Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 3 of CIA Bootcamp

There were two themes to Day 3 of CIA Bootcamp: fantasy and drama, deep fried.

First of all, the fantasy -

C and I were a little hesitant in our enthusiasm for the menu put in front of us today. I'm all about ethnic food and trying new things, but this list of Middle Eastern food sounded a bit suspect to me.

Falafel in Whole-Wheat Pita Pockets
Couscous with Red Lentils, Roasted Vegetables, and Saffron Broth
Egglplant Puree

In my humble opinion, hummus is more aptly named "ho-hummus" because it's just plain boring. Sometimes you get the fancy kind with garlic and roasted red peppers and junk, and those are fine. Not thrilling, but fine.

Once, when I was in elementary school, my darling Mama packed my thermos with some kind of yummy soup that had lots of vegetables in it. It was the first time I remember ever seeing a garbanzo bean in my life. My brother and I are very close in age and we were in the same grade, so he was sitting across the lunchroom eating the same thing I was. I leaned waaaaaay over the aisle between the lunch tables and and got his attention. He was in the middle of telling his friends something riveting, and they were reluctant to let him break away from the story. I got his attention though, and shouted across the lunch room, "Hey what are these in here?" holding up the suspect food item for him to inspect.

"I was just telling these guys," he responded,"they're ant brains."

Now, almost 20 years later, can I just say: Those ants had some biiiig brains for their little bodies! You'd think with all the brain power they could avoid being, you know... eaten.

Falafel is grody. The first (and only) time I tried Falafel was during an uncomfortable lunch in St. Louis where I found myself alone in a stinky -- seriously stinky -- Middle Eastern restaurant with my boss who I think had a crush on me. He presented me with two cd's of his favorite music at that lunch: one was from a band called "My Bloody Valentine" and the other was Belle and Sebastian's "Step Into My Office, Baby." I'm not always good at picking up on romantic signals, but this guy was about as subtle as the deep fried bitter garlic passing as food between those pita pockets.

C, aka The Incredible Shrinking Woman, knows a thing or two about nutrition that has aided her muchly in the dramatic weightloss war she's been waging for the past year. And boy, is she winning. She's lost 90lbs+ and looks truly amazing. Truly. Amazing. This CIA Bootcamp was partly her idea, since the whole week is focused on healthy cooking.

Being no fool, therefore, in the art of eating, C raised a suspicious eyebrow to the deep-fried chickpea recipe she was expected to produce for today's lunch buffet. Chef Bruno's defense?

"Well...when you deep fry something at the right temperature it really doesn't absorb any of the oil. It just cooks the food. So it's really a minimal addition of calories to the dish."

WHAT?! Dude, can I PLEASE go live on that fantasy island? You know, the island where chips and french fries are just potatoes and fried chicken has minimal calories added?

Phase two: the drama.

Now, technically we weren't deep frying the falafel, we were pan frying it. The difference is that in a deep fryer you heat up a ton of oil and submerge the food in it, while in pan frying you only use about half an inch deep of oil and flip the food over halfway through so it browns on both sides. Despite her protestations regarding its nutritional virtues, C valiantly volunteered to make the falafel while I worked on the couscous thing and eggplant puree.

Things didn't start out well for this particular recipe. The girl who was supposed to be helping us in the kitchen by laying out all our ingredients before we got there, and allotting the scarcer of the kitchen tools around the room, was not doing much to get herself on C's good side. I tend to live in La-La Land (it's a nice place, but clearly not as nice as Chef Bruno's) and really don't notice/care when the mise en place is messed up. I just float around and generally get things done on my own time. I improvise.

C, on the other hand, takes things very seriously when they are supposed to be done a certain way. Words have definitions. Recipes are followed. People are subject to expectations. Were not met.

We were supposed to have chick peas at our station which had been soaked overnight. C grabbed the container of chickpeas suspended in water and went about mashing them up with the other ingredients for falafel dough (is it called dough?). Chef Bruno came over and frowned. C bristled. Chef Bruno poked the dough. C put her hands on her hips and huffed, although quietly. I could see the storm rising, but I'm not sure Chef Bruno felt the wind pick up.

"This is way too wet." He said.

"Is it?" C asked, trying to sound calm. To be fair, she'd never eaten or even seen falafel before so really couldn't be held accountable for not knowing how moist it was supposed to bed.

"Waaay too wet. What did you use for this?"

"I followed the recipe exactly."

"What did you use for this?" he repeated. C's eyes flashed and she glanced in my direction - I transmitted calming vibes in her direction as I continued to roast my eggplant over the open flame of the gas range.

"Did you use chickpeas soaked overnight?"

"I used the chickpeas that were here for me in my mise en place. I assume that since they were put there for me they were the right ones. That's all I know."

Chef Bruno turned and shouted across the kitchen to our helper, who immediately fessed up: she'd forgotten to soak the peas overnight and so had substituted canned peas instead.

I could see C trying very hard to go to her happy place - yet another fantasy land, only this one seemed to me much less accessible than Chef's and mine. Thinking quickly, Chef located some chickplea flour and dried out the mixture before frying. All was right in the world.

Well, except in C's world. She got out a deep pan. Here she was, making a clearly unhealthy dish in a Healthy Cooking class. Into the pan, she glugged a sickening amount of oil. She'd been forced to use the wrong ingredients which brought her negative attention from the Chef. She turned on the burner. I had told her this dish tastes bad anyway. As she turned to grab the falafel mixture, part of her apron caught on the handle of the frying pan.


Our station looked not unlike the current state of the Gulf of Mexico. Oil everywhere, on everything.

I was a distance away, retrieving a digital scale from Team 2, when I heard her cry out. I only had a moment to register the miserable look on her face before our entire range station burst into flames.

Immediately, Chef Bruno took over, grabbing buttermilk from the nearest counter and barking out for the helper girl to bring salt. Each took turns attempting to suffocate the foot-tall flames with their respective extinguishers. It took a few minutes, but eventually it worked.

I admire the great emotional discipline it took for C not to burst into tears. I went over and gave her a hug, trying to convince her that it added fun and adventure to our day. She was unconvinced, but soon turned back to her fateful falafel with a determination to finish it.

And she did a great job. Those students in our class who profess to like falafel exclaimed about how nice it was. Almost our whole tray of falafel pitas was eaten - which almost never happened with any dish. Chef Bruno took the opportunity at lunch to regale his table with tales of kitchen fires throughout his career.

C and I sat at the other table and watched the rain through a giant picture window, enjoying our brownies stolen from the baking students.

"Tomorrow," I said, "you'll find this funny," and I offered a hug.

"Maybe," she conceded. "Or I'll just pretend it never happened." Outside, a waddling groundhog emerged from some nearby bushes, and the clouds began to clear. In friendly silence, we split the last brownie and wondered what our last day of class would bring.

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