By OWEN MORRIS
I woke up Sunday with a mild stomach flu, and things were worse by the time class rolled around last night. I probably should have stayed at home and been relatively miserable in private. Instead, I decided to chance it and just wash my hands a lot during class.
Mine was a dilemma that many people face every day going to work but is especially important for restaurant workers. Even if they are careful they can still spread disease. In a previous class on restaurant health and safety I learned how restaurants are supposed to follow an "exclude and restrict" policy. Depending on an employee's symptoms, you either restrict them to an area of the kitchen and an activity where they won't make anyone sick (i.e. taking the sick guy off of salads and putting him on inventory), or send the worker home. It's all theoretical, though, because restaurants aren't required to follow this policy and many workers hide symptoms because they can't afford to lose a shift or don't want to let down the kitchen staff.
My symptoms would have placed me into the restrict category. But I wasn't going to a restaurant, I was going to a classroom where I was either all in or all out. If I had been cooking for other people I would have stayed home. But because I was only preparing food for myself (I didn't even the teacher sample my dishes) and I didn't want to miss the lesson, I decided to go to class.
Fortunately, the medicine I'd taken worked well, and the teacher went through so much information I was glad I attended. The class was focused on moist-heat methods of cooking: methods that involve water, such as poaching, boiling and braising. (Dry heat -- baking, grilling or frying -- uses straight sources of heat.) The menu called for poached chicken breast princesse with asparagus, cabbage and the delicious French stew (and slightly less accurate Pixar movie) ratatouille.
The instructor took great pains to emphasize that we should use low temperatures. The closer you cook an item to the actual serving temperature, the more tender it will be. That is why cooking methods like sous vide have become so popular. The minimum proper temperature for chicken is 165 degrees, which means the water should be heated to poaching level, not boiling. Between poaching (160-180 degrees) and boiling (212 degrees) is simmering, which is used to cook tough, gamey meats (the cooking liquid is usually spiced water, and it can take two hours to simmer a small piece of meat). For normal chicken it's almost always better to stay with poaching and use chicken stock instead of water, which is what our class did.
Chicken wasn't the main focus, though.
No, that honor would go to asparagus, or, as the instructor called it, "hell's vegetable."
The problem with asparagus, he explained, is that if you leave the skin on, the head will be done when the bottom is still raw. Or, if you cook the bottom until it's done the head becomes mush. "So what you need to do is peel each and every one, no matter how small. That's not a problem when you're only making a few like tonight," he said. "But at a banquet, when you've got 300 guests, each getting six stalks, and it takes 30 seconds to peel each one -- you do the math. Plus it doesn't keep and turns to mush after a few minutes."
Asparagus does have some good properties. Pieces with big tips are just as flavorful as asparagus with little tips, and like most vegetables asparagus can be blanched, which is what we ended up doing to hold the asparagus until serving time.
We spent the rest of the class moving from one food item to the next, learning little tips and trying to keep up. Some samples:
On ratatouille: Despite the fancy name, it's basically a bunch of seasonal vegetables sauteed in oil and then allowed to simmer in their own juices. The vegetables must include tomatoes -- the acid helps break down the other vegetables -- and eggplant, zucchini, onions and peppers. It's easy to tell that this dish was created as a hodgepodge of leftover vegetables and over time turned into its own classic. It really is quite easy to make as long as all the vegetables are cut to a similar size. And it stores well under a heat lamp.
On pasta: The ratio is always one gallon of salted water to one pound of pasta. To keep the pasta cooking even and not clumpy, you have to stir it. Never add olive oil to the water -- add the olive oil after it's finished cooking. My teacher said the best wheat for pasta is hard winter wheat, and the best hard winter wheat is grown in Kansas. A lot of the pasta we eat may be made in Italy but the wheat comes from our backyard. The pasta we used was from the American Italian Pasta Company of Kansas City.
On clams: They live in the sand and are dirty animals. If you don't clean them properly, you'll end up with more sand in your mouth than a Maine beach. But clams are also filtering animals and by letting them sit in water for 30 or so minutes (unlike oysters they can stand the chlorine), they'll naturally expel the sand from their own bodies. After they're clean comes the task of removing them from their shells, again not that hard once you know the trick of putting them in the oven for a couple of minutes to kill them. Once they die, the clam shells will crack open and even using a small paring knife, I was able to shuck six in the amount of time it took me to open one oyster.
It was fun to learn all of this, but the entire time I was nagged by one thing. (No, not the flu.) What the heck did princesse mean? We were making poached chicken princesse but near as I could tell, it was the same as a dozen other chicken dishes. I could not figure out why this simple chicken dish had such an elegant title. Finally at the end of class, after I'd exhausted all the possibilities and asked a couple of classmates who didn't know, I asked the instructor, who chuckled.
Princesse has nothing to do with chicken. It just means asparagus is the side vegetable.