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.