April 24, 2012

Spring Break

For those of you following along, you know that I have been attending cooking school.  Now that I am back in the academic world (ahem, sort of) I did what any good student would do.  
I went away for spring break.  

Where to?  Where else but one of my favorite hot spots.  A place that is alive 24/7.  

Where world class dining meets a fabulous night life.  

You guessed it, Las Vegas.  

One of the many great things about Vegas is the diversity among the hotels and restaurants.  A quick cab ride can take you from Venice to Paris & New York, then off to a Tropical getaway.  

The entire strip is a study in who can out-do who and impress their visitors with over the top themes, stunning design and spectacular shows.  Probably the most recognizable is the water show at the Bellagio.   

People line up along the sidewalks surrounding the lake to get a front row view of the entertainment. 

We found a better way.  

Olives Restaurant, by Todd English at the Bellagio has an outdoor patio that overlooks the water.  Which means you can dine and take in the show at the same time.  What better reason to indulge in a long lazy lunch?  

These help too...

My favorite is the Tiffany, made with vodka, muddled raspberries and just a touch of champagne.  I think its name comes from the fact that if you have a few too many you feel compelled to go next door and purchase something sparkly in that famous little blue box.  

I admit that my favorite thing about this restaurant is the bread basket. Is that wrong?  It is just so perfect.  It is served with a variety of olives and tapenade, but the star of the show is the flat bread.  

Perfectly thin and crispy and covered in herbs, sea salt and parmesan cheese, this bread speaks to me.  

Another favorite is the Caesar salad.  Simple yet delicious.  

One of Olive's specialties is their flat breads, aka pizza.  Baked in a wood fired oven, they have a rotating menu of gourmet toppings such as smoked salmon, fig & prosciutto and portobello with white truffle .  We decided to be super fancy and get pepperoni.   

Sometimes, pepperoni is all you need.  

After our fill of dancing water, we decided to head on down the strip and check out one of the newest hotels,  The Cosmopolitan.  The tag line is "just the right amount of wrong".  Don't you just love that?

The lobby is incredible, with ever changing digital wall displays and a giant 3 story chandelier that doubles as a lounge.  

Vesper Bar, in the lobby, is an old school James Bond inspired lounge. 

They make all their syrups and flavors in house, displayed in a line beautifully on the bar.  

And it is 007 class all the way by using fresh flowers as a garnish.

It was the perfect spot to hang out and people watch.  

 Once we worked up an apetite, we headed upstairs to Holsteins for some gourmet burgers.

I love the decor of the restaurant, filled with cartoon cows.  

 Even though we didn't spend spring break on a beach, we wanted some fruity tropical drinks.  

And then it arrived.  A burger like no other.  
It is called the The Rising Sun and is a perfect combination of Kobe beef with a teriyaki glaze, nori, crispy yams, spicy wasabi mayo and then all topped with a tempura avocado. 

It was like someone combined all the best flavors from a sushi meal and put it on a burger.  Whoever it is, they are a genius in my books!

Captain McBlack got the Gold Standard, a fancy version of the classic bacon cheeseburger, complete with aged goat cheddar cheese and a tomato confit instead of ketchup.  

I love the way they serve the onion rings, in individual mini buckets.  

It isn't just the burgers that make Holsteins special.  It is the adult milkshakes, cleverly called bam-boozled shakes.  To feed the kid at heart, my big strong man got the Cereal Bowl, made with Captain Crunch and vanilla vodka.  

Captain McBlack drinking a Captain Crunch milkshake.  I knew it was only a matter of time....

Not to exclude the child in me, I got a Campfire Smores milkshake.  
Is this where I mention that I went to sleep-away camp when I was a kid?  This milkshake tasted just like those long nights in front of the bonfire. 

 Looking back, I guess you could say those summers were Spring Break in training.  Staying up way too late, having fun and hanging out with friends was what it was all about.  As an adult in Vegas, not that much has changed.  But this time, my milkshake had vodka in it.  

And now it is time to head back to school.  Is that the bell I hear ringing?  

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April 01, 2012

Cook Street: Sophomore Class

When I signed up for cooking school at Cook Street, I was most excited about week 2.  The curriculum included knife skills and making pasta by hand.  Woo hoo!   We were encouraged to bring our own knives but they had plenty there for us to experiment with.  

Turns out you only really need one knife.  I'm not trying to harm the profits in the cutlery industry, but this puppy, a chef's knife, is all you really need.  However, you must hold it properly!

While keeping your knife sharp is definitely a necessity, it is just as import to hone it as well. Sharpening removes metal to form a new edge as opposed to honing which straightens the existing metal on the blade.  Basically, it puts all the metal molecules back in line.  Chefs will hone their knives many times a day to keep them performing effectively, but sharpening is required less frequently.  

See?  Its working now.

We were taught how to cut vegetables.  Here is the sum of the lesson...control the vegetable, don't let it control you.  In order to cut something easily and safely, it must lie flat so the first step is to make it square.  I've been cutting celery for more years than I'd like to admit without figuring out the simple step of smashing it down first.  Yup, that is the official culinary term...smashing.

To make a dice cut, of any vegetable, you first make strips, then cut those perpendicularly.  And voila, equal sized diced celery!

To dice a carrot, you must first turn them into squares by cutting a small length off each side.  This stops the carrot from rolling, and sets you up to acheive even sized pieces.  Matchstick slices first, then cut in the opposite direction to get dices.  

And then it was time for the onion.  Does anybody actually like cutting onions?  The tears, the odd shape, the inherent slices inside...its a recipe for disaster.  At least for me.  But no more!  I now possess the secret.  

Step 1.  Cut off the top (the part that looks like a little ponytail) but leave the root intact.  You can trim the hairy parts off, but make sure it is all still attached.

Step 2.  Dissect the onion in half, right through the top.

Step 3. Holding the onion on its side, slice parallel to the cutting board, but stop before you reach the root (see below)

Step 4.  Slice lengthwise from the top towards the root, but again stop before you get to the end. 

Step 5.  Slice straight down and your onion will magically fall apart into a perfect dice.  

Phew. Now I just need to practice on 20 pounds of onions. 

Which vegetable is worse to chop than onion?  In my opinion, that would be garlic, the stinking rose.  Turns out that sprinkling a little coarse salt on the cloves and scraping the edge of the knife over it will enable you to create a very fine paste.

Our turn to try! 

I think we did ok, but we did leave a bit of a mess.  

The final product, ready to be turned into soup.

Our plan for dessert was grapefruit with basil chiffonade and candied zest.  

We learned how to "supreme" citrus, which leaves the juicy innards of the fruit without any white pith or peel to contend with.  

I've never peeled a grapefruit with a knife before but it sure makes it efficient if you can do it correctly.  Sadly, when I tried most the good part was lost with the peel.  

He made this look so easy....just slice between each membrane to release a perfect triangle of flesh.  

Here is my version.  

With my grapefruit massacred cut and ready for later, it was time to move to the main event.  Making pasta.  I have wanted a pasta machine for a long time, but committed to only buy one once I knew how to use it.  Isn't it gorgeous in all its shiny glory???

We were taught how to make the pasta by hand, I'm guessing to really appreciate and understand how it all comes together.  Once you try the traditional method, you can switch to using an electric mixer. 
We each made a small portion using one egg and about a cup of flour.  The first step is to use the egg to make a well inside your flour. 

Then drop it in.  At this point, we got a lesson in cracking eggs with one hand but due to the disastrous results, I'm not going there.  

Then you stir the egg, adding a little bit of the surrounding flour as you go.  This step actually takes quite a while. Stir, add flour, stir, add flour....

Eventually it forms into a solid-ish mass.  

Once it holds its shape, it is time to pick it up and knead it.  Gently.  

Did I say gently?  Ok, it needs a little force to get those gluten strands to form.  

After it has rested for 30 minutes or so, it is time for some fun.  I was a little intimidated by the pasta machine at first, but it couldn't be easier.  Like I said, I've wanted one for a while but wasn't sure I'd know what to do with it.  Now I know.  

You cut it into manageable size chunks (about the size of a golf ball) and then flatten it by hand.  Next, it is threaded through the machine on the widest setting first.  The dial on the side allows you to adjust the thickness, and after each time the pasta gets flattened, it is reduced to a thinner level.  

When it is at the desired thinness (I recommend going all the way to get the most delicate pasta), it is time to cut it.  The cutter is attached to the other side and comes in many traditional cuts- spaghetti, angel hair, fettuccine, linguine...  

We used the thicker blade and out came fettuccine

Semolina flour sprinkled over top prevents the noodles from clumping and sticking.  Corn meal works well too as I discovered later that week at home.  

 Put it all together, and what do you get? (Do you remember those Sesame Street lyrics?) 
Chicken noodle soup.

Delicious, with-home-made-pasta-and-perfectly-cut-veggies chicken noodle soup.  Or poached chicken and  vegetables over fettuccine as they referred to it in class.  

Our dessert was grapefruit with basil chiffonade and candied zest. Oh ya, and Pernod, a French Anise flavored liqueur.  It was refreshing, bright and packed with interesting contrasting flavors.  

The candied zest, made from heating the peel in sugar water, was a perfect topping and I will definitely be using it for other applications.  

Was week 2 all that I was hoping it would be?  Actually, it was more.  

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