Friday, February 8, 2008

Ruined Footballs

The main exercise of this evening was standard vegetable tournage. What that means at the FCI is cutting vegetables into uniformly-sized football shapes: oblong, round, a bit narrower toward the ends, but not actually pointed, as though you took an American football and cut the last tenth of the end off. We've been told ("warned" might be a better word) that we are going to be cutting a lot of vegetables into that standard shape over the next eight months. Each size has a different name: bouquetiere are 3cm long; cocotte are 5cm; vapeur are 6cm; chateau are 7.5cm; and fondant are 9cm long. The most common cut is cocotte. The larger cuts are most often used on potatoes, and each of the different sizes of potato cut in that way has a different standard method of cooking. More on that later, no doubt. For now, we do cocotte cuts, over and over -- tonight, our first night of cutting these, we were each told to get 8 well-shaped and consistently-sized cocotte potatoes, 8 cocotte pieces of turnip, and 8 cocotte pieces of carrot. Like most physical activities that you are unaccustomed to, you tend to keep the muscles you're using much too tense when you start out (remember the death-grip you had on the steering wheel when you began driving?), and after about an hour of doing this, people noticed that their hands were quite sore. It might be an ibuprofen morning tomorrow.

Different vegetables have different degrees of difficulty. The Chef instructors said repeatedly that carrots are the most difficult, while potatoes and summer squash (zucchini, which we did for a few minutes in an earlier class so that we wouldn't be going into today's big night of cocotte completely in the dark) are easiest. Most people in the class (in fact, about a 2-1 ratio, because I surveyed people during dinner break) felt that potatoes (and zucchini) were most difficult, and carrots easiest. This interested me because I think to some extent it shows that the Chef instructors are Chefs first and instructors second -- I'm not sure they've really studied the process of teaching and learning. The fact that so many of the students find the carrot easier to do says something about what the challenges are when you are a beginner: they aren't the same challenges you face when you're more experienced. (But both Chefs are excellent instructors overall -- this is just something that interests me academically because I'm interested in teaching; it's just an observation, not a complaint.)

One thing that struck several of us as odd is that even though we are all interested in food, and a lot of us have eaten in a lot of different kinds of restaurants, some of us even in France, and we've been told that this is a classic way to prepare vegetables and we will be doing a lot of it at the FCI, none of us can recall ever having been served vegetables in this way. Be that as it may, they looked very nice. On the plate Chef Marc prepared as a demonstration while we watched, in addition to the turned carrots, turnips, and potatoes, he had a beautifully-trimmed and perfectly cooked artichoke bottom, and next to the artichoke he placed a cocotte he had made from the couple of inches of the stem of the artichoke, and it surprised me how that one piece of stem shaped like the rest of the vegetables presented really tied the artichoke to the whole plate aesthetically.

Once we had all of our vegetables ready to go, it was time to cook. The idea is to cook the vegetables with a little water, a small amount of butter, salt, and just a small pinch of sugar, so that the water will just be completely evaporated right at the moment the vegetables are fully cooked. (Since different vegetables cook at different rates, you use a separate pan for each vegetable.) At that point, you have a lot of options for how you want them to look and taste: you can serve them "à blanc," which is with no browning at all but shiny with the coating of the bit of butter left when the water has evaporated; "à blonde," which is a tiny bit browned by cooking for about a minute longer once the water is gone; or "à brun," or very browned, which you do by heating the pan until the butter and sugars get very brown (but not black -- that would be burned, and impart an acrid flavor) and then deglazing the pan with a bit of water to get the brown off the pan and thoroughly coat the vegetables with it.

This really ought to be simple. But between two of us working together, we had 6 pans going in slightly different ways (for carrots, turnips, potatoes, pearl onions, artichoke bottoms, and a mix of previously-cooked beans and peas) and cooking at different rates, using two large burners, a hot flattop, and the oven. The result was that I served Chef Marc the single worst plate of food I have given anyone in the last fifteen years, and I knew it before I ever took it up to him. But there's really nothing you can do other than listen to what he has to say (I already knew what it would be), and try to do better next time. If I have the energy, I might go in early on Saturday with a few pre-cut vegetables and try to cook half of the things again, because it was such a disaster. My carrots were burned and undercooked (if you understand how those two things make sense together, you're catching on to how to think about these things), the green beans were overcooked, the potatoes were browned nicely but then over-roasted so that they steamed themselves to death on the inside and developed a leathery texture on the outside, the turnips were not really glazed, the artichokes boiled to death before we began plating, and the pearl onions completely burned while we were distracted trying to rescue carrots and turnips.

Hopefully, we'll all learn from our mistakes and get better at things as we go.

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