Monday, November 30, 2009

All hail the Incas, for they gave the world spuds

Spud day in Culinary Foundations II was an enlightening trek through six potato dishes, all showing the deliciousness and versatllity of this humble tuber. But before the day's details, a little history.

Potatoes were first domesticated and cultivated 7,000 years ago in what is now South America. Credit the ancient Incas for figuring out that the underground part of the potato plant is edible and even highly nutritious, while the leafy green part is actually poisonous.

The potato plant, after all, is part of the nightshade family, and that includes such killers as belladonna, the species that supposedly felled the Roman legion led by Marcus Arelius in the Parthian war.

Spaniards entering what is now Colombia in the late 1530s first came across potatoes, and they made their way back to Europe by 1570. Now, of course, they are a worldwide staple, as recognized as rice and wheat.

Chef Dan Fluharty showed us six French techniques for preparing and presenting potatoes -- pommes in French -- including the elegant-looking pomme duchesse. (That's one of my efforts on the right.) The dish is made from what are eseentially mashed potatoes, mixed with butter, egg yolk and seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg, salt and white pepper. Then they are piped onto a platter with a pastry bag before going into the oven for 15 or so minutes. The batch I assembled turned out looking and tasting good.

That's a good thing, because it is going to be part of this week's competency exam.

Other potato dishes that Chef Dan demonstrated today: potato salad; pommes Anna (thin slices sautéed in an attractive pattern, then baked); pomme gratin (baked with cheese); pomme roesti (grated and formed into a six-inch cylinder, sautéfollowed by oven baking until golden brown); potato pancakes or latkes.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Midterm week looms in culinary school

Chef Dan Fluharty (left in the midst of a cooking demonstration for his Culinary Foundations II class) has one more demo to do early this week before we have two days of tests -- one day written, one day cooking.

Chef will show us pommes duchesse, a mashed-potato concoction that must be piped for plating in a fancy design.

More importantly, it must be piped in a swirly, fancy design for Wednesday's competency exam on vegetables and starches in Chef Dan's class.

Besides the piped potatoes, we must make, plate and present sauté of carrots, an artichoke with either aioli or hollandaise sauce, green beans in a sauté with red bell peppers and a dish of rice pilaf.

In number and variety of of plates, it will be our most extensive competency exam. We began with presentation of three sauces, followed by a competency on three soups. Cooking, plating and presenting five plates moves us closer to the end goal for the class in three weeks -- being able to assemble four plates of five items each for two days of final exams.

Monday will be the pommes duchesse demo, review for the written midterm exam Tuesday and a practice session for Wednesday's comptenency exam.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 9

Campbell's: the Ford Pinto?
"It's the elegant soup of the world. It's the Mercedes Benz, the Rolls Royce, the Jaguar of soups."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty, describing the place of consommé in haute cuisine.

Something's missing
"This is turducken without the tur."
-- Chef David Isenberg during a demonstration of how a chicken was stuffed inside a duck along with forcemeat (shown at left). Often, the chicken and forcemeat stuffed duck is then stuffed inside a turkey, but not this time.

Please, be exact
"When it's cooked."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty responding to a student's question about length of time for sauté of breaded eggplant. 

Trade ya'
"We're bringing you some creme brulée. Anything for us?"
-- Executive Chef Tim Grable carrying a tray from his pastry and baking class into our kitchen classroom. In exchange, we sent over a big bowl of freshly made tabouleh. 

Paging Chef Merlin
"Water is magic."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty reiterating that a little water can go a long way toward curing the ill of a sauce that's too thick or a veggie that's about to brown when it shouldn't or any other of a long list of stove-top issues.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Blog leftovers: Cooking quality rises for T-Day

Culinary school teaches us both quality and quantity, aimed at restaurant food and meal production.

The techniques learned in just nine weeks have improved my approach in the kitchen, both at school and home. It was especially manifest for Thanksgiving Day, in the way I planned and organized and in the quality of the cooking.

Most home cooks take it over the top when the holidays come 'round, most especially Thanksgiving. We didn't exactly resort to beans and weenies, but Hilda and I put together a modest yet delicious meal.

Setting the tone was our use of California Culinary Academy Chef Dan Fluharty's cranberry chutney recipe (posted here in my blog). Everyone agreed that it was the highlight of the meal, with its rich, complex flavors. The sweetness was a terrific complement to the savory in most other components of the meal.

Hilda's Yukon gold mashed potatoes were deliciously laced with a whole head of roasted garlic.

My dressing, based on a recipe that I have been building and tweaking for years, was also a hit. We were happy to send some of it home with our guests and keep some for our own yummy leftovers. (Photo shows it in its pre-baked state.)

The turkey was succulent, although we stuck to breast meat after noticing the dark meat on the thighs seemed a little undercooked. That was a surprise after the meat thermometer showed an internal temperature of 160 degrees, acceptable for service.

The sweet conclusion was an apple crisp from daughter Ann Chihak Poff, topped with fat-free frozen yogurt. The crisp lost nothing in the translation to sugar-free to accommodate my son-in-law Curt Poff, who has diabetes.

Key to good cooking: 'Did you turn the oven on?'

My mom never meant to annoy my sister and me. But on a lengthy succession of holidays, she would arrive at one or another of our homes, immediately go to the kitchen and place her hand on the stove.

"Did you turn the oven on?" she would ask, as the turkey, the ham or the standing rib roast worked its way toward the festive table.

"Yes, Ma," I would respond, on the edge of impatience. My sister showed equal frustration when confronted with the question in her home on many occasions. Now we laugh about it.

This is our sixth holiday season without my mom. She and her "helpful" question about the oven are missed dearly. My guess is that she always asked because on one Thanksgiving Day many, many years ago, she put a big, stuffed bird into the oven without firing it up.

If so, we never knew. It would have been a rare miscue for this woman whose first-rate cooking skills remain an inspiration to me to this day.

Oh, and yes, Ma, the oven was on for the turkey I put in Thursday for our Thanksgiving Day feast. Thanks for asking.

(Photo of my mom, Ofelia Islas Chihak, c. 1980.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday eats galore

On the menu for Thursday at La Casa de Oropeza y Chihak:
Ten-pound turkey, roasted
Cranberry chutney (see Chef Dan Fluharty's recipe) (photo shows chutney ready to be cooked)
Butternut squash, poached
Potatoes, mashed with roasted garlic
Dressing, my many-years-in-the-development secret* recipe
Dessert: Daughter Ann Chihak Poff providing a home-made apple crisp, after her mother-in-law's recipe
Prep work Wednesday night will include the dressing and cranberry chutney. Cook time on the turkey is expected to be two to 2 1/2 hours.

More details later.

* Dressing secret: Use fresh herbs, not dried, and put them in halfway through the baking.

Cooking veggies harder than it looks

Ofelia Islas Chihak -- my mom -- liked her vegetables a little crunchy, and that's how she taught me to cook them. Chef Dan Fluharty, my current cooking teacher, said he likes them crunchy, too.

Good enough, I said to myself. I learned from one master cook, and now another will be easy to please.

Not so fast, culinary boy!

Veggies are more difficult than appearances would have them. One doesn't simply toss them into boiling water or into a sauté and forget about it. The delicate flavors of vegetables must be handled with care, then cajoled and coaxed from within and from outside to keep them delicious.

We in Culinary Foundations II had our first practice session this week on prepping vegetables for restaurant production. The competency exam will be in one week (Dec. 2), so I have improvement to make. Here's the list:

Green beans (upper right) : check. Blanch briefly, then into the sauté with rendered bacon fat, fine-diced shallot, julienned red bell pepper, and finish with a pat of whole butter, salt and white pepper to taste. Chef liked the flavor and the texture, saying mine had the right crunch to them.

Artichoke: needs work. I boiled them too hard, leaving parts overcooked, parts undercooked. In photo at left, notice the white spots where the stem comes into the main body of the artichoke. Those are signs of undercooking. The way the "choke" or inedible center, came out mushy was a sign of overcooking. How could something be both undercooked and overcooked? I need to figure it out in a week.

Brussels sprouts: speaking of under- and overcooking, these came out pretty tasty, but some were more dense than others, and thus there was an unevenness in the cooking. Will have to work on it.

Carrots (right): check, with an asterisk. They were highly flavorful, sweet from caramelized sugar and orange juice. But my oblique cuts were too big and thus the veggie was a bit too crunchy. A relatively easy fix to work on.

Eggplant: needs work, mostly because I haven't tried it yet. This beautiful veggie has always been a mystery to me. Time to unravel the mystery to try replicating the delicious eggplant parmesan that Chef made in class this week.

Adventures with vegetables, to be continued ...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Culinary competency in caldo verde

Chef Dan Fluharty rewarded me full credit -- 20 points -- for my caldo verde in Monday' soups competency exam in Culinary Foundations II.

The exam called for making three soups in two hours. The caldo verde was my best; Chef Dan called it "very flavorful and seasoned just right." Thanks, Chef.

My clam chowder and consommé offerings also got high marks, and he judged the flavors to be good in both.

The flavor profile is the key: identifying the flavors, bringing them out and building their complexities from the bottom of the pot to the top.

In the case of caldo verde, one must reconcile the competing flavors in two strong ingredients -- spicy chorizo and bitter kale -- to make them complementary. The background ingredients of potatoes, sautéed onions, chicken stock and a little olive oil help do that.

(Photo shows my caldo verde in the pot.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Culinary school Chef's holiday gift: cranberry chutney

Chef Dan Fluharty had been threatening to dispatch his about-to-be-world-famous cranberry chutney recipe to us in time for Thanksgiving Day. Today, he came through, and by Tuesday, we should be able to bring home some of the delicious-looking concoction.

He offered it only to the "elite few" in his Culinary Foundations II afternoon class. But he revealed the recipe, and I pass it along here. This is for a large quantity, so reduce by half if you have a small group. Or, keep it at this size and store in small batches for future use; it can last for months in the fridge.
               Chef Dan's Cranberry Chutney
2 12-ounce bags of cranberries
1 12-ounce can of frozen orange juice concentrate
12 ounces of raisins
12 ounces of sugar
2 ounces of grated fresh ginger
2 medium apples, cored and chopped
6 ounces water
1/2 orange, including peel and white pulp
Pinch of ground cloves or 1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of cayenne

Cover the orange in water in a sauce pot to simmer 15 minutes. Strain off water, purée the orange. Combine it and all other ingredients in a sauce pot or stock pot and simmer until the cranberries pop, about 15 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving to allow flavors to combine. Can be served with turkey, chicken, beef, pork, lamb. Adding a pinch of salt before cooking will tame the flavors.

Third brain at work? It's the wonder of culinary arts

Culinary arts: from the right brain or the left brain?

The sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting results that come from using one's right brain or left brain don't go far enough to explain the quest to understand the culinary arts.

The transition -- or, perhaps, it's a transformation -- under way in my life as I delve deeply into culinary school and the bigger picture of food as the source of life, culture and a constant striving for survival is best explained by what might be called a third brain that centers on spirituality rather than the intellectual and creative aspects of the left and right brains.

It takes faith to accept that idea. Nothing else will do, because even at my nascent stage in the process, I know that there really is no understanding it. Chef instructors with decades of experience make reference to the magic, the wonder, the beauty of how food is transformed in the preparation. Nothing can explain that except the spiritual.

Or, as the 13th century Persian poet Rumi put it, one must "surrender to the wonder." My loving, patient wife (photo above right) shared this with me from Rumi as a continuing part of her unflinching support for my culinary and life's pursuit:
The intellectual quest is exquisite like pearls and coral,
But it is not the same as the spiritual quest.
The spiritual quest is on another level altogether.
Spiritual wine has a subtler taste.
The intellect and the senses investigate cause and effect.
The spiritual sense surrenders to the wonder.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Souped up week in culinary school

Monday brings the practical exam for soups in Culinary Foundations II, and the three required soups run the gamut. That most classic of French soups, consommé, is first on the list. A lot of work goes into producing what essentially should end up being a clear, flavorful broth. Our ability to make it clear and flavorful, the clearer and the more flavorful the better, will determine our score on a 20-point scale.

Next, for another 20 points, is an American original, clam chowder. The keys are creaminess, texture -- not too thick, not too thin -- and, of course, flavor. One of my practice tries left Chef Dan Fluharty asking if I had set out to make cream of celery soup with a few cams in it. Second time around -- and the same will go for Monday's practical exam -- the celery moved to the background. Lesson learned: Be exacting in keeping those flavor-enhancing herbs and vegetableds to their proper proportions.

The final 20 points will be for a "national" soup, Portugal's caldo verde. This is a multi-dimensional soup that includes the strength of chorizo, the base of potatoes cooked to softness in chicken stock and the pepperiness of kale.

We will have two hours to prepare, plate and present the three soups. In Friday's dress rehearsal, everyone completed the tasks in the allotted time. My soups got good preliminary marks from Chef Dan, and I am anticipating a repeat performance for Monday's test.

(Photo shows the remains of making consommé. At left is the paper-filter-lined chinois, a cone-shaped fine strainer; at right is the bowl of consommé.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 8

It's a sure thing
"Shrimp always sells. If you think you're going to have trouble selling something, add shrimp."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty (left), explaining the making of shrimp bisque and telling us that many a restaurateur has gotten by using the tasty little crustacean.

Non-sequitir of the week
"My question is actually about bleaching. Can we bleach these?"
-- Culinary student Molly Lester (below left), tugging at her white chef's jacket and stopping Chef Dan's soup demo.

Let there be no uncertainty
 "When in doubt, add salt."
-- Culinary student Fontaine McFadden, responding to Chef's question of what she had learned that day.

Cooking unconventionally
"The Portuguese are just like anyone else on the planet: Just because they have a recipe doesn't mean we have to follow it."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty, acknowledging that the "national soup" of Portugal, caldo verde, can be made with rice rather than potatoes as the starch.

We'll talk bonus later
"All this fun and you'll get paid for it."
-- Executive Chef Michael Weller making note of students actually enjoying themselves while cooking in Culinary Foundations II.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Culinary arts: my new world

My new world is heated with cast-iron burners throwing off 65,000 BTUs of flame with the flick of a wrist.

It has the inviting smell of roasting veal bones, the hiss of sweating shallots, the pale yellow of hollandaise sauce. It is a world of creamy soups that come about as if by magic from seemingly disparate pieces.

My new world is knife blades that rapid-cut carrots and onions, leeks and celery. It is is framed in gleaming, sterile-looking stainless steel.

It is butter that's clarified, pepper that's white, sauce that's deliciously brown.

My new world has a language all its own -- "umami" and mise en place, onion piquet and cartouche, velouté and demi-glace.

This new world tugs the imagination out of one's soul and turns it into a new reality, of flavors and seasonings, all evoking even more imagination that in turn brings more new realities in what is literally becoming a delicious cycle.

(Photo shows the "hotline" -- row of stovetops dominating the center of our kitchen classroom.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Man (and woman) as food-making machine

Soup production techniques began in earnest today in culinary school, and as it did, I was struck by the continuous push by the teacher chefs to get us to multi-task and do things in a hurry.

Not a complaint, necessarily. Merely a note that this is training not only in how to prepare foods well, but how to prepare them quickly and in repetitious steps that mean one plate of French onion soup is like the previous one, and the next one and so on.

Today we produced three soups -- French onion, consommé and caldo verde -- in about 75 minutes, including prep work, cooking and plating for presentation. Thursday's production will be the same, with shrimp bisque, cream of mushroom and clam chowder on the menu.

The chef instructors clearly are pushing to replicate the pace of restaurant work. Again, no complaint about it. Just a recognition of that reality.

(Photo shows my soup production for today: French onion in the foreground, consommé left background, caldo verde right background.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Conquering those stove-top bullies: classic sauces

Hollandaise sauce is mine; I have conquered it. Same with Sauce Robert, mornay and an array of other leading and small sauces in the repertoire of classic French cooking.

Even that stubborn stove-top bully beurre blanc has been felled.

What they call in culinary school a competency exam, also known as a practical exam, was held today for sauces. I proved competent in all four, as did every other member of my class in Culinary Foundations II at the California Culinary Academy.

Laying down French sauces as the basis for a culinary education is a smart approach. They feed (pun intended) most of what will follow in fairly rapid order, starting with soups.

Chef Dan Fluharty dove in today, immediately after the competency exam and cleanup. He demonstrated classic French onion soup -- "It's still in vogue, and it's a national soup: French," Chef declaimed -- and cream of mushroom soup simultaneously. There's that darn multi-tasking again.

On Monday, he had sneaked in a demo of the classic of classics in soups, the consommé. It's a highly flavorful clear broth, and most chef educators and restaurant chefs would agree that it's one of a handful of fundamentals that a chef needs to know.

(Photo shows the remnants of my sauce practical exam. That's beurre blanc in the top pot, foreground.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Drawing a blank on beurre blanc

Two tries in practice and two broken beurre blanc sauces. That means I will go into Tuesday's sauce competency exam in Culinary Foundations II having to do it right for the first time under the pressure of being graded.

The good news is that I know what I did wrong both times in making the sauce. I neglected to "pat the head and rub the belly" as Chef Dan Fluharty taught the coordinated, simultaneous double motion needed to make the butter form an emulsion in the pan.

While today's practice session left me without a successful beurre blanc, I did complete the other three required sauces -- mornay, hollandaise and Sauce Robert -- in fine fashion and with plenty of time to spare. Adhering to that timeline will allow for two tries at any one sauce -- if any, it will be beurre blanc -- during Tuesday's practical exam.

Pat head, rub belly at same time? You can be a saucier

To make beurre blanc, Chef Dan Fluharty instructs, "you have to pat your head and rub your belly."

The age-old motor-skills coordination game for kids works for we adults learning to be chefs at the California Culinary Academy. For one must do the equivalent to have a chance at getting beurre blanc right.

Beurre blanc requires that after the wine, wine vinegar and shallot reduction, introduction of cold butter followed immediately and continuously by a to-and-fro motion with the sauté pan across the stove burner and a simultaneous round-and-round stirring of the pan's contents with a spatula. That brings about the desired emulsifying of the butter with the flavorful parts of the reduction, and it is the essence of beurre blanc.

The pat-head, rub-belly coordination has become an apt metaphor for the multi-tasking it takes to handle the jobs in a commercial kitchen -- or any kitchen, for that matter.

"You are learning how to cook, how to be cooks ... ," Chef Dan said. "You have to do five or six things at once."

(Photo credit:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sauces challenge comes to a boil

All those sauces we learned and practiced last week will be on the agenda again Monday and Tuesday in Culinary Foundations II class. Only this time, it's for real.

Chef Dan Fluharty is generously giving us Monday as a dress rehearsal for making four key sauces -- mornay, Robert, hollandaise and beurre blanc -- in a timed exercise of 90 minutes. On Tuesday, we will have 90 more minutes to make them for grading, with 10 points for each sauce (4 for consistency and wheter it is emulsified or broken, 4 total for the right levels of seasonings and acid, 2 for temperature).

The practical exam will be 40 points total, or about 7% of our grade.

My Sunday has included practicing hollandaise, for a breakfast of eggs benedict. The effort went well until the end, when too much heat "broke" my sauce, meaning the emulsified egg yolk and butter separated. My second effort ended with an intact sauce, but it was too thick and would not have passed muster with Chef Dan.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 7

Churchill's worst kind of government
"Kitchens are not a democracy. It's, 'Yes, Chef.' That's true in restaurant kitchens; it's true in my kitchen."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty (right) spelling out class rules for Culinary Foundations II, then giving us a say in when we want to take the midterm exam -- before or after Thanksgiving break.
Not ready for prime time
"It's like Top Chef except we don't know what we're doing and they do."
-- Culinary student John Briggs, commenting on the timed cooking exercises and increasing pace and complexity of work in Culinary Foundations II.

What would Trini Lopez do?
"Bring a hammer."
-- Culinary student Fontaine McFadden's facetious solution for pans whose warped bottoms cause uneven heating. "Won't help," Chef Dan responded, suggesting use of flat-bottomed pans.

Selecting the right vintage
 "You don't want it to taste too good, because the help drinks it."
-- Chef Dan Fluharty discussing the quality of wine used for restaurant cooking.

Love of learning
"I remembered the ingredients and didn't have to look at the recipe."
-- Culinary student Jorge Olmos on one benefit of having to repeat making a sauce to get it right. (We all have had to; Jorge merely was big enough to 'fess up to it.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

One template; two paths

The challenge of intensely hard work on strict deadlines is not strange to me. Add a measure of creative need to the challenge, and it looks a lot like my previous career as a newspaper editor.

Seen through that lens, the culture of professional cooking is more familiar, and that is lenitive:

* The organized chaos at the start of a day's work. In cooking, do I have my knife and mise en place? In newspapering, what's my assignment, whom will I interview and what's my lead?

* Making adjustments on the fly through improvisation. In cooking, how do I bring back a sauce that I reduced too far? (Add a little water). In newspapering, what if my source doesn't call me back? (Call someone else or write around it).

* Bearing the scrutiny of the boss prowling the room. In cooking, it's the hot line, where the pots and pans are filled and heating. In the newsroom, it starts at the city desk and moves to the copy desk as deadline nears.

* Strictly adhering to deadline. In cooking, it's plating the food and getting it to customers' tables. In newspapering, it's getting the press started and the trucks rolling so people can read with breakfast.

Many other parallels come to mind, yet so many of the details are new -- simmer vs. rolling boil, when to use whole butter vs. clarified, how to counteract acid (add sugar), what does "done" mean, the benefits and perils of moisture -- that I feel as if I were back at Week 1 of my newspaper career. That week in June 1970, a veteran reporter got fired, jolting me to attention that this was reality.

This nascent cooking career is still at the school level and only the end of the seventh week, but it has a tangible sense of reality. It comes starkly in the heat of the 65,000 BTU stove burners (4 times what you get from your average home stove) and the quick sharpness of the knives. It comes subtly in how a low-heat wine reduction releases its perfume or how the sizzle of a sauté gains a few decibels when the meat is done.

It comes most of all in the rush of adrenaline when one's senses are triggered by sight, sound, smell, feel and taste of food that when eaten will make a difference in someone's day.

The same rush that came when one's senses about fair play, good vs. evil, enlightenment and justice were triggered by getting a news story that would make a change or set someone into action for the better.

One template; two paths.

(Top photo shows me in December 1983 as business editor of the Tucson Citizen; bottom photo shows me in October 2009 as a culinary arts student at the California Culinary Academy.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Multi-tasking: making 3 sauces at a time

Chef Dan Fluharty has set a pace of production work in Culinary Foundations II that demands multi-tasking. The idea is that it's what happens in restaurant kitchens, so we best learn it now.

And learn it we are. On Tuesday, we made fish fumet (a fish stock) and prepped the ingredients for veal stock at the same time, followed quickly by making roux.

Today, we stepped it up: Three white sauces to be made to appropriate texture and flavor in 90 minutes. From a béchamel base, we made mornay sauce; from fish velouté, we made vin du blanc; from chicken velouté, we made sauce supreme.

An aid to multi-tasking is that the three sauces include several common ingredients, starting with white roux (butter and flour thickening agent), and including cream, butter and lemon juice.

Chef pointed out that the classic French sauces have foundations that are created over and over, with dfferentiation coming from introduction of flavors from other ingredients. Fo example, the supreme sauce is based on chicken velouté with cream and butter added for flavor; the vin du blanc is fish velouté with a white wine reduction.

Thursday comes an accelerated challenge: four sauces in 90 minutes. We wll be visiting the deeply flavorful family of brown sauces and a tomato sauce.

(Photo shows my versions of sauce supreme at lower left, vin du blanc at top center, mornay sauce at lower right.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Production kitchen: veal stock, fish fumet, roux

Well-made sauces in five categories are the basis for classic French cooking, and we started in earnest down that path today in Culinary Foundations II.

* The roasting of 50 pounds of veal bones and 10 pounds of mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery) for creating brown stock was the first task of the day. (Roasted veal bones at right; brown stock simmering below right.)

* Using the bones of a large halibut, we also created a fish fumet, or fish stock, with a mirepoix of onions, leeks and celery and a bit of white wine.

* Stocks are combined with a thickening agent, most often a roux (fat and flour). So we made roux, cooking it to three distinct colors, each with a use in a different sauce. (Photo below shows my white, blonde and brown roux efforts.)

Chef demonstrated the makings of two "mother" sauces, béchamel and velouté and two secondary or small sauces from them -- mornay from the béchamel, vin blanc from the velouté. On Wednesday, we will be tested on the making of béchamel, fish velouté and chicken velouté, mornay, sauce supreme and vin blanc sauce.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Culinary schooling picks up speed

The first six weeks at the California Culinary Academy were equal to a steady drive along a two-lane highway, at 55 mph. Today, with the opening of school's second term, we started up the freeway on-ramp, almost instantly realizing we need to drive faster and with much greater intensity.

Not that the first term wasn't intense. But now that we have basic skills from that term, much more will be expected of us in Culinary Foundation II, Chef/Instructor Dan Fluharty told us.

"This week will be like this," he said, moving his flattened palm horizontally. "Next week will be like this," he said, tilting his palm up at a 45-degree angle. "And that way each of the next five or so weeks."

Chef opened class by administering a 25-question quiz, testing us on what we learned in Culinary Foundations I and Safety & Sanitation classes last term.

Second, we found out that we will cook every day. That included today, when each of us made a pot of chicken stock, after Chef's demonstration.

We're about to merge onto the fast-moving freeway, and our seat belts are fastened.

(Photo shows Chef Dan demonstrating the making of chicken stock, after which eac h of us made our own pot.)

The religion of cooking, the spirituality of creating

Cooking is religion.

To those who might call this blasphemy, I say that no other description fits. "Avocation" sounds like an add-on; "hobby" has a spare-time ring to it; "pastime" drops from contention by self-description.

Religion -- "an object of conscientious regard and pursuit" -- suitably describes how I practice cooking.

That fact established, then, "Professional Cooking," the sixth edition, by Wayne Gisslen, including about 1,200 recipes, is my bible.

In this bible, one can learn the ingredients and instructions for everything from Allemande Sauce to Zucchini Sauté Provençale. (Key to the technique of sauté: Don't overload the pan.)

The first six-week term at the Academy revealed that getting religion isn't a matter of learning just chapter and verse in those 1,200 recipes.

The chef/instructors consider the collection of recipes only an entry point for the techniques they allow us to carry out. This is the beginning of creativity, moving toward the spirituality of combining fresh, uncooked ingredients into something flavorful.

"The point of what we're doing is improvising," Chef Tony Marano told us in Culinary Foundations I as he taught the fundamentals of all seven Les Cuissons Francaise. "What we try to do is show you at a minimum the most basic steps. Then you go from there."

In our last class, Chef Tony set the charge for us: "It's been my desire to create a space for you to do great things. I hope I have done that."

You have, Chef. You have instilled the religious fundamentals in us, allowing a spirituality to emerge. And it will, over the course of the rest of our lives.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Culinary school quotes of the week, Week 6

Making note
"You have great notes, (student No. 1). Let me see your notes, (student No. 2). Oh, you were sleeping that day."
-- Chef John Meidinger (right) tells students to rely on their notes as part of reviewing for final exams.

Game over; face the music
"Stop playing with your food and just bring it up here."
-- Chef Tony Marano showing his eagerness to taste and judge the gazpacho and mayonnaise dishes that students were hovering over for too long during the skills test final exam.

Modesty is the best policy
"The changing room on the second floor is empty."
-- Executive Chef Michael Weller's hint to students he saw in various states of undress at their lockers in a public space in the third-floor hallway of the Academy.

Punctuality or power?
"The chef is never late."
-- Chef John Meidinger's response to a student who said, "You're late," when Chef walked into the 1 p.m. class at 1:02 p.m. to administer the final exam.

More than a dash of wisdom
"Here's a hint: I've never rejected a dish for having too much salt in it."
-- Chef Tony Marano (left) as he watched students stressing over salting their gazpacho and mayonnaise dishes for the skills test final exam.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Grand Marnier ending to culinary school's first term

Hands that shook with nerves six weeks ago were rock steady today in wedging oranges for a celebratory "orange carpaccio with Grand Marnier sabayon" in Culinary Foundations I.

Fittingly, it was the final day of our first term at the California Culinary Academy. How far our skills and self-confidence have come since the first day of classes Sept. 28.

Having already taken us through our written final exam and skills tests, Chef Tony Marano proposed the delicious and refreshing dessert for our last class, and several of us took part in the prep work. Chef Tony did the honors in whipping the sabayon, a silky combination of egg yolks, orange and lemon juices, orange zest, Grand Marnier and sugar. The sauce was emulsified and ladled onto plates of delicate orange slices macerated with rose water and garnished with chopped and toasted pistachios.

The word "chef" is from the French, and it means "chief." Hence, the chef de cuisine is the chief of the kitchen. Chefs Tony and John Meidinger have clearly and assertively been our chiefs for the first term at the California Culinary Academy.

Each made a sincere offer of mentoring as we wend our way through the next seven-plus months of studies.

(Photos show the sabayon at upper left; orange slices being prepared on the right; at the bottom Chef Tony on the left and students preparing the treat.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

90 questions till first term ends at culinary school

One more exam, the all-important ServSafe certification test, is on the docket at the California Culinary Academy for the culinary arts certificate group that began six weeks ago.

The test will be 90 questions all about food and restaurant safety and sanitation. Passage, with a minimum score of 75%, gives the student a five-year certification by the National Restaurant Association. It's considered an important entry point for those seeking work in the restaurant business as cooks and chefs.

Chef John Meidinger will administer the test, giving us one hour and 10 minutes. The results will be posted on the ServSafe Web site in about two weeks.

Today, Chef John gave us the final exam for hisSafety & Sanitation class, and Chef Tony Marano oversaw a skills test requiring us to make mayonnaise and gazpacho by hand. Both of mine turned out well, and  Chef Tony gave me high marks.

More important, I felt comfortable with how both dishes came together, and I completed the tasks in well under the one-hour time allotment.

Can't wait to complete the safety and sanitation certification. Then onto daily cooking in Les Cuissons Francaise in Culinary Foundations II class starting next Monday.

Battle of the bulge still on, but I'm winning for now

Still no weight gain for me -- in fact, a self-impressive 3-4 pound loss -- after six weeks of culinary school.

As has been said to the point of cliché, given a situation in which one must literally eat his homework and his in-class work, putting on pounds would seem to be part of the program. Executive Chef Tim Grable of the California Culinary Academy warned us about the issue at the beginning of the term, as shown here.

The scale read a hair over 180 pounds this morning. On Sept. 28, the first day of class, it hovered at 184.

Bigger tests are yet to come. In Culinary Foundations I, we didn't cook every day, and with one or two exceptions, we consumed only bits of what we made, adhering to Chef Grable's admonition to "taste, don't eat."

Starting Monday, in Culinary Foundations II, we will be cooking nearly every day, over a four-hour span. That will increase the challenge.

And, yet to come, in the early spring, is high potential for falling off the wagon: Baking and Pastry class.

Post Script: Any reader who interprets my small weight loss over six weeks as a sign that my cooking isn't all that good won't be invited to the next feast of braised short ribs with a wine sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans in béchamel sauce.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Practice is over; time to stand and deliver

We practiced, practiced, practiced. Now comes the payoff.

The knife skills final exam went lickety-split today in Culinary Foundations I. All went well, and now we move on to the toughest day in finals week.

Thursday will bring the 100-question final exam in Safety & Sanitation class, followed by a two-step practical kitchen skills exam in Culinary Foundations I. We must make mayonnaise and gazpacho, both from scratch, both without the aid of electric blender or food processor.

Photo shows several of my classmates in one last practice session, making mayonnaise and gazpacho, earlier this week.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Basic culinary arts skills? We're ready to be tested

Chef Tony Marano's Culinary Foundation I class is ready for the practical exams on the fundamental skills. Wednesday will be knife skills, and Thursday mayonnaise and gazpacho, both to be made without the aid of blender or food processor.

Today was all practice, and everyone was energized and on the right track.

Photo shows the results of the 10 knife cuts I practiced today. Clockwise from upper left: tournée of potato; tomato concasse; minced parsley; minced garlic; chiffonade of spinach; cisseler of onion; brunois of carrot; julienne of carrot; batonnet of potato; small dice of potato. In the center is the curve-bladed paring knife that I use for tournée, at right the regular paring knife. Most of the cuts are done with a 9-inch chef's knife (not shown).

Monday, November 02, 2009

Of parsley stems, bay leaf, hand-made mayonnaise

What's in a sachet? Thyme, whole clove, peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley stems.

For that question on the final exam in Culinary Foundations I, I remembered all except the bay leaf. A sachet, by the way, is the above ingredients in a cheesecloth bag tied shut and put in stock to help build flavor.

For one other question, the difference between saisir and raidir, I drew a blank. The former is searing and browning in precooking; the latter is searing without browning in precooking.

Other than those, the written final exam went well, followed immediately by a quick practice session making mayonnaise by hand. Mine whipped up well (photo above), although it had a bit too much vinegar in it. I'll adjust for the final exam when I whip it again on Thursday.

One final exam down, four to go.

Being 'top chef' means never having to do dishes

What they don't show you on Top Chef or Iron Chef but that we're learning at the California Culinary Academy:

* Cooking is messy, and someone has to clean. At culinary school, we clean in orderly fashion and in accordance with accepted safety and sanitation practices. As Chef John Meidinger told us in Safety & Sanitation class: "This isn't romantic, is it? You're not going to see this on the Food Network. But you will spend 3% of your revenue cleaning everything in your restaurant."

* All those rich, flavorful sauces take time, lots of time, to make. When a chef opens a container of stock on television, he/she is bypassing the long, hard work it takes to make the stock. Additionally, using off-the-shelf stocks probably introduces a lot more sodium to cooking than should be there.

* Back to sanitation: Saying scant attention is paid to it on the cooking shows would be unfair. But it does tend to get nudged aside regularly. A couple of examples: Double-dipping by chefs when they are tasting something; on Top Chef, head judge Tom Colicchio likes to drop in on the competitors at the height of food preparation. He often ends those brief visits with a handshake, and the chef goes right back to the food, not washing his/her hands.

* Good cooking doesn't always take a lot of time, but some of it does. The condensed amount of time on the shows -- a one-hour time limit for Iron Chef and generally no more than two hours to prep and cook a meal on Top Chef -- makes a number of cooking techniques unrealistic, or it telescopes the work involved so that the viewer isn't getting the true picture.

* There's a good bit of humility and modesty among chefs. At least that's so with the chefs at the Academy. The arrogance, bravado and strutting one sees among contestants on Top Chef and Iron Chef must be for entertainment value; they add nothing to the sauce.

(Photo credit:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Culinary school finals week; let the cramming begin

Week 6 at the California Culinary Academy is the end of the term for students in the culinary arts certificate program. That means final exams.

* Monday will be the written exam in Culinary Foundations I, covering culinary history, kitchen equipment and the kitchen "brigade," sauces and stocks, knife cuts, basic measurements and proportioning recipes, the seven techniques of Les Cuissons Francaise. (We learned a lot of stuff, more than I would have guessed.)

* Tuesday will be a review and study day.

* Wednesday will be the practical exam in Culinary Foundations I for knife skills, demonstrating the 10 basic cuts.

* Thursday will be the written exam in Safety & Sanitation and the practical exam in Culinary Foundations I for sauces and soups. We will be required to make mayonnaise as the sauce and gazpacho as the soup, all in 90 minutes.

* Friday will be the written ServSafe food safety certification exam. Passing the exam means National Restaurant Association certification for five years. Having certification is required by many restaurants for chefs and cooks.

Will "cram" and "practice" today by making cream of mushroom soup, scallops sautéed in butter and oil and a mix of peas, carrots and pearl onions.