Hey! Sorry I missed this…no, you didn’t miss anything. I wound up getting credit from my f/t food editor job for my externship. I just couldn’t figure out a way to do a kitchen gig that I wanted and that worked with my work sked. Anti-climactic, I know. Happy to know someone was paying attention, though!
I reactivated my OKCupid profile last week because… . why exactly… ? Well, I know why, I am a human being who needs companionship and affection. But a few days in I am remembering all too clearly the feeling of hypersensitive aimless doomy resignation that accompanies scrolling through and judging…
I’m not a typically sentimental person, but there are times when a moment demands a bit of mush and heartstring tugging. Not to mention a strong self-pat on the back.
Yesterday I graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education and I feel proud.
As noted many times and in many different ways in this blog, I have had conflicted feelings about attending culinary school. On the one hand, I never planned to become a restaurant chef which is what culinary school best prepares one to do. If anything, I have never felt clearer that my deepest pleasure comes from cooking at home, for my loved ones. Besides that, as food educations goes, I would have in many ways preferred to have embarked on some grand culinary experience overseas or even an intensive program somewhere closer to home. These are adventures I may yet take when my children are older.
I’m still not sure a culinary diploma will have a tremendous effect on my professional life either, though it certainly does make for a nice mark on a food editor’s CV. Wondering about my externship? While there were things I would have enjoying doing (and may yet), like working for an school food-focused organization like Wellness in the Schools or trying my hand at recipe development and testing, I just couldn’t find an opportunity I could manage along with the (increasingly heavy) demands of my job. Luckily, the time I already clock as a food editor managing digital content strategy on the Kraft Foods account for media big Meredith Corporation is able to count towards this 210-hour time commitment.
But as I look back at what the past 9 months and tens of thousands of dollars have borne, I am reminded of something my father said to me when I was about 11, something that—in its negative association at the time—may have been the most positively affecting words I have ever taken to heart.
My father, who was in his late 30s at the time, told me that he was too old to change. I don’t recall what made him say that but I do very clearly remember feeling that this was the most deeply sad and untrue thing for a person to ever think about their life. If you couldn’t change, then you couldn’t grow and be a better, happier, more fulfilled and, as such, more fulfilling, person.
With each year a deeper sense of pride, gratitude and settled, self-satisfaction wins the day over those natural and expected and undoubtedly to-be-repeated bummer days (or weeks/months). Life challenges produce rewards that are sometimes, maybe often, unexpected.
A few key takeaways:
It is good for a mom to do something big for herself. There is no question that my relationship with my children was better this year than any other of my 14-1/2 years of motherhood. It’s quite simple: kids want to be proud of their parents, just like parents want to be proud of their children. Plus, when everything else in life is swirling crazily around you, there’s something lovely about coming home to children for a little grounding and a reminder that, while it’s essential for a parent to have independent interests and engagements, at the end of the day there are two (not so) little people who need you.
I don’t mind being single, thank you very much. Don’t get me wrong, it would be really nice to have companionship from time to time, maybe all in a row. Maybe for a little while, maybe for a lifetime. But this deeply committed (and monogamous!) relationship I’ve had with myself for the past 9 months reassures me that whatever comes to bear regarding my love life, it will not color the fact that if I have to live with someone, it could be a lot worse than coming home to me every night for the rest of my life. I am fairly awesome, after all.
It is not good to not exercise regularly for 9 months. Listen, I’m not kicking myself. Like dating, some things had to give. But you can be sure that one of my primary post-graduation goals is to get back into decent shape. I miss my regular runs around Prospect Park. Me and my favorite place on earth have some catching up to do.
My most creative culinary school accomplishment has been this blog. I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t had the energy to push through on regular posts for the past month or so, but still it has served to document most of the compelling moments of this experience. I have a few posts left to write yet (I know, I know, you want an update about what happened to some of the bigger class characters), which you’ll see as quickly as I can get to them. After that, though, She’s Fried will likely become a finished chapter of an ongoing tale.
My friend Teresa, a marathon runner, wondered if there would be a let-down period for me post-graduation like what she experiences post-race. Will I still have something impressive to talk about at dinner parties or around the proverbial water cooler? Will I actually “do something” with or as a result of the diploma? Too early to answer these questions.
Spinach and Goat Cheese Gnocchi with Sun-dried Tomatoes, Pine Nuts and Lemon
This Mario Batali recipe was a big surprise to many of us who did not think we much liked goat cheese or sun-dried tomatoes. Goat cheese makes for a surprisingly light and tangy ricotta-cheese replacement and the tomatoes and lemon provided a bright counterpoint to the creamy gnocchi.
So much to report, dear readers, I hardly know where to begin (which is probably why one week off from blogging turned to four five in a flash).
By the end of Module 4, our class had garnered such a reputation for chaos—due squarely to the shenanigans of Big Bird and Bubba Gump, that ICE decided to send in the big guns. Chef Chris Gesualdi started poking around in our classroom toward the end of Mod 4, having us clean out the supply cage or underneath the tables, to begin giving us a taste for what lay in store. Chef Chris is, far as I can tell, ICE’s most commanding and formidable instructor. Prior to arriving at ICE, he was the longtime chef at Montrachet. He created what was to become the now-shuttered Tribeca French spot’s signature dish, Truffle-Crusted Salmon. In the 1980s, he worked with Thomas Keller at Restaurant Raphael and then at the first restaurant Keller owned, Rakel, all before Keller moved out West to make a big name for himself at The French Laundry.
Here’s what Ruth Reichl said about Montrachet, and Chef Chris’ salmon, in her 1994 review:
The kitchen is also well run: when Debra Ponzek, the talented young woman who had been chef since 1986, relinquished the range to her sous-chef, Chris Gesualdi, a few months ago, the transition was so smooth that few patrons were aware of the change.
This is probably because Montrachet has always had a style of its own, and each chef falls under the restaurant’s spell. The food is refined yet aggressive. Its strength lies less in technique than in the quality of ingredients and the finesse with which they are combined. The food, like the service, seems effortless.
Consider the salmon. It looks like an ordinary piece of salmon that has been beautifully cooked. But the top is dusted with a truffle crust that puts such a spin on the fish it does not taste like salmon with truffles but like some entirely new and utterly delicious creature. Pairing the fish with grilled fennel and artichokes encourages this new-flavor sensation.
We were all a bit nervous, if excited, to finally have a chef who would bring up the level of play. Turns out, while he is indeed demanding, he is not withering, Gordon Ramsay-style. His mantra, which he says repeatedly every class is “Keep it clean; make it beautiful.”
He engages us to do our best work—this is more important to him than our speed or any culinary pyrotechnics.
To that latter point, his favorite cautionary wag to us whenever we are given creative license is this:
"I may be a guinea, but I’m not a guinea pig."
Under Chef Chris’ tutelage, we have had some of our most fun and edifying classes: cooking master chef dishes (Mario Batali, Ming Tsai, Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless…would have done Thomas Keller but instead Chef tasked us with a 4-hour class devoted to improving our knife skills), hors d’oeuvres, sausage-making, terrines, pates, mousselines, gallantines roulades, smoked meats and fish.
We have also been charged with bringing our A game, every class. This, as you might imagine, is harder for some of us than others (more on that).
It feels like yesterday when I began this journey, which has turned out to be bigger than culinary trade training, but next Saturday is my graduation ceremony from ICE.
I’m sure you have many questions and curiosities. A look back, and ahead, to follow.
Before work, I stop at the Union Square Farmer’s market to pick up 4 batches of swiss chard. I only wish I had taken a picture of the greens I bought. Bring me these in place of flowers any day (not that anyone brings me flowers, either, but that’s another story). That’s how lush and verdant they were.
Scored a ride home from work. My friend, Geri (also my doctor) and/or her husband Eric, are supposed to pick me up and drive me to their place with the food, but they’re both stuck late at work. I’m sooo tired at this point, full schedule and lack of sleep be damned! Keep moving, I tell myself, stripping the chard greens from the white stem, chopping and bagging them like a gangsta.
I’m making this dinner as a friendly barter with Eric, a fashion photographer, who took the photo of me that I used in my Eatocracy feature. I was kinda hoping he wouldn’t ask to redeem the favor while I was still in school, but he did. It gives me some insight into what it must be like to be a professional chef. It’s not that you don’t want to cook when you get out of the pro kitchen, it’s just that it sucks so damn much of your time, all you want to be able to do is have time to enjoy the leisurely experience of it again.
I had tried to make dinner a simple proposition, given my schedule, but therein lies another catch about being a chef in training. Simple and good is no longer enough. There must be a wow factor to my culinary efforts or there will be disappointment. I had told Geri I was thinking of making a Shepherd’s Pie (thought I could do a practice run before the food editor’s meeting, the Sunday prior).
Have you ever made that before?
The subtext of this question was not “Are you sure you know how to make it?” but rather, “That sounds kinda ordinary and I was expecting impressive.”
Which is not where this very, very long week (actually a month ago now, in real time) began, but it is how it wound up, better than expected.
A week in 5 acts. Act 4: medical mysteries kind of not really solved, frosting on the cake
Thursday: Re-visited the neurologist to get my MRI and blood test results early Thursday morning. My stomach churned the whole way there. I am so lucky to never have had any notable health issues and never did I appreciate that fact before this seemingly inexplicable tingling and numbness began. The weird burning sensation across half my back had diminished somewhat.
The doctor entered the examination room and unceremoniously cut to the point:
Good news—you don’t have multiple sclerosis. Or Lyme disease. In fact, you seem to be healthier than you think.
He proceeded to go through the MRI results, which showed a little bit of wear on some of my spinal disks, but nothing he thought was notable. Really, there was only one little thing that caught his eye: my low-ish B12 levels. I didn’t realize this, but vitamin B12 is apparently key to healthy nerve function, which is why he tested my levels.
He told me to start taking B12 and come back in 3 months.
I had a bunch of treats from last weekend’s petit fours class that I planned to bring to the office. I was so relieved I gave the doc and his receptionist some marshmallows before departing. Being a pastry student has made me a bit of a Willy Wonka, spreading sweets wherever I go. Handy.
Stopped at the store straightaway and picked up some B12. We’ll see about this…Honestly, I didn’t put much stock in the vitamin solution. My levels were low but not THAT low. This non-diagnosis was a bit of a letdown more I thought about it. So this was the new normal for me?
Pastry class: Frosting and decorating cakes
I have made a bunch of cakes in my day and, while I’m not expert, I didn’t feel too bad missing Wednesday’s class. They made lemon butter cakes and sponge cakes in prep for tonight’s class. I was pretty stoked to learn how to properly frost a cake. Here’s the demo from Chef:
Keep your offset spatula straight. Remove the top layer of crumb with the palm of your hand. That’s the stuff that gets mixed up in your frosting. Make smooth strokes. Lift the cake off the table for leverage.
Or, if not lifted, move an edge a bit off the table top (carefully!) and turn the cake as you frost the sides. To keep the top smooth, don’t do a lot of swirly moves with the spatula. Keep strokes straight and fluid.
Here’s what did:
Pan di Spagna sponge layer cake with chocolate ganache filling and chocolate whipped cream frosting. The cream was a bit lumpy, which you can see, but it still looks pretty snazzy, right?
Since we had to practice writing Happy Birthday, anyhow, I figured I’d shout out my friend who I’d be bringing the cake to tomorrow for our dinner party. This is a lemon butter cake with raspberry filling and buttercream frosting and chocolate shavings. Smooth..YES!
Got home at 11pm and set up more dinner party prep. Brined the chicken breast. I’m sure I did something else, but I don’t remember what. I do remember that I got to sleep at 1:30am.
A week in 5 acts. Act 3: Food trends & dinner party prep
Long week, eh (she says, three weeks later)?
Wednesday: My day started with an 8am meeting, then at 9am we all gathered for the keynote presentation part of the event. Kara Nielsen was our speaker. Kara has the enviable job of being a “trendologist” at the Center for Culinary Development in San Francisco (where else?). Take a look at Kara’s culinary trends blog if you want to learn more about what’s entailed in being a culinary trendologist. It’s as enviable a position as they come, tracking what’s hot in food and beverage around the world and sharing those insights with those who pay handsomely. Kara seems like the happiest woman alive, although I could be projecting.
After Kara’s fascinating presentation, we went outside on this unseasonably warm November day and the Weber grill people showed us their snazzy new lineup of grills (another trend: grill add-ons—e.g., cast iron skillets and cook-tops—designed to appeal to women who, the theory goes, aren’t as comfortable as men with the grill as a tool. We had a burger cook-off and they gave us a snazzy schwag bag filled with Harry & David (does Weber own them? I didn’t bother checking) barbecue sauces and cute, grill-shaped salt & pepper shakers.
Then, off to the Lear. Homebound.
Got back too late to go to class, which was fine with me. I’d committed to making a dinner party Friday for friends who I owed a favor. If the thing was ever going to happen by Friday, given I had class the following night and work all day Friday, I was going to have to prep when I got home from Des Moines.
And I did. My planned menu:
Main/veg: Pickle-brined chicken with Swiss Chard (this recipe, from Prime Meats restaurant in Carroll Gardens. It’s one of my favorite restaurant dishes)
Side: Potato and celery root gratin with sauerkraut and lardons
Dessert: cake from Thursday’s class
Made the gratin when I got home, cut up the chickens and braised the chicken thighs (the breast is what’s brined; thighs simply salt and peppered, cooked slow and low in a chicken stock and wine liquid). I put them in the oven around midnight and planned to cook it for 35-40 minutes, turn off the oven and let them residually cook and cool in the oven overnight. Unfortunately I fell asleep on the couch, drooling on myself, and didn’t awake til 1am. The thighs were a bit over-braised, as was I.
A week in 5 acts. Act 2: food editors descend on Des Moines
Tuesday: Fly to Des Moines for Meredith’s annual food editors’ meeting.
My employer, Meredith Corp., is in most regards a humble, 3000+ employee, family-owned business. The one bit of flash about the company is their ownership of a couple of 8-seater (if you consider the toilet a seat, which they do) Lear jets. I have never flown first-class, but I doubt it beats taking a privately-owned plane from New York to Des Moines, the bustling hub where Meredith is based.
The meeting is a lot of fun: about 40 magazine food and test kitchen editors from print and online publications like Family Circle, Parents, Better Homes and Gardens, not to mention my crew on the integrated marketing side get together once a year to cook a grand buffet dinner together. The following morning we attend a lecture from someone expert in the food business, usually from a company tracking industry trends.
Last year for the potluck, I made my specialty: potato latkes. They were a big hit, though the whole place was oil-slicked by night’s end. This year I wanted to make a dish my boss would like, being that this was her birthday. Since she’s a fan of stews and comfort foods, I opted for Shepherd’s Pie. I am a fan of the recipe in Craig Claiborne’s New New York Times Cookbook, but they had a different publication of the cookbook in Des Moines and the recipe wasn’t quite the same. It was good, but I didn’t get to cook it quite long enough or to let it rest out of the oven, so it was a bit of a mess to eat. Still, it was a memorable night of delicious food and drink all around.
My favorite dish of the evening was the one that came out last: my colleague Jorge’s Puerto Rican specialty, Pinon. He’s sending over the recipe, which I will post:
This delectable treat is a ground beef (picadillo) and plaintain layered “pie” of sorts. I will be making this one day. Sweet and savory, crunchy and melting, just terrific.
I ate far more than any Thanksgiving feast and enjoyed it more, too. It was really overkill for my boss to take my colleagues and I out for drinks following, but it was her birthday after all. Luckily I am more likely to fall asleep than get drunk when too much food and booze collide in my system. Not too much risk for embarrassment as long as I kept my eyes open long enough to get back to the hotel room, which I did.
Granted, this would not be a typical week, but neither is it one embellished for dramatic emphasis.
Monday:Regular work day.*
*I saved this draft, got into bed, and remembered:
"Oh yeah, Monday. That was the day I got my second MRI and the blood test."
I’ve been dealing with an assortment of medical annoyances since just before school began. I woke up one morning in May and could barely move my neck it from side to side. Along with the stiffness was what felt like a pinched nerve radiating from my shoulder blade down my right arm, causing tingling down to my fingers. I found a doctor/acupuncturist/physical therapist and on Fridays, my one free day, I spent a couple of hours over the course of two months or so trying to fix the problem. By July, the acute neck/shoulder pain and lack of mobility were largely gone.
Still, I was waking up every morning with tingling in my hands and, now, my feet, too. I ignored it for a while, until early October when the tingling in my right hand was compounded by actual pain. I went to an orthopedist. He checked me briefly and, without seeming entirely convinced (How could he be? No one to date had taken a blood test or done an MRI), decided to treat me for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. He gave me soft wrist braces, which did seem to help, especially at night. None of this took into account the fairly constant tingling in my feet.
Then, about 2 weeks after that diagnosis, I felt a burning feeling across the left side of my back, around my bra line, like my skin had been scraped. Ok, now I was worried. I called my doctor—also my friend—who got me an appointment with a neurologist for the next day. A few tests and an MRI later, nothing certain, except that I didn’t have Carpal Tunnel. He wanted me to get a couple more blood tests and yet another MRI to rule out (or in) things like Lyme disease and—my bigger fear—Multiple Sclerosis.
Took the blood tests, had a near panic attack in the MRI machine, then made my way to work. My follow-up appointment, with results, was Thursday. It was going to be a long week; at least I had plenty to keep me distracted…
Pastry is officially over next Wednesday. On the one hand, I am very happy about this. My body is crying mercy at the overload of gluten, fat and sugar. I don’t necessarily eat that much of any one thing, but there’s been a LOT of things to try and take home—I’ll say this: I’ve made a lot of friends at home and work lately (not a bad thing to tote pastries around when, as previously stated, I’ve been fatigued and bitchy besides). Also, I am quite ready for school to be over (about 5 weeks left!)
On the other hand, I was just starting to get a feel for the foreign art of pastry/baking/dessert. I made a lot of pretty great things I hope I have the patience and inclination to make again at home. The photos below were from my very favorite class, where we made croissants, brioche, bagels (easy!) and apple tarte tatin. Even though I was paired with one of my least favorite partners, Mr Lee, I have to say we did make a fine team on this day. Our stuff kicked ass.
Text message exchange between Amira and I during class:
Me: "I made bagels! And will make croissants this afternoon."
Her: "Lol u crazy kid"
Later that day…
Me: “1/2 choc 1/2 ham n cheese or more chocolate?…And for the regular croissants, 1/2 plain, 1/2 almond or more plain/almond?”
Her: “Savory all the way. Half and half”
Me: Do u want almond or all plain? 2 diff types
Luckily, Mr Lee let me decide how much of each item to make.
Croissants! Plain, almond, chocolate, ham & cheese
Everything bagels…that blackened shit falling off the top is slightly overbrowned onion. Tasted fine. Really, truly, bagels are not hard! If you want the recipe, let me know.
Today is Thanksgiving. I’m sitting by the pool in Florida, visiting my newly-retired folks. It’s a strange setting for a New York City girl, used to the deep orange, burnished tones of the holiday, warming a fall chill. Instead I’m gazing at a peppy azure blue pool/sky twin set, fanned by gently blowing palm trees. The speakers channel 70s pop tunes, the soundtrack of my AM-radio youth . Not a bad change.
The sun feels restorative, as did the two nights of deep, long sleep and yesterday’s 4-mile run. The thing I love most about running: wild, freeform, energizing thought, accompanied by a mix of my favorite music. I love to run, cook, dance, but all would be flavorless activities without the flow of a lil drum, bass, and melody.
"Don’t push me, cuz I’m close.to.the.edge, I’m tryin’ not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes, makes me wonder how I keep from going under."
—Grandmaster Flash, The Message
It’s been 3 weeks now since I posted, which has weighed on me, but I just haven’t had it in me. Exhaustion has made me cranky and it might surprise none of you to know: I’m no fun when irritable. I’ve been short-tempered with my peers and let my grumpiness creep too much into my writing here. I know it’s true because my parents told me so. Remarkably, my children have largely been spared my ill temper for a change. They have been a joyful oasis from my stresses and I have fallen in love with them over and again. Today, especially, it seems apt to state how thankful I am for that.
It dawned on me while I was running yesterday that I am at a pivotal point in the drama of my own narrative. If culinary school and its subsequent effect on my life have been the exposition and rising action of this tale, the chaotic peak where I’ve been precariously teetering of late (does she rise or does she fall?) marks the climax of your heroine’s story.
I realize, as climaxes go, this one’s a bit anticlimactic from the reader’s perspective. Stick around for the movie version. There will undoubtedly be a terribly handsome leading man. For now, these and the following juicy bits will have to do…
Pastry began nearly two weeks ago. Sorry for the late report but I haven’t felt like “talking” much. In addition to being a huge time commitment, blogging also begs for insights, and frankly I’ve been a bit desiccated on that front lately. It’s not like I haven’t had any—my mind is not a quiet beast—it’s more that I’ve not had much energy to drag them out and distill them.
When we left off, I was a bit low from my lackluster performance on the practical. But really, what stuck with me about that was not the grade itself—which was fine and ultimately unimportant—it was that reminder, again, that I have a tendency to undermine myself by falling into chaos masked as complexity. Those who I admire most have a great ability to find the easiest way to an A+ result. I seem to subconsciously behave as if..
a) the A+ is somehow only valuable if achieved while euphemistically hanging upside down by my toenails (I AM from The Bronx, after all. We are a tough bunch)
b) I don’t deserve the A+ to begin with
Signing up for culinary school—a proscribed program with a beginning, middle and end— SEEMED like the straightforward path to culinary excellence for someone too busy to cook outside the box. But if I had really examined what I wanted out of culinary school (more hands on time in the kitchen, mastery of culinary practices), there surely would have been a saner option(s) for me to have explored.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda…I did promise myself that I wouldn’t look with regret upon my decision to go to culinary school, no matter what, and regret is really not what I feel. I went with a mind to shaking myself up, beyond my specific culinary goals, and on that front I have indeed succeeded. I guess if you look at what similar realizations would’ve cost me in shrink bills, I’m probably not too set back. Plus, there’s no diploma for “successful” psychoanalysis.
But nevermind all the musing! The good news is that pastry has positively impressed my more hardened culinary classmates by being quite fun and satisfying. I have plenty to learn around the basics of baking, so I’ve been looking forward to it. Anyone out there with kids knows that there’s no quicker way to turn them to puddles in your palm then to bake them treats, so I’ve kind of been the Most Popular Mom in town for the past week or so.
Our first class we had a sub teacher. It was, hands down, the class to miss. We poached, roasted and dried fruit. Oh yeah, and we made strawberry “salad.” Zzzzzzz…nothing against any of those things, but it was a waste of our time.
Things definitely picked up last Saturday, when Chef Faith stepped up. She’s my favorite teacher thus far. First thing she says to us:
"How many we got…?," she asks drily. "…19 of these classes?" Her pale, drawn face and delicate frame belie the tough-broad core.
Saturday the 23rd was also auspicious because my dear baby boy turned 10. I considered missing class, but once I told him that it would be my first pastry basics class where I would learn the cornerstone of all things delicious, he could hardly challenge my priorities. I made the (pecan) frangipane tart, pictured below, with a pate sucree (sweet) tart dough, which I lined with melted, bittersweet chocolate.
Serendipitously, we also had to write Happy Birthday to [name] on the pastry as part of our assignment. I knew he wouldn’t like this particular dessert—he doesn’t like nuts in things, but at least I had something festive to bring home. He also doesn’t especially like fruit custard tarts (above), though he picked the fruit off the top.
Lev wasn’t having a very good day, at the point when his dad dropped him off. He had had a soccer game, but no one on the team was told it was his birthday (sigh…does a mother have to do EVERYTHING?). I had planned to take him and Amira to Buttermilk Channel for fried chicken, but he was too tired and grumpy to shlep over to Carroll Gardens. He was throwing a fit about this and that, bawling his eyes out, and climbed into bed, ready to end this so-called, no good, very bad birthday. I climbed in next to him and stroked his head.
Lev, I think you really needed your mama around for your birthday. I’m sorry. I’ll never miss your birthday ever again.
Good, he said, the tears slowing now.
How’s about we go to Enduro (the middling, but neighborly faux-Mexican around the corner) and have some fun?
He and Amira split some chipotle hot wings—I didn’t eat much. I was a little nauseous from all the pastry tasting in class. We had many giggles, then went home and shared a slice of tart and some vanilla ice cream and called it a good night.
Sunday was his big celebration. Laser tag in Long Island City and a visit to Ride Brooklyn after for his present, what he’d been asking for for months: a BMX bike. It’s pretty swell, just like Lev.
I’ll keep this brief because I have to get ready to head over to my ex’s for an early morning, pre-class, birthday breakfast with my big double-digit boy. Also because I have no pictures to share
Mod 3 ended much like it started and progressed: inauspiciously.
Wednesday was our practical exam. We were tasked with fabricating a whole chicken breast into a supreme, sauteeing it, making a pan sauce, a potato side dish and a vegetable. I knew I would make my specialty, potato latkes and had planned to quick brine the breast and make a simple pan sauce. The flavors of the sauce would depend on which vegetable I landed—it was a wildcard along with our presentation time. From the bowl, I plucked the second to last presentation time and mixed mushrooms, the veggies I least wanted to make.
Still, my colleague Fraya, a former chef at Chez Panisse back in the early 90s, had a good idea when I asked her at work what to do if I picked mushrooms. I could make a homemade ketchup of sorts and saute the mushrooms in it, she suggested. The vinegar would add a pop to the flavors, go well with the potatoes and the tomatoes would add a swatch of color to a brown plate. I liked this idea.
What I should have done was to use my time outside the kitchen, before I was called in to start my 1 hr, 45 minute prep, to plan and write a to-do list. I have learned how much that helps to keep me organized and on point, but I obviously still have work to do to consistently employ this lesson. Instead, I spent my time answering work emails until my phone died (thus the no pictures)
Long-ish story short: I should have kept my plan way simpler. No brining, simple pan sauce and mushroom saute. I should have made a bit of ketchup—which was fairly easy but I prepped way more than I needed—for the side. The end.
As I’ve done too many times before (when will I learn??), I overcomplicated the task at hand, and while everything wound up tasting good, I presented 10 minutes late and my plate was too busy.
Eggrolls, dumplings, sushi & a seriously bad taste
This was supposed to be the best class of the module, the one where I learned how to make sushi. Instead it was the devolution of my culinary school experience.
Things started off inoffensively enough. We finished our section on Chinese, et al, with dumplings, egg rolls and some other American Chinese favorites, like the Moo Shu Chicken with pancakes that I made.
Pork Dumplings (potstickers)
Shao Mai/Shu Mai (depending on how you transliterate it)
Chef, who I believe I’ve mentioned is Filipino, teased Mr Lee about his lousy dumpling crimping efforts, saying it was an affront to Asians everywhere. She noted that he had been outdone by a white man (Big Bird), a black woman (The Boss) and a white woman (c’est moi). I made the point that, as a Jew, I am genetically predisposed to “get” Chinese food. Bubba Gump thought this was hysterical.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
For some reason, I didn’t snap a shot of the Moo Shu Chicken, which Big Bird helped me prep. Here’s a little transporting dialogue instead:
Big Bird: “I’ve got the hosing.”
Me, confused: “What??”
Big Bird: “The hosing,” he repeated, holding up a jar of hoisin sauce.
Me: Ahh. Ok. Thanks.
It wasn’t a bad dim sum breakfast, but it did weigh on us.
Part 2: Blame it on the carbohydrates
At 1pm, we moved into our single class on Japanese food or, more specifically, sushi.
If the Japanese are known for measure and control, these qualities were not at the fore Saturday afternoon. The first cracks in composure appeared during mise en place assignments. Unlike most classes where each person is responsible for a whole recipe, now we were all taking a piece of the prep puzzle then all of us would, together, practice each of the sushi styles.
Mr. Lee, still heady from his morning leadership, was now being as stubbornly dense as a dragon roll with me.
Ok, Lee, you wanna prep the red pepper and the carrots?, I ask.
He stares at me blankly.
I’m gonna make the California Woll, he says, thickly.
Lee, we’re all doing mise en place right now. I’m asking you, what do you want to do? Pick two things. I don’t care what.
I want to make the California Woll, he repeats, this time more urgently.
This ridiculous conversation continued apace for the next 5 minutes, with me getting increasingly frustrated. Time’s a ticking, the other teams moving forward with their assignments, and I’m still at square one with this guy. My teammates are getting pissed and I’m now raising my voice, but Lee just digs in his heels. He won’t do any of these menial tasks. No, he decides what he’s going to do instead is to make omelets.
Did we need to make omelets, you ask? No, omelets: not on the list. Whatever, make omelets. My buddy A hears me losing it and chuckles. He can’t stand working with Lee. Not many people can. Somehow Bubba Gump and Big Bird have adopted Lee into their little gang of losers. He’s like the little mascot dude who gets pressured to do crazy things, and does them, to be accepted.
I’m not 100% sure, but I think today’s dare involved sake. BG and BB for certain had decided that after the 1 oz of Japanese rice wine each team needed for the duck breast was parsed out, that they would drink the rest of the bottle. Lee, too, was definitely drinking something out of his metal water bottle.
In any case, by this point, I’m irritated and behind with my own prep work.
The whole team is coming undone. Fuses are frayed and sputtering, bodies logy. By the time we got to making the sushi I was rushing to keep up. I really wanted to spend some time focusing on this new practice, but there was no time.
And then, the Boss started getting pissy with me and I’m not exactly sure why. Was it just that she was tired as stated, or something else?
When it came time to present, Captain and The Boss stood there, but didn’t help set up the plate, leaving it to me—and then Lee—to arrange. That doesn’t stop the Boss from making snotty comments as I stack her rolls, I think, artfully, on the front of the platter.
I don’t know how I feel about stacking sushi, she says drily.
Well, you can always do it yourself, I growl lowly, almost under my breath.
She repeats this point again before we bring the platter to present.
I call her out.
Do you have some problem with me? I ask.
What’re you asking me if you have some problem? She shoots back.
I SAID, do YOU have a problem with me?
I didn’t have a problem with you, Dori, but I’m starting to now.
I would just hope, I say, ignoring the dig, that if you did have a problem with me that you would talk to me about it.
I don’t have a problem with you, Dori.
I made the spicy tuna tartare we used for some of the rolls. It was really good: chopped, raw tuna, chili oil, scallions, a bit of soy and a dollop of spicy mayo, made with some garlic chili sauce.
At this point, I had lost my appetite. I forced down a couple of rolls, but packed the rest up, figuring I’d bring them home for dinner with the kids, along with some dumplings left over from the morning and some of the unused raw tuna.
When I got home, the sushi was nowhere to be found. Had I left it in class? Did someone else grab it by mistake? Did Bubba Gump, who was milling around me as I packed it up, swipe it as a goof (he likes to tease me about all the leftovers I routinely take home)?
Whatever the case, I hadn’t gotten much of a feel for sushi-making, but what I had tried left a lingering bad taste.
Sunday supper: Indian feast, chocolate mousse and, then, cinnamon bread
I’ll get to last week’s classes eventually (finally, dishes most everyone liked!), but first I wanted to talk about Sunday’s kitchen adventures, which culminated in this swanky loaf of Cinnamon Swirl Bread, below (recipe at Food52).
My parents came for visit yesterday. I decided to make Indian food. They love it and don’t get to eat it much where they live upstate. It also made sense because I wanted to try making naan, the Indian flatbread we are scheduled to make this coming Wednesday in class, which I will miss.
The first thing my mother noticed when she walked into my kitchen was how much more organized I am now. This is very true. Besides cleaning as I go, I also made a schedule the night before since I had so much to get to. I was too tired Saturday night to do anything more than make the list and cut up the chicken I would be making the next day.
I love Indian food, especially homemade. It’s my idea of satisfying comfort food. The vibrancy from the fresh herb, spice mixes and chilis appeals to me in a way that traditional American/European stews and braises—which tend to have deeper, less bright, flavors—often don’t.
I discovered Indian food not long after college, where I was a religious studies major primarily studying Hinduism. Instead of actually traveling to India, which I wanted to do (still do…sigh), I cooked my way through Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking (I don’t know if y’all are noticing a pattern here, but I sure am).
I don’t have any pictures to share right now because even though my mother likes to bug me for not doing frequent-enough blog posts, she has yet to send me the photos taken with her camera (Love you, Mom!) [Nothing like a little guilt]
I will miss class this Wednesday, so I decided to make the naan bread we’ll be making then at home. Which is how I landed on Indian for Sunday supper. I emailed Chef L to see what she thought about using the Jaffrey vs the ICE naan recipe. She approved (though by the time I got her email, it was too late to brush the top with ghee as she suggested).
Lemony chicken with fresh coriander/Hare masale wali murgh
Red split lentils with cabbage/Masoor dal aur band gobi
Spiced basmati rice/Masaledar basmati
Fennel-orange salad (from class; we never got around to eating it)
Naan (I overproofed and undersalted it, so it was a bit cardboard-like, but not awful for a first effort)
and for dessert…chocolate mousse a la Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking
Here’s the recipe for the chicken, which was delicious. It takes a lot to impress my stepfather, the chef. He not only came back for seconds, he licked the bowl. Oh wait, that was the mousse. Still, he asked for the recipe. Here it is.
Note: I don’t think I used a full 3 cups of cilantro. It was fine. Also, to save time I threw it in the food processor and didn’t get too fussy about stems. It wasn’t elegant-looking, but once in the dish no one knew the difference and it saved me 15 minutes of chopping.
I have to say, I was really proud of myself. I have cooked a lot in a day before, but never so methodically and with so few dishes awaiting me after it was done. I woke up at 7:30am to start prepping, went out to get chocolate for the mousse at 9am, and had everything on the table before 2pm. In case this means nothing to you, I’m here to say: that’s a pretty good turnaround for this many dishes. Chef was proud of me too. In response to my reporting back on the final meal, she wrote:
A big congratulations to the determined Chef! Whew, your menu left me hungry! It’s always so satisfying to know that your students do really practice what they learn and being so devouted to the art of cooking! You make me proud.
We can further analyze the naan “incident” when we see each other. Yes, sometimes over-proofing could lead to a hard bread. I agree with you about adding salt to the dough, bec. even [the ICE] recipe needs salt.
See you Thursday Dori.
After my folks left, I took a bike ride around the park with the kids, came home and decided I wasn’t done cooking for the day. Needing another challenge, I made the Cinnamon Swirl bread.
I went to Italy and all I got was this crummy blog post
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: REREADING IT NOW, I MUST ADMIT—THIS IS MY SNOTTIEST, SNOOTIEST BLOG POST EVER!]
When I make my way to Italy, for reals, I hope it’s a more auspicious visit than the classroom trip we just took.
I’ve eaten a good amount of Italian food—and cooked my fair share, too. Growing up in Da Bronx I ate, with some regularity, Italian-American classics like the Baked Ziti and Chicken Parm. As an adult, I prefer more refined, contemporary regional fare from favorite spots like Al Di La, Lupa and Frankie’s 457. And while I haven’t yet tried the recently 4-star anointed Batali joint, Del Posto, I was lucky enough to score a table at the pre-opening friends & family lunch at Lincoln Ristorante, Jonathan Benno’s grand, high-profile stage for delivering his edible renditions of Italian love songs served on a big, white plates.
In August, 2000, when I was a water-retaining, sweat-from-every-pore, second-time-around 7-month pregnant mother-to-be (with a penchant for hyphens), I did my first culinary externship at Al Di La. As miserably uncomfortable as I was when I was not in the tiny, hot kitchen, I loved every minute of the admittedly short one-month experience. I cleaned pounds and pounds of squid, diced endless amounts of onions, carrots and celery, worked the garde manger station prepping salads and sides like grilled escarole and sardines. I learned from their chef (now my friend, Anna Klinger) how to make the dishes she put on plates before it was as popular to do so: the simple, satisfying salads, like the fennel salad I might dare call the dish I’d like to be my last. Her farro salad, too, is hearty, healthy (if you don’t pay too much attention to how much olive oil gets lavished on it) and—like the fennel—amenable to a rotating assortment of supporting ingredients. I peeped the making of my daughter’s most beloved dish, Anna’s Malfatti. I only recently tried making the ricotta and chard gnocchi at home, but it was a big success because I remembered Anna’s important tip to dry the chard completely before combining with the cheese mixture.
This is all to say, I cooked and tasted very little in the past 4 classes that represented the best of Italian food as I have ever known it. We ate a lot that was pretty good, but hardly anything that, to my mind, illustrates the seasonal, balanced, and light hand on the sauce approach that I associate with authentic Italian fare. In more experienced hands, some of these dishes undoubtedly would have been coaxed and improved but, still, we students should have been given more simply expressive recipes to learn from.
The two redeeming lessons for me were learning how to make fresh pasta (simple, in general, but requiring practice to perfect) as well as fresh mozzarella. The latter effort was an epiphany. I realized that what comes between the (I’m not kidding) 10 minutes it takes to make it at home and the $6 we spend on balls of the fresh stuff is access to good curds. Yes, you can make curds at home-though I haven’t tried that—but the best mozzarella makers in NYC swear by Polly-O curds, a product made by my client, Kraft Foods (very much not associated with high-end cheese products, but there you go). Unfortunately, Kraft only sells the curds through its foodservice division. Note to self: conspire plan to get some.
Not to diminish the importance of these two important lessons, but I still otherwise hated these classes. It’s bad enough that most of my classmates have such limited palates. It makes me sad to think that this is their first “deep” look at Italian fare.
Polenta con Sugo di Porri (Alto Adige)
Looks unappealing, yes? I made this heavy polenta recipe, topped with a thick sauce of breadcrumbs, leeks and sausage. It tasted pretty good, in that heavy, chipped beef sorta way, but why this recipe was chosen to highlight polenta, I’m not sure. I made the cornmeal porridge the way I learned from Anna at Al Di La, with milk (and stock), but in retrospect such a heavy sauce would’ve probably been better paired with the less-creamy polenta made with the water/stock the recipe called for.
Gatto di Patate (Napoli)
The recipe for these rich mashed potato, cheese and salami cups is questionable (10 oz parmesan cheese + 3 oz smoked mozzarella for 2 lbs of potatoes is WAY too much), but with some tweaks this dish seems worth making again.
Better, boil and rice 3 russet potatoes, mix in about 2/3 of a stick of butter, 1 lightly beaten egg, about 1/2 cup of grated parmesan, 4 oz either milk or half and half, 2 oz soppressata (small dice), 2T mascarpone, salt & pepper to taste.
Layer half the mixture either into an oiled (or Pam-sprayed) oval serving dish or small serving cups (as above), top with a layer of grated (preferably fresh) mozzarella, then add the remaining potato mixture. On the top, either sprinkle a fine layer of good bread crumbs or parmesan cheese, dot with butter, then cook in a 425 degree oven until the top is nicely browned, about 20-30 minutes.
If using single serving tins, cool and set for about 15 minutes before attempting to unmold.
Maccheroni con Salsa di Pomodoro e Ricotta (Campania)
Mozzarella con Carrozza (Napoli)
Maybe it’s just the way my classmates made this classic fried mozzarella sandwich, but they were all too floury.
Pasta con Cavolfiore (Campania)
Agnello Cacio e Uova (Abruzzo)
Lamb in a egg and cheese sauce. Lamb was tough and chewy. Sauce was fine; not remarkable. Won’t likely be making this dish at home.
Insalate di Arancia (Sicilia)
I made this refreshing orange and fennel salad. To the orange sections, red onions and shaved fennel (evoo, salt & pepper) I added one very small, creamed garlic clove. If you’re ever making a fennel salad, I find two three five things essential: 1) shaving the fennel with a mandoline. Hand cut slices are just going to be too thick, 2) A wee bit of garlic, even when there is onion. I don’t know why, but I just think the best fennel salads include it, and 3) acid in fruit form, whether it’s orange or grapefruit/juice or lemon juice 4) good extra virgin olive oil and 5) plenty of salt (which is why this salad is often made with some type of salty cheese, like feta or parmesan).
I recommend that everyone try a salad like this. It’s hearty, quick and delicious and not as much hassle as washing all the lettuce/veggies for a mixed green salad. If you’re scared of mandolines, you probably should either learn to get over it or lose out on this wonderful eating experience.
Pesce all’Acqua Pazza (Campagna)
Whatev. Tasteless and uninspired sea bass dish.
Caponata alla Siciliana (Sicilia)
If you like eggplant caponata, which I don’t especially, this was a respectable recipe. If you want it, let me know.
Stemperata di Pollo (Sicilia)
Braised chicken with olives, wine and capers. Good.
Fettuccine con Pomodoro
Basic fresh pasta with tomato sauce. Unfortunately, fettuccine was thick and gummy.
Involtini di Pesce Spada (Sicilia)
Swordfish pounded to a carpaccio-thin slices and stuffed with traditional Sicilian mixture of currants, breadcrumbs, pignoli nuts and wetted with white wine and olive oil, rolled and browned, then cooked atop a bed of caramelized onions. I was surprised that I liked how it tasted. I’m not a big swordfish fan and the stuffing didn’t excite me so much. But it was tasty. Still, I haven’t eaten the leftovers I brought home.
Frittelle di Melanzane (Sicilia)
Talk about wolf in sheep’s clothing. These eggplant fritters/patties served with a yogurt dipping sauce were just inedibly disgusting. Not a single batch made by anyone was any good. Eggplant was lumpy, tasteless. Yuck.
Fregula alla Sarda (Sardegna)
I like this Sardinian pasta. But this recipe, like too, too, many others we make, just called for too much meat and cheese, weighing it down.
I just sat here for an hour, not getting ready for the meeting at Lev’s school before work, writing another post about last Thursday’s class. Instead of saving, I accidentally deleted it and don’t seem able to get it back.
A Moderately Uninspired Trip to Northeastern Italy
It’s been harder and harder for me to blog these days. I’m still trying to get in a groove now that school’s started for the kids—Amira needs the computer we share for homework, something she never seemed to have much of in middle school. But also I’ve been feeling underwhelmed and burnt out.
I had hopes that exploring regional cuisines would be an immersive exploration, not only of the local dishes, but also in unique customs and history. I don’t know why I expected that. Depth of inspiration is so clearly not why anyone should go to culinary school. It’s the facts, ma’am, and only the facts. It’s the most basic ingredients, distilled and stripped of any character, any soul. At least our class reading material„ is a good read.
School is just over halfway done, but most of us already have one foot out the door. Big Bird, who if we were voting would be elected “Least Wanted Teammate,” is ironically the one person who has suddenly had a positive attitude shift. During the few days he stayed home from class, he told me he realized the reason he was here, that when he applied himself and focused, that he was pretty good. Yes, this is the sort of epiphany experienced by slow thinkers, but I have noticed that he is at least trying not to eff up.
Still, he referred to the classic Italian soup he was assigned as “MINE-stron.” He may be the real-life Mork from Ork. On that planet they live on reefer and beer, but have somehow never heard of minestrone soup.
It was a dull recipe, but it didn’t taste bad.
I don’t understand why so many of the dishes we make are entirely overwrought, but this polenta I made with sausage, breadcrumbs and leeks was as dense as some of my classmates. It tasted good for a few bites, but then a gastric rebellion ensued.
The Teenager always presents a good-looking plate, but her food is inconsistent and, at best, workmanlike. I love, love, love head-on shrimp, but these were floury and oversalted.
This was an interesting dish, actually. Green beans with a “battuto”: shallot, parsley, celery and fatback, crushed into a paste. Like a soffritto, but made with animal fat instead of olive oil. Then it’s finished, oddly, with vanilla extract. A, who made the dish, smartly added only a drop of vanilla as we were instructed. It was nice.
Zucchini in Scapece, or, with Mint
Pretty good, but why fried?
Frico con Patate e Cipolle
Again, I am voted the class potato-dish maker. Like all the rest of them, this looked like it would be good enough to take home for Amira the Fried Potato Lover, but no. Dense and unintriguing, it was, again, like my surroundings.
And because everything, everywhere in the world we frequent is apparently fried, so are these meatballs. A blend of beef, pork and veal, as is traditional, is combined with mild-soaked bread, garlic, parmesan, eggs, parsley, pine nuts, raisins, s+p, rolled in breadcrumbs then fried in olive oil. The Boss again oversalted them, so besides the fact that I probably wouldn’t have liked these overwrought balls in any case, I couldn’t really get a good sense of them here.
Dinner Tonight: Tomato, Zucchini & Prosciutto Tart
My favorite dishes recently are the ones I’ve made using leftover parts from class projects. It’s pretty great to open up your fridge and see a Pâte Brisée pie crust, which I took home from one of our French regional classes, just sitting there waiting for me to make something awesome with it. Last night, I did just that.
My class project last week was to pick a couple of recipes illustrative of a favorite French region’s cuisine. I picked Provence for its Mediterranean influences and robust use of local produce. One of the recipes was a Tomato, Olive and Cheese tart from A Passion for My Provence by Lydie Marshall. Since I had most of the ingredients and few others I knew would work just as well, I tweaked the recipe accordingly. As the recipe called for, I brushed the bottom of the crust with a mixture of one egg and 2T dijon mustard. On top of that, I scattered a dusting of cheese. Then I layered on some vertical slivers of baby zucchini I bought, along with the Roma tomatoes I used, from Bradley Farms, where I spent my day yesterday at Ray’s annual birthday/harvest party in New Paltz. In place of the olives I didn’t have I chiffonaded some of the prosciutto I took home from Saturday’s class. I topped that with the tomatoes, a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt, a splash of olive oil then topped it all with the remainder of the cheese. It baked at 425 for about 1/2 hr. I could’ve left more slack on the top of my crust, but besides that, doesn’t it look delicious, even despite my photographic challenges?
Trout head - a gift on my cutting board from Bubba G
A friend of mine recently returned from her first trip to Burning Man, the weeklong art bacchanal in the desert. She described the “he said/she said” micro-dramas that arose between those in her “crew” as “like high school.” That struck a chord. For me, culinary school invokes an even earlier time: my elementary and middle school days.
I grew up in Co-op City, at the northeastern edge of the Bronx. This enormous housing complex—the largest of its sort in the country—was erected as a pillar of middle-class Jewish urban life by a bunch of socialist-minded Russians intent on preventing the unpreventable: Jewish flight to the suburbs. By the time I got to middle school, my neighborhood was fully integrated with a hearty stew of lower and middle class whites and blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish and, mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican, Hispanics. Plus, there were always a handful of new immigrants.
Most of my current classmates fit the same profile. With just a few exceptions, and regardless of where they or their families were actually born, most—like me—grew up in or around the outer boroughs of NYC. And like me up until high school, when I was first foisted into a more cultured and moneyed world, they are similarly unsophisticated. When Bubba Gump jokes about me being a biker chick—the intimations of which I’m not quite certain of, I am reminded of the boys who teased me when I was a girl: about wearing glasses, being too smart, my name (in the 70s Dori Fern was about as weird a name as anyone had heard).
Every one of us is guilty of petty gossip about one another, just like schoolchildren.
And when we immerse ourselves in cuisines like the regional French we just finished up Thursday and the Italian deep-dive we started Saturday, I feel like I’m on a school trip. And like most school trips, whether they’re to a museum with full-scale model dinosaurs or one with miniature reconstructions of foreign destinations, they may teach us something about our given topic, if not what it’s actually like to experience those places.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I am the Queen of Leftovers. The deep, abiding pleasure I get from turning one dish into another is immeasurable. Oh wait, it is measurable! Regarding tonight’s reinvention of Choucroute Garni and confit’d duck bones left over from class into White Bean Soup with Sauerkraut, Mixed Sausage, Potato and Mustard Greens in a duck stock, Amira had this to say, and I quote:
Got a leftover challenge for the Queen? Try me.
[Maybe some kind soul will buy me a camera so my brilliant dishes will look as enticing as they taste—could it be you? Huh huh?]
I bolted awake at 4:51am this morning, anxious and itchy. Literally. I could no longer ignore the intense, crawling feeling in my scalp, the same feeling Lev and, to a lesser extent, Amira, had been complaining about the past few days.
I pretty much knew for days what it was, but kept avoiding it, telling myself that the creeping at the base of my neck was just seasonal dry scalp that would go away.
I’d emailed my friend Geri, also my doctor as well as the mother of a 14-year old boy Amira used to go to school with. I knew it wasn’t bedbugs, but got myself stuck on scabies.
Sounds like lice, she said.
But I couldn’t see anything in Lev’s head, I said. Still, she fit in a time for me to come to the office, so I went. Just in case.
In case, in fact. Lice.
Luckily I am good under pressure. Don’t spill a glass of milk on my already dirty floor—that freaks me out (do I HAVE to clean now, DAMMIT??). But I’m nothing if not reliable in a clinch. Besides, I had dealt with lice before—almost a decade ago now, but I do remember that while it’s stressful and aggravating, there are worse fates. Bedbugs namely among them. Probably scabies, too.
kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk(This is what happens when you fall asleep over your computer while typing. Signing off for now. To be continued tomorrow)
[Cont’d] I called one of the Nitpicker ladies on the border of Kensington/Boro Park in Brooklyn. These women are all Orthodox Jews with 7, 8, 9, 11 kids. I don’t know the exact genesis of their preeminence in the field of lice extermination, but I imagine the story goes something like this:
"Have 9 kids? Must know how to get rid of lice. The End."
This woman’s name is Shayna Brown and I can’t recommend her more highly, if you happen to live in New York and are in need of a cleanout. It required Shayna and 2 of her daughters to manage Amira’s long mane of deeply-infested hair. Ucchhhh, I am nauseated just thinking about it.
Which brings me to the key difference between my two kids. Most people would’ve complained long ago about the itching and discomfort, but not my daughter. It took Lev’s kicking into high drama and, subsequently, my own itching, to drive the point home.
Anyhow, $400 + about $100 more total on laundry and we’re rid of lice. I’m home today scouring my apt, washing pillows and stuffed animals and anything else that can be washed (so now we know what it takes to get me to clean my apt). Everything else: into a plastic bag for the next 2 weeks. Kids are where they should be: at school. Because as the NY Times points out: IT’S ONLY LICE, not the plague. The fact that this article comes out on the same day as our lice emergency is probably not an accident. Not only produce is seasonal, it turns out. According to our nitpicker, lice season hits a high after the summer, when kids are all head to head in sleepaway camp. This is likely where my little lice locavore seeded her bumper crop.
Funny thing is, we had a really nice evening with Shayna the Nitpicker and her children. Her 17-year-old daughter was beyond wonderful. This lovely young Jewish seminary student and Amira chatted engagingly about art and England (where she studies). Then another family arrived for a treatment as we were finishing up, around 7pm. They, too, were quite a friendly bunch. It turns out the eldest son, an aspiring rabbi, is a senior at Amira’s HS. More rich conversation ensued. By the time our livery car arrived to take us home, we were even a little sad to leave.
But leave we did, hauling our exhausted but far more comfortable asses home.
First, though, we stopped by the Popeye’s in our neighborhood for some perfectly respectable fried chicken, biscuits and mac & cheese.
There was a tornado in NYC Thursday evening. I missed it. It wasn’t until I got home around 11pm, 5 hours or so later, that I realized the scope of the damage.
I believe there is some metaphorical significance here.
Texted my ex-husband to see how everything was by him. His response:
"[It was] Nothing compared to the back to school whirlwind."
As challenging as it’s been to balance school and work and kids, it has never been more difficult than now. Amira just started HS, a large, prominent Manhattan arts school. This is wonderful and frightening, especially because I was once a 14-year-old borough kid attending a prominent Manhattan arts school. Far too many bunny holes to go down.
Lev is in his second year at a Manhattan school that requires him to be bused. I won’t bore you with the number of hours I’ve spent calling the Office of Pupil Transportation to file complaints: about how late they’re picking him up and getting him to school or how incredibly long he’s on the bus in the afternoon OR making sure that they start picking Lev up and dropping him off from his dad’s on those days, even though they should know this sked from last year. And I’ll spare you the details of what it means to deal with the Dept of Education when you have a kid with special ed needs.
Suffice it to say, it’s time-consuming and not a little bit exhausting.
So you’ll forgive me if I haven’t found a minute to recount this week’s class exploits until now. And g-d forgive ME for blogging on Yom Kippur.
I’m pretty sure that of all the things about ICE that will stick with me years from now is how many g-ddamned times we’ve been made to tourne some vegetable or another. I’ve been to—I’m guessing—thousands of restaurants in my life and NEVER ONCE do I recall ever having had a tourned anything on my plate.
Chef L believes in assigning knife skills homework rather than drilling us during class time. On Saturday, she asked us to bring in 6 “perfect” tournes of potato. I find this annoying. I manage my time down to the minute and I’m already always dipping into my personal sleep overdraft account to get stuff done. Anyhow, in between making Amira lunch and feeding Lev breakfast this morning, I get down to homework. All the while I’m barking at Lev to put on his shoes, brush his teeth, etc.
When he’s done with his to-dos he comes over to me, looking over my shoulder:
Lev: What are you doing?
Me: Cutting potatoes into shapes. It’s my school homework
Lev: Is that hard?
Me: A little bit
Lev: Do you like doing homework?
Me: Not really [probably wrong answer]
Lev: Do you ever NOT do your homework?
Here he’s fishing—sometimes HE does not do his homework
Me: Nope. I always do my homework.
This is true. I have my scofflaw side, but I am a very good student.
Tonight’s homework: You guessed it. But only 1 potato tourned. Guess I’ll be waking up extra early. Ugh. It’s late. More tomorrow.
Where am I going? First stop: Normandy and Brittany
Sautéed Filet Mignon with Truffle Coulis, Potato-Onion Cake/Pommes Lyonnaise [made by me], Peas and Yellow Wax Beans [ditto]
Yesterday we finished up our section on plating and tech review and moved onto regional French cuisine. Chef L continues to cement her reputation with the majority of our class as a humorless nag, but this aspect of her personality does not bother me. What I do find periodically irritating, though, is that she does not always articulate all expectations or demo key techniques before we begin production, meaning she at times barks at us about not doing things in a way she hadn’t previously asked for or showed us how to do.
This is just a slight irritation, though. Mainly I have gotten in a groove with class where I do my thing and largely keep to myself. Bubba Gump and I are—to quote my 14-year-old: “Gucci,” meaning all is good. He told me that he thought I was a “Harley chick” because I had mentioned riding my bike to school one Saturday. This continues to be a source of laughter for him and I, with my new mellow swagger, pretend to find it funny as well. Not that I have anything against motorcycles, I just prefer my hogs smoked, not ridden.
He does keep surprising me in the kitchen. Sloppy as hell, in all respects, but he does actually know how to cook. This is where he differs from our other class slacker, Big Bird, who left class early yesterday, muttering something to Russia about not being cut out for this. I’m not sure what he is cut out for at this point of his young life, but I’d have to agree that his chance of success in the restaurant business seems kind of slim at present. Here’s the Lobster Americaine BG made, served in a molded rice pilaf. It was incredibly good and far better than what the other two groups turned out.
Homard a l’Americaine
Probably not a dish to make at home. It’s so old-school rich and creamy. But hot damn if it didn’t taste GOOD. Luckily a) The Nutritionist is no longer on my team and b) wasn’t in class yesterday anyhow. I try to keep lobster far away from her.
Right about now, cooking well is only part of the package. Between meetings with our externship coordinator and announcements about volunteering for events and such, setting up restaurant trails…we’ve all gotta be thinking about what’s next.
Russia, who’s unemployed, has been volunteering at The James Beard House. There’s A and Wylie Jr, now getting paid to work P/T at Illili. The Boss did a trail at Landmarc and flew out to LA to work an event this weekend (fully clothed) at The Playboy Mansion. Some in class have no excuse for not seizing the opportunities before them. Gluten Free Girl works infrequently, it seems, as a waitress, and lives at home with her parents. She’s such an overthinker she hasn’t decided what she wants to do so has done nothing. BUT she’s gotten A’s in class [snort]. Others of us have jobs that demand our full attention. I am, frankly, jealous of those who have the luxury of time, to explore their options. After all, isn’t that why we all signed on?
On the other hand, I am lucky to have a good job that enables me to support myself and my children AND have this opportunity to advance my culinary skills without going bankrupt or overly deep in debt. So I’m not complaining. But when I have a million things pulling at me: signing forms for school, remembering to call this one or that one on my kids’ behalf in between meetings, pulling together a presentation, studying for a test or tourneing a potato for homework…writing a blog post, I get this nagging feeling that I will have squandered opportunity if I don’t find a way to get out there and explore a bit. It is September and January 15, the day I unofficially graduate, feels very close. And after classes end, the fun begins: my externship. I need to complete 210 hours of some sort of food business-related job. Do I want to cook in a restaurant, for the experience of it? Probably. But it will have to be a high-profile enough place to make it worth my while. Whatever I do I will have to figure out how I’m going to manage the restaurant hours so that I’m not dragging the thing out for months and months.
But then, I never imagined I’d be able to pull off what I’m doing now, so guess I’ll just have to go and surprise myself in some new way.
While I’m figuring out where I’m going, our current destination: Northern France, to Normandy (birthplace of camembert; known for all sorts of dairy, apples and sausages, andouille, in particular) and Brittany (a fishing hub, also famous for being France’s primary grower of cauliflower and globe artichokes, as well as buckwheat).
Côtes de porc normande
A very easy dish—brown seasoned pork chops, arrange in buttered dish, sprinkle with breadcrumbs. In the same pan, slightly brown apple rings (with or without skin). Deglaze pan with a couple of ounces of Calvados, reduce, then add a cup of heavy cream, bring to a boil, then cook in a 450 degree oven for 15 minutes or until chops are tender. Chef had us cook them at 400, but I have to say I think higher heat would’ve been better.
And if you wanted to replace the cream with, say, stock, you could, but you’d probably still want to add a bit of butter to the sauce once it came out of the oven.
Soufflés d’Alençon en timbales (Re-inflatable Cheese Soufflés)
It’s a lie; these souffles do NOT re-inflate. In any case they were delicious served in this mushroom duxelle, cream and tarragon sauce.
[If I don’t gain a bunch of weight while I’m in school, I’ll be shocked and relieved—I can already feel a few]
For Wednesday’s class, we cured a bunch of duck legs for confit (psyched about this) and I prepped pate brise, a savory dough, for a potato tart.
Next pitstop on our classroom travels through France, the Northeast: Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne
As previously stated, I was on vacation—which can really only be called such because I traveled mainly by bike, not subway, and didn’t sit in a uncomfortably chilly office all day. That’s not true: I shouldn’t diminish the value of The Vacated Mind. There was some restorative value in taking a respite from cranial activities (like blogging) for a brief time .
Then the start of the kids’ school snuck up on me and there have been a million-and-one little (and some big) things to do in a very limited amount of time. And I might not have gone far, but work migrated right to my desk while I was out, like white on rice. And now, too, since I’ve been off two days this week for Rosh Hashanah.
There was no class this week either, but I did some cooking, a little bit of entertaining and a touch of self-reflection, as it is written a Jew should engage in to commemorate the New Year.
But every time I started musing over my inner life, my thoughts moved to the stove. I carefully and painstakingly considered my Rosh Hashanah dinners and wondered who, if anyone would I break bread with on the first night, Wednesday, when the kids were with their father.
This began the Saturday before Labor Day, when I was at my mom and stepfather’s house. My stepdad worked as a locksmith for most of the years I’ve known him, but he is also a trained chef with an intriguing selection of old cookbooks (my mother has hardly cooked since marrying him 25 years ago).
Browsing his bookshelves, I came across this cookbook:
That gave me the idea to make an Italian Rosh Hashanah dinner. I’ve never been a huge fan of traditional Ashkenazic holiday fare, so if I’m not with my extended family—who expects it—I look to the rest of the Jewish diaspora for culinary influence.
What I wound up making had some Italian dishes, like the meatball and lentil soup I made Thursday for the kids and the squash blossom “omelets” I made for my friends Jane and Rosie, who came Wednesday night. I had picked up the squash blossoms at the Greenmarket Wednesday a.m. with a plan to stuff them. When I mentioned my ideas to one of my colleagues, she told me that her grandmother—who was from Italy—used to just dip them in egg and fry them into these quasi omelets, add salt and pepper and hand them out to the kids right off the stove with some crusty bread. It was so easy but so incredibly delicious.
Besides those two dishes, the rest of what I made was more inspired by the spirit of Italy, featuring seasonal fare cooked simply.
Today, driving to class with Russia, we were recounting the ways we’ve noticed changes in our cooking. The biggest point of difference I noticed is that I was actually able to delegate cooking tasks to my guests (who offered help). That’s what happens, I suppose, when you become used to cooking in teams. Every time I’m able to pass a task along to someone else, I feel like I’ve grown as a human.
Jane diced the beautiful baby yellow squash and zucchini. I macerated some excellent Italian plums in cognac and sugar and Rosie used them for the plum clafoutis (from Julia C’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking).
And I made the chickens—one for Wednesday, the other for Thursday’s dinner—pricey birds from upstate NY that I bought from The Meat Hook. The Meat Hook is a butcher shop in Williamsburg for hipsters and people like me who will pay a premium for good meat (Besides, butchers are the new carpenters. HOT). I made the Wednesday bird with chive and basil oil and finished with a fig agrodolce pan sauce. For Thursday, I sauteed fennel, apple and shallots and added them to the roasting chicken about an hour into the cooking. I slow-roasted them—as the butcher suggested—at 250 for about 2 hrs. I pureed the fruit/vegetables to make a sauce, which tasted fine, but probably would’ve been better strained or thinned or simply not pureed. It was a little thick.
I don’t know if the chickens were worth what I paid, and I’m not going to tell you what that is because I know my mother’s reading this and will be scandalized, but they were tasty even if I think I slightly overcooked Wednesday’s (Rosie and Jane politely disagreed with me on this).
Here’s what we ate:
Rosie, the chicken, zucchini, fingerling potatoes fried in a little chicken fat and butter (I know, not kosher. Smite me)
Slow-roasted Chicken with Fig Agrodolce Sauce
Plum Clafoutis with whipped cream (Thursday’s batch).
And now, for reals, vacation is over. A new season and, for some of us, a New Year has begun.
Yesterday, I wiped out on the ride home from the Red Hook ballfields. My bicycle—stressed as it was from the large soccer bag in the basket—did not apparently agree with my decision to mount the sidewalk and took a turn for the worse. As did my knee.
I did not cry, but Lev did for me.
"You’re brave, Mommy."
The good part is he did not once whine about biking uphill home in the beating 95-degree sun, as he had the two previous camp days. Not that I blamed him. He had been playing soccer for 3 straight hours in the heat. But, still, it was annoying. It literally takes blood to get a mother a little peace and quiet.
Peace and quiet was decidedly absent from class last night and, if this was any indication, will be MIA for the rest of this module.
The entire class was marked by the insistent drum of Chef’s voice, reinforcing everything we were doing wrong.
"Guys, there were enough lemons for everyone. Who used more than what they needed?!"
She walked over to Big Bird.
"What are you doing with all this lemon zest?! Give some to the other teams! NOW!"
A moment later, she watched as the big lunk carved shards out of the grapefruit in his hands.
"Didn’t I show you last class how to make the supremes?? What IS that you’re doing??
First dish we made was scallops crudo (sliced, raw) served with a grapefruit vinaigrette, mizuna and tobiko. Wylie Jr (I may have to rename him—he’s trying to get an externship at Per Se, not WD-50) and I had to play around with the dressing for a while to get it right. The grapefruit, out of season as it is, was all pucker. Given the only other ingredients besides the citrus reduction was olive oil, salt and pepper, it needed something sweet to pick up the flavors. At Chef’s recommendation, we added honey. Getting better. Then a few squeezes of fresh orange juice, more salt, more pepper. Not bad.
It was halfway through my plating of the dish, that Chef reminded us that this should be an appetizer-sized portion. I kind of knew I had put too much on my plate.
Sea Scallops with Grapefruit Vinaigrette, Baby Mizuna Salad & Tobiko
Chef reinforced this point.
"I would lose money on this dish," she said, pointing at my plate.
Tasting it after, Wylie Jr remarked that it was like eating baby food and, true enough, the lack of any discernible textural variation between any of the elements made it like mush in in the mouth. Good tasting mush, but mush nonetheless.
Next, we worked on our grilled poussin dish. The Nutritionist and I had put together the marinade and Captain was now grilling the young birds. Meanwhile, Chef instructed us to devise a pan sauce to serve with dish, since the recipe didn’t call for one. I decided not to use the marinade since a full cup of it was oil. And since the poussin were being grilled, there would be no pan drippings to flavor it. So I opted to use ingredients that were in the marinade: lemon zest, ginger, shallots, and then just deglaze with white wine (Wylie suggested cognac, which I liked, but there was none in the kitchen) and veal stock. I started reducing it in a small saute pan, at which point Chef bellows:
"Guys, whose sauce is that?? Why aren’t you using a large pan for that? It’ll take forever to reduce in that small pan!"
This “why are you being an idiot, don’t you know these things?” underpinning to all of Chef’s directives became the theme of the evening. I changed pans, stat, and it did definitely cut reduction time.
Plating the dish, Bubba Gump looks over at my mound of potatoes, sitting solo for now, and remarked:
"Dori, get a ring mold for that. Looks like a dog made a turd on your plate"
I am not a fan of ring molds, but I did have to laugh. It DID look a little unseemly sitting there, alone on the plate.
Grilled Poussin with Pommes Mousseline and Carrot & Zucchini Saute
We finished the night with short ribs. This was Bubba Gump’s contribution to the evening. Chef rode him about everything he was and wasn’t doing. First, there were complaints about the sweet & sour turnips that accompanied the meat dish.
"Guys, I said syrup, not caramel! I didn’t say ‘caramel’ so why are you browning your syrup?"
Bubba Gump was getting irritated by the constant snipes.
"I didn’t make no caramel," he snapped back.
Then, she picked on his sauce, but also kept getting his name wrong when she called him out for it.
"[wrong name], that sauce is going to take forever."
"[wrong name], are you watching that sauce?
A little while later, still:
Whose sauce is that? Is someone watching that sauce?
It’s hard to tell, but the roast garlic polenta seen here is topped by two pieces of very tasty short ribs, served with a delicious agrodolce (sweet & sour) sauce.
We made a motley assortment of dishes for presentation Saturday. The fish/seafood dishes were tasty and fairly straightforward but, for some reason, the two meat dishes were ridiculous. Even Chef acknowledged that. There was at least one two many components that were unnecessary.
Only 6 dishes—albeit with multiple parts—were made between our three, 5-person teams.
This irritated many of my classmates, who said they were bored by the slow pace. Not me, though. I liked moving more fluidly through the process, taking my time to get everything done just so. My former teammates, Russia and Gluten Free Girl, also enjoyed this process. But we’re all fairly slow to start.
My new teammates, besides Bubba Gump, are a good bunch. Even The Nutritionist, with whom I am reunited, seems to have pulled up her skill set notably. The other two are among the best in class: one, who acted as captain, is a tall, athletic young woman who was raised in Park Slope (when Brooklyn was HARD) and now lives with her boyfriend in the North Bronx, near Co-op City, where I grew up. She’s pretty in a clean-scrubbed, tomboy-ish way, her straight brown hair always pulled tightly back in a ponytail. She has the straight-backed comportment a chef, though she certainly doesn’t eat like any of the good ones I know, wrinkling her nose at most of the more exotic fare we make. Her favorite Park Slope restaurant is Song, a trendy favorite among those seeking sleek and cheap and fairly mediocre Pan-Asian fare. She is, however, a workhorse in the kitchen: fast and dextrous and thick-skinned. Nothing seems to throw her. I shall call her Captain.
My other new teammate is someone I have been hoping to partner with in the kitchen. He is a quiet, dead-serious, guy who is highly determined to be a great chef. He has become quite friendly with A and the two were just hired to work together at Illili, where they had been trailing. He is a fan of French techniques, Japanese knives and culinary innovation. He will heretofore be known as Wylie Jr, since Mr. Dufresne is one of his favorite chefs.
Speaking of A, he was not so happy with his group. His former team captain, the Tough Teen (who dreams of opening a Latin diner featuring a variety of dishes from across la cocina latina) is again on his team, but was out due to work obligations. So, he was stuck with some of my previous teammates, Russia and Big Bird, who A threatened thusly at the start of class: “I’m warning you—do not fuck with me.” I probably should have taken that direct approach myself. In addition, they have a sweet-but-scattered bear of a young woman (let’s call her “Teddy Graham”). He whispered to me more than once how miserable he was.
Following a much sharper and more engaging lecture about presentation from Chef L than we ever got from her rambling predecessor, we got cooking.
The components of our quail dish were all satisfying taken apart, but together, was as emblematic of the Yiddish expression “ungapatchke” (too much of too much) as you can get. The little birds were wrapped in caul fat and served with a sweetbread gastrique (which tasted like the Orange Chicken—little fried nuggets in a sweet sauce—you can get at most local Chinese joints) as well as foie gras toasts with a cranberry reduction.
Quail wrapped in caul fat. Chef describes the process of wrapping it as, “like it’s wearing a tube top.”
Chef demo’ing how to slice the foie gras
My presentation plate (note the “pillow” of foie gras toast the headless bird rests on)
I quite enjoyed the arctic char we made. If you’re not familiar with this pretty and fairly pricey fish, it’s like a cross between salmon and trout—not quite and rich as the former, with the slightly bolder flavor profile of the latter.
We sauteed the char and served it with a stupidly-named “Mediterranean Salad,” actually a fennel salad with bitter greens like treviso and frisee, red onion, black olives and orange sliced, “in supreme.” Below, Chef shows us how to do it:
More finished dishes, as plated by moi
Sauteed Arctic Char with Citrus Vinaigrette, Mediterranean Salad and Fines Herbes Oil
Sauteed Halibut with Warm Vinaigrette
Sauteed Sea Scallops and Parsnip Sauce (kind of thick and yucky) Braised Cabbage Chiffonade and Potato Chips
Instead of spending class time on knife skills, as we were used to doing previously, Chef gave us homework to bring in for next class: julienne 2 potatoes.
I am happy to report: there is a new chef in town and, if things continue apace, SHE is just what the culinary education fairies ordered (and I do mean “ordered”).
Chef L is no Nanny McPhee, but I daresay she may just be the type of person who can instill some discipline among our ranks.
She began by handing out a printed list of expectations, from us, our class set-up and break down. This type of preparation and organization would have been unthinkable from the kind, but unfocused, Chef S.
Module 3 will mainly have us traveling through French and Italian regional cooking, as well as a bit of Indian, more Thai and Chinese and Japanese techniques and specialties (sushi!).
The first four classes, however, focus on plating and presentation.
Venison Medallions with a Red Wine reduction served with Butternut Squash Puree and Roasted Mushrooms (Oy, whatta mouthful!)
We were split into three groups, not four, and the pace of class was decidedly slower, a fact that did not appeal to everyone. This, it seems, is to allow ourselves time to get the prep just right and focus, without rushing, on making the food look good on the plate.
I knew the time would come when I would have to reckon with my biggest fear: getting placed in a group with Bubba Gump.
That time is now.
But, as is often the case with such bugaboos, it may be that he is not so bad after all. At least as teammates go, he is not the worst of the bunch. I haven’t quite figured him out yet, but while he can truly be an unfocused fuck-up, he’s actually got more restaurant experience than most others in class. I’m unclear what he actually did at the Hard Rock Cafe and other spots around Miami where he worked before returning to his family’s New Rochelle home, but when he applies himself he does seem to know his way—meandering though it can be—around the kitchen.
Still, there are notable exceptions. Our oven cooks unevenly, and I had to return pieces of roasting butternut back to cook further. Always looking for a shortcut, Bubba suggested that I could just “add water” to the too-hard squash and it would puree just fine. I politely declined the suggestion.
But what riles me most about him is that he has a nasty sense of humor. He finds it very funny to knock other people down and insult them. This might be the least appealing quality to me in the whole wide world of unappealing human behaviors, besides straight-on socio/psycho-pathology.
Having learned my lesson about keeping cool in the face of rising tempers, though, I decided to bend over backward to stay tough-yet-kind with my new teammate. I made certain to offer him every opportunity to try a task or try or plate a dish.
Because if Bubba Gump is not to my taste, I am not to his either. We both remarked, midway through class, at how well we were getting on. He could not resist a dig, though:
"We tight, Dori. Until you fuck up."
I didn’t respond right away, but walked over to him a few minutes later:
"Don’t forget, I’m from The Bronx, my friend. I don’t crumble that easy."
This posting two days after class thing is what passes for a vacation in my world. I’m off work this week and trying to grasp at one last week of improvisatory calm.
Bike riding to Red Hook for soccer camp with Lev
Camp is just a 1/2 day, and I have planned my free mornings around (what else?) breakfast. Today: granola and ice coffee at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens. The perfect soundtrack of 60s & 70s-era music (and the artists they birthed, like Sufjian Stevens) plays quietly in the background, the kind of stuff burnouts like to listen to when they awake, slowly. Quite lovely.
Can you feel the rhythm?
Ok, now I mean it. We’re almost there… I do have a story to tell.
It was a refreshing break not to cook Wednesday and Thursday. It was equally refreshing to begin anew yesterday.
The day began auspiciously. I invited Russia—who was driving to school—to accompany me on a visit to the Grand Army Plaza Farmer’s Market before class. She picked me up at 6:55am on this glorious Saturday morning and we arrived minutes later at the market, while many of the stands were still setting up. I was uncertain at first how this merging of my “real” life and my school life would go (so far, no one from class has discovered my secret blogging identity, even post-CNN Blogger Spotlight). When I got in her car she told me she probably wouldn’t shop. She thought that since there were farmstands near her upstate home in Sharon Springs, NY, she wouldn’t want to spend the premium on produce here.
Everything changed when she met Ray. Bradley, that is. I begin every visit to the market at Bradley Farms, not because it always has the greatest abundance or diversity of produce, but mainly because I adore Ray. And his tomatoes. Everyone does.
If you live in the NYC area and are looking for something to do on September 26, 2010, you might plan to head up to Ray’s New Paltz farm for his annual Farm Festival. I’ve been going with la familia for years. It’s perhaps the only event besides birthdays and graduations that my ex-husband and I both attend. We claim joint custody of Ray.
But I digress. Anyhow, Russia looked at me as she scanned the bounty around her and said, “No, this isn’t like anything we have upstate.” The bittersweet truth is that upstate farmers reserve most of their best stuff for deep-pocketed city folk. She happily filled a bag of Ray’s gorgeously imperfect heirlooms and told him: “You have a new customer.”
It was a lot of fun. She’s sometimes a pain for me to cook with, mainly because we have very different styles in the kitchen, but I do appreciate Russia’s true eagerness to learn more about food. Besides tomatoes, I/we bought beans and chard and okra, garlic, melons, raspberries and apples.
And we agreed to make greenmarket visits part of our Saturday am pre-class schedule.
I need a gastric intervention. Also, a good, swift kick in the ass.
My little 3-day culinary project, borne from an innocent little show-offy comment (not mine) about yellow watermelon, is officially over.
First off, it must be said that my kids are real troupers. They were totally into my whole cooking experiment and couldn’t wait to try it, exotic as it sounded to them both. I do realize that, in some—probably large—part, my kids jump on my crazy culinary bandwagon because they know it makes me happy to have their company.
And it really does, make me happy.
Second, I will warn you now: they call this dish a “salad” for a reason. Not, obviously, because it’s so healthy. That’s so ignoramuses like myself don’t think it’s a good idea for one person to eat 3/4 lb of fried pork belly with an intensely hot pickled watermelon rind and pucker-sour dressing. No, this should not have been a main course. It is something you eat a couple of cubes of, with a few mouthfuls of sweet, spicy, sour flavors to counterbalance the salt and fat. And then you move on.
Also, this is truly a restaurant dish. Unless you’ve got awesome ventilation system in your home or love the smell of being smothered in eau de peanut oil, might not be the experiment to try. Of course, it’s always the frying projects that get me (note the blog name), because I am not only a glutton but, yes, a glutton for punishment as well.
Lev did not dig the pork belly. He really tried, but could not get over the unctuous richness of biting into fat.
"This may be the most unusual dish I’ve ever tried," he said, trying to be kind.
Amira, on the other hand, is a fiend for fat. She seemed to enjoy the dish most of the three of us. I didn’t love the pork belly fried, as it was. After the braising part, it was delicious. Frying fat in fat was a little too much of a bad thing.
Best part of the dish, to me, was the pickled watermelon rind. It was the perfect foil for the fatty pork. And pickles, like making jam or canning tomatoes, makes you feel especially proud as a cook. It’s culinary currency, and having it and sharing it makes you feel like one with abundance.
But, ok, when it’s taken you this long to make a dish, you feel particularly compelled to make sure it doesn’t go to waste. So I ate, and ate. And ate. Until I felt utterly nauseated.
Still, that didn’t stop me from trying my second project of the weekend: a riff on Melissa Clark’s Egg-Free Ice Cream recipes. My version: Good ole Vanilla Chocolate Chunk.
I agree with the idea of tossing the eggs when it comes to ice cream, having nothing to do with salmonella. I like the brightness of an icier ice cream texture, unmasked by eggs’ smooth cover.
The problem came with my ice cream machine. I haven’t used my Cuisinart machine in a while and I vaguely recall a problem last time, but I just couldn’t get the damn mixture to come together as anything thicker than icy soup. My kids would’ve been happy to eat it that way, but I persisted.
I followed the direction to defrost the thing, now hard as a rock after freezing overnight, for a 1/2 hour. Then I left it on the counter another 15 minutes. It was too crystalized, with that slightly freezer-burned texture, but damn, did it taste good. I used really good cream and chocolate so, frankly, my highly discriminating critics thought it was just perfect.
It was a happy time, until the bellyaches set in. Then we all felt sick and bloated, if satisfied by our spirit of adventure.
It is nice to be noticed. She’s Fried was the featured blog today in Eatocracy’s Blogger Spotlight on CNN.com. That I happen to be a friend and former colleague of the Managing Editor, Kat Kinsman, I’m certain had nothing to do with the recognition.
NOTHING, I SAY. Ahem.
I’ll admit, I had a little extra dance in my step when I got home tonight.
I showed the kids the profile and they both lit up.
"Let me see it!" Lev said. "I want to read it…wait, is it long?"
I did not get any exercise yesterday. Unless, that is, you consider running for the train so I wouldn’t be late to pick my son up from his dad exercise (mid-sprint the thought did cross my mind).
Our final Mod 2 class ended at noon and a handful of my classmates and I went across the street to Limerick House for a celebratory lunchtime pop.
"One beer. I’ll be fine to run later," she tells herself.
Practicals were done and Chef S, being the nice guy he is, seemed to give all of us pretty good grades. A sits at the same table where Chef presides and, having presented first (got a 97), he watched all of our subsequent classmates pass muster. At one point he laughed at the Chef’s repeated, if not singular, use of the word “good” to describe our finished plates.
"You are incapable of saying anyone did bad," he chuckled, before adding "but all your ‘goods’ mean different things," suggesting that each furrow of the brow or cocked head meant a point or two was nonetheless getting knocked off the final grade.
During prep, we were told to gauge our readiness and put our names into an open time slot for presentation. It was 10:05am when I turned around to the board and, by then, the only open slots were at and around 11am and one other at 10:25am. I knew I’d be done well before 11. I also knew 10:25 would be pushing the limits of my speediness. What are tests for but to challenge yourself, I ask myself.
Oh wait, you mean tests are NOT the time to move out of your comfort zone? Maybe that’s why all the “A” students I knew in college succeeded—they knew how to deliver exactly what the teacher wanted, rather than trying out new theories or expansive thinking or otherwise trying to best one’s previous best at paper or exam time.
I did manage to present on time, however, in my harried state I made clumsy mistakes. My presentation itself, wasn’t so lovely (forgot to take a picture, sorry), I slightly scorched the sauteed green beans and—and this had nothing to do with rushing—I somehow managed to cut my potatoes for the pommes persillade into teensy brunoise cuts instead of small dice. The pan sauce for my strip steak was a little too thick (though he didn’t seem to dock me for that). The steak itself was cooked perfectly.
My grade was a 92, which obviously is a fine grade, but I know I could have done better. And nothing irked me more than to hear Gluten Free Girl brag that she got a 97. As if she is not an insufferable know-it-all at times already, she now felt even more entitled to preach, giving Big Bird instruction about what to do this way and that as he moved towards his 11:15am production.
But this minor irritation doesn’t compare to what The Boss had to contend with. One of her teammates, who shall be named Baby Clueless (she’s the one whose mother is my age) threw out their group’s veal stock, meant for the steak’s pan sauce, because she “thought it was burnt clarified butter.”
I found it interesting that though my classmates have a deep aversion to eating anything unfamiliar, they were all able to eat their steak “dinner” post-presentation at around 11am in the morning. I like atypical breakfast fare, but steak was too much for my constitution so early in the day.
Beer, however, went down just fine. And so what it was 2 beers, not one?
At this point I was not only tipsy, but very hungry. Instead of eating, I went to the Union Square Greenmarket and bought more produce. I had stopped there before class, and bought a variety of heirloom tomatoes and a yellow watermelon for A. He had seen one served in a dish at the restaurant where he was trailing but had never tried it before. So I bought him one (it turned out to be yellow only on the outside; pink inside, but nevermind that).
The topic of yellow watermelons came up during our class on salads. A asked Chef if it could be a salad ingredient (he really was just showing off that he knew that there was such a thing as a yellow watermelon). I started thinking: I have a pork belly in my freezer. Watermelon and pork belly pairing is something I’d seen on restaurant menus lately and I got it in my head that that’s what I wanted to do, so I picked one up and headed home.
My plan was: eat something, take a catnap (or get an iced coffee) then go for a run. But Amira was home and asked if I would go with her to Urban Outfitters in Brooklyn Heights to buy jeans.
When your 14-year-old requests your company for anything—even when you’re paying for it—you don’t say “no.”
Mod 2 comes to an end today, after our practical exam. We’ll each be making a strip steak with a red wine pan sauce, persillade potatoes and haricot verts with butter. Half-day class, so I might even get to enjoy some of what looks to be shaping up, at 6am, to be a lovely day. Thinking about taking my bike…we’ll see. .
I will say this about these last two classes of Mod 2, salads and sandwich, is this: it takes a lot of finesse to make a great salad and sandwich.
Here’s my chef salad. Note the perfectly hard boiled eggs. Otherwise, I realize this plate isn’t going to win any beauty contests. Given my distaste for big hunks ‘o veggies, I did not eat this.
My favorite salad of the evening was this Parsons Salad, made by The Boss and her team. Can’t go wrong with quail eggs and lardons. Of course no one on that team cared to eat it, so I took it home for dinner:
One of my classmates was looking for chickpeas for her salad, which prompted Bubba Gump to say: “What was that thing you made with chickpeas, began with an ‘F’? It was good.”
Here are the salads my teammates made. Personally, I didn’t care for any of them. Big Bird came to class over an hour late (missed his train from NJ), so he just helped prep our dishes:
Potato Salad (Russia)
Roasted yellow, green and red pepper salad with olives (GFG)
Thursday, we made sandwiches. The lineup was mainly iconic classic sandwiches: club sammys, various tea sandwiches, bruschetti, reuben, etc. Russia made a Chicken Monte Christo, which is a dipped and friend sandwich, like a French toast melt, filled with ham, cheese and chicken. It was way too rich for my taste and the bread didn’t crisp up enough when fried: too eggy.
I made these cucumber tea sandwiches. Simple as they were (kills me to think of all the tuition money I paid to wind up making these, but nevermind that), they were my favorite sandwiches of the night. They were clean-tasting and refreshing and, given how hard they are to ruin, didn’t disappoint like most of the others.
It is not easy to make great sandwiches, or salads for that matter. Achieving a perfect balance of textures, colors, flavors takes a intimacy with ingredients most of my classmates don’t yet have. Beyond that, one must be perfectly organized when prepping salads and sandwiches. No awards getting handed out to my team on that front. Big Bird, nonetheless, wandered about, disappearing on numerous occasions, burning the grilled eggplant for his grilled vegetable sandwich (see below). Drove me a bit nuts, but I held my tongue.
Gluten Free Girl made bruschetta with sundried tomatoes, pesto and parmagiano. A little oily, but tasty.
Gotta go. Bike ride not looking likely—too late. Will shoot for a run around the park when I get home. Desperate for exercise.