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Archive for the ‘Talk’ Category

I have been reading a lot lately about food.  I admit it is a becoming a bit of an obsession.  Eating, thinking, reading and writing about food.  Perhaps it is because the seasonal produce is arriving at the stores and the markets, or perhaps it’s simply because I have a one track mind (or stomach).  I was shelling peas this evening for dinner tonight and wondered if many people have access to such fresh ingredients in their home cities.  In Europe there are an abundance of markets and some specialty stores that carry peas so fresh they are still in the pod.  Although a bit of work, I find the process of shelling the peas quite therapeutic, even when one or two escape to the floor.

Seasons for the certain types of produce are short.  Before you realize it, the fresh peas (in June alone white asparagus, baby courgettes strawberries) are done, you didn’t realize what you missed and your opportunities to inflect some variety onto your table are over.  I think we’ve all been lured towards some of our favourite foods outside of their seasons – red strawberries or tomatoes in the grocery store – only to slice them open at home to reveal their lack of depth and substance of flavour.  If you’ve experienced the disappointment perhaps you need to get out of the grocery store this summer.

Much has been written about seasonal produce but are you and I changing our shopping habits during the height of the market months to shop outside the walls of the large chain stores?  Are we paying attention to what is popping up in the local farmers markets and buying our fruit and vegetables from the local sources?  I want try an experiment over the next 3 months that will see me shop for fresh produce at the organic market in Amsterdam.  I have all the good intentions of becoming an organic market shopper this summer but it is going to take some planning.  Working full-time with a 3 hour daily commute means there is little time to plan meals for the week ahead but given my obsession I do get it done.  Join me if you can.  Plan your shopping trip at the farmers this weekend, and look for some peas so you can enjoy this delicious and nutritious spring summer salad.

Peas featured in a simple but flavour packed spring salad, alongside roast poussin, on our dinner table tonight.  Fresh peas, radish and mache lettuce dressed with a honey cumin vinaigrette and feta cheese.  Although it would these are an odd combination, the marriage of flavours is divine.

Continue for recipe

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I’ve been pondering what I will do once I finish my Cordon Bleu diploma in November 2012.  As I think through the possibilities, one that intrigues me is owning a cooking school.  I believe that cooking is a life skill and although there are a plethora of cooking shows and Masterchef renditions, not many people actually learn to cook.

This journey to become a better cook began when I moved to Amsterdam.  My husband could see I was struggling to settle in our new life and suggested I take a few cooking classes.  Exploring hobbies or passions is always a great way to meet like-minded people and he’d found La Cuisine Française close by our home.

I embarked on 2 series of 6 lessons packages on Italian cuisine, met a couple of passionate foodie friends and then before I knew it I was obsessed and registering for Cordon Bleu in Paris.  I’ve kept in contact and become friends with Pat, the owner of the cooking school, over the past couple of years. This spring, post Intermediate Cuisine, I volunteered to be her assistant for her “Basics of French Cooking” series.

The series consists of 6 classes where the students are led through the foundations of French techniques.  The 6 classes were: Stock and fish fileting; Dressings and poaching; Pate’s and terrines; Eggs; Shellfish and roasting, and finally Game.  It’s an ambitious course and not for novices.  Although a number of the ingredients and most of the dessert recipes were new to me, I felt generally confident in assisting.

There were 14 students registered, a full slate, for the Monday evening class.  I was curious as to how Pat would progress through the full menu plan and what I was to help with. As she’s been an instructor for most of her career, this was all quite matter of fact for her.   Although for me, I was used to sitting back taking notes and planning my approach for the practical learning.

We met in advance of the first course where she provided a bit of guidance on where she would start and where I would assist in the demo.  Seems straight forward but when you are with a group often questions and plans shift and change to suit the crowd.  I found myself explaining chopping techniques for vegetables, gutting and fileting a fish and scurrying to remove dirty dishes.

When the demo was done after 1.5 hours the students then went to work to prepare the 6 dishes.  It was beyond challenging the first night to try and keep up with questions, make certain cutting boards were cleaned of raw fish before vegetables were chopped and that no one cut themselves!

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Cooking for those you love is always special – next time you can’t think of a gift to give someone special – cook a little something special for them from the heart!  My Dad’s cousin Quirina recently turned 80 and as her gift I offered to cook her and 3 guests a special French luncheon. As she is not so happy leaving her familiar environment, it seemed best to cook in her tiny Dutch kitchen. After the date was set, I asked her whether she preferred meat, chicken or fish. “I like fish” she declared and the planning began. Although she and her guests are getting on in years, they all continue to have very healthy appetites so I decided on a 4 course lunch. After a few deliberations, I came to the following menu (in Dutch, French and English – I am becoming so multi lingual ;)).

Zoete aardappelsoep met een essence van rozemarijn en mascarpone

Soupe de patates douces avec l’essence de romarin et de fromage mascarpone

Sweet potato soup with rosemary essence and mascarpone cheese

Parelhoen en koolraab “lasagne” met een balsamico reductie en morilles

Pintade et kolirabi “lasagne” réduction balsamique et morilles

Guinea Fowl Lasagna with morilles and a balsamique reduction

Wine: Nuβberg Alte Reben, Austria

Zwarte zee baars met zoete pastinaak, spinazie en saffraan vanillesaus

Loup de mer avec panais douces, les épinards et la sauce à la vanille au safran

Black Sea Bass with parsnip puree, spinach and vanilla saffron sauce

Wine: Domaine Jaeger-Defaix, Rully Burgundy, Frankrijk

Elzasser appeltaart

Tarte aux pommes alsacienne

Alsacian Apple Tart

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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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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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