Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Sauces

Last night was the final cooking class in the series that I had signed up for at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and I anticipated it with mixed emotions. The positive of course is that I have greatly enjoyed taking classes to enhance my skill and provide a foundation for cooking. I definitely feel better equipped to cook, more comfortable in the kitchen and even more excited about continuing on with my journey than I was when I first set out. I was sad that the series was coming to an end and not terribly excited about the subject matter, sauces. To me, sauces always seemed like too much work and not worth the effort. I also considered any dish at a restaurant served with a sauce other than gravy for chicken or turkey to be suspect and feared it was there to cover up food that had gone bad or was not top notch. I left class with a new appreciation for sauces and understanding of how they can compliment a dish to make it its best.

Class started as usual with a brief overview of the recipes and sauces that would be made. Chef instructor Angie asked if there was anything that we would like to learn that we hadn’t and then asked who wanted to cook each dish. Interestingly enough, two members of the class did not attend which somehow made it so there was a perfect number of people for the number of recipes that were given.

As always it was a tough choice for most with all of the recipes sounding different from what we had made before as well as delicious. Each dish would include one of the five mother sauces (some of which we had made previously): Hollandaise, Mayonnaise, Bechamel, Veloute and Espagnole or some variation of them. We could choose between Asparagus Eggs Benedict with Chipotle-Orange Hollandaise, Salmon Poached in a Wine Court Bouillon, Grilled Tenderloin with Sauce Robert, Crispy Almond Squid with Sauce Gribiche, Chicken Supremes Allemande, Crisp Potato Cannelloni with Zucchini and Shrimp or Pears Poached in Read Wine with Crème Anglaise and Caramel. Anyone who knows me or has been reading this blog knows I have a strong affinity to steak, and so I jumped at the opportunity to make the tenderloin which I soon found out was a lot of work.

The steak included a Sauce Robert, a derivative of the Espagnole sauce. This old and painstaking sauce is rarely used anymore and after making it, it is easy to understand why. I was able to document the steps to my dish which are many.

The first part of the recipe for the Sauce Robert called for clarified butter. I put a large saucepan on the stove and set out to get my butter.  Once I had the butter measured out I dropped a bit of it into the saucepan to start the melting process and was immediately greeted with hissing and smoke everywhere. The pan was way too hot. The butter instantly burned and turned black with billows of smoke going everywhere. Thank God for the stove vent. Time for a re-do.

I made sure there was enough butter and started again. Once the butter was melted I put it into a clear measuring cup and let it sit for a minute and then skimmed off the solid bits.

Using my knife skills I diced the carrots and onion into a small dice. It would appear that my skills need improvement to get a smaller dice with uniformity.

Diced Carrots and Onions
Diced Carrots and Onions

I placed the butter back into the hot sauce pan and put the onions in carrots in, stirring until they became translucent.

Carrots, Onions and Clarified Butter
Carrots, Onions and Clarified Butter

The next step I am convinced is why this is a sauce that you don’t see often. I added flour to my vegetables to make a roux.

Making A Roux for Sauce Robert
Making A Roux for Sauce Robert

After the flour was added I stirred for 30 minutes until my roux became amber. During this time it cooked down significantly.

A Reduced Roux for Sauce Robert
A Reduced Roux for Sauce Robert

Once amber, I added tomato paste and veal stock (another reason why this sauce is not popular as it takes 24 hours to make).

Added Veal Stock in Roux
Added Veal Stock in Roux

I then brought everything to a simmer and skimmed off the impurities that came to the surface. I realized that since the sauce would be skimmed this wasn’t really critical and when the mixture had reduced added the herbs directly to the pot since  a cheese cloth would not provide any benefit.

Added in "Bouquet Garni"
Added in "Bouquet Garni"

Once the sauce had reduced I added another cup of stock and brought everything to a simmer while I simultaneously started working on the other half of the sauce.

I placed the diced shallot, Dijon mustard and white wine in a sauce pan and brought it to a boil.

Boiling White Wine, Dijon Mustard & Shallot Sauce
Boiling White Wine, Dijon Mustard & Shallot Sauce

Once reduced I mixed the wine reduction into the Espagnole sauce and simmered for 5 minutes.

Finalizing Sauce Robert
Finalizing Sauce Robert

The sauce didn’t have any salt so it was added liberally to bring out the flavor. One taste was all I needed to know why this sauce was special. It had an amazing taste and I imagined it would be good on top of meat.

Now it was time for the good stuff, grilling the tenderloins. Chef Angie got the grill started upstairs in another kitchen which was being used for a couples class while I go the meat ready on a wire rack. When the grill was hot, we went up stairs and grilled the meat for a couple of minutes to get some nice grill marks on it.

Grilled Beef Tenderloin
Grilled Beef Tenderloin

We then went back down the stairs and put the meat in a convection oven at 400 degrees. After about 10 minutes it was a nice medium-rare. The meat was left to rest for a few minutes as we got the sauce ready in a gravy cup.

Grilled Beed Tenderloin Resting
Grilled Beed Tenderloin Resting

She showed me how to slice a plate the meat going against the grain to ensure that the muscle fibers were shorter, making for a more tender and easier to chew bite.

Sliced & Plated Grilled Beef Tenderloin
Sliced & Plated Grilled Beef Tenderloin

As the class eagerly awaited for the moment of true, the tasting, I drizzled the sauce over the slices and took a bite of an end piece.

Plated Grilled Tenderloin with Sauce Robert
Plated Grilled Tenderloin with Sauce Robert

The sauce was worth the effort and my classmates agreed. It was nice and thick and added a great body and flavor to the meat which hadn’t been seasoned at all. I don’t know that I will make the sauce anytime soon.

I also captured two additional dishes that my classmates made, the Eggs Benedict and a modified pasta recipe which was created due to time constraints. Luck or not, everything turned out amazing.

Asparagus Eggs Benedict with Chipotle-Orange Hollandaise
Asparagus Eggs Benedict with Chipotle-Orange Hollandaise
Handmade Linguine with Shrimp Sautéed Shrimp and Garlic
Handmade Linguine with Shrimp Sautéed Shrimp and Garlic

I really enjoyed my cooking class experience. I would recommend it to anyone with experience or not. Skeptics may state that I could have just followed the recipes at home and saved the money I spent on the course, but a truly valuable aspect of going to class is having a teacher there that can tell you what you did wrong and more importantly how to fix it. If you have never made a Hollandaise or Espagnole Sauce obviously you don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. I may take another class in the future but at this point I want to finish my initial planned course of study and practice the basics that I learned from this class. I feel that the supplemental reading I have planned will help me fill in some knowledge gaps and help me better decide what to do next.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Grilling, Sautéing and Roasting

Friday’s cooking class was so much fun. The focus was on grilling, sautéing and roasting, all of which result in truly delicious food. I came to class stuffed from my company’s international buffet day wondering if I could even eat another bite. I would soon learn that this would not be a problem. Everything turned out great.

I arrived to find that we were in yet another kitchen; we had officially used every kitchen in the school. This was the only one with a proper grill though so it made sense that we would use it. I signed in, grabbed the recipe handout and sat down ready to read through the recipes and listen to the brief lecture regarding the methods. Once most of us had arrived, we went through the recipes and picked the ones we wanted to work on. We were given many great options including: A Warm Salad of Fruits,  Endives, and Pancetta, Honey Spiced Pork Roast, Diablo Skirt Steak, Indian Flavored Grilled Vegetables with Paneer, Quinoa with Sauteéd Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms, Grilled Swordfish Verde, and Grilled Cranberry-Orange Zinfandel Bread. I teamed up with my classmate Anthony with whom I had worked on making the French onion soup to make the Diablo Skirt Steak this week.  I love steak and with summer coming up, the recipe was too good to pass up..

While trying to get our bearings in the new kitchen, Anthony and I started off with searching for our ingredients along with tasting some canned salsa that was set out for the recipe we would be making. The recipe called to use half of the salsa as a marinade for our skirt steak and the other half to put on top after the steak was grilled. We decided to use the salsa as the marinade and then to make our own salsa as outlined in the recipe using fresh ingredients. This proved to be a wise choice, given the color, texture and taste of our salsa. We bagged our steak and set it aside to marinate before moving forward.

Salsa For Steak Diablo
Salsa For Steak Diablo

We made our salsa pretty quickly using rubber gloves to seed and dice the jalepeños. It was strange to use gloves, but I was happy I did given the heat of the peppers I was cutting. Finishing this task early put us in an interesting position as we had to wait at least 30 minutes for the marinating. We did not have a food task to work on, allowing us to observe others and converse. It just so happened that others were nearing a good stopping point just after we did, allowing Chef Angie to provide us with a demonstration and a special surprise. She would show us how to prepare a new recipe for steak and lobster, a special treat she brought in for us.

Chef Instructor Angie
Chef Instructor Angie

I don’t know why I was surprised, but the lobsters were alive when she showed them to us, moving and squirming around. The immediate thought was about the lobsters going into a boiling pot of water to cook, but as it turns out she would show us another method for killing them and cooking them with the steak. She actually twisted them apart to our surprise and then put the tail and claws on a baking sheet to go in the oven for 6 minutes. This was another interesting reminder of how removed we are from the food that we eat and where it comes from.

Chef Instructor Angie Killing A Lobster
Chef Instructor Angie Killing A Lobster

The steak was also cooked in the oven, and then slit and stuffed with lobster and placed back in the oven until the meat was cooked through. The combination of grilled steak and lobster were to die for. I felt truly fortunate to have such a fun instructor who is always looking to show us something new and exciting.

After our steak had marinated for about an hour, we took it out of the bag an placed it on the grill for four minutes on each side just like the recipe called for.

Streak On Grill For Steak Diablo
Streak On Grill For Steak Diablo

The steak  was then brought to a serving platter and checked for “doneness” with a thermometer, it read 109 degrees. Anthony asked Chef Angie to tell us what level the steak had been cooked to, to which she replied simply “raw”. After a good laugh, considering the obviousness of this given the blood pouring out of our meat, we placed the steak on a baking sheet and cooked it in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes. At this point it was cooked perfectly. We learned that most steaks in restaurants begin with searing on the stove but are actually finished in the oven to the appropriate level of cooking based on the order. The steak was sliced and then plated on a serving platter with the salsa. We were given a brief overview of plating, which dishes to use when serving for singles or family style and advice on how to plate a dish using elements of the recipe to add color and appeal. We garnished our dish with lime slices on the side.

Steak Diablo with Salsa
Steak Diablo with Salsa

The steak and the rest of the dishes were amazing, especially the bread which took on a totally new flavor once grilled over an open flame. It is truly amazing how fast the class is learning, coming together and gaining comfort in the kitchen after only five weeks.

Our final class is in two weeks due to the Easter and Passover holidays.  We’ll go over sauces while refining the cooking techniques we have learned since the beginning. This will be a great way to end our class series leaving me and others more confident in the kitchen while also leaving us with a few great recipes under our belts and I’m really looking forward to it.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Braising, Stewing, Blanquettes and Fricasses

Friday night’s cooking class was a lot of fun. Just before class I parked down the street and walked around a cooking supply store that’s located a few blocks away. It took all the personal restraint I had to not buy everything in sight. They had everything and at reasonable prices as well. I walked out with a simple refrigerator thermometer pumped to get to class. The class focus was on moist heat cooking used in braising, stewing, blanquettes and fricassees.

I walked into the building to find our class was nowhere to be seen, one minute for six. Another classmate arrived with me and was equally as confused. Here was our fourth class and it looked like we were being moved again. After walking from kitchen to kitchen, a chef instructor found a schedule and stated that we were in the downstairs kitchen, “the dungeon” as a passer-by commented. Even more parties and couples classes were planned for the evening at the school requiring our move.

My classmate and I walked down the stairs to find everyone else waiting for us. They must have received the memo or have some sort of ESP. As usual, the class started with a review of the cooking techniques. The tougher cuts are best suited for braising we learned. The process loosens the meat fibers making them tender.

Chef Angie read over the recipes, Fricassee de Lapin (Fricassee with Rabbit), Pork and Butternut Squash Stew, Braise Short Ribs with Dried Cherries, Poulet au Vinaigre a L’Eestargon (Braised Chicken with Vinegar and Tarragon, Sea Bass over Fennel, Braised Red Cabbage, Blaquette de Veau (Veal Blanquette), Stovetop Braised Artichokes,  and Ossobuco alla Milanese (Veal Shanks in the style of Milan). Before I had a chance to consider my options the Ossobuco and Short Ribs were taken. I had come to class hungry, and could see that I was about to be tortured by a slow and fragrant cooking process.

I paired up with one of my classmates to make the braised chicken. When he asked me what my name was, it dawned on me that no one had been introduced during our last three classes. It’s funny how that works, as class four was definitely the deciding point; asking for a name during class five or six would just pass the awkwardness line. Our stations were setup and we prepared our ingredients.

The pearl onions were scored and then blanched in boiling water for one minute and then placed on ice. In a braising pot we melted butter and our vegetable oil where we would brown the chicken.The chicken came whole, and we had to learn how to carve it into pieces for our dish. It was surprisingly easier than expected, although I’ll admit precision is something that could be improved upon.

The chicken took forever to brown. We were advised to use cayenne pepper next time we browned chicken as it would be natural with respect to taste but it would help the browning process and make the chicken a brown into a richer color.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Browning

Once the chicken was browned, we poured off the fat and sauteed the onions which were now peeled until they became a golden brown. The wine and vinegar were added and we deglazed the pan, added the tomatoes and reduced by half. Next some tarragon was added along with the chicken which we had taken out during the fat removal while we brought everything to a boil. The heat was then reduced to a simmer for 20 minutes using parchment paper and an inverted lid of foil and the pot lid. The recipe stated that the chicken would be ready when we could poke it with a skewer without resistance. This was tough because the lid made it hard to see what was going on in the pot and blocked access to the chicken. We checked after 20 minutes and decided to leave everything cooking for another five minutes. The second time around, the chicken was ready, but our saunce had cooked down too much.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Cooked

To fix this, we placed the chicken on a plate with foil to keep it warm while we worked with Chef Angie to fix our sauce. We added chicken stock and corn starch to the pot along with some white wine and whisked vigorously. the sauce started to thicken and we put in tarragon and salt to enhance the flavor. After a few minutes it was ready to go. We got out a serving platter and plated the chicken, ladled on the sauce and sprinkled tarragon on top. We also garnished our plate with tarragon sprigs.

Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated
Braising: Tarragon Chicken Plated

The plate tasted great. I was not really familiar with tarragon as an ingredient, so I didn’t know what to expect. The sauced was salted perfectly and was no overpowering. The chicken was moist and tender. Another success, although it took forever to make. This clearly is a weekend meal.

I was also looking forward to Chef Angie bringing in a marinated flank steak that would be used for carne asada I had requested to make. As promised she brought in a marinated meat which turned out to be a brisket instead. Since this week called for braising, she seared the meat on both sides and finished in a covered pan in the oven, cooking the meat to a perfect medium rare.

Carne Asada
Carne Asada

This class was incredibly fun. The class is definitely more comfortable in the kitchen which allows everyone to be more social. Our instructor is also really encouraging and flexible, always making sure we are learning what we want to and getting the most out of class. Even though I started off incredibly hungry, and was forced to endure the sounds of delicious food cooking and smell it as it transformed from raw ingredients to wonderful dishes, I left full, stomach hurting. Especially good were the rabbit and short ribs. I can’t wait to try them out on my own.

This Friday at work, we are having an international buffet lunch where everyone that wants to gets to cook and bring in a dish from anywhere in the world. I will try out my own attempt at carne asada with the hope that I win the prize for best dish, while representing not only my amatuer cooking skills, but my latin heritage.  Stay tuned to see what I can come up with and learn how I fair during the competition.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Stocks, Soups, and Salads

Tonight’s focus for class at Cambridge Culinary was on stocks, soups, and salads. I was especially excited about this class because learning about stocks is key to sauce making, the focus for the final class in the series.

Last week were given the recipes on our way out so we would have time to study them. It didn’t take me long before I knew what I wanted, and I came to class with the intent of making French Onion Soup and Salad Niçoise. I arrived at school to find that we would be learning in a different, smaller kitchen. A large private class was using “ours” and as chance would have it, a few classmates did not show up for this class so we had plenty of room. We opened with a brief lecture about stocks. Given the time required to make a proper beef, chicken or veal stock we would not be making any, although we would be using some that were created by a professional program class. Once we decided on what we would be making we went to work.

I started with the French Onion Soup as it required heat and extensive cooking time, hoping that I could move onto the Salad Niçoise as I had time.  I melted my butter in a pot on the stove and then moved onto slicing the onions. They were placed into the pot with the melted butter and I covered the pot to let them wilt down. Once sufficiently wilted, sugar was added to begin the caramelization process.

French Onion Soup, Onions Caramelizing
French Onion Soup, Onions Caramelizing

Once the onions were caramalized, beef stock was placed into the pot. It was reduced down so that the liquid was just barely covering the onions. Salt, pepper and burgundy wine were added along with more stock and reduced down again at a slow simmer.

French Onion Soup, Simmering
French Onion Soup, Simmering

Unfortunately there weren’t any small ceramic ramekins for the soup, so we improvised with a large one.   Enough French bread was cut to cover the bottom of the rameking and then the soup was poured over the bread. We also couldn’t find the gruyère cheese, the kitchen was a mess at this point, so we improvised with a gruyère smelling cheese. It had a very sharp flavor and after coating the top of the soup I questioned if it was a good choice.

French Onion Soup, Ready For The Oven
French Onion Soup, Ready For The Oven

The next step was to put the soup into an pre-heated oven at 350 degrees F until the cheese browned and there was some bubbling. I took it out and set it on the table next to the other soups and then the real fun began.

French Onion Soup, Ready To Eat
French Onion Soup, Ready To Eat

With all of the soups on the table we were able to try each one. They were fantastic! Everyone did a really good job. I felt like my soup was a bit too sweet, but overall it had a well balanced flavor and texture and the cheese was good too. At this point the class was near over and I had no time to make the salad I had hoped to make.

This week I hope I can re-make the French Onion Soup using store bough beef broth to compare the results. I have no doubt it will not be the same, but given the time and effort required to make a proper stock, store-bought is going to be my likely alternative.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Eggs

This evening i attended my second cooking class at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. This week’s focus was eggs, and it would be the first class that we would be given the opportunity to cook. This was a bonus as I would not leave hungry but equally as terrifying was the fact that we would be cooking for and in front of each other.  As I entered the class I noticed there were new faces that were not present during last week’s class. I signed in, grabbed a recipe booklet from the chef instructor and took my seat. It turned out, that our “new faces” were unable to make their class this week and therefore were allowed to make up their class during the one I was scheduled for. The room was looking full.

The class began and we went over the recipes in the booklet. It contained many different recipes ranging from sauces to full family-sized meals. After reviewing the recipes, discussing tips and noting what we had experience with making in the past, we were given the chance to choose recipes that we wanted to try and if there weren’t any, we would be assigned to them based on what had not been chosen by others. Our choices were, poached eggs, hard cooked (hard boiled) eggs, coddled (soft cooked) eggs, Hollandaise Sauce, mayonnaise, crepes, cheese soufflé, Italian fritata, quiche and pipérade and scrambled eggs. We were told that there would be plenty of time to cook and try recipes since there weren’t many and so I decided to start with some seemingly easy ones that I had not tried before, Hollandaise Sauce and mayonnaise, two mother sauces in classic French cuisine.

We entered the kitchen, donned our aprons and began the preparation of our work areas. Then it all started…chaos. Everyone started running around frantically raiding the pantry for ingredients, grabbing eggs by the hand full, grabbing utensils, pots and pans. The kitchen transformed into a pseudo Kitchen Stadium from the Food Network TV series Iron Chef America.We had our own time limit and everyone seemed keenly aware of it.

I worked on the Hollandaise Sauce first, measuring my ingredients and then heating up my water and lemon juice, heating it until became a concentrated acid reduction. Next the eggs were added into the sauce pan. I then worked my butter cubes in and whisked vigorously to add volume while moving it on and taking it off the heat so it remained warm; too warm and the eggs would curdle I was warned. Once all of the butter was melted in, I added salt and ground white pepper for taste. I tasted it and really enjoyed the silky texture and light buttery flavor with a subtle hint of spice. The night was off to a good start.

Back To Basics: My First Hollandaise Sauce
Back To Basics: My First Hollandaise Sauce

My next task was the mayonnaise. This would prove to be a surprise with respect to how much effort was involved in its making. I placed the eggs, dried mustard, salt and lemon juice into a bowl and combined them with my whisk. One of my classmates offered to help so we both could learn how it was made. He added the vegetable oil slowly as I whisked vigorously. Each drop of oil made this task harder and harder. My whisking became slower and slower. I read the recipe again, glancing over key words “Sauce, when finished will be very thick.”. When we were half way through the oil, he offered to whisk and let me pour. I gladly switched places with him and began pouring the rest of the oil in slowly. The whisking slowed even more and the strain was evident in his eyes and his breathing. This was no easy task. I switched places with the final bit of oil left and completed the whisking. What presented itself before me was an unfamiliar substance. It was yellow, thick and spicy to the tongue. This was unlike any mayonnaise I have ever had before and yet very pleasant, a superior compliment to any hearty sandwich for sure.

Back To Basics: My First Mayonnaise
Back To Basics: My First Mayonnaise

My next project was an omelette. It was pretty straight forward. I cut up some fresh chives on my cutting board to use as a garnish and to add some extra flavor. I then whisked the eggs and greased the pan. I poured the eggs in and started moving them around as they coagulated. Once cooked, I brought the pan to my plate and folded the eggs over and added the chives. So delicious.

Back To Basics: Omelette
Back To Basics: Omelette

I finished the evening making a poached egg and crepe and was able to taste my other classmates’ creations. The best part of the experience was the fact that I left feeling more confident in a kitchen preparing food with a time limit. My classmates enjoyed my Hollandaise Sauce with their poached eggs ala Eggs Benedict and it was a great experience to be able to try several fritatas, soufflés and omelettes, noticing the subtle and sometimes dramatic taste and texture differences.  We all started with the same base ingredients and recipes and yet were able to end with dishes uniquely our own.  This was perhaps due to technique, measuring, or the overall application of heat. Experience will teach me to know the difference I am sure. Next week our training will challenge us with soups and stocks. I eagerly await the classes for the weeks to come.

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Cooking 101: Back to Basics – Knife Skills

Cambridge School of Culinary Arts
Cambridge School of Culinary Arts

This evening was the start of my in-class learning as outlined in my self-created course of study. I arrived early, eager to discover what exactly was on the agenda for my first lesson. I walked into what was a small classroom that flowed directly into a kitchen. Can it really be true that it has been 7 years since I sat in a classroom as a student? I signed in and found a seat as the class shuffled in.

The smell was unexpected, not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. It was the smell of “sterile”. This was not my mother’s kitchen, but an unemotional and unbiased place of learning that begins each day with a blank slate allowing its occupants to transform it as they see fit with their creations.

We began with the basic knives as the Chef instructor, a recent graduate, explained their names and use. She started with the Chef’s Knife, followed by the Bread Knife, the Boning Knife, the Filleting Knife and finally the Paring Knife. Before moving on to our stations we were shown a Japanese and regular mandolin and discussed the basics of sharpening and honing our knifes on a honing steel. The Chef’s Knife and the Paring Knife would be our instruments for this evening’s lessons.

We washed our hands and walked over to a station where we would find a plastic cutting board, knife, apron and towel. I peered around the room looking at my classmates, wondering what their backgrounds and reasons for joining this class were. The lesson began.

We started off with zucchini and a julianne cut, moving on to carrots and cube cuts, parsley, chives and mincing, onions, garlic and dicing and red peppers, mushrooms and slicing. We used the paring knife to slice wedges out of oranges and lemons. With each item we cut, our confidence grew and things became clearer. Each slice, dice and cut produced some of the building blocks for future meals as well as our knowledge.  Steadfast repetition surely will transform this conscious task into an unconscious relex.

The class was a great beginning and I look forward to next week where we explore the preparation and use of eggs, a key ingredient in cooking and a much enjoyed staple of my diet.

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