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Sooooo much to catch up on! Feeling a little overwhelmed here and have been putting this off for longer than is acceptable.

First off some updates with school, after my practical exam on Monday, I’ll officially be done with level 2. After kicking level 1′s ass, each week has gotten increasingly difficult, although I haven’t had as many depressing, frustrating, flustered days as I had at the start of school.

I know I haven’t written much, if anything, about level 2 so here’s a quick recap:

This past month the focus has been on pastry and nutrition with a few other random lessons thrown in (offal, cheese, pasta, etc.). Pastry threw me for a loop in the beginning since I never bake and hate the idea of having to measure every little thing out. The other thing that bugs me about pastry is the fact that unless you are an experienced baker, most of the time you won’t know if you did anything wrong until the very end. With cooking, you can almost always adjust the flavor and consistency along the way. With pastry? No such luck. Game over. Start again. Do not pass, “go.”

Cheese day was a trip. We began by making ricotta, but out of whole milk instead of whey. Ricotta means, “recooked,” as in the whey was cooked once to separate it from the curds (presumably to make some other cheese) and then cooked once more to turn it into ricotta. To the milk we added a half tsp. of ascorbic acid and a tsp. of salt. A little cooking, a lot of stirring, a bit of straining, and an hour or more of hanging/draining. After that was some mozzarella pulling, which consisted of cutting up mozzarella curds, sprinkling them liberally with salt, and pouring simmering water on them. Once they’ve melted a bit from the water, you dunk your gloved, iced hands in and start mashing the curd chunks together. Once they’ve homogenized, the pulling begins, similar to…taffy, I imagine. The pulling develops that stringy texture that’s so lovely in mozzarella. It becomes shiny and smooth and then you form it into the familiar ball shape (you can also braid it if you so choose).

In the afternoon we did an extensive cheese tasting of cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk cheeses that included Boerenkaas Gouda, Stilton, Ossau Raty, Pierre Robert, and Casinca. They ranged from LOVED IT (Stilton and Gouda) to meh (Idiazabel) to a polite no, thanks (Hoja Santa, Pierre Robert). We began with tasting whole milk from each animal. Then moved on to yogurts for each. After that the cheeses were tasted from freshest (fresh goat and feta) to most pungent (Persille and Stilton). It was an incredible afternoon (not counting hearing one of my bone headed classmates tell the instructors he really preferred Kraft Singles to most of these).

So about that practical tomorrow. A lot of people have been asking me about the grading system of school so I’ll lay it all out now.

For each level (each month is a level with 6 levels in all), you receive a grade. This grade is based on the written quizzes, performance evaluations, practical exam, and written final exam within that level. They’re all weighted differently. The written quizzes are exactly what they sound like, written two page tests every week or so with simple questions such as “Bechamel + (blank) = Sauce Mornay” (answer: gruyere cheese) and “Define gluten” (answer: an elasticity formed when the protein in flour comes in contact with liquid and is worked) mixed with slightly more complicated questions asking for procedures and recipes, like how to make a pate a choux, the dough used to make cream puffs and eclairs, or how to make hollandaise.

There are two performance evaluations per level (so far, anyway) and this is where the chef instructors grade you on 20 different criteria in the kitchen like “respecful towards instructors,” “works in a clean and hygienic manner,” “multitasks well,” and “presents well seasoned food.”

The practical for level 1 was astonishingly simple, involving a lot of chopping and dicing and boiling some carrots. This time around things get a bit…dicier (HA!). I have to say the rise in difficulty is a little abrupt and disconcerting. We go from slicing onions to filleting a trout, quartering a chicken, making mayonnaise, and carving some more potatoes (remember those footballs I mentioned awhile back?). Quite a leap away from boiling carrots.

The written final exam is just a cumulative test of everything we’ve learned this level.

Okay, off to practice quartering some chickens. Wish me BON CHANCE!

Artisanal
2 Park Avenue (entrance on 32nd Street)
(212) 725-8585

This review is going to end on a negative note, but I actually do like Artisanal very much. It’s not exactly a beacon of innovation, but it does the classics very well…most of the time.

I dined there recently for a friend’s birthday and it was largely an enjoyable experience. The company was lovely and the food was tasty. The server was knowledgeable and everyone left full, happy, and sleepy, all the hallmarks of a good meal as far as I’m concerned.

In case you don’t know, Artisanal’s angle is cheese and lots of it. They have their own temperature and humidity controlled caves and refrigerators to age and store the over 60 varieties of cheese that they offer. Scanning the cheese menu can be a tad overwhelming if you want to try something new. (If you don’t, there’ll undoubtedly be something on the menu to suite your tastes.) Where to start?

The menu is divided into the different types of milk from which the cheeses come: sheep, goat, and cow. Under each cheese name is a brief description that is informative, but not really helpful, descriptions such as “earthy and deep” or “delicate and milky.” That all sounds delicious to me, so now what?

We consulted our waitress and since we were a large party she recommended the cheese, meat, and fruit platter that includes six different types of cheeses ranging from mild to stronger, prosciutto, soppressata, speck, dried fig and nut spread, grapes, and sliced apples. Among the cheeses were a Robiola made of cow and sheep’s milk, a Bleu d’Auverge, a Pecorino with truffles, and the rest I’ve forgotten. They were all delicious, but the Pecorino was mind blowing. The combination of the intense truffles and the cheesy, aged Pecorino took me right back to my time in Florence where I ate an inordinate amount of truffles with cheese/cream. I impolitely polished it off.

We also began with a basket of their gougeres, golf ball sized puffy cheese pastries made of Gruyere. One could easily pop a dozen of them without blinking, they’re so airy and light, nutty and salty.

As for the main entrees, the chicken cooked under a brick was absolutely phenomenal. A crispy, brown crust without a hint of fat underneath enrobes juicy meat. It’s served atop a pile of creamy mashed potatoes and a medley of vegetables, a singularly outstanding dish.

The steak frites is always a safe and savory bet. I consider the frites impressive in a city full of impressive frites.

I had the small “Artisanal Blend” fondue as my main. It was…a mistake. I failed to heed my sister’s warning that the fondue was too “wine-y” and “flavorless.” But there had been so much hype surrounding their fondue and their specialty is cheese and, and they’re French and, and I really, REALLY wanted to eat some good fondue. So I ordered the small one (for 1-3 people) which comes with cubes of bread and also ordered a side of kielbasa to dip. It was, well, wine-y and flavorless. I managed to choke down quite a bit, as an act of defiance, really. I was hellbent on ordering the fondue and GOSH DARN IT I was going to eat most of it! Matt tasted some. “Wow,” he said, “that is wine-y…um, it’s actually kind of gross.” I nodded slowly, as if considering his opinion, when, of course, I knew it was true and agreed.

I ended the meal with the cheesecake. Its pecan praline shortbread crust is out of this world. The cheese itself is light and fluffy without being cloyingly sweet. It’s served dotted with pralines and a swirl of caramel sauce. I’ve already decided to buy a whole one for Thanksgiving this year.

All in all, I’d recommend anyone going there, anyone who loves cheese, has a decently full wallet, and who isn’t hellbent on eating fondue.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Serves 4-5.

1 ½ lbs. spaghetti
6 cups tomato sauce
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground sirloin
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbs. ground onion (about a quarter of an onion)
1 tbs. parsley or thyme, finely chopped (only one)
2 cups fresh white breadcrumbs (stale white bread ground in a food processor)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ cup whole milk (enough milk to wet crumbs without them sitting in a big puddle)
1 pinch chili flakes
¼ cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
Vegetable oil, to coat the pan
Salt and ground black pepper

  • Soak breadcrumbs in milk for about 5 minutes or until all the milk is absorbed.
  • Add onion, garlic, chili flakes, grated cheese, eggs, herbs, pepper, and salt (if you like things on the saltier side like me, a small palm-ful is good). Mix everything well. Add meat. Mix gently until just combined.
  • Form golf ball sized balls. Don’t tightly pack the meatballs. Only handle them until just round. You can also make one tiny marble sized meatball (cook this one in the pan to make sure your seasoning is right. If it needs more salt, just sprinkle the formed meatballs with more salt).
  • Meanwhile, heat up a big pot of water to a rolling boil. Make the spaghetti according to the package.
  • Heat up a pan on high. Add oil and let it heat up. When almost smoking, add the meatballs, trying not to overcrowd the pan. It’ll probably take two batches of cooking to get them all.
  • Sear the meatballs on all sides. Take them out of the pan and set them aside.
  • Drain the excess grease from the pan, if there is any. Lower flame to medium and add tomato sauce. Scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Let tomato sauce come to a bare simmer. Add all meatballs to sauce and let simmer for about 8-10 minutes to finish off cooking.
  • Toss together spaghetti, meatballs, and sauce. Serve with more cheese on the side.

The key to this recipe is the use of fresh breadcrumbs and soaking them in milk. I had always used dry breadcrumbs (the kind in a can) and the meatballs always came out a little too dense. The milk-soaked fresh crumbs give a lightness and creaminess to the meatballs. Almost as good as grandma’s.

Today was a continuation of “poultry theory” and an introduction to concentrated cooking (searing and roasting). We learned to truss a chicken several different ways, making sure to “keep the wings prisoner” (secure and strapped tight to the body) as Chef M. puts it in his funny, weird, French way.

On the menu today was roasted pork loin with braised red cabbage and sauteed apples and roasted chicken over a bed of mushrooms, glazed pearl onions, and lardons (chunks of bacon). Everything went fairly well with our first dish getting a big thumbs up from both Chef M. and Chef L. The second dish, the chicken, went fairly well except we lost a bit of our crispy skin when we were carving the chicken and a slight film had formed on our sauce due to insufficient skimming. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

The real highlight of today was the special wine tasting with an Australian wine maker, Carlei, after class. We tasted a pinot grigio, a Chardonnay, a white blend, two Shirazes, a Pinot Noir, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and two red blends.

He spoke about a movement away from the hugely fruity, aggressive wines that have typically been imported from Australia. Carlei has striven to develop more sophisticated, elegant subtle wines that perfectly pair with food. His analogy of wine to food, while trite, seemed appropriate: wine is to food as a frame is to a painting. The winemaker emphasized that he specifically crafted his wines with food in mind, how it would react with foods, mingle with foods, enhance one’s experience of food.

I still have a lot to learn about wine tasting, I admit, but I could pick out the better wines of the bunch. I was not a fan of the blended white or the Chardonnay (I am not a fan of Chardonnay anyway), but the blended red called Tre Rossi, a combination of Shiraz, Nebbiolo, and Barbera, was phenomenal. I may not know a ton, but I immediately recognized that this wine was something special.

I drink a fair amount of wine and I can tell a good wine from a crap one, but it was tough for me to taste all the subtleties that were mentioned, the hints of kaffir lime, the notes of clove, the white pepper tones. I was able to recognize some of the flavors or aromatics after they were named, but then I didn’t know if that was kind of cheating (read: bull shitty) on my part.

Like, wine maker: “And with this one, you may note the black pepper…”

Me: “Uhh…ahhh, black pepper, yes…I thought I sensed some black pepper…mmm, yes, quite.”

PS – I just found out that Tom Colicchio (of Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and Top Chef fame) will be doing a demonstration at FCI on the 27th, AH! I’ve already emailed to volunteer to assist him, I just hope I beat out the rest of the hoardes. SO EXCITED!

An update is long overdue, I know. I’ve been so exhausted and sometimes the thought of catching everyone up on my comings and goings at school overwhelms me and I take a nap instead. (Shrug) Don’t judge me.

My friend, Joy, who is visiting, laid on the guilt today (“I’M TELLING ALL MY FRIENDS ABOUT YOUR BLOG SO YOU BETTER UPDATE IT IT!”) so I guess I better post to shut her up.

Here are some highlights:

The first of two fish days was rough for me. Nothing actually went terribly wrong. Our bass en papillote (cooked in a sealed paper package) puffed up perfectly and was cooked properly and the caper, lemon, butter sauce over our fried trout was well seasoned, but there was always something. The plates we served the bass on weren’t hot enough. (HOT FOOD, HOT PLATE!) The croutons on our trout were just a shade too brown. Coupled with what felt like Chef M. picking on me all day, I had one of those days that I had to will myself not to burst into tears out of frustration.

It sounds a little melodramatic, I know, but when you’ve been sweating and running around and slicing your fingers open over a boiling hot stove, a dark crouton feels like a big deal. So before I go completely mental, I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that most of the time, especially at this stage of schooling, there will be something. The point is to minimize the somethings to the best of my ability. FINE…moving on.

The second fish day I learned how to clean a fish from top to bottom, snipping off the fins, scaling it, removing guts, and filleting. I got an eye full of scales (painful) and kept commenting on how smelly other people were in line at the bank before I realized that it was me…

Another noteworthy day was shellfish day, very dramatic and easily one of the most luxurious days I’ve had at school. I KILLED A LOBSTER! WITH MY BARE HANDS! Well, my hands and a giant chef’s knife. Chef M. kindly gave us the option of killing our lunch one of two ways: dumping it in a broth and covering it with a lid (nice and clean, like an assassin’s work) or plunging a knife into the back of the moving, live lobster’s head and then bring the edge of the knife through its head (messy and intimate, like a crime of passion). The head wasn’t difficult, but the body was a little tougher as the lobster was still feistily moving and curling its tail and I was attempting to chop it in half. Then when I finally did succeed in dividing the corpse in half, it, um, kept moving. Like, a lot. Like, even with the two halves were on opposite ends of my chopping board. Weird.

Last Friday was my most successful day yet. The first day that all my dishes passed with no criticism and no real criticism while I was working either. I learned how to quarter a chicken and remove the breasts and legs from a duck. With no time to eat, I ended up bringing the lot home and serving it with rice pilaf for dinner. Economical AND easy!

Okay, I’m sleepy now and have to get up early in the morning. I’ll write more tomorrow. I promise.

Soup’s ON!

Bouncing back from my demoralizing experience with sauces on Friday began with making a dish Sunday night with which I’m exceedingly familiar, spaghetti alla carbonara. It was one of the best batches I’ve made yet and I awoke this morning bleary eyed, but ready to face today’s challenge: soups.

Alright, I’m exaggerating how badly my sauces went, but I did need a big shot of confidence in the culinary arm and I got it. My new station partner, Andrew, and I (we change partners and stations every day) cranked out four soups today: split pea with croutons, beef consommé with vegetables, a classic French onion soup, and a leek and potato soup. All of them came out beautifully. Perhaps not all perfect, but damn close.

I don’t even like split pea soup normally, but this was blended to velvety lusciousness with smoky overtones of bacon and green pea-iness. The tiny, buttery croutons were a perfect complement. We were to present two plates, aiming for identical presentations to teach us the consistency necessary in the food business.

I can’t begin to describe to you the thrill of actually plating my first complete dish, not just some sauce puddled on a plate or a big messy pot of stock to be dumped in a bucket. I made sure to pile my croutons just so and top it all off with the liveliest sprig of chervil I could find from the wilting bunch.

Finally my obsession with seasoning and flavor paid off. Andrew and I stood there adding salt at least ten times to the pot after I had blended it and stirred in cream and a little water to get the right thickness. We refused to present it until it pleased our picky palates.

Chef M. checked for the consistency and taste and declared it very good. SUCCESS! I floated back to my station on a cloud of deep satisfaction and some excitement since we were allowed to eat the soup. I ate the entire bowl before moving on to the consommé.

Making the consommé was a trip. A nasty, but interesting trip. Adding a gooey mixture of egg whites, ground beef, and julienned vegetables to stock, you wait for a “raft” of the mixture to form at the top, which traps impurities and various particulates in said raft. This will, in theory, leave nothing but a crystal clear, amber broth underneath the raft.

Since I did most of the work on finishing up the split pea soup, Andrew took the lead with the consommé and vegetable garnish. We served it to Chef M. after lunch. His initial reaction right away was that the seasoning was great, but then quickly retreated by saying that maybe it could use a little salt. You figure he does want us to get too cocky too early on. Unfortunately the vegetables were too largely diced and the carrots weren’t cooked enough. Not a home run, but at least a solid single.

As Andrew was finishing up with the consommé, I got started on the French onion soup. This was the biggest treat for me, not just because I’m obsessed with onions and not just because everyone is familiar with French onion soup, but because…um, it has cheese in it. We could’ve let the onions brown a bit more, but we were a little impatient. After the soup was cooked, we ladled it into a couple of crocks, topped them with two slices toasted baguette each and a huge mound of Gruyere cheese. Then straight under a hot salamander they went for a nice bubbling and browning. Chef M. complimented the presentation, by which I think he meant the good amount of cheese we put on it and how brown we let it get. He then said the taste was very good. I went back to my station and ate the entire cheesy bowl with a big smile on my face.

The last soup was a light leek and potato soup. You cook the soup to the point where the potatoes break down almost completely, thereby thickening the soup. It’s a simple procedure, but requires quite a bit of time in order to cook the potatoes to that point. We got it to Chef M. just in the nick of time, before class ended. Chef M. said we had good color (from sweating the vegetables just right with no color or browning) and good seasoning. YESSSSS!

I also walked away with a pint container of the rest of the French onion soup. With a baguette picked up on my way home, there’s tonight’s dinner. All in all, I call that a pretty good day.

Here’s the recipe for the French onion soup with a little tweaking by me:

Classic French Onion Soup

Serves 2

About 1 – 1 ½ lb. onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch thyme, tied with kitchen twine
1 tbs. all-purpose flour
½ cup red or white wine
1 quart chicken, beef, or veal stock
1 ½ cup Emmenthaler or Gruyere cheese, grated
3 tbs. vegetable oil
1 tbs. butter
4 ¼-inch thick slices French baguette

  • Heat up oil in a large pot or straight sided pan over medium high heat. When oil is almost or just barely smoking, add onions and bundle of thyme. Cook onions until soft and browned (about 8-10 minutes). Add garlic. Cook garlic for about 2-3 minutes.
  • Lower flame to medium and sprinkle flour in pan. Stirring quickly, scrape up brown bits at the bottom of the pan and any flour that begins sticking. Don’t let the flour burn! You’ll prevent this by constantly stirring and not giving anything a chance to stick on the bottom.
  • Season lightly with salt to help release moisture. Lower the flame to low. Let onions caramelize for at least 30 minutes or until a deep, dark, rich brown. It’s extremely important to patiently let the onions get super brown. That’s where all the flavor will come from. Stir occasionally.
  • Heat up stock in another pot or you could’ve brought the stock out earlier in the process to let it warm up to room temperature if you don’t want to use up another burner or dirty another pot.
  • Add wine and deglaze the brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Let the wine reduce by 1/2 or until the onion mixture is a little wetter than a glaze.
  • Add stock and stir. Increase heat to medium high and bring the soup to a simmer. Once it gets to a simmer, lower the flame slightly and let simmer for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Meanwhile, either butter and toast your baguette slices in an oven or toast the slices in a small pan with the butter until lightly brown.
  • Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Turn on your broiler.
  • Ladle the soup into oven safe crocks or individual bowls. Place two slices of baguette on the top of each bowl. Pile half of cheese on top of each portion.
  • Broil the soup bowls until cheese is melted, bubbly, and nicely browned. Serve immediately with a side of black beret, fabulous scarf, and joie de vivre.

Saucy City

Friday was sauce day. After going over the “mother sauces” (among them are tomato, allemande, and velouté) we proceeded to make some of them, then used those to make other sauces; hence the term, “mother” sauce, a sauce from which other sauces derive.

Um, so I kind of missed the point of the class. The point of the class was to develop techniques and method…you know, like the point of going to culinary school. I kind of missed that. I was too focused purely on flavor. The most important thing to understand about sauces at this stage (day four) is the use of binding agents or liaison like using a roux (melted butter and flour), slurry (cold liquid and flour), or egg yolks to thicken and bind sauces. Binding is essential to consistency and my consistencies were almost all a little off.

So by the end of the day, we had made six sauces: a bound veal stock, a sauce espagnole (one of the mothers), a béchamel sauce, a white wine sauce with a fish stock base, a wine and mushroom sauce, and a port wine. I thought they all tasted anywhere from fine to good, in my opinion, but then again what do I know? I’m just a lowly student. I had to present the sauces to the assistant chef instructor, Chef L, to taste and check for consistency.

The most important were the last three which were the most complex and seasoned. Apparently my port wine sauce tasted of some mystery ingredient that Chef L. couldn’t pinpoint. She said it didn’t taste bad, but there was something strange in it that she hadn’t tasted in anyone else’s…um, great. Now is not exactly when I’m aiming to stand out. I’m not sure if this mystery flavor was because I used flour instead of corn starch in the slurry for the bound veal stock I made earlier and then used as the base for the port sauce. What a wonderful start.

I thought my white wine sauce tasted good, but realized too late that I hadn’t reduced it long enough. As I was straining it through the fine chinois (conical strainer) Chef M. walked by and said in his thick French accent, “It is too thin. You did not check the nappant, ah?” “I did!” I exclaimed. “It must have just…gone…away…?” I trailed off and sighed. Chef M. smiled enigmatically, turned to my station partner and said, “Do I look like I am convinced?” He then turned to me and repeated, “Do I look convinced?” I sheepishly answered, no and went back to straining the rest of my LOSER sauce. I brought it to Chef L. anyway and preemptively stated that I knew it wasn’t thick enough. She acknowledged that was true, asked me if I understood why, and I said yes. At least she said the seasoning was good.

For the record, nappant is when a sauce’s consistency’s is the correct thickness. You dip the back of a spoon in the sauce and run your finger through it. Your finger should create a clear streak through the sauce and the sauce should be so thick the path stays clear. If any sauce drips or dribbles down into the path, it’s too thin.

In reaction to that I then over reduced my wine and mushroom sauce. Despite that, Chef. L. said it had good seasoning. It was so damn frustrating! I’m just glad my sauce wasn’t the one held up in front of the class as a perfect example of burnt sauce. Chef M. encouraged us all to taste it with our fingers (which we’re normally NEVER allowed to do) since it wasn’t going to be put in the communal bucket of sauce to be used downstairs in the restaurant.

I’m trying to shake off my failures and focus on sharpening my knives this weekend (bought me a whetstone) and some more taillage practice. Sigh, I’ll tackle sauces again another day.

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