Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Culinary School Diary: Week 11

Posted By on Tue, Nov 11, 2008 at 10:30 AM

By OWEN MORRIS

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Last night's lecture was initially focused on braising but like most of the lectures, the instructor quickly got on a tangent.

Braising is a method of cooking that uses a little bit of liquid and a lot of time to cook a tough piece of meat. It's usually done in two parts: First you brown the meat on the stove-top and then you add some liquid and let it cook in an oven (pot roast is probably the most familiar braised dish here in the states). The idea of braising is a little counter-intuitive, in that you are purposely trying to overcook meat to get it to start to break down, which makes otherwise tough pieces of beef very tender.

In learning about braising, though, we also got a lesson in carrots. Or, as our instructor put it: "Please peel them before you tourne them." (Tourne is a method of cutting vegetables in which you peel them into seven-sided cigar-looking shapes. Very hard to do, very impressive to do -- but it creates a ton of left-over product.) "I had a student make these perfect tourne carrots but then he had to throw away the leftovers because the skin had the dirt and the grime on them. If he had peeled them beforehand, he could have added those into a vegetable stock."

We also got an opinion on sachet bags: "It's an old-fashioned practice not done out in the industry ... bags are messy, they absorb that wonderful sauce you've worked so hard to create and take too much time to make. I say don't use them."

OK! Back to braising: The two main lessons were to use the appropriate size of braising pan, since the depth and the width of the pan can really change the way the meal will cook. You need a braising pan in which the meat and liquid but snugly -- not too snugly. The other lesson concerned browning the meat. The textbook we use instructs you to make sure the pan is really hot before putting in the meat. But our teacher explained that had caused students in his other class to sear the meat and once a piece of meat is seared, the flavors change as it braises.

Finally we got to try cooking a couple of actual dishes.

Those dishes: beef stew using chuck, and coq au vin (we didn't get to use a rooster, though coq au vin translates to rooster in wine) with plain old chicken breast and California Pinot Noir.

When you see how things are really done in a kitchen, you lose your romantic notions of certain foods. For me, stew was one of those foods. I always imagined someone's tough grandma starting with a huge pot of beef stock and spending days simmering down beef to make the stew thick. I knew that wasn't really how it was done. But the fact that the thickening comes from throwing flour into the pot with the meat and fat to make a roux -- just like every home cook does -- seems a little cheap. I was expecting there to be some secrets, but there aren't. Creating a restaurant-level stew simply involves practice to get the amount of liquid right and good cutting skills to make sure all of the pieces in the stew are done at the same time.

Coq au vin is similarly easy if harder to pronounce (it sounds something like coca-va.) Instead of using oil or butter as the fat to help brown the chicken and vegetables, salted pork is traditionally used. Essentially bacon, salted pork has a lot of fat that comes off when rendered in a pan. By cutting up the salted pork into a little dice, the pieces brown quite nicely as they lose their fat; they taste great and can be used as a garnish on the final dish.

After rendering the salt pork and removing the crispy bits (yes, our book calls them "bits") the chicken is added into the pan and allowed to brown. At this point the chef has some leeway on what to do. The traditional method says to just brown the chicken in the pan and then remove it. If you're in a hurry though, you can let the chicken cook almost fully in the pan which will make it slightly drier but also make the process much faster. I chose the latter method since time was of the essence and the chicken we were using was already very tender. If I had been using actual tough, old rooster like the dish was invented for, I would have only lightly browned it and then let it braise for a much longer time.

Once the chicken is browned, it's removed from the pan and the vegetables and wine are thrown in the pan to deglaze it. The vegetables we used were mushrooms and onions. To get them to cook uniformly, we removed the mushroom stems with a knife and then cut them into fourths, which makes them so much more attractive than slicing them thin. After the mushrooms and onions had cooked in the wine, the contents were emptied into a (properly-sized) braising pan along with the chicken, covered with foil and put in the oven for 30 minutes.

Sure enough, 30 minutes later I took off the foil and what had been just some wine, vegetables and chicken had melded into a wonderful aromatic dish. "It just makes the entire kitchen smell good," my teacher said. He was right. It tasted pretty good too.

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