Monday, May 9, 2011

Breaking Bread

My days at the Culinary Institute of America are coming to an end. I am in my last kitchen class, the legendary Escoffier Kitchen, and have only six weeks until I will find myself out on my own, in the real world.

We don't really talk about it much, but my friends and I all realize that most likely, in six weeks, we're all headed to different parts of the country, and I don't really know if or when I'll see any of these guys again. But we're approaching it in a positive light. Let's enjoy our time together while we can, make these last few weeks memorable. That means buying way more beer, spending more time together, and eating really damn well. Over the last month or so we've developed a sort of a Sunday tradition. Every Sunday, five or so of us drive to a grocery store, and each one of us buys food to cook. Each person cooks their dish when we get back, and we eat pretty much continuously for five or six hours. The life of a cook is rough.

As we all hang in the kitchen talk shit, cook, taste, and prep for hours on end. Five or six cooks cooking, and another four or five people sitting at bar stools watching us prep, and joining in the conversations. A few people who were too cheap to buy food try and get their hands in on the cooking, but they are pushed away quickly, they can eat, sure... but leave the cooking to the people with the ideas. Over the past month or so, its amazing how each person's style of food is so evident in each of our dishes. We share a bit of ourselves with eachother when we cook together.

First there's Filch, or Zach as he is elsewhere known. He's cheap, so the most exciting thing he'll cook is a bacon egg and cheese, then he'll slide away to play video games while the rest of us cook some more... but somehow he'll sense when more food is ready, and will appear out of nowhere... expecting to be fed.

Then there's Jon. My roommate, who is gone every other weekend working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. When he is here, he is all too eager to utilize techniques he has learned in his time at Blue Hill (along with ingredients he has taken from the restaurant) to wow us with simplicity paired with awesome skill and even better ingredients. Last weekend, Jon brought back some Red Fife Brioche, and we made fresh ricotta using only milk and buttermilk and a little sea salt. And served it with a pickled ramp mustard. It was too good for words. Washed down with a 60 dollar bottle of Veuve Cliquot that we sabered out back, breath taking.

Jared is my little Filipino pork brother. Jared grew up in Sacramento and cooks the food he ate growing up. Pacific Islands cuisine with a hint of Asian flair. The kid cooks from his heart. And I love every thing he's ever fed me. Last week, he made a chicken Katsu. We boned out and skinned chicken thighs, rendered the skin, pounded out the thighs, panko breaded them then fried them in the rendered chicken fat. Served with a little sweet and sour sauce, hacked into strips with my new cleaver, and sprinkled with sea salt. My mouth was burning, but it was one of those "hurt so good moments." This week Jared made Pork adobo. An incredible Filipino dish consisting of Pork Butt, cubed and simmered in water, soy, salt, pepper, and bay leaf until just tender. Served on top of rice, it is unbelievable.

Then there's Nate Wong. The guy is so intense about his food. He comes up with an idea, and regardless of the difficulties, he goes for it. He cooks with an incredible amount of finesse, and puts things together that shouldn't work together... but they do. Today nate bought tofu... the very sound of the word makes my skin crawl. He bought a shit ton of marrow bones. He bought Ginger, Jalapenos, carrots, and some beef neck bones. He roasted the bones, took out the marrow, then proceeded to make a really fucking strong brown stock in about 4 hours. He threw in some dried mushrooms that gave it an amazing depth. He fried the Tofu in my leftover Lard (more on that later) topped it with a little bit of bone marrow, and a relish of jalapeno and ginger, served with his amazing beef reduction sauce. It was so strange, so labor intensive, and so out there... but it all worked.

Taylor cooks the classics. He's all about old school french preparation. He'll cook the shit out of a potato gratin. Beef Wellington. The stuff that we all come to culinary school to master. He does is really damn well. He's all about rich, flavorful sauces and braises. But he rarely cooks with us, because he's usually out cold whenever we're cooking. The guy sleeps more than anyone I've ever met.

Last of all there's me. I cook pretty simple, straight up food, that tastes really good but will make your fucking heart stop. Three weeks ago I made Pierogies by hand. Loaded them with potatoes whipped with a shit house of butter and an entire container of Widmers' brick cheese spread (The shit I fell in love with in Madison) cooked them in tons of butter, with kielbasa. On the side I slowly cooked sauerkraut with smoked ham hocks, then shredded the hocks and put them back in the kraut. Mrs. T's aint got shit on me. Last week I made a massive, delicious meatloaf... simple, but satisfying. Then today, I took it to a whole new level. I wanted to do butter poached potatoes, crisped and served with chorizo and eggs and cheese. I bought these awesome little baby golden potatoes, some chorizo, eggs, queso blanco, but as I looked at butter, I noticed that a pound of Snow Cap Lard is half the price of a pound of butter. And I, being the frugal bastard I am, opted for two pounds of Lard instead of butter and my dish took shape.

I slowly Confited the potatoes in the lard, until they were fully cooked, then I cut them in half, and crisped them up in a pan with more lard and also crisped up some chorizo in... more lard. In a pan I made a bed of potatoes and cracked a dozen eggs sporaticly over the top. I gently heated the pan over a burner to cook the whites that had dripped to the bottom, so that when I popped the whole thing under the broiler the only thing I would need to do is just set the yolks of the eggs and melt the cheese. As the eggs cooked, I basted them with... yes... more hot lard. The finished dish was a rich, salty spicy concoction. A symposium of crisp potatoes, spicy chorizo, runny yolk, gooey cheese, all scented and moistened by the lard, and kissed with a generous finishing of Cholula. It was a hit.

These are the days I'll miss most with the friends I've made here. These are the days when I feel most blessed for being able to live the life I live, doing what I love on a daily basis, with people just as crazy about food as I am. And as I head out into the world in just a few short weeks, very few things are certain. I don't now where I'll be working, where I'll be sleeping, or how I'll be paying off my student loans and eating regular meals. But one thing's certain... I'll be working with food, alongside people who are passionate about it just like me. I really can't ask for more than that.


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