CULINARY BOOT CAMP

YESTERDAY’S EXPERIENCE

For Christmas last year, Ryan and Jon gave John a certificate for a half-day class at the California Culinary Academy (CCA) in San Francisco. John and I decided to do this together and yesterday we participated in a class called California Cuisine.

We arrived at 9 am and were treated to a continental breakfast while we registered and mingled with the other cooking enthusiasts. We received nifty logo aprons and caps to wear during our class. After we finished the class, we would all meet again in the dining room and eat the wonderful things we had made. But wait a minute, the other classes are bread, sauce, soup and pies. Who’s going to make the main course for at least 80 people plus instructors and student helpers? You guessed it – California Cuisine.

We are broken into two groups and eleven of us follow Chef Mike into the kitchen. We each have a cutting board and knife and a set of instuctions. We get a short talk on cleanliness and safety. Also a knife demonstration. Then we are let loose. We must find the ingredients and make the food for forty people and have it ready by 1PM. It’s now about 10. We are supposed to take turns doing all the dishes. Tim, a young guy from San Jose State, and John and I are a team. Here’s what we are making.

Ahi Tuna Napoleon

Slow Roasted Beet Salad served with Hazelnut Vinaigrette and Goat Cheese Moussiline

Cold-Smoked Atlantic King Salmon served on a bed of Yukon Gold Potatoes and Topped with an Orange Slaw

Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb with a Date Reduction, Pesto Mashed Potatoes, and Tourned Squash

Braised Mussels and Shittake in Tomato Mint Broth

And the idea is that each team will have a turn making all the dishes!

Well, Tim, John and I started on the roasted beets. We dashed into the supply room and found the stuff we needed and implements to prepare it. I made the vinaigrette, John cut up beets but then, Tim was assigned to start working on the slaw that went with the salmon. I get handed a bunch of shitake mushrooms to slice, this is for a salmon sauce. Soon we are losing track of what we are doing. John misreads the instuctions and spends quite a bit of time cutting potatoes into 1/2 inch dice when it was supposed to be 1-2 inch dice. Then I am given the prep for part of the ahi. In the flurry, Tim squeezes an orange but doesn’t take the segments out first. John and I peel two more oranges and segment them. We are not sure what dish we are doing them for. Then hurry, hurry, it is time to change stations and start working on the racks of lamb.

Okay, wipe the boards, turn them over, and french the bones of the racks of lamb. I am falling behind! John works on my lamb. Next peel potatoes! John will do the medjool date reduction, Tim handles the pesto for the mashed potatoes, I chop up some mirepoix. Then I am off to the grill to sear the lamb. Then into the oven for 10 minutes. In the meantime, quick! chop up some chives for something! Get the lamb out!

At this point, Chef Mike is saying we can’t be late with the food. Come, watch a demonstration for cold smoking the salmon. Who made the sauce for this? Beats me. But I know I chopped up some stuff for it. I make the orange slaw for the salmon dish. John comandeers the mussels and basically makes that all by himself. (He is very proud of this.)

Now, assembly and presentation. I cut up all the racks of lamb which have also been spread with a mustard, breadcrumb, rosemary mixture. It needed some oil in it or something because it is very pale. Go get the giant pot of mashed potatoes. Artfully, arrange the potatoes and separated chops on three platters. Turn the squash for this with John and another guy. Put the sauce on. Slice the salmon. We need garnish on the salmon! No one used the friggin’ chives I cut up, so I garnish the salmon with that. People are making the ahi Napoleon; we never worked on that at all. John’s beautiful mussels adorned and we are done. It’s shortly after one.

Then we ate it all. I tried the Ahi Napoleons, they were great. The lamb I cooked was medium rare and good. The mashed potatoes were good too. Smoked salmon, very tasty. Beets were stacked with goat cheese on a spring salad, yum. Didn’t try the mussels since I’m not a fan but John says they were excellent. Also had a piece of bread (needed salt) and a small piece of tart (excellent crust.)

We had a great time but did we learn something new? Well, we learned that when eleven people who don’t know where anything is and are expecting more direction are thrown together to make food for 40, it gets a little chaotic. The other California Cuisine class had one or two people assigned to each dish and they made it from start to finish. That might have worked a little better.

John and I drove home and slept for 2 1/2 hours.

TOMATOES

TODAY’S MEMORY AND A RECIPE

What are the most perfect foods of summer? Which ones, in the dead of winter, do you long for? And I am not talking about their pale counterparts that you can find in the grocery store in the middle of January. Since I grew up in New Jersey, they have to be tomatoes and corn. You know, New Jersey is the garden state. It must be true, it says so on the license plates. Too many people only think of NJ as the Turnpike, the smelly corridor between Philadelphia and New York City. However, lots of small farmers still grow produce. Lots of people still grow tomatoes in their backyards.

When I was growing up, my father was an electrician and, later, head of a savings and loan. (I’ll write about this someday.) We had a backyard that I thought was enormous when I was a kid but in a visit during my adulthood realize was fairly small. Every spring it was always a fight to see how much of my mother’s gardens would become part of the vegetable patch. Most years my father won a little more space. He grew pole beans which I think were some kind of lima bean. He grew green beans and cucumbers. But his great pride was his tomatoes. He set up 6 foot cages for them and planted the little seedlings in the middle. By the end of the summer, we had a veritable tomato forest. Giant tomato plants brimming with tomatoes. There were more than we could ever eat. We gave them away by the bagful. They were the most delicious tomatoes ever – good acidity and some sugar. While they were growing, my dad paid way more attention to those tomatoes than he did to us. He would come home for lunch everyday either in his overalls or in his suit and commune among the tomatoes. Even lay in the dirt to carefully fertilize them.

The very yummy best dinner we could have was lots of corn on the cob from the local farm stand and fried tomatoes – not green, but fully ripe. The fried tomatoes were a mess to make. Dipped in flour, egg and seasoned breadcrumbs, topped with a little sugar and fried in butter. When I make them now, maybe I use a little parmesan too but I don’t think it was in the original recipe. They are heaven to eat.

Another standard during the tomato season was ham, lettuce and tomato with mayonnaise on a hard roll (this may be known as a Kaiser roll or bulkie to you.) Every Saturday, there was always a trip to the deli to get the ham and rolls.

These days when I feel guilty about eating anything but reduced calorie bread and lite mayo, skinny little pieces of some turkeyish deli meat and never frying anything, I like to think about all the delicious pleasures of those home grown tomatoes.

Baked Eggplant Parmesan

One of the items that Costco used to carry was Michael Angelo’s baked eggplant parmesan. It was quite good and you could eat half of it and still stay on your diet. On the WW plan, it would only cost you about 5 points. A good deal for that much food. But it disappeared from the Costco shelves. Not willing to let go of one of my favorite foods, I contacted Michael Angelo’s to ask what happened. Apparently, there was a contractual dispute with Costco and Costco discontinued carrying all Michael Angelo products. The baked eggplant parmesan was made only for Costco so it was totally no longer available.

Just recently, at my local grocery store, they started carrying Michael Angelo’s baked eggplant parmesan in single serving size. Hurrah! I thought. But they changed the formulation to include ground chicken in it (for some unknown reason) and that not only upped the calories but really upped the fat content. It still makes a reasonable dinner size-wise and calorie-wise (390) but the fat is now 18 grams, which is a lot. Why, oh why, Michael Angelo’s couldn’t you leave a good thing alone?!?

Sweet Potato Gratin with Smoked Chiles

When we were at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Las Vegas, we had a great sweet potato gratin. I found the recipe on line and made a few minor adjustments. It’s kind of high in fat but really tasty.

Sweet Potato Gratin with Smoked Chiles
Adapted from the recipe by Bobby Flay, Food Network

2 1/2 cups heavy cream (I used 2 cups and it was fine)
1 tablespoon chipotle puree (use only 1 chipotle pepper from a can with adobo. They’re really hot)
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thin (or 2 big ones)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the heavy cream and chipotle puree in a small bowl. (I put some of the cream in the food processor and the chipotle pepper and whizzed it around then added the rest of the cream) In an 8 by 8-inch baking dish, arrange a fourth of the sweet potatoes. (Use the thin slicing disc on the food processor to slice the potatoes) Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour a fourth of the cream over it. (Salt and pepper each layer, I also added some freshly grated nutmeg.) Repeat with the remaining potatoes and cream, forming 4 layers.

Bake for 1 hour or until the cream has been absorbed and the potatoes are browned. (I had to bake this more like an hour and a half) Remove from the oven and let sit 10 minutes before serving.