The alchemy of heat

In order to stay relatively sane, I am no longer adding posts for every day of culinary school. Instead, I'm trying to write for every other class, with the hope that I'll at least be able to mention all the dishes we've cooked and instructors we've had.

Today, Chef Michael Leviton again led our class. The best thing about learning from Leviton (and writing about it) is that he never leaves our kitchen without dropping an irresistibly quotable nugget of advice. Today's zinger: "it's important to understand the alchemy of heat."

 Provençal roast lamb with white bean ragout

Provençal roast lamb with white bean ragout

The transformation he was referring to took place in a small pot of simmering anchoide—a Provençal flavoring paste made of anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. We first tasted the raw mixture. It was pungent and biting with distinct bits of each ingredient. But through consistent low heat (about an hour), the disparate elements melded together to form pure umami. Salty, earthy, tongue-tingling flavor.

We slathered the paste onto our boneless lamb roasts that were then seared, rested, and finished in a low oven. Leviton's meat-cooking technique yields perfect medium-rare results every time. While our roasts gently came up to temperature, we had a quick demo on cooking mussels. It was another lesson in understanding the effects of heat—in this case, blazing heat. "You have to scare the mussels", he said. So they were plunked down into a dry pan that had been sitting over high heat for about 3 minutes. This shock of high temperature helps the bivalves to open quickly and cleanly without any stretched or mangled-looking meat. After about a minute, we threw in wine, butter, tomato confit, gremolata, and garnished with fresh croutons that were pan-fried in olive oil.

 The apricot tart before it went into the oven

The apricot tart before it went into the oven

Cooking foods from the South of France gave us many opportunities to learn about how to use and control heat. Low and slow for tomato confit, high and fast for mussels, dry heat for apricot tarts, moist heat for white bean ragout—we covered the spectrum.

In contrast, our morning lecture and demo from Helen Chen demonstrated one (very versatile) cooking technique—stir-frying. Helen is the daughter of the famous Chinese-American chef Joyce Chen and gave us a brief introduction to the history of Chinese cuisine. She shared her unabashedly opinionated views on Asian fusion cuisine ("fusion should be renamed confusion"), and drove home the point that Chinese is the mother of all Asian cuisines. She is a purist and strives to continue her mother's tradition of creating authentic Chinese home-cooked dishes. For our lunch she prepared 2 examples—chungking pork and and five-spice pressed bean curd with bean sprouts, Chinese chives, and Sichuan peppercorns. Most of the work for both dishes (and for a lot of Chinese cookery) was done in the preparation. Once all the vegetables were chopped and the other ingredients were gathered, the actual cooking only took about 5 minutes. 

 Chinese pork potstickers

Chinese pork potstickers

 Thai-style drunken noodles made with Johnathan Taylor

Thai-style drunken noodles made with Johnathan Taylor

After today, I liken the importance of controlling heat in Levitan's "suave" French-style cooking to the importance of mise-en-place in Chinese cuisine. We learned the same organized approach yesterday from Johnathan Taylor of Blue Ginger—most of the work is done in the preparation. No magical transformation, just planning and execution.