It was a cold and rainy January night, and my headlights cut through the fog as I headed North along winding country roads. The occasional oncoming brights seemed to flash out of nowhere, doing little to calm my nerves. I clenched the steering wheel with trepidation, knowing I’d be reporting for my first day of boot camp at the CIA before the sun came up.
Although this may sound like the opening paragraph of a bad thriller, the CIA that I’m referring to is, of course, the Culinary Institute of America. Thanks to an incredibly thoughtful gift from my husband and parents, I was headed to spend the week of my birthday in “Culinary Boot Camp: Basic Training” brushing up on my cooking skills. The course promised hands-on training in all the fundamentals from knife skills, to kitchen terminology, to basic cooking methods like roasting, grilling, poaching and braising, just to name a few. Although I’ve considered myself a pretty good cook for years, I’d never had any professional training in the basics and I liked the idea of becoming more confident in the how and why of the kitchen. Spending a whole week in a real culinary school–you might even say THE culinary school–was a dare to myself. Would I still feel passionate about this hobby under such extreme circumstances? Do I have what it takes to even allow myself to daydream of making this a career someday?
Those were the questions on my mind as I pulled into the dark parking lot at 5:45 the next morning and stared up at the imposing, castle-like fortress, appropriately named “Greystone”. After a few minutes in the lobby, exchanging nervous glances with the other recruits, we were issued our uniforms: black and white checkered pants and white double-breasted jackets, and sent to the bathrooms to change. Our instructor, Rebecca greeted us in the classroom, and stifling a laugh at seeing all of our kerchiefs tied around our necks like a bunch of new boy scouts, promptly instructed us that we’d need to make “some adjustments” to our uniforms. She showed us how to tie the kerchiefs like a cravat under our jackets, and how to tuck our towels neatly into our apron strings, and before we knew it, we were well on our way to acting the part of professional chefs.
After a brief orientation to the massive kitchen and a few demonstrations on knife skills, we were split into small groups and given assignments. Day one was stocks and sauces. We made five different types of stocks from scratch, which we would use in our recipes for the rest of the week. And on my first day of boot camp, I quickly learned that I have a lot to learn. I’m no stranger to homemade stock. I grew up in a house where the smell of homemade chicken soup in winter was as constant as the sound of the furnace keeping us warm. Open my freezer at home and you’re likely to find a roasted turkey carcass being saved for a rainy day. The method that my mother taught me, and that her grandmother taught her, yields a wonderfully rich, slightly cloudy, golden brown poultry stock that’s great in soups and stews with a robust flavor. But there is so much more to the art of stock-making that was new to me. I didn’t know about the constant skimming or the blanching of bones for an end result that is clearer in color and more delicate in flavor. I didn’t know to only add the vegetables in the last hour of cooking–just long enough to render their flavor but not long enough for them to break down and cloud the texture of the stock.
These moments of enlightenment–of deeper understanding of techniques and ingredients I thought I knew–continued throughout the week. After the first day of class, I called my friend Holly and excitedly told her “everything I thought I knew about cooking was ‘wrong’!” To which she protested (as the truly supportive friend that she is), “but how can it be wrong? Your cooking has always tasted great.” And that’s why I put “wrong” in quotes. Like any creative endeavor, there’s a lot about cooking that’s subjective and intuitive. In the kitchen, the ends often justify the means. But like a jazz musician with an understanding of the fundamentals of rhythm and melody, a cook with a deeper knowledge of the science behind the art will get more consistently satisfying results when improvising. Throughout the week as we worked our way through roasting, braising, grilling, emulsions and starches I soaked up tidbits of knowledge on everything from the shape of protein strands as meat cools, to the acids released by green vegetables when cooked. And I learned something new about even the most basic of recipes. Even mashed potatoes, which is probably one of the first things I ever ate and is practically running through my veins, yielded an “aha moment” in the CIA kitchen.
After five exhausting and exhilarating days in a professional kitchen, I had blisters on my feet, an ossobuco burn on my hand, stains all over my white jacket, and a head that was spinning with fancy french terms like concasse and veloute. But more importantly, I had a new spring in my step, a new level of confidence in the kitchen, and a hunger for more. Where this passion may lead, I still do not know, but after a week at the CIA the spark is anything but extinguished.
Since I can’t possibly share everything I learned during my week at the CIA in one or two blog posts. I thought I’d sprinkle some of my newfound knowledge throughout the next few posts as I put it into practice at home. First up: roux and bechamel sauce. Last weekend, I made the classic Greek dish, “Papoutsakia” or “Little Shoes” (aka, baked eggplant stuffed with meat sauce and bechamel), which gave me a perfect chance to practice some of my new skills.
What I learned in culinary school about roux and bechamel:
-The basic ratio of roux is 6 parts flour/4 parts fat by weight
-At the CIA, we used clarified butter (butter with the milk solids removed) because you can cook it a higher temperature without risk of burning. I must confess, I was lazy at home and just used regular unsalted butter.
-There are four stages of roux (cooked at varying lengths) which are used to thicken different sauces: 1) white roux, only cooked for about 8 min, just until raw flour taste is removed and the texture is like wet sand. Used in white sauces like bechamel. 2) Blonde/light roux, cooked another 2-3 minutes until color is golden and it smells like shortbread cookies. Used in thinner sauces like chicken veloute or gravy. 3) Brown roux, cooked until it’s the color of brown sugar and it smells like toasted almonds. Used in sauce Espagnole (tomato-based sauce with veal stock). 4) Black roux: cooked until it’s the color of molasses. Only used in Cajun/Creole cooking.
-The longer the flour cooks, the less thickening power it has.
-Classic bechamel sauce is made by adding scalded milk to white roux. Heating the milk with an “oignon pique” (whole, peeled onion, with a bay leaf “tacked” onto it with a few cloves) adds flavor.
Papoutsakia Recipe from “Modern Greek” by Andy Harris
6 small italian eggplants (mine were about 7-8″ long and 2-3″ in diameter. You can use any kind of eggplant. The recipe called for two large eggplants, but I chose the small variety for prettier individual servings.)
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups meat sauce (recipe follows)
2 cups bechamel sauce (recipe follows)
3 Tablespoons finely ground bread crumbs
2 Tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Half eggplants length-wise. Score flesh with a knife to create a diamond pattern, and then scoop out flesh with a spoon, taking care not to break through the skin. Chop flesh into small pieces, and saute in a skillet with olive oil over medium heat until cooked through and slightly browned around edges. Add cooked eggplant to meat sauce. Place eggplant halves skin-side down on a lightly greased baking sheet. Fill each eggplant with meat sauce, then top with a generous layer of bechamel (meat should be fully covered with bechamel sauce.) Sprinkle bread crumbs and parmesan evenly over stuffed eggplants and bake for about 40 minutes, until topping is bubbly and golden brown in spots. Garnish with parsley and serve.
Meat Sauce (yields about 5 cups)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small/medium yellow onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 pounds lean ground beef
15 oz can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2/3 cup red wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Heat oil in a large skillet and saute onions, garlic and celery over medium heat until translucent. Remove to a bowl and set aside. Brown the ground beef in skillet over medium high heat, pouring off excess liquid/fat if needed. Add sautéed onion mixture back to pan and combine with beef. Season with salt and pepper. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Consistency of sauce should be thick and not too liquidy.
Bechamel Sauce (yields about 4 cups)
4 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon all spice berries
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup flour
8 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste (white pepper preferred)
Scald the milk in a saucepan with bay leaves and all spice berries, and turn heat off. Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, until melted and frothy. Add the flour all at once. Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook over low heat until the roux is a pale ivory and the consistency of wet sand. About 8 minutes. Whisk the scalded milk into the roux (pour through a strainer to remove the bay leaves and all spice berries), and increase heat slightly to bring sauce to a boil, then reduce again and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for about 15 minutes. Sauce should be thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan. Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.The bechamel for this recipe is thicker than the standard–it should be about the consistency of pudding when it cools slightly. If it’s too paste-like, add a little more milk.
The ratios listed above will make a lot more meat sauce and bechamel sauce than you need for the papoutsakia. You can either half the quantities, or use the extra for something else. I used the leftovers in a greek-ish lasagna layered with pasta, bechamel sauce (added a little more milk to thin it out), meat sauce, diced, roasted butternut squash, with a layer of mozzarella on top. It was delicious and definitely not your typical lasagna recipe.