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Another day spent on my feet from 7:30am to 5pm. Oy.

As I mentioned yesterday, today was stock day! Five stocks to be exact: chicken stock, fish stock, vegetable stock, beef stock with burnt onions, and brown veal stock. It was the first day we actually had to copy down our recipes the night before to bring to class. Of course, we strayed pretty far from the recipes. We cooked the way it feels right for me. No whipping out papers and cards and fussing with measuring cups, at least not for the delicate, yet unfussy art of stock making. A few onions here, a couple chunks of carrots there, a hunk of bone over here, cover with water, boil, simmer the hell out of it, e voila!

Chef M. made a great point in class today, I just hope it doesn’t come back to bite me in the arse. He said he isn’t teaching us/concerned with precise measurements and exact recipes, but rather with basic concepts, techniques, and theory as a foundation. We’ll have to worry about exactly how many grams of butter or oil is needed at some point in the near future, but for now we’re still just feeling our way around a stove and a chopping block.

We have our first written test next week. I’m not too nervous about that so much as the practical test in a few weeks. I’ll be practicing lots and lots of taillage this weekend for sure, maybe even try to crank out that Alsatian potato pie Chef Soltner showed us yesterday. Now what can I make with 20 lbs of cocotte potatoes and carrots…

To sum, I smell like onions and have become intimate friends with my trusty ladle. I’m extremely tired. I still look like a gnome in my cap. Veal bones are kind of gross. That’s all for now.

Tomorrow, on to SAUCES made from the stocks we created today. YES! Now we’re cooking with fire!

Back to School!

Okay, folks. Summer’s more than officially over and although I’ve refused to hang up my battered silver Havaianas, I have broken out my new olive green anorak. Too bad I hardly get to wear it since I’m (ah!) wearing nothing but my chef’s uniform these days!

YES. THAT’S RIGHT! I’ve started CULINARY SCHOOL!

Yesterday was my first day and what a doozy. I was literally on my feet from 8:30am until I crawled onto a wooden bench on the 6 train platform at 3:45pm (stood while eating lunch too). My body was pretty banged up from that, but I think I’ll get used to it soon enough. The hideous Merrells on my feet really helped out, but even those started to hurt me after Hour Four. Speaking of hideous, I look like a mutant, crazed, large headed gnome in my stupid cap, but I suppose I’ll get over it.

Alright, I have to tackle this post in an organized fashion because there’s a lot to report, but I don’t have all night. I’ve got some recipes to write down for class tomorrow (it’s stock day!). So here are the answers to most of the questions I’ve been asked:

What’d you do your first day?

Well, yesterday was full of a lot of introductions, to students, chef instructors, our tool kit, and various areas of the kitchen. The tool kit is pretty much every tool you need to stock a kitchen. It’s amazing! A few of the supplies in the kit include a full knife set, pepper mill, TWO different balloon whisks, TWO different peelers, pastry tips, dough scraper, tongs, kitchen shears, various spoons and spatulas, trussing needle, thermometer, melon baller, and much, much more. So much in fact that the damn thing weighs about 15 lbs.

The main focus of the day was taillage, a lovely French word meaning cutting/cuts. That’s knife skills to you. We learned various cuts, many of which measure 1/16th of an inch and God help you if you don’t get it justttt right…well, actually nothing happens, not yet anyway. You just get a vaguely disdainful snort from a very tall French man. The little batons (called jardiniere) gave me the most trouble as the cross section has to be a perfect square, which is a lot harder to achieve than you’d think. I thought knife skills were my strength until I started on the cocotte, a 2 inch long almost perfectly smooth football carved out of a potato/carrot/turnip/what have you. FOOTBALL out of a POTATO. Difficult. Sliced thumbs. Oy.

We also covered a couple of methods of cooking vegetables. Nothing crazy so I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say I’ve never been so scared of accidentally browning vegetables in my life.

What’d you do your second day?

Today included practicing the things we did yesterday and then a lengthy lecture on food handling safety and food-borne illnesses, which would have been a little boring if not for the hilarious(ly adorable) anecdotes by Chef T. (different from our regular chef instructor, Chef M., who is neither hilarious nor adorable, but rather intimidating and handsome and intimidatingly handsome; there’s also the assistant chef instructor, Chef L. who is also rather intimidating). Basically the lecture made me want to freeze or boil every food item I come into contact with and to never eat chicken again. I’m sure I’ll get over it. Lots of talk of “danger zones” (cue Top Gun montage) in terms of temperatures for bacteria growth and human excrement making its way into your edibles. Mmmmm, delicious.

At the end of the day I attended a fabulous demo (the first of many) by the world famous chef, André Soltner, the executive chef of the four star (now closed) Lutèce for over 30 years. He made an incredible potato pie, aka “Heart Attack Pie” according to Chef Lee Anne Wong (yes, THAT Lee Anne Wong, of Top Chef fame, she is an alum of and works at FCI, love her). Imagine flaky pastry layered with potatoes, bacon, hard boiled egg, creme fraiche, and herbs and then more potatoes, bacon, hard boiled egg, creme fraiche, and herbs. Unbelievable. That was followed by fried carp beignets with a sauce gribiche (like a fancy tartar sauce) and a shredded apple tart for dessert with a caramel cream sauce. An Alsatian feast by a beloved, delightful chef. AH! I LOVE MY LIFE.

How are your fellow students?

So far they’ve been great. Everyone seems super enthusiastic, hard working, polite, and kind. Ages seem to range from 18 to mid-30s so there’s an amusing mix of those who are still desperately trying to find themselves, those who found themselves and are looking to make some revisions, and everything in between.

There are, of course, a few harmlessly annoying types, but they haven’t detracted from the experience yet. The professional backgrounds vary widely from people who have never worked in the food industry (comme moi) to those who have worked in it for years. Past professions left in the dust include jobs in law (comme moi, yes, I finally let the cat outta the BAG), accounting, sales, and jewelry.

Anything else you wanna mention?

I’m having an amazing time, although it’s really tough work, much tougher than I can describe. I’ll try my best to report what I do each day. It should be a treat for both you and me so STAY TUNED!
PS – On a slightly serious note, I’d like to give a big grateful shout out to all the friends and family that have been so supportive of my…everything the past year as I struggled to find my way. I love you all very, very much, even if I don’t say it…ever.

Mermaid Inn

Mermaid Inn
568 Amsterdam Avenue (bet. 87th and 88th Streets)
212-799-7400

I wanted to love it. I really, really wanted to love it. I had read so many good things about it. I love seafood. I love finding great seafood joints that I don’t have to drive 2+ hours for…I might have to keep looking.

There was nothing terribly wrong with my experience at Mermaid Inn. No hair in my food, no salmonella poisoning or anything. It just wasn’t great and in a city like New York, you’ve gotta be great to get my attention (read: money) on more than one occasion. LL Cool J’s “Momma said Knock you Out” playing on full blast didn’t really help either.

Matt and I started off the meal with a dozen oysters. I’m not sure what the root of that myth is that you shouldn’t have oysters in any month without an “r” (a more complex way of saying, don’t eat oysters in late spring/summer). So far I’ve consumed about three dozen oysters or so this summer. All delicious. Anyway, these were no exception. But it’s tough to assess the real cooking chops of a restaurant by its mignonette.

Since they have no desserts, everything came down to the main course. I had the summer shrimp risotto with cockles. It had a similar texture to farro or barley “risotto”, which I do not enjoy, made all the more unappealing by the roughly chopped herbs in it (basil and parsley) and shard-like slivers of lemon peel. The shrimp and cockles were small and, strangely enough, added little to the dish. The flavor overall was fairly bland, overly herby, and only mildly lemon-y with little to no salt. Thank god they have salt cellars on the tables.

Matt had the whole fish, which that night was sea bass, roasted with herbs and fried chunks of potato. This dish was more successful. The fish was crisp and not overwhelmed by the herbs. The potatoes were crunchy and salty. The dish was good, but nothing so special as to warrant a hurried return.

Oddly enough, as I mentioned earlier, the Mermaid Inn doesn’t offer dessert, but with the bill comes a n espresso cup of gelatin-ized chocolate pudding with a dollop of whipped cream. It was okay, but I would have preferred something more special and delicious.

In fact, that sums up the experience pretty well.

Overall, it was okay, but I would have preferred something more special and delicious.

Dinner for Two:

1 Dozen Oysters – $25

Summer Shrimp Risotto – $21

Whole Roasted Fish – $23

Bottle of Muscadet – $26

Total (excluding tax and tip) = $95

I’m taking a quiet moment out of my fab vacation in Nantucket to write this post. I’m sitting here at a large wooden dining table that seats twelve in the house my sister rented for the week. It’s one of those farm house-style tables that was probably eight times more expensive than it appears. One of those shabby chic luxuries that only the truly wealthy can afford. My sister being nine years older than I am and working in the private sector can afford the rent. Naturally, I’m paying through my cooking services.

The first question I asked when my sister told me we would be spending a week in Nantucket was, of course, “What’s the kitchen like?!?” I’ve been taking full advantage of the six burner Viking range, the lobster pots, and the grill.

The first night we had grilled steaks, orzo with butter and wild mushrooms, salad, and grilled zucchini. A simple, but hearty supper. We ate it at the ten person table on the deck overlooking the pool, hot tub, ocean, and vast, perfectly manicured backyard rife with lavender, roses, peonies, irises, and hydrangeas. The tennis court is just a tad out of sight.

Don’t hate me because I’m lucky.

Yesterday was my sister’s birthday so I drove, early in the morning, to Downyflake Bakery for their famous donuts. I haven’t driven in two years…whew, that was a dicey ride. Well, only on the way there, I got a hang of it by the time I headed home.

Hands down the BEST donuts I’ve ever had in my life! They had the fluffy heft (contradiction? Maybe, but it’s an accurate description) of cake donuts with the chewiness of regular donuts. There were two kinds and I bought both: cinnamon sugar and chocolate. UNBELIEVABLE! Absolutely unbelievable. How would you like to awaken on your birthday to a platter of these served by this wet little guy?

The Big Reveal

So I finally enrolled in culinary school. As part of my application, I had to write an essay to explain why I wanted to go, so I started typing. After about 10 minutes this is what I came up with. It turns out it was only supposed to be 200 words and the essay below is about 600 words so I had to edit it down, but I’ve left it in tact for this post.

Forgive the rather flowery language and tone. I was in a sentimental mood.

“My story is not a unique one I am sure. I came to love food the way many have come to love it: in my home, growing up. My mother was an unabashedly talented cook who had a particular knack, which I never quite comprehended, for tasting a dish or watching someone make a dish and then marching into our tiny NYC kitchen to duplicate, if not improve upon, it. I spent my childhood tugging at her metaphorical apron (she typically chose a brightly colored cotton muumuu instead), yearning to participate in this alchemy. I wanted desperately to help, but for awhile, she would swat at me as if I were a buzzing nuisance. I would take to sneaking over to the range while her back was turned and surreptitiously stirring whatever she was cooking on the stove top. She would turn and shoot me a look that said, “what are you doing?” I would drop the spatula immediately and scurry back onto my designated stool at the counter.

This dance between my mother and me did not last very long. Eventually she gave in to the undeniable fact that I was growing up to be just like her. I loved food: eating it, making it, watching it be made. She knew she could not keep me at bay for much longer. The swatting gave way to lessons right around the age of 8. It began with assigning me simple tasks supplemented by a few explanations when necessary. First it was snapping the end off string beans. That led to mashing up curry pastes in our granite mortar and pestle. Finally, it was time for dicing and chopping around the age of 12. “You’re gonna cut your fingers off!” She would bark. “Curl your fingers under, like this,” she would tell me, demonstrating.

I now see so much more of my mother’s cooking style in me. The contradiction of my woeful moans when I am left to cook large meals entirely by myself and my quick flare of impatience when anyone tries to help or, God forbid, does something the wrong way. “Just…get out. Get out, get out, get out. I’ll do it. It’s fine.” That was a classic of my mother’s.

I also now realize that I’ve grown beyond what my mother could teach me before she passed away. I’m hungry, pardon the pun, for more knowledge, more growth, and more experience in the kitchen. In a way, I feel the need and desire to be an extension of everything my mother was as a cook. I like to think of going to culinary school as taking her with me to the next level.

I live and breath food and feel that my passion would be wasted if I do not attend culinary school and begin my head first dive into the professional food world. The dynamic, creative atmosphere of a kitchen (home or commercial) appeals to every part of me that longs to feed people and make them happy, to create and perhaps even dazzle. The French Culinary Institute is undoubtedly the vehicle that will take me to where I dream of being. The resources, reputation, and rigorous curriculum of the school is second to none in New York City and I hope to soon join the ranks of their talented alumnae. The French Culinary Institute will take me to the doorstep and then it will be up to me to cross the threshold.

Plus, I just really want to cook.”

Fried Chicken

This post is dedicated to the dear Mrs. Linda Schiffman, a New Yorker transplanted to the South years and years ago who thinks herself unacceptable just because she doesn’t have a fried chicken recipe. Don’t worry, Linda. As long as you can recognize a good bagel when you taste one, you’re perfectly acceptable.

Here’s the recipe anyway, originally from Paula Deen’s recipe.

Southern Fried Chicken

4 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup water
3 lbs. chicken pieces or chicken wings
Approx. 1 1/2 cups Frank’s Hot Sauce
3-4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbs. garlic powder
Canola or vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper

  • Beat eggs in a large pan/plate along with the water. Stir in hot sauce (egg mixture should turn bright orange). Pour flour in another large pan/plate. Season the flour with four or five big pinches of salt and a hefty amount of freshly ground pepper.
  • Season the chicken with the garlic powder and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper.
  • Drag the chicken through the egg mixture. Lift the chicken pieces up and let the excess egg drip off back into the pan. Put the chicken pieces in the flour and gently toss the pieces around until they’re well coated. Shake off the excess flour and place the battered chicken pieces on another plate or pan. (Batter most or all of the chicken so you don’t have to worry too much about juggling the frying chicken and battering new pieces at the same time.)
  • Heat up oil in a heavy bottomed pot over the highest heat possible. Use enough oil so that it reaches about 3-4 inches up the side of the pot. This large amount of oil takes awhile to heat up so be patient. It should take anywhere from 7-12 minutes. To test the heat of the oil sprinkle a little flour into the oil. If it burns up instantly, it’s too hot (although if you’re like me, you’ve been dancing around, staring at the oil, willing it to get hot, so overheating is rare). If the flour just kind of drifts down to the bottom, it’s too cold. If it just starts to bubble up and fry nicely and moderately, you’re good to go.
  • Put a few pieces of chicken in at a time without crowding the pot. Make sure your chicken has room to swim around a little. After your chicken pieces have fried on one side for about 5 minutes, flip them. Keep in mind dark meat takes longer than white meat. Basically, each batch should take about 10-12 minutes. Watch the color of the batter on the chicken as an indicator of when it’s done. The chicken should be a toasty, golden brown when it comes out.
  • Meanwhile, have a rack waiting on top of a sheet pan lined with paper towels. If you don’t have a rack, just line a sheet pan with paper towels. Put the cooked chicken on the rack and season each batch right as it comes out with salt.

To keep the chicken warm in between batches you can set your oven to 300 and put the chicken in there, but I prefer to just keep it all next to me on the range. It’s fairly warm up there so it’s fine, but also lukewarm or room temperature fried chicken is still deeeeeelicious, especially when it’s been very well drained of oil so that it stays crispy.

Also, it may seem like a lot of hot sauce, but the chicken comes out only with the slightest tang and zip.

I know this recipe seems complicated, but if you’ve ever fried anything, you’ll know that 1) it seems more complicated than it is, 2) the key is keeping the oil hot, and 3) it’s more time consuming and messy than anything else.

But the prospect of juicy, salty, crunchy fried chicken? So worth it.

Or something like that.

That’s the typical reaction I’ve been getting to the latest Life Decision I’ve made. After a lot of thought and consideration, a lot of soul searching and weighing of pros and cons, a lot of whining and wailing to patient friends, I’ve finally arrived at the answer to all the questions surrounding my future, my more immediate future anyway.

Hold onto your hats, ladies and gents. This gal’s going to culinary school.

Yep, you heard me right. I’m going to cooking school. It’s just a matter of which one now. I plan on starting sometime at the end of August or early September.

AHHHHHHHH!

I hardly know how to react to all the invariably supportive people that I’ve told. Everyone seems to be super excited for me. “That’s so cool! That’s gonna be so fun!” they exclaim. I think a large part of what makes people so enthused is the prospect of knowing a future chef…and that’s fine by me. I don’t mind being novel.

The two schools in the running right now are the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in SoHo and the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) over in the Flatiron District. FCI has the connections and opportunities that a young chef would die for, but ICE provides the option of a dual culinary and management degree. FCI’s program is intensive and quick, whereas ICE’s is longer, but much more flexible. After tours of both schools, I’m leaning more towards one than the other, but I’m not going to say which one yet.

Stick around for the big reveal in the next couple of weeks to find out where I’ll be enrolling.