garde manger practical

For the past two weeks, I’ve been taking a class on garde manger, which is basically the kitchen station that produces charcuterie, salads, and other foods that are typically served cold. In a hotel or banquet-style operation, garde manger also includes the production of hors d’œuvres and canapés, centerpieces, ice carvings, and sandwiches. It’s a station that can put out some stunning food with some equally stunning food costs. Charcuterie used to get a bad rap because it traditionally makes use of leftovers and scraps, bits that get left behind. And it’s not like proponents of charcuterie help themselves by employing terms like “forcemeat” or “meat batter,” which make me wince a little bit. But I think the common conception of it as questionable, low-grade mystery meat is shifting radically, especially due to the restaurant industry. Done right, charcuterie not only packs flavor and value, but the same level of quality and wholesomeness as any other product.

I heart charcuterie too, because to me it truly epitomizes the art of artisanal cooking. It’s a craft that has been perfected over thousands of years; sausages were being made as early as 8th or 9th century B.C., as evidenced by the reference in Homer’s The Odyssey: “Two paunches lie of goats here on the fire,/Which fill’d with fat and blood we set apart for supper…” The sausage was to be awarded to the victor of a fight between Odysseus and Irus, another of Penelope’s suitors: one phallic trophy, indeed. At the same time, it’s a beautifully blank canvas, and I think charcuterie is one of the hottest trends in food today not only for economic reasons, but because it speaks to a cook’s creativity and artistic side. Chefs are taking the concept in both traditional and unconventional directions, often simultaneously, and that’s the kind of cooking that really excites me on a personal level.

My group chose to do a salmon platter for our garde manger practical. Instead of limiting ourselves to the assigned dishes, we challenged ourselves to produce something special, and I’m really proud of what we accomplished.

Finished platter of salmon charcuterie (from L to R): salmon terrine with potatoes, cream, asparagus, and dill; salmon terrine "sushi"; roasted smoked salmon fillet with teriyaki glaze; scallop mousse tart with crispy shallot and fried scallop garnish; salmon head cheese with salmon skin crackling.

One thing we wanted to do was use more of the animal than just its “prime” parts, the fillets. If you know me, you probably know I LOVE LOVE LOVE salmon head meat. As a child, my favorite part used to be the eyes, which I would pop into my mouth, cartilage, gelatinous eye boogers, and all, sucking away until all that remained was the little white ball at the center. I made it my mission to not reveal that little white ball until it was absolutely pristine. While I’m ashamed to say I now battle my adult inhibitions when it comes to noshing on fish eyes, I will fight to the death over the collar meat. And everyone knows the cheeks are the best part of the animal, hands down.

I’ve thought of making a sort of terrine from salmon head meat in the past, and I knew I was on the right track when I saw a similar concept from Ideas in Food. I took their lead, brining and steaming the whole fish head as suggested, before picking it apart and seasoning the meat with s&p, cayenne, garlic powder, and white truffle oil, and stretched it with some equally delicious belly meat. It tasted pretty amazing right then, and it took a lot of restraint to remove myself from the bowl. I pressed this mixture into a mold and let it set overnight, during which the flavors deepened and the natural gelatin from the fish’s head created its own beautiful matrix. The next day, I savored the anticipation of slicing the head cheese, saving it for the last possible moment. The result was astonishing, all the more for the simplicity of the preparation. It was plated in 1-inch cubes garnished with chives and skin cracklings, and while it was a supermodel on the platter, texture and flavor stole the show. To aptly convey them, I would do best to quote from the creative and very literary geniuses at Ideas in Food, who spoke: “The fish was silky and rich with a savory flavor that, in spite of the various seasonings, spoke deeply of silvery fish and cold waters.”

Advertisements

Plating

I can’t wait for the day my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest as I add the final touches to my plate: perching that dehydrated lemon slice, draping the fennel frond just so without knocking my poached salmon fillet off its damn socle. For now, I’ll take refuge in the fact that my heart cares so much in the first place–else why would it try to pump me silly with adrenaline when all this is going down?

IMG_0008

Meet the roommates (recipe: tortilla de patatas)

Since the new year, my housemates and I make it a point to eat together on a regular basis.  We shoot for dinner once a week, though it is a beast of a task coordinating the schedules of six young adults.  Seven days never seemed so cluttered, and sometimes it just can’t work out.  But bless time for being such that another week is always on the horizon.  Our persistence pays off and it is always, always worth the effort.  I’m not sure how it works with the six really random people coming together, but chemistry can be a funny thing.  It might make sense in a lab but less so when it roams the social world (chem majors, and I know you’re out there, feel free to correct me :)).  All I can say is that these guys have made me a believer in spontaneous order, and sometimes stuff doesn’t need an explanation.

Pictures and recipe after the jump!

Cooking for a crowd

…is fun, if a little stressful.  But when everyone pitches in, the food doesn’t have to be a smashing success in order for the night to be one.  We made mac and cheese, wasabi pea-encrusted salmon (another hannah the crazy scientist idea), and roasted vegetables.  It was the first night my housemates and I all dined together, along with an honorary member, and it was unanimously decided that we should do it more often and shame on us for not doing it sooner. Collectively, we are a yoga instructor, an IT grad student, an architect, a video production staffer, and a me. We are different but I think we work, so even if I move out soon I have already put in a request to retain my seat at the table.

Mac and cheese – cavatappi is definitely one of my favorite pasta shapes, much preferred to rigatoni, fusilli, farfalle, and penne. It has a real girth and just enough twist to intrigue, like a carbohydrate half-smile. We cooked the pasta just short of al dente, then mixed in the cheese sauce (mozz, cheddar, milk, scallions) and stuck it under the broiler for 10-15 minutes to caramelize the top. The pasta held up well, chewy and gooey with an onion-y bite. Next time I will be tempted to spread the mac and cheese in a thin layer on a baking sheet before broiling to achieve maximal surface area caramelization, and correspondingly, maximal deliciousness since every bite will be the ultimate trifecta of crunchy, chewy, gooey goodness.

DSC08721

Salmon – seasoned with salt, pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil.  Pretty but severely overdone. I am hopeful that the concept, a variation at least in my mind on nut crusts, is solid but more testing is required.

DSC08722