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Archive for the ‘Culinary School’ Category

Last night was an evening I’d been looking forward to for quite some time. Way back when in late February, when I first received my culinary school syllabus and eagerly tore through it, I spotted a couple of lessons, way near the end of the program in module five, mysteriously dubbed “Market Basket Cooking.” I was intrigued.

The first thing that came to mind was the Food Network show, “Chopped.” Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the show. Something about the multiple rounds of elimination and the frenetic pace stressed me out as a viewer in ways that Iron Chef America or Top Chef never would. And months ago, as a culinary youngin’, imagining myself at the helm of that experience, peering unknowingly down into a jumbled basket of ingredients, I was detachedly anxious, hoping my future skills would be enough to carry me.

When we walked into our kitchen classroom last night and saw our secret ingredients written on the board, there was a unanimous sigh of relief. Scallops, grape tomatoes, spinach, and slab bacon were fairly compatible with a variety of flavor profiles, and we were working in teams of two to create two appetizers. Along with one of my frequent classroom partners, we put our heads together for a quick brainstorming session, sketching plates and jotting down prep lists, and I was once again reminded of the quick shots in Top Chef that cut between teams as they mind meld to plan their menus.

Arborio rice was stuck in my head, after briefly reading it on our stock list, and I couldn’t shake it, so I caved and decided risotto was in order. Leigh Ann recalled that the best thing she’d ever had with grape tomatoes was a roasted grape tomato concasse at DB Modern, so I opted to recreate it. After sifting through the rest of the ingredients, we decided to deviate from the overdone mushroom risotto and instead mix in leeks and lots of white wine and citrus to bring out the natural sweetness in the scallops. It’s a dish I would have ordered at any restaurant, and from this stemmed my confidence in betting it all on this fairly straightforward plate.

A few hours later, it seemed that I had emerged for the better in keeping it simple. Though my leek risotto could have done with a minute more’s cooking, it was rich, savory, and had a clean tang of citrus that cut the creaminess nicely. The scallops, which we couldn’t escape pan searing for both our appetizers, were crisp on the outside and perfectly tender in the center. And the roasted tomato concasse, which had been jazzed up with a bit of roasted garlic, olive oil and dehydrated lemon zest, provided a nice additional layer of slow-cooked flavor.

On the spectrum of what our class made last night, there are two takeaways as to where this dish fell out. In overall execution, Chef seemed to find it on the strong end. The scallop was well cooked and the risotto had good flavors – he kept going back for more bites, and the plate was quickly empty, always a good sign. On the other hand, some of my other classmates took greater risks in their cooking and stepped outside their comfort zone, something which I definitely did not do. I’ve both cooked risotto and roasted grape tomatoes many times, and acidic, fresh flavor profiles are absolutely my sweet spot.

On the bright side, that makes this dish a win, and a recipe I’ll gladly share here today. On the other hand, though, I’m curious how well I’ll fare without my safety net, and I’m hoping to push myself a bit more into the unknown tonight, with individual market basket entrees. In the meantime, please enjoy this wonderful leek risotto recipe, which is only made better with the accompaniment of a perfectly seared sea scallop and heap of roasted grape tomatoes. This warm, hearty dish is quintessential of autumn, and can come together in about 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Creamy Leek Risotto

Makes 4 appetizer portions

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of arborio rice
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup minced shallots
  • 1/4 cup leeks, quartered long ways and thinly sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3/4 cup of dry white wine
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 3-4 cups of chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup of heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • Salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Method

1. In a large saucepan or medium pot, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat. Once butter is melted, add shallots and leeks and cook, stirring often, until softened – about five minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more until fragrant.

2. Add the arborio rice to the pot and stir until rice is coated in butter and opaque, about 1 minute.

3. Add half a cup of the white wine and the lemon juice and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid has been absorbed. Then, using a ladle, continue to add chicken stock about a quarter to half a cup at a time, and continue to stir constantly. As you continue to stir, the risotto will absorb the liquid, thicken, and cook. You can also add the remaining wine as one addition if you prefer a more tangy flavor.

4.  Continue adding stock and cooking until the risotto is tender and creamy – about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, heavy cream, and about half the parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of extra parsley as garnish. Can be served alone, or topped with a seared scallop and dollop of roasted grape tomatoes.

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Sometimes, pictures say more than words can. This is one of those times. Last night, our eight-person team took on the cuisine of Thomas Keller, infamous chef and owner of fine dining institutions such as The French Laundry and Per Se. The result was, simply, magnificent.

Blini with Roasted Sweet Peppers, Eggplant Caviar and Pepper Confetti

Salad of Petit Tomatoes with Vine-Ripe Tomato Sorbet

Salad of Haricot Verts, Tomato Tartare, and Chive Oil

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout (not pictured)

Sauteed Cod with Cod Cakes and Parsley Oil

Butter-Poached Main Lobster with Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo

As if anything could top sitting down to a meal of Keller’s finest (for nowhere near the actual cost of a meal at one of his restaurants, I might add), Chef awarded us the highest praise. After warning us since early last week that Thomas Keller night would push us to our limits and make us hate the class, we rocked it out at an unrelenting pace and had all the food up, perfectly executed, on time (seriously, look at these plates, my classmates are artists!). In a rare moment devoid of constructive criticism, Chef said, quite simply, “You have set the bar tonight for this class. I’m extremely impressed.”

And that is surely due to the great things we have learned, and the amazing team we have in our classroom. I can think of no better thing to be thankful for.

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Last week at ICE, we started Mod 5. For real! I think we all had to stop and take a beat after Sunday night’s pastry final with Chef Sim. As aware as we all have been about how quickly culinary school has flown by (and we’re in the extended evening program!), everyone was sort of stunned to look up and realize, hey, there’s only eight weeks left.

Mod five is something we’ve all been looking forward to, and for me, it’s actually less about the content and more about the milestone. We’re finally at a place where we’re cooking highly complex dishes with little to no instruction. Our abilities, both in technique and culinary intuition, seem to have progressed more quickly than that of a typical ICE student due to our small class size and the fact that we all get along so well, something practically all  of our Chef-instructors have pointed out. And the payoff? Hitting the ground running in our final module of advance culinary preparations.

The first two nights went amazingly smoothly as we delved into the cuisine of so-called “Super Chefs.” Monday night was Mario Batali night, and the air in kitchen 601 was thick with the smells we’d missed since our third module; savory ragu sauce, crisp, tart vinegars, and bubbling cheeses. We learned that though Batali may be the quintessential “Italian” chef in America, many of his most successful dishes are more a loose interpretation of actual Italian cuisine, drawing ingredients and inspiration from other countries and schools of thought.

One of the favorites of the night was this Mint Fettuccine with Lamb Ragu and Green Olives. The contrast of flavors was unreal, not to mention the visual contrast of the bright green pasta (achieved by adding spinach, not just mint, to the dough) with the rich, deep earthy colors of the lamb sauce and the olives. The sauce had just a hint of spiciness to it, and if you knew to look for it, you could notice it was nicely balanced by the mint from the pasta. Perhaps basil would have been a more “Italian” choice, but I have a feeling Batali gave some thought to the play those flavors would give your palate. It was flat-out amazing.

Another favorite was this Goat Cheese Spinach Gnocchi with a brown butter, sun-dried tomato and pine nut sauce. While this dish was a bit more tricky to make than your standard gnocchi due to the texture the cheese gives the dough, it was well worth it; the goat cheese made the gnocchi light and airy, with tons of flavor, as opposed to standard gnocchi which, while still delicious, feel much heavier to eat. The brown butter sauce was, of course, outrageous (for further information, see previous posts on the importance of brown butter) as the sun-dried tomatoes and nuts crisped up a bit as the butter cooked. Definitely the sort of dish you would order at a good Italian restaurant, and be very impressed with.

Other dishes from the evening included Sicilian Calamari, Lifeguard Style (?), Sauteed Skate with Mixed Seafood and a Citrus-Saffron Vinaigrette, and Crispy Sweetbreads with Vinegared Onions and Quince Vinaigrette.

On Tuesday night, we spent a few hours exploring the cuisine of Ming Tsai, one of the most famous chefs in America for  his Asian-Fusion cuisine. Upon researching Ming Tsai I learned that he actually got his degree in Mechanical Engineering from Yale before deciding to pursue a career in the culinary industry. Incredibly intelligent and a career changer? Talk about inspirational!

His cuisine is pretty inspirational too. Along with one of my classmates, we prepared a dish of Crispy Duck Breasts with hot chili oil, lemon-scallion jasmine rice, a spicy pear chutney and achiote-caramel pecans. It took about 2 hours just to do all the prep for this dish, considering it had so many detailed components, but it was totally worth it. From the juicy, succulent duck to the smoky sweet pecans, and the tender fragrant rice, this was one of my favorite dishes we’ve prepared in culinary school, to date.

We also whipped up crispy squab with a cabbage slaw, oyster hush puppies on a bed of Napa cabbage, and a spicy mango-snow pea salad with grilled shrimp!

Oh, and I cannot forget one of my favorite of the Ming Tsai dishes – the Green Tea-Rubbed Halibut with Citrus Orzo Salad and Orange Supremes. So easy, light, and delicious, I would love to make this at home. YUM!

This week it’s on to the cuisine of Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller (!!!!) – both which are sure to be challenging, but fulfilling adventures into borderline avant-garde cooking. And, perhaps just the warm up needed before diving into another restaurant trail this Friday!

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Right now I’d like to talk about something that is high on the minds of me and my fellow classmates at ICE; something those not familiar with the culinary world may have never even heard of. Stages.

No, not like the kind you danced on during you’re four-year-old ballet recital. Pronounced stah-jeh, a stage, or a trail, is essentially a day-long interview / try out that most culinary professionals must do before securing a job, or an externship in a kitchen. Right now, my classmates and I are getting into the full swing of stages as we visit various kitchens and try to determine where we’d fit the best for our externships, which will begin in January!

This week I had my very first stage in, not a restaurant, but a test kitchen for a food magazine here in New York City. Again, I won’t name it, but let’s just say this publication has been in print for over 50 years, publishes around 60 recipes in each issue, and inspires its readers to “enjoy their meal.” I was exceptionally lucky to get to spend the day learning about and helping out in their test kitchen, and can honestly say it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

So what exactly does a stage entail? Well, it really varies from kitchen to kitchen. Some places, you might just be shadowing a chef or cook, observing and learning about what they do. Other places, you might help with prep work, stocking the walk-in, or other low-level tasks. If you’re very lucky, you might get to actually cook a dish, though I hear this is rare. On my trail, I learned the ins-and-outs of the test kitchen, got to know the team, helped prepare for a tasting with the magazine’s editors, and did the “mise en place” for several recipes the kitchen was testing that day. It was a long, labor intensive day on my feet, but I loved every second of it, and the day truly reaffirmed that this is what I want to do with my life – s0mething I’ve never felt after any of my interviews in the marketing world! I mean, what could be better than spending the day in the kitchen, trouble-shooting fabulous recipes, tasting, analyzing and adjusting until you get them just right? I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but for me, it seems like a dream job!

After my trail, still riding high off of my experience, I headed straight to ICE for an amazing class –  cake decorating! On Monday night we had prepared lemon, sponge, and chocolate cakes, as well as plain, milk and semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream and swiss meringue – so many luscious sugary confections that we stored in the ICE walk in as the building blocks for Tuesday night’s class. Then, armed with our offset spatulas and piping bags, we set to work.

I’ve always loved to bake, but in all honestly, I’ve always stayed in my comfort zone – cookies, muffins, cupcakes, even pies. Something about cakes, especially ones made from scratch, seemed complex and intimidating to me – heck, even my cousin who sells her elaborate, beautifully decorated multi-tiered cakes for parties uses boxed cake mix because it just tastes so darn good! But after Monday and Tuesday night, cake-baking and decorating has been completely demystified for me, and I stand corrected at how easy it was. With Chef Sim doing his usual job of eloquently simplifying techniques that look complicated, cake decorating wound up being easily my best class of pastry, and here’s what we accomplished:

First up was the tender, moist lemon cakes from Monday. We each prepared a nine-inch cake, which we cut in half using a serrated knife. Then, we beat down some Swiss Meringue butter cream and flavored it – I chose lemon oil to flavor mine, because I’m pretty much a lemon junkie when it comes to dessert. We also set some raspberry jam to melt in a sauce pan to decorate the cake, rather than using chocolate like other classmates opted to.

The lemon cake layers were doused with a rum-simple-syrup to moisten them (a must for refrigerated cakes), and then in between the layers went a thick smear of lemon butter cream. Then, we frosted the sides and top of the cake with more butter cream, and pressed the sides into candied slivered almonds. The top was decorated with butter cream florets, raspberry dots, and macadamia nuts. I decided to dub this my “Sailor Moon Cake” (I date myself) because of its whimsical appearance. It’s super girly, and I’m super proud of it.

Next up was a Torta de Spana, or the Italian version “Spanish Bread” – a flavorful three-layer sponge cake filled with semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream, raspberries and strawberries. The sides of this towering confection were pressed with shredded coconut, and it was topped with candied almond slices and powdered sugar. Overkill? Perhaps, as my partner Leigh Ann dubbed this my “Yeti Cake.” Still, my roommate Cara brought it to work the next day and her coworkers went crazy for it, so appearance isn’t everything. And I still think it was cute, in a retro sort of way.

The grand finale was, most appropriately, a rich, dense low-laying chocolate cake with feathered chocolate ganache. Making this cake highlighted two pastry techniques that are much easier than they seem: a) making ganache, and b) feathering designs.

So… ganache is basically heavy cream and chocolate. That’s it. Really?! Seriously!?! The fact that I didn’t know this is sort of depressing, because knowing this means you can easily make some of the most impressive truffles, cakes, and chocolate desserts ever in record time. To make this very chic cake, we brought one pint of heavy cream to a boil, poured it over one pound of semi-sweet chocolate disks, and let it sit for a few minutes before whisking it smooth. Working quickly, with the cake on a cooling rack, we poured the ganache over the cake, a la Chocolat, and smoothed it with a small offset spatula. Before the ganache set, we streaked the cakes with white chocolate, and, using a paring knife, gently dragged the blade through the chocolate in opposite directions to create the signature swirls. The result was pretty fabulous.

And then, I had three cakes to eat! With one that’s already been devoured by Cara’s hungry coworkers and two to go, I’m counting my blessings that I’ll have guests in town this weekend and an apartment full of hungry Halloween party-comers on Saturday. Happy Halloween!

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