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Chef Foster: Never underestimate the importance of good prep work for excellent results in the kitchen

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Food in general can be a very contemplative idea to consider. On a wide scale it is fraught with all sort of connotation, subtext, innuendo and opinion.

Food can range from being apolitical to rabidly partisan and in many cases it can divide regions of the country and connected families that live in those regions. We write columns, form social networks, write blogs and review (sometimes for pay) restaurants in our area to supply data to search engines devoted to food and where to find it.

None of these reasons are why I got into food. While I may advocate for many things that are food related and impact me directly, I got into food because I love the process. Photo shoots and food shows, national awards and book deals are relatively new found high profile perks to our profession. Good for the ego and perhaps the checkbook they will not help you prep for a busy night or clean out a balky grease trap.

At some point you need to buckle down and work, actively put knife to board and pan to fire and re-connect with the passion of cooking.

What may have started as a hobby or an interest can only be truly vetted if you cook (active verb!).

Most good cooks love to prep. The step by step process of developing and then executing a recipe or an entire menu is one of the great challenges of our profession. If you want a career in food, then you need to realize that the journey starts bent over the cutting board, working on your knife cuts.

While there may be no glory in that there is certainly honor. When you prep your station fully you fulfill your team responsibilities and satisfy personal goals as well. If you take pleasure in the actual physical labor of the prep, the technical aspects of fabrication and knife work and the manipulation of ingredients the end result can be spectacular to the guest and equally so to you. This can be what keeps you going when the days are long, the criticism constant and the work messy.

Among my favorite prep activities at The Sage Rabbit is the making of fresh pasta. I have missed the opportunity to do this often as it tends to be snapped up by the day cooks. The enjoy it not so much as an escape from the kitchen, but an immersion into the very fabric of food.

While we do almost everything from scratch, the making of fresh pasta truly is a ground up endeavor. Flour, egg, cream and olive oil, as simple an ingredient list as can be with the potential for so many dishes and so many satisfied customers. Fresh pasta, in an historical as well as a culinary sense is ancient.

Evidence of pasta exists from the time of the Pharaohs. In certain parts of Asia, the art of noodle making is exactly that; an art, sometimes bordering on religion. In all aspects of the process there is opportunity to meditate, not in a spiritual sense per se but a tactile or intuitive sense.

Step by step, as you build the dough you consider each stage of the development as a point of reflection. Too much egg? Texture too pebbly, why? Why indeed. At Sullivan University we call this assessment, and it is the one major step that every culinary student must take on a daily basis in order to advance their skills and enhance their love for the method.

The inability for a culinary student to break the procedure down into small chunks of technical meditation is one of the reasons why some very talented students never get out of culinary school; they don’t practice the reflection needed to see and correct faults they may have in their skillset.

The simple art of pasta making can teach much more than the grand and intricate designs of haute cuisine because the process should allow for step by step chef critique and absorption by the cook/student. This differs very little by the impact it could have on the home cook, although there are different endgames for each.

For me at home the act of making fresh pasta is therapeutic, much like soup or sauce making. Immersed in the process everything else falls away with the end result being a nice family dinner.

At The Sage Rabbit or at Sullivan University, the focus remains on the quality, timing and detail of the finished product. Dishes are critically assessed, notes are given and, hopefully, improvements are made. Sadly in these instances the entire process can sometimes be sacrificed to the end result.

The lesson in all this is to enjoy the process. Cooking for a living is hard enough if we do not, somewhere along the line, stop and contemplate knife cuts, feel the smooth satiny texture of well-made pasta against your hands, or savor the aroma of chicken stock on the stove. There will be time to “bust things out” as we say, so enjoy the small spots of unfettered examination of your handiwork, it can be incredibly rewarding.

Fresh Pasta

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 medium eggs
1 TBL. Olive oil
1 TBL. Cream (or water for a lighter texture)

This recipe has been adapted from several different recipes to accommodate time and space constraints. There are other more intricate recipes that involve more ingredients and detailed steps. That is probably why I love this recipe so much, it’s all about the process.

Whisk the wet ingredients together until combined, sift the flour into a large bowl. Form a well in the center of the flour and pour the liquid into the center. With bare, clean hands fold the flour into the liquid, watching it spill over the sides until you start to combine the wet and dry. Slowly continue to run one hand around the side of the bowl while the other hand works to combine the two bases.

Take your time, do not create too much warmth or activate too much gluten by rushing though this step. When all of the liquid is bound by flour, take both hands and start to scrape the dough into a large ball in the center bottom of the bowl. Pull the dough ball up to you and fold over, combining the mixture more thoroughly, without kneading it on the bench. Be careful not to leave behind patches of wet dough or pockets of flour.

If you find yourself running out of moisture or the dough is too wet you can adjust. Bear in mind, though, that the dough needs time to rest and this will allow for a more even distribution of moisture to flour. What may seem to be dry at the beginning may be just right when we go to roll it out.

At this point the dough should be ragged, but holding together. Cover it and let it rest while you set up the roller. This is the point that I differ from most, I don’t bench knead, I let the powerful pasta rollers do the kneading for me. Unfortunately if you don’t have a pasta roller and have to use a rolling pin you will want to knead the dough to get it uniformly smooth. If so, rest it twice as long covered so the gluten relaxes.

I start my rollers at the widest opening and work down to a number which yields a pasta sheet you can almost see through (approximately 1.5) I take my time by dividing the dough into 4 equal balls. Flatten them by hand and start rolling the dough through the machine. It may break a bit and be ragged at first but if the dough feels slightly sticky just press it back together by folding it in half and rotating the dough so the crease is to the side of the opening.

Roll it through again up to 5 times on the first setting, folding and rolling each time. You will see a marked difference as the dough will take on a smoothness the color ill become uniform and it should hold together. Move the roller’s opening down two slots and continue the same process. Do this only 2-3 times and then move the setting again another two slots. This time you will not fold the dough, simply run it through the opening and each time gently pull the dough out as it comes through. This will stretch the dough making it longer and somewhat more elastic.

After two runs through at this number finish with the final setting based on your use of the pasta. If it’s a stuffed pasta leave it a little thick; you can see the shape of your hand through the dough but not the definition of the knuckles or joints. If its string pasta then you want more translucency. Once you have completed the sheet lightly flour a flat cool surface and lay the pasta sheet on it. Do not cover it.

Over flouring to prevent it from sticking only adds raw flour to the dough resulting in clumps of flour in your dough. You are better off lightly flouring your hands to work with dough. Let the dough dry slightly on both sides before cutting, almost to a soft parchment stage. It should not crack when cutting but you may have to trim the edge before you run it through the cutters. At this point it can dry or you can cook it in boiling salted water for 90 seconds to 2 minutes until al dente. Cool it under cold water, rinse and coat lightly with oil. Store covered for several days.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit, in Lexington.

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