Thursday, April 28, 2011

From Cuisine Bourgeois to Picard

After the French Revolution, when kings and queens were no more, the bourgeois class came out of its cocoon. These became the wealthy people of the country and took over the manors and lifestyles that once belonged to the aristocracy. Personal cooks were part of this package, and thus the creation of something the French call Cuisine Bourgeois. This terms refers to the kinds of dishes that take a long time to make; the kinds of dishes that a personal cook would make for you.

There has been an evolution of the concept of cooking in France in a major way. Forget everything I said about how the French eat only foods that are in season and fresh from outdoor farmers markets. Forget also the image of a cook in Parisian homes cooking up delicious, elaborate dishes for every meal. The times, they are a changin', and it turns out that fewer and fewer French people are cooking. Most Parisians, for example, live in tiny apartments and rarely have anything more than a counter with a burner, a kettle, and a microwave (if they're lucky). The microwave is crucial, actually, because of something called Picard

Picard is a food store that sells only frozen foods. Everything from amuse bouches to desserts, Picard has it all. And guess what, it's delicious! It's the answer to the ever-present question "what's for dinner?" When you're exhausted and have no energy to cook at the end of a long day, or when you don't have a decent stove or oven to speak of, Picard is there. When you're tired of paying too much for mediocre meals at restaurants (more on this terrible epidemic of expensive and mediocre restaurants in Paris coming soon), Picard is there. When you're craving boeuf bourguignon but don't have hours and hours to make it, yes, my friend, Picard is there for you. 

Speaking of boeuf bourguignon, I made this classic dish today in class. Not to toot my own horn, but it was the best darn BB I've ever had. I marinated the beef for 24 hours, then slow-cooked it into something that resembled butter more than beef. I didn't need a knife to cut the beef, and the sauce was black with flavor. Red wine, Cognac, vegetables, pearl onions, button mushrooms, and time (time as in time, not thyme (even though there was a bit of that as well). The result was a velvety sauce created to accompany a strong red wine that stood next to the dish, saying, "we were meant to be together". Chef Stril gave me a "tres bon", and I was thrilled to succeed in making this quintessential French dish. It's oh so Julia Child, and oh so Cordon Bleu. I loved the process of making it, and enjoyed every bite of it. It was a cold, rainy spring day here in Paris today, and I made the perfect dish to go with it. And I didn't need either a personal cook nor Picard to save the day.
my BB with heart-shaped croutons and turned potatoes

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A cuter version of the Easter bunny

Given that Paris is at its most beautiful this Easter - there's not a cloud in the sky, and the tulips are showing off their pastel colors in pristine elegance - I thought I'd show you a cuter, more appetizing version of the Easter bunny than the butchery I delighted you with a few days ago.

Here is a taste of how some of the city's best patisseries are displaying this springtime holiday of eggs, flowers, and of course, bunnies.

la duree
la duree
the line was too long in pierre herme to take a photo of the displays inside. this is such a special place, that i'll dedicate an entire entry to it soon.
la maison du chocolat
la maison du chocolat
eggs in gerard mulot 
gerard mulot
gerard mulot

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rite of Passage

You may have noticed that I've not posted an entry in a few days. That's because it happened, ladies and gentlemen. The thing that must happen to anyone who aspires to become a chef. I cut my finger. Majorly.
3 stitches 3cm (I'll spare you the gory photos)
Bleeding + ambulance + bleeding + hospital + more bleeding + three stitches = out of cooking commission. I didn't cut my finger while cutting anything. I cut it while washing my newly sharpened chef's knife. That's right, the big one. Soapy hands + thin sponge = 3 cm cut. It turns out the most common way to cut yourself is while washing your knives or taking them out or putting them away. Please take note and be careful.

When the paramedics arrived they pulled open the cut and told me that I hadn't cut a tendon nor could they see the bone. Good news. The sharp, straight edge made a straight and clean cut. Thank goodness we have six days without class this week, so I hope it can heal in time for next week's practicals.  

When he saw my bandaged finger, Chef Terrien told me I'll forever have "un souvenir du Cordon Bleu". It's also a rite of passage, a mark, a brand, that says you've bled the necessary blood to call to the almighty chefs of Christmas past and say, "Can I now be one of you? I'm ready, bring it on!" This sucks, however, so I hope it's the first and last cut or burn (I'm told burns are the worst).

I think I'll focus on eating rather than cooking this weekend, so look for entries about Parisian patisseries' Easter displays. They're all over town and all gorgeous.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

I did what to the Easter bunny? (Caution - explicit photos of dead bunnies)

Remember what I said about returning to the real stuff and understanding what food actually looks like? Well, if I'm gonna talk the talk, I have to walk the walk. Here's a "before and after" you probably haven't seen in a while. I don't mean to shock you a week before Easter by showing you photos of how I butchered the Easter bunny in class yesterday, but instead to inspire you to cook or order rabbit for your next meal. If cooked correctly, it's quite tasty. Some say it's a hard meat, but that's just because the rabbit they've had was probably over-cooked.


yes, that's where those pretty, fluffy ears used to be
Rabbit with sauteed potatoes and a rosemary brochette of rabbit kidney and liver
And for those of you who are probably mad at me for showing you these photos, I'll leave you with this to lighten the mood and to ask for forgiveness. Dessert:
An almond meringue tart with caramelized pears. Ah, that's better, isn't it?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Two of my new favorite things

Last Saturday, a friend took me on a culinary shop adventure in Les Halles. Les Halles was the location of the central food market of Paris from 1135 until 1969, when President Pompidou kicked the food vendors out of the area. Some of the cuisine shops hung around, however, and to this day, continue to be the mecca of culinary equipment. Kitchen utensil addicts, beware - this place may just make you fall backwards in joy.
Dehillerin 1820

Dehillerin. Providing Parisians (and everyone else) the best of the best in French kitchen equipment since 1820. The place looks like it hasn't been renovated since then. Actually, my guess is that it may have gotten a face lift (and peg boards to hang Mauviel copper pots on the walls - I'll get to that later) in the 1940s, around the time when Julia Child frequented the place. Rumor has it this was her favorite cuisine shop. Maybe this is where she got her idea to hang pots on peg boards? Or perhaps it was the other way around?
Typical display at Dehillerin.

It looks more like a beat-up old hardware store than a Crate & Barrel, but it's overflowing with character. A lot of it. Very little attention is paid to displaying products because the quality speaks for itself. Our sales assistant was a total character, his breath smelling of whisky at 11am and had enough knowledge about every lid, ladle, spatula, ring mold, and fork, to amaze anyone. 

This brings me to my first new favorite thing:

Mauviel copper and stainless steel cookware. A family enterprise since 1830, Mauviel creates gorgeous and seemingly indestructible cookware. In the US, Williams Sonoma carries Mauviel pots. Take a look at this link for a video explaining how the Mauviel family makes each piece by hand. They are such good quality, that they become family heirlooms. If I buy these pots, they'll last my lifetime, my son's, his son's, his son's, etc., etc., etc., you get the picture.
My recent interest in these pots was heightened by a disturbing piece of information I came across at Le Cordon Bleu. During a demo, Chef Stril said "Teflon is poison." This triggered my curiosity because I happen to own a pretty nice set of Calphalon cookware that happens to be teflon. It turns out he's right. I've done research and spoken to people who know a lot more about this than I do, and they all confirmed that teflon is very toxic. Once it reaches certain temperatures and chips, it releases terrible chemicals that are very harmful, and have been linked to cancer. They say that once your teflon pans begin to chip away, you must throw them away. Even better, don't buy them in the first place. A friend of mine who's done extensive research on this topic told me that DuPont, the French company who created it, admitted that it'll stop producing teflon in a few years. The thought of feeding my son chemicals from these pans freaked me out, so I'm looking for an alternative. A very pretty, shiny, and just a wee bit expensive alternative, yes. But considering they'll last forever (literally) and not release awful stuff, isn't it worth it?

After feasting our eyes on shiny copper, we headed to a nearby cafe to feast on a delicious lunch. This brings me to my next new favorite thing:
Kir Royal
It's a cocktail made of blackcurrant liqueur and champagne. A regular "Kir" is made with white wine, but I love the champagne version. Check out these photos of gorgeous kir cocktails.

After my kir, I had a beautiful salmon tartar salad with frites.
The perfect lunch for a perfect day shopping for copper pots.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My first "tres bon"

grilled salmon, emulsified butter sauce with chives, and byron potatoes on a bed of spinach
I was particularly inspired when making this dish because this would be my husband's favorite meal. He loves salmon and potatoes, and is a bit of a Popeye when it comes to spinach.

The chef closed his eyes when he took the first bite of my salmon. This could go either way, I thought. He could be closing them because it's so bad, that he can't bring himself to swallow. Then again, he could be closing them because it's good and he wants to enjoy it. When he opened them again, he said "tres bon." The sauce was tasty and had the right amount of acidity and my potatoes were good. He told me I could have used a bit more butter for my spinach, but that it, too, was nice. Yay! Oh, happy day. I have to say this salmon is the best I've made. It was almost buttery and I didn't do anything to it except grill it and add salt and pepper once it was done. This is actually the trick, you know...The trick to avoid dry grilled fish is to hold off on the seasoning until the end.

Tip: *Never season salmon until the last minute -once it's cooked*

I need to share this recipe for Byron Potatoes with you because it's oh so easy and oh so good. See below.

Byron Potatoes
500 g large potatoes
50 g butter
salt, nutmeg
2 egg yolks
50 ml cream
150 milk
30 beurre manie (15 g butter, 15 g butter)
50 g gruyere, grated

Peel and dice potatoes and wash thoroughly. Add to a pot, and bring to a boil.
*Tip* Do not salt water until vegetables are cooked because the water will take longer to boil.* 
Check to ensure potatoes are cooked, add coarse salt, and drain well.
In a separate sauce pan, mix milk, cream, salt, and nutmeg and cook over medium heat. In a separate bowl, mix 15g of butter and 15g of flour to create beurre manie (used as a thickening agent for sauces). Incorporate beurre manie into milk mixture and whisk over low heat.
Use a food mill to mash potatoes and use a rubber spatula to mix butter and egg yolks. Once mixed, put potatoes in a pastry bag and pipe round mounds (about 4-5cm in diameter) of potatoes on a baking sheet. Have a bowl with cool water and a small, round ladle ready. Wet the bottom of the ladle with the cold water and use it to make cup shapes on the potato mounds. Ladle the white sauce into the potato mounds and top with grated gruyere cheese. Bake in oven for about 10 minutes at 180 degrees. Enjoy these beautiful little side dishes and tell me how it goes!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"No, thank you" to what?!

If you've ever whipped meringue by hand, then you'll appreciate what I went through to make this:
dacquoise with marzapan rose
It's a dacquoise, and it's a two-layer cake made with meringue, flour, butter (oh so much of it), almond and hazelnut praline, sugar (granulated and powdered), sliced almonds, and a lot of sweat and tears because I whipped the meringue into oblivion armed only with a bowl, a whisk, my arm, and absolute determination. *I made the flower with marzapan (almond paste and sugar). 

I realized I haven't told you a very ironic thing about myself. I don't like sweets. With the exception of chocolate (I could kill for dark chocolate), a few fruit pies, and a handful of other pastries, I actually have no interest in eating something like a dacquoise. I was always the weird child at birthday parties who would say "no, thank you" to birthday cake. To this day, the only cake I eat is my mother's german chocolate cake (which, by the way, I dare Le Cordon Bleu to a dual between her and their chocolate cake - yeah, it's that good).

In Spanish, we have a word that describes perfectly my feeling towards most sweets. Empalagar. My family and I have thought long and hard, and consulted many language resources, and we've come to the conclusion that there is no word for this concept in English. It means that your palate becomes overwhelmed by so much sweetness. The connotation is that it makes you almost nauseous and you need a drink of water to get rid of the rich sweet taste in your mouth. Can anyone relate, or do you all think I'm crazy?

So who enjoyed my dacquoise, you ask? My in-laws. They've actually been eating all of the food I bring home, and they'll probably blame me for every additional pound they gain while in Paris. However, they do look after my toddler all day long, so I think they're burning up calories - hopefully that's enough compensation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A note on cutting up vegetables into tiny little squares

It's called a brunoise, and it's difficult to attain.

The definition of the brunoise concept on wikipedia is the following: 
En cuisine, une brunoise est une garniture de légumes ou de fruits coupés en dés de 2 x 2 x 2 mm. (I'm in France and my wikipedia page is in French, so I'll translate. It would be fun to know whether or not this link is also in French when you open it despite not being in a French-speaking country.) Anyway, it reads: 
In cuisine, a brunoise is a garnish of vegetables or fruit diced into 2 x 2 x 2 mm cubes
That's right. 2 millimeters. At one of my practicals this week, our task was to make a clarified consomme of veal and beef with vegetables diced into - you guessed it - a brunoise.

This is the way to learn how to use your knife. This is also the way to slice up your fingers if you're not careful. Luckily, I managed to not cut myself, even though some were not so lucky. 

In three words: I can brunoise (even though I'm not sure this is a verb). I took my time, as opposed to the chefs, who are so apt at this little exercise, that they can do it without looking - yikes! I succeeded in making the tiniest little cubes of carrots, celery, daikon radish and green beans you've ever seen in your life. Take a look:
my paring knife serves as a perspective reference

my clarified consomme with a puff pastry cheese stick
My final dish was a success, but I couldn't help thinking what was the anthropological purpose of this kind of cut? I mean, I can't think of any other reason why a culture would ever come up with this other than to be dainty and I guess elegant. I mean really. It looks pretty. That's about it. Right?

TIP: Puff pastry cheese sticks are delish and super easy to make (if you know how to roll puff pastry, that is). Roll out four folds, brush egg wash, top with parmesan cheese, and put in the oven. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bisque Success

Oh, joy of joys, my crab bisque was a success!

Picture this: we prepare our dishes and line up to present our bisque to the chef. Tasting spoon in one hand and a palm pilot in which he makes note of our grades in the other, the chef waits to taste the soup that we've been preparing for two and-a-half hours. The guy in front of me gets a "this is not crab soup, this is crap soup!" I gulp, take a deep breath, and hope for the best. There's no turning back now - the crabs have been flambeyed, the soup strained and seasoned, and the end result sits in my little serving bowl, waiting for the final say.
crab bisque with croutons and cognac-enhanced whipped cream

"Good. Nice texture and consistency. Good taste."

WOOOOOHOOOOOOOOOO and phew. Quadruple phew.

When I walked into this practical, I stopped for a moment, inhaled, and told myself to relax, enjoy the process, and think. I prepared all my ingredients ahead of time, stopped to listen and smell while the ingredients simmered, boiled, and burned up in flames (we had to flambe the Cognac we poured over the simmering crabs). I learned the technique, and trusted myself to develop a nice working rhythm. The result is that a pretty tough chef liked my soup. Most importantly, however, I loved my soup and the process. After all, this is the purpose of my coming to culinary school, and I'm loving it. Bring it on.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In Season

As I've told you before, a major reason why I wanted to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris is because of the city's markets and their fresh and delicious produce. These markets promote fruits, vegetables, fish, and meats that are in season. Remember when you had to plan recipes and menus according to what was in season? 

Thanks to free trade agreements and transportation systems that I find miraculous, you can buy strawberries 365 days a year, mangos in the dead of winter, and tomatoes come rain, frost, or shine. However, I find that most fruits, including apples and pears, don't have as much flavor as they used to because they're picked before their ideal ripe/picking time in order to last the long trip to your neighborhood supermarket.

In France, it seems that fruit and vegetable vendors, fish mongers, and everyone else take pride in presenting goods that are in season. This is wonderful because you are, after all, supposed to eat things when nature intended. Of course you can also find out-of-season products in France, but it is evident that people pay more attention to consuming things that are in season.

I believe that the chefs at LCB wanted to emphasize the importance of using ingredients that are in season and planned our cooking schedule accordingly. White asparagus and small Mediterranean crabs are in season right now in France, so yesterday's demonstration included a white asparagus veloute and a crab bisque. 
Yesterday's cuisine demonstration was refreshing and quite simply a joy. Chef Frank described the artful, step-by-step process of making soups in colorful and tasteful detail. The crab bisque went through many transformations; blanching, sauteing, flambeying, reducing, straining, and finally, presenting. The end result was to die for. Its burnt orange color had a deep taste that began with a crab infusion and ended with a rich vegetable aftertaste. Very good.

crab bisque
Chef Frank also gave us two great tips that are helpful when cooking many dishes:

1. Add vegetables to the pot one by one according to their varying cooking times, as opposed to adding them all at the same time.
2. Add a little water to a sauce pan when melting butter in order to prevent the butter from burning.

Tomorrow morning I'll make my crab bisque - wish me luck! I'll tell you how it goes.
white asparagus veloute

Friday, April 1, 2011

Learning by making mistakes

The good news is that I'm still up and running. The not-so-good news is that I'm totally exhausted. What did I get myself into?

The past few days of class were intense to the tenth thousandth degree. At one point last night I had four pots going on four different burners, while rolling my puff pastry and watching the oven. I experienced one of those moments like in the movies where everything stops moving except for you and for a brief moment you look around and think to yourself - how did I get here and what the heck am I doing?

I don't even know where to begin by telling you about the past few days. It's been replete with veal stock reductions, chicken broth thickened with kneaded butter, leeks in white sauce, chopping up red peppers into such small cubes that it's hard to remember what the original thing looked like, rolling puff pastry time and time again and watch it poof in the oven (thank goodness), whisking Chantilly cream BY HAND (I've never had such a good workout in my life), piping the Chantilly cream and doing a crapola job at it, hardening caramel, quiche-making extravaganza, making fruit cakes, madeleines, and lions and tigers and bears - OH MY!

Here are some photos of this week's work:
quiche lorraine
fruit cake
saint-honore. the chef said the piping was terrible. it was, but it was my first time ever piping anything!
It's human nature to want to survive. Well, at LCB Paris, we're all hanging on by a wee little thread. The chefs say things to us like "this is a catastrophe" and "if this had been a final exam - hmmm...not so good". However, they also say things like "you are here to learn - how are you going to learn if you don't make mistakes"?

I agree with that.