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My Fleeting Career as a Kitchen Professional

Posted Aug 24 2008 9:37pm

Time to confess: I’ve worked in a professional kitchen.

Granted it was a mere five weeks, but it felt like a perpetuity.

I was eighteen, a first year student at college. Given that my brother and sister were also in college, and that my family is not landed gentry, I was on scholarship and, hence, granted work-study as part of my financial aid package. My duty? Report to the cafeteria, post-haste.

It sounded like a reasonable gig. I loved to cook, and was used to helping in the kitchen at home. So with a smile and a hairnet, I set to mopping floors, serving lasagna, and stocking and cleaning the salad bar like nobody’s business. I found the institutional smell of the place—an unforgettable combination of industrial cleaner, fetid cooking oil, and warmed-over food—revolting, but I made myself buck up and get the job done. I was a good worker; or so I thought.

Frances had a different opinion. Frances was my manager, and it didn’t take long for me to learn that the college cafeteria was a minor fiefdom under her exclusive rule. M’lady didn’t have much use for any of her workers, and I was no exception.

Frances could have been anywhere from fifty to eighty. She was thin and petite, with a long neck, rounded shoulders, and a pronounced stoop. She had a penchant for unflattering polyester blouses with bows at the neck, accompanied by matching suits that emphasized a surprisingly large rear end. She had a pained, sardonic countenance, deeply sunken cheeks, and a puff of frizzy, drab hair bifurcated by one of a collection of brightly colored plastic headbands. All of this gave her an air of ridiculous tragedy, belying the tyrant truth.

As we chopped, sliced, served, and cleaned, before, during and after each meal service, Frances roamed the kitchen, gripping her ubiquitous cup of black coffee (I never saw her eat), sneaking up on her workers with the silent assistance of thick-soled orthopedic shoes.

“Hell are you doin’?!” was her preferred greeting for one and all. Almost as frequent were “hey lazybones,” “you’d better start respecting this,” and the ever-cheering “are you this pitiful at everything?” It was as bad as you can imagine. Possibly worse

I now understand, after reading books such as Kitchen Confidential , Heat , and Roasting in Hell's Kitchen , that terror and intimidation are de rigeur in professional kitchens. But I was neither ready, nor willing, for such abuse. Beginning college and moving 3000+ miles from home were upsetting enough. So with the blessings of my parents, I gave Frances due notice and subsequently found both solace, and good pay, in babysitting.

Ironically, leaving the professional kitchen led to more time in home kitchens, namely the kitchens where I babysat. It didn’t take more than a hesitant request to one set of parents. After a short time, my babysitting families were delighted to let me use their kitchens, especially if it included making dinner or treats for their wee ones. I can still remember the first batch of cookies I made there—plain old oatmeal. It had been almost three months since I’d cooked or baked anything more than instant cream of wheat in my dorm room, and more than a month since I’d escaped Frances’s regime. The rising scent of brown sugar and butter was like a warming embrace.

My five weeks in the cafeteria had trained me in one area: I always scrubbed the kitchen to a sparkle when I was finished. Looking back, I’m sure doing so facilitated my continued babysitting employment and use of the kitchens. Perhaps Frances, and my brief spell as a kitchen professional, deserve greater reference and gratitude after all.

Stuffed Red Peppers with Lebanese Spices & Yogurt

Ground beef was one of the first foods I used as a blank tableau for playing with flavors, even back in college. Adding it to stuffed peppers is always a winner. I like to change the tastes of my stuffeed peppers according to my whims, so this time, it is my basic quick recipe with the additions of a trio of Lebanese spices: cumin, allspice and cinnamon. In place of cheese, a dollop of plain yogurt offers a bright and tangy counterpoint to the spicy filling. It made for a great Sunday night dinner tonight!

1 cup low-sodium beef broth

1/2 cup uncooked quick-cooking barley (I use Quaker or Mother’s brands)

2 large red bell peppers

1/2 pound extra lean ground beef

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 green onions, minced, divided use

1/2 cup purchased marinara sauce (any variety)

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup plain lowfat yogurt

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bring beef broth and barley to a boil in a small saucepan. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

While barley cooks, cut each bell pepper in half lengthwise, and discard seeds and membranes. Arrange bell pepper halves in a 9-inch pie plate. Cover with heavy-duty plastic wrap. Microwave 5 minutes (on HIGH), or until crisp-tender; drain.

Cook beef, mushrooms, and garlic in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 4 minutes or until browned, stirring to crumble. Add barley, half of the green onions, marinara sauce, cumin, salt, allspice, cinnamon and black pepper; cook 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Divide beef mixture evenly among pepper halves. Bake 10 minutes. Serve each with a dollop of yogurt on top, remaining green onions and orange zest. Makes 2 servings (serving size: 2 stuffed pepper halves)

Camilla’s Notes: (1) This recipe is easily doubled or tripled; (2) I am including both halves as one serving, but honestly, one half is usually enough for dinner, especially if you have a salad on the side (save the second half for lunch); (3) Look for quick-cooking barley where rice is sold in the supermarket. The Quaker and Mother’s brands (the latter is a division of the former, so they are exactly the same) come in round containers, similar to oatmeal.

Nutrition per Serving (2 stuffed pepper halves):

Calories 410; Fat 13.6g (sat 5.4g, mono 6.4g, poly 1.4g); Protein 34g; Cholesterol 74mg; Carbohydrate 51.7g; Sodium 655mg.

(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1 )
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