This Week in Culinary School: Week 6

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Top Three Things I Learned This Week

Continuing on the major and rapid improvement in my class’ cooking abilities after midterms 2 weeks ago, we covered a lot of ground this week, both inside and outside the classroom.  This week’s focus was on techniques.

1.Anatomy and Butchery– when people ask me what holes I have in my culinary skills, top of my list is always “butchery.” Not that I have any intention of ever working as a butcher, but for a vegetable-focused cook like me, I’ve never been as comfortable with how to manage animal proteins, and for better or for worse, meat is central to many people’s diets.  So it was with both trepidation but also curiosity that I learned about “breaking down” several different types of “protein” this week, including lamb, poultry and fish and shellfish.

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We began with a workshop from Dave the Butcher from local Marina Meats, who brought in a whole lamb.  We all took turns breaking it down into culinary cuts.  If I hadn’t already spent a great deal of time learning human anatomy from a human cadaver years ago,I would have been more intimidated by the 80 lb whole lamb on the table, whole except for its head and skin (thankfully).  Whether or not you eat meat, seeing it closer to its source will stir up some emotions.   The care and respect with which Dave sources and handles meat was a reminder to be appreciative of the source of your meat.

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While “taking down” a chicken was something we learned early on, this week we learned a new technique of deboning chicken which involves only one major cut, leaving basically a deboned but intact chicken at the end which then gets stuffed with a chicken mixture and resewn into an approximation of its original shape, to make a ballotine.  I found myself remembering an old Far Side cartoon of a “boneless chicken ranch.”  Once roasted and sliced, a ballotine looks like this:

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2.  Knife Skills Redux and Quenelles– again, more technique.  Unlike some of my classmates, I’m not gadget or a technically oriented person, but I do appreciate mastering a new challenge.  The two cuts we learned this week were much less challenging than the tourne I described a few weeks ago: turning “olives” from zucchini and the roll cut.  Both of these make an attractive and evenly cooking presentation of vegetables.

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We also learned how to make quenelles, which are basically egg-shaped scoops formed by using two spoons.

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3. Fish and Shellfish– we learned a lot about life in our oceans and streams.  The chapter on fish and shellfish in our main textbook, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, was actually my favorite chapter so far, addressing the biology, sustainability and well as cooking techniques of food from our waters.  We also had a fascinating field trip to Monterey Fish Market, a major supplier of fish and shellfish to the Bay Area and beyond.  We learned about the strict protocol to keep seafood fresh and safe, and the factors affecting the health of our oceans and our fish and shellfish supply.  Monterey Fish Market has an excellent website with links to educational resources if you’re interested in reading more.

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After our field trip , we learned how to prepare fish and shellfish in countless ways. One of our favorite recipes was a calamari stew with both a spicy sauce and name– the recipe known as “Two-Minute Calamari, Sicilian Lifeguard Style.”  This is a tomato-based stew of quickly cooked calamari involving the heat of both chili flakes and jalapeño, as well as pine nuts, capers, currants, couscous and almonds.  I was curious to see how this dish got its name, and it turns out, it’s not an ancient Sicilian recipe.  It’s Mario Batali’s signature dish, about which he confesses: “I have never actually met a Sicilian lifeguard, but if one were to cook up a pot of calamari, this is how he or she might make it.”  While this recipe apparently graces the menu at Babbo, it’s also widely available on the web: try it!

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Thanks for coming by! If you’re curious what it’s like to be in culinary school, check out my previous posts and also come back weekly for my latest updates. I’ll be sharing tips, ingredients, and recipe ideas straight from the classroom. And for more healthy cooking and eating tips, join my community on Facebook at The Doctor’s Spicebox. To your health!

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