Friday, September 01, 2006

Up for interpretation...

I had just begun working an internship at a restaurant in Paris. It was the first professional kitchen I had ever worked in and to say that I was a little naive to the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen could be the greatest misnomer of the 21st century. I walked into the kitchen timid and soft spoken (oh yes, there once was a time where I was actually timid and soft spoken. Thank god I got over that!); nervous but excited about cooking in a foreign country; and with delusions of grandeur built up by too many friends saying, “oh you’re such a great cook; you should really be a chef”, and actually believing them, along with foolishly romantic ideas about what working for the French would actually be like. Add to my complete and utter delusional state, the hubristic notion that since I’d already had a successful profession as a software developer on Wall St., I’d somehow have instant respect in the bowels of a French kitchen. The proverbial ass kicking that ensued (for many years to follow) was humbling, to say the least…

My first day in the kitchen I was a complete rube; every five seconds driving the chef crazy with, “chef, where are the bain maries”, “chef, where are the sheet trays”, “chef, where are the bandaids?”. Within hours of stepping into the kitchen she said to me, “Look before you ask, Cristina. Look, look!” and with that, sent me packing to the basement with two crates of tomatoes for coring and quartering, and a stern warning, “don’t get blood on anything!”. For the next four months, my home was that basement. My vegetable peeler and pairing knife, an extension of my hand as my main task every day was to peel cases of white asparagus and quarter cases of tomatoes. “In New York you have Mexicans, in Paris we have Americans” I was informed by the kitchen staff.

Everyday after lunch service the crew would wash down the kitchen from floor to ceiling and then take two or three hours off before returning for dinner service. I, on the other hand, would stay and prep vegetables for ratatouille, cut and toast hundreds upon hundreds of croutons, slice buckets of onions, blend gallons of tapanade and then go home before dinner service began. One day the chef had asked me to bake off some bread. I was excited; I was actually allowed to touch the stove! And in a moment of bumbling stupidity, I asked her how long I should bake it for. She looked at me perplexed and screamed, “Until it’s done, Cristina. Until it’s done!”.

But that was long ago…

An invaluable part of cooking is not just following weights and measures, temperatures and cooking times, but knowing how something should look, taste, smell and feel. There are many variables in cooking (which increase 10-fold cooking on a yacht). Humidity affects moisture content when you’re making bread dough; every oven is calibrated differently (which is why it’s important to have a thermometer in your oven); different pans handle differently and so forth. It’s important to know how to interpret a recipe and how to adjust it. But once you understand how to look at food, how to see beyond a recipe, envision what the final product should be and make the adjustments to get it there (rather than complain that the recipe said something would take eight minutes to cook and it actually took ten), that is when you are really cooking…

In my final week in Paris, I finally made a friend. Her name was Angelique, she was a writer and had a small apartment overlooking the Pere Lachaise cemetery; which I thought was infinitely cool since my pubescent heart-throb and rebel roll model, Jim Morrison, was buried there (of course, at the time, my naivety also included a complete lack of appreciation for the great Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Moliere – all of whom are also buried at Pere Lachaise). We planned a small dinner party one night at her apartment and I was to cook the entrée, salmon with a buerre blanc sauce and ratatouille; a recipe from culinary school that I was certain would impress my new French friend. We bought baguettes and sausage to nibble on before dinner and she and her sister made dessert. As I studiously followed my recipe for buerre blanc; adding the specified amount of peppercorns, herbs, shallots and wine and carefully weighing the butter, Angelique roared ahead with her cake making sans recipe. Fearlessly scooping flour with a coffee cup, cracking eggs into a bowl without counting them, scooping sugar with a soup spoon, adding pinches of spices and chopped fruit, she made a cake of unsurpassed perfection and I though to myself, “holy sh*t, what am I doing with this stupid recipe?”.

Of course, there is plenty to learn from a recipe; balance, complexity, layering flavors, new techniques, different cooking methods, etc. But cooking is a tactile craft and requires the use of all of your senses; seeing, smelling, touching, tasting. And recipes are merely guidelines; one should never be afraid to experiment, interpret and tweak.

And with that, here is my recipe for the day:

Crepes in orange-buttered rum sauce:
(make the sauce first, as it can reduce while you are working out your crepe batter)

Orange Butter and Rum Sauce

1 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cups sugar
2 ½ tablespoons dark rum
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 ½ teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

In a small sauce pan, combine orange juice, sugar and nutmeg. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half. Add rum and orange zest and return to a simmer for five minutes. Set flame to lowest setting and whisk in butter, piece by piece, until incorporated. Do not allow it to boil as this will “break” the sauce (i.e. the butter fat and solids will separate and the sauce will look oily).

Pour a small amount of sauce into a small sauté pan. Add the (already cooked) crepe and swirl it around. Fold the crepe in half and then in a loose triangle. Using a spatula, gently lift it out of the pan and place it on the plate. Drizzle with a little more sauce (if needed), sprinkle with orange zest and toasted coconut…

Sweet Crepes:

A mound of flour (about 1 ½ cups)
3 eggs
A spoonful of sugar
Pinch of salt
Milk, enough to make the batter not to thick and not too thin.
Butter (for cooking)

Whisk the eggs, sugar, salt and flour together adding milk slowly and fully incorporating into batter. Batter should be coat a spoon, slightly thick, but not too thick. Taste it, does it need more salt or sugar? Add some if necessary. Pass batter through a sieve. Heat a non-stick pan and rub it down with a buttered paper towel. Pour in a small amount of crepe batter and turn pan to evenly spread. If crepe is too thick, add a little more milk to the batter. Crepe should be thin and lacy. When crepe is browned on one side, carefully lift it with a spatula (I find it easier to use my fingers, but I’m also a sadist) and flip it over. Cook until evenly browned on second side. Spread cooked crepes out on a sheet pan or plate, don’t pile them up as they will steam and stick together. Complete with the buttered rum sauce…

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