In a few short weeks, I will celebrate a birthday, a rather significant one in that it will mark the final year of my fourth decade. It’s not nearly as ominous as it sounds, but it does have me thinking — especially about “do-overs.” You don’t get too many chances to reinvent, repurpose or redo, so why not grab at opportunities while you can? You never know where they might lead.
With this in mind, I recently participated in a four-day cooking “boot camp” (more on that later) at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I’m not a risk-taker, and I don’t like to leave my comfort zone, so the idea of four intensive days of cooking with a group of strangers in an unknown setting under the watchful eyes of a professional chef, was — to say the least — intimidating. But that birthday was looming, rather like a loudly ticking clock, reminding me that such opportunities are for the taking. “Life is short,” I told myself. “Don’t be a wus.”
Cooking boot camp is not for the faint of heart, but if you love food — both cooking it and eating it — it’s pretty much paradise, counterintuitive as that may sound. Our days began promptly at 6:00 am at the Culinary’s venerable Roth Hall, where my fellow food enthusiasts and I would scramble in line for hot breakfast prepared by CIA students. Four and a half hours of lecture and recipe review, presented by the jovial Chef John DeShetler (“Chef D” to his students) followed, and then we were off to the kitchen for three intensive, heated (literally) hours of production. Divided into teams of four, my compatriots and I plunged into a head-spinning crash course in the culinary arts, with topics including knife skills; dry vs. moist heat cooking methods; bistro and Italian cooking; cheese-making; baking and pastry; and much more.
Kitchen production was literally trial by fire, as each of us took up our stations in an effort to produce the finest, most palate-pleasing versions of the menu items to which we were assigned. As the morning (yes, all this, and it was still morning!) wound down, we campers would proudly present our plates for Chef’s review and critique, after which we would feast. Each day, we marveled at our food, giving ourselves a collective pat on the back for producing restaurant quality fare, despite many missteps along the way.
There is so much I learned at culinary boot camp, it would be nearly impossible to capture it all here. I learned that meat is the differentiating factor between a stock and a broth, and that mise en place (“getting your act together,” as Chef D plainly put it) is an essential cook’s tool. I discovered new words, like “poolish,” a starter for making certain breads, and I was delighted to learn that curds and warm water are all that is needed to create a beautiful homemade mozzarella.
Here are a few more take-aways from culinary boot camp:
1) Be kind to yourself. A day did not go by when I didn’t fret over minutiae, such as the size of my potato dice, the temperature of my chocolate, or the “bite” of my risotto (see recipe to follow). I was often reminded of the mantra one learns when joining a yoga class: be gentle with yourself; go at your own pace. I think this is a life lesson, one that I’m still learning.
2) It’s never too late to widen your circle. One of the most pleasantly surprising byproducts of boot camp was the friendships I made. United by our universal love (dare I say, “obsession”) for food, our group of 15 seamlessly evolved from strangers to companions. In his book, Never Eat Alone, author Keith Ferrazzi encourages readers to share their passions. “Shared interests are the basic building blocks of any relationship…it is what you do together that matters, not how often you meet.” I know my newfound foodie friends would agree.
3) Finally, nurture your passions. They may be fleeting or they might be forever. No matter, as long as we take some time to recognize the pieces of ourselves that make us feel whole, content and yes, full!
Never Too Late Risotto
The recipe that follows is not mine; I borrowed it from the Culinary Institute of America. However, I have a personal relationship with this recipe, in that it was the first real dish I cooked in a CIA kitchen. More than technique, this recipe taught me a lot about patience, self-acceptance, and the power of do-overs.
1-1/2 c. dried porcini mushrooms
3-1/4 c. chicken stock*
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. butter, divided
3/4 c. peas, fresh or frozen, blanched or thawed
1/2 c. onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/4 c. Arborio rice
1/4 c. dry white wine
1 c. Parmesan cheese, grated
*It’s not a bad idea to have a lot of hot stock available. I would suggest having on hand at least 3-1/2 to 4 cups, just in case.
1. Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Allow to soak until softened, approximately 20-25 minutes. Drain mushrooms and reserve. You can keep the mushroom “stock” to add to the chicken stock later. It adds a nice depth of flavor.
2. In a medium sauce pan, heat the chicken stock over low heat and season with salt and pepper. Keep the stock hot.
3. In a small saute pan, heat 2 T of butter over medium heat and add the mushrooms. Saute mushrooms until tender. Add the peas and cook for a few additional minutes until the peas are heated through. Remove from heat and reserve.
4. Melt 2 T of butter in a straight sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Add the garlic and saute an additional minute until the garlic is aromatic but without color.
5. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice grains are coated with butter and have changed from completely white to somewhat translucent, but not brown.
6. Add the wine and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring until the wine is almost completely absorbed. Raise the heat to medium-high and begin adding the hot stock, in several additions (approximately 3-5). Stir constantly and allow the stock to be absorbed between additions. The rice should still be tender and the grains separate but creamy. This process should take about 15 minutes or so. When the liquid is mostly absorbed and the rice is tender but still has a small “bite” add the remaining butter, mushroom and pea mixture, and cheese.
7. Adjust consistency if necessary by adding additional stock. The risotto should be all’onda (wave-like), meaning it should be creamy like porridge, not firm and stiff.