Culinary Techniques

Week 15 of CT101 — Pasta (oh, and 10 lbs of veal bones)

Monday night was our pasta class and I’ve tried to make ravioli before without a machine…and failed miserably. Pasta is not difficult but it is labor intensive. Last night I made my first set of filled ravioli AND some angel hair pasta and it was super easy. However, I did have the benefit of having the proper tools and lots of coaching from Chef Brian and his merry band of assistants. Pasta, as with many other foods, is made easy if you have the proper ingredients (appropriate flour) and tools (available counter space, hand crank machine).

Hand crank pasta maker

I’ve been coveting this and shopping online for several hours now.

I’ve been making a list of tools, accoutrements, and items that would be good for gifts (to me, from others) and have now added a pasta maker to that list, although I don’t know if I’ll last the day without buying one for myself. I’ve found several on Ebay that are new in box (NIB) for under $40 with free shipping so it seems like a no-brainier purchase.

We don’t currently eat a lot of pasta but maybe we would if I made it at home rather than purchasing it in a box. It’s “cheap” in terms of ingredients but oh so labor intensive.

Last night Chef Brian demonstrated his Lemon Pasta (mix of semolina flour and all purpose flour), Gnocchi (potato pasta), Cheese filled ravioli, Vongole (linguine with clams), and squid ink pasta. I doubt I’ll ever be adventurous enough to do colored pasta. I get frustrated with colored pasta thinking it will taste differently from regular pasta. It doesn’t. It seems like a lot of work to extract the chlorophyll from parsley to just make pasta green without any flavor…what a pain. If you ever find yourself at my house enjoying homemade pasta, you can rest assure that it will be fabulous but won’t be any color besides that beautiful golden it was meant to be. I cook well but I usually dispense with the flourish of fancy presentation.

I wanted to take a photo of my ravioli in progress but my phone was out of battery as I was also following the Caps vs Rangers game 3 of the Stanley Cup. Waste of time and battery but that’s a separate story all together. As I was sheeting my pasta, I was so excited that it was going so well and my cooking-mates and I had managed to avoid the usual pitfalls that plague many beginners. The trick is no fear. Have no fear of what you’re attempting to do. It’s just food and you can always start over.

Pasta emerging from cutter.

How pretty is that? Like edible fringe!

Once I’d made my ravioli, I took the remnants and ran it through the sheeter again and made angel hair pasta…so pretty when it’s emerging from the cutter. Again, an exciting moment for me. I love doing new things and having them turn out well. I just love doing new things, period. Again the process gets to me. I was so eager to cook my new pasta that I’d forgotten the golden rule. The sauce waits for the pasta, not the other way around. Before I could cook my new creation, I needed to be sure I had a sauce to accompany it. The ravioli was delicately coated in a home made tomato sauce with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. The angel hair, I decided, should be simple. Olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon juice with some parsley and Parmesan cheese to top it off. Delicious. I think, as usual, I over indulged in pasta but am inspired to create more at home.

Just before leaving class, I remembered I’d ordered 10 lbs of veal bones to make veal stock. I never would have sought out 10 lbs of veal bones but the opportunity just presented itself. A supplier known to Chef Brian had them available and the class ordered about 100 lbs of bones. So at the moment, they’re sitting in the freezer waiting for me to muster the time and inclination to make them into stock. Stay tuned.

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CT 101 Lesson 13

So I’m behind on chronicling my journey through the culinary skills class. Here’s me trying to catch up. I may be alone in saying this but I look forward to Mondays, when I can head up to Gaithersburg (a haul for me) and hang out for 3 hours or so and learn all sorts of new skills in making food. I’ve learned not to eat prior to going to class as we eat nearly a full meal when we’re there. We’ve gone through soups, vegetables (which I missed ‘cuz I was in Vegas), greens and mushrooms, grains, potatoes, eggs, sauces, poultry and game (missed again, long story), beef, veal and lamb, and finally pork (oh, the lovely things you make from pork). Whew, and along the way, I try to make the thing I know least about during class and practice at home during the week.

Never knew beef bourguignon had caramelized pearl onions, bacon and mushrooms. What a find.

Never knew beef bourguignon had caramelized pearl onions, bacon and mushrooms. What a find.

When we did potatoes, I came home and made a lovely batch of potatoes au gratin. A-Mazin-g! For eggs, we made eggs Benedict and I learned how to successfully make a good hollandaise sauce and poach an egg. When we did sauces, I learned to make a super awesome beure blanc sauce (served over talapia is amazing). Beef taught me how to make a truly great beef bourguignon which I tested at home, learned that I need to let it cook for longer than an hour but the flavors were great. Lamb and veal taught me to make this spicy Moroccan sausage (I now have some in the freezer) and finally, pork turned me into a true lover of ribs. Done properly they are not the messy sloppy things that I’ve encountered but can be deliciously smoked and flavorful pieces of glorious meat. My favorite part of pork class was the spare ribs, with mustard slaw and really good corn bread (contrary to my southern upbringing, contained not just sugar but whipped egg whites as well).

Learning and practicing is great fun and hopefully my husband enjoys the variety of food he’s able to experience as a result. One overarching lesson learned is that there are no real short cuts when making great food. I now make my own stock on a regular basis (veal/beef stock is a real commitment) and incorporate as many techniques into other dishes as I can manage. Fresh is always better than frozen or canned and the quality of the outcome is equal to the quality of the inputs. I’m also getting better on the presentation aspect of what I cook. I am a good cook but my presentation is lacking. Now I’m getting better about composing a plate with color, saucing etc. Suffice it to say that my investment in expanding my cooking expertise is paying off. My repertoire of skills is much better and I’m much more confident about trying new things now.

Stay tuned for fish, shellfish, pasta, doughs and pastry.

I can make stock from scratch, soup and all sorts of grains

This week was our 5th class of 20 so we’re 1/4 done with our intense cooking experience. So far we’ve covered stocks, soups, vegetables, greens & mushrooms, and grains. I missed out on the veggie class so will either make it up next session or will wing it.

I’ve developed a bit of a routine in attending class. Since I’m without a regular day job, I leave Capitol Hill around 5 p.m. to make the trek to Gaithersburg by 6:15 (depending on traffic). I bring my chef’s jacket, apron, knives, notebook and loads of questions.

The classes are supposed to be 50-50 class time to kitchen time, but it’s more like 2/3 to 1/3 class time to kitchen time. One night (soups) I didn’t leave ’till about 11 p.m. That was one really good bowl of French onion soup that I made that night.

Chef Brian provides a basic outline and handout but supplements it a great deal during his demonstration time. I try to pay close attention to what he does and not what’s on the page as he often deviates from the handout and I don’t want to miss anything. Typically towards the end of his demo time he’s doing 3 things simultaneously and I have a tough time figuring out what pot goes with which dish.

For example, this week was all about grain. Predominantly about rice — short grain, Aborro, long grain, wild, brown, basmati, Jasmine, the list goes on. We also worked with couscous, quinoa and lentils although they aren’t technically grains. In all, Chef Brian prepared rice pilaf (using Uncle Ben’s converted rice), curried quinoa salad, mushroom and green pea risotto, Moroccan couscous (in a real life couscoussier), French lentils, and polenta with parmesan cheese. I should learn to avoid eating before coming to class AND to bring containers to bring home leftovers.

A real life couscoussier from Williams-Sonoma. One more kitchen implement I don't need.

A real life couscoussier from Williams-Sonoma. One more kitchen implement I don’t need.

My first week, I took my “practice” time very seriously and bought a variety of chicken bones to make stock, bought ox tails for beef stock (not as successful as chicken stock) and practiced my knife skills. Admittedly, I’m not as dedicated and focused as I was the first week, however, I am still very excited for class. Next week we focus on potatoes.

I originally thought that the other participants in the class would be just as much food nerds as I am. There are a few of us but I happened to mention Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to a classmate and she looked at me with a very vacant look…as if she didn’t know who I was talking about. Shame. It’s like not knowing who Julia Child was. Or Joel Salatin (well, maybe not that far but you get the point, right?) Or maybe I’m just hyper interested in food, how it comes to be in my house, in the grocery store, and who has influence over it and how we approach it. I’m certain I am not alone in my, shall we say, obsession.

I think food and hospitality was my second calling after all things international. And since I’ve become jaded and disillusioned over the whole globalization thing, food is a fall back option. Nevermind that I’ve never worked in the food industry and really can’t see myself doing so now (it’s a “young” person’s industry as it’s rather physically demanding and calls for early days and late nights and a lot of bending and squatting). I do entertain a small business of prepared healthy meals delivered to your door twice a week. I somehow lack the imagination of how to execute this idea without a large commercial kitchen and a few helpers.

I also discovered a class at George Washington University being taught by José Andrés (another food rock star for me). It’s called The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization! It seems intriguing and I wish I’d known about the class before it started. Could have been a great addition to my exploration of what’s next. Maybe my two loves (international and food) aren’t so very far apart after all.

Culinary Techniques 101 — Week 1 of 20

Taking this intensive 20 week course in Gaithersburg with L’Academie de Cuisine has been a dream of mine for two years. I cannot justify the time, the expense, or anything else about this commitment except to say that cooking is my creative outlet and I crave more technique and knowledge about the foundations of classic cooking. I also wanted a real chef’s jacket, a set of knives and an apron.

Fresh veggies waiting to be sliced and diced

Fresh veggies waiting to be sliced and diced

Last night was our first class and I was a bit nervous, excited and overwhelmed by the prospect of embarking on this 5 month journey. I wondered what my classmates would be like (I still don’t know much beyond the fact that there are 2 nutritionists in class) and how the instructor would be.

I am a vocal student, choosing to sit in the back and then be very engaged, asking questions, making comments. In my college career, this has both earned me friends who wanted to study with me and the resentment of others who perceive me as a know-it-all suck up. I will cop to both but the bottom line is that when I’m learning something new and am excited, I can’t contain the enthusiasm for the subject and if I were to keep a lid on it, I wouldn’t be doing all I could to ensure I get the full experience of potential learning. I’m sure paying my way through school formed this opinion as I wanted to extract every dollar of value from my education and to suppress my natural inclination would be diminishing my experience.

What I learned: cooking is fun and I’m amongst kindred spirits.

During the demonstration portion, whereby Chef Brian Patterson and his assistants were joking about the pastry students, I asked if there was a competition between the two sides to the school. His response was that the cooking side is “a bunch of scallywags and pirates” whereas the pastry side has all the engineers and precision nerds. Awesome answer. I was reassured that I had made the right decision.

Knife skills. Nails down, knuckles out.

Knife skills. Nails down, knuckles out.

In our first class, we covered basics of creating three staple stocks: Chicken stock (white stock), Veal stock (brown stock) and Fish stock (fumet). I will never again purchase pre-made stock. I will likely be making stock and giving it as presents in the near future (you cooks out there, let me know if you want some and I’ll put aside some in a mason jar). I see a few trips to Union Market and the Fish Market for bones and herbs. I’ll also need to stock up on giant carrots.

We also practiced our knife skills. I’m fairly comfortable around large sharp knives but everyone can always learn more, right? I’m having trouble with the “nails down, knuckles forward” technique as I can’t see what I’m doing. Chef Brian, like Yoda, says “use the force” you don’t need to see. I’ll get it after some practice. The large carrots are for practicing my cuts: baton, large dice, batonet, small dice, julienne, branoise. It’s super cool to see such precision coming from my knife. Another skill to master is to keep my cutting board free of clutter. That’s a tough one for me. Work to the bowl. Anything excess should be out of the way and off the board. I took lots of notes. Yes, I’m a dork and I love to learn. This will be a fun experience, to say the least.