Saturday, May 29, 2010

Friday, 5/29/10 – Level 3 Day 19 (Garde Manger)

That was it ladies and gentleman! The last official day of Level 3. The next time I trudge to school, a pair of clean socks and my goofy ID card in-hand, I'll be preparing to take the midterm. Can you believe it?? Halfway through…the middle…le middable (?). Wow; I've come so far, yet still have so far to go.

Much to my husband's chagrin, I had to write you a little something before disappearing for a full five days. I actually had a great night – in Garde Manger we had the worst dish out of the whole level, the poached egg on a bed of vegetables with hollandaise. It might sound pretty straightforward, but it is actually incredibly hard (and really gross). The vegetables, heated up in a beurre fondue (a butter emulsion) must be hot, but not too hot, or the sauce will break and immediately be a greasy mess. The poached eggs, previously made and held in ice water, must be reheated in boiling water, but not too much or else the yolk will set…and then it's not a poached egg anymore. The hollandaise must be kept within a specific temperature range at all times, or else it will also break into a greasy mess. Goodness. And all must be reheated and served at the same temperature, with the vegetables being formed in a mold into little rounds on the plate (still staying hot???), the eggs on top and the hollandaise draped over. And all is garnished with two pieces of julienned and peeled tomatoes. It seems pretty ridiculous because it is – everyone hates making this dish, and no one ever wants to eat it. One egg yolk/butter product topping an egg yolk on top of a butter product is…well, upsetting. I tasted each component, of course, and could physically feel my heart struggling to beat.

We had the little bulldog Italian chef again (yikes!), but she surprisingly gave me great reviews. I respect her the most out of the school's faculty, and it feels really good to have such an accomplished chef think I made a successful dish. She had one small tweak – the water I cooked my vegetables initially in could have been more salted (um, ok) – but the rest was pretty fantastic. We made a grilled corn bisque shooter with a fried zucchini slice for our canapé, and it was delicious. A little too much jalapeno was added, so the heat was a little off, but it was very enjoyable.

As mentioned, I'm supposed to be packing for our trip right now; considering we take off from LaGuardia in 7.5 hours, I should probably keep this short and sweet and not ramble on about ponies like I usually do. I spent a little time packing this afternoon, which inevitably made me semi-late for class; prior to moving to New York City, I was one of the most punctual people I'd ever met. Always on time, always prepared. Since becoming a jaded New Yorker, I find that I'm consistently 10 minutes late to everything, which actually annoys me terribly. I hate people who are late, I hate waiting for others and I certainly have zero patience for slowness, which poses quite a problem when relying on your legs to take you through midtown Manhattan on a Friday afternoon. I came upon a group of female tourists who were walking about an inch a minute, taking up the entire sidewalk to check their subway maps. While I'm sure they were very sweet mothers and wives from some nice town like Des Moines, I was not having this ridiculousness. "Come on ladies, you've got to keep it moving," I commented while snapping my fingers and making my way through the gaggle (since when did I start cold-heartedly heckling tourists??). When none of them made a motion to move to the side to let this obviously harried young lady through, I supplemented with, "This is New York, we don't stop moving!" As I got a block ahead of them, I stopped to consider what I had so confidently proclaimed a few minutes ago. We, in this great city of mine, definitely do not stop moving. But sometimes, I just want to stop…so stop I will. With that, I have a vacation to pack for…see you all in 5 days!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Wednesday, 5/25/10 – Level 3 Day 18 (Patissier)

I did the coolest thing EVER yesterday! Through an opportunity with the Forager Club at school, I got to go on a tour of Saveur magazine's test kitchen and offices! Oh glory day…it was very cool. While I love imagining that someday I'll be a chic, aloof culinary editor who wears only black dresses (with flats) and pearls and sits in her office turning down invitation after invitation for restaurant openings, Mario Batali's kids' birthday parties and offers to write another book but still has time to test recipes all day, I have to admit that it was incredibly humbling to see the actual hub of action. Everyone was really nice, and the test kitchen was unbelievably gorgeous: wall-to-wall views of midtown Manhattan, all the latest appliances and cookware, shining wood cabinets and stacks of plates and tableware from around the world used for their professional photo shoots. A group of busy interns were buzzing around, tasting a simmering pot on the stove with a wooden spoon, flipping over a dessert mold onto a ceramic platter and organizing an entire display of jars and jars of pickled items for an upcoming story. After the tour we were given a few minutes to ask some questions and probe into daily life at a culinary magazine, and I had to hold my tongue to keep from asking our guide, in front of ten fellow FCI students, if he would hire me on-the-spot. I kept asking him with my eyes: wide-open and welcoming when he mentioned he was hiring interns, slanted and knowing when he revealed how stressful the past few months had been and tilted and experienced when he discussed the multitude of responsibilities for his many seasonal interns. I'm not sure it worked; I guess I'll have to convince him with my killer work ethic, yearnin' for learnin' and something called a resume…better get on that. As the tour came to an end, I suddenly felt a temper tantrum coming up from my lungs and through my esophagus…I wanted to scream and grab onto the cubicles, "You can't make me leave! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME LEAVE!" Alas, the elevator arrived and I had a date with an apple tart; goodbye for now Saveur, goodbye for now.

I had made the cycle back around to pastry again; I was actually excited for the apple tart because it's a little easier than the lemon tart and equally as delicious. Its lack of anything overtly sweet or strong makes it easy to justify for breakfast, lunch and dinner too (I've done all three). The dough recipe is pretty standard, the apple compote is straight-forward and the cook has creative freedom to arrange the apple slices atop the tart however he/she prefers. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the kitchen and saw…none other than Chef Marc, my tall, French small-time-TV-celeb ("Chopped") Chef. Now, this wouldn't usually be a problem; I'm getting more advanced at interpreting French accents and since my cooking is getting better I am earning better reviews. However, every single time I have ever made an apple tart, beginning in Level 2's pastry portion, I have had Chef Marc. Every. Single. Time. This means that I can usually expect the standard "Zee apples are lezary (leathery)," "Ah, a beet too crumbly," or my favorite, "Eh."

We were assigned the canapé and told that we could use anything we find in the kitchen. Chef Marc decided to throw in a non-alcoholic digestif as well, to be served at the very end of the meal as a palate cleanser. Considering my experience with digestifs is about as much as my experience with cattle herding, I looked to my teammates to come up with that one. For our canapé, we decided to use a small amount of my Pate Brisee dough to make a mini quiche with caramelized onions, bacon and eggs. We made a white wine/veal stock reduction cream sauce, cut the little quiche into bite-size wedges and gave each a nice pour of the sauce. A sprinkle of parsley went on top, and it was…delicious. I walked the plate up to chef to present as one of my other teammates was coming up behind me. "How are they?" she asked. "Oh man, they're delicious…I could eat these all day," I responded. I looked to Chef for validation, and his only reaction was, "Zis OK…ez overcooked." (The French like their quiches and eggs runny…which was purposely not what we were going for with this.)

Ok, fair enough. I got started on my tart, making a beautiful rosette on the top, satisfying my OCD and aesthetic standards. My oven was nice and hot, and I prepared to pop it in and brown the top before turning down the temperature. All of a sudden, the lights flickered ever so slightly and every single stovetop in the entire kitchen went out. We all stood, dumbfounded, for a few seconds, looking around at each other expecting someone to do something. Chef realized what had happened, and immediately started yelling, "Turn off your ovens and flattops!! Everything needs to be OFF right now unless you all want to blow up!!" Oh crap. We all scrambled to turn off the gas in our ovens, flattops and stovetops; my imagination took over and I kept getting visions of the whole building disappearing in under five seconds…I grew up with electric stoves, and ever since hearing a story as a child of a whole neighborhood blowing up in a fiery rage after a gas leak I have held an irrational fear of all things natural gas. Apparently, the gas in the entire building had gone out, yet quickly returned, so we just had to re-light our pilot lights and all was fine. Or so one would think – in the meantime I had placed my apple tart in the convection oven to get started. In all of the hubbub, and partly due to the fact that convention ovens are tricky, the temperature had magically increased and the top of my tart was getting a little too brown.

This is much like the process of a sun burn, something with which I am all too familiar. You are enjoying a nice day by the beach, reading the new Jen Lancaster novel and sipping on a warm can of Diet Coke. You look down, and see slight pink shapes forming on the top of your leg. Oh crap, I'm burning, you think to yourself. You apply an inch-thick layer of SPF 254, but the shapes keep forming and you're starting to get overheated. You decide it's time to call it a day and pack your things to catch the train back to Manhattan. On the train, you start feeling lightheaded and ill, and are getting some pretty weird looks from the other passengers. By the time you reach Manhattan, you look like a lobster that has been dipped in red paint, and you're so dehydrated from the heat radiating from your crispy epidermis you can barely make it up the ten steps out of the station. Once home, you peel your bathing suit off, and the sight of the un-exposed pale skin next to the burnt, fried red skin makes you nauseous…

The point I'm trying to make is that the fragile little apple slices, so beautifully arranged on top of my perfect little tart, continued to burn. Nay – they continued to fry. By the time my tart was done I had a rosette of crispy brown apples surrounded by apple slices with black edges. The dough was perfect, though…but I didn't think chef would overlook the obvious defects. I looked up and guess who was watching me – none other than Chef Marc. As I braced for what would surely be some sort of disappointed comment, he made a small motion with his first two fingers…a scissor! He was telling me to just cut them off! Of course, it's genius! I had about 15 minutes until presentation time, so I got right on it; I took my kitchen shears and carefully worked around the outer edge of each of the million little apple slices, cutting off the burnt edge and leaving the nice light-brown center. By the time I was done and preparing to present, it looked so much better. Assistant chef's first reaction was, "Wow! And the biggest save of the night award goes to Jackie!" while Chef Marc said, "Ah…a leetle too much time under ze sun, eh?" Not the first time I've heard that.

With the hot spring day outside and the steaming ovens inside, the kitchen was beginning to become unbearable. One of the dishwashers, dripping with sweat, stumbled over to the back door to open it and prop a fan in the door to bring some air movement into the kitchen. "No, keep it closed!" yelled Chef Marc. "Es better zat way." He cackled and rested his elbows on the cool marble counter at the front of the room. Touché, Chef Marc, touché.

My teammates ended up serving a lemon/lime/mint slushie cup drizzled with coconut milk and shredded mint for the digestif, which I thought was pretty clever. After the kitchen was clean and our tools were put away, we all piled down the steps to run outside for some fresh air and a nice breeze. As we pushed through the double doors, gasping for some reprieve, we were met with a wall of hot, sticky mess that seemed to be hotter than inside the kitchen we had just escaped. Summer is just around the corner, so it looks like I'll be sticking my head in the freezer more than usual. Hopefully the Level 4 kitchens are a little cooler…the nice ladies at the Laundromat already know me by first name and underwear size.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Monday, 5/23/10 – Level 3 Day 17 (Saucier)

Ok, we are getting dangerously close to the midterm. I'm not saying I won't be prepared or will fail terribly; I just hate not knowing what to expect. Will I get the skate or the barramundi or the poached egg or the lemon tart or the beef bourguignon or the chicken grand mere??? Or the other eight recipes I didn't mention…yikes, this is stressful. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing; I'm sure I'll be just fine next Wednesday, after a long, relaxing Memorial Day in the beautiful Dallas, Texas.

Monday, as with every single other Monday ever in my entire life (excluding those that fall on national holidays) was pretty frantic. We each had our recipes for the night (as Saucier, I had the pork chop) and we were back to the 'ole canapés again. In order to make us sweat even more buckets in the kitchen hell, chef threw in the Pots de Crème as a bonus dessert. We all had the next 3 hours planned out, and got to work immediately.

Our canapé ingredients were teetering towards Asian cuisine, which is interesting because we're usually given completely different, seemingly unrelated spare ingredients from all over the school. We had the choice of whole quail (the actual bird, not its eggs), Thai chilies, Thai basil, red peppers, ginger, sweet soy glaze, chives, green curry paste, lemongrass and pea tendrils. Lots of spice and lots of great, bright flavors. Keeping in mind that we are allowed to use these ingredients along with anything that can be found in the entire kitchen, we chose to make little spicy quail croquettes with a sweet Asian dipping sauce. I got started on the croquettes – boiling potatoes and running them through a food mill to get them nice and mashed and frying quail meat with the chilies, basil, chives and green curry paste. It all got mixed together, rolled into small bite-size balls and deep fried until golden brown. My teammate made the sauce by reducing lobster stock with some lemongrass pieces and then mixing in sweet soy and ginger. He also took the quail skin and deep fried it to make a little crispy garnish for the plate. Divine! We got a great review from both chefs and our classmates were clamoring to get one (we'd finally learned our lesson and made more than the four canapés we present). I love this part of class! When you see the box of random ingredients, most that you've never worked with before, it can seem a little daunting; but once your creative juices start flowing and you begin to compile this little mini bite in your mind it is so FUN!

I got started on my pork chop, finishing off my green peppercorn sauce and making my Pommes Darphin. As I neared presentation time I seasoned and seared the chops then finished them in the oven. A neat bunch of watercress gave the plate a nice pop of color, and the whole thing went up on time. My sauce was a little thicker than they prefer (a splash of stock or water would have cured that) but the flavor was great and the chops were Beaut! It's definitely one of my favorite recipes to make and, besides the two-part sauce that takes a while to cook, is not incredibly hard. We had it for our mock midterm though, so the odds of pulling the pork chop for our midterm are very low…very low indeed.

As mentioned, we're venturing to one of my favorite US cities for Memorial Day – Dallas, Texas. Yes, I used to call it Dall-ass, Tex-ass…until I visited for the first time and fell in love. I think the city holds such an appeal for me because I have so many fond memories from past visits: celebrating both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law's weddings, sitting on the tropical patio of Taco Cabana experiencing Texas queso with tortillas for the first time, a late-night walk early in our relationship on which Steve and I realized we had something incredibly special and watching my young brother-in-law open train after train present as I celebrated Christmas with my new extended family. I can't imagine what fun memories, window shopping and hot-weather adventures this trip will hold, but I know for sure it will involve some amazing food. I predict that my dear mother-in-law will force me to cook for her the entire weekend, which is fine because I will force her to make her famous cakes and cookies the entire weekend, so we'll be even. While this thought excites me, I can't help but feel a little nervous about the prospect of showing off my new skills. When I first started school, I was only comfortable in my small, familiar apartment kitchen with my own personal pots and pans and utensils. The tables have turned lately, and I find that I'm only fully comfortable and confident in the industrial and sterile kitchens of FCI. There's a certain confidence that comes with knowing that if you ruin a pan you won't have to pay for it, the expensive fish you're burning didn't come out of your paycheck and if you catch something on fire there's a huge hood above the stove that will keep everyone safe. When I cook at home now I am constantly thinking "Keep your cool and make sure you look like you know what you're doing" and "Don't mess this up! That beef was $7.99 a pound" and "Oh crap…pick that up off the floor and throw it back in the pot…he didn't see it." It makes me nervous to think about cooking in someone else's gorgeous newly renovated kitchen, one that I'm still afraid to walk through, while others watch and learn and will ultimately be expecting to taste the most delicious thing they've ever tasted. What if I can't pull it off? What if I burn something so badly we have to order pizza? What if the whole table gives me those, "Sure…it's great…tastes…interesting" looks when they're asking themselves what I've really been doing three nights a week since January. Of course, a good excuse would be to just drink too much wine before dinner and claim that I'm too tipsy to get in front of the stove or wield eight inches of sharpened steel. Just one problem – I'm going to have to start drinking…pronto.


Spicy Peanut Lettuce Wraps

Serves 2 for dinner and 4 for appetizers (depending on how hungry you are)

You Will Need:

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes

salt and pepper

3 T cornstarch

1 bunch scallions, sliced on an angle in 1/4" pieces

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup diced mushrooms

3 bunches baby bok choy, sliced thinly (white and green parts)

1 can water chestnuts, chopped finely

1/2 cup peanuts, chopped finely

2 T red pepper flakes

1 head iceberg lettuce, rinsed and separated

1/4 cup sweet rice wine (mirin)

4 T sesame oil

2 T vegetable oil

3 T teriyaki sauce

1/4 cup soy sauce

Asian Dipping Sauce

Heat 2 T sesame oil and 2 T vegetable oil in a non-stick pan. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dust with 2 T cornstarch. Add the chicken to the pan and remove with a slotted spoon when done.

Add the rest of the sesame oil to the pan and sweat the scallions, mushrooms and garlic for about 5 minutes, or until they start to release a strong aroma.

Pour in the remaining liquid ingredients and the red pepper flakes, baby bok choy, water chestnuts and peanuts; return the chicken to the pan and cook until the bok choy wilts. Once wilted, remove everything with a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid in the pan, and reserve in a serving bowl. Whisk in the remaining 1 T cornstarch to thicken the sauce and bring to a boil; once it is thickened sufficiently pour over the reserved mixture.

Serve with iceberg leaves and a general Asian Dipping Sauce (recipes can be found online).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Friday, 5/21/10 – Level 3 Day 16 (Poissonnier)

We finally changed the menu after four grueling classes of Chicken Grand Mere, Consommé, Skate Grenobloise and Lemon Tart. Oh, woe is me…I survive solely on gourmet poultry and French pastries…but you don't understand. It gets really, really old after a while, especially when some dishes aren't done particularly well yet they're the only thing left in the class to eat. We do have one advantage, however, with the bread kitchens across the hall. By the time we have a free moment to think about dinner the Family Meal has been cleaned up downstairs and the artisan bread students have gone home for the night, leaving the day's baguettes and sourdoughs up for grabs. Considering we have an entire refrigerator dedicated to cream and butter, it's not hard to figure out our next step. So don't feel too bad, we don't go home hungry; I only go home with the sting of starchy regret coating my tongue.

My new dish for the night was a lobster bisque stew with barramundi filets, mussels and shrimp. The recipe is actually pretty challenging, considering that making the lobster stock comprises more than half of the night's work. However, if you'll remember from the beginning of the level, the lobster stock is surprisingly already made for us, something that I still don't believe. The rest of the recipe involves butchering the barramundi, de-veining the shrimp and reducing heavy cream and the stock. Once the bisque is made, the fish, shrimp and mussels are poached in the liquid, then all is served with a hefty dose of fresh herbs. Yummee – a recipe I would make for my loving husband if I could only find lobster stock…looks like I'll just have to continue enjoying it at school for now.

We met a new chef a few days ago, a very nice guy who is doing a trial at our school to see if he wants to be an instructor. Some people like him, some don't, but there's something very familiar about him – perhaps it's because he very, very much reminds me of my brother. While I'm not worrying that he's going to give me a knuckle sandwich or hide my teddy bear under his bed, I actually really respect him and the suggestions he gives. For example, he suggested that I use my shrimp shells, which contain a lot of nice flavor, to fortify my sauce. Genius! Maybe I'm just biased because he's the only one who asked me how my burnt hand felt, or maybe I'm just homesick for a good old fashioned brother/sister reunion. Regardless, he's very knowledgeable and I wish him luck as he potentially becomes an instructor at FCI. Ultimately, aren't helpful and understanding people the ones that make great instructors? I swear, if he starts passing gas in my vicinity and burping in my face I'll know for sure my brother's behind this; but for now, it's nice to have a fresh face around. My dish was delicious, and I got several "ooh la la"s when I presented it; I was even told I had the "best shrimp of the night!" As the midterm quickly approaches, I'm gratefully starting to feel much more confident.

And now, I'd like to start a new column within my blog, one I like to call:


Seriously, I witness stuff every day that would make the average American either wince, vomit or move away ASAP. New York City is the kookiest place on Earth with the kookiest people on Earth, but not every experience is so bad.

On a lazy Saturday in the West Village, we found our way to a tiny storefront labeled "La Lanterna di Vittorio," next to a small sign that said "GARDEN OPEN." The 'G' word is one we don't often see in the city, so we immediately had to investigate. We were seated in a small, quiet and sunny garden filled with overgrown vines and flowing fountains that was surprisingly empty except for the large table of 10 near the back. They were carrying on, laughing like old friends. All of a sudden, laptop man grabbed his bag, clamored up the garden steps into the restaurant and ran out to the street, leaving his laptop behind. No one at the table seemed to really care, and the waitress was pretty nonchalant, so we continued with our prosciutto pizza and stimulating conversation. Twenty minutes later the whole group left, laptop man returned to the empty table and all was quiet again. A few minutes later a different large group entered the restaurant and alerted the waitress that they were "looking for someone." They approached the man on his laptop and he recoiled and started yelling at them to get away! At this point, Steve and I were straight up gawking – jaw to the floor and fork mid-air. The woman gently explained who she was and said, "Our friend is in the clinic and we're here to find out why." OhmyGod this is getting good. Laptop man reluctantly let them sit down, a round of drinks was brought to the table and they were all old friends again. All of a sudden he grabbed his bag, clamored up the garden steps into the restaurant and ran out to the street…AGAIN! Ok, what the heck; should we be worried? Is Vittorio going to come out and make us an offer we can't refuse? What the heck is going on here?? The "old friends" hung around for a short while then left and went on their merry way…JUST LIKE BEFORE! I suddenly had the serious thought that my worst nightmare had come through: I was stuck on Groundhog Day. Worse…Groundhog HOUR! Calm down, this didn't involve Bill Murray…it turns out the whole charade was part of Accomplice, an interactive "show" that involves groups of 10 participants visiting actors at various locations throughout Lower Manhattan to solve a mystery. Sounds like an amazing time, and it really sent us for a loop there for a few minutes. I was legitimately searching for the nearest escape route and keeping my eyes peeled for an angry Italian man, but then again that could happen anywhere on the streets of Manhattan.

Steve and I then decided to take a leisurely stroll through a neighborhood we don't often visit, the Washington Square area near NYU (where Will Smith lives in "I Am Legend" with the big replica Arc de Triomphe.) As we approached University Place we heard loud, booming music and noticed cops blocking the street. Oh great, another Spring/Summer street fair that clogs the streets and stinks up the air with burnt street meat. Oh no, dear readers, what we stumbled upon was a pure gem – the New York City Dance Parade 2010. That's right, a DANCE…PARADE. If you've never witnessed a middle-aged couple trying to swing dance and march at the same time in a matching sparkly uniform you haven't lived. Please know that I'm not trying to be mean, I absolutely 100% respect people who love what they do and do what they love and don't care what others think, and watching these happy people made me legitimately happy, but I'm not sure the NYC Dance Committee, or whoever thought this up, had really thought it through entirely. The dancers, from swing to modern, spent most of their time playing catch up to the float and doing that weird hop-skip instead of showing off their dance moves! The highlight of the day, however, was when we walked alongside a float playing Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Nothing beats walking down a beautiful New York City street on a beautiful New York City spring day with the love of your life as your city's theme song plays out loud, giving you the absolute authority to sing at the top of your lungs. The world around you momentarily disappears, and all you feel is that firm, familiar hand entwined in yours and the unmistakable sensation of pure happiness.

"It's. Up. To. YOU! New York…Neeeww Yoooorrrkkkkk…!!!"

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wednesday, 5/19/10 – Level 3 Day 15 (Garde Manger)

I guess I had it coming. In fact, I've been waiting for this for longer than a can remember…peeking around corners before I step into the hallway, grabbing extra towels at the beginning of class and making sure I smell the stock before using it and now know the intricate smell differences between marmite and brown veal stock. (Not that that has anything to do with "the incident," it's just an important kitchen practice.) I've been proud of myself lately; I've been careful and precise, making sure I walk with the point of my knives down, always announce my presence when squeezing past someone removing something hot from an oven and "mark" the handle of a hot pan with a spare towel. I guess the things you fear most always come when you least expect them, but again, I think I had it coming.

I was minding my own business, keeping one eye on my simmering Consommé and the other eye on the haricot verts (green beans) cooking on the flat top. All of a sudden, I heard a deep, booming voice that seemed to come from the sky. "Jackie, I declared to thee many years ago that thou shalt not cry wolf. Dost thou know what thou wolf hast cried?" "Um, no. I'm just trying to live my life," I assertively responded. "My young, sweet, innocent child - kitchen injuries are no laughing matter. Thou shalt be careful; my people are exhausted from the tales of your many nicks and cuts…one might suggest that thou must mature. And with that, I give you this…" I heard a pop, and felt a quick spray of coldness across the top of my hand. Weird, who just threw ice water on me? I looked around, and then all of a sudden the ice water turned into a fiery mess that was sticking to my skin. "Owie owie owie owie!!" I yelled as I ran to the sink; I looked down, and a wide, red burn was forming across the top of three of my knuckles. I held my whole hand under cold water for a time, but, as 400˚F oil burns are known to do, it just kept frying my skin. After 3 hours in ice water and 24 hours of gel burn pads it's actually looking pretty good, and I'm positive it won't blister. The trick with burns, I think, is to keep the entire area submerged in ice water. It's really hard to meet a deadline one-armed and emotionally unstable.

It was a simple mistake by the guy cooking next to me, even more surprising because he's one of the best in the class. He was browning the skin on his chicken before putting it in the oven and, as he flipped it in the pan the layer of hot oil on the bottom sprayed out with the force of the chicken and happened to fly right to the top of my hand. So, that was pretty much the most exciting kitchen injury I've ever experienced. Sorry to drag it on…I've learned my lesson now, you won't have to deal with my immaturity any more. Sike!

After we presented our dishes, we moved on to lesson two of sous vide and low temperature cooking, which was taught by the well-known head of technology at FCI and kooky inventor Dave Arnold. Just to give you an idea of the extent of his kookiness and inventiveness: he once removed all of the bones from a turkey, replaced them with foil strips and piped boiling hot butter into the center of the turkey to cook it from the inside out. Fascinating. He did several demos, which involved accidentally setting a cast iron pan on fire, blasting cream with liquid nitrogen to make ice cream and gluing chicken meat to the skin with "meat glue." He's just one of those people that you want to hear lecture about meat temperature and proper cooking lengths – he's like a ten year old showing you the toys in his toy chest. If you want to read an awesome article about the future of food technology, and the guy at the front of it all, check this out from Food & Wine.

I'd like to think that someday I'll find my niche, like Dave Arnold did in food technology, but I guess life progresses exactly how it is meant to. Who knows, perhaps I'll write some innovative new cookbook that gets a spot on Oprah's reading list, or I'll create the next classic dish that will be known as "The Jackie Lindsey." But right now, I'm just absorbing and learning – exactly where I should be.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Monday, 5/17/10 – Level 3 Day 14 (Patissier)

I'm sad to report, on this Tuesday, the 18th day of the 5th month of the year Twenty-Ten, that my right thumb lost a fight with a Microplane zester last night. That's right, you heard me correctly, my right thumb, the most powerful digit on my entire body, lost a 10-second brawl with a Microplane, the girliest and most useless of the kitchen gadgets. It was incredibly unfortunate, that a poorly placed lemon rind can somehow not protect human skin from hundreds of razor-sharp nodules. What's most unfortunate, however, is the resulting lemon juice mixing with a fresh layer of skin that is, ideally, not meant to be exposed to the elements nevertheless one of the most acidic liquids of the citrus fruits. Oh, kitchen injuries. I've realized lately how used to them I've gotten – a searing handle here or a chip out of the nail bed there. I must be earning some serious street cred, with the small scars and scabs forming on my hands. I mean, just last week a pop of hot oil jumped the pan, landed on my index finger and burned a small puncture wound straight through the top two layers of my skin. Not the worst injury ever to occur in a professional kitchen, but reputation-aiding nonetheless. I may not look like a badass, but my hands tell a different story.

We had a shortened class period last night because the second half would be filled with an introduction to sous vide by one of the Chefs in charge of technology. (More on that later.) Imagine our surprise when the fill-in Chef for the night posted our times on the board for each dish, and the last dish was due (8:18pm) before we usually start presenting the first dishes (8:30pm). As I was tasked with the lemon tart for the night, it meant that I needed to haul butt to get my dough made, rested in the refrigerator, rolled out, pressed into tart molds, browned in the oven, custard made, custard added and cooked and the entire thing cooled to room temperature. I had approximately an hour and forty five minutes to do all of the above tasks, so I was definitely watching the clock closely. Since our kitchen is eternally a steaming fire pit, our doughs were not cooperating and therefore had to be put back into the refrigerator every five minutes or so to keep it cold. More time wasted. Everyone knows I'm borderline OCD ('borderline' is up for personal interpretation), so I naturally took pride in making sure the dough was evenly molded into each of the crevices of the tart mold, and was evenly cut with no sign of crumble or break. It got beautifully browned in the oven, the custard poured in evenly and all was cooked to full deliciousness.

By this time I was about 20 minutes out from presentation, hardly enough time to cool down a tart straight from the oven. The first group to present was already being called up to the tasting table, yet they had just pulled their tart out of the oven too. Noting our situation, Chef acknowledged the fact that he hadn't given us enough time to complete everything so we were allowed to set our tarts aside, fully ready for presentation on the side table with each plate marked with our name and station number (4 – Jackie L. BABY!) and he would go around and taste each of them after the kitchen had been cleaned. It is a point of pride to have four perfect and presentable tarts, as one inevitably crumbles, gets stuck in the mold or simply doesn't make it. "We're sorry ma'am, we did everything we could…it didn't make it." I noticed other groups plating two and three tarts, with their burned or under-filled brothers and sisters meeting the fate of the compost bin, so I proudly put my four plates up on the sideboard. Imagine my surprise when, only five minutes later, I could only find three plates marked '4 – Jackie L.' "Omg, who took my fourth tart??" I shot an accusatory look at one of my teammates, who had recently mentioned she wanted to taste one of them. "Seriously, not cool. Where is the fourth tart??" I looked at Chef Laura, one of my favorite Assistant Chefs (I said one of my favorites!) and she had a sheepish look on her face… "Well, um, perhaps one of your Chefs was really hungry and they wanted to bring a lemon tart home to their deserving husband and they thought one of your tarts was the most beautiful tart ever and she simply couldn't resist and perhaps it's wrapped up in plastic wrap in the freezer right now ready to be taken home…" "Chef Laura!!" I exclaimed. "I have to present that!!" She immediately felt terrible and apologetic, and offered to put it right back on the plate so that I could present it with the other three. I couldn't bear to make her do that, and made it very clear how honored I was that she chose little Jackie's tart to take home. I actually thought it was hilarious, and can't imagine being mad at her for too long. It turned out just fine - Chef only wanted to taste one of our tarts; I just hope the Mr. Chef Laura appreciates the hard work and sweat from the brow of a young novice that went into making those 4" of deliciousness.

After a quick clean-up, we were joined by the Frenchiest French Chef I have ever met, who was there to teach us the beauties of sous vide, or cooking under pressure. It requires a huge thousand-dollar machine, some sealing bags and a lot of time to waste, but the benefits are really cool – flash pickling that takes under two minutes, crispy de-oxygenated fruits and vegetables and fresh meat that can be sealed and stored in the fridge for weeks. More importantly, I came to realize how good I've become at deciphering vague and enigmatic French accents, especially when the words are jumbled in the sentence and they sound like a Parisian Yoda. Exhibit #1: Try your hand at deciphering these common kitchen terms.

  1. "Ayle de-pom-mon"
  2. "Tawm-pertoo"
  3. "Toe-maht"

Another technique related to sous vide is low temperature cooking, which is done with a water bath and a temperature regulating machine. We were shown a really cool demo – 8 eggs all cooked at different temperatures for an hour, yet only one degree off from one another. The difference was astounding; for example, going from 61˚C to 62˚C will mean the difference between a runny egg white and a perfectly poached egg. Very cool to think about and potentially very beneficial when the need to poach 45 eggs all at once arises.

I was sad we didn't get to make our canapés in class, as that seems to be my only hope for some sort of variety outside of these 16 miserable and stale recipes. Oh, how I wish I could go back to the day when a lemon tart made my eyes wide and my stomach growl. But maybe my mind is a step ahead of my every-expanding waistline…

  1. Health Department (seriously)
  2. Temperature
  3. Tomato (or tuna, I haven't gotten that far yet)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Friday, 5/14/10 – Level 3 Day 13 (Saucier)

Now that we had gotten the hang of the new format, we kind of knew what to expect*. The four recipes, the extra recipe and the canapés…cool. Unfortunately, our regular Chef wasn't in class so another one of our native French Chefs filled in for him. He was a little more understandable (and devilishly handsome…it is surprisingly hard to caramelize pearl onions with Chef McDreamy looking over your shoulder) and decided to do away with the 'extra recipe' for the night. That was lucky for us, because one of our teammates was missing, meaning that we already had to make up her recipe on top of our own. I had rotated into Saucier, meaning that I would be cooking Chicken Grand Mere – a dish that we all loved in Level 2 but was now becoming gag-inducing, as we've made/eaten it a million times already. It's not especially hard, it just contains a million different components that each take a significant amount of time to cook. I got started on everything - trimming, stuffing and trussing my chicken then browning the skin in oil before throwing it in the oven. I then used the wing tips and the pan that I browned the chicken in to make the jus, adding my carrot/onion mirepoix, deglazing it with some wine and cooking it all down with chicken and veal stock. I made the pearl onions, bacon, mushrooms and potato rissoler. In the meantime, we had another quick pow wow to create our amusebouche/canapés for the night, with the choice of sweet potatoes, ginger, yellow curry powder, micro greens, red sweet peppers, quail eggs and parmesan cheese. Some made little soup shooters of ginger cream soup or sweet potato soup, others made fried quail eggs on little pieces of toast. We decided to take it another direction and made little sweet potato chips, topped it with salted pork (a.k.a. bacon….<wink>) and a beautiful red pepper/curry cream sauce. A little leaf of green parsley topped it off, and the whole thing together was delicious. The crunchy and sweet chip, the salty pork, the savory and rich bright orange curry sauce, wow…all in a tiny little bite.


Let's talk for a moment about my extreme dislike of all things curry-related, curry-colored and curry-smelling. With the amount of Indian and Thai restaurants in New York City, I will specifically avoid a particular stretch of sidewalk so that I don't have to walk into a curry cloud. I will move my seat farther away from my husband and refuse to come within 5 feet of him four hours after he eats anything containing curry. It bothers me THAT much, although I'm sort of convinced it is purely mental. Do you remember that scene from "Along Came Polly" where Ben Stiller keeps quiet at an Indian restaurant on a first date and eats dish after dish containing curry because she ordered them, then goes home with her and has a 'mishap' in her bathroom? My life.


Since I was the one with the curry/red pepper cream sauce idea, I had to make it. I cooked down the peppers with some shallots, got them nice and mushy then pureed everything in the blender. I gave it a shot of cream, and a huge dose of curry (hey, I have no idea how much it takes; I don't cook with this crap). I had to taste it, because that's my responsibility as a cook, and it was….good. Seriously. I am pronouncing on this public forum that I thought a curry sauce was good. It was nice and savory, and added a warm and full taste to the peppers that I wasn't initially expecting. Yellow curry isn't spicy, in the sense that hot peppers are spicy, which was the reason why my taste buds approved. I can't promise that I'll be ordering the chicken curry masala any time soon, but I was proud of my adventurousness.

The Chicken Grand Mere was fine, blah blah blah, and we did really well as a team of three. I'm more looking forward to Monday's canapé ingredients, and continuing to use our creativity. I'm also feeling it's time for a Lindsey Kitchen-Available Ingredient Cook-Off…maybe I should go pick up some kooky ingredients like pork belly and red currants…what's wrong Team Steve, getting nervous??

*Tentative. Be prepared for anything…

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wednesday, 5/12/10 – Level 3 Day 12 (Poissonnier)

Following our mock midterm, we all felt a monumental weight off our shoulders (but apparently forgot that the real midterm is fast approaching). We knew that class would be in a different format, leaving the "team of two people making two recipes together per night" deal and moving to a four-person simulated kitchen team. As you know, the classic kitchen has four main stations: Garde Manger, Poissonnier, Saucier and Patissier; each island of 4 stations is meant to simulate a kitchen, so each of the four participants on an island represents one of the stations. So here's where it starts to get confusing, so bear with me…

I started the night as Poissonnier, while the other three kids at my island were the other three stations. I was tasked with making the skate dish (ugh), while they each had a recipe of their own (Consommé, Chicken Grand Mere and Lemon Tart). Chef made his first surprise twist of the night: each island would be given an additional recipe to complete together – the Pots de Crème dessert. Our recipe cards were taken away after 10 minutes, so we had to scramble to pull the memories filed in our brains and try to remember the procedures and full ingredients.

So this might sounds like a busy night, with everyone working on a million different things at once. There was one more addition to our night…the canapé. Behind Chef, we were shown a box of random ingredients: avocados, chorizo, asparagus, Brie, cherry tomatoes, jalapenos, radishes and Shitake mushrooms. Ok…what's the deal, are we being given an entirely new recipe? No, this was the exciting part! We were asked to create a one-bite canapé out of any of the ingredients in the box, or in the entire kitchen, to be presented first. Creativity was important, but appropriate size and eat-ability were the most important aspects of whatever we chose to create. We had a quick island pow-wow, deciding to pull the chorizo, the avocados, the jalapenos and the radishes. Since I was the one who had time to spare after butchering the disgusting skate and wiping the 3-inch layer of slime off my arms, I was tasked with creating most of the canapé while my teammates were busy scrambling to complete their recipes. I pureed some jalapenos with avocado, onions and a dash of lemon juice (with the obvious salt and pepper) to make a spicy modified guacamole. I then pan fried some white bread squares in butter to be the base of our appetizer. If you've never done this before – placed bread in a pan with a copious amount of butter – you have never lived. It crisps up like you wouldn't believe, and stores a little pillow of melty butter in the middle that releases when you take a bite. Woo Wee! My teammate fried a few slices of chorizo, and we began to compile and get ready to present.

We had been told we'd have a BIG SURPRISE tonight and to keep ourselves especially organized and neat to make it as easy as possible. I thought that maybe they'd be returning the ingredients to the storeroom earlier than usual, or perhaps we'd have to give up some of our ingredients yet still make the recipe work. Or maybe we were being filmed for a new ABC music-umentary "Chefs in C Minor" and there would be several close-ups. I quickly practiced my "Who me? Sure, I'll be the soprano" reaction, but no…it was ten times worse.

I was trucking along nicely, had butchered my skate (ugh) into four beautiful and nicely portioned filets, I was finished up the mise en place for the Grenobloise sauce, cutting potatoes into stupid larger-sized footballs called vapeurs and preparing each of the items for our canapés. "Everybody, stop what you're doing right now and don't move." Oh shoot, they finally figured out I ate that grape at the grocery store without paying. "I want you to grab your knives and your tools, and nothing else, and move to the station behind you to pick up where that person left off." Excuse me? EXCUSE ME?? But no! I already did everything for myself! I was all ready for my own skate with my own Grenobloise sauce! My partner had already put her chicken in the oven, and my other partner had cooked his tart dough already!

What ensued was a complete sh*#show. There was terrified screaming, knives were being thrown, people were jumping off the fire escape and calling their spouses to say goodbye. Surely Chef can't be serious, right? Oh, he was serious, very serious.

After we all got over the initial shock, and were able to transfer our tools (and canapé ingredients…thank God) to our new station we had to quickly take stock and assess what had already been done/what needed to be done. I had to tournee more freaking potatoes, but perhaps that was karma punishing me for complaining so much. The skate fillets I was left with were sloppy and incorrectly portioned, and the Pots de Crème that had been made was done with too much milk, and therefore was not solidifying appropriately. It didn't matter, though, because this was our new station and we had to salvage what we could. The lesson learned was that this is what happens in a real kitchen – food is made and prepared, and as a Chef we must come in and create a dish that we're happy with using the available components.

We compiled the canapés starting with a buttery crouton, topped with a slice of crispy chorizo and a swirl of beautiful, bright green spicy sauce and garnished with a curl of red radish peel. Delicious! Others made stuffed cherry tomatoes or used chorizo as their base. Another group made crispy baguette slices and a sort of bruschette.

Luckily, the sauce and skate are cooked last-minute, so I had complete control over that. I made my beurre noisette, or brown butter sauce, threw in some capers, lemon juice, lemon pieces and parsley and poured it over the nicely browned and pan-friend skate fillets. A potato football was put on each plate, and all was presented right on time.

Everything went really well (except for our watery Pots de Crème) and we had a really great time doing it. In that first moment when Chef announced that we'd be packing up and moving to deal with someone else's mess we thought the world was going to end and we'd never be able to get through it. But we did, and ultimately made the best of it. Take my word for it: if you just power through and stay determined, you can get through (almost) any challenge thrown in your path. And for the record, I'd make a killer soprano.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Monday, 5/10/10 – Level 3 Day 11 (Mock Midterm)

If the mock midterm was an overpopulated deer and I was a Monrovia, Indiana deer hunter, I would have KILLED IT! Or if the mock midterm was Shea Stadium in the 1960s and I was John Lennon of the Beatles, I would have ROCKED IT! Ok, now I'm letting things get out of hand, it wasn't that perfect. But my point is that I was incredibly pleased with my performance during our mock midterm, and I happened to do really well.

We were allowed to enter the kitchen at exactly 5:45pm, and drew a slip of paper out of a bowl that told us at which station we'd be and which two recipes we'd be working on (either a fish and a dessert or an appetizer and a meat dish). C4 – Salad Nicoise and Pork Chop with Peppercorn Sauce BABY. We had 10 minutes to review our notes for each recipe and jot down as much as we wanted on a single slip of paper, and then it was Go Time. Considering that the last time I made the seemingly-easy-yet-ridiculously-time-consuming Salad Nicoise I was a few minutes late and my ingredients were slopped on the plate, I wanted to do this one right (Duh, it actually counted this time.) I immediately started cooking the ingredients for the salad, boiling the potatoes and hard-boiling the eggs on the flat top. I also pulled the rack of pork chops out of the fridge and began butchering and cleaning the bones. I took the extra meat and bones, along with some carrot and onion mirepoix and bacon pieces, and browned everything in a pan to start the Sauce Espagnole (which is a component of the Sauce Poivre Vert). As each of my salad garnishes was done, I seasoned them and set them aside. Once the chops were properly portioned and the bone tips were clean, I set those aside in the fridge for later use. I made my vinaigrette for the salad, and began the pork sauce by sweating some shallots and peppercorns and flambéing it all in cognac. Once the sauce was on the fire, I made my Pommes Darphin, a potato garnish for the pork, and set that aside on a rack to drain some of the grease. Phew! At about T-minus 30-minutes until salad presentation, I cleaned the Boston lettuce, laid it out on four plates and took the seeds out of a few Nicoise olives. I realized that I had forgotten the anchovies, had a mini breakdown yet quickly found a container of them in one of the refrigerators – crisis solved. I plated each component separately, giving them a run through the vinaigrette first and a last pinch of salt: tuna, hard-boiled eggs, peeled tomato strips, green peppers, green beans, potato rounds. Each plate got sprinkled with Nicoise olives and chopped parsley, and the mound of tuna in the middle got a little curled anchovy. I took a peek at the clock behind me, and sure enough I was right on. I prepared my "slim" arm muscles to lift the heavy black tray with four ceramic plates, and yelled "Coming through!" as I made my way to the front of the kitchen. I handed each of our two proctoring Chefs a plate, smiled my best "Be nice, I'm fragile" smile at each of them and high-tailed it back to my station to start the pork. It had crossed my mind briefly that I should have brought my palms together and bowed low, but then I decided that not everyone has my sense of humor and it's best to not appear like a smart*%s so I was glad I had quietly returned to my station. Maybe some day the world will understand me…

The chops got seared, and then placed in the oven until they registered at 135˚F (they need to sit for a few minutes, during which they'll continue to cook and come up to temperature). I got my plates nice and warm, seasoned my sauce until I was pleased with its taste and arranged a small bunch of clean watercress on each plate. Two wedges of Pommes Darphin were placed next to it (and got a last pinch of salt…I wondered if I was overdoing the salt on these potatoes - there is such a thing as too much…). Each plate got a pork chop (with the bone on the left, making a large 'b'), and my lovely brown sauce got poured over the lower third of each chop and pooled on the bottom of each plate. Again, the muscles and the yelling, and another dish presented right on time. It took me a few minutes to realize that I was done…no more frantic cooking or running around trying to get things done – I had completed the mock midterm! All of a sudden, I felt the overwhelming sensation that the entire shindig had lasted 12 hours, maybe even 12 days. I couldn't remember how long I had been standing there at my station, chopping and searing and pouring. It was like time had stopped - or had been ticking by at double speed, I couldn't decide. I did a quick uniform-moisture check, wondering how long I had been trapped in this oven-hot hellhole. Result: not too bad, and that helped me remember that it had only been 3.5 hours.

After we were all cleaned up, and the kitchen was sparkling clean again with no hint that there had just been a franticly stressful event, we gathered at the front to hear Chef quickly read off her comments and critiques. I got a smiley face (the only one in the class!!! J ) for my "perfectly seasoned Salad Nicoise." Too bad I used the wrong type of anchovy….how does that happen?? My pork was cooked very well, the sauce was delicious yet the potatoes were too salty. TOO SALTY. I'll take that as a compliment! Overall, the night was great, and I was so proud of myself. I presented both dishes on time, and was incredibly pleased with the taste of everything. The best part? No recipe cards…I did it all by my little self.

I came home to a sleepy husband, and "accidentally" slammed the front door, "dropped" my keys on the wood floor and "stumbled" in my closet. He stirred, and I immediately took liberties, "OMG you're awake!! Yay! Honey, I did so well! I was on time and the pork was good but potatoes too salty but then the salad got a smiley and the eggs were good I ate one but that's about it oh I had a little pork too the sauce was good and peppercorny but the flambé went WHOOSH! and I almost burned my station ha ha ha silly me how funny if I had bowed with 'Hail Caesar' to Chef ha ha ha omg you're awake! Honey? Honey?.....oh well." I guess some people have to get up at 6am…

Monday, May 10, 2010

Friday, 5/7/10 – Level 3 Day 10

Ok, so making Consommé is monumentally easier than Chicken Grand Mere. I guess it took a frantic night of pulling my hair out and setting fires in an 115˚F kitchen with zero air movement to kick my butt into realizing that I have to high-tail it to get these recipes done solo. Although we've been doing only one recipe per night, with the other half of class spent in wine class, working on anything by yourself is stressful, especially in an environment so hot and steamy it felt like Las Vegas in a heat wave. Opposed to Grand Mere, which includes an entire chicken that needs to be trimmed, manchonnered, stuffed and trussed and is served with caramelized pearl onions, crispy bacon, sautéed mushrooms and potato rissoler, all in a perfectly reduced jus, Consommé is simply clarified stock served with a few vegetable cubes.

I began the class by sitting myself down and having a serious pep talk with myself. "Seriously, don't mess this up. I'm not even kidding Jackie, if you can't make freaking Consommé in freaking an hour and a half, you're a freaking &$#%!*^. Stop daydreaming about ponies and rainbows and just get it done ok?" Gee, you didn't need to be so harsh, but I get the point.

I mixed my lean ground beef with the tomatoes, egg whites and various julienned vegetable scraps. I added it all to the marmite (a type of brown stock) and brought that up to a simmer to clarify. In the meantime, I meticulously cut all of the vegetable macedoine cubes, and cooked them separately a l'anglaise. After about 45-50 minutes, I strained the Consommé and degreased it (with paper towels…it's a really scientific process) and put it back on the fire to get it very hot. I had a few minutes to spare (wow!) so I looked around, got myself mentally prepared and started to clean up. I threw my bowls in the oven to get them nice and smoking hot, and put the whole thing together last-minute. It was really, really good (for Consommé that is) and I was very proud of it, although I was more proud of the fact that I had kicked my own butt and had a little time to spare. Chef's only criticism was that I had too many vegetable garnishes in my bowl, but I can tell you that if I had paid $12 for a bowl of broth I'd expect a little over a tablespoon of vegetable cubes. I'm simply fighting for justice for the people.

I drank some Consommé for dinner, and then we all filtered across the hall for day two of wine class. It was much, much better than Wednesday's class - in which I was left wondering why I was embarrassed for thinking wine tasted like wine. We had seven small cups placed in front of us, which contained butter, salt, jelly, salami, smoked almonds, lemon slices and sriracha hot sauce. We were told that we'd be creating some small "recipes" to eat with our wine, and testing the realities of how drastically food can change the taste of a wine. It was absolutely fascinating; we started slow, placing a small bit of salt on our tongues and then tasting a Riesling or a bit of lemon juice with a Sauvignon Blanc. The differences were unbelievable, and from that moment on I was a believer. I am starting to realize that perhaps the reason why I don't enjoy wine is because I've never had a really great pairing, and it's possible I've been drinking my Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck with the completely incorrect meal, causing it to taste too oaky and astringent (do you like how I threw in some new wine-tasting terms??).

Things started to get a little complicated, and we started creating "meals" with our ingredients. We had three different Syrahs to test, two very expensive Old World styles and one very cheap and manufactured pseudo-Australian brand (that contains the name of the color of the sun and the name of the animal body part that extends from the spine). We first made Pad Thai Takeout – a smoked almond dipped in jelly and hot sauce, with a drop of lemon juice. Now, I have a very colorful imagination, often seeing entire scenes play out before me that exist solely in my mind, but the Pad Thai was unreal – it required absolutely no imagination because it tasted exactly like it! To "complement" the Pseudo-Australian Yet Really American Sun-Colored Animal-Body-Part Poorly Manufactured and Fake Tasting Shiraz we concocted "American Barbecue" – a piece of salami with a little bit of butter, a dollop of jelly with hot sauce and a smoked almond. Holy Smokes, it sure was BBQ, but unfortunately nothing could mask the taste of that wine. I promise I'm not trying to act like a wine snob, in fact the mere thought of me being a wine snob is hilarious (Note to self: Practice 'Wine Snob' persona for next dinner party. Second note to self: Try to get invited to a dinner party). It is very obvious, though, when tasting a crappy wine right after a very expensive and historic vintage wine. It is also very interesting to sample different cuisines and food combinations with various regional wines. While I only spent 6 hours with a professional sommelier, tasting and discussing some interesting wines, I'd like to think I feel a little more confident with the pairings. While it'll take a few years of tasting, pairing and experimentation, I think my dear husband will be along for the ride. Now, in addition to an "Italy Trip Fund," a "School Loan Payoff Fund" and a "Feline Medical Bills Fund" we have to start a "Wine Tasting Fund." I'm glad one of us is employed…

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wednesday, 5/5/10 – Level 3 Day 9 (Happy Cinco de Mayo!)

Gooood news everyone! You are now looking at (a.k.a. reading from) a real-life ServeSafe Certified cook! Woo hoo! According to the National Restaurant Association, I am, in their eyes, educated enough to recognize health concerns and hazards in a kitchen environment! I have a shiny new stamped certificate to prove it, and plan on adding this to my resume STAT. I thought I botched that scantron test a few weeks ago, but I actually passed with flying colors.

To be honest, I wasn't incredibly pleased with my performance last night in our first class working solo. I've made Chicken Grand Mere so many times now, but I had kind of a rude awakening. My problem was that I assumed I had so much time, and was leisurely peeling pearl onions and turning potato cocottes…all of a sudden we had 25 minutes left and I was scrambling. In the end, I was only 5 minutes late, but my pearl onions weren't sufficient and my potatoes rissoler were subpar. Part of the problem was that we each had an oven, a single burner and a half of a flat top to work with, which poses some difficult problems for a dish that has four different vegetable garnitures to cook separately and a sauce to reduce. If you've ever tried to cook anything on a flat top, it's basically like cooking on an open fire: it's either too hot or not hot enough.

When I finally presented my dish, there was a sort of back-up to get to the Chefs. By the time I got up there, Chef took his dry erase marker and wrote '6 mins late' on my plate. "Um, Chef? Hi, it's Jackie. In my defense, I was up here at 5-after," but the look he gave me clearly said "late is late." In the end, I had a great jus, my chicken was a beautiful golden brown and portioned correctly, and my bacon lardons and mushrooms were nice. The potatoes weren't great, duh, and thank goodness Chef didn't taste the onions…

So I learned that I need to pick up the pace and work with a purpose, even if it seems I have all the time in the world, and I need to learn how to better regulate my flat top, because I won't survive without it. I think I've got the basics down, and the skills I need to survive, I just need to work on timing.

After we presented our dishes (the other half of the class worked on Consommé) we quickly cleaned up the kitchen, had about 2 minutes to shove something in our stomachs and had to run across the hall to start our wine class. The French Culinary Institute does an amazing job training us on the full culinary experience, which inevitably includes wine pairings for the delicious food we create. Many people claim that French food is too strong and intense, often too salty, but it's important to remember that the entire cuisine is built around the assumption that you will be consuming acidic wine while eating. Salt and acidity are perceived with the same flavor receptors, so if you have a glass of wine before dinner, the seasoning in the food you eat will be underplayed and overlooked – so it must be increased!

Everyone who knows me understands that I'm not a huge drinker. I rarely have a drink, wine included, and am happy at a bar with a Diet Coke or (gasp!) water. Some might think this is lame, and I'm prepared for your comments, but it's just not something I enjoy. The part that frustrates my dear husband, I think, is that I always act like I'm totally up for it, coming home with bottles of wine and margarita mixes and ordering $15 cocktails at expensive Manhattan clubs. Inevitably, I drink about $3 worth of that cocktail, and he ends up finishing my entire glass of wine he poured at the beginning of dinner. I guess part of me deep down wishes I enjoyed a nice Cabernet or an expensive Caribbean rum…I just don't. I was, however, very excited for wine class. As much as I don't enjoy wine, I sure like to act like I know what I'm talking about so a little bit of professional education doesn't hurt.

We started with a lecture by one of the instructors at FCI, who spent several years as the executive chef at a famous Napa Valley winery and made it her personal goal to become a sommelier. She went through the basics: region of origin, grape varieties, flavor factors, etc. We then tasted the "Big 6": Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Since this was an educational experience, and because we hadn't eaten dinner and some of my classmates are under 21, we were asked to simply swish and spit out the wine, instead of swallowing it. That was good news for me, because I get even sillier and more flushed after sipping red wine on an empty stomach (more than I already am naturally, that is). After smelling and swishing, we were asked to record our thoughts, including any flavors and aromas we perceived. Note: I am terrible at distinguishing tastes and smells…and am amazed by people who smell "Granny Smith apples, with a hint of English nutmeg and Christmas morning." Bull…how is that possible?? My notes look a little something like this:

Riesling: Smells like gasoline, sweet and winey

Sauvignon Blanc: Cat pee? Grapey and tastes like wine

Chardonnay: Wine-ish?

Pinot Noir: Made mouth tingle, tasted like fermented red grapes

Merlot: More tingle, less grape-ish. Hint of subway (transit system not sandwich chain)

Cabernet Sauvignon: Most tingle, tastes like raisins (grapes?)

So Le Cirque won't be hiring me as their next famous sommelier, but I think I did pretty well…it's all subjective anyways. Where I smelled cat pee, others smelled "fresh cilantro, spring fava beans and avocado rind." Seriously people?? Crazy enough, there's actually a kid in my class who works in the tasting department at Wine Spectator, so maybe if I sit next to him on Friday I'll smell something different.

With all of the "serve this with that" and "don't drink that with this" rules that exist out there, we were left with a solid guideline for future wine pairings, something that is helpful for all of you at home as well: never let your food be sweeter than your wine!



Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Monday, 5/3/10 – Level 3 Day 8 (Saucier)

Ok, this shiz is flying by. I cannot even believe I'm almost halfway through level 3, which is halfway through culinary school. When I started back in January I was afraid of whole chickens, didn't use nearly enough salt, there was snow on the ground and I would reserve Saturdays and Sundays for trying "hard" recipes. Now, I can truss and stuff a chicken in under 5 minutes, have a kosher salt holder next to me at all times, it is steaming hot in NYC and I make an average of nine "advanced" recipes per week. It's very exciting to think back to those days, and how far I've already come. I can't imagine how cool levels 4, 5 and 6 are going to be, and I just know my cooking will be on a completely different level as I near graduation.

Monday was our last day in Saucier, and our last day working through the kitchen in groups and with a clear progression through each section. Starting Wednesday, we will be working solo as we prepare for our midterm. Yikes. It's very comforting to have someone else working across from you toward the same goals and end result. My partner and I have really gotten to know how each other work, and we've become incredibly effective together considering we've been partners since the middle of Level 2. I trust him completely, and we cook and work in a way that complements each other. Every so often, he'll say, "Jackie, I'm tired tonight so you're going to need to boss me around," and naturally I take that opportunity to be a drill sergeant. Other nights, we're both making sauces and chopping vegetable paysanne, and it truly is a team effort. We take a lot of pride in our end dishes, something that has driven us to strive for perfection.

We had a really great Monday night. The second night of Saucier is a little bit easier, and I stress 'a little bit.' We made seared center-cut pork chops with a green peppercorn sauce and served with watercress and two Pommes Darphin (potato julienne fried into a large stringy patty) wedges. Our second dish was short ribs in a fortified veal broth, served with carrots, turnips, potatoes, celery and leeks. We got our short ribs going first, simmering them in veal stock for at least two hours. I threw in a few vegetable scraps to the stock, which created an end product that Chef called "incredibly rich." We then started the sauce, browning the pork bones with some mirepoix, and then adding some wine and stock and letting it cook down into a nice beautiful Sauce Espagnole. We added the Espagnole to our shallots and green peppercorns, flambéed with cognac, and let the whole thing cook down with some heavy cream. For the ribs, each of the vegetables were cooked in with the veal stock, removed separately when done. (A good way to do this is to wrap each type of vegetable in cheesecloth and just drop the packets in the liquid, removing a packet when ready.)

We seasoned and seared the chops in oil (with a tiny bit of butter for flavor) and finished them in the oven to bring them up to temperature and cook the insides. Chef thought our dish was great, although our sauce was the tiniest bit over-reduced. Our chops were beautiful, and the potatoes were great. Ok, on to the ribs. We heated our bowls, placed a nice little package of short ribs in the middle and filled the edge with the various vegetables. The empty stock got strained and reduced a small bit, and seasoned liberally. It got poured over the top, and the whole thing was served with a horseradish cream sauce (called Sauce Raifort) on the side. I had heard from past groups that Chef likes the spice, so I threw copious amounts of horseradish into our sauce. It made my eyes water and cleared out 25 years of mucus from my head, but he tasted it and absolutely loved it. To each his own!

Wednesday I'll be making Chicken Grand Mere, all by my little self. We're working towards being able to create these dishes without the use of notes or recipes, on which we'll be tested in a few short weeks. We were told that in exactly a week we'll be able to come into the class with our note cards, gather our mise en place for the night and then be required to turn all recipes in to Chef and work completely from intuition and memory. Like I need another thing to worry about, the thought of our impending midterm makes my internal temperature rise and I get all twitchy and fidgety. I can get away with denial for now, but in a few weeks I'll have to face my fate. Let's hope I can just distinguish Pâte Brisée from Pâte Sucrée and Sauce Americaine from Sauce Poivre Vert. Crap.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Friday, 4/30/10 – Level 3 Day 7 (Saucier)

I had heard rumors about this night, and witnessed my frantic classmates tournee-ing potatoes with one hand and trussing a chicken with the other, and then peeling pearl onions while simultaneously rolling out pasta. I knew it was a demanding night, the first round of Saucier, but I knew I'd be able to handle it.

Correction, I knew my partner and I could handle it. So when he hadn't arrived by the start of class, I started to get nervous. I had visions of raw chicken, burnt bacon and an unintentional kitchen fire flowing through my brain, and could practically hear the sirens as the ambulances approached the school, ready to take the paring knife out of my eye and put ointment on my charred knee. Needless to say, I felt the beginning of a nervous breakdown coming on. It turns out that was all for nothing – it just so happens that one of the other groups in my "brigade" was missing a partner, so us two lonelies joined forces and worked together. Phew…I was convinced I was going to crash and burn. After the sauce incident on Wednesday, I was having some issues with my confidence.

We got our beef in the oven for the bourguignon first, then made the pasta dough so that it could rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour. We trussed our chicken for the Grand Mere and threw that in the oven as well. We made all of our garnishes for each (caramelized pearl onions, potatoes rissoler, sautéed bacon and mushrooms) and cut out the pasta, cooked it and tossed it in parsley and butter and got our sauces reduced and finished. Everything went really really well, and we plated both dishes just on time. Gratefully, our reviews were shining: delicious sauce here, perfectly cooked chicken there. Chef even savored the beef, smiling and telling us it was "really, really good." It felt great to have such a successful night after such a crappy failure the class before. I only wish my partner had been there to enjoy the beauties of Chicken Grand Mere and Beef Bourguignon!

I decided to let that success carry over into the weekend, and redeemed myself by making a perfect salmon with white wine sauce on Saturday night. It was absolutely amazing, although I made a huge mess in our small kitchen and used about every single pan we have. That's what they're for though, right? Lesson learned: treating a husband with unbelievable food makes him more willing to do the dishes. I also made the Beef Bourguignon for a fancy Sunday night dinner, and the results were…delectable:

I discovered a secret society last week that reeled me into a world full of history and magic quicker than I could say 'onomatopoeia'. I was walking to the grocery store down the street when I happened to stumble across a large brick building. Upon seeing a pretty blue banner with a large red lion on it, I decided to step inside and investigate this fascination on my own. As I crossed the marble foyer I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I was home; the smell of decades-old glue and dusty shelves hit me like a wall and took me back to childhood summers spent among racks and racks of biographies, fiction and Choose Your Own Adventures. They call this place a library (sp?), the New York Public Library to be exact. I approached the nice woman at the Information counter, and immediately signed up for a membership to this heaven on earth. They must have noticed something special in me, so they let me take home two books for free, and promised that once those books are returned I can take out another few books…for free! In fact, I was told I can come whenever I want and touch the bindings of the old dictionaries, smell the pages of the bestsellers and put the new Jen Lancaster book on hold once it's received. I probably shouldn't even be writing to the public about my new secret, but it was so good I had to share it with you, my dear friends. I'd even be willing to check out a book for you if you'd like, for a small fee of course. Don't you wish you had one of these 'libraries' in your home town??


When you cook bacon, don't waste that beautiful and fragrant fat that is rendered! Save it in a tin can and use it when you cook chicken, vegetables or anything else that requires a little fat (butter or oil) in the pan. Just be conscious that it will impart a smoky and bacony taste to your food – but that's usually a good thing.