A book themed post for Unesco's world book day.
Sometimes books can be full of interesting information but not written in a way that really keeps your attention there. Other books might be great to read, fun, thrilling but ultimately just like junk food: no "nourishment" there. And then, once in a while, you stumble across a book that's well written, enthralling and loaded with interesting and stimulating info. Such as Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef.This book is an account on the CIA, the Culinary institute of America, the way this famous school works and how it prepares its students. It is also a book that inevitably challenges my opinion on classical French cooking and makes me feel like preparing some of those sauces described by Escoffier at the beginning of the last century.
The first time I picked up this book was mainly because I had read something about it in A Cook's Tour. After the first few pages I was not really impressed. Ruhlman is not what I'd call a flashy writer. He doesn't have the hard rock and roll beat of Tony Bourdain or the ironic snobbery of Jeffrey Steingarten, just to name the first to pop up in my mind. But, once I had immersed myself in the book's atmosphere, his writing still kept my attention from beginning to end, constantly waiting for what would happen next. Actually I liked the book so much that I've recently read this for the second time. What I can't stop wondering is how many other writers would have done what Ruhlman did. Once he had decided to write the book he actually went to the school and followed many of the classes together with the CIA students, learning, sweating and working the hours with them and, if one believes the book, with quite good results. From the first practical class , Skills, to the final one in the kitchen of the CIA's American Bounty restaurant kitchen experiences what it means to "become" a line cook: the speed, the pressure and the heath.
I have to admit that before reading this book I had almost no idea of what the CIA was. I appreciated that Ruhlman tries to keep quite objective throughout the book. He does point out what the critiques to the CIA are (old fashioned, out of touch with the real market, just to mention two) although he no doubt comes to like and appreciate the teaching method. Nonetheless I had a feeling that nothing was hidden to make things appear nicer. The atmosphere under which the teaching chefs have to work doesn't exactly strike one as friendly or collaborative. I found amusing to read how one chef/instructor preference for a certain cooking method could be absolutely disliked by the next one: it's either a lack of didactic co-ordination or a great way to prepare future cooks to be flexible to match their chef's liking. I'm not sure which. I don't know if I am the only one to see this but after reading the book I got the feeling that the CIA is imbibed with a certain German-ness: the school discipline, among both students and teachers, is maybe only the minor hint to this. What really makes it evident IMO is the continuing love for the classics: in a certain way it's ironic German cooks seem to be far more attached to the "grand cuisine", although in a lightened and modernised way, then the French are. I guess that it's no wonder given the people responsible for making the CIA what it is: Ferdinand Metz, the CIA president for a long time, is a German and so are or were quite a few of the CIA staff.
And deep inside, I have to admit, this focus on traditional French cooking is what really makes the book intriguing for me. Pates, aspics and especially classic sauces are not a part of my heritage. Sauces are one of the things that often Italians like me don't understand and feel cold about. After reading the book I feel at least the temptation to try a few of these sauces out. And some pate' too sometime. And since this is after all a food blog after something for the mind here's something for the body.
A few days ago I tried making a dish one of the not too time consuming sauces. I decided to do a chicken breast in a chicken veloute based sauce. The chicken was just seared in a pan on the stovetop and cooked to doneness in the oven (170C). The sauce was a basic chicken velute', strained and then enriched with a little cream (in which I had simmered some mushroom scraps, a mace blade and some peppercorns, all strained out), simmered and reduced some more. To this, just before serving I added some Madeira and some chopped sauteed mushrooms. I guess this is more a personal interpretation than a real classic sauce but I think I managed to remain true to the spirit. To try and keep a "French" theme I served this with some red Camargue rice and an asparagus ragout I picked straight from Jacques Pepin La Technique Complet. Practically the asparagus, cleaned and cut into sections are quickly "boiled" in a wide pan, covered, containing very little water. After 2 minutes salt, butter (I used half of what Pepin suggests) and pepper are added and constantly stirred around the pan (to emulsify the sauce) till the sauce foams like boiling milk. Ab-so-lu-tely the best way to make asparagus I ever tried: tasty, still firm but not crunchy unlike the often mushy steamed or boiled asparagus one often gets. Maybe the asparagus overpowered the rest of the dish a bit,but I had these beautiful bunch on my countertop. What should I have done, leave them all alone and sad :-)?
I won't be cooking with classic sauces that often I guess, but I'll sure try again. I also finally understood why a good stock makes a difference and I guess I'll be able to recognise more easily when a restaurant uses a stock "base" (powder, concentrate, etc). I'll have to start planning to find a date to make brown veal stock...