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