Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Notes From the Prep List: Snacks

Coup de feu: The alteration to a joint (charring) when it has been subjected to a too lively heat. This expression is also used in professional cookery for the hours devoted to serving up. – The Larousse Gastronomique

The eating habits of cooks are abominable. Most line cooks prioritize their set up, their mise en place, and ignore their bellies until long after service, when they are burnt-out husks of their former, more charming selves. To compound the stress, most of them came to work slightly dehydrated and unfed. It is common knowledge that a hungry cook is a surly cook, so the importance of a snack before service cannot be overstated. As we’ve just come through February, a hellish month for a restaurant that fancies itself a purveyor of French Quarter style fare, the Line is almost always in one circle of hell or another, some of the cooks swirling through Limbo, others straining against various chains of Rage, nobody eating anything but their own spleens. If they do eat actual food, it’s usually something that can be eaten while squatting down, leaning against the reach-ins.

It’s not terribly different off the Line. Most of my meals eaten at work are small bowls of rice and beans, sometimes with yogurt and tomatoes. Or grits and collard greens, when greens are on the prep list. Basically, the food must be room temperature or a tiny bit warmer, and one must be able to get it down one’s gullet in less than a minute. I remember the fried egg sandwiches my mother made when I was a child: delicious with just the right amount of salt and pepper, Roman Meal slathered with Best Foods, messy enough that we stood over the kitchen sink and ate in great hurried bites, the yolk running down our chins and arms. Just so, the breakfast sandwiches I wolfed down while hiding in the mop closet before the tickets started churning up from the printer on Saturday or Sunday brunch shifts. Just so a bowl filled with whatever I can easily grab from the steam table: a scoop of mashers with a ladle-full of lamb ragu, a six-hour old biscuit. Sandwiches, scrapings from the bottoms of salad bowls, corn mush and collards: the diet of a yard dog. Though, sometimes there’s a misfire from the line – an actual menu item! With garnishes and everything!

The other night when I was in the Ladies’ room fixing my bandana, a woman asked me what my favorite thing on the menu was. I stuttered for a moment, trying to think of the last time I’d had anything off the actual menu – I couldn’t say, “my favorite is tepid scraps and drippings;” she’d have thought me an orphan. Finally I recommended the Court Bouillon, a tomatoey seafood dish with just a whisper of Pernod, served with a rouille-smeared piece of toast, a dish I imagine eaten in the dining car of a train out of Nice, bound for Marseilles by morning.

Which is to say, there is a connective culinary thread leading to bouillabaisse, the classic dish of Marseilles made with fish we’ve never heard of in this country, a dish supposedly invented by Venus who wanted a night out and so threw a little soporific saffron into the dish when she prepared it for her husband. Oh, Venus.

But really, even without introducing the Greek versus Roman pantheon of Gods, we’ve reached a muddle here, surrounded by silent double ells and French cooking terms.

Had the woman in the Ladies’ room pressed me by saying, “But isn’t Court-Bouillon a somewhat generic term used for any aromatic liquid in which meats, seafood or vegetable are cooked?”

I would have replied, “What gives – do you have the Larousse Gastronomique Ap on your phone?”

“Yes,” she’d say, and then after considering the glowing rectangle in her palm, she’d say something like, “but why do you have tomatoes in your preparation? They are a New World food, not found in French cooking until relatively recently. Certainly not something VENUS would have had in her pantry.”

I would look around the small tiled room and wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Would someone come looking for me if I didn’t reappear soon? I should have just recommended the Lamb Sliders.

I’d rally and say, “Well, if you know all that, then surely you also know that tomatoes were also known as pommes d’amour. Which, I’m pretty sure Venus would have had.” Ha ha! A real zinger. I turn to leave.

She would not relent, however. “This sounds a bit more like a Court Bouillon à la Créole. Which I had while visiting Martinique.” She’d light up like an IPad at the memory of her trip through the Caribbean.

“Sure, sure,” I’d say, wishing I were in the Caribbean and not in the ladies’ room. “It’s probably one of those dishes that evolved while French ships were plying those waters. You know the French,” I’d say with a specific sort of shrug, “zey will build cuisine anywhere.” And I’d slip out of the conversation with a passionate craving for a Vietnamese sandwich.

“But wait,” she’d call after me, “what about rouille?” she is typing her palm and peering at the results, “It’s not in here!”

“Hmm. That’s odd.” I too would have thought that rouille would appear in the Gastronomique. But no.

“Listen,” I’d say, feeling a peculiar benevolence descend upon me as I left the quiet of the ladies’ room and reentered the chaotic noise, heat, and frenzied activity of the kitchen, “That’s on my prep list. You can watch. It’s basically just a garlicky emulsion with some smoked paprika and piquillo peppers. Any pepper will do, though. You can use it like mayo, or drop a dollop into your soup.”

I’d go back to my prep table. “Here, watch,” I’d say and set up the Robot Coupe. “One cup roasted garlic, ¼ cup raw garlic, ¼ cup lemon juice, 1 cup piquillo peppers, 1 Tbs paprika – use the smoked kind, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi – 1 Tbs salt, 3 yolks...” I hit the switch, the mixture swirls around turning a nice reddish color – as the origin of the word “rouille” is “rust” the transformation provides a certain etymological satisfaction – “and then drizzle in a quart of canola oil. Unrefined extra virgin olive oil won’t emulsify the same way – something about lecithin – so don’t use it.” We would have two quarts of rouille now, enough for a Legion. "Cooking this at home, I’d wrap the recipe around 1 yolk and 1 ½ c oil."

The stranger would thank me for my time and return to the dining room. I'd think about combining a little rouille with some leftover fried chicken, wrapping some bread around it, and having a snack. By now, in this elaborate prep cook fantasy, the line cooks would all be staring at me.

“Fresh rouille, guys! Who wants a sandwich?” I’d ask cheerfully.

And all of them hungry and tired, all of them raise a hand.