Culinary Arts – Week 6

Week six of the Culinary Arts program has come and gone. It was a short week due to the holiday, but it sure didn’t feel any less packed.

We started our week with the ServSafe exam on Tuesday morning. This is a test for a five year certification in food safety. The good news is that we all passed! What a relief to be done and all certified.

The exam occupied our morning session, but we still got into the kitchen on time for technique review. This was our first technique review class. These classes are designed to help us get ready for our final in December.

So, nothing was new during this class. We each roasted a chicken and carved the cooked bird. We each cooked and plated a complete meal of a skin-on chicken breast with a puree and green beans. We also each made a beurre blanc and plated the sauce with a skin-on fish fillet.

These dishes represent a few of the options required for our final project. We could see how far our skills have come in the past six weeks. I still have a ton of things I want to work on, in particular carving and plating, but I am so pleased with how much I have grown in my cooking. We also butchered a chicken again, and I found that I did so much better than the first time. If you need to break down a chicken, give me a call. I will show up with my boning knife.

Wednesday and Thursday were then very busy, exciting days. On Wednesday, we started the day with a tour of Chef Chris Douglass’ restaurants in Dorchester: Ashmont Grill and Tavolo. It has been a joy to learn from Chef Chris, our lead culinary instructor and hearing about his experiences as a business owner was no exception.

One comment I have regarding his restaurants is that they have a distinct and welcoming decor. I can see how these have become popular neighborhood spots, especially having experienced Chef Chris’ cooking. I loved the outdoor patio at Ashmont Grill.

When we moved over to Tavolo, it felt like we had been transported to Italy, which makes since since this is a pizza and pasta restaurant. The design of this restaurant is absolutely adorable.

Tavolo has a huge bar, which I imagine is a coveted spot on a busy weekend night. One of my favorite decor choices was the use of Campari soda bottles in the light fixtures. Fair warning to my DC friends. If you come visit me, I will probably take you here for a fun night of pizza.

The main reason we came to Tavolo was that we would be making pizza for lunch with Chef Chris. While we used dough that had already been made and properly rested, Chef Chris made a new batch of pizza dough to show us how they make it. They have an impressively sized old school 20 quart mixer. I was mesmerized watching the ingredients form into pizza dough.

We each rolled out a dough and chose toppings. I went with mushroom, Italian sausage, and fresh mozzarella. I slightly wish I had went with the shredded mozzarella. As much as I love fresh mozzarella, the high moisture content watered down the sauce, making the center of the pizza soupy. With that said, this was still the best pizza I have had in a long time. This pizza was so good that I ate most of it in one sitting.

This was my favorite morning session because it was interactive and relatable. We got to spend time in a real restaurant kitchen, making a delicious lunch.

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After making our pizza, we headed back to campus for our afternoon session focused on grains. The kitchen was flowing with grains. Under the instruction of Chef Barry Maiden, we made several composed grain dishes using grains like farro, freekah, quinoa, wheat berries and more! Most of these dishes contained grains I had not worked with before, so it was an excellent learning opportunity. My favorite was the farro salad with roasted red peppers and feta. I loved having Chef Barry back in the kitchen. I learn so much from him. I am looking forward to having him back for Southern Day.

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So, I tried to speak more concisely on the other topics for the week because I want my focus to primarily be on Thursday’s class: pasta day! I was looking forward to this class more than any other class. It did not disappoint! This class went well beyond my expectations.

We were taught by Chef Kevin O’Donnell, co-chef/owner of SRV, a popular Venetian restaurant in the South End. I was amazed hearing his background and experience. For someone of his relatively young age, he has lived an amazing life full of pasta making.

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you might remember that last fall I hosted a pasta fest where I made a bunch of handmade pasta for my friends. Pasta-making is one of my growing passions. It was what made me learn what true joy felt like. Pasta is in my blood and in my heart. I have made comments about wanting to be a pasta apprentice, so learning from Chef Kevin was amazing. I was trying not to Geek out too much outwardly, but I just wanted to soak in all of his knowledge and skill.

Aside from showing off his pasta making skills, Chef Kevin demoed making a bolognese in the morning session. We did not make any of the sauces we used that day. He wanted our efforts to be on the pasta-making, so he made all the sauces. After starting the bolognese in the morning session, it was moved to the kitchen to simmer for about three hours, giving the kitchen an amazing aroma. Every time I walked by, I took in a good whiff of the bubbling sauce. Maybe I will make another batch of my own soon.

Randomly, this class ended up being on National Pasta Day! It was like fate brought our class together with this pasta master on the very appropriate day. I definitely got so much out of the morning session, with a renewed interest in making pasta.

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So, what did we have in store for the afternoon session? Well, we made four types of pasta dough: ravioli dough, egg dough, semolina dough, and potato gnocchi dough. We used the ravioli dough for the obvious, ravioli, which was paired with a simple butter sauce. The egg dough was used for tagliatelle to be served with the bolognese. The semolina day turned into orecchiette, which was paired with the traditional preparation of broccoli rabe and Italian sausage. Finally, the gnocchi was served with a pesto sauce.

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The main difference between the ravioli dough and the egg dough is that the egg dough used only egg yolks while the ravioli dough used whole eggs. Aside from the color difference, the most noticeable difference was that the egg dough was firmer than the ravioli dough.

We used the pasta rollers to make our pasta. I have used rollers before, but the ones that BU has are super high quality. It rolled out the pasta so easily. Let’s just say that I used my Discover cash back points to buy one of these after class on Tuesday.

The specific style of ravioli we made are called pansotti. It literally translated to pot-bellied, getting it’s name from the pudgy pocket of filling that is encapsulated into the pasta dough. The filling we used was a spinach/ricotta filling.

We also rolled out our orecchiette and gnocchi. For orecchiette, it was my first time ever making that type of pasta (though it was one of my favorite pastas). What I didn’t know is that this pasta originates from Puglia, which is the region where my great grandmother’s family came from in Italy.  On the other hand, I have the most experience with making gnocchi, after years of watching my aunt making it and then learning to make it from our family’s recipe. I did get some great new technique tips from Chef Kevin though.

So, what did I get out of this day? The short answer is: so, so much! I could write paragraphs about everything I learned, but I will stick with a short summary. Pasta-making is serious work. It is labor-intensive, but in my opinion, it is an art form. If you are someone who really loves pasta, it is absolutely worth the work of making it by hand. Yet, I completely understand how this just doesn’t fit into people’s busy lifestyles. I do believe, though, that if you are an Italian restaurant where pasta is your focus, you should be making your own pasta by hand.

Chef Kevin clearly knows his pasta. His choice of sauces for each pasta were intentional and matched each pasta to make a cohesive dish. Please don’t ask me to pick my favorite dish. That is like being asked to pick your favorite child. (Actually, I don’t know if that is true since I don’t have children). The truth is that every single dish was divine, leaving me with an out-of-body type of satisfaction. By the time we went to do clean up, I may have been on both a sugar and spiritual high.

The good news is that we had so much leftover pasta dough. That means I am so going to make a ton more pasta and put it in the freezer. This day left me inspired, so much so that I decided I want to make pasta as part of my final project. There are limited ways in which I could incorporate it into the meal, but I am determined to make it work. We are still seven weeks away, so there is still time for me to change my mind.

We also tried some very high-quality spaghetti with the same preparation as the orecchiette. Chef Kevin said if he ever makes a dish with dry pasta, it would be this brand or something comparable (aka not barilla). Look, I get it. This was fantastic pasta. I have never had a better dry pasta in my life. The issue is that a pasta like this can be $10 or more per pound, compared to many pastas that are $1.00 per pound. Pasta is a great cheap ingredient, so I certainly won’t judge someone who wants to use spaghetti from barilla. Not everyone has the financial resources or wants to spend that much on pasta.

My final thought for the day was that working with Chef Kevin was amazing. I would love to spend some time in SRV’s kitchen. Maybe I found my home for being a pasta apprentice. A girl can dream, can’t she! I am not sure how class could possibly go up from here, but every time I think that, it finds a way to happen. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. Come back next week to see how we followed up pasta day.

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