Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lesson 5: Lessons Learned

The lessons from menu 5 are Mayonnaise and Creme Anglaise.

As the instructions on pg. 31 note "Mayonnaise is very easy to make if you follow a few rules." I would agree that mayonnaise was easy to make if you follow the rules and have a third hand. So I would suggest, don't make mayonnaise alone. Instead find someone to pour the oil for you while you whisk. If you are so inclined, they could also give you a whisk break when your arm is tired.

The rules that are so helpful would be to bring everything to room temperature before beginning and adding the oil drop by drop until the sauce begins to emmulsify. Then adding the rest more quickly is just fine.

As for the Creme Anglaise, I wrote about my failed first attempt in the previous post. I would say the lessons that I took from making this are that the temperature tollerance of creme anglaise is much lower than a boil and the best judge for me on being done was that the frothy top caused by whisking the milk into the egg yolks dissapeared. This will be extremely helpful as through menu 8 there will be a need to make creme anglaise for various desserts.

The additional lessons that were pretty evident to me are:

1. Cleaning whole fish is not my strength.
2. I am improving my skills in some of the following ways:
-I feel better at finding fresh ingredients at a variety of stores, most notably having success this time at Trader Joe's.
-My knife skills are improving as evidence in the salad.
-My ability to plan and execute a more complex meal has improved.
3. I am continually excited and impressed with the flavor of the dishes and my desire for French cuisine continues to increase. This was a close second, to the leg of lamb, in terms of a flavor and a really well made meal.

I still need to work on a few things, in particular cleaning fish. I would also like to increase my speed in the kitchen without having the quality of my work suffer. My photographic skills need to be worked on. However overall I continue to be very excited about all of the things that I am learning. 

I also feel that by sharing with others (and everyone sharing their thoughts and comments with me) has been an invaluable experience as well. I guess what I am trying to say, is that by blogging I have found an additional learning experience that so far has exceed my expectations. So thanks for reading, and thank you even more to those who have shared their suggestions and comments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lesson 5: Cooking and Eating

Summer Harvest Salad

Lesson 5 was by far the most complex meal. It was very labor intensive, involving many diffferent steps for each item, and a great deal of time for me to make. It challenged me on many different levels, but also helped reveal many skills that I have learned over the past few months.

I started cooking on Friday night by making the Sponge Cake. My wife was so excited about it that she wanted to eat the cake right away, but I made her wait. Here's a quick picture, as you can see I stacked the cakes instead of keeping them separate.

Sponge Cakes Stacked Up Ready to Eat!

Saturday I knew for sure that by 2pm I had to have the beans for the cassoulete started for a 4:30-5pm meal. The early meal time was to allow plenty of time to eat and enjoy the company of my parents and grandparents before it got too late. Instead of waiting for 2pm, I decided to do a little bit of work in the morning.

I started with the Creme Anglaise, which proved to be both exciting and challenging. I liked seeing the eggs and sugar turn such pale yellow and become smooth and silky.

Stiring the Creme Anglaise

When I added the hot milk and return the pan to the stove over low heat, I was surprised that it was frothy on top, but as I stired the foam on top started to dissapear. At that point I was thinking that I had no idea what consistency the end results would be. Thinking that it would be thicker, I overcooked this first attempt. I didn't know it was bad until I had strained the liquid and it was cooling. There was clear evidence that the milk had gotten too hot because it had curdled a bit and was no longer silky smooth. I decided to make a new batch, but instead of throwing it away I figured it would be worth trying to use it to freeze and make ice cream. If it doesn't work, I will just throw it out; if it works, I can enjoy some ice cream!

Next I started on prepping all of the parts of the salad, thinking if I had everything done before hand it would be easy to assemble once it was time to eat. I blanched and peeled the tomatoes, sliced the celery, blanched and cut the green beans, broke down and soaked the cauliflower in vinegar, and prepped the artichokes. All of this took a lot longer than expected, so I was glad that I got started early.

It took me almost as much time to wrestle the trout from this:

Whole Trout--Just Starting Out

to this:

What's Left of the Trout

and this:

Leftovers from the Trout

This helped ruled one possible future career--fishmonger.

I did decide not to follow the directions exactly because I didn't want to keep the skin on. I was most concerned about the bones and skin, but the scales aren't fun to remove. So rather than following the directions, I decided to do my best to fillet the fish before cutting it into 1 inch pieces. You can see the results above...not so good. It made me worry about having enough fish, but this was not a problem. I was also planning to use all of leftovers to make a nice fish broth, but was frustrated and didn't want to see the fish anymore so I just threw it all out before remembering to save it for broth. I am kicking myself now because I know that I don't normally have the opportunity to make fish stock, and I don't like seeing the picture now of everything that I wasted. 

At this point I had most of the prep work done and needed to do the cooking part. I had time to take a break, relax and think everything through. At 2pm I again started back up by getting the beans boiling with a clove studded onion and a boutique garne. For the first part of boiling then simmering the beans for 1.5 hours, I proceeded to make other elements of the dish including the onion, garlic and tomato mixture.

I also got the artichokes completely ready and into the boiling water at the correct time. Despite having so many elements to each dish, I felt pretty controlled and relaxed going through the process one thing at a time.

Right before everyone arrived I had almost everything for the salad ready to assemble, plate and eat. The cassoulet just needed the fish cooked and then everything assembled, and then it would go into the oven for 15min. I was feeling pretty good, except for one thing...the mayonaise.

I knew for sure that I would be more successful with a third and fourth hand, so I had encouraged my wife to help me with this step. At the time however she was unavailable. Just in time, I was in luck that my sister and her family came by to visit with my grandparents. Her son, my nephew is someone that I have cooked with before and know that he likes helping out in the kitchen (I think he knows that you get to taste everything when you do the work, and I encourage that for sure). So he helped me both with slicing and cooking the scallops and then the mayonaise.

He did a great job of separating the eggs, and whisking together everything up to the point that you need to add the oil. Then we worked together as I whisked he added the oil drop by drop. Pretty soon it was starting to look like mayonaise and my arm was getting tired. He took a turn at whisking as I poured. He finished off the mayonaise by whisking in the white vinegar.

He then mixed together the vegetables for the salad, cleaned the artichokes and endive, plated the endive and artichoke hards and then I mixed in the mayonaise. The recipe for the mayonaise was pretty large and I didn't want to use so much in the salad, therefore I do have quite a bit of leftovers.

We then plated the dish together. As for plating, I think this is my best presentation yet!

Final Plating of Summer Harvest Salad

As for eating it, I thought it was excellent as well. The mayonaise was heavier than a vinegarette, but much lighter than I expected. All of the vegetables were perfectly sized, the artichokes tasted great, and the endive makes a great little boat to fill up and eat from, adding crunch to each bite.

When my wife saw the dish she thought that it had shrimp in it (the tomatoes with the mayonaise have a slightly pink look). She was dissapointed that it didn't as she has been wanting me to make her shrimp lately. When we were eating, I commented that this salad would actually be pretty good with shrimp in it, while my dad though some Ahi would also go well. Either one I think would compliment this dish well, and could be a meal in itself.

I like having everything prepared and ready to go because it allows me to sit and enjoy the meal as well. As we were eating the salad, the cassoulet was heating up in the oven, just enough to brown the bread crumbs on top and heat everything through. This was the ideal time between the first and main courses.

I cleared the salad plates, plated the main course with my wife's help and then returned to the table. The cassoulet was warm, much heartier than I expected, but definitely not too heavy that it couldn't be eaten. I could taste and find the three fish--trout, lobster tail, and scallops--based upon their texture, and I think the beans and tomatoes were perfect.

I don't think I would have been graded very high by an expert because my beans were mushy (cooked, or rather overcooked, to the point where they didn't retain their shape). This was quite alright with me because their texture was soft and you could taste the flavor very well.

In my focus on plating, eating, and enjoying the company, I didn't get a snapshot of either the dish in the pan or on the plate. If you own Le Cordon Bleu at Home you will notice that they typically have only one picture per meal, and the cassoulet happens to be the dish for this meal (pg. 29). The pictures are rarely enough to help me with cooking or plating, which of course adds to the mystery and excitement of every dish.

The dessert was last but of course not the least of the meal. Here is a picture of one slice topped with the Creme Anglaise (as you can see my photography skills are not improving too much...I mean I couldn't even get the plate in the center of the picture...yikes).

Sponge Cake with Creme Anglaise

The cake was more dense than I had imagined, and was complimented well with the Creme Anglaise to soak into it. As suggested in the recipe, it would also be great with fresh fruit. This was a pretty easily executed cake, which is in all thoughts very versatile. I think it wouldn't be too much trouble to make again.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lesson 5: Shopping

Trout ready to be cleaned up

It's been awhile, too long to be exact.

I haven't posted in the last two weeks because I haven't cooked a meal since Lesson 4 at the beginning of December. This is a direct result of my over confidence that everything would fall in to place, my lack of focus and problem-solving, my first encounter with difficult to find ingredients, the holidays and holiday travel, and there was a weekend of illness thrown in.

All of these should not be excuses, and I am not letting myself off the hook, but instead hoping this will speed my desire to cook the next few lessons.

Here's what happened during my shopping experience:

1. I went to an expert to get fish and he thought it would be no problem (by went, I mean called).
2. I waited to hear back, without following up...left town, enjoyed the holidays, and then forgot about it for a bit.
3. When I was ready to get moving on cooking I was busy with work and couldn't find time during normal business hours to visit the fish place, so I dragged myself to the grocery store.
4. The grocery store was actually very helpful. They called the wholesaler while I waited and found out that monkfish and whiting were not available (I am assuming the fish guy never got back to me because this was the case, or the fact that my email address may have been incorrectly communicated to him). They suggested two substitutes (lobster tail meat and trout) and ordered the trout to be delivered in 2 days.

I left kicking myself, thinking I should have asked about a substitute a month ago. The substitutes, although more pricey, are readily available and will make for a fine meal. What I learned from this is that I need to be more resourceful with my problem solving, asking for substitute options right away and considering using the fresh ingredients when available rather than sticking only to what the menu directs.

These words of wisdom ring true regarding the artichokes as well. As mentioned in the last post, I thought that creating a summer salad in January may not provide me with the freshest ingredients, however I had already seen artichokes in the store. Unfortunately when I returned there weren't any more. I was able to find them at a much higher price at another grocery store.

There were two highlights of my shopping experience this time. First I felt successful for the first time shopping at Trader Joe's. I have sort of scooted around the point before, but so many people that I know just love the store. I have struggled to find what I needed, but changed my frame of reference this time. Instead of going in expecting to find everything on my list, I made it my first stop and whatever I didn't find I knew I could go somewhere else. This helped alleviate the stress of not finding everything on my list, and made for a much more enjoyable experience. I was even able to do a little comparison shopping and found they had some great things that were more reasonably priced than most other stores, milk and balsamic vinegar were the two that stand out (neither of which I needed for this menu).

The second, and personally more enjoyable, was that I had my mom to join me on the shopping trip for the fish and last few items. She did a fantastic job of pushing the cart, and was a bit surprised by the price of the lobster tail meat. She was also very helpful finding things. I am sure she will enjoy the meal even more, having been there to shop for everything with me.

Shopping done, ready to cook!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Lesson 5: Menu

Happy New Year!

I am looking forward to Lesson 5 because I don't normally cook and eat fish. It is not something that I dislike, just something that I don't usually buy and cook at home. I also don't normally order fish when we eat out, although my wife and I enjoy going out for sushi and often order crab cakes when we see them on a menu. I also really like calamari, however other than that, I normally select other items to cook at home or to order off a menu. I would really like to find good home fish recipes that would open myself and my wife to eating more fish, and something about the Fish and White-Bean Stew gives me hope.

Here is the menu for Lesson 5, found on pg. 29:


Lesson 5


Salade Messidor



Cassoulet de Poissons



Biscuit de Savoie, Creme Anglaise


In my last post I mentioned that timing may be an issue with finding fesh ingredients, mostly focussed on the fish. I have done some initial research, and Mike at Olde Porte Fisheries has assured me that it should be no problem getting whiting, monkfish and for Lesson 6, fresh mussels. This again is someone that has been extremely helpful and willing to share information with me, for which I am very thankful. My research was done the week before Christmas and since then I have yet to follow up again regarding the fish. I will be doing that this week and hopefully cooking this weekend or next.

The other timing issue would be that the first course of this menu is Summer Harvest Salad, and I will be enjoying this in the middle of winter (if you call it winter when it doesn't snow and everyone, including myself, has been complaining about it being "cold" when the highs are in the 50's and lows in the 30's-40's). I am not too worried about the ingredients for the salad, as I have already seen places to buy most, if not all of the ingredients.

As for the unknown, I am curious and excited about the Sponge Cake with Creme Anglaise. The desserts have definitely been a highlight. As an extension from the sorbet I might be curious enough to double the amount of Creme Anglaise, so that I could freeze some to make ice cream. I have also noticed that I will be making the Creme Anglaise as a base for Bavarian Cream in Lesson 6, a Strawberry Bavarian Cream in Lesson 7, and Creme Anglaise again in Lesson 8, so in the next few recipes I can expect a lot of practice.

In addition to the Creme Anglaise, the other lesson will be to make mayonnaise. Page 31 starts by saying "mayonnaise is very easy to make", which is far enough for me to read to not freak out (even though the rest of the sentence reads "if you follow a few rules").  Following directions, I can handle that, so mayonnaise should be no problem...right?

Can't wait for the fish to arrive!