Saturday, December 27, 2008

Treating Myself to an Classic French Lunch

Today was a cool clear day, just two days before Christmas and three work days into my two week winter vacation. It was the perfect day to treat myself to an authentic French lunch.

You may wonder..."but Mark, aren't you cooking from LCBAH?"..."Well of course, but other than following the recipe, how do I know how authentic my techniques and flavors are if I have never remembered eating a real French meal?"

I have qualified this because I have, in fact, been to Paris, spending 4 days there with a school group the summer I turned 16. I have therefore eaten real French food; however I struggle to remember much of the food experiences from that time with the exception that our restaurant being located above an adult movie theatre. I also seem to remember most in my group really dreading the food that was served, although most didn't like a mushroom crepe, I seem to remember enjoying it. I also remember getting a banana and nutella crepe from a street vendor outside the hotel, and also another vendor selling baquets and the worlds longest hotdogs. From what English he spoke, we could tell he wasn't really fond of Americans.

Paris was an experience for me...a couple of us enjoyed the walk from the Louvre to the Arc de Triumph one day, and I am so glad I happened to go to the Musee D'Orsay as I think that impressionistic art is so amazing in person. I did find the streets to be rather dirty, compared to some of the other places we visited, and I did not feel as safe and secure on Bastille Day (at least in the evening) as I was used to at home.

Twelve years have past since my visit to Paris, and another 10 may be likely to pass before returning. I don't recall in the years since every going to a restaurant or to a home that was specifically serving a French meal. I may totally be mistaken, however we typically seek out Italian and Mexican restaurants as our staples.

Since beginning this project, I have been searching for a French restaurant to enjoy...I found one listed online that had been shut down, and a few others that didn't really cross me as being authentically French. I had heard about another restaurant, and had been checking it out online, finally I had the time to go today.

El Voila! is a small French Restaurant and Catering Service located in a small storefront on a main road in San Luis Obispo. They have 4 lunch services a week and 2 dinner services. The menu changes weekly, or possibly even more frequently than that. When arriving early, I was greated by the server and the Chef himself, finding that I was the first guest to arrive, I selected a seat where I could see most of the open kitchen as well as the rest of the dinning room (at tops 20 tables in all, but I think more like 15).

The Chef let me know that he did not have any printed menus (fine by me, as this would mean I wouldn't have to make any choices other than the recommendations by him) and that he was offering 2 choices for a first course (an Orzo salad and a Corn, Carrot and Ginger Soup). I selected the soup, both on his recommendation as well as the fact that I was happy to have a warm starter on a cool day. Next he let me know that he was preparing a seared duck breast with apples and cranberries as a main course. He said he could tell me some other options, but I knew that would be fantastic! He selected a Pinot Noir to go with the duck, which was served right before the main course. I thanked him for the selections and he was off to begin the meal.

My three course meal began with some bread, water and the Corn, Carrot and Ginger Soup. The soup was very smooth, a soft orange color ( I could have mistaken the color with a butternut squash), drizzled with a slight bit of cream on top. It was very tasty, in which I could distinguish the corn flavor, however the combination of the carrots and ginger were subtle and unique. I thought the soup was a great way to start and I made sure there was nothing left in the bowl when it returned to the kitchen.

As each guest arrived, they were seated by the waitress who took their drink orders and then the Chef came to welcome each guest (about half of which were regulars) and let them know what was on the menu. I enjoyed hearing the other offerings, as he was willing to customize different entrees for those who wished. A regular customer sat close to me and he knew what the couple enjoys, so he made some Beef Tenderloin for the gentleman. 

My main course arrived in a large white plate that was almost like a bowl. It was Seared Duck Breast that was sliced and fanned over a bed of Sautéed Apples, Onions, and Cranberries with a dark rich sauce. There were two potato triangles that were almost like Latkes that added some starch and a little crunch on the outside. The texture of the duck was so tender, and all of the pieces both individually and together were very flavorful. The wine did not overpower the meal, as the meal also didn't overpower the wine, they worked in great balance.

Although the soup and duck were plenty of food and very satisfying, I couldn't leave without dessert. I was served an Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream and a Caramel Sauce. The pastry was light and flaky, while the apples and ice cream were great.

I am glad that I took the opportunity to go for lunch, as I feel that I was able to not only enjoy a good meal, but also learn a few things that will help me along the way. I think the plating of each dish was really important, something I am not terribly good at. This starts with warm plates, something I don't do at home, or at least haven't. It was also something that was mentioned several times in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. Next, it has to be thoughtful in how each item is placed on the dish. This will take some practice and patients, but something I can take with me to work on. The final thing was the soup broth. Even thought the soup was pureed and was orange in color, I could tell that the stock used as the base had been extremely clear. My stocks have not been that clear, and I could tell the broth had been created with great care. I am running low on stock at the moment, so hope to improve my stocks, as I know how much they make a difference in the final product.

I really enjoyed my meal, and am hoping to return again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Great Read!


I was downtown over the weekend with about an hour to spend hanging out. I did what I most frequently do, go to the bookstore and seek out the cookbook section. I like to explore what is there and enjoy relaxing in a chair next to the large windows reading. This past weekend I picked up The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry after having received a positive and encouraging comment from the author Kathleen Flinn.

Several places on the front and back cover promote the love story aspect of the book, and although not normally the genre of book I enjoy reading, I found myself several chapters in when I needed to leave. Because I was already captivated by the story, and because I have plenty of time to read during my breaks from teaching, I left the bookstore book in hand (yes I paid for it first).

After a few quick days of reading I found myself connecting very strongly, not with the romance of Kathleen and Mike, Paris, or Le Cordon Bleu, but instead with the constant messages of life-long learning.

For me Le Cordon Bleu at my Home has been my way of learning to be a better at home cook, and as you hopefully have noticed, I have been learning a lot more than just how to cook. I have been forced to explore more deeply the area in which I grew up, finding new places to buy the freshest food and necessary ingredients. I have been able to meet some local experts who have helped me immensely, and who I hope will continue to help as I move forward. I have been learning about problem solving, French food, and have been enjoying trying new things that I enjoy sharing with others. I have also done a lot of reading online, and feel I have learned a lot and will continue to learn a lot through blogging, emailing and connecting with others through the Internet.

This was my connection to Kathleen and her experiences: from taking a huge risk in life to succeeding at Le Cordon Bleu; from a childhood dream to reality; from Julia Child’s comments about learning to seeing them play out in life; from great success to failures along the way; a new culture, new language, new friends, harsh criticism, and figuring out just how to make puff pastry. All of these learning experiences are not an end, but instead part of continued life experiences.

Now I don’t want to downplay Mike in all of this, and not because he is the key figure in the love story…Mike I am sure there are plenty of readers who have connected quite well with you and the fact that you left your job and house in Seattle to move to Paris, your proposal of marriage, sampling her cooking over and over when all you want is pizza, planning the wedding, and returning to Paris so quickly after your accident (I am sure I forgot a few things in there as well)…all of this playing up the romance of everything. Instead, I was most impressed with how he encouraged such risk taking in support of a dream, while at the same time creating a safe and supportive environment for Kathleen. It is one thing to take a risk, whether it is in life or in learning something new, but also having a system in place that allows you the support you need, is often the only path to success.

I am hopeful that Julia’s encouraging words that you can/should never stop learning is forever ingrained in Kathleen’s life as well as my own, a message that I hope my students will take with them as well.

Thanks Kathleen for the great read and words of encouragement!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lesson 4: Lessons Learned


Here is my own picture of the Pineapple Sorbet

The lessons from menu 4 are Crepes and Sugar Syrup, or rather I should qualify that these are the two NEW lessons. Skills learned through previous lessons in Roasting, Deglazing and Roux and Flour-Bound Sauces were also needed.

This illustrates clearly how the progression of skills from one lesson to the next is really critical. Having practiced making Bechamel for the Oeufs a la Tripe I was better prepared for what to expect, as well as more experienced and therefore much more comfortable with whipping up the Bechamel sauce for the Gratin de Blettes.

I appreciate this progression as a teaching and learning tool, as well as confirmation of one of my reasons for choosing Le Cordon Bleu AT HOME. I do have a bit of concern that making each dish in order will be a challenge when selecting fresh ingredients, of which I have not had too much difficulty up to this point. However, I am going to go to check out the current fish selection today in order to do a little reconnaissance for Lesson 5 and Lesson 6. I am worried about the timing of these two dishes, as they both contain seafood, of which scallops and mussels would be best fresh. My guess is that scallops could be found frozen, however not ideal I am sure, and mussels will only be available if fresh. I hope that the timing will work out just fine, but I have no idea. As for other fresh ingredients, I feel fortunate to live in an area with a very moderate climate year-round, as well as a place fairly rich with agriculture. Therefore I can usually find most of the vegetables and other related items (with the exception of pearl onions when I need them) pretty easily.

Maybe I should get back to the main event...lessons learned through menu 4!?!

Crepes--As explained in the lesson, crepes can be "served hot or cold, rolled into cylinders, folded into triangle shapes, or even stacked one on top of another" (23). I followed the directions, making the batter, which by the way is very simple, and letting it rest. I used an old crepe cooking contraption my mother let me borrow that consisted of a round electric heating element and a pan that you place upside down on top of the heater. You are supposed to heat the pan up and then dip the bottom of the pan into the batter, flipping the pan upside down back onto the heater to cook. This definitely helped keeps the crepes very thin, and was much easier than using an omelet pan. The ones I cooked in the omelet pan were much thicker. The crepes were easy to roll up and I had great results with the dish. Overall, something I found pretty easy, although I would buy two crepe pans (as instructed) for next time as well as give myself more time to cook the crepes.

Sugar Syrups--Another lesson that I thought was pretty straight forward and easy, requiring some patients to allow the liquid to heat up on low heat so that all sugar is dissolved prior to boiling. Nothing to exciting here, until the simple syrup was combined with the pinneapple and frozen in the ice cream maker...then...magic!

As for the other lessons, roasting the leg of lamb will take some additional practice to get the proper doneness all dialed in (although who knows the next time I will buy a leg of lamb and roast it again?), but deglazing the pan with water was a breeze and produced my favorite sauce so far!

I am not so sure that I learned it through this lesson, but I confirmed that entertaining is definitely more complicated than cooking for family at home. I do enjoy entertaining, as I enjoy sharing good food with others at least as much, or even more, as I enjoy eating good food myself. Having extra people around was helpful as I used the extra helping hands around the kitchen to help with grating cheese and making crepes, both required more time than I had budgeted.

All in all, I have to say again that this was my favorite meal so far. I am sure glad to have the confidence from making all of these dishes pretty much failure free the first time around so as not to embarrass myself too badly in front of my guests.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lesson 4: Cooking and Eating



Entertaining adds an element of complexity to any meal.

Adding to the complexity of entertaing was also trying to ensure that there was enough food for 12 people. Each menu serves 6, therefore I tried to double each recipe. My math wasn't so hot on doubling the recipe for the Swiss Chard Gratin, however, being such a rich dish, there was plenty for everyone.

My wife brought a dose of reality to the situation as well, with her comment (more of a rhetorical question) "Why are you trying to cook a meal you have never practiced for a group of people you like? What if you mess up?" I think I addressed this briefly in my first post about Lesson 4, but I was also a bit nervous and knew there was great risk involved. The group, I felt confident enough, would be understanding, and I could probably find enough other stuff to feed them around the house if total dissaster struck. I didn't have a solid plan B, but I didn't need one!

This doesn't mean there wasn't panic, dissorganization, or concern along the way. My highest level of panic set in right before people started showing up--I was alone, there were tons of things I was attempting to do all at once, and I hadn't extended the table, nor collected enough chairs for everyone. I think the biggest problem, in addition to not setting up the table before hand, was that this menu had so many steps compared to past menus. These included steps that took a great deal of time, so planning the order to do everything was crucial.

I began about 3:30pm after arriving home early from work. The first thing was to set the second batch of sorbet to mix again so that it would have enough time to freeze before dessert time. I had to refreeze the second batch because I had miscalculated the fact that the freezer bowl needed to be refrozen between batches of ice cream.  For some reason I thought I could make two batches back to back on Thursday night, however finding out that the bowl wasn't cold enough, I was left with one batch of incredibly great sorbet and one batch of sugary liquid that froze much like italian ice.  This second batch I thawed on Friday and remixed in the ice cream mixer to find that it was extra light, overflowing the container, and had a much better texture than the first batch, made according to the recipe. So what turned out to be a mistake made out as a big success! Comparing the two textures, I think the concensous was that the twice mixed batch was in fact the best.

After doing the dessert I worked on the crepes, both soaking the salmon in milk (2 hours needed) and making the crepe batter to rest for at least 30 minutes. 


Mushrooms for Swiss Chard Gratin

The swiss chard had to be separated, the leaves blanched, the stalks peeled and boiled, mushrooms sauted, and bachamel sauce made.  As I was working on the bachamel sauce, I was running around like crazy.  The bachamel needed to be watched closely, at the same time that I needed to finish the lamb and get it in the oven. 


Prepping the Lamb

This was the time that I started to get freaked out a bit about setting up the table and being ready for the guests. I solved the issue by getting the table done, finished the lamb to get it into the oven, and then breathing a sigh of relief, all was a bit calmer when people began arriving.


Leg of Lamb Almost Ready to Cook

My first guests were friends that took all of the pictures on today's blog. They were supposed to show me how to better use my point and shoot camera, and were able to give me a few clues about places for lighting. I didn't really have all that much time to have them show me how to use any settings or give other suggestions. Instead, they took some great pictures as I worked, and I put them to work grating the cheese and I did have them help with the crepes as an extra hand was definitely needed to get those done in a timely fashion. In return for the great pictures I fed them a great meal, but they wanted some free publicity as well...so if you like the pictures on the blog today, visit applemoon photography.

As more people arrived I started the crepes and discovered that two pans were needed and an extra set of hands helped as well. Once the crepes were cooked it was easy to roll them up with the salmon, top them with creme fraiche, broil them and serve them hot. We stood around the kitchen to eat these as appetizers, which allowed me to be part of the festivities while still getting everything together for dinner.


Crepes With Just the Right amount of Creme Fraiche

Part of the timing for this recipe worked out in that the swiss chard gratin went into the oven when the lamb came out. In 15-20 minutes it came out extra gooey. At the same time I was making the pan sauce for the lamb. All that was needed was water to deglaze the roasting pan...I could tell immediately that this was going to be an amazing sauce (and much easier than using a liaison to thinking the veal sauce or to make gravy!)!


Cheesy top to the Swiss Chard Gratin

I used my instructions to carve the lamb, finding that it was cooked not very consistently throughout. This could be a bad thing if I had wanted it rare, like the instructions said, and that is the way that I would personally eat it; however, with so many people eating it was a really great to have everything from rare to well done. This allowed each person to select their favorite piece based upon size, shape and doneness.


Leg of Lamb Ready to Come Out of the Oven!

Everything was ready, plates were filled with some lamb, swiss chard gratin and everyone tried the vegetarine tarrine that I made as well. Leftover crepes were added to the plates by those who wanted, and all of the drinks were filled.


Finished Lamb

After the main course, I served everyone the pineapple sorbet, and then a second serving just to be sure eveyrone didn't go hungry.


Pineapple Sorbet (a little whip cream on the first one for added fun)

Here is what was said about the meal: Mindy said, "the salmon crepes were great, wish I could eat more." Michael thought the meal was "the bomb diggety". Nate said, "the swiss chard was creamy amazement," while his wife Beth said, "yummy, crepes were good too." Carlos said "the crepes were good with the perfect touch of sour cream." Robyn, "everything good, the tarrine had a good meaty texture", and Maria said, "the swiss chard was great!"


More Yummy Crepes!

I think this menu was my overall favorite. I was particularly impressed with the sauce for the lamb and extatic about the sorbet. I loved the fruit flavor, the amazing soft texture, and how easy it was to make it at home. The cost to buy the mixer part for this was worth every penny, even if I never make another batch of sorbet or ice cream again. I think the crepes were a crowd pleasure, and the swiss chard dish was so rich, creamy and cheesy, how can you not like it!?!

Overall the best menu that I have made so far!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lesson 4: Shopping



My percieved lack of planning, didn't play out as complacently as I had originally thought.  I had scoped out the butcher shop and ordered the lamb more than a week in advance...way more time than was necessary.  I also made lists of where I planned to buy everything and thought again about my plan.

The plan included finding a vegetarian option, as I selected a recipe for Vegetarian Terrine from Easy French Food, thanks Kim.  I also visited the Farmer's Market outside of my work, where I was able to find the chard and some onions.

This is the first time I personally have purchased Swiss Chard and I had a nice large bunch that I sampled raw with a few of my students. Most students that were around at the time didn't know what it was, so an experience with it produced mixed reactions.  The consensus was that the leaves tasted a bit like spinach. Here's what it looked like:

I planned to make the sorbet and terrine on Thursday night, giving each enough time to chill for dinner on Friday.

My shopping ended up pretty simply, picking up everything I needed just a few items at a time per my plan and list.  I am not usually a list kind of person, but the practice of list making is incredibly valuable for shopping for my menus...maybe it would be a good life skill to be practicing outside of the kitchen as well!?!

Although simple, the shopping was not uneventful in a very positive way.  I have to say how great it is to be able to approach experts who are willing to help out in every way possible. I really want to extend a thank you to Mike at the Arroyo Grande Meat Company who took the time to answer all of my questions about the leg of lamb. He brought out the other half of the leg, walked me through how to cut the meat for serving, talked a bit about cooking times and showed me what the fell, the thin parchment-like out skin, looks like. He also pointed out where a fatty gland would be found, and made sure I knew to remove this before serving.

So here is the leg of lamb, fell and excess fat removed.  What an amazing piece of meat!


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lesson 4: Menu


My new ice cream maker-attachment for the Kitchen Aid mixer

I have waited on Lesson 4 so that I can make it while entertaining and enjoying an evening with my coworkers and their spouses.  The wife of a coworker selected this menu (probably because of the salmon crepes) after they found out I started this project.  It is also a menu that I assumed would be affordable enough to make for a larger party of 12; veal didn't fit the bill.

The menu contains something for everyone: a starter of crepes that sounds fantastic, a really great main dish, a rich side dish, and a dessert that most should enjoy.  Here it is in all its glory from pg. 22:
 

 

Lesson 4

 

 

Crepes au Saumon Fume

SMOKED SALMON CREPES

___

Gigot d'Agneau

ROAST LEG OF LAMB

___

Gratin de Blettes

SWISS CHARD GRATIN

___

Ananas Givre

PINEAPPLE SORBET


Even though I have known for quite some time when I will be making this meal, and have read and reread, and read again the entire menu, directions, ingredients, etc. I really have spent little time planning where I will buy the ingredients or even gotten so far as to make a list. I guess I feel like I can find everything with ease and will have no problem just making it all happen. However as I write this, it scares me to think that a failure on this menu will bring an element of public humiliation my way. Although I was told by one of the guests that if I messed something up they would chalk it up to a learning experience and I could always try again, I think it could also ruin a perfectly good night to hang around with a good group of people.

I guess the nerves should be telling me to get on with the preparation, make a list, scope out the good stuff and where I will buy it, and of course plan my order of attack...that would be much better than being complacent or arrogant in any way about my limited cooking skills and what I have learned from only 3 short lessons.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lessons Learned: Thanksgiving



The family is gone now, the dishes cleaned, the oven still a bit dirty, and leftovers are ready to make paninis or whatever other leftover goodies you could imagine!

I felt like this year was a bit anti-climactic, as I was hoping everything would be perfect, or rather that every year I could see a noticeable improvement in my cooking.  This year, even after having practiced much of the cooking techniques, I felt that some of the food was rather hit or miss.  Below I will review, using the four things I have been learning through LCB as a reference:

1. Roasting--I am going to roast the turkey, as I always do, however I hope the practice will continue to improve the end results. The turkey was pretty darn big (26lbs) and barely fit in the oven.  Because of this, it was very easy for parts of it to dry out as it was cooking.  The flavor was excellent, I think one of the best I have cooked, however I have done a better job in the past with a better cooked turkey.  It is pretty obvious that the way you carve also has a big impact.  My grandfather usually carves the turkey (and I found out this was so he has an excuse to not make gravy).  He sliced one side of the breast really thin, like a traditional way, then he and I worked together to carve the second breast in one piece.  He liked how easy that was, and I liked seeing how much better the breast meat held its moisture and didn't fall apart.

2. I am going to cook the dish Petits Pois a la Francaise--SPRING PEAS WITH LETTUCE, CHERVIL, AND ONIONS from Lesson 1. I think this will make an excellent dish to go with the Thanksgiving meal. I will not bother with pearl onions because I liked my white onion substitute and know they are easy to find and easy to work with. I overestimated the amount of peas, as I pretty much doubled the recipe and then overcooked the peas because there was so much going on. The peas tasted fine, just a bit overdone.  I still like this recipe a lot and will make it again.

3. I will be making stock use with a recipe I created for roasted butternut squash soup that I called "Thanksgiving Butternut Squash Soup". Last year I used chicken stock, but I may make vegetable stock so that I can have the flexibility to make it vegetarian if desired.  I made stock for everything, and am sure glad I did!  I didn't make the soup, as we had more than enough food and would have had way too much, as this soup could double as a meal on any normal eating day.

4. Successfully use a liaison to thicken a sauce--gravy. I tried to use corn starch as the liaison to thicken the gravy, and it had an interesting result. My grandmothers all use flour, and I worried it would get too lumpy. Their experience, however, is something that I am lacking, but will earn/learn with age. We had quite a discussion, and they let me sink or swim with the corn starch. If you have never used corn starch with kids to make Ooblek...corn starch and water that has properties of a liquid when no pressure is applied, but properties of a solid when pressure is applied...I'd recommend trying it out...it's lots of fun, and I think helps me think of the end results of the gravy.  I used the corn starch and water slury a little at a time.  What was interesting to me is that when added to the broth, the broth became cloudy, milky white, but once cooked for a bit, the gravy returned to its original color. This is the first difference that I found between using corn starch and flour. The second was the final consistency, as  I wasn't sure how much corn starch to use, I had to add a bit at a time until it was thickened. As it was thinkening, I could tell the consistency had a sort of gelatinous feel/look to it. This was clear when my dad took a bite of his mashed potatoes and the gravy just stayed in the middle without flowing out. The consistency was therefore a bit think, and a little jelly-like, but had a nice light color to it. More practice, much more practice needed.

I didn't really take pictures, mostly because I didn't take the time to do so, but also because my mom usually has her big camera out.  For some reason she didn't have her camera shooting pictures, so I don't have that much to share this time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lesson Thanksgiving: The Menu


Thanksgiving Butternut Squash--My practice run for this year

I want to write about Thanksgiving because I feel it fits perfectly with my goals of cooking Le Cordon Bleu AT HOME. As mentioned going in to it, French food wasn't the primary draw. Instead the draw being learning the best techniques to apply to all my other cooking, although I am feeling a slow conversion and growing aversion to French food and cooking.

For Thanksgiving I am hoping to use the following things that I have learned from LCB to improve the meal I serve for my family:

1. Roasting--I am going to roast the turkey, as I always do, however I hope the practice will continue to improve the end results.
2. I am going to cook the dish Petits Pois a la Francaise--SPRING PEAS WITH LETTUCE, CHERVIL, AND ONIONS from Lesson 1. I think this will make an excellent dish to go with the Thanksgiving meal. I will not bother with pearl onions because I liked my white onion substitute and know they are easy to find and easy to work with.
3. I will be making stock use with a recipe I created for roasted butternut squash soup that I called "Thanksgiving Butternut Squash Soup". Last year I used chicken stock, but I may make vegetable stock so that I can have the flexibility to make it vegetarian if desired.
4. Successfully use a liaison to thicken a sauce--gravy.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the food, I LOVE IT! I also really enjoy the entertaining and the family. I began hosting Thanksgiving meals about 8 years ago in college because I forgot to bring leftovers back from home. I had a friend who worked at a grocery store pick up a turkey for really cheap and had everyone bring over dishes that they prepared. We filled our living room with tables and had a great time (word is one of my roommates met his wife at one of these meals).

The first Thanksgiving after my wife and I bought our house, we hosted our families for Thanksgiving. This was in part to make it so we only had to travel for Christmas rather than for both Christmas and Thanksgiving, and so that we could have extra help with fixing up our house (having 15 extra hands to clean up the yard, paint doors, and repair many items was a huge help).

Now that we have moved to be close to our family, we have been hosting Thanksgiving so that I can continue to cook and because we have a place that is big enough for everyone to get together.

Our menus usually have similarities, however we try to add something new or different each year, with varying degrees of success. Two of my students are taking French class at the local community college, so I asked them to translate my meal into French, to go on blog.  In fact, I also found the Nov. 12 post at Easy French Food to be helpful as well.  Here is the menu that I think we will be cooking this year:

 

Lesson Thankgiving

 

 

SOUPE DE LA COURGE AU JOUR D'ACTION DE GRACE
Thanksgiving Butternut Squash Soup

___

PATATES DOUCE AU LARD GRAS "CHEZ GRAND-MERE"
Grandma's Sweet Potatoes with Bacon Fat

___

DINDE ROTE AUX HERBES AROMATIQUES
Roasted Turkey with Herbs

 ___

FARCE AUZ SAUCISSES ET CHAMPIGNONS
Sausage and Mushroom Stuffing

___

SAUCE AUX CANNEBERGES

Cranberry Sauce

___

SAUCE DE LA VINADE
Gravy

___

LES PETITES PAINS
Rolls

___

TARTE AUX POMMES MAISON
Homemade Apple Pie


My own thoughts and notes go a little like this: I like to stuff the turkey (I have read much of the don'ts on this one but love the moisture and flavor) and cook some separately as well. Grandma's Sweet Potatoes-I don't know exactly what she does to them, but I like the flavor...not overly sweet. She slices them diagonally and there is word that she fries them in bacon fat that she collects all year. These are served warm or cold and are a great topping for leftover turkey sandwiches or paninis. Pie-homemade apple pie, pumpkin and mince meat pie. We usually buy the last two, and my wife and I took over making the apple pie last year from one of my grandmothers. We are improving in our pie making and will probably be doing more baking this year than in the past. Apple pies turned out well last year, as I think we made about 8 apple pies between Thanksgiving and Christmas for three of use to eat. This year I hope to try pumpkin pie (although I had a previous bad experience with pumpkin so am not really a huge fan of the flavor). Can't forget the cranberry sauce and gravy!

I want to post again about Thanksgiving and my use of the things that I have learned from the first three lessons. In addition, I am not planning to cook Lesson 4 until the week after Thanksgiving. I am planning to host my coworkers who selected Lesson 4 as a meal they would eat, and we can't get together until then because of our schedules.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lesson 3: Lessons Learned

There are two lessons to be learned through the menu for Lesson 3: Roux and Flour-Bound Sauces, and Liaisons. I can confirm, as stated in the last post, that I had my first failure.

First the positive. Roux and Flour-Bound Sauces were used during this meal to create the bechamel sauce for the Gratin of Hard-Boiled Eggs. I felt successful completing this, taking care to whisk so that the sauce would not burn to the pan. It surprises me that the sauce turns out with a sweet flavor at the end.

Now for the big failure. As you have read from the previous post, my first attempt at using a liaison to thicken a sauce resulted in a thin sauce with chunks of floating egg whites. I know exactly what I did wrong, and it mostly had to do with being lazy. Instead of scooping out a little warm sauce to pour in the bowl with the egg whites, I instead used the bowl with the egg whites to scoop up a little warm sauce. By doing this, I didn't get enough sauce to actually warm up the egg whites enough so they wouldn't boil when I poured them into the pan.

I have to admit, that this failure has increased my concern over my ability to learn to thicken sauce using a liaison. My concerns are magnified by both the importance of sauces in French cooking and the fast approaching Thanksgiving holiday. The first being that I understand the importance of sauces to French cooking. The veal was great on its own, but it could have been spectacular with the sauce. The second being Thanksgiving, a day I have hosted and cooked for my family for the past few years, and for two years before that in my college apartment for my roommates and friends. At each Thanksgiving I have yet to make gravy, this being the my most notable use of using a liaison to thicken a sauce. I typically leave this to my grandmother or mother who both use corn starch as the liaison. The last two years I have been trying to observe and learn, but mostly just watched from afar. Knowing that I have failed with the egg yoke, this year I feel more determined to attempt the same technique to make gravy, hopefully learning more for the next time I will need to thicken a sauce.

In addition to the lessons outline in the book, I was also able to learn to hard-boil eggs properly, and enjoyed picking up the Les Halles cookbook to read some more. I think Bourdain does a good job of teaching his way through the recipes in that book as well. When the eggs are properly hard-boiled, they spin way better than hard-boiled eggs that are overcooked...it's kind of fun to see them spin like a top!

My final thought is that I have been amazed at the desserts, with the exception of the caramel custard, the desserts have been the highlight. The Chocolate Mousse was easy to make and a real wife pleaser!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lesson 3: Cooking and Eating

One thing that I have enjoyed about the recipes in the book is that they seem to be set-up to really work from one course to the next without having to do too many things at one time.  I don't know the techniqual cooking term, but if I were to create 3 menus, each 3 courses, I wouldn't be as successful at making them work together so well for the cook.

Like Lesson 2, Lesson 3 allowed course 1 to be made, then a short finishing step or two for the second course could be done while we talked and others sat around watching in the kitchen. Then a short break to complete the dessert, allowed for time to clean most of the dishes.  I like this, and will try to plan my Thanksgiving meal and other meals I plan in the future to reflect this time progression.

Going back a step, to the beginning of cooking, I made the mousse on Saturday morning.  I knew this would be okay because the recipe said that the mousse would be good to make up to two days before, and that making it early would actually make it better.  I love whipping egg whites to a stiff peak, as I am always amazed at their increase in size.  I also like the folding the chocolate into the egg white. This was a great opportunity to use water goblets that my wife is so proud about having (although we rarely use them).  I poured the chocolate into the goblets...see my picture (it is one I like).



Sunday came and I began prepping at 3:45, knowing that the veal would take about 2 hourse to cook.  I had thawed the thick veal shanks for two days, and when removing them from the fridge, there was a lot of liquid that filled the plate. I boiled the veal for 15 minutes, strained the liquid, made a roux in a large pan, added the veal and covered to cook. I also peeled the onions, and cooked the mushrooms.

Next came hardboiling the eggs. This is something that I have changed the way I prepare because of this book and the Les Halles cookbook. Previously I had been taught to hard boil eggs by placing eggs in a pan, covering them with water, bringing the water to a boil and boiling them for 20 min. Les Halles instructs "HOW TO HARD BOIL A FREAKING EGG" on pg. 69 to place the eggs in cold water, bring to a boil, cover, turn off heat and remove from the water after 10min to a cool in a water bath. Le Cordon Blue AT HOMEdirections say to boil water (with salt if desired) and then add the eggs and boil for 10 min. Then remove to a water bath.

To me, two things come to mind about the differences in each cooking directions: 1. My previous cooking obviously boiled the shit out of the eggs and 2. The French directions made me think the eggs wouldn't be cook. I followed the directions for Le Cordon Bleu and found the shells to come off very easily and no crazy grey yokes on the eggs. I knew for sure the eggs were great, when a few days later I tested the extra eggs to see if they were hard boiled...I spun one on the counter and it kept spinning like a crazy gyroscope or top...it just wouldn't stop!

The eggs needed a Bechamel Sauce, which I made and then left on a double boiler until ready. I didn't find this to be challenging, and I was very careful to make sure I didn't burn the bottom of the pan and ruin the sauce. When it was time, just before the veal was ready, I sliced the eggs, placed in a pan and covered with the sauce. Broiling this made everything brown and crispy on top, resulting in a surprisingly sweet, soft and tasty egg dish. Very rich, however some went for seconds.

Back to the veal, I added the onions to cook for another 30min before adding the mushrooms and then attempting to learn the lesson of using egg whites as a liaison. I thought I understood the process and what was to happen with the egg and sauce to make it perfect. I removed the veal and vegetables, leaving just the sauce; whipped the egg whites, and attempted to temper the eggs before pouring them all into the sauce. I did this by scooping up some of the liquid into the boil, mixed and then poured it into the pan. As soon as I did this, I knew I had failed...truly failed for the first time!

What resulted? Thin sauce...extra thin and runny sauce...with floating scrambled egg yokes that made white, floating chunks. This disappointed me, however everyone else eating with us brushed it off and enjoyed the veal without the sauce.

Without the sauce the veal really needed salt, however the vegetables were tender and perfect. The veal fell off the bone, which had some great marrow inside that I enjoyed digging out and eating...awfully tasty.



My wife wasn't convinced to try the veal, but she did approve of the egg dish (which I probably won't have a need or desire to make again). She of course was excited about desert...just look at the picture...do I need to say more?



Overall...I enjoyed cooking and eating veal, and the egg dish went well with this menu, but the winning of best in show for this menu had to be the dessert! I failed on one account, it was not the mousse.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lesson 3: Shopping

Shopping for Lesson 1, I mentioned that I went to shop at a store that many people are crazy about...a health food chain store.  I have never felt successful there, maybe finding a few things from time to time, but never finding items that I was specifically looking for.

Oh how things change...I finally found items that I needed, at a good price, all of which were organic items! I haven't yet made a huge push to only buy organic products, instead I try to buy fresh and when possibly from local sources. This would put the farmer's market, and the barn that I shop at, higher on the priority list than the health food chain store...however I was excited to finally feel successful there, realizing what others rave so much about.

So what did I find there?  Pretty much everything that I really needed...PEARL ONIONS (yes they had fresh pearl onions), heavy cream, mushrooms, fresh herbs, and some really great chocolate (this is why I initially went there, knowing that they would have chocolate). I was also able to do some other shopping, including milk at a great price and a few other items. Overall, really successful!

I didn't really need much this time, as I had the veal and many staples that you keep around...I stocked up on butter the last time I was at the store.  

Ready to cook.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Lesson 3: Menu

Here are the menu and my initial thoughts for Lesson 3 from page 16:

 

Lesson 3

 

 

Oeufs a la Tripe

GRATIN OF HARD-BOILED EGGS

___

Rouelles de Veau Bourgeoise

VEAL SHANKS WITH PEARL ONIONS AND MUSHROOMS

___

Mousse au Chocolat aux Noisettes et au Whisky

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE WITH HAZELNUTS AND WHISKY

 


Looking at the menu, I am excited to again cook veal; knowing that I had already purchased the veal shanks and successfully overcome my fear of messing it up in Lesson 2.  

I am sceptical about the Gratin of Hard-Boiled Eggs.  My first thought is that it will be bland and flavorless, too much egg and not much else.  The great thing is that you never know until you try something whether you like it or not. This could be a recipe that far exceeds my expectations...I am not so sure though.

My wife made it clear that she was not going to have anything to do with the veal...she didn't like the veal scallops in Lesson 2, she doesn't like the idea of where the meat comes from, and she doesn't like any meat that has a bone...definitely not a Nose to Tail kind of eater.

She isn't going to eat the veal, but I knew for sure that she would be eating all of the Chocolate Mousse that I could make. She is looking forward to this part of the meal.

Looking forward to Lesson 3!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Lesson 2: Lessons Learned

The four lessons to be learned (or rather practiced, as I think learned means some level of mastery and I am sure not there with most of these) are stocks, sautéing and deglazing (two separate techniques, but they are listed together on pg. 13), and cooking in a water bath.

Working my way through each one, I made the stock after Lesson 1 with the leftover chicken carcass, and used half the stock for this lesson and half for another soup.  Excellent stock, a technique that I have used before, and if I can keep others in my house from getting upset with using up freezer space and/or not enjoying the house smelling during the stock making process, I should be able to continue to make my own stock.

Sautéing and deglazing are listed together, however are two different techniques...one followed the other in this case.  My honest opinion is that the doneness of the sautéed veal was totally lucky, and not based upon any proficiencies on my part of knowing the right temperature, time and techniques of sautéing. More practice will help.

Deglazing with alcohol though, now that's something that gets the crowd going!  My wife knew exactly what was going on when I went for the bbq lighter, a single match just wouldn't do...plus the lighter is much longer, therefore I would argue safer.  When deglazing next time, I will for sure make sure the alcohol is all over the pan before lighting it.  I had a large pan, one I bought a few years back for cooking the thanksgiving vegetables for stuffing, and the I didn't get the brandy all over before the fire hit.

Cooking in a water bath (I like the words bain marie) seems simple enough...pan with not quite boiling water is placed in the oven with the charlotte pan for the custard is inside.  Making sure the custard cooks in an even, low and moist heat.  I am sure this helped the custard, which turned out fine...just took longer than expected, which I attribute to not knowing exactly what to expect. Now I know, or at least think I have a better idea.

Again, I still feel I have learned a lot from the process, and not necessarily from the stated learning objectives.  The most notable is the fact that I am so glad I have been posting everything to a blog. I feel there are so many unexpected learning opportunities by sharing with others.  Two are notable that I would like to share:

1. I had a nice email conversation with Kim at Easy French Food.  She first suggested looking at her info on Calvados, where I found plenty of great stuff to read as I move forward.  This led us to talking about where to find ingredients. As she said, "I think one of the most important things in cooking is to always use the freshest best quality ingredients you can find and afford.  If that means changing the recipe, so be it." I agree with the her statement, and am trying to find the freshest ingredients in my local area. It also confirms the fact that I used in the first lesson to use white onions instead of pearl onions (just wait for Lesson 3...I found some fresh pearl onions!)

2. Also the comment by the Mediocre Cook regarding plating, leaves me to wanting to learn more about taking good food photos.  I like checking out his food because I envy his pictures (they definitely make him look like much more than a mediocre cook).  I checked to see if he has done any posts about taking the best pictures, but I only find his bio of enjoying food photography.  Maybe he will post or email some suggestions on taking the best photos, that way I can learn to take pictures that do justice to my cooking (my wife said my plating, in person, far exceeded the picture I posted). 

I am glad that I have been posting, reading and sharing ideas, as this has been a great part of the learning process.  Thanks to those who are reading, and I appreciate the comments and help along the way!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lesson 2: Cooking and Eating

My first experience with cooking veal went well, with the overall menu getting mixed reviews.  

Veal is the part of this meal that keeps sticking out of this menu, however everyone who ate this menu had something different that they liked...some really liked the soup, others really liked the veal and another liked the caramel the best.  

Let me take you through the cooking and explain how it all went.

The morning started by going to the local farmer's market to pick up the leeks which I didn't find the day before. Once returning, I set off to make the Caramel Custard so that it would have sufficient time to cool. Here is everything ready to go:



I made the caramel and tried my best to coat the charlotte pan, bottom and sides, however having stopped the cooking with cold water, the caramel solidifies extremely quickly. I then made the custard and put it in a water bath to cook.

Cooking time called for 40-50 minutes, until a knife comes out clean. It took 60 minutes and I was still unsure that it was cooked enough...just notice the knife marks in the top.



I left this all day to cool and did all of the normal weekend chores, getting back to cooking after 4pm.

I felt this menu was very manageable, in terms of not having to multitask; instead each item was given enough time to prep and cook without much interference or need to juggle when to do what.

The vegetable soup...cut and blanch the cabbage, cook the cabbage, cut the leeks, cook the leeks, combine everything with the stock I made with the leftovers from Lesson 1, and let simmer for 40 minutes.  

Here's what it looked like in the pot:



Next I prepped the apples, and cut up the mushrooms, prepared the mushrooms and creme fraiche, setting it aside until later.

The dinner guests arrived, this time my parents, sister and her husband joined us for the evening.  When they arrived, I put the pasta in the soup and we chatted for a few minutes before enjoying our first course.

The soup was flavorful and quite hearty, even with just 4 ingredients...cabage, leeks, stock and pasta.  This would make a great fall/winter soup, something for a cold day.  It is also easy to make, although I do need to work on the proper portions for pasta in soup, because within a short time of serving up the first round, my soups tend to turn to some sort of pasta casserole when the pasta soaks up all of the liquid.

After eating the soup, I turned to cooking the veal.  Because it cooks so fast, needs to be served warm, and our kitchen has a place for guests to be close, I was able to both enjoy the cooking and the company.

I was unsure of how long to cook the veal, and was pleased when it wasn't overcooked.  The sauce of mushrooms, creme fraiche, shallots, and brandy to deglaze the frying pan, was a big hit and the amount of sauce did not totally overwhelm the veal.  Along with the veal were baked golden delicious apples, which were supposed to coordinate with the Calvados (apple brandy), however I just used regular brandy. The comments from my family were that the apples were best enjoyed separate, as they seemed to overwhelm the veal, while the mushroom sauce seemed to bring out the flavor of the meat very well.

After seeing this picture, I think I will put plating on my list of things to improve.



Dishes were cleaned with a little time to allow everyone to make room for dessert...

I saved the picture of this for last because I like the action photo...here it is...the Carmel Custard with a stream of caramel pouring on top...can't waste the best part!



The caramel was excellent; however I thought the custard tasted very eggy.  My mom loves custard and couldn't get enough.  I pictured this being a light dessert to end on, which would have been nice at the end of this meal.  I personally found it to be very rich and didn't eat too much of it...maybe that is what helps with portion control!?!

Overall...excellent way to introduce myself to cooking veal, which I would definitely want to cook again, just not very often, or I might need a second job.  Mixed reviews on the menu, so look to the next post on what I learned to see what I will try again and what I need to work on.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lesson 2: Shopping

So it has been more than a week since my last post, during which time I have been trying to sort out a few of the things needed for Lesson 2:

1. It's always good to read ahead, so knowing that I needed chicken stock for this menu, and having a perfectly good chicken carcass from Lesson 1, I made a pot of chicken stock which is waiting in the freezer for its time to come.  I used half of what I made for a chicken noodle soup...the stock will definitely work!

2. I was struggling in my head about veal; where to find it, feeling some pressure to cook it the first time, knowing it is more expensive than most meat I usually buy.  To some extent veal has been a lot easier than I expected...I found it in the chain grocery store, only problem, it is in one of those packages filled with chemicals so the meat doesn't turn colors...I'm not so into that.  So I found a butcher, one that I had stopped in before, and was able to talk to the owner.  He has owned the place for 20 of the 100 + years it's been open.  He was able to help me select 6 nice pieces of veal for Lesson 2, and while I was there I picked up 4 giant veal shanks for Lesson 3 (they are almost a pound a piece, so I didn't buy 6).  I talked to him about most of the meat being frozen in his shop, and he satisfied me with understanding that a small shop can't continue to stock items fresh as there may be much wasted.  He also helped me understand some things to properly store the meat and how and when to thaw the meat safely when I am ready to cook.


3 of 6 veal scallops--Lesson 2

3. The Carmel Custard calls for a 4-cup charlotte pan, which I don't have nor a realistic substitute.  I searched several places...a restaurant supply store, kitchen supply outlet store, and a few local chains, before settling on the Internet.  My pan will arrive this week, in time to cook for the weekend.

Some great things about this recipe at this time of year are that it is apple season and there are a bunch of fresh apples from the orchards real close to my house!  Also the warm soup makes for a great starter on evenings which are beginning to cool off now.

One of my delays in cooking Lesson 2 is that I have been waiting for the weekends to cook when I can devote a few hours to preping and when a meal for 6 has time and people to enjoy it with.  This weekend should be the time for Lesson 2, as I have already arranged for a few friends to come enjoy the food and some nice wine.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lesson 2: The Menu

Here are the menu and my initial thoughts for Lesson 2 from page 10:

 

Lesson 2

 

 

Soupe Villageoise

COUNTRY - STYLE VEGETABLE SOUP WITH NOODLES

___

Escalopes de Veau Vallee d'Auge

VEAL SCALLOPS WITH APPLES AND CALVADOS

___

Creme Renversee au Caramel

CARAMEL CUSTARD

 


Now that I have completed Lesson 1 with some ease, both with the preparation and with such enjoyment, I look at Lesson 2 with some concern...I couldn't even find pearl onions (although the substitute was great), how am I going to find veal?  

I am not so sure it will be all that hard to buy and prepare, but for me it sounds intimidating. It is also a little shaky because I know it is something that my wife will be very resistant to eating, as she is not very adventurous. If I can cook it properly and get her to try it, she just might be open to eating veal again in Lesson 3 and even be more willing to try other things...like fresh fish.

I know my wife will enjoy the Soupe Villageoise for sure, and she will try the Creme Renversee au Caramel, which I am sure looking forward to. So I know she will be receptive to enjoying the dinner with me.

Any suggestions on where to find veal or suggestions on cooking it?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Lesson 1: Lessons Learned

A big part of the draw to this book for me is the teaching/learning aspects of the book.  Here are my thoughts on what I have learned, or at least what I can take forward as I tackle the next 89 lessons:

In Lesson 1, the instructional pieces were Roasting and Preparing Fruits.  

As mentioned, I have roasted chicken, roasted turkey, and I think in college I roasted some game that one of my roommates brought from home.  My feelings are that the Thanksgiving turkey is so much easier than a chicken, and that roasting, like most things, can always be a learning experience.

After I initially wrote this post, I traveled away for the weekend to a friends summer cabin.  We were in charge of dinner and he ended up buying 2 whole chickens at the market.  I challenged him to cook one and I would cook the other and we would see how it turned out.  I used the same techniques I learned and practiced, and found it was much easier, even with limited supplies, and space in the kitchen and oven. My chicken turned out fantastic and my carving was seeing some improvements.  The eaters/judges wouldn't put one chicken over the other, as they said we were all winners with such good food!

The lessons in Preparing Fruits, the technique for peeling the orange known as peler a vif is something I have never bothered to do...probably like most people making a fruit salad--peel orange, slice orange, throw in salad is the norm.  The little bit of effort to eliminate the membrane, if that is what made the difference for this fruit salad, I am a believer. I will need to perfect the timing however on boiling the peach, dropping it in a cold water bath and peeling.  I will have many opportunities to see again how long is appropriate.

Being a teacher, myself, I realize much more can be learned from the experience that the instructors may not plan for, and that may not be learned anywhere else.  Here are those things that I think I can take forward.

Up first, the bad:

1.  Don’t assume that ingredients you are looking for will be at any of the local places I currently shop.

2.  My carving of a chicken needs some work (I am putting it lightly here).

3.  Communicating ideas in an orderly, coherent way, is a work in progress.

4. Who knows about photos?  I am still trying to figure this one out.

The good:

1.  The substitutions I made for this menu worked well.

   a.  The chicken was great, even if it wasn’t free range, "appellation controlee" french birds.  I would like to find one to eat to compare though.

b.  The peas were a great dish even with frozen peas (did I forget to mention this before?), parsley instead of Chervil, and white onions instead of pearl onions (Lesson 3 has pearl onions, so I better find them soon--someone recommended frozen or canned?).

Things to do:

1.  I need to find the best place to buy meat products.

2.  Practice my knife skills.