One of the reasons for doing the cooking course is to get myself to try and do things that, in the kitchen at least, scare me or I haven’t done before. While I will continue to adamantly refuse to do such things as bunging jumping or skydiving, I am willing to attempt to sack up in the kitchen, if not from the end of a giant rubber band or in the air. Last week it was cutting onions properly (which I still need to get a handle on–I just need my knives to be waaaaay sharper than they’ve been in the past). This week the fear to be faced was fire.
I love cooking with a gas stove–as anyone who loves to cook can attest to, it’s just far superior to electric stoves because you have far more control over the heat. To loosely quote Ray Bradbury, it’s a pleasure to burn (flames in the kitchen mind you, not books–I can’t get down with censorship). I love the power of turning that pretty blue flame up and down on the gas stove. Who doesn’t? That’s why mankind has always has a fascination with pyrotechnics. Fire is an amazing thing. It brings warmth, it allows us to eat something other than raw plants. It’s also dangerous, and that’s definitely part of the fun. There’s something very seductive about flames–their hues that run the spectrum from red, yellow, orange all the way through to violets and blues when you’re dealing with natural gas. Even white or clear at times depending on the kind of gas. It’s mesmerizing and soothing all at once–which also explains why local TV channels can get away with showing something as silly and cheesy as the Yule Log at holiday time each year.
But I have to admit that the possibility of explosion or gassing myself by forgetting to turn off the stove or not getting the flame lit fast enough is always in the back of my mind when I’m dealing with the gas stove. As much as I love and admire Sylvia Plath‘s writing, I do not want to emulate her end. I’m particularly freaked by the gas stoves and ovens you have to light yourself rather than by using the lighting mechanism in the appliance. I live in fear of the pilot light going out and having to relight it. Granted, this problem has probably been taken care of by most modern appliance makers and my landlady seemed confused when I asked her if I’d ever have to light the pilot or the oven of the Magic Chef model currently in my kitchen. But when I was in my early 20s and living alone for the first time in my own apartment while in grad school in Iowa City, Iowa, I had a gas stove I had to light. In a year, I don’t think I used the oven more than half a dozen times.
It just freaked me out too much to have to light the oven. I was convinced that I was going to blow up my apartment–even for the few seconds needed to light the damn thing. Of course, I made sure I had fireplace matches to do it with. No way was I going to get close to the pilot with a regular 2-inch long match and risk the chance of losing a finger or singing my arm hair up to the elbow or further. I still remember the little hole where the element was lit from. The oven had one of those black interiors with white freckles. An element ran along the floor of the oven, tracing the outline of the bottom, and then branching along the middle, like a drawing of two rectangles with curved edges drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, to keep the heat even throughout its entirety. In the middle of the floor at the top of the oven near the door, was a tiny little hole for lighting said element. You’d turn on the gas, put the match into the hole and voila the element would light. And each time I did it, I would stand back away from that hole as far as I possibly could (which wasn’t very far since there was a wall and window about 4 feet from the stove), and I’d expect that the flame would shoot straight out of the oven, turn the fireplace match to ash and jump out to leave me without eyebrows. Thankfully this never happened and the lighting process never ended up going off (so to speak) without a hitch, but that didn’t mean I didn’t expect it to happen each time I tried to make a frozen pizza.
So, week two of class covered stir-frying and sautéing, neither of which necessarily involve fire, that is until the sauteing technique crosses over from the simple act of getting the food to “jump” in the pan, to lighting it on fire, or flambé. I knew as soon as Chef/Instructor MikeC demoed the flambé’ technique that I needed to try it myself that day. So I convinced my cooking partner for the day that we, too, should try to flambé.
We were given a recipe to try–a sort of bananas foster sort of thing, but with ginger and toasted coconut. And the Chef brought out a big ol’ bottle of Jack Daniels to set aflame. Whoo!
We weren’t able to find all the ingredients the recipe required in the kitchen, but were told that part of taking the course was to also learn to better wing it in the kitchen and make up your own recipes. So I grabbed some bananas and white nectarines, chopped them dutifully with my newly minted knife skills (banana= chopping; stone fruit=slicing carefully around the pit on all four sides and slicing from there), threw in some agave nectar in lieu of honey and minced some ginger to go with. Toss together liberally to coat. Head to the stove and melt some butter. Saute the mixture (since that’s part 1 of today’s lesson) and pour about a shot’s worth of whiskey into a metal shot glass and get ready for flames.
The proper way to flambé is to first tip the sauté pan toward the flame on your stove. This heats the edge of the pan, but also sets up a nice little home for the alcohol vapors to gather in, because it’s the vapors that flame up. After tilting the pan and letting it warm up a bit, you can pour your booze into the pan toward the tilted edge and it will catch on fire. From there, shake the pan to disperse the vapors until there’s no more alcohol to burn. Simple, right?
A bit trepidatious, I let my partner go first. MikeC encouraged us to throw an entire shot glass’s worth of JD into the pan. Flame big or not at all! Once I’d seen that my partner could accomplish the task without losing any hair, I was ready to try it myself. I actually had to wait a good 10 minutes and keeping browning our bananas in butter because there was another group of three of our fellow aspiring amateur chefs taking turns flambeing their own ‘nanas. They were a bit wimpy though–each poured only a bit of JD into their pan each time–probably only a tablespoon or so rather than a good shot glass full.
Standing at arms’ length just as I’d done with the stove lighting years ago, I tilted our sauté pan and now caramelized bananas and nectarines toward the flame. Then I flipped over the shot glass quickly, dumping the booze into the pan. Whoosh! I got a bigger flame than anyone else, which I was simultaneously proud and afraid of. Then I shook that pan like nobody’s business, with my partner urging me on “Shake shake shake” until the flame died. What a rush! And now, having tried it, I may still be a bit intimidated by the fire, but I know I can do it and hopefully not burn down the house. I can try that shrimp fra diavolo recipe with cognac from Cook’s Illustrated that I’ve been wanting to make for years.
P.S. The bananas were great–especially the second batch from my flambé–the extra time to caramelize them while I had to wait for my classmates to flame their stuff made all the difference.