day one - stocks and soups

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 each night.

Yesterday I woke up at 7am (on a WEEKEND!) to go to a flag raising ceremony, Independence Day parade and reading of the Declaration of Independence (Have you read it? I'll tell you, we didn't mince words) here in Boston. Then we walked to the Bunker Hill Monument before heading over to the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") to see her come into port from her annual turnaround. And we finally ended up in Cambridge, baking in the sun for about 6 hours to hold a primo viewing spot for the fireworks. This was after two prior days of events, including a Boston Tea Party reenactment cruise ("Throw the tea into the water! Now pull it back in for environmental reasons!"), a fife and drum concert, the 35th Annual Chowderfest and a tour of the crypts and tower of the Old North Church made famous by Paul Revere's lanterns. At midnight last night I was on a packed train home, a strange girl pushing my butt forward so she wouldn't be squashed by the crowd pushing us all back into her. I woke up tired, burnt and missing my keys (adult problems!). 

I know, I know, poor me, I should be in one of those abused dog commercials. So it was the perfect day to start culinary school! 

This class is a squashed version of the full-time course offered in the spring and fall, meaning all lectures and lessons are done outside of class and all of our class time is cooking. It means I can take it after work, but it also means ten minutes into class we were in the kitchen, white coats on, learning how to sharpen our knives and cut onions properly.

But it also means you learn the ways of a kitchen fast. When you see chefs on television, it always seems like they are running around like chickens with their heads cut off (probably on their way to chopping the head off a chicken). How does anything get done? But when you have your own station in the kitchen, with your own task, you can focus on that while paying attention to everything else that's going on. You are chopping your vegetables, but you are also listening to people yelling "Hot behind you!" and keeping an eye on your simmering chicken bones for skimming and talking with the other people in the kitchen. It's surprising how fast the 12 of us formed a fairly cohesive unit in the kitchen.

Today we made chicken stock, french onion soup and gazpacho. The chicken stock was fairly easy. I always keep my chicken carcases and vegetable scraps in the freezer to make homemade stock because homemade chicken stock is the best and because keeping skeletons in your freezer is creepy and cool. This was the classic version though, made with mirepoix. For a mirepoix, you want 50 percent onions, 25 percent celery and 25 percent carrots. If you want a beautiful, clear stock, though, you need to skim that scum off the top at the beginning and then get it down to a low simmer for the duration of the cooking time.

French onion soup is more involved, although we did a simple, classic version. I've read that some chefs caramelize and deglaze the onions 10, 15, even 20 times. We did it once, but even that made a rich, sweet soup. As Robyn, our assistant chef, explained, you have to give the onions time. Let the sit in a thin layer of oil or clarified butter for a good bit, browning and cooking those sugars. You don't want to move them too much - you aren't pan frying. But you also need to watch the heat - are the onions softening and caramelizing or are they burning? You want the former. Also, scrape up those bits at the bottom of that pan as you go. My heat was a little high - after turning it down you could smell the difference, from smoke to sweet. Let those onions get dark - it will take about 25 minutes.

Time for tasting. We have a box of tasting spoons so we can taste, season, taste, season, taste, season, etc. Don't reuse a spoon - other people have to try your food too and they don't want your mouth herpes. The number one problem with everyone's soup was that it was undersalted. Mine was certainly bland on the first taste so I added what seemed like a lot of salt, but I still think my soup could have used more salt in the end.

Finally, gazpacho. Lots of cutting and chopping - red peppers, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, cucumbers, boiled and peeled tomatoes, garlic, I'm sure I'm forgetting something. At this point we were running out of time. We took turns broiling our crouton- and gruyer-topped french onion soups in the salamander (the chef word for broiler) and running our soups through the Robot Coupe (the chef word for food processor). Processing, tasting, seasoning and plating the gazpacho made me realize how much trust you are putting in a chef. Some gazpachos were smooth, others chunkier, some added cayenne pepper, some only added finely chopped peppers for garnish (me!). When a plate gets whisked in front of you in a restaurant, you forget that it was the creation of a person in the next room over.

We're supposed to sit down to eat our creations together with some wine each night to discuss the dishes and experience. Today we were running way behind, so we sat down at 9:30 and ate for 30 minutes, talking about the food and listening to presentations on french onion soup and gazpacho from two of my classmates (we take turns researching the dishes - I'm doing bearnaise on Friday). The cool gazpacho was perfect after four hours in the hot kitchen. The french onion soup was clean and tasty, but needed more salt and probably a bit more caramelizing.

Not it's midnight and I'm off to bed. Tomorrow is our first day of baking. Crepes and gateau normand!

Forgive the photo; it was taken with my old-school iPhone 3GS.