Sunday, July 26, 2009
Ok, I'm a bad, bad blogger.
I'm reading Julie/Julia, the book about the Julie/Julia Child project and blog that the Meryl Streep/Amy Adams movie coming out in August is based on and I feel appropriately ashamed. Julie took on completing all the recipes in the Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and pledged to blog about it all. According to the book she did the recipes at night...sometimes not sitting down to eat with her husband until close to midnight...then got up every morning and wrote her blog entries before work. So she did all this cooking, shopping for ingredients, working full time and blogging every day....and I'm going on nearly two weeks since my last blog entry.
My original plan was to make entries three days a week, after each class, detailing everything we cooked and learned along with my very witty and insightful observations. But one month into this Mrs. Fabulous Goes To Cooking School adventure I'm up to my nose in the reality of what I've taken on here. Just to illustrate my mental state let me briefly describe to you two consecutive dreams I had last night:
In the first dream I've agreed to be part of a group attempting to swim across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to England. The atmosphere of the dream is sort of film-noirish...black and white...shadows and dark clouds hanging over the black water of the endless ocean stretch. As I am being pulled out to sea by a line attached to an ocean liner (very possibly the Titanic) I am experiencing an all-encompassing panic and sense of dread about what I have gotten myself into. I know I will drown or be consumed by a shark.
As dream sequences are wont to do, one second I was taking on saltwater through the nose, the next minute I was on the floor of a super busy country-side restaurant and asking a large party seated at a big rustic table if I could take their order. I must not have been the regular waitstaff because I wasn't prepared and had to rip a page from one of the diner's address books and borrow a pen to do so. I wrote down what the party wanted to drink, then went back to the kitchen to fill the order. Once there, I found I couldn't interpret what I'd written, or couldn't find what I needed in the crowded fridge. I was sweating and confused and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't figure it out and pull the order together. I called out to a young waitress to please help me get the order out. She looked at me in a mocking, angry sort of way and said "Why should I? I'm not helping you!" Whereupon I shouted the only appropriate answer: "Well, Fuck You, Bitch!" When I finally got back to the table with my tray of drinks, they were all wrong and everyone was rolling their eyes at my complete and uncool failure as a person.
I don't think we need to call in Dr. Freud to interpret these somnolent panic attacks. It's safe to say that 4 weeks into this I'm feeling just a tiny bit overwhelmed.
I know it's only 15 hours a week of classes...but what you don't plan for is everything else that goes along with it. For instance, there is homework. I've got to read the lesson chapter before each class and copy each of the lesson's recipes out on 3x5 cards and bring them with me. It doesn't matter that Chef X promptly changes all the recipes...the ingredients, the procedures, declaring "I'm not very agreeing with how dey do do dat, so we going to do it my way..." and we have to copy his recipe down once we get to class and then follow his demo for the new altered procedure. Why then, you ask, would you have to waste time copying the recipes at home, when there is a good chance they will be changed or that you may not even cook all the recipes and in fact, end up cooking totally different ones? You waste this time because Chef X will randomly go around the room and check to see who does or doesn't have their recipe cards prepared and if you don't have them you get point off on your evaluations.
Then there are the tests, every 5-6 lessons that you have to study for...drill the vocabulary both French and English...the cooking terms, the product distinctions (round fish like bass and salmon have two filets and up to 27 pin bones that have to be removed when fileting, while flat fish like flounder have 4 fillets and no pin bones...what IS the difference between a bi-valve and a cephalopod?) I usually study by re-reading each chapter, underling and reviewing class notes and then reducing it all down to a one or two page study guide. There goes THAT day.
Then there is the practicing. Since my hollandaise debacle I've decided I need to be trying some of these skills at home to avoid future embarrassment and to hone my skills for the looming black shadow of the practical test (this could be what that Titanic image was all about) that's coming up. For this test we will have 70 minutes to complete some mystery plate of food (we find out only the day of the test) and present it to a panel of judges. We'll be graded on technique, execution, plating, cleanliness, organization, and taste. So...I've bought bags of carrots and turnips and onions and stood, shoulders hunched in my kitchen, trying to master the ciseller (a small dice) or a julienne (a thin strip) or an emincer (a really thin slice) without slicing off my fingernails; making a sabayon (an egg custard base for sauces and deserts) that fluffs up the way it should over a cold bath (or is it hot bath?); and sliding my fish knife in at just the right angel to separate the delicate trout flesh from the bone without making ribbons of it.
How about the uniforms? I always have to have a cleaned and pressed uniform ready to go. Chef's jacket, checkered pants, neckerchief, apron, side towel and hat. I iron daily now, it seems.
And the commuting? I have to leave a window of 2 hours to get to class because though the drive time is really only about 70 minutes, the traffic into the city is always unpredictable. And if I get in to SoHo by 4:40 I can get street parking just 6 blocks from the school as opposed to using a garage and paying to park. Since this saves me about $250 a month, I try to always get a street spot. So, this means I MUST leave my house by 3:00 for a 5:45 class start time, or earlier on Saturday when the bridge and tunnel crowd decide a summer afternoon in the city is just what they need. And my nap...I have to have a 40 minute nap the day of class...(yeah, right!) or else I might fall asleep on the drive home...THERE GOES THAT DAY...
Now, as for the drive home...class is supposed to be over at 10:45 pm. Due to the extended charming and sometimes repetitious anecdotes that make Chef X's demos run long, combined with our overall beginner's skill level, we have never finished class on time. We usually finish between 11 and 11:15. Which means after changing out of my uniform, packing my nerdy wheely bag with my dirty clothes and knives, filling up my water bottle for the drive, taking one last pee before I go and dragging a wet paper towel over my face to swath through the layer of sweat and grease that has accumulated on it over the last 5 hours, along with the 6 block walk back to my car, I never get on the road home before 11:45. With the late-night construction going on on the I-78 I get home about 1 am and finally wind down ( I should say "wine down" since I inevitably need a bit of the grape to settle down) around 2.
On my sleep-deprived days off I'm rushing around trying to get done everything related to school plus all that I was doing before I started this, like taking care of my house, my kids, the dogs, our banking, bills, gardening (forget it...the weeds win), finding my son an apartment in the city for his 4-month externship and dealing with slimy, craigslist scammers, laundry, feeding everyone, and driving my daughter and her friends every where on demand. Because of his schedule, I now actually only see my husband Friday nights for a few hours, Sundays, and Monday nights. Depending on your view on long marriages, this could be a good thing, a schedule that enforces separation and therefore deeper appreciation for one's life partner, or it could make you feel like "who are YOU?" when some guy comes up behind you in your bathroom and scares the shit out of you don't because it's been so long that you don't recognize him.
All this and FUCKING BLOGGING TOO.
OK. DEEP BREATH. IN. OUT. IN. OUT.
I'm done whining. I promise. And I'm done with this entry. I've got some Sunday left to try and figure out who that guy snoring on my couch is.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Chef X leaned over his marble workstation and stared at me. He could do this easily now since he reassigned us all to new partners for this class and relocated me from the back corner station to the front.
"Look, you are the last one. You are the only one who has to do it again."
Why thank you for pointing that out to me. I was wondering why a veritable white-water river of sweat was flowing between my tits and a greasy sheen of humiliation was building up on my T-zone.
"I know, I'm a bad girl." I tried to smile and shook my head. This is what I get for declaring I'm going to be perfect.
See, here is my theory about how life for humans is organized. God is like the chief executive of a big film studio. Instead of the pearly gates, I picture the grand archway and security booth of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood where I used to do administrative temp work when I lived in L.A. and was chasing an acting career. Inside the endless gargantuan hangars that populate the lot, separate realities are unfolding. War pictures, love stories, family dramas, dark moody films with shady characters and bad outcomes, uplifting stories where the sentimental protagonist beats all the odds to triumph, suburban soap operas and emergency room urgency are all playing out at the same time behind the heavy doors of the sound stages.
The one that I'm stuck in is a cheesy sit-com.
God is too busy to get involved in the minutiae of each individual storyline on the lot. Instead, each "project" is a assigned a group of writers that sit around and brainstorm. In my case they might say, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if right after she tells the world she's going to be the best student in the class, that she's dedicated to perfection and becoming an expert, that she totally screws up!" It's like Lucille Ball chasing bon bons on the conveyor belt, stuffing them in her bosom and mouth trying to keep up with the task at hand and from getting fired, but ultimately failing because it's funnier than if she just did the job well. For a more un-dated reference, it's like Seinfeld not being able to admit to his girlfriend that he dropped her toothbrush in the toilet and she's been using it all this time....and I'd play the girlfriend.
Did I mention the test? The written test we had at the beginning of the class? I prepared a study guide that took me two days to make. All the vocabulary, all the techniques, French names of the dishes from the first 6 sessions. I reviewed. I had my son test me. I was ready. I could hear the Rocky music playing in my head as I answered each question with ease. Yes! I know this! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! .......NO! Wait, what is the Goddamn word for that other method of cooking vegetables...the one where you take the raw vegetables and cook them "a la minute" right before you serve them, instead of in advance, as with the other method. Come on, Rachel...it's the one where you do a paper airplane folded thingy out of parchment and cover the veggies, water, butter and salt while they are simmering. WHAT IS THAT FUCKING WORD! I KNOW THIS!
But in the end I can't remember. I have a big, menopausal brain fart and fume over why we even have to know it in fucking French. I write out the description of the method, preceded by a "E_______????" I know it begins with an E and sounds like "Ecriv-ay", but I also know that Ecriv-ay in French means "to write" and that is not the word for the freaking vegetable preparation. So I leave it blank and hand in the test when the time is up.
Hey, now that's hysterical guys! What a side-splitting episode of Mrs. Fabulous' Life!
I guess the good part about being in a life-long sitcom, as opposed to a saga about life in the slums of India or something like that, is that while things can get messy and chaotic and embarrassing, nobody ends up shooting themselves in the bathtub over it all. Nothing is too complicated that it can't be figured out within three commercial breaks or at the most a "too be continued" two-part episode. And there's always a warm, fuzzy moral to the story.
I can hear the writers now. "So, Mrs. F spazzes out and can't remember the term for cooking the vegetables. Then she destroys the Hollandaise and has to ask the assistant chef to take her through the second one, step by step. Her 24-year old partner, tries to bump fists with her to congratulate her on their solid, team-effort Bernaise sauce, but she high-fives him instead. He laughs and says, 'oh, I forgot, Mom's don't know about that.' High fives are sooooooo old school. She feels totally unhip and ancient. But then, as she walks to her car in the soft, summer rain, tired and breathless, she feels strangely alive and warmed by her Mary Tyler Moore-ish outlook on the evening.
" 'SO WHAT!' she says outloud and a homeless person resting in a nook between the columns of a SoHo building looks up at her briefly before hunkering back down under his garbage bag blanket. 'So I didn't get it all perfect!" True, the first Hollandaise sucked. She wouldn't end up with a 100% on the test. But the Bernaise, Buerre Blanc, and Gratin a L'Orange Sabayon Au Grand Marnier she made with her partner were pretty damn good. The mayonnaise she did on her own would have made Hellman's nervous."
The writer's are anxious to wrap up this episode and get home. "So she gets in the car, and it comes to her. 'L'ETUVEE!', she finally remembers the fucking term for the vegetable preparation and laughs and pounds the steering wheel. She's not beating herself up or feeling like quitting even thought she might not have been the best or most brilliant one in class today. This surprises her because she knows that there were times in her life that similar, insignificant failures would have derailed her. She drives uptown to pick up her son who is doing his CIA externship at LeBernardin. He listens to her recount the evenings class and then says to her, 'Good for you, Mom. It sounds like you did great overall.' He looks at her like he's genuinely proud of her, and she realizes she's proud of herself too."
"So it's a wrap." The writer's say as they gather their empty coffee cups and crumpled pages into the waste basket. "Mrs. Fab realizes in the end that mistakes will be a part of the "perfection" of the journey. And she is OK with that."
"Hey, shouldn't we have her throw her hat up in the air or something?" one of the writer's suggests. "Nah, it's been done," says another writer as he flicks the light off in the conference room.
I can't wait to see what happens Tuesday with Session 8: Salads. How can you screw up lettuce?
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
"Ah, look at that color. See how clear it is. Dat is perfect. Good job."
This, my first feedback from our Chef on anything I cooked, sets the bar, hones the target for what I know I will be obsessing over in the coming months...GETTING IT PERFECT! I have now found my culinary school persona: Quietly Perfection Driven, Subtly Brown Nosing, Wryly Knowing, Seriously Attentive, Consistently Achieving.
I know, I know. Longing for or even working toward perfection is a slippery slope. It can lead to chronic disappointment, self-flagellation, terrors about the slightest errors, anxiety dreams and even insanity in a medium such as cooking there are so many variables and so much can go wrong and everything is subjective. I don't care. I really, really, really want to get it right.
I have my long walks back to my car after class is over and the long drive home to think about these things. I want my experience at FCI to be like the veal, chicken, fish and vegetable stocks we made gallons and gallons of tonight in class. I want my education here to be a highly concentrated distillation of quality ingredients. I want to come away with a rich, flavor-dense foundation for whatever I want to do next. A good veal stock is best when it simmers for up to 12 hours—the water added to the bones and vegetables extracting every last cell of nuance and flavor to be had from them. I want to be that water, soaking up everything, grabbing every bit of this experience and holding on to it and becoming that beautiful, clear, expertly executed stock that can lead to the next beautiful creation...a sauce, a soup, a glaze....a life as a skilled chef.
I want to become an expert. I want to feel like I really know what I'm doing. I want to produce gorgeous results, and be acknowledged and receive accolades for it. I think I've just described the underlying, driving force of my entire attention-and-love-seeking life. (see: acting career, writing career, relationships, caretaking, enabling, parenting, various business ventures, etc.) But this time, I mean it! (Are you listening, Oh Mighty Organizer of the Universe?)
I'm not trying to disparage all the other paths I've taken in life, or pursuits I've undertaken, but the truth is I may have fudged my efforts and expertise along the way. I've done a lot of things, even impressed many with all I've done, but I don't have a sense that I've done many things at the highest level I could. For whatever reason: fears, insecurities, insurmountable circumstances, or just plain laziness I have not always reaped the results that I'd hoped for. With this, I think I have what it takes to give something my full attention and all my best efforts. I have the maturity, the losses, the 20/20 of hindsight, the patience and the humility to do it.
Recently, I came across a piece of paper printed with a quote I used have pinned up on the bulletin board in my office, but at some point it slipped to the floor and got lodged behind a big hutch. It's by Marianne Williamson and it starts out We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? and continues, "our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us."
I stopped making goals a few years back after a particularly nasty series of disappointments and financial losses. I was done believing I could shine and I was a bit embarrassed too—what did I have to show for all of my risk-taking and goal setting, after all? Williamson goes on to say, "Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so other people won't feel unsure around you." If I'm not mistaken it was this quote that had me take on the Mrs. Fabulous moniker to begin with.
So here I am "playing big" and setting a goal: I will graduate FCI first in my class. When I do, I will know I have extracted every possible molecule and every penny's worth of expertise I possibly could from the experience. I don't see this as a competition between me and my fellow students, but more as a long, solitary marathon I'm running hoping to improve upon my own last best effort. Besides, Williams also points out, "As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated...our presence automatically liberates others." So maybe I'll inspire and liberate while I'm at it, and cook some really goddamn perfect food.
Make this Fabulous, Gorgeous, Brilliant chicken stock and keep it in your freezer. You'll never have to waste good money on store-bought stocks that tend to have stale or too heavy flavors and way too much sodium. Freeze for up to 3 months in 8 or 16 oz plastic containers, or spray a jumbo-muffin pan to make frozen "stock muffins" that you can transfer to freezer bags and use when needed. Remember: do not salt a stock. It becomes more and more concentrated as it cooks down and you are trying to create a neutral but flavorful foundation for other dishes, sauces, etc. that you will season appropriately later.
White Chicken Stock - Fond de Volaille Blanc
- 4 pounds chicken wings, necks and backs
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 4 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2
- 4 ribs celery, cut in 1/2
- 1 leek, white part only, cut in 1/2 lengthwise
- 8 sprigs fresh thyme
- 8 sprigs fresh parsley with stems
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 to 10 peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 gallons cold water
Place chicken, vegetables, and herbs and spices in 12-quart stockpot. Cook on high heat (but not so high that meat or vegetables sitting on the bottom of the pan will burn) until you begin to see bubbles break through the surface of the liquid. Turn heat down to medium low so that stock maintains low, gentle simmer. Using a slotted spoon, or more finely meshed skimmer, skim the debris and foam from the stock with a spoon or fine mesh strainer every 10 to 15 minutes for the first hour of cooking and twice each hour for the next 2 hours. Add hot water as needed to keep bones and vegetables submerged. Simmer uncovered for 4 to 6 hours.
Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer into another large stockpot or heatproof (not plastic) container discarding the solids. (I will use these solids actually...I salvage as much meat and vegetables as I can, toss the bones, and make a mush of it in the food processor. Then I add this mixture to my dogs' food. They love it and it's good for them. No waste, which is the classic French tradition.) Cool stock to 70 degrees by submerging the pot or container in large cooler of ice or a sink full of ice water to below 40 degrees. Once it reaches 70 degrees or in cool in the center to the touch, place in refrigerator overnight. Remove solidified fat from surface of liquid and store in container with lid in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to 3 months. Prior to use, bring to boil for 2 minutes. (Don't throw it frozen into a dish in progress.) Use as a base for soups and sauces. (Tip: spray container or muffin tins you use for freezing with a little natural, unflavored non-stick spray before filling with stock. It will slide out easier.)