Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Culinary School Diary: Week 12

Posted By on Tue, Nov 18, 2008 at 9:40 AM

By OWEN MORRIS

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My teacher repeated the two words "45 degrees" like they held the key to some buried treasure. They didn't, but they were close — 45 degrees is the angle at which meats should be laid on the grill. The presentation side is put down first because the first side that is put on the grill is the side with the best marks. "Once the meat has cooked a quarter of the way, turn it — don't flip it — 90 degrees the other way," my teacher said while showing us a drawing of a steak with a crosshatch on it. "That way, you get really nice marks."

Indeed, the method worked. When my mahi mahi came off the grill two hours later, it had the crosshatch marks so often seen when cooked properly in nice restaurants. Never mind that in the ensuing rush of also making turkey burgers, roasted acorn squash and fruit salsa, I had forgotten to season my mahi mahi, and it tasted bland. At least it looked nice.

The class was nearly all about grilling and, more importantly, grilling right. Many of us have grills, but few of us actually know what we are doing. This class was also about trying to get us to give up bad habits.

One example is the tendency of amateur gourmets to pierce a steak to turn it or check its doneness. Doing this releases many of the liquids that make the steak juicy. Instead, turn the steak with a tong and check for doneness by gently poking the thickest part with your finger and seeing how much give it still has. If you must pierce it with a fork to turn it, pierce the fat.

Another cardinal sin is purposely leaving the grill dirty to get blacker marks on the meat. All those marks are charcoal and, in the end, are going to take away from the taste of the meat. A good grill cook has a tong for flipping food and a heavy-duty grill brush to constantly clean the grills. Once clean, grills should be slightly oiled with a cloth that is dampened in vegetable oil (no need to waste even low-grade olive oil on such a task).

Grilling is really about practice. If you're doing 300 covers a night (like at some restaurants), and you've got to keep track of every single individual piece of meat, there are some little cheats. The teacher said to lay down the meal at the same 45-degree angle on the grill. That way, you can easily keep track of which steaks were just put on the grill, which ones have been turned and are almost ready to be flipped, and which ones have been flipped.

With all the discussion about steak, any discussion about substituting turkey burgers seemed a little weak. Turkey burgers do have an advantage, though. Besides being healthy, they are very reactive to poking, meaning they are easy to tell if done just by touching them. "You can't tell by look. You've got to go by feel," the teacher told us.

Besides grilling, the other find of the night was the deliciousness that is brown sugar mixed with acorn squash. I am not a squash fan, but acorn squash won me over with its intense nutty, buttery flavor. It was the easiest thing of the night, too. Just cut acorn squash and put it in a pan with a little butter and brown sugar, then bake for 20 minutes. It's now my favorite fall-season side.

The best piece of knowledge we learned was not even related to food but about cleaning silver. "Take all of those silver polishes and throw them out ... they're not safe for serving and they take forever," the instructor informed us. What you should do is take a large rubber bin (the kind most people already have in their garages for storing some junk). Line the bottom of the bin with aluminum foil, placed shiny side up. Place the silver directly onto the aluminum foil. Then bring a gallon of water to a rolling boil and add a tablespoon of baking soda. Pour it over the silverware, being sure to completely cover it. Leave it for a couple of minutes and then remove it one piece at a time from the solution and immediately dry it. "It will have the deepest shine you've ever seen and keep that way for months! ...You can clean silver for a table of eight in 10 minutes this way," the instructor informed us.

Now all I need is to own some silver to test this method out.

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