By OWEN MORRIS
We finally put our learning to the test when we had to prepare a full meal by ourselves -- a classic French/American meal consisting of a airline chicken breast covered in pan au jus, mashed potatoes and blanched vegetables. Within those boundaries we were free to do whatever we wanted, such as plating, extra seasonings, portion size, etc. All the instructor said was he wanted a presentable plate at the end of class.
Before we could get that far, though, we had to cut our chicken breast off of the whole chicken. I am used to whole chickens. Roasted ones at the grocery store make a great meal and then a week's worth of of healthy late-night snacks. But this was my first time dealing with a whole chicken that wasn't hickory marinated and smoked. The first trick the instructor showed us was how to cut the chicken without letting chicken juice run all over the counter: He put the cutting board inside a bread pan (any shallow pan will work). It's a simple trick that really works. Ten students were hacking away at ten chickens on the same table, and there wasn't any chicken juice left on the table.
There's more than one way to cut a full chicken, but in all cases you need to get rid of the wishbone lest your guests stab themselves in the mouth. The wishbone is located underneath a couple of layers of meat in the neck cavity. The teacher tried to show the class how to prod with a knife and find it, but the way to find it fast is to get your hands in the neck cavity and feel for it. Mine broke as I tried to remove it, leaving shards of wishbone in the meat, so I had to dig into the meat to try and find it, destroying the look of my chicken before I had made even one cut.
"The first cut should run down the middle back of the chicken," our teacher told us as he effortlessly scored the chicken. "That will be your guiding cut for the rest of the chicken." His method involved very little knife work. Instead, it was a mixture of loosening joints, making guiding scores down bones and scraping meat from bones. When we did cut the chicken it was not with a cleaver but very daintily with a chef's knife. If the guides are good and actually follow the backbone of the chicken, you can theoretically make small incisions along the bone and the legs and breasts should tear away from the carcass. I say theoretically because chicken skin is tough and there's a lot of it, so while the meat tore away from the bone, the skin would annoyingly stick to the carcass in some places causing me to make to wide cuts to free it.
"Airline chicken breast" just means is the bone is attached, so instead of cutting the breast from the wing at the third and final joint, the wing is cut off at the second joint. After I had finished all the cuts I was left with two legs, two wings, two airline breasts and a worthless carcass. Or so I thought, but our teacher set down a pan for them, "The carcass and any extra gristle and bones all make great stocks," he said. "Save them and just be sure to take out the liver."
In all, we only threw out a few ounces out of a three-pound chicken. At this point, though, I wasn't worried about cost-saving economics -- I had to get my plate underway.
The difficulty in plating doesn't come from the cooking but from making sure everything hits the plate at the last second, hot and perfectly done. To do that, you first finish the dishes you can hold in a warmer; in my case that was the mashed potatoes. We were given no guidance on the potatoes and I followed a simple recipe: lots of butter, salt, white pepper. Mash until lumps are removed and add milk. I like very fine mashed potatoes and pureed them well.
Next I blanched my vegetables so I could put them aside until the last second. Blanching vegetables means boiling them for a very short burst of time, which extends their life and improves their color. I chose a simple vegetable medley of green beans, broccoli and carrots for color. In a real kitchen I could have made both of these sides hours in advance but last night, I had to move on to the chicken breast immediately.
Since my chicken breasts were too large to cook fully in a pan, I used a double-cooking method. First, I dredged the chicken in flour, then I added just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and put the pan on medium heat. Finally I put the chicken breast in the pan for about five minutes on each side, which was enough to get the outside crispy golden brown while the inside was still raw. I could have cooked it all the way in the pan and risked ruining my perfect outside but instead I put the chicken into a pan and then into a convection oven. (Hence the second method of cooking.) This finished cooking the chicken breast while preserving the perfect outer texture.
All I had left to make was the pan sauce. I used the pan in which I had cooked the chicken breast, and deglazed it with a tiny amount of white wine. Then I added a cup of chicken stock and -- my personal touch -- mushrooms and peppercorns. Within several minutes, it had reduced to a nice thick brown sauce. Since I was nearly finished, I put my serving plate in the dishwasher (the plate should be hot), took the sauce off the heat while putting my vegetables back on the heat and took the chicken breast out of the oven.
All of my ingredients were on the plate within 40 seconds after it was out of the dishwasher. I was rearranging the green beans when the instructor came by to judge. "The mashed potatoes are too whipped," he said. "They should have the consistency of a baked potato." He complimented the done-ness and the cuts of my vegetables: "Your carrots are very uniform." He took one last look, then was off to the next plate without saying anything about my chicken breast. I didn't particularly care. I hadn't eaten dinner yet and tore into my own plate immediately after he finished judging it. I can tell you the chicken was good.