March 29, 2011

and that's a wrap!

In my last days of sandwich station, some people from pastry side rotated over so they could be trained (and in turn, train their pastry cohorts). Del and I were sent two bite-sized Asian girls, whom I proceeded to call our "minions".

Besides training them in the art of sandwich-making (and the art of filling-making, such as egg salad and tuna salad, which I still don't know), we also showed them how to fry chips as a side accompaniment. Here they are frying beet chips, which is made the same way as any other root vegetable chip - sliced with a mandoline and dropped into hot hot oil. I suppose you could bake them too, but I haven't yet made chips that way, only fries.

frying beet chips

Then there were things we didn't plan on teaching them but happened anyway - one day we wanted to make buffalo chicken sandwiches (shown in the last post) and it required the chicken breasts being pounded thin (the better to be fried!) and so we employed our minions as meat pounders. Small girl + big mallet = scary.

meat pounder

Then on my last day in sandwich, I coincidentally decided to make a wrap, thus concluding my rotation with how I began it. It was actually pretty slapdash of me. I hadn't felt like making anything that day so I was looking in the sandwich recipe binder for some inspiration, and I came across a chipotle chicken recipe, which was interesting because I'd never made anything with chipotles before. So I made chipotle chicken, and decided to put it in a wrap with some lettuce. But the wrap needed more, so I wanted to add rice, but it was too late to make rice, so Del found some already-made guacamole, and Chef suggested cheese, and I thought of sprouts, and ranch - and TA-DA, that's how something edible got made.

chipotle chicken wrap

And that's a wrap of my half-semester in savory!

an homage to salad

So in sandwich station every morning we made a batch of 32 regular sandwiches (8 egg salad, 8 tuna salad, then two more combinations like 8 turkey & swiss and 8 ham & american). Then after that we make two sandwich specials, usually one veggie and another non-veggie. Del and I got in the habit of making the non-veggie specials but it was hard coming up with ideas, probably because I don't eat that many sandwiches, or maybe because I simply don't get excited by sandwiches.

One idea I came up with was the Cobb salad sandwich, which, as you know, isn't exactly a sandwich idea (guess which station I missed being in!). I toasted the ciabatta bread (brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with Italian herbs) in the oven, Del grilled the chicken (with the addition of liquid smoke, some seriously potent stuff!), and we topped that off with the requisite lettuce/tomato/bacon/egg/avocado (so not kosher, as it has just occurred to me). I enjoyed doing all the arranging but also finishing with lines of ranch dressing from a squeeze bottle. Almost like painting!

cobb salad sandwich

A few days later Bernie, in salad station, made an actual Cobb salad. It turned out beautifully - just the kind of salad one would want to pay tribute to.

cobb salad

sandwich me crazy

Having found my niche doing composed salads at salad station, it felt anti-climatic to be ending my half-semester on the savory side with sandwich station. As I rotated there, I expected to follow along with what the more experienced sandwich station people were making, and on my first day it was roast beef, arugula, and horseradish cream cheese wraps.

roast beef argula wraps

You lay down the wrap (an oversized tortilla), put down some spread, then lay out the ingredients like it's a pizza. You can roll it up burrito-style and cut it in half, but I chose to roll it up horizontally (without tucking the ends in) and then cutting the roll into slices, as you would to make hor d'Ĺ“uvre-type tortilla spiral sandwiches. Except then I stuck them on kebab sticks! Which made them look like lollipops.

wrap kebabs

So once I figured out there were presentation possibilities in sandwich, I got to working. The next day I decided to fancy myself with a 3D fruit garnish. I had chosen pineapples and oranges to complement the shrimp salad sandwich my partner Del was making (partially for the flavor, partially to offset the green and red of the cucumbers and tomatoes he was using). Not content simply to cut the pineapples and oranges into slices, I built this, with the addition of celery, parsley, and dried apricot.

fruit garnish

And together it looked like this.

sandwich presentation

Cole slaw was a common side dish to go along with the sandwiches we made because it pairs well with many cold sandwiches (we weren't allowed to make hot sandwiches because they wouldn't keep until lunch service). I got tired of making coleslaw pretty fast so a variation I made was asian coleslaw, where I added bell peppers and snow peas and used some sesame oil in the dressing.

buffalo chicken sandwich



March 20, 2011

iron chef!

So the way that the culinary department ran the Iron Chef competition, each team had to come up with three courses while using the mandated ingredients of salmon (smoked or fresh) and rack of lamb. Some teams went crazy and tested out their menus; my team met for a couple of hour-long meetings and discussed what we would make - poached salmon salad for the first course, herb/nut-encrusted lamb with pearl rice risotto and carrots/asparagus for the main course, and a lemon pistachio mousse with candied kumquats as dessert. The overarching theme was the use of citrus and nuts throughout all three courses, and of course using local and seasonal produce.

My teammate Eric and I were in charge of the salmon salad, which for me involved washing arugula, thin-slicing and blanching fennel, segmenting oranges, toasting almonds and pistachios, frying capers (which was scary because I have never deep-fried anything in a pan), and then plating everything before an hour and a half was up. Most of what I did was captured on camera, because there's a culinary school alum pursuing broadcast journalism who decided to do a documentary on the competition. I volunteered to be one of the four students he followed, so maybe there will be a video I can link you all to in due time.

plating first course

When it came time for plating, we discovered that our plates were not sufficiently cold, which then involved a mad scramble to stick the plates into the walk-in refrigerator, and then the freezer, and then back to our station, where the whole team assembled around me to watch/help me plate. This was the result:

salmon arugula salad

We then carried out six plates to the judges (mostly chef instructors) and presented the dish with a description. Sadly, unlike on Iron Chef, there was no feedback from the judges so we had no idea what they thought of the dish.

presenting main course

Afterward I helped present the main course (in which the lamb was undercooked). And then the entire team presented the dessert, which I helped garnish.

plating dessert course

All in all it was a slightly nerve-wracking but mostly exhilarating experience. My team didn't win, so we weren't the best, but I definitely don't think we were the worst. Hopefully I will be chosen to compete again sometime in my culinary school career, as by then I will have accumulated enough experience to have more of a hand in each and every one of the courses!

March 17, 2011

middle eastern chicken salad

For my last act in salad I wanted to make something with chicken (the only other mass-consumed meat I hadn't used), so I found this recipe for Middle Eastern Chicken Salad in the salad station binder (we have binders full of recipes for each station).

middle eastern chicken salad ingredients
Went to the walk-in refrigerators to gather all my ingredients in a hotel pan (standard metal pans used in culinary settings) and was struck by the contrasting colors and textures of the vegetables, so I took this picture.

Although this dish is a so-called salad (and thereby served cold), I would rather eat it warm, as one of those one-pot hearty dinners. For those that are interested in the recipe, you can see it in the zoomed-in version of the picture above, available here.

Basically you cook rice in chicken stock (1 to 2 ratio, but depending on the rice) with the addition of sauteed garlic and shallots, and dried currants (I substituted dried cherries and dates since we didn't have currants). Cut up some chicken and put it in a separate pot with a bay leaf and enough chicken stock to cover, bring it to a boil then simmer for half an hour (same procedure as rice really). To adhere to the one-pot policy, one could sautee the chicken first then add it to the rice.

Side note: I learned the difference between chicken stock and chicken broth! Stock is made from the bony chicken parts (as opposed to meat for broth) so it is heartier. Although I would say they're interchangeable if you don't have stock on hand.

While the rice and chicken are cooking, cut up some carrots, celery, and scallions. Once the rice and chicken are done cooking, mix all of the ingredients together, like so.

middle eastern chicken salad pre-mixing

Season the mixture with lemon juice, cumin, cinnamon, mint leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. I like things spicy so I opened up a container of cayenne, but then made the mistake of talking to someone while I was adding the spice so I dumped some handfuls worth into the rice. If you know cayenne, you'll know that "some handfuls" really means "way too f-ing much". So I scooped out the contaminated portions of the rice, but then I didn't want to throw it away so I made the mistake of eating it. Let's just say my tastebuds were shot for the next hour or so.

Since this was a boxed salad I was doing (and not a composed salad, where I would have kept all the ingredients separate instead of mixed), presentation was not such a big deal. But I put in the effort anyway.

middle eastern chicken salad presented
The white stuff is plain yogurt in the middle. If you want to be a little fancy you could mixed in some diced cucumber and dill or something, but I decided to keep it plain (especially after that cayenne mishap, I could use a little plain, hah!).

In other news, it was around this time when Chef revealed to me that I had been chosen for the Iron Chef competition, which coincidentally is tomorrow. There are 6 teams with 8 members each, the majority of which are second and third semester students, which meant not many first semester students were chosen, so I consider this an honor. Each team has an hour and a half to prepare three courses, and even though I'm not experienced enough to take the lead on any dish, I hope to do much preparation and put my presentation skills to good use. Wish my team luck!

March 9, 2011

composed salads (presentation presentation!)

Strangely enough, after my total body meltdown last week and having to miss three days a school (which was a feat because I wanted nothing less than to miss school), I came back to salad station and found my niche: composed salads.

Composed salads are basically the opposite of a regular tossed salad, because the ingredients are arranged around each other with the dressing kept separate. It is a bit impractical because the diner basically has to mix the ingredients themselves, with not much space to move things around in, but hey, anything for aesthetics right?

The first one I made was a duck breast salad. I had never cooked duck before, so this was intriguing to me. And it turned out surprisingly easy: you take duck breast, score the fat (slice criss-crossing lines in it without cutting into the meat), rub some salt and pepper (and spices of choice) into it, then sear it on some oil in a pan until it gets some color, then put it in a 350 degree oven with the fat side up (so the fat soaks down into the meat) for about half and hour. The best thing about this process is that it works for pretty much all similarly-sized meat.

duck breast salad
I was really proud to be able to do the arranging myself - most of the time Chef will come around and do the presentation, but I decided to go ahead. Oh and the duck came out just right too!

And just like how the failed caesar salad dressing made me feel like I would never amount to anything culinarily, this salad did just the opposite by infusing me with hope and basically making my day. I feel like the pursuit of creative endeavors necessarily subjects you to this kind of up and down. The lows are damn frustrating, but oh man the highs.

Next I did a turkey breast salad, which was easier because I didn't have to cook the meat. However, it did involve celery root, which I've never worked with (and which I think tastes like crap). Also the vegetable basically looks like an ornery, wrinkly old man who's no longer interested with complying with societal conventions (and it acts this way too, by refusing to be peeled). I resorted to sauteeing it in some of the curry mayonnaise dressing I made, which didn't do much but did something at least.

turkey breast salad

Then I decided to do a thai beef salad. Because the beef came in a huge hunk, I put it in a 400 degree oven. About 45 minutes later I heard somebody yelling about brisket burning and I run over and it turns out that somebody had turned the oven to 500 degrees and my beef hunk was all charred. I was sad but let the roast sit for a bit (to cool and absorb its own juices), and then sliced it to find that the insides were okay.

thai beef salad

Having done duck, turkey and beef, I decided to go for pork next. Similar to the beef/duck, I trimmed the fat and scored it, then rubbed dressing (in this case, orange balsamic vinaigrette) all over it, then stuck it in the oven. However, unlike beef, pork is something you cannot eat rare or anything less than well-done, so I had to check the temperature periodically to make sure it was cooked through. The standard temperature for pork doneness is 145 degrees, but Chef said to go to 150 just to be safe.

pork fennel and orange salad

Given all of these composed salads, I earned a compliment from Chef as having "an eye for presentation". Niche talent? I think so!

March 8, 2011

roasted vegetables and wild rice salad

After the whole caesar salad debacle, all I yearned for was the simplicity of cutting and prepping vegetables (and/or simply being told what to do). The latter not being an option, I decided to do a roasted vegetable and wild rice salad, not only because it would fulfill my vegetable-cutting dreams but also because it was a heavier, "warmer" salad for a cold day.

chopped vegetables
I love the colors and textures inherent in vegetables. So pretty to look at and interesting to eat.

pre-roasted vegetables
I didn't use a recipe for this one, just tossed the vegetables in my usual homestyle vinaigrette (which doubles as marinade): olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic salt, black pepper, and dried herbs (Italian blend works fine).

roasted vegetables
Here are the vegetables after roasting in the 350 degree oven for half an hour or so.

wild rice salad
For the starch portion of the salad I boiled wild rice and wheatberries (which almost pop like caviar when you chew them) and mixed them together. In the future I would mix some white rice in and make it more pilaf-y so it would have a more rounded mouthfeel (plus, easier to chew).

The dressing was the original vinaigrette with the addition of roasted garlic/shallots/onions and honey and dried cranberries and parsley.

wild rice salad, boxed
And again, presentation presentation. Isn't it funny that our tastes have evolved to where we are happier eating pretty things?

March 7, 2011

caesar salad woes

The first thing I tried to make in salad station was caesar salad. Which in hind sight is one of those deceptively simple American staples that one should not attempt because if one f's up it's shame-inducing AND readily noticeable.

In my attempt it was not so much the salad that I f'ed up but the dressing I had to make from scratch. It's a good thing to be able to make something that almost everyone else buys ready-made from the store, but in this case, well let's just say that I wish I had bought it from the store.

Making a dressing from scratch typically involves an emulsifying process - that is, since oil and vinegar are two incompatible substances, you have to mix them together with an emulsifying agent or else they will separate soon after you stop actively mixing them. As I've blogged previously, the lecithin in egg whites is an emulsifier (for example, in mayonnaise). For caesar dressing though it's the mustard (explanation here).

But that wasn't the part I got wrong. I just didn't know that in emulsions you're supposed to add the oil last, and slowly, and to a blender already spinning.

caesar dressing emulsion
I poured some oil in before I started the blender. Then I added the remainder as the blades were spinning, not knowing that it was already too late. Chef came to see my dressing and informed me that it was broken. (The oil was oozing away from the rest of the ingredients, yielding a liquidy mixture and not the creaminess I was hoping for.)

To add insult to injury I tried fixing the dressing, to no avail, wasting a whole two hours on the process. Needless to say I thought I would never amount to anything in the culinary world, much less become the sauce-making goddess I had intended on becoming. All was lost.

I countered my woes by making some bomb croutons (by cutting bread into cubes, tossing it in some oil and spices and then baking until crispy). Glad I didn't f that up. Then I managed to arrange the salad in an aesthetically-pleasing manner.

caesar salad
What can I say, making things pretty really does go a long way (see previous post for my pretty pictures comment, haha)!

March 1, 2011

i left my heart in NYC

I woke up this morning to this in my RSS feed, a time-lapse video of New York City. It's not particularly epic or mind-blowing (and too much Times Square I think), but it nevertheless awakened the gut-wrenching nostalgia for that once-familiar place and those once-had feelings of belonging and self-affirmation.

I think I figured out the difference between New York and everywhere else - that in New York it is an accomplishment simply to be living there. And the mark of an exciting, high-powered and fabulous life is simply to be taking good advantage of the events and activities the city has to offer. One can simply absorb, or consume, and be amazing by exposure.

I moved here because I wanted to produce, because I found the cost of production (both financial and otherwise) too high and dauntingly prohibitive there. I felt like the barriers to entry are such that you had to either be addicted to producing or living in a community of producers for it to happen.

I needed the kind of no-fault, non-competitive environment that CCSF was offering in order to overcome all of these real/imagined obstacles. But producing things, though a highly glamorize-able ideal, is decidedly unglamorous (and unfabulous, and low-powered, and unexciting) most of the time. It's a lot of hard work and repetition (physical labor) just to get the skills and knowledge with which to be creative, which is, in the end, what it's all about.

So, pretty pictures or not, I'm really learning very slow and ever-immersed in a manual drudgery that seems to be leading nowhere (as being sick and having time to reflect has led me to conclude). It's a hard thing to realize, having left a job and moved across the country to do this, my paltry savings running down as we speak. I certainly miss those New York City days of power-walking from one place to the next, high on potential and the ever-swirling storm of activity, proud and engaged.

But my hands are working now, and I'm feeding people, and I have an easier time convincing myself that life is adding up. In case it isn't though, I have more pretty pictures for distraction's sake.

fun with tartlets

Aside from cakes and pies/tarts we also made tartlets pretty much everyday because they were easy. First butter the tartlet molds, then cut rounds of pie dough to fit the molds, then blind-bake them, then fill them and bake them again (or sometimes just fill them). We often did fruit tartlets, but one day I was low on ideas when Chef walked by and said to fill them with frangipane (which sounded a lot like marzipan). So I combed through the pastry bible looking for f-words and found it.

frangipane tartlets prep

It's quite striking how the scooped frangipane looks like almond ice cream.

After being baked and topped with some pastry cream, strawberries, and almonds (later also dusted with powdered sugar), they looked quite pretty.

frangipane tartlets finished "Cooking has alchemy and theatre, the joy of creation; the sensual pleasure of touching and sniffing glorious foodstuffs; the pleasure of pleasing others."

- Crescent Dragonwagon