Hands-on Learning to Cook

When I started out, I was prepared to provide a hands-on account of what its like to go to culinary school. Partially to educate you, but also to do some reflection on the experience. What I am discovering is that it is incredibly difficult to put into words because so much of the learning is hands-on and visual. I sat down to write every night last week and just couldn’t articulate what it was like. Frustrating, as a writer, but more educational to a would-be chef than I could ever qualify in a quippy paragraph or two. Here are some highlights:

• Making Mirepoix
Mirepoix is a French combination of onion, celery and carrot that is the basis for myriad stocks, soups, braises and the like. The Cajun equivalent, the “Holy Trinity” of onion, celery and green bell peppers, serves the same purpose: learn this, and you can cook nearly everything.

mh_jacksonpollock2So, why French? I had a long conversation last Saturday with my friend Brad about why it is that French technique is so pervasive. I think of it much like art. Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, all did something that after the fact everyone could look and say, well, I could have done that. And well, yeah you probably could have. The thing is they recorded it first. They didn’t do it first, or maybe they did, but I imagine that every culinary culture in  a temperate climate was experimenting with something that resembled mirepoix (MEER-pwah.) The French named it and popularized it before anyone got around to scratching out what they were doing, and it was a really good idea. I could create a mushroom, butter and chocolate syrup base for lots of meals, but it probably wouldn’t catch on. Read up on Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier if you are truly excited by the history of Le Cuisine Francais, or shoot me an email and we can chat about it because the stories light the pilot light in my soul.

• Knowing how to handle your meat
My father was a commercial fisherman, and I’ve watched him fillet (fill-EH) millions of fish, open clams, scallops and oysters, many of which I helped to catch, butcher chickens and rabbits, and turn a deer into a year’s worth of venison in the freezer. The thing is, my dad is a kind of perfectionist. Having been a middle school teacher, I’ve learned to accept that the first couple of times you ask someone to do something, they will fail. Miserably. My dad, looking for Martha-quality cuts the first time around took the knife to “show me how to do it.” So I got to watch thousands of striped bass and little necks find their way to the serving platter, but before this week, I had never actually done it for myself.

However, I opened my big mouth and so everyone in class knew I was a fisherman’s daughter who grew up raising chickens, so there was a lot of pressure to know what I was doing. I was elected “team captain” to make sure my group was doing it right, which was perfect, because I’m real good at observing. But like any new student, I butchered my fish. Not in a good way. In a “…well, we can put that piece in the soup” kind of way. And it felt great.

Go to the fish market, buy some whole fish, youtube some videos and get slimy. It feels great! Do it with a chicken, a rabbit, and fear not! It will still taste good, even if you mangle your first attempts. Like anything else, it takes practice.

• The Perfect “Dice”
In my toolkit came, oh how to describe this. OK, picture a 3″ square platform of stiff plastic on which is mounted plastic models of the fine french cuts, which require precise knife skills. We in class call it our “fake food.”

A “medium dice” is exactly a 1/2″ cube. Like Chef says in class, God didn’t make vegetables into cubes, so it is your knife skills that turn a potato into perfect cubes. Or celery. Most celery is not 1/2″ in any dimension, so your knife skills have to make it happen. Leeks, shallots, garlic… make it happen.

Its not mean, there is no yelling, but there is an expectation that you will strive for the perfect dice. Its not the final product, but exhibiting the patience and diligence to be willing every morning to try for the perfect dice. Its a Zen-Sisyphean undertaking and I love it.

Ok, so what about the cooking?

Here’s what I did with some fillets of fish and zen cut leeks:

Panko Fried Flounder with Caramelized Leeks
For the fish:
1 cup grapeseed oil (or vegetable, or corn, but not olive. It burns before it gets hot enough to fry)
4 flounder fillets
1 egg
2 T whole milk
1 T sea salt
1 T freshly ground white pepper
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

For the leeks:
2 large leeks, sliced thin and washed well (wash after slicing in a few changes of cold water, allowing any grit to settle to the bottom of the washing basin. Lift the leeks out, drain, repeat. Don’t dump the grit back over the leeks when draining.)
2 T butter
2 T olive oil
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 cup white vermouth

To cook the fish:
Heat the oil in a pan that the oil fills about a 1/4″ deep. In a wide, shallow bowl, mix together the egg, milk, salt and pepper, like you were making an omelet. Tear a piece of wax paper into a large square and dump on the panko. One fillet at a time, dunk the fish into the egg, and then coat with the breadcrumbs, using the wax paper to help you coat. Set aside on a plate until you are ready to fry.

To cook the leeks:
Wash the leeks very well. In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, melt the butter, with the olive oil. When hot, add the shallot and sautée until they are very soft. Add the leeks and toss to coat with the butter. Add the vermouth and turn the heat down to medium-low. Let cook slowly, stirring only occasionally until the leeks are very soft and some start getting very dark brown.

Bring it all together:
Fry your fish in hot oil, in two batches (more if necessary) about 3 minutes per side. The panko should be just starting to turn golden. Move onto a piece of brown paper bag from the supermarket (no printihttp://ng ink) that you have placed on a rack in a 200 degree oven. This absorbs any excess oil. Repeat until all the fish is cooked. Serve the fillets with a heaping pile of the caramelized leeks and a squeeze of citrus juice, if you have it.