Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gluten Free Catering

Today was different than any other day I have worked. I was put in charge of putting together 5 dishes for a catering event. Putting together 5 dishes is a piece of cake, but when you have to make sure there are 75 of each hors d’oeuvres, things get more complicated. Especially since the entire menu is gluten free.

The first dish was simple, our hummus served with crudite. I peeled and sliced cucumbers and carrots. By cutting them at a diagonal you are able to increase the surface area and make vegetable chips, perfect for dipping! Next I peeled the celery and cut off the tops and bottoms. Yes, I peeled the celery. This was a new technique for me, but it makes such a difference. No more awkward moments trying to bite through all of those filaments. I also cut orange, yellow, and red peppers into strips. Put all the vegetables on a white plate, and made a beautiful presentation full of fresh vibrant colors. We put the hummus in dishes and then squeezed lemon juice and sprinkled paprika on top.

I continued onto the next small bite- dates stuffed with Manchego cheese and celery. Manchego cheese is a firm Spanish cheese made from ewe’s milk. It has a golden color and a full, mellow flavor. I had to pit all of the dates in order to stuff them which is a very sticky process. The stickiness of the dates helps hold the celery and cheese once placed inside, so they are an easy one bit appetizer.

Moving on, it was time to make marinated carrots. The marinade consisted of red wine vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, parsley, oregano and red chili flake. I rough chopped everything and then pulsed it in a blender. We had to blanch the carrots before adding them to the marinade. Blanching means that you cook the food very briefly in boiling water and then remove and place in an ice bath to immediately stop the cooking process. This way the carrots are cooked, but still have a nice crunch. We added them to the marinade and let them soak in all the flavors for a few hours.

I also helped prep for some caprese crackers. We used gluten free crackers and then topped them with fresh mozzarella, basil, and roasted tomatoes. They were delicious and so simple!

Our final appetizer was an endive spear filled with goat cheese, pomegranate seeds, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Endive is a type of lettuce that is very bitter. The smoothness and tanginess of the goat cheese really made this dish work.

It took all day to make all of these dishes, but it was so fun! I never even looked at the clock because I was constantly working and also had a clear understanding of everything I needed to accomplish. I liked being given this much of a responsibility, I really felt like I was able to get so much done, and everything looked so great!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Painfully Good

Starting with lemon mayonnaise, I had a day full of hard work and delicious tastings. I made the lemon mayonnaise for the Salmon BLT. It consists of sourdough bread with the mayonnaise, then lettuce, tomato, bacon, and smoked salmon. The mayonnaise was very simple. Just lemon zest, lemon juice, parsley, dill and some spices. Continuing the prep for lunch, I made some Happy Carrot Salad. We use this on the power lunch plate. The power lunch is a vegetarian option that is full of anti-oxidants and other nutritious goodies. The carrot salad has golden raisins, lemon juice and zest, garlic, cilantro, and a few other spices. Very good and quite nutritious!

Once the lunch service started up, I watched the line until they would need something. The Salmon BLT’s were the hot item so I had to cook up some bacon. I also had to grill off chicken and then roast them in the oven for the chicken salad. As I took the bacon out of the oven, I hit the extremely hot pan against my arm. OW! I now have a lovely 1 inch blister on my arm. Not so fun. After burning my arm being around any heat at all irritated it completely. You have to be so careful in a kitchen, I think it must be one of the most accident prone places in the world. After suffering through my burn I began prepping for dinner.

I learned how to make the chickpea fritters that go on the vegetable plate. It’s pretty simple, just chickpeas, parsley, onion, garlic, chili flake, olive oil, and flour. We rolled them into ping pong balls and then patted those down and fried them in the oil. Very tasty! After that I made some salsa verde with parsley, basil, mint, capers, anchovies, lemon, and shallot. Put it all in a blender and out comes a delicious green sauce.

The main problem today was where my station was located, next to the pastry chef. We have become fast friends as she lets me sample each of her delicious treats. I had apple cake and a delicious creamy tart. Being around food all day kind of makes you forget to eat, but next to her sugary station, my mouth was watering. Once lunch time rolled around I ordered a delicious tagine dish that is new to our menu. It consists of toasted bread with buffalo mozzarella and marinated eggplant with a salad of arugala, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and roasted peppers in a sherry vinaigrette. So good! But I think I ate to much, I was stuffed!

I’m ready to have tasted all of the dishes because then I won’t become so full I just want to lay down and take a nap! Everything is so delicious at the restaurant that I need to slow down before I gain too much weight and have to kick my butt at the gym. I feel like we graze all day by tasting all the different ingredients and things that we make, but adding desserts and a big lunch on top of that has put me into a delightful food coma. I know that apple cake is going to bring me sweet dreams tonight!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A day in the vineyards

Cooking for 30 people sounds a lot easier than it actually is. This past Saturday, Rebecca Lang and I prepared a wine dinner for 30 guests at Persimmon Creek Vineyards. We prepared for 3 days before we drove almost 2 hours to finish everything off on site.

We started the dinner with three appetizers. We served half-dollar pimiento cheese sandwiches, smoke trout spread with crudite, and jalapeno deviled eggs. The pimiento cheese was delicious and so simple! Made with only three kinds of cheese, mayonnaise, pimientos, and toasted pecans it had the perfect balance of textures and flavors. All of the appetizers were simple in ingredients, yet had an upscale feel.

Rebecca Lang is known for her use of Southern flavors. In her new book she keeps her recipes quick and easy, but completely sophisticated. We served them to 30 dinner guests, but they could easily be made at home and served to a family for a casual dinner.

To highlight the season, we served a baby spinach salad with blueberry and lime vinaigrette. We topped the spinach with strawberries and feta cheese. The sweet and salty flavors help make this dish work.

For our main courses we made shrimp and grits and then a mustard and sage pork tenderloin with roasted okra. Rebecca’s grits are unbelievable. The secret behind them is the use of chicken broth and then cream cheese and Monterey Jack cheese. They are unbelievably creamy and flavorful. The pork was almost a disaster. Because of the limited oven space, the pork was not cooking correctly. We were afraid we would still have raw pork when it came time to serve! Luckily we rearranged, moved the shrimp to the stovetop, cranked up the oven, and crossed our fingers. This method worked and the pork turned out perfectly, just the right shade of pink.

Our final course was a red velvet cupcake and key lime ice cream. The tanginess of the ice cream went well with the richness of the cupcake with the sweet cream cheese frosting. Such a great ending to a delicious wine dinner.

Persimmon Creek is a fascinating place. We got to walk through the vineyards and see where they grow their Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, and Seyval Blanc. They even bottle an ice wine, which can only be made from grapes that are frozen on the vine. Run by a family, you can feel the love that they put into each glass.

Day 6

Just another day at the office. Except not really. One thing I have discovered is that each of my days in the kitchen is different. The National is constantly changing the menu, which keeps things interesting!

My first task today was a something I have wanted since I first began going to the grocery store with my mom. I got to play butcher! After hacking all of the meat off of a ham bone, I got to utilize the meat slicer. The gleaming silver apparatus seemed so fun at first, until I realized hacking the meat into small randomly sized pieces was the worst thing I could have done. After placing the meat under the holder, I turned it on and began pushing the meat back and forth over the spinning blade. The results- less than an ounce of meat each time. I was not slicing I was crumbling the meat. In order to actually slice the meat I had to increase the blade size and repack the ham so that it was actually cut as it passed the blade. Basically, I botched my first go with the meat slicer due to an extreme lack of knowledge. Now that I know better I will have to give it another try because the ham was tastier than any Honey Baked Ham I have ever tasted!

Next on the list was to help prep for lunch. I made some chicken base for the chicken salad. The way they make their chicken salad is very interesting. They grill chicken breasts and finish them off in the oven. After slicing the chicken, they will make each order individually, coating the chicken pieces with the base. The base has capers, onions, thyme, yogurt, mayonnaise, lemon juice and cumin. It’s quite tasty. I also had to make more hummus, it is one of the most popular starters at the restaurant. I think this is the 3rd time I’ve made it. I’m starting to feel so much more comfortable doing things, I know longer have to ask if it needs more olive oil or lemon juice, I can taste it and figure it out for myself now.

Once the lunch rush was over, the dinner staff came on and we began prepping. I helped make croutons by baking cut up dinner bread that had been tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and parsley. Once they were completely crunchy, they were delicious! Now I know what to do with leftover bread! I also made marinated eggplant again, except this time we roasted the eggplant instead of grilling them. I enjoyed the char taste from the grill, but the roasted eggplant were much easier to cook. The marinade is tahini based with herbs. It’s a great combination.

I made a pequillo pepper salad dressing today as well. The piquillo pepper is a long, red, tapering, triangular Spanish pepper. After being fire roasted they are jarred giving them a spicy-sweet flavor. I added lime juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and sour cream to the blender and mixed until it was a bright orange. It had a lot of kick, but the sour cream balanced the spiciness well.

To finish off the day, I cubed butternut squash. It was quite a task considering how thick the squash are. You also have to peel and seed each of them. I think this internship is helping me improve my upper body strength. I'm going to start thinking of more creative post titles. So far the days have worked, but eventually that will get old. I'll work on it.

Day 5

Day 5. The fun began again at 10:30 am. I entered the kitchen, grabbed my apron, a clean towel and was put to work. I helped finish prepping for lunch. I sliced cherry tomatoes and crumbled feta cheese. Then I had to put black-eyed pea relish and sweet potatoes into individual quart containers. The chefs at the National are responsible for all of the prep work at their own stations. For example, if the squid salad is on your line, you need grilled corn, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced squid, arugala, remoulade, and the black-eyed pea relish. Not to mention, have the frying station set up with batter and hot oil. So, I also helped grill off some corn and slice the calamari.

With prep work, comes one of my issues in the kitchen, dull knives. On the first day, Peter, my boss, explained that this is the most dangerous thing in the kitchen. Because you think it cannot cut through things, but then it can truly hurt you. Although using a knife sharpener and steel may help, a dull knife is no one’s friend. When I sliced the calamari, I had to saw the squid. So, I am starting to think it may be time to get my own knives. While they can be very expensive…I do have a birthday in 21 days.

So, after we finished up the prep work, the fun really began. It was the lunch rush. This was the busiest lunch I have ever worked. Today, they let me stay on the line and watch/help out whenever they needed me. I finally got to see all of the components that go into each dish. I primarily tried to watch the “cold” side today. She mainly puts together the salads, hummus plate, desserts, and then works the fryer. She also makes the delicious Cuban (ciabatta, fontina, pork, ham, mayo, mustard and pickles). I helped the “hot” side by doing plate setups for the burgers (that have pimiento cheese, yummy!) and also toasting their buns. We stayed really busy the whole time so I also helped re-stock the bins in the cooler when ingredients ran low.

Another great thing about today was getting to know the other staff members. It’s one of the things I love about food, it truly gets people talking. Everyone in the kitchen works so well together. They communicate articulately with one another and are always willing to help each other out. Even the expo (the one who makes sure the food is pretty and going to the right place) kept giving positive feedback and letting us know what a great job we were doing. People just have things to say about food and their past experiences with food. Especially foodies, we seem to have an opinion and comment about every ingredient, flavor, and restaurant experience. But these people truly have a good time together, there is a positive vibe in the atmosphere, I love it! They also play great music when we’re prepping, which makes it even more fun!

Once lunch was done, we started doing more prep for dinner. I made marinated olives (olives with sherry vinegar, olive oil, orange juice, orange zest, garlic, red chili flakes, and some other dried herbs). They sit in the juices for a day or two, but I tasted the marinate and it was delicious! I also rolled out flatbreads that are cooked off and served with hummus. The larger flatbreads are made into pizettes at dinner.

Working as a team is the key to success in the kitchen, and this restaurant has that down. They prep with each other, help out each other, and build each other up. I love this job, the time goes by way too fast. Now if only I felt that way about the 50 pages of reading I should be doing right now…

Day 4

Day 4. The day began with my least favorite task. Chopping onions. It is not that I mind doing prep work. I will cut vegetables all day, no problem. But with onions it is a different story. Tears pour out due to the amino acid sulfoxides that form from sulfur in the soil. For some reason, I seem to be super sensitive to these sulfoxides. My eyes pour tears. I have sensitive eyes, but the onions really make me react, which is embarrassing. I am learning to chop faster, which helps. But, I truly think the perfect cure would be to have contacts. Anyways, we were chopping the onions to make a butternut squash soup.

After wiping away my tears, I made hummus with tahini, lemon, chickpeas, olive oil, and garlic. I also made egg salad. Peeling 28 hard boiled eggs was miserable. The egg salad was eggs, relish, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and salt and pepper. Very simple. Next I made a pickling liquid for plums. Had some interesting spices. Later we made flat bread. All in all a great day.

The beginning.

And so it has continued…my venture into the culinary world. After discovering that I am not well suited as a slave in an office (had an internship with an event planning company where I made copies and filed things) I discovered my haven in yet another kitchen. After working in two other kitchens (Natalia’s – Macon, GA and East/West- Athens, GA) as well as hostessing at Wildfire Atlanta, I have settled into the lovely kitchen of The National in Athens, GA.

Peter Dale is one of the owners and the executive chef. I met him last year after he helped plan and prepare Theta’s Parents Weekend dinner for all of our friends. The meal was ridiculously fabulous so I knew I had to work with him. He went to undergraduate with Rebecca Lang, the other woman I intern for who is a cookbook author and regular on Southern Living’s cooking shows. It is so funny how everything falls into place.

I have been at the National for two weeks now, but I have only worked 3 days (I am only working on Tuesdays and Thursdays because I have class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). So far it has been an unbelievable experience, especially compared to the previous internship as an office prisoner. I am starting to feel like I am finally acquainted with the kitchen and comfortable with the other staff members. They are all so helpful and positive. They work well as a team and are constantly constructively criticizing each other’s food in a way that is not awkward or negative at all.

The dishes here are unbelievable. All fresh ingredients make up the creative dishes on their menu. The menu has such a variety of plates, it is hard to keep track of them all, but I am getting there. I’ve tasted a few things here and there, but the only thing I have really eaten is a Cuban sandwich, that is too good to be true. One thing Peter when “constructively criticizing” the chef was “Let’s maybe use a little less meat, remember Cuba is a poor country,” Well whatever she changed I adored because it was delicious. I think it has pork some sort of cheese and pickles on thick bread., basically yummy!! In addition to prepping a TON of vegetables, I have made chicken salad base, orzo salad, shrimp stock (had to do this twice because didn’t put a pot under the strainer first go round), marinated grilled eggplant, tomato soup, grilled chicken and vichyssoise. Vichyssoise is a French soup made from pureed onions or leeks, potatoes, cream, chicken stock and seasonings, garnished with chives and typically served cold.

I have already learned so much, it is hard to think tomorrow will only be Day 4. I’ll be trying to continue as much as possible so that you can follow my journey onward in this fabulous industry.