Plays well with others …

By Richard Frisbie

Ready to eat?

The image that comes to mind when I hear “Boot Camp” does not include kitchen skills, especially when it’s prefaced with CIA. I think of sweaty bodies and abusive drill sergeants constantly shouting orders to do more push-ups. Naturally then, it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to attend a CIA Boot Camp, even though they told me it was about food. (And they didn’t mean KP!)

Exterior shot of the CIA (Photo by Richard Frisbie.)

That’s how I recently found myself at the Culinary Institute, in full chef regalia, standing on the 6 a.m. breakfast line with 2,000 other students. It is a cafeteria cattle-call with a blackboard menu. I filed in, gave my order and waited, watching the class whose job it was to actually cook breakfast until my name was called. That’s what is great about the CIA. Students get real hands-on cooking experience in the student cafeteria and in each of the four public campus restaurants the CIA operates.

At dinner in the American Bounty Restaurant the evening before, students who were graduating the next day served our meal. Every aspect of food service, chemistry, and business, is a class each student must complete to graduate. That includes being waiters, bus boys, short-order cooks, sous chefs and chefs. If the professionalism and expertise I experienced at dinner are any indication, and I believe they are, the young men and women in the restaurant were ready to carry the mantle of the CIA into the culinary world.

Learning to cook at the CIA.

Our Boot Camp experience was a Farm-to-Table event focusing on the fresh bounty of Dutchess County farms. (The CIA is located in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, NY.) The first day we visited the farms and picked, dug, harvested and shopped for the ingredients we’d be cooking the next day. From the potatoes to the brussel sprouts, and from the goat cheese to the locally milled cornmeal, everything on the next day’s menu was sourced locally.

The Culinary Institute of America’s promotional material reads, “At Boot Camp you’ll discover how to select the perfect ingredients, how to prepare a variety of dishes, and how to demonstrate more confidence in your own kitchen. Hands-on cooking, chef demonstrations, and exceptional food make CIA Boot Camp one of “America’s Top Ten Destinations.”

What they don’t tell you is that you’ll be one of a group of “boot campers” working as a team to put complex meals on the table. Our group was only seven people, but there was work (and food enough) for at least twelve. That meant four teams of three (an ideal plan) was out, and we all had to work well together to produce a meal. I think we did a pretty good job, considering.

Making pasta.

Our “Team Production Assignments” were:
Team One
Heirloom Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart
Coq au Vin
Fresh Buttered Egg Pasta

Team Two
Warm Hudson Valley Salad with Baby Greens and Apples
Sautéed Berkshire Pork Cutlets with a Wild Mushroom Ragout
Potato Gnocchi

Team Three
Roast Rack of Lamb Persillé
Creamy Polenta
Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lardons

Team Four
Skewered Beef Fillet with Chimichurri Sauce and Corn Relish
Corn Pudding
Braised Swiss Chard
Vanilla Ice Cream

I was Team Three, with some help with the brussel sprouts from the gnocci and swiss chard person. I helped with the chimichurri sauce, and took photos and a video when I wasn’t worried about burning the polenta!

In the classroom, beforehand, we reviewed the recipes and techniques we’d need to create this meal. When I asked how we’d be able to cook coq au vin in our 3 ½ hour cooking class, Chef Thomas said we’d use young hens instead of an old cock. He knew it would still be close, though.

I never cooked a rack of lamb before, and I had no idea what persillé meant. That’s why I volunteered to cook it. I learned that a persilladé is a bread and herb coating, and that lamb cooks very quickly! Also, that local farm-raised lamb is juicy and delicious even if it was medium rare instead of rare.

This next part is confusing to explain, but I’ll try. I was in a new kitchen surrounded by new people, cooking a recipe new to me, with descriptions in French that I didn’t understand. So, when the recipe called for me to make a mirepoix, I followed the instructions blindly, not knowing what I was doing, and not connecting. It all worked out all right, but it wasn’t until the next day that I realized that, had the recipe just said “make a sofrito,” I’d have known immediately what I was doing and been more comfortable. Next time I’ll ask what the unfamiliar terms mean before I start to cook.

For the rack of lamb I seasoned the Frenched ribs with salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme – on all sides. That roasted at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Then I sprinkled the mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots and celery) around the lamb in the roasting pan and cooked at 350 degrees until an internal temp of 130. (I had no idea how long that would take. Someone suggested 45 minutes. In 17 minutes the internal temp was 132 degrees!) I set the lamb aside and made a sauce with the pan juices. It was strained, degreased and thickened (with arrowroot), and left to sit in a warm water bath while I mixed the bread crumbs, garlic and parsley, with melted butter. I brushed the lamb with whole grain mustard, and pressed the breading onto the top of the rack of lamb. At quarter after twelve I popped the lamb into a 400 degree oven to brown the crumbs. There was just time to carve off the individual ribs before the 12:30 p.m. serving.

For the polenta, I sautéed an onion and 2 cloves of garlic in 3 tablespoons of oil in a tall saucepan. I added 2 ½ cups water and the some of milk. When that was boiling, I added 1 ¼ tsp salt, and slowly drizzled 1 1/3 cups corn meal into the boiling liquid, stirring constantly. I continued boiling and stirring until it began to thicken. Then I transferred it to a buttered baking dish, covered it, and baked it for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. This method eliminates much of the stirring polenta usually gets, and freed me up for other things.

Other things included chef demonstrations of how to cut up a chicken, how to make pasta (wait until you see the photos!) and how to make mozzarella cheese. There was also time to help find strainers, measuring cups, the right pans – everything that is “lost” when you are in a strange kitchen. With all of this, we were on a tight schedule to produce everything at the same time, in time for lunch.

When I put the lamb in the oven for the browning, I removed the polenta, scraping it into a serving bowl, being careful not to disturb the bottom crust that developed on the pan. (That seemed like such a shame!) I stirred in ½ cup Parmesan and sprinkled another over the top. To dress it up some more, before putting it on the table I gathered the leftover herbed bread crumbs and sprinkled them on top.

The meal was almost a complete success. Our chef/instructor thought the corn pudding failed for reasons not related to the cook (it was grey!) and planned some test cooking with different utensils and techniques to determine what exactly went wrong. Everything else worked out perfectly, except that my camera batteries failed halfway through. Replacements were locked in my car and in a distant room, and there was no time to retrieve either. So bear with me in the photo dept while you enjoy the video on how to dismember a chicken.

Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Lardons
6 oz bacon cut into little strips
2 lbs brussel sprouts, stemmed, cut in half
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Cook the bacon until it is crisp in a large oven-proof frying pan. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. Blanch the Brussel Sprouts for one minute in the boiling water. Remove to the ice water until chilled. Drain. Let dry on paper towels. When completely dry, toss with salt and pepper in the bacon and fat in the frying pan. Place in the hot oven and roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until they are tender and lightly charred, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.

The pasta was really good, as only fresh pasta can be, especially drenched with an herbed butter. The coq au vin was ready in time and delicious in a falling-off-the-bone kind of way. The braised red cabbage was an extra recipe we made because the cabbage looked so good. (Certainly, it was not because we needed more food, or had extra time!) It was similar to jarred red cabbage only waay better. I made that again as soon as I got home. The skewered beef was the wrong cut and too tough, but the relishes with it were very tasty, really complimented the good flavor of the beef. The pork and mushrooms were delicious, as good as the lamb, but so different. The braised swiss chard was perfect with this combination of foods. Finally, how can you go wrong with ice cream?

It was altogether too much food for the seven of us, plus the chef and two student helpers. We invited more people to join us, until we were 20 or so friends and colleagues celebrating our success cooking the bounty of local farms. We deserved to celebrate. We all worked together to put this meal on the table, and we all earned the passing grade – “Plays Well With Others!”

The Culinary Institute of America is a leader in the Farm-to-Fork movement. They believe in buying the freshest and best ingredients, and try to buy from local purveyors when possible. As proof of their commitment, the CIA hired a local farmer to coordinate local farm purchases. As an example, they buy 750,000 eggs locally every year. By next year they will all be free-range chicken eggs.

Sign up for the CIA Boot Camps online. They have all manner of classes from basic to advanced, and from baking to Asian cuisine, lasting from one day to 5 days. You’ll have a great time, you’ll learn new cooking techniques, and make a whole new bunch of foodie friends!

The Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive
Hyde Park, NY 12538