Today started out with a brief lecture on the importance of portion control. I'm not exactly sure what prompted this, but Chef Knight emphasized that many restaurants fail because of improper portion control and wasted resources. She noted that Delta Airlines saved $1.4 million a year by eliminating a single lettuce leaf garnish from its meals (Frugal US Airways Drops Free Pretzels to Save Dough). She also noted that we can lose points in our grading for not getting the portioning right.
I'm in total agreement. I very much want to make the most use of the ingredients given to us. I'm always asking whether or not there is a use for some of the stuff we discard (such as the spines of Swiss Chard and Kale - answer, not really, no). If I'm going to cut and squeeze the juice out of a lemon, I want to zest it first. I bake the potato skins left over from making gnocchi. Even today I carefully saved the skin from my halibut filets.
My original plan was to fry the skin between two cast iron skillets to make a crispy, tasty treat to be used as a garnish. Unfortunately, the time for doing so was not available.
Today was rough. There were probably a significant number of zeros on the grading sheet and a number of plates marked down for being incomplete.
Each student had to produce two plates each of: Sauteed Halibut with Potato and Artichoke Gratin, Spring Onions, and a Fines Herbes Beurre Blanc; and, Sauteed Halibut with Fava Beans, Green Garlic, Caperberries and Aioli.
There was a good deal of demo: scaling and fileting the halibut; making the aioli and Beurre Blanc. That slowed things down a bit, but the real bottleneck was the production of the aioli.
This was the first time that our class had produced this mayonnaise-like emulsion (we haven't made mayonnaise yet either). Frankly, it isn't easy. Wasting many valuable minutes my first attempt broke, which, noted Chef Melino in her demo, means I'm pregnant according to Mexican folklore. Anyway, this sauce is a real pain. I've had no trouble whipping up a Hollandaise emulsion, but aioli was driving me nuts. You have to get the consistency of the egg yolk, garlic, lemon juice and salt paste just right before you can get the oil to emulsify. This simply takes luck or, better yet, experience. My luck is that I recently received a mortar and pestle as a gift and so I can practice this difficult technique at home. On the other hand, perhaps it isn't luck that aioli isn't on the final exam for this course - probably more than a few people would get zeros for their aioli.
What was worse for the class as a whole was that there was a dearth of mortars and, especially, pestles. This was a real equipment bottleneck. I note that pestles were missing, probably broken, as another pestle bit the dust today. It is not as if the pestles were being abused; they just seemed to crack on a natural seam in the marble. Consequently, students had to improvise pestles. It didn't help that students, like myself, who snagged a mortar and pestle took so darn long with the things because aioli is difficult.
Another time suck: fava beans. Darn things just take forever to prep. First you have to shuck them from their pods. Then, after blanching, shocking and draining, you have to remove each bean from its hull. This just takes an inordinate amount of time. Funny thing is, after all this effort with what we thought was a large number of pods, Arturo and I ended up with a miniscule amount of beans. We were supposed to have 2oz per plate for 4 plates. We only had a total of 3.2oz of beans in the end. There was no time to prep more beans, so we got permission from the chef instructor to do only one plate each with beans and the other without.
Thank goodness that fish filets cook quickly. If it hadn't been for the fact that fish cooks in just a few minutes, Arturo and I would never have finished. As it was, we barely completed our plates with a minute or so to spare.
Today seemed to be part of the sink or swim school of learning. You just have to make things happen. Prior preparation and organization is absolutely essential to getting everything finished in time.
You also have to ask a lot of questions. For example, I've never even seen a caperberry before (the ripe version of a caper, with a less intense flavor). The recipe called for them to be cut in half. Simple, no? Well, each caperberry came with a long stem attached. Seemed sort of purposeful. So, I thought, maybe I should somehow leave the stem attached, or something. I asked Chef Melino how to properly cut one. She showed me how to cut them so that they remained attached to the stem and could be nicely displayed on the plate. Bingo. But I wouldn't have had a clue without asking.
Definitely an intense learning experience today.