Pro Series Class 3: Seafood

This post is part of a 9-part series related to my completion of the Pro Series 1 professional culinary arts course at The Culinary Center of Kansas City with Chef Richard McPeake. This course changed my cooking world! An introductory post can be found here.

I do like seafood but I was a little nervous for this class. Mostly because I knew it would involve shellfish — not the yummy lobster, crab, shrimp kind, but the slimy-in-the-shell-kind. Mussels. Clams. Oysters. Ick. On the drive, I debated whether to fake a shellfish allergy that would prevent me from trying what we cooked. Maybe even a kidney problem that restricted me from eating raw foods.

I learned so much in this class. Regular, seemingly decent fish nights at our house were proven to be total freshness disasters. First up was a discussion of how to judge fresh seafood. The most important information Chef Richard shared here wasn’t exactly news. We live in the Midwest. Far from the coast. In general, the fish (other than unfortunate lake trout if you’re so inclined) is not “fresh”. Where we’re located, fish is at a minimum 6 days old. The exception is restaurants that may have fresher fish flown in.

Three tools to judge freshness are odor, feel, and taste. Odor is easy — fish shouldn’t smell fishy when raw, and shouldn’t smell gross when cooked. If it does, it isn’t fresh. Feel is a little more complicated — fish should be firm and not squishy, and should “spring back” when touched. But how often does a person have the option to squeeze fish in the grocery store? So unless the fish is sold in trays with plastic wrap, you’re out of luck. Taste you won’t know till you get the little guys home — again, fresh fish shouldn’t have a strong fish taste. Good fish is sweet and mild. A few more tips on picking fresh fish are in key learning section below.

Next up was seafood storage and preparation, where I realized I am doing it all wrong. I usually purchase “fresh” fish from my grocery counter and either prepare it when I get home (or within a day or two) or freeze it. When I want to use the frozen fish, I put it in the fridge to thaw overnight. The problem with my method is that fish needs to be frozen when it is fresh, and cooked immediately upon thawing. Freezing fish won’t hurt it, but the fish deteriorates while waiting to be frozen, and also after it thaws. So here’s what I should be doing — A) buy actual fresh fish and cook it that day (more on that below), OR B) buying IQF (individually quick frozen) fish, which is frozen in individual portions within hours of the catch. I think that I’ll be stocking up on Schwan’s frozen salmon and tilapia (www.schwans.com) to make things simple. Next thing I should be doing is A) thawing my fish in a drain-style pan under refrigeration, OR B) thawing under continuously running cold water.

We discussed different cuts of fish and how fish are dressed (hopefully in color-blocking which is SO IN right now!), and also the different kinds of seafood and their most complimentary cooking methods. We learned how to choose and clean mussels, and to shuck oysters, as well as heard a convincing story about how not to shuck oysters. I won’t spend alot of time on shellfish, but if I know the answers, I’ll respond to questions. Shoot, I’ll probably respond either way.

And then it was cooking time. We had 90 minutes to prepare 4 seafood dishes. With Meat Week under our belts, we worked more efficiently and even had more time to stop and enjoy our food. I even worked in a nice little cup of coffee which kept me up most of the night. And if you’re wondering, I tried each dish and lived to tell the story.

Steamed Mussels with White Wine Clam Broth
Prettiness Score: 100%
Taster Review: Quite tasty. Mildly weird.

Steamed Mussels with White Wine Clam Broth

Oysters Rockefeller
Ickiness Rating: Low — these babies are cooked!
Taster Review: That was really good but I’m not sure I want another.

Oysters Rockefeller

Seared Salmon Medallions with Avocado Buerre Blanc
Prettiness Score: 90% This was one beautiful sauce and our salmon were seared perfectly.
Secret Thought: Should I scrape the pan into my purse?
Difficulty: The salmon prep was simple, but the sauce (a butter sauce) was SO difficult. Ours failed initially but Chef was able to save it and help us make it fantastic. All four teams failed — but he did say ours was the only one that turned out perfect!

Seared Salmon with Avocado Buerre Blanc

Buttered Crumb-Topped Scrod
Awkward Name Rating: Moderate to Highly Awkward
Taster Review: Good, but nothing was as good as the Salmon.
Serving Suggestion: Cover in Avocado Buerre Blanc

Buttered Crumb-Topped Scrod

Top Tips:

*Get to know your fish purveyor and make sure they know their stuff. Learn how they handle your seafood and where it comes from. If you get bad fish or they don’t know what they’re doing, break up with them, burn the pictures, and never look back.

*Just because fish is displayed in cases on ice, doesn’t mean it wasn’t previously frozen. Instead of trusting them when they tell you whether it was, learn where and how the fish is caught so you can figure it out yourself. For example, orange roughie are fished on 6-month cruises, so the fish are frozen on board. So orange roughie should always be sold as “previously frozen”. Shrimp is another good example as in this area, almost all shrimp have been previously frozen.

*You can identify signs of deterioration just looking at the fish. On a filet, because the tail and stomach are thinner pieces, they will show signs first. Watch for dullness and discoloration (yellow, brown, green). Also watch for purveyors that turn these pieces underneath the rest of the fish to hide signs of aging. Dullness occurs around 8 days and discoloration occurs around 14 days…so fish that look like this are likely of “advanced age”.

*Cut salmon on the bias to grill or sear. It will cook faster and more evenly, and look prettier. Cut straight to bake. Serve salmon with the dark side down because no one wants to look at that.

*The best way to freeze your own salmon is to freeze a sheet tray, cut salmon portions, dip salmon in 32 degree ice bath, freeze salmon on tray, then saran and zipper bag individual portions.

Tomorrow night is veggie night. As in creamed spinach, ratatouille, and glazed carrots. Not brussel sprouts and garden peas, Mom!

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Pro Series Class 2: Meats

This post is part of a 9-part series related to my completion of the Pro Series 1 professional culinary arts course at The Culinary Center of Kansas City with Chef Richard McPeake. This course changed my cooking world! An introductory post can be found here.

I just “fabricated” a chicken in my kitchen. On a Friday night. At my own volition. That must mean it’s Meat Week!

This week our class was much more intense, but we were told was less so than the remaining weeks’ classes. The goal of a lighter class load was to provide adequate time to become familiar with the class flow and functioning in the teaching kitchen. In lecture, we covered beef, lamb, veal, pork, and poultry (seafood is next week). First up was studying the wonder that is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association cuts chart, which essentially maps out where different cuts of beef come from on the cow. View a similar chart here. I do like a good diagram. We did this in conjunction with our discussion about General Carcass Divisions (Leg, Loin, Rib, and Shoulder) which is similar for Beef, Veal, Pork, and Lamb. By knowing where the cut of meat you purchase at the grocery store comes from, you can make better decisions when it comes to how to prepare it and cook it. For example, tougher cuts (from the Leg and Shoulder) should be braised or stewed. Cuts from the Loin and Rib will be more tender, and can be grilled, roasted, or seared. The exception is the bottom half of the Loin and Rib divisions, which will be tougher and need cooked like the Leg and Shoulder divisions. Then we played a fun game of pin the steak on the cow (really…well, kind of) to be sure we had things down. Our paper homework for this week was to study the meat counter at our grocery and make a list of 5 cuts and how we would prepare them. It was suggested that for additional humor and awkwardness, we do this wearing our new personalized chef’s jackets. We then talked about Grading of Meats (more on that below) and then moved onto a demonstration of how to fabricate your own chicken (and save dollars per pound if you aren’t afraid of a little mess).

I found the hands-on portion of our class much more challenging, less so because of the cooking methods we used and more so because it was a little chaotic and hard to adjust to cooking in a different kitchen. And not just like your Mom’s kitchen. It’s a huge kitchen and hard to know where anything is. Add to that the fact that the place is full — there are 15 students, 3 professional chefs, and various staff doing dishes, etc. So it was frustrating to hear an instruction like “All stations need to be cleared except for a clean cutting board and knife”, and have no idea where to clean your knife and where to get a new cutting board, let alone where to put the dirty one! Hence the “getting acclimated” part of this class.

Despite the craziness, we did some really fun things. First up, Beef Stroganoff. I was so excited that my new knife got broken in slicing beef tenderloin into pretty 1/2 inch strips. After you prepare a dish, the Chef Richard tastes it, and then you and your partner eat it. Awesome. We liked that part and eventually placed what little was left into takeaway containers to bring home. Next, a Coffee Cocoa Spice Rub for a Pork Tenderloin that we seared and roasted. Again, very good and more leftovers for lunches that week. This was Emory’s favorite. Chef Richard demoed a London Broil with Pomegranate Marinade while we were cooking our dishes. And finally, we made a Bourbon Marinade that we are to use on chicken over the weekend.

Homework for this week, aside from my trip to stalk the meat counter, was to fabricate our own chicken. I took notes as best I could while I watched…”clip wings…cut out backbone with shears…lay belly up and pull collar forward…CAMEL CLUTCH!!!!…cut on seams…and so on.” And I loaded my car after class with leftovers, marinade, and a little chicken friend. Tonight, I had to give myself a little pep talk in the kitchen, and almost gave up and just roasted the little guy whole, but finally was able to produce two each of chicken breasts, thighs, and legs. I wasn’t able to do it as neatly as the demo, but we’ll be eating it tomorrow and I didn’t lose any fingers. Folks, I call that success.

Here are my useful tips for home chefs:

*London Broil is a cooking style and NOT a specific cut of meat.

*If you’re marinating for an extended amount of time (say, a tough beef cut for 12 hours), you should keep the acid content of your marinade low (ingredients like orange juice). Tender product (such a chicken) should marinate less time (4-6 hours max) and can handle more acids.

*Beef Grades – There are 8 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades for beef, but you should stick to purchasing the top 2 – Prime, and Choice. Keep in mind that meat at your meat counter is more likely to be these 2 grades, and packaged meats (in the little trays or tubes) is more likely to be from lower grades. Another thing to note is that the meat in the little trays is sometimes cuts that didn’t go well, or kind of scraps. That explains why they always look kind of odd….

*The next learning made my Cornhusker heart smile — the best place to buy Prime (the best!) beef is…..(drum roll….) NEBRASKA (or Iowa)! The main reason is that beef from many other regions comes from dairy cows, and tends to be mushier (yum, right?).

*Whenever you are cooking cuts of beef, be sure to let the steak “bloom” by resting it at room temperature for 30-45 minutes prior to preparing. Cold beef on the grill does not a yummy steak make. We started to do this at home a couple of years ago, and I swear it has made our steaks better.

*For serving, always slice tough cuts against the grain, but cutting them on the bias will expose more fibers and make your bites tougher.

Pro Series Class 1: Knife Skills

This post is part of a 9-part series related to my completion of the Pro Series 1 professional culinary arts course at The Culinary Center of Kansas City with Chef Richard McPeake. This course changed my cooking world! An introductory post can be found here.

Alternate Title: Why is There a Bag of Beef Bones in My Car?

Night one of class is complete and I am now assured my class selection was the perfect choice. It is a serious class, but was alot of fun. Most of the attendees came on their own, which made it easier to make friends and find a team that I’ll cook with for the duration of the class. Tonight’s focus was knife skills, beginning with a discussion of knives (anatomy, materials, type, sharpening, care) and followed by chopping demonstrations and practice on particular vegetables.

My “Aha Moments” from today include:

*Use a rocking motion (tip to heel) to cut, so that your knife does the work, not your arm. (Okay, I already knew this but thought it was useful info….).

*Never put your knife in the sink (either by throwing or gentle placement). If things are placed on top of it or it does hit the edge of your sink, you can damage the blade. (I am very very guilty of this.) Also, no dishwasher….

*The best knives have a full tang (metal that runs throughout the handle). We learned alot more about knives…so ask me for more info if you’d like.

*If you store your knives in a block, and your block will accommodate it, store the knives blade side facing up.

*Don’t run with knives. Actually, my Dad and Mom taught me this.

*When slicing a round, “rolly” vegetable, position your knife underneath the palm of your hand with your fingers and thumb on either sides of the vegetable, rather than holding your hand off to one side and trying to cut beside it. You’ll have better control of the vegetable and stand a better chance of keeping all your fingers.

*To control “rolly” veggies, you can also take a small slice off one side to give it a flat base.

*I really do rock at chopping celery.

*When chopping or mincing garlic, add some of the kosher salt from the recipe to the garlic clove when chopping. The salt absorbs the garlic juice and you’ll get more flavor in your dish, because that juice usually stays on your cutting board. Just be sure to subtract that amount of salt from your total.

*Finely chopped garlic is different from minced garlic. To mince, finely chop, then position your knife blade almost flat, blade side facing away from you and rub it (pulling toward you) across your garlic pieces. You can also make a garlic paste this way. If you like this tip, thank Japan.

I’m a few years out of school (I guess I now am qualified to say I am “quite a few years out of school”) so I failed to consider one thing. Class = Homework. We take home a quiz each week, and also have research and practical homework assignments. This week, I am researching umami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami), or the fifth taste — savoriness. I also was given two pounds of beef bones and a bag of mirepoix (50% onion, 25% celery, 25% carrot) to roast and simmer into a brown stock. The veggies are the product of our chopping today and will be the base for our stock. I am to return the stock to class next week and it will be compared to the concoctions of the other 14 students.

There you have it. Week 1 (minus homework) complete. Eight weeks, and alot more food, to go.

Stock Update:

My brown beef stock homework assignment is complete and my work-product patiently sits in the refrigerator awaiting its judgement in class tomorrow night. I’m hopeful that it is close to “correct” because it literally took me most of the day on Saturday. I roasted the bones and mirepoix for almost 2 hours, and simmered the stock for over 5 hours. We were told in class that our recipes would always be written without much detail, so I did some additional research (of course…I am me, after all) prior to beginning. My trusty copy of The Joy of Cooking, a wedding gift from my sister Sarah, came in handy as I read about the proper method for making stock and what is most likely to go wrong. After reading this, I realized that how I usually make stock (throw a leftover chicken carcass, veggies, water, and some seasoning in a pot and leave it be) is not exactly right (not really right at all….). So I was especially attentive to my little project to be sure 1) the water didn’t boil too quickly and that it only simmered, rather than a hard boil, 2) the water level never reached below my solids while the stock is cooking, and 3) impurities were frequently skimmed off the top, in hopes the stock will look and taste clear. We’ll see what Chef Richard thinks tomorrow.

Other things I learned:

*Stock is flavored primarily by bones (chicken, beef, etc.) where a broth is flavored by meat.

*White stock is made using raw ingredients. Brown stock is made by roasting ingredients, then making the stock.

*Raw ingredients make the most flavorful stocks.

STOCK VERDICT UPDATE — My stock was good, just weak. I should have roasted my beef bones longer to get more marrow out. (Aren’t you glad you just read that?)

Cheddar Buttermilk Drop Biscuits

And leftover buttermilk from pie equals buttermilk biscuits. But I really don’t have a good place to roll dough. And I also hate the feeling of flour on my hands. And I really decided to make biscuits at the ninth-hour before dinner, when I already had turkey burgers and roasted asparagus to make. So I pulled the best parts out of two recipes and made my own Cheddar Buttermilk Drop Biscuits. Recipe 1, selected for rolling and kneading avoidance – Easy Drop Biscuits. Recipe 2, selected for best ingredients – Ina’s Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits.

They rocked, but are about 80% butter, so what did I expect?

Cheddar Buttermilk Drop Biscuits

Mrs. Cowsert’s Buttermilk Pie

I have been tasked with the dessert portion of a dinner with friends this evening. I’m making my first attempt at Buttermilk Pie and I’ve selected a recipe I scawled on a post-it note at my mother-in-law’s house…out of Paula Deen-related magazine. The dessert contains two of my favorite ingredients (what to me should be the building blocks of ANY dessert) — butter and eggs. After only 15 minutes in the oven, my house smells heavenly and I can’t wait to see it through. I bought fresh strawberries to serve with it, and also Double Stuffed Oreos, which we will only bring in the event of an emergency.

UPDATE — Who needs Oreos? (No, but seriously, I’m going to finish those so don’t eat the last one….) That pie was awesome and perfect with simple strawberries. I left the remnants with our hosts, but cried inside as I lifted them into their pie plate. I will be repeating this recipe because it was so very easy, looked so very not easy, and it will pair perfectly with any seasonal fruit.

Pro Series 1 Classes: Getting Started

Next week I begin a Professional Culinary Arts course through The Culinary Center of Kansas City. To answer the most common questions — 9 weeks; just for fun; yes, I already can cook; and no, we won’t be making casseroles. I selected the class because of the way the series is organized – by categories and methods rather than by courses or types of cuisine. For any gymnasts out there, because it is a “drills before skills” type of course focusing on basics and process, before you get fancy. The scheduled classes are: Knives, Meats, Seafood, Vegetables, Moist Heat Cooking, Dry Heat Cooking, The Mother Sauces, and Small Sauces. They had me at Knives.

While I hemmed and hawed about whether to register, my primary concern was if the course would be too basic for what I already know from practice, reading, and my formal Food Network education. I am by no means a professional but I like to think that I am a ways past beginner. The course is modeled after the first year of a professional chef’s course, so I am hoping it is a little more advanced. My welcome email arrived today, and based on my level of confusion from some of the instructions, I realize I have no idea how a professional kitchen works. Confusing instructions include wearing kitchen-safe shoes and kitchen-safe pants. I think I can figure out the shoes part, but really wonder about the pants. Do people show up in parachute pants or something that is a fire hazard? I imagine I’ll be calling with questions.

Stay tuned for my thoughts from each week’s class….