would be. For the first six-week session, I'd say it's very much like any other educational program, complete with a marathon finals week full of exams and reports.

Another reason for no Week in Review was because Culinary Foundations I was, as the name implies, basics. The early going was the culinary equivalent of grammar lessons. Not the most exciting thing, but it's what everything else is based on: knife cuts, kitchen nomenclature, cooking techniques, stocks and sauces.

I'm happy to report that practice doesn't make perfect, but did help me score well on my knife practical final. And, more importantly for me, it's helped me develop a chef's callous.

The base of my right index finger, where the top of the blade and knife handle meets my hand, has gradually toughened up over the course of the class. It's the same area that tore open during my volunteer stint months ago, and it makes me feel like I've officially passed through some medieval ritual and emerged a member of a secret society of vegetable-chopping superheroes. Like Watchmen, but with uniformly cut carrots and fresh mayonnaise.

Culinary Foundations II starts today, which alternates demonstration/preparations and cooking days. In other words: cooking! Huzzah!

23 September 2011

Day 29: Basic Presentation

It was fitting that our last day of Culinary Foundations 1 featured a basic lesson in plating, or as the French say, le cuisson fancy dancy. It was the first time and, probably, the last time the term "negative space" will be used during my cooking education.

Obviously, this isn't something one normally does at home. However, presentation was my first recognition that there was more to food than cooking and eating, and I've always been fascinated by how TV chefs drizzle a little sauce here and stack a little there and come up with a visual that equals anything you'll find in a modern art museum. Better, in fact, because you can A) take a picture of it, and B) eat it. Everybody wins.

Our chef-instructor demonstrated four plating styles using the same ingredients: chicken, carrots, red and green bell peppers, couscous, reduced chicken stock, and basil to garnish.

Traditional plating
Basically, the entre at 6 o'clock, starch and vegetables at 10 and 2, the sauce over the entre, and garnish really tying the room together. If the clock metaphor looks wrong in the picture, that's because I took it from the side.

Nouvelle plating 
Circa 1960-70s. The sauce goes down first, with the other ingredients "floated" over. Entre goes over the starch in dead center, with the vegetables and garnish artfully splayed out around the circumference of the plate.

Stacked plating
Apparently, three things reached meteoric heights in the 1990s: gangster rap, alternative rock, and food on plates. The entre goes over a mound of starch with the vegetables arranged to give the appearance of structure and height. Sauce is drizzled artfully and the garnish is placed similarly to how skyscraper architects would place an antenna atop their buildings just to nab a new world record. I'm looking at you, Willis (née Sears) Tower.

Displacement plating
Displacement is our chef-instructor's term. I think These Ingredients Don't Like to Share plating also works. Here, the entre takes up the center, and every other ingredient takes their ball and goes to their room. Also, square plate!

Food in Fiction: "Birthday Cake"

"Extra sugar, extra salt
Extra oil and MSG
Extra sugar, extra salt
Extra oil and MSG

Shut up and eat!
Too bad, no bon appetit!
Shut up and eat!
You know my love is sweet!"

"Birthday Cake"
by Cibo Matto
from the album Viva La Woman! (2006)

"Cibo matto" means "crazy food" in Italian. Viva La Woman! consists entirely of songs about food.

17 September 2011

Day 22: How to Save Hollandaise

A few weeks back, I tried and failed to make hollandaise sauce. I'd read in several places that one could save a broken hollandaise by adding warm water a little at a time and whisking like your life depended on it. As it turns out, this is not the case.

For the record, my hollandaise in class didn't break – apparently, recipes that say to make your sauce over low heat are chock full of lies. Get water boiling, then place your double boiler and turn the heat off. So that helped.

But if it did break, we were taught to get a new bowl, whisk a new egg yolk, then stream the broken sauce into the new bowl. A few people did this and it worked just fine.

Ideally, once saved, one should have a poached egg to drown in your luscious, creamy, buttery sauce.

16 September 2011

Food in Fiction: Reservoir Dogs

"I don't tip because society says I have to. All right, I mean, I'll tip if someone really deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I'll give them something extra. But this tipping automatically, it's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job."

Mr. Pink (Steven Buscemi)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Watch the full scene below (language NSFW):

In contrast with Mr. Pink, LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold advocates tipping 20% on just about everything.

13 September 2011

Day 20: Triumph of the Paring Knife

Potato tournés awaiting their doom.

We had our first knife practical yesterday. While we technically have had 19 days of class so far, only half of that has been our hands-on kitchen class, and really only about a third of that time has been spent with knife in hand. Which meant practice, practice, practice over the weekend.

Carrots and potatoes. Julienne, brunoise, batonnet, macedoine, and last but not least, my new frenemy, the potato tourné. The technique so wicked, and so heavily written about on this here blog, that I can now type the acute diacritic mark (´) without losing a beat. (Mac users, it's option+e, then the letter you want it to appear over.)

One of our instructors recently said it took him several years before he finally mastered the tourné. Yikes.

I practiced Saturday, Sunday, and again Monday morning before heading to class. I laid waste to six potatoes and six carrots, resulting in the roughly 48 tournés pictured above, plus two ziplock bags of julienned and roughly chopped carrots.

The practice paid off. I did very well overall, and my best grade? My tournés.

I'm going to roast those bastards with some butter and salt and they are going to be delicious.

By the way, I listened to The Black Keys on the way into class and had them in my head during the practical. I highly recommend them for purposes of chopping.

Fresh Food Reads: September 13, 2011

Here's some of the more delicious food articles I've read over the last week or two. See what I did there? Delicious articles? Did you catch that?

11 September 2011

Week in Review #4: The Heat is On

It's that time of year in Los Angeles. The mild spring and bright summer has given way to WTF September, in which everyone in Los Angeles checks the calendar, walks out their front door, then says, "Why is it so hot? What the hell is going on?"

It was hotter outside than it was in our class kitchen last week, but thankfully, we got to cook! Albeit just a little, but almost everyone last Thursday got some time behind either the stove, grill, or fryer after practicing our cuts, which we mostly used. It was a good thing I didn't eat lunch that day.
Knife practice, before & after.
Mignonette cut. 
Parmentier cut.
Grilling salmon.

I had a little grill time with some salmon. I'd never grilled salmon before, but in terms of kitchen skill, it wasn't anything I hadn't done before. Aside from the fact that I had one of those humungous offset steel spatulas you see at burger joints, I was pretty comfortable flipping a piece of meat that needed flipping.

Food Safety & Sanitation class trudges on, and we're now two weeks away from our ServSafe certification exam. Which is a little frightening, although we did learn recently the proper steps for – wait for it – washing hands. Seriously. This organization, used by municipalities across the world to certify safe food handling, wrote a book that includes a 5-step process for proper handwashing.

I don't want to brag, but I think I have that part down.

Tip of the Week

Proper french fries should be blanched first, then cooled, then fried again so that they're fluffy inside and crispy outside. How do you know when that first stage of cooking is done? They'll still be the same color, but the fries should have the texture of sandpaper.

09 September 2011

Food in Fiction: Chungking Express

Chungking Express (1994)
written and directed by Wong Kar Wai

The film consists of two stories about two lovelorn Hong Kong cops. In the second, which begins with the scene above, a flight attendant leaves a break-up note and her set of keys for Cop 633 (Tony Leung) at a take-out restaurant he frequents. The new take-out waitress (Faye Wong) falls for him and secretly sneaks into his apartment while he walks his beat.

07 September 2011

Day 16: Some of This, Some of That

When I first started cooking "seriously" at home (I guess that means when I stopped leaning on prepared stuff), I started to understand how cooking was, at a very basic level, part art and part craft. Which is to say I started to understand that recipes didn't need to be followed to the letter – that'd be the art – as long as certain things were done properly.

This notion has only grown in my early stages at culinary school. We were given a book of recipes, but it took nearly a month and a throwaway statement from our chef-instructor to remind me I even had it. So far, when I'd replicated a cooking demo at home, I'd just referred to my (sometimes out-of-focus) cell phone pictures that detailed a basic process.

For example, here's the "recipe" for navarin d'agneau printanier (lamb stew with spring vegetables) in picture form.

Basically: sear the lamb, add veal stock, braise. Obviously, this is a shorthand for someone who has seen it done. But here's the basic braising process as I copied it into my notebook:
  1. Prep protein - trim fat and waste, season and partition
  2. Sear - in hot fat until brown on all sides (remove)
  3. Sweat - aromatics, mirepoix, garlic, shallots (until translucent)
  4. Pincer - addition of tomato product
  5. Singer - flour (rain in)
  6. Deglaze - liquid - dissolves any particles at bottom of pan
  7. Simmer - cover, braise
That's the basic craft. As far as not following recipes to the letter, we didn't remove the lamb from the pan to sweat the aromatics, and we only had onions and garlic, no mirepoix or shallots. Measurements are nowhere to be found. (By the way, chilled veal stock has the consistency of gelatin. It just goes to show, there's always room for Jell-o!)

I didn't even take pictures of the spring vegetables, which were glazed. I jotted down the following notes:
cold water, simmer, reduce more than half, butter, sugar, reduce
That's it. Really.

Earlier tonight, I practiced by knife cuts on a carrot, and then used that very basic of recipes to make glazed carrots. It turned out pretty well.

This is probably why I prefer cooking to baking. There isn't enough room in my head for precise measurements, but processes are manageable. What's not to love about "butter, sugar, reduce?"

05 September 2011

Week in Review #3 - 'Hot Behind!'

Fifteen days into culinary school, and I think I've learned more French culinary terms than my dog has learned English commands in nearly five years. Take from that what you will.

The third week was both a throwback and a kind of sneak preview for me. A throwback because I took my first tests in more than a decade. And a sneak preview because the class is in a type of prep cook period – we chop ingredients and watch them go into cooking demonstrations. We break down, say, parsley and potatoes, or make mirepoix for stocks that are later used in mother sauces, or hand-whisk mayonnaise until our shoulders scream, "no más!"

The food safety and sanitation stuff has, frankly, caused more grief than comfort in my everyday life. The wife and I took home leftovers from Neptune's Net, and all I could think about was the host of foodborne pathogens associated with fish and shellfish, which I'd crammed into my brain for the test. I wasn't paranoid enough to ask restaurant management where they source their shellfish (the primary prevention method for shellfish poisoning is "purchasing from reputable sources" according to ServSafe), but it was on my mind.

It also doesn't help that the advertising push for Contagion is in full gear.

Technique of the Week

Some good ones in the running, including monter au beurre and the proper way to mince parsley, both from Day 14. However, I taught my wife the basic safety language of the kitchen, which is both pragmatic and fun.

It includes saying, "Knife!" when carrying a knife and shouting, "Hot behind!" when either carrying something hot behind someone or trying to sexually harass someone. Preferably someone who will not sue because you're married and/or in an extended relationship with them.

Injury Report

The consecutive non-cutting streak has reached fifteen days. I did burn myself at home trying to mimic the roast chicken with pan gravy at home. After removing the chicken and pan from a 400-degree oven, I tried reaching past the handle and singed my wrist. Maybe the chef's uniform has magical protective powers since I seem to always nick myself at home, but never at school.

02 September 2011

Food in Fiction: From Russia, with Love

"I do not cross my heart. That is being too serious. But I cross my stomach, which is an important oath for me."

Kerim to James Bond
From Russia, with Love
Written by Ian Fleming
First published in 1957

01 September 2011

Day 14: Monter au Beurre

The butter we didn't use.
"This is not a healthy cooking school."

Our chef-instructor was making two simple pan gravies from the drippings of roasted chicken and roasted guinea fowl. In went some stock, garlic, and some other herbs. He reduced both and explained monter au beurre, proof again that everything sounds glorious in French.

Monter is mount. Beurre is butter. So, basically, monter au beurre means add the caloric equivalent of a solid fuel rocket booster to enrich and finish a sauce. "This is French cooking," said our instructor.

And it was good. Really good.

We did more tournés today, which we actually roasted, somewhat mitigating my mounting contempt for tournés. They're like crispy little blimps.

We also minced parsley, a sneaky hard task if done properly. In the past, when I've chopped/minced parsley, it always ended up a little moist, and today I learned why. A standard up-and-down rocking chop on parsley results in bruising the leaves, causing moisture to leech out. Adding a little forward-backward slicing motion helps avoid this, and enabled us to make a dust-like minced parsley that's much easier to sprinkle.

On roasted chicken, say, or butter-enriched pan sauce. Like how the French do.
Guinea fowl pan sauce with pearl onions and, yes, finished with butter.