Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Culinary school diary: week ten

Posted By on Wed, Nov 5, 2008 at 11:08 AM

By OWEN MORRIS

culinaryschool.jpg

Going into this week, the class had been cooking seafood and poultry and learning the ins and outs of the real meat and potatoes of cooking. Also, we'd been gaining confidence. We have spent enough time in this particular kitchen to know its idiosyncrasies and where everything should be. Actually, the idiosyncrasy in this kitchen is pretty disruptive. It has to do with the stove-tops.

I've complained about the stove-tops in a past diary. There are only two for the entire class, but that's not my biggest complaint. For reasons I've been told have to do with cost, our class uses electric stove tops. To someone who has always cooked on an electric stove top that may not seem like a big deal, but electric stove tops are unheard of in professional kitchens -- except when someone's telling a joke.

Gas stove tops are so so much better. With gas, the top heats quickly and you can easily increase or decrease temperature on the fly. Neither is easy with the best electrical stove tops, much less the ones in our classroom. We've learned to adjust, though. Instead of turning the heat up or down, you move pans to different places that are hotter or cooler -- sometimes halfway off the stove top. When you're boiling water it's not a big deal, but when you're making something as sensitive to heat as rice, like the class did last night, it becomes a nightmare.

Like rock music, there is so much bad rice out there that sometimes people forget what good rice looks and tastes like. Rice is tough to get right. Especially on an electric stove top.

Each person in class was required to make three dishes of rice: rice pilaf and steamed rice, both using long-grain white rice, and boiled rice using brown rice. White rice isn't that hard. It always uses a 2-to-1 ratio (two cups water to one cup rice) and takes about 20 minutes to cook, depending on the method. Brown rice, though, is what the instructor referred to as "devil's rice." It takes twice as long to cook, uses more liquid (3-1 ratio) and is impossible to get the texture exactly right. The reasons for using it, though, are that it's nutritious and — um — that it's nutritious!

If I had nothing to do but wait 40 minutes and watch my brown rice I could have made it perfectly. But the trick with the class is to get all of the starches to finish about the same time so everything is fresh and warm when plating it. Since we were also working on pasta, and pasta takes the longest, that's what I started with.

Pasta is simple to make. It's just flour and eggs. There's a myth that you need to use semolina flour, but bread flour will also work and that's what we used. By whisking eggs in a bowl and then adding enough flour until it turns into a dough, we skipped the traditional way of building a volcano of flour and adding the eggs to the middle. Once the pasta was in dough form, we took it out of the bowl and started kneading it with more flour until it was no longer sticky. Then we wrapped it to protect it from drying out and let it sit for at least 30 minutes.

After finishing that and quickly prepping the potatoes we had to boil for another starch dish, I turned started getting the brown rice on the stove-top. I was going rather quickly and was able to grab a nice, hot part of the stove top before it got too crowded. With the brown rice on, I set my watch for 35 minutes (be on the safe side) and got to work on the white rice.

Steamed rice is easy with a steamer. It's just water and rice covered with foil and put in the steamer. The trickiest part is making sure not to burn yourself, since steam is hot as hell and invisible. Rice pilaf is equally easy. It's a little butter and diced onion lightly sweated in the bottom of a pan; then you put the rice in and try to coat it with the onion and butter as much as possible. Finally you add the liquid (stocks work better for pilaf than water) and pop it into the oven.

I did all of the above and turned my attention to boiling the potatoes. By then, the stove top was crowded with the other students' rice and potatoes, and I couldn't find a good spot. I picked what I thought was the best available spot and set it down. After cleaning my station I returned to see the water temperature had risen maybe a dozen degrees. It was clear my potatoes were not going to boil. Meanwhile, my brown rice was boiling too vigorously. So I switched the two pots around.

I must have switched the two pots seven times in twenty minutes. The constant monitoring payed off and my brown rice and potatoes came out well, though the brown rice was still too mushy. Unfortunately, I ignored my rice pilaf, which sat in the oven too long and turned brick-like.

I also fell behind on my pasta so that by the time I had rolled out the dough and run it through a pasta machine (every house should have a pasta machine) my brown rice was already cooling off. So much for finishing all at once.

As the instructor was doing the final tastings, he kept commenting that most peoples' brown rice was too mushy or wet or burnt and at the end I thought he was going to lecture us on failing at brown rice. Instead he delivered a concise but apt statement: "I have no doubt that you would have all done better on gas. No doubt at all."

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