February 27, 2011

service station

service station

Originally I thought I would have two weeks in service station to ruminate on life and culinary school miscellania, but after a mere week and change I have rotated to salad station, where the challenge of making something that looks good and tastes good is besieging me once again.

Sadly, what is really besieging me at the moment is some sort of upper respiratory tract infection that has been plaguing me on and off for the past two months. I really wouldn't recommend doing ten thousand things back to back and pushing your body to limits made possible only through the constant use of antibiotics, but some lessons I just refuse to learn.

And so, saddled with over a hundred dollars worth of urgent care bills and the daunting prospect of being rejected by student health yet again, I am taking my first day off from school tomorrow. Wish me luck in returning to the land of the living.

February 19, 2011

bygone specials

This past week I have switched from breakfast station to service station (where we serve food to students/faculty/guests in the cafeteria). To commemorate my time in breakfast I'm going to post a couple of the specials I made:

smoked salmon bagel
This was a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, artful arrangement courtesy of Chef Morse and replicated by yours truly.

toads in the holes
These were called toad-in-a-hole (also known as egg-in-a-basket), where an egg was cracked into the middle of a french toast and fried until the whites had set.

spinach torta ingredients
These were the ingredients for a spinach torta (recipe here) that I was real excited about but came out terribly because it was underseasoned inside and burnt on top. The idea is great though - a layer of baguette slices on bottom, spinach/red pepper/sausage/cheese piled on, then an egg + cream mixture poured throughout, all baked to yield a creamy quiche-y dish (similar to a strata, except in that cubes of bread are mixed in as opposed to slices on the bottom).

bacon open-faced sandwich
This was an open-faced bacon and egg sandwich (recipe here) I arranged myself. I never got to taste it though :(

sausage on a stick
This idea was a spin-off of hot dog on a stick, which is coincidentally Julius's employer.

To see specials created by my classmates as well as culinary school photos that have not been posted to this blog, please visit my flickr or see the new sidebar to the left!

February 13, 2011

croque monsieur

croque monsieurs

The very first breakfast special I ever made was the croque monsieur, or a glorified ham and cheese sandwich. The literal French translation means "crunch mister", which makes no sense. However, there is a variation on the dish called croque madame, which, as you might guess, means "crunch missus". It is the monsieur version of the sandwich with the addition of an egg on top. (Get it? Females have eggs!)

Despite the French and their weird naming of things, I think the real travesty is how Americans butcher the pronunciation to the point where the correct pronunciation in America is now the butchered version. Case in point: croque monsieur is supposed to be pronounced "croque missyear", but instead it's pronounced "croak monsur". Le sigh.

The preparation for this dish was rather involved, as it required that I make bechamel sauce, which first involves making roux from flour and clarified butter. So I had to melt butter down and skim the milk solids off the surface. Once the roux was made I added scalded milk to it, and then simmered the sauce with an onion (with a bay leaf pinned to it by some cloves), some nutmeg and salt and pepper. After simmering for about an hour the mixture was strained, then kept warm until use.

For the actual sandwiches I toasted some bread (with the crusts cut off), brushed the bottom slices with dijon mustard and piled on thinly-sliced ham and swiss cheese, then added the top slice, drenched the tops with the bechamel sauce, then piled more swiss (and parmesan) on top of that.

croque monsieurs prepped
The sandwiches were baked until bubbly, then put in the broiler to get the slightly brown and crispy-spotted crust.

For garnish, Chef told me to use cantaloupe and strawberries. The cantaloupes were fanned - which is a common garnish technique. Basically you take a piece of fruit or vegetable (in this case, a wedge of cantaloupe), and cut it into thin not-sliced-through-all-the-way slices. Then you lay the piece on its side and push the slices successively across so they fan out. Yay aesthetics!

fruit garnishes


I didn't mean for the tone of my last post to sound so weary. If I'm worn down in any way, it's just physically and not emotionally (otherwise I would never wake up in the morning). But, having rested up this weekend, I now have more upbeat things to say!

Like how a week spent in breakfast station has finally given me a good grasp of everything that needs to get done and how to go about it (and quickly). On the previous topic of eggs, I have gotten good at cracking two eggs at once.

egg cracking
Here are my teammates Naomi and Ariel in the middle of cracking two cases of eggs.

On Friday we were short on people (it was pretty much just me and Naomi and Ariel, half the number of people who are usually there) and I was told by Chef Morse to make two omelettes at once. And I protested my inability, and he said "you can do it", and I said "ok fine", and I did it, so now I can say that I can make two omelettes at once.

huevo ranchero omelette
The omelettes in question were huevo ranchero omelettes, my spin-off on the huevos rancheros we made the day before. Apparently my omelettes were the hot item of the day (in the student cafeteria, which we run).

huevos rancheros
These are the huevos rancheros I was talking about. Fried tortillas topped with beans and cheese, then topped with tomatillo sauce (salsa verde), then a fried egg, then garnished with cabbage/radish/pickled jalapenos/tomato/avocado/onion/cilantro and crumbled queso fresco. These, unlike the omelettes, were a breakfast specialty item (more on those later).

In terms of the breakfast staples we put out, there's muffins and danishes and things (from the pastry side), oatmeal and grits (made by the student chefs), omelettes and scrambled eggs,

sausage & potatoes
sausage and potatoes,

french toast-making
french toast,

mickey mouse pancake
and pancakes (though round and non-mickey mouse-y, unlike this one we experimented with).

All of these we get out of the way before we start the breakfast specialty items (like huevos rancheros). Will cover those in a later post!

February 11, 2011

worn down

Bernie talked about blisters from the near-constant hand-washing we do, and I concurred with the cracked and rough patches on my own hands. (Which, after today, were joined by miniscule burns from the industrial griddle and hot oil.)
One of the people in our class quit the program today (as did a rumored several people from the pastry side).
Waking up early and dealing with difficult personalities does wear on you.

February 7, 2011

how eggciting! (part 2)

In lecture (which we have after kitchen work), we've also learned a lot about eggs - their different purposes, different sizes/grades, different market forms, and the different ways of cooking them.
square egg press
This is a square egg press. If you don't want your eggs to roll around (or if you want to fool some naive person into thinking there are square chickens), you can buy one here.

I think the most relevant things we learned was the power and versatility of eggs. They serve so many purposes:

1) As a main course! You see this a lot in breakfast.
american vs. french omelette
Chef Morse demonstrated the difference between an American omelette and a French omelette. Basically, the French omelette is cooked to be less well-done (a bit runny). I think people tend to overcook eggs - usually when they're still runny you can finish them off the heat because they will still cook for a little.

2) The yolk can be combined with cream to form a liaison (ha, ha). A liaison is generally added to soups or sauces to thicken them and add color/richness. Alfredo sauce is an example.

3) The yolk contains lecithin, which is an emulsifying agent (able to keep fat/oils and other ingredients in uniform suspension). You'll see this process at work in dressings and things like mayonnaise - without an emulsifier the oil would just separate from the other ingredients.

4) When beaten, the liquid can be used as a binding agent. For example, when making breaded cutlets you would dip the meat in flour to coat, then the egg mixture, then breadcrumbs (or other crust agent).

5) The whites can be used as a clarifying agent. So far I've only heard of it being used when making consomme (richly flavored clear soup made from stock), something about the egg proteins allowing the solid bits in the stock to congeal at the surface so they can be skimmed off.

6) The whites can also be used as a leavening agent. This is illustrated by the almost-cooked omelettes we finish off in the broiler (they puff up), but more famously in souffles.

souffle omelette
These are the ingredients for a souffle omelette (the egg yolks and egg whites having been beaten separately, then combined before entering the pan). The result is a puffy, creamy omelette.

Aside from all these amazing uses for eggs, a few tips about buying and using them:
1) If the recipe doesn't specify what kind of eggs, assume large eggs.
2) Always check the eggs to make sure they are clean, uncracked and uniform in size.
3) Eggs are graded AA (freshest, highest quality), A, or B. Depending on what you're making, the grade can be very important. For poached eggs you'll want grade AA eggs because they contain a greater amount of thick egg white, which will cling to the yolk when cooking and result in a successfully poached egg. As eggs get old, thick egg white gets turned into thin egg white, which leads to grade B eggs that are very runny and not good for much except for scrambled eggs or for baking.
4) Always store eggs in the refrigerator. If you store them at room temperature, they will drop one grade a day.
5) Because the typical egg shell has 17,000 pores, eggs absorb odor easily, so don't store them next to smelly things!

February 6, 2011

how eggciting! (part 1)

On my sister's birthday last month we frequented a couple of Denny's for some free birthday Grand Slams. Always at each place they would ask how she wanted her eggs, and she would say scrambled, because that's the most accessible type of breakfast egg we know. But then she wondered about all the different ways you can prepare an egg, so I googled "ways to cook an egg" hoping to find a definitive list (sunny side up, over easy, poached, etc.). But the list was far from definitive, and in fact, mind-bogglingly long. This site lists 100 just for starters (with pretty pictures)!

partially cracked egg
Currently I'm in breakfast station, hoping to learn some common (if not all) breakfast egg preparations. I figured that since we crack two cases (that's 360) of eggs and immersion-blend the heck out of them every morning we must be doing something with them right?

tilt fryer scrambled eggs
And in fact we do. We scramble a lot of them in a tilt fryer - mostly plain, with some toppings thrown in for the last portion so diners have some options (they mainly stick with the plain though).

romanesco and mozzarella omelette
We also make omelettes. Here are some that have mozzarella inside and are then topped with romanesco sauce (fresh uncooked tomato sauce), more mozzarella and scallions.

apple bacon and swiss omelette
Here are some more that involve swiss cheese, diced apples (sauteed in butter) and bacon. Also topped with scallions for color.

And here's the recipe if you want to make some culinary-school-like omelettes at home!

1. Put some oil (canola/vegetable, butter, or Pam - enough to coat the pan) in a frying pan over high heat; wait a few minutes until the oil starts smoking (or alternatively, you can test it by shaking some water droplets into the pan - if it sizzles furiously you're good).
2. Pour in a well-beaten egg mixture (salt and peppered if you so desire), enough fill about half the depth of the pan.
3. Shake the pan vigorously back and forth as you stir the egg mixture with a spatula. Continuously fold in the edges of the omelette so they don't get dried out.
4. When the bottom of the omelette is cooked but the top is still runny, put the pan into the oven with the broiler on high (if the pan handle is not heat resistant, transfer the omelette to a baking dish).
5. When the top of the omelette puffs up (and traces of runny egg have disappeared), pull the pan/dish out of the oven. The top of the omelette should be a nice sunny/moist yellow with no brown (if there is brown it's overcooked).
6. Pile your choice of shredded cheese down the length of the omelette, then fold both edges toward the middle with your spatula (tripartite fold, if you will).
7. Garnish with your choice of topping(s) and serve!

February 1, 2011

lettuce have some fun

One of the things we learned in lecture was the reason behind tearing lettuce.

Apparently the abundance of water molecules in lettuce means that when you cut it with knife, the water molecules get sliced through and turn brown from oxidation. This is why lettuce should be torn, at least when you're talking small quantities. (In an industrial kitchen like ours, tearing lettuce simply isn't an option. I'd be there well into the night.)

As a student chef last week, I neither cut nor tore lettuce. I juiced it. More specifically, 2 lbs of it accompanied by 2 lbs of arugula and 4 lbs of spinach (with a Jack LaLanne juicer in honor of his passing). Most of the leafiness ended up as discarded pulp, but the richly-colored greenness that was juiced out seemed to me the essence of health. So pure, natural, and green.

Anyway, the liquid was needed to prepare a frozen salad recipe from the cookbook Alinea. The chef author supposedly scoffed at the idea of salad between courses as a palate-cleanser (quote Chef Morse, "he did not think that chewing a bunch of leaves was palate-cleansing"), and developed the frozen salad as an alternative, not merely to cleanse the palate but refresh it with the frozen tinglyness.

So after the juicing we poured it on a sheet pan and put it in the freezer. And every half hour or so we would use a fork to "rake" the ice crystals as they formed. (For those of you familiar with making granita, it's basically the same process, except with granita you would be using fruit juice and a circular bowl and you would stir rather than rake.)

In addition we also froze some red wine vinegar, employing the same sheet pan + raking process.

Eventually for assembly we scooped the frozen salad into little tasting cups, topped it with a minute amount of vinegar ice, then added olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.

frozen salad

Most of the class's reaction ranged from "interesting" to "blughh". It was certainly interesting for me, and undeniably palate cleansing/refreshing. I think the vinegar's acidity sharpened the frozen sensation so that you felt the crystals acutely on your tongue, in a way that you wouldn't experience with granita or other frozen/semi-frozen treats.

Out of all of the things I've made, this is definitely the one that oversteps the boundary into molecular gastronomy, which is interesting in the academic theory kind of way - interesting to explore intellectually but hard to translate to reality (not just because it's a lot of work - all that juicing!, but because people tend not to understand/appreciate it - hence the "blughh" of some classmates' reactions).

Molecular gastronomy or not, it is a play on texture - an instance where you alter taste/sensory experience by putting the material (in this case, salad) through an unexpected preparation method (juicing then semi-freezing). I will be on the lookout for more chances to play in this way as I go along!