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Archive for December, 2012

Just a week ago, I graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine. The past year has brought me closer to food than I ever previously imagined. Read on for my reflections of this experience:

At graduation with my mom and boyfriend Paul!

At graduation with my mom and boyfriend Paul.

At first, I was scared – scared that I wouldn’t meet the mental and physical demands of culinary school. Waking up early to attend 7 a.m. class, learning knife skills, cooking techniques and how to survive long, stressful hours on my feet was nothing that four years at Johns Hopkins could have ever taught me.

Yes, I said 7 a.m. class. We were expected to arrive at least thirty minutes early to change into our uniforms and assist the chef with prep before his demonstration. Of course, there were the students who arrived an hour early. What time did they wake up? 4 a.m.? I am without a doubt passionate about my career choice, but I also can’t function on too little sleep.

Adjusting to my new schedule was very difficult for me. During the first few weeks, I barely slept because I was so afraid I would oversleep my alarm. There were times I was so exhausted, I took the Metro instead of driving because I probably would have fallen asleep at the wheel. Somehow, I made it on time every day. I never missed a single class, either. I may have had to drink five cups of coffee to stay awake, but I was there.

Despite my dedication, I felt that many of my classmates were better cooks than I was. I struggled to slice an onion, brown a chicken and separate an egg, while to others these tasks appeared effortless. Finally I came to a realization – none of us were born pitting olives or rolling beautiful puff pastry. We all had to learn somewhere. I was one of the few students who had come to culinary school without any previous cooking experience. Now, it was my turn to learn.

We covered every technique and dish imaginable in the six months of classes I took. Because we covered so many topics fairly quickly, it was nearly impossible to achieve perfection on every single dish. This was often frustrating.

During my externship, I realized that perfection eventually comes through repetition. I worked garde manger for nearly six months straight. Over this time, I’ve probably separated over 400 eggs to make tempura batter. And I’ve probably sliced even more onions. And yes, I can now do these tasks easily. Excuse the cliché, but practice makes perfect, no?

L’Academie also taught me the four essential flavors – salty, acidic, bitter and sweet. Ideally, a successful dish balances these flavors. I am now much better at recognizing what flavor a dish is lacking, and what I can add to improve it.

Shaking L'Academie's president's hand and receiving my certificate of completion.

Shaking L’Academie’s president’s hand and receiving my certificate of completion.

So here I am now, with the cuts and burns on my hands and arms to prove that I’ve survived a year of culinary school (scars give character, right?). I’m enjoying work at my externship site, a fine dining D.C. restaurant, but I am excited to see where my developing food writing career takes me next!

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On Thanksgiving day this year, my family and I dined at 1789 in Georgetown. The lessons about cooking turkey I had learned from Chef the previous day came in handy during the meal. Read on for my review!

When it comes to holidays, I’m a traditionalist. For our Thanksgiving meal, my family did not want to dine at a crazy modern-looking establishment, but rather in a classic, traditionally furnished dining room. 1789 fit the criteria – the cozy atmosphere was just right for an indulgent Thanksgiving meal.

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The John Carroll Room at 1789

The name “1789” represents the year in which John Carroll founded Georgetown University.  However, the restaurant did not come into play until 1960, when a Georgetown alumnus, Richard McCooey, converted an old Federal period building near the university into a French inspired, American restaurant that he named 1789. After expanding into adjacent properties, McCooey sold everything to Clyde’s Restaurant Group in 1985. Clyde’s was then able to expand 1789, opening six additional dining rooms, each with a different personality.

My family opted for the John Carroll room, with a big fireplace and elegant, antique dining room furniture.

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Three Squash Soup with Creme Fraiche and a Toasted Brioche Crostini

Executive chef Anthony Lombardo created a special Thanksgiving menu with a $50 pre-fixe and a la carte options as well. The prix-fixe included a first course pear and Bleu cheese salad or squash soup, a second course turkey dinner and choice of dessert.

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Brussels Sprout Salad with Endives, Pecorino Cheese and a Whole Grain Dijon Vinaigrette

My parents chose the prix-fixe, while I ordered a Brussels sprout salad for my appetizer. The entrees listed on the menu, such as Norwegian salmon and rack of lamb, sounded appealing, but I had no interest in them. I ordered the turkey dinner with “all the trimmings,” including mashed vanilla sweet potatoes, green beans, sausage stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Thanksgiving equals turkey. I told you, I’m a traditionalist.

Our appetizers were all excellent, as were the accompanying Parker House Rolls. I could go on about how soft and sinfully buttery these rolls were, but what I really want to focus on the main course.

The careful presentation at 1789 was the antithesis to the traditional Thanksgiving smorgasbord. I can’t remember a year where my plate did not look like a disaster zone. The marshmallow topping on that yam dish bleeds into the mashed potatoes (Yes, two types of potatoes on one plate), which runs into creamy green bean casserole – you get the picture. It’s a mess.

680290_4215247384766_1492613651_o1789 makes a plate of Thanksgiving food attractive and stylish. Slices from the breast were stacked on top of the darker leg meat, achieving a sense of height on the plate. Underneath the turkey were string beans with a rich, green color that attracted the eye. Behind the turkey was a small stuffing “cake” that held its shape perfectly. A smear of mashed sweet potatoes on the bottom cemented everything to the plate.

The final touch was the gravy. The chef must have experimented beforehand to find the ideal amount for the plate. Speckled with intensely green chopped parsley, it was spread evenly across the center of the plate, staying a considerable distance away from the rims.

Before I devoured this aesthetically beautiful plate of food, I asked our waiter how the turkey had been prepared. The breasts were first brined, and then roasted. The legs were slowly braised. The giblet and bones were used to make a stock, which was then incorporated into a gravy.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

1789’s turkey was moist and flavorful. I only wish there had been more on the plate. The giblet gravy, as it was described on the menu, was not quite as successful. I found the gravy bland and a bit watery. I wonder what happened, because it had great potential.

The green beans had a charred flavor that added another element of flavor to the dish. Their vivid “greenness” also added much needed color to the plate.

The mashed sweet potatoes were silky smooth in texture, the only drawback being an unnecessary vanilla flavor. As a result, the sweet potatoes lost their earthy sweetness and tasted almost artificial.

The stuffing was nicely browned on top, but the promised sausage was sparse. However, I loved the idea of an individualized stuffing “cake.” It appeared as though the stuffing had been portioned ahead of time into a muffin pan and then baked. I can understand how this might make plating easier in a high-volume restaurant. It’s simple – just pop it out of pan and place it on the plate. There’s no mess, either.

The cranberry sauce, with a hint of orange flavor, was the right amount of sweet. Served in a bowl family style, 1789’s rendition was far superior to the Jello-like canned variety that I remember from my childhood.

For dessert, my dad and I ordered a pumpkin mousse cake, while my mom opted for the gingerbread spongecake. The candied pumpkin seeds on top of my dessert and the mini gingersnaps on top of my mom’s added a crunch to the cakes.

At the end of the meal, I was pleasantly satisfied, but not stuffed. Even so, I still wanted seconds and possibly even thirds. Feasting to no avail is Thanksgiving tradition, right? At the same time, it was nice to skip the turkey coma for once.

I applaud Chef Lombardo’s innovative take on the traditional Thanksgiving dinner at 1789.
Photo: http://www.1789restaurant.com/main/home.cfm?PageID=4

1789 on Urbanspoon

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Yes, I know. Thanksgiving has passed. Humor me and enjoy a peek into how a chef’s mind works!

turkeynymagThe day before Thanksgiving, I found Chef at work in the kitchen, butchering a whole turkey. I watched him slice off both legs with clean, confident knife strokes. Next, he removed both breasts and saved the carcass and giblet (the edible innards, including the heart, liver, neck and gizzard).

What on Earth was Chef doing with this poor turkey? Thanksgiving turkeys are always roasted whole, right? At least, that’s the way it’s always been in my family. Oh, I’m so naive.

The answer was simple. Chef was thinking like a chef, not a home cook.

By putting in more work ahead of time, there would be more time to relax, drink and catch up with the family on Thanksgiving Day. Chef’s method was not only efficient, but it would also maximize the turkey’s flavor and texture. As he put it, “It’s the best turkey you’ll ever have.”

Chef then explained to me how he prepares a turkey on Thanksgiving. Be forewarned, things are about to get technical.

After breaking down the bird, Chef brines the breasts in water, salt, brown sugar and aromatics for eight hours (ideally, the night before Thanksgiving). Because it is fairly easy to overcook, turkey can benefit greatly from brining. How exactly does this work? Essentially, the meat absorbs the brine and stays moist while it cooks. In addition, the dissolved salts in the brine break down proteins in the muscle fibers and let moisture inside the meat.

After preparing the brine, Chef coats the legs with a mixture of sea salt and spices, sealed them in a plastic bag and cured them overnight. Practiced since ancient times, curing is a way of preserving meat. (Do you think the Greeks had refrigerators?) During the curing process, salt draws moisture out of the meat. Bacteria need water to thrive, and without it, they die. And without the ability to sustain bacteria growth, the meat cannot spoil.

The final item Chef prepares in advance is the turkey stock. First, he roasts the bones and giblet until well-browned. He places everything in a large pot and adds thyme, bay leaves, black peppercorns and a mixture of carrots, celery and onions (otherwise known as mirepoix). He fills the pot with enough water to cover the ingredients and simmers them for at least four hours. Finally, Chef strains out the liquid and refrigerates it overnight.

On Thanksgiving morning, Chef cooks the cured legs in rendered duck fat (because it’s the tastiest). He stressed cooking the legs slowly at a lower temperature, about 325 degrees. He also roasts the brined breasts for a few hours over sliced onions and thyme. It is very important to let the breasts rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing them.

To make the gravy, Chef thickens the turkey stock with flour and adds a little Dijon mustard and white wine for flavor. Finally, he reheats the legs by crisping the skin in the broiler. Finally, finally, finally – you’re ready to feast.

Chef’s method  eliminates the risk of an overcooked, dry turkey. Even better, no part of the bird goes to waste (a huge plus in a restaurant).

Although I think Chef’s way is brilliant, I’m not sure it’s entirely realistic in a home kitchen. Don’t tell him I said this, but I think roasting the turkey whole and carving it the traditional way is probably easier in the long run. Even so, I would love to give it a try. I’ll shoot for next year.

Actually, I did not cook at all this year. I worked the day before and after Thanksgiving, so I wasn’t able to go home to Charlotte, North Carolina. My family visited me, and we decided to dine out on Thanksgiving.

We chose 1789, a Georgetown institution. With my newly gained perspective on cooking turkey, I was excited to see Chef’s philosophy reflected on 1789’s Thanksgiving Day menu. Stay tuned for my review of the meal in my next post.

Image borrowed from http://nymag.com/nymetro/food/homeent/14995/

Sources:

http://www.culinate.com/columns/ask_hank/curing_meat

http://m.finecooking.com/articles/why-brining-keeps-meat-moist.aspx

(And of course, Chef John Manolatos himself)

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