Sorry, Nemo

It seems I've already started week three of chef school. Where did week two go? Time is flying, and I am exhausted. In a really, really good way.

So far, we've covered methods of food preservation (including
duck confit and gravlax),

mayonnaise, hollandaise, bearnaise (and all of those other 'naises),

simple, mixed and composed salads, vinaigrettes, the potato (apparently there are a gazillion ways to prepare and serve potatoes - it seems baked, boiled, steamed, puréed, sautéed and fried is just the beginning. Yesterday was potato day, and, while "potato day" sounds fun - french fries! potato chips! mashed potatoes! - if I have to wash, peel, shape, boil, fry, sauté, mash or even look at another potato... Ahem. Let's just say I'd be quite happy to never see another of the pesky tubers again. At least until Thanksgiving). Anyway, there's also fish. We've started to work on fish. Which brings me to today.

Today, Chef S. began our lesson by giving us some sage advice about being a chef. Being a chef, he said, is very hard. "Thees beeznees will squeeze you like a leh-mon." So, he continued, it is important to remember and appreciate the beauty of the food you're working with - how it looks, how it smells, how it tastes. "Always reemembehr how beautiful it is, ze food you are working weeth." He then proceded to scoop out the eyeballs of a fresh striped bass with a melon baller. Hm. A few more chops to the poor bass's fins, head, spine and entrails, and thus began fish day.

It actually wasn't so bad. I tried not to think about Nemo and apologized profusely as I took a filleting knife to my own striped bass and, after successfully filleting the little guy and cooking him in parchment (en papillote) with fresh vegetables, I felt very little remorse about gobbling him right up. He was delicious. Sorry, Nemo.

Filet de Truite Sauté à la Grenobloise
(Sautéed Trout with Lemon, Capers, and Brown Butter)

Adapted from The French Culinary Institute, Level 1, Session 11

This dish looks and sounds like it belongs with your best dress, but it's actually easy enough to make on a weeknight (assuming you don't have to fillet the trout yourself). In a pinch, this recipe would probably work with any white fish (halibut or chilean sea bass would be nice), but if you can get deboned trout fillets with the skin on, I highly recommend it. I didn't think I liked eating fish skin until today - as it turns out, crispy trout skin is sort of great.

Note: this recipe asks you to suprême a lemon, which is a fancy way of saying "remove the skin/pith and cut out the individual lemon segments." If you don't want to bother doing this, please don't (I won't tell Chef S). Just squeeze a liberal amount of lemon juice into the browned butter and onto the cooked fish. Voilà! Still delicious.

  • 4 trout fillets, skin-on, small pin bones removed
  • 3 slices of white bread, for croutons
  • a few tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 lemons
  • 2-3 tablespoons capers
  • a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh parsley
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup flour, for dredging

Cut the bread into little cubes, and sauté them in butter until they are golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.

Peel the lemons and cut out their individual segments (suprêmes). Chop up the lemon segments into small pieces and reserve as much lemon juice as possible.

Cut each fillet in half. Salt and pepper the fish fillets, and dredge them in flour, shaking off the excess.

Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat and place the fish fillets in the pan, skin side down. The fish should sizzle when they hit the pan - if they don't, increase the heat. When the skin side is nicely browned and the sides of the fish have turned opaque, flip the fillets and cook until the second side is done, about 1 minute.

Remove the fish from the pan and place them on a clean paper towel to drain any excess oil. Place 2 pieces of fish on each plate and sprinkle the croutons, lemon pieces, and parsley on top of the fish.

Wipe any excess oil from the frying pan (be careful, the pan will still be hot), and place 3-4 tablespoons of butter into the pan to brown. Over low to medium heat, cook the butter, swirling the pan, until it starts to turn brown (warning: this happens very fast, and browned butter doesn't take long to turn into burnt butter, so be careful and take the pan off the heat as soon as you see any browning taking place). Add the capers to the browned butter and swirl (be careful here, too - the capers will sizzle and some butter may try to jump out of the pan). Immediately pour a bit of browned butter and capers over each plate of fish. Enjoy with a side of rice or veggies, and plenty of wine.

Serves 4.


Week 1, And The Mushrooms That Weren't

Well readers, it's finished. C'est fini. Week 1 of culinary school. It began on Tuesday morning. I woke up well before my alarm and showed up to school way too early, and as I changed into my official chef's whites in the locker room, I was grinning from ear to ear. How cool is this? I thought to myself. I have chef's whites! I'm wearing chef's whites! Hah! Eat your heart out, Bobby Flay.

...It was then that I looked in the mirror and realized that, between the checkered pants, the white neckerchief and the white cotton cap, my "awesome!" chef's whites made me look like a clown in a snow suit. Ah well. At least everyone else would be wearing the same thing.

I marched upstairs to the level 1 kitchen and took my place at an empty station. I looked around the big, industrial kitchen filled with stainless steel pots and pans and countertops, sizing up my classmates and trying to resist the urge to burst into uncontrolled laughter from sheer nervousness and excitement. Just then, a round-bellied man in a tall chef's toque and a thick french accent called everyone up to the instructor's station at the front of the class to begin.

And so we began, and I'll tell you, it was a hell of a week. We met our chef instructors - Chef S., our lead chef, the round-bellied frenchman, and Chef W., our chef instructor, a tall, lean American. Chef W. began by warning us of the dangers of the kitchen, using words like "horribly disfigured for life" and "I don't even want to think about it," and Chef S. began teaching us the correct way to chop vegetables, explaining that you should never mix carrot trimmings with turnip or onion trimmings, ("no eefs, buts, or anytheeng,") lest you want everything to turn into "a freakin' zoo." Noted.

On Wednesday we met Chef T., who gave us a lesson on food safety and sanitation, mostly by regaling us with horror stories of food poisoning and industrial processing plant standards and national food-born epidemics. I learned all about viruses and parasites and bacteria, and about how I (and you, too, dear reader) have probably been exposed to more of these things than is nice to think about. I learned that it's important to ask questions about where my food comes from and also to stay away from the street vendors who sell soft pretzels.

On Thursday we tackled stocks, from chicken to veal to beef to fish and back again. In french: fond de volaille blanc, fond de veau brun, marmite, and fumet de poisson. We also got a nice treat when some students from the level 2 classroom brought by a dish for us to sample: a plate of mushrooms in mustard sauce. We all grabbed spoons and scooped up the mushrooms, chewing thoughfully and swallowing slowly to better appreciate the flavor. Not bad, we agreed. Thanks, level 2 students!

After all of us (including the one pseudo-vegan student in the class) had tried the mushroom dish, a giggling Chef S. informed us that, rather than a plate of mushrooms, we had all just consumed a plate of veal kidneys. (Zey are veel keedneeys! Hahaa!)

Apparently it was offal day in the level 2 kitchen, and hazing day in level 1. Cool.

I know that in roughly a month it will be our turn to initiate a new class of unassuming level 1 students on offal day, but for now I'd like to forget the offal (awful?) incident and tell you how to make french onion soup (gratinée à l'oignon). It goes down much smoother than kidneys, anyway.

French Onion Soup
From level 1, session 5 of the French Culinary Institute

  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2-3 onions, thinly sliced
  • salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • 1 heaping Tablespoon flour
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sherry or white wine
  • 1 quart chicken or beef stock, or a combination of both
  • 1/4 french baguette
  • 1 cup emmenthaler or gruyère cheese, grated

Place a large soup pot over medium heat. Melt the butter in the pot and add the onions, letting them cook and soften for 20-30 minutes. Once the onions are soft, increase the heat and continue to cook for 5-10 minutes, until the onions have caramelized and are a deep brown color. Season lightly with salt and toss the flour over the onions, stirring to combine. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes.

Add the sherry or wine and let the mixture reduce for a few minutes. In the meantime, bring the stock to a simmer. Add the hot stock to the onion mixture, bringing to a simmer, and cook at a low simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Preheat the broiler to 400º F.

Cut the baguette into slices, and place the slices at the bottom of a heat-proof serving bowl. Ladle hot soup over the bread slices, filling the bowl to the rim, and sprinkle a healthy layer of cheese on top of everything. Place the bowls on a sheet pan and place in the broiler for about 5 minutes, until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Serve immediately.

Serves soup for 4.


A Little Nervous

When you're a little nervous, there's something relaxing about the rhythmic motion of stirring, and the smell of warm peanut butter and toasted oats wafting through the kitchen. Tomorrow is my first day of school, and I'm a little nervous. My uniform is laid out - chef's coat, checked pants, neckerchief, apron, hat, side towel, black leather shoes. I've gone over chapter one in the big binder, learned words like épluchage and a l'étuvée, packed my notecards and pencils and pens. And I've mixed a big batch of homemade granola.

More specifically, this afternoon I mixed up a big batch of my Aunt Marie's homemade granola. Even if you're not a little nervous, I suggest you make some yourself. It's crunchy and healthy and naturally sweet, and it was made to be scooped over greek yogurt with fruit and honey, or tumbled over a bowl of creamy vanilla ice cream. All you have to do is stir and bake and cool, and voila - toasty granola, calm nerves, happy tummy. And, hopefully, a good first week of chef school...

Aunt Marie's Healthy Homemade Granola

There are no real set quantities for this recipe - basically, you'll need enough raw oats to cover the bottoms of two 9x13 metal baking dishes, and enough of everything else to sprinkle liberally on top. If you're particularly fond of a certain ingredient, go ahead and pile it on. If you're not so fond of another, skip it (I won't tell my Aunt Marie, even though she does know what she's talking about. She just wrote a book, for goodness sake! Check it out here.). Just enjoy the sprinkling and stirring, and the wonderful smell of sweet, toasty nuts and grains. This makes a lot of granola, so feel free to half the recipe, but it also freezes beautifully, so don't be shy about making the whole batch.

  • Raw Oats
  • Ground flaxseed
  • Ground wheat bran
  • Unsweetened coconut
  • Raw pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds
  • Slivered or sliced almonds
  • dried cranberries (or small dried fruit of any kind such as raisins or dried cherries)
  • toasted pecans
  • ½ to 3/4 cups of canola oil
  • ½ cup of natural peanut butter
  • ¼ cup of honey
  • 1 tbsp of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Spread a thick layer of raw oats onto the bottom of two baking dishes (9x13), then sprinkle plenty of flax seed, wheat bran, coconut, almonds, and seeds
on top of the oats (roughly a handful or so of each), and stir until the oat layer is flecked through.

Mix the canola oil, peanut butter, honey and cinnamon in a microwave-safe bowl, and microwave on high for about 1 minute until warm and blended. Divide the warm peanut butter mixture between the two pans and stir well into the dry ingredients.

Bake the mixture in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until toasty and golden. Cool granola thoroughly before storing indefinitely in the freezer.

Makes about 6-8 cups of granola.


They Make Us Wear Hats

I know it's sort of (ahem, um, definitely) dorky to post twice in one day, but I can't help it - I'm too excited. You know how earlier I mentioned that my status as a student wasn't official until this afternoon? Well, this afternoon happened and I am officially a student at The French Culinary Institute. Yaaaay! I mean, uh, whatever man, that's cool.

This afternoon kicked off the experience with orientation, and I must say I'm feeling quite happily orientated. At around 2:30pm, the new culinary and pastry students gathered by the bar at L'Ecole (the FCI student-run restaurant below the school itself), everyone glancing around nervously and making awkward small talk with their neighbors. Just as we were all starting to run out of shallow banter (And your name is? It's nice to meet you! Where are you from? Oh, Dallas! Neat! I've, uh, never been there), we were herded upstairs to get our "Hello my name is" nametags and materials and watch a presentation on what we can expect from the next six months.

Below is a list of things I learned:

1. Class starts at 9:00 am sharp.
2. Missing class is a bad, bad thing to do.
3. People steal things from the locker room, so buy a lock if you want to keep your stuff.
4. Nail polish, perfume and jewelry are strictly prohibited while in class. Crap.
5. The uniform is, uh, not cute. They make us wear hats. And neckerchiefs (whatever those are). The coat, however, is sort of awesome.

After the presentation, we were shuffled towards a long table gleaming with glasses of wine and gorgeous appetizers and told to please mingle. More awkward conversation ensued, but the wine definitely helped, and I happily drank my wine and ate smoked salmon puffs and chocolate apricot cake bites and even managed to make a friend or two. General success! I consider myself (and you, now, fine reader) officially orientated. Class begins on Tuesday, so stay tuned. For now, check out my very official-looking chef's coat:

Eh? Eh? How cool is that? It says my name and everything! It almost makes up for the neckerchief. Almost.