Pro Series Class 9: Final Dinner Class

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.

The finale of the Pro Series 1 class was a dinner party, catered by the 15 students (minus my teammate Libby who was on a tropical vacation, not that any of us were jealous…), with the help of Chef Richard, and our helpers Chef Larry and Chef Max, and those awesome ladies that washed all our dishes! We received the menu and recipes in advance, but did not know what we would be assigned to cook. Each team named a captain (I must have fidgeted just wrong, because my team picked me) and that person drew to see what our dishes would be. I was also responsible for working with Chef throughout the night to coordinate our items and ask questions, since only the captains were allowed to speak to him. Before class, Kathran and I said the only thing we DIDN’T want to draw was the blackened tilapia, because neither of us had made anything like it. So I fished into the bowl of paper slips and drew…the Blackened Tilapia and the Bananas Foster. (I’ll let you know now, the tilapia was not difficult at all and was, in Team 3’s humble opinion, the star of the show.) It was one busy, and occasionally frantic, 90 minutes but we successfully prepared a buffet for 48. And because our guests paid to join us, I suppose that would make us professional chefs now, wouldn’t it?

Our Menu

Spring Greens with Roasted Shallot Balsamic Vinaigrette

Blackened Tilapia with Balsamic Tomatoes

Poached Chicken Breast with Sauce Bercy

Grilled Pork Medallions with Sweet Mustard Aioli

Orzo Pilaf with Sun-dried Tomato Pesto

Grilled Seasoned Vegetable Array with Basil Butter

Bananas Foster, served with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Three-quarters of Table 3 (Kathran, Chef Richard, Stacy, & Amanda)

After all that, my jacket is still clean!

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Pro Series Class 8: “Small” or Pan Sauces

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 loved week 8 of our Pro Series 1 class, and Chef told us that it is offered periodically as its own course. Knowing how to prepare the Mother Sauces is great, but the chances of you doing them on a weeknight with an almost-two-year-old clinging to your leg is slim. Pan sauces can be done every night. They’re quick. They don’t require perfection. They’re amazingly yummy. And, they’re perfect for dinner parties. In fact, you’re likely already doing some version of them on your own (I suppose melting Velveeta almost counts…).

It goes like this. Cook your seasoned meat product in a pan. Don’t burn it. Transfer meat to a plate. Get the pan off the heat so it doesn’t burn (see a trend?). Don’t clean the pan. Throw it back on the heat, and deglaze the pan by adding stock or wine to lift off all that yummy stuff. (Look! Your pan is already half clean for dishwashing!) Thicken your sauce (add a slurry of water/cornstarch or water/flour, reduce it, or add something creamy like sour cream or greek yogurt). Serve your fancy sauce and try to remain humble.

Weeknight Dinner Trick – Buy pork or turkey tenderloin and trim on the bias into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices. Trim all the fat off of each slice (easier than off of the whole tenderloin and you won’t mistakenly shave off a bunch of meat and start griping about rising food prices). Triple-wrap 2 slices with plastic wrap and pound gently with the flat side of a mallet or a rolling pin (I use the bottom of a stainless steel spoon rest) until thin. Warning: This will make noise and everyone will stare at you. You can freeze these in packs of 2-4 for a quick weeknight dinner. They thaw very quickly and cook in only minutes per side.

Dinner Party Trick – Cook pork or turkey scallopini in advance and keep it warm in the oven while you prepare your sauce. Once the sauce is prepared, platter the meat in a neat little row and drizzle the sauce across the center just before serving. Warning: Do not try this with chicken or your chicken will dry out in the oven and you will be really really mad.

And of course, our dishes for the night:

Chicken al Bercy (white wine herb sauce)

Turkey Scaloppini with Smitane Sauce

Pork Cutlets with Fresh Portabella Marsala Wine Sauce

Apples with Brandy Butter Sauce (half-eaten…oops!)

Pro Series Class 7: The Mother Sauces

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 had been waiting for this class. Honestly, we all had since Chef uttered the words, “Nine. Cheese. Macaroni.” The Mother Sauces are the traditional French sauces from which all other sauces are born. These sauces are more time-consuming than a pan sauce (see Class 8 post), but mastering them will allow a home chef to make many, many different sauces. These sauces are:

Béchamel Sauce – white sauce made with milk and flavored with onions. The most famous variation is a Mornay Sauce (CHEESE!), but a béchamel is the basis for many cream sauces and fillings (such as in pot pies).

Espagnole (Spanish) Sauce – brown sauce made with brown stock, caramelized mirepoix, tomato paste, and seasoning. Some familiar variations include Madeira Sauce (with Madeira wine), Bordelaise Sauce (with red wine reduction), Poivrade Sauce (with peppercorn and butter), and Demi-Glace.

Velouté Sauce – a white stock sauce (slightly transparent, compared to a Béchamel). Familiar variations include Supreme Sauce (with cream) and Allemande Sauce (mushrooms and veal).

Hollandaise Sauce – an emulsion sauce made with a vinegar reduction, egg yolks, clarified butter, and lemon juice. Variations include a Béarnaise Sauce (tarragon, white wine, and peppercorns).

Tomato Sauce – just what it sounds like. The difference is this sauce is a much sweeter tomato sauce than an Italian-style sauce. It was spectacular.

We learned how to make white, blonde, and brown roux from flour and butter. A roux is equal parts flour and fat, cooked and used to thicken sauces. The difference is mere minutes of cooking time, and thus color. The longer you cook it (and the darker the roux), the less it will thicken your dish.

Between all four cooking teams, we made 1-2 batches of each sauce, and served them over various dishes. The Tomato Sauce flavored orzo (and was amazing). The Béchamel became Mornay sauce, and was the basis for our baked macaroni and cheese. The Velouté and Espagnole were served over roasted chicken. I made the Espagnole, and it was very good, but I loved the Velouté made by another team, which was flavored with mushrooms. I could not get enough of that one. The Hollandaise was served over asparagus. My Hollandaise didn’t emulsify very well, and so it wasn’t shiny and thick. But it tasted fine. I really don’t care for it anyhow, so the good news is I can leave this off of my list of things to master. This may have been one of the best food nights. I overate, to say the least. I was so busy eating, I didn’t take a single picture. Oops.

Pro Series Class 6: Dry Heat Cooking

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.

Searing, roasting, broiling, grilling! This was a very busy class with some spectacular recipes. We learned to sear meat properly (more on that below), the different methods of roasting and their benefits and drawbacks, the importance of resting foods after cooking, and many other things. Honestly, we’re beginning to cover so much ground in class that it is hard to recap it here. So I’ll limit this to the tips you can apply now, and of course, the recipes and food!

Do This Now:
*Don’t Boil Your Beef! If you crowd food into your pan to “sear”, the surface of your meat doesn’t heat fast enough, thus drawing the moisture out and simply “boiling” your meat. Tasty, huh? The fix — let your pan get very hot (you can always turn the heat down or pull the pan off the heat) and then give your food some space. You’ll get a lovely sear that will seal your flavor and juices in, and look just plain pretty. You may need to sear food in batches, depending on the size of your pan. A good set of tongs comes in handy here.

*Sear the pretty side of your meat first, then serve that side face-up. The second side will never sear as nicely.

*Roast your entire dish. When roasting, always elevate your food with a rack so the bottom of your meat roasts as well, and doesn’t just boil or steam.

*Try vertical roasting. This is the most effective method for roasting any kind of poultry. In conventional roasting, the breast meat tends to overcook, while the thigh and leg meat are still cooking. But purchasing an inexpensive vertical riser (or even a beer can chicken roaster), you can help even out the cooking process for all parts of the dear birdie. Speaking of beer can chicken — if you don’t like beer, try sodas or any kind of juice. A fun suggestion was cola for a bird that has been rubbed in jerk seasoning.

*Dry out your duck. In order for duck to roast properly and not to have a “fatty” taste, the fat needs to render out while roasting. This can be helped out significantly by drying your duck prior to roasting. Simply place the little guy on a rack inside a sheetpan or on a vertical riser on a plate, UNDER REFRIGERATION and dry uncovered for 24-48 hours. The air drying opens the pores, which will help the fat render. Here’s another neat idea — instead of tying up the legs, cut a small slit in one leg between the tendon and the bone, and slip the other leg through.

*Create chicken (or pork or turkey) paillards in advance for easy weeknight meals. Simply wrap a chicken breast in plastic wrap and use the flat side of a mallet to flatten them in a brisk, outward motion. You may find it useful to butterfly the head of the chicken breast half (the really thick part) first. Do a bunch some evening when you’re feeling a tad cranky, and kill two birds with one stone. Freeze them in packets of 2 or so, separated by wax paper, and you’ll be able to break them out for dinner in a hurry. Once thawed, these thin cutlets cook very quickly (2-3 minutes or less per side) and look elegant.

*Stop overcooking your meat! No one wants food poisoning, but the USDA recently revised their guidelines for safe temperatures for different types of meat. Chances are, your meat thermometer may be old and wrong. For example, pork is now listed as safe at 160 degrees. The trick is to stop cooking just before the meat reaches that internal temperature, tent it and let it rest (see next comment), and the temperature will continue to rise while it rests (carry-over cooking).

*Let your meat rest, or you’re wasting your time. Resting your food after any style of cooking will redistribute the juices in the meat and relax the meat fibers, meaning a juicier and more tender product. When meat is cooked over high heat, the meat fibers tighten and force the juices into the center, so you need to allow time for this process to reverse. Be sure to tent your food loosely with tin foil to keep in some heat. Small foods only need rest about 5 minutes. Larger cuts should rest 10 to 15 minutes.
The Dishes:

Pan-Grilled Chicken Paillard with Tarragon Butter – This was absolutely amazing, due in large part to the tarragon butter, flavored with shallots, mustard, and Ancho chili powder.

Seared and Roasted Lamb Racks – seasoned simply with Dijon and breadcrumbs.

The lamb picture above is a great example of why meat needs to rest. In the interests of time, Chef used our team’s lamb rack to slice and plate for presentation, before the meat had rested. You can see that it appears to be cooked unevenly, and could have used a little time taking a wee nap on our table.

Grilled Garlic & Chili Rubbed Rib-Eye with Béarnaise Butter – Oh. My. Stars. this was amazing. We used a heavy hand with the rub and thought it was perfect. And the compound butter added another perfect layer of flavor.

Dry-Roasted Whole Duck – I didn’t get a picture of this but it came out really crispy and lovely. This was my first taste of duck and it was good, but I’ve got to say it seemed like alot of work for a very small amount of meat.

After enjoying the night’s dishes, I vowed never to eat another dish if it didn’t have both a rub/marinade AND a compound butter. Dairy is essential to strong bones, you know.

Pro Series Class 5: Moist Heat Cooking

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.

This post is coming a little late. It is not week 5. It’s not even week 6. It’s week 7. Can you tell things have been a little busy?

Class 5 was really interesting, and the food we made was fantastic, but the best part of that evening was cooking with my team, and realizing that I am not alone in the world when I stand next to the stove and repeat variations of “This smells SO good!” I do this at home, both when I cook (often when I have onions sauteeing or celery cooking) and when I eat (“This is so pretty. Look. This tastes UH-MAAAA-ZING — you have to try it!” Blah. Blah. Blah.). So there I was, standing next to a saute pan sizzling with shallots and butter for Aromatic Citrus Herb Butter, and my teammate said just what I was thinking — “That smells so good!!!!” The same thing happened later in the evening when the sauce for our Braised Savory Swiss Steak was sauteeing, and all four of us are just standing there, smelling the onions, garlic, and celery and talking about it. I am surrounded by like-minded individuals for sure.

During the evening, we discussed and practiced six moist heat cooking techniques — steaming, cooking ‘en papillote’, shallow poaching, poaching, simmering, braising, and stewing.

Useful odds and ends:

*To quick steam asparagus, pour a small amount of water into a saute pan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, pour off excess water so asparagus will be covered only 3/4 of the way up, and place asparagus spears into pan. Yes, you can “mound” them if you are cooking a larger batch, just keep them moving around. Cook uncovered to taste (probably just a few minutes if you prefer your asparagus al dente).

*If you care to create “lighter” versions of sauces that call for heavy cream, replace the cream with Greek yogurt or sour cream. Do not replace the cream with milk, as most often it won’t cook properly. Oops…I am guilty of this.

*If you are poaching chicken (cooking chicken submerged in liquid around 180-185 degrees), you will have better results of you cook chicken breasts on the rib bone. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts will cook too quickly and become tough (yep…this happens to me everytime) but bone is a poor conductor of heat and will allow the chicken to cook more evenly. And it is VERY easy to remove the breast half from the bone — while the meat is still hot or warm, simple tear the “head” (larger portion) of the breast downward. And guess what — chicken is cheaper this way anyhow.

*Be careful using basil and tarragon in recipes cooked over heat — both are fragile and will blacken easily.

*Be careful when buying “cube steak” at your grocer to make Swiss steak. The cube steak should be made with round steak and not ground beef. Ground beef will fall apart when braised.

Our dishes:

Steamed Asparagus with Aromatic Citrus Herb Butter – butter, shallots, thyme, and OJ

Filet of Salmon en Papillote – cooked in parchment with white wine, butter, shallots, scallions, mushrooms, lemon, thyme, and of course, butter

Classic Chicken Eugenie – old-school elegant favorite – made the proper way…stacked with a Holland rusk toast, frizzled black forest ham, a chicken breast poached in white wine and stock, a carved sauteed mushroom cap, and napped in an herb and cream sauce

Braised Savory Swiss Steak – Kind of Ugly but I Sure Didn’t Bring Any Home

Pro Series Class 4: Vegetables

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.

It has been over one week since our vegetables class and I still want more of the Drunken Mushrooms dish we made! Vegetable class was actually one of my favorite so far, in part because I really do like vegetables. (My Mom is so proud right now….) As always, we ate what we cooked. All that came home with me was a tiny box of ratatouille. Baby liked that.

We discussed classification of different types of vegetables, cooking methods for vegetables, and the best ways to prepare each based on its classification and color. I’ll spare you the veggie details, and instead just post the stunning photos of our work, and my aha moments.

Our Dishes:

Winter Ratatouille

Sauteed Green Beans with Grape Tomatoes and Sweet Red Onion

Glazed Baby Carrots

Perfect Creamed Spinach

Drunken Mushrooms

Everything we prepared (as usual) is the classic French method, with the exception of the Sprite we threw into our carrots. The creamed spinach was a particular treat, since “creamed spinach” served in restaurants is often just wilted spinach with bechamel on top. The word on the street is that Julia Child loved this spinach version, with just a touch of nutmeg, and ordered it when visiting Plaza III (not the KC location…I’ll have to ask Chef for a refresher on that story). My favorite dish was the mushrooms, followed closely by the carrots.

Class ended on a high note, as our team (Table 3) got a shout out for having the “best” for two of five dishes — the ratatouille and the green beans. Chef said the ratatouille was perfect because the uniform size of the vegetable cuts allowed the mixture to cook evenly. (Guess who did a bunch of chopping and got our little team to agree on a cut size!!!) And the green beans just plain rocked, courtesy of my teammate Kathran’s skillful sauteeing. When I relayed this news to Brandon after I arrived home, he asked, “Is it supposed to be competitive?” And I said, “Well it is now!”

Things I wish I had known:

*Adding salt at the beginning of cooking drains vegetables of their juices, and thus some of their nutrients. This also happens with canned vegetables. As Chef Richard put it, to get the most nutrients out canned vegetables, “throw away the vegetables and drink the water.” I don’t like canned anyway…fresh or frozen for me!

*Don’t cover green vegetables when you cook them. Just like the result when you overcook them, they will go from Those Look Fantastic Green to If You Make Me Eat That I’ll Throw Up Green.

*I know that to prepare asparagus, you bend the stalk and let it snap where it may to remove the tougher, woodier end. But Chef suggested we bend one, then use it as a guide to chop the rest. He just saved me ten minutes every time I prep asparagus.

*Blanching green veggies really is worth it…both for looks and flavor. To blanche green beans, for example, add them to boiling water just a minute or two until the green color is bright and consistent across the bean. Then remove to an ice bath to stop the cooking, or they will lose the color.

*Unless you are simply trying to support organic farms in general, buy organic produce only when you plan on consuming the outside of the produce.

*Although many chefs say to simply brush your mushrooms off with a dry paper towel, Chef says go ahead and wash your fresh mushrooms and let them dry on a towel stem-side down. Don’t let them soak or you will waterlog the poor little guys.

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!