Culinary Arts Program – Week 5

I cannot believe that five weeks of the culinary arts program have already passed! Where is the time going? Pretty soon it will be over (sadly). This realization was made more prominent by having a morning session devoted to discussing our final projects and graduation. Talking about these made me feel anxious, but mostly in a good way. I am so excited for both projects because it is a real chance for me to work on menu planning.

As much as I love what we are doing in the kitchen, our daily menus are crafted for us. This, of course, is because the chefs are the ones with the expertise. Though, I am looking forward to having some more creative control. I have already taken so much of what we have learned into my home cooking. I hope to soon take those lessons and produce some new (or even revised) recipes for my blog.

Back to week five for now. Monday was our salad day. I love a good salad. I have been bringing a simple salad to lunch almost every day during this class comprised of baby arugula, some protein (mostly white beans or chickpeas), dried cranberries, crumbled feta, a touch of salt, and olive oil. My inspiration behind this salad was to have a cheap and light meal to keep me going through our kitchen sessions until we had food to taste. Occasionally, I have thrown on some leftover protein from class (like our salmon) but I have mostly been using some canned beans I have in the kitchen. This is an incredibly budget-friendly meal.

You might think there is not too much to discuss about salads, but there are quite a number of ways to make salad. I was hoping to get out of this class ways to elevate my lunch salads.

We were taught this day by Chef Chris Douglass, our lead culinary instructor. He started the day by having us try a variety of lettuces. He lined them up from sweetest to most bitter. As we progressed down the line, it was quite evident the difference between both ends. Some of the lettuce types were unpleasant to eat on their own.

Chef Chris then made a variety of different dressings, some vinaigrettes and some mayonnaise-based. We then tried the lettuce again with the dressing and saw how we could take those bitter greens and make them more enjoyable.

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In the kitchen, we made a variety of salads. This included three variations of Caesar salad (one per team) and an escarole salad. What was most interesting to me was how little I knew about a “proper” Caesar salad. We discussed the salad’s origin and how it has evolved. In most restaurants today, a Caesar salad is served with a creamy, almost mayonnaise-like dressing. The actually technique is to add a coddled egg to make the dressing though. Caesar salads was my favorite thing to order at restaurants for many years, but I had no idea that everyone was making it wrong.

We also made a cooked salad. The leeks vinaigrette was a simple and sophisticated salad with pops of color and flavor brought on my whole pink peppercorns. This recipe would be great for a small dinner party. However, it felt more of a spring recipe than fall, so maybe I will save that for the spring.

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Our final salad of the day was a salad Nicoise. This would not be the first salad I choose, since I don’t love a number of the ingredients. It is a beautiful salad though. My favorite part of salad day was working on plating, especially with the Nicoise. This salad is artwork that you can eat.

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I enjoyed this class, and I did indeed gets some good tips for improving my personal salad game. I am glad we had salad day on Monday, because it helped balance out what we made on Tuesday and Wednesday: pies!

I was both pumped for and intimidated by pie day. I very much wanted to be good at making pie, but my one attempt at making a true pie last fall was one of my worst baking experiments. I was thinking about how disappointed my grandma would be to know I could make so many things but could not make my own pie dough. She would be disappointed no more!

We had two amazing days of pie training with renowned Chef Jim Dodge, who comes all the way from San Francisco to teach these classes every semester. He has been teaching since the program’s onset. It was an honor to have him instruct us.

On Tuesday, we had two objectives: to make a sugar crust for our chocolate tarts and to make an apple pie, starting with a flaky pie crust.

We went for the sugar dough first. This was the crust for our chocolate tarts (or tartlets depending on which tart pans you chose). I had one of the full tart pans. We got two different lessons on how to mold the tart pans and keep them weighed down so they don’t puff up during baking.

There were some technique difficulties with the large tarts pans during baking. Many parts of the rim were so thin that when we went to remove the aluminum foil form the pan, it broke off a few parts of the shell. Not to worry, Chef Dodge showed us a quick fix of adding some more dough to patch up the holes and putting the shells back in the oven uncovered. Those parts of the shell won’t be browned like the rest, but at least you won’t have any holes. We set our tarts shells aside until the next day and moved on with our apple pie.

Apple pie was never my go-to pie. I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t blown away by it either. It was likely the preparation of the pie I did not like. Chef Dodge’s apple pie recipe has turned me into an apple pie convert. At the end of the day, we each got to take home the apple pie we made. The flaky crust so good, and so was the filling. The apple filling was neither too sweet nor too tart. Dare I say it was perfect. Do you know how good this pie was? I finished the last piece yesterday, when the pie was five days old. It was still a great pie. I would say it is probably best the first couple days, when they crust is at it flakiest. After a couple days, the crust is going to start absorbing some liquid from the apple filling, but it was still a delicious pie. I won’t go and share all of Chef Dodge’s secrets. For that, I would recommend buying his cookbook, because this was the best apple pie I have ever tasted. He took me from a pie-trastrophy to a complete success. Every single person in the class has a successful pie that day.

On Wednesday, we managed to cram in even more pie/pastry making. By the end of the day we had filled our tart shells with ganache, and made a peach crostata, a tart tatin, and a quarter sheet of lemon bars. Each person made each dessert, so that meant we would now have five full desserts in our homes. I made a travel box for my roommate to take to class on Thursday, because I couldn’t imagine how we were going to eat all of that pie.

I liked that we got to make pie in so many different forms. The peach crostata is a rustic free-form pie baked over parchment paper. The peaches, which were IQF (individually quick frozen), since peaches were not in season, juiced up nicely and created a lovely glaze for the pie. The tart tatin (a French classic) was baked in a saute pan with the bottom crust on top and then flipped to serve. Both of these pies made for some great breakfast over the week.

The lemon bars were surprisingly delightful. I am pretty sure I have only had lemon bars that had an overly sweet and probably artificially flavored lemon filling. That does not appeal to me. What I did like about this dish was how we used freshly squeezed lemon juice and zest to flavor the filling. Again, this filling was neither too sweet nor too sour. It had a lovely balance. Lemon bars are not the prettiest dessert, but they sure do taste good when done right.

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Oh and then there was the chocolate tart. What a funny store I have about that one. When I was filling my tart shell with ganache, another little ridge on the top of the shell broke off, creating a hole for ganache to flow through. My classmate ran over to my tart after noticing the leak. We pulled chef over and he made a make-shift damn to stop the ganache from leaking. Chef Dodge could find a fix for just about anything. We were so lucky to get to absorb his knowledge and experience, even if just for two days.

img_1826So, my tart will not go down as one of the prettiest desserts I will ever make. It was quite a mess actually, but it did taste good. I would say that having four out of five of these pies being completely successful is quite an accomplishment for my first time trying these. Plus, my flawed tart was a learning opportunity for me. I know what I would do differently next time. Below, you can compare my tart (on the left) with the chef’s tartlets (on the right).

I took all my desserts home and even after giving a significant portion away to my roommate’s OT class, I still found myself with so much pie. 50% of my diet over the past week has been pie. I have had pie for breakfast, pie for dessert, pie for snacks. On Saturday, I just had a piece of apple pie for dinner before work. I was just trying to make my way through all this pie. As I write this, I still have most of my chocolate tart sitting in the fridge. I do love pie, but I am ready to go back to eating more protein and veggies. I do feel I gained some great skills to take home for Thanksgiving.

Finally, we had a day full of appetizers on Thursday. We made some pretty sophisticated appetizers. No more nachos and chicken wings. Well, I still love nachos and wings, but I am working to show versatility.

We started with a beef tartare. I have had this dish before but never thought to make it. I like beef tartare, but my stomach is not overly fond of the raw meat in this dish. Nonetheless, I enjoyed learning how to make this dish. With beef tartare, the seasoning and balance of flavors are key.

We also made a warm pickled vegetable salad. I liked this salad, though I don’t know I’d make it much. It takes a ton of olive oil to make this dish. Our third appetizer was another steamed mussel dish. This one was steamed in a yellow curry broth. We made the curry powder by toasting whole spices and putting them in the spice grinder. I totally took some home so I can make another curry dish soon.

Our final appetizer was a cheese souffle. I was very excited to make this dish. Souffles are so light and fluffy. When you pull off this dish, it can really impress some people. We had a couple very successful souffles in the room. Our team’s did not rise like the others did. We did have a larger vessel for holding the souffle, which may have affected it. We also have been having some issues with inconsistent ovens. Despite our souffle not rising, I now feel confident in the procedure for this dish. Plus, the texture of our eggs was still a light and fluffy delight.

Well, that wraps up another week. I had an amazing week. Each week that passes, I learn so much and find myself enjoying myself even more than the prior week. I think that will be true again this coming week, because we are making pasta!! Until then, I will keep moving!

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