Technically, I would consider this my first real week of culinary school, since last week was mostly made up of a two-hour orientation lecture and a kitchen sanitation video made in the eighties. It may be hard to believe, but even doing that (read: not even cooking anything) was more fun than any college class I ever sat through. It only took an hour or so to completely reaffirm what I was pretty sure I already knew – this is exactly for me.
This week though, things got interesting. On Sunday night we finally got to break out those gorgeous high-carbon stainless steel Wusthof knives that were bestowed upon us on Lesson 1, and start chopping. While three onions will make a master of nobody, that’s just what we started with – a couple of oversized, papery yellow onions. It was off with their roots and their tips, a slice down the center and removing the peel using a paring knife, not our fingers. We learned the “preferred method” for dicing an onion – make several cuts downward, perpendicular to the root end without cutting through the root; make two or three cuts through the onion, perpendicular to the root end while holding your knife parallel to your cutting board; finally, slice the onion all the way through, cutting straight down with your knife held parallel to the root end (the way you normally think of slicing an onion); enjoy the perfectly square minced onion that results. I’ve done this countless times before, but somehow doing it with a classically trained chef standing over my shoulder and judging me was astoundingly better.
About our chef, or “chef-essor” as I’ll call her: the “chef-essor” that will be leading us through modules 1 and 2 of culinary school up until the end of July is Chef Anna (I’ll leave her last name out so she doesn’t show up in Google searches, but chances are good you can find her on the ICE website), and honestly, the only word that can adequately describe this woman is badass. The first day we met her, she rolled up with her deep crimson hair and bright yellow cat-eye spectacles, one hell of a grimace, and a deep, throaty New York-tainted voice. I knew instantly I would like her, and thirty minutes into her first lecture, when she regularly dropped the phrase “You know what I’m sayin’? You hear what I’m tellin’ ya? Alright? Okay!” after every important statement she made (which occured about every 5 minutes or so), I was pretty sure I’d wind up idolizing her. This woman is the real deal – a restaurant-industry hardened chef, classically trained by ICE before it was ICE, worked in the trenches of The Pierre over twenty-five years ago, and now owns her own restaurant in the Hudson Valley, which is sourced, in part, by her own organic gardens on the premises of her home. Like I said. Bad. Ass.
Chef Anna makes culinary school, at least in large part. On lesson three, when I was jittery from the large iced coffee I had chugged before our four hour class and sliced my own fingers instead of my garlic not once, but twice, on my 10 inch chef’s knife, she went from tough, renegade chef to sweet elementary school nurse in the blink of an eye, tenderly wrapping my finger in a butterfly bandage. On lesson 4 when we were emersed in a lecture on vegetables, chef took what might be mistaken as a dull subject, and practically made it a poetry reading: “When you are old, you are tough, hardened, and difficult to swallow,” she said, indicating herself as she personified the old parsnips before us. “But when you are young, you are soft, tender, supple, and just divine to enjoy…” she trailed off. Then she let out a howl of laughter, smacked a carrot down on the table, and with a large grin and sparkling eyes, shouted, “Man, I feel like a cougar!!”
That’s just an example.
Some folks find it hard to believe that we’re not cooking yet, but Chef Anna reassures us that a strong foundation is necessary before moving forward, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that she’s right. In fact, our group was borderline-ecstatic to spend an hour and a half chopping three carrots, three stalks of celery, and three onions into brunoise, or a eighth-inch dice. We have all sort of realized that we’re actually extremely lucky to be going to school at night, rather than during the day, because of the company of our classmates. Everyone in that room has sacrificed something to be there – namely their money and few remaining hours of free time at the end of the work day. For most of us, we’re on our tenth hour of our work day by the time we even walk into that kitchen, and no one utters a complaint for the next four hours. Everyone just seems excited and grateful, but then again, it’s only lesson 5. Come talk to us after lesson 49.
Like I said, while we haven’t actually started cooking yet, we have ventured into the exciting world of chopping (our fingers, among other things), which did divulge upon us one fully uncooked recipe: Salsa Cruda. This salsa is fairly standard, but it elicited an “Um, Bye,” response from Cara, which after translation I deduced to mean “Outstanding,” “Amazing,” or ”Incredible.” I thought it was pretty good, but could have used a hit of lime and some fluer de sel (frankly, I’m obsessed). At any rate, in exchange for sitting through my endless 900 word culinary school ramble, I will provide you with one recipe for Salsa Cruda, which is at the very least a staple you should have in your recipe repitoire, and at most, a new mainstay in your fridge or at weekend picnics.
FYI - Ingredients for culinary school recipes are often measured in terms of weight when they are solid, not volume. If you’re an aspiring or well-practiced home cook, I highly recommend purchasing a food scale, both for recipes (particularly pastry) and portion control. You can get a cheap one online, I guarantee it!
Salsa Cruda - Makes 6 servings
Adapted from Food.com
- 8 whole fresh tomatoes, diced
- 2 Jalepeno peppers, minced
- 1 cup of yellow onions, diced
- 1/2 cup of cilantro, minced
- 1 lime, juiced
- 1/2 cup of tomato juice
- Salt and pepper to taste (Fleur de sel, anyone?)
- Additional flavorants – I’d recommend cumin or even some garlic infused hot sauce; use your judgement on adding the hot sauce (this is fairly mild)
Mix all ingredients well to combine. Great served immediately or after resting in the fridge overnight.
Also, for the record, I highly recommend eating atop a multi-grain pita chip. Possibly at 3 am. No judgement.