Today was no cake walk.
Today was Poultry Part 1.
Excited? Yes. I’ve never cooked with poultry before. And while I don’t eat it, our recipes looked awesome.
Nervous. Yes very.
Chef Chris Douglass (from Day 4 – Sauce) was back to lead us through our first butchering lesson.
The day started off quite mellow, with an in-depth discussion about birds – the different types, the way they are raised for eating, how they are humanely killed and prepared, and how they are purchased at restaurants.
Chef Douglass slowly demonstrated how to bone a chicken, expertly carving his boning knife around the sinewy carcass to partition the thighs, drumsticks, breasts, wingetts, and drumettes. He showed us how to take hold the knee with our thumb and crack the hip bone at the ball-and-socket joint, so that we could find the right place of separation. That it made a nice crunch. Yikes. Chef explained that in the restaurant world, meat is money, and that we should try to not leave any good meat on the carcass. He also pointed out that while the thighs are more delicious and more tender, the breast is the most valuable as far as market price goes.
Overall, I found this demonstration intriguing. It was interesting to see the anatomy of the animal so clearly. Okay not bad.
Next came the duck. This was quite a different story. The bird came wrapped in a white bag and when Chef lifted it out of the bag, a puddle of red juice remained. I found that
quite very bothersome. The bird was bigger, heftier, pale pink on the outside, and hued with deep maroons on the inside. Chef Douglass reached into the vent (the bottom of the bird where they make a big hole to clear out the insides) and pulled out the neck. My stomach seized, my arms stuck to my sides, and I shuddered. That was its neck. Then came a little bag of special things like the liver and gizzard. From the front row, I could smell a deep smell of something I did not enjoy so much. Oh boy.
Our turn. The first thing Chef said was, “Okay everyone hold up your hands. Got 10 fingers? Good. Make sure they are all there by the end of class.”
I set up my cutting board, got my sharp knives out, and went to go pick out my little chicken. It took me a few attempts to gather the courage to reach in and pick it up with my bare hands, but finally I did it. I patted it on its pale little bum and said, “Oh hey, baby.” (I find that talking to the situation always makes things less scary.)
In all honesty, I enjoyed boning the chicken. It was fascinating to examine the legs, the hip bones, and the sternum, as I sliced away at the sinewy skin. I wasn’t exactly chopping but rather gently tearing away the skin and tissue with my knife, as if I was cutting through thin paper. I appreciated that this bird was small, clean, and not daunting. I was not afraid of it. Not too much later, I had managed to cut everything the way Chef had ordered. Well that was successful! My classmates and I gathered all the extra fat and put it into a big pot for rendering. We tossed the carcasses into a big pot for stock.
Our next task was to roast a whole chicken. Quickly my team seasoned another young chap with EVOO, salt, pepper, garlic, plenty of fresh rosemary and thyme, stuffed him with lemons and popped him in the oven. Periodically, we checked his temperature, by sticking him in the leg and in the breast with a thermometer, waiting for him to reach at least 160 degrees. He turned out quite beautifully I thought.
Finally it was duck tales. After changing my cutting board, I confidently went to pick up my bagged duck. It was heavier than the chicken, but I knew that boning it consisted of the same general idea, so I was not worried. I flipped it on the breast side as Chef had shown and began to cut away the white paper. I saw a snippet of its little duck feet. Suddenly, my arms froze to my sides and my tummy dropped to rock bottom. I must have been making some kind of horrendous face as if I had been petrified by a basilisk because my friends across from me stopped their butchering and exclaimed, “Sonia, are you okay!? What’s wrong?” Then I don’t know how it happened, but the tears started rolling. I raced out from my station to the other side of the kitchen to take some deep breaths.
I was perplexed at my own emotions because I don’t even LIKE ducks all that much. I just think of them often when I see them at the Public Garden. I find them entertaining as they dunk their heads underwater with their rumps and little feet sticking up while looking for food.
Well, after some much needed comforting from our program coordinator Lisa and a nice sip of H2O, I went back into the battlefield with Chef by my side. I asked if he could remove the neck out of sight, and he kindly and swiftly did so. He also pulled out that bag of goodies for me we studied the tough gizzard muscle and soft liver together as my tears dried.
Feeling more confident, I began to cut into my duck. This was actually easier than the chicken for two reasons – firstly, it was bigger. Secondly, it had clear contrasting colors between the dark red meat and the pale skin, providing a clear outline of where to cut. I jumped and screamed a few times during the process when I saw a few undesirable puddles of blood around the shoulder region. (My amazingly supportive partner for the day, Caitlin, just so happened to be the only other vegetarian in our class. I could not have done it without her.) I emerged better off than I thought, with well-cut pieces of duck. My hands were covered in duck grease by the time I finished.
Some things that I learned:
- Duck fat is very expensive and very prized.
- The wishbone is the collarbone.
- Poultry is easier to work with when cold. As it heats up, it becomes more slippery.
- “Frenched bone” – this is where you expose the bone on the chicken/duck for aesthetic purposes.
- Chicken should cook until it reaches 160 degrees F.
- Rendering: this is where you cook all the skin and fat from the birds on a low heat to bring the fat together.
- To remove the skin from a whole tomato, score an X on the bottom, toss it in boiling water for 20 generous seconds, then in an ice bath. The skin should come right off.
- Never cut a chicken right after you pull it out of the oven. Otherwise the juices will leak out. Let it rest and let the juices come back into the meat.
- When you plate chicken, only put what is edible on the plate. No large sprigs of rosemary. Oops. No lemons with the skin on.
- Emotions are enigmatic and I have more courage than I thought.
While I was relieved to be finished with my butchering, my heart was still rather heavy, thinking about the ducks that I see everyday at the Public Garden. It did not help that our large pot of rendering duck fat bubbling on the back stove was filling the kitchen air with a heavy, fatty residue. Today was one of those tough days.
As I walked out of class, I was met with pouring rain and strong winds. I didn’t even bother to pull out my umbrella. It was too carefully tetras-ed in the bottom-most layer of my backpack beneath my box of lemon bars. And I just figured a nice, thorough, cathartic soak would only do me good.