Midterm week wrap-up

I’m not sure if I was able to get much sleep during last week – Week 8’s midterm week – as there were butterflies in my stomach leading into each day of the exams. Midterm consisted of 3 days — day 1 is a written exam; day 2 is the school’s practical exam, and day 3 is the ITA’s practical exam. The midterms also marked the first time were we were judged and marked on the food we prepared in the kitchen. I know I’ve walked into each exam fully prepared (as much as I could), and the butterflies settled as soon as I put my knife to my steel. We were given a lot of time to prepare for the midterms in the weeks leading up to it. I’ve been making omelettes, gnocchi and creme brulee at home; on Monday, the entire class in teams of 2 practiced going through the midterm; on Tuesday after the written exam, some of us stayed to practice the recipes; and there were also a lot of mental walk-throughs in my head. Overall, I’m happy with my results knowing that they were strong marks and it was a fair reflection of where I am with my skills so far. I am (nervously) looking forward to the finals and restaurant days where my goal is to ace them. 😉

Here are my tips to prepare for the midterms:

  1. Practice, practice and practice. There isn’t any substitution for actual hands-on practice, but it also helps to do mental walk-throughs to go through the steps in your task list and to anticipate each actions.
  2. Prepare a good task list.
  3. Get a good night’s rest (as much as possible).
  4. Don’t drink any caffeinated drinks before the exam. You don’t want to be running to the bathroom or getting shaky hands, especially for the practicals.
  5. Taste. Don’t send anything up without first tasting it yourself.

Midterm Day 2 My 3 dishes prepared for midterm day 2 practical.

Midterm Day 3 My 5 dishes prepared for midterm day 3 practical.


Halfway mark! Week 7: Charcuterie, Field Trip, Quiz #2 and Brunch

Sometime during this past week I have completed over half of the professional culinary program at Northwest and I can see myself working the line in a kitchen. We were introduced to the term charcuterie with the hands on butchery of a side of pig and lamb. Understanding charcuterie allows us to know how to utilize each part of the animal to maximize yield. There were 3 sides of pig at 192 lbs each and the total amount of garbage after all the trimmings was only 8 lbs. We have render the pig’s skin to gelatin, pig’s fat into lard, stock from bones, headcheese, pork chops, sausages, and the works. We even went on a field trip to visit Two Rivers Meat in North Vancouver and saw the inside of a meat packer/butchery/processing and came out from it very inspired from the passion from each employee working there.

Friday consisted of quiz #2 for the term. There is a quiz every 4 weeks. There were a lot of materials to study for in this quiz which covered the French mother sauces, seafood, food costing, and pastry. We have also studied the material from charcuterie week but it wasn’t on this quiz, but it will definitely be in next week’s midterm. There is a group of us who are on a Facebook chat group which we used as a study tool.

Let’s talk about this midterm… I can’t believe it’s midterm week already! It will consist of 3 days- Tuesday will be a written exam, Wednesday is a 2.5 hours practical, and Thursday is a 4.25 hours practical to satisfy the ITA’s requirement. So far my entire weekend has been immersed into playing the practical exam days in my head over and over again. The exam is individual-based, and knowing I have been able to accomplish my first menu dev solo and creating a mayo, I do have some confidence going in to this week, but not without practicing at home, I’m working on omelette, gnocchi, hollandaise, creme brulee, and knife cuts.

A couple of things I’m looking forward to doing – using the pressure cooker hands-on (we’ve used pressure cooker in class a couple of times, but I didn’t have too much involvement with it other than adjusting the heat below it), and using a pasta machine.

Cooking up a storm this weekend and an update on the ink situation

It was fish week at school, and I brought home several extra pieces of salmon from the school’s fish sale on the extra fish. It has been a long time since I’ve last cooked salmon at home, and here are the results:

Seared salmon with maple-glaze Pan-seared salmon with a maple-glazed. I did not drop the maple glaze over the crispy skin. This was a before shot – before I flooded the plate with the yummy maple-glaze.

Poached salmon with lemon and dill Salmon en papillote with lemon and dill. I didn’t have any but my husband said it was yum, and didn’t save me any.

Straight from my culinary notebook into action at home is the gravlax. The toughest part was finding things to weigh down the fish with. I used my 13×9 inch pan (covered with saran wrap, then parchment and then aluminum foil because I didn’t want my next cake to have any hint of fish), and found a rubbermaid lid that fit perfectly over top and dropped on top my 2 x 2lb and 2 x 5lb hand weights plus a bag of apples which I think should be weighty enough to cure this salmon.


And my not-as-successful attempt. I had my husband bring home his small portable blowtorch from work (he’s a mechanic). I substituted coconut milk for whipping cream in the creme brulee recipe, but then I also sub a can of watered down coconut cream for coconut milk because that was what I had on hand. Infused with vanilla bean. I also used a larger serving dish than intended for creme brulee. I had it in a bain marie in the oven for over an hour, but there were a lot of liquid coming out from it. I’m not deterred, and I’m going to try this again. I am 100% positive I can make creme brulee with coconut milk. This will also be on the midterm.

not-as-successful Dairy-free creme brulee

Since I have used several egg yolks for the creme brulee recipe, I got extra egg white that are aging on my kitchen counter in my 3rd-ever attempt on macarons after I clear the load of dishes in the sink at the moment.

Update on my chef jacket:

It was a success! After several rounds of soaking in Oxyclean, some acetone dabbing, and then more Oxyclean, and then Oxyclean applied directly on to the stain, I have gotten it back to the white it used to have been. The blue circled showed the a previous red spot underneath a layer of Oxyclean applied overnight – and it’s gone! The blue smear are from the Oxyclean pigments, which I hope will wash out.


Check out http://students.nwcav.com if you have time. You will find blog posts from the students and mine on the progress of school. We are almost half way through with a midterm in two weeks. Time has really flew by!


This happened to one of my white chef’s jacket last night.jacket-stained I had forgotten a red pen in my pants, and the result looks quite devastating, and of course, only the white jacket got most of the damage.

I’ve been working on the stain all of last night – blotting out with rubbing alcohol, dishwashing detergent, wash cycle, more rubbing alcohol, dishwashing detergent, and soak. Most of the red ink did get lifted during one of those cycles, but there are still red marks. I’m currently soaking it in OxyClean right now. Wish me luck! 😦

Ten Things I’ve Learned from Culinary School (so far)

Week 5 wrapped up with 2 days doing pastry (love) and 3 days at the farm for farm-to-table classes (highly appreciated). We are a third of the way to completion and we have learned a lot, with more to learn still.

Here is a top ten list of things I’ve learned thus far that really stood out for me (that I personally didn’t know before culinary school). Some of these are part of the curriculum, and some are not.

10. French cooking terms
To name a few: Mise en place, mirepoix, bouquet garni, concassé, brunoise, paysanne, sautoir, singer, garde manger, entremetier, sucs, emince, napper and velouté.

9. Using a black steel pan
I always thought it was tricky to use one, but the trick is to know when your pan is at the right temperature. (See my previous post on hot pans.)

8. Rice Bran Oil
See my previous post Are you using rice bran oil yet?. 😉

7. Butchering poultry
It is not that hard. The key point is that you are not actually cutting through any bones but in between the joints.

6. Maximizing really good olive oil for cooking
When buying olive oil, always buy the best one you can afford. Stretch out the use of your really good olive oil for everyday cooking by mixing 1 part olive oil with 4 parts rice bran oil.

5. Leaving salt and pepper out in a bowl by the stove
Rather than using a salt and pepper shaker, we practice seasoning food with the finger pinch technique. One finger pinch would be a small amount vs. a regular 3-finger pinch which would be more. This practice also adds to using more of our 5 senses. If leaving salt and pepper in the open bugs you, you can always use something with a lid or look for a pretty salt pig.

4. Cooking rice using the pasta method
I’ve always steamed rice, but you can cook all grains – including jasmine rice, with a boiling pot of seasoned water. Cook until tender and drain out the liquid. The liquid can be reserved as a grain stock to use in other preparation. (I do prefer using my rice cooker.)

3. Seasoning and tasting
Right along side with seasoning is tasting. Taste often. The right amount of seasoning makes the dish sings. We primarily season with salt and pepper (white or black depends on what you are cooking), and as we get into sauces and dressing, this can be with other flavour elements like lemon, lime, sriracha, etc.

2. Sharpening my knives
I have always known the importance of a sharp knife, but honing my knives before I use them has become a habit at home. Plus, I’m sharpening my own knives on my own stone. 😉

1. Using my senses
This include the five senses (sometime six – taste, smell, touch, hear, see and intuition) and common sense. You need all of your senses when cooking. We often will not be given the length of time required to cook something in class but a status – until browned, until soften or until it’s cooked. There are a lot of common sense that would be appreciated in the kitchen, too.

The importance of honeybees

We are back at Terra Nova Farm for a 3-day series on Farm to Table. As Chef Ian promised on our first visit to the farm, it will change you each time. One of the highlights from today is getting a lesson on honeybees and visiting Chef Ian’s bees. I am aware that bees are important (from the save-the-bees petitions, news article about bees dying), but I didn’t realize exactly how important they are.

  • Number 1: Bees pollinate 1/3 of the food we eat everyday. Keeping honeybees close by farms and community gardens help increase the yields.
  • Products produced by honey bees – bee pollen (medicinal supplement helpful for allergy sufferers), honey (because it is yummy, I use it for soothing sore throats), bee wax, propolis (medicinal supplement), royal jelly (medicinal)
  • The social culture and dynamics of bees are amazing. The things I have learned from watching “Maya the Bee” with my kids are only a small fraction of the things that goes on in a hive. There are a lot of drama, action and sex that goes on in there that makes Housewives of (Name-a-Location) seem tame.
  • Bees are not wasps. A quick way to distinguish them is that bees are smaller with rounded bums – and are good; wasps have pointed ends and are evil. Wasps are carnivorous, will sting you and bug you at your summer bbq (we had to deal with a wasp problem in our attic over the summer). Honeybees only sting if their nest is threatened, and before that they will warn you – first by buzzing around you, second by bumping their heads on you, and lastly, they will sting (and die after) if you still pose a thread to them.

The visit at the hives for me was a really calm experience even with the hundreds buzzing around us – knowing that you have the proper protective gears and how bees “bee”-haves really helped. All of the motions with the hives (performed by Chef Ian) are slow and smooth. Perhaps one day, I might be able to deal with my arachnophobia, but no rush on that.

For more information on bees, visit http://www.bcbeekeepers.com, http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/bee-guidelines.pdf, http://www.bbka.org.uk.

Week 4 recap

As I’m writing this post, I do have my chef’s jacket cut apart into 3 separate pieces in a confident attempt to tailor it to fit me better :). During my stage last night at a fabulous hotel downtown (more on that below), I found that my jacket kept getting caught on the upright oven handles so I figured today was as good as any to tailor my jacket. For any new enrollees, do go and try out the sizes beforehand. I’m also banking on my fact that I will not be gaining any weight in the next several months since I’m bringing in the size of the jackets (which after a month of classes, I am down a pound so far).

Now, on to more serious stuff. Today’s post features pictures taken on Thursday by my partner of the week, Grace (thanks Grace!! ;)). I left my phone at home that day, and these images are not found on my instagram feed. If you want to check to see what else is new, follow me here, http://instagram.com/monica_cakesandoptions.

Week 4 – The good, the bad and the ugly

Week 4 was quite a varied week. We covered several different topics including sauces, butchering poultry and breads/sandwich making. We made quite a few classic dishes using protein such as the salmon rillette, salmon roulade, lemon chicken prepared en papillote, jamboneau of a chicken leg, and southern fried chicken and quite a few rich, buttery sauces – veloute, demi-glace, chasseur, poivrade, bechamel. Also covered off sandwich making, which I honestly do think it is straightforward, except for the preparation we were using for the main events inside these sandwiches.

Good – learning to make bread! I’ve never made my own bread before this week and have learned it is not that difficult to make. We baked baguettes which we used in a philly cheese steak sandwich. We also made pullman loaf, morel mushroom bread and mini-bagels for other sandwiches. And even started on two different pie doughs – pate brisee and pate sucre.

Sample of the baguettes made in class:week4-baguettes

Philly cheese steak and a club: week4-sandwiches

Bad – I wasn’t happy with our demi-glace due to its lack of deep rich colour, but it still tasted ok. You really must brown the onions to achieve the deep brown colour the demi-glace.

Ugly – Wednesday. The day was long and was very taxing and I had my first kitchen injury – I had a small burn on the edge of my palm from grabbing on a hot handle. The day also included menu development which is a great opportunity to cook what you want to, but I don’t get feel we get enough time to research, prep and plan during the day for this. It felt rushed but everyone was able to deliver someone at the end. We needed a grain element and a vegetable element to go together with the duck breast. My partner and I were able to pull through on it, she came up with an easy and refreshing pickled salad using the extra brunoise veggies I had from Monday, and I used the extra grains we over-prepared from Monday in an attempt on an “orange” grain, but the colors from the carrots and oranges that I reduced with a brown stock and made to a puree didn’t take on in the grains. I’m happy to have my brunoise cuts showcased in the dish, it was previously used in a pilaf dish, which the vegetables just mushed in with the grain and was covered by the salmon roulade sitting on top of everything.

More pictures from Thursday:

My partner Grace and I making mini-bagels: week4-grace-bagelmaking

Mini-bagels! Covered up for poaching and baking the next day:week4-bagels

Cucumber tea sandwiches: week4-cucumbersandwiches

Our attempt to stack the highest prawn tub wall yet:  week4-prawntubswall

First stage

My first real experience in a professional kitchen. There were two of us from the school helping the chef to plate 4 courses for 35 guests while the kitchen is still serving the other guests. It was a positive experience (I want to say “lots of fun” but there was quite a bit of work but in to it). A lot of what we have learned in the first 4 weeks of classes proved really helpful – the different kitchen tools and mise en place. A lot of the preparation was prepared ahead, and the chef explained to us ahead of time the placement of dishes and prep work required for each of the courses so when it was go time, it was quite smooth. The menu was inspiring also. I deep-fried pickles, sliced beef briskets, fried beignets and even fried an order of french fries for a table (since I was standing by the fryer). The chef was helpful to explain how he prepared each item and we’ve learned a lot. There are ideas there that I’m jotting down to use for later menu devs.

There will be more stages to come as it is an opportunity to explore and learn from different chefs and kitchens.

Cooking and the Leidenfrost effect

I think there needs to be more mentions about cooking and the Leidenfrost effect (see Wikipedia for more details) — it is much too cool not to share if you have not heard about this incredible science phenomenon that occurs in your pans as you heat them up.

Before we start cooking in class, the chef instructors always remind us to make sure that our pans are hot enough and also to look for the “Leidenfrost effect” which is a clue for newbies (like us) to test whether we got enough heat in the pan before we start pan-frying/sauteing/wok-frying/etc.

The Leidenfrost effect (also known as the water-test, mercury ball test, among other names) occurs when the heat of the pan gets hot enough that the water on the pan will bunch up like small balls rolling around.

The method applies for any types of pans – stainless steel, cast iron, teflon-coated or in a wok.hotpan_1 hotpan_2

(Before you add oil to your hot pan, make sure it is dry first.)

The Leidenfrost effect is not really a practical way in a professional kitchen, so other tips on knowing when you get a pan that is hot enough to start cooking are:

  • Look for grey steam, grey steam is good. If you start seeing white steam come off your oil, it is a signal that you will start burning your food.
  • Monitor your pan – don’t turn on the flames, walk away and then come back to pan. This is a very bad habit if you’re doing this.

Also, remember this mind-blowing thought (at least it is to me):

  • The surface of your metal pan is actually porous. When you add enough heat to metal, the metal will expand, which closes up these pores, so when you put your piece of chicken down (with some oil), it will not stick to the pan! However, the chicken will stick to the pan when the pan is not hot enough as it would get “caught” in these pores. Mind-blowing. 🙂

Week 3 summary

We have completed 20% of the 15 week program and time have certainly flew by!

Ah-ha moments of this week: re-thinking different ways to prepare different vegetables and cooking grains and rice using the pasta method. We have started off week 3 working with onions, brussel sprout and cauliflower – we made onion leather and deep-fried brussel sprout leaves and made a cauliflower “risotto”. In the pasta method you would bring a pot of water to a boil, season it, and then add your grains or rice. I have always steamed rice, and other grains such as quinoa and barley, but using the pasta method adds a different dimension where the progression of the cooking is more visible.

At this point the looming black box and service near the end of the program seems daunting, but I know I need to focus on the skills at hand – increasing speed with knife cuts and always working on preparing task lists and mise en place.
We’ve also completed our first quiz which gave me a good feeling I know my theories, so I can focus on the practical. And we finally cooked a real protein – salmon, and it was yummmm. Chicken butchery coming up!

Student blogs will be posted at the school’s website at http://www.nwcav.com under “Stories”, so this post may be familiar.

The following yummy pics are from my partner of the week. I forgot my phone at home on Friday.

IMG_6292 IMG_6291