Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cutting up a dragon - what's inside?

While shopping for duck legs, pork belly, live spot prawns, and other exotic things in Ranch 99 oriental market we came across something that looked like a beautiful tropical flower, and was just $1.89 a pound. The name is "Dragon fruit". We asked a few store clerks and oriental-looking customers, and no one knew what it is and how to eat it. So we just took the beast home with us.

An Internet search identified it as a fruit of a cactus plant, to be peeled, sliced, and eaten raw. The white flesh dotted with black eadible seeds is fresh and juicy, and the texture and taste remind me of an underripe supermarket strawberry, just a different color. Unexciting, considering the appearance of the fruit. Next time, I'll sure buy it, and use it whole for table decoration.

CIA Culinary Arts Boot Camp, day 5

The class is over. I already miss the temperamental Viking oven, the sunny herb garden, the gravity tongs that we all hated but finally got used to, the collection of, you guessed right, corkscrews, the desserts, and, most of all, the instructors and the classmates.
The class taught me a lot. It certainly helped to develop the confidence and the humility that every chef needs. However, the best thing about the class was that it put me together with other freaks just like myself, who take food extremely seriously and can talk about it for hours. I am not the only one out there!

The topics of the fifth day were deep frying, stir frying, and the foods of Asia.

For the first time in my life, very carefully, I tasted a Sichuan pepper. It feels hot and cold at the same time. I thought: tastes like a fever. The I realized that there is a lot of energy in it, so fever is not a good metaphor. OK, it tastes like extreme skiing in a snowstorm.

We made:

Fried shrimp rolls

Sichuan noodles with beef

Fried squid

Asian fried chicken

Stir fried vegetables

Chicken stir fry with tamarind

and a few other things, after we learned that the participants of a cake competition upstairs are coming over for dinner. Since there is no pastry class on Fridays, we were counting on the cake people to bring down cakes. Imagine: they didn’t! They just came down to eat with us, and there was no dessert!

I got my kitchen branding with burning peanut oil (too hot wok, a little bit too much oil, and my stir fry was up in flames, and my left hand looks like one of a real chef now, with several burns that are peeling skin and promise to leave scars), a certificate and a CIA apron.

Inspired by the class, I am making duck confit with ginger and star anise from the Charcuterie book (substituted shallots for scallions because I didn’t have them, and blood orange for the regular one, just because I can) and curing bacon with oregano, black pepper, and bay.

Monday, March 29, 2010

CIA day 4: Charcuterie workshop & Culinary Arts Boot Camp, Mexican cuisine

As we gathered ingredients for our Culinary Arts class last Wednesday, we discovered a cart with delicious-looking cured meats and sausages drying in our walk-in refrigerator. This is how we learned that Chef Lars Kronmark’s charcuterie workshop is happening in the mornings of the same week and in the same kitchen as our afternoon class.
The next day I came to school in the morning to take a peek at the charcuterie magic. Then I collected all my courage, walked up to the chef instructor, introduced myself, and asked permission to observe the class and take pictures. Chef Lars kindly invited me to the class, answered my questions, and after learning about my background he actually asked me more questions about pork and charcuterie traditions of Russia than I asked him about the recipes and the techniques. I got to watch chef Lars pick a cooked pig's head for headcheese, to talk to participants, watch them unmold the pates, roast the sausages, take the salmon out of the smoker, prepare the sides, help with de-boning a smoked chicken and some clean-up, taste everything, and I got invited to lunch!

The fourteen chefs who participate in the workshop come for this one week from all over the country, and I was surprised to find out that the majority of the chefs work in hotels, country clubs, and golf clubs, traditionally “steak and potato” places known for very conservative food. So, charcuterie is not a new trend anymore, it’s mainstream.

Lessons learned:
- Duck rillettes made with pork fat can be molded and sliced just like a pate; duck fat would just melt at room temperature
- They use a Bradley smoker for both hot smoking (charcoals inside) and cold smoking (charcoals in the outside box) – not at the same time
- The neat-looking pate press, a wooden box with screws to push down the lid, can create a terrible mess if you apply too much pressure; the juices fountain all over the kitchen
- Our temperamental Viking ovens work just fine for these professional chefs who roast sausages in them with no problems
- Hot smoked salmon is very difficult to slice, even for people with excellent knife skills

After the lunch and a walk in the CIA’s herb garden, it was time to go to our class. The topics were Braising, Stewing, and the cuisine of Mexico.
The main trait of the Mexican national character seems to be the love of hard work. Mole is a proof. Making Rick Bayless’s Simple Red Mole took three hours of three people continuously roasting, grinding, hydrating, reducing, mixing, hydrating and reducing the ingredients again. Did I mention 26 ingredients?
We got so absorbed into creating the mole that we missed the desserts!
The menu was:


Roasted Serrano salsa

Tomato, potato, and avocado uncooked table salsa

Spicy mushroom tamales

Juchitan-style black bean tamales

Smoky peanut mole with quail

Simple red mole enchiladas with braised chicken

Friday, March 26, 2010

CIA Culinary Arts Boot Camp, day 3

Everyone in Napa Valley seems to like CIA students.
My classmate Joy from San Diego is very passionate about Cakebread Cellar’s wines, so, trusting Joy’s taste in wines, and having come to the Valley an hour before the class, I stopped by the Cellar. I had never been there before. The sign at the entrance says “Tasting by appointment only”, and this always scares me.

This time, I walked right in and asked if it was too late to make an appointment for right now, because my classmates at the CIA like the wines, but the class starts in an hour. It wasn’t too late. They didn’t charge me anything – CIA students are always welcome, we love food too - and sent me to the cellar right away.

The winery is proud of its food-friendly wines; the tasting notes for each wine have a food pairing recipe printed on the back. My favorites are 2007 Carneros reserve Chardonnay, big and complex enough to go even with red meats (suggested pairing: Spanish chicken with chorizo, clams, and prawns; my suggestion: duck confit with baked apples), and 2006 Syrah, that goes from dried fruits to chocolate to coffee and has a dynamics of an end of a meal (suggested: moussaka; I would just have it before or in place of a dessert). They also have cooking and food pairing events through the year.

After tasting, I checked into El Bonita motel in St. Helena, to avoid the drive home and back tomorrow. The cheapest room was $120, after mentioning my CIA class I got it for $90. I got double lucky with the motel, because it began to rain later, and what is a longish but beautiful drive in the dry weather is no fun at all in the rain, and also because the next morning I got to school early enough to observe chef Lars Kronmark’s charcuterie workshop.

The day’s topics were sautéing, roasting, and the cuisine of the South Mediterranean.

For two hours I fought with a brand-new Viking oven, trying to get a decent temperature for my lemon and herbs roasted chicken. After an hour at what the oven thought was 450 degrees and another hour at “350”, the breast and the drumsticks were perfectly cooked and still juicy, but the thighs were very pink at the bone, and they didn’t make it to the table. You may think it’s a Viking, but it’s still an oven. Can’t trust it.

The menu:

Grilled tuna ceviche tostada

Salsa de chile guajillo

Chile-grilled squid on sesame spinach

Persian roast chicken

Roasted chicken with lemon and herbs

Sautéed salmon with yogurt sauce

Sautéed salmon with Skordalia


Seasonal vegetables

Joy’s grilled squid, rings and tentacles cooked separately, came out as most tender squid I ever had. In the process she did destroy one hotel pan that she put on a hot grill in the absence of a grill basket, but I say it was worth it.

The pastry class only did cakes that night, no plated desserts, so I had to make do with foie gras for dessert. Chef Victor brought us torchon de foie gras that he had made in his other class. It didn’t come out quite right. They brought the liver to room temperature, deveined it, seasoned with salt, pink salt, and white pepper, rolled it into a log shape in cheesecloth, and buried it in rock salt for three weeks. It turned out that three weeks is way too long, and the liver came out too salty. So to balance it out, chef Victor served it on toast points with sweet and sour blueberry sauce, garnished with fresee. Still salty, but heavenly.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CIA Culinary Arts Boot Camp, day 2

CIA campus in St. Helena, CA, Greystone, is located on a North-facing slope overlooking the valley and the highway, surrounded by gardens and vineyards, so it's extremely difficult to photograph. It was built as a huge coop winery, the biggest in the world, and it still has a winery character, with it's cellars, wine barrels, and, (did I mention it?) a collection of corkscrews that takes an entire wall in the enormous entrance hall.
Today's class was about poaching, steaming, and overview of French cuisine.
Yes, all in one day.

Here the chef instructor Victor Scorgle does the demo on cutting up the poached chicken, all the while complaining that he doesn't want to be the only one who always does the carving. Next he handed me the knife, and I shreded the second chicken into little pitiful rugs.

On the menu:

Leeks in vinaigrette

Seafood poached in saffron broth


Braised celery hearts

Braised green beans and tomatoes

Braised greens

Braised fennel

Meanwhile, upstairs, the two-year program students were preparing a colorful Latin American meal (roasted duck with pumpkin seed sauce and escabeche were both beyond praise), and the pastry students got ready to pass the desserts.

We all love this part of the class, because the desserts are perfectly executed and presented with taste and imagination.

And we get to share them among our group and with other students, which creates a fun family atmosphere.

And we hate it, because even if you try a tiny little bit of each, you cannot try them all.

And in the end, we have to toss some of these, barely sampled, jewel-like creations, and it doesn't feel right.

And we have to somehow walk downstairs after this, and practice cutting potatoes and tomatoes for compost (that's called knife skills).

Today the pastry students, besides the desserts and decorated cakes, also made a display of sugar caramel sculptures.

I remember how much fun we had as teenagers when we would get together after school and play with burnt sugar, twisting it into amazing abstract shapes. This is the teenager's fun elevated to a fine art. Beautiful and useless.

Today I started thinking about taking this pastry class.

CIA Culinary Arts Boot Camp, day 1

No time to write in details, just a few highlights:

- Everything about the Institute is impressive
- What they call a "giftshop" is actually a complete kitchen store, it has everything from pots and pans to wine service. Expensive.
- I especially liked the corkscrew collection in the lobby; I would travel there just to see the collection
- We got lucky: our class is in the brand-new Viking demo kitchen that they just put in. We have it to ourselves all day
The first day was broiling, grilling, and Caribbean cuisine.
What we made:
Grilled chicken breast with adobo de achiote marinade (both on the gas grill and charcoal fire; I was gas-grilling, but my grill was downwind from the charcoal pit, so I got my share of "smoking chicken" too)
Smoked corn and chile salsa (charcoal)
Mamba (Haitian peanut sauce; spicy, delicious, cures cold instantly)
Quinoa pilaf with roasted peppers
Grilled vegetables

We also had a knife skilles demonstration and practice, made a lot of compost.
Did I mention that the class is very fast and intense?
The best part (after cooking) is going to the Teaching Kitchen to try what the two-year culinary program students are making. Then the pastry students come out of their bakery and pastry kitchen and offer little dessert samples for everyone to taste. You cannot try them all, and it's a shame.
Chocolate and Guinness souffle I'll never forget.
Back to the class now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The healing power of raw fish

I am still fighting off my cold symptoms, with variable success. This Saturday the weather was great, and R. decided to see if the ocean air can help me, so he took me to El Granada.

After a short 2-hour walk in the fisherman's marina, checking the live Dungeness crabs sold from the boats (exceptional!) and on the beach, we ended up in Sam's Chowder House, a restaurant with one of the best views even in views-rich California.
What I love about CA is that even in a place with a great view you can get good food. The gumbo was excellent, tuna poke just the way I like it, moist and not too salty, and the oysters (we had local kumamotos and royal miyagis from British Colombia) had this season's creamy quality that I already mentioned in my post about the oyster farm. The oysters were so rich in fact, that they went well with Ferrari Carano Sav. Blanc, an unlikely oyster wine.

And the magic of the ocean, the sunshine, fish and wine worked: my cold was gone for the day! It returned the next day, and I am still fighting it, but at least now I know that there is hope.

Today I am leaving the corporate wonderland for brief five days, to see how much I love to do what I love to do the best. I am taking the CIA Career Discovery - Culinary Arts class.
Wish me good luck.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Signs of Spring II

Eating outside. Fresh from my just cleaned for the season gas grill: prosciutto wrapped scallops and asparagus; mahi mahi scewers; portabello steaks.
Here I am, messing with the classics (again). Small fillet mignons baked with morel halves in puff pastry, with roasted fingerling potatoes.

Miner's lattuce. Looks like a miniature water hyacynth, complete with pretty little flowers. Mild and juicy.
Breakfast outside. Steamed asparagus with Maltese sauce made with blood oranges.

Not shown: Starborough Sauvignon Blanc; Theraflu Severe Cold and Cough.