January 2011

You could say last week was the week of the dough.  While I left my partner Rick to chop, dice and mince, I tackled the doughs.

First, in my Cusines of Mexico class, there was the masa dough for the tlacoyos, then tortilla dough, and finally, tart dough in my Bistro class.

Here’s the run-down.

Say, what? or Cómo se dice?

Look, I don’t even know how to show you the phonetic pronunciation of tlacoyo, and I haven’t mastered the whole audio-visual thing, so just make up your own name for the damn thing.

What I can do is tell you they were interesting – in a good way.  They’re very similar to empanadas or pupusas if you’re familiar with El Salvadoran food, except that you use tortilla masa as the base, and part of your liquid is (or can be) a bean paste.  In our case, we simply used pureed black beans, which lent a nice rich flavor to the dough.  The key to the tlacoyo dough is to get it nice and soft, so you can’t feel the grain of the masa.  If it’s too wet or too dry, it will break when you try to flatten, fold and stuff it.

Here’s a basic recipe for Tlacoyos.

This is the finished tlacoyo, garnished with roasted tomato salsa and avocado cream

2 cups masa
2 T softened lard or vegetable oil
Sea salt to taste
1 cup bean paste

  1. Work all of these ingredients together until well aerated and very smooth. It should not feel grainy at all.
  2. Divide into 12 equal pieces (for a good size tlacoyo – if you want appetizer size, divide into 16 or 18 pieces, but not too small or they will be too difficult to stuff).
  3. Roll each piece into a ball and flatten with a tortilla press – not too thin!
  4. Stuff with a filling of your choice, and pinch seams together to seal.
  5. Deep fry in hot oil for several minutes.  The masa should be cooked all the way through and not have a grainy texture at all.

Good toppings and garnishes are diced white onion, queso añejo, and red or green salsa. The salsa you see on this plate was lovingly made by my cooking partner Rick – an awesome cook in his own right.

Rick and Estelle

These are a couple of my cooking buddies: Rick, who is with me in Mexican and French Bistro cuisines, and Estelle, who is not taking classes this quarter - boo! We miss her!

Here’s another more specific recipe from a site I follow with some regularity.

Our tlacoyo dough was very nice, but dried out a tad as it rested, and I had to rescue it with a bit of water as I shaped each ball.  Worked out pretty well.

Unfortunately, the fillings we used were from the cafeteria and not well seasoned, so when stuffing, I overcompensated with salt, and our finished product was too salty. Plus they weren’t cooked enough. I was quite disappointed at the time, but considering it was my first time making them, I’ve lightened up on myself.  I’m looking forward to making them again … maybe for my birthday …

The flour tortilla dough was uneventful.  Flour tortillas are really not all that common in Mexico. Corn tortillas are the vessel of choice, which makes sense because the holy trinity of Mexican cooking is corn (not wheat!), squash and beans.

Other dishes we made in class last week were Chiles Rellenos. Ours turned out beautifully.  The key to that

chile relleno

This is our completed Chile Relleno. Gorgeous, right?

gorgeous puffy coating, according to Chef Carlos, is beating your egg whites to soft peaks, then barely beating in the egg yolks!  Just a whisk or two, and you’re done, because you don’t want to deflate the whites at all.

The good chef also taught us a couple of tricks for a more beautiful presentation.

After you blacken the skin of the poblano, and peel the skin, don’t score it lengthwise.  Cut about a slightly diagonal slit at the stem end, and pull the seeds out through that slit.  You also stuff it through the same slit. It’s a bit fussy, but makes for easier cooking as well as a much nicer presentation.

Also, really pack in the stuffing, so it has a round and full shape when it comes out of the fryer.

There are tons of recipes out there for chiles rellenos, but you don’t really need one. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Blacken your pepper skins without cooking the pepper itself.  You can achieve this under a very hot broiler, or using the fire of your gas stove.  It probably would work with a blowtorch too, which would be totally gnarly! (Just kidding. Please don’t use a blowtorch.)
  2. Place the peppers in a bowl covered with plastic wrap for a couple of minutes, just to loosen the skins (not too long or your peppers will steam!).
  3. Peel the skins off, make a diagonal slit at the top of the pepper (stem end) and carefully pull out the seeds. Rinse under cold water.
  4. While the pepper dries a bit, make your egg coating.  Whisk 4 egg whites until they hold soft peaks.  Then add 3 egg yolks, and whisk just 4-5 times.  Even if it’s not fully combined, and you feel like you should keep going, don’t do it, man. You’ll regret it.
  5. Stuff peppers with filling of choice. Cheese (chihuahua or asadero would be good choice) or chorizo or a combination would be great.  Stuff it to the very top!
  6. Coat stuffed pepper lightly with flour, then dip it into your egg mixture until well coated. This takes some delicate handling, but it’s not too difficult.
  7. Dunk it in your frying oil (probably 350°), turning it to make sure the coating browns evenly.  When  it looks like our picture, pull ‘er out of the fryer, garnish and serve.  Yum!

Apple tart or cookie?

Here she is! Nice looking specimen, but would be even better had the apples carmelized a bit more.

I also made a dough for a Tarte aux Pommes.  We were supposed to make it with the food processor, but since all of the teams had to wait in line for one food processor, I decided to make mine by hand.

We’re not sure how they turned out yet, because Chef Coutrieux gave me his demo version to use.  I’ll let you know how mine turned out after this week’s class!

The tart turned out lovely, but I made a couple of errors, easily corrected for next time.

There was to be a layer of an apple puree as the base of the tart, which I made, but after baking it, I wish I had used more.

The other slight flaw was that I did not sprinkle enough sugar on top of the apples prior to baking, which is why they have very little color.

More sugar = more carmelization.

That said, the tart was absolutely delicious, but it was more like a cookie with apples on top.

Our other projects that evening were boiled chicken with vegetables and stuffing, which, well . . . you know, it’s boiled chicken.  I guess if you like that kind of thing, it was good.  I’m a roasty kinda girl myself.

There it is. Boiled chicken with blanched vegetables, a meaty stuffing and a lemony, eggy viniagrette (read: weird).

Chef Coutrieux plating our chicken.

We also did steak tartare.  Again, I’m partial to carpaccio, and I wasn’t even going to taste it, but pressured by the Chef, I did.  And of course, I liked it.  Ultimately, there is very little that I don’t like to eat!

steak tartare

Here's our plated tartare. Yes, that's an egg yolk on top. Other garnishes are minced shallots, cornichons, and capers. Also serve with hot sauce and worcestershire sauce. Nom nom.

Another report coming next week, and I’ll unveil the name of my fictional catering company.  Thanks to those of you who provided suggestions.

Until then, Bon Appétit!


I made it through the first week of classes, commutes included.  It’s going to be a challenging, but fun 10 weeks.

We were thrown for a loop in catering class when we learned that the first 5 weeks are lecture (which also means that I’m done by 8:30 p.m. – yay!), and the last 5 weeks are in the kitchen.

The owner of the successful Chicag0-based Finesse Cuisine, Jon Wool, is our instructor during these first weeks.  Interesting guy, and a successful businessman, so I’m looking forward to learning a lot.

Our big assignment for the first half is to conceptualize our own catering business and plan an event for 50 or more guests.  It’s a bit daunting.

My assignment this week includes naming my catering company and developing a mission statement.

While I’m not certain I’m interested in off-premise catering as a career, I still want to take this project seriously.  I need a good name, and I welcome suggestions  (hint, hint).

Oaxaca, here I come!

Chef Carlos, of Mexique, putting the final touches on his Chicken in Escabeche

Of the 3 classes I’m taking this quarter, I’m most excited about my Cuisines of Mexico class.  My instructor, Chef Juan Carlos (no kidding!) is the owner and executive chef at the very popular Mexique restaurant.  Chef Carlos is a newbie instructor, so a little rusty around the edges when it comes to teaching in a classroom setting.

But if he’s going to be rusty anywhere, I would prefer it to be in the classroom rather than the kitchen.  Even so, it was fun to hear his stories about growing up in Guerrero, watching his grandmother make tortillas, going to the fields with his grandfather.

He came to the U.S. from Mexico at around the age of 20, after he decided a career in computer technology wasn’t his cup of horchata. He started as a dishwasher and worked his way up with help from chefs and mentors along the way.  Now, in Chicago, he is named in the same breath as chefs like Rick Bayless, who is one of my favs.

Needless to say, I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to learn from him.

He has a lot of passion for what he does, and he said to us, “I expect you to bring passion to your cooking here.” I will, Chef!  And I think you’re going to make it easy for me to do so.

Our first night, we made:

  • escabeche – basically pickled vegetables, specifically onion, jalapeno, and carrot (the recipe link is close to what we made in class),
  • dry pepper puree, using ancho, guajillo and pasilla chiles. This puree is a base for many other traditional Mexican dishes. You really just toast the chiles, rehydrate in water, and puree with fresh water to make a thin paste (it should be like a really thick sauce).
  • salsa verde (using a molcajete) – my husband Randy’s favorite. There are a lot of variations on salsa verde, but we boiled the jalapeno, tomatillo and garlic until fairly soft, and ground them up in a molcajete. It was lovely, but man, grinding that stuff is hard work.  I’m going to have killer arms by the end of this class!
  • homemade chorizo – ground pork, spices, pepper puree, etc.

Chicken in Escabeche, courtesy of Chef Carlos

At the end of the night, Chef Carlos cooked up a classic Mexican dish called Chicken in Escabeche.

My dry pepper puree was a bit of disappointment. I’ve worked with dry peppers many times, usually quite successfully, but I learned at class how easy it can be to get it wrong.

Before you rehydrate dry peppers, you must “toast” or fry them.  If you don’t toast them enough, the puree will have a raw and watery flavor.  If you toast them too much, it will have a bitter or burnt taste.  I didn’t get it quite right during class.

There’s something about the pace of restaurant cooking that can get you off of your cooking groove, and being in school is in part learning how to work quickly on many different items while maintaining the excellence you strive for and often achieve cooking at home.

At the end of the evening, Chef Carlos talked to each team separately about our dishes, answered our questions and graded us – a nice touch.

As we were talking about the dry pepper puree that my teammate Rick and I made, we discussed what went wrong.  I responded, “we’ll get it right next time.”

“I know you will,” said Chef Carlos. Thanks for your confidence!

A Bistro is What?!

French Bistro Cooking was a bit more frenetic.

Our very experienced instructor (French, of course), Chef Coutrieux, is a bit brusque, but not unhelpful.

One of the first things I learned in this class is the term “bistro” has been  bastardized in America (so typical).

In France, a bistro is a small establishment that focuses on serving booze. In order to keep customers drinking, they serve a few simple  dishes, usually from a tiny kitchen (the bar is the main attraction) for a short period of time – usually from about 12 noon to 2 or 2:30 p.m.

Steak frites, salad, and creme brulee

In France, bistro cuisine is kind of like pub food… really good pub food.

Our first night, we made:

  • steak frites, made with the traditional hanger steak, and covered with carmelized shallots (sauteed in oh, about a TON of butter!)
  • creme brulee
  • a bunch of different salads

The pace was quick and the whole experience was a bit unnerving, since we were in a new kitchen, and at this point, we’re not receiving a whole lot of direction.  It’s OK, because we shouldn’t be needing it too much – and we don’t. But after having been gone for 3 weeks, it was intense that first night, and I was a tad frazzled by the end of class.

As I finish this post, I’m in the middle of my 2nd week and feeling like I’m getting back into the groove.

More soon.

Bon Appetit!

cover of catering textbook

This is my textbook for my catering class. You can't look inside it, actually. I "borrowed" the image from Amazon.com. So shoot me.

While I’m enjoying these lazy days before classes start next week, I must say I’m ready to get back to it.

I’ve sharpened my knives, laundered my chef whites, and just received my catering textbook in the mail yesterday.  As soon as the syllabi are posted this weekend, I’ll be on it like white on rice. (I learned that colloquialism from a good friend who knows lots of colorful expressions – the best one has something to do with a calf in a thunderstorm – completely outrageous, but such fun conversations!)

I’m sure I’ll be singing a different tune after next week, especially after my 3rd drive to Chicago on Thursday, but I’ll just enjoy the anticipation while it lasts.


It’s never too late to start again.  I’ve been neglecting this space for weeks, partly because life in the last couple of months has been a whirlwind of changes, but admittedly, I’ve also been exhausted, and OK a little lazy too.

I started this blog not only because I wanted to share my experience in culinary school with my friends and family, but also to document my progress, both in cooking technique and my emotional journey. Unfortunately, I have failed on both counts for a couple of months here.

But, it’s never too late to regroup and pick up where I left off.

Piped Potatoes Duchess

Piped Potatoes Duchess

About half-way through my second quarter, I thought it would be a good idea to start documenting my progress with photos too.  (I don’t know what took me so long to think of that, so don’t ask!)  Obviously, they’re not really related to the content they appear next to, but I wanted to include them in this post . . . because it’s MY blog . . . I can do whatever I please with MY blog. 😉

Next quarter, which begins on January 10, and is a continuation of the I-have-no-life culinary school schedule, includes:

  • Catering – Monday nights from 6:30 to 11:00 p.m. (I have to leave MKE at 2 or 2:30 to beat traffic!)
  • Mexican Cuisine – Wednesday & Thursday nights, first 5 weeks, 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.
  • French Bistro Cooking – Wednesday & Thursday nights, second 5 weeks, 6:30 to 11:00 p.m.

Homemade pasta

I’ve thought about focusing my career on Mexican food, since Rick Bayless is such an inspiration to me. Now I get the opportunity to cook Mexican food for several weeks in a row.  Exciting!

I’m looking forward to French Bistro, too.  Lake Park or Coquette, here I come!

So what did I miss blogging about last quarter? In reverse order:

Intro to garde manger – cold food like salads, sandwiches, canapes, pates, cured salmon, and egg preparations.  I still haven’t managed to perfect the French omelette, but I’m getting there.  And, anyway, as Chef Pollin told fellow culinarian, Rick, “an omelette a great chef does not make.”  That’s a relief!

Methods of cooking – you know, all the different techniques you use when cooking stuff:  sauteing, grilling, braising, etc. That was a yummy bunch of classes, with good leftovers to boot.   My favorite dish had to be trout a la meuniere.  Basically sauteed trout with toasted almonds and brown butter sauce.  My god, just thinking about it now is making my mouth water!

Stocks, sauces, soups – self-explanatory, no?  Well, I guess not entirely.  I’m not going to make myself go crazy or bore anyone who may read this by going into a long explanation of classic sauces and techniques for soups, but I will say to the  3 people who read this and are interested in learning more, definitely look up the 5 mother sauces.

boiled dinner

A Boiled Dinner - Corned Beef and Blanched Vegetables

It was decidedly the most important lesson in this course, because these sauces are the foundation of French cuisine. Almost nothing you get in a French bistro, as well as many other types of restaurants, doesn’t include at least a couple of these classic sauces:

  1. Bechamel
  2. Veloute
  3. Tomato
  4. Espagnole
  5. Hollandaise

Most of these sauces, with the exception of the Hollandaise begin with a roux, which is made simply by combining an equal amount of butter and flour by weight, and cooking it over a medium-ish heat.

From these sauces, you can make a million other “small” sauces by adding a royale (mixture of egg yolk and cream), different herbs and flavorings, such as lemon juice, aromatics, vegetables, etc.

bird shaped out of an apple

Apple Bird - aka gimmick, but you gotta admit, it's cool.

Bechamel, in my opinion, deserves specific mention, because it’s so useful.  Who knew? Obviously, I didn’t, or I wouldn’t be in culinary school.

The bechamel sauce combines a white roux (so the roux is cooked only for a minute or 2) with milk and a bay leaf attached to an onion with a clove.  I know that sounds weird.  Just peel your onion, hold a bay leaf to it, and attach it with the pointy end of a clove or 2.  A lot of recipes skip this little contraption, buy why?  It takes 3 seconds to put together – Ok maybe a minute since you have to dig the bay leaf and clove out of the spice pantry, and it lends a lot more flavor to the sauce.

The ratio of roux to milk is 8:1.  If you’ve ever made a classic baked mac and cheese (mmm, yummy!), you’ve probably started with a bechamel, then added your cheese, mustard, worcestershire, tabasco, and other flavorings the recipe may have called for.

This sauce is truly indispensable, as it can be used for many applications besides mac and cheese.

If you’re a recipe slave (no shame – I was one for a very long time, and still rely on them as guides), here’s one from The Kitchn, a blog I like to check out occasionally.

Finally, if you really want to impress your friends, make your own mayonnaise.  It’s remarkably easy, and you get a little upper arm/shoulder workout – bonus!


Aspic - don't ask. It strikes me as very old fashioned. But classmate Mavis and I made a Christmas tree!

Start with an egg yolk and a generous spoonful of dijon mustard.  Begin whisking vigorously and drizzle in your vegetable oil.  The ratio of egg yolk to veg oil is 1 yolk to 1 cup (7-8 oz) oil.  Add lemon juice, salt and pepper, and voila! Mayonnaise!

Your mayo might break if you dump in too much oil at once or if you don’t whisk fast enough.  No worries. Just dump an egg yolk into a clean bowl, and drizzle in broken mixture along with additional oil until it’s the right consistency.

Want tartar sauce?  Finely chop some pickles or cornichons, capers, shallots and throw it in the mixture with a bit more lemon juice.

Want garlic aioli?  Simmer a crushed garlic clove or 2 with your oil before adding it to the egg yolk (let the oil cool to room temp).

Good stuff, but I’m running out of steam.  More later.  I promise!

Bon Appetit!

And a few more photos:


salmon canapes

Salmon canapes - for my final exam! Chef Pollin thought they were very nice!

failed omelettes

Collateral damage from omelette-making on exam night. It took 3 or 4 pans before I found one that was actually nonstick, and allowed me to create at least a passable French omelette!

final exam dishes

Other dishes we had to make for the final: tuna salad, made with our own mayonnaise, and my last marginally successful omelette