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March 31, 2006

Cooks' Shorthand

I suppose all industries have their own specialized lingo and required knowledge. Recipes in kitchens may not be what you expect. In my very limited experience, they're rarely precise and explicitly detailed. If it's a sauce, it might be something like:

sweat some onions
1big bottle of this
1small bottle of that
half of a sixth pan of stock
reduce by half
add 1 half gallon of cream
salt and pepper
bring to a boil
add a big tablespoon of butter, mount it

For the most part, you'd end up with something more or less the same, even if you have to decide how much onion to use. But with an individual plated special, there's quite a bit of discretion left to the cook. Let's say the special is a snapper - the direction you receive might be:

pan roast the snapper
saute the veg with some shallots
make the cream sauce, but add some chives
use the round plate
garnish in the middle

But there's a lot of detail in there that you're expected to understand and perform without being told. For instance, the-what-actually-would-have-to-happen version of the instructions might be:

season the snapper with salt, pepper, and the fish spice mix
preheat one medium and one small pan, and get another small pan ready for sauce
warm the plate in the oven
put oil and butter in one pan, just oil in the fish pan, and no oil in the sauce pan
the fish pan has to be hot enough, or the fish will stick
saute the vegetables before adding shallots, or the shallots will burn
transfer the fish to the hotter of the two ovens
cream sauce only gets salt, no pepper
the round plate is bigger, so it needs more sauce than the other dish that uses that sauce
add the chives near the end so the color is bright
reduce the cream sauce to coating consistency, finish it with butter
remove the plate from the oven before it gets too hot and boils the sauce on the plate
plate the veg
flood the rest of the plate with sauce
fish should be just cooked through, not medium
fish on top of the veg
add garnish on top

The vagaries of the order and timing have to be considered in all of these steps as well.

I explained one of our dishes to a visiting chef yesterday, so I was on the giving end of the conversation. I did have to backtrack occasionally and explain what's in certain mixes, what's different about our stock, some of our less common ingredients, etc. But she was really comfortable with the same sort of of abbreviated directions. Clearly, she has more experience than I do, but I enjoyed being able to communicate at a professional level.

March 27, 2006

Dinner for 85

Amy and I knocked out a dinner for 85 the other night, and Kelly helped us at the event. We're a pretty good team together. The menu was South American:

Mixed Seafood Ceviche in a Plantain Cup with Mango Salsa
Pepita Crusted Chicken
Brazillian Cheese Breads with Guava-Port Wine Sauce
Spiced Almonds
Fresh Strawberries and Pineapple

Grilled Skirt Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
Sauteed Garlic & Oregano Shrimp
Saffron-Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Fresh Green Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette and Hearts of Palm, Kalamata Olives, Roma Tomatoes and Provelone Toasts
Roasted Corn and Asparagus Salad

I'll run through some of the less common items. I used snapper, bay scallops and squid in the ceviche, "cooked" it in citrus juice, redressed it in fresh citrus juice later, then put it in fried plantain cups. Plantains are starchy bananas that are more common in the Carribean and some parts of South America. Pepitas are pumpkin seeds, which Amy used as a coating for chicken dipped in honey and paprika. The Brazillian cheese breads are called pao de quiejo in Portuguese. They're made with tapioca flour, crisp on the outside, but somewhat chewy and cheesy inside. But they're strangely addictive! The guava-port wine sauce is not traditional, but it was exotic and fruity and brought up the normally subtle breads. Chimichurri sauce is the parsley, cilantro, crushed pepper, and olive oil condiment used for grilled meats in Argentina.

Of course, there were little details that I wish I had had more time to execute, but the hosts and attendees seemed to be very pleased. I didn't get to take any pictures myself, but I'm going to ask around. I was also happy that we managed to stay pretty close to the budget, so we came out positive overall. I passed out a few business cards and promo cards, so maybe this will lead to a few other jobs.

Now if I could just get the scheduling down a bit better to make it easier on ourselves...

March 21, 2006

The Geometry of Duck

I realize that "The Anatomy of Duck," would have been a more correct, but the "The Geometry of Duck" says a bit more about the difficulty I'm having. One of the dishes from my station at work is half a duck, carved a la minute (when it's ordered). Of course, the best thing about duck is the crisp skin. The method they use to carve the duck is modified to preserve the skin for presentation, so it's a precise process.

Now, I'm no butcher, but I've cut up a decent amount of chicken before. I've cut up a few ducks before, but not in this particular way. Even with them being so similar in structure, it hasn't been easy. I thought, "Ah, well, the duck is just a stretched out chicken." But the angles and contours are different enough that fluency in one doesn't cross over to the other. At least, not for me.

To do it well, first off, the knife needs to be really sharp. I sharpen my knives about every day, but I had been taking only one knife out of my kit, but after prepwork and such, it wasn't sharp enough, and sometimes the skin would tear instead of being cut cleanly. So now I take out two, one that I keep in a bladeguard until service, and use it specifically for duck. Second, you need to visualize the internal structure of the bird, while also seeing dotted lines on the surfaces, so the shapes of the skin are pretty. Thirdly, cutting up finished duck is takes a more delicate hand than raw, because we're trying to keep the skin intact. It's almost like having tissue paper around the entire thing, and keeping it unmarred to put on the plate is tricky. Each order is half the duck, so if I use too much force to take off the first half, the skin of the second half gets mashed up.

My duck plate is starting to look better, but it's not as consistently gorgeous as it should be. Watching the other cooks do it is humbling. The accuracy and assuredness of their motions, and the clean, perfect results on the plate speak to their skill and professionalism.

March 08, 2006

Time, Temperature, and Doneness

Look out, I have assembled a sous vide set up! I'm late to the party with this, as it's a well established trend in restaurants. As I understand it, sous vide is French for "under vacuum," although that's not exactly correct. Sous vide refers to a cooking process where the food is sealed without air in plastic bags or plastic wrap, then poached at precise temperatures in a waterbath (or steam oven). It's a relatively new technique. Theoretically, this can be done with plastic wrap and carefully monitoring the temperature of a pot of water on a stove. But since the temperatures are quite low, often in the danger zone (between 40F and 140F), and very long (12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours and beyond), most people buy scientific laboratory equipment that is used to automatically keep water at a specific temperature. What's used is called either a heated waterbath (a tank with a built-in heater) or an immersion circulator, which is the heater and pump used with a tank or pot of your choosing. I'll be using a FoodSaver and a VWR/Polyscience immersion circulator.

Conventional cooking is usually at a High Temperature, for a Short Time. To cook properly, the cook must judge when enough heat has been applied. By comparison, sous vide is often Low Temperature, for a Long Time, with that time having been computed in advance. That may remind some people of the barbeque mantra, Slow and Low.

Initially, sous vide was created to eliminate some of the variation in large catering situations. Let's say there was a 1000 plate dinner with a grilled filet mignon, medium rare, as the entree. Normally, they would be marked on a grill, then reheated in an oven. Timing becomes extremely critical - and even if everything goes well, there's a good likelihood that some filets will be either overdone, or cold in the middle, or may not be right because of size and/or shape variations.

With sous vide, one of the approaches is to pick the target temperature, for instance, 140F for medium rare. All the filets are marked on a grill, sealed individually in a plastic pouch, and put in the waterbath at 140F. So for a long window of time, it IS medium rare. Period. No variation. Cut open the bag, put it on a plate, presto - perfectly medium rare filet from plate number one through plate number 1000. Eventually the meat will change or "cook," but the window is more like an hour or two, rather than seconds. More than enough time for a banquet. Another benefit of sous vide is that flavor and aroma are retained in that small bag, and so it may seem more intense.

But the sexy aspect of sous vide is to create food with unusual textures or appearance. Beef shortribs can be cooked for 30 hours, be meltingly tender as if it had been braised, but appear to be a pinkish medium in doneness. So the relationships between time, temperature and doneness are stretched, twisted, and turned on their head.

There are some food safety issues to be aware of and cautious about, but it's not an inherently dangerous method of cooking. In effect, it's like low temperature Pasteurization.

For more info, check out these eG threads: about waterbaths and sous vide recipes.