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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Week Four: Timing Is Everything

The moment of truth ... at least so far: we had our food graded by our instructor in this week's class. Once again, we worked in teams (of four this time).

We had to prepare five dishes from recipes, and we had to prep them for a particular 5 minute window and plate them as though they were made for service.

Cooking to fit a particular window is far harder than I thought. We had too many dishes done too early, and fired (i.e., cooked) our fish way too early. Also, the group before us ran long, so our scheduled window came and went ... we ended up wrapping all of dishes in foil and putting them on the flattop (above the stoves) to try to keep them warm. This approach works for some things and not others.

Here was the menu and a few things we learned from each dish:

Roast Cornish Game Hen with Wild Rice Stuffing (Richard)

First, I have to brag on Richard here. His cornish hen was PERFECTLY cooked and looked beautiful. Just before he cooked it, he realized that he forgot a couple of ingredients for the wild rice and had to empty it out, mix in the ingredients and re-stuff. But it still looked and tasted great. However, he forgot to untruss the hen before serving it to the instructor. Not a good idea. Also, wild rice takes FOREVER to cook.

Country Braised Chicken (me)

The recipe I used was actually quite good. The instructor liked the flavor of my sauce (basically a pureed reduction of the braising veggies and liquid with a little additional seasoning), and he thought the chicken looked and tasted good. I ALMOST got in trouble for puttting all four drumsticks on the plate, but saved myself by telling him I cooked it for family style service. He also liked the toasted almond garnish. HOWEVER, he thought I overgarnished (the chopped parsley was described as "yard clippings") and he didn't like that all of the sauce was buried underneath the chicken where the diner couldn't see it. Oh, and the plate (and dish) weren't hot enough.

Seared Pork Loin with Brennan's Red-Wine and Mushroom Sauce

Once again, I was responsible for our yard clipping overgarnish on this dish. Chef thought that the sauce was too tomato-y and did not have enough taste of mushrooms, and it was too thick. He also didn't like that our group put the sauce on top of the pork, which hid the beautiful sear on the meat. Meat was a little overcooked. The dish wasn't hot enough.

Teriyaki Salmon with Pineapple-Papaya Salsa

Chef loved the flavor on the salsa, but the dice was too big. Also, he thought that our marinade was too soy-saucy. We marinated the fish far longer than recommended, so it broke apart on the grill, and we cooked it too early, so it was cold and kind of gross by the time we served it. Oh yeah, and we used too much of the salsa when we plated it.

Pan-Fried Flounder with Toasted Garlic

The flounder was also not hot enough, although it was cooked properly. The buttery garlic sauce tasted good, but was hardly a sauce by the time we served it. We prepared it too early, so the dish was cold and the sauce had a chance to harden up. He also thought the fish was underseasoned.

Altogether, it was a great learning experience--and a humbling one. It is one thing to prep a dish so that it tastes great the moment you finish it, and it is quite another to time things properly to have them taste good at a very specific time.

A lot of foods taste good when they come right off the heat, but not so much when they are reheated or sit for a little while. Part of cooking a lot of food and a variety of food is knowing what foods will hold if you cook them early (and how to hold them), and which ones won't ... and knowing to what point you can prep something that won't hold so you can be as close as possible to done as early as possible.

I also learned that I do not know how to garnish ... well, at ALL apparently. Something to work towards ...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Week Three: Now We're Cooking!

I am happy to report that we were finally unleashed in the kitchen.

Crazy? Maybe. But the theme for week three was "major cooking techniques" and ready or not, we did it--in groups of four no less. Hey, no time like the present, right?

So what were we newbies allowed to cook in the class kitchen?

We shallow-poached fish and deep-poached eggs.

We pan-fried chicken and fish, and deep-fried fresh-cut french fries.

We simmered rice and boiled pasta, roasted onions and carrots, and braised chicken thighs.

We sauteed shrimp and bell peppers, and seared pork loin.

Because our group was so large, the chefs not only divided us into foursomes to tackle the list, but they also had half of us work from the top of the list down and the other half from the bottom of the list up. It was crowded, er, EVERYWHERE. It was hot and loud and chaotic. It was hard to find open burners or clean pans. And most of all, it was messy: Greasy stovetops, tabletops, floors and culinary students.

I am pleased to report, however, that the group my husband and I ended up in did pretty well--and our mise en place was MUCH improved. No big blunders. In fact, curiously enough, I believe the things we had some trouble with were actually those I thought would be easiest: rice and pasta. The chef rated both as underdone initially. I guess al dente is in the eye of the beholder ... And we learned the trick of cooking french fries twice. Very cool.

Here is a short-list of some of the kitchen wisdom gained from this week's class:

1. Cooking is basically nothing more or less than applying heat to food. There are three types of cooking: dry, moist, and a combination of the two. Dry cooking would include roasting and baking, grilling and broiling, sauteing and frying. Moist methods include simmering, poaching and steaming. Combination techniques include braising and stewing.

2. Fat application is a big deal since fat plays a big role in the flavor profile. The right amount of fat enhances flavor. Under-fatting means no base, body or finish to your food. Over-fatting muddies the palette. Apparently, I have a problem with over-fatting. Tricky tricky...

3. No cooking times are accurate. You cook the food until it is done. There are too many variables to know exactly. Cooking times are ballpark figures. Learn to recognize doneness by using the senses. Even the best thermometer still has an error range of +/- 5 degrees.

4. Do as the restaurants do: get the color you want on a piece of meat using the stopetop and if it isn't done, finish it in the oven. It seems so simple and yet I never really thought about it that way!

5. The magic temperature when cooking proteins is 120 degrees (120-125 degrees = rare). That is the temperature at which proteins start to denature. A temperature of 140 degrees is ok (135-145 degrees = medium rare), but anything over 160 is ick (160 degrees = medium). EXCEPTIONS: ground meats and poultry (bring to 165 degrees for safety reasons).

Why not cook meat to more than 160 degrees? Because heat makes protein molecules coagulate and the more they do, the harder, drier and tougher they get. Also, if you aim for a temperature of 150-155 degrees, you have to pull it off the heat earlier because the carry-over cooking (off the heat) can be 10 degrees or more. This is why you may have heard of the concept of letting meat "rest" before eating. It gives the meat a chance for the juices to redistribute.

This edict about the 160 degree cut-off also applies to pork. If the meat is white throughout, it is overcooked. Aim for a hint of pink. Ignore older cookbooks that state otherwise. If diners insist on overcooked pork, you can increase the moisture and tenderness of the meat by brining it (basically a water-and-salt solution at its most basic) before cooking to help lock in moisture.

6. Sugars caramelize, not proteins. To say that you are caramelizing meat is a misnomer. What we call caramelization is actually a mayard reaction in the amino acids. This process gives the dark crust on the exterior of meats that does add flavor but does NOT seal in juices.

And for the record, while we are talking about it, starches gelatinize and fats melt when heated.

7. Ninety-five percent of all cooking starts with a very hot pan ... and cold fat. Add the fat to a hot pan to keep it from overcooking and going rancid. While we are talking about hot pans ... don't heat a pan until a smokes, particularly a nonstick pan. A nonstick can give off noxious fumes, and smoking metal is not a desirable flavor in our food.

8. When sauteing, don't overcrowd the pan or you will end up steaming it instead.

9. Pan-frying always involves some sort of coating on the food, even if it is just flour. Otherwise, it is a saute. When deep-frying, caoting is optional but get as much moisture out of the food as you can, or it can cause an explosion.

10. When cooking pasta or rice, if you break a grain of rice in half or piece of pasta and there is still a bit of white in the center, it is not done. The doneness also depends on the ultimate use for the rice or pasta. Will it be served hot or cold? Will it undergo a second round of cooking? These factors must be considered.

But perhaps the MOST important thing I learned that night is something simple, something I already knew but we somehow all forgot in our culinary fervor:

CLEANLINESS IS A VIRTUE.

That night, we had to clean, as usual. But this time, we had been very messy children. To top it off, we had the joy of taking apart ALL of the very large and steaminig hot stovetops, and scrubbing them down with steel wool soaked in degreasing solution. By the end, my arms were sore, I was dripping sweat, my jacket was stained an odd shade of black-brown, I smelled of grease, and I had several steel wool splinters.

It reminded me of the summers when I worked in my grandfather's gas station and had to clean the popcorn maker, which like the stovetop burners, cleans best when it is scalding hot!

Not my first dirty job, and the chefs assured us, not our last ... But we all swore we'd be cleaner next week. Somehow, I doubt it.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Next Food Network Star

I must confess that I haven't really gotten into The Next Food Network Star show. I did try but just haven't been able to catch enough episodes to really get attached to anyone. Even Top Chef, which I watched religiously the first season, hasn't captured my attention enough for me to schedule my life around it.

That being said, I was flipping through the June issue of Bon Appetit on a flight to New Orleans and stumbled across a column introducing the season four (is it already season four??) contestants. I might have to try to watch this one!

In the spirit of the article, I decided to write-up my own little bio:

Jessica Llanes, Culinary Student & Writer
Texas

Cooking Philosophy: Feel-good classics with fresh surprises. Don't be afraid to mix it up and improv!
Kitchen Soundtrack: I just put my iTunes on shuffle and jam.
Signature Dish: Baby Back Beans & New Orleans BBQ Shrimp
Secret Weapon: Insatiable curiousity and a willingness to try, try again!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cooking Update: The Clarified Butter Files

Quick update for those interested (Two and counting, woohoo!). Over the past couple of days I have been trying to practice what we have been learning in class on my own. Part of the deal with taking cooking classes that meet only once a week is that you do a lot of work on your own between classes. I have been slacking off the past couple of weeks so I am trying to catch up.

The knife skills are coming along slow but sure. Still can't do a 1/4" small dice of a carrot. My dice is more rectangular than square. (Apparently I have trouble planking correctly and don't square off with my knife...) My onions are MUCH improved, and I have been inventing reasons to blanch, peel and seed tomatoes. I know, party animal, right?

My first batch of clarified butter turned out ok. Not completely clear of foam, but not bad for my first go. It is harder to get rid of the foam than I thought. At least I didn't cook the butter, which apparently is a big no-no. I have yet to use it, but every time I open the fridge and see the container, I get a little excited about the recipes I can now try.

So last night I attempted a brown stock. I used about 1/3 of the ingredients from the textbook recipe, which means basically 1 gallon of water, 5 pounds of chicken bones, and less than a pound of mirepoix. I ended up using whole chicken legs, which I am not sure is a good idea or not.

The stock has great flavor. I got about 1 quart out of the deal. Alas, it is cloudy. I think I simmered it too hard. And of course, I started too late in the evening (8 pm by the time it started simmering), so I only let it cook about 4 1/2 hrs instead of the suggested 6 to 8. I saved the bones for a remouillage (a weaker stock made with reused bones). Hopefully this one will be a little clearer. If not, I will try a trick I read of adding a couple of egg whites to the broth and then straining them out. If nothing else, I think I will make some espagnole (brown sauce) so I can try a demi-glace.

My other culinary adventure from last night was to make a marinara sauce. I used a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis. I like the recipe because it is easy to remember, tastes great, and is basic, so it can be used as a base for a lot of other tomato sauce variations, including an all-time favorite of mine: vodka sauce. I made about two quarts of marinara last night. I do vary the recipe a little by adding oregano and by using a mix of crushed and whole tomatoes (squeezed of seeds of course). I prefer my marinara a little chunkier.

Most of the sauce will head for the freezer, but I did use a little for last night's dinner: I did a shallow poach of sweet Italian sausages in a bit of red wine, finished them uncovered with dry heat. I deglazed the pan with some of my husband's homemade salsa picante (tomatoes, jalapenos, garlic and salt) and added some of the marinara. I sliced the sausage links into bite-size pieces and added them back to the sauce, topped it with fresh chopped parsely, shredded fresh parmesan and served it with fresh pappardelle. Not bad! The sauce got a little dark for me, so I diluted with a bit of water and with a small can of tomato puree. Next time I might poach in a lighter liquid.

This weekend we're tackling poached eggs and homemade hollandaise, so look for another update soon!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lanny's Alta Cocina Mexicana

Lanny's Alta Cocina Mexicana
3405 W 7th Street
Fort Worth, TX 76107

My husband and I recently read some reviews giving Lanny's very high praise and decided to stop in for lunch last week. We did make day-of reservations, but found that for lunch, you are probably ok just dropping in. (In the evening, I would highly recommend them, however, because for Fort Worth, this place is cozy!)

Lanny's is the creation of Lanny P. Lancarte II, a Fort Worth native and great-grandson of the legendary Joe T. Garcia. His culinary studies took him through Mexico and to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His restaurant, which opened in 2005, serves dishes that combine traditional and haute elements of Mexican cuisine.

From the outside, Lanny's is easy to miss, making it a hidden local favorite. There is currently a bit of construction on 7th right around the area, and the building and parking lot are on the small side. But I loved the cozy atmosphere once inside. Crisp white linens, comfortable brown leather seating, dark wood and soft curtain dividers make for a modern yet warm dining room. The bungalow-style patio is especially inviting, though incredibly small (read: intimate). Can you say romantic?

The day we showed up, the kitchen was out of a few dishes, but they were quick to offer several tasty substitutions.

I started with the Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho with Citrus-Laced Shrimp, a luxuriously smooth and brightly flavored soup with the color of a perfectly vine-ripened tomato. The drizzle of olive oil and hint of citrus were in perfect balance and a wonderful respite for a hot Texas day. Although the solo shrimp was almost underdone for my taste, it was still amazingly fresh and delicate.

My husband ordered a Sopa Azteca, along the lines of a traditional tortilla soup and the special soup of the day, which he described as almost a mole without the chocolate flavor--smoky and rich dark red broth, with a hardiness and great depth of flavor and tender shreds of chicken breast.

For our main course, we both opted for cemitas, a traditional sandwich from Puebla, Mexico. Although the sandwich is similar to a Mexican torta, there are a couple of notable differences. The most obvious is the type of bread used: a fluffy egg bread roll with a wonderfully firm crust and rich but surprisingly airy interior.

These sandwiches have gained recent popularity among street vendors in New York City and traditionally include beef milanesa, a thinly-pounded flank steak that is breaded and pan-fried. Traditional accompaniments include panela cheese, avocado, onion and salsa roja.

At Lanny's I ordered the Prime Tenderloin Cemita served with Avocado, Caramelized Onion, Maytag Blue Cheese, and Horseradish Crème Fraiche. It was divine! Tender and full-flavored beef with the gentle heat of the horseradish tamed by the cream and the pungent (but not overly so) bite of blue cheese. The avocado slices were bright green and perfectly ripe. My husband ordered Chicken Milanesa with Roasted Red Pepper Pico Sauce and Gruyere. The milanesa was thin, not greasy with just the right amount of breading, and the sauce was slightly smoky and not overly spicy. Both were served with fresh-cut, stacked log french fries.

Expect New York prices ($50+ lunch for two) and moderately-sized dishes. The sandwiches were filling enough that both my husbsnd and I took the other half home with us to eat for dinner (and we did!).

Other lunch items to try include: Roasted Poblano and Asparagus Soup with Duck Confit; Chile Rubbed Chicken Breast Salad with Queso Manchego, Grapes, Walnuts,and White Balsamic Green Onion Vinagrette; and Roulade of Chicken, with Chile Poblano, Queso Panella and Serrano Ham, and Sauteed Spinach.

Service was attentive and not intrusive. The wine list is extensive and a chef tasting menu is offered for dinner. We definitely plan to make our next visit soon and hopefully dinner on the patio! This definitely makes my current top 3 restaurants in Fort Worth. Keep it up!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Week Two, Part II: Mise en Wha??

So, as promised, I am "revisiting" week two of culinary class to discuss the topic of mise en place.

Mise en place is a really simple concept that can be really difficult to execute properly. In fact, I was recently watching an episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares that touched on this topic. He visited a restaurant that was taking upwards of 2 hours (yes, TWO HOURS) to deliver plates to customers--and rotten entrees at that! The owner was losing buckets of money bribing customers not to leave with bottles of wine and free liquor. Wow! Why? Because there was absolutely no method to the madness in the kitchen--totally chaos and anarchy.

So what is mise en place? It basically means "to put in place." It is the before-you-cook prep work. From gathering and prepping ingredients to gathering and prepping tools, you plan everything you possibly can to make the best use of your time and resources. It can also include other tasks, such as clarifying butter, making bread crumbs and making bouquets garnis.

If you watch the Food Network, you've seen evidence of mise en place--all those little clear bowls filled with pre-prepped and measured ingredients or pots and bowls already out and ready to be used. Rachel Ray on her show 30 Minute Meals makes it a point to gather all ingredients and tools at the start of the show. Despite this, a lot of tv prep also goes on behind the scenes and off camera. I never realized how much until I read Noel Riley Fitch's biography of Julia Child called Appetite for Life. The scripts for her shows including a lot of food choreography meant to show foods prepared ahead to illustrate various incarnations of a dish before it is finished. The work required not only scripting but also an entire staff to coordinate it!

In a home kitchen, I have especially felt the effects of poor planning late in the preparations, when I realize I have forgotten to buy a last-minute ingredient or that I already used the only bowl big enough to hold something that needs to come out of a hot pan RIGHT NOW. The frustration you feel when you realize that too many things have to be done at the same moment to get the meal ready and on the table, or when you realize food has gotten burnt or soggy or sauce has separated because of poor timing, can be overwhelming.

In a professional kitchen, the effects of poor mise en place can be disastrous. You simply have to plan or you will not have customers or kitchen staff for long. Coordination of so many tasks and so many people is impossible without mise en place.

And my first lesson in mise en place in a professional kitchen was eye-opening. Mise en place in my own private kitchen has improved dramatically in recent years, but I am usually only coordinating myself, and possibly one other person--usually my husband. In the classroom, there were three or four of us per table. Each table was required to produce three stocks, a court boullion and clarified butter.

I was sure it would be cake, but most tables were "in the weeds" (i.e. behind) the ENTIRE time. I felt panicked and out of control, frustrated, and unsure of where we were at any given moment. We managed to finish everything, but not without constantly scrambling, grabbing last-minute ingredients and equipment, and in the neverending process of checking to see if we were all taking care of all of the things we were supposed to.

Basically, having to work in teams really highlighted the importance of planning and coordination. And how much we ALL lacked those very skills.

My goal from here on out? Prepare as much as I can before even coming to class, and before any cooking starts, come up with an entire game plan, not just the first step or the first fifteen minutes! Oh, and practice, practice!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Week Two, Part I: Voulez Veloute Avec Moi?

Ok, ok, so it doesn't quite work, but you can't blame me for trying to compare a sauce made with clarified butter to sex, can you?

So, I made it through the week two culinary class, and you guessed it, I learned how to make that liquid gold called clarified butter. I think I am going to need to buy bigger pants or take a few extra yoga classes ...

Clarified butter aside, this week's class focused on mise en place and the foundation of all good soups and sauces, stock. We made white stock, brown stock, veggie stock--even a court bouillon! Now, you may be (and probably are) more informed than I was on the subject of stocks, but I learned a lot. My only prior stock experience, aside from the occasional turkey carcass experiment, was popping the cap on a container of purchased stock from the local grocery store.

Don't misunderstand: I have READ about stocks before, and even convinced myself that I would make a few on the weekend "just because." But I never really had six to eight extra hours with nothing to do where I thought, Gee, I need to go make some veal stock!

So here is the down and dirty of things I learned about stocks:

1. The difference between white and brown stock isn't chicken or beef. It has to do with whether you brown up (i.e., caramelize) the veggies and bones first. Caramelizing results in a darker, richer stock. It especially tasty with veal bones.

2. You have to start with cold water. You must skim off the foam. You must simmer, not boil. And you must not just pour the stock into the container and put it in the fridge when you are done. Your goal is clear, not cloudy, so if don't follow the guidelines just mentioned, you're screwed. You must carefully ladle the stock into a mesh strainer, being careful not to disturb the sediment. You can even strain it twice before putting it in a ice bath to cool before storage.

3. Another interesting tidbit: the fat that congeals at the top of the stock in the fridge helps to keep it from spoiling, but you should freeze it if you don't plan to use it in about a week or two.

4. Don't salt your stock! You don't want to limit its use later, so to keep it versatile for all recipes, minimize the sodium. Add it in later. Also, pepper isn't your friend. It can go bitter if you let it cook too long and flavor your entire dish with bitter pepper flavor.

5. Protein (i.e., bones) are the basis of any non-veggie stock, but two other things besides water are imperative: the mirepoix and the sachet. A classic mirepoix is 50% onion, 25% carrots and 25% celery. The size of the dice gets smaller the shorter the time the stock cooks. The sachet is a cheesecloth filled with herbs and other flavoring components, like peppercorns or a clove of garlic.

6. Brown stocks have to cook forever. If you are short on time or just aren't that ambitious, try a veggie or fish stock. Eight hours becomes less than one. Or try a court bouillon. It isn't actually a stock, but it is often used in place of water to poach seafood. It also has an acid element, usually citrus and vinegar.

7. Stockpots in a professional kitchen are gi-normous.

8. I need to learn more math. Taking a recipe for 2 gallons of stock and reducing it by a fifth isn't as easy as I thought. Proportion is everything.

9. My ulimate goal is to be able to make a glaze. That is where you reduce a stock down to a thick syrup and refrigerate it. Then you can freeze it and it keeps for a long. Since this is concentrated uber-stock, you just cut a square of the glaze jelly to add to recipes. What a space saver!

10. If you are a great sauce-maker, you are gold to any good restaurant.

Most of all: Stocks are much more complicated than I thought!

Stay tuned for part II where I write my confessional about how much I suck at mise en place.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Week One: On the Way to Chefhood!

I recently enrolled and started cooking school and have been prodded by several loved ones to post about my journey from average home cook to hopefully above average chef. So here goes nothing ...

The chef program I chose is designed for working adults and actually meets once a week in the evening. The instructors trust you to do a lot of work during the week between classes, and they include some hands-on lab experience in the form of brunches and theme dinners. If I hang in there for four semesters, I get my chef certificate.

Although the program isn't as rigorous or hardcore as Cordon Bleu or CIA, it fit my goals, and I was not disappointed after the first class. The instructors are professional chefs, and they expect us to respect the uniform and the kitchen. We are expected to come to class in full uniform, cleaned and pressed. We are supposed to say "Yes, chef" and "No, chef" to our instructors. I was excited at one of the first professional perks besides the nifty uniform--my own case with my very own knives. (Although I couldn't help but think of the Top Chef line: "Please pack your knives and go.")

The first class we spent a lot of time on sanitation and safety. Not glamorous but necessary for our handler's permit and well, safety, of course. My overwhelming impression of the first class was something the chefs kept saying: Everything in this kitchen is hot or sharp. I feel now like the home kitchen is like a kitchen with training wheels. Everything in the professional kitchen is bigger, hotter, sharper. There is less protection from yourself-- the flames go higher and there is less insulation or safety protection devices. Forget hot mitts--you use your little hand towel to touch pan handles and move cookie sheets. You even leave a towel wrapped around the handle of a hot pan meant for a dishwasher to let them know it's hot.

The other thing that struck me is getting used to sharing a kitchen with so many others. Common courtesy isn't just to be nice--it is imperative. You yell "sharp" if you are walking with a knife and "hot" if you are walking with a hot pan. It is tough to share kitchen space with a dozen other cooks. The room looks spacious until you are all trying to work! (Of course, once clean up time came around, I was glad there were so many of us...)

Another side note: several pieces of equipment seem to have a slightly different name than you would use at home. The most notable probably being the saute and frying pan. A straight side pan is a sautoir and a sloped side pan is a sauteuse. Rectangular pans that look like roasters or cake pans are all called hotel pans.

The highlight of the night was the knife work. We learned how to hold the knife correctly, how to chop and slice, how to hold our non-knife-holding hand for safety. We practiced first on celery, then moved to specific cuts on carrots--a julienne (thin sticks) and a brunoise (small dice). We also julienned potatoes; chopped onions; peeled and chopped tomatoes; and sliced, diced and pureed garlic. We also broke out the mandolin and experimented with potatoes. My favorite had to be the supreme of the orange with the paring knife. It was cool to peel and segment an orange the "right" way for once!

Overall, a great experience, especially since I have the pleasure of my husband's company as a fellow student in the class. Why didn't I do this two years ago??