It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything. And I know it sounds pretty cliche to say “I’ve just been so busy,” so let me just say “I’ve just been so busy.” We are now through week 4 of Basic Cuisine. It’s a 10-week semester so I’m almost half done with my first semester at Le Cordon Bleu!
I realized this week that maybe, just maybe, I can pull this thing off. Yes, the practicals this week were plenty challenging. They continue to build on the concepts and techniques that we learned in the previous lessons. And the recipes are becoming more demanding, and require more multitasking in the kitchen, but on the other hand, I feel like I am really starting to learn how to cook, the right way, and that realization has injected a new energy into these long days.
By now some of the basic building blocks I once struggled with and feared, things like making different sauces from stocks, use of various thickening techniques, deglazing, grilling, roasting etc., are all internalized and pretty much second nature. There is now a sense of freedom not to be bound by some of that detail, and I feel like I can start to think about “cooking” at a more holistic level. What do you know? I guess I’m actually learning something!
Last week started out with a Crab Bisque. The intent of this lesson was to get us used to extracting the full flavor from seafood, and to learn the techniques for making, seasoning and thickening a proper bisque. We used something called velvet swimming crabs and of course, when we got to the kitchen, they were alive and crawling around their little plastic bin. We had to pick out 8-10 of them, wash them and then throw them live into hot oil. As if that wasn’t cruel enough, after we fried them alive we crushed them in the pan with the blunt end of a rolling pin in order to expose their “crab-ish” flavor.
The trick was to pick them up from the back where their claws couldn’t reach you. But it seems as though one of the little bastards I chose had extra long legs and he took a little nick out of my finger. I had no problem tossing him into the hot oil and hearing him sizzle. The overall dish was not a problem. I did have trouble getting it to the proper thickness, so I kept cooking it down until I eventually thought I may have burnt the rice flour which I used for thickening. But it turns out I was complemented by the chef for having the perfect color, texture and taste.
Second on the agenda last week was a beef consomme. I found this interesting. The whole point was to learn how to take a beef stock and clarify it to a beautifully clear and flavorful broth. At that point consomme can be used as a building block for a variety of things such as making gelatins, which we will have to do soon. The process is actually quite complex. To stock, you add egg white, ground beef and some mirepoix and other seasonings. As the stock cooks, the ingredients form a shell on top of the liquid which you then use to filter the liquid and fat to obtain the clear consomme. I ended up with a perfectly clear broth, but the chef criticized me for having it seasoned poorly.
Practical number 3 last week called for Grilled Salmon and Potatoes Byron. (I apologize for not having photo’s of all of the dishes. Sometimes it is just too hectic to try and get the camera out and snap a photo.) The purpose was to teach us how to properly grill fish. That’s the kind of stuff I know I’ll find useful when I get home. My fish turned out fabulous. It amazes me that by doing just a couple of little things properly when cooking, you can quite easily get a professional result.
The Potatoes Byron was interesting. It called for us to mash potatoes, mix in butter, egg and cream, pipe them out to parchment paper on a baking pan using a pastry bag, then fill them with a sauce bechamel, top with shredded cheese and bake them in the oven. It’s a little more work, but I’ll never make ordinary mashed potatoes again.
Finally last week, we made what was the most complex recipe so far. Stuffed Veal Escalopes with glazed carrot and pearl onions.
This practical called for us to pound out and flatten chunks of veal into escalopes, create a ground veal filling with various seasoning, stuff the filling into the escalope making a little pocket, wrap the escalope in pork back fat (yes, it tastes as good as it sounds!) and tie it up with butcher string for cooking. The cooking method for the veal was to “braise” it and then take the cooking liquid and make a cognac reduction which was finished with butter (also as good as it sounds). We accompanied the veal with glazed “turned” carrots and pearl onions. Turned carrots are basically carrots that are whittled down into the shape of a little rugby ball. It takes a very precise and time consuming bit of knife work to do this. The glazing was accomplished by poaching the carrots in a small amount of water, adding some sugar and reducing the water out, creating a sparkling sweet glaze on the carrots. The carrots needed to be blonde but the onions needed to be brown glazed. I ended up also browning my carrots, but my veal and especially the cognac reduction was perfect!
The Art of Eating in Paris
So far, one of my favorite things about this city is the food in the cafes. When you mention french food to people, they immediately think of beef tartare, foie gras, snails (which are excellent by the way), and all sorts of strange things that Americans just aren’t used to eating. But the real essence of going out to eat in Paris is all about the cafe food. These wonderful cafes are everywhere, and even though many of them look perhaps a bit, let’s say neglected, they almost universally take their casual fare very seriously.
A typical cafe meal consists of a single plate or “plat,” some french bread, and a carafe of excellent vin rouge. The dishes, or plats, are simple, served in an adequate but not oversized proportion and most importantly delicious and satisfying. The ingredients are the best, using high quality beef or chicken, real butter, generous use of fats and proper seasoning. They are served hot and with great care taken in the preparation and presentation. A decent plate at an average cafe will cost you around 12-15 euro, but you are getting high quality product.
An evening meal in a Paris cafe is about the social experience as well. You are paying not only for the food, but also for the little spot of real estate you are sitting in. You aren’t rushed to finish, you are encouraged to sit facing the street and take your time, enjoying the energy and just watching the city. I don’t know why this type of dining experience hasn’t really caught on in the states, but maybe it should.
I want to write in detail a lot more about the overall quality of food in France. It’s amazing the access we have to the grades and quality of beef, pork, poultry, cheese, butter, vegetables, literally everything. It’s a long topic, so I will save it for a future post, but one thing is for sure, I’m going to miss being able to get so many of these things when i get back home.
Next week, the agenda includes butchering and cooking a rabbit, including chopping his head off with a cleaver, as well as the art and technique of making a “proper” hollandaise sauce. It’s a good feeling to start to get past the newness and the fear of “screwing up” and to finally be able to look forward each day to what I might learn.