Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Know your onions

I woke up this morning long after the alarm clock had gone off, with dead arms and the pattern of my pillow firmly embossed in my eye skin. These facts told me that I am both sleeping well and needing to. Yesterday wasn't too taxing but I knew that we would be covering a lot today and that if I was too tired to go for a run after school on Tuesday, then it would take some doing to pound the pavement this evening.

We were taught by Rob Spencer again today and it was made clear early on that we should expect the pace to pick up and for demonstrations to be pared down. No more watching chef chop onions, we would spend today watching recipes being assembled and having a number of tasks set in parallel so that we learn to multitask, take initiative and practise our existing skills. 

There were two onion soups to make today, both 'cream of' and 'caramelised', and no tears were shed. We made the former first, which involved sweating off four finely sliced (along the grain) white onions in melted butter, adding salt to encourage the onion to release liquid and to prevent caramelisation. After this had softened and turned translucent, we added finely sliced celery, and after a further few minutes we added chopped garlic. Once this, too, had softened, we added some white wine, allowed it to reduce a little before adding some thyme and a bay leaf along with chicken stock. This bubbled away happily for a good while before being blended, strained (just in case!) and finished with cream. This soup was the first item we have made that required formally presenting to the chef. I knew as I was finishing the soup that it was too thick, and rather than asking chef what best to loosen it with, I left it. This was one of the biggest lessons I learned today - I am getting better asking chef questions, checking done-ness of my cooking and telling him when I think something is ready, and I know that, for me, this is linked with growing confidence in my own skills. As soon as we both sat down, chef asked me what I thought he was going to say, and I told him it was too thick, and when we tasted it it was clear that as my soup had reduced a little too far, the flavour had intensified, meaning the soup was also too cautiously underseasoned. He was absolutely right and this is a learning curve but I did want to kick myself. When I got home to have it for dinner I did have to giggle - after chilling, it could be turned upside down in its tub without spillage. Ah well!

Yesterday's shortcrust pastry and roasted vegetables were brought together in a quiche today, which we ate for lunch. The vegetables were layered with the cheese before the space in the case was filled with an egg and cream mixture and baked. I was surprised that for once my 'eyes bigger than belly' stance was acceptable - the vegetables and cheese could be layered in the case until it domed as it would sink down as the cheese melted. We ate it still warm and it was delicious - not 'eggy' at all as so many other quiches.

 Served alongside the quiche was a fennel coleslaw - we finely sliced fennel, white cabbage and shallot, allowed it to soften with salt and lemon juice while we made a mayonnaise by hand. We whisked egg yolks with a little mustard and vinegar - the mustard helps to bind and adds colour - and then kept whisking as we gradually added corn oil until the mixture thickened. Once we had added seasoning and lemon juice to taste, we drained the sliced raw vegetables and mixed a little mayonnaise through it to bind. We'd all been fearing the mayonnaise making that morning but in the small quantities we were making, it was surprisingly easy - and a world away from shop-bought gloop.

After lunch we got onto making the caramelised onion soup. For this we used red onions, left out the salt while the onions softened so that they could caramelise, which took about 20 minutes. After this point we added garlic we had pureed by hand and cooked this for a few minutes before adding a little flour to thicken the onions before loosening with madeira and adding veal stock little by little. We will have this for lunch tomorrow with the parmesan croutons we also made.

While we made the soup we started on chocolate brownies. We toasted hazelnuts in the oven before skinning and breaking into chunks with a rolling pin. We creamed eggs and sugar, mixed with melted butter and folded in sifted flour and cocoa powder before adding the hazelnuts and white chocolate drops. This mixture was piped into greased and lined baking rings and baked for about 17 minutes. We made mini piping bags and decorated plates with melted untempered 53% chocolate before filling these designs with the vanilla custard we made yesterday. The plate was also decorated with crushed pistachios to add a little colour. I can confirm that after extensive testing, my verdict on the brownies is that they were expertly cooked, with a gooey centre balanced by the but chunks adding texture. Testing is always a hard part of the day, but we have to do it in order to learn, I suppose...

Having rattled through everything on our prep list for the day, we moved on to filleting plaice. I have filleted mackerel before after catching it on a fishing trip, but I've never worked with a flat fish before. Turns out, as long as you have a very sharp filleting knife and some balls, it's not hard!

Chef talked us through what to look for in a fresh fish - shiny eyes that haven't sunk, healthy gills with no discolouration due to oxidisation. Flat fish are gutted at sea because they feed on shellfish on the sea bed which can quickly become toxic and deteriorate or poison the fish after catching. Plaice have four fillets - two on each side, with those on the side of the roe sac and belly being smaller. We started by removing the two fillets on the topside of the fish by cutting along the spine in the centre of the fish and cutting along the rib bones towards the fins. I managed to cut the two bottom fillets off in one go, cutting from the fins inwards and continuing out to the opposite fins. Then we tidied up the perimeter of the fillets and cut them away from the skin. We kept the bones to make stock and will use the fillets tomorrow to make goujons for lunch with tartare made from today's leftover mayonnaise.

Tomorrow is a busy day of spelt bread, treacle tarts and ham knuckles. And a downside to doing a pretty good job of my filleting is that I will be having a big lunch! On the flipside, I will be working in a pair tomorrow, leaving someone else to work solo for a few days.

Oh, and I did manage that run this evening. Another good night's sleep awaits!

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