Culinary school’s grossest day

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it's not so pretty to produce.

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it ain't so pretty to produce.

When I began culinary school in the spring, I noted that whittling potatoes into seven-sided footballs called tornes was the culinary equivalent of hazing. Now I know the real hazing comes in the form of a chicken galantine.

In its simplest interpretation, the galantine is nothing more than a deconstructed chicken. In practice, it is haute French fine dining. “A galantine is an elaborate pate that, instead of being baked in a mold, is wrapped in the skin of whatever bird–usually a duck–is being featured,” Jim Peterson writes in his wonderful book, Glorious French Food. He does not, however, include a recipe for making galantine in his book, probably because it is aimed at home cooks and the home cook who tries to tackle a galantine might swear off the kitchen for good.

Even our cheerfully fearless instructor was rather grim as she prepped us for the day ahead, admonishing us to “work clean.” I think it’s the worst day of the term for her, as culinary students struggle to contain raw chicken, which is handled in many forms. The shit flies everywhere. Here’s how it’s done–keeping in mind that we produced a somewhat simplified version as our first foray into galantine-making.

You start with a whole chicken, removing the skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back. The instructor likened it to undressing a baby. I commented that it seemed more Silence of the Lambs to me, which prompted classmate to pipe up, “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” Chef was unimpressed by our originality. Okayyyy, set the skin aside, ’cause the fun has only begun!

You start by removing the chicken’s skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back.

Next, you break down the chicken, removing the meat from the carcass and tossing the bones into a pot with mirepoix to make a stock. Nothing unusual there. The meat goes into a Robot Coupe (a restaurant-grade food processor) to be ground up, along with a splash of cream and an egg (more chicken!) to form a mousseline. The stuff looks finely ground, but it still has bits of carcass and other muck you don’t want, so you have to rub it through a fine-mesh sieve. “It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef told us. “Just accept it.” This process took me about an hour and yielded, oh, maybe a 2 cups of fine, sticky chicken mousseline that did not look appetizing to me, though my cat, Moe, who enjoys many of my culinary school efforts, would dig it. The odour of raw chicken that pervaded the lab would have driven him insane.

“It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef warned us. “Just accept it.”

Now you take three small portions of the sieved mousseline, mixing them with blanched, pureed carrots, spinach, and mushroom duxelles to form one orange, one green, and one brown mousseline sausage. Wrap each tightly in plastic and poach ‘em in the stock made from the chicken’s bones that has been simmering while you’ve cussed your way through pushing the chicken meat through the sieve. (I quickly fell into cussing, which is my default mode whenever frustrated or bored, and this was both frustrating and dull. But that soon gave way to singing stupid ditties to pass the time.) Plunge the parcooked “sausages” into an ice bath.

Now you’re ready to assemble the galantine. Lay the chicken skin on a work surface, arranging it into a neat rectangle. Top this with a skinless, boneless chicken breast  (not from the chicken you’ve just dismembered and ground to hell, but an extra breast–yep, more chicken!) that has been pounded into a thin rectangle roughly the same size. Smear it with a thin layer of plain chicken mousseline. Arrange your tinted mousseline sausages; smear with the rest of the plain stuff. Roll it up like a burrito. Wrap it tightly in cheesecloth and poach it in the chicken stock. Peterson aptly describes it as “bobbing up like something out of Loch Ness.” Once Nessie is done cooking, dunk her into an ice bath.

Sound good yet? Wait, there’s more. You have to gussy it up with a coating of edible chaud froid, which I can best describe as opaque aspic. I don’t love aspic on a good day; it isn’t any more appealing when it’s opaque. You unwrap the cooled galantine, set it on a wire rack, and slather it with a few coats of chaud froid. Chill it until it sets.

When it’s time to serve, carve slices from the galantine–taking care that the slices are presented so they match up to the gross piece, as the heel of this damn thing is called. And, of course, don’t forget to decorate the grosse piece. I crafted a coy little flower out of blanched oregano leaves and eggplant skin, and set it off-center, like a blossom tucked behind a coquette’s ear.

Of course, the logical question is, “How did it taste?” I can’t tell you. Because of scheduling issues, a long weekend separated assembling the galantine and presenting it, and, well, you know, food safety and all… So, sadly, this little girl was just for show. But I’ll bet it would have tasted just like…chicken.

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.

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.

Culinary school update

 

Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

Culinary 101: Classic French knife cuts

I started culinary school this week. It’s exhilarating and exhausting to embark on what my instructor predicts will be “the best seven months of your life that you’ll never want to do again.” It’s five intense hours a day, five days a week, and each day is an opportunity to build on the skills we were taught the previous day. For example, on Tuesday we were introduced to the classic French knife cuts (and sent home with a potato and a carrot to practice) and prepared ratatouille, a dish involving plenty of knife work, on Wednesday.

I’ve been working with food for awhile now, and a friend wondered if maybe I already knew too much to really benefit from culinary school. Not at all. Although I’ve picked up a lot along the way, there are huge gaps in my knowledge and skills. For example, day one answered a question that’s been nagging me for awhile: What’s the difference between stock and broth. The answer: broth is seasoned; stock is not.

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Sad first attempt at tourne potatoes

Another insight occurred to me on day two, as I struggled to whittle my first tourneed potato. The tourne cut is the considered the most difficult, as it involves shaping a potato (or other vegetable) into a little football with seven equal sides. Mine resembled misshapen tumors. I am not, by nature, a precise cook. It will be an interesting exercise for me to learn the discipline of French cooking, one that will ultimately improve my results in the kitchen.

Much of culinary school is about practice and repetition, and I’ve already begun to reap the benefits of that. I was able to whittle my homework potato into better tournes–not perfect, certainly, but a far better shape.

There will be good days and frustrating days. Yesterday was a good one, as we prepared braised leeks and ratatouille. We bustled through the preparation, practicing knife cuts, sauteing, braising, and presenting the results–on warmed plates–to the instructor. My leeks were cooked just so, she commented, but the sauce needed a bit more lemon. She examined my ratatouille.

Ratatouille that works

Ratatouille that works

“Good knife cuts,” she noted before taking a bite. She sample a bit and paused to consider the results. “Good seasoning,” she said, giving a thumbs up. “Yes, it’s very good.” 

And as I took my dish to the back of the kitchen to gobble the results–culinary school makes you very hungry–I had to agree. Of course, every dish won’t be a winner, and there are bound to be some duds. But it’s a nice way to start.