Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Culinary Arts

I know, I know. Everyone is expecting me to write another post about my second experience as an extra on Grimm (which happened yesterday). I promise I will write about it soon, but not tonight! I started out writing this post about some of the things Greg & I have done over the past two weeks but then I realized I could just write about a couple of my culinary-related experiences and that would be more than enough for one post.

On February 18th Greg & I took a bus to Nob Hill (northwest Portland) and joined a handful of other locals for a free knife technique demonstration at Williams-Sonoma. Since we're renting a furnished apartment, we're not using many of our kitchen-related wedding gifts just yet. One exception is the Wusthof Classic cook's knife & paring knife set from Bed, Bath & Beyond that my friend Corey in New York City gave us.

I've been cooking since I can remember. I started when I was around five years old with a beginner's cookbook that included such complex recipes as “How to make cinnamon-sugar toast.” In high school, I won a French cooking competition with my stuffed tomatoes. And, as I previously wrote about in this blog, I took several cooking classes for fun (in China, Vietnam, and Thailand) while we were on our round-the-world trip.
at cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam
After all these years and lots of practice, I'm pretty confident in the kitchen. I like to experiment with “new” recipes, various methods of cooking, and different ingredients. My knife skills are certainly not bad, but I know they could be better. It helps to finally have a good set of knives (all two of them!). Greg, however, is still a beginner, although he really wants to learn the basics. Thus the reason we signed up for the free demo.
mirror view of knives ready for the demo
The presentation lasted for about an hour with the chef/instructor explaining why you use different knives for different purposes and demonstrating proper hand positioning and techniques. Afterward I got to test out a few high end knives in the Williams-Sonoma showroom. I definitely found a couple to add to my wish list! We also learned about the best environmentally-friendly cutting boards you can buy, something I will be happy to add to our small kitchen collection in the near future.
me entertaining a classmate & the instructor at Williams-Sonoma
Since we knew we wouldn't improve much just by watching someone else, we also signed up for a two-hour knife skills class to be held at Williams-Sonoma on March 13th. The class has a maximum of eight people with two instructors so you get a lot of one-on-one time plus it only costs $25 per person. Most other classes we looked at cost $50 or more so this is a great deal!

Another kitchen item we've recently added to our possessions is a carbon steel wok. After doing a lot of online and in store research, I ultimately ordered Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen 14-inch Carbon Steel Flat Bottom Lidded Wok Set for $32 on Amazon.com using part of the balance of a gift card I received from Airtreks (the company from which we purchased a lot of our round-the-world flight segments).
the new wok - unseasoned
I have always loved Asian food. My parents used to cook an elaborate Chinese-style Sunday dinner from scratch when I was growing up. Homemade egg-rolls, wontons, egg-drop soup, sweet & sour pork... It was always delicious! Of course, all of the cooking classes I took while traveling involved a wok and I want to be able to replicate the delicious dishes I learned to prepare. However, I don't recall owning a wok in the past 20 years, primarily because I was living in small apartments with basic electric ranges that aren't ideal for that style of cooking. Now I am lucky to be using a Bertazzoni gas range in our current apartment.
the Italian gas range ** notice, no hood
The most important thing you have to do before using a carbon steel wok for the first time is to season it, much like cast iron. It's not that hard but a little time-consuming, and almost guaranteed to set off your smoke detector, especially if you don't have proper ventilation. As there is no range hood in our kitchen, the only way to ventilate is to open a couple of windows; not ideal when it is cool & damp outside. In the first few weeks we were here, Greg learned to put a chair under the smoke detector while I was cooking so he could quickly reach the silencer button if needed!
I took sequential photos of each step of the seasoning process; this is the final step, about an hour after I started.
I followed the instructions that came with my wok and spent about an hour seasoning it, only setting off the smoke detector once. Then I immediately used it to cook a bastardized version of pad thai and tofu & veggie stir-fry. I describe the dish this way because I rarely follow any recipe exactly and, in this particular case, did not want to purchase all of the specialty ingredients so I tried to use things I already had (e.g. I concocted the sauce using low-sodium soy sauce, Sriracha, orange juice, sake and natural peanut butter). Luckily, it turned out fine, although the rice noodles could have been softer and I discovered I prefer medium-firm tofu (I bought extra firm to ensure it would hold up to the heat of the wok).
a dish of veggie stir fry and the wok after cooking
Apparently, I did season the wok well enough because nothing stuck and it was super easy to clean with the bamboo brush I had purchased for $2.50 from a local restaurant supply store. As always, a little practice will improve my overall wok-cooking technique but I was generally pleased with the results.
awesome tool for cleaning a wok without removing the seasoning
That's all for this post. I'll write about Grimm and some other fun things soon!

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