Friday, April 20, 2007

The Next Best Thing to being a Chef

Culinary Techniques Student Contributor: Leland Scruby

Midway through Culinary Techniques, I’ve already learned an enormous amount about how to get things done smartly in the kitchen. I went into the class thinking I could cook reasonably well—I cook at home every night, and I’ve always done a good job at making a spontaneous meal out of what’s around—but the class has opened my eyes to dozens of new ways of handling food.

Culinary Techniques starts with sanitation, organization, and knife work. I thought that the organization and sanitation portions would be of little interest to the home cook, but I was wrong. Learning to wash, peel, trim, and organize vegetables and meat properly makes cooking in a small, New York City kitchen easier, neater, and safer. I knew I needed help with my knife work—is there any non-professional who is truly confident in his cutting abilities? And while I won’t be doing much taillage or tournage at home, the hours we’ve spent on them in class have taught me the right way to hold and move a knife safely. There’s no sense in owning fancy knives if you can’t really use them.

I’ve learned numerous important lessons in the last six weeks that have improved my cooking at home. For one, I’ve learned about temperature: of the food before and after it’s cooked, of the pan before the food goes in it, of the inside of meat. A thorough understanding of temperature keeps food from sticking, cold butter from melting, eggs from scrambling, and sauces from breaking. For another, we’ve learned about liquid: when to use water, when to use stock, when to deglaze and why, and when and how to flambé. We’ve also received extensive instruction on different cooking utensils, and on how the shape and size of a pan make a huge difference in the way food cooks in it.

We spent an eye-opening evening on eggs, and another on potatoes. My favorite lesson so far, though, has been on tart crusts. What could be better than a flaky, all-butter crust? I’m turning out onion tarts every week at home now, making the crust right on my kitchen counter, with a fork and a scraper, as we learned to do in class. The sweet crust for a dessert tart is even easier, and an apple tart with Greenmarket apples and hand-whipped cream makes a stunning end to a home-cooked meal.

Culinary Techniques has lived up to its name. In almost every class, the chef-instructor stops the work at some point to remind us that we’re learning a particular technique that can be applied in other preparations. When we made blanquette de veau, for example, Chef Tom described how the same technique could be used with other meats. He has taught us classic methods of cooking vegetables, from sautéing and glazing to boiling and roasting, and we’ve learned to make them work for any vegetable.

The running theme of the class, and possibly the heart of French cooking, is that every ingredient is important, and each element of a dish must be considered separately. When I cook a dish at home with different vegetables in it, I usually throw them in the same pan over the course of cooking, overcooking some and undercooking others. In class, we are learning to cook and season everything separately before reheating and assembling at the end. The result is fully realized dishes with married but distinct flavors, such as in the navarin printanier d’agneau, a beautiful stew of lamb and spring vegetables that we learned on Monday night. Being able to taste everything that you’ve worked to prepare is worth dirtying a few extra dishes.

In the final nine lessons, we’ll learn dishes as varied as consommé, pot-au-feu, fish mousseline, and chocolate soufflé. I look forward to using the techniques we’ve already learned, and to adding new ones to my expanding repertoire.