Officially three weeks into my journey as a culinary student
On the first day of my first culinary class, Introduction to Professional Cooking, I put on my chef get-up for the first time, laughing at the unfamiliar sight of my puffy hat, stiffly buttoned jacket and clunky, Croc-like chef shoes in the bathroom mirror. I looked funny and bald, I thought.
By Day 13, I could take off my jewelry, tuck my hair into a bun, pull on my uniform, stick a pen in my apron pocket and carry my knives into the kitchen — with the blades pointing down, of course — with the speed of someone who had done it a thousand times before. And even though I felt pretty giddy, I wasn't laughing at myself anymore.
Day 13 was the last day of class: final exam day. My eight fellow classmates and I nervously filed into the sterile kitchen to take a written test and cook a dish that would test the skills we'd learned over the last three weeks.
I won't get to cook with any of those classmates, who are all here for three to six weeks doing summer study-abroad programs through their home universities, again any time soon. But I'll always have a soft spot for them in my heart — especially for Tori and Dorian, who shared the middle section of the kitchen with me. We made all of our group dishes, like gluttonously buttery chicken velouté and perfectly caper-y beef tartare, together as a well-oiled human machine. Big shout-out to Tori for answering my questions about deboning chickens, which is hard and not fun, and to Dorian for his signature response to others' words of thanks ("No, thank YOU") that even Chef Lorenzo himself couldn't help but adopt.
I was a little skittish before the exam, but mostly, I was excited to see what I could do without the help of my notebook or our teacher. And it turns out I can do a lot! I can whisk oil, egg yolks and lemon juice into the world's tastiest mayonnaise. I can sear a steak to (extremely rare) deliciousness. I can sliver and marinate an onion into melt-in-your-mouth pieces for a raw salad.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the most important things I learned in this introductory class. There are many.
I've gotten more comfortable with knives, though it'll be a while before I'm chopping onions like Gordon Ramsay.
I learned not to be afraid of high heat. Before this class, I always seared and sautéed on medium because I thought I'd burn my food. Now I know that under a watchful eye, a super hot pan can mean crispy-edged steak and lusciously caramelized shallots — not just bitter garlic and blackened butter.
I also learned lots of nerdy scientific stuff — like that meat will always become less tender when you cook it because its water will evaporate and its proteins will coagulate, that pasta should never be crowded into a small pot of water because it will release and reabsorb its own starches and become gluey, that ricotta "cheese" technically isn't cheese at all (since it's made from whey, the liquid that's leftover after cheese is made and strained, instead of fresh milk) and much more.
But most of all, I learned how to walk into the kitchen more upbeat and confident, armed with many of the important principles about what exactly happens when you combine food with salt, fat, acid and heat — to borrow an ordering of words from Samin Nosrat.
I had so much fun watching Chef Lorenzo demonstrate dishes, then hustling to my station to wash my hands, set up my mise en place and try to cook at least somewhat like he did. I embraced the challenge of preparing dishes I'd never made before, the insecurities that arose when I found myself working more slowly than my peers, and the squeamishness of watching Chef Lorenzo take bites of my food to judge its correctness. And I was always excited to come back the next day for more.
Much of that excitement stemmed from my curiosity about what food topics would make an Italian chef tick. I found that out pretty quickly when Chef Lorenzo started talking about the history of pasta. The first written traces of pasta suggest it was invented in Greece in 1000 BC, he taught us, refuting the common belief that Italians stole the idea of pasta from Chinese noodles. "Even if China was making pasta at that time, how would we have known? We were over here," he argued heatedly. He then went on to say that Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs is "the most wrong combination possible" because you can't twirl a meatball into a bite of spaghetti, which is the entire point of pasta sauce. Can't say he's not right.
Chef Lorenzo's vehemence evolved into peaceful adoration, however, during our next class about meat cookery and butchery. A self-proclaimed "meat lover," Chef cradled a piece of raw beef before our unsuspecting eyes, slapping it into submission as he trimmed its fatty bits for us all to see. "Stare at the meat," he instructed, grasping the flesh tightly at eye level to examine it for excess cartilage. "I don't know if you have ever done this," he added. (We hadn't.)
When you boil cooking down to its technical principles, it can feel like "boring science," as Chef Lorenzo sometimes calls it. But if my experiences of standing over a pan of caramelizing onion, feeling its steam flood my pores and its aromas waft into my nose — or my laughter while trying to make a rainbow out of beans during the plating stage — have taught me anything, it's that cooking is also an art. And it's pretty darn fun.
So, if the introductory stuff was this interesting, I can't wait to geek out over the more in-depth things I'll learn over the next several months. Until then, here are my favorite recipes and stories from the last three weeks. Sorry, but they all yield single servings, and many of them don't have precise measurements because we often didn't use them in class. I have given estimates, though, which you can take as an opportunity to cook more courageously and according to your own preferences. During class, I actually found guesstimating to be much more relaxing than painstakingly measuring ingredients like I sometimes do at home.
Seared chicken thigh with onion, tomato and wine sauce
This was the first real dish my classmates and I got to cook, and it's a favorite. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside and smothered in a sweet, tangy tomato sauce, this chicken makes an easy dinner for one and can easily be multiplied for a group.
--2 tablespoons of olive oil
--About a third of an onion (red or white will work), julienned
--1 bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh, seasoned on both sides with salt and pepper
--A small handful of cherry tomatoes, sliced into halves
--About 1/4 cup of red wine
--Fresh rosemary, sage, thyme or basil (no need to chop, just keep the sprigs/leaves whole). We used sage and thyme.
--A couple of spoonfuls of water
1. Sauté onion in olive oil over high heat with a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir often and cook until the onion is translucent and very fragrant.
2. Push the onions to one side of the pan and place the chicken skin-side down. Cook until the skin is golden-brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and repeat with the other side.
3. Add tomatoes and stir. Add the wine, lower the heat slightly and stir until the wine reduces.
4. Add herbs, and add water if the sauce looks like it needs a little hydration. Stir, lower the heat to medium, cover the pan and simmer for about 15 minutes.
5. Your sauce might still look really watery. Don't panic like I did. Just remove the chicken once it's cooked through, and set it aside. Keep the lid off the pan so the liquids can evaporate, and stir. The sauce should thicken into a deliciously syrupy consistency after a few minutes. Once that happens, slice up the chicken how you want it, plate, and cover with sauce. It's real good.
We cooked caponata, a famous sweet and sour dish from the island of Sicily, after a lesson about the effects of heat on different types of vegetables. It will definitely teach you a thing or two about cooking techniques, since it involves deep-frying, sautéing and blanching all in one recipe.
Notes: You can chop your vegetables into any size you prefer, but be sure to cut them all the same size so you have a uniform mixture. I also asked Chef what other method I could use to cook the eggplant at home (since there's no way I'm deep-frying a handful of vegetables in my own kitchen), and he said roasting them with salt and olive oil would work.
--A few basil leaves, some finely chopped and some left whole for garnish
--A small pot full of sunflower oil or another neutral oil (if you choose to deep-fry your eggplant like we did)
--About four inch-thick slices of eggplant, diced
--1 stalk of celery, chopped into bite-size pieces on a diagonal
--One small bell pepper or half of a big bell pepper, chopped into bite-size pieces on a diagonal
--Half an onion (red or white will work), julienned
--A spoonful of tomato paste
--A few dashes of white wine vinegar
--About a big spoonful each of golden raisins, pitted black and green olives, and capers, but the ratio is up to you based on what you like and how sweet or salty you want this to taste.
1. Place eggplant into a strainer over a bowl, salt generously and toss. This will allow the eggplant to release water so it's not soggy.
2. Make tomato concassé (which just means peeled tomato): Use a small knife to make a shallow incision all the way around the tomato skin one way and then again in the opposite way so the incisions form an X. Place the tomato in boiling water for about 40 seconds so the skin will come off easily. Place in ice water until it's cool enough to handle, then peel off the skin. Cut in half, scoop out the seeds and pulpy bits, and dice. Place in a small bowl with a bit of olive oil, salt and chopped basil to season, and set aside.
3. Heat the sunflower oil until it's as close to 338 degrees Fahrenheit as you can get it. Deep-fry the eggplant until golden brown, remove and set on a paper towel to remove excess oil.
4. Sauté onion in olive oil over high heat with a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir often until the onion begins to become translucent and fragrant, but not fully cooked. Add celery and bell pepper, and stir until all vegetables are fully cooked.
5. Add tomato paste, and stir until vegetables are coated.
6. Lower heat slightly, and add white wine vinegar. Stir.
7. Turn off heat, and stir in olives, raisins, capers, eggplant, tomato and chopped basil. Season with more salt if needed.
8. Let sit before serving at room temperature.
If you want something starchy to pair with that caponata, all you need is a single potato, which will end up fluffy and crispy in a matter of minutes — without the oven or a giant pot of bubbling oil.
--1 potato (skin on)
--Enough olive oil to coat a pan (about 2 tablespoons)
--2 cloves of garlic, peeled
--Fresh herbs (we used marjoram), chopped
--Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Boil the potato with the skin on in salted water until you can easily poke a fork into the flesh, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then peel and slice into medallions.
2. Coat a pan with oil and set over high heat. Add garlic.
3. When garlic begins to brown, add potatoes. (Remove the garlic when it has enough color; it will have flavored the oil by now. If you wait until it gets too dark, it will make the oil taste bitter.)
3. Flip the potatoes when they are golden-brown on the first side, after about 4 minutes. Cook for another few minutes.
4. Transfer potatoes to a plate (leaving the excess oil in the pan), and season with salt while hot. Sprinkle with herbs, and serve.
Egg day was one of my favorite days in class — not just because I got to learn new words like "chalaza" (the rope-like protein that holds the yolk in the center of the egg), but also because I got to increase my knowledge about the condiment I hold most dearly in this world: mayonnaise.
If you want to learn how to make the magical, pale yellow substance at home — which you should because it's surprisingly easy and way better than the jarred stuff we get in the U.S. — skip ahead to the recipe. If you want a few egg facts for your own edification, read on.
Mayonnaise is a perfect example of an emulsion, which is what happens when fat and water are forced to mix. Fats aren't soluble in water, which is why vinegar and oil always separate when you make a homemade vinaigrette. But if you add an emulsifier, an ingredient that is soluble in both water and fat, the mixture will stabilize and remain thick and velvety forevermore. The emulsifier in mayonnaise? Egg yolk, which is rich in water- and fat-soluble lecithin. When whisked to oblivion with oil, vinegar and lemon juice (mayonnaise's fat and water components), the yolks yield the tangy condiment we know affectionately as mayo.
The mayo we made in class contains a mixture of two oils: mostly sunflower oil for texture, plus a little bit of olive oil for flavor. Play with different amounts of mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and salt until you get a flavor you like. Some of us like our mayonnaise super tangy, while others prefer a mellower taste. You can also control the texture of your mayonnaise. If you want something very drizzly, don't add all of the oil. If you want it thicker, keep adding that fat. This kind of experimentation means you have an excuse to taste delicious mayonnaise with a spoon several times until you get it right — a blessing!
--2 egg yolks
--About 1/2 cup of sunflower oil
--About 1 scant tablespoon of Dijon mustard
--About 1/4 cup of olive oil
--Salt, to taste
--About 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar
--Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1. Place egg yolks and mustard into a large bowl. Begin whisking, then slowly begin to add the sunflower oil with your other hand. Continue whisking (even though it hurts) until most of the oil has been added and the mixture is thick and fully combined, about 2 minutes.
2. When you're confident that your emulsion is stable, you can begin to add flavor. Whisk in some olive oil, then salt, then the vinegar and lemon juice, tasting constantly. When it tastes good, cover and refrigerate until you're ready to use.
Italian-style zucchini frittata
Though I did eat lots of mayonnaise with a spoon on egg day, I also ate it in a far more respectable manner: smeared onto triangles of cheesy frittata. That's right: egg on egg.
You could use any vegetables you want in this eggy main, like sautéed spinach or mushrooms. We used marinated uncooked zucchini and sautéed scallions, which speckle the dish with a very pretty green pattern.
Whichever vegetables you use, be sure to chop them as finely as you can. This will ensure that the vegetables evenly distribute throughout the batter and result in a frittata with the proper thickness, rather than a frittata that has big chunky vegetables in the center and is paper-thin around the edges.
--1 small zucchini, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
--1 scallion, sliced thinly on a diagonal
--2 tablespoons of milk
--1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
--Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Place zucchini in a small bowl. Season with olive oil and salt, and set aside to marinate.
2. Sauté scallions with olive oil and salt over high heat. Set aside when cooked.
3. Whisk eggs, milk and cheese in another bowl. Add pepper if you like, and be careful not to add too much salt, since the vegetables have already been salted. Add zucchini and scallions, and whisk to combine.
4. Drizzle 1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil into a pan over medium-high heat, then use a paper towel to wipe all the way around the pan. The pan should be fully greased, but there shouldn't be a lot of oil sitting inside.
5. Add batter. Use a rubber spatula to spread the vegetables evenly throughout the pan, if necessary. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 5 minutes.
6. If you're brave, flip the frittata like a chef. If you're a wimp like me, just invert it onto a plate and slide it back into the pan on the uncooked side. Cook for another few minutes until it's golden brown and no longer liquidy. Cut into triangles and serve, preferably with homemade mayonnaise.
Sea-salty steak tartare
If you like the salty, briny taste of anchovies and capers, you'll appreciate the sea-like flavors in Chef Lorenzo's take on steak tartare — a dish I love but have only ever ordered in restaurants. I don't particularly want to increase my consumption of beef, but this tartare is so easy and delicious, I just might have to start making more steak at home.
--1/4 cup of marsala wine
--1 serving-size piece of beef tenderloin, very finely minced
--3 tablespoons of olive oil
--3 anchovy filets, or more or less to taste, very finely minced
--1 tablespoon of capers, or more or less to taste, very finely minced
--A sprinkle of finely chopped rosemary
1. Sauté shallots with olive oil and salt over high heat. Just before they are fully cooked, add the wine. Lower the heat and reduce until there is no more liquid and the shallots are caramelized. Set aside.
2. Using a spoon, combine beef, olive oil, anchovies and capers in a bowl. Use the back of the spoon to mash the beef into almost a paste. You should end up with a mixture that has a similar consistency to cookie dough. If the mixture doesn't seem moist enough, add a bit more olive oil.
3. Use two identical spoons to form the tartare oval-like shapes called quenelles, which took me several mind-boggling minutes to master but was very rewarding to learn. You could also use a round cookie cutter to form it into a classy cylinder. Or you could just plop it onto a bed of greens or smear it onto toasts and call it a day. The tartare will be delicious no matter what shape it's in. Finally, top it with the rosemary and shallots, and enjoy.
And because I'm in culinary school in Italy: Cacio e pepe
You don't need a recipe to make the cacio e pepe we made in class. The ingredients are the pasta of your choosing, salt, pepper, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter. (I'd never heard of butter in "real" cacio e pepe, but Chef Lorenzo said to add it, so I'm never goin' back!) All you have to do is cook the pasta, combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl, and then rigorously stir the cooked pasta into the sauce, adding as much reserved pasta cooking water as you need to create a silky consistency.
However, "cook the pasta" is not as simple as it sounds, as I so interestedly learned in class on pasta day. The proper ratio for cooking pasta, according to Chef Lorenzo, is 1 liter of water and 7 grams of salt for every 100 grams of pasta. If you try to cram 400 grams of pasta into 1 liter of water, you'll end up with pasta that's more gluey than al dente. As I mentioned in my nerdy paragraph above, the pasta will release some of its starches into the water as it cooks, which is good for the sauce. But if there's too much pasta in the water, the pasta will reabsorb those starches and get overly sticky. If you remember this golden ratio and test the pasta for doneness a couple of minutes before the packaging suggests, you'll get perfectly al dente pasta every time.