Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Turn it up to Eleven

This morning I had to show up at 8 AM for "stock making duty". There are about 30 daily jobs (bread making, gathering herbs, gathering greens, milking cow, etc) that get divided up among the students. Some require the student to come in early, so early I came. After we put two enormous pots on to boil filled with chicken carcasses, carrots, onions, celery, thyme, water, and so on (the basic ingredients for chicken stock), I headed to kitchen 2 to prepare for the day.

Kitchen Two

Throughout the morning, I made a loaf of wholegrain bread, a rhubarb crumble, and a melon and grape salad. Surprisingly, there were no major casualties to report! Below is a picture of my bread and salad, ready for tasting and grading (the crumble was still in the oven). Any vodka enthusiasts out there could turn the melon and grape salad, which has citrus juices and mint, into a nice cocktail.

Another task we had to complete this morning was the famous dejointing of a chicken. It was slimy, often cumbersome, and highly satisfying. The trick is to use your hands (particularly your thumb) to feel where the joints are to guide your knife. The knife should slide right through where the bones meet (the joint), rather than labor through bone. And, as always here at Ballymaloe, try to cut as close to the carcass as possible to avoid wasting any meat.

The view from my workstation...

Our afternoon demonstration taught us how to make some Middle Eastern dishes, such as baba ganoush (AKA smoky eggplant dip) and various versions of raita (yogurt based sauce to go with spicy meats), followed by a quick lesson on creme caramel (first cousin of creme brulee). Here are some tips picked up:

- Food processors (like a Cuisinart) are definitely worth the money (an essential kitchen staple)

- Order a glass of the house wine to start when dining out. This will give you a clue to how seriously the restaurant takes its wine list. If it is a good wine, you can trust that your money will be well spent on any bottle. If it is a bad one, don't waste your money on an expensive bottle.

- Don't be afraid to ask for a wine recommendation from the waiter. If you are hosting, you can subtly let your server know your price range ("I was wondering about this one...") without letting your guests know how much (or how little!) you want to spend.

- Check the wine's label when the waiter brings it to your table (both the name and the year). You would not want to accidentally drink a bottle 3 times as expensive as what you thought you were paying!

- Only send a wine back if it is bad ("corked"). If the wine is fine but it is not what you hoped for, drink it and do not order it again!

- If you are interested in learning more about wines, look for books by Andrew Jefford.

- Pine nuts are OK to keep in the freezer. Like walnuts, they go bad easily so a freezer is a great way to make them last.

- When splurging on saffron ("the world's most expensive herb"), make sure it is actually saffron! Clue #1 that it's real: there are actual long and thin strands (not jumbled flakes). Clue #2: some of the strands are orange amongst the majority of deep red ones (if they are all a uniform color, they have probably been dyed, and are probably not the real deal).

- When cooking meat in a sauce (like beef stew), the sauce should not boil. Turn down the heat and slow cook! Incidentally, the opposite is true when cooking meat without sauce (like a steak). Turn up the heat and seer the juices in

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Day Ten

You know you are at an eccentric cooking school when "she's milking" is an acceptable explanation for a student's absence during morning roll call. Our headmistress didn't bat an eye although the room got a chuckle. As our morning focused on this magical ingredient, it was a fitting start to the day. The "milking" student soon entered with a large pail of steaming fresh milk, straight from the udder. She poured it into an electric milk separator, which slowly began leaking from two spouts - one with milk and one with cream. Apparently the school used to separate the milk with a hand cranking machine, but recently caved and splurged on an electric one (bought for 700 euro, or around $1,000!).

As I have mentioned before, our headmistress and her family only drink unpasteurized (raw) milk. They do so quite confidently because they know their dairy operates under the highest standards of hygiene, and they strongly believe in the health benefits of raw milk consumption. Apparently, others are beginning to realize this as well. In the US, the demand is growing rapidly for raw milk from farms such as Straus Family Creamery north of San Francisco ( or the Hudson Milk Company in New York ( To find a farm in your area, check out this trusty website I found: In Italy, consumers can purchase raw milk through vending machines which have been popping up all over the country. The demand has grown so rapidly in the last three years that raw milk now holds 10% market share of total milk consumed.

Many attribute the growth in food allergies and asthma to the decline of raw milk consumption. Also, the widespread homogenization of milk (where a machine breaks the fat globules down into the milk, so that they do not rise to the top naturally) has been attributed to the rise in cholesterol problems. The fat globules, normally skimmed off the top of the milk and discarded, are consumed and stick to the arteries (this is a very non-scientific explanation). For all the skeptics out there, it is worth a second look.

So, with this raw, fresh milk, we set out to make butter, yogurt, buttermilk, cottage cheese, soft yogurt cheese (or "labne"), paneer (an Indian cheese), a simple semi-hard cheese, ricotta and coeur a la creme. Before beginning, she sterilized all her equipment with boiling water (a crucial step). For butter, she simply whipped the cream slowly for a duration of time until butter formed and buttermilk sloshed around in the bowl. For yogurt, she mixed milk and cream with yogurt over heat. The yogurt acted as a "starter" for the bacteria to multiply and make more yogurt. For the cheeses, the basic formula is milk, a "starter" (to introduce a bacteria) and rennet (to coagulate the milk). Each cheese type (blue, brie, etc.) has a different starter. Once the starter and the rennet have time to work, the milk will turn to "curds" (the solid) and "whey" (the liquid). Placing the curdled milk into muslin or cheesecloth is a great way to drain off the excess whey. This is obviously over-simplified for the sake of brevity. If you are interested, look up some recipes for the exact steps and try it one afternoon with friends!

One final cheese tip- whey is great for the skin (Cleopatra used to bathe in it).

After our lunch break, we sat down to another lecture from the sommelier Colm McCan at the Ballymaloe House (the world class restaurant up the road). He gave this beginner a great way to start classifying wines (as it can get confusing). Basically, there are four styles of white wines and five styles of reds (this excludes roses, sparkling wine, and sweet wines). Before I list them, here are some helpful definitions.

- The "body" of the wine is the texture in your mouth. Light bodied is like water, full bodied is like Guinness.
- Generally, the more "body", the more it can pair up against food flavors. Light bodied whites are good with a gentle filet of sole, full bodied reds are great with hearty venison or steak.
- "Old World" wines come from Europe, "New World" wines come from outside Europe (the Americas, Australia, etc.)
- There are many types of grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Shiraz, and Sangiovese
- Most "new world" wines are named after the grape variety, while "old world" French wines are named after the region in which they are produced (Burgundy, Chablis, Bordeaux, etc.)

Now, onto the wine guide classification, listed in order from "light bodied" to "full bodied" wines:

1) Bone-dry and neutral whites / light body -- such as Chablis and Pinot Grigio (made with chardonnay grape)
2) Green, 'grassy' tangy whites / light to medium body -- such as new world Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre (both made with sauvignon blanc grape) and Riesling (made with riesling grape)
3) Intense and nutty whites / medium to full bodied -- such as high quality white Burgundy (made with chardonnay grape)
4) Ripe and toasty whites / full bodied -- such as most new world Chardonnay (made with, obviously, the chardonnay grape)

1) Juicy, fruity, soft reds / light to medium body -- such as Beaujolais or new world Merlot (made with, again obviously, the merlot grape)
2) Silky, mellow reds / medium body -- such as Red Burgundy or new world Pinot Noir (made with pinot noir grape)
3) Intense, blackcurrant reds / medium to full bodied -- such as Bordeaux or new world Cabernet Sauvignon (made with cabernet sauvignon grape)
4) Spicy, warm-hearted reds / big, powerful, and full bodied -- such as wines from the Rhone Valley, France, new world Shiraz, and Zinfandel (made with syrah or shiraz grape)
5) Mouth-watering sweet-sour reds -- such as Chainti or Barolo (made with sangiovese grape)

That is quite a lot of information, I know! But I found it incredibly useful as a beginner's guide to start thinking about wine. I hope you do as well. We then tasted five different types (a Chablis, a Chardonnay, a Sancerre, a Merlot, and a Syrah). It was a jolly afternoon, followed by a rather sloppy game of doubles with some other tipsy classmates on the school's court! I think I will stop there as I do not want to lose my audience with too much information. Until tomorrow...

Monday, September 28, 2009


Today began week number two at the cooking school. With each week they shake up the students into new groups in new kitchens. I am now working in kitchen 2, a larger, more hectic environment filled with twice as many students bustling under the always ticking clock. I began my day making tomato puree, and the whole room fought over the one darn mouli-legume (basically a strainer on steroids) when it came time to strain it. While I waited in the mouli-legume queue, I began trial one of not two, not three, but FOUR attempts at the aforementioned "easy breezy" white soda bread. I have officially eaten my words. It is neither easy nor breezy. To my instructor's credit, she made me do it until I got it right. Baking is an exact science, and 11.8 ounces of buttermilk produces quite a different product than 12.3. Though the recipe appears simple as it requires only flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk, it is actually quite difficult to get the right combination. The only way to get it right is to practice, so soldier on! It is worth it in the end.

In between white soda bread #2 and #3, I managed to make tomato and coconut soup. Though I think it turned out well, I tripped up when it came time for lunch. Traditionally, after the teacher tastes and grades your dishes, we all combine our individual pots to serve collectively for lunch. I accidentally poured my entire pot of tomato and coconut soup into the compiled pot of tomato and basil soup. Thanks to me, the whole school had two soup options today: tomato and coconut or tomato and basil... and coconut.

During the afternoon demonstration, our headmistress gave a brief introduction to the world of Irish cheeses. There were no Irish farmhouse cheeses to speak of until Veronica Steele, "the matron of Irish cheese makers", began experimenting with surplus farm milk in 1976. Her "Milleens cheese" encouraged others, and the Irish cheese scene was born!

Here are some cheesy tips:

- Wrap cheeses in parchment paper or tin foil rather than cling wrap (actual quote from our headmistress: "cling film is death to cheese" - a little dramatic but there you have it)

- Farmhouse cheeses can grow mold on the outer skin but this is no problem- just wash it off with some water and salt

- Always serve cheese at room temperature

She was quite picky about eating cheese no more than 2 days after you buy it, and never putting cheese (other than soft cheeses) in the refrigerator. One can use this advice at certain times (a dinner party?) and opt for the more pragmatic fridge method at others.

Other pointers from today's lesson:

- Cassia is less expensive and more acrid than its sister spice, cinnamon. To save money (at the cost of flavor), some spice producers add cassia into the (deceivingly labeled) ground cinnamon jars. To get pure cinnamon flavor, buy the cinnamon sticks whole and grind them yourself.

- Cinnamon has been proven to reduce cholesterol.

- "Butterfly" your chicken breasts before grilling them to ensure an even cook. To do so, cut the breast in half lengthwise, stopping just before you slice all the way across. You should be able to then open the breast apart (it looks like a heart shaped valentine) and have a piece of meat of even thickness.

- When buying a whole chicken, don't be afraid to use all the parts. Today, our teacher showed us how you can eat the breast, thighs, legs, wings, and tenders, use the carcass for stock, bake the skin to serve with chutney (seriously good!), and render the fat to use in cooking.

- If you ever come across a molcajete (a Mexican mortar and pestle made of lava rock), buy it! They're hard to find but far superior texturally to the smooth marble ones.

- Cook mushrooms on a high heat- the pan should sizzle when you add them.

- When taste-testing the filling of a quiche before it goes in the oven, cook a teaspoon of the mixture in a saucepan. This way, you can see if it needs more seasoning without eating raw egg!

- When whipping cream, the more air you whip in, the less flavor in the cream. Therefore, only softly whip the cream. If you're allowing yourself this treat, it should at least taste good!

- "watercress is the new arugula" (and you thought there wasn't a hierarchy in greens!)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Great Eight

Sunday has arrived and I have officially been here for a week. I spent the day walking throughout the countryside and even made time for a dip in Ballycotton Bay! The water temperature reminds me of Maine in August- refreshing, crisp, and likely to encourage the swimmer to resurface and exit as quickly as possible. I might just have to work a heart-stopping swim into my weekly (daily?!) routine. Since we did not have class today, I have no new cooking tips to share (I'm nothing but a meager messenger!). If anyone is interested in this course, here are some photos of our "campus" to give you an idea of the lodging.

I took the above photo from one corner of the courtyard, and the below photo from another. Five cottages encircle this central quad. Pictured above are the "Playroom" to the left and the "Barn" on the right. The roof of our headmistress' house looms in the background. Pictured below are the Barn, this time on the left, and a bit of the "Pink Cottage" peaking through on the right. There is also the "White Cottage" and the "Carriage House" adjacent to the courtyard from another angle.

All used to serve as farm huts and were converted into charming living quarters one by one as the school grew in popularity. Each house has a working wood burning stove (for charm, not as a substitute for modern heating!), a fully stocked kitchen, and plenty of showers to go around.
Finally, a stunning view from the top of the hill just up the road. You can see the rocky island on which Ballycotton Light sits in the sound. We can see the ocean from the school, but you get a better look at it from up the road.
Tomorrow, another day of cooking bliss. I am making tomato and coconut soup and white soda bread- stay tuned!


Our first opportunity to sleep in, and this brown-noser signs up to accompany our headmistress to the school's stand at the Midleton Farmer's Market (! Given the limited number of spots (only 2 students each Saturday) and the minor celebrity status of our headmistress, this was a highly sought after sign-up sheet! Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I joined a second eager-beaver student, the head gardener, and another teacher at 7 AM to load the van and drive in. To my mild dismay, there was no sign of the celeb headmistress. She was tied up teaching a foraging course that morning (typical!) and couldn't attend. Mission to gain brownie points: failed!

Despite her absence, we had an incredible time. Cheese makers, fishmongers, bakers, fish smokers, organic butchers, pasta makers, and farmers all packed the square. My favorite stand was O'Conaill's Chocolate, which served their famous hot chocolate (dubbed "the best hot chocolate in Ireland"). When you order a cup, he scoops chocolate chips (white, milk, or dark) into a mug of fresh milk and froths or steams the mixture until it turns into liquid heaven. You can even add a shot of espresso if your 6:30 AM wake-up is starting to sink in. To top it all off, he hands over your drink with a petit four wrapper filled with chocolate chips placed on your lid! A party favor, if you will. I was sold!

It was a great experience to observe how a farmer's market runs behind the scenes. Really anyone can start one in his or her area. It just takes some organization, commitment from local producers, and, admittedly, a lot of hard work! Our headmistress says that farmer's markets provide a great platform to "market test" a product. Rather than spending lots of money to hire a market testing analyst, make a few batches of your product, hand out free samples, and see if people buy. If customers come back for more the next week, you're onto something. If no one returns, back to the drawing board!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Day Six!

A quick note about yesterday's post! Instead of searching the tea isle at your local grocer for "rosemary tea" or "pomfrey tea", buy the herbs fresh and pour hot water over a sprig in a mug. This goes for any herbal tea. It is a great way to use up fresh herbs before they go bad (mint, in particular!).

Now onto day six, Friday, the culmination of our first week. I woke up early with the roosters and over-achievers to have an optional lesson on organic gardening. Most of the gardener's tips went over my non-green-thumbed head, but he did manage to convey a few maxims. For one, if you are growing a vine-like plant such as tomatoes or cucumbers, and you wish to train them to grow up a string, always wrap it around in a clockwise direction. This way, as the plant follows the sun, it will continue to wrap around the string rather than unwind.

After, we gathered in the demonstration room for a "theory day" with surprise guest lecturer Carl Ehrhard, owner of a vineyard in Rudesheim, a small village in Germany ( He was in town selling his wine (Riesling and Pinot Noir) to The Ballymaloe House, the hotel up the road. Despite the fact that it was before noon and we all had empty stomachs, Carl (and the Ballymaloe House sommelier) launched into a full on wine tasting session! I think those who had over-indulged at The Goal Post pub the night before (celebrating Guinness's 250th anniversary) were grateful for the hangover cure. He explained that there is an old tradition of wine making in Germany, particularly in the Rheingau region, dating back to the Roman Empire. He had a rather thick accent, but I believe he said that in the twentieth century, German wine making had to overcome numerous hurdles to get where it is today. Beside the pesky World Wars and depressions, Carl explained that they have had to battle the unfortunate connotations connecting Rieslings, Germany's signature wine, to cheap, sweet wine. The tides have turned, however. No longer produced as overpoweringly sweet, the Rieslings we tasted were delicious to serve with food. Our headmistress insists that "Riesling is the new chardonnay". So, if you want to be in vogue on a night out at dinner, order a Riesling!

Carl's basic message was drink what you think tastes good, and not what others tell you should taste good. He ended joking, in a thick German accent, that "Riesling and Pinot Noir are the women of the varieties... they do what I want". I'll let the feminists gasp, but I think he meant that they are the most delicate and "emotional" of the white and red categories. He likened Pinot Noir to a "ballerina" (whatever that means).

Flush-faced and tipsy, we enjoyed a quick lunch before launching into a lecture on food safety and kitchen hygiene. Take it with a grain of organic sea salt, but our headmistress does not allow anti-bacterial soap in the school. She prefers the old fashioned hot water, regular soap, and elbow grease approach. She blames the rise of "jibbly tummies" and incessant colds on the sterilizing Lysol sprays and antibacterial gels, which wipe out any chance our immune systems have to build up antibodies. Reared on unpasteurized milk and always one to "challenge the system with good bacteria", she boasts she is always the "last one standing" on group trips to India or Asia. This is not to say that her kitchen runs wild with germs- quite the opposite! I just thought it was an interesting perspective. Another way-of-life tip from the Ballymaloe Cookery School!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Five Alive

It is becoming more and more obvious that this course seeks to teach students not only how to cook, but also how to live (and I mean this in a very non-totalitarian-regime sort of way). There is a huge emphasis on minimizing waste, from turning out lights when we leave a room, to scraping every pot with a spatula before sending it to the sink, and everything in between. Our headmistress admits that it is very hard to make a profit in food, and everyday waste is the difference between a profitable business and a bankrupt one (I don't think they have TARP funds for specialty foods stores...). She cores strawberries with such technique that only the smallest cone of stem is extracted, leaving any red fruit for use in the dish. She candies the rinds left over from juicing a lemon. She always has a stock pot ready to throw in scraps of carrots or thyme. And anything that is not recycled for human use goes to the hens and the compost heap. If there were a Clean Plate Club in Ireland, she would be its founding mother. Growing up with a waste-adverse dad, who has been known to drink leftover cereal milk just to prove a point, I quite like this environment.

Yesterday's lesson plan assigned me the task of creating loganberry (similar to raspberry) jam and a chorizo and tomato pasta sauce. I am proud to report that the jam came off without a hitch (I even have a picture to prove it!)! Though jam is something I never would have attempted on my own, I can confidently say that I will never buy jam again! Raspberry jam in particular is so easy (if I can do it, anyone can) and so much more delicious than anything you can find in any store. Trick #1: the faster the whole cooking process, the better the jam. Therefore, heat the sugar in the oven before you add it to the raspberries. This allows the sugar to dissolve more easily and more quickly in the berries. Trick #2: do not let the mixture boil until all the sugar has dissolved. Remember making jello as a kid, and not waiting for the gelatin to dissolve before adding the cold water? This is the same principle (I think? At least that's how I am going to look at it). Depending on the pectin levels in the fruit (pectin is what makes the jam "set"), you will boil it for 5-10 minutes and pour into jars immediately.

Et voila! Fresh jam for breakfast every day next week! Now all my friends know what their Christmas presents will be this year!

For the afternoon demonstration, while our teacher described the process of cooking and extracting meat from a crab, a half dozen live crabs, caught that day, crawled all over the counter in front of him. He cooked them by the Humane Society Approved method of immersing the creatures in cold water and slowly bringing them to a boil. Animal Lovers and Crab Eaters alike will agree to this practice, for not only is it better for Mr. Crabs, but also it results in less 'tense' meat. He advised that crabs should always be alive (or just dead) when you cook them, and that they should feel heavy when you buy them (more weight, more meat).

We also learned the art of the roux (both gluten-full and gluten free), tomato puree (for soups and sauces), white soda bread (another easy breezy dish you should try...picture below!), and various crab-centered dishes like a crab and coriander tart and crab cakes.

Some health tips for today:

- Muhammad said that black onion seeds (or Nigella seeds) can cure anything except death. Sprinkle them on salads, over toast, or in tea, and see if he was right!

- Another healing herb is pomfrey (like Mmd. Pomfrey, the infirmary nurse at Hogwarts) - try some pomfrey tea

- Rosemary tea is said to be good for the memory (if you can remember to buy some at the store)...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Day Four

Yesterday was our first official "stress test" which loosely translates into teacher scrutiny over student technique and execution. The lesson plan assigned me the mushroom and thyme tart and a red and yellow tomato salad with an herb vinaigrette. Before our teacher arrived at 9 AM, we were required to have written out an "order of work" with an exact time plan of tasks for the morning (eg: 9AM - gather ingredients; 9:10 AM - prepare mushrooms; 9:12 AM - slice finger, etc.). The morning went well except for a small debacle with my removable bottom tart pan. Note to self: lift piping hot tart pan out of the oven holding the SIDES and not supporting the removable BOTTOM, so as to avoid a sizzling tart-ring bracelet. I now have a blistery reminder of this tid-bit of information around my wrist.

The afternoon session began with a man named Peter Ward, the owner of a nearby delicatessen (, discussing the process of making cheese (parmesan to be exact). He brought in a wheel of parmesan made in April 2007 that weighed 80 pounds, took 160 gallons of milk to make, and would retail at around $1,700 for the entire wheel! On Valentine's Day, he puts an entire wheel outside his shop with the $1,700 price tag and a sign reading "buy this for the one you love". Needless to say, no buyers to date. He gets his cheese from La Villa organic farm in Italy (a place he discovered years ago which now sells to Dean and Deluca in the States!). Among other things, this organic parmesan is great for an instant energy shot because its proteins digest in 45 minutes, as opposed to 4 hours for most other proteins.

We then learned how to make a variety of different dishes, including more tart variations, scones, and JAM! Here are some tips to pass along!

- Cool scones on wire rack immediately after they are out of the oven - they will get soggy bottoms otherwise!
- The smaller the zucchini, the more intense the flavor
- French beans (AKA green beans or haricots verts) take more salt in their cooking water than any other vegetable; spinach takes the least
- Never cook green vegetables with a lid on the pot- the steam ruins their color (cabbage is an exception to this rule)
- Rather than putting french beans in an ice bath after they have cooked (to save the bright green color), spread them out on a tray and place near a window to cool. This way, the flavor isn't washed away in the ice bath, and you won't sacrifice color if they cool fast enough.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day Three!

We began yesterday morning with a lesson on salad greens. Our headmistress explained that there is a great difference in nutrition (and taste) between freshly picked, soil grown greens and supermarket lettuce that has been grown hydroponically, or in water. Hydroponic growers add just enough nutrients to the water so that the leaves will sprout. This results in produce that has fewer nutrients and less flavor. In addition, supermarket leaves are washed in a chlorine solution that is eighteen times stronger than pool water!

After this quick (and disturbing!) lesson, we toured the four kitchens and divided into groups across six work stations. We worked on basic knife technique for chopping onions, carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms. Each student has an engraved knife set, wrapped in a canvas carrying case, comprised of a chopping knife, a filleting knife, a fruit knife, a boning knife, a carving knife, a palette knife, a carving fork, a sharpening steel, a peeler, a melon baller, and a piping bag with nozzles. I have no idea how to use 95% of the contents of this case, but I look like a Top Chef carrying it around. Our chopped ingredients contributed to the lunch of carrot soup, fresh bread, penne with mushroom a la creme, fresh green salad, and fruit salad with herbs for dessert. Those astute blog readers will notice that this is a repeat of what our headmistress demonstrated yesterday afternoon! This is a pattern...

After lunch, we sat down for an afternoon lesson on how to make potato soup (yes, we're in Ireland) with either basil pesto or chorizo and parsley, pastry for various 'flans' (tarts) and quiches, various tomato salads, and a blackberry and apple compote. Some lessons on making pastry:

- For the "fat" element, butter has great flavor and texture, margarine has great texture but not as good flavor, and lard has great flavor but is very difficult to find. We used butter.
- It's very important to let the dough rest in the fridge after working it into a ball and before rolling it (the gluten relaxes).
- Cut your butter into chunks and then pop it back into the fridge to re-chill before mixing it with the flour. Cold butter is essential and sometimes it warms while it is cut into bits.
- Roll pastry on marble or a smooth countertop- never on a wood surface
- Bake your pastry-lined tart pan with some waxed paper weighed down with "baking beans" before adding the filling. This is called "baking blind". The shell will get a headstart on cooking, the beans (unaffected by the heat of the oven) will keep the shell from rising, and the final quiche or tart will have a nice, flaky bottom rather than a soggy, undercooked one. Julia Child explains this in detail in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
- Making pastry isn't as scary as it looks or sounds! Try it!

Other than pastry tips, here are some other lessons my big ears picked up on throughout the day:
- Cut tomatoes (for a salad) as close to eating as possible. Otherwise they will get watery. Dress immediately after cutting.
- Ready-grated parmesan sold in the store is made from the worst bits of the cheese. Buy it in a block and grate it yourself!
- Save the giblets (the neck, heart, gizzard, and liver) of the chicken. The neck, heart, and gizzard are great in homemade chicken stock, and the liver is better saved for pate. If you are buying a chicken already gutted, and you're not too shy, ask the butcher and he might give you some for free!
- While making pesto, it is OK to use the Cuisinart (rather than the ye olde mortar and pestle) for mixing everything BUT the parmesan. That you fold in afterwords by hand or the cooking gods will appear and slap you across the face (don't as me why).
- Check out Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking cookbook series- she comes highly recommended by the superchefs over here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Day 2!

The second post and I'm already running late! Some minor laptop problems (American computer chargers do NOT work in Irish outlets... who knew?). Class began yesterday, day two, with an opening lecture from our headmistress. She stressed the importance of where the food chain all begins- in the 12 inches of soil beneath out feet. The more nutritious the soil, the more nutritious (and, conveniently, delicious) our food, the better our health. A simple bit of deductive logic which escapes so many eaters today! Her first lesson? How to make compost. Every scrap of unused produce gets recycled in a heap that initially feeds the chickens and eventually decomposes into some brownish material which, my collegiately educated brain tells me, MUST be good for the soil in some way or another. They throw everything from carrot peelings to egg shells to brown toilet paper rolls in there. As a chicken, I'd be pretty disappointed to find a toilet paper roll in my dinner (or an egg shell, for that matter), but into the compost it goes.

After our first lesson in compost, we saw a variety of gardens including fruit, vegetable, herb (see photo), and indoor (a greenhouse covering an entire acre of land!). The farm also boasts of a few cattle, some pigs, the aforementioned chickens, and a number of beehives. Apparently, there has been a rapid decline in the earth's population of bees in recent years, perhaps due to worldwide pesticide use or the mobile telephone signal waves (seriously). Regardless of the reason, our headmistress stressed the importance of 'saving the bees', a cause yours truly had never heard of (shame on me?). I became especially interested in this epidemic when I learned seconds later that eating local honey feeds us local antibodies, an effective cure for seasonal alergies and hay fever (ding ding ding!).

For lunch, we sat down to a feast prepared by the staff. We ate deviled eggs from the farm, shrimp caught by Ballycotton Bay fisherman that morning, smoked salmon from a local "smoker" (?), etc. You get the point- EVERYTHING is locally grown and produced. With such incredible meals, many are beginning to wager how many pounds we will gain throughout the course. I think the over-under is around 10.

During our afternoon demonstration (see photo below!), we observed how to make oatmeal biscuits, wholemeal bread, carrot soup, mushroom a la creme, and fruit salad with various herbs. Unfortunately, because of the powers that be, I cannot share the recipes. Take my word for it, they were delicious.

I'll end with some memorable quotes and tips from our lovably quirky headmistress (paraphrased, I'm sure!):

- "apples aren't supposed to look perfect. Those red shiny things in American supermarkets are terrifying!"
- "choosing an oven is as important as choosing a mate because you'll have to live with it for 20 years"
- "we do NOT use [artificially] 'low fat' ingredients. Low fat is low flavor is low nutrients... low everything"
- "good knife skills halve the work and triple the pleasure"
- "buy root vegetables unwashed if you can. It will be difficult not to notice the improvement in flavor"
- "processed foods have terrible amounts of salt in them. There is more salt in cornflakes than seawater"
- "use the best ingredients, and you won't have to do much to make it taste great"

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Day 1

The last time I visited Ireland, I was 2 1/2 years old. My family was traveling the countryside and ended our week with a restful four day stop at the Ballymaloe House. Although I only remember playing in a swing outside the house, I have grown up watching my mother consult her Ballymaloe Cookbook while preparing dinner for our family of fourteen. As one can imagine, there was always plenty for me to do as a sous-chef! Despite having to feed such a large crowd every evening, or perhaps because of it, Mom loves to cook. She has always revered the Ballymaloe legacy and has instilled in me a respect for good ingredients, simple recipes, and always flavorful food.

I graduated from college last May and, within a month, had moved to New York to work for an information broker serving the finance community. In the midst of the stressful, fast-paced lifestyle typical of New York’s financial industry, my kitchen served as a welcome haven. It did not take me long to realize that, in the words of Ina Garten, “there’s got to be more to life than this!” Ever since my childhood I have loved to cook, and armed with many new skills acquired at Ballymaloe, I would like to pursue a new direction in my life, far from business suits and briefcases and centered on my passion for food.

But enough about me! For the next 83 Days, I’ll discuss the experience at Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland. Today, day one, was move in day. Around 60 students, from as far away as Japan and as nearby as Kilkenny, unloaded chef gear and wellingtons into the various cottages on the cooking school grounds- our home for the next 3 months. Tomorrow we’ll begin class…