Sunday, February 24, 2008

Paper Lids

I've come to appreciate the parchment paper lid over the last few weeks. We often cook things (usually cut vegetables) using a small amount of water (sometimes just the water already in them) where we want to gently steam them until any water we've added and most of the water in the food being cooked has been removed. The parchment paper lid, made by cutting a piece of parchment paper into a circle the size of your pan (by folding the paper like you did to cut out snowflakes in elementary school you can cut it to size in about 10 seconds), is more convenient in a lot of situations than a "real" lid. It offers a couple of advantages. Most importantly, it allows you to see and hear what's going on in your pan without removing it. You can go about other tasks, and if your food begins to dry out and brown, you will hear it begin to pop with the sound of sautéing instead of the sweating or steaming you want. With a real lid, you would not detect this without periodically stopping whatever you're doing to lift the lid and peek in for a moment. If you do hear your food cooking too quickly or overheating, one of the things you can do to prevent browning that you don't want is add a bit of water to your pan. The parchment lid lets you get water into the pan without removing the lid, because the water will run over the sides of your lid down to the bottom. It doesn't sound like that big a deal, but when you're busy and you don't have a free hand to lift a lid or a place to set it down if you remove it from the pan, being able to see and hear and react to what's happening in your pans without having to handle any hot lids can save you a lot of time. Finally, there is the obvious advantage of having fewer lids to wash when you're finished cooking.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Recipe: Potage Parisienne
(Potato Leek Soup)

Here is a recipe for a simple potato leek soup that we made a few weeks ago at school, and that I described a bit here. It uses very few raw materials and they are simply prepared and cooked, and it illustrates a neat cooking process where you use the starch in the potatoes to thicken a soup into something like a light cream soup, even though there is no cream or milk in it. A quick survey of the internet reveals that "Potage Parisienne" always has potatoes and leeks, often some cream, sometimes flour, and occasionally other ingredients to flavor it differently. I would say that the cream is a matter of preference, but the addition of flour should only be needed if the soup is improperly cooked or the potatoes are handled in a way that their starch is lost before it gets into the soup.

You'll no doubt notice that I have a tendency to write volumes to describe how to make even the simplest dishes. While I sympathize with you when you think, "Why does it take all of this to tell me to cut up a leek and some onion, cook them in butter, then add water and sliced potatoes and simmer it awhile?" I don't know a better way to convey to a wide audience the things worth paying attention to if you want to produce a dish that is surprisingly good given how little material and effort goes into it. If you're reading this at all, I assume you are not a professional cook; if you are, you already know how to make a soup like this and what to pay attention to as you go about it. One of the most frustrating things to me as a cook is telling someone about a great dish, and then hearing later that he didn't like it along with a reason for that dislike which indicates that although the prescribed ingredients went into the preparation, they were handled in a way that did not produce the dish that the creator of the recipe had in mind. In other words, the dish was judged and dismissed without ever having been really prepared or sampled.


For 6-8 small cups or 4 small bowls of this soup, you'll need:

1 medium-large or 2 small starchy potatoes (e.g., Idaho; but not small red or yellow boiling potatoes)
1/3 of a medium-large onion, or half or all of a smaller one
1 leek, white and light green parts only
1 Tbsp butter
Water or a light stock, about a quart
Salt and pepper
Chervil or parsley for garnish, if you like

Cooking Objectives

There are a few general principles that you should keep in mind as you make the soup. First, you don't want to lose any of the starch in the potatoes, because the soup won't thicken as much if the starch is lost. When you cut up potatoes, you'll notice after a few cuts that your knife has a white watery coating on it: that is the starch from the potatoes. If you leave potatoes on your cutting board as you work, their starch will begin to turn your board white as the water that carried it out of the potatoes dries off. For this soup, you want to keep all of that starch in the soup, so you want to place the pieces of potato as you cut them into the liquid you're going to use in the soup.

Second, this is a light-green soup, and you want it to taste "green" and not "brown," where brown here means the savory sweetness that comes from something like browned vegetables or meats cooked over high heat, as on a grill. In addition to the taste, you don't want bits of brown leek or onion floating around in the soup and distracting from its appearance. When you cook the leeks and onions, you want to use low heat so that they won't get browned at all as they get soft and begin to both release and concentrate some of their flavor, which is what you want.

Third, you'll want to use your judgment about what liquid to use to make the soup. I would not use canned stock by itself for this, because the concentrated and somewhat artificial flavor might be too much for the light aromatics (leeks and onions) that you want as the main flavor here. Ideally, you'd use a light chicken stock that you made from leftover chicken bones or some wings or something that you picked up cheaply, but not all of us have that lying around. As a compromise, you might use either plain water, or 2/3 water and 1/3 canned stock, or a bouillon cube or powder in water at a lower concentration (maybe a quarter) of what its package suggests. At school, we used a light chicken stock that we had made; at home when I later made the soup for family and friends, I used about a quart of water and 2-4 tablespoons of a chicken consomme that I happened to have around.

Preparing the Vegetables

Leeks: Using only the white and light green parts, cut the root end off, slice the leek in half lengthwise, and under running water fan the layers a bit like a deck of cards to rinse sand from between the layers. Cut each half crosswise into thin (about 1/8") slices.

Onions: Peel the onion, take the root end off, and cut it crosswise (along lines of latitude) into two or three sections where each section has very roughly the same length (or a bit longer) as the width of a leek (about one to one and a half inches). Slice the onion lengthwise (along what was originally the pole-to-pole orientation of the onion) into slices about 1/8" thick. You want your piles of leeks and onions for the dish to be about the same size, or maybe a bit less onion than leek.

Potatoes: Put about half of the (cold) liquid you're going to use in your soup into a bowl placed next to your cutting board. Peel the potato, and cut it into 4 to 6 pieces lengthwise, like very thick (about 3/4" to 1") french fries. Cut the pieces crosswise into thin chips, about 1/16" thick, and place the chips into the bowl of liquid as you go to keep their starch in what will become your soup.


Melt the butter over medium-low heat in your pot, and add the leeks and onions. Cook them over medium-low heat so that they softly hiss, but never make a popping or snapping sound. This is called "sweating" the vegetables; if they pop or snap, you are "sautéing" them, which will cause them to brown by the time they are cooked, and you don't want that here. You can sweat vegetables at different levels of heat, ranging from low to medium, and the higher the heat you use the more you'll need to shake or stir them to prevent them from beginning to sauté at the edges of the pan. Higher heat takes less time but requires more of your attention.

When the vegetables are soft (after about 5 minutes, though it could be as much as 15 or 20 depending on the level of heat you used), add the liquid with the sliced potatoes. Add additional liquid to cover everything in the pot with room to spare (about 1/2" of liquid on top of the vegetables), and bring it to a simmer, so that it bubbles gently.

You want to cook the soup until the potatoes have released all of their starch into the surrounding liquid, but have not disintegrated. It will probably take about 15 minutes, but could be 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, depending on how thick your potato slices are. You'll see the appearance of the soup change slowly from looking runny, like some vegetables in water where you can see things an inch or more below the surface, to looking more like a hearty soup, with liquid you can't see through anymore. To decide whether to stop cooking, try a bit of potato by plucking it out with a spoon and cooling it for a second in cold water (or just by waiting a minute) and eating it, to see if it could be cooked any more without falling apart.

When the soup is done, season it with salt (a lot, but if you used some canned stock you might already have quite a bit in there) and pepper (white pepper if you have it and don't want to obtrude on the light-green color of the soup).

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Scum of the Earth

Tonight we all had to do one of the few things that I knew was coming at some point during chef school that I would be uncomfortable about: kill a lobster. Most people know that you need to keep whole lobsters alive until the moment you cook them. When people cook fresh lobster at home, typically they place it into boiling water to cook it, and that also kills it pretty quickly. But chefs normally kill lobsters by plunging the point of a chef's knife straight down into the back of their head, and then when the point touches the cutting board, bringing the heel of the knife down through the front of the head while keeping the point on the board, thereby cutting the head in half lengthwise.

Chef Marc knew that some folks might have a problem with this. He had said early in the class that everyone would kill a lobster tonight. Later, he gave a little speech about how lobsters are the scum of the earth, and no one should feel bad about killing them. He said something like, "They eat everything. If they get hungry, they eat their children. They are the scum of the earth." When it came time for him to demonstrate to us how to kill and prepare the lobster for cooking, there was a group of students between him and the lobsters, and he said, "Someone bring me one of the scavengers," and then showed us how to get on with it. One thing he said that I hadn't heard is that we should not put our fingers around the underside of the tail of a live lobster, and I didn't ask why but I think it's because their muscle is strong enough to curl the tail around a finger with enough force to hurt you, or at least to make it hard to get free of the thing.

I dispatched with my lobster without incident.

We prepared our fresh lobsters "on the half shell" cooked in a lobster stock that we had made earlier in the evening from the frozen carcasses of lobsters whose meat had already been used for something else. The stock was thickened into a sauce by using a compound butter that had a bunch of herbs and flour and the coral (roe) of the lobster worked into it. I'm not a big fan of lobster, but I thought this was the best lobster I'd ever tried.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Size Matters

Up to this point in cooking school, we have mostly cooked only vegetables: vegetables as flavor bases for stocks, vegetables as soups, vegetables as side dishes, vegetables as salads, and vegetables as garnishes. While I've long understood the importance of cutting the ingredients of a dish to a uniform size so that they would cook evenly, until the last couple of weeks, I hadn't appreciated the degree to which consistent sizes and shapes could improve the overall experience of a dish.

We made two dishes recently that drove this point home. The first was a vegetable salad that consisted mainly of cooked chopped vegetables mixed into mayonnaise (freshly made by whisking oil into egg yolks). The salad was called "Macédoine of Vegetables," and Chef Marc told us that in France it is called a "Russian Salad." "Macédoine" is one of the standard cuts that we learned on the first day of class, along with julienne, emincer and some others, and it means to dice something into perfect cubes about a half centimeter (3/16 of an inch or so) on every side. Our salad had in it carrots, turnips, green beans, and peas, all cooked and cut to that size. In fact, Chef told us that since the peas were the one ingredient that would not be cut, the size of the peas we had should determine the exact size of the cut of the other vegetables: the goal is to have everything be about the same size. When I ate our salad, I immediately noticed how important it was that you really couldn't identify any of the different vegetables in your mouth by their size or shape. (Since the size was so small and they were mixed into a good mayonnaise, even the peas being round didn't stand out among all of those little cubes.) The consistent sizes and shapes of the different vegetables, and the fact that they were all cooked to the same degree of doneness (all of the vegetables were cooked individually, in different pans, because they cook at different rates), made you appreciate the flavors of each ingredient, since flavor was the only distinguishing feature of each different part of the salad.

The other dish was one that we made on Tuesday night, in our most recent class, the first of three classes devoted to fish during Level 1 of the program (the first 20 of 120 classes). We made striped bass "en papillote," which means sealed into a pouch made by folding parchment paper and then baked. I had tried to make a fish en papillote once a few years ago, and while it wasn't a disaster (when you come right down to it, it's not that easy to make inedible food if you have any idea what you're doing), it really wasn't very good. The dish we made Tuesday night was one of the best fish preparations I've ever had (and I've eaten at Le Bernardin). There were several "secrets" to it, but the only one completely new and surprising to me was the effect of cutting things to a consistent size. Before I get into that, let's cover the other keys to the dish. First, having good fish is obviously very important. We filleted the whole striped bass ourselves, and we could tell from the eyes and gills that it was good fish. I've said many times that I'll probably never buy fish in a regular chain grocery store again, because I'm not willing to make a scene about asking to inspect the fish before buying, so that limits me to fish sellers that I know and trust. At school, we get great fish. Second, it's important when making fish en papillote to use a large enough sheet of parchment to make a big pouch, and seal it really well. The cooking method you're using is really steaming, not baking or braising, and you need to have enough room in your pouch to create a big steam chamber, and you need for it to stay sealed or it'll dry out and bake instead of steaming. Third, as I knew already, these dishes usually have some white wine or other liquid added before they are sealed up and put in the oven, but I learned this week that you want to use a tiny amount of the wine, because otherwise you're braising the fish and not steaming it, and since it's sealed you aren't going to get the alcohol and the cheap "winey" taste out of the dish if you use much. We added only about 1 teaspoon -- not even a regular flatware spoonful -- of wine to our papillotes.

Now let's consider the accompanying vegetables, and their cut and preparation. The fish rested on top of a rectangular bed that was made up of two smaller squares of a couple of different cooked vegetable preparations placed side by side. One of the squares making up the rectangle was peeled, seeded, and diced roma tomatoes, cut to about a quarter inch in size (again, like the macédoine cut of the earlier salad), with absolutely no seeds or pulp, only the flesh of the tomato, that had been cooked along with some shallots and perfumed with garlic and thyme (which were removed before using the tomatoes in the fish). The other square, next to the tomatoes to form a rectangular bed the same size as the fish fillet on top of it, was made of white button mushrooms diced to the same size as the tomatoes, also cooked (in a separate pan) with shallots and a bit of lemon juice. Having those two vegetables cut to the same size and about the same shape, and cooked to the same texture, again made their flavor really stand out, since only the flavor distinguished them. On top of the fish was another rectangle made up of three sections of different vegetables cut into julienne (very thin matchsticks just under 3 inches long). Having the leeks, carrots, and celery in the same shape and size, and cooked to the same point and arranged carefully in three aligned rectangles, emphasized their flavors. Both cuts -- the macédoine on the bottom and julienne on the top -- were small enough that their textures did not interfere with each other, but rather complemented each other. A bit of the macédoine and a bit of the julienne delivered about the same amount of their ingredient into your mouth, but with just enough difference in texture to show off the three distinct layers of the dish: diced vegetables on the bottom, the fish fillet in the middle, and the matchsticks on the top. After eating the dish, I know that if we made the same preparation from a different fish that naturally flaked into larger pieces (such as cod, maybe), we would probably cut the vegetables to slightly larger sizes to complement the fish.

Another example where the size and shape of vegetables affected the resulting dish is my simple dinner last night, which consisted of spaghetti tossed with onions and carrots cooked in butter and topped with some soft poached eggs. Since I needed to practice (as always) my julienne, I cut some carrots into julienne, and cooked them along with onions sliced so that they separated into curved sticks about the same size as the carrots. Their long thin shapes went very nicely with my spaghetti, and the whole thing was much better than my earlier preparations of the same ingredients where I cut the onion into a large dice and the carrot into short (because I had used those "baby carrots" from the grocery) sticks somewhat thicker than the spaghetti strands. When everything is cut to the right shape, it's a dish that I wouldn't mind serving to guests.

Finally, a dish where I've always intuitively known that the size of the ingredients makes a big difference, but could never really articulate why until observing the idea in action over the previous few weeks, is the average tossed salad. It has always driven me a little nuts when things of very inconsistent sizes are thrown into a tossed salad, and the reason is that they won't taste right together and complement each other at all. When I have a tossed salad with large lettuce leaves, a half tomato, and finely chopped carrots or olives, I don't understand how that's supposed to fit together: the tomatoes should be halved and then the halves quartered, the olives should be whole, the carrots should be at least in jardiniere (french fry shapes a quarter inch thick and about 2 inches long). If you like your carrots grated or cut into a brunoise (cubes about 1/16-1/8 inch), I think they would go a lot better in your salad if you grated your lettuce or shredded it with a knife instead of tearing the leaves into pieces of a couple inches or more. In fact, thinking back on my most recent meal there, Lupa serves a salad of brussels sprouts with finely grated cheese and finely chopped nuts, and what makes it all hang together is the fact that instead of leaving the sprouts whole or cutting them into little wedges, they shred them into thin strips that complement the fine texture of the cheese and nuts.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Ruined Footballs

The main exercise of this evening was standard vegetable tournage. What that means at the FCI is cutting vegetables into uniformly-sized football shapes: oblong, round, a bit narrower toward the ends, but not actually pointed, as though you took an American football and cut the last tenth of the end off. We've been told ("warned" might be a better word) that we are going to be cutting a lot of vegetables into that standard shape over the next eight months. Each size has a different name: bouquetiere are 3cm long; cocotte are 5cm; vapeur are 6cm; chateau are 7.5cm; and fondant are 9cm long. The most common cut is cocotte. The larger cuts are most often used on potatoes, and each of the different sizes of potato cut in that way has a different standard method of cooking. More on that later, no doubt. For now, we do cocotte cuts, over and over -- tonight, our first night of cutting these, we were each told to get 8 well-shaped and consistently-sized cocotte potatoes, 8 cocotte pieces of turnip, and 8 cocotte pieces of carrot. Like most physical activities that you are unaccustomed to, you tend to keep the muscles you're using much too tense when you start out (remember the death-grip you had on the steering wheel when you began driving?), and after about an hour of doing this, people noticed that their hands were quite sore. It might be an ibuprofen morning tomorrow.

Different vegetables have different degrees of difficulty. The Chef instructors said repeatedly that carrots are the most difficult, while potatoes and summer squash (zucchini, which we did for a few minutes in an earlier class so that we wouldn't be going into today's big night of cocotte completely in the dark) are easiest. Most people in the class (in fact, about a 2-1 ratio, because I surveyed people during dinner break) felt that potatoes (and zucchini) were most difficult, and carrots easiest. This interested me because I think to some extent it shows that the Chef instructors are Chefs first and instructors second -- I'm not sure they've really studied the process of teaching and learning. The fact that so many of the students find the carrot easier to do says something about what the challenges are when you are a beginner: they aren't the same challenges you face when you're more experienced. (But both Chefs are excellent instructors overall -- this is just something that interests me academically because I'm interested in teaching; it's just an observation, not a complaint.)

One thing that struck several of us as odd is that even though we are all interested in food, and a lot of us have eaten in a lot of different kinds of restaurants, some of us even in France, and we've been told that this is a classic way to prepare vegetables and we will be doing a lot of it at the FCI, none of us can recall ever having been served vegetables in this way. Be that as it may, they looked very nice. On the plate Chef Marc prepared as a demonstration while we watched, in addition to the turned carrots, turnips, and potatoes, he had a beautifully-trimmed and perfectly cooked artichoke bottom, and next to the artichoke he placed a cocotte he had made from the couple of inches of the stem of the artichoke, and it surprised me how that one piece of stem shaped like the rest of the vegetables presented really tied the artichoke to the whole plate aesthetically.

Once we had all of our vegetables ready to go, it was time to cook. The idea is to cook the vegetables with a little water, a small amount of butter, salt, and just a small pinch of sugar, so that the water will just be completely evaporated right at the moment the vegetables are fully cooked. (Since different vegetables cook at different rates, you use a separate pan for each vegetable.) At that point, you have a lot of options for how you want them to look and taste: you can serve them "à blanc," which is with no browning at all but shiny with the coating of the bit of butter left when the water has evaporated; "à blonde," which is a tiny bit browned by cooking for about a minute longer once the water is gone; or "à brun," or very browned, which you do by heating the pan until the butter and sugars get very brown (but not black -- that would be burned, and impart an acrid flavor) and then deglazing the pan with a bit of water to get the brown off the pan and thoroughly coat the vegetables with it.

This really ought to be simple. But between two of us working together, we had 6 pans going in slightly different ways (for carrots, turnips, potatoes, pearl onions, artichoke bottoms, and a mix of previously-cooked beans and peas) and cooking at different rates, using two large burners, a hot flattop, and the oven. The result was that I served Chef Marc the single worst plate of food I have given anyone in the last fifteen years, and I knew it before I ever took it up to him. But there's really nothing you can do other than listen to what he has to say (I already knew what it would be), and try to do better next time. If I have the energy, I might go in early on Saturday with a few pre-cut vegetables and try to cook half of the things again, because it was such a disaster. My carrots were burned and undercooked (if you understand how those two things make sense together, you're catching on to how to think about these things), the green beans were overcooked, the potatoes were browned nicely but then over-roasted so that they steamed themselves to death on the inside and developed a leathery texture on the outside, the turnips were not really glazed, the artichokes boiled to death before we began plating, and the pearl onions completely burned while we were distracted trying to rescue carrots and turnips.

Hopefully, we'll all learn from our mistakes and get better at things as we go.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pata Negra

A friend I met at work from Spain, during a wine reception where there happened to be some prosciutto on a platter, told me around a year ago about what he believes is the best cured pork in the world, called "Pata Negra" from the south of Spain. I had never heard of it, and in fact it was not legal in the United States and still is not found in this country. The name literally means "black foot." Pata negra is the uncooked, cured ham of a special breed of pigs from the Iberian peninsula that have black hooves. An authentic pata negra comes with the hoof attached, as evidence that it is the right breed of pork and not counterfeit. Pata negra is also known as "Jamón Ibérico 'Bellota'" -- "bellota" meaning "acorns," because the pigs are fattened on a diet of up to 20 pounds of acorns a day before slaughter. The hams are hung to cure for years before being eaten.

One producer has gone to the trouble of getting U.S. Government approval to ship pata negra hams to the United States. I've heard that the approval requires a lot of costly on-site monitoring of the production process by U.S. authorities, which presumably the producer must pay for. An online Spanish grocer, La Tienda, lists the hams for sale, with delivery beginning sometime this summer. You can buy a whole bone-in (about 15 pounds) or boneless (about 9 pounds) pata negra ham for about $1,400. I wonder if you'll be able to get a free taste of that at Zingerman's!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Release the Starches

Often when I first meet people and it comes out in the course of our initial chit-chat that I like to cook, their natural response is to ask what kinds of things I like to make. I've never really found an answer to that question. When called upon to describe the things I enjoy cooking, I seem to only see either the trees, or a forest formed on a generalization that, if blurted out in a couple of words, would come across in a way not all that much less awkward than my inability to answer the question at all. For example, one good description of the kind of cooking I enjoy is that if you divide the universe of cooks into John Thorne's categories of Pot Cooks and Knife Cooks, I am a Knife Cook. See what I mean about an answer that can be worse than befuddled silence?

A lot of the things I like to cook illustrate some basic cooking process that pleases me. A good example is the thickening of a sauce that happens by the release of the starches naturally present in the food being cooked. The archetypal dish for this process is risotto. The short-grained Italian rices used in risotto have a lot of soluble starch near their surface. As you stir them during cooking, you dissolve that starch into the liquid around the rice, and before long the starch creates a sauce that looks a little like a soup in an American Chinese restaurant that has been thickened with cornstarch.

In class last week, we made a potato-leek soup in which the vegetables were left in pieces in the soup, in contrast to the more common version of the soup in which it is pureed at the end to a thick, velvety finish. Our version consisted of thinly sliced leeks and onions, and thin (about 1 or 1.5mm) slices of potato cut into pieces about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. When we began cooking the soup, it was not clear to me what the goal was, or in other words, at what point it would be considered done. As it simmered slowly, you could see the soup grow "heavy" as the starch in the potatoes began to leach into it. Knowing that potato-leek soups are often pureed, I started thinking that we would cook it so long that the potatoes would disintegrate into the soup -- they were sliced thinly enough to make this possible. Then, as Chef Marc was walking by during one of his reconnaissance missions around the room, he glanced into our pot and suddenly turned the burner off, and said, "That is perfect." And as soon as he did that, I thought, "Ahhh, I get it!" The goal had been to cook the soup just to the point that the potatoes had released all of their starch into the stock to thicken it, and then stop while the very thin slices were still intact. The soup was delicious, and it's a dish that I found fun to watch cook and slowly turn into its own thick but nearly fat-free sauce.