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'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



Thanksgiving Butternut Squash Soup


Grandma's Sweet Potatoes with Bacon Fat


Roasted Turkey with Herbs


Sausage and Mushroom Stuffing



Cranberry Sauce






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'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 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 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.