Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Real Mexican

Alan’s blonde hair, hanging in tousled curls, was spattered with blood. He clumsily fumbled with his white Hanes undershirt and worn khaki cargo pants as he crossed the rocky clearing toward our primitive campsite. The dark scarlet streaks that hideously painted his clothing belied the grin across his boyish face.

“He skinned that thing in three strokes. It’s grotesque. He’s trained for this one ceremony all his life, and performing it is his sole purpose in the tribe,” Alan said, never wiping the sparkle from his eyes.

Thousands of miles high in the Sierra Madre mountain range, our camp was in the tiny settlement of Rowerachi – a home for 200 Tarahumara Indians, and our domicile for the past two weeks.

After the blazing sun and work gloves and repetitive 50-pound lifting, we were all tan, tired, and happy. We had painted schools in Chihuahua city, installed a shower and sink in an albergue (homeless shelter) in Cuatehmoc, and planted crops with the Tarahumara. Our service to these people was about to be rewarded with some hearty Mexican fare.

A boiled goat.

And home-made tortillas – which are, by all means, transcendental pillows of rough cornmeal and fat.

Served with a boiled goat. A whole one.

Alan had been among the few of us brave enough to watch the killing and blood-letting ceremony. The tribe had prepared an all-night gathering to commemorate our service and thank us in a formal way. Medicine men and tribal elders danced and struck goat-hide drums adorned with silver trinkets and dried nuts and seeds until the sun came up. The donkey that stood guard next to our camp brayed excitedly, waking us at odd intervals as we slept next to a dying fire under the trillion stars that shimmered above us.

The goats neck was sliced with a sharp blade with a bone handle, supposedly painlessly and quickly. The blood from its carotid artery was quickly clamped by a pair of rough, tan hands, but not before it sprayed abhorrently in all directions, as Alan’s formerly pristine undershirt attested. One of the elders dipped his small hand into the clay pot used to collect the syrupy lifeblood from the goat. He chanted a blessing of thankfulness and commitment to the Tarahumara gods and released the goat's animal spirit to them. He deftly flicked drops of blood to the cardinal points of the compass in order – north, south, west, east – in the sign of the cross.

After the final repetition of the ritual, the goat slinked lifelessly away in the arms of two men in identical plaid shirts and yellowed jeans. Their besandaled feet were rough and calloused from work, the way mine should have been inside my high-end running shoes and triple layered socks. I silently cursed my fifty-dollar pedicure and longed for a pair of black, rubber tire-soled sandals held on by quarter-inch rope straps. I watched them saunter away and hang the goat by the neck to a thick log rooted into the ground by thousands of years of tradition.

The goat’s eyes stared through their opalescent sheen straight into the distance, to a point invisible to everyone except dead goats. Another man in a flannel shirt with straight black hair and a wide nose approached the upright animal with macabre familiarity. In three quick flashes of his blade, the goat was skinned naked. Completely exposed, the body was rubbed with oils and spices as it was prepared for boiling.

My travels in tourist-free Mexico had lead me to eat things I never thought I would eat, nor think I will eat again. In a cubbyhole taqueria in Chihuahua City, I was in the mood to try something new – tripas, or “tripe” in more familiar terms – was the taco of the day. Bathed in spices and masked by red cabbage, queso fresco, and lime, the innards were a new texture – soft and chewy – probably not an everyday staple, but not vile enough to be passed by without thought. Cuahtemoc afforded us the best roasted chicken I have ever eaten. Juicy and tender, crisp and flavorful, served with verdant salsa verde, it was a treat each of the five times we visited La Albergue de Pollo.

Goat, however, was not on my to-eat list. At 9:00 am as we said adios to the Rowerachi settlement, its sparse landscape and parched buildings, its people warmed our hands and hearts with handshakes and smiles, leaving our insides as glowing as our skin. We watched as they extracted the whole goat – head, innards, and hooves – out of the steel cauldron. We watched as the women in vividly colored dressed pulled off the grey meat in large hunks and thrust it toward us gratefully, robed in a fluffy tortilla.

Our first shower in two weeks awaited at the bottom of the mountain, in the logging town of Creel, twenty miles – and four hours – down a rocky, steep grade. And while we packed our gear into the black SUVs we arrived in, the bitter, gamy taste of the goat, so graciously prepared, was the sweetest memory.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Gnocchi with Mom

My mother did not teach me how to cook. Unlike most students at culinary school, I didn’t stand next to my mom and stir the pot of simmering sauce. I didn’t watch my mom bake peach pies from a 5,000 year old family recipe. I was off playing with my chemistry set, or practicing the piano, or writing and illustrating a book of poems. Food was necessary, but if my mom had just served us a plain Ball Park hot dog on a plate, I would have bee happy. There was no family restaurant, no gourmet dinner outings, and no storytelling in the kitchen. My mom, whom I know recognize as an amazingly intuitive and instinctive cook, never taught me a thing in the kitchen. The lessons she did teach me, however, have carried over into my culinary life and have made me a better chef.

The one time I do remember cooking with my mom was upon the arrival of our new cookbook series, “Look and Cook,” a marvelously detailed and photographic set of instructional books from TimeLife. These cookbooks were truly idiot-proof. Mom told me to pick out a recipe from the “Italian Country Cooking” book and we would make it together. Most of the recipes from the book were fairly simple, lots of pastas, pizzas, and some antipasti – but, being Holly Kapherr, I chose the hardest, most time-consuming recipe in the book. Spinach gnocchi.

Gnocchi is a small nugget of potato pasta that is rolled into long, inch-thick logs and then cut into inch-and-a-half pieces before being thrown mercilessly into a pot of boiling water. I have seen old Italian mamas (and Mario Batali, who might as well be an Italian mama) put the dough in a garbage bag and cut off the tip to make an enormous pastry bag. The gnocchi bag is put under their arm like a bagpipe, and squeezed with the elbow. The gnocchi come out as cute little tubes, and are met with the mamas thumb or a pair of shears to cut the gnocchi right into the boiling water. I have not been able to do this, nor will I ever, most likely. This kind of advance gnocchi-making is not for the “Look and Cook” home chef. You can add lots of things to the dough, including lemon zest, figs, or, as in this case, spinach. Gnocchi is probably one of my favorite things, but now it carries a history behind it. I will probably never make gnocchi (or its tinier cousin gnocchetti) ever again. After spending five hours rolling the dough and cutting the little gnocchis and watching most of them disintegrate into nothingness in the pot, my idea of gnocchi is that they should, and for me always will, come frozen and parboiled.

All through the grueling tedium which was our gnocchi adventure, I never once (and never have since) saw my mother throw up her hands in despair and defeat. She is the kind of woman who takes a step back, takes a deep breath, assesses the situation, and comes up with a more efficient way to deal with it than throwing a tantrum (the option I usually choose, along with a pint of ice cream and mindless television). I thought about this today, being Mother’s Day, the day after I ruined eighteen crème brulees in the space of 4 hours (in 4 batches) by leaving them in the oven too long and curdling them into cheese and whey. I was about to cry, give up, and walk out, when I thought about the way my mother dealt with our gnocchi. Our feet hurt that day, and my seven-year-old attention span was drained to empty, but my mom kept going. When a gnocchi fell apart, she spooned it out gently, rolled it in some flour, and dropped it right back in.

I want to handle my life like my mother handled the gnocchi. I love you, Mom.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Oven Jockey

According to Chef Tom Beckman, a medium-bald, bespectacled bread-maker in Chicago, there are two kinds of chefs in this world – those that have a secret affinity for the baking and pastry arts and those who want nothing to do with it at all. The former enjoys the world of the savory – the smell of caramelizing mirepoix, the sizzle of the salmon as it lies prostrate in the pan – but quietly shivers with anticipation as he watches the chocolate soufflé rise or smells the rosemary as it browns on top of the focaccia. The latter, however, replaces that quiet shiver with a gag reflex and a cold sweat.

I am happy to be a part of the first group. Since Cypress Restaurant has eliminated the lunch service, my usual station as sauté cook has been relinquished. I will never again make a Monte Cristo sandwich, I will never again cream rice into mushy, mushroomy bliss, and I will never pour two-hundred degree Cream of Artichoke soup on my hand ever again. Actually, I probably will. But in the meantime, I will be over at the pastry station. I will be rolling dough into perfect circles for flaky biscuits. I will be whipping chocolate and butter into devilishly rich flourless chocolate cakes. I will be covered in flour, and, when I itch my nose (which, inevitably, will itch), I will look conspicuously like a cocaine addict.

It has only been a week since I started my new, sweeter life at the much cooler end of the kitchen. And yet, I have already gained new pastry awareness. I can put a tray of pecans in the oven and not set a timer. 13 minutes later, I will smell their toasted doneness wafting out of the steely convection oven, and my clothed hand will reach in and deftly pull them out. I can smell the cornbread croutons crisp and brown. I know the amber color of the caramel when it is ready to be made into brittle. I know the slam-slam-flip sound of the pizza dough banging against the side of the mixer when it is set to be slid into a cold, oiled bowl, covered with film, and placed on top of the oven to rise.

The greatest thing, to me, about being a pastry chef – and also probably my downfall – is the ability that the mind has to wander. When working a culinary station like grill or sauté, it’s BAM BAM BAM. Your mind never has time to slow down. While your body is sweating and shaking, your mind is also sweating. You must remember what’s on the stove, whether that salmon was medium or medium-well, whether it’s going on a salad or as an entrée, what the side dishes are, what needs to be fired next, whether it gets blackening spice or not, how long it’s been – HOLY SHIT – HOW LONG HAS THE FUCKER BEEN IN THE OVEN!?

That’s what your mind sounds like. Culinary stations are an uphill battle. And all the while, the ticket machine goes chik chik chik onto the next table’s order.

But while you’re working your forearms rolling 144 tiny biscuits, which are affectionately known at Cypress as “flat nasties” because they’re, well, flat, and “nasty good,” you can think about so many other things. What you have to do that day, your plans for the future, whether or not to break up with your boyfriend, and so many other random thoughts. Singing along with the Eagles “Tequila Sunrise” is also acceptable while cracking and separating 40 eggs for four measly quarts of crème brulee custard that will be gone the next day.

There is a science behind the cracking and separating of the eggs. Gloves, of course, are essential – no one likes an eggy hand. Crack the egg on a hard surface and pull it apart (over the trashcan) into two separate but equal hemispheres. Catch the yolk gently in your left hand as the mucus-esque white dribbles through the slivers between your fingers. I love how heavy the yolk feels by itself and how delicate it is in my palm. Don’t make this too automatic though – I often find myself cracking the egg into the trashcan – white and yellow – and then cursing at myself and thinking about how much that single egg cost and how much money we could have made from it. That’s what restaurants do. Everything – every last raspberry – is a lesson in food costs.

I am quite surprised that I am so enamored of the baking arts. My first exposure to real baking was right before Christmas in my Intro to Baking class at culinary school. Getting the basics right – creaming butter and sugar to the right consistency, whipping meringues until they are shiny and stiff, and thwapping the back of a baguette to make sure it’s hollow inside – were not such a problem. The problem was the oven.

I don’t want to seem too self-deprecating, but I’m not the most graceful woman in the world. As my boyfriend Gordon puts it, gravity doesn’t look good on me. Nor does it like me very much. Gravity, coupled with heavy objects and several hundred degrees of heat, on the other hand, is a shoe-in for complete disaster. I’ve had several unfortunate experiences with ovens, not the least of which includes grabbing a 500 degree plate with my bare hand, feeling it stick to the flesh on my fingers, and then throwing it eight feet across the kitchen. I had three beautiful blisters develop directly after the five minutes I spent crying in the walk-in freezer. But the first time I ever became truly afraid of the 8-foot-tall convection oven monster was in that first baking class.

Becoming too comfortable with heat was my first mistake. Underestimating the weight of a full sheet tray laden with white chocolate and cranberry biscotti was the other. The rack that the sheet tray was on was about five feet high, and grabbing it with my right hand, covered with a cloth, was proving to be difficult. I am also about five feet high. The tray slipped off the rack and hit me square on the side of my chin, scorching the skin and giving me a nice looking scar that remained for months – turning from red, to blistered, to dried-up skin, to scab over several weeks. My boyfriend at the time, Cory, started calling me the “oven jockey” and made fun of my battle scar for weeks. He didn’t last much longer than that.

It’s a sweet life, I have to admit. Working from eight until two, smelling the chocolate in the oven and knowing the exact moment when the finished cake cracks, pouring cream over butter and chopped chocolate to make a satiny ganache, and discovering the endless combinations and cooking methods that make the coupling of cream, eggs, and sugar into thousands of different things – lemon curd, pastry creams, crème brulees, ice cream – is enchanting. But while I try to tame the oven, and while I learn the hard way not to overcook custards (so they don’t end up as Grand Marnier cottage cheese), I’ll be thinking about where this will take me, how much more desirable I will be as a chef with pastry experience, and what color I should paint my toenails.