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Archive for the ‘Intermediate Cuisine’ Category

The scheduling of our exam was the cause of a fair amount of angst.  The exam was first scheduled to allow for groups of 8 in each of the three kitchens.  A couple days later, the exam was rescheduled and we found 4 persons in the largest kitchen, which holds 15, and the remainder of us in two groups of 10 crammed into the small kitchens.   A group of tourists would come for a soup workshop that day and their class would start at 3 pm. Therefore, the large kitchen would need to fully cleaned and vacated.  Less students, less cleaning was the logic.

As I was scheduled to be the 10th person in the second kitchen I was a wreck as it meant all the equipment would be in use, the produce would be picked over and I would struggle to finish in the 2.5 hours.  That night I ranted on at dinner with friends about the unfairness.  I was determined that I would convince them a change must again be made.  After all were we not paying an exorbitant amount of money for this course?

I went to see the academic director to discuss the matter and was informed it was not possible to make any further changes.  Having heard the phrase “it’s not possible” in Holland for 3 years, I have come to realize this statement is rarely true.  One needs to be a bit more ingenious, creative and flexible for in fact everything is possible!

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We are at the end of the Intermediate Cuisine journey at Cordon Bleu; 4 weeks of non stop deboning, stuffing meat with meat, tomato concassé and endless flavors of flans. I am exhausted and ready to be done.

Cordon Bleu often has guests attend our demonstrations, of course they pay for the privilege, in fact I was one of these guests once. Today in the second final demonstration class there is a man is sitting in the second last row, smiling from ear to ear, as Chef Patrick leads us through the recipes. My exhaustion fades a little bit seeing his happy face. He is enthralled to watch the demo and participate alongside our class of wanna be chefs. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to be here and have this opportunity. Thank you kind sir for reminding me.

Our recipe is Flemish in origin (French and Dutch) and a somewhat unlikely match, cod and purple cabbage. Purple cabbage is a glorious color and will be gorgeous on the plate with the white cod fish. The cabbage is cooked in two stages, boiled and then baked with onions, apples and red wine. The cod simply pan fried to perfection.

To ensure the color is preserved, the thinly sliced cabbage is placed in a large pot with cold water and vinegar. The water is then brought up to a simmer and the cabbage is cooked for 20 minutes or more. While the cabbage cooks, chopped onions (2/3 cabbage to 1/3 onion ratio) are sautéed in butter seasoned with salt, crushed juniper berry, a tsp of sugar and under a paper lid on the stovetop until soft. As the onions are cooking, peel and dice an apple then add to the onions and continue to cook.

At the 20 minute mark, or when the cabbage is tender, drain and mix together with the onion mixture, return the paper lid and place all in the oven at 190 C for 40 min. We are warned by Chef Patrick to taste the cabbage before plating to be certain it is fully tender as any though stalks will be unpleasant with the delicate cod fish. That means dear students get the cabbage in the oven first and foremost in your practical!

The garnish is onion rings and beer sauce which make for a strange combination with fish and cabbage. Perhaps this is the reason you don’t see a lot of Flemish restaurants popping up in neighborhoods around the world. Just how do you make a sauce with beer? Well let me explain!

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I love risotto.   It has all kinds of flavors for all seasons.  To me this is an Italian dish through and through, originating in the north of Italy and exported to the world.  Curiously I am finding this lovely comforting dish in the Intermediate curriculum of French cooking at the Cordon Bleu.

Never mind, I am happy to see it there.  Risotto is my old friend and I am happy to see him and I felt a rush of confidence.  My notes can be scant, my demeanor in class relaxed.  The only thing I forgot, this is Cordon Bleu and although I thought I was in my zone there were many more elements to a successful dish than a mere risotto.

The title of the dish we were to create – veal tenderloin cooked pink with creamy risotto.   Straight forward except for the asparagus coulis and trimmed stalks of asparagus, a Duxelles of mushrooms and a Mornay sauce.  What could be easier?

Quite honestly I felt very in control of the elements with the exception of the coulis.  The generosity of the produce was a tad underwhelming leaving each of us with a mere 4 asparagus.  As my goal is to plate a coulis AND asparagus – 4 stalks creates a challenge.  Our practical Chef, Guillaume, suggested using the fibrous ends of the green veg so we all adhered.

The blender whirs and whirs to try and cut through the stringy mess, but to no avail.  I choose to sieve the green mush, but then had little to plate so I relented and mixed it all back together.   The remaining two stalks, delicately prepared, were blanched and then sautéed in butter and olive oil.

The Duxelles, I always enjoy preparing, for I love mushrooms through and through.   Add to the béchamel and voila Mornay Sauce.  A quick sauté of the veal, seasoned to perfection, in delicious unsalted butter with thyme, garlic and laurel leaf for a hint of flavor.

Now my risotto, on the stove, in my sights, but not demanding my attention because I know him so well.  A little taste cries out for salt, pepper but the sad fact that we made it with water forces me to add cream.  Not so bad, but a little chicken stock would have really helped to layer the flavors.

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When we dine out I am always eager to sit near the kitchen and watch the action.   Who is doing what to get my meal to the table is always a source of fascination.  Much of the cooking is usually done in advance and the action is relegated to the final step of warming the risotto and quickly searing a beautiful piece of sea bass.

In this lesson we were to make salt encrusted sea bass with a savory puff pastry tart.  Rather than the usual individual performance, we arrived at the late night practical and Chef Patrick announced we would work as a brigade – a team.  The assistants set up stations per his command, fish gutting, salt crust preparation, vegetable slicing and grilling and puff pastry rolling.

We set to work in teams of two, each team responsible to complete the preparation for all class members.  Renata and I were aimed at the vegetable preparation, chopping hundreds of grams of shallots, 10’s of onions, tomato petals, courgettes and eggplants.  Jen and Victoria set to work on the salt crust and puff pastry well away from the fish gutting station.


Once we finished our task, we were moved onto the next task at hand, cooking, grilling our way to completing all the prep.  Once all was in place we individually wrapped our fish in the crusts and dressed our tarts with the prepared grilled vegetables.  All the beautifully egg washed fish in pastry and perfectly flavoured tarts went into the common ovens and we cleaned up as a group.

It was one of the best days in the Cordon Bleu kitchen this term, as now we knew what it was like to rely on each other for success.  We came to the course as strangers and had proceeded to live through 26 lessons without ever coming together to act as a team.  It would have been so beneficial to me if we had acted as a brigade for Lesson 1 or 2.

Team work, in the kitchen, classroom, shop or office, creates bonds and builds respect between people while they work towards common goals.    That evening I learned a lot about my fellow students, their abilities, willingness to help and work ethic.  Great work ladies and gents – I’d have you on my team any day of the week.

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Before we embarked on the dish for this lesson, a special guest appeared in the classroom to give us an appreciation for the craft of butchery.  Over the last several weeks of this course we have been actively deboning fish, fowl and cuts of meat but now, before us, was a whole lamb carcass and the butcher would show us the portioning of a whole lamb.

He arrived with his huge cleaver, saw and boning knife, donned a white coat and began working on the carcass.  He first explained how a butcher examines the animals for quality.  A whole lamb weighs approximately 18 to 20 kilos.  The shape of the animal, texture and color, which should be rose/pink, play a significant role in judging the quality of the meat.  He could guess the age of the lamb and color of the meat.   After delivery of his quick lecture he set to work, carving up the cuts following the standard method all French butchers use to divide the lamb.

He began by sectioning and removing the shoulders, next came the separation of the best end and ribs from the carcass and finally the legs and rump came off.  The first and most expensive cuts are the best end and the legs.  Second category meats are the shoulders and neck.

We had been given various pieces of lamb to debone, as you may have read in previous posts, and it was exciting to see the ease with which experience allows you to swiftly trim and remove the bones from the meat.  Clearly I can’t imagine ever becoming so proficient or ever buying a whole lamb slapping it on my counter and going to work, but it was very interesting to see such a skilled demonstration.  The only “faux pas” – dropping the knife mid way through, picking it up and continuing on “sans savon” (or for you non-French speakers- without applying any soap to the situation – oops).

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Lyon, situated north of Provence and south of Burgundy, is the self proclaimed capital of gastronomy and every 2 years host an international cooking competition – Le Bocuse d’Or.

“The Bocuse d’Or (the Concours mondial de la cuisine, World Cooking Contest) is a biennial world chef championship. Named for the chef Paul Bocuse, the event takes place during two days near the end of January in Lyon, France at the SIRHA International Hotel, Catering and Food Trade Exhibition, and is one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions”

– Wikipedia

Although my firm belief is that every lesson at Cordon Bleu is intended to teach a useful technique, I found this lesson less than satisfying.  For all the hype about Lyon as the capital of gastronomy why on earth would we make fish dumplings in béchamel sauce?  Pasty fishy blobs covered in crayfish flavored béchamel sauce.  What great culinary feat is it that I am learning?

Perhaps the learning is – working with seafood can be a cold blooded affair.  In this dish, Pike Perch Dumplings in Crayfish Sauce, the béchamel is flavored with a reduction made from the crayfish shells.  The pike is made into a fish mousseline and shaped into quenelles or piped into fish sticks.   The fish is poached in water then placed in a casserole, covered in sauce and baked in the oven until a gratin crust forms.

I can see one or two tiny fish mousse quenelle as a decorative item on a plate, but poached “fish fingers” in crawfish béchamel as the main event?  How is this a gastronomic event?  Is anyone ever ordering this in a restaurant?

What struck most of us as exceedingly cruel is that the crayfish are deveined while still alive.   The lot of them in a bowl, waving their little claws to make some room amongst their friends; the Chef reaches in, firmly holds the victim down and then twists off the center portion of the tail and yanks out the intestine.  Now the claws are really waving!  When challenged about the need to do this while the little guy is still alive, the Chef insisted it was necessary.  “Impossible to remove the vein afterwards.  It must be done while it is alive.”  They even have a specific word for it in French – “chartrey” although I can’t find it in my french culinary dictionary. (more…)

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As we are reaching the tail end of Intermediate Cuisine, I really wonder how and why the dishes are getting easier.  How can I be presented with a lovely tenderloin to cut into steaks after all the deboning and fileting?   Why is CB not expecting me to butcher the entire cow to accomplish this meal?

In fact, before committing to the Cordon Bleu program, I had attended a demonstration with a few friends of this exact lesson.  I was overwhelmed at the time watching the chef wiz through the appetizer, main and dessert in 3 hours.  The Celery Flan appeared exceedingly complicated and I was in awe of the students in the room seemingly taking it all in stride. I had all but forgotten about that demonstration but it was now here and I was a bit apprehensive; in particular of the celery flan.

Chef Patrick conducted the demo moving swiftly between the appetizer, main and dessert;  Pan Fried Duck Foie Gras w Roasted Apple Cider and Walnut Sauce,  Pan Fried Steak w Celery Flan; Madeira Sauce with Diced Truffles and finally Caramelized Walnut and Pine Nut Tart.   The flavors come from the region of Périgord in the northern part of Aquitaine, south of Bordeaux, with Dordogne as its capital.  The region is famous for foie gras and truffles rendering cuisine that is rich in tradition and flavor.

As Chef Patrick worked through the elements of the main, portioning the steaks, preparing the Madeira sauce and the mixture for the celery flan, I kept waiting for the moment when the delicate decorative work required for the flan would be sprung upon the class.  Our Chef is less than enthusiastic about flans and this flan was no exception.   He is also even less enthusiastic about the fiddly decorative presentation work he considers passé.  As such, he did not decorate the flan or even de-mold it when serving alongside on the plate.

I was relieved but also disappointed.   A bit of a criticism, but I think all the chefs should share the same information.  It really shouldn’t be a matter of taste, but rather a matter of technique.  Yes it is a bit 70’s to decorate the top of a flan with carrots and leeks, but it’s also about the technique and the increasingly difficult knife skills required.

Going into the practical I decided not to take the easy route and present a simple flan but to decorate it.  Unfortunately I really had little idea what to do, should I blanch the veg first?  How do you weave leek and carrot together?  How am I possibly going to get flat thin pieces of carrot cut all the same size?

I decided the weave was a bit too much of a puzzle, and as I was without enough direction or suggestion from the Chef, I opted for blanched carrots layered in a circular fashion around the bottom of the small ramekin.  The flan mixture was ladled on top and into a water bath in the oven it went for the requisite 20 min.

Decoration on my underexposed photo of my celery flan - two underwhelming results 😉

The result was fair but I was the only one who chose to go the extra mile and decorate the flan.  Will I make it again?  I don’t know – celery flan is a bit boring however I think the challenge of the technique could be applied to create a more up to date flavorful flan, and with some patience, a lovely decorative presentation.

Perhaps the Cordon Bleu and the Chefs need to experiment with the classics a little more.  It is the curriculum, but keep an open mind and experiment.  Exceptional French food comes from perfecting all manner of techniques, be they old or new.

Next time you think about choosing the easy route or cutting corners on a recipe consider experimenting – you might just surprise yourself.

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Brittany or Bretagne, located in the Western region of France, stands on a long peninsula reaching out 300 kilometers into the Atlantic. The Bretons are descendants of the Celtics, as thousands from Ireland, Wales and south England immigrated to France during the Dark Ages. In fact, Bretagne has its own language peppered with Celtic words but its use has dwindled in use since France imposed the single language of the country to be French in the early 19th century.

I believe the most “exported” Breton food experience is definitely the crêpes, both savory and sweet. Small crêperies all over France serve these delicious light pancakes filled with everything from sweet fillings of sugar, custards and fruit to savoy jambon et frommage (ham and cheese) or tomato, basil and prosciutto.

While the traditional pursuits of fishing and farming are still main industries for the Bretons, the region, with the exception of the crêpe, is not known for its gastronomy. Perhaps their lack of inventive dishes goes a way to explaining this dish? A whole monkfish, fileted, washed with egg white then seasoned with chopped parsley, reassembled and wrapped in bacon, served with a chicken sauce. Just what are we eating, fish, pork or chicken?

The concept of wrapping fish in bacon or prosciutto is not new for me however serving it with a sauce made from chicken really strikes me as strange. Why does it need a sauce at all? Because it’s a French dish – there must be a sauce! N’est pas?

The monkfish preparation result looks similar to a small roast, but rather than roast the fish it is wrapped in plastic film, chilled in the refrigerator and sliced before frying. The other elements of this dish are small cauliflower and broccoli bilini’s (pancake theme) and pan fried artichokes. The artichokes, however, were fantastic and the recipe follows!

The bilinis are as strange as the fish, pork, chicken combination, but I must say I love the idea of these small pancakes. My thinking is smoked salmon and crème fraiche with caviar might be better. On it’s own of course not with the monkfish – egad!

I had an extremely large fish to work with in practical so when I removed it from the refrigerator I didn’t have the heart to cook it all knowing it would simply go to waste. So I decided to carve off 3 pieces for the practical and take the remaining prepped fish home to freeze.

It’s still in my freezer waiting for its moment. I suspect it will find it’s way to the table in the spring when I can pull it out and serve it with delicate baby vegetables and braised artichokes. There will be no chicken sauce. Enough said.

Here is a peak at my dish from practical:

Continue for the Sautéd Artichoke Recipe: (more…)

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The region of Gascony can be found south of Bordeaux and to the east of the Pay Bas. Although the cuisine is considered rustic, food lovers will know that Gascony is famed for its douceur de vivre (“sweetness of life”) where foie gras (duck liver) and Armagnac (a brandy) are staples.  The medieval towns and villages nestled amidst green rolling hills, the warm and sunny weather, the beautiful landscapes; all contribute to the charm of Gascony as a destination.

Cassoulet is a typical dish from this region of southwest of France.  If you are in the depths of winter right now as you read this, cassoulet is the perfect “comfort food” delivering mouthfuls of tender bites of braised lamb, fat poached duck and succulent sausage alongside savory tomato flavored white beans.

Happily, I am unwilling to find the slightest fault with any of the ingredients, as I truly love them all, but this is not haute cuisine.  Rather it is earthy, hearty food that would appeal to most everyone (vegetarians excepted) on a damp dark cold winter evening with a bold bottle of Vin de Pays from Languedoc or ripe red Bordeaux.   Why a bold red wine?  All the rich proteins, lamb duck and fatty sausage, plus the acidity of the tomatoes will have your taste buds demanding a full body wine.  Get out the big bowl glasses for this meal.

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We visited Provence this past summer with friends from home and the only complaint I have about that trip is my disappointment in bouillabaisse.  Although it is not a surprise that this region would be represented by fish soup, I was not enthusiastic about making it.

Jen in my practical class had introduced the concept of “presales”, that being convincing someone in the school into receiving your cooked meal.  As we sat in the demonstration, I complained to my Parisian classmate, Annick, about my disdain for bouillabaisse.  She was aghast that I would dislike such a classic dish so I offered her my soup post practical.  So, I sold it to her.  I promised to cook it as best I could and then it would hers for the taking.  She agreed and it was done deal.

I did briefly wonder if I was making a mistake.  After all, perhaps the Cordon Bleu recipe would be outstanding and I would have slaved over fileting three of the ugliest fish in the ocean only to give away my soup.

Bouillabaisse must be made from fish from the Provence region or else it is not bouillabaisse it is just fish soup.  When we arrived in the practical none of us could believe the size of the fish let alone the razor sharp fins.  The first fish is called a scorpion fish and as the name suggests, scorpion fish have a type of “sting” in the form of sharp spines coated in venom.  Lucky for us the fish monger cut off the long spines leaving only the rock hard dorsal fin to remove – which took some doing with the kitchen shears!

John Dory, also known as St. Pierre, is a coastal marine fish with olive-yellow body which has a large dark spot and long spines on the dorsal. The dark spot is used to flash an ‘evil eye’ if danger approaches the John Dory!  Big and ugly – I’m surprised anything wants to eat it let alone humans.

The last fish is eel which Chef Ju warned might contain worms.  At some point she strode over and began poking my eel with my fileting knife and then proclaimed to have found one.  This is the point where all of the women began to scream in horror and refused to cut up their eel.  I secretly think she was just having us on but not one of us was up for deworming the eel.  “Leave it in or out” she said, “I won’t taste the eel anyway.”

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