Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The long and WINEY road............

I've never fancied myself a connoisseur of wine. I always LOVED wine. But, loving and UNDERSTANDING wine are two completely different animals. Having had a long relationship with wine, I thought that I knew at least a little bit about it. However, since enrolling in culinary school I find that I have barely nudged the tip of the wine iceberg. I am currently the apprentice to a true wine afficianado...a Court Master Certified Sommelier with a vast knowledge and the willingness to teach me!

All wine drinkers have a little knowledge about wine. They know what they like and dislike. Most people think a wine tasting just means to sip it and decide whether or not they care for the flavor. It goes much deeper than that!

There are different philosophies regarding tasting wines. Most people, even non-wine drinkers, think that when tasting wine all they must do is swirl the glass, sniff the wine and then take a taste. The Court of Master Sommeliers has it's own way of evaluating different wines and it boils down to deductive reasoning. The ability to assess a wine in a blind taste test is a learned procedure. It takes years for a person to become adept enough at it to actually be considered an expert. It all goes back to sensory memory.

When tasting wines even your environment plays a role, it must be conducive to tasting. You need bright halogen or white light (not incandescent), low noise levels (soft music is acceptable) and NO scents whatsoever (no cooking smells, no perfumes and no candles burning). You will need a white tablecloth or white paper to use as a background for your visual deductions, and a notepad or tasting sheet. The glasses should be clean, free of etchings and scratches (no Waterford here folks!) and be of a basic Bordeaux shape.

The four main criteria in a deductive tasting procedure are sight, nose, palatte, and conclusions. Sight is where you will gain information about a wine's age and condition. The clarity will tell you if the wine is filtered or unfiltered. The brightness or capacity for the wine to reflect light will indicate it's level of acidity (brighter is more acidic). The color and/or hue is the clue to the wine's age, storage conditions and variety. Whites and blushes grow darker with age while reds will grow more transluscent with age as pigments and tannins in reds precipitate out as sediment. The color variance is the difference between the center of the wine and the edge. For example, a garnet center with an orange edge may indicate some age to the wine. A thicker, watery edge usually indicates a higher alcohol content. Lastly, you must visually determine the wine's "legs". The "legs" are how the wine runs down the side of the glass after swirling and is an indication of viscosity. Thicker and slow moving legs indicates higher sugar content which translates to higher alcohol. Thinner legs indicates low alcohol and higher acidity.

The next step in properly tasting a wine is it's nose. Smell accounts for 85% of taste. If you find this surprising then do a little experiment. Try eating or tasting something while you hold your nose closed. You can barely TASTE it! The best technique for smelling wine should be several short sniffs versus one long hoover. Each sniff allows your cilia to pick up different characteristics in the wine. Also, you must swirl the wine in the glass to expose it to oxygen. By allowing the wine to breathe you will activate the aromatic elements. The most interesting thing to me about the differing aromas found in wine is the fact that they will mimic other smells and this can give you a direction to go when trying to figure out what wine you are drinking. For example, an earthiness would be more aligned with an Old World wine (ie. French, German, Spanish or Italian). A fruitier or floral scent without any minerality would be indicative of a New World wine. The amount of oak you smell and what that oak imparts can be a clue as to the wines origin as well. I could wax poetic for days about the many different nuances found in the scent of wine. The chart at the left is all of the smells associated with wine. You can see that there are over 80 different smells! Each giving you a clue as to the source of the wine. The following link gives you an idea of the many different scents found in wine. I plan to purchase this kit to further my wine expertise!

After sniffing the wine you must confirm what you have smelled. Wine should taste like it smells if it is produced properly. Focus on how the wine changes as it travels over your palatte. Is it sweet or dry? How does it "sit" in your mouth? Is it light and dancing over your tongue? If so, it indicates lower alcohol content. If it has more body then it probably has more alcohol. Are the tannins making you want to lick your teeth and pucker up? Grape tannins would cause this. Wood tannins are experienced on the back of your tongue and feel like having a piece of velvet rubbed over your tongue. Try not to confuse tannins with acidity. If the taste of the wine activates your salivary glands it is more acidic. How does the wine finish? A long finish, taste remaining for a long time, indicates a higher quality of wine. Length of finish is directly related to the quality of production of the wine. Also, you can identify Old World wines by their acidity level, earthiness and a balanced level of wood as opposed to New World in your face woodiness. An overall balanced flavor is suggestive of an Old World wine having less punch than it's New World counterpart. The acidity and alcohol level are a very good indicator of the climate where the grapes were grown. As grapes ripen in the heat, the grape acids will convert to sugars. Grapes ripen more slowly in a cooler climate and grapes can be harvested before all the acid has converted to sugar. These grapes will produce a wine lower in alcohol because of the low sugar content of the grape and will have more acid (a good example is a German Riesling). A hot climate tends to produce a sweeter grape and, therefore, more alcohol content. You would end up with a full bodied wine such as a Zinfandel or a Syrah.

The final step in identifying a wine in a blind taste test is to be familiar with your benchmarks. This can only be achieved through repetitive tasting. With experience you will eventually know that Syrahs impart black currant, smoke, granite, pepper and chocolate. Cabernet Francs would have a distinctive green bell pepper smell. Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley in France would smell of hay or a green grassy smell (cut grass). The scent of grapefruit and asparagus would be designative of a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region. Think of all the areas of the world where wine is produced (it's a lengthy list!) and compare the climate of the area with external forces (such as laws negating irrigation in France, Italy, Spain and Germany). All of these conditions will lead you to your final conclusions.

My advice to anyone hoping to become a true wine connoissuer is to go to as many wine tastings as you can. Ask questions! Don't be shy about it. With experience comes ability. I must say that my ongoing romance with wine will continue to flourish and I hope to one day become the expert that I THOUGHT I was! My new found knowledge only makes me fall more in love with everything about wine. I must say cheers to my Chef Instructor and until next time....bottoms up!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

You Light Up My Life...or lessons in flambe....

Fine dining establishments are not just about amazing food and impeccable service. They are about hospitality and entertainment. A person can go to a fabulous restaurant and have a wonderful meal with great service but without the added bonus of an attentive staff and some "WOW" factor, it's still just a good meal. Entertaining the guests is rarely the responsibility of the chef. They leave that up to the guests themselves or the servers in some cases. But, if you find yourself in a restaurant that offers tableside service - I must recommend that you take them up on it! There is nothing quite like having a chef roll a gueridon alongside your table and prepare a decadent dessert or flaming coffee right in front of you. For those of you who have yet to experience such a delight I will enlighten (and hopefully entertain) you with the experience by proxy.

At Ventana, the fine dining restaurant located at the Texas Culinary Academy - Le Cordon Bleu, you can experience this first hand. It may be your first time seeing such a show. It may ALSO be the student chefs first time performing! Tonight I was fortunate enough to have several tables who ordered the Bananas Foster. Needless to say, the diners "dominoed" after my first service. I heard alot of, "I'll have what SHE'S having". So out rolled the gueridon (that is the rolling cart with a burner on it) time and time again.

My first service was for a table of two and one of the diners was a former student. As I rolled out the gueridon I must admit my nerves were definitely twitching! I felt ALL the diners turn their attention towards me as I entered the dining room. They KNEW something special was at hand. I'll never know if it was just curiosity that had them turning in their chairs to stare at me or if they were hoping to see a horrible accident.

I had already prepared my quenelles of ice cream and had them in the freezer awaiting my nod to my back waiter to fetch them for service. I had my mise en place all brandy in a decanter, banana, sugar and knife at the ready. As I began to prepare the dessert I saw both of my chef instructors sidle up behind me and in front of me (one of whom was doing his best to intimidate me with furtive glances at me and my sautoir). The other students stopped what they were doing to watch as well. I was determined to perform flawlessly.

In order to provide tableside service perfectly one MUST obey certain rules. Rule #1: Never touch the food with your bare hands. Rule #2: Cook clean! Rule #3: Don't burn it. Rule #4: Don't just stand there cooking, serious as a judge...interact with your guests. Rule #5: Plate the dessert beautifully. Rule #6 (most important): Don't blow up the restaurant. I wasn't worried about Rules 1-5...I was concerned about Rule #6 and the unspoken Rule #7: Don't singe off your own eyebrows or a nearby guest's hair.

As I got further and further into creating my masterpiece I did start to have fun with it AND with my diners. My nerves began to abate and I got into a certain special rhythm. I was nearing the end of my performance and realized...Oh, my God! I'm about to set this pan of boiling hot melted sugar and butter on fire! Please, don't let me blow up the restaurant! I must admit I did flinch a little as I tilted the brandy soaked bananas toward the flame. As I lit it I heard a gasp from nearby diners with a few "oohs and ahs" thrown in for good measure. Or maybe that was me. In either case, I surreptitiously nodded to my back waiter who dashed to the freezer and emerged with my perfect quenelles. I must admit, time stood still as I frantically stirred the bananas in their decadent sauce waiting for the flames to diminish and finally extinquish themselves. This mind-numbingly LONG flame-out was orchestrated by a sychronized sigh of relief from nearby diners as they realized nobody was about to die.

Upon plating my PERFECT dessert I experienced an anticlimactic sense of relief. It was over and I just wanted to DO IT AGAIN! So, for those of you who are impressed with such a's the lowdown. It's EASY! So easy that I'm almost embarrassed to tell you how to do it. However, being the forthright near-chef that I proclaim myself to be, the recipe follows...

Bananas Foster

1 banana, peeled and sliced 1/2" to 3/4" thick on the bias
2 oz. butter
3 T. brown sugar
2 oz. Myers Rum
2 scoops or quenelles of vanilla ice cream

The following instructions are for near-chefs who want a good grade. For those of you doing this at home, just slice up the banana. Place banana on cutting board and cut off both ends. Discard both ends into hidden trash receptacle out of guests view. Choke up on the knife using your finger to keep you from cutting the flesh of the banana...score the banana on two sides. Stick fork into peel and roll the peel away from the banana and discard covertly. Using fork and spoon loosen the other half of the peel from the banana flesh. Slice banana on the bias. Turn burner on high. Add brown sugar. When the sugar begins to melt around the edges add butter, lower heat and stir together with sugar. Once incorporated, slide banana into your hand without touching the flesh. Spoon banana into pan and using a fork saute on both sides for a few seconds. Push all contents of pan to one side (closest to you) and pull pan halfway off heat. Turn flame back to high and count to ten (now would be a good time for a prayer). In one swift motion, pull pan away from heat, pour brandy into pan on the empty side (not over the contents), bring it back to the flame and FLAME ON! Stir until flames die and then spoon over ice cream.

I certainly hope that my disclosure of this seemingly EASY dessert does not negate your ordering bananas foster in the future. The anticipation of someone bursting into flames is worth at LEAST 15 bucks! Just cook fearlessly and enjoy!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

An amazing Mystery Basket!

For those of you following my blog, I apologize for neglecting to update prior to now. However, I have been ridiculously busy with school, work and life in general. So, without further ado, here's the lowdown on an amazing night.

Last night was my final exam in my last class at the Texas Culinary Academy - Le Cordon Bleu. We were required to prepare a three course meal from ingredients in a "mystery basket". It was the epitome of intimidating. For those of you who have seen Food Network's "Chopped" you know what "mystery basket" means. Here's the explanation for those of you who don't.

We are given ingredients that MUST be used in the preparation of a three course meal. The dinner must include an appetizer, an entree (which includes a protein, a starch, a vegetable and a sauce) and dessert. We are given full use of the kitchen pantry (which is fairly limited) and only the vegetables, fruits and garnishes put in the "basket". In this case the basket included 3 proteins: scallops, chicken and NY Strip. Vegetables and other ingredients included Romaine lettuce, spinach, red and green bell peppers, potatoes, onions, shallots, mushrooms, garlic, zucchini, lemons, limes, and capers. The pantry had most dairy products (i.e. milk, cream, mozzarella cheese etc.) and standard kitchen spices and staples such as flour and sugar. We drew lots to discover which protein we were allowed to use. Thankfully, I pulled chicken from "THE TOQUE OF DESTINY"...our chef's idea of a lottery. We had specific start and presentation times that were strictly enforced.

I chose to prepare a Cesar Salad with fresh croutons, Chicken Piccata with fresh egg pasta and a lemon caper cream sauce (delicious) served beside a Vegetable Napoleon and a Pate a Choux Swan with Lemon Cream and candied mint and rose petals. We started cooking at 6:30pm and I had to present at 9:40pm. This may SOUND like plenty of time but remember...we made EVERYTHING from scratch. My dishes included a fresh pasta and a Pate a Choux (which is a type of cream puff pastry dough). Both are time consuming and require a certain amount of time to "rest" the dough before final preparation.

I began with the pasta so as to leave ample time to "rest" the dough. I moved on to the Pate a Choux swan, salad and candied mint and rose petals. When I finished those items I checked the clock and it was 9:25pm! I hadn't even gotten my chicken out of the walk-in cooler! In the final 15 minutes I pulled a rabbit out of my hat (metophorically) and butchered my chicken, rolled out my pasta, prepared the sauce and plated just in the nick of time!

I have to say that all I remember was mostly a blur of action but a fine finish. My chef instructor, Chef Earnie Beasley, thought it was "refined and elegant". Very "la, ti, da, indeed".

The following are my recipes which I think would be a perfect meal for any elegant dinner party.

Cesar Salad- the secret is the dressing and the croutons

1/2 head Romaine lettuce, washed, dried and chilled
1 clove garlic, pasted
2 anchovy fillets, pasted
6 oz. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 egg yolk
1/2 lemon
2 T. grated parmesan cheese
1 t. dijon mustard
1 T. red wine vinegar
Salt as needed
Pepper as needed
water as needed
1 dash of Worcestershire (if you like it)

Paste the garlic and anchovy fillets with a chef's knife or mortar and pestle. In a large stainless steel bowl whisk egg yolk to Sabayon consistency (whisk until pale yellow in color and the consistency of cream). Add a little water to keep it to proper consistency. Add in rest of ingredients except olive oil. Add the first 2 oz. of olive oil slowly while whisking constantly to emulsify. Once the first 2 oz. are emulsified you can add the rest quicker but continuous whisking is important. Dress the Romaine (I do it with my hands). Plate with croutons and fresh parmesan cheese. Yields 2 servings.

Fresh Croutons (thank God I didn't have to bake the bread!)

1/2 French Baguette
1/2 c. Olive Oil
1 garlic clove, whole
Salt as needed

Heat olive oil in sauteuse pan (skillet) with garlic clove to infuse the oil. Cut baguette into crouton size pieces (I like them 3/4" square). Drop them in the oil (it should be pretty hot but not smokin') Saute until brown (20-45 seconds). Be sure to turn the croutons so they are evenly browned. Remove from oil with a spider or tongs. Drain on paper towels and season with salt immediately.

Fresh Egg Pasta

4 oz. Semoline Flour
4 oz. AP Flour (all purpose)
2 whole eggs
Extra Virgin Olive oil as needed
Salt as needed
AP Flour as needed

On a clean dry surface sift together Semolina, a couple of pinches of salt and AP flour. Hollow out the middle and crack 2 eggs into the flour. Mix together with hands until blended adding a little water and olive oil as needed. Knead dough until the glutens begin to form. You can tell it's happening when you push a finger in the dough and it springs back. I generally knead the dough 5-8 minutes at least! It's worth the elbow grease. Wrap in plastic wrap and rest in fridge at least 30 minutes. Roll out with a rolling pin and cut or better yet, use a a pasta machine. Drop in salted, boiling water (use copious amounts of salt in the water) and cook until al dente (about 3 minutes). Toss with butter and parsley then toss again with sauce of choice and serve immediately. Yields approximately 2 entree size portions. This can be used to make ravioli, fettuccini, spaghetti...pretty standard stuff. Very tender and delicious.

Chicken Piccata w/ Lemon Caper Cream Sauce (YUM)

2 chicken breasts, pounded and cut into 4 pieces
panko bread crumbs
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 c. heavy cream, heated
1/4 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 c. White Wine (I prefer to use wine I like to drink)
3 T. capers
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
salt as needed
pepper as needed
AP flour as needed
1 T. butter

Heat E.V.O.O. in sauteuse pan. Pound chicken breast to 1/4" (scallopini thickness). Dredge in seasoned (with salt and pepper) AP flour, then egg, then Panko breadcrumbs. Saute chicken in E.V.O.O. until golden brown and delicious (GBD). Remove and drain on paper towels. Throw in garlic and shallot and sweat in same pan. Add lemon juice and lemon zest. Deglaze with wine and reduce to demi-sec (by 1/2 at least). Add warm cream (must be warm or your sauce will break). Reduce over medium heat until sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste and add capers. Monte au buerre (turn off heat and add butter at last minute constantly agitating so as not to break your sauce). Toss with favorite pasta or you CAN put chicken back in sauce if you's a prettier presentation if you just sauce the pasta and place the chicken on top of pasta. Garnish with crispy capers (just saute capers in a little hot E.V.O.O. until crispy) and parsley. DELISH! Yields approximately 4 entrees.

Vegetable Napoleon

1 red bell pepper, filleted
1 green bell pepper, filleted
1 Portobello mushroom, gills and stem removed
1 zucchini, sliced 1/4" thick stem to stern
basil, chiffonade
Extra Virgin Olive Oil as needed
Mozzarella Cheese, 2 1/4" thick slices
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot minced
Salt as needed
Pepper as needed

Marinate peppers and zucchini in garlic, shallot and E.V.O.O. at least 30 minutes (be sure to season). Marinate mushroom in garlic, shallot and E.V.O.O. but NO SALT (the salt will make the shroom tough). Grill veggies on medium heat until you get nice grill marks on both sides. Cut into pieces that are the same size that will stack neatly. It should look kind of like lasagna. Stack in following order: 1 piece (3x3" is best) red bell pepper, zucchini, green bell pepper, mushroom, mozz. cheese, some basil and a drizzle of E.V.O.O. Repeat. Bake at 350 degrees until GBD. Cut in 1/2 and plate so you can see the pretty layers. Yields 1 napoleon.

Pate a Choux Swan W/ candied mint and rose petals

10 oz. water
4 oz. butter
1 t. sugar
1 t. salt
6 oz. bread flour
6-8 oz. whole eggs

Heat butter, water, sugar and salt until hard simmer. Add flour all at once. Stirring constantly over medium-high heat cook until a "carpet" forms on the bottom of the pan. The "carpet" looks like a film of flour on the bottom of the pan. You can see it when you scrape the bottom of the pan with your wooden spoon or spatula. You don't want any color on the dough at this point. Remove and place in stand mixer. Mix with paddle attachment until steam dissipates. Add eggs one at a time until dough drips from paddle in a "v". You don't want it too wet. Put in piping bag with a large star tip and pipe thick on one end and taper off to the "tail" on a parchment paper lined sheet pan. It should kinda look like a swan body. Carefully eggwash swan with a pastry brush. Bake at 375 degrees until GBD. The swan body should feel and sound hollow. Pipe on separate sheet pan (I use a Silpat) the number "2". This will form the swan head and neck. Using a paring knife, slightly form a beak on the head. Bake at 300 degrees until GBD. Using a serrated knife, cut top off of swan about a third of the way down (careful! swan is delicate) then cut the portion you remove from the top in half. This forms the wings. This recipe yields about 6-9 swans depending on size.

Lemon Cream Filling

1 1/2 c. Heavy Whipping Cream
Confectioner's Sugar to taste
Pinch of Salt
zest of 1 lemon
juice of lemon to taste

In a stand mixer (or by hand if your more ambitous than I) whip cream until foamy. Adding a little sugar at a time whip on high until stiff peaks form. Add lemon zest and juice to taste. Pipe into swan body. Stick wings and neck into cream... VOILA...a yummy swan dessert! Don't forget to garnish with a little powdered sugar and your candied mint and rose petals!

Candied Mint and Candied Rose Petals

Fresh mint
Freshly picked roses (red is prettiest - you can use any edible flower but I find roses to be the tastiest and most lovely)
1 egg white, slightly beaten
granulated sugar

Using your fingers, dab a little egg white on mint and rose petals. Sprinkle with sugar and stick in a warm place. In about 20 minutes you'll have candied mint and rose petals! A beautiful garnish!

This is a fairly time consuming meal but well worth the effort. You will impress your guests and hopefully get a great grade!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks for following my blog. I will try to be more diligent in posting future updates.

If you're checking this...muah, TBO....