Culinary Arts Program – Week 4

So, I am a week behind on my posts. I guess you could say I was active, occupied, and tired the past week. I am taking a break from the fast-pace life to catch up on my writing. I have had so many great experiences over the past couple weeks.

I already wrote about our trip to the Boston fish pier. That was how we started our week last Monday. We all found that to be our most exciting and interesting morning session. The fish fun did not end when we got back to campus that afternoon. We were getting a lesson in breaking down and filleting fish.

I don’t necessarily want to butcher fish everyday, but I enjoyed the learning experience. It is a lot of work to break down a whole fish, but I understand that seeing the whole fish is a great way to judge its freshness. I will still chose to primarily purchase fish as fillets/tranches from the supermarket. It is just not convenient and cost-efficient for the average person to be seeking out whole fish, especially since most people don’t know how to fillet them.

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Fish are fascinating. Some are such beautiful creatures, while others could give someone nightmares. I got a better understanding of their basic structure. We even got a stab at de-scaling fish for skin-on fillets. That is a messy task, let me tell you. The chef said we shouldn’t be surprised if we find random scales later at home. Sure enough, that evening when I was doing my reading, I found two scales in my bed. They probably fell from my hair.

The chef also showed us how to fillet larger fish, like salmon. We were using the salmon later in the day to practice some different cooking methods for fish. In fact, we used all the fish we filleted during that session.

In total, we had five pieces or tranches of fish. A tranche is essentially a cut of a fillet. We each had two tranches of salmon, one skin-on tranche of red snapper, a branzino fillet, and a fluke fillet.

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We got to try a variety of cooking methods, starting with pan-frying. We pan fried one of the pieces of salmon and the skin-on snapper. Pan-frying a skin-on fish fillet is one of our potential options for our final. Pan-frying is my preferred method for cooking most fish. I love how it brings so much flavor to the fish. However, I typically don’t pan-fry salmon. My preferred method for salmon is oven-roasted. I was excited about how both of my pan-fried fish turned out.

We then poached the other piece of salmon and steamed the branzino. We also got our first shot at the fryer for the fluke. The chef was very impressed with my poached salmon. He told me it was perfectly cooked and called it  “money” when he tasted it. The steamed fish was fine; I just didn’t think it had much flavor.

Fish day was an enthralling day. We got to work with the amazing Chef Jeremy Sewell again. Next came my absolute favorite day so far in the program: Spain day! It was our first day focused on an area outside of French cuisine. I was pumped for this day for many reasons. I recently started working at a Spanish tapas restaurant, so I was pleased to make the connection between my class and my job.

I am also a huge fan of Spanish food, dating back to beginning my Spanish studies in high school. I renewed that love of Spanish food with amazing restaurants in DC like Boqueria, Jaleo, and La Tasca. My culinary icon, Jose Andres, is a Spanish chef who has been attributed for popularizing the tapas (small plates) concept in the U.S. There really isn’t a negative thing I can say about Spanish food. I have been working my way through the menu at my work. I have not had a dish yet that disappointed me.

For our Spain class, we were taught by Chef Deborah Hansen, chef-owner of Taberna de Haro, a popular Spanish restaurant in Boston. I loved her energy and passion for her work. She came up with an impressive menu reflective of Spain for us to cook.

We started out with a tapa of pulpo gallego (Galician octopus). While octopus may turn many people off, I love it. Yes, it can be chewy and has suction tentacles, but when it is cooked well, it is so delicious. The octopus dish was made was simple and flavorful. The steamed octopus sits on top of a bed of potatoes. Then it is drizzled with Spanish olive oil and sprinkled with paprika.

Octopus are freaky yet fascinating creatures. I can understand why people are hesitant to try eating them. I find that understanding the animal helps me enjoy it more. Octopus are brilliant animals. I love watching videos of how they move around under water.

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I loved this dish so much. The flavor from the olive oil brought the octopus to life. Spanish olive oil is truly a wonderful thing. Using a high-quality olive oil truly elevates this dish. There are so few ingredients in this entire preparation, which is what makes this dish so wonderful. You aren’t trying to hide the octopus but enhance it.

We then moved onto our next course, pisto manchego. This Spanish dish from La Mancha was so simple, but the flavors were exhilarating. We very slowly browned vegetables over low heat with a hefty amount of Spanish olive oil. (There was clearly a trend in our day). The dish was then finished with eggs cooked just until they are set.

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I was so pleased with how our group’s dish turned out. Our proud moment was when our chef instructor said our dish tasted just like it does in Spain. We are learning to cook things we have never tried before. It feels really good when you pull off the technique. Some happen more seamlessly than others, but I want to keep working until I get the technique down.

Following the octopus, we had our next dish, braised rabbit. Previously, I had only had rabbit once. Ironically, it was when I visited Boston to check out BU this past spring. The dish was chicken fried rabbit, so I didn’t really get a good sense of what rabbit tastes like. This was my chance to get that experience.

Our first step was breaking down a whole rabbit. We got more practice for our butchering skills. I certainly had never butchered a rabbit before; No one in the class had. We enjoyed taking this animal apart and made a few jokes along the way.

Our team had a little bit of trouble with cooking the rabbit. Our heat was turned up too high. That was evident when our braising liquid disappeared quickly. Our rabbit was in turn dry, and we weren’t left with much sauce. The difference was clear when compared to the other teams’ rabbit. We are learning though, and each time we make mistakes, it is an opportunity for further education. I did discover that I like rabbit. It does not have much meat, but the texture was comparable to chicken. If you shredded cooked rabbit meat and presented it to someone, they might think it was chicken.

We finished off the meal with an olive oil cake. This type of cake is wonderful when done well. It bursts with flavor from the olive oil and bright citrus. This version used both orange and lemon. We made the executive decision to take the cake out of the oven about 10 minutes early. We used the cake tester, and it came out clean, meaning it was done.

Our cake was fully baked, but taking it out when we did meant that our cake was assured to be super moist. There are very few things worse in the kitchen than a dry cake. Our cake was moist and joyfully citrusy.

Well, that was our Spanish feast. For the first time, we had created a full meal from start to finish. Our dishes all spread out on the table looked like a party was about to start.

If that wasn’t enough, we also got a lesson on sherry as well as a tasting paired with our dishes. I loved seeing how different levels of the sherry complemented our dishes. I loved this day so much. I immediately made plans to make some of these dishes again. You can hear more about that in an upcoming post.

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On Wednesday, we had a different type of class. We learned how to make some dessert accompaniments. This included a caramel sauce, some nut pastes, and tuiles.

Our TA had made us some Greek yogurt panna cotta so we could use some of our accompaniments. This was an opportunity to experiment with plating. I liked my first plating design the best (and so did the chef). Not all of them were gorgeous, but in this low-stakes environment, we had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t. I appreciate all our opportunities to learn in class.

Finally on Thursday, we had our second fish day with another visiting chef, Chef Francisco Millan. On our menu for the day was steamed mussels, pan-fried fish with butternut squash caponata, and ceviche.

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I am a big ceviche fan, but I had never tried to make it for myself. It really is quite simple. The key is to make sure the acidity and seasoning are balanced. Also make sure to use high-quality fish.

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I loved how we also seamlessly transitioned into fall with our pan-fried fish with a side of butternut squash caponata. That side dish was fall on a plate. I am not typically a fan of butternut squash, but I love it in this dish.

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My favorite dish of the day was the mussels with chorizo. How I love chorizo! If you give me options for a dish and one of them contains chorizo, there is a 95% chance that is the one I choose. I don’t think that is an exaggeration. I loved how easy this dish was. Most people don’t think about making mussels at home, but if you can find them in good-quality, you can easily make a steamed mussels dish packed full of flavor. The key is in the broth. I was very pleased with the end result of this dish.

That wraps up another week in my culinary education. You won’t have to wait very long for the next update, as I will hopefully have it ready to go tomorrow. Thank you to everyone who has been following along with my class. I love being able to share my experiences.

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