Bittersweet Endings and Semisweet Morsels

7 Feb

It’s quite bittersweet when the end of any journey is near. As my time at The French Culinary Institute comes to a close, I find myself reflecting on these past 5 weeks, and no word seems to sum it up better than bittersweet. Bitter because we all had to turn in our ID cards yesterday and the rollercoaster that was the FCI kitchen is no longer our weekend retreat. Sweet because I’ve had an incredible time throughout the program, learning new techniques, terms, and recipes. VERY sweet because I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know wonderful people from all walks of life. It was truly an adventure unlike any I’ve had before.

 The last two classes of my FCI program were packed, per usual, with exciting plans of learning numerous recipes in a small amount of time. Session seven started with Blanquette de veau à l’ancienne: Veal Stew in Cream Sauce.

Our next two creations were: Grilled Leg of Lamb and Gratin Dauphinois topped with gruyère

Demos and impromptu lessons were interspersed throughout the day, covering topics such as lamb vs. mutton, different classifications of meat, and of course, delicious methods of preparation.  As the Chef-Instructor lectured, we all stood there wide-eyed, pencils and notebooks in hand, hungry for the last bit of knowledge we could soak up. And then there were those of us who were actually hungry. I mean, c’mon, it was lunchtime.

Class eight (aka the final session) started off strong, just like lobster claws.

After a demo on how to poach a (LIVE!) lobster, we all headed to a bin near the back of the kitchen to collect our very own crustacean.

During the 7 minutes of time required to poach the lobster, we were also making tomato jam (which tasted delicious with a scone). After combining a few ingredients, we let the jam simmer away, filling the kitchen with an inviting aroma.

Sweet Red Tomato Chutney:

8oz sugar + 5oz water in a sauce pan–simmer until sugar dissolves.

Raise the heat and add one clove garlic (chopped), 3 bay leaves, 1 tsp anise seed, 1 lb diced tomatoes, 5oz distilled white vinegar, and a pinch of cayenne.

Bring to a boil.

Lower heat to a rolling simmer to reduce and caramelize (about 20 minutes or until the mixture reaches a syrupy texture).

Remove from heat, cool, and enjoy!

After the lobster was finished, Chef Dave and Chef Philippe had a cook-off…

Chef Philippe’s Lobster with Fingerling Potatoes:

Chef Dave’s Shrimp Capellini al Funghi:

It was a tie!

Next up was learning the art of making pasta, starting with fettuccine, capellini, and ravioli. Though it sounded difficult, the dough was actually an easy ratio of 150g flour to 8 egg yolks (with 1 tsp EVOO).

To create a filling for the ravioli, we used some of the poached lobster and chopped herbs.

Using the delicate capellini, we quickly made a shrimp dish with butter, mushrooms, bay leaves, salt, olive oil, and cream. One of the great things about homemade pasta is that it cooks in less than three minutes.

Although it was bittersweet to bid adieu to The FCI, I walked out knowing that I’m taking away SO MANY sweet morsels from the experience.

Bon appétit everyone!

Voilà!

31 Jan

What a whirlwind these past few classes have been! Lots of practicing chopping veggies, watching demos, learning French terms, measuring butter, and sautéing meats. I’ve heard it said before that many chefs don’t like to bake because they don’t have the patience to measure out ingredients and I definitely agree. Now I understand why cooking demos on TV look so simple…everything is already measured out! I prefer to use whatever I have in my refrigerator to throw something together in a bowl, taste as I go, make changes accordingly, and voilà!

Session four was dedicated to preparing fish for cooking, including poaching salmon and learning how to filet branzino. To accompany the salmon, we steamed clams, roasted tomatoes on the vine, and made pearl onions in a deliciously rich butter sauce. 

 The branzino came whole, so I had another adventure in gutting a fish. Practice might not equal perfection as evidenced by my cuts last week, but after some assistance from the chef-instructor, I achieved a more presentable filet. This fish was served with ratatouille, which was packed with tasty vegetables. The skin also had a powerful flavor from the fresh garlic and thyme. What a difference it makes when using FRESH herbs! I usually don’t leave the skin on when eating fish, but having dealt with the branzino from start to finish, it was less daunting and actually tasted crispy and delicious.

 Session five was all about poultry. We trimmed the European-style (semi-boneless) quail, leaving the skin intact, which made it perfect for stuffing. After salting the quail and adding pepper and garlic, I stuffed the breast with sausage, and repeated a similar process with the leg, creating what the chef-instructor referred to as a lollipop. The sausage-stuffed sautéed quail was served with pearl barley (finished with walnut oil, currants, & pine nuts) and a beet salad.

 We also made a yogurt dish called raita, which I think would be great with lamb or a gyro. I’ve found several variations to this recipe online, but this is the one we used:

Raita

225 g peeled and seeded cucumber

500 milliliters yogurt

4 Tbsp chopped fresh mint

1 tsp salt

1 tsp chili oil

1 tsp minced garlic

Next up was chicken fricassée which reminded me of a marsala sauce I often make for friends and family.

We kicked off session six with buttery rice pilaf, maple-braised pork cheeks, and baby turnips cooked glacer à blond. This meat was so tender you could cut it with a fork. It was my favorite dish I’ve made in culinary school thus far!!

After a quick lunch, we learned about different cuts of meat and the method of grading. For our next dish we prepared a filet with red wine sauce, sautéed mushrooms, endives, and bok choy. It was my first time cooking a steak in the oven, and it turned out very tender and flavorful. I love that I’m learning how to deal with all these different types of meats, fish, poultry, etc. from start to finish. I have to admit, though, I’ll probably still pay the premium for the pre-cut fish filets.

A few nights ago, I made one of my favorite meals: stuffed squash (mom’s recipe)

One of my favorite new things is reading other health, cooking, fitness, and beauty blogs. From the foodie blogs, I gather inspiration for new meals and other delicious treats. I recently made espresso chocolate almond bark …

 …and a quinoa side dish (both from Evan Thomas, The Wannabe Chef)

Evan’s blog is always funny and informative, filled with great pictures and easy recipes.

I would love to hear from everyone and see some of your tried and true recipes in the comment section below! Until next time, bon appétit everyone :)

Stocks and sauces and soups, oh my!

26 Jan

“Les fonds sont pour la cuisine, ce que les fondations sont pour la maison.” Auguste Escoffier

“Stocks are to cooking what foundations are to a house.”

My third session of class began with a vegetable soup demo, consisting of carrots, turnips, cabbage, potato, celery, and leeks. One important element of the lesson was the “mirepoix” which is a combination of equal parts onions and carrots used to flavor stocks and sauces. This turned out to be the tastiest vegetable soup I’ve ever had and the best part is…I made it! Actually, my favorite part is that I get to control the sodium and unnecessary chemicals that you often find in canned soup.

Please let me emphasize the importance of cutting (taillage). I never thought twice about the size of my cuts when dealing with vegetables, but they impact the aesthetic value of the dish AND cooking time.

We haven’t been following the textbook much in class because the chef-instructors have stressed technique over recipes. We’ve also been fortunate enough to experiment with all kinds of oils, such as truffle, walnut, pumpkin seed, sesame, and grape seed. This is nice because I can try cooking with different flavors and figure out my preferences before I invest in a whole bottle.

Session three was dedicated to making a relatively quick and easy chicken stock using fresh bones, a roasted butternut squash soup, and a hearty lentil soup.

Four important rules to remember when making stocks:

1)      No salt

2)      Cold water

3)      Never boil

4)      SKIM SKIM SKIM!

Next up was learning “roux” which is a mixture used as a thickener for stocks and soups. Luckily, it’s an easy ratio to remember: equal parts flour to fat. The fat can come from any source, but in this case we used butter—2oz flour and 2oz butter. From this step, we added either milk (to create the mother sauce “béchamel”) or stock (to create “velouté”).

 

Mother Sauces (sauces mères) in French Cuisine:

Velouté-stock based

Béchamel-milk based

Espagnole-aka Demi-glace

Tomate-tomato based

Hollandaise-egg yolk and butter based

The classes have been quite challenging thus far and are definitely keeping me on my toes. (Read: I’m absolutely EXHAUSTED afterwards.) I’m thankful to be pushed outside of my comfort zone, though, since I know this is helping me grow to be a better cook.

Annnnd, very much overdue are pictures of my wonderful knife/utensil set:



Food for Thought

10 Jan

I only have two days under my belt and I’ve already learned an immense amount regarding French cooking. The second day of my Essentials of Fine Cooking program kicked off with a lesson about food preservation. We learned how to make a “brine” or a “pickle”, which consisted of:

115g salt

200g sugar

2 cups white vinegar

1 cup cider vinegar  

Using haricots verts, turnips, carrots, cauliflower, and an onion, we made pickled vegetables. The strong fragrance reminded me of those delicious pickles served with a hot pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water!

Next, I gutted my first fish—a sad little sardine. It was actually a simple process and truthfully, I am a big fan of seafood. The flavoring for this dish came from utilizing a similar marinade as the “pickle”. I thought this was interesting because the acid from the vinegar ‘cooks’ the fish to make it edible.

Duck confit and smoked scallops were the subsequent lessons, which filled the spacious kitchen with fabulous aromas. There’s nothing quite like the comforting smell of a slowly smoked food. This was mostly prep work, as I worked with these foods later in the day (more to come)…

The last two items on the day’s agenda were compound butters and flavored oils. To make Maître d’Hôtel Butter, I diced 1 lb butter and added parsley, chives, minced shallots, kosher salt, and white pepper. This was incredibly easy and would taste delicious melted on top of a filet mignon.

Next up were infused oils featuring the vibrant flavors of fresh basil, chili, and curry. We blended together 1 packed cup of fresh basil leaves and 1 cup grapeseed oil (can substitute canola oil but grapeseed oil is preferable because of its neutral taste, allowing the chosen flavor to shine), simmered and swirled the mixture (don’t stir), and finally strained it using a cheese cloth. The last step is to ice the mixture to set the color and stop the cooking process.

This method can be repeated using parsley, chives, sage, rosemary, and other dried spices. It’s important to remember that the flavor in powders is magnified, making it much stronger than when fresh, so the ratio is reduced to 2 oz powder:2 cups oil.

As soon as I returned to my apartment, I browned the skin of the duck leg in its fat and seared my smoked scallops in the compound butter. The result was two richly flavored foods that I could hardly believe I made.

Until next time… bon appétit everyone!

Mise En Place

10 Jan

The first day I arrived at The French Culinary Institute, I received my monogrammed uniform and a beautiful knife set with a carrying case.

The group of ten students gathered in a large kitchen and met the two head chefs who would be our instructors for the next five weeks. After quick introductions, we jumped right in and learned some of the most important French culinary terms.

Poste De Travail: work area

Mise En Place: everything in place

Taillage: methods of cutting vegetables

Day one was primarily dedicated to practicing knife skills, becoming comfortable with our new 30 piece sets, and learning the terms for each cut. I never knew there were SO MANY WAYS TO CUT A VEGETABLE.  Although it’s a hurdle right now, I love that I’m learning some French terms in my classes. Foreign languages and cultures are absolutely fascinating to me and any time I can learn more about them is time well spent.

 After butchering my first few slices of zucchini, we were called back up to the front to learn two methods of cooking vegetables: à l’anglaise and à l’étuvée. One demonstration later, we were given a time limit to complete an aesthetically pleasing dish and present it to the chefs for constructive criticism. The school believes in a Total Immersion approach by providing a realistic environment and replicating the rigors of the restaurant industry.

…Translation? They throw you right into the fire. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn. From my summer living in Spain, I realize that our own skills and abilities tend to extend much further than we give ourselves credit for. So next time you’re doing something outside your comfort zone and you’re doubting your abilities, when the choice is to either sink or swim, you might just surprise yourself.

Feeling like I was a contestant on Top Chef, I put my new knife skills to the test to swiftly create a Medley of Market Vegetables with Coriander. After burning my first batch of tomato fondue and re-cooking the pearl onions, I was finally satisfied with my dish. I plated the vegetables in an interesting design and walked up to the front to take my punishment. Holding my breath, I was surprised to hear that, being an over-salter, I had actually under-salted the dish.  I tasted the food and was very proud of my day’s work, but I agreed–it definitely needed salt!

I had an incredible first day of culinary school and left the building grinning from ear to ear. I can’t wait to learn more and expand my cooking repertoire as these five weeks unfold. Stay tuned! :)

It’s a Journey…

3 Jan

2010 was a monumental year. I graduated from college with Business and Spanish degrees, had major and completely unexpected surgery (anyone else missing a gallbladder?), and moved to New York City…all in a few short months. To say I grew as a person in this past year is an understatement. My priorities changed as did my mailing address and the comforts of all things familiar suddenly felt far far away.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a planner who clings to lists and routines to dictate my life. Though I do still believe the saying “if you fail to plan you plan to fail” applies to some circumstances, I’ve realized that it definitely doesn’t need to rule my life. Half the fun in life is the unexpected. The people you meet, the spontaneous activities, and the new adventures that unfold when your path changes course are usually the ones that end up being your greatest rewards.

One of my favorite 2010 memories was meeting Sharontina and wandering around Lincoln Center during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

 

This is an exciting and difficult and thrilling and sometimes heart-wrenching but always worthwhile journey, not a destination. 2011 is a year where I’m going to make a conscious effort to live in the moment more and better myself each and every day.

What do you hope the New Year has in store for you? Did you make any resolutions?

Striking a Balance

8 Dec

Life, in all aspects, is all about striking a balance (perfect or not) that aids in creating a happy life comprised of many elements. One important factor that affects each and every one of us on a daily basis is nutrition. It has been said that you are what you eat, and while I don’t want to be a glazed donut, I am a strong believer that when people make these great declarations of diets containing “no carbs” “no sugar” “no fat”, they are only hindering their future relationship with food. Not only is this sort of diet NO WAY TO LIVE, but it is very difficult to maintain forever. In short, I don’t believe in restrictions. I think in order to have a balanced life and a balanced diet, one must incorporate all types of food (yes, this includes some guilty pleasures!) into their nutritional plan.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m starving, I’m certainly not at my best. I feel tired, moody, and worst of all, my brain isn’t as sharp. I find that when I let myself become famished, I tend to make illogical decisions, and this is especially true of food! When you’re that hungry, a bag of salty chips might take the edge off initially, but you’ll regret that choice shortly after when you find yourself digging in the pantry again looking for another snack. To avoid this, I like to graze and eat small portions throughout the day.

Being prepared is also a way to stop making irrational food choices. I usually carry around a bag of almonds or an apple (with a wedge of Laughing Cow Cheese…yum!)  if I know I’m going to be gone for several hours. Though the number of “on-the go” healthy food choices are becoming more prevalent to satisfy busy lifestyles, it’s always a good idea to pack a snack just in case.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is with oatmeal & fruit. I love the mixture of the filling oatmeal topped with the natural sugars in blueberries, raspberries, and bananas. This breakfast keeps me full and satisfied throughout the morning. Another one of my favorites, Magical Breakfast Cream, comes from  The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook by Mireille Guiliano.

MAGICAL BREAKFAST CREAM

4 to 6 tbsp Greek yogurt (1/2 cup), add 1 tsp flaxseed oil and mix well. Add 1 to 2 tbsp lemon juice and mix well. Add 1 tsp honey and mix. Grind 2 tbsp finely ground cereal (w zero sugar) and 2 tsp almonds. Add to yogurt mixture and serve immediately.

Substitutions:
Flaxseed oil–sesame or safflower
Lemon juice–grapefruit, orange, blood orange juice
Honey–maple syrup
Shredded wheat–buckwheat, barley, oatmeal

By eating a delicious and healthy breakfast, you set the nutritional tone for the day and jump-start your metabolism. What’s your favorite breakfast?

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