Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Day at the ICE

Just because I like to cook, and friends and family tell me I'm good at it, doesn't mean I don't have room for improvement.  I believe we should always keep our skills sharp in any hobby we practice regularly.  We should always be learning and pushing our limits.

I have not had much in the way of professional cooking instruction.  Most of my cooking skills come from watching cooking shows (I give a lot of credit to The Frugal Gourmet who dominated the airwaves in my teen and college years) and reading cookbooks.  I have always believed that I should take classes and make sure I was putting out my best dishes.  I just never got off my butt and did so.

Two years ago my office had a holiday party at the Institute for Culinary Education.  I had wanted to take classes with them for years.   When I was in my twenties and trying to figure my life out, I considered going back to school and attending culinary school.  The ICE was my first choice.  Back in those days it was still called Peter Kump's New York Cooking School.  I subscribed to their mailing list and watched for local enrichment classes they offered here in the suburbs. It was one of those things I never got around to doing.

After doing the cooking party at work, I knew it was time to start seriously considering a class.  The ICE offers dozens of  recreational classes in a variety of disciplines on many days and times.  There was no excuse to not find one that suited me.  I asked for a gift certificate for Christmas, and Dad decided to give me one for a gift.

My schedule was so busy this year with theater  and travel that I didn't have time to do cooking classes until now.  This weekend I finally went to a class.  I selected Classic French Bistro Dishes.  I felt this class offered a wide variety of recipes and would help me improve on fundamental cooking techniques.

The ICE is in a beautiful building, a shopping mall really, near the World Trade Center.  It is a light and airy space with majestic water views.

 I arrived at my class and our teacher, Chef Peter, gave us a talk about what we would be preparing that day.  There were 8 dishes in total: Scallops in  cream sauce, Choucroute Garnie (a dish made of sauerkraut, bacon, salt pork, sausages, smoked pork chops, potatoes, and apples), pork chops braised in prunes, scalloped potatoes, raspberry tarts, and chocolate mousse. 

We were divided into three teams and each team was assigned certain dishes.  I wanted to try cooking them all.  I even wanted to try cooking the scallops because the preparation sounded so interesting and I can always use tips on cooking seafood for Kevin (even though I wouldn't be eating them).

I took my place at a station equipped with a cutting board, two knives, an apron, a towel, and a packet containing the recipes for the day.   We had a supply of measuring equipment, mise en place dishes, and other tools on the table as well.   My team was assigned the soup, the choucroute, and the chocolate mousse.

The chefs mostly left us to our own devices. They started out giving us advice when we began (such as the best way to cut the onions for the soup) but we were mostly on our own.   They were there is we had questions, and would interject advice for the whole class on certain important topics when we were at a certain stage of cooking, but otherwise the instruction was minimal.

We started with the soup.  We had to work with four pounds of onions and we were instructed to cook them for an hour and a half.  That left us plenty of time to work with the choucroute, which is a much more labor intensive dish.

This is where I hit a few snags.  First there was a woman on our team who is a regular at ICE recreational classes.  She said this was her 19th class.  It was useful having her on the team because she is familiar with the kitchens and knows where to find the food and equipment.  The downside was that she tended to take over everything.  She wanted to do everything, or at least do the delegation of who should do what.  I felt like she wanted to be head chef and make us her assistants.  I wondered if could have done more if she hadn't been on my team.

The next snag was my own fault.  As we began the choucroute, I volunteered to prep the salt pork.  I had to cut off the skin and then blanch the meat.  The small knife had disappeared from my station, so I attempted to use the chef's knife to remove the skin.  It was awkward and the knife ended up slipping and cutting me.  The cut was fairly superficial, but it bled like crazy . I lost about ten minutes of kitchen time getting my cut bandaged and covered with a glove.  The team had gone on without me by the time I returned.  I still managed to finish cutting the skin off the pork and blanching it.  I spent a lot of time stirring the onions too.  Then I chopped up the slab bacon (even though my self-appointed team leader said I was not to be trusted with a knife anymore).  I never touched anything to do with the charcuterie dish after that and my teammates did all the work on it.

Once we had the onions caramelized and the choucroute simmering away, we decided to get started on the chocolate mousse.  Self-appointed leader said she wasn't a big dessert person, so no one had an issue with me starting on that.  Since I'm often the one doing desserts at home, I had mixed feelings about ending up with desserts in the class.  I wanted to improve cooking skills this day.  Desserts would be another class.  Still I wanted to get something out of this class, so I began chopping up the chocolate.  (I was glad they were cool with me having a knife again, but they should have known I shouldn't be trusted with chocolate.  It was delicious chocolate.)  Chef Peter told us to make two batches, so I worked in tandem with another teammate to melt the chocolate and make the sabayon.  I had another teammate who was happy to take on the simple task of making the whipped cream.

Once the mousse was done, most teams were ready to start serving.  Our team took a minute to pose for a selfie and pat ourselves on the back.

The choucroute plate was the most impressive one on the table.  It was one of the most delicious pork dishes I have ever tasted.  If I could choose how I die, I think clogged arteries from eating this dish would be high on the list.

The onion soup was also interesting.  We served it without bread and cheese.  After tasting it, I didn't care.  There was so much flavor in the soup that bread and cheese would have masked it.  Besides, our dishes were so rich, we didn't need more cheese. 

We laid out the buffet and started serving ourselves.  I'm glad it was a buffet since I could ignore the scallops.

The class did a great job.  Everything we ate (well, I can't comment on the scallops) was delicious.  The standout was the charcuterie dish. It was so rich.  I never tasted anything like it.  I would love to make it myself some time, but I don't know if many of my family members would eat it.  Maybe if I'm ever invited to a potluck

Would I ever do this again?  I think I would.  I am still interested in a pie class, but unfortunately most pie related classes are taught on Sunday nights and I don't want to go into the city on a Sunday night.  I will keep checking the course list though.  I would also like to try a knife skills class or some other basis classics so I can keep my basic skills sharp.  An Italian cooking class would also be fun.

I just want to make sure if I ever see that woman again, I will take care not to be on her team.