Saturday, April 6, 2013

Practically Perfect

I mentioned earlier this week that I was busy studying for my cooking practical. There are two cooking practicals you must pass in order to graduate from the CIA; one is a second term practical which is comprised of six possible menus that are all dishes that you are taught to make in the class prior to the practical. Both practicals allot 2.5 hours to complete a first course, main course, vegetable, and starch. Last year, Chris and I spent the thirteen hours before our practical detailing every timeline we would need in order to be the most successful. Chris and I both passed the practical last year with a 74- "twinning". It was not our best, but we both found that working under the pressure and to the preferences of the Chef you are assigned is very difficult.

This year, our practical was composed of two parts; an oral section composed of ten questions out of a possible 300+ (all of the knowledge that we have learned in the past 15 months of school). While for people like Christopher, this is easy because of a photographic memory, I am more of a hands on learner, and unless I made a consomme last week, I probably could not repeat the ratio of the ingredients without much studying. The other part was again a possibility of six different menus, ranging from Pan Fried pork Cutlet, Shallow Poach Salmon with Sauce Vin Blanc, Chicken Fricasee, and the "normal" "traditional" sort. Now as I stated, last year, we took a whole class that helped us prepare and practice for the dishes that we may "pull" on the practical, but this year- no such luck. The only time I have ever poached a chicken breast was to make chicken salad, I have never before made ratatouille, and sauce piquante is foreign to me. Luckily, Chris and I came up with the plan to practice for our practical over Easter in my mom's kitchen. She was generous enough to provide us with the ingredients we would need (of course we promised to work it off), and we took a couple hours away from the family and started Cheffing. I insisted that we pretend that I was taking a first time class, and Chris teach me like he was my instructor, in order for me to pick up all of the tips and assumptions that I had forgotten. It was pretty fun. We broke down two chickens, made three different hollandaise sauces, and experimented with three different ways to sear a steak. It was much more effective than listening to a chef lecture on about the eight pieces you cut a chicken into because Chris was able to hold his hand over my hand and control the knife so that I could feel the cuts that needed to be made. I think my dad walked into the kitchen when Chris was explaining that I was whisking wrong, and stood behind me using my arm to whisk in order to show me the correct technique. Pretty comical. I'm not really afraid to admit that I could not make a hollandaise by myself, it's tough stuff. And while most people have mastered it, I find there are more important things in life. But luckily I made two batches that came out alright after Christopher demoed the first. We tested out three ways to sear a steak; 1) salt and pepper sear 2)floured 3)smothered in beef base. After tasting each steak, I decided that I enjoyed the taste of the floured steak best, and we moved on.

Because Buzzelli is close to the top of the alphabet, Christopher's practical was scheduled for the first day, which was Wednesday and he stayed up late Tuesday night preparing his mise en place. Early the next morning he set out to defeat the practical. Wednesday was pretty tough for me. Usually I am in the kitchen with him, and I get to see his reactions to situations. From 6:30-11:30 I heard nothing. I had no idea what menu he pulled, if he had cut his finger off, whether or not his expression told everyone he could handle his dish, or if he was running around like a chicken with it's head cut off. (For those of you who do not know Chris, he is a very calm individual, who has never been caught running around like a chicken with it's head cut off, and can handle any situation, but still how was I to know what was going on?) I received a text message that said 72, and immediately I let out a breath. He then sent me a message explaining that he had pulled the Shallow poach sole with sauce vin blanc, and Roast Beef Jus Lie with potatoes au gratin, broccoli rabe, and grilled vegetables. This was a pretty difficult menu that we had both hoped to avoid. In order to make the sauce for the fish, you had to take the bones from the fish and create a fish fumet, which needs to cook around 40 minutes, from that you were required to make a veloute, which is the fumet mixed with cream to make a sauce, which needs to cook around 40 minutes as well. Then you must shallow poach the fish in some of the fumet, add the veloute and continue to make the vin blanc sauce. Very labor intensive, and plus that is not all you have to complete within the two hour time period. When he returned I welcomed him with open arms. Chris is the best cook I know, and he was exhausted. He told the whole tale as I eagerly hung on each of his words, flooding him with questions. I felt a little better knowing some of the parameters of the kitchen, and ingredients available etc. I started adjusting my timelines and recipes to fit the updated information I had received from Chris. Still I was nervous.

Friday morning I woke up at five fifteen and leapt out of bed, only to cover back up because I still had an hour to rest. Later, I jumped in the shower and dressed quickly. Chris had allowed me to borrow his knife kit, and as I slung the over sized heavy over my shoulder. He sent me off with well wishes and with a hop in my step I started out for the practical kitchen. I wasn't the first to start, and I helped others get set up before I was called over to complete my questions. I struggled through the first few, but once I got rolling I was golden. I ended up completing all of the questions and ending up with the correct answer for each; my day was off to a good start. I pulled the card for station two which was the Sauteed strip steak with ratatouille, string beans, french fries and marchand de vin sauce. For the first course, I would have to prepare a deep poach salmon with hollandaise sauce- gulp. I set up my station before my start time and got all of the equipment I would need. My entire stove top was filled and I was minutes away from starting.

I started out skinning a salmon side and cutting what I needed for my deep poach. I then got my court bouillon (a stock of vegetables that I would use for poaching) on the stove and started my reduction of shallots, wine, and vinegar for my hollandaise. I cut all of my vegetables for my ratatouille and trimmed spinach, green beans, and potatoes. I found out that two and a half hours is a lot of time. The first hour I just took deep breaths, and made my way through the prep making sure to stay clean. I made my ratatouille and put it on the back burner, being sure to remember what an instructor told me once-that ratatouille is all about eggplant and not so much about the tomato. When I had one hour left, I kicked it into high gear and strained my stock as well as my reduction. I seasoned my steak and then floured it just as I had practiced. The chef immediately turned to me and chanted "You NEVER flour a steak, NEVER. NEVER." I was shocked, because of course I didn't just decide to flour it on a whim, I had practiced and tasted the floured steak. I removed the other two steaks that were reserved in the fridge and seasoned them. That threw me for a little loop but then I got back on track, started my deep poach and then started to sear my steak. After about six minutes I removed the salmon and was unhappy to see that a corner flaked off. Over-poached: darn. Oh well I kept moving. I rested my meat and got my ingredients ready to make my hollandaise. I threw some garlic in a pan for my spinach, and finished my sauce for the steak. After two batches of burnt garlic, I got the spinach down and started with the hollandaise. In my head Chris was saying, don't slap the whisk down on the bowl, use the shape of the bowl to your advantage." I just kept hearing his voice in my ear telling me that I could do it, and encouraging me to whisk a little longer. Then I started to add the butter and it came out great. I was beaming with pride. Even if I failed my entire practical, I made a hollandaise by myself, and it tasted good too. I plated my bed of spinach in a ring mold, topped with the tranche of salmon and yellow hollandaise cascading down the fish. I rushed up to the judging table and scurried back to my station to finish my steak. I dropped my fries into the oil, having already blanched them once. The oil was obviously too hot because I immediately heard the bubble when the potatoes hit the surface. I hurried to remove them and they had just achieved a good golden color. I tasted one, but they were not cooked through, so I dropped them again finally achieving the golden brown and delicious that I had been looking for. I heated my steak and green beans and started to plate. I looked around to see what I was missing. I had placed a pan on top of my ratatouille pot and almost forgot about it. Luckily it was still hot and I spooned it onto my plate arriving at the table two minutes after my expected time.

 I sat with the Chef and listened as he critiqued my food. He loved the french fries right off the bat and said that they were perfect crispness. He then started over with the first course. He asked me what I thought and I admitted that the fish was over cooked. He and I agreed that we could see the albumin remnants. He awarded me with a 4.5/5 for my hollandaise which made me so happy, and docked some points for my spinach being grainy from lack of proper cleaning. I got a perfect score on my ratatouille, and french fries. My steak was unevenly cooked and I had garnished my steak with the sauce on top when it should have been beneath the steak. My sauce had too much butter in it and therefore did not stay emulsified so I got some points off there, but it tasted good. The string beans were seasoned well and cooked satisfactory. I held my breath as he added up the points. "station was pretty clean, you worked well, and were about four minutes late all together. Six here, a few points off here, point five because you floured the first steaks and.....Eighty two." I let out the same breath I had been holding since Chris had told me his score. I happily cleaned up and rushed off to send Chris the message. He responded with, "excellent, so proud, you're a super star!" I was very proud, and I rushed to cleanup and get back to him. It was a glorious day outside and we went for a walk as I told him the story of the day.

Luck was definitely on my side that day. If I had been the one out of the two of us to take my practical first, the nerves probably would have gotten to me. And if I did not have Chris's voice in the background easing me through my test, I am not sure that I would have made it. Out of the two of us, Chris is a way better cook than I am. Luckily, I did not receive the same menu that he did, and I pulled an easier one. The prayers my friends and family were sending my way helped, and with Christopher's help, I was happy to pull away with a win.

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