Les steak frites, a humble attempt

I love steak. I would eat a steak for every meal if I could. To me it’s simply the best food on Earth. I especially enjoy a perfectly prepared steak frites, but alas I can’t run to a French restaurant every time I have a craving so I’ll just have to settle with my own attempts.

I’ve cooked steak in the past, but the frites, the complementary and equally important part of the equation were something that have eluded me. There’s no shame in trying so that’s why I set out to do tonight.

I referenced Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook to guide me on my path and followed the the outlined process. Who better to follow than a master French chef?

I started with my prep work of washing and peeling my potatoes. I then cut them into strips and heated up my oil.  The cut strips were placed into ice water to prevent oxidation. I then moved onto the next step of blanching them in batches and resting them on an empty plate. Once blanched, I heated up my oil and placed the strips back into the hotter oil to fry. Once they were nice and crispy, I placed them into a bowl with a towel to soak up the excess oil, removed the towel and coated them with Kosher salt and tossed them around in the bowl.

While preparing the frites, I prepared a rib eye steak, lightly seasoned with salt and coated with olive oil. While the frites were frying I prepared my steak until what I hoped would be medium and then plated it along with the frites.

I did rest my steak and frites on my plate for a few moments and then enjoyed a fairly decent meal. Table salt, which the recipe called for probably would have coated the frites better, but being the salt addict I am, I opted for the Kosher salt so I could have more salty crunch. This wasn’t a three star meal, but it certainly beat a frozen preservative laden meal lacking in flavor and substance.

The product of my labor
The product of my labor
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I am the muffin man

Having finished Alton Brown’s two books (I’m Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0 and I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking) I decided to give a recipe a try. Choosing a first item from preparation wasn’t too hard. The decision in a way was made for me out of necessity for breakfast food for tomorrow morning. I’ve chose to make blueberry muffins and thus use the lessons out of his second book while using the “Muffin Method”. Alton breaks up his recipes by the method required to create them rather than grouping seemingly similar items like doughs and cakes. His groupings include: “the Muffin method, the Biscuit Method, the Pie Variation, the Creaming Method, the Straight Dough Method, the Egg Foam Method, and the Custards”.

Overall he takes a very scientific approach to cooking and introduces something that I was not aware of with baking recipes. Baking as I have learned is very precise given the exact ratios of ingredients necessary to produce the chemical reactions necessary to create your final product. While every recipe I have read in my life provided ingredient lists consisting of cups and teaspoons and pinches of this and that, baking recipes are actually given using precise weighted measurements just as they would be given commercially. The precise reason for this being that a cup of flour isn’t always a cup of flour due to the humidity, how tightly packed it is and other variables mentioned in his book. This makes replicating success and avoiding failure much easier…provided that you have a scale which I of course did not. I decided to continue forward and hope for the best. Bakers didn’t always have the luxury of being so precise so I hoped that I would be ok. This is where I encountered my first lesson common to amatuers, that of mise en place. It is a term well known by experienced cooks simply meaning everything should be in it’s place and ready to go before you begin your task.

I got out all of my necessary tools: my bowls, my measuring cups, baking tin, food processor and other utensils. Then I got out my ingredients and realized I didn’t have any baking soda at 10:45PM. The only thing open at this point was 7/11 and with luck they had some, saving me from despair. After much preparation and baking my muffins were done and I took them out of the oven  to set on my cooling racks. They cooled and I was rewarded with a perfect muffin, one unlike any other I had tasted before, and yet one like I always wanted.

The recipe named “Old School Muffins”, were moist, and sweat and yet not too sweet and perfect in size. Not only that, but they had a fluffy texture that made them that much better to eat. The turned out just as described. Interestingly enough as Alton explains, the muffins that I usually eat from big chain coffee shops and the like are actually more akin to cakes than muffins. They always are too sweet and have a texture that couldn’t be further from homemade.

I’m really happy with my result thanks to beginners luck. I can’t wait to make my next batch.

My First Batch Feb 21, 2009
My First Batch Feb 21, 2009
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Culinary curriculum, my planned course of study

Superior skills are acquired through tried and true methods and adherence to learning as a process, not as an arbitrary conglomeration of tasks and experiences. The ultimate expression of this was the Spartan Agoge, the iconic process for which I base my transformation.

It is possible to become a great cook and perhaps attain the level of experience and knowledge of a chef through trial and error, but that’s not efficient; I work a full-time job in Advertising and can’t afford to be anything but efficient in my learning process given my limited time outside of work. Learning from others’ experiences as well as building on a solid foundation are the key to success in any field. For this reason I have set out to develop a core curriculum for myself to build a solid base of knowledge from which I can grow. This may seem like I am contradicting myself in that I am not launching head first into a career shift or institution of learning where a plan has been set for me, refined year after year and implemented based on experience and results, but my reasoning is that I would like to do some independent research and studying to survey the land to understand what direction I would like to take and also to understand where my journey may lead me. I need to know where I want to start and more importantly when I will consider myself to have reached my goals. To me this is like going to elementary and high school. You learn a little bit about a lot of things on a very superficial level. Once you graduate you are hopefully equipped with the basic knowledge needed to make an informed decision about your future and take direction with your life  that will set you out on a path that is more defined.

All this amounts to the fact that I must structure my learning to have any hope of adding more to my life than a nice book collection. I must also include milestones to measure my progress while varying my experiences and adhere to a timeline. After much thought and consideration I have settled on the following curriculum for myself understanding that it can change as I move and gain more experience.

Required Reading:

I will start with the basics again. I will re-read Alton Browns two books I’m Just Here for the Food: Version 2.0 and I’m Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking to gain a deeper understanding of its contents. After completing those books, I’ll move on to Shirley O. Corriher’s Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed. After fully understanding those texts I will complete my studies with Harold McGee’s treatise on cooking and the Culinary Institute of America’s curriculum “bible” On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. I don’t own McGee’s book and will have to acquire it. I plan to read a book a month with the hope that there will be many topics and concepts that will overlap with each book. The more in depth books hopefully will be easier to read as I build up my knowledge base.

Supplemental Reading:

I will read the books I purchased on the experiences of being a chef, completing one every month. I’ll start with Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford to gain an understanding of what it’s like to become a chef from an outsider and amateur’s perspective. I’ll move on to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute to understanding the process of formal education in the culinary world as he outlines the training process at the Culinary Institue of America. Finally I’ll read Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection to understand the arduous process of obtaining the rank of Master Chef as judged by the CIA. I have heard great things about two books that I am going to consider as optional reading for my foundation. One, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin and the other, White Heat by Marco Pierre White sound interesting and I hope to get them and read them time permitting.

Experience:

Theoretical knowledge is great, but true knowledge comes from doing. I can read all I want about slicing and dicing, sauteing and braising, whipping and baking, but until I get some real experience it’s all just theory. To get hands on experience I plan to take two approaches. First, I’ll attempt to cook a new recipe a week from one of the cookbooks I have purchased. Secondly I plan to enroll in a basic cooking class. I considered many options ranging from private tutor to adult education classes in Boston and Cambridge. I settled on a six week course  entitled “Back to Basics I-VI” at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts which is set to begin on Friday March 6th, 2009. I’ve only been in and worked in a commercial kitchen once when I was in my teens as a dishwasher for a month. Actually working with food in an environment other than my apartment will be an eye opening experience that I look forward to with great anticipation. The schedule looks like this:

Back To Basics I-VI
Class I 03/06/2009 Knife Skills
Class II 03/13/2009 Eggs
Class III 03/20/2009 Stocks & Soups
Class IV 03/27/2009 Braising, Stewing, Blanquettes, and Fricassees
Class V 04/03/2009 Roasting, Grilling, and Sautéing
Class VI 04/17/2009 Sauces

Interviews:

During my four and a half month learning process I have set a goal of interviewing two chefs about their lives and experiences. In order to get a broad exposure in person I will interview a chef new to the life and one with many years of experience.

Timeline:

I plan to complete my self-induction into the world of Culinary Arts by June 30th of this year at which point I will consider moving on to more advanced classes and reading. I have a feeling I will need to read McGees book several times to truly absorb even some of its concepts so this is a bit up in the air. I would also like to acquire hands on experiece in the real world in some aspect related to food. The position and experience I will seek are unknown for now although but is likely to change as I learn more.

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George Foreman Grill, Free To A Good Home

My Foreman Grill Collecting Dust
My Foreman Grill Collecting Dust

Like many culinary neophytes living in urban dwellings looking for a quick and easy way to produce healthy food, I purchased a George Foreman grill. It wasn’t a logical decision. I owned one in college and knew it didn’t cook meat very well and was a pain to clean. I also knew it seemed to remove the much enjoyed juices of my meat and rob anything I cooked of it’s flavor. I knew I didn’t really need one, but the store I bought it from was going out of business, it was cheap and supposedly convenient. I’ve used it exactly three times and it is now collecting dust on my windowsill.

I know that if I am to take cooking seriously I can no longer live with George’s miracle machine. I hopefully will be able to give it to someone less inclined to learn the art of cooking and not feel guilty about the culinary diservice I will be doing them.

I look forward to saying good bye to this modern “convenience” and welcoming finely cooked meat prepared using the means developed, tested and proven over many thousands of years. I’m sure life will taste much better.

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The Basics: What’s it like to be a chef?

Having already read Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential a while ago, I decided to get some new reads. I finished the other books save for Cookwise as  Amazon was actually sold out of it with no date in the foreseeable future for shipping. I want to read some accounts on being a chef to understand what that really means. I want to get under the skin of it and see what’s in the blood so I’ve chose the following books:

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. This is an autobiographical account of working with renowned chef Mario Batali at his New York City restaurant Babbo.

I also chose two books by Michael Ruhlman, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute and its sequel, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection which chronicle Ruhlman’s experience at the Culinary Institute of America as well the preparation for the Certified Master Chef exam at the CIA of chefs Michael Symon of Lola and Thomas Keller of French Laundry.

Hopefully these three books will provide a progressive knowledge base about what it means to be a chef and will add to my steadily growing foundation.

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