Monday, March 31, 2008

Class with Charlie Trotter

I think this was my favorite of the two cooking classes, perhaps because I knew going into it who the chef was (and had eaten at one of his restaurants) and therefore knew better what to expect. What I didn't expect, although perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, was for him to talk about spa food. Spa food? An internationally renowned chef? Really??

But when you think about it, it makes a certain amount of sense. Trotter is most interested in pure, delicious food--using the highest quality ingredients in inventive ways to maximize the happiness of your taste buds. When you look at it that way, it's not so very hard to consider putting those principles into practice with a limited caloric budget. 

One of the cooking concepts Trotter really pushed in this class was sous-vide cooking. His rationale: when you cook something in a vacuum-sealed pouch, none of the flavor is lost during the cooking process--and for that matter, none of the nutrients are lost, either. If you cook a piece of chicken or some vegetables (or in his example, fish) in a pouch with some seasonings, all of that flavor stays concentrated in the food. There might be some liquid released during cooking, but that flavorful liquid is reserved in the pouch and available for later use. You can simply drizzle it over the food when you're done, you can blend it with some sorrel to make a sauce, or whatever. Anyway, it's a good way to maximize flavor without adding all sorts of extra, calorie-rich ingredients. 

So, the first dish: trout, cooked in the sous-vide machine for about half an hour at 140F (I'll have to check the temperature, but I don't have my notes with me at the moment) ~120F (46C) with some salt, pepper, and maybe a few herbs. He had a simple spinach sauce that he spread (artfully, of course) over the serving plate, and then placed the cooked fish on the sauce. There were bits of greens (microgreens, I think), a drizzle of the residual liquid from the pouch, and a wafer of dehydrated trout skin (sounds awful to me, but it's got lots of good fatty acids in it). Not for me, really, but that's fine. 

Each dish was given to a lucky audience member. After the first dish, because he was tired of getting what he called "un-interesting" questions, he said that future dishes would be given to people who asked the most interesting questions. I asked no questions, interesting or otherwise, and therefore got no food. Oh well. 

Next dish: shabu-shabu. Basically a pot of broth in which are cooked various vegetables, meat and/or tofu, perhaps noodles, etc. His broth was made of bonito flakes, reconstituted to make a fish broth, along with some chicken stock, soy sauce, and a bit of olive oil (one could also use sesame oil). In the hot broth went sliced shiitake mushrooms, edamame, baby bok choy, soba noodles, and thinly sliced Kobe beef. Bits of each ingredient were fished out and put into a bowl, and a bit of the broth was ladled over it. It looked really, really good.

Final dish: dessert. He showed us how to make a tuile-like wafer out of just banana puree, a bit of salt, and some spices (ground allspice in this case). Mash up the banana, mix it up with the seasonings, spread it out onto a strip of plastic, and put the plastic-with-banana in a dehydrator (or an oven for four hours) so that it dries out. You get a wafer that has the texture of a tuile, but without the flour, egg, and so on. Very clever. One of these wafers (pre-made) was combined with a spoonful of tiramisu "ice cream," which was simply the tiramisu ingredients thrown together, frozen, and put in a pacojet (which shaves it down and whips it up into the most luxuriously silky ice cream-like concoction you've ever put in your mouth), plus a banana puree whipped up into a frothy, almost whipped cream-like substance. And that was dessert!

One of the funniest things about this class was the difference between this one and the Todd English class. English was all over the place, both in terms of what he was saying and what he was doing with ingredients, equipment, and so on. He spoke to his assistant (the head chef at his Las Vegas restaurant, apparently) maybe two or three times, to ask for a lemon or an onion. He was very informal, joking around and making a bawdy jokes.

Trotter was the exact opposite. He was reserved, very collected, with bone-dry humor and a death-ray-like stare if someone was impolite or inappropriate (which one obnoxious woman was--I seriously thought I was going to see laser beams shoot out of his eyes and reduce her to a smoking, quivering puddle of goop). He also had his assistant, who quietly and diligently shadowed him everywhere he went. If he moved a knife, she put it back in its proper place. If he spilled something, she wiped it up as soon as he stepped away. Everything was kept impeccably clean and very much in order. I knew that he ran a tight ship, but it was interesting to see the discipline in action in this setting. 

One thing I forgot to mention about both of these classes: the demo kitchens were set up at the front of the room, with rows of chairs filling up the rest of the room. Fortunately for those of us who weren't in the front few rows, there was a large mirror set up at a 45 degree angle above the kitchen, so that we could watch (with a bird's eye view) what was going on even from the back of the room. Trotter said that next year, he has been assured, there will be lots of cameras fed into large screens so that those in the back can get a close-up view of what's going on, not just a from-the-top view. I'll be happy if I just get to attend next year, regardless of what the a/v situation is!


Brave Sir Robin said...

Did he explain how a home cook could maintain the low temp needed for the sous-vide?

I've read a bit about that technique, but I'd be scared of poisoning someone. I guess with trout, 30 minutes is not long enough to worry about, but some of the other dishes need to cook for a long, long time.

Anne said...

He didn't... but he did say that they were preparing to make available a version of the machine for home cooks for the bargain price of $3,000.

Even so, you could still probably experiment with putting food in a vacuum-packed pouch and cooking it in a water bath at a temperature that you're comfortable with (perhaps in an oven, the better to keep a temperature that's as consistent as possible in both space and time. He said that the principle of cooking in a sealed pouch, retaining the flavors and such, is the same even if you don't have a sous-vide machine.