day fourteen - mexican cuisine

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

So I'm reading this book Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food for class and, after a weird and lengthy diatribe about not cooking your oysters or putting anything on them, the author asks, "What is cooking?" (I started reading it on the bus today and I'm always self-conscious about what I read on the bus because I think people are looking at what I am reading and judging me. But when I read books for class I hope they think I'm smart and scholarly. "Oh, the history of food. Very fancy. Very intelligence." That's what they think in their heads I'm pretty sure. But really I don't think I have to be embarrassed because I see a lot of people reading The Da Vinci Code or Twilight and they don't seem to be embarrassed at all. Also, can I just say that I don't really get this whole, "Well, at least they're reading," thing? Is reading in and of itself, no matter what the material is, virtuous? Why? "It may be a well-worn Penthouse in a booth at McDonalds, but at least he's reading!" Um, no. I mean, read whatever you want, but let's not give everyone a gold star because they are reading the back of the Lucky Charms box.)

Anyways, so what is cooking? What is anything? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Does chewing cud, which processes food to make it easier for a ruminant to digest, qualify as cooking? "Among some horse-borne nomads, cuts of meat are rendered edible by being warmed and pressed in the horse's sweat under the saddle on a long ride." Mmm! This is really more of a cookbook than a book of history! But is that actually cooking? Is just altering food cooking?

I'm on page 12, so I don't know what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto thinks (probably that it's up the reader, which, great), but it's something to think about because I'm not sure what we did last night was cooking. I mean, food was cooked, I'm pretty sure, but I don't think I had much part in it.

Last night was Mexican cuisine, taught by Chef Leo Romero, owner of Casa Romero in Boston's Back Bay. We started with the requisite lecture on that night's cuisine, which we have all come to look forward to each night. It gives you an extremely abbreviated history of the food and culture behind the dishes we make and answers a lot of the "whys" - why is this type of heating prevalent, why are we thickening with this instead of that, etc. It seems to be a theme that everybody thinks their home cuisine is the best - "We gave this to the world," "We invented that." Everybody knows that it's us Polish who have made the most important contributions to modern cuisine, so let's stop pretending otherwise.

Then it was into the kitchen. First we made ceviche, but really Chef Romero cut up the pollock, splashed in the citrus and let it marinate. The other ingredients were already mise en placed for us, so all we had to do was plop them into the fish. But even that we didn't do - we just gave it all to the chef to add. That being said, it was very fresh, cool and bright.

For the mole poblano, we put the soaked and seeded chiles into a pot with the strained water the chiles had been soaking in and let them cook a bit. Then we added the 4 million ingredients that go into mole, let them cook for a good long while, and put them through a food mill. Which wasn't the best idea. The food mill strained out far too much of the good stuff, like the thick chile skins, and the resulting mole was far too liquid. The team who whirred their mole in a blender and and then strained it had a nicer, thicker sauce. Anyways, we had some of the skins and thick stuff that had been left in the mole, so we blended it with some of the liquid and it turned out very nice. We also reduced the liquid mole that remained.

While all of this went down, Chef Romero demoed a quick salsa and a large pan of chilaquiles. Finally he demoed the rice, which was the most illuminating lesson of the night. I'm pretty sure I felt illuminated. I've never been able to get the perfect, light, dry texture to my Mexican rice. Well, little did I know there are four rules one has to follow:

  1. The rice must be evenly roasted. Keep it moving so it has an even brown color.
  2. The broth should be hot when you add it. Not cool, not room temperature - hot. He added it straight from the boil.
  3. Once you add the broth and it's bubbling, turn the heat down to low.
  4. Cover and let it cook for 20 minutes, undisturbed.

This is how you get rice where each individual piece is separate. It was delicious. The mole was good (we had it on chicken, because you can't find the smaller hen turkeys that mole poblano is traditionally served on in the United States), but a little bitter for some reason (the chef agreed, but he also noted that it was far less bitter when you ate it with the chicken and rice, which was true). The chilaquiles were outstanding (although we didn't have ours with eggs, which is the best, I think) and, instead of sitting down to the table, we stood around the kitchen stations and opened a case of beer while Chef Romero answered questions. 

So basically, I didn't really cook anything last night. Two people in our group seeded the peppers and put them on the stove, while the other two of us supervised ("You missed a seed! That's better."). Other than that... I did turn on a blender. It's not cooking with horse sweat, but I guess it's something. 

Tonight: bread baking.