Friday, May 2, 2008

Fish Stock/Fish Fabrication/Simple Fish Soup (Roley Poley Fish Heads)

After yesterday's confrontation with my lifelong culinary nemesis, nothing could get me down today -- not even copious amounts of rainbow-colored fish guts and dark-red fish blood. Well, maybe it could if you made me eat that stuff...

The morning lecture reviewed stock, that magical stuff you get from simmering bones and vegetables until it becomes enriched with intense nutritive yumminess. Stock is a foundation of good sauces, soups and braises, and is full of gelatin from bones -- all the boney soft stuff and cartilage is actually all protein. The fish stock we were to make typically only takes 90 minutes (whereas a stock with big ol' bones, like cow, can simmer and reduce away for a few days).

Chef M drew typical 'flat' and 'round' fish on the board to discuss their physiology. Flat fish like sole and flounder tend to be on the small and mildly un-fishy flavor side, while round fish like salmon, cod, tuna, and bass are all sorts of sizes, colors, and flavors. The basics of checking for quality (good smell, clear eyes, firm flesh, etc.) were bandied about, the differences in wild vs. farmed (wild will always be tastier) and the proper way to store in ice (standing on its belly with packed ice on all sides, with drainage so the fish is never sitting in water) were discussed...and then out came the fish.

All 14 of us got to "fabricate" 3 fish apiece -- a bass, a sole, and a mackerel. Chef M gave us pretty detailed demos, then let us at them. Funny, the second I got that first fish in front of me, my mind went blank. Its corpus wasn't abstract anymore, like a picture or a demo; it was right in front of me to be dealt with right now. I put on the plastic gloves, then paused to take a picture with the camera phone. I looked to see what everyone else was doing -- oh yeah, that's why I forgot. (Vegans, hungry or otherwise, might want to skip down to the addenda about now.) I ran the blade of the boning knife in one long stroke along the belly and out flopped the guts. I stuck my fingers in to pull out whatever bits I missed and a few fleshy sacks popped eggs and blood over my hand. Kind of gross but cool. I almost reached into my pocket to take a picture but thought it better not to stand around for the next three hours with a pocketful of fish guts and an unpleasantly fishy phone.

I followed the Chef's direction from memory: Slice from the dorsal (front) fin to the top of the head at an angle, then peel off the fillets with the long thin boning knife. Cleave off head and tail, but the meaty bones into the stock pot. Clean up fillets, pluck out pin bones with pliers, wipe down, and check for scales and more bones. Cut into three portions each, stack flesh to flesh, skin to skin.

For the mackerel, the fabrication was a little different: Saw away from the top of the head to the dorsal fin at an angle. Then you put down your knife, grab the head with one hand and the body with another, and yank them apart -- all the guts come out, attached cleanly to the head. It definitely called for a karate-like "HeeeeeYAA!" as I tore the fish head off.

After cleaning up, we fried up some garlic, onion, parsnip, and leeks; diced up potatoes in olive oil; added salt, fish stock, and crushed tomatoes; and then set to boil. Brought down to a simmer, we placed out fish fillets on top of the liquid for 5 minutes and viola, our simple fish soup arrived into this world, ready for the eating.

While we were finishing the soup, four beautifully plated desserts appeared; the pastry class just finished practicing, and their labors were our pleasure. In return, Chef M sent thema gallon of fresh fish soup. We all ate well.

After class, I stopped in on the Dean of Student Affairs to discuss volunteer opportunities and career trajectory. There is a lot of stuff out there, and I have a short stack of organizations to read up on before I start making calls and setting up visits. Next week should be interesting.

After having my ice cream keep me up all night, I decided to try it for breakfast. Now that it's set, the coffee flavor is much stronger than the chocolate flavor. In the 20 minutes after eating it, B mentioned that I was buzzing around the apartment -- I was totally caffeinated. I hopped on the bicycle and made it school in record speed. I felt like I should have pulled my shirt over my head and proclaimed, "I AM THE GREAT CORNOLIO!!" Caffeine, it's a hell of a drug.

At the end of the yoga class I attended today, there was about 5 minutes of meditation. The teacher asked to internalize a mantra to repeat in our heads or under our breath, and suggested we take one of the Sanskrit chants from the distributed guide if we liked. Very quietly I chanted, "Not my mother's scramble. Not my mother's scramble." Not peace, bliss and happiness, but something like it.

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, apple, small cup of chocolate espresso ice cream, 1 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM SNACK: 9:30am, small piece of french bread, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5

AM TASTING: 11:30am, bites of various gourmet creamy desserts, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5
A pastry class sent up some beautiful tasty desserts for us to snarf down at the end of class.

LUNCH: 12:45, 3/4 of a quart of fresh fish soup, piece of french bread, 2.5 bowls, hunger 4/5
In Madison Square Park. B came and visited me, then the HVS did a run-through. Very satisfying to eat a fresh self-made meal made at a higher level of skill while surrounded by people scarfing crappy Shake Shack burgers. They think they're eating great stuff, but I got the real thing...

PM SNACK: 5pm, superhippy grilled cheese sandwich with morbier and onions, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Another cheese introduced to me in class -- it has a line of vegetable ash through the middle, a softer firm texture and a stinky rind. Because of its excellent melting ability and strong flavor, used less cheese than usual and still was great.

PM SNACK: 6:15pm, 1 slice streetza, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5

DINNER: 9:45pm, stone rice bowl with bulgogi, assorted appetizers including radish kimchi, fermented fish, mungbean pancake, pickled nuts, water 2.5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Danny & I caught a quick dinner after a movie, at a Korean place in Koreatown. Oddly enough, they closed at 10pm, turning away several patrons -- what kind of place closes early on Friday night when there is a demand? Must be family-run or something.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Brigade System/Executive Chef/Purchasing/Fats and Oils (Not My Mother's Scramble, ohmmmmmmm)

Yesterday, I had the day off from school -- I rode a bicycle all day and cooked up a storm in the evening, including my first-ever proper broiling of a crustacean. I also made this interesting ice cream recipe, which involved espresso. I had one serving around 7pm for dessert, and still hungry had a 2nd serving around 8pm. When I tried to get to bed around 10pm, I realized I was wired. I didn't hit the hay 'til around 1am. When I woke up at 6am, my stomach was tight -- OH NO, I had to eat scrambled eggs today! (See Addenda.)

First, however, was the day's lecture . Chef M reviewed the militaristic hierarchy of a large kitchen, starting with the 4-Star General, a.k.a. the Executive Chef a.k.a. Chef de Cuisine a.k.a. Boss of the Kitchen. The Sous Chef is the 2nd-in-command and can fill in for the boss. Under the Sous are several different Chefs dePartie -- section heads, which include Saucier (sauces), Grillardin (grilled items), Patisseur (pastry). Of these sub-commandants, the top would be the Tourenant, the one who can fill in at any station. The lowest, most junior would be the garde manger: cold prep. Things like salad can be worked up before service time and when the pressure is on, no cooking is involved -- just assembling. Having the new guy work garde manger is logical; without the heat of cooking, you can hurt yourself (and others) less.

After going on at length about the responsibilities of the Executive Chef (hiring, firing, purchasing, menu writing, payroll, marketing & PR, sanitation, training, delegation, getting face time on the Food Network), Chef M pointed out the drama of purchasing and dealing with purveyors, the salespeople who sell food and consumables to restaurants. "Always check everything," he told us, "they will always try to rip you off." The class took a walk to the purchasing department of the school, which is equivalent to the purchasing department of a mid-sized hotel. With a refrigerator as big as my bedroom, a pantry like a couple of well-stocked aisles at Wholefoods, a liquor cabinet that fills up a large walk-in closet and 50 and 100-gallon steam-kettles to make stock, this was something to behold.

After some basic knife-skill drills, we were shown the proper way to care for cast iron. Since it is porous, it will rust easily so never get it wet. To clean, heat and scrub with coarse salt repeatedly (my caste iron wok is gonna get some good luv from me next time I use it!). Then, he showed us the proper way to scramble an egg: 1.) whisk 3 eggs (less will cook too fast) until the yolks and whites form 1 homogeneous color. Hit with a healthy dash of salt. 2.) Heat cast-iron skillet and drop enough fat of your choice to coat the bottom of pan, no more. Do not let smoke. Put a drop of egg mixture in pan to see if it cooks quickly. If not, heat more. 3.) Drop in egg mixture and immediately start shaking pan AND stir rapidly with wooden spoon. Repeatedly scrape down sides and bottom. 4.) When the egg still slightly runny, after about a minute, plate and serve. It will continue to cook and firm up on plate.

My partner and I did three rounds of different oils to taste and see how they cook. The sesame oil tasted very strong, overwhelming the eggy flavor. The peanut oil was mildly pleasant, with only a faint peanuty aftertaste. The clarified butter, however, was very pleasant, giving a round, almost sweet mouth feel to the springy egg.

I made the first batch with sesame oil, and put it on the plate. I grabbed some bread while my teammate washed the pan for the next batch. I put a small amount of the egg on the spoon, brought it to my face and looked at it, and it looked nothing like my mom's scramble (again, see Addenda). I popped it in my mouth wasn't that bad. Pleasantly poofy, not sulfurous at all. The chef brought out a brick of foie gras to accompany the eggs, and the two items slathered on french bread wasn't a bad snack at all.

Tomorrow, I visit the Dean of Student Affairs to talk volunteer opportunity. C-school is art school, but it's also vocational school. Where am I going?

On the bicycle ride up to school today, I listened to NPR podcasts and chanted out loud, "NOT MY MOTHER'S SCRAMBLE" over and over again. I would of said, "Not my mother's eggs", but that just had too many off-colored meanings. The little meditation was my nutritionist, Ilsa's, idea.

When I met with Ilsa Tuesday, I confided that I was a bit concerned: Thursday would be scrambled eggs. If I am to be a serious student of the culinary arts, I can't just dismiss such a major foundation ingredient as 'inedible.' Over the past year or so, eggs have started showing up in my fridge, mostly as ingredients in pancakes, ice cream, and various baked goods, but the smell of frying eggs makes me literally gag. Why?

It's all my mom's fault. She was a brilliant, successful, intelligent, loving woman, but she could not cook if her life (hell, my life) depended on it. She would cook breakfast quickly for my brother and me every morning and, 4 out of 5 times, it would be scrambled eggs. Eggs quickly beaten, thrown on a hot pan without much of a shake, and what would appear on my plate would be a little bit burnt on the bottom, a little bit raw on the top, and bits of white and yolk everywhere. No salt, not egg, fried in no oil but in a (now recognized as toxic) teflon no-stick pan. Literally looked like fried boogers. My mom would not tolerate waste, and eventually I learned to place the cut-up egg on a napkin between my legs when she was not looking.

As soon as I could get out of the house, the last thing in the world I would want to eat is an egg. Looking back, it was the lack of choice, the powerlessness of having to eat those eggs that has given me such a visceral reaction to even the smell of a frying egg. Being confronted by a properly made scrambled egg, however -- and made by my own had -- might just help me to get over this detritus that has hung around my brain for so long. Therapy Session, $35K, with Culinary School thrown in for free!

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, banana, .25 bowl, hunger 1/5

AM SNACK: 9am, small piece of French bread, .25 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM TASTING: 11am, samples of scrambled egg fried in sesame, peanut and clarified butter, small piece of foie gras, french bread, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5

LUNCH: 12:45pm, good quality Margarita pizza, minus crusts, water, 1.5 bowl, hunger 4/5
The pizza at Naples 45 at Grand Central is, surprisingly, probably in the top 20 of the city.

PM SNACK: 3:45pm, fresh shrimp spring roll, small quantity of seaweed salad, 2 inari, 1.5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Pre-made snackies from Wholefoods.

DINNER: 8pm, boca burger on whole wheat, 10 saltines with good peanut butter, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Food Costs/Oil and Vinegar/Greens and Vinaigrette (The Mathematical Measurement of the Olive Garden's Evil)

Waste will put your profits in the garbage, kill a restaurant dead, and destroy the environment to boot. This seems to be a running theme in Chef M's lectures, none so more so than our brief look into the management of food cost. I'll skip the mathematics here, but any executive chef or restaurant manager will be very concerned with the Food Cost Percent (the cost of the food divided by the menu price) and more crucially, the Prime Cost Percent (Food Cost% + Beverage Cost% + Labor Cost%.)

A good restaurant will have a prime cost of about 60-65%, with about half of that going to food. In a mediocre place like, say, the Olive Garden, food costs will only be 15% because they buy 2nd-rate ingredients in bulk, and labor another 15% because they pay near minimum wage. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for advertising and overpaying CEOs.

Back to the matters at hand. We ran through the different kinds of oils, their uses and individual smoke points. When Chef M went to culinary school, he was told only to use olive oil for dressing, never cooking. In his career, he has met Italian people who cook with nothing but olive oil, including deep-frying. Now that olive oil is perceived to be a great healthy oil, the common wisdom has changed. As for vinegar, we learned about its bacterial beginnings -- it's rotten wine, after all. Or rotten juice, depending on the kind of vinegar.

The knives came out and we had our way with a bucket's full of shallots, minced finely. Chef M showed us the proper way to remove stems and veins from various kinds of cooking greens; then we rough-chopped them and sautéed them with a little olive oil, shallots, and salt -- wow! Mustard greens, chard, bok choy, kale -- I tend to avoid this stuff, but these tasted surprisingly....palatable!

Using a hand whisk, we put 1 part vinegar (I used balsamic vinegar, though any acid, like lemon juice, will do) and a small dash of Dijon mustard and a pinch of salt in a bowl. While whisking, I slowly poured 3 parts olive oil in the bowl until it was all in and it became thicker than any of the original ingredients. With some pre-mixed mesclun on hand, we tossed it with the dressing and had our late morning vittles.

Everyone in class is warming up to each other a bit, and Chef M seems to be enjoying himself, peppering his lectures with personal details. He's in the process of opening up his own restaurant near where he lives, and will be looking for externs around the time we'll be graduating. Other personalities are emerging, some rather loud and talking too much, some as focused on absorbing as much as possible without fuss, others dumber than I first assumed. Well, as long as they don't stab me on the way to the sink to wash their knives, we'll all be OK.

Tomorrow we have off, but Thursday we are going to experiment with a bunch of different cooking oils by making scrambled eggs. I don't want to make a big deal of this, but since my mom used to force me to eat really badly prepared eggs several times a week, the smell of scrambled eggs makes me nauseous and the thought of putting them in my mouth makes me gag a little.

That indulgent pint of Ben & Jerry's pisses me off. I used to scarf gallons of the stuff in college, thought it was great. Now it tastes tainted with glue! Thanks, Ilsa! Today after school I went home and built the batter for this ice cream, gonna run it through the ice cream attachment of my mixer after a long bike ride tomorrow. I roasted and salted some raw cashews and took a hammer to a good block of 70% dark chocolate, ice cream nirvana awaits...

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, 2 pancakes, .75 bowl, hunger 4/5
Milk was slightly off, so cooked these to prevent waste. Two other pancakes went in the freezer for future consumption.

AM SNACK: 9:30am, small piece of french bread, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

AM TASTING: 11:30am, sautéed cooking greens with shallots and olive oil, mesclun salad with vinaigrette, 1 bowl

LUNCH: 12:45pm, various BBQ meats, small amount of mac & cheese and french fries, water, 2 bowls, hunger 4/5
Greens were too healthy, had to get them out of my system fast!

PM SNACK: 3:15pm, B&J's Half Baked ice cream, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5

PM SNACK: 5pm, tablespoon of hot salty roasted cashews, hunger 3/5

DINNER: 8:45pm, 1 grilled cheese sandwich with Racette soft stinky raw milk cheese, the good butter, and superhippy bread, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5
Really tasty. Needed salt.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Weights and Measures/Blanching and Shocking (Dicey Dices)

The day opened with a quiz on sanitation and herb ID. Ten herbs were spread out around the room with numbers for identifying, and the multiple choice questions were no big deal. Upon review of the answers, I somehow mistook Cilantro for Chervil. Ninety-five percent ain't bad.

An ounce is an ounce is an ounce, unless you're measuring volume (the amount of space a material takes up), then it's a fluid ounce. Today's lecture defined the English Standard series of measures for weight (lbs and ozs) and volume (tsp to G), and the simple math need to convert recipes to larger or smaller amounts. Lip service was given to the metric system -- if a chef were to give you a recipe in metrics, all measures in the kitchen would be metric so there would be no need to waste time and lessen accuracy with conversion.

Chef M discussed blanching, defined as boiling in salted water until just-cooked. This reduces strong flavors or smells, sets color, makes skins easier to remove, and prepares vegetables for other cooking methods that may not otherwise cook thoroughly on their own. We proceeded to dice a large amount of potatoes; prepped haricot vertes and broccoli; blanch the vegetables and shock them in ice baths (to stop the cooking); and boil the potatoes before running them through a food mill. The vegetables were thrown into a hot pan with a little bit of water and butter, then coated (or, as the method is known, glazed). Copious amounts of cream, butter, and salt went in to the potatoes. According to Chef M, you keep adding salt until it tastes 'good' -- not necessarily salty, but right before that point.

At the end of class, potatoes were distributed for us to take home and practice on. My diced potatoes were relatively cubical, and the chef complimented me on a nice dice. One other student's dice was weirdly flat and chip-like -- how does someone mess this up? I'm going to practice on my taters tonight and try to dice them with some speed; in a real-life situation, I'm not going to have all the time in the world to achieve a nice dice so my boss can pat me on the back.

Speaking of weights & measures, I tipped the scales at 229 this morning, a pound up from last week. A few people who read this blog congratulated me on my 7lb weight loss, but I shrugged it off -- I didn't really try too hard and know it'll fluctuate with water, the weather, etc.

As I was engraving all my tools with a symbol to indicate my ownership (as every student's tools are identical), I dropped the bread knife by accident. It bounced off my leg and I barely gave it a notice. As I picked up the next blade to engrave, I noticed a not-small trickle of red down my thigh. Damn, these things are sharp!

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, organic cheerios with good milk, .5 bowl, hunger 3/5

AM SNACK: 9am, fresh french bread, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

AM TASTING: 11:15am, broccoli and haricot vertes with mashed potatoes, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5

LUNCH: 2pm, homemade cheese ravioli with homemade tomato sauce, quart of seltzer, 2.5 bowls, hunger 4/5

PM SNACK: 5:15pm, Ben & Jerry's "Half Baked" icecream, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Went to the local conventional supermarket to pick up cleaning supplies and paper for note taking. Felt sugar cravings and the need to treat myself. Took a long look at the freezer section, B&Js is not organic but has about half the number of ingredients of some other brands. This weed-themed treat is half chocolate, half vanilla, half chocolate chip cookie dough and half brownie. A bit of a mess, and all the chunks of stuff left a chalky taste in my mouth against the indistinct ice cream flavors. But I imagine it would be amaaaaazing if I was stoned, maaaaan.

DINNER: 7:15pm, baby carrots & cucumber with ranch dressing, 3 ears of fresh corn with sea salt and the good butter, 1.5 bowls, hunger 4/5

Ate lots of healthy vegan and vegetarian food from a nice buffet at Omega with B & the HVS. Being that it was all-you-can-eat, I wasn't really watching how MUCH I ate -- good nutrition yes, low-calorie no.

On Saturday I went out on my bicycle and did a large loop around Rhinebeck and Red Hook. I passed Migoreli (sp?) Farms, which I buy a lot of produce from at the Union Square farmer's market. After a few hours I was hungry and my map said I wasn't near any towns. So I went with what was available: a gas station. I bought a bag of lightly salted 'kettle' potato chips and a 2-pack of Entemann's chocolate-coated donuts. I ate a lot of them as a kid, my parents would get them for dessert. When I grabbed these two things, I briefly looked at the nutritional info -- 400 calories, not too bad. When I sat down and started reading, I noticed both of these bags were TWO servings - 800 calories and about 50% of my daily sodium. On top of that, the donuts tasted kinda of....plastic, a coating of wax all over my mouth. It had more than 2x the salt as the chips, but you wouldn't know it by taste. Fractionated palm oil is not a delicacy.