Fruit tart as a Rorschach test? It’s all about perspective.

 

Looks count when it comes to fruit tart.

Looks count when it comes to fruit tart.

Presentation is a big part of what you learn in culinary school. How food is designed and plated is nearly as important as how it tastes. Some might argue it’s just as important, since food has to look appealing before someone will pick up a fork or spoon and dig in.

Some might argue that appearance is just as important as taste, since food has to look appealing before someone will grab a fork or spoon and dig in.

It’s a good discipline for me to learn. I tend to hit the mark on flavors and textures, but my plating skills leave something to be desired. Or, rather, they’re on the rustic side, if you want to be charitable. As you can see from my first attempt at Classic Fruit Tart, pictured above, I’m still working on it. We made these in our Intro to Baking class yesterday. While I labored to turn out my rather plain-Jane rendition, many of my classmates created artistic, even architectural designs with strawberries, kiwi, blackberries, mandarin oranges, and other fruit.

As I struggled to arrange my fruit neatly on its bed of pate sucree and pastry cream, it occurred to me that baking shares a lot of qualities with the scrap-booking and home crafts crowd. Both love intricacy and detail. What I consider fussy, they consider doing it right. And, indeed, their results are stunning. And appetizing. 

Mine are thought-provoking and deep, as I learned when a classmate strolled over to have a look at my efforts. I thought my tart was OK–pretty good for me, actually.

“Hmm, it looks a bit like womb,” he ventured.

“A womb?” I asked, gesturing toward my uteral region to be sure I’d heard correctly. It gets loud in the kitchen.

“Yeah,” he answered. “The orange looks like a little baby protected by the fruit…” He explained that he’d spent a year in art school, so he tended to look at things a bit differently.

But when I took another look at my tart, I could see he was right: the mandarin oranges arranged in the middle did look a bit like a fetus curled up in a protective circle of blueberries, raspberries, kiwi, and strawberries. Check it out  from another angle:

 

Classic Fetus Tart?

Classic Fetus Tart?

I was tickled by my classmate’s observation. As he pointed out, food can be an edible Rorschach test, and my humble tart suddenly became a whole lot more interesting. Maybe not more appetizing–fetus tart isn’t for everyone–but certainly more intriguing.

Pasta is tops

 

Penne Pasta Toss is idea when you want dinner cheap and in a hurry.

Penne Pasta Toss is ideal when you want dinner cheap and in a hurry.

Americans are anything but carb-phobic these days. According to a new study from the consumer research firm Mintel, 92% of us eat pasta, and one of six Americans reports eating more pasta this year because it’s such a cheap ingredient. It’s versatile, too, which why almost half of the survey’s respondents report they never get bored with the stuff.

One of six Americans is eating more pasta this year because it’s such a cheap ingredient.

Pasta is certainly a must-have staple of the Eat Cheap pantry. We often make some variation of Penne Pasta Toss, while Tagliatelle and Lemon-Cream Sauce with Asparagus and Peas is great for entertaining. Feeling ambitious? Try your hand at Lasagna with Homemade Ricotta and Roasted Vegetables.

Pro baking tricks for home cooks

 

Whole Wheat Rolls

Whole Wheat Rolls

One of the fun things about culinary school is picking up tips and tricks to share with friends. Last week, I completed week one of the Intro to Baking course, in which we focused on yeast breads. Like so many things, working with yeast doughs is a matter of practice. And, I’ve decided, yeast doughs are divas of the kitchen–yeast ferments and dough rises in its own good time. In a professional kitchen you can do a few things to manipulate the process, like popping dough in a proofing box to speed up fermentation. Ultimately, though, dough is ready when it’s ready.

Yeast doughs are divas of the kitchen.

That said, I picked up a couple of tricks anyone can do at home. 

 

Plastic wrap and a Sharpie makes it easy to monitor dough as it rises.

Plastic wrap and a Sharpie makes it easy to monitor dough as it rises.

 The first falls under the gee-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that category, and makes it easier to determine if dough as risen enough. When you put kneaded yeast dough into a bowl, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then use a permanent marker to draw a circle the size of the dough. This makes it simple to tell at a glance if the dough has doubled in size. (You also can press two fingers into the dough, and if the indentation remains, it’s ready.)

The second trick is to use a digital thermometer to test the doneness of bread. This is especially helpful for yeast bread, like pullman loaves or brioche, that is baked in pan, since you can’t pick up a baked loaf and tap the bottom to hear if it sounds hollow. Instead, you slip a thermometer into the side of the bread and when it registers 200F, it’s done.

This is a variation of helpful tip I picked up from the instructor from my previous class to determine when fish is done: Slip the tip of a sharp knife into the side of the fish and hold for 5 seconds. If the tip is warm/hot when you remove it, the fish is ready. This worked like a charm every time, and I ended up with fish that was cooked just right and never overcooked.

Any plant foods are good for the planet

 

Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Reducing our environmental footprint is on everyone’s mind these days, and eating local food plays a big role in that. “Local” also has become a marketing buzzword, as The New York Times’ Kim Severson noted in her terrific story about national food manufacturers seeking ways to jump on the local bandwagon. Severson interviewed big players, like Frito-Lay, about their attempts to inject local fare–and appeal–into mass-market food, as well as Jessica Prentice, the Berkeley, CA, baker who coined the phrase “locavore.”

Prentice advocates eating food sourced within 100 miles of where you live. If you reside in a rich food region, like, say the Bay Area, that’s a challenge you can meet more easily than if you live in, oh, Missoula, MT, where the winters are long and the growing season fleeting. I would argue that greatest success of Prentice and other local-food devotees has been to get the rest of us to take a closer look at where our food comes from and to find out what actually is available locally. When I lived in Alabama–hardly a bastion of agricultural variety, at least compared to California–I was pleasantly surprised to discover locally made goat cheese and high-quality pork, in addition to a reasonable variety of fruits and vegetables.

There’s much to recommend eating locally–or at least regionally–cultivated food, but does it really reduce your carbon footprint? Yes, but not as much as you think.

Recent food safety scares have made local food more attractive to consumers, the thought being that  if there is a food safety concern, it’s easier to trace the source and contain the outbreak. And I certainly like the idea of supporting local farmers–my extended neighbors–especially in this tough economy. There’s also the culinary incentive. A trip to my local farmers’ market offers a choice of many types of carrots, or potatoes, or lettuce, or whatever. The stuff is wonderfully fresh, gorgeous, and inspiring.

But does eating local food reduce my carbon footprint, as touted by local-food advocates? Mmmm….a little. Last year researchers from Carnegie Mellon released an intriguing study reporting that “food miles”–the distance food travels to your table–only account for about 11% of the average household’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. People’s dietary choices, as opposed to food-source selections, have a much bigger impact. Switching to an entirely locally based diet would lower your greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving 1,000 fewer miles per year. Not bad, but simply shifting from meat and dairy to plant-based foods just one day a week would yield the same benefit, regardless of where those plant foods were sourced. That’s because producing red meat and dairy products is energy intensive. If you switched to an entirely plant-based diet, you’d save a whopping 8,000 food miles a year.

Eating more plant foods is good for you and for the planet, says Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Limiting red meat consumption to 18 ounces or less per week may reduce your risk of colon cancer, while eating more plant foods (including vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, and whole grains) is linked with a lower incidence of all types of cancer. The AICR recommends filling your plate at least two-thirds with plant foods. And the health benefits are the same, whether those foods come from your neighborhood farmers’ market or the supermarket.

Onion confit is easy

Anyone who has cooked for awhile knows the culinary world is rife with conflicting information, and there are often several (sometimes many) ways to achieve the same outcome. I used to work at a food magazine where the technique to create a lattice pastry for pie was the source of passionate debate. And the truth was, everyone was right.

Definitions also are fluid. For example, I’ve found at least three definitions for the difference between broth and stock. Some people say stock is made with roasted bones while broth is not. Some of my culinary instructors say the difference is salt: broth is salted, but stock is not. Wayne Gisslen’s Professional Cooking, the textbook I’m using these days, says a broth is made from simmering meat and vegetables, and is usually a byproduct of simmering meat or poultry for a recipe, whereas stock is made from simmering bones (unroasted or roasted) and vegetables.

I’ve come across similar confusion with the definition of confit. Food Lover’s Companion, the go-to reference for many foodies and editors, defines confit as salting and cooking meat in its own fat as a means to preserve it–as in duck or goose confit. Gisslen goes a bit broader, defining confit as a food “saturated with one of the following: vinegar (vegetables); sugar (fruits); alcohol (fruits); fat (poultry).”

So with Gisslen’s definition in mind, I prepared this Red Onion Confit, which is a remarkably easy and versatile condiment. All you do is cook the onions over gentle heat until they’re ultra-tender, sweet, and sour. You can serve the stuff with crackers or toasted baguette as an appetizer (great with gin and tonic), a condiment with grilled or roast meat, or, as I did on a pizza with fontina cheese using the most reliable pizza dough recipe, ever. It’s the new favorite pizza in our household.

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

Red Onion Confit

Hearty red onions and balsamic vinegar lend this confit vivid flavor. You can experiment with other varieties of onions, different vinegars, and various herbs. The confit will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Recipe adapted from Le Cordon Bleu.

1 tablespoon butter

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of dried thyme

1/2 cup red wine (such as malbec)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add butter, and cook until browned. Add onion, sugar, salt, pepper, and thyme; stir to combine. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook 5 minutes, or until the onions are tender.

2. Uncover pan, and add the wine, scraping the pan to loosen any browned bits. Cook until the wine almost evaporates. Stir in vinegar. Reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes or until the onions are very tender. Stir occasionally. Adjust salt and pepper as needed. Yield: about 1 cup. 

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

1 recipe Basic Pizza Dough

1 tablespoon cornmeal

1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

1/2 cup Red Onion Confit

1. Place a pizza stone in oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.

2. Roll out dough into a 10-inch circle on a floured surface. Transfer dough to a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Sprinkle dough with cheese. Top with Red Onion Confit. Transfer to preheated pizza stone (the dough should slide off the peel/baking sheet easily, though you may need to use a spatula to guide the dough onto the stone). Bake 9 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned and top is bubbly. Yield: 1 pizza.

It’s the towels

 

Humble kitchen towels have turned out to be must-have items for culinary school success.

Humble kitchen towels have turned out to be must-have items for culinary school success.

When you start culinary school, your tuition covers a tricked-out knife kit, which includes, of course, various knives, a whisk, a fish spatula, pastry bag tips, and other tools. You’re also given five sets of uniforms–chef’s jackets, checked pants, beanie caps, aprons, and neckerchiefs. I’ve already written about the school-issued shoes.

But among the most useful and versatile items is a set of five white cotton kitchen towels, though I had no idea when I first rummaged through the haul of goodies. “Hmmm, how nice,” I thought, setting them aside to focus on sexier stuff, like the Messermeister knives.

Now that I’ve completed the first five weeks of culinary school, I’d say the towels are easily the most-used item, aside from my the chef’s knife. They’re certainly the most versatile.

That’s because the towels are pressed into service for everything from handling hot pans to wiping down work stations to drying dishes (yes, we have to wash all the dishes, pots, pans, and tools by hand, which makes me appreciate the dishwasher at home all the more) to scrubbing counters and stove tops. By the end of Day 1, I realized I’d need at least five clean towels each day. That called for a stop by Smart & Final to stock up on more towels. I’ve since been back to S&F for still more, since there’s the occasional towel sacrificed to the kitchen gods. My classmates have also stocked up at Costco, though my station partner scored the sweetest deal: a half-dozen thick, thirsty white hand towels for $4 at Bed, Bath, & Beyond.

I covet them.

Ravioli, R.I.P.

 

Sadly, these pretty babies did not survive the long, hot drive home.

Sadly, these pretty babies did not survive the long, hot drive home.

Food is an ephemeral pleasure at best. It’s made specifically to be consumed, and you certainly don’t want to even look at food that’s been around for awhile. (Unless, of course, it’s the groovy, kitschy plastic variety used to advertise food at Japanese restaurants.)

Still, you’d like the food to last long enough to actually eat it. So, with that in mind, please indulge me in a moment of silence to commemorate the gorgeous Pumpkin-Sage Ravioli I assembled in my culinary school lab on Saturday. I spent hours crafting them as practice making pasta dough, with the intention of cooking them for supper that night. With a browned butter sauce. With a garnish of fried sage leaves.

Oy, the ambition.

As you can see, from the photo, they turned out lovely. I sandwiched them in layers of parchment paper in a sturdy tin, and dusted them with semolina flour. My mouth watered at the thought of eating them. Pity they went all gooey on the long, warm drive home from Hollywood to Marina del Rey. There was no saving them; they were DOA.

A friend of mine suggested investing in a cooler that plugs into the car’s lighter to avert future such disasters. At the very least, a little ice chest seems like a good idea.

Naturally, I grieved for my sad, dead little ravioli. So, in an effort to lift my spirits, my mate and I headed over to the parking lot at The Brig in Venice, where the Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck was parked for the afternoon. The line for this popular fusion of LA taco truck and Korean fare was long, and we weren’t even sure we’d work our way up to the front in time to order. But the food gods were with us this time. After 45 minutes, I eagerly placed our order for Korean Short Rib Tacos and a Kimchi Quesadilla. They were full of comforting flavor, great texture, wonderful spiciness. They went a long way toward making up for the mourned ravioli.

Such is the healing power of Kogi.

Consomme. It’s a metaphor for life!

One of the many cool things about culinary school is the Saturday skills-enhancement workshops. They’re included in the tuition, and a great opportunity to work on whatever you want. You sign up midweek so the school can have the ingredients you’ll need on hand. 

On Saturday, I practiced knife cuts, trimming carrots, celery, and celery into julienne matchsticks. French cooking, like French gardening, is to some extent about turning transforming objects from their wild, natural state to geometric uniformity. Round carrots are rendered into perfect cubes; awkwardly shaped potatoes become football-shaped tournes.

Yuck! Consomme needs to become this mess before it can be beautiful.

Yuck! Consomme needs to become this mess before it can be beautiful.

I planned to use Saturday’s practice knife cuts to make consomme. Consomme is a clear, richly flavored, completely fat-free broth. It’s very expensive when you see it on a restaurant menu. It isn’t hard to make, but it requires patience, attention, and no small measure of nitpickiness. It’s also gross while it cooks–the culinary equivalent of the ugly-duckling-turned-swan.

You put the mirepoix of onion/carrot/celery, plus a little tomato, a couple of egg whites, a few ounces of “clearmeat” (ground chicken breast in this case) in a saucepot, and stir this mess to combine. Throw in a  bay leaf, a few cracked peppercorns, and a parsley sprig for flavor. Add a quart of chicken stock. Put it on the stove and let it simmer. The solids gather and form a “raft” on the surface of the stock, with the proteins in the egg whites and clearmeat and acid in the tomato attracting impurities in the stock. You keep an eye on the raft while it forms, using a spoon to gently create a vent, or “chimney,” in the center. The raft looks disgusting, like the worst frittata you ever saw.

God forbid your raft should sink, or you’ll need to take emergency measures to rescue the consomme. Our textbook devotes pages to saving doomed consomme.

Once the raft has done its dirty job of capturing impurities, it’s time to reveal the beautiful consomme below. You set a chinois (fine-mesh strainer) over a very clean saucepot (you don’t want your consomme to pick up new impurities, after all). Place a coffee filter inside the chinois. Then carefully ladle the consomme into the chinois. It’s not a bad idea to repeat this process–and blot the surface of the soup with a piece of parchment paper–to eliminate any lingering impurities. Put your consomme back on the stove to get piping hot, and add salt to taste.

Beautiful, clear consomme, garnished with brunoise-cut carrot.

Beautiful, clear consomme, garnished with brunoise-cut carrot.

The result of all this is one serving of incredibly richly flavored, gorgeous broth. This is what I’d want when I’m sick, if it weren’t such a production to make. But beauty has its price.