circle of life

We were off to a good start on Monday morning, enjoying Chef Jean-Francois demonstrating his technique for making a successful macaron.  One must be sure to weight out the ingredients with precision, sift the dry ingredients before adding them into the meringue, and then whip the meringue until smooth and glossy.

Out of the three varieties of macarons (chocolate, raspberry, and lemon), lemon stood out the most and was my favorite of the batch.  The tanginess from the fresh lemon juice and the bright yet subtle flavors of the finely grated lemon zest provided quite a punch to my taste buds.  The macarons turned out better than most store-brought ones, but of course, not in the same realm as Pierre Herme’s little morsels of heaven =P

After more petit fours and a quick lunch break, we headed to our first cuisine demonstration of the week, which I had been dreading since reading Kathleen Flinn’s experience in The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry.  The lesson of the day was roasted rabbit.  Once Chef brought out the whole rabbit with its blue bulging eyes and tongue sticking out, faint gasps and a few shrieks of horror swept across the room.   Displeased by our reaction, Chef made it clear that we must all eat to survive and that all food has to come from somewhere… the circle of Life, I suppose.

Still, I didn’t find the rabbit dish to be very appetizing, especially not with the garnish of rabbit kidneys and liver on a rosemary skewer.  The white meat tasted a bit like chicken, except with a discerning hint of rabbit, which is quite an obscure description, I know.  (A bit like my description of frogs’ legs… tastes like chicken with a swamp-y aftertaste.)  The sauteed potatoes that accompanied the rabbit, however, was the ultimate comfort food… thinly slices of potato fried in oil, drained and then quickly sauteed in butter, seasoned with salt and crushed garlic, and sprinkled with some chopped parsley just before serving.  Chef also made a hearty side dish of Mediterranean-style vegetables and a trio of panna cotta for dessert (vanilla, caramel, and Earl Grey).

Continuing with the theme of cooking with fresh, whole ingredients, we moved on to fish… pan-fried sole with brown butter and poached hake steaks, which we would be making in practical.  The sole was super moist and tender, mostly because Chef cooked it in butter, let it rest with a slab of butter on top (which eventually melted into the fish), and then drizzled the entire fish with sizzling nut brown butter just before serving.  Thank goodness there was a squeeze of fresh lemon juice introduced at the end to lighten up the dish!

The poached hake steak with vegetables was essentially diet food, plated alongside the sole drowning in melted butter, even with a huge dollop of hollandaise plopped on top of the fish steak.  I thought the hollandaise sauce paired perfectly well with the fish.  The brightness from the fresh lemon juice intensified the delicate flavor of the hake and the butter and egg yolks in the sauce made for a richer, fuller overall taste. Being such an ugly fish (they reminded me of the evil eels from The Little Mermaid), I didn’t expect the hake to taste so delicately sweet and succulent, almost like crab meat… definitely worth a try if you can get your hands on a fresh one.  Although, I should caution you about their incredibly sharp teeth.   One of the girls in class tried to chop off the fish’s head by placing her hand inside the fish’s mouth to hold it down.   Needless to say, she pricked her fingers and shrieked, “She bite me!”… quite amusing for the rest of us, but she seemed genuinely horrified =P

After two days of cuisine classes, I was developing quite an urge to satisfy my sweet tooth.  Fortunately, we had pastry lined up later that afternoon.   We learned another technique for making sweet short crust pastry… this time using a far more delicate dough.  Chef used the dough to make a caramelized pear tart with a crispy almond meringue topping and barguettes au miel (little trays filled with honey and almond).

The pear tart would have tasted pedestrian without the little black currents layered in the middle, which provided a tart punch with every bite.  Late night classes are always tough, but it’s nice when we end up with tasty products of our labor.

The next day, our favorite Chef Frederic (who dubbed himself ‘little big man,’ if you can imagine with a very heavy French accent) concluded our whole fish series with brill, salmon, and deep-fried sole. The salmon was simply pan-fried and topped with a sorrel white cream sauce… a typical dish with no surprises, unlike the crispy, deep-fried sole fish sticks.  Perhaps I was just craving something deep-fried in the American-style of food preparation, but these were probably the best fish sticks ever!   It was garnished with fried parsley sprigs and a mayonnaise sauce on the side, made from scratch and flavored with bright green herbs.

For our practical, Chef Frederic presented us with a two Japanese tools used for scaling and deboning fish, which were available for purchase at 6 euros a piece.

They were amazingly useful tools that were actually made in Japan, so, of course, I bought them both.  (In fact, I’m so thrilled about my new gadgets that I’m actually considering going to the farmer’s market on Sunday just so I can buy a whole fish to scale, gut, fillet, and skin… sounds exciting, doesn’t it!?)  We’d be preparing the braised brill as in demo, but serving it alongside a slightly different sauce.  Instead of straining out the diced tomatoes, onions, and shallots in the cooking broth, we left them in for the sauce and to be honest, this sauce rocked!

It was packed with flavor and the freshness from the tomatoes really brought the sauce to another dimension.  The taste was reminiscent of Sicilian cuisine, especially with the sweet tomatoes, the fresh chopped parsley, and the drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil I added as a finishing touch.

On the topic of virgin oils, just before the week was over, we had the opportunity of attending a special guest demonstration presented by oil specialist, Jean-Paul Laillet. Chef prepared three dishes from his latest cookbook, which included a chilled red-pepper gazpacho with pine nut oil; a refreshing scallop, avocado, and mango tartare with cilantro-infused pistachio oil; and a hazelnut and pistachio oil flavored panna cotta with a ginger-date coulis.

The newly opened bottle of pistachio oil was passed around the classroom for everyone to sample and it was absolutely amazing! The flavor of pistachio was incredibly pronounced in the oil, yet not overpowering. Monsieur Laillet also recommended a few other virgin oils, including almond and hazelnuts oils which, unfortunately, weren’t brought to the demonstration. I haven’t seen pistachio or almond oils sold in stores around LA, so I’ll be sure to buy a bottle or two to take home with me before I leave Paris ;)

Knowing where your food comes from and how to properly prepare it is a virtue that many of us often tend to overlook. After this week’s lessons, I think a lot of us have discovered a newfound respect for food and are truly grateful to have food on our tables and in our stomaches every night… at least I am.   It’s an unimaginable luxury for those who are faced with the treat of starvation every day, yet many of us, unfortunately, still take it for granted.


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