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 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



Gigot d'Agneau



Gratin de Blettes



Ananas Givre


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.