October 27, 2011

goodbye main kitchen

After veg station, it was time to rotate back into the same station I started in - prepping for Latin Quarter. The station was chaotic as always, what with order sheets changing every day, so there was always something different to keep track of, not the mention the last-minute requests and modifications.

I tend not to lead unless asked (or unless the leaderless situation warrants it), so one day I got into this situation where I thought I was making a certain number of things but kept getting asked to do other things. Which was fine, except I wasn't getting my stuff (namely red mole sauce) done. Dustin and I had talked about working together on the mole, except he had gotten pulled into doing other things too, so I was alone and demoralized and stopped caring and burned all of the dried peppers that were needed to go into the mole.

So I went into the storeroom and cried, partly over the burned peppers and failed mole but mostly over how I've been feeling like I've been alone and abandoned with stuff to deal with. But Dustin helped me get more peppers (thankfully there were more), and when I came back to my station, I found everybody helping me to stem and seed them. I almost felt like Chef Hammerich (whom I had approached earlier when tears were just starting to escape) said something to everyone about how I needed help - that's how much these hands seemed like miracles.

seeding dried peppers

Today was the last day of our rotation in the Main Kitchen. Chef Hammerich made a speech about how he really enjoyed having us, noting that we were exceptionally good at helping each other without being asked - a rare and almost unteachable trait.

That makes me love being a part of this group, or any group - because isn't that what we're here for?

little hammers

Go team.

October 26, 2011

lentil soup

lentils with rice

One day my friend Cris brought over some lentils, chicken broth, and mirepoix vegetables (carrots, celery, leeks). In order not to disappoint his intentions (and to make something of things), I made a pot of lentil soup.

From my time in soup station, I knew that I needed a ham hock. So I went to Trader Joe's, which was the wrong place since all their meats are neatly pre-fabricated, with nothing as primal as a hock of ham to be found. They did, however, have a package called "bacon bits & ends", which I thought would be great as a flavor substitute. C'mon, it's bacon.

bacon ends

That went in the pot first to be browned and to release some oil. Originally I was going to use only half a pound (half the package), but then I thought why not and used up the whole package. I mean, there was going to be a pound of lentils, so the two pounds balanced each other out? :)


Once the oil was released from the bacon, I put in the diced mirepoix to sweat/soften. The standard mirepoix has onions instead of leeks, so this was a nice change of pace (carrots can also be substituted for parsnips, and the combination of parsnips + celery + leeks is white mirepoix, which is often used for light-colored stocks like fish stock).

tomato sauce

My roommate Molly was making dinner at the same time and had some leftover tomato sauce, so I stole some to mix in. (Adding tomato product to brown is a process called pincé, which is commonly done for stock/sauce-making in order to add color and flavor.)

chicken broth

Then I added chicken broth, the whole container was 4 cups of liquid so I added another 4 cups of water since the instructions on the lentils called for 8 cups of liquid.

Brought the whole thing to a boil, then simmered for about 45 minutes. And there you have it, lentil soup for the soul.

veg station

After roast station was vegetable & starch station - shortened to veg station, or veg. Usually there would be two vegetables and one starch, so for example one day we had broccoli with almonds, buttered turnips and carrots, and pasta napoletana.

vegetable & starch service

Everything was cooked in batches for freshness, which lent itself to some crazy sauteeing since items would run out quicker than expected sometimes. The first time I ever used the wok was one of these unexpected run-out times - let me just say, those were some adrenaline-fueled sauteed snap peas. And there was a camera over my shoulder too! Some documentary film team was in the kitchen for a couple of days, and they wanted a close-up of wok sauteeing. Totally reminded me of the time I was in the Iron Chef competition and fried capers for the first time.

Here's Jason making Corn O'Brien, or corn sauteed with diced onions and bell peppers, or what I'd call Fiesta Corn.

corn o'brien

To be honest, most of veg station was prep. Since we were working with 25-50 lb quantities of each vegetable, there was no way we had time to prep the day-off. I like prep though, since I find it rather meditative, so I liked this station for that.

prepping carrots

Here's Jason roll-cutting carrots (cutting on the bias and rolling the carrot between each cut). This was my view from the cafeteria to the kitchen on my way back from lunch break.

October 18, 2011

crumbly goodness

So I haven't talked much about food I make at home, and that's because I don't make food at home all that often - only twice or maybe once a week. The reasoning was that I was tired from cooking so much at school that I didn't want to cook at home. This made me worried that culinary school was killing my passion for cooking, because home cooking was what I'd always enjoyed the most - cooking that I and people I loved got to enjoy.

Thankfully this is changing. I've gotten so much in the habit of cooking that I miss cooking if I don't do it. And this makes me wonder if there's some threshold for creative endeavor, where maybe you might do something once in a while and love it but avoid doing it every day since you think it will tire you out (or it actually does tire you out), but then you just keep pushing and you discover you do actually want to do it every day.

Anyway, there was one day where I was tired of seeing the same two Granny Smith apples sitting in my fridge, so I decided to do something about them. I didn't want to eat them plain, so I went to allrecipes.com and typed in "granny smith" as a search term under "Ingredients". I found this recipe for apple pie but I didn't have enough apples, so I decided to make mini-pies, or tartlets.

apple tartlets

I peeled/cored the apples and cut them into little cubes. Then I sauteed them in butter with brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon until they got soft.

While those cooled I made the dough, with measurements modified from the recipe:

1 cup brown sugar
2 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup melted butter
1 egg

I mixed those all together, kneaded the dough and let it rest in the fridge. Later I took it out and portion them into ten balls, which I then flattened with my palms and placed into the muffin tins, pressing with my fingers to stretch the dough up the sides. I divided the apple filling I had between all ten tarts, but it wasn't really enough (could have used twice the apples, or half the dough).

Baked until the tarts became golden brown, then cooled them on the stovetop. And when I took one out to eat... that first bite into the crust amazed me. And I don't really do that to myself, with the things I make - it was just a happy coincidence, but it renewed my delight in cooking. I mean, I just want every pie/tart crust to taste like that.

crumbly crumb

Will have to do it again.

roast station

After entree station was roast station, which was similar to doing barbecue ribs in that we would pop the protein in the oven first thing in the morning and then do other stuff. Unlike the ribs however, we rubbed the roasts on the day of, usually just salt and pepper and another neutral spice like rosemary. There were always two kinds of meat, usually turkey and something else (beef/veal, pork, brisket) - and they would go in a 350 degree oven for about an hour or so.

While the roasts were... roasting, we would make bread dressing. Which was just like stuffing, except it wasn't stuffed in the cavity of a roast. Pretty simple to make - cut day old bread into cubes, pour enough stock for the cubes to be soaked, then add sweated diced celery and onion, then add dried fruit (apricot or cranberries and dried apples) and beaten eggs and put into a oiled pan and baked for about 45 minutes.

bread pudding

Then we would heat up two different types of gravy (usually turkey gravy and a brown sauce gravy) for the two roasts.

Pretty straightforward station. One day the veal roast was too big so I had to divide it in half and re-truss the newly divided roasts. Pretty fun, it reminded me of crocheting since you have to use your pinkie like a hook to pull the strings under and over sometimes.

trussing veal roasts

Trussing is one of those skills taught in meat lab, which makes me look forward to that next rotation!

Oh and here is one of our roasts being carved in the cafeteria for service.

carving roasts

October 17, 2011

barbecue ribs (entree station)

Speaking of massive amounts of protein, there was one day where we did flank steak and I marinated 60 lbs of it. Cutting all that meat up was the worst part, almost one straight hour of slicing by hand.

Another massive amount we did was 24 racks of ribs. The day before I dry-rubbed all of them, which was enjoyable not only because it was my first time doing it, but because I like the movements of rubbing and kneading. Probably similar to the reason I love working with dough so much.

dry-rubbing ribs

The ribs were dry-rubbed and wrapped the day before. On the day of, we just popped them into the oven at 350 degrees and let them roast for a good 2.5 to 3 hours. During that time we made barbecue sauce from scratch.

bbq sauce ingredients

While I love learning how to make grocery store staples from scratch (ex: mayonnaise) because it's like a phenomena explained or mystery revealed, barbecue sauce had so many elements you're better off just buying the darn thing.

bbq sauce ingredients 2

The ingredients pretty much took up the entire workbench, and included such things as molasses and worchestershire sauce (that you might not ever use for other things). My friend Tyler introduced me to this barbecue sauce, which is pretty darn good. If you live in the Bay Area, you can hit up one of their restaurants and get the sauce.

bbq ribs

Portioning the ribs was a lot easier than the flank steak - each rack yielded about 4 servings, all mouthwateringly delicious meat falling off the bone. Our station was pretty popular for samples that day :)

October 15, 2011

breaded pork chops (entree station)

After pasta station I went to the main entree station, which was a lot of work because of the massive amount of proteins we would work with (though usually portioned by the downstairs meat lab, which is my next and last rotation of this semester). Despite the work, it was still simple because we only had to keep track of only a few elements: protein, sauce, and sometimes a garnish.

My first day on the station we breaded and fried pork chops. The standard breading procedure is done in three steps: first a thin layer of flour to coat, then a dip in an egg bath, then finished off with the breadcrumb coat (the flour helps the egg adhere and the egg helps the breadcrumbs adhere). For the pork chops we seasoned the flour with powdered onion/garlic, salt and pepper - it's not necessary to season all three steps, but you can if you want.

breaded pork chops

My partner Dustin fried the pork chops in a tilt fryer with a thin layer of oil. By frying I really just mean searing, for that crispy brown layer that looks and tastes appealing (thanks Maillard reaction!).

frying pork chops

Then, to ensure the meat inside was cooked, we popped the trays of pork chops into the oven until a thermometer inserted into the chops read 155°F.

fried pork chops

To finish, we ladled gravy (veal and chicken stocks thickened with roux) over the chops and garnished with a slice of lemon and a parsley leaf.

garnishing pork chops


The same technique of sear-and-bake was used on another entree my station made - blackened catfish. The blackened-ness is due to rub of pre-mixed cajun spice that I put over the filets, surprisingly easy and super delicious.

The sauce was just roasted red bell pepper pureed and mixed with mayonnaise. The garnish was chopped scallions. The result? Yum.

blackened catfish

pasta station

Maybe I've been making pasta all my life, or maybe there were less tasks to keep track of, but pasta station was pretty simple. Make spaghetti, reheat marinara and bolognese sauces, and put together a pasta special.

pasta service

In the time that I was on pasta station, a two-person station, I made up two pasta specials. One was penne with italian sausage, caramelized onions, corn and spinach in a light tomato sauce (as seen above). The other was penne with bacon, bacon-greased onions, peas and cherry tomatoes in a bechamel sauce. (Yes, I like penne a lot.)

With the amount of volume we were doing, the ingredients had to be pretty simple. The bacon basically cooked itself over heat, the onions were sauteed in the same pan the bacon was done in, the peas were from a box (freshly thawed!) and the cherry tomatoes came straight out of the basket.

Mise-en-place was to be expected, knowing me and my organized-ness, but it made things a lot easier since the pasta server out on the cafeteria would sometimes be giving us a minute's notice before another full hotel pan was expected to be out. So I would blanch some cooked pasta (by lowering a colander full of it into a steam kettle like the one I made soup in), go down the line and toss stuff in, then add sauce and mix.

pasta special mise-en-place

For the pasta special to sell well, Chef Hammerich reinforced that it needed to be very well-sauced and super colorful. Hence the cherry tomatoes on what would've simply been bacon, peas and cream sauce.

pasta special

I discovered belatedly that though the special was well-sauced, it wasn't well-salted. But it sold well! :X

October 1, 2011

dicing tomatoes

Another fixture of prepping for Latin Quarter was making salsa fresca.

salsa fresca mixed

I don't know how many portions that was, but 40 tomatoes went into it.

salsa fresca ingredients

And by 40 tomatoes, I mean 40 tomatoes small-diced by hand. But you know, that's in addition to those 6 onions, 6 bunches of cilantro, 4 bunches of scallions, and 12 jalapeños all small-diced. Repetitive motion injury aside, this meant a lot of time meditating on how tomatoes could be diced better/faster.

So the one thing I hate about cutting tomatoes is that usually the skin is so tractionless that the knife experiences resistance trying to cut. So I wanted a dicing method that would sidestep cutting into skin. Several experimental methods later, I settled on this one.

dicing tomatoes 1

First cut the sides of the tomato off so the tomato is one block (this is good practice for cutting cube-shapes out of any cylindrical-shapes, like a carrot for example).

dicing tomatoes 2

Cut the block into slices (vertical cut) and then cubes (horizontal cut).

dicing tomatoes 3

Take the tomato sides/ends and slice, then dice those.

And there you have it, the dicing tomato method that is almost all flesh and no skin. Now salsa fresca your way to happiness!

mass production

It happened pretty fast, a third of the semester went by and it was time for us to rotate into Chef Hammerich's section, or the mass production every day section.

My first station was prepping for Latin Quarter, a culturally-themed cafeteria outlet run by third semester students. We made things like carne asada and queso and mexican rice, which was what I did the first day on station.

mexican rice

And there you have it, a gigantic rondo (round pot/pan) full of mexican rice. Not hard actually, just sweat onions/garlic in butter, dump rice grains in and mix till shiny, then add water & canned tomatoes, season, and cover + simmer until done.

When I made mexican rice at home today I did a different take by using a rice cooker. I sauteed onions, mixed in fresh tomatoes, then some canned pasta sauce, then poured in the mixture into the cooker with rice and chicken stock (made by diluting "better than bouillon"). It came out pretty well.

I have to say though, after cooking massively quantities of things, home cooking begins to look like small peanuts. The stock pot I once thought was huge now looks like a bowl.

pasta sauce from scratch

(Said stock pot with homemade pasta sauce inside, roughly the one for this lasagna recipe.)

But really, I think that anyone who can cook at home can also cook massively. The processes are pretty much the same, it's mainly the equipment that's different (which makes it seem daunting). And the large quantities just mean that mise en place is ever more crucial, because at home you can afford to zip back and forth between the refrigerator and prep, but in an industrial kitchen? Fuhgeddaboudit!

entree station

Next was the daunting entree station, where I was alone with the work of producing 120 portions of something. Well, usually starch station (in charge of making the accompanying rice/pasta/potato/etc.) would help me out and we would partner up to do both things, but there was this one day where I roasted 120 portions of chicken by myself, and if it weren't for the fire alarm that disrupted everything, I wouldn't have gotten the chicken out in time for cafeteria lunch service. Sadly that was one of the days I forgot to bring my camera, so I don't have evidence of that catastrophe/accomplishment.

frying fish

Other things we did in entree station were, for example, frying 120 portions of fish (I did the flouring of the fish filets, which was fun - slap, flip and pat down, a rhythm you could get a groove into).

filet of sole with beurre meunière

What distinguishes a culinary school cafeteria from a regular one would be the little touches - for the fried fish, it was the beurre meunière Chef Ogden piped with a pastry bag - butter we flavored with parsley, lemon and black pepper. Sadly I don't think anybody but us got to see the piped rosettes - the butter melted soon after meeting the fish (a match made in heaven).

tamale pie

The one thing I super enjoyed in entree station was the making of tamale pie, otherwise known as tamale filling + cheese sandwiched between slabs of cornbread. The cornbread dough had to be hand-spread to cover the bottom and top of the hotel pan, and I don't know what it is, but working with dough just makes me happy.

tamale pie baked

It's a kind of respite from the hustle that is everything else.

soup station

My introduction to main kitchen work was with soup station. Even though my task was to make 120 portions of soup a day, I thought the work was easier than in the PCR setting, because having everything you're doing going into one big item is just so much less involved than assembling a dozen little small plates. In big cooking you don't have to sweat the small stuff.

minestrone soup ingredients

But like with anything you gotta mise stuff en place (French for "putting stuff in place"). That was the mise en place for minestrone soup, practically took up the entire work bench.


So you don't have to sweat the small stuff, but we sweated (heated/softened) 15-20 lbs of hand-diced mirepoix (the standard being 50% onions, 25% carrots, 25% celery, all diced). Besides bones and meat, this is the stuff that gives stock and soups flavor.

adding stock

Then we added chicken stock. Like 10 gallons of it. And two ham hocks, crucial for depth of flavor - that was the lip-smacking part about drinking this soup.

adding tomato product

After simmering for over half an hour we added cabbage and zucchini, and canned tomato + tomato paste. The tomato products give the soup more body and savoriness (or umami).

adding spinach

And right before the soup was done we added spinach, a super soft vegetable that would've wilted and lost color if we had put it in any earlier.

finished minestrone soup

And there you have it, a gigantic steam kettle full of minestrone soup!

(The other soups we made were chowders and black bean soup, not half as photogenic as minestrone soup so I won't even bother showing them.)

draining broth

Oh but we did make vegetable stock, something easy for everyone at home - just simmer mirepoix scraps (onion skin, carrot peels, celery ends) in water for half an hour and then strain the scraps out. The liquid you can pour into containers (or ice cube trays) and freeze. Then the next time you need some veggie stock or want to add some flavor to rice or pasta, just pop one out and throw it in.

salad station

Before I dive into all the mass production type main kitchen work that I did, I just wanted to finish up with the only other station I worked in PCR - salad station. It's the station I wanted because it was the most relaxed, and at that point in the semester I really just needed to relax.

Every day at salad station involved coming in to check the mise en place (ingredients prepped and ready to assemble for the final product). A lot of times the herbs and lettuces would wilt overnight, so I would have to replenish those. And every couple of days I would need to do a batch of something or another, whether it was vinaigrette or glazed nuts or poached pears - and by the time I rotated out of the station I had prepped every single item that went into the salads, which was nice.

The station was so relaxed that I actually had the time to run a special salad of my own design if I wanted to. But I didn't. I stuck to making the three salads on the menu: heirloom tomato, fall greens, and the shrimp louie (seen below in the brief second it sat on the pick-up line before it was whisked away to a diner). What I realized about fine dining salads in relation to regular salads is that there's just a couple of elements that seem hard to replicate at home. In the shrimp louie, that element would be the poached mushroom cap. The pleats etched into the mushroom required a special tool (a super mini bottle-opener of sorts), and poaching required some brief submerged simmering in a white wine/water mix (which is simple but just unobvious enough).

shrimp louie salad

What was fun in salad station was that I had my own printer for ticket orders, so my ears became attuned to the noise of printing - as soon as it started I would spring into action, a sort of muted adrenaline rush (in comparison to the hot line for grill/entree-firing). I would regret not being on the hot line (and maybe I kind of do), but I've discovered that I don't crave that spike of adrenaline. Being on the hot line is the kitchen version of being on the front line, and I really don't need to get shot.

heirloom tomatoes

So instead I was in my little corner, doing things like slicing up the heirloom tomatoes and arranging them nicely.

parmesean crisps

There were small challenges though, like the parmesan crisp that was the mystifying adornment atop the heirloom tomato salad. It's embarrassingly simple - you lay out grated parmesan cheese in circles and bake them until they get crispy. I couldn't get the crisp part down right - either I put them in the oven and they didn't get crisp fast enough, or I stuck them in the broiler and they got burned. On my last day in salad station I got it right. They broke in half nicely for me to use them on my heirloom tomato salads, finally.

heirloom tomato salad

It's always the small things that get you.