Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rungis: The largest wholesale market in the world

Atelier #1 went well. I made a darn good tartare sauce to go with deep fried jumbo shrimp and mini salmon cakes for my appetizer, and my tiny spinach souffles poofed beautifully, along with my pigeon and mushroom duxelles tian for my main course. I finished in five hours instead of six, so I'm on my way to feeling more prepared for the final exam, which is sneaking up on me like Beethoven's three knocks at the door.

But what I'd like to talk to you about today is my visit to Rungis, the largest wholesale market in the world. There are gigantic fish markets in Japan, China, San Francisco, etc., etc., but this one has it all. It's located about 20km from the center of Paris, and is basically it's own city, covering 232 hectares and selling over 7 billion euros of products per year. That's a lot of fish, poultry, cheese, vegetables, fruits, flowers, and meat. Oh, so much of it.

Le Cordon Bleu organized a visit for us students, and we were awestruck by the magnitude of the place. We were also impressed by the high quality of the products and how pristine it all is. Not a fly in sight, not a thing out of place. 
veal that only drank mom's milk
We had to wear giant vests and hats to cover up every inch of ourselves and avoid contaminating anything. After the mad cow disease scare of the 1990's, hygiene was kicked up about a dozen notches. The warehouses are frigid - the whole thing is basically a series of massive refrigerators containing quality products to supply the Paris metropolitan area, and beyond.
foie gras

2 weeks old
piles of cheese (there are over 3000 different kinds of cheese)
gigantic emmental
gigantic steaks
Being a foreigner, and an anthropologist, I was interested to look at the origins of the products. Beef, poultry, and pigs were mostly all French. Most of the vegetables were French as well (with quite a bit of Chinese produce), but many of the fruits were from South America (Brazil, Colombia, Peru, among others). It made me think about how far food travels to get to your plate.
uchuas from colombia

colombian bananas
piles of mushrooms 
piles of pink garlic from toulouse

20,000 trucks go in and out of Rungis every day. I knew the French liked their fresh food, but this visit made me appreciate what it takes to be one of the world's most famous culinary capitals. 

Butchers, smaller Parisian market vendors, and chefs come to Rungis to select their products. It's not only about stocking up, however, it's about discovering new items to add to your menu. Kiwi, for example, was introduced to France at Rungis a few years back. A few chefs tried some of this exotic fruit, thought of ways to incorporate it into French cuisine and pastries, and is now a staple product in France. Rungis is a microcosm of the world's best products, and the French are masters of knowing how to create delicious dishes with them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Superior rocks

chef deguignet's selection of verrines
Foaming creams in siphons, chocolate caviar, gold sugar, pig's trotters, zucchini blossoms, brik pastry, and much, much more...all in the first four weeks of the superior level of cuisine and pastry at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. 

pig's trotters and foie gras with dandelion leaf bouquet
Chef Lesourd is in charge of superior cuisine. The list of Michelin-starred restaurants where he's worked is longer than my arm, but the most special thing about him is his expertise in presentation. The man is a master of detail, and can make even a pig trotter appetizer look elegant. Here is some of his work:
gazpacho version 1 
gazpacho version 2
Chef Deguignet is an artist. He's in charge of superior pastry, and is a genius chocolatier...and sugar sculptor. Here are some of his masterpieces:
red chocolate sphere with gold sugar 
golden egg filled with chocolate caviar
It's all fine and dandy to talk about how pretty it all is, but it's tough. The standards have been raised and we are expected to do good work, very good work. In superior cuisine, we will have a series of "ateliers", or workshops. We are given a list of ingredients and have to create an appetizer and main course. This saturday is our first atelier, and I've begun to sketch and plan my dishes and presentation. We have six hours and I'm guessing the kitchen will resemble kitchen stadium, except we are all just figuring out what we're doing! Wish me luck! I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Week in Morocco Part III - Couscous

For my final entry about Moroccan cuisine, I'll share chef Fouzia Habrich's couscous recipe. 

The chef began by showing me the difference between several varieties of couscous. The one photographed above is a Berber couscous - its grains are teeny tiny. This is the one we cooked, and the result was fantastic because it was light, fluffy, and full of taste.
In Morocco, couscous must always be served with at least seven vegetables, and this recipe includes nine. 

1 red onion, finely sliced
olive oil*
daikon radish
tomato paste
fava beans

The chef used what looked like a double steamer to make this dish. The lower part is like a regular pot, and the top is a special colander-type apparatus that steams the couscous perfectly. In the bottom pot, sweat sliced red onion in olive oil, add quartered tomato, and season with pepper, coriander, paprika, and all-spice. Sweat well, add water and salt, and cover. Slice carrot, daikon radish, and zucchini into long, thick strips, and add to pan along with cabbage cut in quarters. Add tomato paste, your preferred cut of beef, chickpeas and fava beans. Let cook for about one hour, or until the beef is tender.

In a separate pot, bring water to a boil. Place the couscous in a bowl and season with salt, pepper, good olive oil and a bit of the boiling water. Mix with a spatula, and add a bit more of the boiling water. Place couscous in the steamer apparatus and let that aromas from the vegetables and beef cook the couscous. Do not cover the pot. The steam will be enough to cook the couscous and will prevent it from turning it into balls. 

This is the trick to powdery, fluffy, delicious couscous. 

*The chef used the best olive oil I've ever had. And believe me, I've had some darn good olive oil in Italy, Spain, Croatia, southern France, and Israel. This one came in a jar, without a label, and chef refused to tell me where it had come from or how I could get some. All he said was that it was home-made, and that it was the best olive oil in the world. He was right.
the best olive oil i've ever had - no idea where it came from, but good enough to drink on its own

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A week in Morocco Part II - Tagine

When the sun goes down in Marrakech, dozens of food stalls pop up in the main square, Djemaa el Fna. In order to take full advantage of the gastronomical magnificence that this place has to offer, we visited the stalls and had delicious meals. However, I wanted to learn how to make these dishes myself, so I took a class with chef Fouzia Habrich, cuisine chef at Dar les Cigognes, a riad turned boutique hotel in Marrakech.
rooftop terrace for dinner at dar les cigognes, marrakech
Many foreigners have purchased large townhouses in the Marrakech and Fez medinas and turned them into boutique hotels. This one in particular is gorgeous and the service is incomparable to any hotel I've ever stayed. The staff were doting on our son, offering us delicious mint tea at all hours of the day, helping us arrange the day's tourism adventures, and serving us wonderful food. 

My morning with the riad's chef began with a food market tour, where he introduced me to Moroccan spices and ingredients. 

He taught me how to make tagine and couscous, the real mccoy. When Moroccans say they will make "tagine" for dinner, they are not talking about the receptacle in which it is made, which also has this name. They are talking about the dish, which includes at least seven vegetables and a protein, either chicken, lamb, beef, etc. I will share his recipe for chicken tagine with you. 
*If using a tagine, this dish will take 3-4 hours. Chef used a pressure cooker to quicken the process, but I believe it is safer to use a slow cooker or a tagine.

red onion
2 garlic cloves
ground ginger
lemon confit **
olive oil
chicken breast and/or thighs
red olives

In a pressure cooker, sweat finely chopped red onion, add garlic cloves and sweat. Season with salt and pepper. Add chicken and saute for about 15 minutes at low heat. Add chopped parsley, cilantro, paprika, ground ginger, saffron, cumin, and lemon confit and a bit of water and close the pressure cooker and let cook for about 30 minutes. Add red olives and close the pressure cooker for a final 20 minutes. 

**Lemon confit is a new ingredient for me. It is used widely in Moroccan cuisine, and I saw it everywhere in the markets. It gives these dishes an interesting citrus/salty flavor, and I was told no tagine is complete without it. Here's the recipe for lemon confit:

Sterilize a glass jar and fill with water, salt, and whole lemons. Close jar and keep for 4-6 months.

lemon confit
chicken tajine with lemon confit and red olives
Next Moroccan blog entry: couscous.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A week in Morocco

I spent last week with my boys in Marrakech and Fez. It was my first time in Morocco and I loved it. My main impressions include being in awe of the discipline of Ramadan, humbled by the silence and openness of the desert, the way people share common city spaces, the camouflaged strength of women, the meaning of true hospitality, and the everyday greatness of making a living with a chisel or with the help of a mule.

During Ramadan, muslim Moroccans do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. Not even in the scorching 40 degree heat can devout muslims drink water. That, my friends, is devotion. That, as my Moroccan friend said, is will. 

Everywhere we visited, there seemed to be strong will. A will to work, a will to help, a will to speak, a will to play, a will to create, a will to share, and, lucky enough for me and my healthy obsession with food, a will to prepare food.

I'm sure it must have taken a lot of will to abstain from drinking Moroccan mint tea, which has been added to my list of new favorite things. It is sublime. It's prepared in a tea kettle like the one pictured below, and served like this in order to aerate the tea:

The secret to making this delicious tea is to use a lot of fresh mint - literally fill the content of the tea pot with fresh mint stems and leaves. Also use green tea, and a couple of cubes of sugar. The other important step to making this tea is to let the water heat gently for about 7 minutes, as opposed to taking the water to the boil and then submerging the tea and mint leaves.

Next entry will be about my experience cooking a tagine and couscous with a Moroccan chef.