Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Braving the Elements of Funky Foods

I thought I would write about a few situations in my food life where I had to set aside my instincts in order to indulge some culinary delicacies. As I have previously mentioned I am really interested in the art of butchery and this is where some of my icky sticky situations come in. Although I now enjoy  cutting protein, I didn't always. And although I would call myself pretty brave when it comes to trying new foods and working with interesting ingredients, there are plenty of times where I am skeptical. Hopefully these short memoirs will encourage you to stick your neck out in order to further your own culinary adventures.

Something's Fishy
I was immediately fond of cutting fish. It is very satisfying to fillet as close to the bones as possible and yield the most edible product out of a whole fish. The second culinary class I took at school was called Fish Fabrication. We started with a fish fresh from the port, most were already gutted, but primarily the fish looked like a fish- eyes, tongue, tail, scales, and all. The class was not only about taking the fish apart in order to extract the usable pieces, but also about identification and freshness checks. What color is the tongue? picking out the dorsal fin versus the pelvic and anal fins. Are the eyes big and round or kind of droopy? Fish should not smell fishy- fish should smell like the ocean. If it smells fishy it's probably not fresh. All of this knowledge was really neat and I was intrigued. I started filling my spare time by helping fabricate fish after class. What's neat about the CIA is that all of the food is eaten by students and faculty. The fish is cut by students first learning to cut fish and then sent to another classroom full of students who are learning to cook fish and then eaten by students who want fish for lunch. So they need all of the extra help that they can get in order to cut the fish that other classes have ordered. I really mastered the skill. Every day I would spend at least two extra hours cutting fish. So who else you ask was as invested in their education as I was that they were willing to stink up their chefs coat with a few extra hours of fish work? Enter Christopher Buzzelli (who now happens to be my boyfriend).

Some of the fish we received came iced down like this is boxes
And guess who taught the famous super chef Christopher Buzzelli the right way to cut fish- that's me (he may tell you differently). That was our first interaction. I guess he must have been impressed with me. "Girl, the way you scale that fish makes my heart skip a beat." Anyway the fish we fabricated side by side is Skate which is one of the gooiest kinds of fish. It is from the ray family and therefore emits uric acid through its skin. So when cutting it you may find your hands starting to sting. Skate also have thorn like catches on their skin that easily tear open your hands when trying to get to the flesh. But after braving through the thorn patches and wading through the stinging goop, you will find yourself with one beautiful wing of delicate skate meat. I am telling you not to be afraid. Do not fear any whole fish. If it's whole, it's fresh. Although you might be wary of fish in general you have no reason to be. If you are afraid to touch it don't let that make you afraid of eating it, but if you aren't afraid to eating it, you should not be afraid to touch it. Get out there and try something new, you may end up falling in love. 

Don't be a Chicken
Skip a year or so down the road and you will find me on the cusp of graduation. Ready to finish my culinary degree in a great new restaurant on campus; the Bocuse restaurant. Now old news, but then astonishing that modern food was playing such a big roll in the education of CIA students. Not me. I am not into that modern hullabaloo that so many people, including Christopher, love. So what roll would I fall into in this class? The butcher position. Rightfully so I guess. I had an interest a while back which I kind of forgot about and then all the sudden it fell right back into my lap. I didn't have to work with immersion circulators or foams of any kind, I would just fall back onto the classic fabricating techniques that I loved. 

But the one thing I was uncomfortable with was chicken. I had broken down a chicken before, but the memory had not made it into my muscles. And plus raw chicken is probably one of the ingredients I am least fond of. In my opinion chicken doesn't have a lot of flavor unless you brine it or soak it in buttermilk for five days and then fry it. But I just found myself very hesitant about breaking down the chicken. Raw chicken is a bacteria trap right? Well finally my day came and I had to break down 2 whole cases of chicken. 16 chickens per case. So I started with the first chicken, a little grossed out by the sagging skin and the slimy feel. But by the time I got to the 10th chicken, I had it down and after the 32nd chicken, I had rid myself of the grossed out feeling. Sometimes the only way to get over a fear is to face it head on and see what the outcome is. 
Meat Fabrication class making sausage 

Liver Lover
Foie Gras, not a big fan, not at all really. Not because of where it comes from- I am okay with liver- in fact I love a good chicken liver pate smeared over some warm crostini. But I guess the liver combined with the taste just isn't to my liking. I first faced foie gras in my second year at culinary school in a class called Garde Manger. In this class, you are taught primarily about cold food preparations. Pickles, sausages, salads, pates, crackers, and the like. I was given the great task of cleaning the foie gras. It's a lot of work. You have to pull out a million tiny veins tenderly out of the fragile, milky lobes of foie. It's really a pain in the neck. After cleaning the goose liver, we then packed it into a mold where it sat for a while until it had formed into a brick. Then we were expected to spread a slab of it on toast. Let me tell you what it tasted like- Gamey Crisco. As I mentioned- not a fan. Christopher had urged me to try warm foie gras instead of choking it down chilled. But I stood firm with my anti foie gras motion. That is until a few weeks ago when I ate it without knowing. 
Foie Gras Terrine 

Forcemeat made in Garde Manger 

Very often people talk about the fifth flavor (after bitter, sweet, salty, sour): Umami. What is this mysterious oo-mommy? It's pretty much a synonym for savory. But how is something categorized as savory? My answer would be, not sweet, but that's not necessarily correct. It is most often found naturally in meats and vegetables but chefs have to find a way to put it into their dishes without always adding meat or vegetables- they have to find an alternative way to extract it. If you want something salty, you add salt. If something needs to be sweeter, add a form of sugar. Sour, well a lemon or lime. Bitter brings me to dark chocolate or beer. But savory? Many fermented products contain that flavor, as well as kombu (a form of dried seaweed), and MSG. As a side note- MSG is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. In fact, when used in moderation it can add just what any certain dish may need. But a lot of chefs go to great lengths to extract this umami from other ingredients or put two ingredients together in order to create umami, which is the real challenge. Where I most recently found umami was in foie gras. After popping some kernels over the stove, Christopher presented me with his latest popcorn flavor- in the mystery flavor wrapper. A taste I quite couldn't describe, and therefore it was Umami. Instead of tossing my popcorn in butter, Chris had added some softened foie gras and let me tell you, it was delicious. In order to taste new flavors, you have to be willing to try new things. If not all of you are lucky enough to have a trusty side kick who will force feed you the foods you refuse to eat, then I suggest you expand your horizons and do it on your own. I would, I just have inherited a real stubborn streak. 

Tongue Tied
Most recently I have had dealings with a very large beef tongue. The worst part about the tongue is that it looks like a tongue. It really is an oversized human tongue, and it feels like one too only a little bit tougher. I remembered all of those fairs that I traveled to where the calf's tongue felt so smooth sucking on my finger, well apparently not when they grow up. Tough and thick and incredibly textured. So the tongue came into our possession because Chris' parents were so generous as to give us a freezer full of meat to get us through the winter. And of course they figured if anyone knew what to do with a tongue it would be us. So here we are near the end of winter (hopefully) and our freezer has been picked through with only a few things remaining, one of those being the frightening tongue. So I found a recipe and I started the process- first brine the tongue for 5 days. Disgusted I cut the tongue out of the packaged and plopped it into the cooled brining liquid. After the brining period I had to remove the tongue and store it in a plastic bag. It had the feel of that scratchy cat tongue. Again- the only way to describe a tongue is that it looks and feels like a tongue, I know it's a poor description but it's all I've got.
The tongue after cooking and peeling off the outer layer

We found  quite a recipe for tongue sandwiches and while improvising a little here and there we started to cook the tongue in a water bath filled with fresh vegetables. You are able to tell when the tongue is cooked through when you can peel the outer layer off of the meat entirely. That was quite the challenge. It was a struggle of trying not to touch the tongue while attempting to peel the thick skin off at the same time. After braving the tongue debacle, we were able to make the sandwiches with some melted cheese and pickled banana peppers. It was good. I bet if we made it again it would be better the second time because we would know what we were doing, but it really wasn't bad. And although I had to swallow my tongue (so to speak), in order to eat the tongue meat without thinking of it as a tongue, I was really glad that I went out of my comfort zone in order to try something new. Try it, what's the worst that can happen- you don't like it and you never eat it again. But you never know unless you try.
Tongue Sandwiches

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