Boeuf Bourguignon and other “Firsts”

Boeuf Bourguignon with turned potatoes and a seasonal crouton (Joyeux Noël!)

This past week at school was full of new kitchen experiences for me (see pics below). Never before had I butchered and cooked a rabbit, made a souffle, “turned” a mushroom, made mousse out of chicken, or prepared Julia Child’s signature dish–boeuf bourguignon. I definitely had never even seen so much veal before in my life! The rabbit was a little gross when it was staring up at me on my cutting board, but somehow it all turned out just fine.

But that’s the beauty of cooking. You don’t need to have previous experience with a specific dish in order to do it well. You just need to know some basic principles, use logic, and have a confident sense of adventure. Instead of thinking, “I’ve never cooked rabbit before; I can’t do that,” you can think, “I know what it means to brown meat and have used an oven before; I’ll give it a shot.” And then you learn.  One of my new friends here described the kind of cooking she’s used to in Italy: “there are no rules, you just have to do it and be passionate.” In everyday cooking, I think there’s a lot to be said for that philosophy.

For now though I happen to be in the land of food rules, and I actually do need to memorize a long list of recipes (down to the gram!) by the 16th. But I have a hunch that in the long run, learning the ropes of classic French cuisine will lead to more creativity and freedom in the kitchen. As with many skills, it seems like you start out with a lot of guidance and structure and it seems awkward, but as you get more experience, the reasoning behind the structure begins to make sense. Then you feel freed rather than hindered…and can even add your own flair.  That’s what I’m hoping for!

Jumbo shrimp with fresh mayonnaise tartar sauce
Cheese souffle
Mustard roasted rabbit with potato medallions
Veal paupiettes with caramelized carrots and onions
Mousseline-stuffed chicken with turned mushrooms
Brill filets with herbed butter sauce

Hake steak with hollandaise and vegetable ribbons

 

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“Until it’s Done”

Grilled salmon on a bed of spinach with Byron potatoes

 

For the past week and a half from morning to night, my life  has mostly revolved around these dishes…which explains the lack of blog posts!  My class has been learning all about sauces, puff pastries, different cuts of meat, correct temperatures, and beaucoup de rules particular to French cuisine that have developed over hundreds of years.  We’re expected to memorize a lot of proportions and terms, but more importantly we’re learning to think, taste, and sense like chefs.

When the chef in charge of my class is asked how long to cook something, he always responds (in French), “until it’s done.”  So the key is developing the standards for what it means to be “done.”  In the kitchen, like anywhere else, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve.

During our graded cooking sessions, I find myself fumbling the most when I haven’t determined exactly what the outcome should be–a little like trying to describe something I’ve only partially seen. I can follow a recipe to the tee, but if I can’t imagine the ideal taste and texture, it’s less likely to turn out.

After a week and a half I’ve decided that there’s no quick fix for that problem.  Probably the best solution is to keep tasting good food over time, ask questions, ask for brutal feedback if you’re cooking, and be patient.  If I taste something good, I want to figure out why it’s good and how it got to be that way.

So bottom line, it seems like the best way to be a good cook is to be an inquisitive eater.  I’ll take that!

 

Poached chicken with rice and béchamel sauce
Pizzaladiere–olives, tomato petals, anchovies, capers
Consomme with puff pastry cheese sticks

Poached egg on a bed of creamed leeks in a puff pastry

Quiche Lorraine
Roasted chicken with Jardinière, artichoke, and jus

From “Catastrophe” to “Excellente”

Today was an exciting day at Le Cordon Bleu Paris (LCBP).  While we were racing around the kitchen trying to prepare the Fillet of Sole and Sauce Bercy in the allotted time, one lady had to leave because she cut her hand instead of the fish with a sharp fillet knife, and I almost started a kitchen fire!  For a few minutes I felt like I was on a reality TV show.

When I put butter in a pan that was too hot, I knew I was in trouble.  It started smoking and immediately turned to little dark brown bits.  The chef was at my side and said, “Quelle CATASTROPHE!!”  My first reaction was to want to apologize for my failure–to the chef, to the class, to anyone.  But before I could do anything, the chef was back with a new pan and the cooking went on.  I’m not sure yet about the lady’s hand, but my story had a happy ending.  When the chef tasted my fish and sauce at the end, he said, “Mmm…le sauce est très excellente.  Et le poisson…bon travail.”  Which basically means, “well done”!

But even if it hadn’t turned out well, I realized later that how you handle things like that is one of the unnamed principles of the kitchen–just as important to learn as filleting a fish.  Probably more.

Here’s what I learned about cooking today that wasn’t on the LCBP schedule:

  1. If I’m driven by the desire to impress people or to meet my own standards of perfection, cooking (and my time at LCBP) will just end up in frustration.  Even if something turns out well, it will probably seem lacking to me in some tiny way, and I will probably be a pain to be around.  No one enjoys being around a person who is so wrapped up in what they’re doing!  Which defeats the purpose of hospitality…
  2. A cook shouldn’t be defeated by apparent setbacks.  Those are often the best times to learn and to keep perspective.  And often times you can make something work even if there is a glitch along the way! Today for example, even though my technique at quite a few points was “down and dirty,” the dish turned out well.

Of course if you work in a kitchen as a living you really do need to meet standards, but I think that some of the above should still apply.  You don’t need to prove yourself.  As I’m here at LCBP, I want to learn the best techniques and principles I can, but not so that I can show the world I’m a flawless cook.  To have that as a motivation would be a true “catastrophe.”

Day One at Le Cordon Bleu Paris

 

Feeling rather full of information and potage cultivateur (a French version of vegetable soup), I just finished my first day at Le Cordon Bleu Paris!  I’m exhausted but it was great.  If you’ve seen Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, or Julie and Julia, it’s not too different from the romantic cooking school scene you’d imagine.

The environment is friendly yet also energetic and intense.  No one stands still for long, and the French have high standards for cuisine that must be met–even more so here at LCBP.

It’s a small-ish class with people from all over the world, every age, and almost every reason for being there.  Demonstrations are mostly translated from French into English, but when it’s time to execute the concepts we just learned, the Chef walks around instructing and correcting in French…and somehow everyone manages to understand.  I worked by a brave lady from Japan who barely speaks either language, but she pushed through and ended up with a great soup by the end of the night.  At one point a little farther down the counter, a man from Greece urgently asked in broken English, “Chef, can I take a leak?”  No one said anything for a moment.  As I started to feel a little bad for him with his use of the phrase in a very wrong place and time, I realized he was just asking for a “leek.” For his soup.

Today we learned proper knife skills, french cooking terms, and a several note pages of other cooking principles while Chef made vegetable soup.  Then we made it ourselves.  A few of my takeaways  were:

  • Classic french cuisine never allows pepper in soup
  • A vinegar and water bath is the way to go for cleaning vegetables
  • Key ingredient in almost everything: Butter, butter, butter.  No surprise there!

But the best part  is that we get to take home our schoolwork.  For me tonight that meant tramping through the Metro, a Tramway, several streets, and three twisty flights of stairs with a big tub of soup. But it was well worth it.  I just wish I could share with some of you…along with all the other stuff I’ll be bringing back to my apartment these next five weeks!  Oh well. I’ll just have to hoard for now.

Ps: Ask me if you want to know about the actual soup itself!

Omelette (un petit peu brûlée)

When in France, do as the French…or at least give it your best shot.  For me yesterday, that meant making a omelette.  Simple, elegant, and always tasty. Inspired by my first café meal in Paris–an omelette with salad greens–I stopped at a bon marché and picked up the few essential ingredients.

Without a “proper” omelette pan, here’s what I did:

  • 2-3 eggs
  • butter
  • salt
  • pepper
  • optional: cheese or other ingredients

An omelette should be cooked quickly, so this is a great meal when you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen.  I used the 8-inch skillet available in my apartment and made sure it was hot (medium high heat).  If you have a non-stick pan, use that!  Because it goes fast, make sure everything is ready before you put anything in the hot pan.  So while the pan is heating up, beat the eggs and add a Tablespoon of water to even the cooking, a dash of salt, and some pepper if desired.  If you are adding other ingredients like cheese, make sure that is ready as well.  I used small chunks of camembert…a soft, french cheese.

Okay, now that the pan is hot, add a generous portion of butter and as soon as it melts and covers the bottom of the pan, pour in the eggs.  If you are using a non-stick pan, move the the pan back and forth so it keeps the egg moving.  You can also use a spatula to quickly “stir” the eggs so that the uncooked egg gets a chance to touch the pan and the cooked egg doesn’t stay in one spot.  You can throw in the other ingredients at this point when it is mostly cooked (the top will still be shiny/wet). Turn the omelet over on itself and let it sit for a second to finish cooking in the middle.  Serve bottom-side-up on a plate.

You can see in my pictures that my omelette is brown.  That’s because I waited a few seconds too long to pour the egg in the pan–the butter started to burn.  I actually like the flavor of browned butter, but that is never what you would learn in omelette school!  But in my personal opinion, I think as long as the egg is still tender and not leathery, you’ve got a tasty omelette.

What are your favorite things to put in an omelette?

And just for fun…here’s a video that I watched last night when I was unwinding from a long day of navigating Paris.  Enjoy!

Bienvenue à Paris!

I just arrived yesterday in Paris.  For the next six weeks I will be living here while I take an intensive course in cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu, the school where Julia Child went. My courses will be six to nine hours a day, six days a week.  I have always enjoyed cooking, but now I’ll get to learn more about the principles behind it and be forced to become familiar with ingredients and techniques I wouldn’t think to use on my own. I’m excited for classes start on Monday!

But until then I’m settling into my new neighborhood, dusting off my French, taking some time to explore Paris, and of course enjoying beaucoup de nourriture française.  I will keep you posted as I begin my adventure here.

My apartment may not have a view of the Eiffel Tower, but it has a great little kitchen.  You can expect some recipes and updates from Karyn’s Kitchen at Apt. 5, 31 Rue Coulmiers, Paris!

 

 

Roasted Squash Soup

Squash is a must in the fall. So is soup….so why not enjoy them at the same time?  That at least has been my philosophy lately!  Here’s what I do:

  • 2 buttercup, butternut, or large acorn squashes
  • 1/3 cup water
  • olive oil
  • 6-8 small garlic cloves
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1-2 carrots, thinly sliced or grated
  • 4-5 cups chicken stock
  • salt
  • white pepper
  • nutmeg
  • red pepper flakes
  • cream

Set the oven to 350.  Cut the squash in half length-wise and remove seeds and stringy pulp.  Place face-down in a glass baking pan and pour in a little water.  If using a larger squash, cut into quarters.  Bake for 40 minutes.  If there is any water left in the pan, pour it out and drizzle a little olive oil in each half.  Place the cloves of garlic in the olive oil “puddles.”  Bake for 20 more minutes and then remove from the oven to let it cool off a bit.

In the meantime, sauté the onion in some olive oil on a low heat.  Grate the carrot(s) and add to the onion.  When the carrots have cooked through, remove the mixture from heat.

Scoop out the squash pulp and garlic.  In a food processor or blender, blend the squash and carrot and onion mixture until very smooth (add some chicken stock while blending).  Once that is pureed, dump that into a large pot on the stove.  Add more chicken stock until it reaches a good consistency (err on the runny side because it will thicken as you let it simmer).  Season with enough salt to bring out the robust squashy flavor, enough nutmeg to add a hint of sweetness, and enough red pepper flakes and white pepper to give it some oomph.  Let it simmer a bit (at least 10 minutes). If it tastes lifeless, add a bit of chicken base/bouillon along with more spices.

To serve, pour a splash of cream on top.  You can garnish with carrot curls, nutmeg, or red pepper flakes.

With a bit of kick from the garlic and red pepper flakes, this will keep you warm on a fall day!