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.


The Mediocre Cook said...

Sounds like you made an excellent meal! To be honest your final picture of the cake looks great so don't be so hard on yourself :)

Yeah, whisking mayonnaise does wonders for the arm muscles. I might star skipping the gym now and just make batches of mayonnaise a couple times a week :)

Anyway love the blog and keep up the learning!

Mark said...

The Mediocre Cook-

Thanks again for your thoughts and encouragement! I have found that blogging about everything has sure helped a lot with comments and suggestions.