Friday, January 27, 2012

Cooking for the Crew

I served "Chinese salsa" to my Mexican cook!
I have now volunteered about 2 months of my time at the social enterprise and am learning heaps. Just spending hours each day with cooks from all woks of life is in itself a learning journey. Today, the Executive Chef decides that I should do the staff meal. That means cooking for 20 chefs and service crew by noon time with a limited budget and based on ingredients I can get my hands on in the chiller. All by myself. *Gulp* Help me, God!

I was a little flustered just thinking about it. So many recipes flooded my mind but I had to quickly eliminate each one for a variety of reasons. I had to work within the constraints of time, budget as well as what I think the crew normally like. Heavy on carbo to fill their big stomachs and simple Chinese stir-fries to meet the budget. Definitely not my thing! Neither for consumption nor for practice. But I had 20 mouths to feed by noon and I needed to stay focused on the task at hand. 

I decided to make a "short-cut" Hainanese chicken rice. I learned later, what I call "short-cut", the Executive Chef called "Western technique". Let me walk you through what I did. 

1. On a big pot with some hot oil, I fry some minced shallots. Everything becomes more difficult when you cook for mass. I almost burnt the shallots at the side of the pot!

2. Next, I added 2 big heaps of rice and chicken stock. The amount of stock I used is as if I was cooking the rice on a rice cooker.

3. I crushed some garlic and scatter them around the rice. 

4. At the same time, I lay out 10 boneless chicken legs marinated earlier in Chinese sesame oil, soy sauce, salt and pepper. Place them all on top of the rice in one layer, skin on. 

5. Cover the pot and let the rice cook. The animal fat from the bird will melt onto the rice giving it flavour and fragrance. According to Chef, this is a Western cooking technique. He challenged me to think of what other spices or herbs I could add to the pot at this stage. Hmm...didn't think of that. I decided on a few bay leaves and 2 cinnamon sticks. Great suggestion from him!

6. About half an hour later, the chicken is cooked through. I removed them, fluffed up the rice and at the suggestion of the pastry chef (yes, by now, everyone is involved!), I bruised and threw in some pandan leaves (screwpine leaves) for added aroma. 

Chef shot me a few questions: Are you happy with the smell? Is the texture what I'm seeking? Think also of the colours on the table later. What effect do you want to draw from the diner? Huh? It's just a staff meal? No? He forced me to think about the quality of my work and to learn to adjust and improvise as I go along.

I learned to cut up the legs in even pieces and he made me think about the garnishing. We also did an ala-minute julienned ginger with hot smoking oil poured over it and used it as a glaze over the nicely poached chicken. Great on-the-spot thinking and creative improvisation. Intellectually stimulating for me!

I had to do a veggie dish as well and was not enthusiastic about stir-fries - they are such a yawn to me. But Chef made the experience very different. He made me think hard about what effect I want the eater to experience in the mouth. C'mon, Chef, it's just a plain, old stir-fry! Or is it?! This is sliced cabbage with sauteed capsicum. He instructed me to continue stirring while he drizzled a long thin line of beaten eggs. Immediately, the pan came alive for me as the colour changed from a pale yellow to a tinge of golden orange. It was the way he drizzled the egg in that caught my undivided attention. Small act, big impact. 

I finished it off with diced tomatoes (seeds and pulp removed), diced cucumber (seeds removed), marinated in Chinese dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce and a dash of salt, topped with sweet pineapples. Chinese salsa, as I say. I served this to a cook in the kitchen who is from Mexico. He said he loved it, LOL!

What an experience cooking this staff meal. I got a couple of positive and encouraging feedback. Phew. I will get another chance again next week. Stressful! But good stress and a great learning experience. Better than any cooking lessons out there.

*all iphotos so please excuse the quality!

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