Saturday, January 12, 2008

The anatomy of a tomato

Photo courtesy of Ulterior Epicure

Something is definitely up at RestoX. There was a still silence in the air all day. No hip-hop music playing, no bubbly ChefX cracking jokes, no chitchat. When I asked Adam how his week was, he gave me a stammering "o.k..., I mean...well... eh...can't talk about it..." Perhaps ChefX has decided they were all having too much fun in the kitchen?

Still, I couldn't be happier. At the end of the day as I was leaving RestoX, I asked ChefX if I could come in on Martin Luther King Day since I have a day off from the office job. He suggested I come in during service time so I could gain some perspective on all the prep work I've been doing. I'll be allowed to observe and help out with the food a little, too. It's just not possible to put into words how excited I am. I literally skipped home.

Breakfast of champions
2 mugs of latte. 3 egg ommlet with caramelized onions. Fennel salad with clementines and parmesan. Multivitamin.

TASK: Roll out pre-prepared squid ink pasta dough. Knead to setting 5, then cut thin on the spaghetti setting.
NOTES: This is a new pasta they're doing - squid ink pasta. When you pass the dough through the machine, its dramatic darkness is absolutely beautiful. Working with Adam today, I had the pleasure of learning something new. He kneads the dough a bit differently, folding the dough into thirds, not half like ChefX. This allows for more kneading action through each pass. Then on each higher setting he fold it into thirds again rather than just passing the dough through (more kneading action). When finished, the pasta should have a certain elasticity with a nice sheen. Mine was a bit flabby and limp. It was a great lesson - I learned something new!

TASK: Make a new batch of pasta dough.
NOTES: As you know, I've done this a few times already, but this time I learned to make the dough by feel, not just by throwing the ingredients together in the mixer. Once the ingredients are mixed, squeeze the dough around in the bowl - if they seem to "want to come together," as Adam said, turn it out onto the work surface and knead it out into a ball. But if it sill seems dry, add some lukewarm water to it, bit-by-bit till it has that "wants to come together" texture.

TASK: Mince 1.5 qt of shallots.
NOTES: Nothing new here, but it was nice to get the practice!

TASK: Peel heap of ginger.
NOTES: Ginger is probably the least enjoyable thing to peel because of its irregular shape. I cut off the knobbly pieces to create a regular shape, then peeled as fast as I could until I suddenly realized I was bleeding. I had peeled my finger. I had already cut my thumb the night before, so with this new injury on my middle finger, it really looks like I tried to put my hand in a blender. For your pleasure, I've included a photo of the lovely job (sorry, I'm developing a strange fascination with kitchen wounds).

TASK: Peel carrots.
NOTES: Bo-ring. But it was fun to watch Adam thin-slice these on the mandoline, stack them, and create tiny matchsticks out of them. He did the same with the ginger. They were so thin and delicate, and he moved through them so swiftly. I was very impressed.

TASK: Make cross-shaped cuts at the narrow tip of about 40 plum tomatoes. Create ice bath. Blanch tomatoes in small batches in boiling water for about 1 minute until the peel just starts to lift up on the cuts. Quickly drop into ice bath. Peel off skin, cut into quarters, and remove seeds.
NOTES: When cutting the cuts in the tomato, I must have been moving at snail's pace. ChefX came by and said I needed to move faster before the tomatoes fell asleep, thinking I didn't care about them. He's funny guy, that ChefX.

At first I was really dreading having to seed so many tomatoes because in the past it's always been a very messy process. I first tried using a paring knife to remove the center rib, and then my fingers to remove the seed. This took forever, mainly due to the sliminess of the seeds that like to cling to your skin like there's no tomorrow. So I picked up the Chef's knife instead, and after a dozen or so I began to understand the anatomy of the tomato.

Beginning at the narrow end, slide the knife across to the stem end and cut off the dry bit along with the rib in one motion. The seeds lie in pools on either side of the rib. Instead of seeding from tip-to-tip, flush the knife with the rib, then drag the knife's edge from the rib to the cutting board. The pool of messy seeds will slide right off as a single unit in one fell swoop. Nice and neat. Rotate quarter and repeat. It felt like I was efficiently conducting micro-surgery. These tomatoes were to be dry baked, so Adam asked me to place the pieces cut-side-up on a pan lined with silpat. I just placed the pieces randomly on the pan. I was free-forming it. When ChefX came by, he said, "Woa, hey...his ain't no rock concert," meaning they had to be lined up in rows. I'm learning in the restaurant business, everything tends to be lined up in neat little rows like soldiers.

I've developed a routine of stopping in at Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue on my walk home after work at RestoX. It's too hard to resist. I pick up a perfect little snack that I munch on as I reflect on the day and the quietness of the Brooklyn streets. Last week I picked up a delicious spinach potato pie. Today I loaded up on sweets for my family upstate, and the owner gave me a falafel and some gooey sweet thing to try. With the free samples and an invitation to the RestoX kitchen at service, I have to say it was a very contented walk home.