What we cooked:
When the chef cringes as he reviews the dishes in our handouts, that’s not a good sign. Of course, it wasn’t his fault that the dishes we had to execute were cafeteria style food. He was assigned to teach this class last minute and was only following the class plan given to him. Why couldn’t he just tell us to cook something else, you might ask? Well, it’s not that easy. The ingredients for these dishes were already ordered from the store room, the recipes were already printed, and the wheels of the complex apparatus known as CIA were in motion. Each team got to make a different set of dishes each day that were supposed to familiarize us with the cooking techniques we were learning that day. Here is what our team got to cook.
Day 1: Everyone was practicing knife skills and we didn’t cook anything yet.
Day 2: Fried chicken, stir-fried mushrooms, split pea soup with bacon
Whoever thought of paring fried chicken with stir-fried mushrooms? And wouldn’t a fresh pea soup be better in the spring than heavy split pea loaded with bacon fat?
Day 3: Asian glazed ribs, corn bread, and warm coleslaw. When the chef saw warm coleslaw, he took pity on us and said we could do asparagus instead.
Day 4: Veal Blanquette (veal stew), fresh egg pasta, glazed beets, deep-fried parsnips. This was the best day actually. Once we changed the recipe, the veal came out really tasty, and making pasta was fun. I’ve made it before, but seeing the demo was much more helpful than reading books and I picked up some helpful tips. But why would you be dipping parsnips in egg wash and deep-frying them. They are plenty good without all that grease. And what do beets and parsnips have to do with veal blanquette? Theoretically, we were supposed to plate all those things together on one plate. But we just couldn’t bring ourselves to put beets together with creamy veal stew.
Day 5: The final project. In the end of the first day, the chef told us that we’ll have to come up with our own appetizer and entrée on the last day. The appetizer had to be warm and the entrée had to include a starch, 2 vegetables, sauce and garnish. And now for the main ingredients:
Team 1: ground veal and pork (appetizer) / black bass (entrée)
Team 2: shrimp (appetizer) / duck breast (entrée)
Team 3: scallops (appetizer) / beef tenderloin (entrée)
Team 4: quail (appetizers) / rack of lamb (entrée)
Team 5 (that’s us): pork tenderloin (appetizer) / turkey breast (entrée)
After holding our breath through the interesting ingredients of the other teams, Mark, George and I couldn’t believe we ended up with the turkey breast. Have you ever wondered why the French don’t cook turkey breast? The only way we could prevent it from drying out was to brine, butterfly, and stuff with something fatty (we decided on boursin cheese and mushroom duxelle). It felt more like plastic surgery than cooking. I am not used to torturing my ingredients into submission and it was definitely a challenge. For our sides, we made a mashed celery root, asparagus, and wild mushrooms. You could nickname this dish “Thanksgiving in the spring”.
The pork tenderloin was much more fun to work with. It is a versatile meat that lends itself nicely to most cooking methods, so we skewered it and made pork sate with pear chutney.
What to cook vs. how to cook:
True to its description, this program was devoted to how to cook (how to sauté, how to braise, how to poach, etc.). I assumed that what to cook would be given as much attention, and hoped for an in-depth coverage of how to apply the cooking techniques to different ingredients. For example, how to roast a chicken vs. prime rib vs. a leg of lamb vs. a pork shoulder. What are the little tips and tricks to bring out the best in each meat? I have learned these details for fish, chicken and vegetables because I cook them on regular basis. But a leg of lamb is not something you get to cook all that often and I was hoping that this would be my opportunity to learns the details.
Unfortunately, very little of the class was devoted to understanding your ingredients and how to choose them. Of course, they can’t teach us everything in one week, but I was hoping for more information on different cuts of meat and how to prepare them for cooking. Sure, I know the basics like shortribs and chuck are good for a braise, and rib eye is good for a steak. But what about aged beef and should I know about different grades of beef? What’s the difference between new Zealand lamb and American lamb (that is twice as expensive)? How do I choose the right type of pork chops for the grill? What’s the best way to prepare a leg of lamb for roasting and is removing all connective tissue worth the time? I guess what I was hoping for was an in-depth meat class. Like the class I teach on fish, but for beef, pork, lamb, and veal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a class offered, which is a shame. If you know of one, particularly in the Boston area, please let me know.
The lack of seasonal vegetables and uninspiring recipes was my other pet peeve. Orange glazed salmon with spinach, bacon, pine nuts and sautéed mushrooms, anyone? Or how about poached chicken breast with hot and spicy vegetables, haricots verts, mashed turnips and potatoes? Do they have a random ingredient generator or something?
By now, I have probably convinced you that I am a spoiled brat who does nothing but criticize the holy of the holies of CIA. So let me put my complaining in perspective. Our instructor did an outstanding job teaching the cooking techniques. If you are new to cooking and want to learn to sauté, braise, roast, and poach, this class is perfect. But if you are comfortable in the kitchen and are looking to learn the subtleties that make the difference between a good dish and a fantastic dish, this class might not be the best choice.
Tomorrow I’ll write about the wine tasting classes and dining at CIA restaurants (no complaints about those, so stay tuned).