BY OWEN MORRIS
I'm taking advanced culinary classes at Johnson County Community College, and plan to journal about each week's experience here.
The first thing you learn about serious cooking is that it uses a lot of pointless French words. For instance, what any normal American would call a melon-baller, I am now told by my textbook (Le Courdon Bleu Professional Cooking Sixth Edition) is actually to be referred to as a parisiennes. The proliferation of langue française is supposedly due to the overwhelming influence French cooking has on modern techniques. But listening to chefs you realize the real reason the language has survived is that it creates a subculture in which chefs can identify each other.
There’s another, bigger benefit as well. Previously, as a layperson I might have made chicken noodle soup but no more! My chicken noodle soup is now consommé printaniere. Better to raise eyebrows (and menu prices) that much more.
An actually useful French phrase is mise en place, which was the basis of my advanced culinary class last night. The literal translation "to put in place." The real-world translation is, "getting your shit together ahead of time."
To that end, the class spent 90 minutes listening to a lecture on making sure to prep in advance, proper holding after preparation and the utter importance of blanching to save vegetables’ color and extend their shelve life by days. Some other important lessons useful to at-home cooks: keeping parsley stems in water and under plastic wrap will extend their shelf life from a couple of days to a month; make sure the steel you use to sharpen the knife is as long or longer than the knife itself.
After a quick overview on stocks, it was off to the kitchen to make some that will last us for the rest of the semester and practice good mise en place.
At least that's what the plan was. The problem was that none of the students were familiar with the layout of the kitchen. Ninety minutes of diligent note-taking went quickly to the wayside as the class realized it had 40 minutes to get three stocks done in a foreign kitchen.
To help things go more quickly, the professor put students into teams. My partner Jennifer and I quickly decided that she would do prep work like chopping vegetables while I gathered ingredients. Unlike me, Jennifer has excellent knife skills. She holds the knife correctly and places her index finger and thumb on opposite side of the blade itself, as if pinching it. My bad habit is that I keep my index finger on top of the blade with the rest of my hand wrapped around the handle like I'm pointing. This grip is a no-no for chefs because it causes cramping and gives less stability to the blade, which makes for less-consistent cuts.
As Jennifer diced, I ran around the cramped kitchen looking for the ingredients of mirepoix (another French term to describe a mixture of onions, carrots and celery) and trying to find an ounce of this or that spice. It was the opposite of mis en place. To be fair, that's the way I feel about every kitchen the first time I try to work it. Each kitchen has its own idiosyncrasies and it takes a lot of time to become comfortable in it.
Time is something Jennifer and I did not have. The three stocks we had to make were fish fumet (fish with wine), vegetable stock and court bouillon (fish, no wine.) In theory, each of these stocks should simmer for 30 to 40 minutes but by the time we had all the ingredients in the pot and added the water, there were only ten minutes to let the stocks simmer.
A good stock that has simmered properly will have vibrant color and taste to match. As Jennifer was straining the fish fumet, using a China-cap to catch the vegetables and fish parts, I got a spoon to taste it. It was extremely light colored and sure enough, tasted like murky fish water.
As I was gagging on the fish fumet, I glanced at the the group next to us and noticed their stocks was a deep golden brown and smelled delicious too. That's when I remembered that while I immediately went lunging around the kitchen, their group had taken a couple of minutes and organized all three of the recipes' ingredients together and then grouped similar ingredients together. So while I had to make four trips to the spice rack they had to only make one. Organization is the main part of mis en place and their group actually practiced it while I just took notes about it and then went back to bad old habits. It was a good lesson to learn and hopefully one I do not repeat again. I'm taking mise en place seriously from now on.