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.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lesson 1: Cooking and Eating

I had been looking forward to this for months, and I had all of the ingredients, we had friends coming over to eat and I had a plan.

The plan was clear: start cooking at about 3:45pm for a 5:30-6pm dinner time.  Enough time for our guests to arrive a few minutes late, socialize a bit and then sit down to a warm meal.  

I had all of the dishes planned as to when to do the prep work and when to cook.  It was a great plan…

The plan went out the window about 3-3:15pm, when I got antsy and needed something to do.  I started prepping the fruit salad, with the exception of the fruit that would brown, and then peeled and sliced the cucumbers.  It’s a good thing the plan went out the window because both of these prep items took a lot longer than I had budgeted and would have delayed something down the line.

The fruit was very fresh and I knew the fruit salad was shaping up to be a big hit. The cucumbers, well if you don’t like peeling a million little cucumbers then I would suggest buying the big cucumbers rather than the pickling cucumbers.  The pickling ones allow for consistency in size and it makes a good presentation on the plate with a little extra work.

3:45pm rolled around and I followed my previous plan in stride, beginning with the chicken.  I have roasted turkey for the last 5 years at Thanksgiving, to the great pleasure of my family; however roasting chicken has always been a difficult task for me.  I don’t know what the difference is, but it always seems harder to work with a smaller chicken and get a good result. 

This time was no different in working with the chicken, but let me tell you, the results were TOTALLY different. The bird was perfectly cooked and tasted great!

After the chicken was off to the oven, I had a break to clean up and get ready for completing the fruit salad.  After turning the chicken in the oven after 20 minutes, I completed the fruit salad with its cointreau sauce.  The chicken got turned again and it was the peas’ turn to hit the stove.

Peas remind me of my mom’s, not so pleasing, tuna casserole with canned tuna, mushroom soup, pasta, peas and of course wheat germ topping.  Never a favorite of mine.  So I was skeptical of this dish, and much to my surprise it came out as an amazingly easy, tasty dish that I will cook again for my family at Thanksgiving!  It was a big hit with the adults and the 1 year old that we had over for dinner, and a healthy dish that I am going to cook for my sister and her kids!

Next the chicken came out of the oven perfectly browned, with crispy skin.  It rested and the pan juices were skimmed for fat and reduced to create a perfect drizzle for the chicken.

As I tried to carve the chicken, I always think to Thanksgiving—I roast the Turkey and my Grandpa carves it.  He has been trying to teach me the past two years, but I don’t feel confident in it.  I did well slicing the breasts off of the chicken, they were amazing pieces of white meat, which my wife and our guests really enjoyed.  The rest of the chicken, as you can see from the picture, was pulled and picked off the bone.  This is on my list of things to learn—carving meat.

My wife helped me plate the dinners, with the extras in dishes for the table.

Here is a picture of the dish...I didn't take it until the next morning, so if the peas look a bit hungover you know why.  It does illustrate my carving techniques, although to my credit there wasn't much leftover!  I'm not happy with how the picture made the was a little messed up, so I will try to upload it later and figure out how to get more pictures on the blog.

How was the first French meal I cooked?  It was easier to cook than I expected; it was extremely flavorful; it was, by my guess, very healthy; it was something my wife and guests enjoyed; and it was a meal I would undoubtedly cook again as well as recommend to others. 

It left me excited about what the next 89 lessons have in store for me!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Maybe I got ahead of myself!?!

In my excitement to complete my first menu, I find myself learning quite a lot, and not just about cooking.  So as I think about things, I am not only trying to improve my cooking techniques and enjoy good food, but I am also learning to communicate my ideas through this blog.

I don’t necessarily consider myself the best written communicator; instead I am much more comfortable communicating ideas through verbal means.  You might notice this if you look closely for spelling, grammar and word choices that you may find out of place. 

As I think about the best way(s) to communicate about Le Cordon Bleu AT MY HOME I think it would have been more effective to give some more background on the book.  I think it is important to expand further on what I have mentioned early about the teaching techniques through “lessons”, in particular for those of you who do not yet own a copy of the book yourself.

There are 90 lessons in the book.  Each lesson represents a menu, which imbeds in it the cooking techniques that will be taught.  They are also divided into three sections of increasing complexity and skill.

Part One is the Pratique de Base or “Getting Started”, consisting of 30 lessons that will “introduce techniques and procedures all French cooks must be familiar with.”  These menus “evoke the gastronomic diversity of France and the simplicity of French home cooking” (2).

Part Two, Intermediaire—Perfecting Skills, are lessons 31 through 60 which are “devoted to providing experiences [aimed at]…perfecting skills and to learning more demanding techniques” (170).

Part Three contains the lessons 61-90 called Superieure or Perfessional Touches.  These lessons “illustrate a creative approach to French cuisine and emphasize the kind of attention to detail that is the hallmark of an experienced chef” (340).

Here is what a lesson looks like, from page 5:



Lesson 1



Concombre a la Menthe



Poulet Roti



Petits Pois a la Francaise



Salade des Fruits



I hope this gives some better background information, as well as an explanation of the menu for Lesson 1.  I have already shared my shopping experiences for Lesson 1, so maybe next time I will remember to post the menu first then share my other experiences.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lesson 1: Shopping

I have been thinking about the first lesson for quite some time now.  In doing so, I think I have read the recipe 10 times, and the introduction to the book 4-5 times as well.  I made a list, rather 2 lists.  The first being things that I knew I could get easily, which meant I had the items already, knew where to find them, or have used them in my cooking regularly.  The second list contained all of the things I needed to research, including where to find pickling cucumbers, fresh spring peas, pearl onions, as well as Chervil.  I was pretty dead on with these things needing some research and investigation, as you will see later.

I set off after work to pick up everything on my commute home from work.  I first stopped at a local fresh market, the kind of local market where everyone seems to know each other, expecting to find a free-range chicken.  I was disappointed that the only birds they had were the exact same that I could get elsewhere for cheaper.  I probably won’t go back, but I picked up a few things on my list that I needed, and looked for the Chervil and the pearl onions.

Next I went to my local farmer’s barn.  My wife and I frequent this place because they have great local produce and are very close to our house.  A farmer’s market, which we have lots of, may have better prices, however convenience and quality are both high at this place.  I was able to get everything for the fruit salad, including pluots as an addition because they are fresh and awfully tasty this time of year, the cucumbers and a head of lettuce.  No pearl onions and no Chervil.

I then hit up the wholesale store for the chicken, knowing it was the exact chicken that I was going to get at the other markets, but at a much better price.  I want to be able to find better options for buying meat such as chicken, and hope throughout the lessons I will be forced to find the best local butcher.  The last time I roasted a chicken, it was out of the Les Halles Cookbook, I stopped at a local butcher who sold me a frozen chicken.  This not only takes preplanning, but also, I am not the biggest fan of frozen meat (maybe this is not something to worry about it, but I prefer the fresh stuff).  I also live in a town with a university which has a big agricultural program.  I have been to their meat production lab.  They have frozen chicken as well, all of which I know are local and are a very reasonably priced.  They are only open about 8 hours a week and don’t always have a wide selection of meat.  I have a lot to learn in to find the best places to shop for food in my area. 

At the warehouse store I had seen pearl onions here before, but no luck this time.  I thought for sure I could find my elusive Chervil and pearl onions at the health food chain store, or next door at a discount grocery.  With one stop I hoped for luck at one store or the other.

I know lots of people love the health food chain store that I went to, but I don’t ever feel like I can get what I want from this place.  Today was no different.  So off I went to the discount grocery. 

Of all of the places that I went, this place had the friendliest staff.   A produce guy was stocking the onions when I went in, and I asked about pearl onions.  He searched and went to look in the back and didn’t find any, it was the closest I was able to get to pearl onions.  My substitute was some white onions, I not quite sure how it will work out, but sometimes I can’t find what I need.  The other thing that I could only find at the discount grocery was fresh thyme.

I couldn’t find the Chervil either, however I knew that I had another option in parsley.  Le Cordon Bleu AT HOME suggests this as a substitute.  My parents are members of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) weekly vegetable box.  The great thing about this is that my parents can never seem to eat all of the veggies, so I can enjoy fresh local produce to eat, enjoy and be adventurous with on a weekly basis without having to pay for it.  This week my parents were out of town and I was able to use all of their veggies including a bunch of parsley.  I also made Chile Rellenos and a great tomato salad out of a few of the other items in this week’s box.

Shopping for Lesson 1 done and ready to cook!

Friday, September 12, 2008

My New Project

After following regularly French Laundry at Home, Anthony Bourdain's: No Reservations, and Nose to Tail at Home, I began investigating my own path to improving my cooking techniques and indulging my love of eating.

I started by reading cookbooks at the local bookstore, and then, with a budget in mind, hit the local library. What a great resource to be able to check out books for free, or in my case get books sent from any library for $.50. So for $2.00, and no late fees (I remembered on the day they were due to check them out again online) I took a liking to Le Cordon Bleu AT HOME.

The draw for this book is definitely the approach to teaching techniques as menus rather than as individual techniques. The construction of lessons as complete menus is a learn-by-doing approach that I embrace in my life as well as in my teaching practices.

I look forward to everything ahead--planning, finding ingredients, cooking, entertaining, success, failures to learn from, and of course the eating!

The plan is to not only cook and eat, but also to update my progress through the blog. Check back to see my progress, and let me know what you think.