I was intimidated.
I had just arrived a few days earlier, and now was the first time that Susan had asked me to do any sort of cooking with her, side by side.
There I was, supposed to be an assistant in the cooking class, but I'd already observed that most of my techniques need to be changed, tweaked or reinvented. At least I was humble enough to admit it. That's a start, right?
It's been a bit difficult to change the way I do certain, basic things. For example, my mise en place...well, it sucks, to be quite frank. I have always been one of those people who chops up the mushrooms furiously while the tomato sauce is bubbling away on the stove, trying desperately to finish them before the sauce has reduced too much.
It's the same way with baking. I never put things out in little bowls beforehand, channeling Julia Child. Those were, in my mind, just a few more bowls to wash, and living without a dishwasher last year in San Francisco made me quite frugal in the dish dirtying department.
However, I see the logic of it all, and am trying to force myself to get everything out and ready before I begin any step at all.
It's difficult, but I'm working on it.
Oh, and just so you know, if you do do mise en place correctly, and put out a vinegar for whatever recipe you're using, be sure to cover it with a plate or something. Vinegar evaporates slowly, and if you don't use it within the first few minutes off putting it out, you'll end up with less than you thought. Crazy, eh?
I have learned that when you blanch things, you should put them in ice water just until they are cool, then immediately spread them out on a towel to dry. Otherwise, you'll end up with waterlogged vegetables.
This is a certain curved paring knife with which I have fallen in love. Nothing better for peeling apples, shallots, garlic, what have you. Oh, and while we're at it, take out the little green thing in the garlic. Not because it's necessarily bitter, but because there's a noticeable textural difference.
Hmm...what else? I've learned that one or two small cookies with your post-lunch coffee is always a good idea.
There should be music playing when you're cooking, but there MUST be music playing when you're cleaning up.
Speaking of clean-up, your knives should be washed and dried immediately after use. No soaking in the sink or any of that. They will last much longer if you treat them well.
Tea tastes better when you drink it out of a bowl in the wee small hours of the morning.
As you can see, I feel like a sponge, just absorbing anything and everything that I can. I mean, I only have four months here, and there's so much to learn.
Susan and I recently had a phenomenal lunch that I have to write you about, even though we ate it so fast that taking a picture didn't even cross my mind until hours later. It's main component is fava beans, which are in season at the moment, so get on this recipe as soon as possible!
The recipe is simple, in the Italian tradition of letting your ingredients really shine through. This translates as such: buy/use the BEST ingredients you can find!
The recipe below is going to be a pretty rough outline, as I'm trusting you to taste and judge how much of each you want to put in.
Fava Bean Salad
3-4 big handfuls of fava bean pods
2 oz. hard sheep's milk cheese, such as Abbaye de Belloc or a young Manchego (you want something hard and firm, but still quite young, say 18 months max)
good olive oil
2-3 sprigs fresh savory (thyme could probably substitute here)
fleur de sel or good sea salt
Bring a medium saucepan full of water to boil.
Strip the fava beans out of their pods, then add the beans to the boiling water. Allow to boil for about one minute, then drain and place in a bowl.
Once cool enough to handle, use your fingernail or a small pairing knife to cut a slit through the outer layer of the fava bean (it's light green), then use your fingers to gently unwrap the bright green bean inside. Repeat with the remaining favas.
Cut the cheese into bite-size squares, about 1/2 inch X 1/2 inch. Strip the leaves off of the savory or thyme, taking care not to include any of the woody stem.
Toss the fava beans and cheese together with the savory in a medium-sized bowl. Add enough olive oil to come to 3/4 of the way up the mixture.
Combine well. Sprinkle fleur de sel on top of each plate before serving.
*Make sure you serve this with plenty of good, crusty bread. You'll want it to soak up that beautiful olive oil you used.