This Week in Culinary School: Externship Week 3

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Three Things That Happened This Week

1)Question: If you were surprised with the task of making the first course of family [staff] meal, what would you do?

  1. take the safe, sure, quick and easy route
  2. use spices you had never used to try to make a wow-em, creative dish

Right.  A wise person would choose #1, but what did I do?

I was given a large case of leftover red onions and red and yellow bell peppers, and told that I could do whatever I want with them, just make it feed 40 and make sure it would be ready in less than 30 minutes.  It was also recommended that I do something simple like make a salad.  So, what I did was spend the first 10 minutes (of my quickly dwindling 30) thinking through various options and gazing dreamily at the jars of spices around the kitchen.

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First, I thought, I’ll make a curry.  Nixed that idea when I found out the entree would be a white sauce pasta.  Hmm.  A stir fry? Nah, too simple.  I thought briefly of trying to make a quick antipasto, but even I realized that would be too much of a gamble, given my quickly vanishing time.  Not to mention that I hadn’t actually cooked anything from start to finish yet, and that the stoves in this kitchen were french tops, not a stove I had ever cooked on before.

So.

I ended up using the peppers and onions (which I had been slicing using my surprisingly dull knife, cardinal sin in any restaurant kitchen, while I was mulling my options).  I did a quick saute, seasoning with garlic, cumin seeds, harissa (how could I not?) and a quick reduction in pomegranate juice.  My initial idea was to top this with toasted walnuts, but unsurprisingly, I ran out of time.  I then thought that I would quickly chill my saute in the blast freezer (like a convection oven, but cold), to use as a salad topping, but I didn’t even have enough time for that.  The line cooks from my station began to worry.  “Have you made the vinaigrette yet?” Um, no.  Thankfully, one of them followed my general idea for a pomegranate juice and cumin based vinaigrette and threw that together while I finished up my dish with a garnish of fresh mint. All’s well that ends well, and I even got some [very prized] compliments, but were I to do it again, I think a quick and simple salad would be the way to go.

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2) In other news this week, I had my first introduction to molecular gastronomy.  The bowl of what looks like orange jello, above, is actually a step in the process of what becomes grapefruit gel (which graces a raw tuna dish).  After freshly squeezing a lot of grapefruit juice, we add some hydrocolloid, in this case powdered agar (derived from seaweed), let it set (in that same blast freezer), then blend it until really smooth.  In it goes into a squeeze bottle, and we are ready to garnish!

3) Getting back to the more mundane, but still useful, I picked up another useful tip.  One of my end of day tasks is to portion couscous by weight into cups, ready for dinner service. One of the line cooks saw me weighing out the portions one by one, changing containers each time.  He helpfully got me another (larger) scale, a tray to balance on top, and taught me an assembly line method of fitting as many containers as I could at a time on the tray, and zeroing the scale in between.  It may not sound like it would make a big difference, but every second counts in the kitchen, especially when you’re weighing out 50+ containers.  You might not have to do this at home, but think of other repetitive tasks you do at work or at home, and use the same principle.  It might change your life.

Thanks for coming along on this journey through culinary school! If you’re curious to see what I learned in school, please scroll back to see my weekly posts over the last four months. And come back for more highlights from my externship!

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