Luckily I took notes as I ground through the course of courses. As the stress level mounts, these notes become more dramatic, to the point where names were changed to protect the guilty.
This week's tasks
- Eighteen hours in the kitchen.
- prepare mirepoix, sauté, cook beans for soup
- sauté branzino fillets for tasting
- make soupe de poisson from leftover bones from branzino fillets (staff meal)
- make vinaigrette (staff meal)
- make fish stock (branzino bones)
- de-bone branzino (fillets).
- use Bermixer immersion blender to purée beans for soup.
Your best friend here will be a razor-sharp flexible fish filleting knife. You can buy these for a reasonable, even cheap price, from a restaurant supply store.
Start by cutting a bit diagonally toward the head, behind the pectoral fins, and if possible behind the ventral fin. Turn the knife and cut along the spine of the fish, working the blade against the bone to separate the fillet. When the fillet is free, turn it skin side down. Keeping the fish flat on the cutting board, work the knife under the skin at the tail section of the fish. Work the knife upward toward the head, scraping it along the skin.
This is a delicate thing, since if the knife is at the wrong angle you’ll cut the skin or waste product. It’s way too easy to waste some expensive fish.
If there are any bones, they will be near the head end of the fillet. Feel with your fingers, and cut them out by slicing a “V” in the fillet and lifting it out. Branzino bones are not removed with tweezers/bone pliers.
Peperonata prep: cutting Bell peppers
It’s impossible to create a regular 2” square from a pepper, especially the ones that look like they’re posing for Edward Weston. It would have been simpler to have the recipe state to cut the peppers into eighths or some other pepper-centric measurement. Cutting into 2” squares would have resulted in a lot of waste.
We got a pepper size clarification from the Head Chef, after an enormous effort to produce uniform 2" pepper squares per the recipe. If they’re over 2” you can cut them down. This is a rustic dish, so we could use the trimmings, too. Less waste!
Storing large quantities of fish
There are rules pertaining to what goes above what, arranged by highest cooking temperature on the bottom. Poultry, with the highest safe cooking temperature, is always at the bottom, then ground meat, then other meat. Fish is supposed to be stored separately from other raw meats.
The branzino fillets don’t go in direct contact with ice. The melting ice could make them too wet, even mushy. Instead, they’re laid out in a single layer on a hotel pan, covered with parchment paper, then a second layer, cover with plastic wrap. Count the number of fillets in the pan, and note this information on a piece of tape attached to the wrap. Place the pan in the coldest part of the walk-in (at the bottom).
The pans can be stacked 90° off so they’re not nested (if they settle, this could smash the fish). They can also be placed on sheet pans in the speed rack in the walk-in.
This is an ancient grain, something Cleopatra might have eaten. It's like wheat, only harder. Farro does not get soft quickly! After several hours of soaking - about seven - it had barely absorbed any water. We’ll soak the farro grains (whole) overnight for Wednesday and two days for Thursday.
Deboning chicken breasts
Chicken breasts, in culinary school, mean the entire part of the chicken containing breast meat. In other words, two supermarket breasts equal one culinary school breast.
They come on the bone in a case, and it's up to us to debone them. We get chicken stock from the bones and save money over ready-boned breasts.
This procedure is different from deboning breasts off a whole chicken. First, score the bottom of the breasts so you can separate them. Then, flip the product and break it down the center, crack!. Run your finger under the cartilage (this doesn’t always work so easily) to separate the meat. Then, slide your knife under the ribs, running along the bones to separate the meat. Trim the breast of fat as needed, place them in a hotel pan, wrap and put a count on them.
The mushrooms need to be sautéed before adding the other ingredients, so that they lose moisture. The whole point of a ragù is that it be thick, not soupy or saucy.
Once the mushrooms have sweated and reduced in size, the other ingredients (white wine, etc.) can be added.
Everything needs to cook down a lot, so use high heat. This is not a braise - the goal is to get the liquid out fairly quickly.
First Course: Fagiolo & Farro Soup with pancetta
Pre-soaked farro grains are cooked in pre-cooked, pureed fagiolo beans (beans, mirepoix, tomatoes, garlic, herbs).
This soup has a great, silky texture with a good bean flavor. I don’t know why we didn’t use cheaper, local pinto beans instead of expensive imported Italian beans, since they’re being puréed. It must be a Fancy Chef thing. It would have been interesting to reserve a few of the beans to see if their markings fade with cooking or remain. They really are beautiful when raw.
Second Course: Hand-made pasta. Nonna’s kerchiefs with mushroom ragout
Pasta squares, about 2” in diameter form a base for an earthy ragout made from an assortment of intensely flavored mushrooms.
We did not add any porcini powder to intensify the mushroom flavor. The pasta needs a very quick boil to remain al dente. We tried scraps, and kept them from sticking with a bit of extra virgin olive oil.
Third Course: Wild, line-caught fish
The fish turned out to be Branzino fillets, dredged in milk then polenta/A.P. flour/salt/pepper and sautéed. I find that I'm allergic to Branzino, but not enough that this prevents me from filleting about thirty pounds of the stuff. Mercifully, it does come pre-cleaned. The bones go into a cambro for stock and staff meal (I'm thinking French soupe de poissons for staff meal).
The fish will be served over pepperonata, a slow cooked mix of colored peppers, garlic, onion, bay leaf, salt, pepper and tomato. If I were home, I'd add some dried oregano, cook them in decent extra virgin olive oil until meltingly soft, then drizzle with a very high quality extra virgin olive oil at service. I'm not home. I do as told.
Cooking the fish is a very quick process as the fillets are very thin and will overcook in a heartbeat. Using breading slightly increases the cooking time, so you need to compensate, but it's all so quick that I never find out how much compensation was really required. By using a good quantity of oil in the pan and keeping the pan in rapid motion as you add the fish, you can keep them from sticking (this applies even more if no breading is used).
The polenta needed to be ground down in a vita-mix to make it less crunchy. Why didn't we just cook it longer? A mystery. Big Man does not like or encourage questions.
Fourth Course: Cruciferous vegetables
This is a carpaccio of thin-sliced kohlrabi, topped with watermelon radishes, coated with a vinaigrette. It’s garnished with fava & bull’s blood greens, Gorgonzola cheese and Maldon flake salt.
It's a beautiful presentation. Watermelon radishes are a great way to add interesting color to a plate, too. The cheese keeps this from going flat and adds umami.
Fifth Course: Almond tart
An almond tart with frangipane, cream cheese crust, and more cheese in the filling.
The idea is something about very local. So, Big Man had to drive to Nevada City to get the cheese. Clover -Stornetta cream cheese isn’t local enough? This is kind of funny, considering that we ordered the Gorgonzola and the beans from Italy. I’m confused about consistency, but if this is the way Big Italian Chef does it, then this is the way it must be done. Doesn’t anyone grow heirloom beans around here, make blue cheese, etc. Could this have been sourced totally locally to avoid inconsistencies? Will this question get me in trouble? Well, that’s the price of curiosity.
Some notes on Big Man. He's the guy who actually runs the kitchen. He's not concerned with fairness, hazing, nasty remarks. He's above the law, Mr. Life or Death. He'll yell at you about sanitation as he strokes his beard. At this point, he hasn't yet decided who he detests the most. He's not, ahem, seemingly in the best of health. Yet he manages to see everything that happens in the kitchen, somehow.