Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tips from Shadowing at Craigie

"Aren't they worried that you'll steal their secrets?" asked one of my friends when I told him that I was planning to shadow at Craigie on Main for 2 days.  Secrets?  I think they were as worried as the Jain monks in India would be that every Joe in America would adopt their ascetic lifestyle.  There are no secrets at Craigie on Main (at least none that I've noticed).  If you are willing to spend 80-100 hours a week polishing your cooking skills, you too can cook like these guys.

Shadowing means following the restaurant staff and being on their beck and call.  Why on earth would I want to be on my feet for 12 hours doing hard manual labor without pay?  Because that's the best way to learn.  It's been 9 years since I've been in a restaurant kitchen and a lot has changed since then.  Immersion circulators, CVAP ovens, and hydrocolloids are ubiquitous in upscale kitchens.  But at Craigie, they employ this technology to cook relatively traditional food.  They are not serving carrot caviar, or octopus cappuccino.  They are serving roast chicken, burgers, grilled pork belly, and slow poached striped bass.  What makes their kitchen so fascinating to me is that they use innovative methods to perfect traditional dishes.

If you are looking for a Craigie Confidential account in the style of Anthony Bourdain, you might be disappointed.  The problem is I don't write as well, and I don't curse as well.  What is it like for a home cook in Craigie's kitchen?  Like being a civilian in a war zone.  What I want to talk about are the techniques that I picked up.  These are more useful to experienced cooks than they are to beginners.  If you don't know how to make a sauce, what use is it knowing how to re-emulsify it right before service?  Although these tips are the icing on the cake, I use them almost daily now.

Forceps are not just for bio lab
If the last time you used forceps was during the frog dissection lab in high school, it's time to revisit this useful tool.  It gives you much greater control when handling small or delicate objects and plating.  You can also use forceps to twist up spaghetti into a cocoon shape for a fun presentation (see the recipe below).

Milk frother is not just for latte
How many times has your sauce or Thanksgiving gravy formed a skin before you had a chance to serve it?   This happens to me all the time, particularly with pan sauces that are high in gelatin (from the stock).  I've seen this problem solved in other restaurants with the use of an immersion blender, but that requires at least 1/2 cup of sauce to work.  You'll also need to dirty a tall container that fits your immersion blender just right.  Milk Frother to the rescue!  It's so tiny, it can smooth out even a few tablespoons of sauce and you can use it right in the pan.  Many sauces at Craigie get this treatment right before service.

Micro greens
No more sprigs of parsley!  It's all about micro greens these days (tiny little shoots of arugula, basil, cilantro, etc).  You can buy them at some Whole Foods, and I hear you can easily grow them indoors, which might be a more practical solution.    A little pile of micro greens on whatever you are serving and you can create that contemporary look at home.  I suck and growing things.  Any good gardeners out there?  I'd love your advice.

Piment d'Espellete
Tired of black pepper?  Try Piment d'Espelette.  It's a fairly mild chili from Espelette region of France (on the Spanish boarder).  I prefer it to pepper on fish both in terms of taste and look.

Getting thick stuff into squeeze bottles
Getting thick stuff into squeeze bottles (like olive puree or ganache) is always a challenge.  At Craigie, the cooks dump their puree onto a large sheet of plastic wrap.  Twist up plastic wrap like a pastry bag, cut a little hole in plastic wrap with a tip of a knife and squeeze the puree into the bottle.  No mess!

Don't mince anything!
You know that technique when your guiding hand goes on top of the knife and you rock your knife back and forth through food to turn it into minuscule pieces?  It's called mincing, and usually applied to garlic, herbs, citrus zest and other things that you want in tiny pieces.  The chef was not happy when he saw me doing that to his parsley.  "We don't do that here," he said.  "You can only go through it twice: once to chiff (that's chiffonade), and once in the other direction."  You should have seen how small their pieces were!  The herbs do come our fluffier and less bruised this way, but this is not for uninitiated.  You'll need very solid knife skills to pull this off since your ribbons should be 1 mm wide.  A Japanese knife doesn't hurt either.  Good thing I brought my Mac (the knife, not the laptop).  There wasn't a German knife in sight in this place.  At one point I had a moment of panic when one of the cooks was showing how he wanted his fennel cut.  "Is this your knife?" he asked sternly after making a few cuts.  "Yes," I said getting a bit concerned.  "Do you sharpen it yourself?" he asked.  "Yes.  Why?  No good?" I answered nervously.  "No, it's very good," he said looking surprised.  "Here -- feel her knife," he said handing it to the sous-chef.  I breathed a silent sigh of relief.

CVAP oven
A CVAP oven cooks with a temperature controlled steam.  CVAP doesn't get nearly as much press as an immersion circulator, which I find surprising.  It has many advantages over the sous-vide method particularly when it comes to fish.  That's the "secret" behind Craigie's lovely fish with almost custardy texture.  I doubt you will be shelling out $2000 to buy a real CVAP oven.  Luckily, in just a few attempts I made great progress on faking it at home with the equipment common to most home kitchens.  I'll report on it as soon as my testing is complete.

Most Craigie recipes start something like this: "Take a whole pig..."  Since a whole pig might not be practical for most of us, I'll start with "Take a whole zucchini."  This is a dish inspired by the Craigie method of using every part of an animal or a vegetable, but in different ways.  They call it nose to tail dining.

Spaghetti with Golden Zucchini

Serves 2 as an entree or 4 as appetizer

1 golden zucchini (or any type of summer squash)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup cream
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
4 oz spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and Pepper

Cut of zucchini flesh with a mandoline into 2mm slices working your way around the seeds.  Slice with a chef's knife into long thin strands (kind of like spaghetti).  If you have a mandoline attachment that cuts right into strands you can do it all in one step.

Cut zucchini seeds into 1/2 inch thick slices.  Put on a metal pan lined with foil.  Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and mix.  

Broil until brown, 3-6 minutes per side.  Add the cream and puree with an immersion blender (or the blender of your choice).  Season to taste.

Cook pasta 3/4 of the way in a pot of boiling salted water.  While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a large skillet oven high heat.  Add the long zucchini strands, a generous pinch of salt, and toss around until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Reserve 1/4 cup pasta water.  Drain pasta and add to zucchini in the skillet along with pasta water and zucchini cream sauce.  Cook until most of the sauce is absorbed and the pasta is cooked to your liking.  Stir in the parsley.  

Pick up a bunch of pasta with forceps, twist into a cocoon shape, and place on a plate.  Use 1 cocoon for an appetizer, 2 for entree.  If you don't have forceps, tie chopsticks with a rubber band.  

Or just dump it onto a plate.  Garnish with cheese and serve.


Taste the Rainbow said...

Very nice report Helen. I loved reading about your experience. That recipe looks great too. I may still take more than two swipes to chop the parsley, but hey... it will still be good. :)


Simplify said...

I truly cannot remember the last time I found so many cooking tips *I can actually use* in one place! I had been actively trying to come up with a small-volume sauce tool, so I'm especially grateful for the milk frother idea.

As far as your indoor microgreen gardening, I have a couple tips that I hope you'll find useful. In my experience, 2 main factors ensure the success of indoor plants: (1) the right amount of sun; and (2) the right amount of water. Usually indoor conditions provide too little of both! If you can find a good sunny window, and remember to keep the soil moist, I bet you can grow all kinds of things! Store some water nearby to make it easy.

And finally, regarding Espelette pepper, I had not heard of such a thing, but a google search suggested that Aleppo pepper was sometimes recommended as a substitute. I'm just wild about Aleppo pepper and I wondered if you had any thoughts about how similar it is to the Espelette you suggest.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Simplify,

Thanks so much for the gardening tips. I love aleppo and from the top of my head, it's a fabulous alternative to espelette. Both are very mild chilies. I haven't tried them side by side because I am yet to order espelette chili.


thetravelingtimes said...

How exciting to get to be in that kitchen! I was excited the one time I sat at the counter there and watched in awe as I ate my brunch. Thanks for sharing what you learned.

(one of your former students)