Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rack of Lamb, Zucchini, Arborio Rice

The first part of our Skills 2 practical took place this morning before everyone took off for Thanksgiving. We were given a mystery basket with a protein, starch, and vegetable, and had two hours to serve a complete plate to the chefs, cooking each item using any of the techniques we've learned in class. My basket included the ingredients of the plate above, in raw form: a rack of lamb, a zucchini, and a bag of arborio rice.

When Chef D. gave me the rack of lamb, she laughed. Yesterday, our groups worked with lamb for the first time and the chefs gave a quick demo on how to French a rack--i.e. make it look all pretty with clean bones sticking up. I asked her nervously if we'd have to break down the racks ourselves if we got lamb in the mystery basket, just picturing the hacked-up lamb I'd present if I was unlucky enough to be assigned it. All of the other possible proteins were items I'm much more comfortable working with: chicken, salmon, shrimp, veal, even pork--I'd pound that out and sauté it just like chicken or veal.

I've never cooked lamb before in my life (though I do like to eat it) and Chef's expert lamb-fabricating demo only intimidated me more. She said that there would be whole, untrimmed racks in the mystery baskets, but that we'd be able to get help from the chefs on cleaning them up. Besides that, there are no questions or recipes allowed during the practical. After that discussion, I should have known she'd give me the lamb!

Beforehand, the chefs stressed that this test was not about wowing them with elaborate dishes. They wanted us to keep it simple and show that we understood basic cooking techniques. However, we were allowed to use anything in the kitchen in addition to the items in our mystery basket (except, of course, another protein).

I decided to grill my zucchini, simply tossing it in olive oil and seasoning with salt, pepper, and herbs. For the arborio, there was pretty much one choice: risotto. This was something else I'd never made before starting culinary school, and another group member made it on the day we learned the technique in class, so I'd really only seen it demoed. The other night, I decided to make some risotto at home to practice, just in case it ended up in my basket. Good decision!

At home, I made a big pot of risotto following the recipe from class, then added cut-up sautéed asparagus and pulled chicken to make it a more complete meal. Anyone who follows this blog knows how much I love one-pot meals! For the practical, I went with straightforward parmesan risotto. My at-home version was healthier--I didn't finish with heavy cream and butter at the end--but I knew better than to leave these out on the test! Chefs looove butter.

As for the lamb...after Chef gave me a few pointers on trimming the rack, I got it to the point where it looked pretty decent. I seared it in a little bit of oil to brown on both sides and let it rest. Then, into the oven to roast. This is the part that worried me. I'd hoped for a protein that I could sauté, because it's a quick cooking method and you can pretty much tell if the food is done just by looking. With the ovens at school, people are constantly opening and closing them to check on/put in/take out their food and letting heat escape, so timing is never precise. You have to take temperature to check for doneness, and I just don't trust the little thermometers in our kit, no matter how many times I calibrate mine.

Lamb is supposed to be about 140 degrees for medium rare, and I took mine out when it had finally reached this temp. However, after letting it rest, it wasn't as rosy pink as I wanted when I cut the rack into two chops. I knew this wouldn't get past the chefs. Sure enough, in their evaluation of my dish, they noted that the lamb was a little overcooked. Still, they said it was tender and had good flavor. Sweet! To go with it, I made a port wine reduction with shallots, a sprig of rosemary, black peppercorns, and a couple of cloves. This is the easiest sauce ever: just throw all of this in a small pot, turn on the heat and let it reduce. Take it off the heat, swirl in some butter and you're done--and the chefs thought it was great.

I was too rushed to snap a picture of my plate before it went out to the chefs (I almost wrote judges...I am watching way too much Top Chef!) but I was able to get this shot after they'd tasted. They didn't eat much from each plate, since they had to grade about 20, so I just moved the picked-over food out of view! I tried the second chop and although I too like my lamb more rare, I thought it tasted quite delicious. Probably in part because I was so relieved and proud of myself for surviving my first mystery basket with no disasters.

Unfortunately, I won't be at home cooking Thanksgiving dinner for my family tomorrow--hopefully next year, Mom! I'm off to Las Vegas for our unconventional Thanksgiving celebration in honor of my Grandma Lila's 75th birthday. It'll be kind of nice to have a break from the kitchen and to take advantage of one of Vegas's biggest draws, at least for me: the restaurants. We've got a star-studded lineup of meals planned, with visits to the Vegas outposts of Mario Batali, Wolfgang Puck, and Thomas Keller.

It seems that every celebrity chef has tapped into the Vegas scene--but more importantly, a couple have also set up shop here in Atlanta! Last week, I had the awesome opportunity to interview Jean-Georges Vongerichten for Atlanta Magazine. And I've got another cool one coming up, so stay tuned.

When I interview chefs now, I think of the aspiring chefs in my class. There are a few really talented kids who I know I'll have to watch out for as I continue with my food writing career. Who of my classmates could be up there with those guys one day.

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