Cooking with Jason

Thursday, June 30, 2005

So we meat again

I finished up with meat on Tuesday. Had you asked me Monday afternoon how I felt about the final -- the ID portion in particular -- I would have said, "not good." We had a practice ID session at the end of class that left me quite disheartened. You're looking at these big cuts of meat in vac-packs, and they all look the same. Not all the same, but close enough. I was honestly thinking that if I could get 10 out of 20, I'd take it, and having gotten all the other points, I'd settle for a solid B+.

I studied meat for four and a half hours Monday night. Went to bed at 1:30, got up after a mere three and a half hours of sleep. Too much, you say? Not so. I got either 18 or 19 (there's one I'm not clear on) out of 20 on the ID portion of the final, aced the yield test and maybe missed one on the multiple choice section. So yeah... I'm a regular meat stud.

We wrapped up meat class by making 60# of sausage, 30 pounds each of sweet Italian and breakfast sausage. Start with cubed pork butt (that's the shoulder, remember, a great cut for sausage because of its lean to fat ratio), add spices, chill everything really well, run it through the meat grinder, then through the extruder and into casings. It was an easy, relaxing way to finish up a very intense seven days... the only bad part of all this is that we didn't get a weekend to recover.

And why was there no time off? Because we were expected in our next class, Seafood Fabrication and ID, at 6:05am the next day. The kitchen from which I normally get breakfast doesn't even open until 6, so I had to eat upstairs, not that there's a huge difference. After a quick kitchen run-through, we hit the classroom for lecture.

Chef Clark is pretty much the exact opposite of Chef Sebald. To use a phrase Chef Clark himself uses quite often, the two are "Night and day, black and white, Pinto Cadillac, Honda Harley" (he rides a Harley and doesn't consider any other brand a motorcycle). Chef Sebald is like a kindly grandfather, telling stories and sharing all he knows about meat. Chef Clark is a yeller. If you screw up, he'll let you (and the rest of the class) know. He even sets traps for the class, trying to get us to give incorrect answers in order to have an opportunity to point out our shortcomings.

This is not to say I won't learn a great deal in his class. I already know a great deal more about fish than I did two days ago, and yesterday I gutted and scaled a fish for the first time. He's also very serious about establishing and maintaining the chef-cook relationship, and by that I mean that he's always right, knows everything, and should do all the talking, while we are always wrong, know nothing, and should do all the listening.

There's a tremendous amount of stress in the kitchen, because nobody wants to screw up and get called on it. Stay busy, stay out of the way, and, when in doubt, look for something to clean. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it's not -- basically, this class is walking a fine line between "learning" and "surviving" for me.

I'm probably not going to talk much about fish. Don't take it personally. I'm just trying to make sure I don't say something I shouldn't.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

"L-i-i-i-i-i-sa, how can you e-a-a-a-a-a-a-t me?"

a.k.a. The Meat Post, by popular demand.

Lisa: No I can't! I can't eat any of them!
Homer: Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. Lisa honey, are you saying you're *never* going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

-- Lisa the Vegetarian

I apologize for going a week between posts, but meat is tough. Well, some of it's tender, but you know what I'm saying. Here's the basic breakdown:

Days 1 & 2: Beef
Day 3: Veal
Day 4: Pork
Day 5: Lamb
Day 6: Poultry (tomorrow)
Day 7: Sausages, Test Day

If that sounds short, it's because it is short. I'm not the only one who thinks the meat and fish classes should run a full three-week block each instead of sharing a block. I mean, we spend six weeks in gastronomy, but only seven days learning about meat and fish? What's more practical, getting hands-on experience with meat fabrication or learning about Escoffier and Careme? That's not to say gastronomy wasn't interesting, because it was. But I think those six weeks of B-Block could have been put to better use.

Moving on. Chef Sebald isn't really what I expected. He certainly has a wealth of knowledge and experience, but he's not as tough as I had imagined. He's firm when he has to be, sure, but I wouldn't describe him as a yeller. His entire approach is rather grandfatherly, and he's very patient in trying to make sure you understand the material. He also likes to tell jokes, relay stories from his apprenticeship days in Germany, and pretend to cut himself when doing demos in the butchering room. Overall, he's a great teacher, a close second to Mr. Virgili (Food Safety) in my book.

Our days are about as follows: Arrive at 6:45am. Chef is still eating breakfast at this point, but he builds in these 15 minutes to make sure he's not waiting for anyone. He wants to walk in the room at 7 and have everyone ready to go, and so far we have been each day (this is quite a feat for my group, believe me). We then have about two hours of lecture on the meat of the day, including what he calls an "oral quiz" in which he asks questions about the previous day's topic, readings and videos. He generally calls on half the students each day, but it's random enough that you'd better be prepared in case he calls you. These quizzes are part of our daily grade.

Around 9am we take a ten minute break, during which people either run outside to smoke, run upstairs to get coffee, or both. I've been getting a double espresso during these breaks. Next up is more lecture, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation featuring tons of pictures so we have some idea what we're talking about. Sometimes there'll be something like a slide with three carcasses of the day's animal, and he'll ask which one we'd buy going on appearance only. We also go over the animal's skeletal structure, different cuts, and cooking applications.

Somewhere between 11 and 11:30 he lets us go for lunch. We generally have in the neighborhood of 35 minutes, depending on how long he lectured. My class is eating at the Cuisine of the Mediterranean kitchen right now -- yum. Thursday and Friday featured a Spanish menu that was really good; I had oxtail Thursday and a lamb chop Friday. They even have a cheese plate and some light tapas (Spanish appetizers). I'm going to miss this kitchen.

After lunch we grab our knives, don safety aprons (almost like wearing armor) and regular aprons, and find our stations. Chef will do a demo or two, the first one being on a larger cut (or "primal," such as a round of beef) that we won't get to do. Next up he'll do something smaller, like a beef hind shank, and then we each get a beef hind shank to work on. He does a couple of steps, then sends us off to do the same. When he calls "Demo time!" you walk back to his station to see the next steps. We weigh everything (edible portion, bones, fat, usable trim) in order to perform a yield test at home that night which is due the next day.

We finish up around 2pm, and then it's a mad dash to clean the room. Boards get cleaned, rinsed, dried and sanitized, floors get swept and mopped, dishes are done, product vaccuum packed and labeled, boxes broken down and the trash taken out. With 17 people this goes pretty quickly, and everyone has been good about staying on task this week. Finally we're back in the classroom for a few minutes, where Chef gives an assessment of the day, goes over any homework, and reminds us of the next day's topic. Physically and mentally exhaused, and perhaps covered with animal blood, we then leave the cool comfort of the meat room and step outside into the 90-degree heat of the afternoon.

Despite being in his 60's, you get the impression Chef Sebald could handle himself pretty well in a fight. For starters, he carries his knives around in a sort of hip holster, so they're always at the ready. He employs a standard 6-inch boning knife (thin, stiff blade; despite the name, it's not for cutting bones but rather cutting meat away from bones) and a 12-inch cimeter (curved blade, a bit more suited for large cuts of meat than a chef's knife). He also wears a hardhat, a practice leftover from his days as a commercial butcher. Finally, he has incredible hand-eye coordination and all his cutting movements are incredibly fluid. There's no wasted motion, no stopping and starting.

Here's a quick look at what I've done each day.

Monday: Truss (tied) a roast. Bone out beef hind shank (back leg), cut meat into 1" cubes for stew.
Tuesday: Peel and denude (remove all fat, connective tissue) beef tenderloin. Fabricate beef strip loin into oven-ready roast.
Wednesday: Trim subprimals of leg of veal, cut into scallopine (thin cutlets).
Thursday: Bone out a pork shoulder, tie into a roast, make 1" cubes for sausage.
Friday: Bone out a leg of lamb, split into appropriate roasts and truss, cut 1" cubes

Yes, we love our 1" cubes here at the CIA.

I'm looking forward to poultry tomorrow -- breaking down a chicken is the one thing we'll do in class that I've done many, many times and can already do well. There's also a portioning test tomorrow. Tuesday is the big test day, with a written test, a yield test, and a 20-item ID test (identifying vaccuum packed cuts of meat is not easy, at least for me).

Next up is fish! The time really is flying by.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Next chapter

Friday went pretty well. Really, all four finals were easier than anticipated. And it wasn't just me; most people I talked to felt the same way. I managed a little bit of down time this weekend after a long finals week, but now it's back to the grind (bad joke: But we don't make sausages until the end of meats class!). Sorry, you were warned.

Time to get moving on this reading for tomorrow. I also have a pair of videos to watch, which fortunately: 1. Are available online, and 2. Are only 35 minutes in length combined. I should also run through my uniform for tomorrow, and if there's time, sharpen my chef's, boning, and slicing knives.

Meat begins promptly at 6:45 in the morning!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

What do you know about meat?

Astute readers will recognize the title of this post as the title of a chapter from Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which I highly recommend.

Yesterday we received the course information for our next class, Meat Fabrication & Identification. Prior to attending the first class Monday, we have no less than 121 pages to read and four videos to watch. Chef Johann Sebald -- he's an old German chef/butcher, and probably just what you're imagining him to be -- makes it clear through his materials that he doesn't put up with any crap. Class officially starts at 7am, but you'd better be there no latter than 6:45. Tardy even one minute? You just lost 33% of your daily grade. I pity the fool who dares show up out of dress code, too. I get the impression that student would be used for the day's work, if you catch my meaning.

I'm looking forward to it, to be honest. This discipline is exactly the sort of thing my group needs, having coasted through nothing like it the past six weeks.

Today was a good day. I finished two classes, Food Safety and Intro to Gastronomy, and feel a-OK about both finals. It also finally cooled down here -- when I went to bed last night it was actually less than 70 degrees out, and I don't think it hit much more than 75 during the day today. As I type this, it's 65 and pouring rain. Ah... just like home.

We also had Grand Buffet for lunch today. Grand Buffet happens every three weeks on the day before graduation, and is sort of our little version of a culinary Christmas. Last time out, we were GB rookies and didn't know what to do. Like fools, we went to one of the classroom kitchens to pick up entrees, as we'd been told to do. This is a mistake for three reasons: First, there's so much great food at the buffet that you don't have any reason to pick up an entree. Second, by waiting in line, you risk not getting a seat in the dining hall (all those extra buffet tables take up quite a bit of space). And finally, you risk not getting dessert, which is always first to go.

Today, seasoned GB veterans, we skipped entrees and went straight in to Farquarson Hall (the main dining hall). Next up, make a beeline for an empty table and stake out your seat. Then hit the dessert table, fill up a plate with whatever looks good -- and it all looks good -- and set it back at your place. Then, and only then, should you approach the buffet. Today we lost someone who decided to fill up a plate on the way in, only to arrive and find our table was already full. Live and learn, live and learn.

The buffet was awesome. There are a ton of finger foods, numerous salads, some hot stations that put together soups and pastas for you (the ingredients are primarily cooked, they just finish and combine everything) while you wait, and of course the big winner: Garde Manger. Garde Manger, which literally means "protector of the food," is the cold kitchen: pates, roulades, terrines, and so on. Today I sampled a foie gras terrine and a pork roulade, to name two. Last time we had beef tongue, and it was quite tasty.

I'll try to remember everything I ate... Caesar salad with pork roulade; foie gras terrine on brioche with poached fruit; pear and bleu cheese tart (stellar); miniature pulled pork quesadilla; beef tamale; saffron and mussel soup; cold cherry soup with creme fraiche (sweet and tart all at once, very refreshing); pierogi with cabbage and bacon; fried risotto ball; pasta with mushrooms and truffle oil (today's favorite); grissini (long, skinny breadstick) with bleu cheese and poached figs. There are others I can't recall right now, and it's also worth noting that I probably only tasted a tenth of what was available. It really is an amazing spread.

That's about it for me. Two more finals tomorrow, Product Knowledge and Math, and then that's the end of B-block. I don't need to study for those nearly as much as I did for today's finals, but I suppose I should get cracking. OK, and I have to brag: Having not missed a single point in math, I could skip the final tomorrow and still pass the class with a solid C, and a 60% on the test still gets me an A.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Style vs. Substance

Today we wrapped up the presentations in Intro to Gastronomy. My group's presentation on M.F.K. Fisher seems like ages ago. Anyway, today's subjects were Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria.

Unless you know something about them, it's difficult for me to explain just how different these two chefs are. I'll start with my own biases -- Keller, to me, is just about the pinnacle of everything you could hope to achieve culinarily. I've waffled sometimes on whether or not he might be overrated, and I often don't care for the way he writes his menus (PDF link), but there's no denying the care, craftmanship and perfection (he'd say he's still striving for perfection and will never reach it) he sends out with every dish. I have no doubt that even with all the build up, eating at The French Laundry during my "California Experience" between my junior and senior years will be perhaps the greatest meal I'll ever eat. As our professor said today, "it's difficult to eat at The French Laundry and not have an aesthetic experience."

Then you have Adria, the so-called "mad scientist" of the kitchen. I really tried to go into today's presentation with an open mind, but everything I've read about him turns me off. Adria is the guy who started the "foam" crazy of the 1980s when he started putting everything and anything into those CO2 whipped cream canisters and foaming the contents right onto the plate. I think there's a place for this, but c'mon, sea water foam? When everyone else started copying him, Adria stopped doing foams and moved to making "airs" out of ingredients. He serves a vial of split pea soup in a balloon. He makes pasta out of agar agar (seaweed gelatin). He makes crepes out of the skin that forms when you heat milk. His tables have no silverware, no plates, no glasses, just a white linen tablecloth. The dishes often come with instructions, like "drink very slowly," "eat in one bite," or "alternate the two items." Adria closes his restaurant, El Bulli, for six months out of the year and takes his entire crew to a laboratory in Barcelona to work on the next season's dishes.

I'm sure he's brilliant. I'm sure the food even tastes good, and I'm not so stubborn about this that I would turn down a chance to eat at his restaurant. But this sort of thing is way beyond what I'm interested in doing in my career, and he has -- as is human nature, I guess -- spawned a group of people trying to do the same thing, or at least capitalize on the craze. If I hear one more time about how Grant Achatz is the greatest thing ever because he atomized shrimp cocktail and serves it to you in a spritz bottle, I'm going to scream. In his article "Aboard Spaceship Adria," Anthony Bourdain quotes Eric Ripert (Ripert's right up there with Keller in my book), "He's [Adria] a phenomenon. But we need one Ferran Adria, not five. I don't see anyone succeeding in emulating him."

I will say this for Adria, though. While his food doesn't interest me, I can respect him for pushing the envelope and sticking to his mantra, "Don't copy anyone." And when others copy him, he decides it's to move on to something new. That said, I'm in complete agreement with Ripert, and I hope he's right.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Better luck next time

I struck out in my attempt to be group 138's group leader. Well, perhaps struck out is a bit too strong -- I did finish second in the voting among four candidates. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, as we had a really hard time getting people to show up or care about the process. We tried to meet between classes, but didn't get full turnout despite numerous reminders. We then tried to meet after lunch, but wound up with even lower turnout. In the end we lost some people (including one of the few who seemed to actually care) and even counted the votes of two people who didn't bother to show up (I'm still mad about that last one, but what can you do?). One person I was more or less counting on to vote for me went home before lunch. Oh well.

I will say that I think Dan, who came out on top, will do a great job given the project management experience he has from his previous career. He's who I would have voted, myself excepted. I also wish him good luck, because leading this apathetic group is going to be quite a challenge.

In a bit of good news, I think mustard greens were on the product knowledge quiz today. If you recall from this post, I misidentified collards as mustards last time out. At this point I figure if I keep writing "mustard greens" they'll have to be correct at some point, right?

And so, onward with the final week of B-Block. Food Safety quiz tomorrow. I also only have two more days of eating "on stage," where we're served a sit-down, three-course lunch by the Banquet & Catering class -- after this it's more cafeteria-style, picking up food at one of the kitchens and then finding a place to sit in the dining hall. Not everyone likes stage, but it's never bothered me. I think those who dislike it now may change their tune in another week when we're forced to stand in line and eat food prepared by less-experienced cooks.

Oh, and don't forget Hell's Kitchen tonight at 9pm on FOX. And speaking of hell, the Weather Channel informs me that the current conditions in Pleasant Valley are, "91 degrees (feels like 98) with 52% humidity." That's actually far less humidity than we had this weekend, but still unpleasant to say the least.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Group Leader Election

My group -- #138 -- will be voting Monday immediately following Product Knowledge. There will be one-minute speeches and a chance for Q&A. Today I discovered four people (total, including myself) who'll be running for group leader, and there are probably others. I also got a better handle on who's actually in my group, and... I'm not feeling that good about my chances. I'm still going to give it a go, and perhaps I can give the best impression in my one minute of time.

Nothing much happened today... next week's the biggie. Monday a product knowledge quiz and the election. Tuesday, a food safety quiz. Thursday, finals in gastronomy and food safety (the latter being a national certification exam). Friday, finals in product knowledge and math.

Let's do it!


Yay. I will mention, however, that it's currently 73 degrees outside with 82% humidity. It's a quarter to seven in the morning. Geesh.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

New links, and Vote Jason!

The CIA changed their website recently, which rendered the links to my current classes worthless. I've updated them so they should work now if you want to read about, say, Introduction to Gastronomy.

Did I mention it's hot here? It's been upper 80's and quite humid all week. If you know me, you know I'm miserable. Monday we had a very impressive thunderstorm which cooled things off and wiped out the humidity, but whaddya know, it was back the next day. We had some rain this afternoon, but no thunderstorm.

Things are winding down at school. Two more days this week, then the last week of B-Block. Finals are looming but thankfully no projects. At some point before C-Block, my group (a sub-set of my block) has to elect a group leader. So far I've been trying to determine who's in my group (I only know a few for sure -- group 138, stand proud!) and then feel out who's thinking about running for the position (found one person today). I'd like to go for it in an attempt to get more involved with things on campus, but who knows if I can win what might just be a popularity contest. For what it's worth, I think the other potential candidate would do a good job, so there'll be no complaints from me if he gets it.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Don't forget: Hell's Kitchen

Just a friendly reminder -- Hell's Kitchen, episode 2, will air tonight at 9pm on FOX. And, I just noticed, if you missed last week's episode you can catch it tonight at 8pm before the new episode. Make it a double!

Sunday, June 05, 2005


I made my first Panzanella of the season today; I won't make it any earlier in the year because you can't get good tomatoes. Panzanella, a.k.a. Tuscan Bread Salad, is a nice summer dish (it hit 88 degrees today) consisting of tomatoes, basil, and chunks of bread tossed with red wine vinegar and olive oil. I made a few additions today and I think they worked well: caramelized onions and roasted red and yellow peppers. The onions and peppers brought good balance to the dish -- you have the sweet of the onions playing against the sour vinegar, and both add a different texture (the tomatoes and basil are pretty crisp, where as the bread is crunchy/chewy, depending on how much let it get stale). Then you've also got the onions and peppers playing "cooked" to the "fresh" of the other ingredients, and it all comes together nicely.

You'll see recipes for panzanella calling for celery, cucumber, anchovies, capers... if those float your boat, go for it. Honestly, if you don't want to go to the trouble of caramelizing the onions or roasting the peppers, either use 'em raw or just omit them entirely. There's nothing wrong with simply tossing cubed bread with basil, tomatoes, red wine vinegar and olive oil, plus salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Yum. Use good ingredients (it's all about the tomatoes!) and you'll make a good panzanella. Of course, that holds true for more than just panzanella.


Saturday, June 04, 2005

Stumped by leafy greens

I was right about yesterday's tests -- math was no problem, product knowledge was much tougher. We first had some multiple choice questions, then some product identification questions where you're looking at produce on a table and have to write down what it is. Most of these were no problem, but then I got to a large, leafy green that stumped me. I tasted it -- yes, that's legal on these things -- and tasted horseradish, volatile mustard oils. I went with mustard greens. In retrospect it was almost certainly collard greens, and I feel pretty dumb about that. Of course, in the "real world" you'd order collard greens from your produce purveyor and they'd give you collard greens, no problem. Ah well.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Getting serious now

Two mid-terms tomorrow: Math (easy) and Product Knowledge (scary). Two more next Tuesday: Food Safety (not worried) and Gastronomy (after last time, you never know). At least we got that Gastronomy project out of the way last week, eh? Good call on my part. I'd hate to be worrying about that as well as these four mid-terms.

OK, I have to go study up on my lettuces, salad greens, cooking greens, cabbages, stalks, mushrooms, tubers, and onions for tomorrow. Ack, and re-submit my product specification sheet. Nearly forgot about that one.

After tomorrow there are only two more weeks of B-block, and then it's on to meat and fish fabrication. Out of the classroom and into the kitchen!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Food Writing

If you're at all interested in reading about food and are looking for something easy to digest (ew... bad pun), check out Best Food Writing (Holly Hughes, ed.). The 2004 edition is the book for my Gastronomy class, and I see that the 2005 book will be out in October. The book is full of articles, book excerpts, thing like that, usually in the 3-5 page range on a wide variety of topics. Some are written by bigger names like Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Reichl, others are written by food writers from small city newspapers, and all with a good mix of chefs and journalists.

But like the name says, it's the best food writing of the year. Whenever I'm doing the assigned reading, I always find myself reading two or three articles more that weren't assigned just because the titles are interesting or the author's name catches my eye. There's an entire essay, an ode, if you will, to meatloaf. There's a piece about a guy who made his own chef's knife. There are articles about life-changing meals and others about downright gluttony. Amazon's got it for less than $11, or of course you could hit your local library.

In any event, I'm giving it my full endorsement.