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What's an "intermediate" cook?


Dave the Cook
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Over the last nine months, Janet Zimmerman (JAZ around here) and I have taught a three-day course called Kitchen Basics. We cover a lot of ground for kitchen newbs:

  • Equipment essentials
  • How to put together a pantry (including fridge and freezer staples)
  • A variety of cooking techniques explored through recipes: steaming, boiling, roasting, braising, shallow frying and sauteeing
  • Scientific foundations (again, using hands-on recipes): emulsions, reductions, browning, the Maillard reaction, salt effects
  • Cuts of meat and fish: where they some from and guidelines for knowing which techniques to apply to them
  • A variety of prep techniques

It's roughly four hours of seminar and eight of hands-on work. Everyone gets a reference packet (16 pages of basic information) and a set of recipes. It's been very well-received; all three sessions sold out and got excellent evaluations from the students. It's been so successful that we've been asked to teach an intermediate version of the class (hmm . . . this sort of presumes an expert version down the road, doesn't it?)

As much work as it is to put together and fine-tune, a class for beginners is straightforward: if you're teaching someone who knows very little, almost any information is helpful. Intermediates are more challenging -- we don't know what they know (or don't know); we don't have a good idea of their skill level; we're not sure what interests them.

So we're putting the questions to the best group of cooks we know: members of the Society. Where's the middle ground between the person who burns water and the person who makes their own olive oil powder? What should we cover? How should we cover it?

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Well, just off the top of my head...

Basic butchering techniques, like skinning fish and taking down whole chickens.

You could cover basic curing and brining, things like pork brines, salt cures for fish.

Confit techniques.

Quick pickles (you know, covered in vinegar/water/sugar)

Pan sauces?

Custards, both savory and sweet (quiche, creme brulee, etc)

Thats all I got for now....

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Rather than single food items (typical in "intro" classes), cover complementary dishes... this dish, that starch... or this protein, this veg... round out menu's with appies and desserts as well but think of balance and complentary flavors.

Brian Misko

House of Q - Competition BBQ

www.houseofq.com

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Congratulations to you and Janet on your success.

I think that a medium level cook would get jazzed (sorry, Janet!) by learning the basics of some fun techniques.

Preserving: Gravlax? Pickles? Chutney? Jam?

Baking: Absolutely! In addition to the suggestion about making a straightforward white loaf, show them puff pastry. It's the magic thing.

Smoking:I know you're a smoking SME.

Eggs: Souffles, creme caramel, zabaglione

Soup: From down-home to elegant

Sauces: Lots of choices here.

Pasta: Oh, that first bite of handmade fettucine!

I think a medium level cook wants to stretch his power and technique -- and come back with some wow-worthy new dishes.

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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Interesting question/challenge! My immediate thoughts:

I think that intermediate cooks make the leap from simply executing or "fixing mistakes" (e.g. oversalting, broken sauces) to innovating, adapting on the fly and making the good better.

Something that advances any cook more and more is their ability to put flavors and textures together while maintaining balance. And being able to pick apart why something is "off" or "missing something" and how to make it work.

I'm not quite sure how it could be done....an idea that comes to mind might be focusing on the different elements that make food enjoyable to us: visual appeal, smell/taste, and texture. Have exercises where the students practice tweaking dishes that are purposefully "off" and discover that there can be lots of ways to "fix" a dish or meal that is not balanced. Some session ideas:

- For visual appeal- start with a dish that is unpleasantly monotone and that has no dimension of the plate.

Then discuss:

-the appeal of combining colors

-how staying within a similar color family, when done properly, can actually be successful

-how to stack, structure, plate foods in interesting ways

Practice making dish/meal that really focuses on appearance e.g. composed salad

-For texture- start off talking about dishes where good versions are so reliant on the texture. Crispy fried foods. Silky sauces. Etc. But how a lack of combinations overall in a meal can lead to less satisfaction.

Discuss:

-the appeal of combining textures

-successful techniques for making food adequately creamy, crunchy, chewy, etc.

Practice making a dish that's really focused on texture combination e.g. creme brulee. Or an entire meal.....

Maybe I'm not making any sense. Or maybe what I'm getting at is still "too simple" or amorphous....but I think it's almost like trying to put together a class on how to build experience! By focusing on the sensory aspects of food, my opinion is that cooks, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable they are in techniques, can always push forward and innovate using at least the basics. Building more advanced techniques into this framework is also a definite possibility, like many aforementioned.

And then the sessions will naturally lend themselves to weaving with each other (e.g. fixing a dish that's marred by softness and sogginess isn't simply about throwing on something crunchy- it has to look good and taste good too!)

Congratulations, and good luck planning!

Edited by Sony (log)
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Not really knowing exactly what you've taught, I'm not seeing knife skills there, although there probably has been some of that. I know that in taking the technical courses at ICE, each section has built on what we learned in the past.

I'd agree with both maggie and sony in terms of "making the leap". They've got the foundations, teach them some tricks. Teach tasting. When is not enough salt? When too much? Teach how to become more creative with a recipe rather than just follow it.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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As best as I can tell, I'm just past "basic" headed into intermediate. What I am investigating now (it actually led me to this forum) are the different world cuisines and the spices/herbs that differentiate them. I'm just starting to scratch the surface of each cuisine and what spices/herbs influence them, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latin American, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Italian etc. It's more than executing the recipe, it's what they use and how it affects the taste/perception of food.

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Thanks for a bunch of wonderful suggestions; please keep them coming. We're going to discuss them and come back with some concrete ideas and more questions. As we develop the curriculum, we'll start post specific syllabus components for comment, too. In the meantime, I'm reminded of a few things that I should have explained. (And then I have another question!)

We definitely think that tying techniques and principles to recipes and menus is an effective teaching tool -- so much so that we're pretty sure that students are leaving class without having absorbed everything. For example, we teach this recipe in the Basics class. It's an opportunity to explain the concepts of reduction, browning, sweet-sour balance, and cooking with wine. It also lets students learn technique: searing, knowing when a sauce is reduced properly, fat separation, some knife work, salting and so forth. Then we pair the dish with cheese grits, and that comes with another set of points: starches and liquids, adding umami, how to punch up bland side dishes, menu balance, etc.

What we also do is make two big promises at the start of the class: that by the time they leave, they'll know how to make a great Hollandaise sauce, and that they'll know how to cook fish in a stainless steel pan without sticking. Based on comments we got after the first class, these are two big daunts for the beginner. (Fish period is a huge issue.) So in the second class, everyone makes Hollandaise sauce two ways: in a blender and on the stovetop. In keeping with the menu idea, we have them trim and steam asparagus -- an opportunity to discuss seasonality, locality (to some extent), green vegetables (chlorophyll, acids, salt0, steaming vs. boiling vs. grilling -- you get the idea. The thing is, those two accomplishments build confidence in an incredible way. When you see the smiles on students faces as they run a stripe across the back of a spoon of butter sauce, or watch them flip a filet without a bit of scraping -- well, it's the stuff that makes the trials of teaching worthwhile.

So here's my question: what techniques and/or recipes would be the intermediate equivalent of Hollandaise and pan-fried fish?

Finally, there seem to be three lines of thought in the topic so far: one that emphasizes improvisation; another emphasizes technique, and a third suggests ethnic/flavor/texture explorations. How do people feel about these categories? Are they all essential? Are they all intermediate-level endeavors?

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I think improvisation and technique are intertwined to a very large extent. Ethnic cusine/flavours/textures may be more a specialized type of course for those interested in a particular cusine. just my opinion.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Thanks for all the great suggestions.

A couple more points in addition to what Dave said:

I think baking is a great skill, but where we teach, baking classes and series are taught by others much more experienced than we are, so we're not planning to cover that.

We started with some very basic knife skills in the Basics class, and we'll definitely continue with more in this series. But, again, there's a dedicated knife skills class elsewhere in the curriculum, and so we don't want to duplicate that.

The suggestions to teach flavor and texture are great: we did a little bit of that throughout the basic series -- we made an asparagus soup, gave everyone a bowl of soup and a bowl of salt and had them add a few grains at a time to see the difference. It seemed to be a real awakening for most of our students. So suggestions about that sort of experience for the next level would be very helpful.

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You don't mention how to make stock in your course description. Homemade stock makes such a difference in the taste of a dish. Knowing how to make a white sauce and a brown sauce are also important for so many recipes.

Whipping egg whites--definitely, as in souffles and meringues. A BIG issue for most students.

Custards, as in not curdling. Making your own ice cream is a great pleasure for people, and it beats that overpriced, over-aerated product at the supermarket. People like creme brulee, too, and get a thrill from making their own.

Piecrust. I realize that baking is covered elsewhere in your teaching setup, but various savory dinner dishes incorporate pastry. In my observation, students need a lot of exposure to pastry making before they make piecrust well. Everyone has his/her own pastrymaking technique, also, and you never know which approach will finally make sense to a student. A little extra instruction on piecrust never hurt anyone.

Risotto. Always tough to get right. People also need to learn holding techniques for risotto, i.e., cooking the risotto until it needs one more ladleful of stock to cook thru, holding the risotto at that point, then adding that last ladleful and finishing the cooking when you're ready to serve.

Shellfish. Shucking fresh oysters and clams; debearding mussels; deveining shrimp. How to shop for shellfish. People need to learn to be comfortable handling and cooking shellfish. You could try crab and lobster, too, but maybe save that for the Advanced class that sounds like it will be in your future. :biggrin:

Chocolate. Again, probably covered in baking, unless you do a chocolate custard. A tricky ingredient to cook with, and students benefit from some specific instruction. They also love to taste samples and compare chocolates. Do you think they care that it's not a baking class? HA.

Deep-frying. Everybody's bugaboo (including Julia Child).

Finally, there seem to be three lines of thought in the topic so far: one that emphasizes improvisation; another emphasizes technique, and a third suggests ethnic/flavor/texture explorations. How do people feel about these categories? Are they all essential? Are they all intermediate-level endeavors?

Certainly technique and ethnic/flavor/texture explorations. A reprise on proper salting is always a good thing, too. But I would emphasize technique, so people have the basic skills to cook anything.

Edited by djyee100 (log)
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I would so agree about the improvisation part. Thinking outside of the box, as it were, to coin a cliche. I'm a FANTASTIC cook if I have a recipe to follow, and probably 85-90% of the time, I can read a recipe and know if it will work, and if I'll like it. But I am mostly totally flummoxed where there's no recipe. I've got the basic techniques down...I know how to make a pan sauce, a vinaigrette, a simple tomato sauce for pasta, roast veggies, etc. But which FLAVORS go with others eludes me....how to balance contrasting flavors and aromas and tastes, and which are complimentary or enhance each other. Those are a mystery to me and I've looked and looked and looked for a class like this in my area to no avail.

I guess I'd describe it as developing my creative palate.

If I were in Atlanta, JAZ and Dave, I'd be your first student !

--Roberta--

"Let's slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry Martini" - Robert Benchley

Pierogi's eG Foodblog

My *outside* blog, "A Pound Of Yeast"

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Congrats guys! Sounds like a real hoot!

Wouldn't opening up with a review of the first course be appropriate? Perhaps even just listing the techniques learned in the first class, and then building a menu that includes dishes that comprise a couple of the already learned techniques in a new application? You would get some reinforcement of previously learned skills, and opportunity to improvise in creating the menu from a list of ingredients available, and some class interaction and discussion that should break the ice. It would leave an awful lot of unknowns open though, and you probably don't want too many surprises with the limited time you have to prepare. It would also give you a chance to identify areas that the students are not retaining from the beginner class, with an eye towards revising the beginner curriculum and improving it.

Don't forget to leave room to work up to your advanced class, and then of course, your "Masters" class! :biggrin:

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Have you guys seen Tom Colicchio's book, "Think Like a Chef"? To me, that seems like a great theme for an intermediate cooking class: learning how to start thinking like a chef. Some of the best illustrations in the book are Colicchio's "trilogies," sets of three ingredients that form the basis for all sorts of different dishes and techniques. For example: lobster, peas and pasta. He has four or five recipes for that trilogy, ranging from risotto to ravioli. He also used to teach a class at Macy's where in just a couple of hours he did like six recipes with those three main ingredients.

Another book well worth consulting is Gray Kunz's "The Elements of Taste." Again, this is a book that goes beyond standard cookbooks and starts getting much more into the theory of cooking.

I'd also suggest some debunking of "old wive's tales" ala McGee as a helpful component of an intermediate class.

In terms of nomenclature, I think "intermediate" is good for a course designation, but in my mind people who've got a decent grip on the basics but aren't going to go on the professional track are "advanced amateurs." That's how I'd characterize a very large segment of the cooks who are eGullet Society members, myself included.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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But which FLAVORS go with others eludes me....how to balance contrasting flavors and aromas and tastes, and which are complimentary or enhance each other.  Those are a mystery to me and I've looked and looked and looked for a class like this in my area to no avail.

I guess I'd describe it as developing my creative palate.

If I were in Atlanta, JAZ and Dave, I'd be your first student !

We tried, in our basic class, to do a little of this, without making a lecture of it. This material from my Taste and Texture eGCI courses is what we draw on. Is that the sort of thing you mean?

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Further on the definition of "intermediate": as I often do, I'm analogizing from my erstwhile days as a musician. A musician who can improvise -- successfully -- is advanced. To me, it should be our job as teachers to help students build the solid foundation necessary for improvisation -- the equivalent of getting comfortable with scales and modes, modulation, tempo and volume, and a variety of time signatures. I'm not sure that we can actually teach improvisation; we can only help cooks develop the necessary skills and mindset. To put it another way (more music here): the songwriter Paul Simon to aspiring composer is that when you get stuck on something, go back and work on the parts you understand, and the tough things will get easier. My takeaway from that is that if you're having trouble creating, it's possibly because you're not comfortable with the underlying essentials. Master those, and your mind is freed to wander comfortably. Am I off base?

This has all been extremely helpful. One concept we're working on, thanks to a combination of ideas expressed here, is to start with a whole chicken and, as qwerty says, take it down -- to wings, thighs, legs and breasts. Then we'd load up a pot with the carcasses to get a stock going for later use. The rest of the parts would be used in recipes throughout the class.

We might be able to combine lessons on technique and ethnicity (as well as a little improvisation). For example, we could use the thighs in a simple saute with the student's choice of acid/aromatic/herb/spice, such as wine vinegar/shallot/tarragon; sherry vinegar/garlic and ginger/soya; or lime juice/onion/oregano and cumin. We could poach the legs or breasts and use them to make chicken and dumplings or a pot pie (which might mean learning about biscuit dough). Nothing carved in stone here -- what do peeps think?

Mario Batali says (something like) "the quality of your meal is determined once you leave the grocery store," and to a large extent, we agree with that. One issue we're having trouble with is how to teach shopping in the classroom environment. Any ideas?

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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If you think in terms of the end result, an "intermediate" home cook should be able to compose, prep and execute a reasonably advanced three course meal for say four guests with good timing between dishes.

I think you should structure the course around that. You will of course choose dishes that demonstrates various useful techniques, requires knife skills etc.

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Mario Batali says (something like) "the quality of your meal is determined once you leave the grocery store," and to a large extent, we agree with that. One issue we're having trouble with is how to teach shopping in the classroom environment. Any ideas?

Without actually agreeing with the premise, one thing I'd propose would be to find a few ingredients where you can taste several examples at different rungs of the quality ladder. Things like mozzarella cheese and chocolate. When people come face to face with dramatic quality differences, it may help them to be more selective in their shopping.

(At the same time, there are plenty of ingredients where paying more is a waste of money from a flavor perspective.)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm not sure you need teach more technique. although I would put in a casefor sous vide, and accurate temperature control.

The thing that distinguishes a pro from an amateur is to be able to crank it ou the same, every time, and to understand the economics.

A cook making a dinner party for friends is quite different to restaurant cooking, or even catering.

So I would teach costings, portion control, structure of the industry, purchasing, marketing, health and safety, and skills, including knife skills that enable fast, volume and accurate cooking.

That will sort them out.

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I would like to take a class where a dinner similar to that I might normally make is improved using tips and techniques that an average-to-intermediate home cook, like me, might not know.

The only cooking class I ever took was advertised as something like that. We were going to learn how to “fix” dishes by tweaking things like salting and spicing at the end. What a joke – the instructor stood up front tasting and tweaking while we sat in 6 feet away, in rows of chairs, watching. We never got a bite and so had no idea what she was actually doing to the food.

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  But which FLAVORS go with others eludes me....how to balance contrasting flavors and aromas and tastes, and which are complimentary or enhance each other.  Those are a mystery to me and I've looked and looked and looked for a class like this in my area to no avail.

I guess I'd describe it as developing my creative palate.

If I were in Atlanta, JAZ and Dave, I'd be your first student !

Pierogi hit it on the head. I'm not very good at getting to the point sometimes. It's not necessarily the ethnicity of the food but the flavoring. Cardamom, cinnamon, fenugreek, saffron, allspice, mint, etc. How things harmonize or dominate. I'm comfortable with typical Italian seasonings and becoming more familiar with Mexican/Latin American seasonings but I want to expand my palate.

I'll second Pierogi as I'd be your second student.

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I also think the b est course is to stress principles & techniques that can be applied as universally as possible.

You seem to have aspects of it here and there, but I think fundamental to any good cook's progress is an understanding of balancing flavors. Something along the lines of Kasma's exercise would be a huge help to many intermediate cooks.

You could further extend this concept to the meal itself, incorporating things like how to prepare a balanced meal with dishes that have complimentary seasonings and use a wide variety of cooking methods.

As you mentioned, product selection is also paramount. A few ideas that come to mind are talking about the local food climate: what stores are good for what, rules of thumb for telling a good store from a bad one, etc. You could also go out and buy a bunch of supplies from a variety of different stores with good examples and bad examples. For example some slightly soft, scuffed and marked bell peppers versus shiny and firm bell peppers. You could also integrate this to an extent with pantry setup and food storage. For example you could have two bags of green onions left in the fridge for a week before class, one having been put away wet and one dry. And you could talk about general principles of food selection: picking heavy fruit, buying corn and asparagus the same day you are going to cook it, where freshness matters and where it doesn't etc. Or along the lines of Fat Guy's suggestion, how to choose an appropriate level of quality for a particular dish.

I don't know to what extent you've addressed it already in your class, but one thing a lot of cooks (good ones even) fail to grasp in my experience is where your flavor base comes from. This is one of the things I struggled with initially when not following a recipe. Anything that could elucidate the importance of the origins of flavor would a good start in my opinion. Something that lets them understand the difference between onions briefly fried and caramelized onions, between a carefully prepared stock and canned broth, the difference between frying your spices in hot oil before adding you broth and just adding them to your soup.

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JAZ and Dave, YES YES AND YES !

JAZ, I have to admit I didn't read all of your tutorials on TASTE and TEXTURE (it's late, I've had one too many glasses of wine :wink: and I have a dog on my lap which makes typing and concentrating {well} a challenge) but I will, because in scanning them, they look amazing.

Dave, I LOVE, love, love your music analogies. Even I, tone deaf though I am, could probably be taught to play "Chopsticks" on a Steinway, just by rote. Would it sound like "Rhapsody in Blue" played by Dave Brubeck.........eh, not so much, but it would be good for what it was.

Culinarily (is that a word? it should be........) I can play "Chopsticks". I'm FABULOUS at cooking by rote. I know I'll never be able to play "Rhapsody" or be Dave Brubeck (or Jacques Pepin, or Rick Bayless, or La Diva Julia, but I can dream......) but I'd sorta like to be able to maybe riff on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star".

THAT's the sort of class *I'm* lookin' for.

Again, in a nutshell, the challenges on all the reality cooking shows make me twitch. I'd like to be able to at least not go into a flop sweat when I'm confronted with good fresh ingredients, a pretty advanced pantry of canned and dried staples, and an above-average spice cabinet and be able to say *wow, I could do XXXXXX*. Right now, I really can't. I'm thinking in terms of art.....yellow & blue make green. Basil and garlic make...? Red and blue make purple. Thyme and lemon make....? Like a color wheel of flavors.......

....Maybe it's something that can't be taught? I hope not, because I'd really like to evolve along those lines.

--Roberta--

"Let's slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry Martini" - Robert Benchley

Pierogi's eG Foodblog

My *outside* blog, "A Pound Of Yeast"

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I would consider myself an intermediate cook. I'm very comfortable with some of the things others have mentioned. I'm a home cook, btw. I love the shellfish idea. It intimidates me. Ingredients, certainly. What makes X better than Y? I own quite a few books on that subject, but still struggle with it. Knife skills, absolutely. I have taught myself any knife skills I know and they need work.

What about balancing flavors on a plate? I know a well balanced set of flavors when I taste them, but I don't always think out menus with balance in mind. I also want to know more about in season, locally produced food and where to get it. I have a store I shop at that import their strawberries in June. That's prime strawberry season here.

What to stock in the intermediate pantry. What flours, etc. My pantry looks very different from my sister's who is a beginner cook and my pantry is nothing compared to what some people here stock.

Baking, to me, is a separate art and if you're already doing a selection of baking classes, that's probably covered.

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