Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The More, The Merrier?

The wedge, it is my favorite salad on any menu. Because of the crisp iceberg lettuce? Because of the fresh juicy tomatoes? Or maybe it’s the bacon fat and rich creamy dressing. The National’s wedge salad is a delicious combination of flavors. The base is your typical iceberg lettuce, but then it is topped with crispy bacon, thin red onions, roasted bell peppers, and tomatoes. Then it is finished off with their famous Buttermilk Dressing. Yummy! The dressing exceeds every generic and mediocre ranch or blue cheese dressing out there, it is a combination of flavors that makes their wedge unique.

I began the dressing by combing sour cream and mayonnaise. Then, I thinned the thick mixture with buttermilk until it was nice and creamy, not too soupy, but dripped off the spoon. Then I added the seasonings: fresh dill and parsley. Chopped chive, some celery seed, smoked paprika, and then salt and pepper, of course. I mixed it all up and tasted it, then added a touch more salt and little bit more paprika, until it was perfect. I made some for the lunch service and then was asked to make some for catering, that’s when my day changed.

I happily made another batch of the dressing, as tasting this recipe is not painful at all! But then I was informed I would be working on a catering for 100 people the rest of the day! I have not worked on a catering for more than 30 people before. So, I took a look at the catering and got to work.

I started by making spiced nuts with the pastry chef. We coated local pecans in an egg whites, brown sugar, cayenne pepper, and a little bit of cinammon. Then we put them on a sheet tray in popped them in the oven for 8 minutes. They turned out sweet with a hint of spicy, delicious!

The rest of my day was spent working on one of the National’s famous appetizers, stuffed dates. The tedious part about this recipe is pitting the dates. And when we are talking 100 people, that means 180 dates. Plus, one of the chefs asked me to do an extra quart for their station. That took some time and wasn’t too interesting. The dates are sticky and make it complicated to work quickly. Once I had those finished, I worked on the stuffing, celery and Manchego cheese. Slicing that much cheese into perfect rectangles was exhausting. Luckily, I had help with the celery. They have hired a new chef who I tried to help out on his second day. He helped me cut the celery into small strips and then fill the dates with the cheese and strips. Once we had our assembly line down it took no time at all.

I like working on caterings because it is all my responsibility. The other chefs have to prep and work their stations, while I typically float between them helping where I can. But, when I get a catering I have to do the work or delegate it to the others. Most of the time I can handle it, but when it is an order for 100 people, you have to get help, otherwise you will spend hours bored and pitting dates.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Just Another Day in Paradise

Today began like any other, I was put to work the second I arrived in the kitchen. I helped prep for lunch service, by grating parmesan cheese for the polenta that was being served with braised beef cheeks. Typically, I only prep for lunch for the first couple of hours, but today was different. We were unexpectedly busy! For a rainy Tuesday afternoon, the restaurant had a great turnout. So, as the intern I spent my time running between two chefs who both needed my help.

I first helped prep the lamb pitas that were stuffed with lamb (we will call them “nuggets”, not sure exactly how to describe their shape), a mixture of sautéed peppers and onions, and a delicious sauce to complete. I had to roll out the meat mixture (ground lamb seasoned with cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper) into small Twinkie-like shapes. Then I sautéed more red onions to go into the pepper and onion mixture. I switched to help the chef on the other station and crumbled feta, quarted up sweet potatoes and slow roasted tomatoes for the power lunch. After that, I ran back to the other chef and helped shape the fish cakes by using a round cookie cutter and then dusting them in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) so that they would not fall apart once cooked. I also had to make an emergency batch of hummus. While it seemed chaotic at times, working as a team really helped us come through service successfully.

Once the lunch rush was over, I started working on a catering order. I prepped all the ingredients for the salad. I washed local lettuces and spun them dry in the salad spinner. Then grilled onions that were finished off in the 300° oven until nice and tender. Next I toasted some pecans, and crumbled more feta to go with the salad as well. They were also serving roasted carrots so I sliced the carrots on a bias using the mandolin so that they were uniform in shape. I also prepped roasted tomatoes to go alongside the meat, and collected hazelnuts and currants that were being used as well. Finding the currants was a scavenger hunt, as they were hidden behind several boxes in the upstairs dry storage.

Before I knew it, it was time to go home. Time seems to disappear when I am in the kitchen. I am so consumed by what I am doing I don’t even notice the time passing. I know I am in the right industry because I am truly loving what I do.

Not your mama's fried chicken

This past Sunday I helped Rebecca with her Fried Chicken Hands-On class at Cook’s Warehouse in Decatur. We showed three different methods of preparing fried chicken, a quick biscuit recipe, and a tomato gravy demonstration.

We deep-fried Mary Mac’s Tea Room’s chicken and also a Cajun spiced chicken. But, pan-fried her grandmother, Tom’s, chicken in Crisco. The sounds of popping oil and the smell of grease were enough to make mouths water and stomachs growl. The biscuits were prepared in less than 25 minutes and turned out golden brown and quite fluffy. She served those with a creamy tomato gravy that took less than 10 minutes to whip up. Rebecca’s new book, Quick Fix Southern, really takes the time and inconvenience out of traditional Southern cooking.

A unique serving technique is to top the Cajun fried chicken with garlic and a pickle. The flavors work together surprisingly well to create a unique fried-chicken experience.

Rebecca also shared some very interesting tips with the group. An easy way to mince your garlic, is to place a peeled and crushed garlic clove in between plastic wrap and then smash it with a meat mallet, its quick and leaves no mess! My favorite tip of the day was to serve fried chicken with champagne. The fattiness from the chicken can coat your pallet and prevent you from experiencing that “first bite taste” again and again. Champagne helps to clean the pallet and refresh your taste buds so that each bite is memorable and delicious. But, even without champagne, we all know fried chicken will be scrumptious no matter what!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Common Sense

When thinking about food, most think that taste is the most important sense. But, in reality we use all of our senses equally when experiencing food. Throughout my day I noted how many times I used all of my different senses.

I started off by making the happy carrot salad. The key component of the salad are the carrots, which are shredded through the Robot Coupe. This creates a fine texture, but leaves the carrots still crunchy. Golden raisins are plumped in warm water and then added to the salad to contrast the crunch with a softer feel.

After I finished the salad for lunch service, I moved onto the catering project that would occupy me the rest of the day. I began by preparing the components of the salad. I first made orange and grapefruits supremes. This is a difficult task that requires good knife skills. I had to cut off the skin and then cut between the segments to form perfect half moons of pure orange, no peel or seeds attached. This took quite some time, my hands became sticky and my nose was filled with citrus scent. To be honest, my hands still smell a little fruity! Next, I crumbled the queso fresco, a rather dry cottage cheese-style cheese with a very mild flavor. At first I wore gloves to prevent mess, but then realized I couldn’t feel the cheese enough to determine if the crumbles were the right texture. After using my senses to help me crush the cheese, I moved on to toasting the pecans. I simply put them on the sheet tray and popped them in the oven. I had to watch them to see if they became the perfect color brown. They were a bit on the toastier side, so I removed some of the darkest pieces, but the rest were good to go. I finished up the salad by preparing some local greens and making the dressing. We used local arugula and frisee, I washed it and spun it in the salad spinner to remove the moisture. Then I made the citrus vinaigrette by combining orange juice with sherry vinaigrette, champagne vinegar, parsley, and olive oil. We warmed the orange juice to bring out most flavors. I had to taste it to make sure the flavor was correct.

Once the salad was prepared, I moved on to prepping the fixings for the two main dishes, a grilled marinated chicken breast and roasted beef tenderloin. For the chicken, I had to make salsa verde. I combined chopped parsley and cilantro with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil. I combined and tasted, the bright green color contrasted against the chicken will be quite eye catching. In opposition to the green, I also seeded pomegranates to compliment the chicken. I had to cut off the tops of the pomegranates, then cut the fruit in segments and tear out the seeds in water. Although time consuming, these seeds are brightly pink colored and full of flavor. Then I moved on to the beef accompaniments and made roasted tomatoes. Once the roma tomatoes were cut in half and tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar I popped them in the oven until shriveled with a bit of brownness. Like the pecans, these were a bit overcooked, but savable. I have decided I need to set timers once I put things in the oven!

I finished the catering by making the side dish of snap peas with ginger and almonds. The dishwasher helped clean the snap peas, and then I blanched them in boiling water and then shocked them in an ice bath. I then put a pint of almonds and 3 tablespoons of fresh ginger in containers to head out with the catering.

The whole day I was reminded of how important it is to be aware of all of your senses as you deal with food. I had to see how cooked something was by noting color change. I also saw how bright colors contrasted with blander colors can make food more appealing. Being next to the expo station also showed me how important presentation is. The smells in the kitchen also send you signals of when something is ready and when something is burning. An inviting smell can always work up an appetite, especially if that smell is freshly baked brownies coming from the dessert station next to you. I also used touch when preparing the food, not only when crumbling the cheese but also when tasting dishes to see if the mouth-feel is appealing. Hearing is used to talk to other chefs, but more importantly hear boiling water or a timer that reminds you of what you have forgotten. Finally, taste is used constantly, to decide if using your other senses efficiently has been successful, or if you have just failed trying. I would say we were quite successful in the kitchen today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Take 2.

Making something perfect is never easy. Today I learned the hard way. Once I got to the restaurant I was instantly put to work. I grilled off chicken breasts and popped them in the oven, so that we’d have plenty for the chicken salads at lunch service. Then I was given several bigger projects that would keep me occupied the rest of the day.

We have been serving fig jam as the condiment of choice on both the ham and cheese sandwich and the salami sandwich. The sweetness of the figs creates a delightful contrast against the saltiness of the meat. Because we did not have any more dried figs, I had to use fresh figs. After I destemmed the figs, I cut them in half and added them to a saucepan with sugar and water. I put them over medium heat and let them simmer until completely broken down. Once the figs and sugar became jam like I pureed it in the Robot Coupe until the texture was uniform. The fresh figs made quite an impact on the taste of the jam, the flavor was not as concentrated as the jam made with dried figs, which gave it a more mellow flavor making it the perfect accent to the sandwich.

My next big project was breaking down leeks and fennel and then sweating them in a large rondeau pot for rice. After finally locating the leeks (sometimes it seems almost impossible to identify and locate ingredients in the very well-stocked walk-in) I cleaned them and cut them into 1-inch pieces. It is very important to clean leeks because most of the time there is still sand and grit located in the filaments. Once I cut the fennel and leeks into 1-inch pieces, I put olive oil in the bottom of the pot and added the vegetables, then put it on the stovetop. Well, not such a good idea. The high heat scalded the bottom of the pot, burning most of my vegetables. Lesson #1: Do not leave vegetables sautéing without keeping an eye on them and stirring constantly. We had to throw out half of them and start over. Thankfully, my second batch turned out much better because I put it on the french top (this cooks at a slower rate), and was able to be used in the rice.

My final and biggest project of the day was making mushroom soup. After the leek and fennel debacle, I was determined not to mess this up! First I had to roast garlic. You do this by putting garlic in a saucepan and then adding olive oil. Just pop that in the oven until golden brown. While I waited on the garlic to roast, I broke down 5 quarts of mushrooms and then 4 large Vidalia onions. When I went to check on the garlic, it was burnt. So frustrating! I had to repeat the process. Finally the garlic was ready, considering I watched it throughout the entire cooking time. I used the oil that roasted the garlic to coat the bottom of the pot. Then I added the onions and mushrooms until the mushrooms were tender. Next I deglazed the bottom of the pot with white wine (typically the recipe calls for sherry, but we were out). After a nice stir, I added a thyme bouquet, blanched almonds, parsley, and vegetable stock. Then I reconstituted some dried porcini mushrooms and added them plus half their cooking liquid to the pot. When the soup came to a simmer, I removed the thyme bouquet and began to puree it in a blender. Then I had to strain it and pass it, then season it. Pushing the soup through the sieve was very time consuming, but it makes the texture silky smooth and delicious for a warm soup on a cold fall day.

Although I had to repeat a few steps today because of my mistakes, I learned some very important lessons. It is essential that you keep an eye on everything you have going on in the kitchen. We have to multi-task in this business, and often times you get distracted on new projects and forget about other things you have started. It is important to stir things constantly and be aware of everything needing to get done. I consider myself a good multi-tasker in general, but in the kitchen I need to be thinking about all the projects I’m responsible for and working on all the time.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Slice and Dice

Although it may not be the most exciting job, peeling and chopping vegetables is a key part in preparing food. Someone must be responsible for breaking down the fresh veggies that enhance the flavor in so many dishes.

Today I began by using the deli slicer to prepare the salami for the salami sandwich that is served with fig jam and cheese. The machine may make slicing meats convenient, but it sure does take a lot of muscle! You have to put pressure on the meat so that it shaves uniform pieces. The secret is to slice the meat while it is colder. I also sliced a piece of veal that was used for one of the daily salads. The veal was harder to slice because it is not as firm as the salami. Whenever working with the slicer, you must be very careful because it is an accident prone machine!

Next I helped prepare a soup with sausage, ham, celery, potatoes, carrots, beans, and onions. The vegetables required lots of attention! I had to peel carrots and potatoes and then cut them into ½ inch cubes. This is not as easy as it seems. It is important to make sure the vegetables are all the same size so that they cook at the same rate. Making cubes from round vegetables is also a difficult task, you need to cut off one side and then cut strips so that you can slice the cubes from the strips. The soup was still on the stovetop when I left work, but it sure was smelling delicious! I’m sure it tasted even better!

So much peeling took place in the kitchen today, which was rather difficult until I found the good peeler. At first I was using a dinky plastic one that didn’t have much leverage. I had to peel the sweet potatoes and cube them up to make sweet mash for the vegetable plate. Then I had to peel carrots and shred them to make Happy Carrot Slaw that is on the Power lunch. After that I had to peel beets and shred them for the sweet potato salad. Luckily with the carrots and beets I used the Robot Coup, but then when I worked on the squash fritters, I had to shred them by hand on a box grater. That would be 20 squash that needed to be grated, by hand. Quite the task! I had to sauté the squash after I grated it to sweat moisture out so that they could be made into yummy fritters. These are also used on the vegetable plate.

While slicing and dicing up vergetables may be mundane work, it enhances my cutting skills. I am getting more efficient with knives, and more accurate when cutting up vegetables. Who knows maybe one day my knife skills will be better than Hong from Top Chef.