Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

This term has gone by so fast, we're already preparing for our final luncheon in International Cuisine. One last chance for all of us to show them what we've got. This time around, we're going to do an entire meal of appetizers, each representing a different country or cooking style. I'm doing another Thomas Keller recipe, Blinis with Eggplant Caviar and Roasted Red Peppers. I mixed up the batter for the blinis yesterday but I couldn't get it to the right consistency. Whenever I tried to fry some on the stove, the bottom burned before the middle was done. I tried every variation of adjusting the temperature, I tried thinning it out with more cream, adding another egg; finally I wrapped it up and put it in the fridge to relax. Better luck tomorrow. Other dishes will include Mini-Quiche Lorraine, Spanikopita, Beef Empanadas, Strawberry Rugalach, and Prior's famous buffalo chicken.

Another neat thing that happened yesterday was that we had several high school students come visit our department. I think we made a good impression, but they were kind of shy! We all sat together in the demo lab, Chef Gordon told them about the program, and some of us students gave our own testimony as well. It's really cool to connect with kids at this level, although none of them were very talkative, I enjoyed seeing so many people at once who are interested in cooking. Sure, they didn't know any of the famous chefs that Gordon expects any kitchen geek to know, but I didn't either until recently. Like me, they are here because they love to cook. We all express and embody that differently. I hope that some of the students I met yesterday end up in our program. We need to grow!

Tomorrow night I'm helping out at a food and wine pairing party in the demo lab, which I did last week as well. I've volunteered to do a demonstration of my Mini Chicken Wellingtons, they're easy and elegant at the same time, so they'll be a good crowd-pleaser. Last week was fun, I got to work with a few underclassmen to help plate, and I even got to take home some leftovers--always a good end to the day!

Next week we're going to Tassel Ridge Winery, I'm looking forward to it! Until I started school here, I didn't even know that there were any wineries in Iowa, I'd always assumed that all the US had were in California and Oregon. It'll definitely be a learning experience. The last field trip we went on to Honey Creek Resorts was really interesting. It's the only resort in the state, it has beautiful grounds, an impressive restaurant, and an indoor waterpark! They told us about what's going to be available once winter relinquishes its icy grip: an 18-hole golf course, docks for boating and fishing, maybe even horses! I could take up several pages describing the place in detail, but to save me the time, I've posted the website on the left-hand side of my blog. A couple of my classmates have even arranged internships there already. Maybe I'll just have to go "visit" them...

Today Chef David Jensen came to give us a demonstration of ice-carving. He showed us his tools of the trade and then carved a marlin out of a 300-lb block of ice! I'll post some pictures as soon as I can! We even got to see him save it when he accidentally chopped off the fish's tail, he just poured on some water and froze it back together. He's been in the ice-carving business for nearly 30 years, and his portfolio shows it! It was really cool to have him come over to show his stuff, and not just because it got us out of taking a test today ;-)

Chef Jensen also works as a chef in a hospital, and he told us about the many ways that that unsuspecting facet of the industry is changing. As far as I remember, hospital food wasn't anything to get excited about, but it sounds like lots of places are making improvements with their selection. It actually got me thinking of maybe working in one someday. It would be kind of cool if I ended up working at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, since I've "enjoyed" a couple of stays there in the past. With their health plan, I could get a heart check-up without paying through the nose. Not a bad gig. In a weird way, it would feel like coming home. I still remember the smell of the place.

The rest of our day was devoted to detail-cleaning the kitchen. I'm proud to say that the grill is cleaner than it's been since we've gotten it. A couple of us doused it in degreaser, scrubbed it until the back of it shone. Then we took the grates off and ran it through the dishwasher. I hope it won't rust.

I got another pleasant surprise this week while looking through the French Laundry cookbook. I found Thomas Keller's plating picture of his "Peas and Carrots" and it looked pretty close to the plate presentation I'd used with for our Contemporary American dinner earlier this month. The only difference was that he used pea shoots and all I had was arugula, but I'm sure that if for whatever reason, the French Laundry might one day be fresh out of pea shoots, he would agree that arugula does just as well.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

All is right with my world

I spent the first part of the morning doing two things: fabricate a tray of cornish game hens and try to keep warm! For some reason, the hoods over the stoves were blowing in freezing cold air, we could all see our breath! But I figured I've worked in worse conditions, and I might work in worse ones in the future, so I rolled my sleeves back down and fired up the grill to warm up the room. After the hens were done, Chef told me to just "do something with them for an appetizer", whatever I wanted, my discretion. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do, we had a cambro of chopped mushrooms, so I made a duxelle, sauteed with onions and butter. I cut the breasts in half and topped each one with some of the duxelle, and wrapped it in puff pastry. Mini chicken Wellingtons, served on a pool of the same carrot-ginger emulsion from a few nights ago. It was a good combination, Chef seemed to be pleased with it, too. I should have made more!

After lunch, we came back to the lab (still in igloo), and were given similar instructions as this morning: make something out of all this chicken. This time, I froze up. I couldn't find something that sounded good, or that we had the product for, or wasn't too similar to something we've made recently. After much thought, I finally came up with something that's pretty basic, but that I've never made and always wanted to: chicken carbonara. It only took a minute to gather together the ingredients, and only a glance at the recipe, and I was rolling! I put some leg quarters in a roasting pan, drizzled on some olive oil and tri-mix, and threw them in the oven for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I got the pasta water boiling and the eggs and cream whisked together. I plated it up for a picture, sprinkled it with basil chiffonade, and arranged some leg quarters with it. By the time I had it ready, though, my class had been eating all day, so I'd ended up making way too much. It was then my sad duty to take it home to my dorm :-) I love my major!

I also got my deposit in for the trip to France, so I felt good about getting that done. It makes it feel that much closer. In recent weeks, I've ceased to dread the future and just figure I'll roll with it. Everything is starting to seem like it's falling into place. I'll probably intern at the new Italian restaurant in Decorah (my mom even said if I don't get enough hours there to satisfy my requirements, she could find a few jobs for me as a "personal chef" for a few "private parties" Translation: cooking for her and her work friends. I suggested a "Take This Job and Shove It" party. Ha! Thanks, Mom ). My classwork isn't nearly as daunting as it seemed at first, I have one project done and two to go. I'll be able to get them done with no trouble.

I had an idea a couple nights ago that my classmates and I should meet up in the lab some night and have a pre-graduation party sometime before the term is over. Once this term wraps up, we start going our different ways. If we all got together and each made a course, whether it was a signature dish of ours or something we've discovered and wanted to try out, it could be a lot of fun. I hope we can do something like that. I ran the idea by a few classmates, and Chef Gordon, and they all seem to be on board, so that would be a good last hurrah for us.

On a very non-culinary related note, I just downloaded my first mp3. I found a song I liked on a youtube video and just...wanted it. I'd never considered it before, I was happy to either just rip my existing cds onto the computer and copy them onto my little mp3 player, or to have friends send me music files to augment my library. I actually felt little bratty, just "I like this song, I want it, click, mine!" It's funny how technology is. I have the smallest player on the market, a 2G, but 10 years ago if I wanted to have 400 songs to take with me on a car trip, I would've had to pack a whole suitcase of cds. Now it's more than common for people to carry a couple thousand tracks in their pocket at any given time. That goes beyond anything I would imagine needing. A downside to the mp3 "culture" is that it ruins already perfectly laid-out albums, by concentrating on selling songs as singles. Two albums that I couldn't imagine breaking up are the Beatles "Abbey Road" (especially the B side, they all flow into each other seamlessly, truly a thing of beauty) and Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon". I'm sure there are many more, but those are two of my favorites to listen to all the way through. They were crafted to go together!

Tomorrow's the field trip, I hope the weather is clear. I can't wait!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

First week back, very eventful!

This afternoon my class hosted a luncheon for 25 invited guests. We've been preparing all week, no easy feat on the first week back from break! I think we were all a little rusty after being off duty for so long. Still, once we got back into the rhythm, things started to straighten out and our movements became more natural and purposeful. I made the appetizers: Lobster Crepes with a Ginger-Carrot Emulsion, served with an arugula chiffonade in a shallot-balsamic dressing. It was bright and colorful and very tasty. The recipe is Thomas Keller's "Peas and Carrots", and I'd love to make this again. One of the guests even asked for the recipe and asked me how I did it! I'm not always the best at talking to people, but when I'm familiar with the subject I'm much more comfortable, so I didn't even feel on the spot. The recipe looks a little intimidating at first glance, but when you have a few days to prepare it, it can easily be broken up into separate parts. On the first day I boiled the lobsters, chopped up the meat, and began making the lobster glaze which would act as a powerful flavoring agent when mixed into the rest of the filling. I boiled down about 2 gallons of lobster stock to about a cup. Now, in my opinion, that would be fit even just for dipping bread into! The part that pleases me about it most is that when most people cook lobster, at least at home, they just throw the shells away! Gone, without ever realizing their full potential! I love making stocks for that very reason, it's like being in on a secret. It's a relatively inexpensive product with infinite possibilities. The next few days were devoted to mixing the lobster meat with ricotta cheese and lobster glaze, trying to figure out how to make a reduction of carrot juice thicken up (the secret? diced potato simmered in the juice, whipped with an immersion blender! Who'da thought?) and making the crepes. Each thing by itsself isn't difficult at all, so sometimes you can't just look at the whole picture at once, sometimes it's better to break it down into it's root components and go from there. Suddenly, anything seems much more do-able!

The kitchen is a great environment to learn things about myself. For example, today a classmate was making uncalled-for rude implications at me, but never actually coming out and *saying* it, he just kept trailing off without finishing a sentence. That's just his way sometimes and we've all dealt with it in each of our own ways. Today, though, I called him on it, demanding that he has something to say, to come out and say it to my face like a man. I actually stood up for myself, and it felt good. Normally if someone or something bothers me I just pretend it doesn't; not a very efficient coping strategy, I know. I felt the strength to fight my own little good fight today because I knew that I didn't have to take his attitude.

Next week, my class is going on a trip to a new resort that just opened in September. It's called Honey Creek Resorts, outside of Centerville, and it sounds like a really nice place. The food-and-beverage director and head chef came to our campus to talk to us about it, and in the end inviting us all over for a tour of the facilities! I can't wait to see it, it sounds like they've already captured major attention. They seemed like decent people to work for, too, they know how to take care of their employees.

I know that in the restaurant industry, most places can't afford to pay much, but that doesn't really matter to me as much as knowing that I'm noticed and appreciated for the work I put in. You would be amazed the wonder a sincere "thank-you" does when crew morale is low. For the boss to take five seconds to say "You're doing a fine job" can mean a lot. Places I've worked have had ways of showing appreciation, whether it was buying us lunch, or letting us pick the music we play while working. Ah, memories!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Long, Dark Tea-time of the Soul

Break's almost over, I face a long drive back to campus tomorrow and the weather reports aren't helping.
Then last night I found out that the ACF forum's been scrapped. I'm pissed. We'd only just gotten it started. Just before break, it seems, Chef Gordon was signing us all up for it, adding new avatars that impeccably expressed our personalities. I would check the forum a couple times a day to see the news. I'm going to miss that. I wonder if anyone else is upset about this.