Friday, July 29, 2011

Cooking with blood

sang de porc - pork blood
Vampires would be proud and happy, because today I cooked with blood. The recipe was a kind of Coq Au Vin, but the bloody version. It called for 50ml fresh blood - of a pig, that is, not a human (I felt I should clarify before burning at the stake).
We used it as a thickening agent for the recipe's sauce. The trick is that you have to avoid coagulating it, so you can't cook it after adding it to your coq bones or trimmings reduction.
bloody goodness?
Fresh blood, no coagulation, check. Now for the kicker - the taste. If you can get beyond to inevitable metallic taste, then you're good to go. It's a hearty ingredient for a winter's dish; and it can help you achieve that tar black sauce you've been looking for.
my coq-au-vin style chicken with red wine and blood sauce
Many, many countries use blood for cooking. I've had it before, often in the form of a blood sausage, or morcilla, that is commonly eaten in Colombia and Spain, among other countries. However, it was my first time cooking with it. Because I have a minor and reasonable obsession with teenage vampire novels and HBO vampire shows that shall remain unnamed out of complete shame, I found the need to write about cooking with what vampires find most delicious. Even though blood is not one of my favorite ingredients, and given that the French like their meat very rare, or "bleu" and blood oozes out of their steaks without producing any out-of-the-ordinary reactions, a recipe that includes 50ml fresh blood seemed like something to write home about.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tempering chocolate... difficult. Our past few pastry demonstrations have been about tempering chocolate. Even though the chefs make it look easy in class (I guess it's not difficult when you've been doing it for 30 years), when we got into the kitchens and had to temper our own chocolate, we failed first.

The first time we tried to temper milk chocolate, only one of the fourteen of us succeeded. As for the rest of us, this is what happened:
Can you see how the surface of the chocolate has rings and waves on it? Well, it's not supposed to be that way. Chocolate that has been properly tempered has a perfectly smooth surface that doesn't melt as soon as you touch it. The half-moons pictured above melted on my fingers.

They looked pretty and tasted delicious (filled with praline), but didn't meet the cut. I also made these little guys, also filled with praline and rolled in powdered sugar. Yummy.
I've told you before that I'm not that into sweets. Well, this does NOT apply to chocolate. Even though I can easily pass up milk chocolate (too sweet and sugary for my taste), I find it almost impossible to say no to dark chocolate. In fact, the darker, the better. See my entry about it from months ago.

Yesterday, we tempered dark chocolate. This time, BINGO! I was one of three in the class to get it right! Woohooo!
my tempered dark chocolate - no waves or streaks! 

my dark chocolate truffles
Le Cordon Bleu's way of tempering chocolate (by hand - there are machines that can do it) is copyrighted, but I think I can get away with saying that it involves a temperature curve. You need to melt the chocolate to 50 degrees C, then cool it to around 27 degrees, then raise the temperature again to its proper "working" temperature", which differs for white, milk, and dark chocolate, which are all around the 30 degree mark. This temperature curve allows the chocolate to crystalize, makes it look shiny, and is able to snap when it dries.

These are the chef's beautifully tempered chocolates:
chef's artists' palette of milk chocolates
orange zest covered in dark chocolate - delicious and beautiful treats

box of dark chocolates
Many factors can affect the ability to temper chocolate correctly, including humidity. So wish me luck when I return to the heat and humidity of Trinidad and try this at home!

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Yesterday's task, if I chose to accept it, was to put a lobster, alive and kicking, in a pot of boiling bouillon called a nage, which means swim in French. In other words, I had to take the lobster out for a swim. However, this was not just a regular pleasant dip in the pool, so this story ends badly, I'm afraid. Badly for the lobster, that is.
I was heartless. I stared into its little black eyes and creepy spider-like tentacle-looking antennae and said, "sorry, bud, this is it". In order to keep his tail straight (to make it easier to later cut up the flesh of the tail),  I had to tie trussing string from his "nose" to his tail fin. After preparing the bouillon, I was ready to do the deed. In the lobster went, wailing and shrieking. Actually, it didn't shriek at all, I'm just trying to be dramatic. The creepiest part is that it kept moving even after its swim in the boiling liquid for 1.5 minutes. Its nervous system kept reacting. Creepy.

After this dip, I cracked open its shelly parts and cut up its fleshy parts and created a sauce, or bisque. My classmates presented their lobster in a more classical French way - ruthlessly displaying its dismembered limbs and head. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want is the head (including the eyes) of the thing I'm about to eat, on my plate. 

As I learn to cook all kinds of animals, including fowl, rabbit, cow, veal, duck, snails, pig, and fish, I'm discovering that I'm heartless when it comes to killing my dinner. However, I draw the line with presenting my dinner's head on my presentation plate.

Wanting to give my poor boiled and dismembered lobster a bit of dignity, I asked my chef if I could present my dish as a bisque. I was the only one in my class to do this, and it turns out he liked it. He really liked it. 

As I ate my lobster bisque, I asked myself whether or not I redeemed my ruthless heart by returning the lobster a bit of its dignity. Probably not, but I was satisfied with myself because (sorry, but I have to toot my own horn here) it was the best lobster I've had in my life. I shared some with my sister and brother-in-law and they concurred.
my lobster bisque

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Woman Behind the Champagne

This weekend we escaped the city on the TGV and went to Reims, champagne country. My sister, her husband, and baby are visiting, and we were happy to explore a part of France we'd never seen.
We visited Veuve Clicquotone of the best champagne houses in France, and the world, since real champagne can only be produced in Champagne, France. Or so the French say. "Champagne" makers in Napa Valley disagree. I visited this wine country in 2006, and was told by "champagne" houses there that they, too, create champagne because they've developed the techniques necessary to make this sparkling wine. I happen to think that dry, o Brut, "champagne" made by  Korbel is actually quite good - and a heck of a lot cheaper than Veuve Clicquot. 

However, I respect French traditionalism and will side with them when they say they've got the one true champagne. I won't pretend to be an expert in this, because I am definitely not, but from what I understand, there is a crucial element in French champagne-making that is different from Napa Valley. The chalk. The Champagne region of France (and some of it's best wine regions across the country), are areas of high chalk or limestone content. They say that the best grapes grow in chalky environments.

Back to Reims. To be honest, there's not much to see. Next time we'll rent a car and drive around the vineyards, which are prettier than the otherwise industrial surroundings of Reims. The city center is nice, with beautiful architectural features and some lovely fountains and statutes. Notre Dame de Reims is stunning. 13th century Gothic architecture - complete with flying buttresses, gargoyles, and stain-glass windows in sharp blues is very special.

We were a bit disturbed by the bombardment of mass consumption that saturates the lovely buildings of Reims. These are mostly cheap clothing shops and mediocre restaurants. There are little, if no, quaint shops dedicated to the art of champagne. How could the tradition and history that is so respected in a place like Reims be so tarnished by tacky mass consumerism?

Veuve Clicqot has obviously managed a balance. They've mastered the art of participating in global market distribution and in continuing to strengthen a majorly recognized brand and reputation for excellence. They've also stayed true to the ethics and values of the company, which were created by the widow herself (veuve means widow in French). She took over the company in 1772 when her husband died at age 30. She was 28, and to say that she was ahead of her time is an understatement. The champagne house flourished during her 89 years. She developed champagne-making techniques, including one to separate the sediment that develops inside champagne bottles, which made champagne cloudy before she came along. The widow ensured the future stability and success of her business and inspired her successors to continue innovating. 

We toured the cellars (of which there are 24km), learned about how their champagne is made, and tasted some bubbly, of course. What can I say, I melt at the thought of a flute of dry champagne. I confess I've been raised as a champagne snob. My mother knows a lot about it and has drilled into me that bad champagne is worse than any other kind of bad wine. It gives you headaches, and it's better to run away from it screaming.

"La grande dame de la Champagne", as the widow is known, didn't run away screaming. She was a tough cookie and made the company what it is today - another example of French elegance and tradition. There is an award called The Veuve Clicquot Award which honors some of the world's leading business women. 

Will I be such a business woman one day? I think I have to perfect my macaroons, fillets, and terrines. Meanwhile, I'll continue to get inspiration from some good bubbly.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What does it mean to live in a city?

It means that if you run out of milk while making a bechamel sauce, you can run to the shop that's 70 steps from your apartment, and buy the milk - mid sauce! If you run out of shampoo, you can run to the pharmacy that's 85 steps from your apartment, and then go ahead and have your nice shower. If your son asks for juice at 7:30am, and open the refrigerator to find that there's no more left, have no fear - the shop is there. If you have no scanner and have to send a document ASAP, walk two tiny Parisian blocks, and the internet cafe, equipped with super-duper scanner, is there for you my friend.

No cars, no pollution, no parking, no traffic, just you and the city. I may never go back to suburbia again.

If you have a craving for the best chocolate-covered almonds in the world, walk three Parisian blocks to non other than Meilleur Ouvrier de France Patrick Roger. This is no exaggeration, dear friends, this guy is a chocolate genius, an artist, the creator of cacao perfection.

patrick roger

chocolate elephant
the most exquisite chocolate-covered almonds in the world