I have officially survived my first week at culinary school.
Orientation for the New England Culinary Institute began last Tuesday, and Friday morning, I had my first class in the kitchen. I forgot my knives, of all things, but Chef Josh was kind to me on my first day and allowed me to borrow his set for the knife skills portion of the class. At least my shoes were shiny, and I remembered to iron my jacket.
We went through many of the basics of sanitation and knife safety, and about an hour into the class, we began the knife skills portion by cutting onions. I’ve been cutting onions for years, but when I say I was nervous making those first cuts, I mean my heart was racing and my hands were shaking.
I’m sure this goes without saying, but a professional kitchen has a very different feel from working at home. We are under constant supervision from the head chef. The stainless steel tables, the bare white walls, and industrial-sized cutting boards were unfamiliar and intimidating. Students to my left and right were all chopping away, and I was practically hyperventilating over my hand placement as I navigated a very sharp knife.
After my second or third onion, the nerves had worn off enough to control the shaking, but the intimidation was still fully present. As I finished my onions, I glanced around the room and was comforted slightly by other shaking hands and the intensely focused glares of students completing their medium dice.
Students entering NECI bring a variety of experience to the table, but on Day 1, we were all in the same boat. We were all trying to keep the chef happy by following his directions exactly, and we were all a bit unnerved in our new environment. If we could make it through the day without losing a finger, we considered it a successful first encounter in a professional kitchen.
We moved on to carrots and tried our hands at a julienne, a thin matchstick cut. Nerves were replaced by a level of focus that drowned out everything but the range of space in which my arms were operating. I was distantly aware of other happenings around the room, but for my purposes alone, it was just me, my knife, and that damn carrot.
My first carrot was sloppy at best. For the life of me, I couldn’t square it off cleanly and my subsequent cuts were similarly uneven. I ended up with chunks and wedges and every once in a while, one perfect little match stick. I was a bit discouraged after my first class, so I called my mom and told her about my morning. She did the mom thing and told me that I was going to be great. I wasn’t really convinced.
The only thing that could really make me feel better was practice. At the farmer’s market yesterday, I picked up three bunches of carrots and got to work.
It took me a full hour and a half (or one Mumford and Sons album plus half of the Jay-Z/Lincoln Park Collision album) to cut those carrots. The way I saw it, now was my chance to take my time and figure out the best way to be consistent. This was my chance to mess it up and test it out. I had nothing but time.
Even though I took far longer than would ever be tolerated in a restaurant kitchen, I managed to have more carrots in my “good julienne” pile than the bad one.
Because this was only practice and because I don’t want to waste anything if I can help it, my “usable scraps” pile went into the freezer to later be turned into stock, and all of the julienned pieces (the good, the bad, and the ugly) went into a pot for soup.
Curried Carrot and Ginger Soup
I used a combination of carrots and parsnips in this soup to help ground the naturally sweet taste of the carrots. The spice blend and ginger add a bit of warmth, and the coconut milk really helps round out the overall flavor profile by adding its own sweet nuttiness. it’s the perfect meal for a cold Fall day.
1 lb carrots, peeled and diced
2 large parsnips (about half a pound total), peeled and diced
3 shallots (4 oz total), diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
2 oz fresh ginger
32 oz carton of low sodium vegetable broth
1, 13.5 oz can full fat coconut milk + 1/2 can water
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
Whatever you do, don’t be like me and spend an hour and a half slicing your carrots into tiny slivers. Your time is much better spent cutting them into a small dice. Better yet, just cut them into disks, then pulse them in a food processor and let it do the dicing for you. And while the food processor is out and working for you, go ahead and dice the shallots as well.
Once your veggies are all diced and ready to go, Heat the shallots with the olive oil in a heavy-bottom stock pot over med-high heat until the shallots have softened a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and parsnip and heat for about 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft.
For cooks without a kitchen scale, 2 oz of ginger is about a 3 inch knob.
Grate the ginger and add it to the pot, cooking for an additional minute. Blend the spices together in a small bowl, then sprinkle over the vegetables and stir to incorporate throughout. Add the stock, bring to a gentle boil, then cover, reduce to a simmer, and let it bubble away for about an hour.
After an hour, the liquid in the pot will have reduced some. Add the can of coconut milk, then fill the can half-way with water, swirl it around to pick up any leftover coconut milk, and add it to the pot. Using an immersion blender or working in batches with a standing blender, process the soup until smooth. Return to the stove, add the salt, and heat for another 5 minutes or so.
Serve with your favorite crusty bread.