Archive for December, 2011
On Thursday, December 25, my FND team began preparations for our Friday Night Dinner at The Natural Gourmet Institute. We arrived in Kitchen 3 at 4:30 p.m. and had a huddle. We needed to prep the various components of the appetizer, main, and dessert courses. The main entrée, a Peruvian causa, alone involved 4 separate elements.
Causa is a Peruvian potato cake with several different layers. Traditionally, this dish would have layers of meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, or other combinations, but always, there a potato layer. For our version, we had 4 layers: purple potatoes, cauliflower and almond, pureed fava beans, and seasoned tempeh.
Everything that needed to be done was written on the board. We then broke up into teams and divvied up the tasks. As expected, it fell to me to prepare the potatoes for the causa. I’d been responsible for that layer all along, so it made sense that I took ownership of it during FND prep.
We had prepared the entire dinner for 10 people a couple of times, but this time, we were making it for 100 people. Boiling and milling 4 lbs. of potatoes is one thing; boiling and milling 40 pounds is another. I filled three huge pots with purple potatoes and because the potatoes were all different sizes, they cooked at different rates. I tried grouping similar sizes in each pot, but still some potatoes cooked faster than other within the same pot. This meant that I had to skewer test and scoop out potatoes at intervals. Which was just as well because there was no way that I would have been able to pick up and drain these commercial-sized pots of boiling potatoes! If I had tried, it would have been a disaster of monstrous proportions. And I probably would have landed in the burn unit.
It took hours to peel and mill all of these potatoes, even when one of my classmates stepped in to help me peel. My arms got an incredible workout. After several hours, I needed a break and asked one of my other classmates—who was actually on the other FND team, but was there to help us out—took over the milling for about an hour.
When I was finally done milling, the other elements for the causa were just about ready, too. But we had issues with the other elements. We had started out with a lima bean puree but at some point, we switched to fava beans (I’m still not quite sure why). To our dismay, the fava bean puree was not as green as the lima bean puree had been, probably because we didn’t have enough parsley, and the minced rosemary that had been added to it was too overpowering. Fortunately, we had enough color on the plate to compensate for the bean puree’s dullness, and the rosemary flavor was tempered when the puree was combined with the other elements. To ensure that all the elements worked together, we took scoops of each layer and placed them in a bowl to taste. (We learned to do that after the last run-through because, as we discovered, each element on its own may have been perfect, but together with other elements, it may have not have been quite right, and vice versa.) We continually adjusted until we felt everything worked, except that the cauliflower remained a little crumbly.
Elyse, who had made the bean puree and was disappointed, wanted to cut out the puree and just do three layers, but I knew that this was a bad idea. We had tried the recipe 3 times using 4 layers and it might have been disastrous to use just 3, because the cauliflower was too crumbly and it needed the puree to adhere it to the causa. With tout the bean puree, it would have been a mess.
We layered 6 full-size hotel pans with the 4 elements and wrapped them up. The next day, we inverted them onto sheet pans and began cutting the portions. This was not as easy as it sounds. We had to make sure that all the portions were the same size in both width and height. We tried cutting straight down, with a sawing motion, with knives with teeth, knives with no teeth, dental floss, and bench scrapers. Despite our best efforts, we wound up with a lot of oddly shaped pieces. Fortunately, we had a lot to spare to make up for the discards.
The next problem to solve was how to serve them. We had settled on squares but now we went back to triangles, which we had abandoned during our last run-through because we felt that triangles would be too unstable. Then, as we cut the squares into triangles and tried to move them to sheet pans, we saw how fragile they were. Through a couple of hours of trial and error, we discovered that the pieces stayed together a little better if we put them on the sheet pans and heated them upside down—that is, with the almond side down. It seemed to compact that layer just enough that we could handle them. Of course, had we known we were going to do this, we would have layered the 4 elements in reverse order.
The next day was a flurry of activity in K3 as we began preparation for service. I took it upon myself to start assigning stations for everyone on the line. Then, it was time for service. We all took our positions and began plating. Would you be surprised if I told you that we had a little bit of a rough time plating the causa?
We fiddled and fudged with a couple, trying to get a feel for the pieces. We finally worked it out that I would lay down one piece and Elyse, across from me, would lay down the other piece, the triangle that would stand up. At that point, things started moving. We got those causas plated and moved them down the line for the rest of the components.
We hit a bump in road, though. We had marked certain sheet trays to keep for the” house” (i.e., for ourselves), as they were the least pretty of the batch, the ones that had crumbled or that were oddly cut. Somehow or other, a couple of these trays got pulled out before the “good” ones. When we realized the error, we popped the good ones in the oven, but the plating came to standstill while we waited for the good ones to heat up. Chef B told us that we needed to get more plates out and so we had no choice but to pull the scruffy ones together and do the best we could with them. Finally, the good ones were hot, and just when we had pulled them from the ovens, Chef B said, “Stop.” We were done. All the guests had been served. And we all groaned with a great big old “Damn it” in our voices.
In the end, it was okay because no out in the dining rooms knew the difference. All they saw was a beautifully arranged meal bursting with color and form and texture, and when they tasted it, regardless of how it looked, it was rich with complex flavors.
We also took some time to decorate the classrooms with garland, lights, and flowers. My classmate, Angie, sewed table runners and made tassels for the menus, Elyse took charge of the decorations, and I created the menu. There was a lot to be done and tensions had run pretty high as everyone struggled to make time to work on FND while still carrying on their daily lives. But we pulled it all together and we had one hell of dinner.
My brother and sister-in-law were there, as well as numerous friends and acquaintances, and I was so happy to see them all there. With the exception of one person, everyone enjoyed the dinner very much. Success!
I won’t lie. It was a bitch to plate those causas, but I am very proud of my team. We created a great meal and pulled it off despite bumps along the way. As we walked out into the dining rooms for our bows, we all held our heads high for a job well done.
For some fabulous photos of the prep and dinner by my classmate Elyse’s husband, David Prince, click HERE.
And for some less than spectacular, but still nice photos by me, click HERE.
By the way, the meal was entirely vegan and gluten free. The menu is below, as well as a recipe for Quinoa Croquettes, which got raves.
Thanks to Chef Barbara, the students of CTP 197W, the kitchens assistants, and all the guests who helped make our Friday Night Dinner a memorable night.
Buttercup Squash Soup
Quinoa Croquettes with
Pumpkin Seed-Almond Dip
Escarole with Garlic & Lemon Dressing,
Botija Olives, and Caramelized Pearl Onions
Salsa Verde and Smoky Tomato Sauce
Tamarind Ice Cream
Saffron Poached Seckel Pear
Yield: 10 two-ounce servings
¾ cup quinoa (combination of red and white), rinsed well
1 1/8 cup water
2 medium parsnips, large dice (¾ cup)
1/2 onion, medium dice (½ cup)
2 cloves garlic, fine mince
1 tablespoon EVOO
½ cup cooked lima beans (1/4 cup unsoaked)
¼ bunch parsley, fine chopped (1/6 cup)
2 scallions, thin slice
1/4 cup sunflower seeds, lightly toasted and coarse chopped
1/2 teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ lime, juiced
1 teaspoon sea salt
Oil for frying
- Cook quinoa with water. Cool.
- Cook parsnips until very soft.
- Sauté onion and garlic in EVOO until soft.
- Blend together parsnips, lima beans, parsley, scallions, sunflower seeds, oregano, cumin, lime juice and salt to form a paste.
- In a large bowl gently stir quinoa and onions and garlic together with paste mixture. Quinoa may be fragile so do not over mix.
- Form into 2 ounce croquettes. Pan fry in oil.
PHOTO: David Prince
On December 9, 2011 , the other half of my class (CTP 197W) at the Natural Gourmet Institute had their Friday Night Dinner. The menu was Persian, and it was fabulous.
I was there because I was doing my second required floor shift. I was originally going to do it in October, but then I decided to switch it so that I could support my classmates. I helped set up, serve, and clean up. And the perk to doing that is that I then got to eat.
Here’s what they served:
~ Appetizer – 1st Course ~
Beet Salad with Oranges, Candied Walnuts, and a Citrus Vinaigrette
Kadu (Pumpkin) Turnovers with Mint-Lime Dipping Sauce
~ Entree – 2nd Course ~
Lentil-Tempeh Köfta in a Cauliflower Sauce with a Barberry, Tart Cherry & Pepper Drizzle,
Sautéed Greens and Roasted Dill Carrots & Parsnips
~ Dessert – 3rd Course ~
Cardamom Spice Cake with Pistachio Pudding, Cashew Rosewater Cream & Pomegranate Reduction Sauce
The most intriguing part of the meal for me was the barberry sauce. I’d never had it before and it was delicious. It had a sweet-tart, fruity flavor with a hint of smokiness. It really made the main entree pop. And they did such a beautiful job with the dessert, drizzling the sauce in an elegant pattern and punctuating it with pomegranate seeds. The appetizer plate was pretty, too. I admire the way they made those tiny little phyllo turnovers. And the accompanying salad was lovely.
Their menus were beautiful and creative. They were like little individual packages. It made me very insecure about the menus I designed. But I think they’ll look good. My group’s FND is this week. Four days to go.
If you’re ever interested in going to NGI’s Friday Night Dinner, 212-645-5170 (ext. 0) for reservations. The cost is $40.00 prix fixe (includes tax) for a three-course meal, BYOB. They accept Visa, Master Card and American Express. All meals are vegan (sometimes they have optional non-vegan ingredients) and they’re always delicious. You’re guaranteed a fine meal.
My practical exam for the Chef Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute is finally over. After stressing about it for weeks and really stressing for days and spending hours plating last Sunday (although I wish I’d done it more than that), it’s behind me.
The exam was taken on 2 separate days by the 2 Friday Night Dinner groups. My group (B) was up first because group A was gearing up for its Friday Night Dinner. We had to create an entrée incorporating 5 elements: bean, grain, green, sauce, and garnish. My plate was—
Grilled Portobello Steak
Grilled Sweet Potatoes with Cilantro-Lime Dressing
Cracked Chickpea Salad
Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Lime zest curls for garnish
I did okay, but to be honest, my score was a huge disappointment. It wasn’t a bad score, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for. The instructor complimented my dish in many ways, but I got points off for numerous things. Here’s the rundown:
Bean: He really loved the chickpea salad. It was “sophisticated” with just the right amount of seasonings and heat. Not to little, not too much.
Green: The kale was chewy and not very edible. He said it was the nature of the kale they’d been getting at the school lately—tough. It lent itself more to a moist heat method of cooking, rather than the way I had prepared it, which was to sauté it in garlic and oil. I knew it was chewy, but I didn’t think it was that bad.
Grain: He loved the way the polenta looked. It was vibrant, and he could tell that I’d thrown the herbs in towards the end because it retained their fresh look. But it needed to cook a little more. I’m used to using a finely ground cornmeal, like my mother uses, and that’s what I practiced with. I should have been more aware of the fact that the school uses coarsely ground cornmeal as polenta. However, upon research, I learned that most people will call for” cornmeal” or “coarsely ground cornmeal” for polenta recipes. Yet, one of my classmates, who was born and spent part of her life in Italy, said that she was used to the finely ground kind as well. Anyway, I was a little thrown off by the coarse grind, but I stopped the cooking when I thought it was done. My instructor apparently did not agree.
Sauce: The sauce went well with the mushroom but there wasn’t enough of it. He had to scrape together what I had put on the plate to accompany one bite of mushroom. To plate that dish again, he said, pool some underneath the mushrooms and just hint at the sauce on top.
Garnish: No comment. I took this as neither good nor bad.
Plating: He was glad to see that I’d used techniques taught at the school, such as the fanning of the mushroom and sweet potatoes. However, he felt that there was conflicting movement on the plate. The school teaches students to plate food in some kind of geometrical movement, upward and outward or circular. The elements on my plate were “competing against each other.”
The dish needed more acidity. I put a cilantro-lime dressing on the sweet potatoes, which should have taken care of the acidity. But since my dressing came out better at home than at school and because the jalapeno was strong, I didn’t want to put too much, so maybe he didn’t really pick up on the lime.
It needed more crunch. I put raw bell peppers in the chickpea salad, as well as walnuts. I asked him if he hadn’t picked up on them. He said he hadn’t.
Overall, though, he said that my dish was something he would enjoy if he had it in a restaurant. Considering that he used to be a chef at Le Bernadin in New York, that’s a great compliment.
It was rather heartbreaking to learn that at least 4 other people (out of 8 ) had received higher scores than me, and I got the feeling that out of a class of 15, the majority will have gotten higher scores than me.
In the end, no one will ask me what I got on my practical exam, but I will know what I got. I will always know that, despite my years of experience cooking, I received a less than stellar score.
But I have to shake off the baggage that this is putting on me and move on. I have to remind myself that not every day will be a red-letter day. Not everything I do will turn out the results I want.
And that’s okay. A score is just a number, not the measure of my worth or a mark of my capabilities. It’s not the individual brush strokes that count but the entire painting. This is a personal demon of mine, one that taunts me at every opportunity it gets. It’s time I kicked it to the curb.
Besides, if the chefs on Iron Chef, Chopped, and all those other chef competition shows have to deal with blows to their creations–not to mention their egos–then I guess I have to, too.
We’ve been in the thick of the food and wellness portion of our program at the Natural
Gourmet Institute. I don’t know whether other cooking schools have anything like this, but I don’t think so. This is what sets NGI apart from other schools: Its focus on health-supportive cooking. And part of that is understanding various diets and lifestyle programs/principles (for lack of a better way of putting it), such as Macrobiotics and Aryuveda.
We’ve also learned about food and healing for specific illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, and for keeping the immune system strong, and a couple of weeks ago, we had a cleanse and detox class. This class discussed the digestive system, specifically the kidneys, liver, and colon, and how to cleanse toxins from them.
This week, we had another detox class, except that this time it was “living foods”—i.e., raw foods. We prepared and ate numerous dishes that were completely raw, and it was surprisingly filling and satisfying. We had:
Filbert Sweet Milk
Mixed Nut and Vegetable Pate
Squash-Sea Vegetable Salad
Summer Squash with Pesto
Sweet Potato Pie with Cashew Nut Cream
Raw Chocolate Brownie
We started the meal with a shot of wheatgrass-apple juice. When they hear “wheatgrass,” most people think of 1970s hippies living in communes and subsisting on alfalfa sprouts and brown rice. But wheatgrass has so many health benefits, such as helping acne and skin problems, reducing inflammation, and aiding digestion. Its shining quality is that it contains chlorophyll. In fact, wheatgrass is the best living source of chlorophyll, and the health benefits are extensive.
Wheatgrass does not exactly make people go “Mmm, mmm!” but when combined with freshly juiced apples, as we had it, it’s actually quite tasty. We also had homemade kefir, which I can’t honestly say I was crazy about. It had a funky, bad-cheese flavor to it. But some people like that, and to those who do, more power to you.
Personally, I would never be able to survive on a raw foods diet (not happily, anyway). I need hot foods, especially in winter. Can you imagine going home at the end of a dark, dreary, freezing winter day and having all cold, raw foods? As delicious as they might be, I would not feel satisfied. In fact, when I got home after class, I had the urge to have a bowl of hot soup. Which I did. And I was happy.
But a raw food diet is a great way to detox, particularly if you’ve gone through a heavy eating period, or a “bad-food” period. On a temporary basis, it wouldn’t be so bad. If you’re interested in giving it a try, here’s a simple recipe for Cinnamon Beets to try. Adjust the seasonings until it’s to your liking. Enjoy.
Adapted from Dining in the Raw: cooking with “the Buff” by Rita Romano
Makes 4 servings
2 medium beets, peeled
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon tahini
Juice form 1 orange
1 ½ tablespoons Nama shoyu*
splash lemon juice
- Make long strands of “angel hair” by putting beets through a spriralizer. [If you don’t have one of these, just grate the beets using the large holes of a box grater.]
- Blend cinnamon, tahini, orange juice, and shoyu, along with ginger juice, lemon juice and salt to taste. Pour dressing over beets. Let sit 1 hour and drain well before serving.
Note: For a different taste, substitute one teaspoon chives for the cinnamon and add one teaspoon dry mustard.
*Nama shoyu is unpasteurized shoyu, available in health food stores.
Phew! This morning I took my final written exam. I think I did pretty well, but I know I didn’t get everything right. There were so many questions that were not on the study guide they gave us, and I studied all this stuff (based on the guide) that was nowhere to be seen on the exam. It was a little frustrating, but I think I did well enough regardless.
I can’t believe it’s over. Well, that part of it, anyway. This week, I have to take my practical exam. That will involve making a gourmet entrée that includes a grain, a bean, a green, a sauce, and a garnish. Those five elements must be there. And it must be a dish that follows the Chinese Five-Phase Theory (a complicated theory of food selection and preparation that involves the five elements of earth, fire, water, wood, and metal). It has to look appetizing, it has to be plated in an appealing way, the elements have to complement each other, it has to be balanced, and, above all, it has to taste good.
The good part is that they told us ahead of time what will be available to us, so we don’t have to go in there cold and improvise on the spot. I wish I had time to test and retest until I got it right, but with everything going on, I haven’t been able to. I have only one chance to test and plate my entrée and that’s tomorrow. And the only reason I have that time is because my internship person cancelled our meeting for tomorrow. I cooked my greens and made my sauce yesterday, figuring that if I made my meal piece by piece, I could just put it all together one night to plan my plating. Now, I’ll be able to make everything else and plate it tomorrow.
I have a take-home exam to do this week, and in a couple of weeks we have another practical exam that does involve improve, but that one will be done in teams, I think. At least that’s the way the other improve classes have worked. And that will be it. Classes end in a month and then I’ll continue with my internship until I’ve accumulated the required 100 hours. Then I will have a culinary degree.
I was sick this past week and it’s no wonder. This is just way too much stuff going on for a person my age. But I’m much better and I’m hoping that I get through the month.
Thanks for checking in. I’ll be back soon.