Saturday, February 16, 2013

Week 2. Italian menu done!

Well, that was intense.

I probably filleted an entire case of branzino (European sea bass) by myself. In total our class processed about five or six cases.

To cleanly fillet a round fish takes practice, or you end up with tattered rags of fish instead of beautiful little fillets. Angle your knife down, just behind the pectoral fin, cutting down to the bone. Turn your blade to face the tail, then cut along the spine, one hand over the fish to secure it in place. When you pass the rib section, slide the knife through until the tip comes out just above the ventral fin. Slice back toward the tail along the vertebral column to free the tail. Return to your cuts along the head and slice the fillet from the rib section, keeping the blade against bone at all times. Separate the fillet. Turn the piece over, and make a cut at the tail end, turning the blade horizontal when you hit the skin. Grab the skin and work the blade horizontally up toward the head end, removing the skin in one thin, intact piece. Done!

Aside from that, everything was pretty much routine. Gallons of peperonata, trying to slice topologically twisted peppers into more or less uniform squares. Making bean and farro soup, heating carefully to avoid scorching it and ruining that day's soup. Sautéing all kinds of fancy mushrooms then reducing everything down for a ragù that went over some pasta kerchiefs made in house.

The kitchen really is constant, mostly controlled chaos. Everyone runs around trying to complete their task, sometimes getting pulled off to complete something else, fetch an ingredient, find a piece of equipment, ask for a clarification on a recipe.

At this point, we've only cooked together during the practice day (yeah, that's not a good reference). The difference is that there is a room full of paying customers outside the swinging door waiting to be thrilled by our culinary artistry. Yes, we've taken two cooking classes and two baking classes. Some of us have taken more cooking classes as electives, like Mediterranean cooking, garde-manger, American regional, catering... We supposedly know sanitation - at least, we're certified by ServSafe. There's still quite a distance between preparing something for a class where deadlines are (somewhat) flexible and jamming it out at restaurant speed with a team of fifteen people instead of six.

All in all, the lunch went well. The food went out, pretty much on time. We heard great things about the fish and the mushrooms.

Next week, Cuban food.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Staff Meal Recipes

One thing we do in the Oak Cafe kitchen is prepare staff meals. I suppose this could be compared to cleaning out the refrigerator on a larger scale. The best situation is where we can find something left over from production - trimmings, a few peppers, an onion, some garlic, fish bones, whatever - and turn it into a meal worthy of a chef.

There are a lot of benefits to this. We reduce food waste, since all those limited quantities of food are eaten instead of thrown out. We learn to think on our feet, because the ingredients choose us instead of the other way around. We're thrifty, since expensive ingredients are generally taboo - although occasionally obligatory.

There's nothing wrong with any of this food. It's just that it's funny sizes or shapes, not enough to serve, or extra from a cooking class that didn't need that much halibut after all.

So, here's what I've done so far.

Quick French Fish Soup
We filleted several cases of branzino, leaving lots of bones. There was only one logical thing to do: make fish stock. Since we were already at it, why not whip up a batch of soupe de poissons?

- branzino bones and meat scraps from fish stock (fumet).
- leftover tomato juice
- garlic
- tarragon, fresh, chopped
- potatoes, fine dice
- fish stock (fish bones, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley stems, bay leaves - we were out of thyme)

  1. Bring the tomato, stock, garlic and potatoes to a simmer in a stock pot or rondeau.
  2. Take out the fish bones and run them through a food mill to squeeze out whatever meat you can. Don't go too strong, since you're doing this bones and all. Add the fish paste to the soup.
  3. Use an immersion blender to purée everything in the soup pot.
  4. Add a bit of brandy that you found in a bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet.
  5. Add the tarragon.
  6. Just before serving, add some pastis (or anisette, but be careful since this stuff is not as dry as real pastis).
  7. This should be served with roux and croutons, but that's another thing with staff meals - they have to be done quickly without fooling around.

Cuban Poutine
We were doing a Cuban menu. We had bits of steak, trimmings left over from prep. There were a few jalapeños, and there are always onions and garlic. We had some badly cut julienned yuca fries, too. So, what if we sautéd the meat, jalapeños, onion and garlic, then added a bit of flour and oil to make a roux, then added some leftover papaya-mango-citrus juice to create a tangy gravy? Something we could then pour over the yuca for a kind of poutine, less the cheese curds (we didn't have any).

- scraps of beef
- garlic
- jalapeño
- cilantro
- onion
- flour (AP)
- mango/papaya/citrus juice
- oil


  1. Fry the yuca - like French fries with an initial oil blanch, then a second frying to crisp them up.
  2. Sauté the meat in some oil. When the meat is showing some color, remove it and set aside.
  3. Sauté the onion, jalapeño. Add the garlic toward the end, give it a few tosses and set it aside with the meat.
  4. Add some oil to the pan, then add some flour, stirring constantly. When the roux takes on some color, temper with the juice, stirring constantly. Heat until the gravy thickens and the flour cooks.
  5. Put the meat and other ingredients back in the gravy, give it all a stir.
  6. Plate some yuca, then pour the gravy over it. Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Sautéed Halibut
There were two beautiful fillets of halibut left over from another class. This is one of those times where staff meal could use a premium ingredient. Since staff meal must be done quickly, the fish was left skin on, thrown into a pan where the skin would stick, then taken out with a spatula, leaving the skin in the pan. After you've made your quick pan sauce, some skin might still be sticking. No problem since a bit of water added to the pan softened it up enough for an easy cleanup. Skinning the fillets in advance would have wasted a lot of time, but cooking this way sidesteps the issue. If the fillets were patted dry, and the fish were scaled, the skin could have been fried crisp during the sauté process. But that would have taken more time!

- halibut fillet, skin on, rinsed.
- garlic
- dry white wine
- oil for frying
- salt, pepper
- freshly squeezed lemon juice
- cilantro, chopped
- parsley, chopped
- butter, melted


  1. Roughly chop some cilantro and parsley, squeeze with lemon juice and salt lightly. Set aside.
  2. Trim out the fish into about 4 ounce portions, leaving the skin on. 
  3. Heat a sauté pan, and when the oil is hot add the fish off the flame (in the interest of fast prep, the fish was not patted dry - if you add it over a high flame, the oil will spatter and catch fire)
  4. The skin will stick to the pan. This was the idea, no worry.
  5. When the fish is cooked from the bottom up, but not all the way, sprinkle some maldon flake salt on the fish and place the sauté pan under the salamander to broil.
  6. Watch the fish - you just want a slight broil, not charred embers.
  7. When the fish is ready, take a spatula and run it between the skin and the flesh leaving the skin in the pan. Set the fish aside.
  8. Place the pan on the flame and add the herbs and white wine. Scrape a bit if you like. Add the melted butter, stir and strain the sauce.
  9. Plate the fish either on the sauce or plate and pour the sauce over. Garnish with the cilantro/parsley/lemon and serve.

Friday, February 1, 2013

First day in the cafe kitchen. What can possibly go wrong? Everything!

Today, I was Mr. Optimistic. I even sort of volunteered for one of the chef positions. Sort of, because I happened to be sitting at the front and was directly in front of James, full eye contact, no way to refuse. Not that I wanted to, since if you're going to be chef and things go south, you want this to happen on practice day.

The menu, simple enough. A fresh green salad tossed with citronette. Baked chicken breasts with a salsa verde/chimichurri drizzle, served over cannelloni beans. Foccacia bread on the side. Apple crostada for dessert. Direct, straightforward, no sauces to mess up, no emulsions to break.

Everything seemed fine, yet catastrophe was lurking in the reeds like a 30 foot python. The ovens were on, the citronette ready, the salad greens washed, prepped and set aside, the chimichurri seasoned perfectly, the chicken cooking...

Maybe that problem where the hot water tap would not shut off should have been a clue that all was not destined to flow smoothly.

The kitchen was humming along, ready for an on-time 11:30 service. Ingredients were prepped, mise en place set, all the elements ready for our first performance. Right?

The first hint came as a calm remark from James, "Guys, this oven is set to zero degrees...". The oven with the chicken that's been "cooking" for fifteen minutes?

Yep. That's the one. See this knob? It needs to be turned...


Quick! Transfer the chicken to the convection oven!

Uh, how much chicken is that?

16 half breasts. We'll cut them just the way Teresa did.

So, I have this image of Teresa cutting the chicken on a 45° slant in Pro Cooking, fanning it over the beans and drizzling the slices with the chimichurri. Two portions per half breast, so 16 half breasts should yield 32 servings, right?

Wrong image.

The correct image was one half breast, cut in two, stood up on top of the beans. The chimichurri drizzle part was right, thankfully.

So, we're 15 minutes in the weeds and only have half the portions prepped and in the oven. Luckily, we had the missing chicken prepped and on hand.

A quick toss in a mix of parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper and into the oven they went.
Another half hour to cook.

Almost service time.

Where is the salad? It's not in the walk-in.


Hey, I'm telling you it's not here. Go check.

Nope, not there.

Please tell me it's not in the freezer.

Urrr... Yep, it's in the freezer.

Please tell me it went in a minute ago.

No... it's completely frozen solid. Crispy, brittle, icy.


Didn't whoever put it there see the word, "FREEZER" written on the machine?


Let's try soaking the lettuce in some cold water.

No good. The ice crystals destroyed the leaves' cell structure, it's limper than a viagraless codger.


Grab the mixed spring greens from the walk-in, prep them and let's move!

Put in some arugula to make up the difference. Damn this arugula looks like shit. Diseased or something, old, yellow, mucky. Quick! Pick out the good stuff and shitcan the rest.

Toss the green stuff, get the dressing on, plate, garnish, get it out. We're only half an hour late... but the chicken hasn't all cooked.

Finally the chicken was at temperature - 160°F, ready to pull out of the oven and hold for service.

The beans - the only dish that went down without a problem - were ladled onto plates and passed down, the chicken breasts cut and carefully placed, the chimichurri ladled on, the plates whisked out by the front of the house students.

The crostadas and bread, miraculously came off without a hitch.

Finally, the empty dessert plates began to stream back into the kitchen. We'd survived, bruised, late, in the weeds, but uninjured. There were no explosions, shattered plates, blackened dishes, burnt out equipment.

Except for routine clean-up, we survived our first day in the Oak Cafe kitchen.

Uh, what was that about someone spilling all the salad dressing?

Things for next time
  • Read the name on the equipment. If it says, FREEZER, make sure whatever you place inside is meant to be frozen. The salad should have gone in the lowboy, the thing next to the freezer.
  • The top red knob on the still (non-convection) oven under the range turns it on. The knob with all the numbers sets the thermostat. Screw either one up and you've got raw chicken! Although it's invisible, the top of the thermostat knob is the temperature setting.
  • Draw a plating diagram before service, in part to keep plating consistent, but also to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  • If you don't want to get yelled at, don't trash $17 worth of fancy greens!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crowded, hot kitchen here I come!

Here it is. I'm in. The dreaded class where we create food for paying customers, under the noses of at least three chefs who won't hesitate a nanosecond to come down on any errors like a ton of polenta.

I feel like Dorothy, going up the tornado in the house, looking at all kinds of things and people flying by as I look out the window. In this case, knives, potatoes, duck breasts, rondos, slabs of meat, flames, heat, dishes, looming faces of supervisors, haggled fellow students. Drama, emotion, all that Kitchen Confidential stuff. Well, this time there's no Auntie Em to help you, my pretty!

My first task is to find three chefs, each with twelve recipes that I'd really love to prepare. I suppose this means they're favorite foods. Do I even have 36 favorite recipes from one chef?

When I buy cookbooks, I look for variety. What cuisines don't I have covered? Which recipes look good? Is there a good recipe for civet de lapin? So, I tend to jump chefs.

I'm just not a hero worshipper. They're just people. I don't even want to meet a famous chef; they appear authoritarian, arrogant, obnoxious, unpleasant. I imagine myself treated to some combination of ignored, screamed at, dissed, insulted, cussed at. There might be a laughing Buddha style zen master chef, a mentor worthy of meeting out there, but I've never heard of him. Zen master chefs don't get multimillion dollar television contracts or run three star restaurants, it seems. Except maybe that guy in the subway in Japan, serving sushi.

A fellow student who survived the class added some sage advice: don't pick recipes that might be challenging. Pick things that anyone in the class can put together, yet are somehow excellent nonetheless. So much for my crazy chef with grilled and planked meats. Not practical. Although the techniques are relatively straightforward, they do involve hot coals, soaked planks of wood, basting and lots of smoke in the face.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Live long and...?

There's a doctor in France - ‪Laurent Alexandre - who says people are going to live 1,000 years, starting in a few decades. He says this is wonderful. Is it?

Physically, everyone treated for aging should be better. I'm assuming that if people live 1,000 years, they'll somehow be rejuvenated. Otherwise, what would be the point, if they were confined to a wheelchair, hooked to various artificial life supporting machines, unable to run, swim or play.

Just because someone is healthy and able to play tennis again doesn't mean he or she will be fit for the new world - unless they're readjusted somehow.

Today's elderly, at least the people we've talked to, live in a world completely different than what they knew. Nothing makes much sense. Everyone in their families have moved on, leaving them to cope with life on their own. How do you understand all the facets of today's immersive technology where it seems everyone is constantly linked to their friends, where everyone has a movie studio in their pocket, where nothing ever stands still. Does anyone stop to smell the roses? 

The future is scary, and getting scarier. That golden age with flying cars and floating cities looks less and less likely. The economy is broken, with no solution in sight. The weather is crazy, cities go underwater during storms, terrorists lurk everywhere, rogue states will have nuclear missiles and there's certainly more bad stuff that nobody's even thought of yet.

Where will their oxygen to breathe come from when we've cut down all the forests and polluted all the seas? Will they extract it from asteroids and drop it in the atmosphere?

What about the food?

Who is going to feed all those people? If the birth rate is above zero and everyone lives 1,000 years, this planet is going to get very crowded. Even if they're shipped to the Moon and Mars, they'll still need sustenance.

What will they eat? Synthesized food made using some form of energy and raw materials mined from the Earth? Not a pleasant prospect for chefs, imagining a recipe that would read, "take 1400 grams of protein red No. 437, sauté with 30g of Onionizer, 15 g of Garlifier in Type A65 oil..."

Will everyone live underground, leaving the surface of the planet for crops and carbon dioxide absorbing forests?

Imagine how many CAFOs it would take to feed 30 billion people... not pleasant. Maybe we'll be vegetarians by necessity.

Earth, not as we know it

Imagine living in this world. Everyone will probably have some kind of implant that makes them into walking smart phones. Our national parks will be little bits of green surrounded by human hives. Parts of the planet will probably be radioactive from dirty bombs and nukes. The weather will be chaotic, everything and everyone will be in constant rapid motion. People will be able to choose from thousands of different TV stations, but nothing on any of them will be worth watching. Commercials and corporate control of everyone's lives will make stepping outside of one's dwelling like a star surrounded by paparazzi. Privacy will be but a vague concept from the past; everything will be known, tracked, indexed and instantly knowable to all.

I suppose that if this rejuvenation technology works, the formerly elderly will gather together in retro-communities. They'll create something that looks familiar to them where they can live comfortably and adjust their interaction with the outside world to suit their needs. Some may cyborg themselves to run off and join the rest of the species. Many might choose to euthanize themselves, considering that they've seen enough change and don't see any point to seeing more.

What do you say to your great, great, great, great, great, great... grandchildren?

A thousand years of this? Really? What was that guy smoking?

Monday, January 14, 2013

All I wanted for Christmas was a... bread scorer!

Sometimes the best toys are simple, cheap and don't take up too much space. It's even better when they're useful, too. I'd been slicing my loaves with knives, but the blades were never thin enough, no matter how sharp they were. The result was slightly pulled dough and less than perfect cuts.

Enter the lame. That's French for "blade", not English for "crappy". Basically a double-edged razor blade with a trendy green handle and matching cover so you don't remove fingers while searching for the thing in a drawer. Better yet, the blade is curved so it conforms to the round shape of the loaf. A couple of quick motions and the loaf is scored, ready to undergo interesting transformations in the oven. Look at that ear!

Correct proofing time is still critical, though. If the loaf is over-proofed, it will deflate like an unpowered pneumatic snowman when cut, then (hopefully) regain some of its bounce in the oven. Some bread types, like ciabatta, are inherently full of bubbles and air pockets, so the lame doesn't give clean, dramatic, eye-catching ears and gashes as it does with other formulas.

These loaves are mixed grain sourdough, slowly proofed in a freezing cold house (turning down the thermostat saves energy and as a bonus you get better tasting bread). I used a kneading process (as opposed to stretching and folding) because I wanted a solid country type loaf, the kind people living in cold houses eat (chewing hearty bread is as good a way to warm up as any). There was a bit of an "oops" when I dumped in organic blue corn meal instead of sprouted whole wheat (the bags are almost identical), but it turned out to be a happy accident, giving the loaf a sweeter finish than would wheat alone.

Colorful, festive, spicy

Nothing beats food that's really colorful, yet comes entirely from plant and animal sources that never went near colorful artificial dyes with unpronounceable names. This is one such dish, a little-known (to gringos) wonder from Mexico called chiles en nogada. Except it isn't really, since I omit the walnuts. Maybe I should just call them chiles rellenos arco iris

The recipe has three parts that all come together holistically in a tricolor splash of colors looking as though they just came from a Mexican flag party. 

The chilis

I use poblanos (aka ancho or pasilla), but I suppose you could use any other type large enough to stuff. Preparation is simple: just blast the skin with a torch or blister it over a gas flame. For best flavor, do this outdoors right over hot mesquite coals - although I'm happy sacrificing convenience for flavor and remaining in my kitchen. Place the scorched peppers in a plastic bag or between two bowls to steam a bit, then scrape off the burnt skin with a knife. I don't wash the peppers, since this removes flavor. I don't mind a few charred bits of chili skin since they tend to add rusticity.

The stuffing

This is where things get more fun: diced pork shoulder, trimmed to remove excess fat gets sautéed with chopped onions, garlic, cinnamon, salt, pepper, cumin, toasted pumpkin and sesame seeds. When it's hot, add some raisins or other dried fruit, maybe even some chopped bits of apple or pear. If it's still a bit dry, add some water or stock, and taste for seasoning.

The sauce

Nothing could be simpler. Just combine heavy cream (or milk, if you must), soft goat cheese and a bit of mozzarella to thicken. This remains cold, poured over the hot chilis at the last minute just before serving.


You have two options: chili lover's and milder. For chili lovers, slit the peppers down one side and spoon in the stuffing, leaving the seeds in place. Everyone else might thank you for carefully removing the seeds before stuffing in the filling. Place the stuffed chilis in a 350° oven with a bit of water in their pan for about 30 minutes, until everything is hot.

Place a hot chili on a warmed plate and immediately spoon on the white sauce, top with pomegranate seeds and rush to the table. Ideally, the first mouthfuls will be a mixture of hot pepper and stuffing coated with cool white sauce.

Chilis vary in heat, even when they're all the same variety. Some vary from pepper to pepper. You may find one underwhelmingly wimpy, while others are hot enough to make you drink hot sauce to cool your mouth. If potential heat issues loom, taste a small piece of the peppers when you slice them for stuffing.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Poor man's pizza oven: the BBQ

Fresh, out of the oven pizzas, without the oven. Just a charcoal grill with a lid, and all the fixings for a pizza. Possible? Edible? Practical?

The theme: Chicago. The event: a rowing club get-together. So, Chicago without pizza is like San Francisco without sourdough. Right? But how to make pizzas at a venue with no oven, nor even any cooking facilities whatsoever?

There's a lot of buzz on the web about pizzas on the grill. No doubt, they're expecting this to happen in summer, not when the temperature is hovering around freezing. Yet, nothing ventured nothing gained.

All the pizza stuff was standard: a sourdough-infused pizza dough with cornmeal, olive oil and honey added to the basic flour, salt and instant yeast. The sauce, basic tomato-basil vegetarian. Some roasted fennel, onions, mushrooms and roasted red pepper for toppings.

Doing pizzas outdoors in freezing weather is definitely sailing into uncharted territory. I had various equipment options for baking: a 12" steel comal, a 16" steel paella pan, or the bare grill. I opted out of using a pizza stone, since the last one cracked into five pieces when placed too close to incandescent coals.

Finding a workable technique

First try: the comal.
A comal is a round, thin steel pan typically used for tortillas (they also come in a ceramic version, but I don't have one). The idea was that the comal would heat quickly, crisping the bottom crust while the top baked in the hot air of the grill. I did indeed get a very crisp bottom crust. Black, but crisp. Too hot. Not enough heat on top, so insufficient bubble on the cheese.

Second try: paella pan.
The idea was to to diffuse the heat a bit with the paella pan, place the pizza on the comal on top of the paella pan. This created an air gap between the comal and the paella pan, hopefully something that would stop the burning. It did, up to a point. However, the paella pan blocked too much hot air, so the toppings didn't bubble as intended. By the time the toppings bubbled, the crust was scorched beneath. Worse, it took about 10 minutes to get the pie ready.

Third try: flipping. 
Perhaps the dough could be heated first, crisped enough to flip, then finished on the previous setup. The shaped pizza slid without toppings on the grill to pre-bake the pie a bit, then add toppings and finish on the combined pans. This didn't work much better than the previous effort, and was still slow.

Fourth try: reconfigure, cook on grill.
This was my reluctant last resort. Reconfigure the grill to provide hot-as-possible indirect heat. I placed all the coals at one side of the grill, in front of a lower side vent, then blocked the opposite vent with aluminum foil. I skewed the lid for better air circulation (and more heat). The pizza went directly on the wire grill as far from the coals as possible. Success! The pie browned slowly enough that it could be turned to avoid scorching on the side facing the charcoal. Improved air air circulation melted the cheese and baked the toppings, and the crust came out crunchy and browned, with only a bit of scorch due to a delay in turning the pie. Total time was still a bit long at about eight minutes, but the dough was thoroughly cooked with bubbly cheese, hot sauce and cooked mushrooms.

Bling factor: great. 
These pizzas are tossed for maximum showmanship and photo ops. The fire, smoke, pizza tossing, lined up toppings and sauce, board for cutting all combine for a fun outdoor show. Being next to a blazing grill even makes doing this outdoors bearable as long as there's no wind.

Weather: not so great.
The disadvantage is that the dough cools, extending cooking time. This dough has a great oven spring, so the pies weren't heavy, doughy manhole covers, but when cold dough meets high heat, things have to be managed carefully to avoid scorching.

Things to improve

Top heat
The whole setup would work better if there were more radiant heat coming from the top of the grill. However, the thin metal just doesn't stay hot enough once there's a pie beneath blocking heat from the coals. I had hoped that convection currents would be enough, but it really lacks radiant, top-down heat like a real, stone pizza oven. The trouble here is that grills with heavy, heat-radiating lids are heavy and not very portable. A round grill is light enough to carry in one hand, so maybe this is where I need to invent something new that's perfect for the task.

Cooking time
This thing is slow. A bigger grill would yield bigger pies, and the air circulation would let them cook in the same time. Multiple grills would work too, but that's just more junk to carry around. Still, perhaps there is a way to get more intense, wood-burning pizza oven type temperatures. More charcoal would just scorch the crust... but maybe some kind of vertical wire cage and a half-size grill... maybe a metal heat reflector over the pie, attached to the lid?

Dough temperature
Dough temperature needs to be higher, say 80° for the dough to be worked. This can probably be fixed with an ice chest outfitted with bottles of warm water. Dough at forty degrees is stiff and needs to be kneaded and tossed carefully to avoid tearing the center.