Something momentous happened this week – I finally injured myself in class. Those of you who know me will agree that the really momentous bit is that is has taken me eleven and a half weeks to injure myself! Given the speed we often work at and the many wonderful options available for injury (gas, sharp knives, speed peelers, the lack of existence of oven gloves) it really is surprising I’ve not done something before now. I think I went with the best option, the old classic – the oven shelf burn. Love that one. More on how on day two!
Other than week 12 being my (and my partner’s incidentally) injury prone week, it was also the last proper week in the kitchen for Term 2. That’s a very unreal thing to be writing. I’m pretty sure it was only a week or so ago I was writing about the start of this term. But disbelief won’t get me anywhere unfortunately, our second assessments are next week no matter how little I like it!
We were led by Chef Phil this week, something I’ve been looking forward to as seven years ago I came to Ashburton for the first time ever for a Gastro Plus weekend course and was taught by Phil. He strikes a great balance between being an encouraging and supportive teacher, and keeping us in line and pushing us to achieve the best as quickly as we can. It was Phil’s enthusiasm that made me catch the cooking bug all those years ago, and it’s because of him that I’m here trying to realise the potential of that passion.
Monday followed the usual routine for this term as we had a skills session in the morning and theory in the afternoon. The skills session was on sauces, which I was very grateful for – it’s something I really needed to practice ahead of next week as it’s one of the areas I’m hoping to improve my marks. We made a total of five sauces most of which were based on reducing stock to build flavour. I was happy to get some good feedback, although I think I still have a tendency to over reduce them a little. The other kitchen activity of the morning was our first real foray into the theme for the week – offal. We prepared, quickly poached and wrapped a foie gras ballantine. Foie gras is a controversial ingredient as it is the fattened liver of a duck or goose, traditionally done by force feeding the birds through tubes. We were told this isn’t generally the case these days as duck and geese are migratory birds and will gorge themselves, so foie gras is often produced by the birds feeding naturally. Putting the ethics to one side, it is an interesting ingredient to work with as it does feel like butter due to the high fat content which it is prized for. Our ballantines were hung in the fridge to be eaten later in the week.
The afternoon theory lesson was offal (the lesson itself wasn’t offal, but I had to get that joke in somewhere!). I am not a particularly fussy person when it comes to food, but I have to admit a few things on this week’s menu had me feeling a little nervous. Theory at least felt safe as I wasn’t being asked to eat any of it… just yet.
Tuesday’s lunch dish lured us into a false sense of security for the food this week as it starred fillet steak. The steaks came in as a full fillet and were wrapped in cling film to make them a more uniform shape which would produce a tall thin steak rather than a wide flat one. This is partially aesthetic but also means you can achieve a lovely gradient on the cook from the caramelised outside (thanks to the wonderful maillard reaction of the sugars as they brown) and the medium rare centre. That was a fairly long description of the steak, as you can tell – I liked this steak! We served it with some really earthy accompaniments; wild mushrooms, celeriac purée and a peppercorn sauce (sixth sauce in two days). Needless to say it was delicious and I ate every last bite, which was good because the afternoon dish was even less tasty than the snails from last week – kidneys.
I don’t know how many of you have eaten kidneys before? I think I’ve only ever had them in a pie – steak and kidney presumably and as we’ve covered already, I like steak, so that disguises the kidneys! For this dish we prepared them two ways, one diced and put through the meaux mustard sauce (seventh sauce!), the other was prepared, butterflied and pan fried. The preparation involves removing some of the less edible bits of the kidney (I wasn’t sure where to stop!). The dish was also quite representative of the colour of our dishes this week; brown kidney, brown sauce and brown mushroom – much as I want to cook with love I struggled to make this dish look loved and lovely! Baking the mushroom was also how I managed my burn on the oven shelf – a nice cosy 220° oven at that. I am totally dramatising every inch of this for effect, It wasn’t bad as you can see! I made it slightly worse by scraping it twice later in the week, but it barely hurt and was nothing compared to other burns I’ve witnessed in kitchen!
Wednesday sounded a little more appealing with calves liver (which we were told was in a different league to the kidney) and oxtail, which is at least meat not organs! We also prepared our faggots which would form one of Friday’s four delights. For those of you who don’t know, faggots are a mix of the heart, liver, and kidney of lamb, with a little rump steak to soften the blow. These are mixed with breadcrumbs and herbs and then wrapped in caul fat. Caul fat (or crépinette) is the stomach lining of an animal (pig in our case) and is like a strange webbing of fat and a very thin membrane. It is the traditional casing for sausages and has no real flavour of its own despite it sounding slightly unpleasant! Before ours were wrapped I was encouraged by my partner to try the mix… raw. I should have mentioned it also had raw egg in it! I am proud to say I did try it (twice as we had to reseason it) but it isn’t something I’m going to rush to repeat!
The calves liver was served with a really tasty shallot tart tatin, parsnip purée, parsnip crisps and our eighth sauce of the week – red wine jus. I am surprised to say that I did enjoy the liver a little more than I’d imagined, but probably I wouldn’t choose it in a restaurant above, for example, steak!
Thursday was the final day in the kitchen and the menu of the four dishes looked about as appetising as the previous Friday’s menu – sweetbreads, pig’s cheek, faggots and foie gras. We started with the foie gras and it was easily my second favourite dish of the week. It tastes very similar to a smooth chicken liver parfait with a slightly less strong flavour. We served it with a Sauternes jelly (a sweet French wine), smoked apple purée and spelt bread made earlier in the week. It was an elegant dish, rich in flavour and wonderfully contrasting textures (photo at the top of the post).
The sweetbreads were coated in seasoned flour and pan fried. To recap from last week – sweetbreads are veal glands (thyroid or pancreas) so I fried them until they resembled chicken nuggets! They were served with a range of spiced accompaniments; cauliflower florets, curry foam and a raisin purée. I was particularly invested in the fate of the raisin purée as I was given the task of blending it for the class. This was a fairly small task until I asked Chef if I should pass the purée through a sieve as it was still quite grainy. I then spent about 25 minutes getting RSI while my partner did all of the work for our dishes! This dish featured our first foam of the course, and it didn’t do much to convert me to foams. It was created by making a curry flavoured cream and finally adding milk which is then blended with a hand blender to produce bubbles. It wasn’t the most stable of foams and turned back into a curry cream fairly quickly. The dish had some nice flavours but I’m still not a fan of sweetbreads (and it was another all brown dish and therefore not worthy of a photo in the blog!).
Next was pig’s cheeks which we prepared earlier in the week, wrapping the cheek back in the surrounding meat and fat and braising it. It was later panéd (coated in egg, flour, and breadcrumbs) and fried then served with aubergine and sauce vierge (sauce number nine!). The aubergine was artistically called aubergine caviar and I’ve not really worked out why. It was roasted with herbs and garlic, scraped out of the skin and roughly chopped – producing more of a loose mash than a caviar! The dish was tasty, but I prefer pigs cheeks slowly cooked so they fall apart rather than keeping them wrapped in the fat and then frying them.
The final dish was our faggots, served with a polenta cake and our second foam of the week – horseradish. I tried the faggots and think I preferred them raw – at least then I was expected to only taste a small amount! Again it was a fairly brown dish with soft textures so it was a hard one to plate.
Although this hasn’t been my favourite week for food (there were no puddings!) it has been really enjoyable. On a few occasions Chef Phil challenged us with service times to (try to) hit and has really pushed us to remember the basics of professional kitchen skills: work neat, tidy and focus. Repeating sauces so many times has really helped improve my understanding of such a vital skill in the kitchen – I just hope I don’t forget it all next week! I’ve been slightly accident prone this week, I’ve actually got a second small burn that I don’t know the origin of, and far more impressively I fell up the escalator at the train station half way through writing this blog post! It was a very strange sensation to fall up something which itself was still moving up as I was falling down! My almost immediate reaction was to find the whole thing quite amusing (after I’d picked myself up that is!).
The nerves are building for next week’s assessments of course. I’ve spent the weekend doing lots of practice in my kitchen back home, which is why I skipped out on the opportunity to do paperwork at school on Friday with the rest of my classmates, and instead got a train home Thursday night to maximise my time (and while dashing for a train improve my chances of making a fool of myself of course!). I just have to hope that even though the last six weeks have flown by in a complete blur that I have learned a lot, improved a lot, and can put it all into practice.