Well, I’m happy to report that I didn’t burn down the kitchen today in my first attempts to prepare and cook my onion and thyme leaf soup and winter fruit salad with sweet geranium leaves in the Ballymaloe kitchen. I thought it was particularly apropos that my soup included thyme, which the ancient Greeks believed was a source of courage, and I needed as much courage as I could muster at 8:30 a.m. in the morning to start the day! I am glad that I headed down the kitchen early though…the place was a madhouse once 9 am rolled around with students and teachers alike crowding into the larder and storeroom to locate, collect, and weigh ingredients. Once I had managed to find all of my ingredients and locate the equipment I would need for my recipes, I set to work. About twenty minutes in, I noticed that I was still chopping potatoes and onions – a task that I had only allotted myself ten minutes to complete in my order of work. That is precisely the moment when I realized that my order of work would just be a rough approximation of the morning’s schedule. I guess I will have to get a bit faster with my knife skills, but I’m sure it will come in time.
Anyway, I finished both dishes, and I was proud to admit that I didn’t, in fact, burn down the joint (nor did I seriously maim myself…woo hoo!). The next step was plating – something I have only of late started to think about, as it is just as important as cooking your food. Nobody wants to eat from a sloppy-looking or ill-designed dish, no matter how delicious you think it might taste (looks and aesthetics count, even in the kitchen). I put my winter fruit salad in a short martini glass and put a nice dollop of freshly made whipped cream on top. As soon as my instructor saw it, she held it up and said aloud to everyone in the kitchen, “I forgot to tell those that are making the winter fruit salad to put the whipped cream in a small side bowl. Don’t do this.” Well, so much for that! I quickly re-plated and went to check on my soup. I was just about to ladle the soup into a bowl when my instructor said, “Did you warm the bowl first?” Oops! Strike two. I then had to warm my bowl in a nearby oven, and only after a few minutes was I ready to plate my soup and dessert for my instructor to taste. Overall, she liked both of my dishes and said the soup and the berries had excellent flavor. She did critique me again on my plating though. Apparently, I had over-garnished my winter fruit salad! I joked with her that I was presenting the dessert on a bed of sweet geranium leaves, but she wasn’t buying that one and said it would be better to only have a couple of sprigs on the plate. Overall though, I was pretty happy with my first day in the kitchen. Tomorrow I get to practice my shortcrust pastry-making and citrus segmenting skills, as I was assigned a crunchy apple crumble tart and a grape, ruby grapefruit, and mint cocktail. We shall see how that goes.
After lunch, we then had a three-hour demonstration given by Irish cookbook author and TV presenter Rachel Allen. She is just lovely, funny and has such a warm personality. I really enjoyed listening to her present and cook a number of dishes (including a Vallée d’Auge casserole roast pheasant, which she plucked and carved right in front of us. It was somewhat ironic, in light of the recent “controversy” by some overzealous animal rights activists surrounding a recent photo of her with some pheasants that were shot on a local hunt. She even cracked a joke about the whole thing, which made me like her even more.
Following the demonstration, I headed up to the dairy barn to learn cheese-making with Tim (Darina’s husband). It was so interesting. I had no idea how labor-intensive the process was to make just one block of cheese! We had to go back to the barn two more times this evening just to take our cheeses our of their molds and turn them…or flip them over…I thought we were literally rotating the cheeses, but it turns out that you need to flip them over and put weights on the top of the mold to push the cheese down to compact the curds. On a side note, everyone seemed surprised when I told them that cheese curds are on a lot of restaurant menus in the U.S. I guess that food trend hasn’t hit Ireland yet!
All in all it was a pretty great day and evening. Now it’s time for bed! I really need to get on a normal sleeping schedule again – my night owl tendencies do not comport with the cooking school lifestyle!
Here are some photos from today, including my first cooked dishes and making cheese!