Saturday, October 4, 2008


This evening I prepared two entrées and one side dish. B wanted wild salmon, I wanted pork. For a side, simple sautéed string beans. We went to the market, and I found both green and white beans -- that would make a nice color combo, I thought. A few button mushrooms, shallots, a spoonful of butter at home, done. Also picked up a lean center-cut pork tender-loin chop and a pint of frozen veal stock. For the organic wild-caught fillet of salmon, a tetrapack of vegetable broth for poaching.

I trimmed the string beans with my new luxuriously long chef's knife, put them into rolling salted boiling water, then into an ice bath behind me. That could be held until ready to sauté, which takes 3 or 4 minutes. The broth got on the fire, and I cut a round of parchment to fit in the pot that would hold the fish under the liquid. The veal stock was put into a nice small warming pan to reduce. Mushrooms thinly sliced, shallot minced, fish portioned into three manageable pieces.

Canola in 2 sauté pans, fire. Fish dropped into broth, covered with parchment then put on the lid -- low simmer. Rubbed sea salt into pork, then into oiled pan to brown. In bean pan, threw in shallots to soft, a little salt to help it, then the mushrooms. Turn pork, browned nicely. Drained beans, threw them in pan, snap crackle. Pork onto drying rack with towels underneath to let the meat rest. Drained off some oil, keeping brown bits. Threw in shallots, soften, hit it was a splash of sherry. Flambé for a second, then reduce to dry. Then added reduced veal stock, then let reduce more. Shook the beans around, hit them with a tablespoon of good quality butter. Tasted. More salt. Tasted. Dropped in the last of the stock to steam up and cook the beans a little bit more. Tasted, done. Spooned out fish, cut to test, well-done like B wanted. Plated beans and fish, presented to the wifey. Plate more beans with the pork, top with the well-reduced pan sauce. The pint of stock yielded about 2 tablespoons of thick, delicious gravy.

I try to imagine what this meal would have been like without my experience at culinary school. I would have pan-fried the beans in sesame oil and lots of garlic with the idea of being 'Asian', and the dish would have tasted like sesame oil -- not beans. Garlic would have burned or gotten crunchy, adding a musty overtone to the proceedings. Fish, would have done like my mom's, put under the broiler with butter and minced garlic. Would have been ok, a little bland. The pork, he he he, would have been pan fried to smithereens, no sauce, a bit like shoe-leather. I probably wouldn't have bothered with the pork because, well, I don't like to eat shoe leather.

The meal I turned out tonight was not restaurant quality -- the beans were a little undercooked (though it just occurred to me that's exactly how my dad liked them), the pork was slightly overcooked (it was medium-well, which Chef C said is the appropriate American way to serve pork because of people's fears, though I prefer medium-rare with a nice line of pink in the middle), and I forgot to check the fish for pin-bones. On the other hand, the sherry in the pan sauce and the stock reduction screamed LIQUID SEX DO ME BIG BOY!!! all over my tongue, it masked the slight dryness of the meat, the fish had a wonderful bronze caste from the broth that contrasted healthily with the tan color of the fish flesh, and the white and green beans had the color locked in perfectly from the blanching and shocking. Because of c-school, I pretty much know what I did wrong and why -- I have a road map to making this meal better the next time I do it. And I didn't use a recipe, I just did it. I didn't make or prepare or process: I cooked.

I can now cook. I'm not a chef, which is basically a term for 'boss', or 'boss of the cooks'. I don't know if I can cook professionally -- this coming Tuesday, I'm starting as a staggiere (intern, assistant, what have you) at a high-end pizzeria in Brooklyn for a few months to complete my formal education. However that goes, I'll still be able to cook food to order for my wifey. And do it with my kids when they rear there lil' butterbean heads.

Am I glad I went to c-school? Unequivocally yes. Will I pursue cooking as a career? Unequivocally I do not know. Will it help me along a path to a healthier lifestyle? Undeniably affirmative. Just as I'm happy I got to do a cross-country bike ride in this lifetime, I'm also grateful I was able to attend culinary. For both, I must thank first and foremost my parents, without whose emotional and financial support this would all be moot. Thanks to my wifey for sticking with this somewhat meandering dude, thanks to Ilsa for putting a flashlight in the dark forest to a few of the paths available, thanks to the chefs I had teach me: Chef M, whose disciplinary ways drove home the point of the basics of knife skills and basic concepts, Chef C whose laid back demeanor poorly hid an incredible store of knowledge, skill and advice, Chef K whose demos were notorious but tender enthusiasm helped me make pasta as good as Batali's, Chef G for giving me sugar headaches everyday for months and reminding me why I never want to eat 3 deserts a day again, and Chef Al for, well, for only slightly killing me when I presented poached fish in court bouillon as a dish -- I knew enough not to present the fishy poaching liquid to B this evening!! And last but certainly not least, the 13 others who I spent every single friggin' morning with for the past half a year....

At some point in the first few months, I revealed to most of my fellow students that I was keeping this blog. Some cared, some didn't, those who cared just wanted to see what smack I was writing about them. With a few notable exceptions, I didn't talk sh@t about anyone because really, who the hell am I to judge? However, I do have a fondness and bond with my new friends, so for those following along and honoring me by reading my rants, here is a roll-call of all my fellow students and my deep, dark, secret opinions of them!
  • 2nd Language Girl: Probably the crappiest nick name I gave, should of named her Spanish Martha Stewart or Quiet Wonder. Despite the language barrier, 2LG showed herself to be the most naturally talented cook in the class. Her children are extremely lucky, they must eat unbelievably well.
  • Chef Jr.: He comes from a family of chefs, he looks like he's 12, and probably has the strongest work ethic in the class. He has the focus, he can cook, I hope he gets the opportunity to travel the world cooking.
  • Dirty Dave: Homeboy & wifey hauled ass from a life in Arizona to do the culinary thing up in this not-easy city. He's externing at a very reputable cheese monger to hone his knowledge for his idea of a beer & cheese bar. If I were to open my own place, I'd want someone like DD as a partner.
  • Dirty Kim: Perhaps the only person in class with a certain mixture of talent, natural skill, personality, ego and drive to someday become a Chef-Celebrity with a fleet of restaurants, a TV show, a line of frozen goods and a regular appearance in the gossip columns.
  • Dora the Explorer: Her extreme incompetence was only matched by her arrogance when she was confronted by our various chefs. Between her lack of comprehension in both English AND Spanish and her lack of hygiene while cooking, her presence underlined the crassness of culinary school -- it would have been better for everyone involved if the school booted her and refunded her money the first week.
  • the Long Island Lolita: Though she initially seemed like the kind of sorority girl I avoided assiduously in school, I enjoyed the opportunity to work in teams with her -- she really showed herself to have a serious passion for making (and eating) good food.
  • Natasha: A sweet 18 year old kid who is finding his way. People underestimate his intelligence because he's still developing. He can cook, and has an interesting palate, especially with his sorbets (that winey sangria sorbet was off the hook!)
  • Norbit: Weird guy who definitely talks too much when hes nervous, but as everyone got to know each other, he mellowed and was a good dependable team mate who can cook the hell out of a side of just about any animal.
  • Roundhead: Very quiet. He was definitely competent. I didn't get to know him well, but he seemed to be well-liked by other students.
  • the San Francisco Kid: He came into the class mid-term, and came to class late almost everyday. Asked a lot of silly questions.
  • Speedy: Motherf@cker needs to stop thinking so much and just do it. Do it. Do it. He has the most wonderful quality -- an extreme attention to detail -- but needs to not doubt himself when the pressure is on and get the friggin' dish to table on schedule. Definitely has the right personality to go far in the cooking biz.
  • Squarehead: Sweet kid, needs to sharpen his tools.
  • Stalker Kowlowski: Felt a certain empathy with SK, we're both of a certain age, both coming out of media careers, both a bit travelled and established in who we are. However, he's definitely a better natural cook than me.
Th-th-th-th-that's all, folks! I was considering blogging about it here, as it's officially part of the culinary school experience, but really, it's so highly personal and variable that it's less about c-school and more about the individual.

My previous blog, "I Am What I Eat -- I Eat What I Wish to Become" (what a snappy title! NOT) was a personal diary-like thing that centered around what I ate and my thoughts around eating. By giving focus and thought to everything that passed my lips, I found myself healthier, happier, and wanting to know how to do it better -- hence, culinary school.

School is definitely more of a beginning than an ending. Now with the externship upon me and some other major life changes, I feel like I'm learning a whole new set of basic life skills needed to take me into this new chapter of my life. When your tiny, you learn to read. Now that I'm pushing my later 30s, I'm only now really learning to feed.

If you want to continue with me on this semi-anonymous journey, please set your bookmarks to:

Thanks for reading! Go cook some good food in your home for a loved one, especially if that loved one is yourself.

One more thing: Vote OBAMA!!

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BREAKFAST: 5:45am, organic cheerios with good milk, .5 bowl, hunger 3/5 AM SNACK: 7am, half a large good quality chocolate bar, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5

11:30am, piece of vegetable focaccia, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5 From the farmer's market at Brooklyn's city hall.

LUNCH #1: 1:30pm, Singapore Mai Fun noodles, small wonton soup, water, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5 Mediocre vegan food on Montague St. OK, it's a $6 lunch special, but no proteins in the noodle, and almost no veg? Lame. As the old joke goes, such bad food....and such small portions.

4pm, large green salad, small portion of broccoli risotto, 1.5 bowl, hunger 4/5

7pm, 2 small slices of John's Pizza, water, .75 bowl, hunger 3/5

BREAKFAST #1: 5:30am, good yogurt with nuts, .5 bowl, hunger 3/5

BREAKFAST #2: 11am, organic chex with good milk, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5

PM SNACK: 1:30pm, cupcake, .25 bowl, hunger 4/5
Out and about with B, at Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

LUNCH: 2:30pm, fresh onion & garlic knish, seltzer, 1.25 bowl, hunger 4/5
In the movies with a Yonash Shimmel knish for snacking.

DINNER: Oh you know, like it said up there. I can't believe you read this post to the end!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Grand Buffet (Graduation)

Today was the final day of class, a double day from 8am to guest-arrival at 5:30. Everyone prepared two hors d'oeuvres, and Norbit cooked off a bunch of roasts for a carving station. As usual, I put my head down and got my work done.

I finely chopped onion, garlic, Thai basil, parsley, and cilantro and mixed it in with yesterday's chopped vegs. Folded it into the batter made yesterday, then into the fridge. I reserved a handful of purple basil and zucchini for garnish.

I prepped the pizza topping -- thin slices of plum tomatoes, tiny dots of fresh mozz, cooked off and chilled a long link of school- made sausage, chiffonaded Italian basil. By this time, it was 10:30, and didn't want uncooked topped pizza to sit all day, so I jumped in and helped other students whose chosen preparations were a bit more involved. Dirty Dave had meatballs to shape, Natasha had mango sorbet quennels to shape, the Long Island Lolita had bacon masa dough to ball, Stalker Kawalski had mini eclairs to eat (damn, they were good!)... By 1pm, Dirty Dave helped me roll dough and cut it with a ring, to which I oiled it, topped it, and refrigerated it.

With some extra mini-pies, I baked off a bunch to see how they were. In the name of efficiency, I actually left all the little pies on the aluminium sheet tray, and placed the tray on the stone in the oven. In 10 minutes, the cheese started to brown nicely, and out it came. The crust was pleasingly cracker-like, and the tomato had cooked nicely, bonding with the fresh mozz for a pizza-like experience. The dough didn't char at all due to the pan and the relatively low temp of the oven -- had I added a little sugar to the dough, it would have been much more visually satisfying.

The pakora fritters involved deep frying. At 3:30pm I went to fry off about half the batch and keep them in a warming oven for service. A lot of liquid leached out of the vegetables into the batter, giving off a lot of little bits when it hit the hot oil. In retrospect, just throwing in more chickpea flour would have made this a much more efficient dish. I got off 60 pieces, though maybe 15 worth of bits went into the trash.

At 5:30, Chef A called for the hot food to plate, and my pakoras were out in a jiff. Two trays of pie went in, and they were out in another 10. My best friends, my wifey, my HVS, my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my girlfriend-in-law, and my Ilsa all came to snack and give props -- it was really nice, though it took me a few minutes to unwind from 10 hours of work culminating in that one moment. That's the cool thing about cooking in a professional way, when the food is fired and leaves the kitchen to the person receiving your work, it's a culmination, a high point, a place to go, an orgasm, a reason to keep going. It's great when the food is good (the pakoras, fresh tasting, veg came through, spiced right), kinda sucks when the food is bleah (the pizzas needed more heat, a lighter crumb) but that's just being persnickety.

The director of student affairs gave a little speech, Chef A said a few words, and Chef M from Mod 1 and part of 2 was there, which was cool. Students were called up one at a time and given a book (of French recipes, of course), crowned with a toque, and a whole lot of back slapping and picture taking, it all felt a bit goofy. A beer definitely settled my mind, though all the food I had been popping in my mouth all day guaranteed a lack of hunger.

A few friends and the wifey got together and got me a 10" Global chef's knife -- one of the most notable things from school was when I took a knife skills tutorial, using a longer heavier knife was so much easier than a shorter, lighter one. As long as it's balanced and you're holding it correctly and your stroke is just right, you can let its weight do a lot of the work for you.

This coming Tuesday, my externship starts. A lot to think about. This weekend, I will conclude this blog with my final thoughts and discuss some plans for the future. Stay tuned!

All you mystery readers out there, feel free to leave comments and congratulate me! ;) Judging from the meter, there are about 10 regular readers and maybe another 20 occasional indulgers. Thanks for reading!

Slept poorly the night before, maybe getting 5 hours of sleep. When I got home around 9pm, it felt like 4 in the morning. I slept like a baby, with visions of mini eclairs and pizza dancing in my head.

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, a large portion of homemade vanilla ice cream, .75 bowl, hunger 3/5
Not a healthy breakfast, but needed a sugar kick to get moving.

ALL-DAY TASTING: 8am-7pm, including several pakoras, a handful of mini pizzas, handfuls of chocolates, mini-eclairs, a few mini burgers and meatballs, shrimp cocktail, a beer, a slug of Guinness, chicken sate, almond cookies, a few bowls, hunger varying all day

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Grand Buffet Preparation (Cooking for My Peeps)

Today's class was spent preparing for tomorrow's Grand Buffet, our graduation send-off. We placed our food orders last week, and today's biggest challenge was finding everything amid the bins of everyone's ingredients. The pull was like a visual syllabus of the past 6 months of c-school.

Last night, I wrote up my recipe cards for pizza dough, mozzarella cheese, pakora fritters, and tamarind chutney. I made an additional card outlining what my goals should be for today's class -- what makes sense to make the day before the buffet, what can be done first thing tomorrow, what needs to wait until right before service. (With around 80 mouths to feed, each item had to be about 120 pieces.)

First thing, I made tamarind chutney. A half-cup of tamarind past got dissolved into a quart of hot water, then sautéed some golden raisins and ginger to soft. Threw in some cinnamon and a few other spices, sautéed until fragrant, then poured the tamarind liquid over it and brought it to a boil. Once it cooled, blended it to a purée and added water until it had the right consistency. Looking for the right balance of sweet and sour, it was still a bit too far on the latter; so, I added some jaggery sugar (palm sugar of the subcontinent, has a wonderfully funky sweetness), which hit the right note after I smacked it upside the head with a few pinches of salt. Into a quart container and into the fridge, done.

Next up was pizza dough. Got out the mixer, got the yeast dissolved in water with some olive out, then mixed it with Italian double 00 flour and a dash of salt. Let it go for about 10 minutes until it looked nice 'n bouncy, then scaled it out and balled it up on to a greased sheet. Covered it in plastic, into the fridge to proof over night, done.

On to the fritter batter, the base of the wheat-free, animal-product-free dish of the day -- chickpea flour mixed it dry with turmeric, garam masala (a specific curry spice blend), coriander, salt, and a few other spices; add water and a whisk until nice and thick. Let stand, covered, for an hour to develop and really get fully bloomed, then into plastic containers and into the fridge.

I boiled a gallon of water with a cup of salt in it, put on 5 layers of plastic gloves, then placed three pounds of curd. Once it got soft, pulled out the curd into boil, poured boiling water over it and pulled and stretched until the curd magically became smooth, stringy mozzarella. Balled it up, iced it, wrapped it in plastic, then into plastic vessels surrounded by the milky salt water. Fridge it goes.

By now it was 10:30, and we were aiming to clean by 11. I pulled peas, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and a huuuuge zucchini and got choppin' (these are the vegetables for the pakora). Potatoes peeled and diced, the cauliflower was put into the robocoup for a nice powdery consistency, and the zucchini diced with skin on. A big bowl o' veg, covered and into the fridge.

Tomorrow, need to mince all the herbs for the pakora, then I will mix the veg and herbs into the batter an hour before frying (since I don't want the veg to take in too much moisture from the batter). The dough needs to be rolled out, stamped into rounds and topped a few hours before baking. I think I may have a bottle neck at service -- baking and topping with basil, frying and plating the pakora. We'll be in from 8am until service at 5:30, a long day. I wonder what I'll be eating for lunch...

Yesterday I made dinner for B, the first time in quite a while I focused on just making a nice meal for the two of us at home. I made seared diver scallops on a bed of broccoli risotto, garnished with lightly battered broccoli florets, and a dessert of crème anglaise ice cream made with real vanilla bean. As I cooked, I could see how much my schooling has influenced my cooking.

The large scallops were sliced in half lengthwise, and right before it hit the hot fat, I dredged in salted flour -- before I would have just thrown the whole thing in, overcooking the outside and leaving the inside raw. The flour yielded a nice browning, and the thinness allowed it to cook evenly with one flip. By look and feel I just vibed when it was cooked.

The risotto took an hour of stirring and, rather than just make plain generic risotto, I had beforehand blanched and shocked a head of broccoli, and then puréed it with some water to smooth. Because of the blanching and shocking, it locked in the color; when I mixed it with the grated cheese into the risotto at the end, the finish product took on the most brilliant emerald green shade, not a bit of brown -- and it had a pure, direct broccoli flavor livened by the saltiness of the stock and cheese, clarified by the butter finish.

I plated it in a nice wide bowl; it looked beautiful. It tasted as good as I hoped it to be, and if I got it in a restaurant, I would have been very pleased to pay $25 bucks for this dish. To be able to whip it up without too much forethought for my wifey and me, it was a good feeling.

BREAKFAST: 6:30am, banana, quart of water, .25 bowl, hunger 2/5

AM TASTINGS: 10-noon, spoonful of tamarind dipping sauce, handful of chocolate, handful of almond cookies, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
So many ingredients lying around, I was drawn like a magnet to the chocolate.

LUNCH: 2pm, 1 slice fresh moz pizza, Boylan's grape soda, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5
Emotionally satisfying. Very light on the cheese, the soda the same fake-tasting but purely sweet tasting grape from my childhood. Welch's tastes way too acidy and sweet, Boylan's has the more mellow balance of my memories.

PM SNICKLE SNACK: 5pm, quinoa, seitan, hijiki with tahini, grape fizzy lizzy, half a vegan brownie, water, 1 bowl, hunger 4/5
After yoga feed with the HVS. Brownie surprisingly rich, made me think I may have OD'd on the sugar today.

DINNER: 7:30pm, broccoli risotto, .5 bowl, hunger 4/5
Microwaved and still delicious.