Sunday, October 11, 2009

I Feel Like Chicken Tonight

After a brief hiatus from the blog postings, and a weekend escape to my beautiful sister's wedding, I'm now back in Boston and back in the kitchen!  

We spent two solid weeks learning about two crucial components of classical French cooking- eggs and butter. I made a killer shrimp souffle drizzled with hollandaise sauce as well as a fancy eggs benedict made up of grilled artichokes, spinach and lox.  Brunch anyone?   

Now we've moved on to bigger and better things, including soups and stocks and poultry.  Does anyone remember that commercial in the early nineties with the family dancing around, flapping their arms and singing "I feel like chicken tonight, like chicken tonight, chicken tonight"?  This was a favorite in the Irwin household, and we use to sing it whenever Mom made chicken.  Well, this week at school I really had to refrain from breaking out into that song the whole time.  

Meat cookery has always been intimidating to me, so I was excited and nervous about starting meats in school.  What I didn't expect to learn was the history of chicken.  That's right...even chickens have a history.   So here goes my little history lesson.  In the early 1960's, the our country raised and consumed 1.2 billion chickens per year.  Today, we produce 14 billion!  Because of the huge boost in consumerism, farmers now pack 12 chickens to a cage, and stack 6 cages high.  After receiving a graphic description of the slaughtering and industrialization process of chicken (with pictures), I was left feeling slightly nauseated and seriously contemplating vegetarianism.   Chef Stephan admitted that he is a pessimist when it comes to the direction our country is going in farming.  He said that the farmer's main goal is to get as big of a bird as possible in the shortest amount of time, causing the chickens to be pumped with hormones and steroids and slaughtered before they've even reached full maturity.  Another disturbing tid-bit is that 70% of the antibodies produced in the U.S. are put towards the farming industry.  And if you think about it, those antibodies eventually wind up in us.   

After hearing these grim statistics, it was difficult to be thrown into the kitchen and expected to poach, roast, and braise ten whole chickens.  We took turns butchering them and trying to learn where and how to appropriately cut them.  Then we worked in teams to learn each approach of cooking them.  We ended the day with more chicken then you can imagine.  It was fun because for the first time, we actually sat down as a class and ate a family style meal of what we had all cooked.  I was very impressed by the end products and learned a lot by others' comments and critiques.  Chef Stephan is a harsh judge, but he is also a fantastic teacher and really wants us to understand what we are doing right and wrong.  

Next week, we're starting a new repertoire of foods, including moist heat cookery (I don't really know what that is yet) and breads.  Stay tuned.   I promise to be better about updating!  

Mangia bene, stare bene,

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Version of Cafe Heaven

Along with school, I have just started working part-time at a darling little cafe called Crema.  Situated in the middle of Harvard Square, Crema was opened just over a year ago by two fresh-out-of-college girls, Marley and Liza, who fell in love with the cafe culture while studying abroad in Paris.  

Their concept to me is absolutely genius.  The described how they wanted to create a "third place" for people; a place between work and home where you can feel relaxed and comfortable, yet connected to the community at the same time.  

For those of you who know me well, I am an avid coffee shop connoisseur.  For me, it's not just a cup of coffee I seek, but a full experience.  I consider it my own personal indulgence to spend an hour or more at a quaint coffee shop with my i-pod, a journal, and a book (or dare I admit it, an Us Weekly) in tow.  I can't quite describe the way that a good coffee shop brings me immediate pleasure and calm while only spending a couple of dollars.  Yes, a Starbucks will suffice if I have no other alternatives, but I much prefer an independently run establishment with a bit more character, charm, and originality.  It also gets bonus points if I can see the owner behind the counter.  

Crema meets all the standards above, and I am thrilled to be on the other side of the counter for the first time to see how such a successful and growing business like this one operates.  

Mangia bene, stare bene,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Herbs and Vegetables

Yesterday was my first day in lab and I'm happy to report that I didn't burn anything, cut any appendages, or get yelled at by Chef Stephan (who, by the way, is a dead ringer for Bruce Willis).  Class started at 8:30 AM with a two hour lecture on herbs and vegetables.  Chef Stephan passed around about fifteen different types of herbs that we had to smell, feel and taste and then describe the flavors- much like wine tasting.  The hard part was, he would pass around something like rosemary, for example.  We'd taste it and he would ask, "now what does this taste like?"  In my head, I was thinking, " tastes like rosemary."  His goal was to make us breath in the herbs slowly and taste them through our noses in order to decide whether they were earthy, robust, sweet, etc.  He really helped us understand how to use them so that they best compliment the dish and don't overpower the food you are preparing.  

After lecture, Chef Stephan went through about ten different recipes that were herb or vegetable based and we each got to choose the one we wanted.  I picked a Hungarian mushroom soup with a mixture of portabella and dried porcini mushrooms, garnished with an herbed sour cream mixture.  Without any further instruction, we were let loose in the kitchen to gather our ingredients and start preparing our dish.  Talk about intimidating!  Luckily, I wasn't the only one with a dazed, I don't really know what I'm doing, type of look on my face.  

For the next three hours we worked as the chef and assistant chef would walk around and shadow us.  Chef Stephan certainly wasn't hesitant to tell us if we were doing something wrong, but all in all, he was pretty patient.  Sometimes I felt like he would look at me like I was stupid if I asked a question, but I think it's just his demeanor- I've found they don't smile very much up here.  When my soup was almost done, Chef guided me through proper seasoning technique. It's going to be really hard for me to get used to cooking without measuring cups and spoons, but he says that is the goal of real cooking.  

Little by little, everyone's food started to come together.  After they were done, we got to present our dish and give a sampling to the class.  We then had a critique session where we explained how we prepared it and then received feedback from others.  People were really complimentary of my soup- little did they know that it was the Chef's amazing seasoning at the end that made it so delicious!  Other yummy items were a sweet potato ice cream (sounds weird but was delicious), gazpacho, and an herbed frittata.  

I came home completely mentally and physically drained but I'm so excited about tomorrow's lab about fruits and spices!

Mangia bene, stare bene,

Friday, September 11, 2009


In the past few months when I’ve revealed my intentions to go to culinary school to people, I usually get the same response: “I had no idea you were interested in cooking,” followed by a question: “What do you want to do when you’re done?”

To answer the first- let’s just say my love for food has evolved from an early age.  It started at the age of two when all I asked for from Santa was “nanny” – candy.  Then, when I was a little older, I would often help my mom cook our family suppers.  And by "cooking," I mean pouring the packet of powdered cheese into the box of Kraft macaroni and cheese. 

It wasn’t until my junior year of college when I went to Florence, Italy to pursue my love of art history that I discovered a whole new art form…Italian cooking. From my very first authentic Italian meal, I immediately fell in love with the Italian philosophy on food and dining.  It was a place where fast food could not be found on every corner and the phrase “to-go” was nonexistent; a place where food was considered as far more than a few ingredients to fill our bellies, but as a way to bring people together in order to strengthen new relationships and solidify old ones.  

After my senior year of college, I was again unexpectantly thrown into the culinary world when I worked as a waitress at a Wyoming ranch and resort.  Not only did I love the energy and excitement of the kitchen, but I was constantly in awe of the head chef's creativity as he produced masterpieces out of foods that I had never even heard of.  

Which leads me to now- an unexpected twist in this post-college life as I try to figure out what in the heck to do with my career.  This leads me to the second question.  To be honest, I'm completely clueless as to what I want to do with my experience after culinary school.  I may want to go into the catering industry, may one day open my own restaurant, or may just use the experience to prepare delicious food for my friends and family (my mom has already signed me up to cook Christmas dinner this year).  The one thing I am sure of, however, is that I know I would one day regret it if I never tried.  

While abroad, I took some cooking classes in the home of a retired Italian chef and his wife.  Chef Pepe ended each class by saying “mangia bene, stare bene” – Italian for eat well and be well, which is exactly how I plan to spend the next months.  Please join me on my adventure through culinary school and Boston, which is sure to be full of surprises, challenges and hopefully a little fun along the way!  I’ll admit that I am pretty intimidated by the world I’m about to enter  (and my first winter above the Mason Dixon line), but with a brand new set of knives in hand I go to mangia bene, stare bene.