By OWEN MORRIS
Tonight I finally realized why Johnson County Community College has our upper-level class cook in the smallest and most crowded kitchen in the entire school.
The answer dawned on me as I was literally stuck in an impasse between two students cooking on a stove-top with two more students beyond them in each direction. In the best of times the fit between stove-top and warming station is only two-feet wide but a mass of bodies filled that two feet.
I had a flashback to a similar moment years ago in a kitchen where I was a lowly busboy. I was holding some metal pan just out of the washer with my fingers when I got caught in a trap of chefs going both directions at once. The pan was burning my fingers and there was no place to set it down where it wouldn't hurt some food -- except the floor.
That flashback made me realize that this teaching kitchen is designed to be the most like a real kitchen, and because our class is an advanced one that's supposed to simulate real-world conditions, the college had either purposely or through necessity made it a tough kitchen to work in.
Besides the one case of claustrophobia, the rest of the class went by smoothly. It was timely but a
coincidence, our teacher assured us, that we were cooking roast turkey with
stuffing and sweet potatoes. We also cooked pork medallions with peeled
red potatoes and broccoli.
My partner and I decided to divide up our tasks -- I took care of the sides and she handled the two meats. I
was happy at that arrangement because sides are a bit of a specialty for
me. I am particularly proud of my Thanksgiving stuffing, which is easily
the most underrated part of Thanksgiving meal. (The turkey itself is way
overrated. Half the Thanksgiving dinners I've been too, you could have
taken away the turkey and as long as you left the mashed potatoes,
rolls, stuffing and sweet potatoes, nobody would have known the
The key to a good stuffing is the stock. Most people use a crappy chicken base that has a ton of salt and very
little chicken. If you're buying chicken base instead of making chicken stock, make sure "mechanically separated chicken" is the first ingredient and salt second. Mechanically separated chicken might not sound particularly appetizing, but it makes the
world of difference between a flavorful stuffing and one that tastes like french
toast dipped in sea water.
The second key is the bread. A white or a light sourdough bread is
best, and the thicker the bread the better, because that thickness will absorb delicious chicken stock moisture. The drier the bread is, the more it will act like a sponge.
Unfortunately, last night the bread for stuffing was Wonder bread. Making up for that, however, was a homemade turkey stock, which the teacher had made from the bones of a turkey cut up last week.
While my partner was slicing a turkey, I was making sure my sweet potatoes were all cut evenly and wondering whether there was any big difference between sweet potatoes and yams. "They're from a different continent," my teacher yelled. "Don't get them confused." Also, yams are slightly sweeter. The slight differences in taste reminded of the difference between ginger ale and ginger beer.
With the stuffing stuffed and in the oven smelling delicious, I covered the sweet potatoes in a small bath of butter and brown sugar and put them in the oven. From there I moved onto the roasted potatoes which I simply peeled, added some salt and pepper and put in the oven next to the sweet potatoes.
Blanching the broccoli on the stove-top was when I had my epiphany about why the school puts my advanced class in the classroom they do. After taking the broccoli off the stove and testing the doness of the vegetables, I put my stuff in the steamer to hold and went to help my partner.
She didn't need any help, though, and was already grilling the pork chops. Instead of shooing me away she told me her secret for remembering perfect grill marks on a piece of meat: 10 and 2, just like your hands on the wheel. When you're starting to grill, turn the steak to where 10 would be on a clock. When it's a quarter of the way cooked, turn it to 2. A much clearer analogy than talking about angles.
Finally, everything was ready to be plated. I managed not to muck up any of the side dishes and the sweet potatoes came out perfectly caramelized with only a touch of salt while the peeled potatoes were crispy on the outside and nicely soft on the inside.
My partner and I did well enough that at the end of class, the teacher actually showed my plate around -- though he didn't realize it was mine. (We keep finished plates on a different warmer than the one near where I was sitting.) "Look at that," he said. "Isn't that beautiful?"
"It is," I replied. "I can't believe it."
I was serious. I can't believe that with my mind focused on other things (claustrophobia, this blog, the small kitchen) I absentmindedly put together some decent side dishes.