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Gastronomy

Among the many things I learned this past summer from my chef and sous chef at the golf club was the importance of working cleanly. This sounds like a no-brainer, a given, a goes-without-saying element of cookery. It is — though “working cleanly” doesn’t really capture the paramount importance they place on it.

For working cleanly isn’t just a means to avoiding a run-in with the health inspector; no, working cleanly — and I mean crystal — is the foundation of their overall philosophy about cooking. And it’s one I now share, even if it means my hands are dried and cracked, having been exposed to various cleaners, soaps, sanitizers and disinfectants on a daily basis for months.

Working cleanly means being organized.

A disorganized cook — who doesn’t think about how she or he is doing something, anything, even the simplest of tasks — will inevitably prepare messy food and produce even messier plates.

Being organised requires planning, foresight and attention detail.

For every action — be it peeling carrots, transferring a hot liquid from one vessel to another, handling raw meat — the organised cook considers all aspects of it: what’s involved; how best to use utensils and other necessary equipment; ensuring these tools have been gathered in advance; moving deliberately yet carefully to avoid spillage, slippage, seepage or stupid mistakes.

Of course, all of these measures mustn’t impede swiftness.

And therein lies the great great challenge of working cleanly: doing so as fast, if not even faster, than the cook who cuts corners for the sake of expediency.

Have I mastered the art of working cleanly? Am I supremely organized when I cook? Do I move with the speed and grace of a cheetah? Hell no!

Am I a fierce adherent to my chef’s philosophy? Absolutely.

If only I could find a holster for my can of Comet

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I kid.

Alice Waters‘ contribution to the culinary arts is remarkable, to say the least. The chef of the world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California has done more for food, for eating, for restaurants, and for the nutrition of America’s children than most. Among her many accomplishments: making micro, mixed and field greens a staple of salad plates at homes and restaurants across North America.

You know the ones I’m talking about: chervil, arugula, endive, baby spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche, radicchio, sorrel; often, together or in any combination thereof referred to as mesclun.

And it’s for that reason I shake my fist at her: among my many tasks this summer: picking through cases of mesclun to rid them of even the tiniest wilted leaf, bit of rot, or dead fruit fly.

Of course, no one wants that on their plate or, worse, in their mouth; it’s just the ubiquity of these greens — they’re the standard mix for most tossed salads nowadays and available in the produce section of even the smallest grocery stores — means we have to bring in so many cases, and the task of picking through them so long and tedious.

Hours pass, cases emptied, leaves sorted, greens repacked for service. My back aches, my eyes blurry.

To be fair, Chef Waters, herself, has acknowledged what she’s wrought:

I’m sure I have contributed to the awful demise of the concept of mesclun, just by promoting it in many, many, many ways. And now, of course, one of those big companies has grabbed on to the idea, and they cut up big lettuces and put ’em in a bag, mix ’em up, and call ’em mesclun.

And indeed she has a point about what passes for mesclun now that it’s gone mainstream and mass-market. Still, it’s little consolation when dinner service is about to commence and I’m staring at a half dozen cases of the stuff yet to be gone through.

So I say, forget mixed greens; this season my vote’s for a simple, single green salad of arugula. Who’s with me?

Apropos of nothing, I thought I’d take a moment to document the varying degrees of doneness of red meat.

Blue-Rare does not, as the name might suggest, mean your meat is blue. (Have you ever even heard of a mammal, let alone any animal in the entire kingdom, with blue flesh? Honestly, people!) On the contrary, blue-rare means your meat is seared on the outside and completely red throughout.

Rare is rare, not raw. The outside is seared and it is 75% red throughout the centre. A better choice for leaner cuts, and a true celebration of the animal and its sacrifice for our dining pleasure. Not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for those who like their meat tough, miserable and grey.

Medium-Rare, my personal favourite (except when it comes to a bone-in rib-eye steak, which ought to be medium, in my humble opinion), means the outside is seared and the interior is still 50% red. Again: the interior is 50% red. Not pink. Not brown. Red.

Medium is seared on the outside with 25% pink showing inside. Yup, medium still has colour, folks. A gorgeous pink colour. If you don’t want your steak to look like the image to the right, don’t order it medium. In fact, don’t bother with steak at all; order chicken.

Medium-Well, which is, well, tragic, merely offers a slight hint of pink on the inside. Frankly, we’re approaching shoe-leather territory. It is worth noting, however, there remains a slight hint of pink inside the meat. If you’re ordering your steak medium-well because you’re too ashamed to actually order it well-done, below, see above re chicken.

Well-Done, sacrilegious, is broiled until 100% brown. This is the end of the road. There’s nowhere to go but out the door and to a McDonald’s. Honestly. This animal died so we could cook it and eat it, and you want to annihilate it? And what of the sweat and tears by the farmer, the butcher, and the chef, raising, slaughtering and respecting the meat from cradle to plate?