This Week in Culinary School: Externship Week 6


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Top Three Things I Did This Week

  1. Playing with Spices– Here I am in my happy place again, surrounded by spices, some familiar, and some new to me.  I’ve started to open up spice jars which pique my curiosity for a whiff and a taste.  I tasted three mixes which conjure faraway lands– mecalef, ras el hanout and zhug.  Mecalef is an Egyptian spice mix which tastes like very spicy chai spice to me, with prominent notes of cardamom and black pepper.  It can also contain allspice, ginger, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon and rose, and is traditionally used for chicken and vegetable dishes.  Ras el Hanout is the classic spice mix of Moroccan cuisine (often used to season lamb at the restaurant) and means “head of the shop.”  It contains loads of spices, all blends being proprietary, but to me tasted prominently of cumin, coriander and cayenne.  Per Wikipedia, “There is no definitive composition of spices that makes up ras el hanout. Each shop, company, or family may have their own blend. The mixture usually consists of over a dozen spices, in different proportions, although some purists insist that it must contain exactly 12 items. Commonly used ingredients include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, and dry turmeric. Some spices may be particular to the region, such as ash berries, chufa, grains of paradise, orris root, monk’s pepper, cubebs, dried rosebud, fennel seed or aniseed, galangal, long pepper.”  And below is zhug, a dried version of a Yemeni hot sauce which contains chiles as well as coriander, garlic, cumin. black pepper, cardamom and cloves.  It’s spicy, but the “hot!” warning on the label makes me laugh, since most of the spice blends in the restaurant are also spicy.


2.Private Lessons–  Monday was Memorial Day, and the restaurant was closed for the lunch shift I had been scheduled to work.  Rather than take a holiday, I asked if I could take the day as an opportunity to do more production and learn how to make the Moroccan “mother sauces”: green and red charmoula and harissa.  A restaurant is not really run like a school, even for apprentices like myself, but happily the chefs agreed to give me a chance to make these sauces at my request.  Making restaurant quantities of anything takes a lot of labor, but I am so glad I had a chance to learn how to make these.   Green charmoula can be thought of as a Moroccan salsa verde, with parsley, cilantro, garlic and preserved lemons.  It’s used to season fish and meat dishes.  Harissa can be thought of as the “Sriracha” of Morocco and other parts of Northern Africa, and is a tomato, chili and preserved lemon based sauce seasoned with cumin and herbs, which makes an excellent accompaniment to meat and vegetable dishes as well as couscous.

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3.  Mastering the Station– while a week into running my own station, I am very comfortable plating all of the dishes, this week I had to face the task of managing the inventory each day, with a few particular challenges, which included cutting sticky round things (pickled eggplant) into tiny little cubes (brunoise), as well as shucking oysters, which I hadn’t really done until last week and am far from a master of, but getting better at it (by sheer necessity).

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– just 1 week left to go!


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