Tuesday, March 25, 2008

How Do You Like Your Meat?

Our focus this past week has been on methods of concentration cooking and in particular grilling. Sauteing, roasting and grilling are all considered methods of concentration cooking – searing the outside of the meat creates a crust that allows for flavorful juices to stay inside of what you are cooking. Meat caramelizes and browns between 300 to 500 degrees and this is called the Maillard Reaction.

When grilling indoors or out here are a few rules to live by:
- Make sure the grill is clean of debris; use a wire brush to clean the grill of any leftover bits.
- Always preheat the grill before you cook anything – make it very hot!
- Lightly oil the grill once it is hot, this can be done carefully with a cloth or you can lightly oil whatever you are cooking to prevent it from sticking.
- Never grill meat that comes right from the refrigerator. Meat that has been allowed to come to room temperature will cook faster and more evenly.
- Create a quadrillage (a/k/a grill marks) place the meat on the grill turned towards the right at a 30 degree angle, once the meat is seared, turn to the left at a 30 degree angle to get that “right out of the steak house” look. Repeat on other side.

There are many degrees of doneness and here are a few French terms in case you find yourself in a Paris steak house - which reminds me of a restaurant I dined at in Paris near the L’Arc de Triomphe. The restaurant only served steak frites and the only thing that changed nightly were the sauces that accompanied the steaks – it was a quintessential Parisienne experience. I can still savor the flavors! OK, enough dreaming back to the terms.

Bleu = very rare
Saignant = rare
À Point = medium
Bien Cuit = well done

Not going to Paris? Here’s the U.S. version:

Blue = barely cooked over medium heat (Our friend Scott likes it this way – we joke and tell the waiter to just hold a match under his steak and that should do it!)
Black n’ Blue = Sounds like a case of domestic abuse! The meat is charred on the outside over high heat and quite raw in the middle.
Pittsburgh = Charred and very rare
Rare = Meat is red inside, center is cool
Medium Rare = Meat is red on the inside, center is warm
Medium = Characterized by a pink, warm center
Medium Well = A little pink is left but losing color fast!
Well Done = Put a shoelace on it and strap it to your foot ‘cause it will be tougher than a leather shoe with no “meat” color.

We prepared Contre-Filet Grillé (Grilled steaks accompanied by a Choron Sauce). The Choron Sauce is a derivative of a Bearnaise with the addition of tomato fondue. This dish was our dinner and we made Pommes Darphin to serve with the steaks. Pommes Darphin is easy to make and once you make these you will make them again and again!

Pommes Darphin – take a couple of washed Idaho potatoes and peel them. Place the peeled potatoes in cold water. Once all the potatoes are peeled remove one from the water and slice in half lengthwise. Now, with a very sharp knife the goal here is to make thin julienne strips of potato that are thin enough to be flexible and not stiff. Once all your potatoes are julienned, do not rinse them. You need the starch in the potato to hold it together. Generously salt the mound of potatoes on your cutting board and mix together to release more moisture. Give the potatoes about 5 minutes to accomplish this task.

While that’s happening, get your sauté pan ready by heating it on the stove first before adding the vegetable oil. Now take a kitchen towel and place your potatoes in it to squeeze out any last bits of moisture – make sure your potatoes are nice and dry before sautéing. Film you sauté plan with some oil, give it a minute to glisten and get hot then add your julienne. Work quickly to even out the layer and form the sides into a neat circle now add a few pats of butter around the sides and some freshly ground pepper. Sauté until golden brown on the bottom and carefully flip over to brown the other side. Once your potatoes are done, drain on paper towels and let cool slightly hit with a little more salt while it is hot. Serve with sizzling steaks right off the grill or at breakfast with a boursin chive scramble. The potato cake can be cut into “triangle” size pieces and overlapped on the plate.

The grilling continues! We partially de-boned a chicken (only leaving the wings and the leg bones so we could grill a whole bird flat on the grill which was then finished in the oven brushed with a mixture of Dijon mustard and white wine then dusted with breadcrumbs.

On to grilled beef medallions and boneless chicken breasts pounded with a mallet to achieve a thin, flattened breast. We also made a Beurre Composée (compound butter) of butter, parsley, lemon juice, salt, & pepper. We shaped the compound butter into a log and wrapped it in plastic to chill. A slice of this cold butter placed on the hot-off-the-grill beef tournedos melted into every glorious bite!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Polska Wielkanoc (Polish Easter)

We returned to New York and headed directly to my Mom’s house for an Easter celebration with traditional Polish food served at the family meal. Easter is one my favorite holidays – the arrival of spring is just weeks away, crocus & daffodils are peaking their blooms in defiance of the cold weather, and the happy anticipation of Easter dinner with family surrounds the holiday.

Mom’s menu includes:
kiełbasa (Polish Sausages), pierogi (dumplings filled with sauerkraut or potatoes and cheese), kapusta (sauerkraut), borscht (soup), chrzan z buraczkami (traditional condiment of horseradish and beets), good rye bread and for dessert babka, & makowiec (poppy seed cake).

Polish food is hearty fare, old-fashioned comfort food from the old country. Mom shops at a Polish specialty store called Adams Food Market in Wallington, NJ. One year I had the wonderful opportunity to go with her and the market was packed with shoppers, garlicky kiełbasas scented the air, freshly-made pierogis were stacked high in their packages, and round loves of babka filled the market. Robust Polish-speaking women behind the counters calling out to the patrons, Mom responds in Polish ordering everything for our special meal. I know a few key words in Polish mostly the names of foods and a few Polish reprimands.

This time of year gives me a sense of renewal and reinforces the importance of food in tradition and family gatherings that evoke fond and lasting memories around the Polish foods I’ve grown up with and long for year after year.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Streetcar Named Delicious

Savory Notes from the Big Easy: With a few days off from work and school for the Easter holiday my better half and I decided to take a quick jaunt to the Big Easy. I’ve never been to New Orleans, LA (NOLA) and have wanted to visit for many years. For me, a place like New Orleans always conjured up images of long, sultry days, languid breezes rustling potted ferns swaying on ornate cast iron balconies while revelers sipped a cold Mint Julep or Sazerac cocktail. The allure of the antebellum homes in the Garden District and the distinctive Creole and Cajun food had always beckoned me to visit someday.

We landed, checked in and headed out for lunch. Our concierge and many other friends of ours had suggested a dive bar called Port of Call for the best cheeseburgers and baked potatoes – an odd combination I thought but I was open to the idea.

We strolled down Dauphine Street past vintage homes with brightly colored stucco and dull painted shutters on the windows. The weather was cool and sunny it was refreshing to escape winter and see blooming flowers with bursts of color. We could smell grilling burgers from blocks away – Port of Call was a rustic hole in the wall with a floor made of bricks – we saddled up to the bar ordered our burgers and baked potatoes and where eager to see what all the fuss was about! The cheeseburgers arrived freshly grilled, made to order, one bite and I understood why this place has such a draw. The fluffy potato was heaped with butter, cheddar and sour cream – a wonderful diversion from the usual French fries. Afterwards we walked off our lunch down to bawdy Bourbon Street to take in the sights and sounds of New Orleans.

No trip to NOLA is complete unless you imbibe chickory-infused café au lait and freshly made beignets (square doughnuts with no hole heavily doused in powdered sugar) at the original Café du Monde. The green and white awning is a veritable welcome sign, jazz filled the air as musicians played for passing crowds and warm beignets are rushed to waiting patrons. A light fried doughnut, one bite and my mind was flooded with childhood memories of local Italian feasts in my own town featuring Italian zeppoles.

Our day wound down with dinner in the Garden District at Lilette – a wonderful little neighborhood bistro whose Chef was awarded a Food & Wine Best New Chef title in 2002. A funny thing occurred to me as each meal passed under my nose on this trip. Everything I tasted came under a new form of scrutiny, I thought to myself how I would have presented the dish, what I would have done differently and what could be improved. I discovered that my palate is evolving; it is becoming more sensitive to subtle flavors and seemingly rejects foods that are not seasoned well.

At Lilette, I started with mussels that were out of the shell and presented in a broth. The broth was bland and I felt it could have been punched up with more seasonings and perhaps reduced a little more. My entrée was Muscovy roasted duck breast – I was curious to see how other Chefs would prepare it and the dish was tasty but the skin wasn’t scored so the fat didn’t render as much as it should have – the duck breast was savory and served with roasted fennel and polenta that I thought was too soupy.

We awoke the next day with a mission to head back into the Garden District after seeing all the quaint shops on Magazine Street as we zoomed past in a taxi the night before. After some shopping therapy we decided to have lunch at Baru Café – a Latin/Caribbean inspired outpost. We started with a flaky cornmeal crusted empanada filled with ground beef and spices served with a vinegary cilantro sauce – mmm, just like Abuelita makes (that’s if I had a Latin grandmother – only wishful thinking). We then had a pulled pork sandwich, slathered with a red pepper spread with spicy arugula – so flavorful and delicious!

Dinner that night was in the French Quarter at Stella! an innovative new American restaurant guided by Chef Scott Boswell. The atmosphere was chic, candlelight danced overhead, and my appetite was ready to sample the creamy mushroom risotto which was fantastic and so satisfying! For my next course I had the black cod with a miso glaze which had a slightly bitter after taste that lingered. The flavors of the black cod and sauce didn’t marry well on my tongue but I left dreaming about the incredible risotto.

Our last day in the French Quarter, we strolled through the quarter and stopped into antique shops, ultimately we decided to have lunch at a restaurant owned by Emeril Lagasse. Aptly named NOLA, we were happy to be seated right away. I’ve read the must-have dishes were Miss Hay's Stuffed Chicken Wings with Homemade Hoisin Dipping Sauce for an appetizer and the Buttermilk Fried Breast of Chicken with Bourbon Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Smithfield Ham Cream Gravy and Sautéed Sugar Snap Peas as an entrée. I thought the appetizer itself lacked flavor but the hoisin sauce was very good. I was eagerly anticipating the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, my first bite was so juicy that I had to catch the trickles of juiciness with my napkin and dab my chin. The dish was very satisfying with a nice balance of flavors – absolute comfort food.

Our last evening in the crescent city we made reservations for dinner at Bayona. We were lucky to have live jazz playing while a wedding reception was taking place in the restaurant’s courtyard. Chef Susan Spicer blends southern flavors with a global spin. We both ordered the braised Niman Ranch pork chop as our entrée and really enjoyed the flavors of the dish. A light strawberry charlotte for dessert completed the meal. On our stroll back, Zydeco, rock and jazz music spilled out of the many bars and filled the streets – I’m happy to report the New Orleans spirit is alive and well!

Friday, March 21, 2008


No, not a memory game played with cards but a method of cooking that I need to commit to memory. The Poêlé Method of Concentration Cooking is generally used for large roasts of veal or pork. In class we prepared a Carré de Porc Poêlé, Choux Rouges Braisés à la Flamande (Roast Pork with Flemish-Style Braised Red Cabbage).

Steps for the Poêlé Method:
- Season the meat and brown it on all sides to achieve a flavorful crust
- Place the bones, trimmings, garniture and bouquet garni in a rondeau (large round pot with straight sides like a Dutch Oven). Since we trimmed our pork roast, we had trimmings and bones to add flavor to the roast as it cooked. Add a generous amount of butter to the top of the meat and cover with a tightly fitted lid – then into a 350 degree pre-heated oven.
- Cook covered for about an hour and baste occasionally. Test for doneness by piercing the meat once to check if the juices run clear and use a thermometer to check if the meat has reached 140 – 150 degrees.
- Remove the meat from the oven and keep warm covered with a piece of foil
- Return the rondeau to the top of the stove, deglaze the sucs and aromatics with white wine and add brown stock to create the sauce. Simmer and degrease.
- Strain through a chinois.
- Continue to reduce if necessary and adjust seasonings.
- To reheat the roast briefly, you can place it in the sauce, return to the oven and baste to achieve a shiny glaze.

We finished the sauce with chopped herbs (parsley and chervil) plated the pork with braised red cabbage and sautéed cocottes of Granny Smith apple.

Trussing Poultry:
Our next lesson that night was to learn how to truss a chicken – this is done to plump the meat, allows ease of movement from sauté pan to oven, and gives a pleasing appearance when plated. Trussing can be done with simple kitchen string and the use of a trussing needle. We trussed just by using the kitchen twine – Chef believes piercing the meat with a trussing needle defeats the purpose of keeping the juices inside the meat.

Concentration cooking forces the juices in the meat inward this is why it is best not to pierce the meat while grilling, roasting or sautéing. You want to keep those juices inside the meat to retain juiciness and flavor. This is why you allow the meat to rest after it cooks to allow the juices to redistribute as well.

After we trussed our chicken we prepared Poulet Rôti Grand-Mère (Grandmother’s Roast Chicken). The Grand-Mère garniture consisted of potatoes, pearl onions, bacon, mushrooms, and parsley. We sautéed our trussed bird on all sides on top of the stove in a sautoir. I made the mistake of not browning the chicken enough for Chef’s approval. Chef wanted a deeper brown color than the golden color I achieved from sautéing. All mistakes made and negative criticism from Chef sticks in my memory for a good reason –
so I don’t repeat them.

Once sautéed the chicken, mirepoix and trimmings went into the oven at 400 degrees to cook for about 40 minutes. We prepared our garniture separately and waited to make our au jus from the drippings. Once the final dish was plated and presented I knew I was going to catch hell for my pallid-looking chicken. I braced myself and took the criticism with stride – Grandmother would have scolded me too.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fowl Play

Classic preparations for chicken and duck include these two recipes: Poulet Sauté Chasseur (Sautéed Chicken, Hunter Style) and Suprême de Caneton Sauté et Cuisse Braisée à l’Orange (Sautéed Breast and Braised Leg of Ducking with Orange Sauce).

Last night’s class was very informative – we learned how to clean and quarter a chicken and a duck and how to make an enriched stock to complement a sauce. Now I’ve quartered a chicken before but every Chef has his own way of doing it and we had to learn this particular method. Once our poultry was quartered and trimmed we started on the Poulet Sauté Chasseur which required an enriched stock. We sautéed the chicken carcass, neck and wings, added our mire poix (carrots and onions) and deglazed the pan with some brown stock before adding the rest. Once we deglazed the sucs (brown caramelized bits stuck to the bottom of the sauté pan) we added the remaing brown stock a bouquet garni (sprig of thyme, a few peppercorns, clove of garlic, parsley stems, & bay leaf) and let the enriched stock simmer for about 45 minutes degreasing the top every so often.

Next we shifted gears and started to work on braising our duck legs since this was our dinner and required a longer cooking time. Cooking a whole duck can be tricky since the legs and the breast cook differently. This recipe calls for the legs to be braised and the duck breast to be sautéed separately and then plated together.

A few facts about ducks:
Most ducks that are commercially available today are varieties of Pekin ducks that were brought over by the Chinese in the 1800s. At one time over 60 percent of the ducks available in the U.S. where farmed on Long Island hence the term Long Island duck but times have changed and now less than 10 percent of ducks come from Long Island. Ducklings refer to young ducks (caneton) mature older ducks are refered to as canard.

Mallards are seasonably available wild or farm-raised but are very limited. Mullard is a crossbreed of a male Muscovy and a female Pekin and the breast meat from this duck is referred to as a magret. Muscovy ducks come from South America and can be sautéed, roasted, braised and used in confit. These ducks are also used to make foie gras.

On to the next recipe – we sautéed the duck legs to achieve a golden crispy color on the skin (sauté skin side down first). Remove legs and then sauté the carcass, wings and trimmings add mire poix and bouquet garni, return the legs and add brown stock to come up about half way. We covered the sautoir (large round pan with straight sides) with parchment that fit inside the sautoir then covered that with a lid – off to the convection oven to cook for about 40 minutes at 325 degrees.

The sauce had many components including a gastrique (caramelized sugar and vinegar), freshly squeezed orange juice, blanched julienned orange zest soaked in orange liqueur and the braising liquid from the duck legs.

The duck breasts were sautéed skin side down (the skin was scored so the underlying fat would render) remove the rendered fat so the duck breasts cook in a moderately dry sauté pan. Use a thermometer 125 degrees for rare, 130 degrees for medium rare and 135 degrees for medium – don’t over cook the meat it will be tough. Ducks do not carry salmonella so this is why we can eat this rare so enjoy!

Once the sauce was complete we plated our dish, cut the breasts in aiguillettes (slices) garnished with orange segments, we cooked the duck liver and plated that next to the breast and finally the braised leg – the rich sauce pooled at the bottom of the dish and it was ready for Chef to judge. We obtained great color on our duck breast, the sauce needed to be reduced a little more but overall a good job.

Back to chicken, we sautéed the breast on the bone and the legs/thighs together, removed them from the pan finished them in a 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes. Now the sauce was the shining star here, sautéed shallots, mushrooms in clarified butter, then flambéed with brandy, white wine, concassé tomatoes, herbs, and the strained enriched stock we had simmering for 45 minutes – resulted in a rich, deeply flavored sauce that was plated with the crisp chicken on top. Now the Italians make a similar dish called Chicken Cacciatore – I have to admit the French version was outstanding and relatively simple to make – hands down a winner!

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Shellfish can be categorized in three ways: crustaceans, mollusks and cephalopods. In the crustacean category we have lobster, crab, prawns, shrimp, and crayfish. For mollusks there are bivalves (consisting of two shells) such as clams, mussels, oysters, etc. There are also univalves (one shell) like snails and winkles. Cephalopods include octopus, squid and cuttlefish.

Most shellfish cook extremely quickly, over-cooking results in tough, rubbery meat. In some cases cephalopods can be cooked for a longer period of time, it depends on the recipe.

We prepped two types of Court Bouillon (short broth) one with white wine and the other with white vinegar – Court Bouillon can be used to poach seafood and flavor sauces and these broths cook quickly in about 30 minutes.

Our first recipe was Moules à la Marinière (Steamed Mussels with White Wine, Shallots and Parsley). Whenever I see mussels on a menu, I usually order them – I love them in spicy red sauces, in white wine and garlic and on occasion in broths with Asian spices such as lemongrass and ginger.

We cleaned our mussels, scrubbed the shells, removed the beards and got them ready to sauté in some white wine, butter and aromatics. We covered the pot for our mussels to steam and open – this takes only a few minutes. Once the mussels have fully opened, we placed them in another bowl and strain the cooking liquid to remove the solids, grit and sand. From there we reduced the resulting sauce added some butter, parsley and adjusted the seasonings. Arrange mussels on a serving plate and spoon the buttery wine sauce over them. Simply delicious! This was my appetizer for the night’s meal.

Our next recipe was a Sauce Américaine/Armoricaine (Crustacean Sauce with Tomato, Brandy and Tarragon). There’s an interesting debate behind the two-named sauce some gastronomes tell us the sauce was created by an American chef hence the first name and some say the name refers to Armorica – the ancient Gallic name for the Brittany region of France. We may never know – but I will say this base sauce made correctly makes the most incredible Lobster Bisque.

The Sauce Américaine/Armoricaine starts with lobster shells/bodies (we reserved the tail and claws for our dinner). Before I go further, let me sketch out the night…mussels to start, lobster for dinner, a scallop course, then a lesson in shucking oysters (where I downed a couple with a mignonette sauce) – after all this I was overwhelmed from all the amazing food I had in one night – it was luxurious and slightly hedonistic!

Back to the sauce, we sautéed the lobster shells in a little oil, then added carrots, onions (mire poix) to brown a little, then an ounce or two of brandy – we flambéed – when the flame died down we added white wine, stock (we used chicken but fish stock can be used too), tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, lots of tarragon and water to cover. The sauce simmered gently for 40 minutes – then strained to remove the solids. The sienna-colored sauce returned to a sauce pan and we added a binding element (liaison) to thicken it.

We used about 25 grams of room temperature butter and 25 grams of all purpose flour to thicken the sauce – this is called a beurre manie – mix the flour and butter together until it is completely incorporated then add to the sauce and cook for 10 more minutes. We added more chopped herbs and the sauce was complete. Some of my fellow cooking students took the sauce a step further and added a little heavy cream to create a silky Lobster Bisque – garnished with fresh lobster – really decadent and easy to make.

The last recipe for the night was Coquilles Saint-Jacques, Coulis au Persil (Seared Scallops with a Parsley Coulis). We seared our scallops in some blended oil about 2 minutes per side and made a quick parsley sauce with mushrooms, shallots and a little lemon juice to brighten the flavors. The sauce was pureed in a blender and we plated the scallops on a pool of sauce with a sprig of parsley for garnish.

Scallops are so versatile, they can be poached, sautéed and grilled, remember not to cook them too long unless you like eating food with the consistency of a rubber tire. By the end of the night, I was completely sated – excited about everything I learned and thrilled with everything I ate.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Like A Fish Out of Water

There are times during some classes that I ask myself – why am I learning this? How is this technique relevant to modern cooking and tastes. Chef will walk through a recipe and enlighten us about preparations that are old-fashioned that today’s chefs wouldn’t normally use – but he will demonstrate them nonetheless. So, again I ask myself, why should I learn this or that? I wasn’t able to answer that question when I first started culinary school but now after entering my mid-way point for Level 1 – I think I can answer it comfortably now.

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is French cuisine teaches us technique, methodology, preciseness, and gives the student strict guidance to rules that have been developed and perfected for many hundreds of years. This baseline education is teaching me to learn how to prep properly, to carefully preserve food from contamination, to organize my tasks and to multi-task and think like a chef. All of this is not easy to master, but repetition and constant practice are making these skills more innate. Walking into culinary school I consciously left what I knew about food and food preparation at the door. I wanted to be completely open to learning and understanding why I was doing what I was doing and why. So, why learn these “old-fashioned” recipes… because they teach us to evolve and create beyond them. That’s the real beauty to education – it motivates your brain to think and consider other options while maintaining a consistently prepared dish.

This week is all about fish and on Friday – shellfish! Roundfish, flatfish, saltwater, freshwater, fatty, lean, farmed, wild caught, over-fished, filets, darnes (cut into vertical steaks – like salmon), skin on, skin off, deep-fried, grilled, poached, breaded, braised, and that’s not even considering the multitude of fish species!

We began by learning how to fillet a roundfish, in this case we had a bass and trout for the two recipes we were going to prepare. This was my first time with a fillet knife – let’s just say not the easiest thing to master! Filleting the bass was tricky but manageable, filleting the smaller trout was harder – Chef told us filleting smaller fish is much harder than filleting larger fish. Once we filleted our fish we immediately kept them in a bowl over ice and then we transfered that bowl into the refrigerator.

We prepared our bass en papillote (cooked in sealed parchment paper). The fish steams, slightly braises and roasted in the oven with aromatic vegetables and earthy mushroom duxelles. I’ve cooked fish in parchment before, it is fun to do and actually quite easy. The trick is to cut your parchment into a heart-shape, and fold it over. When ready to cook, open up the heart-shaped parchment, we placed a few tablespoons of prepared and cooked duxelles and tomato fondue. On top of that the fillet, seasoned with salt and pepper and some olive oil and a teaspoon of good white wine. Over the fish we had an al dente cooked julienne of celery, carrots and leeks. Finish with a sprig of thyme, brush the edge of parchment with egg whites, fold over and seal with careful folds going all around the fish to create a perfectly sealed pouch. Rub a little oil on top of the parchment and into the oven at 450 degrees for a total of 9 minutes.

At the 7 minute point we poked a small hole into the puffed, golden parchment and let it cook for 2 more minutes. The beauty of fish cooked in parchment is that it makes an intriguing presentation at tableside. Plate the parchment pouch on to a hot plate and serve immediately. You can open it for your guests or let them open their own – the aroma escapes into a plume of aromatic flavors, the fish is perfectly cooked, light, healthy and delicious.

Our next dish to prepare was Filet de Truite Sauté à la Grenobloise (Sautéed Trout, Grenoble Style). The trout was prepared à la meunière – this method can be used for many types of fish either whole or portioned. À la meunière translates into “miller’s wife” and the fish is floured lightly and fried in butter. We finished the brown butter sauce with capers, lemon, parsley and some crisp buttery croutons that we prepped ahead.

On to last night’s lesson – flatfish – not the most attractive of the bunch but nonetheless tasty if prepared right. Learning to fillet a flounder was quite easy actually, much easier then the roundfish and the bonus is you get four fillets instead of just two.

We prepared two recipes: Goujonettes de Limande aux deux Sauces and Filet to Limande Bonne Femme. The first recipe is breaded flounder, deep-fried served with two sauce – a Rémoulade and a sweet red pepper sauce (Sauce aux Poivrons Rouges). The Filet to Limande Bonne Femme is Braised Flounder with White Wine, Shallots and Cream – this was my last recipe for the night and the fillets we had which were taken from the bottom side of the flounder were very small and delicate and unfortunately they became overcooked. Hey, you can’t win them all!

Let me highlight the most important points of the first recipe – we breaded the flounder which was cut into finger-sized portions (think delicate fish sticks a/k/a goujonettes). For the coating which is called à l’anglaise – the procedure is to dip the fish in flour then dust off excess, then beaten egg and oil, then into fresh breadcrumbs. We fried the goujonettes in 350 degree vegetable oil for about 2- 3 minutes to crispy lusciousness. Served with a waffle-cut and deep fried potato basket, the Rémoulade and Sauce aux Poivrons Rouges – it was the most sophisticated fish-fry I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating!

One Potato, Two Potatoes

Everyone’s favorite tuber – the humble potato is so versatile and can be cooked in so many different ways. The trick is to choose the right potato for the job! There are two basic categories of potatoes – mealy and waxy – which makes them sound so unappetizing right? Mealy potatoes are also referred to as all-purpose – Idaho or russet potatoes are in this category. Waxy potatoes include everything from red bliss to my favorite fingerlings.

Idaho potatoes make the best baked and mashed potatoes, their light, airy texture are enhanced by proper baking or boiling. Waxy potatoes are great in stews, soups, braises, and so on since they hold up to cooking for longer periods of time and don’t lose their shape.

We took our humble Idaho potato and prepped it for deep-frying – another cooking method that is ideal for this type of potato. With the aid of a mandoline (think fancy miniature guillotine) we cut our potatoes in to many different shapes, Pommes Pailles (thin juliennes), Pommes Gaufrettes (lacy waffle cut), Pommes Chips (name says it all), Pommes Allumettes (matchsticks), and Pommes Pont-Neuf (thick-cut fries).

Potatoes can be fried uncoated and when fried properly they will form a golden outer crust that will prevent them from absorbing too much oil – for this reason this cooking method is considered a dry-heat method.

There are a few things to remember when deep-frying. Only use a vegetable or peanut oil since these have very high smoke points – never mix oils. The oil should be 3 to 4 inches deep in your pot, consider using a fry basket – it makes removing your fried potatoes much easier. It’s smart to always test the oil with one piece to ensure it is ready for the rest of the batch. Invest in a good thermometer – we will be reaching temperatures up to 370 degrees. Keeping an eye on your oil’s temperature is extremely important – this is where you have the most control. Never crowd the deep-fryer with too many pieces – frying food needs room to dance around. Always, dry off your potatoes of excess water! Water and oil DO NOT mix and will splatter and is very dangerous.

I know you are thinking, too much to remember, why bother? Well, I’m not condoning eating lots of fried foods (yes, I agree they are tasty!), but in this case you are controlling what you are cooking, and how much – which brings me back to the concept of reminding people to think about where their food comes from and who is preparing it.

Back to the fryer – some potatoes may be cooked in a one-step method. This means that the potato will be cooked completely at one temperature – in this case somewhere between 350 – 370 degrees. This cooking method only works for thin-cut potatoes, such as the waffle-cut, matchsticks, and chips.

The second way is called the two-step method where the potatoes are “blanched” in oil at 300 – 320 degrees for 5 to 6 minutes depending on the size to help cook the inside of the potato and should not color your potato. Remove potatoes from oil, drain on paper towels, and boost the heat up to reach 350 degrees but no hotter than 370 degrees and cook the potatoes again. In this second stage the potatoes will get that wonderful crisp golden color and finish cooking. Again, drain on paper towels and season while hot. This method works wonderfully on thin and thick-cut French fries.

We rounded off the class by cooking Pommes Purée (mashed potatoes), Pommes Anna (gorgeous scalloped-shaped potatoes arranged in a circular pattern sauteed in clarified butter), Pommes Darphin (almost like hash browns), and Gratin Dauphinois (decadent, creamy and finished in the oven with lots of gruyère cheese). So many delicious recipes that I am happy to share – at the end of the night, I was carb-loaded, and ready to run a marathon straight to Grand Central Terminal.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Inspiration & Perspiration

After class on my short commute home I think about what I learned that evening, what I could have done better and what I could be proud of – my mind continues to race even as I lay my head down on the pillow. The pace in the school's kitchen is quick and I've adapted to it by prepping as much as I can before class starts, reviewing and writing down my recipes in a small notebook, and referencing other cookbooks for tips on techniques and methodologies prior to class.

Standing at my station, the heat is on literally and figuratively - we are pushed to produce exactly what the Chef demonstrated at the beginning of class and we are working over hot burners and searing flat tops to bring our recipes to life. There are moments in class I catch myself in a Zen-like trance, caught up in the processes and steps I am taking to produce a presentable dish. The Chef will announce, "OK, in 5 minutes I want everyone to bring their finished plate up to me for review." Then everyone really starts to sweat, the clock is ticking, the deadline is looming and it's all about setting priorities and making quick decisions. The moment of review is always nerve-racking and the time leading up to that moment is pure but controlled chaos. As students we are being pushed to produce beautiful tasting and looking food in a set amount of time - as if we were working the line in a restaurant kitchen.

When I reflect and step outside of this frenetic moment I think about what brought me here at this time in my career and my life...and I know the answer intrinsically. My memory floods with thoughts of my mother's Sunday dinners, when I was a wee boy we sat down to eat dinner at 2:00 pm in the afternoon. Growing up, I thought everyone had Sunday dinner at 2pm as if it was the most common tradition. How special those dinners were, roast chicken with an herbed dressing, slow-roasted new potatoes, sweet corn or tender roast beef with creamy mashed potatoes and buttery carrots. My mother's cooking is always inspiring for me, not only does she love to cook, but she imparted her love for food on all my siblings. This love absolutely resonated with me and propels me to do my best in culinary school.

My mantra "Food is Love" is a living tribute and dedication to the way my mother continues to love us, and nurture our spirits with hope, strength and shear will. Mom's food is always made with love and attention she always takes the time to prepare delicious meals, she teaches us about culinary traditions and customary food passed down from her Polish parents. Her excitement from simply discussing what we she will eat for dinner the next day is contagious and without a doubt today she will call me and we will chat on the phone about what I'm cooking or what I made in school the night before. These are memories I cherish - these are my gastronomic roots that I draw upon to fuel my passion, especially in those last few moments in class when the pressure is on to execute a dish with precision, inspiration and yes, even some perspiration.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

As The World Tourner...

The classic French technique for shaping and turning vegetables is called tournage derived from the verb tourner (to turn). Perfectly shaped vegetables create a uniform appearance that allows for even cooking and beautiful presentation. Turned and shaped vegetables have different names depending on their size.

* Bouquetière – 3cm long
* Cocotte – 5 cm long
* Vapeur – 6 cm long
* Château – 7.5 cm long
* Fondant – 8 to 9 cm long

The technique is to trim the washed and peeled vegetable into the appropriate length, then hold it firmly between your thumb and index finger while holding the paring knife with your other hand. Slice off a side with a slightly curved stroke and keep turning the vegetable until all sides are cut and shaped – traditional tournage vegetables have 7 sides.

Zucchini, carrots, turnip, potatoes, parsnips can all be shaped and turned. It’s just hours of fun! You can guess what I’m doing this weekend…besides venturing out to buy a 5 lb. bag of carrots and potatoes you’ll find me standing over a cutting bowl trimming and practicing my tournage. It takes patience and good knife skills to get these vegetables to be the correct sizes.

After a few dozen failed prototypes, I ended up with six that passed my critical eye. Don’t worry – potato and carrot scrapes are collected and saved by FCI to make soups, etc. Nothing goes to waste in a professionally run kitchen.

Next we glacer (glaze) our turned vegetables – place carrots in a small sautoir, add some water to come about half way up the vegetable (cook one type of vegetable at a time). Don’t crowd them – the vegetables should be able to cook in a single layer with some room to circulate. A tsp. of butter, salt and sugar to add in the caramelization process (don’t add sugar to the carrots – they are sweet enough). The vegetables steam and cook in the liquid with a parchment paper lid that is vented. The water evaporates just as the vegetables are about to finish cooking. Glazing with sugar and butter creates a shiny glaze to the finished vegetable. There are three levels of glazing, à blanc, à blond and à brun (no color, a crème-colored effect and a darker brown color).

Careful cutting, shaping and preparing results in beautiful presentation and properly cooked food – meant to be enjoyed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Salades: Simples, Mixtes & Composées

When you think of salad – what comes to mind? Crisp romaine, spicy arugula (a/k/a rocket), bitter radicchio, classic endive, whimsical frisée, micro greens, delicate mâche, crimson red leaf, buttery bibb, peppery watercress, mild spinach, oh yes, let’s not forget staunch, stalwart iceberg too. There are many combinations and varieties of lettuces making for varied combinations to create the perfect salad. By basic definition a salad is any dish of raw or cold, cooked or uncooked foods that is usually dressed and seasoned.

Going into class last evening, I thought, salad, ok that’s easy. What’s there to know? I figured getting the vinaigrette right would be the most challenging task – little did I know how complicated a simple salad could be!

Salads can be classified in three categories:

Simple salads (Salades Simples) – are made with one or a few different lettuces and a basic vinaigrette. We made the vinaigrette, which consisted of vinegar, salt, Dijon mustard to help bind the dressing, black pepper and oil. The ratio to remember is 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. This formula will never let you down.

Mixed salads (Salades Mixtes) is a mixture of several ingredients combined and seasoned together. We prepared a Macédoine de Legumes (cooked vegetable salad) with carrots, turnips, green beans and peas. The vegetables were incorporated with a Mayonnaise that each of us made. Chef demonstrated his way of plating the salad and asked the students to use their imagination and create our own interpretation. The result was a fanciful feast for the eyes, with over 20 salads presented to Chef with whimsy, detail and precision. I’ve included a photo of my own humble creation. Chef picked out 4 to 5 presentations that he liked and critiqued all the plates. Happily, Chef liked the simplicity and composition of my Macédoine de Legumes and I was grateful for another small victory.

Lastly, we have composed salads (Salades Composées) in this category we created a variation of a Salade Niçoise made with canned tuna, new potatoes, string beans, green pepper, tomatoes, niçoise olives, anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, bibb lettuce and some herbs for garnish. A composed salad features several ingredients, seasoned separately and presented together on one plate. The Salade Niçoise was challenging to complete – a lot of work went into creating one plate. From cutting and preparing vegetables, pitting olives, washing/drying lettuce, making vinaigrette, to perfectly cooking the eggs – my station was covered with bowls of ingredients. (Insiders tip: for perfect hard-boiled eggs start with cold water in a pot with the water covering the eggs, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 10 to 11 minutes exactly. Don’t overcook the eggs or they will start to smell sulfurous and get that unattractive green ring around the yolks. Most importantly, when the eggs are pulled from the hot water after they have simmered place them in a bath of ice water to stop the cooking process.) The final plate was presented to Chef for final tasting, approval and critique.

Remember duck confit part deux? Our duck confit came out of the refrigerator; we wiped off the salt/herb mixture that facilitated as the cure to draw out excess moisture from the duck legs. The duck legs went into a large rondeau (round pot with two handles) was covered with rendered duck fat and brought up to a boil then simmered for our dinner. When the duck was finished cooking in the fat, we crisped the skin in a sauté pan then put that in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes to get even more crispy and succulent.

Every night at school we take a half hour break around 8:30 pm to have family meal. Students in the higher levels learn to cook large quantities of food (an important skill to master) and serve the hungry lower level students. Last night, however, our class made our own delicious and simple meal, crispy & moist duck confit and a well-seasoned Salade Mixte – it was comfort food like I’ve never experienced before.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Hollandaise, Béarnaise, Mayonnaise, Beurre Blanc and Sabayon all have one thing in common – besides being delectable they are all emulsions. An emulsion is the stable distribution of microscopic droplets of one liquid in another liquid with which it normally does not mix with the use of an emulsifying agent such as egg yolk.

Warm emulsified emulsions like Sauce Hollandaise and Béarnaise are made by whisking egg yolks and a liquid together in a bowl over a simmering pot of hot water. The sauce is delicate and the heating of the bowl cooks the egg yolks slowly while you whisk them to a thick consistency. At this point the sauce is considered a Sabayon – after you add clarified butter (or another fat) it becomes Hollandaise and Béarnaise depending how you season it.

A cold emulsified sauce basically is created the same way without heating the egg yolks. Here the addition of vinegar provides an acidity to help prevent bacteria. However, Mayonnaise must be chilled properly to ensure it stays uncontaminated.

These classic sauces are delicate and take time to master correctly. Other cold emulsified sauces include Aïoli (a delicious garlicky Mayonnaise), Rémoulade and Rouille.

Chef showed us how to make Gravlax a few classes ago, he showed us how much moisture drained from the salmon from the cure he prepared - the salmon cured for 2 days in the refrigerator. Chef unwrapped the salmon, brushed off the cure and herbs and started to cut very delicate slices. As a treat, we had some freshly baked bread (from the Artisanal Bread Baking class), a slice or two of the Gravlax topped with a spoonful of Sauce Béarnaiseit was heaven – fantastic subtle flavor and the addition of the Béarnaise that I made was so incredibly delicious!

Lastly, duck confit – in two parts. First, the duck legs need to be cured with salt and spices and left to sit in the refrigerator to release moisture. Confit is basically cooking the duck in its rendered fat – that’s part two. Stay tuned!