Culinary School

Love Notes to Culinary School by Anne

I've had almost a year post-graduation to reflect on my experience of culinary school, and it's almost been enough time to clear the weird post-school haze out of my brain. There was so much focus, angst, passion, apathy, tomfoolery, testosterone, and Sriracha sauce behind the scenes.   Soon I hope to share useful or interesting info and ideas from school that I learned along the way but was too harried to sit down and jot out, let alone photograph.

But meanwhile, for today, here are a few pictures.  I've had the joy of being "allowed" around campus with my camera.  I hoped to give a sense of what life is like at Seattle Culinary Academy when people are in the zone.  It's a great school--in my opinion, the best one around here.   I love the fact that we didn't just learn traditional French cookery, although that was one component.  Where else in the world would I have an intense, high speed opportunity to learn about and cook different cuisines around the world, from Japanese to Oaxacan to Middle Eastern?

Then, of course, there was the sustainability component.  At school they had classes on sustainability in the world of food.  This focus ranged from farm to restaurant to policy-building.  The classes--and the instructors' passion--were key to the quality of the program, in my opinion.  They were inspiring and motivating.  There were farm visits, growing our own greens in the campus greenhouse, and practicing nose-to-tail butchery (using the whole animal).

We learned fundamentals, such as making a good stock, sauces, and how to season properly.

bakeshop.spreading
bakeshop.spreading

I know less of the pastry side of things because the program is separated so that you select culinary or pastry for your focus.  I did have several rotations in the bakeshop (or as the culinary students called, it, Bakation. It really does have a balmy, dreamy vibe in there).  However, my friends in the program liked it as well.  It's just a completely different experience, the two programs-within-a-program.

One thing that impressed me about the chef instructors is their desire to see us succeed beyond the program.  In other words, if people needed a job they would definitely look to the instructors, who would help them find leads using their own connections in the industry.  They weren't just great teachers, they were mentors.  People sort of gravitated towards their favorites.  One of mine is pictured below, preparing for a modernist cuisine lesson.

It wasn't my favorite part of the program, but we also did "Front of House" training (i.e., serving the guests/customers in the two restaurants the school runs).  I used to wait tables, and how in the heck did I do it?  I must have changed.  Some people really do an amazing job of it, making it look effortless--they appear gracious, friendly, and thoughtful.  I only hope that I appeared that way, but inside I felt awkward, physically uncomfortable, and grumpy.  There is a real psychic toll that it takes, and I don't even know why.  Guests would be perfectly nice, and yet by the end of the shift I would be gasping to get out of my uniform like it was made out of lead.  Anyway, I have a true respect for waiters that I only thought I had before.  In my opinion, being in the kitchen was better, but front of house workers can make or break a restaurant.

One of my favorite parts of school, that I wish I could keep doing forever, was experimenting and recipe developing.  What a fun job it would be to create new, delicious dishes out of a given palate of flavors.   It would be a bonus if I could do this with healthy, sustainably grown, beautiful food.  I've had a little bit of a chance to do that out of school for my various jobs, so that feeds me, so to speak. 

Making Sole Meunière by Anne

sole.meuniere

sole.meuniere

Filet of Sole Meunière

Fat, buttery snowflakes are plopping on the front yard, and I'm not even glad.  Why?  Because I want to go to school tomorrow--to have the opportunity to make braised sweetbreads.  As in, cow's thymus gland.  I didn't think I'd be excited about it, but today I put them into water to soak overnight, and once I had my hands on them, I was very intrigued by their complete oddity.  My classmate told me today that getting the membranes off is a pain in the neck.  The curiosity has taken over.  What will it be like?  Also, how will it taste after braising a couple hours in a sauce?

Today I cooked up some Filet of Sole Meunière at school (24 times).  You can look up the recipe for this just about anywhere, but I'd like to share with you some of the techniques, guidelines, and tricks taught to me by Chef KG and also by Steve, a 5th Quarter who was helping in the kitchen today.

Sole Meunière is a simple and intensely tasty way to eat your butter.  It's fried in butter, then served with a lemony butter sauce.

Heat your pan over medium-high to high heat, without adding fat yet.  Sprinkle your fish with salt and pepper.

After the pan is hot (no need to use a non-stick if you do this right), add clarified butter.  As you let the butter heat up, dredge the fish in flour.  Only do this at the last minute or the flour will get gummy.

The fish is then fried in the hot clarified butter, on both sides. Using clarified butter for this is great because it has a higher smoke point.  Your fish is so thin that you'll want to use high heat to get a nice, crusty finish on each side before that sucker is all cooked through.  It only takes a couple of minutes.

It's a delicate fish.  Flip once.  Start with presentation side down (flesh side, not skin side--even if the skin is off) on the pan.

After removing the sole and arranging it on your serving plate, you add some (not-clarified) butter to the pan and brown it, making "beurre noisette."  Noisette means hazelnut.  The milk solids in butter become brown and nutty in appearance and aroma.

After you finish browning your butter--hence adding more complex flavors to the sauce you're building in the pan, you add some lemon juice.

Here's a trick Steve taught me today with that lemon juice.  Tilt the pan over your heat so that all the butter is at the bottom.  Add the lemon juice from the top, so it runs down the super-hot pan to finally reach the butter at the bottom.  By doing this, you reduce the lemon juice briefly, in its trip down.  I have no idea how much reduction you get by doing that, but it sure is fun.

After the lemon juice, add chopped parsley to your sauce.  Quickly swirl, then pour over the fish on the plate(s).  Garnish with lemon slices and more parsley (if desired).

Lots of Hustle by Anne

2.1.11.phad thai
2.1.11.phad thai

 I was doing so well with a weekly update of school.   Then the last four weeks happened.   It's been hard to reflect this quarter.  My days at school have gone something like: "Then we made this thing.  Then we made this other thing. Then we did that.  Then we did another thing." Go, go, go, a go-go. No wonder I'm so dang tired right now.  There's been a big heaping of hustle-your-bustle this quarter.  I really get what people meant about 2nd Quarter showing you what you're really made of.  Yep.  I definitely am seeing the stuff I'm made of.   Just not a lot of time to think about it.

One of my classmates has been cooking in commercial kitchens for 15 years, since he was 16.  Another was the head of a kitchen for many many years.   They are not as challenged as the rest of us.  But as for the rest of us... whew.

In order, the four last weeks' stations were:

1. Sous Chef (My partner and I did the leading thing for the rest of the class that week)

2. Breakfast/Asian Station (Two days of making breakfast-for-lunch, then two days for making the assigned Asian dishes)

3. Butchery (We fabricated meats needed by our classmates for their dishes, plus we make our own entrée for Student Lunch)

4. Sushi/Stocks, Sauces & Soups (Two days of sushi, one day of stocks & sauces, then one day in the Bistro kitchen making soup for the actual Public At Large)

These were intense weeks.  Sous Chef was alright, actually.  I activated my inner Sixth Grade Teacher and got organized.  It felt like a successful week, and I received good feedback from people about how the kitchen was "run."

Even so, it was exhausting.  At times I had some misanthropic feelings, especially towards folks who acted ungracious when we served them lunch.  There were not many of them, but they sucked.  As they say, the only people complaining about student lunch are the people who are not making student lunch.

I didn't complain last quarter, and I sure as hell will not complain in quarters to come.  On principle.  Even if they serve me crap-on-a-plate.  I'll just eat salad.  I've seen it from the front lines: people are doing their best.

Breakfast and Asian Station were fun but took longer than I would have expected.  My favorite parts of that week were making phad thai with an industrial wok (the dish pictured above was my practice run of that dish), and the shirred eggs and "overnight" waffles with yeast.  A pastry student from the program asked me for the recipe for the waffles.  Waffle awesomeness!

Butchery was a station that I expected to love but then didn't.  I left school every day feeling frustrated and raw.  I liked the actual butchery part, but I think there were some ways that the station was set up that weren't conducive to our learning.  Here's some meat!  Go! 

Even so, I had some good experiences that week. My partner and I deboned chickens while still intact (remember when Chef showed us earlier in the quarter? Now we can do it, too!!)  and made a "ballotine" by rolling it with a stuffing, cinnamon-roll-style, then serving it with a Madeira sauce.  I also got to make a smoked pork roast that I deboned myself.  In the near future I need to continue to work on chicken fabrication, because our end-of-quarter knife competency will be cutting up chickens in different ways, in a certain number of minutes.

This week my sushi rotation went well, although slow.  Anyone in the sushi station has to decide: perfect and beautiful sushi, or get 'er out there?  I, and the helpers that were assigned to me, tried to make mostly beautiful sushi.   So I wouldn't call us early.  Anyway, I'm glad we got it out without Chef KG saying, "Where's the sushi?"  (Which he will do, if you're too, too late).  One thing I felt proud of in this station was my mis en place (how all my ingredients were set up before I got started).  Things were organized and neat.  This felt good, especially with a project that has so many ingredients.  Also especially because my mis en place outside of school is more like "Holy crap, where's the baking soda?!?"

Soup station yesterday was a wonderful moment in time.  I was in the 3rd Quarter kitchen, and it was one of the most relaxed days I've had in the kitchen so far.   There wasn't much to do, and everyone was relatively chilled out.  After making some salmon chowder and cleaning & steaming some mussels, I had a chance to taste eight or nine dishes from the 5th quarter "COD (Chef of the Day)" project.  This was inspiring and fascinating.  3 students' menus were being presented that day, so plate after beautiful plate was being sent back to the kitchen for Chef Vicky to grade.

After she finished tasting and rating a plate, she would put it on the counter, which happened to be at my station, for the students to try.  People would come over with spoons to taste, reflect, and react.  I was ladling up stock into containers to freeze, so I just went through a soothing process of taste, ladle, reflect, taste, ladle,  reflect.  Having the time to ponder on  different flavor combinations was so different from the rest of this action-packed quarter.  It felt collegial, magical.  Everyone passing by was interested and had a different, personal reaction to what they tried.

It was also cool to listen to the chefs' reactions.  The beets gratin from an Eastern Bloc menu, which I particularly loved, were also exciting to Chef Vicky.  She pointed out that the crisp part at the bottom was particularly delicious.  A few minutes later I passed through Chef KG's (our) kitchen and saw the same dish sitting there at a table.  I commented to Chef KG that I loved that gratin, and he said, "Yeah.  A little overcooked,though."  Really?  I went to taste it again, from the dish in his kitchen, and sure enough, that plate's gratin had a little tougher consistency than the one in 3rd quarter kitchen.  I wonder what happened to make the two gratins turn out so differently.  I also wonder what it will be like in just a few quarters when I'm making my own COD project.

There have been some other glimmers of excitement and culinary inspiration:  Yesterday morning Chef KG showed us some fun cuts and garnishes, including making cherry blossoms (and plum blossoms) from carrots, and carving a ball inside a cage with a potato.  Who cares if you never cook with that potato? It is so dang cool.  I will definitely carve another one and take a pic for your amusement.

Also, there's a tapas competition coming up at school.  The two winners will then go to Spain to compete with people around the world with their tapas.  I'm going to submit some ideas to Chef Karen (which is what we're supposed to do to see if we qualify for the next round).  So my mind is constantly mumbling to itself about flavor ideas right now.  It's a good feeling.

Anyway, I'm tired.  I feel compelled, for posterity's sake, to record what I "produced" in these last 16 school days:

Breakfast:

  • Shirred eggs with gruyere and cayenne
  • Eggs Benedict with shaved ham
  • Omelets with shallots, mushrooms, and fresh thyme
  • Eggs over easy
  • Light & fluffy pancakes
  • Overnight waffles (with yeast)
  • Hash browns
  • Sausage

Asian Station

  • Tenshin Don (Rice bowl with crab omelet, peas, and sauce)
  • Phad Thai

Butchery

  • Chicken Ballotine with Madeira Sauce
  • Smoked Pork Shoulder
  • Roasted Chicken au Jus Lié

Sushi

  • Nigiri:
    • Ebi (shrimp)
    • Atsuyaki Tamago (omelet)
    • Unagi (freshwater eel)
    • Hosomaki (small rolls with nori on outside of roll):
      • Kampyo (dried, rehydrated gourd) roll
      • Tekuwan (pickled daikon radish) roll
      • Kappa Maki (cucumber roll)
      • California roll
      • Futomaki ("Fat" roll with tamago, kampyo, spinach, mushroom, and denbu--pink fish flakes)

Stocks and Sauces:

  • Espagnole sauce
  • Brown roux
  • Halibut fumet

Soups

  • Salmon chowder

Gifts by Anne

IMG_9761
IMG_9761

The picture above--of my daughter and me enjoying a creation that took patience and several days to create, has nothing to do with the cooking I've been doing this week.  That picture would be a blur. Second Quarter's Practicum--our main class--is called "Quantity Cooking."  As I've said before, we're cooking for all the culinary students at our school.  Before knowing anything about the school, I assumed it would be more like banquet-style--creating enormous vats of food and spooning portions from chafing dishes over sterno flames.  This is not the case.

Instead, if you're making entrées, you need to time it so that you churn out several at a time, because the students come at anytime between 11 and 12:30.  Is there a regularity to their arrival?  Not really.  It's all based on what's going on in that class's reality that day.  Sometimes they come in for lunch in waves, and other times they trickle in like a leaky faucet.  Sometimes we have too many plates available to be picked up, sometimes not enough.

This makes it more of a challenge to feed them fresh, hot food.  You should see how quickly a plate of perfect pasta can dry out under the lamp.

Swedish Meatballs were a perfect first-day item to serve.  Now there's some banquet food.  If I had to, I could have cooked them all at the same time and served them in a hotel pan over the course of an  hour and a half, no problem.  The Mediterranean-Style Quinoa Wraps were also a great make-ahead, and they seemed to go fast, too.

The Fusilli with Italian Sausage, Roasted Tomatos and Braising Greens? Not as easy, because there was last-minute sautéeing involved.  The Salmon en Papillote was another toughie.  Sharing ovens with other people can get tricky, especially with fish.  Especially if people change the oven temp for their own dish--while your fish is cooking in there--and you don't know it.  Especially if your papillote (parchment envelope) is the size of the Goodyear Blimp and your portion of salmon is just shy of 4 ounces.  Note: if you make that recipe, make sure you make an envelope that is proportioned to the fillings, otherwise it will dry out (or leak)!

Anyway, not a single dish I made ended up tasting as good as when I make it at home.  Big surprise!  Actually, it was a big surprise.  But the other big surprise is the positive feedback I got for dishes anyway.   People liked each of those menu items, and took the time to tell me so.   I had to battle with myself to keep from blurting, "Really?!" or "It's usually waaaay better."   A few times, with some of my friends, I did admit that it's usually better when I make it at home.

BUT!

Julia Child's wisdom, to never apologize for your cooking, is great advice.   At bare minimum, you diminish their enjoyment of the food by criticizing it.   So most of the time, when someone said they liked my (dry, but on-other-occasions tender and juicy) salmon, I would try to just smile and say, "Thank you."  Because just as my food was a (hastily wrapped) gift to them, their kind words were a gift to me.  So I should just take the valentine and smile.

Today's the last day I'm on the "student entree" rotation, which means the food I'll cook for the rest of the quarter will usually be recipes assigned to me, rather than ones I bring myself.  Today I'll have another chance to be gracious and grateful.  My goal today? No apologies or explanations.  Only thanks.

Watch out for Flying Eggs by Anne

eggs
eggs

This morning before class started, my classmate turned around and warned us, "The substitute teacher today is supposed to be really strict, you guys.  He used to teach here."  We straightened up and tried to contain ourselves a little better.  We'd been noisy and laughing up until then. When class started, though, and the substitute started talking, it became clear that this guy was quite funny, himself.  Also, chatty.  The powerpoint slide from the lesson plan was cued up for "eggs - sunny side up", but somehow he started telling us about this enormous (hot-tub sized!) antique cast-iron pot in his collection--for picnics needing a lot of corn on the cob. 

There were plenty other tidbits, too.  He talked about a severe boss he had a long time ago (in the 60's) who would throw his tray of lunch down the hall if it was cooked incorrectly.  So basically this chef/substitute was telling us jokes, and they were funny, but we were caught up on the idea that he was supposed to be this hard-nosed guy.  On his end, he must have been thinking of us, "Geez, tough crowd!" It took awhile for us to loosen up, and we were also wondering a bit if we would learn the lesson plan for eggs.  

Class was nearing an end, and he had a hard-cooked egg and a raw egg in each hand.  "How can you tell when an egg is cooked on the inside or not?" he asked us.

 I answered something about rolling the two eggs, and the less wobbly one was cooked. Then he demonstrated the spinning trick.  If you spin a cooked egg, it really spins.  The raw egg sort of peters out after a few go 'rounds.  I commented, "Wow, that works a lot better than my idea.  Less likely for eggs to break." 

"What?" he asked.

"I said, it's less likely for the egg to break-"

And that's when he threw the egg at me.

I think he was tossing it to me to scare the crap out of me, which he did. But his throw was a bit short, so it hit the floor on the far side of the table where I sat.  It smashed on the floor and people shrieked and laughed with surprise.  It was so funny, but I'm also slightly confused.  Was that part of the lesson plan? Has he pulled that trick for years, each year, for each class? Or was he feeling especially jolly and egg-tossy today? Anyway, he's subbing for us again tomorrow and I'll have my catcher's mitt ready this time.

Tonight I practiced an upcoming task that awaits me in second quarter kitchen in a few weeks: Eggs Benedict.   Happily, they were a great success.   My husband commented, "This sauce tastes light and airy! What's the main ingredient in it besides butter?"  Mmmm....not much.  Oh, and lemon and egg yolks. Completely delectable and equally unphotographable.  Trust me, you don't want to see the quick shots I took before dinner.  It will probably be on my to-do list now: photographing hollandaise sauce without making it look absurdly viscous and gross.

But!  If you find yourself making Eggs Benedict, I've got a wine pairing idea for you:  Rioja!  If you're a big red wine fan and wish to have it with every meal possible, go with Rioja for your Eggs Benedict dinner.  Wine stewards and pairing books will tell you about some amazing whites and also some bubblies that will pair amazingly with this dish, but Spain is nothing if not a ham-obsessed country.  They also love their eggs, baby.  Bold rioja tastes so good with the big, bright flavors of the ham and hollandaise.  The egg is a gentle balance and the toasted muffin adds mildly sweet crunch.

Well, it's been an eggy day, and tomorrow promises more of the same with omelette practice.  Can't wait to see what the teacher throws at us this time--literally.

Pots, Wraps, and Chix by Anne

mediterranean quinoaThis week began with a bang: The banging of pots, that is.  Although our class begins production this week and cooks for the rest of the culinary and pastry students, my own rotation this week is not even in the kitchen, it's in the dish pit. This is a great thing, though. I have an enthusiastic, almost unnatural love of the dish pit.   It's a big, fast, messy game to me to get the dishes cleaned.  The faster, the better.  I always think of dishwashers (in restaurants) as the drummers of the place.  Not subtle mellow jazz drummers, though.  More like that wacky Animal on the Muppet Show.  At least the dishwashers I like.  The ones that yell, "Bring it on!" and pace around their soapy domains like caged tigers.  So this week I embrace my inner muppet drummer, I guess you could say.  LET'S GO!

Meanwhile, next week my partner and I have "Student Entree" as our station, which means we're coming up with menu items to serve.  This is one of the creativity portions of the quarter.  Anyway, one of the days I'm assigned to do a vegetarian dish.  Looking through a couple cookbooks for inspiration, I saw a recipe entitled "Mediterranean Quinoa."  This both inspired me and led me on a real culinary wild goose chase.

The actual recipe didn't excite me, but suddenly Mediterranean Quinoa was the only thing on earth, apparently, that would do for the menu.  Sometimes I get stuck on an idea and can't let it go.  So I made quinoa and made it into a salad:  artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, mint, red bell peppers, onion, feta cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, you know. All the good things in life.    However, as a quinoa salad it fell flat.  Actually, it fell quite sharp--as in, tart, bright, and no depth.

To bring full, round flavors I added garbanzo beans, and then to make it more creamy I made some tzatziki, thanks to the great recipe provided by Kristen.  I tasted all this together, and it still just was wrong, wrong wrong.  Too much goo and not enough crunch.  Then it occurred to me: why not make this into a sandwich, or better yet, a wrap?  1/4 cup of tzatziki plus a cup of the quinoa salad, topped with lettuce and onions and wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla.  Hot dang!  We have a great vegetarian item for next week.

This whole figuring-out process caused me lots of angst, I have to say.  You know when you wake up in the morning and then are filled with dread because you remembered that last night you: wrecked your car, lost that important letter, said something hideously stupid at a party?  Well, I had that dread when I was in the midst of working on the quinoa salad situation.  Usually it's not so dire, but I suppose it is homework, after all. And I'm a good little student.  A quinoa-wrappin' kind of student.  What a huge relief to get that figured out.  Once the recipe is really, really finalized I'll post it.

Today Chef KG showed us some snazzy ways to fabricate (as in, cut up) chicken.  We made various types of boneless chicken breast ("airline" and "supreme" and "frenched"), and we also learned how to remove the bone from a chicken leg.  For the grand finale, Chef showed us how to de-bone a chicken...without taking it apart.  Can you believe it?

By the end of the demo, he had a large, chicken-meat rectangle, free of bones.  I was stunned by how easy he made it look.  With this meat slab, you can smooth it over with a filling and roll it up into a ballantine--when you slice the roll up, you get a spiral of chicken that includes both dark meat and light meat, as well as the filling.  So dreamy! I can't believe that I'm going to be making those chicken rectangles...and soon.  Better get crackin' (bones.  Sorry, vegetarians.  But I have a great wrap for you).

Why a Rice Cooker Is Smarter than Me by Anne

riceIIOne time last quarter I turned the rice cooker off at 15 or 20 minutes, because I was following some instructions in a recipe packet.  When I opened the lid, guess what?  Rice soup.  I turned the cooker back on, panicked that I had “re-set” the rice cooker and was afraid that it wouldn’t stop by itself before making rice crust.  However, it did stop, at the perfect time.  How does this work?

I learned today from Chef KG how a rice cooker is so smart.  Inside the cooker itself, right under where you put the bowl insert (where the rice goes), there is a flat disk that makes contact with the bottom of the bowl insert.  It senses the temperature of the insert itself.  When water is heated, it can only reach a certain temperature before it starts to boil, hence keeping the temperature at a level 212˚.  The boiling water keeps the temperature of the insert constant, as well. 

As the water begins to both evaporate and soak into the rice, there is no longer any water to keep the insert at around 212˚, so it starts to heat up.  The sensor notices this and switches from “cook” to “warm.”  Brilliant!  Much more brilliant than me, the packet-reading instruction follower.

Another tidbit I learned today:  Shiitake mushrooms--are silly.  Yes, that’s like saying salsa sauce.  Shiitake means “shii mushroom.”   This is the department of redundancy department ordering a pound of shii mushroom mushrooms, please, for the department. 

Tidbits taken care of now, I want to reflect on this, the first day of second quarter.  First I’m really seeing how we were coddled last quarter.  It was important to do that.  We needed to focus on knife skills.  We needed to get a sense of what the school was all about.  We needed to pass sanitation and math classes.  Now we’re really getting down to it.  No more Mr. Nice Chefs--although our main teacher, Chef KG, is wonderful.  He’ll push us to greatness with tough love, I hope, but he’s also really funny and personable. 

Second quarter’s first day brings a rumbling of approaching new experiences.  Makes me think of the roaring-train sound that Oklahoma tornadoes make when they’re heading your direction.  Throughout the day they told us everything we’ll be doing in the next 12 weeks.  It’s a lot to process.  Of course, once we get started, it will be one day at a time.  Nothing beyond what any of us can do. 

Even though I’m sure of my work ethic and my proudly earned organization skills, even though I think I know how to “hustle” in the kitchen fairly well, let’s face it.  I am nervous!  At least I’ve got these smarty-pants rice cookers on my side.

Shrimp Beignets, Take One by Anne

shrimp.beignets "Looks good--what are these?" I asked, as usual, at Student Lunch a few weeks ago.  Of course they looked good--they were deep fried.  Anyway, turns out they were "tempura" vegetables with a beignet batter.   They were light, crisp, faintly sweet, and insanely compelling to eat.  I was sitting across the table from Chris, a 2nd quarter student, who had his plate piled high with them.  "Aren't these awesome?" I said to him--though with my mouth full, it was more like, "Ammt veev awffm?" 

"I made 'em!" he said.  Chris cooks at Barking Frog in Woodinville, and making beignet batter is one of his regular tasks.  Since it was near the end of school, he whipped this out, one of his default recipes.  Personally, I'm looking at it as a secret weapon.  I continued to rave about them, but he was pretty humble.  He complained that they had too much baking soda in them.  I can only imagine what they taste like when they are perfect. 

Anyway, they've been on my mind, so I looked up "Barking Frog Beignets" to see what they actually use the batter for.  Apparently they serve crab beignets, with an herbed crab concoction hidden inside.  Sounds dreamy! 

Today I picked up some shrimp at the store and decided to take the plunge for dinner tonight.   I'll call this round a pleasant first stab at seafood beignets--definitely no award-winner.  My batter was simple, with flour, salt, sugar, baking soda, and sparkling water.  In other words, not a beignet.  From what I have read in the last hour, this is definitely not a traditional beignet recipe.  Sometimes you've just gotta slap it up there and see what happens.  I will say, though, that my family gobbled them up. 

In case you haven't already sneaked off to Wikipedia,  I'll sum up: beignets are basically french doughnuts.  It's a term that refers to fried dough or batter. It can be made with yeasty batter or a basic Pâte à choux (butter, eggs, flour, and water).  Definitely not the recipe I was using.

Looks like I'll be heading over to Barking Frog soon to taste savory beignets again.  Or asking Chris for some beignet words of wisdom.  Or both.  If you've got a good beignet recipe at your house, I'd love to hear about it.

Culinary School First Quarter Impressions by Anne

shallots Culinary school has been like a blistering teenage crush.  I'm driving home either yelling "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" for something I did, or singing joyfully to a cheesy song at the top of my lungs.  There's lots of angst.  Learning sure can be uncomfortable.  And there's lots of longing: thinking, writing, and reading about food can be an exercise in melancholy.  When will I get a chance to try cooking all the delicacies from Chef Gregg's lectures?  When will I fly across the country or the world to try that restaurant? 

I even got that longing on one of the first days when Chef Gregg asked us to go around the room and say our favorite comfort food.  A room full of strangers revealed what satisfied their souls the most.  Suddenly, we knew each other better--and were yearning for ice cream, or a bowl of noodles, or a Greek salad.

Actually, culinary school is also like a reality TV show.  Our class has distinct representatives from different walks of life and ages.   Each person seems ripe for a one- or two-word nickname, based on our backgrounds and idiosyncracies.   Guess who I am: Mom.  Do I love that? Not really.  But I get it. 

Our differences do make for some interesting interactions.   Some people have "found" each other and formed alliances, and others can't bear each other.  There was a serious "No you didn't!" moment with two women who came close to taking it outside over something tiny--because they apparently dislike each other so much. 

With the amount of gossip that mills through the school, you just know that the near-catfight story got told over and over for weeks.  Seems like people are constantly talking about each other.  Nothing is private.  We're all completely nosy.  "What's that?  What are you eating? Can I taste it?  What did you get on the  sanitation quiz?  What did they say?  Are they coming?  Did they pass?"  Everyone's into each other's business. 

To add to the reality TV vibe, there's the turmoil caused by attrition.  The loss of some of our classmates due to life changes, or, more painfully, flunking, really hurts.  We had become like a wacky family, and now people are getting voted off the island.   We started with 28 and have lost nine people since.  This is typical in the program, I hear.  We'll end up with about half the number of students as when we started, apparently.  Since we lost seven of the people on the last day of fall quarter, there's no telling what it will be like next quarter with the remaining 19.

I do know that second quarter will be a hit-the-ground-running situation.  We're in charge of making lunch for all the culinary students, so the theme of the quarter is "quantity cooking."  Really, it will be "quantity cooking for a tough crowd."  As everyone is developing their palates, they're quick to criticize what they eat.  Myself, I liked the food fine, but I was always critiquing it. 

I remember three distinct times that I was really excited by the food I ate at Student Lunch.  Two of the times I went to find out who was responsible so that I could give them my compliments. Next quarter I will aspire to do that well (even if nobody comes to find me and rave about the food).

We'll rotate through stations each week (such as entree, starch/veg, butchery, sushi, breakfast, etc.).  We will sometimes be assigned dishes and other times need to supply our own recipes.  So, during this winter break I've been collecting recipes that are easily prepared for large groups.  Hello, Swedish Meatballs

There's the temptation to get creative, but being fussy is not the nature of quantity cooking.  My friend and I were lamenting this, being foodies, but there's going to be lots to learn about techniques behind creating food in large quantities while still making it taste great.  Anyway, I'm looking forward to this challenge.  My inner Italian grandma is pleased as punch.  Mangia, mangia!  Let's go make big vats of sauce!

All in all these first three months have been intense, tiring, and fascinating. Even at its most exhausting, though, I didn't want to be anywhere else.   I wish I could get paid to go to culinary school.  That's how I feel right now, anyway, after one quarter, right at the end of our restful winter vacation.  However, after many years of being a student and a teacher, I've never looked forward to going back to school as much as I am looking forward to it now.  That's gotta say something.

Befriending Herbs & Spices by Anne

IMG_8962The most fun assignment, ever, has me immersing my nose in the scent of basil tonight.  We're assigned about 40 herbs and spices to observe, smell, and taste.  Then we describe, in table format, each of these attributes for each herb and spice.  Having heard about this assignment before starting the culinary program, I knew I'd be looking forward to it.  However, I was unprepared for the intensity each herb and spice would present as I became more intimately acquainted with them.  Want to try it?  Go to your cupboard and put a large of pinch of basil in a small bowl.  Stick your nose in there.  What do you smell?  What words come to mind?  Are you surprised at all?  I was.  I don't even want to ruin it for you right now by planting ideas in your head, so if you feel like telling me what you smell (and taste!), please do!  I'd love to compare notes with you.  I felt like I knew basil so well, and yet I felt tonight like I was really smelling it for the first time, knowing that I would need to describe it.  And who takes a pinch of dried herbs and puts it in her mouth to eat, straight?  It's just a different experience.

We were given several weeks to do this assignment, and I'm glad, because more than three or four of these experiences at one time can be overwhelming to the nose and palate.   

 The other day I decided to observe allspice during the same session as cloves, since the scent of allspice was reminding me so much of cloves.  Check that out!  If you have them both in your cupboard, wouldn't it be fun to smell (and taste) the differences between the two, side by side?

I also did oregano and marjoram together, since they're related yet so different.  Also, did you know that mace comes from the shell of nutmeg (and hence tastes a lot like it)? I did not know that before this assignment.

All in all, I feel like the assignment caused me to feel closer with each herb and spice in the chart, as if they were once acquaintances and now they're good friends.  We've been through something together, and I've taken time to really get to know them a little better.  Now I feel more inclined to include each of these in my dishes, just like you're more likely to trust your friend to help you rather than someone you just met.   Hey, fennel, can you help me out with some heavy lifting on this dish's flavor?  I know you're good at it.  Thanks, buddy.

Culinary School, Week I by Anne

IMG_8577 It sure feels surreal to step on the speedy river raft of a Life Dream.  When you fantasize about something for so many years--decades, even--it's weird to start experiencing the real-life details that accompany the dream.  Fluorescent lights.  Combination locks.  Attendance.

The first week of culinary school was a heaping platter of details.  We survived a four-day onslaught of information about the school's program and individual instructor expectations.  Being in a cohort-style group, the 26 of us managed not to get lost by more or less shuffling around together from place to place. 

Seattle Culinary Academy's program itself is brilliantly organized, and it runs like a well-oiled machine.  The whole system must have taken years to perfect.   I wish I could draw you a diagram of how it all works--it's that cool.  Anyway, as first-quarter students, we'll rotate through many experiences during these next weeks, both in our own kitchen and those of the more advanced students. 

Some days I'll be in our 1st quarter kitchen doing prep for SCA student lunches, other days I'll be in the galley washing pots, and others I'll bus tables in the school's two restaurants (for which the more advanced students cook).  On other rotation days, I'll visit the advanced students' kitchens, and they'll give me something innocuous to do while I observe them in action, making me both useful and able to absorb what's to come. 

The teachers themselves seem amazing, too.  I'll likely be telling more about them as the weeks and quarters pass.  Chef Gregg Shiosaki, the one who teaches us the bulk of our first quarter theory and practicum, comes from a well-rounded professional background and obviously holds high standards for himself and us.  I reckon this is the kind of chef you want teaching the new lot--a teacher that people want to work hard for.  On the first or second day he told us that we should walk with purpose and pride when we are in the kitchen.  When we cook, we hold ourselves accountable, and we present what we have prepared with pride, not carelessness. 

Here's something I liked from his knife demonstration yesterday.  It's about onion slices versus julienned onions (example pictured above).   During the demonstration Chef Gregg was showing us sliced and julienned onions. To explain the different cuts, I'll pretend the onion's a globe, with north and south poles.  If half an onion lies north/south on a cutting board, flat side down, then onion slices are cut through the "lines of latitude," east to west, basically making half onion rings.  Julienned onions are cut north to south, like lines of longitude, or time zones.  Julienned onions require angled cutting near the cutting board to create consistent shapes.  In the picture above, the slices are on the left and the juliennes are on the right. 

So, why do we care about the difference between slices and julienne cuts for onions?  When you cut slices, you have cut against the grain of the onion, which makes them easier to break down easily in soups, and also makes them easier to eat in salads; julienned onions, since they are sliced along the fiber lines,  would be more stringy and less easy to eat raw in salad.  Sometimes you want your onions to retain their form in certain cooked dishes, though, such as a stir fry.  So juliennes are better for that. 

On some level I must have known all of this and how the onion fibers affect different cut types.  It's common sense, right?  Chef Gregg reminds us to use our common sense quite a bit.  Still, though, this small fact has filled me with geeky glee today.  It's the sort of "Ah ha!" that I've been hoping will fill my next 7 quarters.