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.

14 October 2011

Food in Fiction: Moby Dick

"A warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition."

Moby Dick, or, The Whale
Written by Herman Melville
First published in 1851

10 October 2011

Day 39: A Pinch of Salt

Potage Julienne D'Arblay a.k.a. potato-leek soup with veggie sticks
Making sauces and soups, as we've done so far, has provided a really good lesson in how seasoning can bring out flavors, not just add to them. As opposed to pretty much any solid piece of food, experimenting with salt in soup is pretty painless: add a pinch of salt, stir, taste. Repeat as necessary.

And it probably is necessary. The one consistent note I've been getting in class is more seasoning, more salt. I've had it in my head to salt as little as possible because of vague health reasons I have no recollection of learning. It's just one of those things – salt bad! – that I'm now having to fight because it really can bring a dish over the finish line.

The key, of course, is not to go overboard. If it tastes salty, you've gone way too far and you're pretty much screwed. You can try diluting with water, but that'll dilute everything else, too.

Too much salt doesn't always result in saltiness on the tongue. I toyed with salt levels with a soup I'd brought home from class and put in a tad much. The flavors were really strong, but the soup left a strange lingering sensation on my tongue, almost like a mild burn from blowing out my taste buds.

When to salt is another issue I'm just now getting the hang of. Typically, at least with soups, the salt goes in last. The addition of other ingredients (especially salty ones, like cheese) and evaporation can really screw things up if salt is added too early.

Salt can also save time. A lot of soups (and dishes in general) start with sauteing vegetables, and salt can help pull the moisture out and speed things along.

By the way, as far as I know, mention of salt in the cooking world almost always refers to kosher salt. That's all we have in our kitchens at school. It's larger and easier to pinch, has no additives, and can even add a textural crunch if added last.

07 October 2011

Day 38: Vichywhat? Vichywho?

Our chef-instructor demonstrated three soups yesterday, one of which provides a great example of how naming conventions, especially in the food world and especially when the French language is involved, can bring a hefty amount of mystique.

Exhibit P: Potato-leek soup. Or potage parmentier in French, apparently named for potato advocate Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (Google translate tells me potato in French is la pomme de terre). I presume the knife cut, which we practice on potatoes in class, is named for him, too.

Garnish the soup with julienned vegetables and it becomes potage julienne d'arblay, named for English novelist and French officer's wife Frances Burney D'Arblay. Because in those days they didn't have megacorporations to purchase naming rights like Whole Foods' potage julienne presented by AT&T.

Serve it cold and it more or less becomes vichyssoisse, named of course for the town of Vichy, one-time capital of German-occupied France during World War II. And yet, Julia Child, in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, refers to vichyssoise as an American invention. I'll take her word for it.

Food in Fiction: Bright Lights, Big City

The smell of bread recalls you to another morning. You arrived home from college after driving half the night; you just felt like coming home. When you walked in, the kitchen was steeped in this same aroma. Your mother asked what the occasion was, and you said a whim. You asked if she was baking. "Learning to draw inferences at college, are we," you remember her asking. She said she had to find some way to keep herself busy now that her sons were taking off. You said that you hadn't left, not really. You sat down at the kitchen table to talk, and the bread soon started to burn. She had made bread only two other times that you could recall. Both times it had burned. You remember being proud of your mother then for never having submitted to the tyranny of the kitchen, for having other things on her mind. She cut you two thick slices of bread anyway. They were charred on the outside but warm and moist inside.

Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerney
First published in 1984

06 October 2011

Day 37: Multitasking

I have never been a huge believer in multitasking as far as office jobs are concerned. To me, it's a buzzword, like team player and fast learner and self-starter, that people throw around during interviews. It basically means "I know how to stop one task, do a second task, then resume the first task."

We had our first cooking practical yesterday. I had things on the back burner. Also, the front burner and the oven and the cutting board and several containers. Simmering and reducing and straining and chopping. It was a test of timing and multitasking.

We essentially had an hour to make and present three sauces: béchamel, beurre blanc, and hollandaise. Our chef-instructor recommended we all make ourselves personal Cliff's Notes versions of the recipes on index cards so we didn't waste time reading our notebooks because, as he explained, being fast is as important as being good in professional kitchens.

I took the index card thing a step further and created an almost literal step-by-step list of actions, including when I'd step away from the stove to wash utensils or grab more equipment. 
I was hoping to finish in a shade over 30 minutes by completing my beurre blanc and hollandaise while the béchamel was simmering. I ended up finishing the béchamel before the hollandaise. Clearly, I'm not Iron Chef/Top Chef/Chopped material quite yet. I finished with about eight minutes to spare.

03 October 2011

Week in Review #7: Beth V. and Her Daughters

Now, as they say, we're cooking. Culinary Foundations II is in, I suspect, the biggest kitchen I'll ever get to be in.

And class is a strange type of torture, actually. Because, yes, we're now cooking in cooking school. But, we're starting off with the basics. A quick glance at our syllabus shows that we start with stocks, which we then turn into sauces one week. Or soups the next. Then we work our way into salads and vegetables and fruits. A vinaigrette here and there.

There's nary a protein in sight. I'm starting to feel like the entire program is like building one complete meal in extreme slow motion. Which I guess is a good way to teach concepts, but goodness am I always hungry.

The basic schedule alternates demonstration days and cooking days. We made chicken and veal stock on our first hands-on day, and I learned that fatty veal bones browning in a hot pan are prone to frighteningly tall flames.
Simmering chicken stock.
Veal stock in progress.
Though we learned of her in Foundations I, we were formally introduced to Beth V, the mnemonic device used to remember the five "mother" sauces of French cuisine: béchamel, espagnole, tomato, hollandaise, and veloute. She's like Roy G. Biv, except she smells better.

It's not common to see these sauces as-is on a menu, though it's much more common to see their "daughters" or derivatives. For example, I've only seen béchamel with cheese added to it, which would then formally be called a Mornay sauce. Add macaroni to that and you've got mac 'n cheese. Or, ladle it over a sandwich with a fried egg and you've got a croque madame, which is exactly what I did with the béchamel I made in class.
In related news, I kinda sorta had my first catering gig over the weekend. Kinda sorta because my mom hired me (for the price of a plane ticket) to cook two dishes for my dad's birthday. I made paella and, with a recipe straight out of my school book, gazpacho. I think it turned out pretty well.