Pooped from puffs

"Does anyone ever ask you if you have a case of the Mondays?"

I'll never forget that line from one of my favorite movies of all time, Office Space. Today, I'm afraid, I was afflicted by such "case" and just couldn't muster much enthusiasm for our multiple batches of pate a choux. Maybe I just didn't get enough sleep. Or maybe day after day of being on my feet (and then writing about it) is catching up with me. It might be time to scale back my efforts before I collapse like an under-baked profiterol. 

So that I can go to bed at a reasonable hour, I am only posting some photos and comments of what we did in class today. Sorry, but it's Monday!

Pate a choux (a cooked dough made with flour, water, butter, and eggs) was piped onto sheet trays and topped with "craquelins", a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and butter that is rolled and cut into circles. Wait until you see how they bake...

Pate a choux (a cooked dough made with flour, water, butter, and eggs) was piped onto sheet trays and topped with "craquelins", a mixture of brown sugar, flour, and butter that is rolled and cut into circles. Wait until you see how they bake...

Once baked, the puffs have an attractive crackly finish 

Once baked, the puffs have an attractive crackly finish 

Pate a choux being piped into mini eclair shapes

Pate a choux being piped into mini eclair shapes

...and poof!

...and poof!

The mini pastries were filled with chocolate cream and dipped in ganache.

The mini pastries were filled with chocolate cream and dipped in ganache.

Crepes, the only flat thing we made all day, were layered with cooked apples and almonds and stacked into a Gateaux a la Normande.

Crepes, the only flat thing we made all day, were layered with cooked apples and almonds and stacked into a Gateaux a la Normande.


It's Southern food, y'all!

Fried chicken. Barbecue. Hush puppies. Peach cobbler. Many iconic American dishes come to mind when you think about Southern food. But beyond the clichés is a world of nuanced flavor that combines centuries-old influences from West Africa with quintessentially American ingredients like corn and bourbon.

Black pepper and herbs dotted the dough for our biscuit dumplings

Black pepper and herbs dotted the dough for our biscuit dumplings

Endless rows of coin-sized goodness

Endless rows of coin-sized goodness

Barry Maiden (of Hungry Mother) joined us in the kitchen last Thursday for a quick discussion on the cuisine of his native Virginia and the surrounding southern states. He passed around a dish of different grains that looked like a textural paint palette. There were toasty benne seeds (similar to sesame), reddish field peas, ground blue corn, hominy, white grits, and yellow grits—all of which get put to use in the Hungry Mother kitchen. The grains were from heirloom producer Anson Mills. "I honestly don't know what I would do without them," said Maiden who goes through about 60 pounds of their Antebellum coarse grits every week.

Deviled crab waiting to be served

Deviled crab waiting to be served

We got to cook and taste some of this superior ground corn when we made grits with smoked cheese and Tasso ham for family meal (a snack for us students before things got too hectic). As the afternoon ticked away, we became quite busy preparing the dishes that would be served at the public event that evening. Sixty ticket-holding Hungry Mother fans were coming to hear Barry speak about Southern food and to taste a sampling of his dishes.

Anson Mills grits were topped with yellow and smoked cheddar, Tasso ham, and broiled 'till bubbly

Anson Mills grits were topped with yellow and smoked cheddar, Tasso ham, and broiled 'till bubbly

The night started with pimento cheese gougeres with Surryano ham (a Southern riff on Serrano ham, but smoked) and red pepper jelly. The savory puffs were simultaneously rich and delicate. Next was a serving of deviled crab that was dusted with bourbon-smoked paprika and topped with a perfect, seedless lemon wedge (my teammate and I meticulously cut and inspected each one). Then it was on to old-fashioned chicken and dumplings. Chef Maiden created an elevated version of this classic by having us make coin-sized biscuits that were par-baked before being poached in the stew. Each mini bowl received 5 dumplings along with a ladle-full of thickened chicken stock, shredded meat, carrots, and celery. I didn't see an unhappy face the entire night.

Hearing Barry talk about food in his slight Southern drawl made me realize how meaningful it is to cook with a sense of "self terroir". I'm not talking about the soil or environment that produced the ingredients (though that's important too), but rather the environment that produced the chef. Barry strongly identifies with the foods he was raised on and they have become a part of him. By cooking what he knows best, he is able to give his customers an intimate, heart-felt dining experience. They may come looking for fried chicken but they leave with a new understanding of Southern cuisine.

A grown man yelped like a little girl. Young women shuddered with revulsion. Others simply turned away. Yet despite my palpitating heart, today I successfully dismembered a live animal with my own hands then ate it 20 minutes later. It was an adrenaline rush.

Pan-roasted lobster with bourbon butter and cream sauce

Pan-roasted lobster with bourbon butter and cream sauce

The matter at hand was Summer Shack's famous pan-roasted lobster. Our instructor Max Harvey—a former sous chef from the popular New England-themed restaurant—walked us through the process that began with cutting a live lobster into 6 pieces. First the claws are twisted off, then with a heavy knife and a swift wrist, the head is removed. Still working quickly, the body is split lengthwise then crosswise. The key to the dish is roasting the morsels of meat over high heat. Max explained that the slight caramelization of the shell imparts a pleasant nutty flavor and enhances the cream-based sauce. After tasting the finished dish, I would agree.

Spanish mackerel ceviche with grapefruit

Spanish mackerel ceviche with grapefruit

Though the squirming crustacean was the highlight, I don't want it to overshadow the bountiful array of fish we worked with today. Max owns a seafood distribution company (with his old boss from Summer Shack, Jasper White) and unloaded a boatload of ocean delights on our classroom. We started with a selection of oysters that were first eaten raw ("cocktail sauce is for amateurs" according to Max), then later tossed into a creamy stew. Sea scallops were seared by one group and prepared as a crudo by another. Smelts were floured, fried, and served with spicy mayonnaise. Slick Spanish mackerel was transformed into a citrusy ceviche with grapefruit, cilantro and chile (good job my group!). Shell-on shrimp were pan-roasted Louisiana-style with lots of garlic, butter, and Worcestershire. Striped bass was cut into steaks, seared, and roasted with puttanesca sauce. There was monkfish and steamed Jonah crab and a whole salt-encrusted black bass. Phew! Everywhere you looked there was fish.

Steaks of striped bass are hidden under a blanket of spicy puttanesca sauce

Steaks of striped bass are hidden under a blanket of spicy puttanesca sauce

We were fortunate to be exposed to so many species and I felt lucky to have the opportunity to practice such a specialized butchering skill. Never having chopped up a live lobster before, it made me feel like I really earned the right to eat that meat. That's a feeling I don't get when opening a can of tuna or pulling a package of chicken thighs from the freezer. It was thrilling to have such a close connection to my food, but more importantly it was empowering. 

What is Spanish cuisine?

Think of Spanish cuisine and giant flat pans of seafood paella with protruding shrimp heads may come to mind. The famous saffron-flavored rice is often mistaken as the national dish, but it is really only eaten in and around Valencia along the eastern coast. Traditional Spanish food is highly regional so today we moved beyond the stereotypes and prepared potaje (a Lenten soup of salt cod, chickpeas, and spinach), conejo a la cazadora (braised rabbit), and tarta de aceite (orange and olive oil cake). We also sipped two types of sherry with some simple tapas.

Tapas and sherry

Tapas and sherry

Deborah Hansen, chef/owner of Taberna de Haro, was our teacher and guide for the day. Deborah lived in Spain for many years (she ran a restaurant in Madrid) and gave us a whirlwind tour of the country's diverse regions and their accompanying specialties—like cooling gazpacho in the hot south and "feisty" blue cheese in the mountainous north. After the lecture, we began the afternoon with gildas (bite-size skewers of anchovies, olives, and cornichons) and alcachofas con jamon (artichoke hearts sauteed with garlic and serrano ham). The little salty treats were washed down with Manzanilla and Fino sherry. The first was bone dry, lean and bright with mineral-y seafood notes. The second, a bit darker and nuttier. Neither had a trace of sugar—another cliché debunked.

Hunter's rabbit

Hunter's rabbit

After gulping down the sherry we were all pleasantly buzzed and ready to face the rabbits. It's funny how such a common protein in Europe faces such hesitation in the States. But Deborah helped us put things into perspective. "Sticking them in cages as pets is the weird thing," she said. "Eating them is normal!" With cleavers and knives in hand, we broke down the 4-legged critters into 10 pieces and began the browning process for the braise. The flavorings included wine, tomato paste, leeks, dried lavender, mushrooms, and herbs. Similar to coq au vin, the meat and liquids simmer together to create a richly brown and flavorful sauce.

Tender olive oil cake infused with the juice and zest of 2 oranges and 1 lemon

Tender olive oil cake infused with the juice and zest of 2 oranges and 1 lemon

I don't know what I was expecting when I saw "Spain" on our calendar of classes. Maybe tapas. Maybe the ubiquitous tortilla Espanola. Certainly not a delicious and healthy soup made from salt cod, chick peas, spinach and egg. And definitely not a world of sherries that can pair with foods like anchovies and artichokes. I've never been to Spain, but when I do I'll be sure to drink Sherry with every meal and will not expect to find authentic paella in Madrid.

*A note on photography. I've become increasingly frustrated with the quality of photographs I've been able to produce during class time. The lighting is not ideal and there is nothing but stainless steel counters and white plates everywhere you look. To top it off, we seem to be making a lot of brown food lately. As a designer and aspiring food stylist/photographer, this bums me out. But here's hoping that the upcoming weeks will bring a splash of color and visual inspiration. Until then, hang in there!

Rest = reward

Every living thing needs time to relax. Worn out culinary students need a week off to recuperate from the bustle of the kitchen (thank you spring break). And artisan bread dough—alive with active yeasts and structural transformations—needs a good amount of downtime before it can behave at its best. Time equals taste. Fermentation equals flavor. Let me explain.

All bread is essentially made from the same ingredients; flour, water, yeast, and salt. Yet depending on how long the dough is fermented (left alone so the yeasts can feed on the sugars and produce carbon dioxide), you can achieve a variety of results. The kind of bread I lust after in places like Clear Flour Bread in Brookline is most likely the result of a multi-day process that gives the dough plenty of time to develop intense flavor and desirable texture. 

I learned this today from former restaurant and bakery owner Priscilla Martel who guided us through the basics of bread within the constraints of our 4-hour class. There would be no overnight ferment or retarding in the refrigerator (slow-rise standards), but she assured us we would still get good results. We reviewed 3 methods for mixing dough—by hand, in a stand mixer (add water first), and in a Cuisinart (add flour first). Then the shaggy rounds were kneaded in order to develop the very important gluten structure. After doubling in size, we shaped the puffed-up blubber into neat balls for proofing. This is a critical step that establishes the final shape of the bread, and something I was dying to get right.

I've done a little bit of baking at home, but can never seem to perfect the art of shaping. From watching Priscilla, I learned that the key is to use the friction of the work surface to your advantage. The drag of the dough against the counter helps stretch it and forms a taut skin that allows the bread to hold its shape. At one point when shaping baguettes, I even wet my hands so the dough would have just the right amount of tack. I think I finally got it!

The wheat and walnut boule had a bit of rye flour, ground pepper, and coriander and was leavened with a combination of natural starter and commercial yeast.

The wheat and walnut boule had a bit of rye flour, ground pepper, and coriander and was leavened with a combination of natural starter and commercial yeast.

Our shaped dough was proofed (left to rest in a warm place) until it no longer sprang back when touched with one finger. The loaves were slashed and sent to the ovens. Our productivity paid off in a seemingly endless array of bakery goodness. There were chewy NY-style bagels, classic French baguettes, wheat and walnut boules, flats of rosemary focaccia, and sandwich loaves of cinnamon swirl oatmeal bread.

See what a little rest can do?

Ciao Sicilia!

Sicilian food is very close to my heart. My grandparents on both sides emigrated from the island in the early 1900s along with droves of other immigrants seeking a brighter future. I was especially close to my maternal grandmother whose rustic cooking and love of good food left me with a deliciously savory taste that lingers until this day. Much of what she used to make was recreated in class with long time television host and cookbook author, Mary Ann Esposito.

The fried arancini were kept warm in the deck oven before service.

The fried arancini were kept warm in the deck oven before service.

What a thrill it was to see my culinary heritage come to life. The ambitious menu—which included sfincione, aranicini, pescespada (swordfish) with caponata, fennel and orange salad, and cream puffs—was prepared by the students for a public event being held in the evening. Mary Ann would be giving a talk and demonstration of the Sicilian specialties while we buzzed around in the kitchen, churning out platter after platter of small plates. It was our first time cooking for the public and we reveled in the excitement.

Anchovies being pressed into dough for sfincione

Anchovies being pressed into dough for sfincione

We broke into teams and mostly focused on one recipe each. My teammates and I were in charge of the sfincione, a Sicilian pizza with thick, fluffy crust. The quadruple batch of dough (we were cooking for 60 people!) was mixed by hand and left to rise while we prepped the sauce and toppings. Two different cheeses, sharp provolone and mellow mozzarella, were cut into tiny bits. Breadcrumbs were toasted and blended with dried oregano. Anchovies were chopped. And a simple sauce was made from onions and crushed tomatoes that were simmered in lots of Sicilian olive oil. After the risen dough was stretched onto full sheet pans, bits of anchovies were scattered and pressed in, a thin layer of sauce was smeared, and it was anointed with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and cheese. The ingredients weren't exactly the same, but this style of pizza was very similar to my grandmother's. Thick, tender crust with sparingly-applied but flavorful toppings.

The finished sfincione had a thick but light crust

The finished sfincione had a thick but light crust

Another team focused on the arancini—Sicilian rice balls with a meat ragu center and a crisp, breaded exterior. My grandmother used to make these every Easter and my mother now continues the tradition. For my family, it usually entails a 3-day process that begins with making homemade chicken stock, then creamy risotto. But today, the students made them from start to finish in a matter of hours. Mary Ann's method differs from my family's, but what I've come to realize is that iconic Sicilian dishes can vary slightly depending on the region or village. The recipes morphed even further when immigrants came to America and made do with what they had on hand (my grandmother colored her rice with a bit of crushed tomato instead of saffron). Regardless of the type of rice or filling, the balls—which are named for their resemblance to oranges—are always breaded and deep-fried.

Plated salads before the addition of oil-cured black olives

Plated salads before the addition of oil-cured black olives

Then there was the caponata, a vegetable dish I often make in the summer and have published in the Boston Globe. It consists of eggplant, celery, onions, capers, and olives that are cooked in oil, vinegar, and sugar. Used as an antipasto or topping, it has what Italians call "agrodolce" which means a sweet and sour flavor. Mary Ann's version contained an unexpected ingredient—cocoa. It acted like a mellow liaison for all the contrasting flavors. She explained that this was a traditional old-world ingredient brought to Sicily by one of the many cultures that conquered the island. Was it the Arabs? No. Must have been the Spanish.

I obviously had a special connection with the dishes that were prepared in today's class. It's funny, I think when you grow up with a strong connection to the food of your heritage, you develop a sort of elitism about how certain things should be made. I always assumed that the way my grandmother cooked her arancini was the only way to cook arancini. But subsequent trips to Sicily (and now this class with chef Esposito) have shown me the nuances of regional variations and personal adaptations. In the words of Mary Ann herself, "cooking should be about what you like."

Cooking. Art or craft?

Restaurant. Menu. Chef. Sauce. Marinade. Sauté. These are all words invented by the French that are now ubiquitous within the world of food. Throughout history, classic French techniques have formed the foundation of most professional cooking and continue to be fundamental to modern cuisine. Today's class began with a lecture and presentation by Rollie Wesen—an accomplished chef and instructor at Johnson & Wales who also happens to be the son-in-law of Jacques Pepin.

My team's bouillabaisse

My team's bouillabaisse

First we discussed the differences between classic French cuisine and regional cuisine. Basically, French food falls into two categories—haute cuisine or fine dining (think Escoffier or Thomas Keller) and bistro cooking which is essentially French comfort food (steak frites, cassoulet). Chef Wesen then posed the question, "Is cooking an art or a craft"? I see it as a craft. It's a skill that is developed and honed from years of repetition. Of course, there is artistry involved, but I see that as the icing on the cake, so to speak. Rollie made the analogy of a great pop singer, say Taylor Swift, who doesn't just write a song in some inspired, cathartic moment, and then move on. She has to perform that song, over and over again with consistency for years to come until it becomes a classic.

Salad Lyonaise with my teammate Vanessa's perfect poached eggs

Salad Lyonaise with my teammate Vanessa's perfect poached eggs

Dishes on our afternoon menu, like bouilliabaisse and coq au vin, have become French classics because of cooks who have mastered their craft. As culinary students just starting out, it's important to master the basic techniques before we move on to the artistry.  So we moved into the kitchen to take on the classics with the utmost care and attention to detail. We braised the coq au vin—a savory stewed chicken with red wine, mushrooms, and pearl onions—then the bouillabaisse, a fisherman's stew with lobster, haddock, mussels and shrimp. The broth was scented with onions, fennel, chile flakes, wine, and saffron—it was like an elixir for my perpetual winter sore throat. We whisked fresh vinaigrette for our salad Lyonaise made with frisee, lardons of bacon, croutons, and topped with poached eggs. Then it was on to the steak Diane, a bistro classic invented in New York by a French chef. The steak is seared, then the browned bits are deglazed with shallots, mushrooms, demi glace, cream, brandy, mustard, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. It was a good day to sample everyone's results! Like chef Wesen said, "French regional cuisine never goes out of style".

Elemental cookies

Munch, crunch, no room for lunch—today we gorged on cookies. Chef Janine Sciarappa, a graduate of the BU culinary program, spent the day with us discussing the fundamentals of pastry and helping us successfully bake three different kinds of sweet treats. The recipes were basic, but the hope was that with a solid foundation and more practice, we would begin to feel confident attempting our own recipes and flavor combinations.

Left to right: diamond sable cookies, cantuccini, and graham crackers

Left to right: diamond sable cookies, cantuccini, and graham crackers

We began with cantuccini, a classic Italian almond biscotti that is traditionally served with a sweet wine called Vin Santo. The simple almond-studded dough was blended by hand and shaped into logs that were baked until firm. Diagonal slices then transformed the logs into the biscotti shape we are all familiar with. The word means "twice cooked" in Italian, so the slices were put back in the oven to turn crisp and brown. Perfect for dunking.

S'mores will never be the same again now that we've all made our own graham crackers. The buttery and toothsome rounds were made from a mixture of all-purpose and graham flours, butter, cinnamon, and honey. Instead of a labor-intensive cutting technique, we simply rolled out the dough and cut circles with a cookie cutter. To be honest, I was looking forward to channeling my inner perfectionist with a ruler and fluted pastry wheel, but the circle cutters did just fine. 

I did literally get my hands right into the baking process when we mixed sable dough on our work surface, the old-world way. Sables (pronounced SAH-bles) are a classic French shortbread cookie that have a fine, sandy texture. To form layers of butter (similar to pie dough), we kneaded the dry ingredients into the fat using long strokes with the heel of our hand. This dough was also rolled into a log, but to make them even prettier, they were brushed with egg and dusted with sanding sugar before being sliced and baked. The finished cookies were crisp, petite, and lightly browned—impossible to eat just one.

As an avid home baker, I found today's recipes quite familiar and easy to understand. My partner Sam and I made pretty quick work of the 3 batches of cookies. But Janine will be coming back later in the semester and I look forward to learning some more advanced pastry techniques like pate-a-choux (the base for eclairs and cream puffs), cake decorating, and French macarons. Stay tuned for more pastry with Janine in the coming weeks.

Good to the grain

Grains are boring, right? They are the workhorses of the world's cuisines, providing neutral backdrops for more interesting sauces, vegetables, or proteins, but rarely playing the starring role. Maybe so, but this afternoon, chef Chris Douglass returned to show our class the sexier side of rice, wheat, and corn.

Farro salad

Farro salad

We took the pantry staples out of dullsville with recipes for lemon risotto, cheesy polenta, toasty almond bulgur, red quinoa with yogurt sauce, and herby farro salad. To practice two different techniques and understand rice varieties, we also cooked plain basmati and Carolina Gold rice. The aromatic basmati was steamed on the stove with a tight fitting lid fashioned out of a paper-towel-wrapped plate. Only salt and a bit of butter was added. For the Carolina Gold—an American heirloom variety—we used the "pasta technique" where grains are boiled in a large quantity of water, then drained. The tender rice is then spread on a sheet tray to dry in the oven.

Risotto, something I like to make at home, was prepared with the traditional technique of adding ladles full of hot stock to the rice a little at a time. The constant stirring is what releases the starches and makes it creamy, but butter and grated Parmesan helped enrich it. To add some zing, fresh lemon juice and zest were stirred in just before serving. The finished dish was a perfect example of how a humble grain can be elevated to entrée status.

Farro, another heirloom grain that is said to be an ancestor of wheat, was simmered in a mixture of apple juice, cider vinegar, and water. The sweet-tart flavor infused the meaty kernels with a subtle fruity flavor. Once cooled, it was tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, arugula, mint, parsley, grape tomatoes, sliced radishes, and shaved Parmesan. This beautifully composed salad that doubles as a meal had it all—nutty texture from the farro, freshness from the greens and herbs, crunch from the crisp radishes, and a salty punch from the shaved cheese. Definitely a keeper.

Chef Chris took our cooled polenta, cut it into triangles, topped with butter and Parmesan and baked it until golden. Then he added a savory mushroom sauce.

Chef Chris took our cooled polenta, cut it into triangles, topped with butter and Parmesan and baked it until golden. Then he added a savory mushroom sauce.

As the students buzzed around preparing their "mise en place" or stirring their polenta, chef Chris would pipe in with helpful tips. "Think of a bed of nails," he'd say when instructing a student how to crush almonds with a heavy-bottomed pot. "If you try to do too many at once, the weight of the pot is evenly distributed and the nuts won't crack... Try fewer at a time." Now that's an analogy I'll never forget.

The buffet of dishes at the end of class ended up providing the most healthful and nutritious meal we've had this semester. I didn't even mention the red quinoa that was toasted, spiced, and blended with grated red beets. The warm pilaf was topped with garlicky yogurt and sumac, a Middle Eastern spice—yet another dish that shows off the versatility of grains. They don't just work behind the scenes, they can steal the show.

To the fryolator!

Who doesn't enjoy fried food? We all know it's not good for us, but there is no denying that it's delicious. Like salt, dropping almost anything edible into hot oil seems to enhance its flavor. Today with Jeff Fournier we took a parade of vegetables and proteins for a swim in the kitchen's two fryolators.

The first items to take a dunk in the deep-fat were obvious—potatoes. Good ol' fries, thicker English-style pub fries, and a tricolored medley of thickly sliced new potatoes were first blanched in oil (the pub fries in water) at 250 degrees. Then they were transferred to 350-degree oil for the final cooking. The two-step process ensures that the spuds are tender and fluffy on the inside with a golden crisp exterior. The stainless steel vats at BU are filled with canola oil, a standard medium for most restaurants. But chef Fournier discussed the benefits of alternative fats like peanut oil, coconut oil, and the most coveted of all, duck fat. Whatever the cooking medium, anything savory that comes out of the fryer receives a generous sprinkling of kosher salt. It's the final flavor boost that puts the crave factor over the edge.

Squared-off sticks of russet potatoes, fried to perfection. Could you resist these?

Squared-off sticks of russet potatoes, fried to perfection. Could you resist these?

The lineup of tubers, ready to take their turn in the hot oil.

The lineup of tubers, ready to take their turn in the hot oil.

After crisping up numerous potatoes, sliced pickles, and pickled cauliflower (made in class 2 weeks ago), we transitioned to cod that was beer batter dipped and fried using the "swimming" technique. Instead of dropping the whole piece immediately, you have to hold it, half submerged, until the batter begins to cook. This ensures that the fish won't just sink and stick to the bottom of the basket. We used the same technique on other pieces of cod that were simply dredged in a mixture of flour, semolina, and seasonings. Both methods produced moist flakey fish encased in perfectly browned crusts. With another hit of salt and a squeeze of lemon, I could almost begin to hear the sound of crashing waves and squawking seagulls. 

The beer-battered cod did not stick around for long.

The beer-battered cod did not stick around for long.

I could go on about the cornucopia of produce that made it's way into the hot oil today. There were giant circles of paper-thin celery root, squared off chips of rutabaga, credit card sized planks of sweet potato, and tempura battered asparagus spears. We also made curry flavored fritters with smoked cod, onion, and parsley. I could imagine folding in other ingredients to the simple baking soda/flour/milk batter like smoked ham and peas or dried figs and haloumi cheese. In a jiffy, we whipped up apple fritters that had big, tender chunks of fruit and a doughnut-like crust. In lieu of salt, they received a post-swim dusting of powdered sugar.

Deep frying is easy when you have hot vats on call at any given moment. Frying at home is a different story. French fries require so much oil and cooking them usually results in a big splattered mess. And there's no easy solution for home cooks to deal with all that spent fat. I wish it were easier to fry at home. But then again, maybe it's better that way.

The salad day

Don't buy bottled salad dressing. I repeat. Do NOT buy bottled salad dressing. With a whisk, a bowl, and a few basic techniques, the power of the vinaigrette (or aoli, or green goddess, or caesar) can be yours. Today Jeff Fournier opened us up to a rainbow of dressings that ranged from spicy Cambodian-style vinaigrette to a pink-hued cranberry emulsion to classic Caesar. The idea was to understand techniques, not specific recipes. In the end, we will be able to apply the skills to whatever ingredients we like.

Charred romaine with green goddess dressing

Charred romaine with green goddess dressing

We started with the cranberry. Armed with our powerful Vitamix blender, we simply added chopped shallots, dried cranberries, sherry vinegar, neutral oil, salt, pepper and whizzed it up until we had a lightly-textured, pretty-in-pink emulsion. It was tossed with baby kale, red grapes, sliced fennel, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts—a hearty winter salad that could double as a meal. You could substitute any variation of dried fruit, oil, and vinegar in the emulsion. How about figs with walnut oil? Maybe apricots with champagne vinegar?

Next up was the Cambodian salad of Napa cabbage, julienned carrots, Thai basil, red onion, sliced jalapenos and almonds. For the dressing, sugar went into a small pan of vinegar over moderate heat. Once dissolved it was combined with neutral oil and dried red pepper flakes. It's a sweet and spicy salad that's full of flavor and summertime brightness. You could even leave it overnight in the fridge for a more slaw-like effect. Jeff was enamored with this salad when he visited Cambodia and has been replicating it ever since.

Friseé au lardons is a French bistro classic and was next on our list of salad projects. For Jeff's rendition, we quickly charred halved heads of curly endive and garnished them with chunks of cooked bacon and a poached egg. The simple dressing consisted of wine vinegar, dijon mustard, minced shallots, and canola oil that was all whisked together by hand. Chef Fournier doesn't allow the use of machines in his kitchen for things like emulsions and whipped cream. He wants his cooks to be closer to the food so they can understand how and when the ingredients react.

We also used the hand-whisking method for Green Goddess dressing. First, "fines herbes" (tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives) were blanched, shocked, and blended in the Vitamix with anchovies and oil. Then Jeff made mayonnaise with fresh egg yolks, lemon juice, and oil. When the emulsion was thick, the green puréed herbs were blended in. It was drizzled over charred Romaine. Delightful.

We also made a classic Caesar salad that included pan fried, buttery croutons and a dusting of grated Parmesan. I often make Caesar dressing at home, but not with the same care and patience of chef Fournier. I usually just add all the ingredients at once and whisk. But by making a mayonnaise first, then adding in anchovy and garlic paste, balsamic, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce, the finished product is silky and refined. All of the techniques we covered today would make a dressing master out of any Wishbone dependant. I certainly feel empowered.

Bringing our dough to life

Unless he's using it to polish his shoes, Crisco doesn't have much use for Jim Dodge. Today we were in the kitchen again with the seasoned pastry chef where we learned how to work with our all-butter flakey piecrust (and how Crisco can be used as a protective barrier on kitchen clogs!). In addition to rolling out the top and bottom crust for apple pie, we baked off our tart dough and made two different pastry creams—lemon and white chocolate mousse and vanilla pastry cream. We also watched chef Jim demonstrate his technique for making pithiviers—a pinwheel shaped tart made with puff pastry, fruit, and frangipane.

Throughout the day I picked up more useful tips that directly apply to home baking. For instance, to prevent juice leaks in pies and tarts, brush the bottom crust with egg white to seal the dough. And did you know that metal pie pans are best? I didn't. They conduct heat better and encourage more even browning.

A kitchen full of hot apple pies is never a bad thing.

A kitchen full of hot apple pies is never a bad thing.

Chef Dodge usually makes his pastry creams and curds with whole eggs because he prefers the lightness. But many recipes call for egg yolks only which result in a slew of leftover whites. Often times, that container of clear, yellowish liquid ends up in the back of my fridge waiting to be used for meringues. I learned from Jim that adding a pinch of salt and sugar helps preserve the whites. Good to know!

After filling our blind-baked tart shells with lemon mousse, we all gathered at the front table to sample chef Jim's apple pie (ours were still too hot). The crust was amazing. I usually make all-butter piecrust, but it's never quite as light and flakey as the one we tasted today. There were horizontal layers of tender, caramelized pastry in every forkful. It shows how chef's technique for incorporating the butter into the flour really does make a difference. Not that I ever doubted it.

Pies, tarts, puff pastry, oh my!

Stainless steel counters and fluorescent overhead lighting don't make for pretty pictures. But that's okay since my hands were covered in flour for most of the day. Today we learned the art of dough making with acclaimed pastry chef Jim Dodge. The recipes included tart dough, flaky pie dough, and the most complex of them all—puff pastry.

Nowadays, most home cooks don't go through the trouble of making their own puff pastry. It's easy to buy good quality dough in the freezer aisle. But understanding how the laminated dough is made is crucial to learning the science behind what makes those trademark flakey layers.

The process involves first making a strong stretchy dough from flour, water, salt and a little butter. It is kneaded until smooth and then left to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour. When the hour is almost up, an entire pound of Plugra butter is pounded with a mallet until pliable and combined with a bit of flour to make the "butter pack". This then chills out in the refrigerator while the first dough is rolled out into a perfect rectangle. It's important to keep the dough from sticking to the surface while rolling. As chef said, "when it doesn't stick to the counter, it reveals its true shape." Chef Jim showed us how to flour the counter as if we were throwing dice, grabbing small fistfuls and tossing to create even distribution. The butter pack is then rolled out to a shape that equals about 2/3 the size of the dough rectangle (minus a 1" border). And from then on, a series of folds and tucks creates a package of dough-encased butter. We rolled, folded into thirds, chilled, and repeated until we had completed a total of 3 cycles.

In the end, butter is sandwiched between many folds of elastic dough. We will find out first hand tomorrow, but chef assured us that when baked, the butter will melt and give off steam. This raises the dough and creates voids between layers of crisp and tender pastry. It's not an easy project, but with patience it's certainly doable.

Puff pastry - encasing the butter pack.

Puff pastry - encasing the butter pack.

Easier projects included the tart dough (done entirely in a cuisinart-like machine called a Robocoupe) and flakey piecrust. I've made a few pies in my day, but I have never seen the mixing technique that chef demonstrated. Instead of cutting butter into flour with a fork or pastry blender, the cubes are gently coated then dumped in a pile on the counter. Distinctly separate butter and flour is blended with a large heavy rolling pin. The goal is to flatten and stretch the butter pieces into long strips. Like a rustic puff pastry, it is those layers of fat and flour that will transform the dough into delectably flaky crust.

There were more tips and techniques that were peppered throughout our busy day of dough making. Chef Jim zipped back and forth between workstations to rescue misshapen rectangles, correct students' rolling techniques, and test the elasticity of dough. One tip I'll never forget is the method of creating an overhang on tart crust. Have you ever blind-baked tart dough only to retrieve it from the oven as a shrunken, sunken mess? Well, gently pressing the dough up and over the edge of the tart pan creates a little hook that will prevent this from happening.

Chef Jim's tips and techniques will be put to the test tomorrow when we transform our various dough into classic apple pie, lemon and white chocolate tart, and napoleons. I must also mention how glad I was to see the absence of Crisco (yuck-processed!) from chef Jim's piecrust recipes. As he said in the morning lecture, "you can make a flaky piecrust with all butter, it just takes more skill and knowledge".

No small potatoes

Field trip! Today we hit the road to meet Chris Douglass, one of our core instructors and owner of Ashmont Grill and Tavolo in Dorchester. Chris gave us a warm welcome and took us on a quick tour of the kitchen at Ashmont Grill. The neighborhood restaurant features an al fresco dining area out back (currently covered in snow) and a wood-fired grill. It's a far cry from the seedy bar Chris bought 10 years ago. About a block down the street is his Italian restaurant called Tavolo. We headed there for the rest of the morning to learn the art of pizza making.

Chef Douglass's new kitchen staff took us through the process of making a large batch of pizza dough. The ingredients are simple—"00" flour, water, yeast, olive oil, salt—but the mixture takes time and attention to build flavor. At least 2 days of kneading, proofing, and resting is required before the balls of dough are stretched, topped and baked to order. Previously made dough that had risen and rested was plopped out onto a wood surface like slow-moving gelatinous blubber. It smelled yeasty and fragrant. Tony demonstrated how the dough is portioned out and rolled into perfectly taught balls.  

Smooth and tight, our dough balls will rest and be used by the kitchen staff in 2 days.

Smooth and tight, our dough balls will rest and be used by the kitchen staff in 2 days.

Then we each got to stretch our own dough and make a pizza. I used marinara sauce (theirs is seasoned with anchovies), spinach, feta, sautéed mushrooms, and kalamata olives. The key, we learned, is not to overload with too much sauce or toppings. And to keep the pie from sticking, we dusted the peel with semolina flour that was shaken out of a perforated deli container. It was easy to make a good pizza at Tavolo using their carefully made dough and wonderfully prepared toppings. Let's see if I can replicate that at home.

Once we had all devoured most of our handmade pies, we piled back in the cars to head back to 808 Commonwealth. Chef Douglass met us there to be our instructor for an afternoon of cooking potatoes. In a span of about 3-1/2 hours we made potato leek soup, potato puree, potatoes O'Brien, potato gratin, and pommes anna. Potato leek soup is pretty basic—I make it all the time at home. But I had never made potatoes O'Brien. We learned the technique of rinsing and drying the diced potatoes before pan frying. By doing this step, less starch is released in the pan which would cause the cubes to stick and lose their shape. I'm definitely going to use this technique next time I make home fries!

Potatoes O'Brien

Potatoes O'Brien

We also each made our own mini pommes anna—thinly sliced potatoes that are layered with clarified butter and cooked onions. After browning on one side, the whole thing is flipped and finished in the oven. I've also made this at home, but it was good for me to perfect the technique (it's much easier in a tiny pan). All in all, our day of potatoes was a good review and I picked up some new tips. As Chris said, we just barely scratched the surface of what you can do with potatoes.

Pommes Anna

Pommes Anna

More vegetables

Salt. It's what separates restaurant cuisine from home cooking. We learned this already from Michael Leviton as we became comfortable dusting our steaks with handfuls of the white crystals. And it was reiterated today when we sautéed, blanched, roasted, and pureed more vegetables with Jeff Fournier. Don't be afraid of salt. "Your blanching water should taste like the ocean," he said. With tasting spoons in hand, we stood by our bubbling pots and threw in fistful after fistful until the water was up to snuff. 

Beyond getting salty with it, we covered a ton of cooking techniques. Portabella mushroom caps were sliced into thin rounds on a mandolin, sandwiched between silpats, weighted and baked to make crispy, salty chips. They almost tasted like bacon. Shitake mushrooms were sautéed with mirin (Japanese cooking wine), soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and lime. The result was meaty and bold—I wanted to lick the plate. Cauliflower was blanched 'till golden in curry-infused water, then sautéed with anchovies, capers, garlic, and golden raisins—another explosion of flavor. More cauliflower was cut into steaks, brushed with a mixture of mirin and miso, and roasted. It's amazing how different techniques can reinvent a vegetable.

 The ultimate transformation occurred with chef Jeff's signature watermelon steak. It's a technique he developed many years ago when working for Lydia Shire and has remained in various forms on his menu at 51 Lincoln ever since. He walked us through the 3-1/2 hour process that begins with 3-inch thick slabs of fresh watermelon and ends with something that resembles a rare tuna steak. The best way to understand the process is to view the photos with captions below:

Slabs of fresh watermelon received a bottle of cream sherry, a generous seasoning of salt and pepper and a pound of butter. The tray was covered with foil and baked in a 375 degree oven for about 3-1/2 hours.

Slabs of fresh watermelon received a bottle of cream sherry, a generous seasoning of salt and pepper and a pound of butter. The tray was covered with foil and baked in a 375 degree oven for about 3-1/2 hours.

This is what the watermelon looks like when it comes out of the oven. It looses much of it's juice and the texture becomes slightly gelatinous and meaty.

This is what the watermelon looks like when it comes out of the oven. It looses much of it's juice and the texture becomes slightly gelatinous and meaty.

Portions of the melon are then rubbed with coriander and cumin and seared in a hot pan. The finished "steaks" were served with sheep's milk feta.

Portions of the melon are then rubbed with coriander and cumin and seared in a hot pan. The finished "steaks" were served with sheep's milk feta.

We sampled the spiced and seared "steaks" with crumbles of sheep's milk feta which provided the perfect salty contrast to the fruit.

Some of the techniques we learned today were already familiar to me. I roast vegetables by default. And blanching and sautéing is common for decent home cooks. We made heaps of veggies using these methods. We even made pickles! But transforming vegetables into entirely new textures like the mushroom chips and watermelon steak is beyond the realm of typical home cooking. This kind of creativity is what makes people like Jeff Fournier star chefs. 

Alas, vegetables

Today, Jeff Fournier returned to introduce us to the wonderful world of vegetables. After so much meat and fish, I was looking forward to making the shift to non-protein food. In the morning, Jeff chit-chatted about "veg" families, the problems with GMOs, seasonality, and his restaurant's rooftop garden. But the big takeaway for the day was understanding the versatility of vegetables.

To grasp this concept we cooked a small farm's worth of produce using multiple techniques such as braising, frying, sauteeing, stuffing, pureeing, and roasting. The same vegetable—like eggplant, for example—was fried for "chicherones" and sauteed then pureed for babaganoush. Whole tomatoes were stuffed with herbs and breadcrumbs and baked while cherry tomatoes were prepared like confit with several glugs of olive oil and sliced garlic. We made a slew of different pureed root vegetables like turnips, rutabaga, and Jerusalem artichokes. Then everyone tasted the difference between using stock, cream, olive oil, or butter to enrich the purees. Not surprisingly, the vegetables cooked with cream were the most luxurious.

Stuffed tomatoes, Cambodian salad (front), and quick sauerkraut.

Stuffed tomatoes, Cambodian salad (front), and quick sauerkraut.

Many of the veggies we cooked ended up being much more decadent than what I'd make at home. Deep frying brussels sprouts before tossing them with wine and miso isn't exactly easy in a home kitchen. It takes so much oil and requires some pretty hefty clean up, not to mention that it adds loads of extra calories. But I understand that in a restaurant, easy clean up and good nutrition isn't exactly on everyone's mind. If I had a hot fryolater on hand at any given moment, I'd probably be frying a lot more food. It sure makes for a satisfying eating experience.

Babaganoush with pita chips, fried miso brussels sprouts topped with scallions and cilantro, and eggplant chicherones.

Babaganoush with pita chips, fried miso brussels sprouts topped with scallions and cilantro, and eggplant chicherones.

Artichokes are also delicious fried, but in today's class we practiced "turning" the tight green flower buds for use in a braise. The outer leaves were removed with a pairing knife, then the base and stem were peeled. After cutting in half, the choke was removed and discarded. This was new to me since I usually just pluck off the outer leaves or trim them with scissors before steaming. The leaves and trimming were saved in acidulated water for a soup we are making tomorrow. Cheff Fournier believes in using every bit food that comes through his kitchen. This is especially important with artichokes that lose at least 50% of their weight after trimming.

All in all, we accomplished a lot in today's class. The Cambodian salad made with napa cabbage, scallions, toasted almonds, and sweet chili vinaigrette was crisp and refreshing. The quick sauerkraut was warm and comforting. I enjoyed it all so much that I made a vow to get out of my rut (no more roasting!) and practice some of these new techniques that highlight the versatility of vegetables.

The man knows seafood

After several days of poultry and meat, it was refreshing to be looking at fish. Spread out on the table as we entered the kitchen were oysters, clams, a lobster, a whole salmon, 2 whole monkfish, trout, branzino, scallops still in their shells, and a school of whole soles. Jeremy Sewall, a native New Englander and chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar, was our instructor for the day and got things started by having us identify the various sea creatures on display. I barely passed the test.

I thought this guy was a striped bass. Nope, salmon!

I thought this guy was a striped bass. Nope, salmon!

Chef Jeremy spent some time talking about the different species and their origins. Most of the fish and shellfish were local—the sole, clams, oysters, scallops, lobster, and monkfish. The salmon was "responsibly farm-raised" from the Faroe Islands and the branzino was the only fish that came from as far as Europe—Greece, I think.  Of all the ocean dwellers on the table, the only ones I misidentified were the salmon (I thought it was striped bass) and the branzino (John Dory, I thought). What I knew for sure about all of them was that they were going to be delicious once we got to work in the kitchen.

The oysters were from Island Creek Oyster Farm. No surprise there!

The oysters were from Island Creek Oyster Farm. No surprise there!

After watching Jeremy filet a sole, we each got our own to practice with. Since it's a flat fish, it's quite different than filleting something like salmon or trout. Instead of one filet from each side of the fish, flat fish give you 4 filets—one from either side of the backbone on both sides. Following chef's advice, I made a cut along the length of the backbone, then downward toward the tail. From that point, with the tail end of the filet in my left hand, I made gentle strokes with my knife close to the bone and lifted the piece off. I then removed the skin from the filets by inserting my knife in the tail end to create a little handle, then wiggling the knife while pulling the skin toward me. I was proud that I was able to make quick work out of skinning the 4 filets. After the sole, we each shucked a few oysters. I used to have to shuck oysters at Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, a teenage summer job I had for 3 years. That was a long time ago and I've only shucked oysters a few times since. I learned from chef Jeremy that the connective muscle is always located in the upper right part of the shell (something I never knew!), so that's where you need to carefully scrape your knife after you've unhinged the top from the bottom. The reward for successfully opening the mollusks in class was to give them a squeeze of lemon and slide them down the hatch. After having only a Larabar for lunch, the fresh, briny ocean elixir was quite satisfying.

There were more technique demonstrations, like cutting the loins from whole monkfish, filleting and skinning salmon, and extracting meat from a cooked lobster. We also practiced some simple cooking techniques. The whole, butterflied trout was pan-fried, the salmon grilled, scallops seared, branzino roasted, and sole poached. I enjoyed the combination of individual hands-on cooking and chef demonstration. I only wish I took more photos of the cooked food—I guess I was just too hungry!

Local sole.

Local sole.

Before the afternoon seafood extravaganza we had a lecture from Chris Merlo about ServSafe—the food-safety training manual that is required for anyone interested in owning or managing a food service business. I fully expected to be fighting back the yawns during a 2 hour talk about pathogens, sanitation, and time/temperature abuse, but Chris—a professional teacher—was so engaging as she walked us through the key points of this "necessary evil". Her study guide will be invaluable as we all prepare for the exam on Wednesday. Hopefully I will get a better score on Servsafe than I did on the seafood identification quiz.  

Butchering with Barry Maiden

Most home cooks don't typically break down a whole lamb. Most restaurant chefs don't even do it. But for Barry Maiden, chef and owner of Hungry Mother, whole animal butchery is a weekly occurrence. Today, Barry spent the day with our class discussing and demonstrating the principles of nose to tail butchery. After the morning lecture, a whole lamb with head, eyes, and dangling tongue, was waiting for us in the kitchen—yikes!

At first, students were hesitant to get too close to "Mr. Lamb".

At first, students were hesitant to get too close to "Mr. Lamb".

Before getting out the cleavers and hacksaws, chef Barry talked a bit about the different parts of 4-legged animals (cow, pig, veal, lamb). The primal cuts (main sections) vary slightly between each animal, but the general anatomy is essentially the same. Just as cows have flank and hanger steaks, so do lambs. Just in miniature. We reviewed the primal cuts of different stock. For example, lamb (the smallest of the bunch) is broken down into neck, shoulder, rack, loin, leg, breast and shank. Cows are much larger, and are therefore butchered into more primal cuts including chuck, rib, loin, rump, round, shank, flank, plate, and brisket. At Hungry Mother, a Southern restaurant, they often get in whole pigs that are immediately broken down into primals so they can easily be stored in the walk-in cooler. Barry is a big proponent of using as much of the animal as possible. First to get thrown into the skillet are the offal—heart, kidney, liver, etc. Organ meat is best eaten when it's as fresh as possible while the larger primal cuts can hang out in the cooler for a couple of days.

Barry removed the shoulder from the saddle.

Barry removed the shoulder from the saddle.

It is during that dwell time that Barry and his team figure out how they're going to make the best use of all the animal's parts. Not only do the menu items need to be delicious, they also need to hit the sweet spot of perceived value (from the customer) and profit for the restaurant. This is where things like butcher loss (ratio of overall weight to consumable weight) and food cost (ideally 25% of selling price) come into play. In the restaurant business, profit margins are always tight, so eeking out the most portions from an animal is the most economical way to go.

A lamb "Porchetta" —the loin with belly attached, and lamb tenderloin.

A lamb "Porchetta" —the loin with belly attached, and lamb tenderloin.

After the chat on restaurant economics, the class moved into the kitchen to come face to face with "Mr. Lamb". Some were squeamish, but in the end, everyone took a turn with the boning knife, cleaver, or hacksaw as we broke down the animal under Barry's guidance. First off was the head, then the neck—both cuts required the saw to get through the chine bone (term for spine on 4-legged animals). The lamb was then cut in half crosswise and separated into hind and fore legs, and saddle. As Barry carefully sliced and sawed the lamb into parts, it slowly began to transform from dead animal to meat. It's eye opening to watch the process unfold. I think anyone who eats meat should be capable of butchering a whole animal into parts (or at least watching). Because of factory farms and commodity slaughterhouses, we are so far removed from the business of animal processing. It's easy to forget about it. But participating in today's lamb project made me realize that as carnivorous humans, we should be responsible for the animals we eat. That means making sure they're raised properly and embracing the fact that a juicy steakhouse t-bone comes from a whole animal—with a head, eyes, and a tongue.

Day of Meat

Suave. Finesse. Precision. Three words chef Michael Leviton used to describe his approach to cooking meat. After a morning talk about butchery, responsible husbandry practices, and sustainability, we donned our chef coats for an afternoon of learning the art and science behind perfectly cooked lamb, pork, and beef. For me, understanding Leviton's technique was a revelation.

Clockwise from top left: beef tenderloin, rack of lamb, pork tenderloin, double-cut pork chop

Clockwise from top left: beef tenderloin, rack of lamb, pork tenderloin, double-cut pork chop

Prior to today's class, if I were to cook a steak, I might throw it on the grill or maybe even sear it in a cast iron pan, then throw the steak (in the skillet) in a 350 degree oven to finish it off. Let me explain why I now know this is wrong. Protein seizes when it comes into contact with heat, and this makes the muscle become tough. Leviton's approach is to sear the meat in hot fat on all sides, introduce some flavors for basting (butter or bacon fat, herbs, garlic, etc) then remove from the skillet onto a rack for a resting period. The amount of resting time depends on the type and size of cut, but the idea is for the external (quite hot) and internal (still cold) temperatures to equalize, allowing the steak to relax a bit after undergoing the shocking heat. Then you gently reintroduce heat by placing the seared meat in a low and slow oven—300 degrees until the internal temp is a few degrees shy of your desired doneness (@125 degrees for medium-rare beef). The cut then rests again until the external and internal temps have had enough time to equalize and reach your final desired resting temp (@130 degrees). The result is a deliciously browned crust with perfectly even, medium rare doneness throughout. No grey outer ring and blood-red interior.

The hanger steak was seared, then basted with butter an garlic before going into a low, slow oven.

The hanger steak was seared, then basted with butter an garlic before going into a low, slow oven.

For the whole afternoon we practiced this technique on a double-cut pork chop, a pork tenderloin, rack of lamb, beef tenderloin (Chateaubriand), hanger steak (Leviton's favorite cut), and flatiron steak. Man were they good. And according to Leviton, one of the biggest differences between home cooking and restaurant food is the use of salt. You must "shower" every square inch liberally with salt and pepper. Don't be stingy with it! The technique, the level of care and attention to detail, and the liberal seasoning, all work in harmony to achieve that "suave" outcome Leviton is after. This class will change the way I cook meat forever.

A close-up of my double-cut pork chop seasoned with garlic and thyme.

A close-up of my double-cut pork chop seasoned with garlic and thyme.

Sauce it up

Other than tomato, I don't make much sauce at home. If something I make has a sauce, it is usually a result of the cooking process (liquid from a braise, cream or coconut milk added to a curry, wine to deglaze a pan of seared meat, and so forth). But in today's class, we focused on stand-alone sauce making. With some of the French classics on his list, chef/instructor Jeff Fournier of 51 Lincoln took us through a palette of flavorful and colorful liquids that ranged from thick, creamy hollandaise to deep, complex Espagnol, to bright, astringent gastrique. 

The San Marzano tomatoes that went into our simple tomato sauce.

The San Marzano tomatoes that went into our simple tomato sauce.

Fournier, who is also a painter, peppered the day's activities with conversations about cooking as a creative process. He visually documents every dish at his restaurant, and we're not talking Instagram photos, but hand sketches. For Fournier, the drawings serve 2 purposes—they help him conceptualize a plate when he's in the development process, and they serve as a recorded documentation of his thought process and the finished idea. As a visual communicator myself, it was inspiring to see his work process and the way he has married his talent as an artist with his talent as a chef.

Between reducing veal stock for sauce Espagnol and whizzing up scallions, cilantro, garlic, oil, and vinegar for mojo, the chef discussed some of the challenges of running a restaurant such as balancing the needs of the guests with the needs of the kitchen. Like any creative business, success depends on employees that are inspired to do good work. If a young chef is forced to make the same repertoire of dishes month after month, the work is no longer inspiring and he/she wants out. But on the other hand, if a signature dish comes off the menu, customers get upset (and apparently quite vocal, according to Fournier). It sounds like this is a constant balancing act at 51 Lincoln, but he seems to take it in stride.

Chef Fournier demonstrated what it's like to cook on the line—managing several hot pans and bubbling stocks at once.

Chef Fournier demonstrated what it's like to cook on the line—managing several hot pans and bubbling stocks at once.

The actual hands-on time in today's class was pretty light. We each made our own small batch of hollandaise (whip egg yolks with a bit of vinegar or lemon juice over a double boiler, add clarified butter, season), and then divided up some small tasks that formed the components of brown sauce, bechamel, bernaise, tomato sauce, pesto, gastrique (a beautiful glaze-like sauce made from a reduction of chicken stock, apple cider, and cider vinegar) and mojo—a bracing Latin American condiment. Most of the other sauces were made by Chef Fournier. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him in action and hearing everything he had to say, but I wished we had more interaction with the food. Finally, he seared some steaks and chicken breasts so we would have something to sop up all the deliciousness. We each dotted our little paper plates like paint palettes and dipped, smeared, and mopped to our taste buds' delight.