Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I'll be your Ratatouille, if that's what it takes.

So it begins again. For the first class, I stuck close to the original lesson plan, so I won't go into too much details (you can get all the recipes and nitty gritty here.) We had a group of 9 students, including 2 from the last session who are graduating soon, but wanted to hang out and relive the memories. One was in class for the first half of the program, but dropped out because of personality conflicts with another student. I'm glad she's back, she's clearly very intelligent and motivated, but socially a little awkward -- I hope she makes it through this time, and I'll lean on her a little to be a little bit more responsible for things.

First was the lecture about contamination -- physical, chemical and bacterial. Had to inform two girls with long-ass fingernails that they had to either lose them and wear gloves during class, another had to remove her big hangy earrings, others had to tie hair back and put on a hair-covering. A brief explanation of how bacteria travels (contact), and how this understanding was revolutionary -- doctors used to cut people open and use unwashed hands, leaving behind all sorts of bacteria.

I could tell at points during the safety lecture I was starting to lose the interest of the students, but was able to pull them back in with personal, mostly humorous, anecdotes. In speaking of knife safety, in how you must announce yourself while travelling across a busy kitchen with a sharp knife, you must say "Sharp" as you pass. At the last restaurant I worked, a very sweet Afgahni fellow with a limited use of the English language pronounced it as "Shark", and it seemed there was a killer fish wandering around the kitchen whenever it got busy.

We got into the kitchen, washed hands, then I set up a station -- cutting board at the edge of the counter with a wet paper towel under, two knives at twelve o'clock. I showed how to hold a knife properly, then demonstrated on each veg how I wanted them cut for salsa -- tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro. It went well, I went around correcting their grips and consoled the two students crying over cut onions. The best I could recommend is not to hunch over the cut onions, keep your eyes out of the line of fire.

The students from last session jumped in and helped the new kids with knife skills, and helped direct them how to clean up. Surprisingly, the turning over of the kitchen from salsa to smoothies went lickity split -- we turned over, i.e. washed down our stations and reset up, to prevent cross-contamination. One blender walked away, so we were on one blender for 9 students. I demoed one smoothie, and then made a big goof. I wanted to show the importance of salt in increasing/improving flavor, so I divided my smoothie into two cups -- one with salt, one with out. Unfortunately, I way over-salted and it ended up tasting oddly briny.

As the kids got their mise together, they immediately started cleaning while waiting for their turn at the blender. As they produced them, I tasted each, asked them what they thought and why, and commented on salt-level. Some didn't follow the recipe closely enough and made them too thick or too thin, and only one student straight-up disliked their smoothie.

I had my experienced students prep the 10 cheeses for tasting, chop bread and a new student was shown how to slice an apple correctly. (Half it, take out the top and bottom stems with a paring knife, then remove the seeds with a melon-baller) The kitchen was cleaned and we sat down to eat by 5:30, earlier than usual, but gave us time to talk and really get into the cheese tasting.

The cheeses were sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, buffala moz, pecorino romano, morbier, tallegio, brie, marscapone, roquefort and stilton. I explained how the stinky cheese taste much better than they smell, and for the truely foul ones, eating it with a sweet fruit like apple changes everything. As I explained my own experience discovering the delicious smelliness of tallegio, then amping it up by eating it with apples, one student guffawed "Ratatouille!" and a bunch chimed in in agreement. I guess being compared to a food-loving cartoon rat is a good thing. There was a lot of hesitation to trying the cheeses, but when I explained that the smoked gouda kinda tastes like bacon, everyone tried it and all loved it. One kid said it tasted like a Bodega meat stick/cheese stick combo wrapped into one. There was uniform scorn for the blue cheeses, but a few kids liked the ashy wine-subtle smoothness of the morbier, which made me VERY happy.

It was a good start to the session. Next week, more focus on knife skills. We'll make the whipped potatos and vegetable stock, though I may mix it up with the chard, we'll see.