Cooking School Journal: Bigfoot?

Bigfoot

Bigfoot

So when I had last left you, my mouth was coated with a film of olive oil, and my tongue was fuzzy from one too many unidentifiable vinegars. Chef and I had bonded in some weird sorority-style hatred of Crazy Linda.

That night I finally got my chef’s coat (well, actually it’s a cook’s coat-plastic buttons). But it is embroidered with my name. I suddenly felt very important.

It’s funny how uniforms make you feel empowered. I remember how it felt in college to have a microphone in my hand. I would be instantly transformed from the shyest gal on campus into “roving reporter”. My favorite day was covering the opening of the Pan-Pacific Library at USF. I was dressed in my finest suit, pantyhose (!) and pumps. After talking with Amy Tan, I made my futile attempt to interview Chinese President Jiang Zemin about the massacre on Tianmen Square. Like that was ever going to happen!  After he was whisked into his limo by his security detail, I turned my sights on then Mayor Frank Jordan.

“Can I get an interview from a fellow alumnus,” I called out like a walking Chee-toh.

He took one long vertical glance from the tips of my toes up to my hair-do and smiled. “Why sure,” he said sweetly.

I asked him about ten dumb questions which he answered as if he had rehearsed. Then he squeezed my arm, winked and left.

I felt like I was on top of the world.

It’s my little league home run story.

It was all because of the mic.

The mic gave me confidence.

So anyway, standing there in the hot kitchen, with my new stiff uncomfortable jacket, I felt like a real cook.

Salads!

She divided the room into two groups. I was with the giggling gaggle, and the boys were with Crazy Linda and Anna.

We had Steak salad, Salade Nicoise and a Smoked Chicken and Bufalo Mozzarella salad.

Sabrina the home-schooler began smoking the chicken breasts on the stove top smoker. I hate smoked meat. It figures that she was all over it.

Alice and I worked on the steak salad. It sounded good to me… steak and some other things.

I was in charge of grilling the steaks. Alice and I have come to a certain understanding that she’s in charge of veggie prep, and I do the meat.

I trimmed the NY strips until they were an almost perfect rectangle of meat. I generously bathed them in salt, pepper and olive oil and let them sit on the counter until they almost reached room temperature. God! They were gorgeous.

As they sat, Alice and I cleaned, chopped and sliced our veggies and then put them in the fridge to chill. We also put our salad plates in the freezer to chill. You may not realize it, but the temp of your serving plates is so important. If you are serving pasta, warm the bowl. If you’re serving salad, chill the plate. Also, don’t forget to chill the lettuce…it crisps it and makes it so much more refreshing.

I never paid much attention to temperature before this course and a conversation with my friend Sara last year. She had just been to a great restaurant in LA and made a point about how they had all of the temperatures correct.

Sara’s a total foodie. She’s been a recipe tester, test kitchen manager, worked in food photography and journalism and now is buyer of charcuterie for a very high end grocery market. Jesus! Talk about a dream job; buying and tasting cheese, pate, sausage. I know she works her ass off and travels a lot, but Christ!

But she made a point of telling me that the food was excellent, the service was great but most importantly the temperatures were all perfect. She was emphatic in her point and waited for me to agree whole-heartedly.

I had no idea what she was talking about. I stared at her blankly as she waited for my nod of approval.  An awkward silence fell upon us.

Crickets chirped in the background. And I think a tumbleweed rolled by.

She sighed and very slowly explained to me that she had had a frisee salad napped with vinaigrette. The lettuce was perfectly chilled and crisp and the plate was almost frozen. It was topped with a softly poached egg that was steaming hot. As she broke the egg with her fork, the yolk …well, the yolk… umm the yolk.

I’ve just spent ten minutes sitting here trying to remember how she described that yolk pouring onto the lettuce. I can’t remember her exact words (they were good) and anything I’ve tried to write just can’t do it justice. Let’s just suffice it to say that after she told me what that yolk did to her salad, I felt like I needed to smoke a cigarette and go to confession. Or even better yet, smoke a cigarette IN the confessional. It was that good.

Then, she retreated back to my level. She explained it more simply. She said that when she ordered her coffee, the cup was pre-warmed and the coffee was hot enough to stay hot until her last sip, but not so hot that it ruined the coffee beans. So satisfying.

It has inspired me to try to pay attention to temperature as much as possible, so Alice and I chilled our lettuce and I heated the grill pan over high.

There was a lot of pressure with this salad because this recipe is Chef’s favorite.

I wanted to do this one right.

Trimmed and seasoned, the steak sat ready until that grill was so hot that it was about to melt. When I put the first strip down it sizzled. Yes!

I put the second one next to it. I hemmed and hawed about putting the third and last next to it. I want them to all be done together, but I didn’t want to over-crowd the pan, cooling it down and leaving the steaks to braise in their own fat. The last steak was smaller than the others, and I finally decided to leave it for a second round.

I grilled at one angle and then turned them on the diagonal. This creates the “X” marks on the outside. When I flipped them  the grill marks were perfect. Chef sauntered by, “Very good. Steaks are trimmed and seasoned and you are making beautiful grill marks.”

I beamed.

When all the steaks had their marks, I calmly put them into a 300 degree oven to cook through to medium.

Like a conductor, I waved to Alice with my tongs and said, “You can prepare to plate.” (Who the hell do I think I am?)

However, when she had the salad plated and turned to me for the steak, I checked the oven for the third time. I couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long for the steaks to cook through.

Perhaps it would have helped if I had put the steaks into the LOWER oven that was now sitting empty at 300 degrees instead of the upper oven that was cool enough to climb into and read a novel.

Sh*t. Sh*t. Oh sh*t. Sh*t.

Alice was starting to look a little panicked and irritated. That really sucked because she has been my ‘friend’ throughout this whole process. In fact she brought me a gift that day. She has been wearing a hat that says, “Got Wine?” It’s in the same font as the “Got Milk?” ads, and I love it. She brought one for me and it’s my new favorite hat.

I told her it would be 5 or 10 minutes. I thought she was going to slap me with her tongs.

We put the plates back in the fridge, praying that the lettuce would not become soggy from the vinaigrette.

In the meantime, we decided to help Sabrina and Ashley finish the Nicoise. It’s a pretty big job, like The Cobb. Blanched and marinated veggies, seared tuna, hard boiled eggs, olives, there are a lot of components. They were happy for the help.

Finally the steaks felt medium to the touch, and I pulled them out of the oven. It was time to let them rest and let the juices absorb back into the meat. In perfect conditions, that should be at least 10 minutes, but Chef was starting to wonder (out loud) where the steak salad was. The asparagus salad with goat cheese vinaigrette was already up. (It was really tasty.  Lance is a god).

I let them rest for 6 minutes and 43 seconds. I was anxious that they were going to be “too medium”. Or even worse, not “medium” enough. However, when I thinly sliced them on the bias, they looked so beautiful that I thought I was going to cry.

Rob, our TA for the day, is a line cook at two of L.A.’s most popular restaurants and told me that the steaks were perfectly cooked.

Just like when I interviewed Mayor Jordan, I felt like I was wearing someone else’s suit. Could it be that I have actually done a great job?

We plated our salad. Romaine and Bibb lettuce were (already!) gently tossed with vinaigrette. They were topped with a mound of  sweet onions thinly sliced and tossed with  the same vinaigrette. The slices of steak were fanned around the mound of onions and garnished with cilantro. Amazing. It was really good.(But between you and me, if I wanted to take it up one more level I would have topped it with crispy maui onion strings, sparked with spicy chili powder, as a garnish….mmmm).

Chef nodded as we presented it. No praise. No criticism. Just a blank nod.

Sometimes, however, silence is golden.

How I wish I could impart that to Crazy Linda! She had her dirty index finger plunging into everyone’s vinaigrette for a taste,  along with some crazy story about her triumphs and tribulations as a caterer. Everyone was irritated.

When Ashley finally began plating the Nicoise, which by the way was pretty damn good, it was 11:15 pm.  Linda hovered around them mercilessly, chatting up a goddamn storm.  She stared at Ashley, who was still plating and asked abruptly, “Have you ever had a Nicoise salad?”

Ashley continued to perfectly place her haricot vert as she answered without even looking up, “Of course I have.”

“In EUROPE?” Crazy Linda stabbed.

“Well, since I haven’t been to Europe, no”.

“Oh yeah. It’s much better in Europe,” she chimed to the room as Ashley carefully carried her platter to Chef for grading.

I turned to John and Lance. They were finished and had begun cleaning up.

“She never shuts up,” I muttered through my teeth.

“Who?” John whispered back.

I rolled my eyes Crazy Linda’s way.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh. Bigfoot? Yeah.”

They’ve made up nicknames, too! *tee hee*

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