Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Theater Junkie: Jennifer McLagan visits The FCI

The International Culinary Theater is host to many engaging events throughout the year, including a chef demo program, where top chefs are invited to come share their thoughts and talents with our students. I am still in staggered awe over the bûche de Noël demo Jacques Torres, Dean of the Pastry Arts Program, did in December. Deft and extremely tidy as he worked, he was also extremely entertaining. And there was no little of this and a little of that: Butter was added several sticks at a time, vanilla by the quarts, and enough alcohol in quantities to light up a building. And in all this what looked like kitchen magic, he churned out a beautifully decorated and tasty cake. Ron Ben-Israel, a guest chef at the school, had demo his masterful skills the previous day, and I didn't think it could get any better than that. Interacting with these talented chefs in such an intimate setting is an incredible experience for any foodie or chef-in-the-making. Watching, listening, and tasting gives you so much to learn. My 2010 pastry goal is now to whip out parchment paper cornets (cones), fill them with chocolate and pipe an entire snow village as quickly and dexterously as Jacques Torres and to make a fondant flower with the precision and delicacy of Ron Ben-Israel.

Ron Ben-Israel decorates a Hanukkah cake.

But with the pastry delights of 2009 in the fade, I have eagerly looked forward to who will be showing up in the theater in the New Year. And so far, the future looks bright. Jennifer McLagan of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes fame came to extol the virtues of using animal products: fruit oils are good, butter is better, but why not go for suet (beef or sheep fat from around the kidneys), lard (back fat from pork), or duck fat? After tasting two tea biscuits, one made from suet and the other from duck fat, I would say, Why not indeed? The texture and taste were spot on. And, yes, my mother does roll her biscuits in hot bacon grease before baking them, but I did not feel one ounce of fat guilt after eating these baked goods.

Tea Biscuits made with suet.

Jennifer explained why animal fats can be healthy in a proper diet (nope, I won't give any book spoilers here). We even learned about the origins of Proctor and Gamble (brothers-in-law) and Crisco (cottonseed oil) and what makes it so bad for you (yes, you gotta read the book).

Jennifer then went into the merits of using animal parts—the subject of her next book. I have tried some animal fare outside of the norm, veal brain being one of the favorites, but I had never tasted duck tongue until now. Jeremie Tomczak and Jeremiah Stone (the theater chefs extraordinaire) served them cooked in chicken stock with soy sauce, mirin, sake, fresh ginger, shallots, carrots, coriander, star anise, honey, and vinegar (delicious!). Jennifer also recommended making a confit with duck fat: pulling the tongue out of the fridge as needed, frying them up in a little of the fat, and serving them with a salad of spinach and dandelion greens for the perfect instant meal. Yes, I thought, as I imagined coming home from work to a duck tongue salad with flavorful greens, this is exactly the instant meal I wish I had on hand.

An assortment of animal parts: tripe (far left), pork uterus (top center), goose intestine (top right), beef tongue (above plate), on plate: veal liver (top); duck liver (right); veal heart (center); duck tongues (below)

For our finale, we tasted duck heart and liver with salsa verde, while Jennifer showed us an amazing assortment of fats and body parts. Her recommendation for heart is to keep it rare in the center when cooking, and one suggestion for serving that I want to try at home is to grind beef heart with brisket for an excellent burger. The great advantage of working with these cuts is that beyond being very tasty when prepared right, they are cheap. When everyone else is buying up skinless, boneless chicken breasts, those of us fond of cooking pig ear and duck legs, can eat a plethora of interesting tastes and textures for a lot less.

Duck hearts skewered for cooking.

Jennifer also showed us how to beat cream to a thickened mass of yellow, drain off the buttermilk (the real deal), and pack it away to save for butter toast and baking. Important notes: Make sure your cows have been grass fed and don't forget that butter has seasons (it won't taste the same or have the same butterfat content in summer as it does in winter because cows will be eating dried grains instead of green grasses from the field). As any tongue will tell you: Fat means flavor. I can't wait for Jennifer's next book.

Jennifer McLagan makes her own butter.

Liesel Davis is the editor of and currently a pastry student at The FCI. Her favorite form of exploration is eating.

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