Yesterday, I provided food for the 50th Wedding Anniversary of the parents of a friend of mine. She asked me to do food for 75 folks, and specifically asked for Swedish Meatballs and Mini Quiches. Luci wanted something simple and easy for her parents’ guests, and despite my desire to do something a bit different, I acquiesced.
On Saturday, I went to our local farmer’s market and purchased 9 pounds of fresh spinach from my friend and local farmer, Lamar. It’s great product – very green, and very flavorful. The only thing is one has to do is clean it – Mr. Lamar doesn’t bring it to market pre-cleaned. For me, this isn’t a problem – I take it home, and run it through several changes of fresh water in a 22 quart lexan container, and voila – clean spinach. Once cleaned, it became a key component in the cheddar-spinach quiches I did for Luci and her parents.
The meatballs, however, were another matter. Now, meatballs are nothing more than a meatloaf (forcemeat, or farce) in round form. However, when one is making them utilizing a number 20 scoop (about an ounce or so) form, well, the labor quotient goes up exponentially. In this case, I was able to get about thirty meatballs per half sheet pan.
So, one is thinking, no problem 30 meatballs per pan, no big deal, right? Not in a home kitchen. In a professional kitchen I could have had this knocked out in an hour or less. At home? It took me several hours. Why? Well, I could only do 90 meatballs at a time as my oven only has three racks, and I was limited to half sheet pans (as opposed to the full sheet pans one finds in a professional kitchen). Second, I had to let the pans cool before I did another batch (a hot pan will make the meatballs go “flat” very quickly). Finally, I had to give the meat itself a chance to chill in the refrigerator between batches (there is a reason forcemeats are kept cold prior to cooking).
What would have been a quick job in a professional kitchen became an exercise in frustration in my small home kitchen. I couldn’t multi-task (my kitchen is u-shaped – thus, my counter space is at a premium) as I used the top of the range to cool/transfer batches of meatballs, and available counter space for the large hotel pan full of meat. Basically, my procedure was this: scoop meat onto sheet pan, roll by hand into meatballs, place in oven. Repeat with next two sheet pans. Bake meatballs, remove from oven, and place on stove top. Remove meatballs from sheet pan and place into a waiting hotel pan. Remove next sheet pan of meatballs, place on top of previous sheet pan, remove meatballs and place into waiting hotel pan. Repeat process with third sheet pan. Allow sheet pans to cool and repeat process.
Thus, it took me a few hours in a home kitchen what would have taken me less than an hour to do in a professional kitchen.
Along the way, I got frustrated, cursed my kitchen, etc. But it got done.
Fast forward to yesterday.
I packed up the mini quiches (which had been done the morning of the event), the meatballs, sauce, equipment, chafing dishes, etc. into my truck and headed downtown to my friend’s parents place. Paco and Lucia live in a small condo near downtown, and I found their home warm and inviting. Both Paco and Luci had an evident passion for food, and it was a very welcoming venue to experience as a cook.
I set things up, got the meatballs going, set up the quiches, and did some simple garnishes. Guests began to arrive, and by all accounts, they enjoyed the food I (and others) prepared.
Tonight, I reflected on my frustrations during the preparation of my small contributions to what is/was an important milestone in the lives of Luci’s parents. As I thought about it, none of my concerns were important. What was important was making this event as memorable as I, as a cook could make it for Paco and Lucia, both of whom have shared an incredible lifetime together. Once I arrived at their home, I felt humbled and grateful to be able to participate in this occasion with them, and a little humbled by the frustration I felt in my home kitchen. In the end, what I do as a cook is not about me – it’s about others.
During the event, I got to speak with both Paco and Lucia, as well as their guests. Paco regaled me with his story of making 12 hams in his basement in Queens, NY; Luci and I discussed local food; another guest spoke to me about his 33 years in government service, and how things had changed in the place where we live. These things hammer home to me that food is the thing that brings us all together and allows us to be civil and generous to each other, if only for a short time. 700 Swedish Meatballs is a small price to pay for that, I think.
This is some home cured and aged pancetta, an Italian style bacon which is not smoked. It took about three weeks for the whole process, but it was definitely worth it!
Today, at Fayetteville Technical Community College, we held an event that required the services of the Culinary Technology Department. It was the Annual Advisory Committee Dinner, where individuals from the Fayetteville community come together to have a nice dinner and network, hear a guest speaker and the like.
The Culinary Technology Department had responsibility for developing, planning and executing the dinner. The menu was fairly straightforward; a nice salad, Cornish Game Hens with gravy, Hanger (actually flank) Steak with a Smoked Blueberry Glaze, a Vegetable Medley, Garlic Mashed Potatoes and a Cheesecake and Pumpkin Cake for dessert. All in all not a hard menu to execute given we had plenty of students to help.
We set up the gym as the dining area, prepped everything yesterday as best we could, and finished cooking/prep today (Tuesday). Students and Chef-Instructors alike worked very hard making all this happen. I personally supervised the grilling of steaks (medium rare, thank you), and also helped monitor vegetable salad and chicken production. Which brings me to my next point.
Our game hens were cut in half, seasoned and roasted. Each one was checked for proper doneness with calibrated thermometers. All were cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as they should have been (checked through the breast meat).
We placed the chicken in hotel pans, and put them in chafing dishes to remain warm during service at proper (140 degrees F) temperature. Advisory Committee members came through the serving line (it was buffet style with the exception of salad and dessert) and tucked in.
Soon after students serving as waiters/waitresses came up to me telling me of guests complaining that their chicken wasn’t cooked. I personally checked said chicken and found it to be cooked, but with an evidence of blood. These were, in fact bone-in chicken; of course there might be blood. Chickens are living beings (until they’re slaughtered, of course) and have blood in them. There is some blood near/in/on the bones. Unless these are kosher chickens (ours weren’t), there will be some blood even after cooking in some cases.
In most cases these guests asked for steak in lieu of the chicken, and we obliged. I must admit, however, it bugged me a bit that some guests found our chicken “raw” (their words, not mine). I knew our chicken was properly cooked yet these guests insisted it was undercooked. I initially chalked this up to students perhaps undercooking the occasional piece of chicken, but I knew it was done right. What was the problem?
I thought about this, and began to think that perhaps it wasn’t the chicken, but a larger issue. I began to think about how most of us get our chicken (and food) these days – we go to a supermarket, where everything is aseptic. Industrial agriculture makes it this way, and it’s cheap. Row after row of food items are neatly arranged on shelves and in coolers/freezers. None of it resembles food as it appears in its natural state. It is pre-packaged, pre-cooked, pre-cut, pre-portioned. I began to think that perhaps the reaction to the “undercooked chicken” was somehow tied to this.
Blood is a natural occurrence in chickens, yet the mere sight of it on a plate is enough to make some folks think that their poultry is undercooked. If people had to butcher their own chickens, they’d realize that even after their best efforts, there may still be blood in the chicken/juices/sauce.
But the fact is today, most folks don’t have to butcher their own chickens. They buy them wrapped in plastic an styrofoam, no effort or thinking required. All they have to do is take it home, cook it and that’s it. There’s no reflection on how the chicken was raised, how it lived, what it ate, how it died, or how it came to be encapsulated in styrofoam and plastic. All that’s left is a giant disconnect between the chicken, the farmer and the consumer.
Years ago, we raised and butchered our own poultry. Or at least we got it from someone who did. It wasn’t raised on a factory farm, nor was it processed in some huge faceless factory, where underpaid workers toiled like automatons plying the same mindless tasks over and over. We saw what happened, felt what happened when we actually had to cut up a chicken, whole. Today very few that I know can take apart a whole, raw chicken, with bones, feathers, blood and God only knows what else. It’s no wonder then that most have no clue as to why that blood might end up on their plate.
This all makes me think we’ve become so disconnected with food that we don’t even understand basic things about it, e.g., there is blood in meat/poultry/fish. We see such things and we immediately recoil, not understanding that this is part of nature and living things. It gives the perception that particular foods are unclean, unhealthy, not whole, when the exact opposite is the reality in fact.
I once heard that the difference between cooks and Chefs is that cooks cook, and Chefs educate. Tonight, when a student brought a plate of chicken up to ChefRichard and told him that the guest thought the chicken was undercooked (due to some redness near the thigh bone), Chef Richard took a look at it, checked that it was indeed cooked, and told the student to throw it away. He then told the student to get the guest some steak. My guess is that guest probably thought that was undercooked, too.