"Kitchen on Fire!"
Mike C. and Olivier Said obviously named their cooking school this for a reason.
"Kitchen on Fire", someone hollered as a portable burner went nuts and sprayed flame onto a kitchen towel. Mike C. was calm as he tamped it out with his hands. It was no big deal as there was high heat and flames jumping everywhere last night. It was the most exciting class yet: Stir Fry and Saute.
We were all jonesing to cook. It had neen two weeks since the last class as the 4th of July had cancelled last week. We got antsy toward the last part of Mike's lecture and people started fingering their aprons and sitting on the edge of their seats. Or maybe that was just me. The lecture was short as this kind of cooking is, in theory, simple and easy.
"So, pass in your homework if you did it." We put our two recipes on the main cutting board for him to peruse before the lecture. The homework was to get two recipes -one saute, one stir fry- and read them closely. This takes all of twenty seconds on theFood Network website.
"I hope this time when you read them you were looking at technique, yes?" We nodded and mumbled in agreement.
My stir fry was Chili Prawns, curtesey of Yan Can Cook, my saute was 2 Minute Calamari Sicilian Lifeguard Style, from Molto Mario. In looking at them, I saw a theme jump out that was echoed by Mike's lecture. "This cooking is FAST, it is HIGH HEAT, and it is LOW OIL."
The times given in my recipes were broken down to seconds.
Mike gave us the basic procedure before setting us free. (And this time, same as two weeks ago in the Braise class, there were lots of recipes in our packet, but we were not asked to follow them when we cooked.)
I jumped up before anyone else and grabbed two long Chinese Eggplants and a wok. I'd never been successful with a wok, and I've always loved that soft jelly like eggplant you get in Chinese restaurants, so my heart was set on trying it. Bianca, a fashionable mom from Piedmont, partnered with me and I began to chop. I was a little nervous about collaboration, but what the hell.
We prepped. Bianca searched the jars of sauces and mixed up a tasty little combo of black bean sauce and chili paste. We had our "finishing sauce". I sliced garlic, and confessed to Mike that I usually end up with lots of burnt garlic bits in the pan. "Do you put it in first with the oil?" he asked.
"Yes" I said.
"That's why... put it in with the eggplant. The veg will protect it."
The black steel wok started to smoke. A few squirts of vegetable oil. My two wok spatulas in the underhanded, salad-tossing position.
"Make it jump!" Mike said. "Don't do this in your wok..." and he demonstrated a bored, distracted, one handed stirring. Like someone stirring cream into coffee. "Pick up the food with both tools and jump it into the air so it hits as much of that hot pan as possible."
I was having fun throwing the eggplant and red pepper into the air, but it seemed like the pan was too dry so I added a little more oil despite Bianca's grimace. When the eggplant looked glassy, we tossed in our scallions, cilantro, toasted sesame seeds and a little chicken stock, and finally our spicy sauce, when we plated it up, it looked like something from a restaurant.
But honestly, it didn't taste that great. "We didn't taste it" I said sadly.
Mike is always remind us to taste as we cook, taste taste taste.....
We added some soy sauce and that helped. We put it on the buffet and moved on. I wandered around looking at people braving very complex things, Mango Beef and Garlic Green Beans, Fried Rice Cantonese Style.
We were encouraged to keep going. "Hey Guys, this is a TEST kitchen , so do something else when you are finished, just clean your station first....try something else."
There was a recipe for Mushrooms with Peas and Cream, in the packet, so I grabbed a bowl of peas no one had taken and started improvising on that theme. I sweated over a hot wok and conquered eggplant; it was time to saute.
I put a big hunk of butter in one of the wide Analon stick-proof saute pans. I slivered two velvety Shitakes. Chopped up two cloves of garlic, a shallot, the flowery head of a celery stalk. In went the garlic and shallot. Then the Shitake.
I was having fun. This is so cool!!!!!
Cooking freely in this bigass and badass modern kitchen with refrigerator drawers of fresh herbs, ziplocks of real vanilla beans and lots of cool liqours around to flambe with.
OOh, yea, I gotta flambe!
Wait, concentrate... The Shitakes were softening, so I removed them and the shallot/garlic. I put in a layer of peas. "Don't overcrowd the pan, or you'll steam or Braise!" -this was the oft-heard mantra of the night.
"If I see anyone using a spatula to stir your saute, I'm gonna take it from you!" Mike growled. Damn, I forgot that we are supposed to be practicing our food-flipping. I quickly got rid of my wood spatula, and started doing that cool-chef flip thing.
Lift up pan, angle it downward, away from you, and with a quick down and IN motion of the arm, your food (if things go well) with surf up the outer edge of the pan, do a 360 Tony Hawk spin, and land nicely turned over in the saute pan.
The peas were the right thing to have in the pan to learn the flip. "If you ever want to practice this at home, use a cold pan and some beans" Mike said. People were flipping everywhere, oil was spattering arms, chicken and onions were falling through the burners, but people were happy.
I added back in the shroom mixture, then squirted in some cream and white wine, tasted... more salt, then plated the peas.
They were tasty but too mushy.
I was having so much fun being a flipping showoff that I overcooked the peas. But the Shitakes still tasted great, funky and woodsy, so, no big deal.
I wandered around, tasted some incredible Mango Beef. Mike opened a drawer, slammed two big apples down on the cutting board and said "I never said you couldn't saute fruit right?"
The we all gathererd around the cooktop for a tutorial in FIRE!
He had an empty saute pan. He tilted it up vertically.
"Heat the lip, get it very hot. Remove from heat. Put in your alcohol. It has to be at least 40% alcohol to flame. Each ounce will give about a foot of flame. Do the math."
He poured in the tequila while his pan was removed from the flame. Then he put it over the fire doing a thing where he tilted the pan up, getting dangerously close to pouring the alcohol out, away from him. This allowed the burner to creep up the lip of the pan, and BOOM, catch fire with the liquid. FLAMES four feet high!!
"Then do the hibby hibby shake, until the alcohol is burned off." Until the flame was out, he just moved it neatly back and forth over the burner.
The rest of last night was a flaming blur as two other guys and I cut up the apples, sauted them in butter and flamed them with good rum.
Over and over and over.
Some brown sugar, a little ginger. Each of us taking turns doing the fire process. Heating the lip. Remove. Add Rum. Replace, and then tip away from you so the fire creeps over the lip and WAM. FIRE...... Shakey, shakey, shake.
Not only was this the most fun all night, three guys lighting things on fire and laughjing like goofy kids. When we plated the soft apples, and put a scoop of vanilla ice cream over it, it was f**ing incredible.
We all got high fives from Mike C, and everyone gathered around the plate and ate.
It was like Rum-Apple pie a la mode on a veranda in Trinidad or Tobago without any crust to interfere with the sugary goo factor, and the rum had left only it's sugar cane glow. Any bracing liqour taste was gone.
But really, it was just fun to cook that. And probably no accident that the most fun thing was the tastiest.
(p.s. Mike C. and Kitchen on Fire are putting together a DVD set, so if you want to get a much deeper feel for the classes and their content than I can give you, you may want to check those out.)