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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Good Things Don’t Go To Waste

I just finished up writing about my French Apple Tart attempt.  As I read my culinary books and learn more about what it’s like to work in the industry I am more in tune with the efficiency required in the kitchen when cooking. This was a problem in last Friday’s cooking class. I am also more aware of waste and how unused food can be re-crafted into other creations to avoid waste and save money. Tonight I tried to tackle both lessons head on.

First, I was left with extra apples and pie dough from my French Apple Tart since it was smaller than the recipe called for after cutting it. The only thing that came to mind given the quantity that I had was an apple pie. I figured I had enough pie dough for one of my ramekins and I also had enough apples to fill it. I rolled out the dough and lined the ramekin and then placed the apples inside with butter and some apricot jelly.

Improvised Mini Apple Pie Filled Up
Improvised Mini Apple Pie Filled Up

I then covered the top with the remaining dough and poke vent holes in it. I brushed the top with melted butter and placed it into the oven along with the tart with 30 minutes to go.

Improvised Mini Apple Pie Ready For Baking
Improvised Mini Apple Pie Ready For Baking

It only took about 25 minutes for the pie to bake, and once the crust looked nicely browned I pulled it out to cool.

Baked Improvised Mini Apple Pie
Baked Improvised Mini Apple Pie

Once it cooled enough to eat, I was able to enjoy my second gym workout-destroying dessert of the night. I was very happy with the result. The addition of the apricot jelly added some nice texture and flavor to the end result.

The second thing that I have noticed is that I create things in single batches and don’t leverage a pre-heated oven or the fact that I already have my tools and machines out for making food.  I decided to leverage this by creating chocolate-chip walnut muffins that I can eat for breakfast throughout the week. I’ve had a lot of practice making the muffins, so this was an easy task.

I had turned down the temperature in the oven to 375 degrees F as the recipe required. I then mixed up my batter and greased the muffin tin. I was feeling pretty confident with the batter and decided to put in more chocolate chips and walnuts than usual and set my timer for 20 minutes before putting the batter into the tin.

Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins Ready For Baking
Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins Ready For Baking

They muffins were placed into the oven and set to bake as usual while I began the clean-up process. While I was more efficient with my time and tools, the kitchen at this point was quite croweded and needed to be cleaned up to make space. Cleaning up as you go is something so simple and yet so important when working in the kitchen. After 18 minutes the muffins looked perfect and I took them out to cool.

Baked Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins
Baked Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins

I realized that after 5 minutes of cooling I had forgotten to take them out of the tin and put them onto the cooling racks. I did this as quickly as possible fearing that the hot tin would cause them to become mushy as they cooled as was stated by the recipe.

Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins Cooling
Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins Cooling

The muffins finished on the racks, but they were noticably different than previous batches. They were a bit softer to the touch and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of my carelessness with the recipe with respect to the addition of chocolate chips and walnuts without measuring or if it was forgetting to pull them out of the tin and place them on cooling racks immediately.  Luckily taste was unaffected and delicious as usual.

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Not As Easy As It Looks: French Apple Tart

A few weeks ago I turned on the the TV to watch the Food Network, a common occurrence these days.  The Barefoot Contessa was on with a “back to basics” special, so I decided to stay tuned in. If only you could order a cable package with just the Food Network. One items she made caught my eye, a French Apple Tart. It looked simple to make and when done, looked delicious. I figured, why not make it when I have some free time? I bought the apples and apricot jam that I needed and put them away until I had time. Tonight was such an occasion. I don’t know why I chose to spend my time this way. My cupboards and freezer are jammed packed with bread and cookies, and now I have more items to add to them.

I created my dough and put it in the fridge to stay cool for one hour. I then started peeling the apples and realized my peeler sucks; this is the first Oxo product that I would have to say is no good. Once peeled, I realized coring them would be a problem. I don’t have a melon baller, so I had to use a pairing knife. This is the second Oxo product that I have that is no good. The handle was just too big, and the apples were just too delicate. I was able to cut my slices and get them ready. Time passed and my hour was up. My next task was to roll out my dough. The dough was tough to roll and a bit dry and started to split as it became thinner and thinner. As I pressed on,  I realized that I would have to do some serious cutting to make it rectangular and uniform. This left me with some extra dough

With the dough rolled out, it was placed on parchment paper set on top of a non-stick cookie sheet. The oven was preheated to 400 degrees F and I started to place my apples on top diagonally as described. I next placed the sugar on top and then cubes of butter throughout.

French Apple Tart Ready for the Oven
French Apple Tart Ready for the Oven

I set my timer to one hour and then placed the cookie sheet into the oven. The recipe said that it should take between 45 to 60 minutes so I figured at 45 minutes I would check in for doneness (…is that a word?). At 45 minutes, it looked close to ready so I let it stay for another 10 minutes. That clearly was too long. My edges burned and as I opened the oven door smoke billowed out causing my smoke detector to go off. I’m sure my neighbors love me. I pulled out the apple tart and set it to cool.

My Baked French Apple Tart
My Baked French Apple Tart

In the meantime I heated up some apricot jelly and rum in a sauce pan to thin it out. I then drizzled the mixture on top of the tart and let it cool before taking the first bite.

French Apple Tart with Apricot Glaze
French Apple Tart with Apricot Glaze

Despite the burnt edges, the apple tart is amazing. My tart was smaller than it was supposed to be, and that might have contributed to the baking results. I also shouldn’t have let it stay for another 10 minutes, but I was afraid of opening the oven too many times and causing the temperature to drop. I envy those with a glass window in their oven doors that allows them to check their food. I also envy those with gas stoves and ovens, but I don’t want to get too greedy. One can dream.

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Irish Shortbread Cookie Disaster

I just got back from dinner with my cousin Gladys celebrating my birthday at Oishi, a Japanese restaurant in Boston’s South End. I was still feeling like making something, anything at all for practice. I know I am supposed to be working with eggs to further my skills, but I don’t think I can stomach another omelette, fritata, scrambled egg or anything of the sort for a while. My plans for making mayonnaise for my lunch sandwiches was thwarted by the power outage that I experienced and continue to experience as I can’t use deli meat for sandwiches anymore and need to get some more. Keeping up with the Irish theme I searched for something quick and simple and settled on Irish Shortbread cookies, what I hoped would be a great end to the evening as dessert.

The recipe for “Irish Shortbread Cookies” was simple requiring flour, sugar, salt and butter. How could this go wrong? I mixed my ingredients and rolled them. This dough was really sticky and stuck to my “non-stick” rolling pin.  The cookies were easy to cut with a pizza cutter, a trick I learned from Alton Brown on his show Good Eats and were put on a cookie sheet. The dough was pricked with a fork as the recipe requested and I set my timer.

Shortbread Cookies Before Baking
Shortbread Cookies Before Baking

After about 10 minutes I knew something was wrong. The cookies were just flattening out on my cookie sheet and some of the thinner ones began to brown. I took them out earlier than the recipe called for at 15 minutes, flat and missing the fork prick marks with the thinner ones close to burnt.

My Flat Shortbread Cookies
My Flat Shortbread Cookies

Unfortunately I don’t know what went wrong, yet this incident did remind me that recipes can’t be blindly followed. I wasn’t expecting them to rise, but instead harden up as moisture evaporated from the dough. I suspect that the heat was too high causing the butter to melt faster than the moisture evaporated. On the bright side, the non-burnt cookies do taste good although they are a bit on the oily side.

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Luck of the Irish with Soda Bread

For St. Patrick’s day (and my birthday) I wanted to test my skills with something traditional and Irish and with something that I could share afterward. Last night after I got home from the gym I did some searching on the internet for easy Irish recipes and decided on a traditional Irish soda bread recipe, although  technically it was  a recipe for a  “spotted dog” since it had raisins in it.

I setup my work area, preheated my oven and got to work on mixing my dough. Soda bread is interesting because unlike traditional bread where yeat is use to make it rise, bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), an alkaline,  in combination with buttermilk, an acid produce a chemical reaction that creates gas that makes the bread rise. I mixed the dough in a bowl and once kneaded, I placed it into a loaf pan.

Irish Spotted Dog Ready For Baking
Irish Spotted Dog Ready For Baking

With the temperature set at 450 degrees F, I placed my loaf inside the oven and set my timer to countdown to 15 minutes. At 15 minutes I lowered my heat to 400 degrees F where it was to remain for 30 minutes. At 25 minutes to go the power went out in most of my apartment. Mysteriously the bedroom lights worked and the stove was still on. Something tells me I should have paid more attention to the the electric company trucks parked on the street with works moving about. With 13 minutes to go all of my power went out; the timer continued to count down. At this point I didn’t know what to do. I wondered, was my bread ruined? Would it bake correctly or even bake all the way through? Would I have to conceed to defeat? I decided to let the timer count down and after the 30 minutes were over I decided to leave the bread in for another 15 minutes as the temperature continued to fall. I hoped this would be enough to compensate as I had nothing to lose.

When I pulled the bread out, I slid it out of the loaf pan onto a cooling rack. Once cool enough to touch, I picked it up and tapped the bottom and heard the hollow sound that I was looking for. I kept it in tact until morning and then sliced it before bringing it into work to share and get opinions. Overall I and my co-workers were impressed. The flavor was delicious and I was very happy with the result.

Sliced Irish Spotted Dog
Sliced Irish Spotted Dog

Incidentally, the recipe is so easy to make, I was able to whip up another loaf in no time with the lights out that using candle light. A chef is never deterred.

Mixing By Candlelight
Mixing By Candlelight

I wasn’t able to bake it of course since I was without power and so I put the loaf in the fridge to keep with the hope that I might be able to bake it in the morning before work. This wasn’t meant to be and I had to bake it tonight before heading out to dinner. Amazingly I was able to produce another loaf equally as delicious.

Spotted Dog #2
Spotted Dog #2

While I was fortunate with my first loaf, it was a clear reminder that not everything works out as expected in the kitchen and that surprises do pop up. Remaining calm while willing to find a solution to my problem proved to be rewarding.

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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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