Friday, April 25, 2008

Nutrition/Herb Identitification/Cheese Tasting (Talegio, where have you been all my life?)

The morning's lecture was about nutrition, a good deal of which I was familiar with from prior readings. Chef M was blunt: we're probably spending a little too much time talking about nutrition because most restaurants don't care. Unless the specialty is healthy food, the main concern of a food establishment is safety and well-presented good-tasting food. A steak that is about 7 times the recommended serving size is obscenely unhealthy, but a steak house that doled out the correct serving size would soon be out of business.

Restaurants are for special occasions. The fact that people are eating at McDonald's 5 times a week and consuming 2 to 3 times the recommended number of calories is horrible, but in Chef M's opinion, not our problem at c-school.

The nature of energy foods (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and non-energy foods (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) were laid out in detail. Corn's predominance in our diet has caused the balance of omega 3 and omega 6 acids to go from a 1-5 ratio in the '50s to 1-250 today. ADD, autism, and a host of other problems have been linked to this shift. Grass-fed organic animal product is an excellent source of omega 6s.

We were all given small quantities of 14 fresh herbs, all organic and grown on a single farm in South America. Included were bay leaf, oregano, thyme, sage, chives, chervil, mint, curly and Italian parsleys, marjoram, basil, rosemary, cilantro, dill and taragon. Tasting them raw and alone was weird -- some (mint) were absolutely wonderful with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste, others were face-scrunchingly overpowering (bay leaf.) Monday will be our first quiz on IDing these items by sight and smell.

Then the knives came out. Oranges, apples, cantaloupes, strawberries, mangoes, pineapple, and plums all fell to our chef's blades and paring knives. No fruit was left intact.

The cheeses were cut, the proper way of assembling a cheese plate was discussed (always a variety from each group: fresh, firm, hard, blue/moldy); then we tucked in to the cheeses -- cow and buffalo Mozzarella, Marscapone, Ricotta, Feta, goat Chevre, Edam, Monchego, Cheddar, Parmesan, Pecorino, brie, Pont Leveaue, Fontina, Morbier, Cabrales, Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola. According to Chef M, firm Bel Paese is a joked about by the Italians as for export-to-America-only, as it has no flavor. Additionally, according to the French, Stilton is the only good thing the English have contributed to food culture. French bread and fruit salad joined in the end-of-class meal. The soft and firm cheeses were pretty familiar to me, and the blue cheeses were as unappealing as ever, though I hope to change my palate in the next 6 months.

However, the soft runny aged moldy cheeses.....oh my. Some of these cheeses still had the sticker's from Murray's Cheese on it -- $35 for a half pound! And they stink like my bike shorts after a century ride!! However, once you break through the rind and the creamy soft cheese underneath is....mellow, strong, and assertive like a hug from a beautiful woman who just happens to be a competitive weight lifter. In particular, the Talegio -- wow. Wow wow wow wow! Strong notes of red wine were unexpected, especially after getting a whiff of the sweat-socky rind. It just tasted right: a thousand years of cheese-making skill and experimentation lead to that moment of my risking putting that stinky mess in my mouth and getting rewarded with fantastic wave of flavor happiness.

We stood around and chatted with each other and Chef M, who seems to have had cooking experience in a full third of all kitchens in NYC. In the locker room, I invited a fellow student from out of town (along with his wife) to a home-cooked dinner with B & me. The networking starts now, and what a better place to start than with my fellow students?

First week of c-school down, 30-odd more to go! I'm really looking forward to shopping in the farmer's market at Wholefoods with my new taste for stank-ass cheese.

BREAKFAST: 6:45am, granola with good milk, .5 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM WATERING: 9am, a few cups of ice water

AM TASTING: 11am, assortment of cheese (see above) plus thin slices of french bread, .75 bowls, hunger 4/5
We also had fruit salad that we spent the morning chopping up, but the cheeses were too interesting.

PM LUNCH: 2pm, class-made salsa with tortilla chips, water, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5
B fed me as I drove the car up state

DINNER: 6:30pm, vegan jumbalia with spicy TVP mince, carrots & cuce, water, 1 piece of ww bread with butter, water, 1 cup apple juice, 1 large brownie, 3 bowls, hunger 4/5
Up at the Omega Institute with B and the HVS. The veg/vegan dining buffet was surprisingly tasty and well-presented.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Basic Knife Skills (There Really IS More Than One Way to Peel an Onion!)

Even though I arrived in the classroom at 7:58am, I was the next to last to arrive. "On time is late," indeed. The first half hour was dedicated to the thought behind good knife skills -- consistency in your cuts is a) attractive and b) allows the food to cook evenly. How consistent and accurate your brunoise (1/8" cube) and batonettes (1/4 x 1/4 x 2+" strip) is how a chef would size up a candidate for a gig. We discussed 'Mire Poix', the basic flavor base of many soups and sauces (1 part celery, 1 part carrot and 2 part onions). These ingredients are usually cooked down or removed after they've given their all; edible scraps created by turning round and tubular vegetables into squares can go in the 'Mire Poix Bucket'.

Finally, a brief talk on salt. According to my M.D., ideally I should cut out all salt from my diet. According to Chef M, ideally all food should have some salt, as it is essential for good taste in all things. Handouts of articles from a few foodie magazines were distributed; each waxed poetic about the varieties of salt I've never even heard, and from all over the world. I now know why any chef worth his salt uses kosher instead of table salt. (And Roman soldiers used to be paid in salt, very rare then, hence the term 'worth your salt.')

And then the chairs were put away, the knives came out, and off we went dicing onions and garlic, cubing carrots, slicing through tomatoes, putting on plastic gloves for jalapenos, balling up and dicing parsley and cilantro and watching demos from the chef all the while.

We used two knives: the 9" chefs knife and the paring knife. I know my way around the big knife due to a knife-skills class I took a few months ago. The little paring knife is something of new thing -- I actually was given a set of three really sweet Global knifes (chefs, utility, paring) and to be honest never use the little one. Chef showed us how to grip the whole blade with our hand so the point and the thumb become like tweezers. Even though you are gripping across the sharp edge, as long as you don't move the blade back and forth, a little firm pressure will not cut your skin. After slicing off the non-root end of the onion, using the paring knife we worked the skin off the onion with thumb and paring knife point. Hark, a new way to peel an onion! Also, by putting my thumb on the core of a tomato and spinning it while the point of the paring knife came in under it at an angle cleanly and easily cored the vegetable. Paring knife, you are sassy!

Now that we had all these mounds of vegetables, we scooped them into prep bowls, doused them with red wine vinegar (1 part) and olive oil (3 parts) and salted to taste with sea salt. Voila, the $30K quart of salsa!! Buy one quart, get a culinary education free of charge...

After cleaning our dishes and stations, the chairs came out again and a woman from the career department came down to talk to us about the future. What we can do with our $30k quart of s...culinary degree once we graduate. Restaurant grunt, hotel cook grunt, corporate dining, personal cheffing, catering, and my own personal interest: "alternative food careers." Hopefully more on that later.

After happily chopped vegetables with a pleasingly sharp knife for an hour, it was a bit of a 'back to earth' moment. What am I going to do once this blog has run its course? She spoke of how the 210-hour externship (after classroom work is over) can lead to a job. She also mentioned various volunteer opportunities -- next week, I think I'm going to sit with someone there and talk about volunteering. I think I need real-world experience of some sort before I get to the externship -- not to be an overachiever, but to help me figure out what I want to do. Nutrition and the politics of food has really gotten my brain-pan firing for a while now...

After class, dropped off the quart of salsa with B, took an appointment, then went to yoga -- my first open class. People were spinning on their heads without hands and pulling their feet behind their backs and over their shoulders like licorice. I, on the other hand, sweat profusely as I attempted to touch my ankles.

The thrill of culinary class left my stomach tight, hunger not really coming to me until home. The salsa we made was actually really tasty, as anything simple and fresh can be, but it made me think -- it was not really my choice to eat salsa, it's not something I eat too often. For the next six months, what I choose to eat for four hours a day will be dictated by school -- in fact, I'll be eating some things I've never chosen to eat. Tomorrow, we'll be slicing our way through assorted fruits, some of which I've never eaten before....

B, the HVS and I are going upstate together tomorrow to the Omega Institute -- they're doing a 'women of yoga' program, I'm bringing my road bike and plan to explore the hills and the Hudson. And eat lots of good vegan food.

BREAKFAST: 7am, farmer's market granola with good milk, banana, 1 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM SNACK: 9:15am, piece of french bread, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

AM SNACK: 10:15am, another piece of french bread, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

AM SNACK: 10:45am, several spoonfuls of salsa crudo, a small handful of tortilla chips, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

PM SNACK: 1pm, hot dog with kraut, mustard, onions, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Out running around doing things, spontaneously stopped by a Gray's Papaya. The lip-n-butthole flavor is everything I remember it to be. According to my textbook, a sausage like a hotdog is a "forcemeat", hmmm....

PM SNACK: 5pm, falafel on whole wheat, bottle water, hunger 4.5/5
After yoga, still had to get around, had to stop by a Maoz Vegetarian, a chain of falafel places. Not as good as the indie place I've been hitting up since high school on St Marks & 1st.

DINNER: 7:30pm, curry rice vermicelli, lotus-leaf rice wraps, spinach dumpling, quart of water, 2.5 bowls, hunger 4/5
Ordered in from Tien Garden, a buddhist vegan joint in the hood.

EVENING SNACK: 10:30pm, gnocci in tomato sauce, .75 bowl, hunger 4/5
B's leftovers from a restaurant meal.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Food Safety & Sanitation (Mullets & a Mustache)

Chef M laid down the hard-line at the start of class at 8am today: "On time is late." He gave hard stares and stern "you are late" comments to those coming in at 8:01. He runs his class like he runs his kitchen -- when his kitchen crew is a minute late, he is on the phone a minute later digging up new kitchen staff.

Today's lesson was a half-hour video and a lecture. It was kind of like a '50s educational film retrofitted for the '90s, but the video actors' hairstyles were shockingly '70s and '80s. One man talking straight to the camera had a thick mustache and a mullet peaking over his collar. A still of a hand close enough to one's face to cause cross-contamination featured a wickedly woolly Van Dyke (mustache & soul patch combo). Totally rocking.

The lecture was in two parts. The first was about general cleanliness habits (wash hands obsessively), proper food temperature & storage strategies, and various types of contamination. The second part was a brief overview of the span of culinary history, starting with "fire" through the Moors, the first green-house, and Escoffier all the way to James Beard and Julia Child.

We wrapped up with a discussion of dairy -- commercial (bad) and organic (good), different varieties of product -- from skim milk (colored water) to butter (a staple of French cuisine), and the incredible edible egg and all its parts.

Learned a little bit more about my classmates. Some (including myself) are answering and engaging with the teacher -- these are the ones I'm going to want to partner with and vibe on. Only 5 students in the class have restaurant experience, 3 of those are under 21 and doing work-study, another is the ex-truck driver -- definitely not dilettantes like myself!

Still weird not hitting up email for four hours straight. Tomorrow, we bust out our knives.

Had a hell of a time with my tool chest strapped to the back of the bike this morning; it will be staying in the locker. Nice full day -- class all morning, all afternoon in the office, and all evening cooking, doing my readings and chilling with my sweet-B.

Hmm, second consecutive day without sweets. I think this recipe from today's NYT may be in my future...

BREAKFAST: 7am, good yogurt with honey, raw cashews and vanilla, .5 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM SNACK: 10am, piece of fresh french bread, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Water, coffee, and a couple of loaves of french bread for the class, as no cooking was done today

LUNCH: 12:30pm, pork tonkatsu with curry and white rice, 3 pork dumplings, water, 2 bowls, hunger 4/5
Midtown lunch with E before a freelance gig. Came with miso soup, but skipped it -- that stuff is all salt and little nutritional value.

PM WATERING: 4pm, several cups seltzer

DINNER: 6:45pm, baby carrots with ranch dressing, sauteed shrimp with mushrooms and onions in butter and herbs de provence, oven baked broccoli, half a beer, 2.5 bowls, hunger 4/5
I finished the sauteing in high-heat canola oil with a large pat of the good butter (organic, grass-fed, etc etc.) I sprinkled a generous shake of 'herbs de provence' which I received in a wedding gift. The smell a little funky in the jar, but they really gave a nice herbal kick to the shrimp and veg. The fresh butter taste turned up the volume on that, too.

I replaced half the olive oil in the broccoli recipe with sesame oil, and used whole-wheat panko. Really nice, great way to get in my veggies.

EVENING WATERING: 7:30pm, quart o' NYC tap

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Orientation (New Toys Aplenty!)

I arrived at school on my bicycle a few minutes before 7:15am. Paperwork, an ID picture, locker assignment, and a bag of large books are sorted out, 13 fellow students and I filter into the kitchen classroom around 8am. I wish I could report I learned the dark secrets of souffle or broke down an entire cow today, but mostly it was the chef/teacher going through the basic rules of the school, an outlining of the courses, warning us that we'll be taking home plenty of the food we prepare, etc etc.

Four of the students are female; maybe 4 are my age or older. Three are under 21 -- I know this as we will be taking a 6-day wine intensive which they will not. We did not go around the room and introduce ourselves, unfortunately; I'm quite curious about every one's stories of how they ended up here. I overheard one student saying he's been a truck driver up to this point.

On a short break, I walked over to the small library next door and checked email. It occurred to me -- this is the first time since college I'm doing something (other than cycling) that's not in front of a computer. I can't just check email at a whim. Weird. Cooking is a pre-digital skill. I've heard about kitchen appliances becoming Internet-enabled, but I think that kind of silliness won't be in the syllabus.

We received a large tool box full of gear, which we quickly reviewed before the end of the session. I brought it home to fuss over and get familiar with - pretty, huh? I've never had a melon-baller before. Got a bunch of chapters to read about kitchen safety and what-not, then start again tomorrow at 8am.

For the morning of my first day of c-school, I weighed 228. When I started with Ilsa, I weighed a consistent 235, and only this past month or so have we started focusing on weight (i.e. calorie) reduction. Will Ilsa and my chefs be diametrically opposed? Well, it seems I got through the day sweets-free: any day for me without sweets is a good day. Less than a year ago, 2 to 3 sweets per day was standard.

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, organic cornflakes and unhomogenized whole milk, seltzer, .5 bowl, hunger 2/5
Stomach tight, nervous.

AM SNACK: 9am, 2 pieces of fresh french bread, palmful of peanuts, small cube of cheese, water, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5
There was a small spread of fruit, bread, cheese and nuts at the orientation.

LUNCH: 12:30pm, lemon-pistachio taglialini, 2 small arancini, small green salad with shaved ricotta, 2 pieces bread, water, 1.5 bowl, hunger 4/5
B works down the street, so joined her for lunch at an Italian bistro. The lemon-pistachio cream sauce kinda rocked my world. Very small portion, maybe .75 of a bowl (Ilsa wants me eating big lunches and small dinner.)

PM SNACK: 5:45pm, boca burger on superhippy bread with pickles and hot sauce, .75 bowl, hunger 4/5

DINNER: 8pm, homemade hummus with whole wheat crackers, small green salad, homemade pizza, 2 bowls, a Manhattan, .5 glass of presecco, seltzer, hunger 4/5
Went to Cobble Hill in to friends of B for dinner. Mike made wickedly good homemade pizzas - he has a decade of cooking experience out of college, including working under Rocco Despirito at Union Pacific before he (Rocco) got corny as hell. He's not cooking for a living, but he makes a serious pizza. I do my own pizza, but Mike did his right - bread flour, a homemade dough of the right moisture level, a raw tomato sauce made with a food mill instead of a blender. He did 2 pies, the first being a wonderful combination of freshly blanched baby spinach, ricotta, porcini mushrooms, parm and finished with fresh basil chiffonade and a balsamic reduction -- and just the right sprinkling of freshly ground pepper. It really had it going on.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hello. Make yourself comfortable. Can I offer you a drink?

Tomorrow I begin culinary school. In about 9 months, I will graduate with a diploma. How did I arrive at this point?

Over the past year, I have been consulting with a nutritionist about my blood pressure, which has been nudging upwards over the years. At the age of 36, I found myself on meds that lowered my blood pressure but wrecked me with side effects. When I asked the doc what my options were, he said: "Well, you can control it through diet -- cut your salt and lose weight."

Cut salt, lose weight. Very easy to say, not so easy to do.

So I took up the hobby of cooking for myself and my new wife; kept track of everything I ate; and kept a food blog for my nutritionist. I discovered that I didn't really need to eat sweets three times a day, and that simple home-cooked food made with good ingredients were more satisfying than prepared and/or restaurant foods. During that time I also took a cooking-basics class here, a knife-skills class there, and wrote about it all the while.

My parents influenced my decision to attend culinary school. My father was an excellent cook but due to having a full time career as a college professor, rarely was in the kitchen. The gender roles of his generation and the general abandonment of the importance of kitchen skills since the 1950s didn't help his hobby along. My mother was a horrible cook and disdained having to toil in the kitchen. When she did cook, the food was putrid. She too had a career of great importance, being an executive director at a community center in Brooklyn for a good deal of her work life. They passed away within a year of one another between 2005-06. My food memories from my childhood are bittersweet thus.

The other important force that has led me here is my own career. Out of college, I helped run an indie music label until the wheels fell off. Using the rudimentary graphics skills I taught myself during that time, I eventually landed a staff position at a law firm as a graphic designer until my mom got sick. She was alone, so I moved in with her to help with day-to-day needs 'til the end, about 6 months later. Feeling completely blown out, I left the firm and freelanced for a while, then attempted a cross-country bicycle ride from San Francisco which ended in Illinois. Back in New York, I freelanced, then came on as staff at a television network as a design project manager. Huge layoffs at the beginning of '08 found myself freelancing again -- but not as enthusiastically as I once had been.

Music was a hobby since I was 13, then became a profession. Graphics was a hobby until my late 20s, then became a profession. Cycling was also a hobby that began in adulthood, but my physical type and natural limitations has kept it a hobby. Now, as I read more foodie books, eat new and stranger things, cook more and mind wanders: What can I do that's not boring? Can I make a go of this hobby? No time like the present to find out. Tomorrow I step out of the nest for a 9 month free-fall to the earth to see if I can fly.

School is 8am to noon five days a week. I'll be picking up freelance work around that schedule to keep my wife B in bon-bons and fine French perfumes. She's going to hem the pants of my chef's uniform tonight and tomorrow it begins.