Sunday, November 23, 2008

training

A person’s palate is fickle and idiosyncratic. One night at school, I was making chicken fricassee. My instructor stood at my shoulder watching and commenting on every move I made as I stirred stock into the roux I’d cooked. He seemed to be a big fan of fricassee, and had a vested interest in seeing I didn’t irreparably muck it up. After much whisking, I guess that, ultimately, I’d done it the way he wanted.

“And now,” he said, turning to grab a small vessel of white pepper, “It is time for seasoning.” He began with just a pinch, but then added more and more, and finally, in a fit of enthusiasm, upended the entire vessel into my mix. He looked enraptured in a Proustian sort of way, eyes distant, a quarter-smile on his face, transported, perhaps, decades back, feeling the heat and smelling the smells of the kitchens of France where he’d learned what would become the rest of his life. As for me, my heart sank.

Have you had white pepper? It’s the eczema of seasonings, a raw blemish on otherwise perfectly good food.

As the fricassee cooked, mired in the now-ruined sauce, the scent reminded me of the chickens from the CSA farm after they’d been slaughtered, plunged into hot water to loosen the dirty, encrusted feathers, and eviscerated.

“This is nice,” he said later after tasting the fricassee, which was about the best compliment you could get from him.

“Hey chef,” I asked as he was about to walk away. “That white pepper—do you genuinely like it?”

He did a double take. He looked me up and down, distraught and incredulous, as if, when he was looking the other way, I’d sneakily pissed on his leg. “Yes,” he pronounced with great gravitas and a real intensity. “Yes. It is good stuff.”

Well, what can I say? The fricassee was made the way tradition prescribed. The goal of the CIA is to instill a sense of a that tradition, not to foment rebellion or dissent (check out the passionate arguments about brown vs. blond roux chronicled in Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef.). What Escoffier did in his hotel kitchen is the classical culinary Golden Mean. It is a Papal bull of cooking methodology, not to be deviated from without fierce soul-searching and debate.

So when your food is seasoned against your will by a man with roots Way-the-Hell deeper than yours in traditional French cuisine…go ahead and taste it. This is what tradition says it is supposed to be like. Now you know. And now that you know, if you want to do something different, you have a history to react against. A father to slay.

***

We’re spending two nights doing Mexican cooking, a ridiculously scant amount of time to try and get even a filament of it into your blood. We were taught the fundamental flavor profiles and rock-bottom basics in advance: which vegetables and meat and spice combinations are indigenous to which regions of Mexico; the primary cooking techniques (braising, roasting, etc.) we’d been doing for 2.5 months. This does not make any of us fluent in Mexican cuisine. But I flipped through Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico and I understood. Recipes are like that for me now: I get what’s going on and why.

We’ll be spending a slim three days on Chinese cooking.

Nelly, who was slightly incredulous, asked, “How can you possibly learn Chinese cuisine in three days?”

I began thinking in musical terms and answered, “You can’t. But it’s like teaching you scales.”

That’s the best analogy I can come up with. If you’re a musician, you learn your scales. When you know your scales, you can bang around with nothing but an E-chord and the results can be great (listen to John Lee Hooker’s song “Burning Hell” and tell me different). Or you can get out there and take wild flights, with transcendent results (listen to John Coltrane’s piece, “Ascension,” and tell me different).

***

And those notes of the scale really can add up, even in the hands of a neophyte like myself.

I’ve read different chefs comment on what the real test of a good cook is. Fernand Point said it was the fried egg. Daniel Boulud claims it’s the omelet. Thomas Keller and many others say it’s a roasted chicken. Success, to channel Point, is the result of many small steps done right, each step like a note in a scale. Like the notes we were taught.

If you want to roast a chicken well, dry the thing off. If you can air dry it in the refrigerator a day before you use it, do so. But make sure that it’s dry, inside and out.

Season it. Again, inside and out. Get salt and pepper in that cavity. Season the exterior with a liberal hand. Rub the salt and pepper into the skin. Season a little more. If you feel like it, cram a couple onion halves, some thyme or rosemary, or a cut lemon in there (Keller says this creates unwanted steam and simply won’t do it, but I’m a little dubious).

Now truss that bird. Use butcher’s twine. If you don’t know how (hell, I didn’t know how to do it neatly until recently; prior to that, my birds looked like ADD cases attempting bondage), get online and look it up. Make sure you know how to tie a slipknot, though—that’s basic.

Get the oven cranked up to 425. Put the bird in. Let it cook for 20 minutes until the skin starts turning a lovely golden brown. Be sure to baste regularly.

Drop the temperature to 375 (no lower) when the skin colors. Keep basting.

If it’s been around 45 minutes, put a fork into the cavity and tip the bird. The juices will probably be colored. Wait a few more minutes and do it again. If they’re clear—and not pink—the bird is ready to come out. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes (if you don’t you’ll regret it when you start eating). Carve it. Now you eat.

There: a bunch of small, sometimes nitpicky steps. But everything adds up.

Have a good Thanksgiving.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you mean prescribe.
proscribe: 1 : to publish the name of as condemned to death with the property of the condemned forfeited to the state 2 : to condemn or forbid as harmful or unlawful : prohibit

Jonathan Dixon said...

Hmmmm...point taken. I concede. Still, don't you have some toenails to clip or something?

Changing it now..

JD

jmbollman said...

I really enjoyed this post. I would say learning how to cook Jamie Oliver’s Herb Roasted Chicken ("The Naked Chef", 1999) was one of the tipping points in my desire to become a great cook. The ratio of simplicity to joy was so great I felt I had unearthed true POWER. I have not been so concerned with the process of drying before cooking and resting after, so I look forward to using this on my next bird. Thanks for the info.

bruleeblog said...

Chinese cooking uses white pepper instead of black. Good luck with that. ;)

Anonymous said...

It's because you write so elegantly that I thought I'd point out what I thought was a pretty simple but egregious error.

Jonathan Dixon said...

Anonymous, you have the mind and eye of a good copy editor. Keep pointing out any flubs.

backlist said...

Love your blog - will the chicken technique work with (you guessed it) turkey too?