I’ve suffered my fair share of setbacks in the kitchen over the past 3 decades, from misbehaving pie crust to sunken soufflé to accidentally making meringues with salt rather than sugar. All of those experiences were frustrating, of course, but none quite reached the level of extreme annoyance as when I looked down at my left hand during class today and saw this scene. Pardon my French, but all I could say at the time was “Fffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkkk….”
Here’s the backstory. Today was supposed to be an easy day; make a salade pomme de terre, a salade d’espinards with bacon and a poached egg on top, and panzanella, in less than 2 hours. Afterwards we were to do an egg challenge, namely, a perfect poached egg, a perfect French omelette, and a perfect over easy egg as fast as possible and preferably in less than 5 minutes flat. We were given egg bread to do the croutons for the spinach salad and the panzanella, but since egg bread just seemed like a horrible choice for panzanella, I insisted on using half-frozen baguette that I’d pulled out of the freezer. After prepping all my product (including concasse-ing and small-dicing 10 tomatoes, a gazillion herbs, shallots, and garlic) and getting all 3 vinaigrettes going for my 3 salads, I set to slicing the bread for the panzanella with my as-yet unopened serrated knife.
You may recall that every chef, without fail, has warned of the dangers of using a serrated knife. Because of its jagged edge, the serrated knife typically causes greater damage since the wound is gnarlier than the typical straight-edge cut. I learned that today when I sliced through my thumb while stupidly sawing through a piece of frozen baguette. I didn’t think it was bad at all, to be honest, until another student asked that I step away from his general vicinity because the bloody paper towels were getting to him. After quickly treating it with antiseptic, overlaying bandaids, and a blue finger cot, I slipped on a latex glove so I could continue what I was doing. After dumping my first set of mise ingredients to ensure it’d be blood free, I set to starting all over again, inevitably working more slowly this time since I was sans thumb. I was already quite behind by this time, having plated zero items while most were already plating up their second salads.
Then, just as I was getting ready to toss my second batch of panzanella of the day, right before plating, I looked down and saw that the top part of my middle finger glove was missing. And of course it was nowhere to be found on my cutting board. For a split second I considered just going ahead with what I was doing — the latex gloves ARE organic, after all — but ultimately decided that I couldn’t in good conscience feed Chef K a piece of glove with his salad. Second batch, in the trash.
I’ve been cut and burned before in the kitchen, no doubt, but there is something beyond frustration that one feels when doing so as a chef-in-training. During our last competency exam Yoga Girl sliced off part of her nail and broke down in tears, which I found surprising at the time (since she’s a tough cookie and, as indicated by her nickname, calm by nature) but fully appreciated today. Nothing makes you feel more incompetent and just plain stupid as a chef than cutting yourself badly in the kitchen, particularly since you’re forced to operate at half-speed thereafter when you’re trying to play catchup. Actually, correction: Nothing makes you feel more incompetent and stupid other than cutting yourself badly and then losing part of your latex glove in the food.
What can one really say about salads? Not much, but that’s what we’re doing during our last week of Foundations II (on to butchering and charcuterie in Foundations III in January, yippee!). Today, classical Salade D’espinards, made with spinach tossed in a red wine vinaigrette, bacon, and croutons (saute’d in bacon fat) and then topped with a soft-poached egg. Also, classical Salade Pommes de Terre, which is waxy (yellow or red, and traditionally peeled) potatoes sliced, cooked til just tender, then doused in a white wine-tarragon vinaigrette. (This salad contains no mayo and is obviously far healthier than its American counterpart, and in my opinion is actually just as good if not better. Common modern take on it is to serve warm with haricot verts. Super fancy radish garnish atop optional.) Both salads were tasty, for sure, but what can I say? They’re salads after all. As a general matter I find it much easier to get pumped about a salad if it’s simply a palate cleanser for the medium rare bone-in ribeye to come…
We’re nearly a week from Christmas and so I’m obliged to post something holiday-ish. (For any readers who are uber-PC, let me 1) note that I’ve spent this week making latkes, macaroons, and chicken liver pate, (I don’t know what people eat for Kwanzaa); and then 2) tell you to quit reading my blog.) The latest creations from our P&B (Patisserie and Baking) students:
Pretty impressive. Chef K actually told us that all of us — whether in the culinary or P&B program — should probably develop some serious gingerbread-house-construction skills, since almost every restaurant/hotel in the U.S. will require its kitchen to produce some elaborate and cheesy display for its foyer during the holiday season. (We were also told that if we happened to lack the talent, steady hand(s), and/or discipline to excel in the gingerbread house-building area, we could also learn to ice-sculpt. Call me a pessimist, but I’m guessing that if one lacks the steadiness of hand to build a house made of cookies, royal icing, and gumdrops, they probably shouldn’t be allowed to hack away at a giant chunk of ice with an electric chainsaw.)
Actually, several words. First, they’re super duper good for you, so eat them often. Second, they stain. BADLY. So if you ever work with them, make sure to wear gloves and also line your cutting board with parchment paper, otherwise you will end up like this:
(On the other hand, why you’d ever work with them when you can just buy them pre-marinated and roasted from Trader Joe’s is really beyond me. If you insist, however, then you can usually just roast them whole as is; if you’d prefer to cut into chunks before roasting — e.g., if you are roasting a bunch of different root vegetables together and need them to be the same size so as to finish cooking simultaneously — then cut it as you would an orange. Slice off the top, the bottom, and then use a paring knife to remove the skin. Keep in mind that the beets will stain everything else around it a bright pink, which might be good for a Valentine’s Day meal but otherwise could end up looking a little macabre.)
Postscript: Looks like beet stains can also be put to good use. Today Chef K carved a rose out of a turnip and then ran the “petals” over a cut-open red beet to give it color. (Tangent: Though we’ve been dealing quite a bit lately with radishes and turnips, I cannot for the life of me keep those two names straight. I’ve decided that it’s primarily because, in Chinese, the “radish” we generally refer to is the stocky white daikon radish, which looks more like a turnip than the Western version of the little red radish. The Chinese association of the term “radish” with the daikon is particularly seared into my mind because it’s frequently used as slang for the pasty white legs of Asian women that typically end in cankles, as in: “Check out the radishes on that girl. She’ll never find a husband.”
This past week has been all about taters — starchy potatoes (Idaho, Kennebec — the latter is particularly great for frying) and waxy potatoes (red, yellow, etc.) alike. Interestingly, the potato, which I had previously thought had no redeeming value whatsoever, other than the fact that it tastes great, has quite a few more nutrients than corn, which I’ve learned is apparently the most useless food out there. So I felt slightly more justified eating it all week long, in its various forms. We did classical Pommes Gratin Dauphinoise, Pomme Frites, Roasted Potatoes, Pommes Duchesse, Pommes Puree, and a couple others. Here: gratin dauphinoise (Idaho’s sliced thin and then layered lasagna-style with gruyere, pats of butter, then doused in cream and baked til bubbly); truffle shoestring fries (trick is always to blanche-fry your fries first in oil that is 325 degrees until the insides are cooked, then fry up til golden brown at 375 degrees when ready to serve . . . that’s how you get your creamy interior and crunchy exterior, unless, of course, you’re doing shoestrings in which case you really don’t have an “interior” to speak of); and pommes duchesse (mashed potatoes + egg yolk, run through a food mill, then piped out into fancy shapes and then baked to set).
Potatoes are pretty easy to work with overall. I had the most trouble with the pommes duchesse; all I can say is that piping is not as easy as it looks. Mine depicted here are pretty ugly, though these were already the prettiest of my bunch since most of those that I piped out of my pastry bag looked like, quite honestly, silky white turds. They say it’s all in the wrist and that you get better with practice; let’s hope that’s the case. Chef K of course had to repeatedly admonish our classmates not to pipe potatoes into each others’ mouths, supposedly because someone else at school did that last year and a student’s mouth got caught on the star-shaped piping tip and he was injured. (I really can’t imagine how one would go about explaining that kind of mouth injury to a doctor.)
Stopped into another famed San Francisco joint today for takeout. Yamo, a Burmese restaurant at 18th and Mission, is a counter-only place with awesome garlic noodles served by three gruff Burmese (not sure, swore I heard some Chinese being spoken) women who fit the perfect stereotype of, well, gruff Asian women who serve noodles to white people in a tiny California restaurant. True to form, they glared at me when I walked in, glared at me when I ordered, and then glared at me when I paid. They also scoffed at the Caucasian patron who tentatively inquired about the grass jelly drink I removed from their lopsided glass case in the back, then refused to give her one (but stuck her with a coconut water), and then had a hearty laugh amongst themselves about the whole episode. I had to love it. The food — other than the house garlic noodles — is good, not phenomenal, but certainly one of the best cheap eats (almost every entree is $6) in the neighborhood.
Chef K continued to wow us with his garnishing skills today. Here, turned mushrooms (which involve some quick flicks of the paring knife on medium-sized button mushrooms):
Chef also showed us how to carve stamps — here, a fish and a star — into the mushroom caps. Turns out I’m one of the few in the class whose age is ripe enough to understand, but whose personality is still immature enough to appreciate, the icky hilarity of literal mushroom stamps. I kept that to myself, of course.
Sidenote: Somehow we got on the topic of culturally-specific junky foods involving cheese, e.g., poutine and Swiss fondue. Chef K (who is from the UK) fondly recited the recipes for Welsh Rabbit and Blushing Bunny, the former of which is basically a cheese sauce poured over white bread, baked off to form a crust, and then topped with a fried egg, and the latter of which is the former + tomato sauce mixed in there somewhere. Given the stereotype that the English love their game, I had always thought that both dishes actually involved their namesake animal. Apparently not.