Expanding my Comfort Zone with Pan Roasted Chicken

First Roast Chicken with a Mediterranean Salad
First Roast Chicken with a Mediterranean Salad

There is so much to learn. The knowledge I have yet to attain is massive which at times seems daunting, but is definitely exciting. I recently bought a whole chicken at the grocery store without a real plan for cooking it. I knew I had to cook it today, or run the risk of it going bad, the the question was how? I didn’t have a roasting pan or rack but breaking it down to cook didn’t really appeal to me. The Alton Brown in my decided to improvise and use what I already had to roast the chicken and try something new.

For dinner, along with the chicken I opted to make a Mediterranean salad to add color to my dish as well as a tasty side component. Eating a dish of only roasted chicken didn’t seem that appetizing to me. My first step was to establish my mise en place as chefs say.

First Roast Chicken: Ingredients
First Roast Chicken: Ingredients

My roasted chicken consisted of a rub made out of salt, pepper, paprika, minced garlic, and olive oil, rubbed generously inside and outside of the chicken and under the skin for better flavoring. I decided to cut up some potatoes and onions to accompany the chicken as it roasted in the oven. I also noticed that my cherry tomatoes were nearing a point where I would have to throw them out, so the frugal gourmet in me put them in as well as they would wilt down while roasting releasing their remaining juices and adding flavor.

My 4lb. bird was placed into my cast iron pan with all of the aforementioned components as my oven was pre-heated to 375 degrees. I covered everything with aluminum foil and waited for the oven.

First Roast Chicken: Ready for the Oven
First Roast Chicken: Ready for the Oven
First Roast Chicken: Ready for the Oven
First Roast Chicken: Ready for the Oven

Once the oven reached the desired temperature I put the pan into the oven and set my timer for one hour. This was an arbitrary number I set so I could start checking on my chicken to see how done it was.

After 1 hour, I checked on my chicken with my digital thermometer and saw that it still had a long way to go. I decided to give it another 30 minutes, and then another 30 minutes after that. After 2 hours it was ready. I pulled it out to rest for a few minutes and was quite surprised by the amount of juice that had collected, spilling over the sides and causing quite a mess.

First Roast Chicken: Ready to Eat
First Roast Chicken: Ready to Eat

While the chicken was resting, I peeled and chopped my cucumber and tomatoes and mixed them in a bowl with salt and olive oil. I would add mozzarella balls once plated.

Once everything was ready, I plated my meal, which I realized was crowding the plate with too much food. My greedy American stomach had gotten the best of me instead of portioning a reasonable meal with the option of going back for seconds.

First Roast Chicken: Plated
First Roast Chicken: Plated

All and all, my meal was very good and flavorful, a nice change of pace from my usual steak meals. The Mediterranean style salad was light and refreshing. Another great benefit of cooking an entire chicken was that there was plenty for leftovers and the bones I could save for a stock which I hope to make once I have more bones.

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One Fish, Two First, Now Eat This

Tilapia with Sautéed Spinach and Tomatoes
Tilapia with Sautéed Spinach and Tomatoes

I have never cooked fish before. It has always seemed so much more complicated than my usual three options of beef, pork or chicken. While I do enjoy eating it and eat it frequently for lunch in the form of sushi or sashimi, it has never made its way into my apartment and was something my mother would rarely cook at home.

On my way home from work I decided to give fish a try.  I have a fish market in my neighborhood that I heard was good and decided that after four years of living here it was finally worth a try. I originally wanted to cook some salmon steaks but they didn’t have any. Undeterred, I noticed they had some tilapia, a fish that have had before and like. I also stopped in the food shop next-door and picked up some spinach to sauté along with some extra tomatoes I had left over from a caprese salad I had recently made. This seemed like an easy dinner I could get going.

Ingredients in hand, I headed home. I put everything out on my counter and thought about what to do with the fish.

Tilapia and Spinach
Tilapia and Spinach

Dredging the fish in flour and cooking it in butter came to mind and so I heated up my pan, melted the butter and put the fish right in.

Tilapia with Flour and Butter
Tilapia with Flour and Butter

I simultaneously added the spinach into a pot and cooked it down until it was almost ready.

Spinach Cooking Down
Spinach Cooking Down

I added halved cherry tomatoes into the spinach and stirred for a few minutes until they became tender adding salt and pepper.

Spinach and Tomatoes
Spinach and Tomatoes

The fish did not take that long to cook. I had no sense of how long it should cook until done, so I cut into it a bit to make sure.

Tilapia Ready for Plating
Tilapia Ready for Plating

While I plated my fish I noticed that the spinach and tomatoes were burned a little bit. Clearly this wasn’t meant to be restaurant quality food, but it tasted pretty good all the same.

My First Fish Meal
My First Fish Meal

With my first fish meal under my belt I feel more confident about cooking with new ingredients.  My meat CSA starts next month and I’ll be getting some lamb as part of my share, another meat I am unfamiliar with.

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Plate Me, Eat Me

Ribeye and Caprese Salad
Ribeye and Caprese Salad

I don’t think I can mention enough how much I enjoy eating a good steak. If I had one culinary skill that I could master it would be that of cooking the perfect steak. I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it again. At the beginning of the year, when I set out on my odyssey, I was tired of cooking all protein meals with no sides. these just weren’t that appetizing although probably perfect for anyone on the Atkins diet. I knew I had to learn more about creating the complete meal and this seams to be one of my biggest sticking points.

A side effect of working with many ingredients and a key benefit is the addition of color to the plate. More ingredients make the food more fun and appetizing. For tonight’s dinner I opted for making a simple addition to my meal, a Caprese Salad. It didn’t take much effort and added a nice balance to my steak, which instead of plating whole, I sliced after letting it rest.

While the meal overall was quite good, it was immediately obvious that something was off. I took pictures of my meal and realized my errors after the fact.

I first realized that I need new plates. There’s a reason that restaurants mainly serve their meals on white plates. See through glass just doesn’t do it. While food may not be art, a meal needs a better canvas to rest on.

Secondly, my plating was a bit messy. I have seen chefs use towels to clean their errors before serving. I should have done that as well.

I also realized that my proportions just seemed off. While I was able to add some tasty components and new dimensions to my meal, they weren’t combined in a way that really made them stand out alone and yet together at the same time. The tomatoes and mozzarella just seemed to lay on the plate as an added extra instead of part of the steak.

Plating is the lost chapter in every cookbook that I have come across which is a shame because it is useful knowledge for just about any meal whether a casual one with family, or a gourmet meal at a fine dining establishment. I know I need a lot more practice and hope my skill improves greatly over time.

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Celebration

My cousin Gladys just graduated from college today, on Mother’s day. If there is one thing unique to humans, is that celebrations often follow major life events and achievements or are held to honor those special people in your life. These celebrations often include the sharing of food either at a home or at a restaurant. Accompanied by family and close friends my cousin celebrated her graduation while our mother’s celebrated Mother’s day. They chose Davio’s, a northern Italian steakhouse in Boston and one started by a graduate of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, the school I took my Back to Basics intro class at and where I am considering enrolling in for more formal study.

A great thing about eating at a restaurant is taking note of how the Chef’s creations are put together on a plate to be eaten.  Food presentation has a lot to do with the overall experience of eating and I was able to take a few pictures of some interesting dishes that I enjoyed.

My Dinner:

Roasted Tomato Soup
Roasted Tomato Soup
Flank Steak
Flank Steak

Sampled Delicious Meals:

Foie Gras
Foie Gras
Pan Seared Scallops
Pan Seared Scallops
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The Importance of Being Precise

Tomorrow is my cousin’s college graduation. I have family in town and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Getting up for any major event and getting everyone coordinated is always a challenge, let alone getting everyone fed and out the door on time. Banana bread is something I’ve wanted to make for a while and something told me that the overripe bananas would be headed to the trash soon if I did not put them to good use.

I found some recipes online, and given the fact that I had not made banana bread before, went for a recipe with a lot of comments from site visitors.

Bananas are not as uniform is size as some other fruits. I happened to have some smaller ones that weren’t quite enough for the recipe. I opted to proceed forward anyway knowing that I could learn from my mistakes if any. I got out my ingredients and pre-heated the oven.

My First Banana Bread: Ingredients
My First Banana Bread: Ingredients

As the recipe instructed, I combined my dry ingredients in one bowl and attempted to cream my wet ingredients together with a hand mixer. This was the first time I had used my stand mixer even though I bought it 4 years ago when I moved into my apt, another reminder that cooking has only recently become a big part of my life. The hand mixer created quite a mess. Even on the lowest setting, my wet ingredients went everywhere. I definitely am saving up for a stand mixer.

My First Banana Bread: The Dry Stuff
My First Banana Bread: The Dry Stuff
My First Banana Bread: The Wet Stuff
My First Banana Bread: The Wet Stuff

Once the wet ingredients were fairly mixed together, I folded them into my dry ingredients. The batter was not as moist as I thought it would be and I started to wonder if I should add more liquid of some sort to compensate for my lack of bananas. I opted to not alter the recipe since I would have nothing to compare my results to if I made it again.

My First Banana Bread: All Mixed Up
My First Banana Bread: All Mixed Up

After everything was combined, I placed my batter into my bread tin and smoothed it out with my spoon.

My First Banana Bread: In The Bread Pan
My First Banana Bread: In The Bread Pan

The recipe called for 60 to 65 minutes of baking time, so I set my timer and hoped for the best. At 60 minutes, I used a knife to check if the bread was ready and fully cooked through and decided to pull it out of the oven and place it on a cooling rack.

My First Banana Bread: Baked
My First Banana Bread: Baked

I sliced the bread immediately and once cool, placed it into plastic bags for transport. It tasted really good, but think it could have benefited from some more moisture. Baking is supposed to be precise and I’ll be sure to measure my ingredients the next time around.

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The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

“I don’t want to go to work today. I’m not feeling well. I’m going to call in sick. It’s a holiday, so I don’t have to go to work. It’s snowing out; I’ll stay in.” These are all things most people have said as part of their working lives. These are choices that most people are able to make, however these are not things choices a chef will ever make. Chefs work while others enjoy the fruits of their labors. They work long hours, holidays and weekends under tough conditions. They are not deterred by sickness, weather or long hours. They are passionate about what they do. The training they endure solidifies what they know already inside them, that they are different. What it takes to become a chef  and what makes them different is what Michael Ruhlman set out to learn at the Culinary Institute of America which culminates in his writing a account of his time there.

Ruhlman is an accomplished writer, the author of of many books on a variety of topics. The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America is a unique work, part narrative, party story, part culinary education.  Have you ever really thought about where your food came from, how the idea for a dish was conceived, how your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant looked and tasted the same each and every time you had it or wondered what chefs go through to acquire the knowledge necessary to do their job well? Have you ever wondered who decides to be a chef and why? These and a myriad more questions are researched and answered not through survey’s and telephone calls, but a unique first-hand experience at one of the world’s best culinary schools. “I was never one to get all goosey about recipes. Recipes were a dime a dozen. You could follow them for a hundred years and never learn to cook. I was after method; I wanted the physical experience of doing it, knowing what the food should look like, sound like, smell like, feel like while it cooked.”, he states and throughout the book details the process and experience one goes through to graduate from this highly competitive and prestigious school with a set of standards and experiences and most important of all, knowledge that will allow them to be called  a Chef.

The curriculum of the school is described as rigid and methodical. Each chef upon graduation is expected to have the same broad knowledge about cooking as their peers while being armed with the requisite skills to acquire more knowledge and be successful. It provides a structured blend of theory, practice and in-field knowledge through an externship. The chef instructors, the top in their field instill a desire for perfection within their students.  They understand that no-one can be a great cook without the basics and instill this in their students from the top down. Ruhlman is provided unique access to the school facilities and faculty allowing for many insightful and instructional interviews. “With his first statement-the fundamentals of cookery don’t change-he seemed somehow to extend his meaning all the way back in time to remind me that water has always behaved as it does now, the physical properties of heat work the same way now as they did ten thousand years ago. Cooking, now as ever, meant learning the physical forces of the world and applying them to eggs, to flour, to bones and meat.” Chefs learn the hows, whens and whys of cooking in exacting detail with an appreciation of the science of cooking.

It was interesting to read that students would continually referr to Harold Mcgee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, a required text of the school. The book was considered The Bible of food knowledge, the frequent answer to the unknown. The combination of lecture, hands-on work and reading provides depth of knowledge for the graduates of the program.

While at the school Ruhlman could sense a change in his understanding of himself, a change that many students had already discovered and a reason for their being at the school or a change they would soon discover as a result of the education and their experience. “As in all matters of food, there was an intellectual and spiritual correlative. I’d already discovered that I was a cook. I could know what cooking was, fully in my bones. Cookies, I learned, came to cooking not to fulfill a desire, but rather, by chance, to fulfill something already in their nature.” Although students and instructors hold the title of “Chef”, they consider themselves cooks first and foremost; it is the essence of who they are. The education translates into an unconscious skill that allows them to free themselves from thinking and focus on the tasks at hand without getting caught up in thought.

This is a truly informative and fast-paced text with tremendous detail and insight into a culinary education. It is amazing how much you can learn from one person’s own experience; I found myself immersed in it from the beginning to graduation.  It was also fun to read this book as I took my basics class at The Cambrige School of Culinary Arts and it gave me a better appreciation for a solid foundation in food knowledge. As I read through the book’s pages I continually found myself asking, “Is this me? Is this what I want to do? Do I want a culinary education?”.  These questions and their answers are important to consider for anyone looking to enter the field and are easier to answer as a result of Ruhlman’s account of his experience and training. On to the next one!

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Life keeps getting in the way

It was full steam ahead a few weeks ago. My learning curve was steep and yet I felt like I was making progress. The past few weeks have been tough and I feel that I have lacked focus and dedication. Without the “forced” or better said “scheduled” time in the kitchen with a class, I have found it harder to devote time in my own kitchen to continue my learning, falling into old patterns of eating out re-heating leftovers. I can see a hidden benefit of formal training through a set schedule of progressive classes over time.

To compensate for my lack of time in the kitchen I have been reading more often, finishing Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America which I’ll be summarizing and reviewing shortly. In the weeks to come as I reach my goal date for the first part of my education, I’ll be trying the recipes from my classes while also finishing my culinary reading. I am just as excited as I was when I began this learning process and I am confident that I will continue to be so.

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