Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Day Two of CIA Bootcamp

I was up this morning, no problem. Going to bed early last night despite an extremely long dinner at Katarina de Medici had served me well.

The meal itself had been pleasant, but it dragged. Some groups of people when thrown together are like Sea Monkeys: just add water, and *poof* you're family!

This is not one of those groups.

These things happen. I think I may have identified a potential friend, though. I saw his eyes spark with appreciation when I let slip one of my stupider puns. He hardly said a word all night, but we punny people have to stick together. Wordplay is a sign of genius. I hope.

True to my resolutions, I had a nice breakfast of yogurt, half a bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers and red onions, plus about a gallon of coffee. The combination of non-grease for breakfast and caffeine gave my outlook on life and extreme makeover.

Lecture today consisted of basic methods of cooking with dry heat, such as searing, grilling, roasting and broiling. I actually learned quite a bit. For instance, when you put onions into a hot pan and they eventually brown and go limp, they've caramelized. On the other hand, when you put protein into a hot pan and it browns on the outside, it has been effected by the Maillard Reaction. The difference is that the caramelization occurs when sugar is converted to ... mumblesomething...whereas the Maillard reaction involves amino acids not present in caramelization. Strangely, caramel is not made through caramelization, but through the Maillard reaction.

I was super excited about Team 5's (that's me and C!) menu today: Buffalo chili served in baked whole wheat tortilla cups, with brown rice and fresh salsa. Plus, we were in charge of making two versions of corn chowder, one traditional and one low fat. Woohoo! Now that's what I'm talking about. Good eatin'.

Unfortunately, it didn't really turn out that way.

The problem with making chili with cubed (as opposed to ground) meat, especially lean buffalo, is that it takes a long time to break down and get tender. I knew this in the back of my mind, but figured that the CIA knew what it was doing in putting our recipes together so didn't worry. That was my first problem.

The second problem was that since yesterday I felt a bit, how should I put it? underchallenged?, today I wanted to try something daring. Leave it to me to produce yucky food at still feel underchallenged. I'm not terribly confident about my searing abilities, so I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to get berated by Chef Bruno and come out the other end with improved technique. I put meat in a hot pan, it puts me in hot water, and everyone gets what they want.

The key to a good sear is having the pan hot, putting the meat on, and not touching it at all until it releases itself. By the time the meat has gotten nice and brown, it will have left delicious other brown bits on the bottom of the pan, called fond. This fond is what is used to make delicious homemade gravy and sauces - deglazed with broth or wine or whatever else.

My problem is I burn the fond. Every time. The meat looks gorgeous. Unfortunately, the kitchen is full of smoke and the bottom of the pan looks less like it needs deglazing and more like the it's the original namesake of that Rolling Stones song. I wish I could say that now after an little tweaking from Chef Bruno I can fondle meat with the best of them (heh...get it?) but unfortunately Mr. Maillard harbors little fondness for me (bah-dum).

At the first sign of char, I raised my hand and Chef Bruno came chuckling over. He seems to do a lot of chuckling.

"I think I'm burning the fond." I said.
"You are." he replied, and looked at me nonplussed.

I looked at him in panic. Fix it! my thoughts screamed, or I won't have any dinner for my starving family! Oh...wait. My fat and happy family is at home, eating leftovers while standing over the sink. This is just Healthy Cooking class. Fix it anyway!

"Yeah, when that happens you need to start over in another pan. And maybe add some more fat." Did I mention this is Healthy Cooking?

Well, I started over with a new pan and more fat. Twice. By the time I had charred the bottom of my third pan and C was giving me concerned looks from behind her brown rice concoction, most of the buffalo was brown already. No fond for this chili. And thank goodness for dishwashers.

I threw all the other ingredients into to pot and got it on the stove as quickly as possible.

A short note about the gas ranges in our kitchen: they're totally bi-polar. On the dial there are these three sweet little flame symbols, each a bit bigger than previous one, theoretically indicating the size of flame that will correspond with each setting. In reality, however, there are only two settings -- "Off," followed by a cross between "Joan of Arc" and "Salem Witch Trial." Furthermore, if if you momentarily trick the burner into some kind of "medium low" flame height for, say, a simmer, God forbid you walk away. It gradually creeps up and up and up... at one point I looked over at my "medium low" only to see it had grown so high the blue flames were reaching around and engulfing the sides of the pot, nearly reaching the lid itself, a good four inches from top to bottom.

It didn't matter how high the flame was, though the meat didn't have long enough to stew and was too tough to eat. The flavor was great, but it seemed like a great chili base with pesky chunks of beef jerky floating around in it.

C was in charge of both chowders and the brown rice. I was so involved in my buffalo browning situation that I didn't have time to check in and see how things were going. C is an excellent cook, and I was confident things were under control. At least, more under control than my dish was.

It wasn't until the clock was getting pretty close to 12:30 that we both started to panic. My meat wasn't tender. At all. Also, there were only cherry tomatoes available for my salsa. Sure, they were delicious, but halving two cartons of cherry tomatoes one by one is about as close as you can get to time-gluttonous busy-work in the kitchen. I checked in with C, discovering that while the dishes looked great to me, the challenge of overseeing three distinct dishes that needed constant tending had taken its toll on her mood. We began to plate, leaving the chili on heat until the last possible moment.

There's not a lot of time in the kitchen for gentle conversations about what might work best. As much as C and I love each other, our conversation deciding on the way the plate was look was less like a pleasant discussion over tea and more like facing off in a dusty street at high noon. C shot out one idea, I shot it down, she returned fire. For a moment I was worried that this week could possibly take a toll on our friendship, but then I was distracted by Joan of Arc and had to return my attentions to the gas fire shooting out of my stove.

Ultimately, everything was plated nicely in a timely way, and we sat down in a huff to taste everyone's food. Actually, if I do say so, our plate was the prettiest one on the table. But that's not saying much. (Am I really this critical in real life?)

Here's a picture of our plate:

For the record, the lower-fat chowder was far tastier and creamier than the standard chowder. I'm going to try to post the recipe soon.

Our afternoon lecture was foregone in exchange for a campus tour. As I've already toured the campus twice now, I opted for coming back to the hotel and crashing. P is coming to visit me tonight so hopefully he will get here in time to shock everyone. I haven't given them any warning about our age difference. heehee.

Tonight our whole class has dinner reservations at American Bounty.

As if we need to eat any more.

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