Its Not Bland… Its Delicate

Describing food is hard. I imagine that most of you, dear readers, are either foodies or looking for a particular recipe and up I popped on your google search. Either way, communicating the experience of eating something to someone who has never had what you are describing is incredibly challenging. I think its part of why I love food writing so much. I am a sucker for a good challenge.

This vegetable was in a pile on the stainless steel table over which Chef was presiding. Our instructions were to come up to the pile, and pick out a vegetable that we had never seen before, or didn’t know what was. I selected this guy (I say “guy” because it reminds me of a toothless old man’s puckered face) as classmates picked up fennel, leeks, a sweet potato.

I had seen this before in the supermaket, but assumed it was some kind of bitter melon and left it alone. Turns out, its called chayote (pronounced cha-YO-tee) and is in the squash family. So, Chef is trying to find the right words to describe it. He (a flamboyant Texan with an effortless sense of dry humor and endless depths of energy) says “it doesn’t have too much flavor on its own…its…” and I finish his sentence by chiming “bland?” He flashes a one-cornered smile and says “delicate.”

Such is the nature of cooking school. When one signs up to learn not only how to chop celery into a fine brunoise (the teeniest little perfect squares you can imagine) but why (to add subtle crunch to something like a cream soup without your guest identifying the source of the crunch) you have crossed into another world and left the “common” world behind. While I struggle a little with the inherent elitism, after all I was a food lover before I was a culinary student, it is true that I joined up because I wanted the elite credential. Moreover, most people glaze over when I wax poetic about, oh, say, salt. But not you, dear reader, you salivate. Or click the back button an find an easier/more appropriate recipe, or realize that by google searching for “clam” you didn’t find here what you were looking for.

Ok, so let’s go back to the pile of vegetables. We haven’t been allowed to turn any stoves on yet. First we have to address the basics. For the love of all that is good, please wash your hands after using the bathroom. Then there’s the identity of cooking stuff. No stove will help you if you don’t know how to clean, and ID a leek. On Day 1 of ID, we each got a little cup of something that looked like milk. Taste. Buttermilk. Day 2, vegetables. When we went around the room and introduced ourselves, each person said ‘I love to cook’ in their own way. Watching some of those same people eye a bulb of fennel like it was potentially explosive was not a reaction I expected.

With many of our vegetables yesterday, we began learning classic cuts and practicing the knife skills necessary to produce them. I’m not much for fussy food, but there is something extremely rewarding in fluffing a finely diced carrot. What was just moments before an ugly, tuberous, over-sized phallus now converted into brilliant little jewels as pleasant to admire as a spoonful of caviar.

Today was fruit, so we made fruit salad. Mangoes, apples, strawberries, grapes red and green, cantaloupes, oranges and pineapples were pulled one by one from the fridge (too common) the reach-in and passed around so we each could practice the right way to clean them up for a fine fruit salad. I seized the opportunity to collect my table’s pineapple rinds and took them home to make Vinagre (recipe follows). Tomorrow, I’m bringing in some to eat on our blanched vegetables (we get to turn the stove on!) and convert another group into being horrified to throw away pineapple rind.

Today also including a whirlwind of cheese tasting and fruit salad eating and ended with a conversation about sustainable cuisine. Chef was on his soapbox, as were I and several other classmates, passionately informed about the honeybee population decline and corn, possibly the smartest species on the planet, and there sat others, horrified because the had never imagined that a tomato-is-a-tomato-is-a-tomato is wrong. Or questioned why it was that our apples in the fruit salad had been shipped from Washington when New York is currently flush with some of the best apples in the world.

And the thing is, they can’t go back. Now the seed has been planted (sorry pun-haters) and just like washing your hands after the bathroom, and the riveting video on food saftey and sanitation, you can’t go back. As culinary professionals, we can’t unthink our role in shaping the way people think about food. We can only go forward from here.

Ok, enough soapboxing.

Vinagre!

Rinds from 2 or 3 pineapples
1 sweet onion, sliced into half moons
20 garlic cloves, crushed
hot peppers of your choice, chopped fine (the type and quantity will vary based on your taste for heat. I used 6 serranos)
2 T fresh oregano leaves, bruised (just rub them between your palms a few times until you start to smell them)
1 T Bragg’s apple cider vinegar
1 tsp black peppercorns
salt to taste, about 1 T

Collect the rinds from the pineapples you are cleaning. Put them in a pot just big enough to hold them and cover with cold water. On high heat, bring to a boil. When the boil starts, set the timer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, do al your cutting and slicing. Assemble all the savories in a container big enough to hold them and the liquid from the pineapples, and with a tight fitting lid. Add the vinegar and the salt.

When the timer goes off and the pineapple rinds are soft (if they need more time, give it) turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh seive (or a bigger seive lined with cheesecloth) ladle the liquid out of the pot and into the savories, using tongs to remove the pineapple pieces as necessary. Let stand, uncovered until it comes to room temperature. Taste and add more salt and/or cider vinegar if necessary. Cover and refridgerate. Use as a condiment on everything. Lasts about a week in the fridge reach-in.