Thursday, February 28, 2008

Historical Preservation

Last night we discussed the history of food preservation - for centuries people have salted, pickled and dried their food to make it last. Have you ever wondered how a dried out piece of salted cod could last so long without spoiling? Drying it out removes all the moisture in the fish – bacteria can’t grow because it requires a moist environment to survive.

This brings me to the topic of fat Tom – no, not my overweight friend, but an acronym. FATTOM reminds us what nasty microorganisms need to thrive and multiply. FATTOM is Food – bacteria needs food to survive; Acid – it also likes a certain pH balance, somewhere right in the middle. The two T’s are Time and Temperature – the longer food is left out and the temperature it remains at is very important hence, cooling large portions of food before placing in the refrigerator. O for oxygen, yes bacteria needs it too! Moisture is the last element as explained above in the dried fish example.

Pickling works because it is very acidic, too acidic for bacteria to grow. Legumes that have been dehydrated last a long time because moisture-loving microorganisms are kicked to the curb. Bacteria also have two other pals in the spoilage world – other microorganisms include yeast, and mold.

Let’s round out the general techniques of preserving food. We have dehydration, alcohol (primarily used for fruits - think pear brandy or eau de vie), sugar as in fruit preserves – the sugar slows down enzymatic activity, pickling, dry cure or salt, a liquid cure/brine (think of yummy salmon gravlax!), smoking (includes cold smoking, hot smoking and wood smoking), pasteurization, sterilization (think of grandma’s canned veggies or fruits), and some obvious ways are refrigeration/freezing (includes quick freezing & freeze drying), lastly, sealing & coating – on Friday night we are making duck confit – basically we dry cure the duck then ultimately cook it in rendered duck fat – the fat creates a barrier and microorganisms can’t get it to spoil that yummy goodness.

Along with this lesson, we made an Assortiment de Légumes à la Grecque that included artichokes, mushrooms, zucchini and cauliflower with a tomato fondue. À la Grecque is a method of preparation that involves cooking the vegetables and mushrooms separately in a mixture of wine, water, salt, lemon juice and olive oil. The result quite honestly did not wow me – but technique is what I am learning and that’s what’s important.

Lastly, I shot a candid of my stove away from home for friends to see what my station typically looks like. Imagine me here in my Chef-whites, learning, practicing and perfecting my craft.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Potages, Potagères, & Consommés

I was on an adrenaline rush from cooking last night – couldn’t get to sleep to almost 1:30 am. Last night we tackled four soups including Potage Saint-Germain aux Croûtons, Consommé Printanier, Gratinée à l’Oignon, and Potagère Parisien.

There are two basic categories of soups in classic French cuisine – les potages clair (clear soups) and les potages lié (bound soups). We began with a demo of how to prepare a beef consommé. I never knew it was so involved! Using our marmite stock (white beef broth) we proceeded to enrich and clarify the stock.

A consommé is a stock from which all the impurities are removed and what you have left is a clear sparking broth. How do we to this? I was surprised…there are three ingredients to the clarification process – ground lean beef, egg whites, and aromatic vegetables. By combining these three ingredients you have your base to clarify the stock. It looked like very wet meatloaf not at all appetizing – this mixture is added to the stock and simmered and stirred until all the bits rise to the top and form a raft. The proteins in the meat and the egg whites attract the impurities in the stock and you basically end up with a clear gorgeous broth underneath a soggy, coagulated meat raft. Ah the French, gotta love ‘em.

The Potage Saint-Germain aux Croûtons is basically a split pea soup with croutons. This soup is considered a bound soup because the dried split peas thicken the soup. I’ll cut to the chase – we lightly sautéed bacon, added carrots, onions, leeks and let them sweat (you can sweat the veggies in butter on low or high heat what’s important here is that you don’t want the veggies to obtain any brown color). We then added a bouquet garni, a clove of garlic and 1½ liters of water. Bring that up to a simmer, stirring occasionally and cook for 45 minutes.

The soup is then ladled and pureed in a powerful blender. I adjusted the salt and added some pepper. The color reminded me of spring days and fresh budding leaves. We plated the soup, garnished with buttery croutons (Insider’s info: we took a slice of frozen white bread, cut the crusts and saved them for making breadcrumbs – then we cubed the bread, some clarified butter in a sauté pan and browned the croutons), a dribble of cream that was reduced by half, a drizzle of olive oil and a few delicate sprigs of chervil. Chef comes around to try everyone’s soup – he came to our station, looked at the soup and really took a moment to study it, he tasted it, and continued to look at the soup and said - this is beautiful. He then called all the students to look at how I composed the final garniture (garnishes) and said the color, taste and texture were perfect and the presentation - beautiful. I received a nod and a “good job.”

Small victories, that’s all I could hope for when you are in the trenches at culinary school.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Recipes, more information, please ask!

I'm more than happy to supply more information on any of the items I've cooked in class and wrote about in this blog. If you are curious about any of the techniques or would like copies of the recipes (you'll have to learn metric measurements) please feel free to drop me a line at!

I would love to hear from you,

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Not your mother's sauce...

From carefully prepared stocks we proceed to make some basic sauces. In the early 19th century Antonin Careme was the first celebrity chef – he cooked for royalty and gave us sauces mères – the mother sauces of French cuisine. These sauces are Allemande, Béchamel, Espagnol, and Velouté. Escoffier added Tomato sauce and the hot emulsion, Hollandaise to the original four sauces. There is debate to how many mother sauces exist some say 4 some say 6 - some even include the cold emulsion sauce – mayonnaise as a seventh sauce. I’m not one to debate this I’m here to learn how to make them.

Class began with this discussion and the Chef demonstrated a few of the sauces we were to make that evening. Tonight’s lesson: Sauce Espagnol, Fond de Veau Lié, Sauce Béchamel, Sauce Vin Blanc, Sauce au Porto and Sauce Châteaubriand aux Champignons – I know, a lot, right?

My cooking team was great – we watched the demo, took notes and went to our stations to prep and prepare Sauce Espagnol and Fond de Veau Lié. Sauce Espagnol is basically a brown sauce made from the veal stock we prepared in the previous class. We were instructed to take our recipes and halve the amounts – mind you our recipes are in metric.

(Side note: I remember when I was about 7 years old the nuns told us in elementary school to learn metric because that was the way of the future – I should have paid more attention to that advice!)

Anyway, back to the sauce making…Sauce Espagnol is a wonderful concoction of sautéed bacon (lardons), carrots and onions (Mire Poix), concassér tomatoes, tomato paste, crushed garlic, sprig of tarragon and mushroom trimmings. The sauce was intoxicating, the aroma was gorgeous with hints of smokiness from the bacon. The sauce simmered gently on the stove for 1 hour – when competed it is strained through a chinois.

Fond de Veau Lié is basically veal stock that is bound with a starch in this case we used cornstarch. Binding elements to sauces are called liaisons. These can vary from a roux, double cream, egg yolks, or even a vegetable purée. I made this sauce quickly with the stock, some mushroom trimmings and chervil. We combined cornstarch with Madeira to create a slurry. When the stock achieved a good boil I added the slurry slowly in a steady stream. Simmered for 5 minutes, strained and we were done. This sauce is nothing fancy but it is the basic sauce needed to create other sauces such as Bordelaise, Bercy and Robert.

Good stocks are the foundation to basic sauces and those sauces create many derivative sauces.

Next a short demo on Sauce Béchamel by the assisting Sous Chef then off to create if for ourselves. I took charge of this sauce. At first I let the roux (equal amounts of butter and flour) become a roux blond by cooking it a little too much. So I started over with fresh roux and a slow, low flame – for a roux blanc – no coloration was required. On another burner we had our milk heating up. When the roux was ready we added the hot milk slowly whisking vigorously to incorporate the roux into the hot milk. Once the milk was absorbed, we added more milk to achieve the desired consistency. Seasoned to taste with salt, a pinch of cayenne, and freshly grated nutmeg – it was simple, delicious.

Sauce Vin Blanc (white wine sauce), is one of the toughest! A very delicate sauce for fish dishes, it was made with the Fumet de Poisson (fish stock) we made in the previous class. My cooking partner took the reigns on this sauce. We corroborated on the proportions and the timing of cooking. She did a great job, we ventured off the recipe a little adding a little more heavy cream to balance the fish flavor which seemed strong to us.

After a quick demo, it was on to Sauce Châteaubriand aux Champignons – I was ready for this one. We both sautéed wild mushrooms separately - oyster and shitake – in butter, of course. We had dried porcini mushrooms soaking in warm water to re-hydrate them. I started sweating the shallots in a hot sauteuse (sauté pan), next I added the porcini and cooked for a few minutes to achieve some color. I took the pan off heat and added brandy (the safest way to add alcohol to a hot pan with an open flame) then I flambéed the mixture, once the brandy cooked off I added some white wine then the other mushrooms that were draining from the butter they were cooked in – a few ladles of Sauce Espagnol, some salt and pepper and it was complete. A luscious sauce that would happily accompany a delicious grilled steak.

(Side note: When adding two types of alcohol to sauces, use the strongest first - in this case the brandy - then cook off the alcohol then afterwards add the white wine.)

At the end of our 5 hour class, Chef instructed that he would come around to all the stations and try our sauces. All the while we were keeping our sauces warm in a bain-marie (water bath) as a saucier would in a restaurant. By this time of the evening, all our sauces had cooled, the Bechemel was too thick, the Sauce Vin Blanc tasted too fishy. Chef gave everyone 10 minutes to correct our sauces and revive them. My team sprang into action! I quickly reheated the Fond de Veau Lié, my partner took the Sauce Vin Blanc and carefully reheated it and added some heavy cream and adjusted the seasonings.

My other partner reheated the Sauce Châteaubriand aux Champignons which started to thicken as well so she corrected this with a ladle of Sauce Espagnol – which I had also just reheated. So the Béchamel worried us, I whipped around the kitchen grabbed a sauteuse, ran to the reach-in refrigerator for the milk. I blasted the gas jets as high as possible and heated some milk to revive our once perfect Béchemel. As I slowly poured a slow stream of heated milk into the sauce, my partner whisked it in to incorporate. We tasted it – and made a decision not to adjust any seasonings.

The Sauce au Porto was the last sauce we made so it was in the best shape. Out team was ready for Chef to come and taste our sauces. We felt good about what we prepared but were concerned about our last minute efforts to revive and refresh almost all of our sauces. Chef came to our station with his spoon, he dipped it into the hot bain-marie water and then dipped the spoon into the Sauce Vin Blanc - the most delicate sauce. He turned the spoon over to see if the sauce coated the back of the spoon – called nappant in French. He then tasted it and we got a nod. He then tried the Sauce Béchamel – I was holding my breath worried that it was still too thick. He liked it and said, “very good.” Lastly, the Sauce Espagnol then the Sauce Châteaubriand aux Champignons. After he tried the Sauce Châteaubriand aux Champignons he asked the Sous Chef to try it as well. She said it was very good and from Chef..., another nod of approval. We quietly felt like rock stars inside.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Stocks are to cooking what foundations are to a house - Escoffier

Auguste Escoffier tells us how important stocks are to the basis of French cuisine. Little did I know how complex stocks (fonds) can be and so many types!

In class last night we tackled the following: Fond de volaille blanc (white chicken stock), Fumet de poisson (fish stock), Fond de veau brun (brown veal stock) and Marmite (white beef broth with blackened onions).

We went to work at an extremely fast pace – preparing four stocks in 5 hours. We prepped mire poix (traditionally a mixture of onions, carrots and sometimes celery) bouquet garni and bouquet aromatique for the stocks, learned how to work and clean the bones, simmer and skim, and finally ladle the stocks using a chinois and some cheesecloth to strain any impurities.

The result of all this careful work produces a clear or transparent liquid, flavored with the essence of its ingredients and is heady with aroma. Stocks are the building blocks of classic French sauces or sauces mères (mother sauces) that can be adapted into a variety of other sauces.

I ladled the chicken stock, after it simmered for over 2 hours, through a chinois that drained into a container. The stock must be chilled down very quickly if you are not going to use it right away so the container sat in an ice water bath where I continued to vanner (stir to cool down). The golden color was beautiful and aroma was delicate yet defined. I was proud of this stock – my first ever actually.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Viruses, Parasites, Bacteria, Oh My!

Friday night’s class was all about things you don't want to think food that is improperly handled can make you sick. As a professional food handler in the city of New York one must be licensed and pass a ServSafe program. The class discussion was all about – viruses, parasites, and bacteria and our Chef instructor informed us of all the things we need to know to pass the ServSafe exam.

We discussed Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, E. coli, and everyone’s favorite Staphylococcus aureus! I know they sound like characters in an ancient Greek or Roman play. Unfortunately, we all need to become familiar with these types of bacteria – because they exist everywhere.

The rise of E coli. incidents and Salmonella in the news is an alarming realty check with over 300,000 cases of Salmonella reported a year and let’s not forget the endless stories of cruise ship sickness – Norwalk virus also know as Noroviruses.

The question is why are there so many more incidents of food borne illnesses and outbreaks of contaminated food – do I have to remind you on the E. coli spinach a few years ago?

Well there are a few factors that I’ll go into briefly since I found them fascinating.

1. Emerging pathogens – microorganisms that have a disease producing effect on the body.

2. The increase in susceptible populations – here we are talking about the elderly, the immunosuppressed and kids – people with compromised and weak immune systems. They can’t handle the bacteria and viruses most people can easily fight off.

3. Increase and ease of global trade – do you ever really think about where your food actually comes from? That Lean Cuisine you are eating probably has ingredients from X amount of processing plants and has been touched by X amount of food handlers. I know – scary.

4. Over-use of antibiotics – you know your doctor doesn’t want to give you a prescription for an antibiotic unless you are in dire need. There’s a reason for this – the food we eat – think chicken here – has been fed antibiotics for years and years. Chickens eat feed with antibiotics and then we eat the chickens – down the line we become resistant to those helpful antibiotics.

5. More money is being spent on dining out then on dining in. So there you have it – we eat out more often so we are susceptible to more food borne illnesses at the hands of others.

Key points here:

Always keep cold food cold and hot food hot.

Cook foods to the proper temperature to kill existing bacteria in your food.

It’s a minimum of 145 degrees for meat, pork, fish and eggs – use a thermometer.

For ground beef, fish or pork the minimum temperature should be 155 degrees when tested with a trusty thermometer.

Poultry – 165 degrees to make sure all those nasty bacteria are killed.

One last point to remember – making large portions? You have two hours to chill that down to below 70 degrees then another 4 hours in the fridge to get it down to 41 degrees to ensure it is safe from being the playground for bacterial growth. Never, ever put large portions of heated food in the fridge without cooling it down first. Ice baths work quite nicely for this purpose.

A perfect example of what's going on in the food processing industry.;_ylt=AhWMqjT_lmRGI8zc0AoeC7is0NUE

Thursday, February 14, 2008

First night of class

At first I wondered if I accidentally signed up for the military, I got my uniform, my weapons (a gorgeous set of knives, and cooking utensils), my regulation shoes - Dansko euro clogs - the most comfy shoes my big feet have trotted around in, I received my post (a stainless steel work area with high-powered gas jets), and an introduction to my commanding officer - the Chef.

Kitchens unlike the military are run with organization, speed, attention to detail and respect for your fellow kitchen soldiers and utmost respect for your commander with replies of “Yes, Chef” after every instruction and “Thank you Chef” after critique.

I was sweating bullets last night, nervous as hell, I didn’t know what to expect and as the evening went on, I become more flustered and challenged. The professional kitchen is a place of hard work, serious attention needs to be paid to what you are doing, it’s hazardous! Razor sharp knives, scalding pots, a slippery floor can cause serious injury. Every movement must be calculated; every action must be thought about then executed and implemented flawlessly.

We learned traditional taillage (methods of cutting veggies) such as julienne, jardinière, macédoine, paysanne, and brunoise. We also learned how to émincer, ciseler, tronçonner, parer, hacher, concasser, and chiffonade our veggies.

Two methods of cooking vegetables; à l’anglaise is a method to cook vegetables prior to service and reheating at time of service. À l’étuvée is used à la minute, or at time of service – cooked to order.

More on this later…

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

My first day in the kitchen

Well, not literally, I've been in a kitchen before...tonight is my first evening of classes at The French Culinary Institute. Nervous? yes! Excited, yes!

I've been through orientation, met some of my fellow classmates and reviewed the lesson plan for tonight. I'll have more to report tomorrow. I've ironed my uniform, jacket, pants, hat, neckerchief, apron and dish cloths. I've got these great chef shoes - black Dansko clogs - so comfortable!!

Ok I gotta leave my day job and become a student once again - hmm, last time I was an official student was 1992 - a little ways back.
I'm ready for the challenge - bring it on baby!