ACT: Day 3

March 15, 2010

The four course meal this time was:

1) Shrimp fritters with a dipping sauce
2) Red snapper with port/vinegar reduction and wild mushrooms
3) Filet of beef with root vegetables and a horseradish sauce
4) Pears poached in wine with mascarpone mousse.

I did nos. 1 and 3.

There was some significant chopping for the fritter. First, I had to mince a lot leek. The recipe said slice (“emincer”) but Chef and I agreed that cut small would be better. It also said to chiffonade mint and cilantro, but again we thought that mince made more since. I also minced some ginger. The leek gets sweated (no color) in butter; season, throw in the ginger at the end and cook for just a little bit then set aside.

The dipping sauce is a reduction of several elements. First, a ciseler of shallot, sweated (in oil this time) no color. Then we added this amazing Moroccan spice combo that had something like 20 components. I forgot the name and don’t have access to my binder, but it is apparently not easy to find. Some chef at the school made a huge batch. I took some home. Anyway, two tablespoons of that get added to the shallots, it smells intense. Then add some balsamic (60 ml) and red wine (300 ml), reduce by half. Then add 75 soy sauce and 600 chicken stock and reduce again until you get it just slightly thick but still quite runny. Well short of nappé. Chef said you could use an arrowroot or cornstarch slurry if you wanted but this way makes a more intense sauce. You just get less of it. The dipping sauce, reducing:

Meanwhile, peel and de-vein shrimp. This is rather a PiTA. Not that I have not done it before, it’s just not my favorite task. But we did it. It’s not really that hard, it just takes forever.

Now, the recipe said to use the shrimp whole. But we agreed that made little sense. It would be hard to fold the fritters and when you eat them they would easily come apart. So we chopped the shrimp. Then mix with the leek/ginger mixture and toss in the cilantro and mint. At this point, the shrimp is still raw. Here it is before the herbs were added:

Next, I learned about something really neat: wonton wrappers! They sell little pre-made squares of pasta dough. Perfect little squares, very thin. Wonderful. You lay them out, add your filling with a spoon, and then you can make your wonton (or ravioli would work just as well) in a number of ways. We brushed the edges with an egg wash and then laid another square on top then used a biscuit cutter to make circles. Then we used a fork to press the edges together. But you could just as easily leave the squares whole, or use one wrapper, by turning up the corners. (We did that with the last one since we ran out of wrappers.)

The recipe said to deep fry them all but I wanted to steam some to see how they came out. So we fried about two thirds and steamed the rest. They were both very good, but I think the steamed were a little better, more delicate. The best way might have been to pan fry them for a combination. The fried dough was very chip-like. Anyway, they were quite good.

Here are the fried ones, plated:

Here are some of the steamed ones:

They don’t really look cooked, but they were.

Now, unaccountably, the recipe for the beef called for poaching. We were all appalled by this. We had this lovely whole tenderloin, who knows what that must have cost. Poach it? What are we, Irish? 50 years ago?

So we roasted it whole. Honestly, this was a little disappointing to me as it was not that creative and I certainly already know how to do it. But it’s what the others wanted to do.

I forgot to get a picture pre-trim, but here it is trimmed and tied:

It was aggressively seasoned, to say the least. Chef took the lead:

Actually, this is a complaint I have. Chef Tim does too much for us. I would prefer it if he made us do everything and just corrected us. I literally had to stop him from plating at one point otherwise he would have done everything. It’s fine to plate one demo, but that should be all.

Anyway, the roast cooked surprisingly fast, barely 45 minutes. We did not brown it on the stove. We cooked it in convection oven in family kitchen. Someone inadvertently browned it by turning up our oven without telling us, but the result was great. I guess I did not get a picture of it resting. Chef said he thought it was overcooked, but that just confirms for me that he is a vampire; to me this is perfect beef.

The sauce was rather meh. Hand-whipped cream with grated fresh horseradish (something I had never seen) and salt and pepper. I mean, it was fine for what it was, and better than your typical prime rib joint horseradish sauce but I am just not that into horseradish sauce. Topped with chervil and chives.

The veg was baby carrots (not the machine cut kind, the genuine little carrots), baby turnips (another veg I have never seen) radishes, all cooked a l’aglaise, shocked, then reheated in butter at the end. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cooked radish before. It was interesting. The cooking changes the flavor profile entirely. Not bitter at all and very mild. Here they are after being par-cooked, but before the final saute:

Chef reiterated something I knew but needs repeating: when you buy carrots with all that greenery up top, remove it ASAP. It’s just sucking water and flavor out of the carrot.

Lastly, we made braised baby fennel (not on the recipe book, this was an ad lib to add some green to the plate. Slice them in half and then brown the cut side in oil or butter. Once well browned, deglaze with stock, season a little, bring to a boil, add a parchment lid, turn down and simmer until tender. Chef Tim said that there is nothing special about a parchment lid, it’s just a stop-gap measure used in kitchens that have no lids. This is not what Chef X. and other books say, but who am I to dispute the point. Chef Tim also said there is no point to a “chiminée” ever. This was definitely not Chef X’s view.

Fennel is delicious.

ACT: Day 2

March 15, 2010

Like I said last time, the menu fundamentally changes only every two weeks. Otherwise, we trade off: one team does two of the four courses of a full menu, the other team does the other two. The following week we switch. I should also note (if I haven’t already) that everything we make (or at least all the core recipes) are dishes that are made in the school’s restaurant, L’Ecole. That’s not to say that they are always on the menu; it changes seasonally. But everything has been on there at one point and may well return. For instance, the potato salad and greens that I made last week—and that some other guys made today—is currently on the L’Ecole menu.

Anyway, this week it was my turn to do the fish course and the dessert. The fish was poached skate wing with vegetables and either a broth or a sauce. The dessert was crème brulee and madeleines. Last week, we (they) did banana crème brulee; this week I did coffee. Last week the fish was served in the broth almost like a soup. But chef also demoed how to do it with a sauce, which I actually preferred, so I did it that way. It’s actually quite good in the broth, and makes for an arguably more dramatic presentation. I have to say, this was a tasty dish, and I don’t like fish. Chef said you could use just about any lean white fish for this dish. He suggested cod, flounder and halibut in particular. Fatty or oily fish like salmon or trout should be avoided.

Once again we had to survey the scene and figure out in what order to do things. Nothing that I had to do really took all that long a time except the broth, or more accurately, the court bouillon. Court bouillon is essentially a veg stock with some enormous amount of booze, in this case a whole liter of vermouth. Actually, other books I have say that booze is not essential to court bouillon. Anyway, we used it.

Emincer onion, fennel, ginger then sweat in a little oil, no color, just soften them up. Add the vermouth, reduce by half. Add chicken stock plus lots more aromatics: lemongrass, peppercorns, tarragon, saffron (Lord, the school gets good saffron; yum!), bay leaves, anise, whole cloves, crushed garlic, kafir leaves, and lemon peel. That reduces for a while. The recipe said 20 minutes but we had it on for well over an hour. It develops a really huge flavor. When you take it off the flame, add a big heap of chopped cilantro. You don’t want that in the broth the whole time or it will dominate. Then strain through a chinois. Here it is before it was strained:

Meanwhile, I got my crème brulee ready. Milk plus cream plus sugar on the fire, boil, lower heat, reduce by half, add coffee extract a little at a time to taste. Another way to do it is to put cracked coffee beans in there and then strain it but this might make it bitter. Coffee extract won’t. There are of course many different ways we could have flavored it. Chef suggest pistachio, but I thought not since the madeleines would have nut in them. Anyway, use your imagination.

Now, this is important. You get some egg yolks, lots of them (nine in my case) and beat them until they are pale. This takes forever. You are getting air in there. Then you add a little of the milk/cream/sugar reduction and just stir in, do not whisk. I whisked. Mistake. It makes it too frothy and then when you cook it you don’t get that glassy surface on top that you are going for. The risk is that, when you later put in the sugar to caramelize, the little pock marks will act like sinks that the sugar dips down into, and you can’t present a smooth surface. As it happens, this did not happen to me: the tops were like glass, so my mistake was hidden. Nonetheless, I immortalized it on film as a reminder.

Anyway, after you add a little and stir (which attentive readers will recall is called “tamper”) you add the rest and stir.

We did not have ramekins so we used little tin cups to do the crème brulee. This proved to our benefit since I made 12 but only four were eaten, so we got to take the rest home. You put your little tin cups (or ramekins) into a hotel pan, then ladle the custard into each one while you have water on the stove boiling. Pour some of the water into the hotel pan so that it comes well up the sides of the cups/ramekins. Then the hotel pans go into the oven and cook for a long time. I was surprised at how long it took. Well over an hour until they were set: slightly jiggly but not the least bit runny.

Another important thing to know is what kind of sugar to use. The best kind is the light brown stuff that is coarse, the grain consistency of kosher salt. Last week, they did the torch method, but chef had me use the salamander. That, frankly, worked much better. Very little dark spotting and a nice even melt. A perfect ice-skating rink surface. Really delicious as well.

Ok, the other thing I had to prep was the madeleine. I already had a ton of egg whites from separating eggs for the crème brulee. I actually did not need all that I had. I melted some chocolate using a double boiler, mixed together the flour, sugar and ground nuts (walnut and macadamia, in this case, but you could use anything). We also did a buerre noisette, which is just a hunk of butter melted and gently browned in a pan. It should look a nice mid-brown color. Mix all that stuff together; once mixed it will look dark brown like the chocolate and will be very gooey.

Then put in a pastry bag and fill the little madeleine molds, which by the way need to be greased with butter.

I made a horrific mess with the pastry bag. I had not used one in a long time. It was not pretty. Much chaos. Lost lots of mix out the top. Got a great deal on my recipe binder, and even some into a square boy full of carefully star-cut carrots (which I later washed). Embarrassing. But I got the job done.

These bake rather quickly, 10 minutes or so.

As you can see, some of them have been eaten. The eaters all immediately went home and wrote seven volumes worth of memoirs.

The other team was making the lamb and the potato salad. The latter they did exactly the same. The lamb was different. They kept the racks whole and browned them in a pan using to additional fat, just rendering some of the racks’ own fat layer (S&P first, of course). Then they rubbed a layer of mustard on the fatbacks (but not on the rest of the lamb) and sprinkled bread crumbs on that. It cooked the rest of the way in the oven.

It was good, but I thought too rare. Chef liked it that way, though.

Also, instead of doing the asparagus like last week, Chef taught us a ratatouille. He was adamant about seasonal cooking. Asparagus was in the book so he taught it but he said it’s always better to cook seasonally if you can and a veg stew with an eggplant base was quite seasonal.

This was fairly easy. Macedoine eggplant, onion, fennel (optional), and peppers (green, red and yellow). Everything should be the same amount except the eggplant which can be 2x (not of the whole rest of the stuff but 2x another single portion). Caramelize in separate pans (the peppers can all go together) because they cook at different rates. Combine when you get good browning on all. Add pureed canned tomatoes (fresh tomatoes this time of year are flavorless). Put in oven for a good long while (I think it was in there for at least an hour).

You can sort of see it plated above. We put it in a ring mold and built it up into a cylinder, then rested the lamb bones on that.

Now, for the fish course, first I had to filet the skate wings. This is a gnarly pre-historic-looking bottom-dweller. Very slimy and spiny also.

It gets butchered much like a flat fish, something I have not done in about six months. Just as each flat fish will yield four filets—two quite thick (the ones on the top side), the other two bottom ones rather thin—this does too. Also like the flat fish, its bones are rather hard and the skin is very tough. Should be easy, then, right?

Nonetheless, I managed to blow it on my first one. My knife went right though the cartilage that I was trying to separate from the filet. In the course of trying to shave that off, I lost a lot of fish. But I did fine on the other three, quite well, if I say so myself.

Now, we poached this fish. That is, we got some of the court bouillon and heated it in a pan—a good, deep pool of it. Bring it to a near boil then add the seasoned fish. The liquid should slightly bubble but not be at a rolling boil. You don’t even turn the fish. Just keep spooning liquid over it until all sign of translucency is gone. Then it is cooked.

Meanwhile you should have a garnish ready. Ours was star-cut carrots, potato balls, leeks and tomato. To make a star-carrot, you take this little tool called a channel knife and run it down the sides of the carrots; it cuts out a little groove. Then just slice the carrots. The leeks just slice on the bias. The tomatoes were seeded and quartered. The potato balls were just cored out of red bliss potatoes with a Parisian scoop. Cook the carrots, leeks and potatoes a l’anglaise and shock. When it’s time to cook the fish, throw all that veg into a pan, add a little butter and court bouillon, some S&P and toss for a while over low heat.

OK, this is where paths diverge. Last week, they plated it in bowls. Fish first, veg to the side, lots of broth on top. Not quite a soup, but way more (and way more runny) than a sauce. I did it a bit differently. After taking out the skate, I turned up the heat on the broth in the pan to high and reduced it with vigor. When it started to get thick, I added some butter and few drops of lemon juice. Then I spooned that over the skate. I don’t think it looked as pretty as last week, but the flavor was quite intense.

This was really delicious. Skate is hard to find, I gather, it but is worth trying with some white fish or other. Maybe I am growing up but I never liked fish much but I loved this.

Advanced Culinary Techniques: Day 1

February 21, 2010

OK, day one of Advance Culinary Techniques.

First, let me get the gripes out of the way.

This class is small, only five students, and that is good, but they have stuck us in crummy little kitchen on the ground floor. It is much inferior to the excellent teaching kitchen we had last time. There are no stations per se; we don’t have our own burners and ovens; there are not nearly enough shelves or counter space. It gets very crowded very fast.

Worse, unlike the prior kitchen, this one is not stocked with tons of excellent All Clad pots and pans, dozens of bowls, various tools of every description, and sundry food staples like flour, oil, spices and the like. Everything we need we have to grab from the other adjacent kitchens. These are the working kitchens of the school, the ones that produce all the food for family meals and for the restaurant (L’Ecole). Thus everyone in them is a career student, and they really are not interested in helping us and, worse, they seem to resent it when we take “their” stuff. Hence it helps to have Chef with you when you go a-pilferin’, or just ask him for stuff and he will get it. But that takes him out of the room a lot, which is not good.

Worst of all, if you ask me, is that our countertops were made for hobbits. They are a good 18” lower than the stations in the teaching kitchens. This is seriously annoying.

The instructor is Chef Tim. He is a nice guy. This is not Chef X. I don’t want to say yet that Tim is “too nice” but I sort of missed the edge today. I didn’t get the impression that we are going to get pushed very hard. Maybe I am wrong about that. We shall see.

Tim has been a chef for a long time. He did not tell us of any notable restaurant stints; rather, I gather his career has been a combination of teaching, recipe testing for cookbooks and magazines (which he says is a lot of fun) and serving and personal chef for various celebrities. One notable stint was for Star Jones before the stomach staple.

OK, the point of this class is to enable us to stretch beyond recipes and apply all the techniques we have already learned. That is the ostensible purpose at any rate. Except there is a recipe binder, and we mostly followed it. Now, Chef emphasized that we should feel free to make changes, improvise, create on the fly, etc. But we didn’t do much of that today. We pretty much stuck to the script.

However, that’s not to say that the class was not good or a step beyond the last one. It does take for granted that you know and have honed a lot of techniques. You could not walk into this one with no training and do well. You might be able to make the dishes in the end, but it would take you forever, and the Chef would have to hold your hand in a way that Tim definitely did not.

The format of the class is, every week we do a four course meal. Three savories, one dessert. The savories are a progression from a very light first course, to a lightish fish course, to a meat or poultry course, and a dessert. Now, we are only going to learn six total meals, but twelve sessions. What they do is, half the class makes two of the courses one week the other half the other two. Then the following week we switch. Only every other week does the menu completely change. However, after doing the courses more or less by the book on day one, supposedly we will make changes on day two. Chef told us to think about what we might like to do differently next time, and said he would have some suggestions himself. So that is an interesting way to learn to improvise: do it by rote the first time, then make it again but change it up.

In addition, if the first day is any guide, there is a lot of opportunity for mixing and matching from the courses we are learning. So adding 24 courses to your repertoire (plus, potentially, 24 more variations on those courses) should give us a lot of opportunities to make good dinners without being too repetitive.

Today’s menu was:

1) Warm Potato and Goat Cheese Salad with Thyme and Niçoise Olives
2) Poached Skate Wing in Lemongrass Broth
3) Breaded Lamb Chops with Asparagus Tips
4) Banana Crème Bruleé, Chocolate Madeline.

As noted, the class was divided into teams. My team (there were only two of us) made courses one and three. The other team (of three) made the others. I am only going to describe what we did; next week I will cover the other courses when we do them. I can, however, say that they were quite delicious, and that as a non-fish person I was surprised by how much I liked the skate.

One thing that I liked about Chef: the first thing he had us do was read the recipes we were going to do, and then write out a worksheet: what order were we going to do the work, estimated timing, etc. Then we would show those to him for approval or a critique and correction. That seems like a smart way to get us thinking about how to prep and manage time.

OK, I will go through the dishes in some detail because (no joke) I found that the prior blog posts have been useful as refreshers when cooking these dishes again. So it’s good to get a record down while the memory is fresh.

For the potato salad, the first thing was to get the potatoes cooking. We used Yukon Golds, peeled them then boiled them whole in assertively salted water. There were two other elements to prepare: a vinaigrette for the greens (mâche), and the binding elements for the Petatou (potato salad).

We also had to get our sauce on. We had school-made veal stock and some racks of lamb. I manchonnez the lamb and browned the trimmings with some emincer shallots in a pan. The veal stock went on over that, to a high simmer or low boil. I added some rosemary sprigs, plus all the herb stems from potato salad mixture (see below). The recipe said mirepoix but Chef said not to bother.

My partner mostly made the vinaigrette. I did the ciselée of shallot, she did the rest. Chiffonade of basil, 2:1:5 balsamic/sherry vinager/EVOO, S&P. Reserve.

For the salad mix, ciselée four shallots, chop small amount of thyme, big amount of tarragon and parsley. We had to pit 50g of Niçoise olives. This was a pain in the ass. Set aside.

Eventually, the potatoes were cooked. Drain, cool, slice into ¼” rounds. Put in a big bowl, add 2 tbs of the vinaigrette, plus the other shallots and herbs and half the olives. Toss well.

Meanwhile, I skimmed the sauce with a vigilance which would have made Chef X. proud. Chef Tim never mentioned skimming. I don’t know if he was simply pleased to see that I was doing it, or if he didn’t care. Chef X. certainly would have barked orders to skim no matter what he saw.

I got some cream, added some coarsely chopped basil, S&P, and reduced that by half. Then whip in an egg yolk.

OK. We got some tall ring molds and put them on sizzle platters. Then we took soup spoons and bent them at about 90 degree angles. We used those to fill the molds with the potato mixture, about ¾ of the way up. Press down with the bottom of the spoon to fill out the molds and smooth out the tops. Crumble some soft goat cheese on top and press that down too. There should be a nice ¼” or so layer of the cheese. Let the mixture set a bit, then gently remove the molds to reveal a nice cylinder.

Spoon some of the cream/yolk mixture on top. Put under a salamander until you get some singing/browning. The rear ones browned faster so the plates had to be rotated 180 at least once.

Here’s an example of improve: at some point, Chef said “This is going to look really too green and white. We need some other color.” He grabbed some tomatoes and had me concassé them raw. When it came time to plate the mâche, we pulled the leaves out of these little hydroponic dirt cubes the roots were stuffed into, cut of the hard stems, washed them and spun them. Then toss in the remaining vinaigrette, plate in a little pile, and add the tomato.

Throw some of the remaining olives around the sides, and then take one and spear it with a thyme sprig and plant that in the middle of the potato salad.

Viola:

For the lamb: once trimmed, we sliced into single rib chops. At this point, I mentioned to Chef how I had done it for a recent dinner party: remove every second rib, french and tie like a little côte de bouef. He thought that would not work with a breadcrumb coating, and I agreed. So we just did them single.

This dish had no starch, an omission I thought. Chef said that you could make the potato salad larger and make that your starch. I suppose, but it worked very well as a first course. He asked us to think about next week, so I may suggest Pommes Maxim.

Anyway, the garnish was asparagus. Simple drill: break off and discard the woody part. We did not peel because the part that was left was tender enough. Cook a l’Anglaise, shock, dry, reserve.

Meanwhile, to bread the lamb, set up three bowls: flour, beaten egg (heavy on the S&P) and panko bread crumbs. Flour first, tap off excess, egg, let excess drip off, bread crumbs. Every plate was to get two.

The sauce meanwhile was strained through a chinois, then reheated in a sauteuse. It had been (I think) properly seasoned before, but it reduced to the point where it was too salty. We revived it with butter and lemon.

The lamb was cooked in a sautoir with canola oil. About three minutes a side, plus some time on the edges. Drain on paper towel.

Alas, all did not go perfectly well. There was some, if not burning, at last scorching. Some of the chops were undercooked even though the bread crumbs were quite dark. Probably needed lower heat and longer cooking time. But the taste was very, very good.

The asparagus was reheated with a small amount of butter in a sauteuse and then garnished with some tomato concassé.

Here’s the plate:

Christmas Dinner

January 13, 2010

I made Christmas dinner this year trying to use as many techniques from school as I could. Or, at least, I used a good many of them. I also did several recipes straight from the “text binder” provided by the school. Overall, it was pretty good. There were no outright disasters (except maybe one), a few misses, and a few real successes.

I was suppose to be assisted by a working professional chef from one of California’s best and most famous restaurants, but he could not come at the last minute. He did more or less plan the menu, so I have him to thank for that. He also gave me several tips on how to get it done. And I thank him for that as well.

We were going to do five courses, plus an hors d’oevre of gougeres (puff pastry cheese balls). I dropped the hors d’oerve altogether. The third course was also going to feature home-made pasta. The chef was going to bring his pasta attachment for my mother’s Kitchenaid mixer (this was done at her house). She has the stand mixer but not the pasta-maker attachment. Plus, he knows how to make pasta and I don’t. So when he bailed, my first instinct was to drop the pasta course. It was going to be pumpkin pappardelle, with a sage butter sauce. But in the end, I kept the course, only modified. One of our family traditions is to have ravioli on Christmas. We make the filling (always spinach) and the sauce (ragu) but take the filling to an Italian market where they actually put it into the ravs. My grandmother used to make it all herself, but even she gave up on that long ago. So I used the ravs and made the same sauce I would have made anyway.

So the courses were:

First: Salad Lyonnaise.
Second: Crème Dubarry (cauliflower soup)
Third: Spinach ravioli with pumpkin sage butter sauce
Fourth: Chateaubriand with mushroom & onion stuffing, Sauce Bordelaise, celery root/parsnip/apple puree, carrots and green beans, Pommes Dauphinoise in individual terrines on the side.
Fifth: Chocolate soufflé

The first thing I wanted to do was get the sauce on because it would have to go through two rounds (espagnole, then bordelaise) each of which would need to simmer for a long time.

But I needed mirepoix for the sauce, and I knew that I would have carrot trimmings from the tourné. Chef X taught us to waste nothing, and I wanted to be true to his dictum. So the first thing I did was turn those carrots.

Now, admittedly, there was no point to doing all this tourné beyond showing off and practice. It was something we learned, something that classically trained chefs consider important, and therefore something I have struggled with getting right. I still don’t have it down, to be honest. I can work them into more or less the correct shape. But each one is supposed to have exactly seven smooth sides. Mine don’t.

One thing that did make it all a little easier is got for Christmas a very sharp birds beak paring knife, or tourné knife.

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I used to use my regular paring knife. It worked OK, but the birds beak is better; it allows for more control as you try to navigate the turn. I have another one from Wustof, but it is simply not sharp. No amount of effort on my part could make it sharp. The new one is a Shun, and it is wicked sharp. Still, even with that tool, I did not do a perfect tourné, merely good enough, or at least as close as I was going to get.

Chef X. pooh-poohed these and claimed they offered no advantage beyond an ordinary paring knife, or at least, that a good chef should be able to turn with the latter. Well, I am no genius with tourné, so I need all the help I can get, and this helped.

The stuffing for the roast uses cremini mushrooms, which I peeled and stemmed (just as I was taught), because stems and peelings are not supposed to be left on mushrooms that you are going to cook, especially if you are going to cut them into duxelles, as I was going to do later.

But, in keeping with the principles of waste-not and flavor reinforcement, I used all those trimmings in the sauce. Chef taught us that whenever we have mushroom trimmings on hand to put them in stock or sauce. I have also learned from many books that sauces ought to have the flavor of what they will accompany incorporated to the extent possible.

I now had trimmings for mirepoix. I cut some onion, got together the herbs, sautéed the bacon, and got the sauce on. Here is the mirepoix pre-liquid:

Now, this is an old fashioned sauce with a brown roux. I understand that high end restaurants do not use this any more. Even Keller, who is in a lot of ways the most traditional-minded chef in the US, does not use a roux-based brown sauce. But it is what I learned, before the FCI even, and it was reinforced in school and it is what I know how to do. Plus, it works and I like it. So I did that. I used beef stock that I had made for my mother on a prior trip. Once on the fire, it simmered for about two hours.

Next I got out the roast and trimmed it. The roast was a chateaubriand, that is the very center of a filet strip. It was about three pounds. It looks hard to turn a cylindrical piece of meat into this:

But as long as your knife is sharp and you go slow, it’s not that hard.

The recipe for this is from America’s Test Kitchen. These people are not taken seriously by the food snobs, I realize, but I rather like them and they do come up with some good recipes.

I seasoned it, to let the salt especially get in there and flavor it, wrapped it in paper towel to soak up the liquid that the salt would leach out, and put it in the fridge. It is a myth that when meat loses water it loses “juice.” In fact, losing some water intensifies flavor. That is what dry aging does, for instance. So a few hours (or overnight) salted and resting on towels is like a mini-aging process.

Next I got the soup base ready. Emincer leeks. Core the cauliflower. Reserve a handful of small fleurettes (these will be used as a garnish) and then chop up the rest. Sweat the leeks in butter (no color), singer with flour and cook the flour (also no color), add a little chicken stock and whip, then add the rest, bring to a simmer, add chopped caul, simmer again and let simmer until half the liquid is gone.

Then puree in the food mill. I did this three times to really break it down. You could also use a blender, which in hindsight would have been easier.

The next step is the cream, but I was not ready for that. I figured it could wait until service. So into the fridge the soup went. This, by the way, is a recipe straight from the school, identical to the one that I made on soup day. Another gift this year was Keller’s newest cookbook, the one for ad hoc. It is supposed to be his “simple” “home cooking” book. Well! That would be a nice change, I thought. As ever with Keller books, it is fabulously done, beautiful and very interesting. But Keller cannot do simple to save his life. For instance, this one has a burger recipe. Simple for the home cook. How does it start? First, you have to grind your own beef. Three different kinds, no less. I half expected him to say that you had to raise and slaughter your own cattle. Anyway, Keller has a recipe for pureed cauliflower soup in this book, and of course it has a million steps.

My next task was to get the puree for the beef course ready. This was my chef buddy’s idea. Even though he was not going to be there, I had the ingredients, and so I did it anyway. I have worked with celery root and parsnip before, but not much. Celery root looks like a deformed coconut. Parsnip like an albino carrot.

These I simply washed, peeled, chopped and boiled in salted water until soft.

I also peeled and cored two tart apples, chopped them up and softened them in butter. Then all three went through the food mill and were pureed into the same pot and thoroughly mixed. That went into the fridge, to wait for the roast to be done hours later.

Then I brunoised the pumpkin. This was a pain. First, it has to be peeled with a knife, the outer skin is much too tough for a peeler.

Then you have to scoop out all the interior guts. This reminded me of Halloween.

Then of course the walls are curved and had to be trimmed into planks. Then, finally, julienned and brunoised. Lots of waste, or excess. I did a decent job, but not perfect, and of course it took me forever.

Then I got the potatoes ready. Now, really, this was a wholly unnecessary dish. The root veg puree should have been enough. But I wanted to do this because it is delicious, and because I got these little pots and I really wanted to use them. In the end, I was very glad I had these potatoes, for reasons I will explain.

Anyway, I used Yukon golds, although russets would have been fine. But I think these were better in this dish. Peel, then trim into cylinders.

The latter step is not something I normally do, though it is something that Chef X. taught us to do. For this dish, I had to do it because the little pots are so small that the potato slices had to be uniform. There was no way to spread around any inconsistency to make it even out over a large pot.

The cylinders were sliced on a mandoline, then held in water. (Always do this, or the potatoes will turn red!) I buttered the bottom and the sides of the little pots and sprinkled garlic (minced by hand, don’t use a press!) on the bottoms. Then the potato slices were simmered in cream, herbs (thyme and bay leaves), some peppercorns, salt and garlic. The idea is to convey some of the flavor into the slices, but also into the cream, which gets used in the pots.

Then you spread the potatoes out one layer at a time. Three will fit if they are sliced thin enough (as they should be). Lay done one later in an overlapping circle. Season with a little salt and ground nutmeg (fresh, of course). Sprinkle with grated gruyere. Ladle in some cream from the pot where you simmered the slices. Repeat until you have three layers. Repeat all that until you have filled all your pots. Then I put them in the fridge.

This could, I admit, have looked better:

Then it was time for the filet stuffing. Slicing the onion was of course very easy. Duxulle of mushrooms, not so much. The Test Kitchen recipe says to do it in a food processor. But my chef pal (the one who was supposed to come and cook with me) said that would be done over his dead body. I decided to honor his outrage. I know how to do duxelles, we learned that in school. But it is incredibly slow, at least for me. I can slice mushrooms very fast at this point. My knife skills have improved (from rock bottom, truth be told). But cutting them from there is hard. I try to stack a few slices, cut into batonnets and then into small dice. Something about the shape and softness of mushrooms just makes it very slow. For me.

But I did it. Then I softened the onion on the stove, and added the mushrooms and cooked them until all the liquid was gone.

Then add some Madeira and cook until syrupy. Spread that out on the rectangular filet, lay down a later of spinach leaves, roll and tie.

FWIW, I tied this the wrong way. I feel sort of bad about it, but I do know the correct way. I just didn’t think I could get it to work, given that there was a “hole” where the meat separated.

By this time the espagnole was done and I strained it through a fine chinois:

The second step of the sauce is to simmer some red wine together with shallots, crushed peppercorn (a/k/a mignonette), and herbs. I used a whole bottle because … what the hell.

Chef X. taught us to use tarragon, which is used in no other recipe for this I have ever seen, but man is it good. Medium low heat, it took over an hour to reduce down to a syrup. Then add the strained and de-fatted espagnole and simmer for a while longer. The espagnole is a sort of orangey light brown, but once it hits that wine it gets dark.

When the flavors have combined, strain:

and set aside:

The last “prep” I did was to get the soufflé mix together—everything but the egg whites, which need to be beaten in just before they go in the oven.

At this point, it was time to start getting everything ready to serve. The potatoes needed the longest to cook, so then went into a 350 oven, covered first. They need about 30 minutes with the covers on, then another 30 with them off to brown.

The roast gets browned in a pan on the burner, then cooked in the oven. I was shooting for medium rare.

Meanwhile, the first course: mix the vinaigrette. In school, Chef X taught us that a vinaigrette was far more oil than acid. But my chef friend said that this one had to be the other way. It was like 3×1 champagne vinegar to olive oil. Earlier I had frozen some bread slices. Now it was time to cut them into croutons and cook them in butter. Earlier I had also cooked the lardoons. I cut the root ends off the frisee and portioned them out and tossed them in the vinaigrette. The last step was to poach the eggs. This was something we learned early on and that I rather enjoy doing.

Sprinkle eggs and croutons on the salad, top with a poached egg, season with some pepper, and voila. First course.

This was delicious.

Second course was the soup. Before making the salad, I had put the puree of caul back on the stove on low. When it was time to serve, I added the cream and seasoned. I also sautéed the reserved fleurettes and got the chervil ready. Now, the recipe I have says that the soup should be passed through a fine chinois. It also recommended a blender rather than a food mill, and I recall that we had used a blender at school. But I used a food mill this time, and that made getting the soup through a chinois a real pain. It took a while, and the guests were waiting. But the resulting soup was really spectacular.

Third course was disappointing. Like I said, I used the family ravioli, then I made my own sauce: brown butter sage with the pumpkin brunoise.

I am not sure what was wrong with this dish. It looked OK, although I ove cooked the fried sage leaves:

But the taste was off. At dinner that night, I thought I had somehow screwed up the sauce. But the other night I had the same ravs again, in the traditional ragu, and I didn’t like it. I think there was something wrong with the ravs. The stuffing was doughy and flavorless. Then again, even if that is true, that does not explain why I could not taste pumpkin or sage strongly enough in my sauce. But at this point, I will never know.

The fourth course too forever to plate. I had to let the roast rest, slice it, cook the carrots (etuvee) and the green beans (anlglaise), reheat and season the sauce, add cream to the puree and whip it and season it, and finally get the potatoes ready.

The plating was perhaps inelegant, but by that time, the wait had been forever. I put some puree in the center, the filet on top of that, and the veg arranged around it. I spooned the sauce on last. The potatoes went off to the side, still in their little pots.

The roast was a little too gray at the edges but the interior was perfect.

Wine was an ’89 Lynch Bages, which I am proud to say I had the presense of mind to buy on release and have cellared ever since:

The puree I did not like. Too sweet. Everyone else claimed to like it, though. The potatoes were excellent. The beef was fine, but not rave-worthy, at least not for me. Maybe I just don’t like filet enough. I was very happy with the sauce, though it combined badly with the puree.

After that I whipped the egg whites, folded them into the soufflés, and put them into the oven. I think I must have overwhipped the egg whites enough, because the mixture was a bit dense; when you overwhip egg whites they dry out. When I made these at school, the mixutre was runnier. It poured more evenly into the ramekins and the tops came out of the oven flat (if tilted)

They tasted delicious, though.

Well, that’s it.

A Note on the Ending

December 26, 2009

I have received a handful of queries on the sudden death of this blog. Yes, the class was 22 sessions and I only blogged 18 of them. I don’t have any very good reasons for why I quit. I was getting tired of it (the writing, that is, not the class). It was a lot of work and I didn’t get the sense that anyone was reading it.

Also, sessions 19-21 were all about pastries and desserts, and those gave me a heap of trouble. Worst of all was my puff pastry, which did not puff. My souffles rose unevenly, but at least they tasted good.

The final day was shellfish. That was fun. We each got our own lobster and made Hommard Americaine. It came out very well, and was delicious. We also did seared scallops, another dish that turned out well. I don’t think I have pictures of either, though I know I have one of my lobster before he met his demise.

Advanced Culinary Techniques — or “La Tech 2” as they say at the FCI — begins in February of 2010. I intend to be there. It’s all about menu creation and the cooking of entire multi-course meals. Perhaps I will blog it, if I am not too lazy.

Day 18: Duck and More Chicken

May 31, 2009

Duck, and more chicken. We were supposed to do two duck recipes, roast one whole, and sauté magret (breasts) on the burner. But they didn’t have magrets, so instead we broke down our whole ducks, braised the legs, and sautéed the breasts. The sauce – classic a l’orange – was the same.

Breaking down a duck is no different than a chicken, or not much different. One difference is that you don’t leave any part of the wing attached to the duck breast, like you do for chicken. Also, the bones are tougher, and for such a large bird, there is surprisingly less meat. There is also a lot more fat. A lot. Some of that you can trim off as you debone. The rest you have to render out as you cook.

All the fat that you trim away can be melted on low heat with a little water and then stored and used for cooking later – for instance, for duck confit, but also for other recipes. The school always does this because they always have use for it (they always have use for everything). We also gave all our bones to the restaurant, which needs them for duck stock.

Then we seasoned (no pepper on the skin side, as it would leave marks) and browned the legs in a sautoir with a little duck fat. You need that initial fat to get the cooking started and to ensure that the legs don’t stick. But fairly quickly, they started to render out their subcutaneous fat. This has to be spooned out with some regularity, or else the duck will literally fry and not sauté. If you time everything correctly, you will have the color you want just as most of the fat has been rendered and discarded. You also need to brown the flesh side.

We also browned the duck neck, which was kept in the liquid to help flavor the sauce.

Then we set aside as we browned mirepoix (no celery) in the same pan. Once browned, we added veal stock, a bouquet garni, and returned the legs, skin side up. It went into the oven, covered, where it cooked for a good 45 minutes to an hour. Duck legs take forever to cook. When cooked in liquid, they are hard to overcook, but not impossible, so you have to watch them. Every once in a while, take them out and poke around in the flesh side with your knife. If you see no red, they are done.

The breasts are done only in a pan. It’s strange, but duck is cooked in a bifurcated way. You want the legs well done, thoroughly cooked, and the breast medium rare at most (some say rare simply).

Anyway, first cut some lines in the skin (this is called scoring) to help the fat grain as the breast cooks. Put a little fat in the pan, again just to get the process started and to ensure no stickage, then cook the breasts skin side down on low to medium low heat for a long time, spooning out the fat as it renders. When the skin is nice and brown and the fat is gone or mostly gone, turn over the breasts and cook the flesh side on medium heat for two or three minutes.

For the sauce: when the legs are done, take them out and set them on a rack. Cook the liquid, with all the elements still in it, for a while on the burner. It should reduce a lot, so it can take a while. Meanwhile, make your gastrique. This is sugar and white vinegar, cooked until the sugar caramelizes into a syrup. Then strain the sauce through a fine chinois, add the juice from one orange, a shot of orange liqueur, and the gastrique and reduce some more. Season with salt and pepper and strain again. It should have, as ever, a nappe consistency.

For a garnish, we made pommes gaufrettes (fried waffle cut wafers). When we learned this, I had a hell of a time on the mandoline cutting them, but this time I did fine, no blood even. We also made cherry tomatoes, cooked very slowly immersed in olive oil. We also made salsify. This is a root vegetable that looks like a stick. You have to peel it, and then there are many ways to cook it. We sliced it on the bias and sautéed it.

Additional garnish was supremes of orange, and a nifty little trick using the zest. You peel it off into strips, then julienne the strips, then blanch three times in plain water, then cook in sugared water until the liquid becomes syrupy. Then let dry and coat the strips in sugar. Little pieces of candy for the plate.

That’s a little more done than I prefer, actually, but it was still tasty. The sauce was excellent.

Actually, had we done the magrets we would have done them the same way as we did the butchered breasts, so we did not miss anything there.

The chicken was butterflied and grilled, though Chef (and the book) did not use the term butterfly. But that’s what we did. We deboned the chicken entirely except for the drumstick bones and the bones from the wing joint closest to the breast. Then the chicken was seasoned (no pepper on the skin side) and rubbed lightly with oil and grilled flat.

Once again, the grill was an inferno, painful too stand near, agonizing when you held your hand over it to move any food. We grilled the chicken skin side down just long enough to get quadriallage marks on the skin, then it was finished in the oven, resting on a bed of chicken bones, which apparently enhance the flavor. When it was nearly cooked we brushed it with mustard and gave it a light sprinkling of bread crumbs and put it back in the oven.

For a sauce, we reduced some veal stock, then sweated shallots (no color), added mignonette (cracked peppercorns, vinegar, white wine, water and the stock. That reduced for a long time. It was super spicy, but before serving we added salt. butter, and chopped herbs (parsley, tarragon, chervil, and thyme), which tempered it quite a bit. This is called Sauce Diablo.

Other garnish was tomato (halved and seeded), mushrooms (stemmed and peeled) and bacon slices tossed with oil and chopped herbs and grilled then finished in the oven. Finally, watercress, raw.

Day 17: Fish, Part 2

May 28, 2009

Fish, part 2.

This class actually took place more than a week ago, but I am only getting around to writing this up now. What can I say. I am getting sort of tired of writing these.

These were all recipes that I had done in Knife skills, as I noted last time. The first thing was butchery. We had to filet more flounder, but this time our round fish was a trout.

Trout is much more delicate than sea bass, so the chance that you will hack the fish up with your knife increases greatly. This is BAD, because it makes for uneven cooking and a lousy presentation. So be careful. The other thing about trout is that the pin bones are more numerous and much thinner and harder to see. And, since the flesh is so delicate, it’s quite easy to mangle it as you remove the pin bones. There is no remedy except to go slowly and be careful. For me it was not a quick operation. In a restaurant atmosphere, where everything has to be done fast AND well I am sure I would be terrible. I don’t know how anyone can filet a trout fast without mangling it, but I suppose practice is the key, as ever.

The next step was prep, endless prep. The first recipe was to be goujonettes de sole, essentially highbrow fish sticks. We made two sauces for this, a rémoulade (flavored mayo) and a red pepper puree.

We also made potato baskets. These actually had not been included in the recipe in Knife Skills, and they were sort of neat. You shred some potatoes in a madonline, then heat your pot of oil. To make the baskets, you need two … well, I don’t know what they were called. They were shaped like ladles, but they were wire so that liquid would pass through. One was smaller than the other so that the basket part easily fit inside. You lay a layer of potato shreddings in the larger one, then press the smaller one inside. This holds the basket’s shape. Dunk in the hot oil until it starts to look golden, then remove. Tap with a wooden spoon to release it from the ladle thingy back into the oil. Let it fry for a bit longer then remove to a rack. Your basket is done.

The rémoulade I have already described in an earlier post. The red pepper sauce was simple. You seed and then brunoise the peppers, then sweat with onion and garlic. Add some water, cover with a cartouche, and cook until soft and breaking apart. Then puree in a blender, adding a little reduced heavy cream. Season at the end.

For the goujonettes, you take your flat fish filets and slice into strips on the bias. Go at the opposite angle of the lines in the flesh, this helps them stay strong. Then roll them on the cutting board to make them even. They should look like small cigars.

Then it’s the same drill as doing the chicken viennoise, that is, a l’anglaise, but the breading anglaise, not the vegetable anglaise. Flour + beaten whole egg, olive oil and salt + bread crumbs. Once the crumbs are on, roll them again.

Then they are deep fried. You just want a light golden, it does not take long.

To plate, put the goujonettes in the basket, and arrange the sauce in front.

The other recipe was trout “grenobloise.” This is trout cooked in clarified butter and served with a lemon brown butter sauce. It was not complicated, but it does go very fast, so everything has to be in place before you start. You won’t have time to prep while something else is cooking.

For trout, we left the skin on. As long as it is thoroughly scaled in advance, and cooked fast and let dry so that it crisps, it is quite tasty. You would never leave the skin on a flat fish, however.

This fish gets sautéed very quickly in clarified butter. Getting the heat right is key, and very tricky. Basically there is a sweet spot: you want to get good color, crisp the skin and cook the fish fast without drying the flesh at all, but you want no hint of burning. You will know it by the sizzle, the sound, the smell, and the speed. You start skin side down, and there should be a definite sizzle, but not a violent crackle. The edges of the fish should take some time to cook through and turn white. If it happens immediately, you have a problem. If it doesn’t happen at all, you have a problem.

The sauce is brown butter. You leave in the clarified butter that the fish was cooked in, then add a bunch of whole butter. It will melt and cook fast. It will also burn easily, so watch it. Add some lemon juice and the supremes (segments) of one lemon, and also some capers. At the last minute, add chopped parsley and croutons (which should have been made before and set aside to drain on a paper towel).

For garnish, we tourneed some potatoes and boiled them, and also braised some fennel. To me, fennel was always a seed that tasted like black licorice. Turns out it is also a root vegetable.

Day 16: Fish, Part 1

May 11, 2009

Fish day, part one.

We will have three days total of fish, two on regular fishy fish and one on shellfish. Oddly, the latter comes at the end of the class. The order of the classes is a little mysterious to me.

Much of what we did today was familiar to me, since the material had been covered in Knife Skills. Though next week we will be doing the identical two recipes from that class. This time we did recipes that were new to me, at least in the making.

Lecture was all about how to select the right fish. There are a lot of things to check for: the eyes, the gills, how slimy it is on the outside (slime is good for some fish, bad for others). But basically, if you are buying from an ordinary store, do not expect to get fresh fish. Fresh fish comes off the boat (then the truck or even plane) every day and is bought early in the morning first by restaurants, with gourmet markets being the secondary buyer. Basically, if you don’t live near a gourmet market, and don’t have access to a commercial fishing outfit that sells to the public, you are going to have a hard time getting fresh fish.

The freshness of fish is the key to the goodness of fish. To exaggerate slightly, fresh fish does not smell like fish, and it does not taste like fish. That is, not like the familiar “fish” smell/taste which is so off-putting to so many people, me included. If it smells like fish, it’s already bad.

I have never been all that into fish. I have managed to warm up to shellfish – the grilled scallops at Park Bistro used to be amazing, though I have not been there in years – but not so much to their finned brothers. However, as noted, this was my second time making fish, and I had to admit that both dishes were good. I still was not in love, however.

The first thing to know about fish is that there are two kinds, flat and round. Flat fish have four filets, round yield only two. A round fish is what is typically thought of as a fish. Flat fish are the odd looking bottom dwellers with both eyes on one side of their head. They tend to be a dark color on one side, and white on the other. They lay on the bottom of the sea white side down, the dark color blends into the sand. The meat inside does not taste any different.

First, we had to butcher our fish. I had done this exact same drill in knife skills, so I was slightly ahead of the class. It is a rather gruesome business. I think the reason is that the head is still there. And some guts, too. The first think you do is use kitchen shears to remove all the fins. Then you scale and rinse the fish. There are special tools for this, but you can also use the edge of a spoon. Chef said that some say that if you are not going to cook and present the skin, then you don’t need to scale it. But he said that he should always scale the fish, otherwise as you butchered it, scales would get everywhere and would contaminate your dish.

Then, for the flat fish, you remove the head by making a V-cut and then twisting it off. When you pull it, the guts all come out of a little pocket right behind. Round fish (unlike flat) are typically sold already gutted, even if the head is still on. Remove that. Fish heads are not saved for stock, Chef said, though we used them in Knife Skills. Chef says they make the stock cloudy. He said that for fish soup, you would use the heads because clarity is not an issue. However, the meat near the gills of a flat fish is excellent, but too small for a dinner portion. Hence it is used in appetizers. We, however, did not have time to learn that, nor is it in the official curriculum.

I won’t give a belabored explanation of how to fillet a fish. I think that, without illustrations, it wouldn’t be that useful anyway. I will say that I enjoyed the experience, as I have enjoyed most knife work in the class so far. It takes some patience, but it’s satisfying. Chef strongly insisted that if you want to eat good fish, you have to buy your fish whole and filet it yourself. So this is a good skill to have. Pre-cutting causes the fish to lose moisture (and flavor) and rot faster. This is made worse if the fish is laid directly on ice, as one sees at so many fish markets. Fish needs to be kept cold, but there needs to be a layer between it and the ice. Directly contact dries it out, and mars the side touching the ice.

Flat fish and round fish are filleted quite differently. It’s arguably easier to do a flat fish because the bones are so much harder. However, it’s delicate work either way, and you have to be careful not to hack up your filet as you cut. You risk ruining its good looks – the “presentation” – and worse, damaging it to the point that it falls apart in the cooking process.

A major pain with round fish are the pin bones. These are a huge pain with trout, as I will relate next week (but already know from experience from Knife Skills). This time we worked with sea bass, which have fewer and larger pin bones. Still, they are thin, small, and as invisible as fishing line. You have to find them by gently stroking against the flesh with a finger, which should raise them up to the point that you can grab and remove them with tweezers. Make sure you get them all, as it is considered the crassest faux pas, when butchering fish, to miss a pin bone and serve fish with it still in there.

The final delicate operation is to remove the skin. You lay the filet flat, skin side down, and with your knife flat against the cutting board, slide it between skin and meat. It’s more complicated than that, but – again – written descriptions are probably not that useful. Fish is always served skin side down, bone side showing. The bone side is prettier than the skin side.

A word on knives. The traditional filet knife is thin and flexile. Flexible is a must with any ordinary sized fish, because it’s the only way you can hold the knife and work the blade as close the bone as possible, leaving as little flesh attached as possible. With really big fish, this is less of a problem and besides, the stiffer flesh and harder bones would break a really flexible knife. The other thing your knife has to be is super sharp. Fish is very soft and delicate. A dull knife will just rip and smash it. You want clean cuts everywhere you cut, and you want to get every cut done with one even stroke (this takes practice).

The recipes were sea bass in parchment (en papillote), and flounder “bonne femme.” But first we made our own fish stock (or “fumet”). And not one big pot, either. We all had to make our own. This is, you’ll recall, white mirepoix (leek, onion, celery, garlic), sweated with no color, white wine, fish bones, and water. It cooks fast, 25 minutes max from when you get it to a simmer. The resulting flavor is quite intense, and not really all that “fishy.” But if you really hate fish, you will surely hate this.

The parchment recipe takes a great deal of filling. It was all stuff we have done before. Mushroom duxelles (mushrooms cut into small dice, sweated with shallots in butter, then cooked with a parchment lid until their liquid evaporates). Tomato fondue (tomato concasse sweated with onions and shallots until mushy). Julienne of carrot, celery and leek cooked etuve.

When all that is ready, you take large piece of parchment paper, fold it in half, and cut it in the shape of an apple. That is, like a heart, but with a stem. Lay it out flat. First, rub some butter in the center of one side, and then season that with salt and pepper. Put the tomato and mushrooms on that spot. For a nice look (which, alas, most diners will never see) use a ring mold and fill it half and half with each. Rub a little oil on the fish, season with S&P and some chopped thyme, and place on top of the tomatoes and mushrooms. Then put the vegetables on top of the fish. You should keep them separate, with carrots in the middle, because the color of the leeks and the celery is so close. Sprinkle with lemon juice, the cooking liquid from the veg, and a little white wine, then add a thyme sprig and a lemon slice on top.

Time to close the papillote. Beat one egg and use a brush to spread some egg around the edge of the paper. Fold the top over and press the edges together. The egg will hold it weakly, but not seal it. You need to brush some more egg and make a series of folds all the way around the edge. Then repeat. Three egg applications plus two layers of folds should hold it. Paint the entire top of the paper with egg. This prevents burning and also gives a the paper a nice color. It also helps you recognize when the fish is done. Another trick is to take the “stem” of your apple and twist it tightly. As the fish cooks, the air inside will expand and puff the paper. As it puffs, the stem will unwind. If you check and the stem is still moving, the fish is not done. If it is stopped, the fish is probably done.

Here it is ready to begin cooking:

There is no foolproof way to know when your fish is done. And no way to test. Once you cut the paper, that’s it. Cooking stops. The fish cooks in the air and steam inside. When that escapes, you had better be done. If not, the dish is a loss.

It takes 8-12 minutes, according to Chef. To get it going, you should start it in a lightly oiled pan, on low heat. That’s just so you don’t put it in the oven cold. If you do that, then you really have no idea when the cooking process starts, and you are really guessing about when it is done. Just let it heat in the pan until the paper starts to puff ever so slightly. Then into a 450 oven it goes.

You serve it in the paper, cut open, the tops peeled back. Sort of like one of the eggs from [I]Alien[/I].

Mine was good. Cooked correctly, and tasty. It’s a fun technique to do, if a bit much on the prep side.

The other dish was easier. You take the filets and pound them out thin. Not incidentally, it also makes them wider. Season, then roll the filet up. The ends will be uneven because of the uneven edges. Trim just enough with a knife to make a perfect cylinder. Then unroll, and re-roll with the trimmings inside. No waste! Butterfly the roll, that is, cut not quite in half, but barely attached so that you have two cylinders side by side, still connected.

Take a cold sautoir and rub the bottom with whole butter. Add a layer of ciseler shallot, then thinly sliced mushrooms. Put in the filet. Add some white wine and a parchment lid. Cook until the wine is boiling. Add some fish fumet, about halfway up the side of the fish. Cook until fish is white all over; you will have to turn it several times with your tongs to ensure even cooking. When it’s done, remove and place a wet paper towel on top (this helps prevent the fish from drying out).

Then you turn up the heat and cook that liquid down until it is syrupy. This is important. If you don’t do that, your sauce will lack color and be too runny. Once it is syrupy, add reduced heavy cream (reduced on the stove) and whisk. The color should be a deep tan. If not, cook a little bit until it is. Add chopped parsley once it is off heat.

Plate the dish with the fish in the middle, potato cocottes (cooked separately) arranged around, and spoon the sauce all over. Then put it under a salamander to add some more color.

Here is Chef’s:

Mine was not a success. The fish was cooked correctly and everything tasted fine, but I did not cook the liquid long enough to make it syrupy, hence my sauce did not thicken or darken enough.

Purely a bone-headed mistake, as Chef had explained and demonstrated this clearly. Live and learn.

Day 15: Salads

May 3, 2009

Salad Days.

Or day, at any rate.

This day was perhaps not the most interesting, and probably will not result in the most interesting entry, either. We only made two salads. The rest of the day was prep, prep, prep – lots of it. Gave me some appreciation for what the guys at the garde manger station go through. We also learned salad “theory,” such as how to make a vinaigrette, all about olive oil, and how to think about combining ingredients.

I believe I mentioned this in an earlier post, the one that recounted “preserves” day. There are three kinds of salads: simple, mixed, and composed. A simple salad has one ingredient, or one plus a relatively insignificant garnish plus seasoning. A watercress salad with steak frites would be an example. A mixed salad has two or more ingredients mixed together. The possibilities are endless, from a basic mixed baby greens salad to a Caesar or a Cobb. A composed salad has several ingredients, all seasoned separately and put on the plate in a distinct place. The Salad Niçoise that we made on preserves day was a composed salad.

Today, we made two more composed salads. Or, I suppose, one was both composed and mixed. That was the first one, the Maçédoine de Légumes. Or, veggies cut into little cubes. We had to cut lots of carrots and turnips into maçédoine (medium dice), then cook a l’anglaise and drain. We also cooked peas and green beans a l’anglaise, and cut the beans into pea-sized pieces.

Then you make a mayonnaise and mix that into the cooked maçédoine. You need enough for it all to stick together and to retain whatever shape you intend to impart to it. As Chef X. constantly reminds us, the first principle of plating is height. Food should be piled up high, not spread out all over the plate. It’s more interesting for the eye that way.

The rest of this salad comprised hard boiled eggs (cut into wedges), tomatoes (boiled, shocked, peeled, and quartered), and a medley of herbs seasoned with oil and S&P. None of these is obligatory. You can garnish this salad virtually any way you want.

We were given more freedom to plate. The only two principles were: the maçédoine had to be in the center, and there had to be height. I used a tall ring mold to stack the maçédoine in the center. The herb medley went atop that. The tomatoes and eggs were spread out around. I used three and three because, according to Chef, identical elements are never supposed to be plated in even numbers. Two or four look bad to the eye, but three looks nice. I am not sure I buy this, but apparently it is a “rule.”

So this was a hybrid salad. The maçédoine in the center is mixed. But the other elements make it composed.

The next salad was even more of a free for all. It was just a plate of raw vegetables, or assiette de crudités. You can do this with virtually any vegetable. We used red cabbage, carrots, celery root, tomato, and cucumber.

The red cabbage was cut julienne (or chiffonade without the rolling). Then you heat some red vinegar in a pan, and pour it over the cabbage. This cooks it ever so slightly, but not even close to fully, and adds flavor and changes the color to purple.

A celery root is something that I think I have never seen before. It’s an enormous tan/brown wrinkly globe, with a thick outer skin and very hard flesh. You have to peel it with a knife; it will destroy the peeler. Once you have trimmed all that hard outside, you shred it on a mandoline (or you can julienne by hand). Toss in some lemon juice and set aside for a while.

Do the same with some carrots.

Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette. This is a misleading term, since any combination of acid and oil counts as a “vinaigrette.” The acid does not have to be vinegar. We used lemon juice, for instance.

Vinaigrettes are worth a treatise in and of themselves, apparently, but I am not the one to write it. Suffice it to say, there are a handful of general principles, and then a million variations. The ratio should be at least 4 oil to one acid. If you are infusing something, add it to the acid first; either that or do a slow infusing into the oil (this takes a long time, and once done, the entire batch of oil will have that taste).

What we did was season some lemon juice, whipped it until it foamed, and then put a crushed garlic clove in it and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. Then we added the oil and whipped some more. This was used to season the tomatoes, and also drizzled on the salad at the end. Our book called this “Citronette” but Chef scoffed at that name, and said this was a lemon vinaigrette.

The sliced cucumbers were tossed with whipped cream (whipped by hand, I need hardly add) and then some chopped mint was added.

After the celery root had a sat in lemon juice for a while, it was time to add the mayo. This is called Céleri Rémoulade. Rémoulade is a specific variation of mayo that has capers, cornichons and anchovies. However, Céleri Rémoulade is different. It is mayo highly flavored with mustard. We did a one-to-one ratio. Toss the root in that until it is creamy and clingy.

For plating, we took romaine lettuce leaves and dried them in a spinner. Then we laid them out flat, and put the various elements on the plate in separate little zones.

Not much too it. Both my plates were praised today, but nearly everyone did a good job with theirs as well. One lady I have come to appreciate is the best plater in the class. Hers are always gorgeous. I should have photographed it.

The taste of everything was fine, at least Chef said so. I was not in love with these recipes. I prefer just a simple green salad with a vinaigrette. I gave my composed salads to the dishwasher. He liked them.

At the end of the day we picked cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes. Chef says it takes seven days for the flavor to really take hold. We will try them all next week.

Day 14: Soup

April 30, 2009

Soups. We made four soups. Two of these – onion and vegetable – I learned in Knife Skills. The other two – consommé and cauliflower — are new to this class.

Consommé is something I have read about but never attempted. It always seemed so hard, and also kind of wasteful and a waste of time. You have to use a lot of extra ingredients, including ground beef. You lose a lot of stock. You lose flavor – indeed the point of the extra ingredients is to replace some of the flavor that the consommé process sucks out. And all that work, money, and lost flavor is sacrificed for … presentation. So your broth will be crystal clear. Or as close as you can make it.

A very typical French thing, I must say. It’s the soup equivalent of tourné. Spend a lot of time, throw out a lot of usable food, all for the sake of … presentation.

Still and all, it was fascinating to do, because it is one of the revered techniques in the repertoire. Basically, you make a “raft” – a mixture of meat, mirepoix and egg whites – and you boil that in some stock, and then simmer. The egg whites “fine” the broth – cloudy particles stick to them and clear up the broth. The other stuff puts back in some of the flavor that the egg whites take out.

You can do this to any stock. What makes it somewhat complicated doing it to a white stock is that you can’t use ground beef. Ground turkey or chicken will do. For fish fumet, you can’t use any meat at all. At least, Chef said, you would be a fool to do so, since you would have to buy and grind your own white fish meat, which would be time consuming and expensive. Since the whole process strikes me as time consuming and expensive regardless, I wondered why this was such a big objection.

We used “marmite”. That is, apparently, white stock darkened with onions brule – burnt onions (described in the stock post). Marmite is also the French term for a tall stock pot, so it is both vessel and the thing in the vessel.

The raft is ground beef, egg white, and julienned leek, carrot and celery and rough chopped tomatoes. Use scraps if you have them. Mush all that together in a bowl until the egg whites are no longer runny. That is your raft. It goes into your marmite (in both senses) still cold, but on high heat. You have to stir like crazy – like a tornado, Chef said. At first the liquid will turn red. Then you will notice an amazing amount of scum and gray foam. That means it’s working. When the meat itself starts to turn gray, stop stirring. Time to let the raft set. It will form into a solid. If it does not, they you have stirred too long and broken it. Start over.

Regulating the heat is very important. You need it to come to a full boil to get the process started, but if you leave it on a full boil too long, the violence of the liquid’s motion will sink the raft and destroy your attempt. You have to gradually lower. Use your ladle to spoon out as much fat from the center as possible (I found this to be a waste of time). Then make a hole in the center of the raft. Get the temp down to a low boil/high simmer, and the liquid will circulate: up the sides of the pot, across the top of the raft, down through the hole, etc. Over and over. Throughout, the egg whites will attract particles, and the rest will impart flavor.

Looks sort of disgusting, doesn’t it?

Leave it on for a while. I think mine was on for 45 minutes. Then strain through a fine chinois lined with a cheesecloth. A plain chinois is not thorough enough.

It should be really, exceptionally clear. Ruhlman says that the rule of thumb at CIA is “read the date on a dime at the bottom of a gallon.” I am not sure mine was quite that clear, but it was not bad.


You also have to defat. Chef again said that the lazy way is to refrigerated and scoop it all out once it has solidified. We did the paper towel method, described in my last post. It worked, but I think it wastes a lot of broth. No way you are only catching fat.

After that we added some macedoined vegetables (cooked a l’anglaise previously) and a sprig of chervil and served. It was tasty, I had to admit, but a lot of work for a soup.

We also made farmer’s soup, or potage cultivatuer. This is one of the repeats for me. It’s a tasty soup, I must say. All the vegetables are paysanned, that is, cut into battonets and then into little super-thin tiles. Except for the cabbage, which is chiffonade. In knife skills class we used our veg trimmings to make a veg stock (these cook fast, 45 minutes on the outside) and used that as our liquid. This time we used chicken stock. Chef’s reasoning, which seemed fair enough, was that since the soup included bacon, it’s already not vegetarian, so why not. And, indeed, the soup he made in knife skill did include bacon.

First you do your prep. There is a lot of it. You have to paysanne carrots, turnips and potatoes, plus emincer leek and celery. In addition, you have to anglaise some green beans and peas. Beyond that, however, the soup is not so hard. Just sweat the bacon very slowly in butter (no color) then add the veg (minus green beans and peas) and sweat slowly. Then add the stock and the cabbage. Boil for 15 minutes. Add the potato and boil for another 15. One trick Chef imparted. You recall how I said that Chef insists that peeled and/or cut potatoes must be held in liquid. When making this soup, instead of using water, use chicken stock. Some starch always leeches out of potato when you hold it in liquid. Starch is good for this soup; that’s what thickens it. If you hold the potatoes in water, you either have to throw that out, or use it and dilute the flavor of your soup. This way, you avoid that dilemma.

The yellow color is mostly from the butter. If the soup is any darker than that, it means you inadvertently browned something. I did that when I made this in Knife Skills class. The resulting color was more orange. It still tasted good, though.

Turn the soup down and let it simmer for a while, there is no set time, just stop when you like the way it looks and tastes. Season at the end, as ever.

Here was mine, finished, and then plated:

Did you know there is a difference between onion soup and gratinee a l’oignon? Well, there is. Only ignorant Americans call them both onion soup. That is INCORRECT! They begin the same way. You caramelize a lot of onions – really, a lot. Cook them high enough to get a deep brown, but low enough not to burn. Add stock and simmer. That’s it. (You can also sauté a little garlic with the onions.)

Here is is, cooking:

The final taste depends on the quality of the stock above all. According to Chef, this began as a peasant dish (onions are about the cheapest thing on a farm) and was made with water. Once the chefs got hold of it, they thought of many improvements.

We made ours with the remainder of our consommé. This is not really done, but as we had it on hand, and it really had no other immediate use, Chef said to do it. He likes to make comments about how this or that little tweak to a dish can increase what you can charge for it in a restaurant. I wondered what one could charge for onion soup made from consommé. “Oh, forget it. $18, $20. Maybe more. But no one would do that. It’s crazy. And all the clarification is lost in the cooking.”

I have to say, it was damn near the best onion soup I ever had, though.

Oh, and the difference between the two? With onion soup, you toast a piece of thinly sliced bread, lay it in the bottom of the bowl, add some cheese (always gruyere) and then add the soup. For gratinee, you put the soup in a crock (a little ceramic pot), put the bread on top, grate the cheese over the bread, and then put in the oven or under a salamander and melt. I thought the latter was simply “onion soup,” but no, it depends on the presentation. We made both. Sadly, I forgot to take pictures.

The last thing we did was Crème Dubarry, or puréed cauliflower soup. This was rather easy (actually, thy all were, apart from the consommé). Just sweat some leeks emincer until translucent, singer with flour, cook the flour, then add lots of stock (white) and coarsely chopped cauliflower. Cook for a good long time until the liquid has reduced by about half.

Add some cream and bring to a boil, then off heat.

This gets pureed in a blender. Add salt and white pepper to season, and some butter. Meanwhile, you should have saved some of the fleurettes from the cauliflower. Sauté those quickly and use as a garnish.

I don’t like cauliflower much, but I liked this soup. It must have been the butter and salt. As Chef says (often) “Butter is good! Salt is good!” Indeed.