Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hmm... that makes sense

So I finally met Adam's replacement. His name is Raj. He's our new sous chef. And he’s a character.

The first think that comes to mind when I think to describe him is that he peppers every sentence with the “f” word, even when his sentences are seasoned enough without it. Last night the wait staff asked what was in the bass and he said, “Some salt, some f’in pepper, and some other good f’in stuff.” I have a feeling this is the way of dialog for most chefs in professional kitchens - it’s just so ingrained in their everyday language. But the poor guy has yet to realize that this is not the way of RestoX, and I think everyone finds his way of speaking a bit jarring. I mean, RestoX’s kitchen is made up of some classy guys – some real gentlemen.

I miss Adam dearly as does Ben (one of the line cooks), who expressed this sentiment to me last night with almost teary eyes. But Raj turned out to be a pretty cool guy and my first Saturday with him was actually a refreshing change. Adam didn't want to be at RestoX. Raj does. And that makes all the difference for someone in my position. Raj clearly has deep respect for the process at RestoX, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He also seems eager to teach me anything he knows so no amount of questioning is too much. It was just a blast on Saturday. Weeeeee! Learning can be so much fun!

My Saturday list:
Cauliflower soup
Asparagus soup
Slice morrell mushrooms
Julienne carrots
Mince shallots
Julienne radishes

Cauliflower soup
In the first minute I walked into the kitchen on, Raj told me to make the cauliflower soup. And it freaked me out. I’ve never made anything from scratch at RestoX except the mashed potatoes (aka cream and butter with potato as binding agent). This was no time to be proud, so I told him I don’t know diddlydoo and he would have to walk me through it detail-by-detail. And he did.

Sauté sliced shallots with butter and white wine till wine reduces down. Pour in a quart of cream and allow it to come to a soft boil. Add small cauliflower florets to cream and cook until soft (you’re basically blanching them in the cream). Raj kept repeating that you can’t overcook the cauliflowers here since it’s for soup. In fact, the longer you cook them, the better they’ll be. When done, lift the florets out of cream and puree in blender.

Here I learned a new technique called “beurre monté” by dropping really cold chunks of butter into the puree while the blender was still running (if you were to add warm or hot butter to this mix here, the whole mixture would break into a nasty mess). Now why add the butter so late in the process using this technique? Why not just cook the cauliflower in more butter at the beginning? The beurre monté imparts the soup with a shiny, velvety finish. The way Thomas Keller explains it, “Solid butter is an emulsification of butter fat, water, and milk solids; beurre monté is a way to manipulate the emulsification into liquid form.” By poaching meats in beurre monté, you infuse them with the pure flavor of butter. I particularly like the way TK describes cooking lobster with beurre monté here.

Once pureed, pass it through a chinois and season with a little salt and acid (in this case, rice vinegar because that was what we had around). Raj likes to add acid to anything creamy to add complexity and a bit of flavor contrast. But don’t finish it at this stage. Raj’s practice is to leave soups slightly unfinished, slightly under-seasoned so that he could play around with it a bit more right before it’s served. Soup has a tendency to change over time, so you want to allow for this process to take place before you mess with it too much. In my mind: let the flavors find their chemistry, get to know one another, and marry. It makes so much sense.

Asparagus soup
Next up was the asparagus soup. Blanch 1” pieces of asparagus in the same cream mix. Follow the same process as cauliflower soup. Notice we cooked the white cauliflowers first before the green asparagus to avoid coloring the cauliflowers green. It’s these little common sense things we don’t always think about until we’ve created huge batch of green cauliflower soup. Haha.

Side note on mashed potatoes
While making the soups, Raj asked me how I’ve been making the mashed potatoes. It seemed like a trick question because it was such an easy one. I said I boiled them in a big pot of salted water and… He stopped me right there and said he does it differently. He puts the potatoes in a small sauce pan, just covered with water, and simmers them over medium-low heat for a really long time until they’re cooked through. He salts them only at the very end. This keeps them from getting all fluffy in the pot, which opens them up to absorbing all the water. In fact, steaming would be an excellent method of cooking them. You want the potatoes to absorb as little water as possible. Less water = more potato flavor. Makes so much sense!

Morrell mushrooms
Slicing 3 quarts of morrell mushrooms in half was probably the easiest task yet. They’re currently in season, but I had yet to see them. They’re wrinkly, funny looking things that feel like rubber bands. I could see how all the little crevices would soak up butter, cream and white wine quite nicely.

I think this is my favorite knife technique of the moment. I love to julienne anything into the thinnest strips possible. It helps to have the mandoline handy to slice the carrots into super-thin pieces, line them up like fallen dominos and let the knife run quickly down the row the way Adam taught me. Yahoo! I dare say it’s rather exhilarating.

I didn’t realize this, but ChefX taught me the “hard core” way of mincing shallots. When Raj saw me cutting through these, he was in awe at my fearlessness. That’s because ignorance is bliss. And bliss is bliss until you chop off half your middle fingernail and begin to gush blood all over the shallots. This one hurt like a bastard. Another new thing I learned from Raj is that without proper care and sanitation, this kind of cut could turn into a serious infection that could turn into a serious amputation. If a bloody cut won’t make you stop mincing shallots, the word “amputation” will. He made me stop, wash my cut with hot water and soap (f-!@#**) and hold it above my heart. Then he wrapped it with gauze, masking tape (standard restaurant first-aid tape), and a rubber glove. I was impressed at his deftness and he’s now earned the title of “Dr. Raj” in my mind. I felt like such a fool injuring myself left so badly, but Raj and Lupe basically turned it into a show-and-tell of their recent scars to make me feel better. They’re such cool guys at RestoX. I’m mightily fond of all of them.

This is a new salad they’re doing for scallops - radishes, daikon and apples all julienned super-thin. I was so excited to have to julienne more stuff. Take off leaves, slice off tips, thin-slice on mandoline, and stack slices like poker chips. Cut off the initial edge and throw away. Cut through stack, creating itty-bitty matchsticks. They look super-cute and delicate once cut - a translucent white with the tiniest touch of red on either end. While I was working on these, Raj got the fish delivery. He was pissed that they forgot the f’in halibut and he went into a long monolog about how these f’in fish guys have messed up every f’in week, how ChefX will probably think he’s f’in incompetent, and now he f’in has to go to look around the f’in neighborhood to find some f’in halibut. It was pure comedy. By the time he got back, I had julienned about 6 bunches of radishes. He called me “crazy” and “hard core,” about the fifth time that day. After some thought, I decided to take this as a compliment.


Steve said...

Who gets to drink the cream when you're done cooking the vegetables for the soup?

Undercover Cook said...

Haha! Steve, that's a very good question I should have been curious enough to ask. If you'd like, I can quart some up for you so you can make a cauliflower-asparagus ice cream with it. By the way, I haven't forgotten about the knife skills post. It's currently in draft form.