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Adventures at the French Culinary Institute


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I am, I know, a week late with this. I am really running out of time to write these. It’s all I can do to go to class, and then keep up with everything else I have to do. Writing these takes up a surprising amount of time, which I really don’t have enough of any more. I will try to keep doing them, but shorter.

Anyway, last week was chicken. We only did two dishes – roast chicken, and fricassee, hunter style, but they were complete meals with garnish and sauce. We had to really hustle to get it all done. There are few pics because I really had no time to stop. When you see how few, and that there are only two plates at the end result, you will think we dogged it all day. But I can assure you that such is not the case.

I am not going to spend a lot of time describing these techniques, because A) I would like to get this done fast, and B) I find them hard to put into words that are easy to follow later in a practical attempt to replicate them. Frankly, when it comes to cutting and trussing, even pictures don’t help a great deal. You have to see it done in 3-D and then do it yourself to really learn how.

This lesson was about chicken. No shortage of things to learn. But, as noted, we only did two: a classic whole roasted chicken, and a chicken quartered and then sautéed on the bone and finished in the oven.

The first lesson was trussing, followed by quartering. These are things I learned in knife skills, but Chef X did them both a little differently. One trick: always remove the wishbone of a chicken before you cook it, however you plan to cook it. It gets in the way of carving later, and trying to work the knife around it will result in leaving meat on the carcass. To remove the wish bone, first expose it by scraping with the non-blade edge of your boning knife, then use your fingers to work the meat off the bone and just pull the bone out.

Another fancy froggy thing we did was remove the joints from the legs and wings. This had a French name, which I forgot. The point is strictly for appearances, I gather, though Chef said it made eating the bird easier, for reasons I will try to explain.

A chicken wing has three sections; only one is supposed to remain. You cut off the first two, then cut round the end of the third, through the skin and the tendons. Then scrape like mad until the cartilage at the tip starts to loosen. Then cut that off. The tendons will shrink up inside the skin, and the meat will plump into a ball as the chicken cooks. Supposedly it will be juicier, and easier to cut into bites. But mostly, it’s all for show. Do the same thing to the end of the legs, for the same reason.

Season the cavity BEFORE you truss. This is important because once the bird is tied up, you will not have access anymore. Also, there are often big flaps of fat attached to the skin on either side of the cavity. Pull them off and discard (or save if you have some use for chicken fat). Remove whatever guts are inside and save for your sauce.

Time to truss. This is something that I learned from a book, after making chickens for years without trussing. Then I started trussing, then I got sick of it and concluded it made no difference, and I stopped again. All the good books by the star chefs say that you MUST truss. If you don’t, the bird will not cook evenly. Well, that is not true in my case. But the reason, I eventually concluded, is that my typical roast chicken is stuffed (old family recipe). Stuffed chickens take longer to cook, especially at the thigh, because there is no hot air in the cavity cooking the meat from the inside. So, after much experimentation, my conclusion was: no stuffing, truss. Stuffing, truss or not, I don’t think it matters.

It mattered for us in class, however, because we browned this chicken in a pan first. Doing that with the limbs flailing everywhere would have been hard. Trussing made it a lot easier to brown the bird evenly. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We salted and peppered the cavity (rather generously) and then added a whole head of garlic, skin on, chopped in half.

Without trying to explain what we did, for the reasons given above, I will say that Chef’s trussing method is the best I have thus far encountered. Really effective. The best trick of all was the last. I always found it hard to tie the bird tight. You can pull the string tight, but as soon as you try to make the knot, it slackens. I always ask for help, someone to hold the string tight while I make the knot. Well – I don’t need to do that anymore! The trick is, take both ends of the string, one in each hand, and lift the bird off the cutting board. Gravity will keep the string tight as you tie the knot. Try it. Foolproof.

Then we browned the bird on the stovetop, in a pan with oil. I have never done this with a chicken, ever. The way I was taught is, you turn the oven up really high at first (450 or so) to brown the bird for (at most) a quarter of total cooking time, or until brown, then turn it down to 350 to finish. Chef was adamant that this is WRONG. “It’s not roasting unless the meat cooks in the fat, high heat.” Keller, in the Bouchon book, also says to roast chicken in a skillet in a 450 oven, but he does not brown the bird first.

I have to add, also, that the size of the bird is important. Those gigantic mini-turkeys are no good for this method. By the time the interior is cooked, the outside will be burned. 3 pounds is about right, and certainly no larger than four.

Anyway, you brown the bird in oil, in a sautoir, over m-high heat. Brown it on three sides: each leg side, then the breast. No need to brown the back since that will be in contact with the skillet as the bird roasts.

Once it is browned (this takes at most 2-3 minutes per side), transfer to another pan, add some butter to that pan, and put in the oven. The butter is for basting. The bird will cook in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour (about the same as Keller’s timing) and should be basted at least twice; 3 or four times is better, Chef said. Basting was not a fancy operation, you just take the pan out, tilt it, let the butter collect, and then spoon it over the bird.

OK, while your chicken is cooking in the oven, there is a lot of work to do. First, we had to make a jus. Chef insisted that roast chicken without a jus is not roast chicken. It is sacrilegious. If you have brown chicken stock, use that. If not, use brown veal stock. White stock will be too weak and will not have the correct color.

Take the pan in which you browned the chicken. Take the wing parts and the joints that you hacked off the bird, plus the neck parts in the cavity (chopped into smaller pieces) and brown them in that pan. When they are brown, add the organs (these will brown fast). Then add some mirepoix. When that is browned, tip out as much fat as you can, add some white wine and deglaze the bottom of the pan, scrape up that suc (fond). Then add your stock ( we used a half liter per team as I recall, but then added more because Chef thought it did not look like enough). Also add a bouquet garni. Let that simmer until your bird is cooked.

The rest of the garnish was pommes rissole (potatoes tourné cut, blanched, sautéed, then roasted; described in an earlier post); bacon lardon blanched (to reduce the salty flavor) then sautéed until crisp; quartered (and peeled) mushrooms sautéed in bacon fat; and finally pearl onions glacé a brun (also described in a prior post).

Ever hear that old saw, “You know the chicken is done when the juices run clear”? Not so useful, I have found, because the only way to see the juices is to cut the bird open. Well, that is true with a stuffed bird. But not with an unstuffed bird. All you have to do is take your meat fork (a fork with long prongs that looks like a tuning fork), stick that into the opening of the cavity, and lift the bird. Juice will run out the back. If it’s clear, the bird is done. Works like a charm.

The bird must rest. This is good because at this point you have to strain your sauce. It should be slightly thick, nappé. If not, add a slurry to thicken it a bit. Chef also suggested a monté au berre.

Carving is another thing you have to really see to understand; once you learn the “correct” way you will be amazed at how efficient it is. Chef insisted that we remove the bone from the thighs, which is not something I ever do at home, but it is more “elegant.” He also said that we had to cut the breast pieces in two. The chicken is properly served with one piece with a bone (either a leg or the side of the breast with the wing bone) and one without (thigh or breast tip). One quarter chicken per diner. Personally, I can eat a lot more than that, and thankfully, I got to this time.

All the carcasses were saved for making brown chicken stock later. Since this is something I typically do at home, I felt gratified.

Plate the chicken in the center, add the sauce around it in a ring, then add the garnish and some chopped herbs. I have to say, no credit to me, this was absolutely delicious. Juicy. Flavorful. Fantastic. Terrific technique. I will definitely try it at home.

The second recipe was Hunter’s chicken. We had made this sauce on one of the sauce days previous. This time, we were not told how to make it. We were just expected to know. I got Chef X on one point, however. I recalled that last time, we used some tomato sauce (also made on that day) in the mix. This time we were expected just to use finely diced tomato. At first he denied that we had used tomato sauce, but then he looked it up in the book and conceded that I was right. A rare moment of triumph.

Breaking down a chicken is a lot like carving it, only more difficult, as there are more cuts and the meat is harder to work with. One very important thing is not to leave the “oyster,” a small morsel of meat (considered to be the best part of a chicken) in it’s little nest under the thigh. You need to work the knife around it and take if off with the thigh. You also have to completely remove the backs. Those should then be hacked into little pieces and used in your sauce.

The other difference with the sauce this time was that last time we used fond de veau lié, that is, bound (or thickened) veal stock. We did not have that this time. Instead, we made reinforced stock. That is, we browned the chicken bones and some mirepoix, and then simmered it in the stock. Then that gets strained and it acts as your stock.

The chicken parts are seasoned (S&P only) and sautéed in a pan. I messed up and used a 10” rather than a 12” pan; as a result, my pieces were too crowded and the steamed a little at the edges and didn’t burn evenly. I could tell that they were crowded, I just had this notion that we only had two sizes of sauteuse in the kitchen, small (8”) and large (12”); since the one I was using was obviously not small, I assumed it was “large.” As it happens, the kitchen has all three sizes. I should have known, because I have the 8”, the 10”, the 12” and the 14” at home.

Anyway, after that they go in the oven. Supposedly, they will cook fast – 10 or 15 min, but mine took more like 20.

The sauce has been described in an earlier post. The differences are: reinforced stock (with chicken bones) rather than bound stock, and tomato concassée rather than tomato sauce. It tasted basically the same. It’s an extremely rich sauce.

We also made mashed potatoes (technically, pommes purée) using the trimmings from our pommes rissole. Boil in salted water, strain, then pass through a food mill. Fork mashing is for lazy people. Then heat some milk or cream, and whip it into the potatoes. Add butter. Season to taste.

Plating of this one was more complicated. We were supposed to make a pile of potato off to one side, not in the middle, not really at the edge either. Place a thigh on top of the pile, then slice the breast and arrange the pieces like a fan around the potato pile. Chef’s looked beautiful. Mine, not so much. Taste was excellent, however. Though I liked the roasted chicken better.

The big problem with making either of these recipes at home is getting veal stock.

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The big problem with making either of these recipes at home is getting veal stock.

You can just as easily use brown chicken stock. Or in the case of the fricasse, just make a quick stock from your browned and chopped chicken carcass. You might not exactly replicate the depth and mouthfeel of the veal stock based sauces but you will still come pretty close and it will still taste very good.

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Last Sunday was meat day, part one. Once again, we did more than just the thing under consideration (i.e., there were side dishes and sauces, more or less complete meals), so just getting these two plates done took all our time.

We grilled steaks, and we made blanquette de veau (veal stew). The purpose was to teach the two principle methods of cooking meat: concentration, and extraction. Concentration uses dry heat to sear the meat and seal the juices inside. Now, I know it is a fraught question about whether searing actually seals in juices or not, and current wisdom believes that, in fact, it does not. But I don’t want to get into that. Tradition holds that searing locks in juices, and we are learning the tradition. Whether it is scientifically true or not is beside the point at this stage.

Extraction is cooking slowly in liquid to draw out its natural juices to flavor the cooking liquid, which in turn cooks the meat and tenderizes it.

Chef had a huge, full strip loin (that is, a row of uncut New York steaks) which he butchered into individual steaks and trimmed of excess fat. I wish I had gotten a picture of that, but I did not think of it. Our task was to make a classic steak frites: grill the meat, make a béarnaise, make some fries, and add a little watercress salad.

But first we had to get the veal going because it takes longer to cook. We had some veal shoulder that we trimmed of excess fat (at least the part that we could get at with a knife) and then cut into even-sized chunks. This was blanched in water to boil off the fat and get rid of as much of the scum and impurities as you can. Then the meant is strained, washed in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slowly simmered in stock. We used chicken stock because we only had brown veal stock; white veal stock would have been better, but the school does not always have that on hand.

We also added some mirepoix (not browned), and barely cut. Indeed, the carrots, leeks and celery were just cut lengthwise and then tied together. The onion was halved, and then a bay leaf was secured to each half by sticking a whole clove through it; this is called oignon clouté, and is a classic technique. All that gets dropped in the pot. Also add a bouquet garni, in the sachet to make it easier to remove. It takes a long time to cook. The meat should be almost dissolved; not chewy at all.

While that is cooking, make a white roux and set aside. Peel and quarter a bunch of mushrooms and sauté on very low heat, with a parchment lid, until they release their liquid. Make pearl onions, glacé a blanc. Everything is supposed to be white, or just barely blond. Color is bad for this recipe. Several people had to do some things over because they put too much color on their onions and/or mushrooms.

Meanwhile, we had to get going on our steaks. First up was to get the elements of the béarnaise ready. Actually, this was not a béarnaise, rather it was a sauce choron, a béarnaise derivative. The extra element is tomato fondue. This is finely diced tomatoes, cooked slowly with shallots and garlic, then set under a cartouche until they are mushy and the liquid is gone. You can peel the tomatoes the surefire way – boil, shock, peel – or simply quarter them and then press them flat and carefully remove the skin with your knife. I tried the latter way. The first effort was not so great; I lost a lot of tomato flesh. But I got better at it.

Otherwise, the sauce is the same as described in a long ago post. Make the béarnaise and when it is thick, add the tomato fondue. The sauce looks pink.

For the steak, we used the kitchen’s indoor grill. We seasoned them first, then coated with a little oil to prevent sticking and give a little flavor boost. Now, in Knife Skills they told is (rather emphatically) that you should wait to season any meat until the last possible minute. Salt draws out water, which makes meat stick to grills and pans, and causes it to steam rather than brown. So we were told.

So season at the last minute. Either that or season well in advance, overnight, and let the salt really penetrate and flavor the meat. I knew this latter technique from a book. I can’t remember where I first read it but I am certain that it is something Keller says to do as well. And I have done it many times. And it really works. Indeed, it mimics (in a small way) the dry aging process. The salt breaks down fiber and also tenderizes the meat. It draws out water, which is also something that dry aging does. I always leave the steak on a paper towel, and put another paper towel on top, when I do this. The towels absorbs the water drawn out by the salt.

People have asked me in the past, Doesn’t that dry out the steak and make it less juicy? You might think so, but not in my experience. The water that is lost is basically useless, or worse than useless. It dilutes the flavor. Dry aging – which goes on for a month, not just overnight, or a couple of nights – removes quite a bit more liquid. Yet all steak lovers believe that a dry aged steak is superior to a non-aged steak. And I can tell you from experience that a steak treated with this method is still plenty juicy.

Anyway, we seasoned our steaks a good 20 minutes before they hit the grill. Chef did not seem to care at all. I should have asked him about it, but in the rush to get everything done, I did not. Next time.

I could see the water coming out and pooling on the steak however. Normally, I would daub it up with a paper towel, but there were two problems. First, that would rub off the oil. Second, it would rub off the salt and pepper. One virtue of the overnight method is that the seasoning breaks down and penetrates into the meat. It’s not just resting there on the surface. So A) the flavor is more distributed through the meat, and B) the seasoning is not apt to being rubbed off.

OK. Chef was after two things from this method. First was the proper degree of doneness. We could cook ours to any temp we wanted, but there was a game show element to it. We had to bring him the steak when it was done, announce the temp we shot for, and then let him cut the steak open and judge how well we did. He was quite adamant that we were not to use our meat thermometer to check (then what do we have them for?) because piercing the meat results in lost juices. Learning to cook steaks is a matter of sight and touch. You get a good idea of how long it takes based on how thick the steak is, how hot the grill is, and how it looks on the surface. Then you press down on the meat with your finger. The softer it is, the less it is cooked.

I have to say, I am not so great at this. Not bad, but not infallible. I am infallible with lamb. I don’t even need to touch it. I know from looking at lamb whether and to what extent it is cooked. I don’t know why, but it has long been so. Maybe I should open a lamb restaurant. With beef, however, I am hit or miss. This time I got lucky.

OK, as I noted, we were using the kitchen’s indoor grills. They were H-O-T! I mean, extremely hot. If you have ever read one of those restaurant memoirs like Bourdain et al in which they describe the grill station as the 9th circle of hell, I can only say they may have understated the case. I cannot imagine standing over one of these things for hours on end. Reaching your hand over it to flip a steak was agony. Fully 12 inches from the surface of the grill, I could feel my skin cooking. Had I cooked ten steaks instead of two, I bet my skin would have been tanned like a piece of shoe leather by the time I was done.

The second thing Chef wanted to see was the correct grill mark pattern. He took this very seriously. We were to create diamonds, not squares. The steaks were to hit the grill at a 30 degree angle (that is, imagine an axis line down the center of the steak lengthwise; that line should be 30 degrees offset from the grill bars. Check to see if the lines are nice and seared in by lifting the steak with tongs, but WIHTOUT moving it. You don’t want to make new marks. If the grill marks are pale, let the steak back down and let it cook longer in exactly the same position. If they are done, then move the steak, same side still down, to another part of the grill, but at a 30 degree angle the other way. The reason you move to another part of the grill is that the part it has been cooking on gets cooler while the steak cooks. You want a freshly hot part every time. Repeat this twice for the other side of the steak

It took about a minute, if that, to make one set of grill marks. So my steak was on the grill for maybe four minutes. It was already looking a little charred. I could tell by the finger test that it was not cooked, not even to rare, much less medium rare. So I put it in a 350 oven for about three minutes then let it rest. It felt correct, but since I was not allowed to cut it or use the thermometer, I had no way of knowing.

While it rested, I finished the fries. Now, much of this work had already been done. Chef cut his fries on a mandoline, but Restaurant Guy cut ours by hand, and he did a fine job – they were every bit as neat as the machine cut fries. Then Chef had us blanche the fries in water, something we did not do when we made frites in the potato class two weeks prior. I asked why. “It will make the inside softer and the outside crispier. The water draws off a lot of the external starch.” Unlike a lot of the blanching we do in this class, in which food is started in cold water and then removed when the water boils, we boiled the water first, then dumped the fries in for three minutes. After that we dried them thoroughly, then blanched them in 300 degree oil for three minutes. They sat in that state while the steaks were cooked, then at the end when the steak was resting, I did the last step: fry to golden in 375 degree oil. These fries were excellent, I must say.

We were to put our sauce in a little side cup; we had nothing elegant, so we had to use the little plastic mis en place cups. I presented my plate. Chef asked what temp I was going for. I said “Medium rare.” He solemnly cut my steak in half. “Perfect! That is perfect medium rare.”

Restaurant Guy wanted medium well, but I misunderstood him and cooked his to the same doneness of mine. He got a little lecture for that. I felt bad and owned that it was my fault. Chef X, by the way, cooked his steak well done. He said he always eats his meat that way. I was, frankly, shocked to read of a professional chef who likes well done. I though well done was for little kids and people without taste buds.

I have to say, I was not delighted with this meal. The fries were great, the sauce was great, the watercress was fresh, but the steak did not impress. It tasted charred on the outside, and rather flavorless on the inside. For a long time I have been doing a pan cook method that I learned from egullet (which got it from Ducasse) which makes an incredibly flavorful steak. The heat never goes above medium low. Yet the steak browns nicely without any charring, black marks, or carbony, coaly taste. There is no gray, overcooked layer under the surface from high heat searing. The meat is also intensely flavored.

Now, it could be that I buy a better kind of steak. That is possible. I tend to get the best that I can, and I have a local butcher who gets aged prime. I doubt what we had a school was either aged or prime. It does make a difference. Not long ago I did a cook-off at home between one of the butcher’s steaks with one of the “quality” steaks from my grocery store, and the butcher’s steak was far better. It could also have been that when I make a steak I always season it at least a day in advance, which we did not do. And there was the cooking method. Probably all of the above.

Anyway, I didn’t love it.

Back to the veal. We had earlier gotten a rice pilaf started. Chef went on a little rant about how bad Uncle Ben’s is. I have been eating this rice since I knew what rice is. I always thought it was fine. In fact, I like it. Not Chef X. But when I asked him what he liked, I expected to hear the name of some French brand I had never heard of. Instead he said, “Any jasmine or Basmati rice.” Now, I have had these, too. They are fine for what they are. But I don’t like them better than Uncle Ben’s. I also think that they have flavor profiles that are conducive to some dishes and not to others. Uncle Ben’s is a nice, neutral rice that takes on the flavor of whatever seasonings you use and that therefore can be adapted to just about any dish. But apparently, the cognoscenti hate it. I still like it.

The way I was taught to make rice was simple. You melt some butter (or fake butter, or you could use oil, or butter and oil), brown the rice, add liquid (two times the amount of rice, though the more rice you use, the less liquid you need; e.g., one cup of rice = 2 cups liquid but two cups rice = 3.5 cups liquid), bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, simmer for 20 minutes or so. When I was a kid, we used water and a bouillon cube (basically a salt bomb that is supposed to make water into “broth”). Then we moved on to canned (or boxed) broth. For a really nice dish, we would use homemade stock. We always called this “rice pilaf” or just “rice.” We would often add other things, sometimes onion, sometimes scallion, sometimes mushrooms, shallots, bacon, white wine for part of the liquid, or some combination.

I first came across a “true” pilaf recipe in Cook’s Illustrated. It called for washing the rice first in cold water, to get any excess starch off. This also made the color of the finished rice more white. They called also for lots of minced onion, sweated in butter. And then just water, and more butter. The taste was good, but strikingly different from my rice.

I asked Chef about washing the rice and he looked at me like I was crazy. That is just not done. OK. But we did use onion, ciceler, sweated in butter (no color), then we cooked the rice in the butter & onion, but WITHOUT letting it brown, then we added chicken stock (homemade, the only kind the school ever uses) and a bouquet garni. Bring the rice to a simmer (not a boil) and then put in a parchment lid, and add a metal lid, and cook in the oven, not on the stovetop. We did our pea soup the same way. The idea is that it cooks more evenly, and nothing burns or sticks to the bottom of the pan.

Back to the veal, for real. We could tell it was cooked when a piece just fell apart with the touch of a fork. I tasted it as well, and there was no hint of toughness or chewiness. Not a great deal of flavor, to be honest, but a some, from the stock and the mirepoix.

I strained the veal and set it aside. You save the liquid it cooked in; that becomes your sauce. Get that white roux you made earlier. Put it on the fire. Strain the liquid again through a fine Chinois into the pan with the roux. Whip into a blend. Don’t use all the liquid; you may not need it. You want the sauce to be somewhat thick, not runny. Meanwhile heat some cream in another pot. Reduce it by half. Add that to the sauce. Add a little lemon juice. Season. Taste. Correct seasoning. The basic sauce – roux + stock – is a velouté. Add the cream and it is a Sauce Surpreme.

Now add all the veal and the garnish into the same pot with the sauce and stir. At this point, your rice should be ready. Remove the sachet and take some butter and add it to the rice, taking a fork and fluffing the rice and breaking up the grains as you do so.

To plate, we used a mis en place cup to mold a little rice tower (more like a plateau). That went in the center of the plate. The meat and garnish went around it, with a liberal dousing of sauce and then chopped herbs (chervil and parsely).

It was better than the steak, I thought.

Since we finished early, we then had a “quiz.” Make potato cocottes (i.e., more tourné). We were supposed to make four from one potato. I foolishly chose a too short potato, and as a result mine were the correct shape but too short (a cocotte is supposed to be 5 cm). So I got another one. These were OK. Still not great, but I am getting there.

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"For a long time I have been doing a pan cook method that I learned from egullet (which got it from Ducasse) which makes an incredibly flavorful steak. The heat never goes above medium low. Yet the steak browns nicely without any charring, black marks, or carbony, coaly taste. There is no gray, overcooked layer under the surface from high heat searing. The meat is also intensely flavored."

I prefer this method to searing over a gas fired grill and I can confirm that it delivers a bit more flavor. As described as a low smoke and aerosol dispersing substitute to searing in a skillet, butter is preheated in the skillet before the steak goes in.

Edited by commander (log)
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The class is already half over. Actually, it was half over last week, I just forgot to note the milestone. There are 22 sessions, and we have now done 12. I fretted a lot before signing up for this class about whether 22 weeks was too much, borderline crazy, and whether I would get sick of it quickly. Now as I realize that more than half of it is already behind me, I am almost sad.

Oh well, there are other classes, and I intend to take at least one more.

The class we just had was another entrée course. The last several have been like the “heart of the order” in that I most want to learn to cook dinners and such. These have therefore been very important to me.

Last time I explained the difference between concentration and extraction. This time we did “mixte” cooking, which uses both. You sear and/or brown something, and then cook it in liquid. Braising means that the liquid comes about halfway up the sides of the meat. Cover the meat with liquid, and you have stew.

We made a lamb stew (Navarin printanièr) and a braised chicken (Fricasée de vollaille printanièr). Once again, we had to make all the garnishes (the term “side dishes” is not used at this school) which meant that even though we only did two dishes, we worked hard. Restaurant Guy did not show up, so what was supposed to be a team job I had to do alone. I finished everything, but later than ever, and was the last one to leave.

I also did something really stupid. Before class, when we were setting up, Chef asked me to get the chicken stock out of the fridge and put it in a rondeau over medium heat. I saw a big plastic bin with a label that said “chicken stock” and did exactly that. Then I stated setting up my station. Eventually Chef made his way back there and barked out, “What is this?”

“Chicken stock.”

“No, it’s not. It’s duck fat. Did you taste it? But you don’t need to taste it. Look at the color.” The color was a very light golden.

“But the label said ‘chicken stock.’”

“It doesn’t matter. People reuse containers all the time and they don’t always change the label. You have to check.”

I had seen three other containers marked “duck fat” so I just assumed that this, not marked duck fat, was not duck fat. Silly me. I also hadn’t seen any chicken stock, but it was in there, way in the back, obscured by a tray. Sigh.

First, we had another “quiz.” Two weeks ago, we had learned to truss and then quarter a chicken. Well, we had to do it again. We had to quarter the birds anyway for the fricassee and Chef figured that we might as well truss as well just to see if we could. I was very confident that I could do it well, because I remembered what we had done, and I had done a good job the last time. But when Chef “stress tested” my bird – by picking it up with one finger by the string and shaking it – the string under the back slipped. He said it wasn’t my fault, that it was the shape of the bird, but I was annoyed. He showed me a trick.

“When you have a bird like this with a rounded back and the string won’t stay, cut a little groove, and the string will settle into that and not move.” I did that, re-trussed the bird, and passed that part of the quiz.

Next we had to quarter. I did fine on this part.

At that point our chickens went into the fridge for the time being while we worked on our lamb. Before class, Chef had taken a couple of whole legs of lamb and removed all of the meat. The bones he gave to another chef to use to make lamb stock for the restaurant. Lamb stock is not something they have at the school that often, and the restaurant always gets first dibs on any lamb bones. There is a fairly complex unofficial barter system at the school. As I have noted before, everything gets used by someone. But how the leavings, stems, trimmings, leftovers, unused stocks, etc., are allocated is all mysterious to the outsider, but the people who have been there for a while understand. Good chefs make alliances with other chefs that pay off down the road.

There is also a lot of food sharing between classrooms. For instance, a kitchen next to us made desert yesterday, and send us some of their mousses. We sent them entrees in return. This apparently goes on all the time, independently of family meal, and everyone plays the game.

Anyway, Chef gave us all our portion of lamb, and then explained how he wanted it trimmed and cut. There was a large layer of fat on the outside that he wanted removed. This should be removed no matter what recipe you are making. Some books say to leave it on if you roast the entire leg whole, so that the fat can moisten the leg, but Chef said not to do this. It has little positive effect on the meat and is hard to remove after cooking. As for the fat inside, he said to take out any big nodes, but don’t be too thorough, because some of it will melt and flavor the meat.

To cook, we cut the lamb into chunks, seasoned with S&P, and browned. Chef was very insistent that the flames had to be on high. Several people didn’t have their flames on high, and he scolded them. “You are not browning your mean, you are boiling it. On low heat the juices come one and then they cook the meat. You get no color, and dry meat. Mixte cooking! Concentration, then extraction. You are doing extraction without concentration.” The other thing the corrected people for was the amount they put in the pan. You can’t crowd a pan when browning anything. Overfill the pan, and you get the same problem: air does not circulated, the juices release, and then the mean steams.

After the meat, we added a mirepoix (just carrots and onions and a little garlic) and browned that. Then add the lamb back and singer (dust) with flour. The flour should be about the same amount as the amount of oil you started with. Cook the flour to get rid of the chalky taste, then add a big spoonful of tomato paste and cook that. Then deglaze the pan with white wine.

“Chef, why not use red wine?”

“You could, it just makes a darker sauce. I like white because I think they flavor is heavy enough as it is and the white does not intensify that.”

When the wine has boiled for a minute or two add your veal stock. You could use lamb stock – actually, it would be ideal – but it is not typically something that anyone has on hand. Add bouquet garni, bring to a boil, then add a parchment lid, a metal lid, and put in the oven.

Chef kept getting asked “How long does it take to cook?” Actually, he was asked that about a lot of things, and not just today. He really hates the question. “I tell you this every week. It takes as long as it takes. There is no set answer. You have to check. That’s it. Check until it’s done. You are here to learn to cook and that is part of it. If everything took the same time every time and you could learn that from a book, none of us would be here.”

For what it’s worth, mine took about 45 minutes in the oven. You know it’s done when the lamb is perfectly tender, not a trace of chewiness.

In the meantime, we had to prep our garnishes for both dishes. Lots of tourné: carrots, turnips and potatoes. Red potatoes this time, which Chef said are better for stews. We also cooked a l’Anglaise some pearl onions, green beans and peas. The potatoes were simply boiled until not quite tender and then added to the stew at the very end, along with the greens. The pearl onions, carrots and turnips were blanched al dente and added when the stew came out of the oven.

Or they should have been. When my lamb was done, Chef said I had too much liquid left. I had to take out the lamb, piece by piece, with tongs and then reduce the liquid (with the mirepoix and bouquet garni still inside) by about half. That took at least 20 minutes, I would say.

Then pass the sauce through a fine chinois directly onto the lamb (in another pan). Heat up a bit, then add the carrots and turnips. Let those absorb some of the sauce. Add the greens (beans and peas) and potatoes at the very end. If you leave the greens in too long, they will lose all their flavor. The potatoes will just disintegrate.

A key principle of plating, which he always stresses, is that you don’t overload the plate. I suppose I knew this intuitively from seeing plates in restaurants but I am so used to just haphazardly piling up food at home that it is still hard to do this right. Chef’s #1 critique of all our plates is that we had too much food on them. Fair enough, but I was hungry.

I ate my entire plate and then some. I also gave a plate to the dishwasher. This is considered “good manners” in cooking school, and they really do appreciate it, so Chef said.

Next was the chicken. We cooked this in clarified butter, no oil, very low heat to give minimal color to the bird. Browning is bad for this dish. Light sautéing is calls “raider.”

Chef said that he doesn’t really like this dish because he doesn’t see the point of a light sauté with bone-in, skin-on chicken. He also said that the skin would end up chewy and bad, not crisp as with a roast, so no one would eat it. But it’s in the curriculum, and it’s a classic technique, so we were going to do it.

After the bird is lightly cooked on both sides, take the pieces out and sauté a large amount of onion ciseler. Sweat, don’t brown. Then singer with flour. Cook until you have white (or blond, but not brown) roux. Add chicken stock. Now you have a velouté. Add the chicken back with the juices from the plate it was sitting on. Cook uncovered on low or m-low heat until done. You can easily see if it’s done by flipping back the tenderloin on the underside of the breasts. The leg parts tend to take a bit longer. Chef said 8 min for the breasts and 12 for the legs, but mine was more like 10 and 15. The good news is, with all that liquid it is hard to really dry out the chicken (but no doubt possible).

Meanwhile you should have some cream reducing in another pot. Once the chicken is out, add that and whip. Now you have sauce Supreme. Strain into another pan with the chicken inside.

We had ready and waiting carrot, pearl onions, turnips, glace a blanc (mine got slightly overdone) and green beans and peas. These were to be plated on the side.

Now, I thought I had followed Chef’s instruction when I made my plate. But I had not. It had a lot of mistakes. The protein, he said, should always be at 6 o’clock, near the diner. The veg should be on the other side at 12. Any bone should point away from the diner. Slices should be neatly fanned. Sauce should be carefully spooned in a little moat off the edge of the meat, and then just barely drizzled on top. Don’t douse the entrée. Any part of the plate that does not have food should be spotlessly clean.

So I did mine over (using another piece of the bird; I ate the first version and washed the plate).

Chef pronounced the second one “perfect,” but I think he meant “Perfect for you,” that is, “No visible hairs, fingernail cuttings, or human blood. Food no more than six inches from where it should be.”

The taste was good. Actually, I rather liked this dish. So did the dishwasher.

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I for one really appreciate the fact that you continue to share all of this with us, despite not really having the time. Since I'm living in France I get to see lots of the dishes you describe but not necessarily how they're made, and I'm really interested in your accounts.

Could you link to the steak technique that you use that came from here originally?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Every class is supposed to have a theme, but sometimes the theme is not so apparent. This was one of those times.

The first thing we learned was the poêlé method. This is not to be confused with a poêle, which is a slope sided sauté pan (i.e., a skillet or frying pan). No, they have nothing to do with one another. The poêlé method is a way to cook large pieces of meat, game in particular. I had never heard of it, but it is apparently a big deal in France.

We were to use pork, rib racks. Chef had two long racks which he cut into three or four rib sections for us. He said at the outset that the true poêlé method was for cooking very large pieces of meat, which we didn’t have (that is, we didn’t have after he cut it) and also used lots of bones and trimmings, which we also didn’t have. But we would do our best and nonetheless get the general idea of the method.

Poêlé cooks in the oven like a roast, but unlike a roast it is covered in some sort of fat. The traditional way is to wrap it in a thin layer of fat, but we didn’t have that so we used butter. The other difference is that poêlé method uses a cover, whereas roasts are cooked uncovered.

Chef said that a typical large piece of meat cooked poêlé will brown nicely by the time it is done. The problem with using this method on small pieces is that they don’t brown so nicely. As a fix you can sear it in a pan first – this is in fact what our text says to do – but we didn’t. I am not sure why not.

The other hallmark of this method is that the meat is cooked over a bed of mirepoix, trimmings and bones (if you have them). It just rests right on top of them, unlike a roast, which is typically on a rack.

First we had to manchonnez our mini-roasts. This is like what we had to do with chicken wings and legs: clean and scrape the bones. You see this in fancy butcher shops sometimes, on racks of lamp most likely, and it is called “Frenched.” Well, the French call it manchonnez. It’s not so difficult. You trim the later on top of the bones off on a long strip. Then you work your boning knife between the bones and remove the meat stuck there. Then scrape, scrape, scrape. Then you take some twine and tie the roast between the bones (so three ribs = two ties) to round out the shape and make it cook more evenly, and also be more presentable when served.

Into the pan goes two (!) heads of garlic cut in half, and one carrot and one onion, coarsely chopped (really large pieces). Plus a bouquet garni and whatever trimmings you took from your roast when you did the manchonnez. Season the roast (S&P only) and then really lather it with butter. This is not a little rubbing; you really want to see panels of butter sticking to the sides.

Cover the pot (we used our small sautoirs, so had to cover with doubled up aluminum foil), and into the oven (350) it goes. It cooks for a good while. I think mine was in there for 90 minutes. We would take it out occasionally and baste. It really did look white, or off white, after a short time. It got no color at all. Then after about an hour, Chef said to put it back without the foil. It cooked that way for about 30 minutes, and got a nice light golden. Not like a roast, but it was a decent color.

Meanwhile, for our sides, we did a potato dish whose name I forget. The shape, he said, was Pommes Chateau, but the cooking method was different. Pommes Chateau is just a really large tourné, and either we cheated or the technique is a cheat, because we did not make the potatoes into perfect torpedoes. Rather we peeled them, cut them in half lengthwise, and then turned them but left the flat side mostly intact. Since the flat side is always the hardest to turn, this made it a lot easier.

Other than that, the dish involved bacon lardon, raidier (I think that was the word; sweated but not browned), then onion emincer in the bacon fat. Then put in the potatoes flat side down, and fill the sautoir with veal stock about halfway up the potatoes. Season, add some thyme, bring to a boil, then put in the oven. The liquid reduces down and the surface of the potatoes dries out and takes on a nice color. These take about 30 minutes to cook, but the only way to know is to test them with a paring knife. They need to be tender all the way through.

The other side was called Choisy Garniture. It was a little lettuce wrapped roll. The filling was called matingnon: bacon, onion and carrot, all cut very small (brunoise) and sweated until well cooked. Then Boston lettuce leaves cooked a l’anglaise, very fast, then laid out and dried. Spoon in the filling and roll. Grease a small sauteuse with butter and lay the rolls out in the pan. Add veal stock about 1/3 to half way up. When it’s close to service, bring to a boil, then put in the oven for a few minutes.

The roast is ready when the temp is 140. As it happens, I recently made a rack of pork roast at home and had a devil of a time getting it up to temp. This one was much smaller (and used a different cooking method) and it cooked up fine. Chef said to put the thermometer (first time we have used it, I think!) in as close to the bone as possible without touching. Then put it on a rack to let it rest (always rest on a rack to let air circulate all around the meat) and put the foil back on top as a tent to trap the evaporating moisture and help the meat finish cooking (it should rise another 5-10 degrees).

Save your mirepoix. Take that pan, put it on the flame, and add some white wine. Reduce by half. Then add veal stock (I used two cups). Let that simmer for a while. You could also add the remain liquid from the potatoes and the lettuce wraps. When the sauce is getting thick, strain through a fine chinois. Then degrease. Long ago – when I first started to learn to cook more seriously – I remember reading in Julia Child that one way to defat was to drag strips of paper towel across the top of a sauce. It sounded preposterous but I tried it anyway, and was unhappy with the result, to say the least. I had never done it again, until this class.

Chef said, that’s what we were to do with our pork sauce. You take a piece of paper towel and drag it over the surface of the sauce, quickly. You have to do it fast because the longer it sits there, the more chance it will absorb good sauce and not just bad fat. You can tell if you are doing it correctly. The towel will glisten with the fat, and the fat will cling to the paper and not drip. If there is a lot of dripping, that means you soaked up sauce. Do this three or four times, or until the surface of your sauce no longer looks like an oil slick. I must have done OK, because Chef said he liked my sauce, but he complained that a few others were too greasy.

Plating. We were to plate two potatoes, four lettuce wraps and three slices of mean (thin, not thick like prime rib), one with a bone, the other two without. I thought this time I had it right the first time. Veggies at the top (6 o’clock) position, meat near the customer, bone facing away. But, alas, no. Chef wanted my meat to stand up higher. I had everything spread out to be more visible, but this was WRONG! You want to make a pile of sorts, for dramatic effect. So I tried again, and got a passing grade this time.

This dish was absolutely delicious. Once again, I give myself no credit. All honor to the recipe, and to Chef for keeping us on track. But man, it tasted good. The little lettuce wraps in particular were scrumptious.

The second dish was Escallopes de volaille Viennoise. That is, boneless chicken breasts, pounded out, breaded, and then pan fried.

We had to butcher our own chicken breasts. We each got a chicken, which we had to truss as a “quiz.” I passed on the first try. Then break down. All the parts were saved for family meal and/or stock making. This was not much different from quartering a chicken, except you pull the skin off the breast first, and instead of cutting through the joint and leaving the wing bone attached, you around it. We left the tenderloin on. You can remove it for other uses, such as an appetizer – this is what restaurants often do – but you don’t have to.

When you pound it out, open up the flap. Don’t try to pound the tenderloin into the breast. Put between two sheets of plastic wrap (or wax paper) and pound lightly. The thin end of the breast hardly needs to be pounded at all. Pound the thick end into the same thinness as the thin.

The preparation is called, once again, a l’anglaise. Different than the many other meanings of this phrase in French cooking. First you season the breast very lightly. Then you dust with flour, making sure to beat it like a hanging rug a few times to shake the excess off. Then you dip it in a mixture of beaten egg and oil, seasoned with salt. Then let the excess drip off. Then dredge in bread crumbs.

Oh, and we made our own bread crumbs. Actually, I made them. I recall this from Knife Skills. The teacher said that they never use pre-made bread crumbs at FCI, and almost shuddered at the thought. They take loaves of sliced bread, lay all the slices out on a baking sheet, then cook in a convection oven until the bread is dry. Let cool, then run through a Robot Coupe (essentially a Cuisinart on steroids; nobody ever says “food processer” in cooking school; it’s always “Robot Coupe”). Then pass through a tamis, or drum sieve, and discard the larger pieces (these are like unpopped popcorns; if they didn’t break down into bread crumbs at the first try, you don’t want them). I had to do all this because I had gotten the elements of my pork dish into the oven first.

These get lightly fried in clarified butter. “Lightly” means exactly that. You want a light golden. I overcooked my first one because I had the flame too high. Medium was apparently too high. You have to listen to the sizzle and watch. It should crackle a little and bubble at the edges, but the edges should just barely turn brown. Then flip. Lower heat when you flip, because that side will cook faster. If you are doing more than, say, two breasts, you will have to change the butter. The butter can be reused IF you strain it, but the breadcrumbs in the pan will burn even if the heat is very low if they are in there long enough.

Garnish for this one consisted of eggs, potatoes, a little decorative thingy. The potatoes were pommes darphin, the shredded potato cake. I made this at home and puzzled at why it did not turn out right. Well, I was using one potato per cake, when it seems that you have to use two. Lesson learned.

The eggs were hard boiled, then separated, then each part was passed through a tamis, separately. The result is sprinkled on the plate in a V arrangement (for Viennoise, get it?) along with chopped parsley and chervil. In the center of the chicken breast we put the thingy. This was a lemon slice (with pith and rind removed), an olive with an anchovy wrapped around it, and a parsley sprig. Then a small salad of watercress, tossed in S&P and olive oil – “at the last minute, otherwise the watercress will die” – and rest a wedge of the potato cake on that.

For a sauce, we reduced a small amount of veal stock, seasoned it, then beat in some butter to thicken. The sauce is not supposed to come into contact with the chicken, because liquid makes breaded meat soggy.

The dish sounds incredibly simple. And it was. But it was also delicious. Really great. Surprisingly so.

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That garniture Choisy sounded so delicious that I looked it up, trying to find a precise recipe. This one sounds like just what you describe, except that the filling isn't stuffed into the lettuce. Other than that, does this look like yours? I want to try this one for sure.

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I for one really appreciate the fact that you continue to share all of this with us, despite not really having the time.  Since I'm living in France I get to see lots of the dishes you describe but not necessarily how they're made, and I'm really interested in your accounts.

Could you link to the steak technique that you use that came from here originally?

The Ducasse method :wink:


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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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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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.

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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 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.

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 Alien. 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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I believe the ladle-like implements are called "spiders".

Enjoy reading everything about your experience. Thank you for taking the time and effort to share.

Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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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.

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.

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