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.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jumping Through Embroidery Hoops

I'm rushing around trying to get things in order (ha.) around the house before we leave for international travel. You know, since the CIA class was no problem I thought: I have an idea! When I'm 7mos pregnant I'll go to Turkey!

I'll be fine. After all, my ancestors crossed the prairie in covered wagons while pregnant and gave birth without anesthesia. My own mother climbed a Mexican pyramid. I'm pretty sure I can handle flying first class to a beachy resort.

At any rate, one of the things I'm trying to finish is a piece of embroidery that for super-secret reasons will not be discussed any further here. Except to say WHAT THE HECK CONNECTICUT. Is the entire state allergic to sewing projects or something?!

I'm supposed to be living in the industrialized North. Martha Stewart country. The fact that the nearest place for me to find an embroidery hoop and some halfway decent fabric is 40minutes away is unacceptable.

Seriously. Not even Walmart carries them anymore.

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.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Day One of CIA Boot Camp

N.B. Obviously, I'm a bit delayed in posting this entry. I was more wiped out at the end of the days in the kitchen than I expected, and am just getting around to putting these up. Have no fear though, I will. I promise!

It started really early.

You'd think that knowing I had to check in at 6am this morning would have motivated me to go to sleep early last night, but that would have been too easy. Despite my late night, however, my eyes popped open at 5:07 and there was no turning back.

C and I are staying at a little motel that is literally two minutes away from campus, so I lounged around in bed for a while trying to convince my racing mind to relax for another few minutes of sleep. By the time I finally realized that sleep was no longer and option, I barely had time to brush my teeth and throw on some clothes before heading out into the unseasonable cold of the uncivilized morning hours. It was so weird.

There were people. Walking around. Like it was daytime.

I mean, I get that it's light outside and some people are early risers, but walking your black labs at 5:45am is just sick. There are no excuses.

C and I were both a bit giddy. I babbled and cracked stupid jokes the whole two minute ride over. We made our way to the first classroom with a bit of an unplanned detour thanks to our wonderful map-reading skills.

We all congregated, in ones and twos, in a small dining room just off a hallway lined with big windows looking into industrial kitchens. It had pleasant but sterile decor, industrial carpeting and a few big round tables scattered around, not unlike a hotel conference room. Chatting amongst ourselves, we determined that there are two classes going on this week: mine - Healthy Cooking - and the class sharing the other half of our kitchen, Italian Cooking.

Somehow this seems unfair.

Our class is pretty evenly divided between girls and boys, although I am by far (well, C and I) the youngest in the class. It makes sense, I guess. Four mid-week days of expensive cooking lessons with no certification at the end - maybe this really is more like a vacation than a Boot Camp. They call it "Continuing Education," but I quickly determined there are no professional fooders in my crew.

In our group of 10 we have two surgeons (one maxillofacial and one orthopedic), one retired and one working on setting up an incentivised wellness program for the staff of his hospital. There is one physician from Miami, one mom from Chicago, one CFO who brought her assistant along, one retired nuclear power plant operator, and one retired computer guy who used to work for AT&T.

As we listened to the orientation speil about where to find the nurses office and how to exchange our uniforms if the ones provided don't fit, my stomach started to rumble.

I didn't bring any food along with me to the motel - I mean COME ON I'm visiting a Culinary School. They may not have have a football team, but odds are they have a good food plan.

Gradually the morning ticked away. Our classes divided and we met our teacher for the week. He isn't fat and he doesn't have a foreign accent, but I'm not holding that against him.

By 7:30 I was starving. As in, tummy rumbling, baby kicking, on the verge of breaking into cold sweats HUNGRY HUNGRY HIPPO. I started fidgeting. I started complaining to C. Maybe, I thought, I can break through that picture window and steal the dough off of that pasty student's station.

Pie crust is nutritious, right? RIGHT?

By 8:00, and I'd been up far too long without food. Just as the situation was becoming dire, we were all herded toward the dining room.

When I was growing up, my Dad used to wake me up far too early and force me to go on long bike rides through the Texas rural landscape. I hated those bike rides. I reluctantly nibbled the donuts he offered as an olive branch. I whined. I pedaled slowly just to be annoying. I walked my bike up the slightest incline.

Then I passed out cold.

Turns out, I'm sorta allergic to mornings - at least, that's my theory. Left to my own devices I wake up around 9:30, have a leisurely morning which doesn't usually involve toast or eggs, and then break my fast at lunch time with a nice sandwich or something. However, if forced to wake up early I need protein in my tummy almost immediately or someone's gonna die. And it might just be me.

Breakfast this morning was a close call. What met me at the dining room, however, was incredible.

First of all, the dining room is in what used to be the chapel of the Jesuit seminary which built the structures now housing the CIA. The soaring arched ceilings, cheerful yellow and white interior with intricate paintings and stained glass windows gracing the floor to ceiling panels are really a wonderful way to greet the day. Where there once were rows of pews, there now are long narrow dining tables.

On the one hand, the chapel's career-change gives this nice Catholic girl a little case of the creeps. To be stuffing my half-asleep face where devout people once worshiped in peace is disconcerting to say the least. On the other hand, it's a heavenly way to greet the day.

Secondly, I was right about the meal plan. On the menu for this morning was pretty much the most delicious breakfast food you can imagine. Pancakes. Bacon. Omelettes of all kinds. Eggs any style. Fresh fruit. Oatmeal and cream of wheat. Parfaits. Fruit marinated in some kind of alcohol that was delicious. Biscuits and gravy. Belgian waffles. Pastries and bagels...the list goes on.

C got the pancakes and I got a chorizo breakfast burrito, which, while delicious, turned out to be a bad choice. Note to self: eating a heavy breakfast on a sleepy morning and then going in to sit at a lecture for two hours - not a good idea.

The first lecture we had was on basic techniques in the kitchen, most of which was review for me. I already know what a batonette is, and how to blanche a fresh vegetable. Frankly, it seemed a bit elementary.

At that, we were thrown into the kitchen.

Our class of ten was divided into teams of 2, so C and I were naturally grouped together. Each team was assigned a set of recipes, between 3 and 5, and we were supposed to have them ready for consumption by 12:30.

It was chaos. We were lost, and the fact that our recipes were new and foreign didn't help with the discombobulation. C and I were supposed to make a veal medallions with bulgar wheat and swiss chard sides. We managed it, but frankly, they were disgusting. Of all the forty-some dishes that ended up on our banquet table, two were palatable.

It was pathetic, and I'm not going to lie, I was disappointed.

At one point, C turned to me and said, "Do you think this chop is even enough? I mean, I know this is how I would chop at home, but I'm not sure what the standards are here."

"Once you've seen that other team's julienne," I replied,"you'll stop worrying."

What I expected was highly skilled fellow students challenging me to learn new things and step up my game in the kitchen. So far, I'd been tired, hungry and confused and disgusted by the food our class prepared.

But maybe I'm just too tired and cranky to give an accurate assessment of the day. After all, there had been fun parts of the day: heck, just being in the kitchen was a thrill, with all it's huge, shiny, fancy equipment. And I got to wear a chef's hat, ten points for that. The two dishes that were tasty were INCREDIBLY tasty: a tuna carpaccio with wasabi sauce and a shrimp summer roll.

Also I learned how to turn a whole raw shrimp into a shelled, deveined shrimp. Useful.

After class, I came back to the hotel and crashed. After dinner, I have plans to go to sleep early and start tomorrow with a fresh face and new set of expectations:

1. Better breakfast choices
2. Coffee
3. Instead of following the recipe exactly, try to think of how to make it actually *taste* good.
4. Steal Team 3's work station. Theirs is nice and big, strategically placed next to the range, ovens and refrigerators. Ours today was a tiny rolling island off in Timbuktu that was right in the way of heavy traffic. I may be tolerant by nature, but this baby belly can only take so much leaning forward to let people pass with heavy or hot trays.

Their station will be mine!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


It's Saturday night. That means I have two whole days before my big exciting scary adventure at the Culinary Institute of America.

For our anniversary this year, P gave me a class - excuse me, "Boot Camp" - at the CIA. It was a great gift; I've been in love with the idea of going to the CIA for a long time. In fact, I first started fantasizing about it when I was about 14 and a CIA graduate opened a takeout lunch place right next to the coffeehouse where I worked. She made incredible pasta salad. Seriously. The class I'm signed up for is "Healthy Cooking" and I'm going with my trusty companion, C.

Honestly, I'm a little scared.

For one thing, I have no idea how I'll measure up to the other people in the class. I know I'm an advanced home cook -- but what does that even mean? Apparently a lot of the people who attend the Boot Camp sessions, and they have many varieties ranging from pastry making to Italian dishes, are professionals seeking continuing education. It's not going to be like one of those awesome "culinary vacations" you read about in the advertisements section of Food and Wine, where between sleeping late and touring the wineries you get to listen to a famous chef explain the secrets of his specialty ravioli and then get all dressed up for dinner by the pool.

No, this is for real. I'm just praying nobody yells at me.

What if I get there only to find out I'm not a good cook? What if I get there and find out that I'm so amateur that the whole class has to wait to learn souffles while I slowly process how to properly boil an egg?

Last night was a sort of a test for me, in that it was the first time since my marriage that I made and served dinner to non-relatives in my own home. Of course, I was tempted to throw everything I had into it and make some crazy, creative, mind-blowingly awesome dinner. Then, I reminded myself to stop watching so much Top Chef and decided to just make a yummy family dinner, using slightly nicer table settings.

In the end, my menu consisted of watermelon cubes dipped in Campari for P and the guests while I finished up in the kitchen, butter lettuce salad with marinated beets and hearts of palm, beef strogonoff, lemon pepper asparagus and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. P and HC tell me it was delicious. I have no idea because I over analyze everything.

On the one hand, the meat was wonderfully tender. On the other, the sauce was a little thin.

On the one hand, nothing was as hot as I wanted when I served it. On the other, it wasn't cold either.

On the one hand, one of the guests added both salt and pepper to her strogonoff. On the other, she also added salt and pepper to her salad before she tasted it.

On the one hand, HC is in love with my strogonoff -- and refers to it simply as "The 'Noff". On the other, my family tends to have simple, comfort-food tastes.

All I can do now is take the compliments I received at face value and prepare myself for Boot Camp. Sure, I'm six and a half months pregnant! No, I've never taken a formal cooking class in my life! Of course I can wake up at 6am every morning and be ready for a full day in the kitchen!

Tomorrow I'll be stocking my home fridge with vittles for the left-behind family members who'd rather not fend for themselves.

A vat of chicken and rice soup, plus a shepherd's pie, coming right up! (Did I say simple, comfort food taste?)

Saturday, May 1, 2010


How do you know when the Walgreens commercial you're watching needs a little tap on the "refresh" button?

When the extra's newpaper headline reads "Real Estate Market Explodes Giving Boost to Construction."

We're relisting our house this spring. Another round on the carousel of real estate...around and around and around she goes, if she'll sell, nobody knows.

You provide the salt, Walgreens, I'll provide the wound.