Down to the wire

The past 3 months have been like a giant extended chef's tasting menu. We've sampled a world of cooking techniques, from classic French to rustic Italian to traditional Chinese to homey Indian. Our classroom's revolving door has brought instructors from every facet of the food industry including hi-end and casual restaurants, hotel kitchens, private chefs, food distributors, business owners, and cookbook authors. Now, as we near the end of the semester, the time has come to put our learning into action.

Today was our first "market basket". I'm not talking about the famed grocery store chain, but a culinary test where students are given a set of ingredients that must be used in an appetizer and entrée. We must work individually to plan and execute the dishes which are to be plated and brought to the front of class at specified times. It's kind of like Top Chef, only we get the ingredient list in advance and have a total of 3 hours to cook.

 Mise en place for my mussel dish—saffron infused white wine, butter, spaetzle cilantro, sweated shallots and ginger, tomato confit

Mise en place for my mussel dish—saffron infused white wine, butter, spaetzle cilantro, sweated shallots and ginger, tomato confit

So, the given items were mussels, hanger steak, parsnips, and asparagus. We were warned not to get too creative with our dishes, but to focus on simple preparations that are executed perfectly. The chef (Michael Leviton, in today's case) isn't necessarily looking for culinary innovation, he just wants to see that you can cook the ingredients properly and make them taste good. Simple, right?

Well, everything was hunky dory for the appetizer course. I decided not to stray too far from the steamed mussels we learned to prepare with chef Leviton during our Provençal class. I used the hi-heat, white wine and butter technique, but decided to tweak the flavoring by adding saffron, shallots, ginger, and cilantro. In lieu of the croutons, I made spaetzle—little German dumplings—that provided a nice textural element for slurping up the flavorful broth. I was pleased with my results. German spaetzle with saffron and cilantro was admittedly all over the culinary map (Leviton took note of this), but in my mind, the dish was still simple and I liked it, so why not?

 My world-fusion mussel appetizer

My world-fusion mussel appetizer

My comfortable, easy-going attitude of the first half of the day quickly gave way to a frenzied panic. After critiquing everyone's mussel dish, we had about an hour to get our entrée finished—seemed doable. But somehow between puréeing parsnips, frying shallots, and searing my hanger steak, I ran out of time. Once the meat was seared, it rested for 7 minutes, then went into a 300 degree oven. I figured it would only take about 10-15 minutes for it to reach an internal temp of 128, but I either misjudged or my oven was off because at 4:00 (the time we were supposed to be finished), the hanger had only just been taken out of the oven. It needed to rest for 10 minutes before slicing or else the juices would run all over the plate. Feeling like a failure, I brought my plated parsnip puree, roasted asparagus, fried shallots, and red wine pan sauce to the table. The steak was missing.

 Where's the beef?

Where's the beef?

Midway through the tasting I snuck back to my station, sliced the steak, and topped off my anemic plate. It all turned out okay in the end and people seemed particularly pleased with the silkiness of my purée. I learned a valuable lesson from our first "market basket"—you can never be too prepared or do too much in advance. I could have seared the steak ahead of time and kept it at room temp for a couple of hours. I could have even finished it in the oven and then just warmed it up at the last minute. The moral of the story is, I got a little too confident with my time management and it came back to bite me. Next week's market basket, I'm conquering the kitchen like an overachieving boy scout on a mission.