18 February 2012

Culinary Foundations III in Review: The Laws of Cooks?

Pancake-flipping robot. Not one of Asimov's.
Isaac Asimov's science-fiction work is famous for the Three Laws of Robotics, rules of behavior that the robot characters would inevitably interpret in different ways. After completing the third of Le Cordon Bleu's three "foundations" classes, it seems to me that cooks should have something similar in place to help us operate. (By the way, Asimov wrote the Foundation series. Coincidence? Er... yes.)

We actually already do. If you consume enough food media, you've probably heard a few operational bon mots from different chefs. One of my chef-instructors paraphrased an oft-held belief in restaurant kitchens: being fast is better than being good. He only had the caveat that a good cook should be both fast and good. A recent Top Chef episode featured one chef saying "fast is slow and slow is smooth" -- in other words, do it right the first time. (Hugh Acheson, however, thought this made zero sense whatsoever.)

I wrote briefly of kitchen multitasking when I was in Foundations II, but in hindsight, those were all simple items. By comparison, Foundations III was a decathlon. Production days typically featured dishes with multiple preparations and techniques. Some days had more than one dish. My most successful days were the ones where I was prepared and efficient. I eventually started timing elements of my chef-instructor's demos so I'd know that, for example, sauteeing mushrooms takes about four minutes, so I shouldn't step away from the stove for six minutes to mince some shallots. I did that. Burned the mushrooms. Had to redo them.

Which brings me back to the Laws of Cooks, which exist but not really. If I had to put them down in stone, they'd probably be something like...

Be Prepared. Know what you need to do before you have to do it. Know when to do it. If something takes 40 minutes to braise, do that first, then go on to chopping stuff. (Thanks, Boy Scouts of America!)

Be Clean. Because shit piles up real fast. I've had a few days where I had to stop and figure out which saute pan at my station was clean and which wasn't. Not a good idea.

Be Organized. I suppose this is the lovechild of being prepared and clean, but it's worth throwing out there. I've had to stop to dig a knife out of my kit because I didn't have them all out together. Not a good idea, though it might make a fun spectator sport.

Be Efficient. I learned real fast never to make one trip for one spice when I could grab all five I'd eventually use. By the same token, don't waste nice knife cuts on something that's going to be removed or strained. Wasted motion is a killer.

Be Fast. It's a carrot, just fucking chop it already.

Food is Done When It's Done. A lot of the chef-instructors love saying this in reply to students asking, "Chef, how long do we cook it?" Mostly because it's true. You can crank up the heat or chop things smaller or whatever, but water boils when it boils, steak sears when it sears, and polenta finishes when it finishes (or doesn't).

Okay, that's a lot of stuff, and not nearly as elegantly tied together as Asimov. Organization is inferred, and efficiency and speed go hand-in-hand, so how about...

Be Prepared.
Work Clean.
Work Smart.
It's Done When It's Done.

I guess I'll see if those work for me moving forward.

Here's a selection of dishes we made in class.

Pan-roasted duck with turnips
Tea-smoked duck breast with ginger-carrot puree (I seared the skin a little much)
Salmon steak with beurre blanc, plus fennel mousseline
Veal blanquette with rice pilaf
Breaded veal escalope (aka veal scallopini)
Sweetbread fritters with tomato sauce, fried parsley

08 February 2012

Day 81: Silly Rabbit

We all have comfort foods. Sometimes its a nostalgia thing, and sometimes it's straight up goodness we're looking for, but either way, it's a combination of flavors that are reliable. As a home cook, I have a subset of comfort foods that are reliable in a slightly different way: they're easy to make. Obviously, I like the way they taste, too, but there are days where I just want to throw something on rice (actually, that's most days) or boil pasta and dump some sauce and cheese on it. It's the doing that puts me at ease.

After my maddening lamb failure, our next dish was lapine a la graine de moutarde (rabbit in whole-grain mustard sauce). We'd be making fresh pasta for it, a task I'd always wanted to attempt but shied away from because it seemed difficult.

It's not difficult. It's super easy. And it's exactly what I needed at that moment in time.

The dish as a whole was also easy. When I read or hear "sauce" in conjunction with a pasta dish, I imagine an old Italian grandmother stirring a slow-bubbling pot of red stuff for hours on end while her plumber son Mario is off saving princesses (apologies to people of Italian descent, but your biggest export to my generation of Americans came from Japan). This sauce was not that.

We slathered the rabbit in yellow and dijon mustard to marinate. We seared it off and braised it. Then we reduced the cooking liquid, added some cream and more mustard to our liking.

Oh, and the pasta. It's also one of those just-that-easy type of things. We made a well in some flour (we used half a cup each of semolina and AP), dropped in an egg and a pinch of salt and scrambled it. Then we started incorporating the flour and eventually kneaded the shit out of it -- it doubled as a decent stress reliever. Then we let it rest (like any other dough, the gluten needs to relax). The hardest part was the amount of water to use. We kneaded until it was smooth, not sticky (too wet) or crumbly (too dry).

We actually did the pasta dough the day prior and kept it wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. On cooking day, we rolled it into simple tagliatelle-like ribbons cut by hand. If I were a chef, I'd market them as hand-crafted artisan pasta and charge $20 for it, but for a single batch it's actually less fussy doing it that way. We then boiled it in salted water for a few minutes. I used my tongs to grab it, let the ribbons hang over the pot to drain the excess water, then dumped them into the mustard sauce to finish.

My chef-instructor had nothing negative to say about my execution of the dish.