Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chef Profiles: Ducasse and Chang

I've come across a couple of good in-depth profiles of well-known chefs that are worth reading if you're interested in the personalities behind the big-time restaurant scene.

First, New York Magazine had this article about Alain Ducasse. Ducasse is one of the most famous chefs in the world, but he has never managed to open a successful restaurant in New York. Somehow his restaurants have so far always failed to match the current moods and trends in fine dining. He has just opened Adour in Manhattan in the St. Regis hotel near the upscale shopping epicenter at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57th Street. The anecdote in the article about the prim and proper Ducasse's encounter with carpe diem personified in the larger-than-life-in-every-way form of Mario Batali is priceless. (Batali saunters right up to the quiet and reserved Ducasse, who is formally dressed in a nice suit, smothers him in a bear hug, and says enthusiastically to anyone within ear shot, "This guy is fucking awesome!")

Second, The New Yorker, in its issue dated March 24, has a profile of David Chang, who has become all the rage in the last few years after opening, of all things to launch a career as a star top chef, a noodle bar, Momofuku (which literally translated means "lucky peach", but also happens to be the name of the inventor, or at least the popularizer or commercializer, of Ramen noodles). He has since expanded to a couple more restaurants, each a bit different in its concept and food, and this profile is written as the third of his restaurants is set to open. Momofuku Ko is an ambitious restaurant in a style I first heard about in Chicago when Schwa became famous: it is a very small restaurant that makes the style of food with the kind of ingredients that you find at the best fine dining establishments around, with only a handful of seats and no waitstaff because everything is served by the chefs and cooks who prepare it. The New Yorker article is not available online, but Ed Levine wrote a worthwhile summary and commentary on it here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Heat, Chemistry, Pastry

We are in the middle of two weeks of pastry classes at school right now. Like most cooking schools, the FCI has a full program just for pastry training, but everyone in the culinary program goes through some of the basics of pastries. Many pastry preparations can be used to make savory (non-dessert) dishes, and in addition any chef who aspires to run a kitchen or other food service operation needs to have some understanding of pastries to better work with his pastry chef and to fill in when the pastry chef is not at work.

Most elementary pastry preparations that underlie any finished product are involve more chemistry and science than the usual off-the-cuff throwing together of interesting ingredients that you see on something like Top Chef. Where we taste and adjust dishes as we go in cooking, when preparing pastries we measure precisely and follow directions carefully. In addition to measuring ingredients to the right proportions to get the desired chemical and structural transformations take place, I'm learning that the precise application of heat is often even more important to many recipes.

The process of tempering chocolate is one of the more interesting examples of how varying heat within a small temperature range changes the properties of one of the most common ingredients used in sweets. Chocolate has a structure that consists of a couple of different kinds of crystals. One of the crystals, the "unstable" one, melts near room temperature, at anywhere from 59F to 82F; the "stable" crystals melt at 89F-93F. In addition to the desirable "melts in your hands, but not in your room" property of the more stable crystals, they also have a glossier appearance and a less gummy texture than the unstable crystals. If you melt chocolate, to use as a frosting for example, if it cools rapidly (as it will if spread in a thin layer, like a frosting) there will not be enough stable crystals formed before it cools below 82F and unstable crystals take over and determine the crystalline structure of the solid chocolate. To "temper" chocolate, which makes it look and feel nicer on things, the cook melts solid chocolate and then cools it to the point where crystals form but it can still be stirred, and then gently heats it to a temperature above the melting point of unstable crystals but below the melting point of stable crystals (about 88F) to eliminate any unstable crystals that formed. It is held at that temperature to allow enough stable crystals to develop that when it is further cooled there will be enough of them to establish the structure of all of the solid chocolate. This is something I've only read about and never done, and in the basic pastry training that the culinary students get at the FCI we will not be doing it. I've heard (but never seen with my own eyes) that one of my friends who is a trained pastry chef can go through this process just by feel, without using a thermometer. She can also always recognize that most chocolate-covered desserts, even in many upscale bakeries and fine restaurants, have had some wax added to the chocolate to make it more shiny and stable and look like properly tempered chocolate.

We've been through a couple of simpler careful heating processes in the past week during our pastry classes at school. The first was to make Génoise cakes, a very light sponge cake that rises and becomes airy through creating and cooking egg foam, without any chemical or other leavening agents (such as baking powder or yeasts). The first step in making Génoise is to whisk together eggs and sugar into something like a sabayon (which normally includes only egg yolks, not the whole eggs used in Génoise). As the eggs are whipped, they will increase in volume as air is incorporated into them, but the foam is not stable enough to survive the amount of heat and time it takes to bake the cake. To make them more stable, you heat the eggs and sugar as they are whisked. The heat causes the tightly-wound proteins in the eggs to lengthen into strands that can bond with each other and form a more stable network in which air can be trapped for a longer period of time. In many pastry sauces and creams, eggs can be heated as the binder in a liquid all the way to boiling and will not curdle (scramble) if they are handled properly and stirred constantly. But for Génoise, we want to heat the eggs just to the point that they can hold a foam structure long enough to last through the baking process. If they are heated beyond that, the cake will become tough and chewy as the network of proteins gets more solid. To achieve the result we want, the eggs must come to a temperature of at least 110F, and we usually heat them to a minimum of 115F for the best results, but if at any point they go over 120F, we'll throw the mixture away and start over. When the cake is baked (after adding a little bit of flour to make a batter out of the whipped eggs and sugar), the foam is just stable enough to last through the baking process, and in fact if you remove the cake from the oven and it is not baked all the way through, the uncooked batter will quickly deflate and you'll have what Chef Marc derisively calls "a flat tire." There is no recovery if this happens -- you just have to start over.

The second preparation we made that involved achieving a narrow temperature range was classic buttercream frosting. As our assistant instructor Chef Matthew (who worked for awhile as a pastry chef) told us, a colleague once told him that the only real purpose of Génoise is to serve as a platform for the delivery of buttercream. The frosting is made from only 3 basic ingredients: egg yolks, sugar, and butter. The frosting is not cooked and there is no liquid in which to dissolve the sugar, but we want the sugar to be soft and not grainy when the finished preparation is at or below room temperature. The solution is to heat the sugar to a stage where its crystal structure will be permanently changed and it would cool into a soft and pliable solid if left on its own and not mixed into our frosting. We'll get this result by heating the sugar to what is called the "soft ball" stage, between 234F and 240F. When it is in that temperature range, a bit of the sugar cooled in ice water can be rolled between your fingers into a soft but cohesive ball. If heated to just below that range, the sugar upon cooling will tend to spin fine threads rather than forming a solid lump or ball; if heated above that range, it will form crunchier and eventually rock-hard solids when it is cooled (this is how hard candies are made). To make buttercream, you beat egg yolks and then mix hot sugar brought to the soft ball stage into the eggs, then cool the mix enough that it will not melt butter, and whip a whole lot of butter into it to form a frosting.

Recipe: Génoise (Whole Egg Sponge Cake)

A good Génoise cake is going to rise a lot in baking, enough that you can make two or three layers by slicing a single cake. It will be 3 or 4 inches tall. This means that you need a pretty deep cake pan to make it, like the deep aluminum pans you'll find in kitchen supply stores that have the sorts of heavy but inexpensive equipment used in restaurant kitchens. You also need a thermometer that you are confident is both accurate to within 2 or 3 degrees and that you can read that precisely.

6-Inch Cake8-Inch Cake
Sugar1/3 cup (75 grams)1/2 cup (125 g)
Cake flour, sifted1/2 cup (75 grams)7/8 cup (125 grams)

Prepare one cake pan (choose a deep pan, at least 2" tall) by buttering and flouring it, line the bottom with parchment paper, and put it in the refrigerator to cool. Preheat the oven to 350F.

It is better to weigh your ingredients if possible, especially the flour, but since many home cooks do not have a scale, I've approximated the equivalent volume measurements.

Get a double-boiler ready by fitting a large bowl (large enough to be able to vigorously whisk the eggs until they triple in volume) over a hot water bath. Do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl. Once you've checked that the bowl fits over your pan and that the water does not come to the bottom of the bowl, set the bowl aside (it must not be hot when you add the raw eggs to it) and heat the water to a simmer.

Put the eggs and sugar into your bowl and begin whisking them with a large balloon whisk. After they come together (about a minute), continue whisking over the hot water bath. Whisk until the eggs are tripled in volume, which will take about 10 minutes (or more like 30 minutes if you are stirring and not whisking, something that as simple as it sounds I did not really understand until Chef Marc yelled at me about 10 times over the course of 20 minutes on the night we first made Hollandaise sauce -- to whisk, you have to rapidly lift the whisk completely out of the egg mixture with each stroke so that you pick up a lot of air). While you whisk, periodically check the temperature of the mix. If you reach 115F, take it off the heat. You must get to at least 110F, 115F is ideal, and if at any point the eggs go over 120F you should throw them away and start over. When you take the temperature, tip the bowl up on its side and lay the thermometer in it along the side of the bowl so that you have a couple inches of the thermometer in the eggs. If you reach the proper temperature before the eggs have been whisked until light and foamy and 3 or 4 times their original volume, take the bowl off the heat to finish whisking.

Fold in the sifted flour with a spatula, trying not to stir too much and deflate the batter. Pour the batter into the buttered and floured cake pan. Spin the pan around quickly one time and bang it firmly on the countertop one time to even out the batter. Place it in the oven and bake until the cake does not keep an indentation you make in its top with your finger. Wait at least 20 minutes before you open the oven door to check it for the first time. The cake will get quite brown before it is finished. My cakes have all taken 35-40 minutes to bake. If the cake is not completely baked, it will collapse when removed from the oven.

When it is finished, remove it from the pan immediately and let it cool on a cooling rack, covered with a damp towel to keep it from drying out. Once it dries, the cake is usually sliced in half (into layers) and middle of the cake is brushed with a simple syrup (a mix of equal parts sugar and water, heated to dissolve the sugar, which you can also flavor with things like whole cloves or cinnamon sticks that you remove before you use the syrup). The cake can absorb a lot of syrup without getting soggy -- I used about 1/2 cup of syrup on one 6-inch cake. You can frost between the layers or not, as you like.

Recipe: Buttercream

1 1/3 cups (300 grams) sugar
1/3 cup water
6 egg yolks
5 sticks (1 1/4 lbs) butter, warmed to room temperature, but not melted

Separate the eggs and put the yolks in a mixing bowl. Discard or reserve the whites for another use.

Have a pastry brush and a bowl of ice water next to the stove before you begin to heat the sugar. Sugar is very hot and can be dangerous, a lot like a pot of hot oil for deep frying, so be careful not to splash yourself; this is an operation for which you might not want any children in the room. Place the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan on the stove over high heat. Do not stir the sugar or shake the pan as it heats, or the sugar may crystalize and you will have to start over. As the sugar and water come to a boil, quickly and repeatedly brush ice water all around the sides of the pan just above the sugar (don't get your brush in the hot sugar) to wash any sugar crystals that form on the sides of the pan down into the rest of the sugar -- you use very cold water so that it will not completely boil away before it can run down the side of the pan into the sugar. When the sugar reaches the soft ball stage (234F-240F), take it off the heat immediately. (Here is a page with good descriptions of the stages of sugar as it is heated.)

As soon as the sugar is off heat, start whipping the egg yolks using a wire whip on a mixer. When they have become a bit pale, start adding the warm sugar while beating the eggs with the wire whip by pouring the sugar down the side of the mixing bowl. Your goal is for the sugar to get down to the eggs without it touching the wire whip, or the whip will fling it against the sides of the bowl and it won't get incorporated into the eggs.

Once all the sugar has been added to the eggs, continue mixing it to cool it until it is no longer hot enough to melt butter. Then, while still mixing with the whip, add the butter until it is completely incorporated. The buttercream is then ready to use. You can flavor or color it however you like, with food coloring dyes, liqueurs, or extracts like vanilla, almond or coffee.

Buttercream will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, or you can freeze it for several months. Bring it to near room temperature to work with it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Controlling Heat and Goal-Oriented Cooking

One of the fundamental skills for a cook to develop is the control and use of heat. Heat is such a basic part of cooking that those of us who control it well take it for granted that everyone knows or should know how to use heat in the kitchen; those of us who don't control it at all probably don't even recognize the application of heat to food as a significant skill in and of itself. Chefs bristle and sometimes even grow angry when asked, "How long should I cook it?" It's an exasperating question to ask a cook, because there is no correct short answer to the question. Often you'll hear the flippant answer, "Until it's done." The chef who gives that answer knows that it isn't helpful to the person who asked, and yet he intends it in a helpful way: he wants to prod the questioner to think about the problem in a different way.

In an analogy that I thought was brilliant, an essay that I read a few months ago said that to tell someone to cook something for five minutes made as much sense as telling them that to get to your house they should drive for five minutes and then turn right. Anyone who drives knows that while the approximate time it will take to get somewhere can be known in advance, you don't use a timer to tell you when to take the next action (like turning right) as you drive. Instead, you look for landmarks or roadsigns. In the same way, a chef assumes that anyone who cooks will know that while the approximate cooking time of something can be known in advance, you can't use time to tell you when to take the next action (like adding the next ingredient, or deglazing your pan, or serving the finished dish) as you cook something. Instead you need to learn what signs to look for that the food being cooked has reached the state where it is time for the next step.

Most cookbooks encourage the idea that elapsed time is how to tell when something is cooked. Every step of a recipe that tells you to cook something also tells you how long to cook it. I've read that there are often battles between chefs and cookbook editors about whether to include timings in recipes or not. The editors and publishers always win the argument, and they are probably right to think that they will have a difficult time selling a cookbook that doesn't say anything about how long you should cook your onions before you add your tomatoes. Yet the fact remains that for many recipes, if you "cook over medium heat for five minutes" as instructed, whether the food you make comes out well or not is mostly a matter of luck (or your skill at knowing from the context and dish whether the author meant for you to saute or sweat the food), and not related to the quality of the dish or the recipe.

The more I cook, and the more I write about cooking and try to describe recipes to friends either in writing or while I'm talking to them, the more I believe that most of what you do in cooking, especially when you apply heat to something, is "goal-oriented." What I mean is that in every step of a recipe, the author has in mind some state that the food will be in at the end of that step. Usually the goal (the state in which the food should be) is not explicitly stated. Instead of telling you what the goal is, recipes generally give you an action to carry out, such as our earlier example, "cook over medium heat for five minutes." It's not only the "five minutes" part of that instruction that might or might not work out as intended; the "medium heat" bit leaves even more room for error. The cook would be better off if he were told, "Cook over medium heat until softened but still with some bite, and pale white or yellow in color, which might take about five minutes." Depending on your skill, how many other things you have going on in the kitchen at the same time, what kind of pan you use, how much heat you apply and how much you stir or shake the pan, that step might take anywhere from 3 minutes to 20 minutes. But if you focus on the goal -- soft texture and pale color -- you'll get the step right no matter how much time is involved.

It's difficult to write a goal-oriented cookbook that can be used by a general audience. One common approach is to include an introductory chapter or two in the book, before the chapters of recipes, with general information and instructions. But reality is that most people aren't ever going to read that stuff (though for me it is the most-read parts of the cookbooks I own). Another approach I've seen is to describe the goals of each step right in the recipe. One of the cookbooks that is among the handful of important books in my own development as a cook is Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, and in it Bayless often takes a fairly long paragraph to describe each step. Since so many of the techniques are common to a lot of the recipes, he repeats the same description of a step several times throughout the book, so that when you go to make anything, you have everything you need to know right there in the recipe in front of you. As a result, many of his recipes take 3 pages or more of text, which can deter people from reading or attempting them. But it was a transformative book for me, because it started me along the road to thinking of every step in cooking a dish as having a desired outcome, and not just as a direction to be followed in the hope that everything would turn out well at the end of all of the steps.

Whenever you apply heat to food, you should know what your goal is. For example, when you cook anything in oil in a pan, you should at least know whether you want it to get browned or not, and in addition you might want to know whether you're trying to drive out none, some or most of its moisture. Recipes often don't specify these things, although they do sometimes throw you a hint about the color ("golden brown") you want to achieve, which can be helpful. In writing and describing recipes, I'm starting to think that describing at the beginning of the recipe the important intermediate goals to keep in mind as you cook is the way I like to tackle the issue. The "Cooking Objectives" section of the Potato Leek Soup recipe I posted here awhile ago is an example.

Once you know what your goals are, you can depart from the directions of your recipes and use your own methods to achieve them. Recently I read an article by Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin, regarded as the best restaurant in New York by many people (and where I ate the best piece of cooked salmon I've ever had), in which he outlined the most important aspects of the way he cooks a fish fillet. A couple of them were to heat the oil until it's smoking before you put in the fillet, and then put the fillet in skin-side down and press down on it firmly with a spatula to prevent the skin from curling. Not long after I read that, I saw an interview with Tom Colicchio, the founding executive chef (he has since moved on) of Gramercy Tavern, the restaurant where I had the best cooked striped bass (my "go-to" fish) dish I ever ate. He said in a nutshell, "You don't have to get your oil that hot, and pressing it down with a spatula like many chefs do is unnecessary." Who is right? Well, both are -- they can both produce perfectly-cooked fish, with crispy skin, using different techniques. Their goals are the same, their methods are different. But the lesson here is not that the technique doesn't matter, because you can't mix-and-match your favorite parts of each way of doing it: if you use very hot oil, you need to press with the spatula, or the fish will curl away from the pan and it won't cook correctly at all. I've used both methods successfully, and I don't really have a favorite, although based on how good the results have been a few times, if I needed to make a perfect fish fillet for a special plate, I'd go with the smoking oil and spatula. But again, to use that method, you need to know your goals and keep them in mind. You don't want to burn the fish, and when you use high heat often it's the fat (oil) that burns before the food does, and since the oil will move around in the pan and coat the food, burned oil will make the fish taste acrid and bitter even if you don't overheat its surface. The solution is to use a pan of the right size, that will just accommodate the fish you want to cook (with a half inch or a bit more between the pieces), but not any larger, because what burns your oil is having a large surface area of your pan over the burner without any food in contact with it to absorb the heat.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jean-Luc's Favorite Wines

Last week, I went to a great wine tasting event at Le Du's wine shop, a store hidden (but well-known) in an out-of-the-way corner of the Meat Packing District. The event was called "Jean-Luc's Favorite Wines," and it was basically a good excuse for the owner of the store to get a bunch of us to pay for him to get to open and drink some of his best wines. But I think most people there would gladly pay for him to do that any chance they get -- he is an entertaining speaker and chooses terrific wines.

Jean-Luc Le Du was the wine director for Daniel Boulud for 10 years before he left to open his own wine shop. I think of that job as the wine analog of being manager of the New York Yankees: if you wanted to be in the wine profession in the United States in some capacity other than a winemaker and you could pick from any job, that would have to be in your top handful of choices. He was born in France and hails from Brittany (where, as he says, they don't make any wine, but they produce a lot of very nice pigs), but didn't discover wine until he came to the United States in the mid-eighties. A friend opened his eyes to outstanding wines with a bottle of 1964 Château Cheval Blanc, a well-known Bordeaux from Saint-Emilion. As Jean-Luc tells it, "I didn't know anything about wine. I thought you could just go to a liquor store with five dollars and ask for a sixty-four Château Cheval Blanc." (Current bottlings are around $300 now.) But he fell in love with wine and became determined to learn about it, and began buying $100 worth of wine every week, which must have gone quite a long way in the United States in the eighties, before this country really discovered wine and our demand pushed prices up.

We had eight wines (about a half glass of each) over the course of two hours at the tasting, with Jean-Luc speaking extemporaneously about each one for fifteen minutes or more. At times, people remarked that they didn't like something as much, or didn't taste in the wine what Jean-Luc did, and a couple of times in response he made people laugh by pointing at the top of the sheet that listed the wines and had as its title, "My Favorite Wines," and saying, "If you look to the top of your sheet, you'll see it is called MY favorite wines; your favorite wines might be something else," but he said it in a light-hearted way, not at all defensively or dismissively. The lineup featured one champagne, one white wine, four red wines, and two dessert wines:
  • Vintage Champagne: Egly Ouriet 2000
  • Old White Burgundy: Puligny Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru, Nicolas Potel 1990
  • Northern Rhone Syrah: Cornas, Auguste Clape 2005
  • Priorat Blend: Clos Mogador 2005
  • Old Bordeaux: Château Grand Puy Lacoste 1982
  • Old Barolo: Barolo, Giacomo Conterno 1971
  • Dessert Wine, Late Harvest Loire Valley Chenin Blanc: Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine Foreau 2005
  • Dessert Wine: Banyuls, Dr. Parce 1961

Egly Ouriet 2000

The champagne was the first that I've ever had that I would say had a distinct character and the body of a "real" wine. I drink a fair amount of sparkling wine nowadays, often with cheeses instead of desserts in restaurants, and most of it tastes to me like good nondescript dry white wine with a bit of apple flavor to it that I like. This champagne was made of chardonnay grapes, and had the butteriness and heft of a chardonnay, and the toastiness of a bit of age. It had been oaked a bit, but not so much that it was obtrusive. During Jean-Luc's remarks, I picked up some very basic sparkling wine knowledge that is pretty obvious when you stop and think about it for a moment, but was new to me nevertheless: "blanc de blanc" means the wine was made with chardonnay grapes, and "blanc de noir" means the wine was made with pinot noir grapes. (Dark grapes are often used to make white wines: the color in red wines comes from leaving the skins on during the processing of the grapes; if you remove the skins early, the flesh of the grape is light and you get a white wine.)

Most champagnes are made to taste sort of nondescript, because the producer's goal with nonvintage champagnes and sparkling wines (probably most readers of this have only ever had nonvintage sparkling wine) is for them to taste pretty much the same from year to year so that the consumer will know what he's getting in the bottle. Like most food products where your goal is to be able to duplicate the same flavor over and over without variation, nonvintage champagnes are made by blending together raw ingredients from a wide variety of sources: wine from a lot of different grapes (the same variety, but harvested from different sites) grown in a lot of different years is combined to drive out the distinguishing characteristics of any one of them, leaving the producer with a wine that is more a reflection of how it was made than what it was made from. This is not a bad thing, because often you want something simple and good that will be exactly what you expect, a wine clearly in the style of some well-known producer, but if you only ever try nonvintage sparkling wines, you're guaranteed to miss the best and most interesting champagnes. After tasting this wine, I will look for vintage sparkling wines more in restaurants.

Puligny Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru, Nicolas Potel 1990

The white Burgundy that we tasted from 1990 was probably the standout wine of the tasting for me (although its hard to say that, because nearly every wine there was the standout the moment I first tried it). It is the first time I've ever had a white wine where I understood why someone might pay a lot of money for a white wine. This wine showed a lot of depth and many layers of flavor. A lot of the acidity had gone away with age, allowing everything else about the wine to come forward. Both this and the vintage champagne we had were a very deep golden color, pretty to look at, although later in the tasting in response to a comment someone made, Jean-Luc said that in his experience shades or depth of color tell you nothing at all about the quality of a wine or how it will taste.

Cornas, Auguste Clape 2005

The first red we had was a syrah from Cornas, in the northern Rhone. Jean-Luc said, "To me, this is syrah," and by saying that he was drawing a contrast with the style of shiraz from Australia, often big red wines with a lot of alcohol. This wine tasted a bit chalky to me, maybe what you might more politely call a mineral flavor. I thought it also had the distinct and strong smell of the Elmer's glue paste we used when we were five years old, but a friend that I shared that observation with thought it was more like rubber cement. Despite these descriptions, it was a very good wine, maybe the wine I would be most likely to buy among the reds we tried. We had the 2005 bottling, and it was a little rough and will be better with age. Jean-Luc said that he had just gotten in the 2001 of the same wine, and thought that morning about serving it instead of the 2005, but he had already sent out the list of wines to everyone attending, and didn't want to get in an argument with any of his paying customers about a change in the list of promised wines.

Priorat Blend: Clos Mogador 2005

The next red was from Priorat, in northeastern Spain just down the coast from France and Barcelona. This might have been my favorite red of the night, though not as interesting to me as the Cornas. It was a blend of Grenache and other grapes, much like what you find in southern Rhone wines (the most well-known being Chateauneuf du Pape). Jean-Luc talked about a conversation he'd had with a maker of southern Rhone blends who said that it is no mystery why wines from that region have been made from blends of a lot of grapes for hundreds of years: none of the grapes alone makes a great wine. Spanish wines are to me the easiest to identify from their taste. Most of the Spanish wine I've had seems to taste and smell a little bit like a tapas restaurant (perhaps it's really the other way around). This wine tasted like a southern Rhone wine that had been decanted and left to absorb tastes out of the air in a tapas restaurant. That remark doesn't begin to do it justice, though -- it was a lot more interesting than that. I liked this wine a lot.

Château Grand Puy Lacoste 1982

The next two red wines were really the deciding factor in my decision to spend the money to go to this tasting: a 1982 Bordeaux and a 1971 Barolo. The chance to taste one of those kinds of wines, let alone two of them, without spending hundreds of dollars doesn't come along all that often, at least not so far in my short wine life. They were both offered for sale at the tasting, for between $300 and $400 a bottle. Surprisingly (to me, at least), they were my least favorite wines of the night. But I am still very glad to have gotten to try both of them.

Both red Bordeaux and Barolo wines are very tannic, and can generally benefit from aging. Tannin, found in the skins of dark grapes, gives a red wine roughness and bitterness, but it is also what usually allows a wine to be aged. To give you some idea of the kind of edge it gives to a wine, tannic acid has a similar quality to and is the main taste in (unsweetened, obviously, and un-lemoned) iced tea. Tannins give a wine what is often called "structure," the layers of taste that you pick up in different parts of your mouth in different sequences as you taste a wine by holding it in your mouth for several seconds (or, for some wines, several minutes). The '82 Bordeaux had lost nearly all of its tannic taste, and therefore all of its "structure," and Jean-Luc remarked that it was on the verge of "falling apart." In addition it had lost nearly all of the taste of the original fruit. In fact, until I tasted this wine, I'm not sure that I really understood what it meant for a red wine to taste "fruity" other than in a very obvious way. When all of the fruit has aged away, it really hits you how fruity every other red wine is, even those that are so tannic and bitter that they aren't ready to drink. In some sense it was a very pure expression of Bordeaux, and aside from the obvious novelty aspect of getting to try an old wine, that is why I am glad to have tasted it. Take away the tannic bitterness and the regular old grape fruitiness, and what you're left with is the concentrated essence of the land that the wine came from, the minerals and nutrients and organisms in the soil, the taste and smell of the air that gave life to the vines. I thought of it like a consomme of Bordeaux. Someone remarked that it had the quality of a perfume, which I think is a good way to describe it: a light but very distinctive and powerful aroma and flavor.

Barolo, Giacomo Conterno 1971

This was my least favorite of the wines we had, though again I am glad to have tried it. Good Barolos are among my favorite wines, and one of the things I enjoy about eating in restaurants in New York is that you can often find them available by the glass because there's enough of a market here that a restaurant can go through several bottles a night of a good wine even if they have to charge $30 a glass, and they won't end up wasting most of a bottle because only one glass is sold. Barolo and Barbaresco wines from northern Italy are made from a grape called nebbiolo, which might be the most tannic grape of any used to make wines. The wines can be very rough and assertive when young, and they benefit more than other wines from being decanted well in advance of drinking -- leaving them in the glass for at least a couple of hours before you drink them is a good idea. This wine, like the Bordeaux, had lost most of the fruit in its taste. But unlike the Bordeaux, it still had a tannic edge to it. Jean-Luc said that no matter how long you age a wine made from nebbiolo grapes, it will still show tannins: he's never had one that completely lost its tannic bite. For my taste, at least at this point in my novice wine appreciation career, some of the fruit is necessary if the wine is still going to have its tannic edge. As Jean-Luc kept reminding us by pointing to the "My" in the "My Favorite Wines" title on the sheet he had passed out at the beginning of the night, each of us likes different things in food and wine (and anything else), and some friends that were also at the tasting liked this wine so much that they bought the only bottle available for sale in the store.

Vouvray Moelleux, Domaine Foreau 2005

The first of our dessert wines was a chenin blanc from the Loire valley. I haven't had many dessert wines, but I used to have a friend that liked Tokaji (pronounced "toh-kie," rhyming with "eye") dessert wines from Hungary quite a bit, and I've tasted a few of those. They taste to me like a minerally honey. This reminded me of those Tokajis, but with much more of an emphasis on the honey and not so much mineral edge. It was very sweet, but still with interesting complexity to its flavor, and not just like drinking a syrup. If price were no object, of the wines we had, this one would be second on my list to buy so I could try it again and share it with others (the first, if price were no object, would be the 1990 white Burgundy).

Banyuls, Dr. Parce 1961

Jean-Luc said this was the wine he had been most looking forward to for the evening. I believe Banyuls is a wine made in southern France just north of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Everyone says it is something like Port wine, although I haven't liked the Ports I've had that were said to be very good ones, and I've liked Banyuls every time I've had it. It is amber in color, not the deep, dark red or purple of port. I didn't find anything remarkable about it, though that is mostly because I haven't had enough examples of it to identify anything that distinguishes one from another. Jean-Luc said it is a real "wine geek" wine, in that it is a wine that is nearly impossible to find. He said that almost any famous wine you want you can get if you simply have enough money -- if you want a bottle of '47 Petrus or '61 Lafite, there is one available at nearly every big wine auction, and just by bringing enough money to the table you can get hold of them. But a nearly 50-year-old Banyuls is a real rarity, and you could see the enjoyment on Jean-Luc's face as he tasted the wine.

All in all, I'm glad I got to try all of those wines. One of my friends who was at the tasting asked Jean-Luc near the end, since he had been repeatedly and humorously making the point that these were his favorite wines, when he was going to have a tasting of his second-favorite wines. I hope he does so before too long -- I'll be there.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Recipe: Chimay Style Stuffed Eggs

Tonight was egg night at school. This is one of the dishes we made: eggs stuffed with mushrooms and egg yolks. I was very pleasantly surprised by how good this was.

Ingredients (for six small servings):
3 eggs, hard boiled
For duxelles:
     1 shallot, finely chopped
     4 white button mushrooms, finely chopped
     Juice of 1/2 lemon
     1-2 Tbsp butter
For Sauce Mornay:
     1 Tbsp butter
     1 Tbsp flour
     1 cup milk
     Salt and pepper
     4 Tbsp Gruyere cheese, grated
     1 egg yolk
     Cayenne pepper

First, hard boil the eggs. There are a few ways to do this so that the yolks don't turn green on their surface. At school the official procedure is to place eggs in a pot with enough cold water to cover them and then about an inch more because some will evaporate when you start to heat it. Bring the water (with the eggs in it) to a boil, and once it is boiling, lower your heat to a simmer and cook the eggs for 11 minutes. Take them out of the hot water and put them into ice water to cool them off. After a few minutes, tap the shell so that it cracks, and put them into cold water with their shell cracked. The water will seep in between the shell and the egg white and make it easier to peel the hard boiled eggs.

Next, prepare a mushroom duxelles. Chop your white mushrooms and shallot finely, so they are in pieces about 1/8" or 3/16" -- 1/4" is too large. When the mushrooms are chopped, put them in a bowl and squeeze the lemon juice into them and toss them. Melt the butter in a small pan, add the shallots, and cook over low to medium-low heat -- what you want is for the shallots to begin to soften, but not brown at all. (This is called "sweating" the shallots.) When the shallots have begun to turn a bit translucent, after about 3-4 minutes, add the mushrooms to the pan, and salt them. Cook over low heat until the mushrooms release their water into the pan and then the water evaporates and the mushrooms are soft. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.

At this point, preheat your oven. It doesn't really matter much what temperature -- 350 or so is fine.

Now, prepare your eggs. Peel them (remove the shells) if you haven't already, and cut them in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks, and set the egg white halves aside -- those are what you will be stuffing soon. Crush the yolks with a fork so that they end up in smaller pieces than your shallot and mushrooms, and add stir them into the shallot-mushroom mixture.

Then it's time to do your sauce. Start by getting one egg yolk ready in a small bowl. Next, melt the butter in a small saucepan, then stir the flour into it, and once it is smooth cook that mixture over low heat for about 3 minutes. Don't let it get too warm, or it'll start to brown. It should just barely have some foaming bubbles to it, and you'll need to stir it every minute or so to keep it from browning. This is a "white roux," perhaps the most standard of classical sauce thickeners. Now, with a whisk ready to go in one hand, and the milk already measured and sitting next to your stove, raise the heat on your roux to high, and while whisking (start whisking the roux by itself before you start to pour), pour in about a quarter of the milk, and whisk it to try to break up lumps that form. Then, still whisking (but not as urgently), add the rest of the milk. Bring it all the way to a boil, and then reduce the heat so that it doesn't foam up and overflow your pan (but it should still gently boil), and whisk it for about 30 seconds to a minute. It should thicken up into a saucelike consistency. At this point, you have one of the five classic "mother sauces" (these are a few basic sauces that serve as the starting point for almost any sauce in a western dish) called "Béchamel." (If you followed the same process but used a light stock, like chicken, vegetable, or fish stock, instead of the milk, you'd have another of the mother sauces, Velouté.)

Take a couple of spoons of the sauce and stir them into your mushroom and egg yolk mixture. You can do this to taste -- this mixture is going to be the stuffing for your eggs, so you want it solid enough that you can mound it up on top of the egg white halves and it won't run at all. Otherwise, how much sauce to stir into it is only a matter of what kind of texture you think you'll like.

Now start to transform your Béchamel sauce into Sauce Mornay. Stir about half of the cheese into the sauce. (At this point, if you were serious about your sauce, you would strain it, but for home cooking if you don't feel like it, you can skip straining. The price of skipping it is that your sauce will be a little bit pasty in texture, and may have small floury lumps in it.) In a separate small bowl, stir up the egg yolk, and then add one small spoon of your white sauce to the egg yolk and stir them together. This is called "tempering" the egg, and its purpose is to prevent the egg from curdling (scrambling) when you add it to the sauce, which you're about to do. Remove the white sauce from the heat.

While the white sauce cools a bit before you stir the egg into it, use a fork or spoon to stuff the mushroom and egg yolk mix into your egg white halves. Mound it up on the eggs so there is plenty of stuffing on top of each egg. Place the eggs onto something that can go in the oven -- a regular old dinner plate is fine.

Finally, stir the tempered egg yolk into the white sauce. Season it with a pinch of cayenne pepper and nutmeg, and then taste it and add salt until it tastes like a nice sauce. Spoon the sauce over the stuffed eggs. Top each egg with a bit of the remaining Gruyere cheese. Place them in the oven to thoroughly warm the eggs, stuffing, and sauce, and melt the cheese, for about 4 minutes or so. If you want to brown up the tops a bit, you can put them under a broiler for a short time.

Now that I've written this out, I realize that as usual, I've probably overestimated its simplicity in the view of the average home cook. I think of this as being a simple recipe, something you might throw together for friends on a whim. I guess that's why cooking school is not a bad place for me to be.

When I describe a recipe for a general audience, it takes a lot of words. (Soon, I plan to write a piece about why this is, including an idea I've been considering for a bit of a new kind of cookbook someday.) If I were to write this recipe for myself or another cook, it would be much shorter, something like this:

- Hard boil and peel 3 eggs.
- Prepare a mushroom duxelles using the mushrooms, shallot, and lemon.
- Halve the eggs lengthwise, set the whites aside, grate or mash the yolks, and add them to the duxelles.
- Make a Béchamel. Add a bit of Béchamel to the duxelles and yolks. Stir half the cheese into the Béchamel, and strain.
- Temper the egg yolk, and stir it into the sauce. Season the sauce with cayenne pepper, nutmeg and salt.
- Stuff the eggs with the duxelles and yolks, top with the sauce and remaining cheese, bake to heat through and melt the cheese.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Recipe: Pommes Darphin

One of my favorite potato side dishes that I've been introduced to in school is Pommes Darphin (rhymes with "pan"), which is like a thick potato pancake or latke that is made with nothing but potatoes, salt and pepper, and the oil and butter it is cooked in. While most potato cakes like this are held together by the addition of eggs or flour, this is only held together by its own starch.

To make it, you need some way to quickly cut one or two whole potatoes into julienne, which means matchsticks about 2mm in thickness. A bit thinner than that is even better -- at school, we use a mandolin, and at home I use a Benriner slicer, which is a Japanese mandolin. Usually you can't vary the width of a julienne cut on a mandolin, but the thickness of slices can be adjusted any way you like. To make Pommes Darphin, I set it to slice just a bit thinner than the widths of the sticks it cuts, so they have a slightly rectangular (oblong) cross section. The cooked potatoes will look nicer and hold together better if the sticks are thin enough that they flop around easily before you cook them, rather than staying rigid like wooden matches.

There are two things to keep in mind to make this: first, you want all of the starch in the potatoes, so you can't cut them ahead of time and soak them in water or you'll draw the starch out and get rid of it; second, you need to find the right level of medium heat that is high enough to brown the potatoes but not so high that they get burned before they are cooked through.

Pommes Darphin in the pan; the cake is thicker
than it looks in this picture, or at least it should be.
Even though it looks very thin and flat, you can see that
it is thick enough that it still has a lot of unbrowned
potato below the surface.

The process is simple: Have an 8-inch fry pan ready on the stove and a flavorless oil (like vegetable oil) at hand. Peel a potato, or two if they are small. Put your burner on low to begin heating your pan. Cut the potato into julienne (matchsticks about 1.5mm-2mm thick, and about 3 inches long, or as long as you can get them on whatever device you are using). As soon as the potato is cut, put oil in your pan (about 1/8" deep - a bit more than the film you'd normally use to sauté something, but not as much as you'd use to really fry). Salt and pepper the potatoes and toss them so they get seasoned throughout. Put the whole pile of potatoes into the pan (it should look like a little too many potatoes for the pan), adjust the heat so they are browning but not popping violently, and use a spatula to press them down and gather the sides up into a nice even circular shape. When the edges of the bottom are very browned (after about 4 minutes; the center will probably be less browned than the edges), the cake should hold together well enough that you can flip it over with a spatula. Once you've turned it, put about a half teaspoon of butter in each of four spots around the edge of the pan (so four teaspoons total, or a bit more than a tablespoon), like you're dotting the points of a compass. At this point, you can probably turn the heat down just a bit to cook it through without burning.

When it's done (after another 4 minutes or so cooking the second side), you can drain it on a cooling rack or on paper towels, and hit it with more salt if you want. If it cools too much or you want to make more than one or make them ahead, you can reheat them in the oven later. The cake is usually cut into slices for serving, sort of like a pizza. If you were plating it as a side dish, you could use a quarter or sixth of the cake on each plate. But usually when I make it, I just eat the whole thing as soon as it's ready, sort of like a pizza.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Oysters on a Chicken

Quartering a chicken was one of the things that we were told we might be evaluated on at our first exam earlier this week. There are a couple things that chefs always do when cutting up a chicken that I had never done at home, beginning with removing the wishbone. The first thing that anyone at the FCI does when starting to work on a whole chicken is remove the wishbone. You can feel the bone right at the front of the breast meat, forming the familiar wishbone "V" with the point of the V on the breast side of the chicken and the neck above the wide end of the V. To remove it, you feel where it is with your fingers, and then use just the tip of your paring knife to cut the breast meat away from the sides of the wishbone, holding the side of the knife right against the bone so that you don't take any meat out with it. Once the sides of the bone are freed from the meat, you can work your fingers behind both sides of the bone and break it right out. The bone is removed because carving the breast meat off the whole bird is much easier without having that bone in the way and getting the heel of your knife caught on it.

The other thing chefs do carefully when they cut up a chicken is make sure to get a bit of meat right at the end of the thigh bone where it joins the body called the "oyster." (If you have heard of "mountain oysters," have no fear, this is completely unrelated to that.) Chefs often say that the oysters are the best bits of meat in the chicken. I have yet to remember to pay attention as I eat the chicken to see if I can notice any difference: most of the chickens I've eaten since I learned about the oysters have been eaten in about 30 seconds, standing up with a plate in one hand and chunks of chicken held caveman-style in the other hand, with someone yelling at everyone to get working on the next thing or clean up the kitchen so we can go home.

To successfully get the oyster meat, you begin by marking the chicken so that once you begin to cut it up and lose its whole shape, you'll still be able to tell exactly where the oysters are. In the picture below, you can see the oysters as small bumps that I've marked with yellow arrows. They are toward the lower or rear part of the back (where the rear part of the back is toward the upper right in this picture). Using the line between the oysters (which is the line of the backbone), and another line right in front of the oysters (diagonally just below and to the left of the oysters in this picture) clearly visible as an indentation across the back perpendicular to the backbone, you can see an "X" on the back of the chicken, and the center of the X marks how far into the chicken you'll need to cut when removing the leg quarters to make sure you get the oysters. We mark that X by making two straight cuts through the skin of the chicken there before we begin to cut it up. (The chef in the Level 2 kitchen next door to us while we were in Level 1 was named Xavier, and he told his students to remember to make an "X for Xavier" in the back of the chicken.)

Location of the "oysters" near the "X" on the back.

Chef Marc has demonstrated many times for us how to take the leg quarters off and make sure to get the oysters. He makes it look very easy, like he simply takes his knife and nonchalantly slices off the entire leg quarter by effortlessly cutting all the way from the side of the chicken to the center of the X, then rounding the corner and cutting down toward the back, and off comes the whole leg and thigh with no resistance, just as though he carved off a chunk of butter with a warm knife. I tried over and over to do this, but I kept failing at it, and I couldn't figure out why. It was frustrating because every time Chef Marc did it, the whole thing seemed to come right off with no problem, but every time I did it, I ran into a bunch of bone and couldn't get all the way to the middle of the X. At last, with the help of our assistant instructor Chef Matthew, I learned that the oyster sits in a little cup of bone, and that you can't just slice it right off with the middle of your knife. In retrospect, I know now that Chef Marc was lifting his knife all the way up so that as he rounded that corner at the middle of the X, he was only using the tip of the knife to scoop that bit of meat out of the cup of bone and keep it attached to the skin of the thigh. But he did it so quickly and smoothly that I never noticed he was doing it -- you only need to lift your knife for about a half or three-quarters of an inch along each line of the X as you round the corner, so if you do it deftly it looks like part of a natural slicing motion that varies its depth randomly.

Here you can see the cup of bone that the oyster sits in.
It would be easier to see had I gotten the meat out more cleanly.
The cup and the other oyster are indicated by the arrows.

The oyster is probably called an "oyster" because loosening it with your knife is a lot like loosening the meat of an oyster from the half shell it sits in: you hold your knife horizontally against the shell or bone, and run the tip of your knife between the meat and the surface of the bone or shell to separate the meat from the shell. In the picture below, the oyster meat is sitting on top of the blade of my knife, and the point of the knife is resting on the far edge of the cup of bone, so that the knife cannot be angled down any more vertically than it is, because the bone is in the way. This is why you can't get the oyster by just slicing with your knife vertically right around the corner.

The oyster meat sitting on top of my knife.

When you get the leg quarter off, if you've gotten the oyster, it is clearly visible as a separate bit of meat at the end of the thigh bone and sticking out from it slightly on the side of the thigh away from the end of the leg.

The oyster meat on the removed leg quarter.

Another trick that chefs have that I've found works pretty well is to make a cut with a paring knife through the thigh meat along the thigh bone into the top of the drumstick meat. This allows heat to better penetrate the joint between the thigh and the leg, and as a result, you can cook your breast meat properly and the thigh and leg will also be done at the same time. Without that cut, the leg and thigh take longer to cook all the way through that joint. The cut also allows you to easily debone the thigh after cooking right before serving.

Friday, March 7, 2008

First Grade

On Tuesday of this week, all of us in my class at the FCI passed our first "practical exam," at the end of Level 1 of the program, and we began Level 2 on Thursday. As I've told a few people, passing the Level 1 exam is a little like passing a spelling test at the end of first grade: it doesn't mean that you know how to spell, it just means you can spell enough first grade words that you won't be completely lost if you move on to second grade.

The exam was pretty straightforward, consisting of simple (but small -- julienne and brunoise, about 1.5mm, and jardiniere and macedoine, about a half centimeter, or a bit under a quarter inch) vegetable cuts and very plainly cooked vegetables. Like everything else at cooking school, it was good that the actual activity involved in our first experience (in this case, our first exam) was very straightforward, because it gives you a chance to become familiar with a new working environment. The most notable and unexpected aspect of the exam for me was how crowded the room was. Each of us was assigned a position in front of a cutting board, and the boards were arranged on worktables with only about two or three inches of space between them. This meant that you were standing only about 18 inches away from your neighbor on either side. Some expected differences in the exam environment were that we were proctored during the exam by chefs other than our fearless leader, Chef Marc, and no questions were permitted about the instructions given for the exam.

For our first class in Level 2, we made a couple of braised dishes, one a Navarin d'Agneau (leg of lamb in a brown sauce flavored and colored with some tomato), the other Coq Au Vin, chicken marinated and braised in red wine. Those dishes are essentially a continuation of what we'd been doing toward the end of Level 1 right before our exam, but again they served the purpose of introducing us to a new kitchen (Level 2 classes are held in a room with a slightly different arrangement) without having to simultaneously take on some new cooking process.

But from this point on, Level 2 becomes quite different from Level 1. Where Level 1 surveyed each of the basic vegetables and meats and cooking techniques, Level 2 is more of a survey of some special preparations. We'll have classes on stuffings (forcemeats and purees to stuff vegetables or meats or make terrines or pâtés); eggs; tarts, crêpes and other pastries; custards and ice creams; nutrition; food control in a restaurant (ordering, receiving, storing, costing); cheese; rice and pasta.

Looking ahead, Level 3 is said to be the most difficult part of the program. In Level 3, the class is broken into small teams each night, with each team responsible for some part of the kitchen, such as sauces and meat preparation, or garde manger (cold dishes), or pastries, and you make the same handful of dishes over and over again with the goal of being able to make all of them absolutely perfectly by the time you have your midterm at the end of Level 3. There is severe time pressure applied in Level 3, with the delivery time of dishes specified to the minute, and grading deductions for every minute you are late. As Chef Marc told us by way of previewing upcoming attractions, "If you are 20 minutes late with any dish, you can pack your knives and go home."

If we survive that, Level 4 is then the most fun part of the program. In Level 4, the class cooks a meal for the entire school (all of the faculty, staff and students; day students prepare lunch for 300 people, and night students prepare dinner for a couple hundred). What makes it fun is that once you've got the basics covered -- a meat, a vegetable, and a starch -- you get to play around and make whatever else you can find around the kitchen and feel like experimenting with for a captive audience of people interested in what you can do with food. In addition some of the Level 4 students work on "production," which means turning whole animals into cuts of meat for use in cooking. The program ends with Levels 5 and 6, during which you are cooking for the public restaurant operated by the school, L'Ecole.

Brown Chicken Stock

One of our first classes at the FCI is devoted to making stocks, the liquids that are the starting point for soups and sauces. A stock that you make yourself is a lot more versatile than the broths you can buy in stores, mainly because as it cooks and reduces, its flavor and body get deeper without losing freshness and subtlety. The simplest and one of the best sauces can be made simply by reducing a stock by about 4/5 (that is, boil five cups of it until so much of it evaporates that you have only one cup left) and then seasoning it with salt and a bit of pepper. For that to work, you need your stock to have two things that are missing in commercially prepared broths: first, you need the gelatin that comes out of bones when they are simmered for several hours, because that is what will give your reduced stock the thicker consistency of a sauce; second, you need the flavors in the stock to be deep and subtle enough that when you make them five times more concentrated than they were originally, you don't end up with something that tastes artificial or metallic or corn syrupy, all of which you might end up with if you concentrate a commercial broth.

The most basic classification of stocks divides them into "white" and "brown" stocks, named both for their color as well as the way in which you prepare them. While a "white" stock is about the color you probably associate with chicken soup, or maybe a bit lighter or less orange, and a "brown" stock looks a lot like what you think of as a beef broth, most people don't know that the color of a stock or broth does not have to do with the meat used to prepare it. In particular, a chicken stock is not necessarily very much lighter in color than a beef stock. Most of us think of beef stocks as having a much darker color than chicken stocks, but that is primarily due to the coloring added to canned beef stocks, and sometimes also to a bit of tomato cooked into beef stock. Looking at the ingredients listed on a couple of different brands of canned beef stock that I happen to have on hand, both of them list "caramel color" on their labels. When a "real" stock is prepared, its color and the character of its flavor is mainly determined by how you handle the bones, meat, and vegetables that go into it. I've made many good beef stocks that you would be hard-pressed to identify as beef stocks by their color. To illustrate how a homemade brown stock gets its color, and also because a good brown stock can really be a revelation in your home kitchen if you learn some uses for it, I want to present here the process of making a brown chicken stock. (A brown beef stock, or veal stock or lamb stock or game stock, would be made in the same way.)

Chicken trimmed and ready for browning.

Any meat-based stock starts with some bones and meat, and what are called "aromatic vegetables," including nearly always some onion, and for a brown stock carrots. In a white stock, leeks might also be used, and some chefs use celery in either kind of stock, although many do not because it adds some bitterness that they don't want. In a restaurant setting, both the meats and the vegetables commonly come from trimmings left after whole animals and vegetables are cut up for other uses. By "trimmings," we don't mean "garbage" -- bones and meat will be further trimmed to remove as much fat as possible and any other "yucky stuff" before they are used for a stock, and vegetable trimmings used will be peeled and trimmed of any wilted or discolored spots. For my stock, since I don't normally have enough trimmings around to get very far with, I've used fresh vegetables and a bunch of chicken wings and drumsticks that I bought.

Vegetables cut and ready for browning.

The vegetables should make up about 20% of what goes into your stock, and meat and bones to make up the other 80%. The vegetables are roughly cut into chunks all about the same size, and the size is determined by how long your stock is going to simmer. You don't want the vegetables to become so soft that they begin to disintegrate into the stock and cloud it, but you want them small enough that all of their flavor will be extracted in the time your stock cooks. I cut the vegetables for this stock to last for about a 4-6 hour simmer; for a fish stock, which only cooks 30 minutes, I'd have made them a lot smaller, while for a beef stock that cooks 12 hours I'd have made them 2 or 3 times as large, maybe simply quartering the onion and cutting whole carrots into about 3-inch sections.

To prepare the chicken, I cut the wings into sections, because exposing the bones and cutting into the joints allows them to release more flavor and gelatin into the stock. I've also removed as much of the fat and skin as I have the patience to cut away, because those only add fat that clouds the stock's appearance, muddies its taste, and gives it an unpleasant oily texture on the palate.

The chicken after browning for
an hour in a very hot oven.

The first cooking step is to thoroughly brown both the meats and the vegetables. I do them separately because they brown in different amounts of time, and I want to get both as dark as I can without burning them. The meat and bones were tossed with a little oil and then roasted in an oven at 400F-450F for about an hour altogether, and turned over with tongs halfway through their roasting. The vegetables were cooked at pretty high heat in a bit of oil on the stove. For both meat and vegetables, you want to use a flavorless oil with a high smoke point, which in a home kitchen basically means any oil except olive oil, which has both flavor you don't want and a low smoke point that will make it difficult to brown things without burning the oil and introducing an acrid taste. Neither the meat nor the vegetables should be salted or seasoned while you make the stock, for two reasons: you don't want to salt your stock because if you later reduce it into a sauce, you might end up concentrating the salt too much, and salt will also draw the juices and moisture out of things, and you want those to go into your stock and release their flavor there, and not boil off as you brown things.

The vegetables after browning.

Once everything is nicely browned, you put it all into a stockpot. If you want the maximum flavor you can get in your stock, put a bit (a couple of tablespoons to a quarter cup) of water in each of the roasting or sauté pans you use for the browning while they are still hot, and stir it with a spoon scraping the bottom as it sizzles to get all of the browned bits off the bottom of the pan and into the water, and add that water to the stock pot. When everything is in the pot, add enough cold water to completely cover it and then some, because some of your water will evaporate as you simmer the stock. The reason for using cold water is that if you add hot water, bits of protein in the meat will very quickly cook and disperse into the water in very fine particles that become suspended and cloud the stock. When they come up to temperature slowly, those proteins coagulate into larger bits that will float to the surface and they can then be skimmed off the top. You can also add a bit of herbs at this point, but a tiny bit -- unless you know for certain that you're only making enough for a single use, you don't want to add any obtrusive flavors that will make your stock unusable if you were to reduce it a lot or use it to complement other ingredients later. The classic additions would be a "bouquet garni" made up of a bay leaf, and a tiny bit (a single sprig or less, if fresh) of thyme and parsley, and maybe with three to five whole peppercorns and a whole (peeled) clove of garlic.

The stock pot right after adding cold water.
Notice the film of crud already on top that should be
skimmed immediately.

The next step is to bring the stock to a simmer, but without ever letting it achieve a full boil. (If you only care about flavor and not the appearance of your stock, you can go ahead and make it at a full boil, forget all of the skimming, and ignore everything in this paragraph. You'll make a very nice stock, but one that wouldn't be good for clear soups or some very refined sauces, both of which many of us never make anyway.) Boiling will cause all of the impurities released by cooking the meats and vegetables to get broken up into fine particles and churned back into the liquid, clouding the stock. As soon as water is added to the pot, you'll see small particles swirling all around in it, and floating to the top. They should be skimmed off the top as often as possible. As the stock heats up, foam will rise to the top, and should be skimmed off. Skimming is a slow and tedious operation, usually done with a large spoon or a ladle. The easiest way to skim is to move the bottom of your spoon or ladle lightly in circles around the center of the pot and that will push the foam and particles to the edges of the pot, where they are easier to lift off with the edge of your spoon or ladle against the wall of the pot.

The stock with foam rising to the top.

If you are diligent about not letting your stock boil and skimming it every 5-10 minutes or so (less often as time goes on) as it comes to a simmer and during the first hour that it cooks at temperature, you'll notice that after that first hour you don't have nearly as much gunk coming up to the top. At that point, you are home free -- just cook your stock at a very low simmer, so that it just barely has small bubbles in one or two spots at the edges of the pot, for another 6 hours or so, skimming it as you have time. (When I make a brown stock on a weeknight, I usually start around 7pm, have things browned up by about 8:30pm, and begin heating the stock and finally have it stabilized at a simmer around 9pm, and I've skimmed it enough by 10:30pm or so that it no longer cruds up very much or very quickly; at that point, I can go to bed with the stock over a very low flame, maybe not even bubbling, and finish the process in the morning -- since I've skimmed it thoroughly during that first hour or two, it won't cloud up if I very gently cook it unattended for a few hours.)

A couple minutes after the picture of the foam
above, the stock has been skimmed.
(Apologies for this blurry picture.)

Once it simmers for about 6 hours altogether, you can strain your stock. To keep it as clear as possible, you would ladle it out of the pot and through a strainer. In practice, unless I have some very special purpose in mind for my stock, as long as it looks pretty clear and free of foam and small particles (in other words, if you've skimmed it well), I just pour the whole pot through a strainer into another pot. Then you need to cool it as quickly as possible, because there's almost no better way to grow bacteria than to use a warm stock (in fact, labs often use warm beef stock to grow bacterial cultures quickly). One way to cool it quickly is to fill a smaller pot or metal bowl (glass won't really work, because it insulates too well and in addition might break) with a lot of ice and a bit of water, and set that small pot into your pot of beef stock and move it around to stir the stock with it. You'll get your stock below room temperature within 5 or 10 minutes, and you can refrigerate it after that.

Cooling the stock with ice.

The last step is to degrease your stock. As it cools, excess fat will float to the top, and eventually the fat will become solid and you can lift it off. Often if you trimmed the fat away from the meat and bones before you started, and skimmed the stock well during that first hour or two of cooking, it will have almost no fat in it. If you have a good clear stock that looks like it doesn't have a lot of fat in it, a good trick is to float a covering of plastic wrap on top of it when you put in in the refrigerator, and once it is cooled the fat will come off when you peel the plastic away.

I used about 16 chicken wings and 8 chicken legs to make the stock pictured here, and started with a little more than a gallon of cold water. The final yield was about 7 cups (a bit less than a half gallon) of stock. I could have started with a bit more water, but I could also slightly dilute this stock to make a soup and I won't have to reduce it as much to make sauces.

A bit of the finished stock in a saucepan,
along with some refrigerated bits of it on a saucer
(good stocks form a gelatin when cooled).

Finally, now that we have a good brown stock, I'll show you a couple of the simple dishes we've made in class with brown stocks. Normally we use brown veal stock, the workhorse all-purpose stock of restaurant kitchens, but a brown chicken stock works just fine here.

First, we have Poulet Sauté Chasseur, or Sautéed Chicken, Hunter Style. For this dish, I quartered a chicken, salted it well, and browned it in a skillet in a bit of oil over very high heat (the chicken goes in just as the oil begins to smoke), and then finished the chicken by putting the skillet into the oven. While the chicken finished, to make the sauce, shallots and sliced white button mushrooms are cooked in another pan, then flambéed with brandy and deglazed with white wine before adding the brown stock with a bit of chopped tomato and reducing it to the consistency of a sauce. Just before serving, the sauce is further enhanced with chopped fresh tarragon and chervil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. The version pictured below is less "saucy" than the dish is supposed to be, but it was good nevertheless.

Poulet Sauté Chasseur

Second, we made a breaded chicken cutlet, garnished colorfully compared to the many very brown dishes we've mostly made in the past few weeks. This dish is simply a chicken breast pounded flat by placing it between large sheets of plastic wrap and hitting it with a mallet, then breaded à l'anglaise (in flour, then eggs, then bread crumbs) and cooked in clarified butter for about 90-120 seconds on each side. It is garnished with hard boiled egg whites and egg yolks pushed through a sieve, capers, parsley, a slice of lemon, and an olive wrapped with an anhovy filet. The sauce is brown stock thickened with a bit of cornstarch dissolved in a couple tablespoons of water to make a slurry, then seasoned with salt and pepper.

Chicken Cutlet with Brown Sauce