Archive | September, 2011

It is an Omelette

29 Sep

Throughout this course we’ve been glazing a lot of puff pastry and other soon-to-be-baked goods with eggs. Every single time we are about to coat our item, Madame Marie-Blanche remarks, “Attention! It’s not an omelette, eh?” The phrase has become common place in the classroom and brings a smile to the faces of both Anna and myself as we sometimes even beat her to the predictable remark.

But for this meal it WAS an omelette as we learned the traditional French way of cooking this international favourite. Unlike the omelettes I’m used to seeing In North America that are packed full of all sorts of filling combinations and a generous sprinkling of cheese, French omelettes are cooked more like crepes, and will only have additional ingredients added to the egg if specified. For this lesson we made omelette piperade, which has you mixing your eggs with cooked red and green peppers, onion, chives, de-skinned and deseeded tomatoes, and parsley.

With this method, you ladle your egg and veggie mix onto a hot buttered skillet, let it sit for a few moments and then broil it in the oven to cook the top. We were told that you do not flip the omelette and you serve it like an eggy pizza.

To accompany this, we made gratin dauphinois, otherwise known as scalloped potatoes. For this recipe we placed thinly sliced boiled russet potatoes in numerous layers in a oven proof dish along with grated emmental cheese, butter, salt and pepper, freshly ground nutmeg, and covered it all in cream. After baking for about 25 minutes, the dish should have a browned cheesy top and is ready to enjoy.

For dessert, a light, easy and texturally interesting dish of framboise meringue. For this recipe, we folded fresh raspberries and crumbled meringue with whipped cream, and then topped it decoratively with more raspberries and meringue bits. And that’s it! The only semi-painful part of this dish is hand-whipping the cream, although they do now have machines for that. But you wouldn’t know it if you were learning traditional French cooking from an old master who’s afraid we’re going to turn all our baked goods into omelettes.

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Getting Sauced at School

28 Sep

In my previous post Paula Deen Would be Proud, I discussed both the celebrity chef and my passion for mayonnaise, but added that even I can be a victim of mayo-overload. That’s why I was rather relieved when for our next sauce-centred class, we used a relatively healthy and un-oily vegetable mix as our “mother.”

Although it doesn’t really have much to do with Spain, the French call it sauce espagnol – a broth made from stewing, pureeing and straining carrots, onions, shallots, celery and garlic, and combing all that with stock, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste.

The sauces that came out of this tasty demi-glaze were:

  1. Poivrade: most commonly paired with game, this accompaniment combines sauce espagnol with vinegar, red current jelly, and a drop of mustard.
  2. Bigarade: for this one we had to make up some caramel and fresh squeezed orange juice before adding it to our demi-glaze. Finish it off with a splash of cognac and a touch of vinegar and you have yourself a sweet addition that perfectly compliments the rich flavour of duck.
  3. Charcutière: a tad thicker than the others, this sauce uses chopped pickles, mustard, and tomato paste to liven up the sauce espagnol and apparently acts as a perfect dip for pork chops
  4. Madère: an agreeable sauce that goes with most meats, madère contains sautéed mushrooms, shallots and a combination of Madera and white wine, all added to the demi-glaze base.

We also learned how to make a classic Béarnaise, and although it doesn’t have the same base as the others, it was delicious all the same with an aromatic finish of freshly chopped tarragon.

Much like our other saucy lesson, we had to actually make some real food to satisfy our ever growing appetites.

For lunch we concocted tarte aux herbes, which uses parsley, chives, cilantro, grated parmesan cheese and cream to flavour the potato base that acts as the main filling for this savory pie. Instead of using a puff pastry crust, Marie-Blanche taught us how to make a very simple recipe in case we were ever in a hurry and didn’t have time to buy, or even worse, MAKE the gruelling puff pastry dough.

A simple salad of choux de fleur accompanied our herb tart. By combining the leftover chopped herbs from our other dish with a simple vinaigrette, we were able to transform these formerly dull steamed cauliflowers into a rather tasty side that was extremely easy to throw together.

For dessert we made tarte aux pommes traditionnel, which was a little bit bigger than the other apple tart we baked a couple weeks back. For this tart we also used the simple dough we learned to make for the tarte aux herbes, but added sugar to sweeten it up a bit. We also made a delicious apple-cinnamon confit to give our thinly sliced apples a moist base between the crunchy crust. Garnished with confectioners sugar and shredded almonds, this classic French dessert goes best with thick cream – not a very complex “sauce” like the others, but as I’m learning sometime simple can be better when using such fresh ingredients one has access to in this wonderful city.

Paula Deen Would be Proud

27 Sep

Anyone who watches The Food Network knows that celebrity chef Paula Deen loves nothing more than butter and mayonnaise. And this is why I love Paula Deen.

In the post Atkins Friendly French Food: Not a complete Oxymoron, I (ironically enough) shared with you my fondness of mayo and how delighted I was to learn how to make it from scratch, although the reality that it was mostly fatty oil hit me like a tonne of bricks. Well, last Friday those bricks seemed to move right into my stomach, or at least that’s what it felt like, after we made and sampled 6 cold sauces all with a mayo base! On one hand I was in mayo heaven, but the feeling of about a cup of oil sitting in my gut was more like hell. Sublime or subterranean, the experience was important none the less, as all of these sauces are delicious and useful accompaniments to many other dishes we’ve been learning to make.

As mentioned above, all the following sauces use a mayonnaise base. Marie-Blanche referred to this as the “mother” and all the variations as her “daughters”, then adding that she must be a promiscuous mother to have such different children. This comment made me smile, and so did the yummy sauces, which were the following…

  1. Sauce Verte: a combination of finely chopped spinach or watercress mixed with our mother mayo, suggested to be served with salmon
  2. Sauce Tartare: we’re all familiar with this fried fish adjunct, but there was something just so much lighter and more fresh about this recipe, which combined finely chopped chives, capers, and pickles with the mayonnaise.
  3. Sauce Choron: basically just Will Farrell’s “fancy sauce” in the movie Step Brothers, this one combines mayonnaise and freshly made tomato paste, but I’m sure you could sub in ketchup if you felt so inclined.
  4. Sauce Maltaise: a simple combination of fresh squeezed OJ and mayo, served traditionally over asparagus.
  5. Sauce Provençal: finely chopped and sautéed garlic, red peppers, and blanched deseeded tomatoes make up this agreeable sauce that goes with everything from meat, veggies and eggs.
  6. Sauce Mousseline: more forearm-building, as this sauce has you whisk up some egg whites and fold them together with the mayo for a light and fluffy fish topping.

Now before all this mayo mayhem, we had to make ourselves some real food for sustenance. The menu of the day was:

  1. Crème de Poivrons Rouges
  2. Quiche au Thon
  3. 4/4 Cake (aka “quatre-quatre”)

The soup was a mild and pleasant combination of red peppers, leeks, butter, chicken stock, and cream, which we delicately seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf.

Unlike the rustic roasted red pepper soup I’m more accustomed to seeing, this recipe has you straining the mix so that all that’s left is a brightly coloured bowl of smooth creaminess, perfect for dipping our daily baguette in.

With its big protein hit, the tuna quiche was extremely filling and relatively low call as it uses minimal cream, eggs, cheese and puff pastry to hold together the chunks of canned fish within.

The 4/4 cake is a classic and basic recipe all chefs should probably know if they’re ever going to touch baking. It’s basically four ingredients (sugar, butter, eggs, flour) all in equal proportions to each other. The trick of course is combining them in the correct order, and the excitement comes with the flavouring or topping of your choosing. To keep things simple in class, we used vanilla powder to flavour, and shredded almonds and confectioners sugar to top. But who knows, maybe there’s some sort of mayonnaise variation we didn’t explore that would go well with a 4/4 cake. If anyone could do it, it would probably be this mayo enthusiast right here or better yet, the lipids loving Miss Paula Deen herself.

Peel Me a Grape

26 Sep

Until last week, it was just a sensual jazz standard or Mae West’s decidedly naughty line in “I’m No Angel”, but after making a traditional French fruit salad, I now have a completely different relationship with the phrase “peel me a grape.”

Yes, I thought she was joking at first when Marie-Blanche told me to peel 20 grapes (of course we only used about 14, but we had to have extras in case some weren’t perfectly pretty), although I have to say, my aching wrist and I were relieved that we weren’t making more meringue-inspired dishes for this lesson. After the grapes were peeled, the apples, pears and plums were chopped, and the strawberries artistically arranged, our masterpiece was finished, along with a couple other amazing fruit dishes containing some rather creative combinations.

One of them was a savory fruit salad with avocado, cilantro, and mushrooms all covered in a delicious Xeres (aka. sherry) vinegar dressing. Although I’m not usually a fan of raw mushrooms, the acidity of the dressing slightly cooks what it covers, and makes the mushrooms soft and flavorful in a different way than if they had been sautéed, for example.
 The other fruit dish was a simple but tasty triad I hadn’t previously experienced. We delicately skinned and sliced oranges and covered them in a thin layer of very high quality extra virgin olive oil and some gorgeous fresh honey from the nearby farmers market.

All three dishes were flavorful but light – a perfect compliment to the lunch we made earlier in the day.

The menu was:

  1. Salade de Haricots Verts et Champignons
  2. Terrine de Foies de Volaille
  3. Poires Babeth

Like the savory fruit salad above, the mushroom and green bean salad relied on the aromatic vinaigrette to slightly cook the otherwise corky mushrooms. Because of this, we boiled the green beans ahead of time, let them cool and tossed them with dressing separately from the mushroom mix. Of course this also allows for a beautiful plating arrangement, because things just taste that much better when they’re pleasing to the eyes.

While the terrine was also pleasing to the eyes in the end, the process of making it was most unpleasant. I’m quickly getting over my fears, but I don’t really like touching raw meet. Raw chicken and ground beef were always my two least favorites until I felt the jelly-like texture of liver between my fingers. The fact that she told us to remove the “membranes” made it just that much worse as I was reminded that I was touching an organ specifically deigned to rid the body of toxins and other junk that we probably shouldn’t be re-eating. But as much as the process had me holding back gagging sounds, the end result was quite marvelous. Combined and processed with the correct seasoning and some Spanish bacon, the formerly revolting chicken liver became a yummy and satisfying snack, especially when accompanied with pickles, onions, french butter, and some slices of baguette.

The dessert was a beautifully delicate pear and custard dish. The notes of fresh ground vanilla within the creamy custard perfectly mellowed the sweet sliced poached pear, and the shaved almonds on top supplied the texture variation required to give the dish a bit more excitement. Poires Babeth might be an old fashioned domestic dessert, but combined with the contemporary flavors of the surprising salads and complex terrine, it was the perfect end to yet another perfect meal, making peeling grapes not seem all that bad.

Marcher dans le Marché

26 Sep

Some would argue that the key to cooking well is choosing the right ingredients, and I personally feel there is no better place to acquire the seasonable fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, herbs etc than at a French market. Not only do they contain some of the most beautifully fresh items I have even seen, but the variety is beyond comprehension. To introduce this very French way of shopping, and to help guide us through the labyrinth that is the Parisian marché, Madame Marie-Blanche took Anna and I on a sort of fieldtrip to a nearby market.

My senses were immediately overloaded by the sites, smells, sounds and pulsing energy that this popular destination in the 8th arrondissemnt provided.

We began our lesson by learning about different fish, seafood, meats and cheeses popular in France. We then wound through the long thin corridor of the market where local farmers were showing off their plethora of fresh produce. Intermingled throughout were plump flower stands containing a wide assortment of colours and smells. The aromatic adventure didn’t end there as were were guided through an area containing all sorts of herbs, spices and any kind of seasoning you could imagine.

 

Truly this place is a foodie’s delight and the difficultly isn’t finding the right ingredients, but more so making sure you don’t go overboard and end up buying out the place and having to hire three trucks to bring it all back to the tiny 2 sq meter kitchen of your Parisian apartment. Also there to thwart your skills of restraint are dozens of vendors offering exquisite soaps and stunning jewelry, clothing and accessories. While I found the “fashion” stands in the London markets somewhat tacky and the items rather cheaply executed, the textiles offered in this wondrous network of merchandise were made from the finest furs, leather goods, and gems, this truly adhering to the Parisian stereotype of good taste.

I could have stayed there all day, but the kitchen back at school was awaiting us and my grumbling tummy and salivating lips were only making matters worse. We grabbed some fresh veggies for our meal-to-be and headed back to school.

Our instructors decided to keep the afternoon somewhat simple by showing us how to make a flavorful countryside favorite called “La Bohémienne”. This welcoming dish resembles a ratatouille in flavor, but combines more simple ingredients in a less finicky fashion to create a satisfying soul-food meal. Red peppers, eggplant, and skinned, deseeded tomatoes made up most of it, with thyme, bay leaf and freshly crushed coriander as the seasoning. Served atop this hearty heap were deep fried eggs, something I’m devastated I was not aware of until now. Unlike the usual fried eggs we are accustomed to, this method of cooking the egg in a pot of hot oil gives it the most amazingly crispy finish that perfectly compliments the smooth and chunky texture of the bohémienne.

For dessert we made a simply executed, but complexly flavored dish of strawberries, cream, sugar and green peppercorn – an amazing treat on its own or served on top icecream.

The market was marvelous, the food was fabulous and my only regret is that I don’t have more than one stomach to cram in all the amazing things I’ve been learning to make.

Definitely Not Date Food

23 Sep

It was only a matter of time before we were taught this country’s national treasure of French onion soup. But of course in France it’s simply referred to as soupe à l’oignon, although sometimes they throw gratinée on the end to make it just that much more exciting. However, to tell you the truth French onion soup isn’t really all that exciting in essence. Of course it’s delicious, but there’s not much to the original recipe, other than the fact that you’ll need an entire box of kleenex to get through a batch for 4 people. It’s really just a whole whack of onions boiled in broth and served amongst layers of grated cheese and toasted bread.  In fact, a traditional recipe calls for at least 2 onions per person (yikes)!

That being said,  if you’re ok with smelling a little funky and don’t mind having raccoon eyes from runny mascara, then soupe à l’oignon is a rather easily executed, and extremely satisfying fall or winter treat.

I won’t go too far into detail (mostly because there really isn’t any), but you basically boil thinly sliced onions in a pot with a touch of stock until they’re extremely soft and supple. While the onions are stewing away, you grate the cheese (traditionally gruyère) and toast your bread (we used baguette). Once the onions are cooked, the cheese is grated, and the bread is toasted, you layer them up in a bowl, bake it all in the oven so that the top layer of cheese is crispy, and then serve.

*Fun fact: In Paris soupe à l’oignon was traditionally sought out by post performance theatregoers. Back in the day, Parisians were known to leave the concert hall and head straight to the nearest bistro or brasserie to chow down on some onion soup as they dissected the presence and perfection of the prima ballerina or the sole wrenching aria of the principal soprano.

Although we hadn’t just been to the opera, front-row seats for a young woman doing vocal warm-ups in the adjacent apartment was good enough reason for us to gather around the table and enjoy our creation.

To accompany this hefty soup, we made a lighter dish of tender chicken filets served with a cream sauce made from fresh basil, tomato, and a generous serving of sauteed shallots and garlic, just in case you were afraid the onions weren’t doing enough to keep people outside a 3 meter radius of you.

For dessert, we got to exercise our creativity by stylizing the toppings of a collection of tartes aux fraise.

So light and delicious, it was merely minutes before these easy-to-eat little morsels had all but vanished. Too bad a whole pack of gum couldn’t do the same for our tear-evoking breath. Or was it cutting up 8 whole onions that made us all cry? Either way, the theatrical drama of the French onion soup isn’t for the faint of heart.

A Day of Soufflé

20 Sep

The only request I had for my Parisian cooking classes was to not be sent back to Canada without learning to make soufflé. So quintessentially French, and one of my favorite desserts (I had only ever tried chocolate until our lesson), I felt that my culinary growth wouldn’t be complete without mastering this notoriously tricky dish. Well, I definitely got what I asked for, because on Monday we spent the entire day perfecting three different types of soufflé: cheese, chocolate, and a strawberry one that doesn’t contain any flour.

A basic soufflé recipe isn’t all that complex, it’s the techniques that one must grasp so that the finished product doesn’t fall flat as soon as you take it out of the oven.

Firstly, the egg whites must be beaten until they are perfectly fluffy. You must also fold them with your creamy mix ever so slightly, so that you don’t deflate your efforts (both figuratively and literally). Finally, you must make sure the soufflé is cooked for the precise amount of time and served immediately upon completion.

I also learned that a traditional French soufflé is much runnier than what we’re accustomed to in North America. Just like the yolks of a Parisian poached egg, the center of the soufflé must be almost uncooked so that it becomes a pseudo-sauce for each glorious bite.

Another interesting fact is that a French soufflé is also traditionally baked in larger dishes as opposed to the individual ramekins many of us are used to seeing. The soufflé is then served on the separate plates of individuals so that they can take as much or as little as they want.

 All three were absolutely unbelievable, but I have to say, I don’t think I’ll make a habit of an all-soufflé meal as I was left wanting a pinch more protein and a tad more fiber.