Bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S

Sometimes, when I'm at the grocery store I must forget that I live alone because I come home with enough groceries to stock the Johnson and Wales store room.  And towards the end of last week I bought 8 bananas because they were on sale.  As I said above, I live alone.  What am I going to do with 8 bananas?  Well, I made two of my favorite banana dishes and attempted to write recipes for them. 

Use #1: All of the eggs we made in class week put me in the mood for a good breakfast last weekend. As much as I love breakfast food, I rarely go the trouble of making something elaborate because it's hard to make a batch of pancakes, for example, for just one person. However, this weekend I had a friend over for brunch on Saturday, and we made some delicious banana-walnut stuffed french toast.  The buttery, crispy exterior, soft custard interior, and rich nuttiness of the walnuts was a perfect kick-off to the day.

Use #2: I've always been an oven-hoverer, constantly checking on my baked goods through the oven window, but I'm especially guilty when it comes to banana bread.  I don't know if that's because it smells so good or because I love eating it, but I had several bananas left over from the French toast on Saturday, so I set them aside to make a batch of one of my favorite foods.

As I was gathering my ingredients, I could hear my nutrition chef talking to me from one shoulder and my shallow-frying chef from the other.  Though I know how to make some not-so-healthy banana bread, I opted for a little baking experiment.  I cut down on the saturated fat, and made a few additions of my own.  The finished product?  I could hardly tell a difference. 

We briefly discussed baking in my nutrition class, and what I learned is that taking all of the fat out of something is a bad idea.  Not only does it have a rubbery texture, but it's not satisfying as a baked good.  And it's okay to eat desserts.  Just don't eat a lot of them.  So while this banana bread is no substitute for a slice of home-made whole grain bread, it's at least better for you than most quickbreads.  You'll see in the pictures that I added chocolate chips to some of the mini-loaves for a chocoholic friend of mine.

Banana-Walnut Stuffed French Toast

Batter for dipping:
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. white sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 bananas
1/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 loaf French bread
vegetable oil or butter to coat the skillet
powdered sugar for dusting
serve with a drizzle of honey or maple syrup

Method of Preparation:

• Whisk together the eggs, milk, sugars, and cinnamon until well combined.  Set aside.

• Mash the bananas. Stir in the walnuts and brown sugar until incorporated.

• Cut the end off of the French bread loaf.  Cut the loaf into 3/4 - 1" slices.  Make a slit in the middle of each slice but don't cut all the way through.  Each slice should look like a pocket.

• Fill the pocket of each slice with 2-3 Tbsp. of the banana mixture.

• Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Add enough butter* or vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan.
  *Note: If using butter, work over medium-low heat so the butter doesn't burn.

• Dip each slice into the egg mixture for a few seconds and place directly into the heated skillet.  Working in batches, cook the French toast until golden brown on each side and heated through, flipping each slice only once.

• Serve immediately with a dusting of powdered sugar and a drizzle of honey.

Banana Bread Muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and then finely ground* 

3 very ripe bananas, mashed well
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup moderately sweet apple, peeled and very finely chopped
1/4 cup light sour cream
1 whole egg
2 egg whites
1 tsp. vanilla extract

*I don't really like the chunkiness of nuts in my banana bread, but I like the flavor which is why I ground them up really fine.  You can leave them chopped if you want.

Method of Preparation:

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease or line a muffin tin.

• Whisk the mashed bananas, melted butter, chopped apple, sour cream, eggs and vanilla until well-combined.  In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, salt, baking soda, sugar, and ground walnuts.

• Fold the banana mixture into the dry mixture and stir until just combined.  The batter should be thick and have chunks. 

• Using an ice-cream scoop, fill each muffin cup about 2/3 full with the batter.

• Bake for 16-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only a few crumbs attached.


A Change of Pace

After focusing on balanced meals and flavorful, low-fat, low-sodium dishes in Nutrition and Sensory Analysis, I am now in a class which is attempting to undo everything I just learned.  I've spent the last 4 class days baking, sauteing, and shallow-frying.  If it isn't cooked in fat, we add some to the finished product.  I walk out of class each night smelling like McDonald's because of all of the Frymax.  We've fried potato cakes, zucchini cakes, fish, chicken, scallops, broccoli, crab cakes, and the list goes on.  Don't get me wrong.  As a Southern girl, it's in my blood to like fried food.  It would just be nice to see a vegetable come out of this class that's not fried or covered in a buttery cream sauce.  If you don't believe me, take a look at what we've been making:

Potato Cakes:

Southern-Style Fried Chicken

Baked cod fillets with buttered bread crumbs and a lemon butter sauce

Twice-baked potatoes before their second bake, complete with
sour cream, white cheddar, and butter

I suppose learning to properly saute does have it's advantages though.  I can now make a fried egg without a spatula.  Egg cookery is a sub-focus of this class, so each of us is learning to make omelettes and fried eggs.  Just try to imagine what the stoves looked like after 18 freshmen culinary students practiced flipping fried eggs and omelettes.  How many of our flipped eggs do you think actually made their way back into the skillets after being tossed into the air?  I wish I had taken a picture of that.


Culinary Nutrition, here I come!

After what have been my favorite nine days at Johnson and Wales, I have completed my Nutrition and Sensory Analysis class.  And as a result, I have decided to apply for the bachelor's degree program in Culinary Nutrition here.  The program is "designed to produce chefs who know how to make nutritious food, and nutritionists who know how to cook" and includes labs such as Spa Cuisine, Designing Healthy Desserts and Athletic Performance Cuisine.  I'm in the process of applying now and will have my interview in the next couple of months!

And this past weekend, I had my first opportunity to go out into the community to talk about nutrition.  One of my close friends here is an assistant student chef who volunteers in the Providence area doing nutrition demos, teaching children to make nutritious snacks, etc.  Last Saturday, she was assigned her first demo without a supervisor so she asked me to tag along.  The "nutritious" menu was pre-set by the coordinator at the venue (which was a church in East Providence), so my friend and I had to figure out how to slap some health facts on chocolate-dipped strawberries and brie en croute.  Great.  Chocolate and pastry-wrapped cheese.  And the coordinator actually thought these foods were healthy!  We incorporated some information we had picked up in our academic nutrition class as well as our Nutrition and Sensory Analysis lab class, and I would say the demo went off without a hitch...or almost without a hitch. 

Before our presentation, my friend and I were in the kitchen getting our prep work ready when we realized that every single pilot was out on the stove.  We looked for a lighter and found only a small box of matches.  Neither of us felt like burning our hands with the 2-inch matches so I stepped up to the plate and assured her, "Don't worry.  I've got this."  Whenever this happens in class (as she well knew), you can easily roll a paper towel into a wand and use it as a stick to light the pilot.  So she lit the paper towel for me, and I lit one of the pilots.  I was feeling swift, so I decided to try to light a second one with the same paper towel.   1.)  Fire spreads very quickly.  2.)  Paper towel is excellent kindling.  3.)  I learned both 1 and 2 on Saturday.  Before you get any ideas, let me say that I did not actually cause a kitchen fire, but I certainly put on a show for my friend.  Within half of a second of trying to light the second pilot, my paper towel had gone up in a flame the size of the Olympic torch.  I huffed and puffed on it a few times until I realized I was only making the flame bigger.  I tried to smash it on the stove but only managed to force the flame closer to my hand and send embers flying all over the range.  I finally ran with that flaming paper towel as if I was running toward Vancouver and threw it into the sink just in the nick of time.  Meanwhile, my friend was crumbling on the floor in laughter.

Aside from that, it really was a success though.  We received great feedback from the church and the food turned out really well.  My friend demonstrated the strawberries and I presented the brie.  I felt like I was on the Food Network, and I now understand how difficult it is to cook and talk at the same time.  The demo had a Valentine's Day theme so we tried to incorporate that into the brie.  Here's the before:

And here's the finished product:


Record Breaking

"How long does it have to stay up for the record to be broken?" 

"The top looks like it's leaning." 

"There's no way that last piece is going to balance."

I heard these doubtful remarks reverberate through the anxious crowd as I watched Chef Ciril Hitz, Chair of Johnson and Wales' Baking and Pastry Department attempt to break the world record for the tallest bread structure yesterday.  Chef Hitz began planning this day months ago, but his nerves seemed surprisingly calm through the hours he spent constructing the tower yesterday.  TLC brought in their filming crew to document the assembly for a special they plan to air in the coming months.  I won't lie.  I tried to strategically place myself in hopes that I'll be in the special, so I'm crossing my fingers that it actually worked.

Around 8 am yesterday morning, a team of students began wheeling carts of ornately decorated dead dough into the lobby of the recreation center.  I was working in the lobby distributing refreshments to prospective students and parents between their information sessions, and this job provided me with front a front row seat for the assembly.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the construction was hidden behind folding walls, but there was a balcony overlooking the production area, so I was able to snap a few pictures from above before filming began.  Below is a shot of Chef Hitz showing the film crew where the base of the structure will be placed.  You can see the undecorated bread columns on the tables to his left and behind him.

Construction took nearly 6 hours, and I had to leave in the middle for a few hours but was able to return for the record breaking moment.  The structure at this point was around 16.5' tall, so it was easy to see the assembly over the folding walls that were set up.

Here's a shot of Chef Hitz placing the record-breaking piece which brought the total height of the structure to 18' 5".  That's one HUGE bread structure!

I haven't ever made a bucket list, but I think that witnessing a world record being broken would be a pretty cool thing to have on that list.  I suppose I can mark it off now though!  It was too crowded with people and ladders for me to get a decent picture of just the structure, but I plan to get one in the next few days so look for it in my album later in the week.


And my chef exclaimed, "What the hell?!"

I was paralyzed when those words escaped from my chef's mouth as he passed my group's table today.  We were just finishing up the plating of our dishes so I rapidly went through a mental plating checklist.  Table?  Sanitized and clear of any evidence of food prep.  Hands?  Gloved because we were handling ready to eat food.  Uniforms?  Each of us had our hats and aprons on.  I glanced up, and each of my group members' expressions mirrored my bewilderment.  What on earth were we doing wrong?  Before I had a chance to ask, he gave the second half of his comment: "Those plates look fantastic!"  Each of our heart rates returned to normal, and smiles spread across each of our faces, especially given how the last two days have gone...

This class is unlike any class that I've had at Johnson and Wales so far.  Whereas most of my kitchen-based classes have been very structured, this one is almost entirely free-form.  We develop the recipes and we design the plates.  Each day we are given a broad framework, i.e.  "Today your group will be making stewed pork tenderloin and vegetable tamales with pico de gallo and an orange jicama salad."  Then we are on our own.  Of course the chef is available for questions and guidance, but aside from that we roam freely. 

Now back to why the last two days have not been so great:  On Monday, we were assigned poached pork and were asked to prepare broccoli and beets in a healthy way for side dishes.  Our chef prepared the starch.  While that doesn't sound difficult, our group was somewhat disorganized and lacked communication.  We all attempted to work on all of the dishes at the same time, but no one was accountable for each element.  Therefore, our broccoli was left in the combi oven to steam for over 10 minutes.  Anyone who knows anything about broccoli cookery knows that 12+ minutes of steam time yields olive-colored mush.  Wonderful.  So we had to redo that.  Our poaching liquid was incredibly bland which yielded bland pork.    And to top it off, with 5 minutes to spare before our plates were due, I realized that when the chef said, "I'll provide the starch," it meant that we would have to flavor it.  I quickly grabbed some dried cranberries and an orange.  I juiced the orange over our cous cous, zested some pretty orange zest curls into it, and tossed in some dried cranberries.  We only had one food processor for the whole class, and it was not working properly so all of our sauces had the consistency of chunky salsa which looked horrible plopped on top of our plates.  I quickly threw this together for my plate, but I knew it wasn't the quality that he wanted.

Today was worlds better.  We were assigned the dish I mentioned above: pork tamales with pico and the orange jicama salad.  My group stewed the pork in an orange-cumin broth until fork tender.  We shredded it, blended it with adobe peppers, and topped it with a reduction of our orange stewing liquid before stuffing it into the corn husks with our masa harina tamale dough.  We worked hard on our orange salad to make sure we had different textures of ingredients as well as contrasting shapes and colors.  We did the same for our pico de gallo, and worked dilligently to finish on time.  It's only day 3 of plating, and everyone in our class has improved tremendously.  Though it could still use some work, I was very happy with the way my plate turned out.

We ended up using my group member Ana's plate for our show plate (the plate we show to the class for critique) because she was the only one who thought to unwrap the tamale before plating.  It looked awesome!  Take a look:

I would be more than satisfied if this was put in front of me at a restaurant.  And to top it off, the chef said it tasted great. It was well-seasoned and the flavors mixed well.  The sweetness of the orange-jicama salad.  The spiciness of the tamale.  The tangy acidity of the pico.  Wonderful!  My chef keeps saying we will only get better from here, and I hope he's right.