Saturday, 20 August 2011


I learnt an interesting lesson last week: I am scared of the simple things. Ask me to make caviar using molecular spherification and I'll see it as an adventure. One evening last week whilst working at the restaurant, however, I was asked to do something that stressed me out considerably for the best part of the next hour.

"Sarah, could you make me about half a litre of mash?"

So incongruous a request, so casually asked. So fraught with complication. So not the done thing to ask for extensive instructions.

Most people I know will have made mashed potato at some point in their lives, and hopefully enjoyed it. Heck, I've been wooed with Parmesan-infused mash in my day, and it wasn't even intended for me (should have taken note at the time, probably). It's comforting, satisfying and can be downright sexy in my opinion. But here I was being casually asked the heavily loaded request to make it for paying customers.

This was a tense situation for many reasons. Be warned, this blog may contain neuroses. Or be nuts.

1. Choice of potato.
Potatoes don't just come in different shapes and sizes, there are many different types. Should I go for a floury type such as a Maris Piper or those in that bag marked for chipping? For chips should be fluffy inside, yes? Like mash? But mash should be buttery at the same time, unlike chips.

2. Peeling.
Peelers and I have not seen eye to eye since New Year's Eve 2007 when I managed to dispense with part of the tip of a little finger. Whilst peeling spuds, incidentally. I could write a thesis on Things That Mark You As A Novice In A Professional Kitchen and the speed at which you peel vegetables would definitely feature. Thus, I am losing on two counts here.

3. Cooking.
I remain sure that I read something somewhere sometime by St Jamie about there being no benefit in bringing vegetables to the boil in water, and that this in fact destroys a lot of their nutrients quicker. So, while I slowly and tentatively peeled, a pot of water was heating on the hob. "What's that pot of water doing on the stove?" asked Head Chef. "Potatoes should be put into cold water and brought to the boil."
That answers that question for future reference then.
That sorted, there still remains issues over the size of the chunks put into the water - some of those potatoes started off pretty small as it was - and the issue of water saltiness. And once all of that's been worked out, how long do you cook them for? I've had potatoes boil to mush under my watchful eye before... Should I time it? But it's just potatoes!! Surely I should just know? Should I skim the starchy scum off the top as it boils or should I have rinsed this off before cooking anyway?

4. Mashing apparatus.
Most households own a masher for the purposes of mashing. This is clearly not an option here, unless its huge. My Grandad uses an electric hand whisk for his mash, which creates light, fluffy mash (and he gives me the whisk heads to lick clean if I'm lucky), but going on the amount of whipping of cream I've had to do by hand so far, this is also not an option. Could it be I need to use a potato ricer? I've used one for making gnocchi at home but it's very time consuming and messy. "Aha!" I thought whilst peeling (yes, still peeling), "A passoire!" this is a rotary mangle-like contraption that purées vegetables to a silky smoothness. He who wooed with Parmesan Mash always wanted one, never got one (only wooed with Parmesan mash the once, you see). I spotted a huge version in the corner of the kitchen. Bingo. However, I have never used one, am not sure how to use one, and don't know if it's called anything other than a passoire in this country as we always came closest to a purchase in France. Should the potato be passed through once or twice? At what point should I add things like butter and cream?

5. Additions.
Which brings me onto the issue of additions. Butter, obviously. Lunch at Dinner (read the post here) involved divine mash that was basically 50:50 potato to butter. Good mash should be decadent. But cream as well as butter? Or milk? And how much? Having got this far, asking for guidance seemed acceptable, under the guise of "knowing how I like my mash but not knowing how it is expected to be sold in this particular establishment". I was advised that, for that amount of potato, about 200ml of double cream should be used and reduced by about half, half a pack of butter added and this added to the puréed potato. With salt to taste.

So there we go. I blundered through it ok, in spite of all the questions in my head, and felt a proud wave of satisfaction once the panic had subsided. Whether or not it was deemed fit for service I do not know, but it doesn't matter.

I made mash!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Quiches and quenelles

I have now had my new 'job' for a month. I say 'job' because gone are the days when I got up at the same time every weekday, took the same train with the same people to a world of acronyms and meetings and in their place is world of fridges, tips and plates, my most commonly-used acronym is E4 and I've learnt to shout 'service!'

Actually, I've learnt a lot more than that. More of this later, first I thought I'd bust some myths. These may not be things you've ever wondered but I know I did, hence why I'm sharing:

1. Waiting staff work very hard. Not that I've tried yet. They break 16,000 steps in an easy shift, and a good one can spot an incorrectly plated dish, tell you who ordered what and how long ago, and manage to smile and make conversation with customers at the same time.

2. Tipping in cash is better. Most restaurants will divide tips between staff based on the number of hours they've worked, but credit card tips go through payroll and are therefore taxed. Either way, most staff are reliant on them to some extent.

3. The knives you use for cooking at home are probably rubbish. If, like me, you get by with a serrated set from somewhere like Argos, stop now. Go and buy yourself at least one chef's knife and probably a sharpening stone or steel; you can read about sharpening knives in an earlier post here or watch a video here. It will cut through a tomato, steak or cheese much more easily.

My two roles are very different. At the all-day café I work on the cold counter. Here I am plating soups to salads to sticky toffee pudding. Presentation and portion sizes are important but I am not involved in the preparation of what goes onto the plate. The pace varies wildly from dead (time for cleaning) to frantic, with simultaneous orders for crayfish baguettes and knickerbocker glories, with a takeaway customer standing in front if you and rightfully expecting prompt attention and service for their takeaway  slice of quiche and salad. This is when the counter begins to resemble Hiroshima. If you come to the café and spot these symptoms, try not to order one of these dishes from me and expect to remain friends. Every day at the café is different and I enjoy conquering busy times and getting home at 1am footsore but with a bag of leftovers and a pocketful of tips for the holiday jar. However, I sense that what I can learn without moving from this role is limited.

My other role is in the kitchen at a restaurant, as yet somewhat more undefined but I am biding my time in the hope of greater trust in my capabilities, a greater proportion of my week spent there and a continuing opportunity to learn. Here I help with the preparation of pantry items and with plating amuse-bouches and starters as part of a tasting menu. My favourite moment so far was being asked "Do you know how to quenelle?" and being able to answer "Yes!"

Quenelling is the formation of a neat oval of foodstuff by transferring it back and forth between two spoons. (This video shows the technique quickly and quite well, although I agree with the comments that the finished article isn't very attractive!) I have now quenelled red onion chutney (tricky) to whipped cream (use a single warm spoon and be quick so as not to melt the cream) to hundreds of mini meringues (wet the spoons between each one). It maketh the difference between a dinnerplate and a visual feast.

This has been a valuable lesson. "Customers eat with their eyes", the café manager said to me, and this filters through into the preparation of the elements of a dish. Learn that white wine vinegar with a little sugar makes a quick pickling liquor, and how to use a mandolin, and suddenly you can dress a corner of a plate with a tasty and colourful base contrast for one of the star attractions for your meal. The simplest recipes can turn out the most spectacular results; learn how to scrape a vanilla pod and cook up a custard and a world of creme brûlées and ice creams opens.

There have been other lessons I've not enjoyed learning quite as much. But they will stick with me, just the same!

  • When you see a nail brush, buy one. You will never find one when you truly need it... 
  • Preparing scallops means their smell will follow you around for days. Even if you have managed to buy a nail brush. Not good by the next day if you had found yourself going for 'one' post-work drink... Consider gloves!
  • Double cream is much easier to whip by hand if you halve the quantities.
  • Asking questions can be advantageous, and may ultimately save you both time and tomatoes.
I've become rapidly aware that professional kitchens trump the majority of home kitchens in terms of the equipment available and ingredients to hand, so will try to keep things simple in this regard. So I thought I'd share a nice easy one for now: vanilla ice cream. (n.b if you happen to have a Pacojet lying around at home this will make this easy, but to own an ice-cream maker is fairly common these days so that will suffice. If not, freeze slowly and churn at intervals to prevent ice crystals forming).

Vanilla Ice Cream (makes approx 1l, reduce quantities according to your requirements!)
750g cream
250g milk
480g egg yolk
240g sugar (vanilla sugar is best if you have some)
3-4 vanilla pods
(n.b Professional kitchens use weight instead of volume which saves a lot of time. 1g is roughly equivalent to 1ml. Egg yolk is used from a carton in this context, this recipe calls for the yolks from about 2 dozen eggs, which would enable you to subsequently quenelle lots of meringues!!) 

Scrape the seeds from the inside of the vanilla pods and whisk briefly into the milk and cream to incorporate. Carefully bring the milk, cream and spent vanilla pods to a a simmering boil without it catching on the bottom of your pan. Meanwhile, whisk the sugar and egg yolks together until pale in colour. 
Whisk 2/3 of the hot milk and cream mixture into the egg yolk mixture and then return this to the pan and cook slowly on a low heat, stirring gently until the mixture thickens. At this point strain the mixture into a tub and discard the vanilla pods (straining will also remove any lumps should any of your custard happen to have caught on the base of the pan). Allow to cool before freezing.

This method can also be used to make custard for crème brûlée, the quantities change however, no milk this time but for every litre of cream use 200g caster sugar and about 2 dozen egg yolks, with 2 vanilla pods. Instead of freezing, cook on a low temperature, about 100℃ for approximately 30 minutes. 

Eggs are so clever, in my opinion. And once you've conquered custard, so are you.