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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! 🙂