Thursday, November 1, 2012

Week 43: A Journey to France

Ah, French cuisine…beautifully crafted, well thought, and absolutely delicious.  To describe the whole of its history, influence, and general elements with a simple introductory paragraph is impossible.  To explore its dishes in depth over a one week period is just as absurd.  So, I spent a few days researching its history, its influences, and its most significant contributions.  I considered what purpose I could define for this week’s project, and I realized that most of my favorite French dishes are ones I had never attempted, or even considered, making at home.  Why was this?  The reasons could be summarized into three categories:  (1) easy availability of ingredients, (2) the amount of time required to make them, and (3) inexperience with a technique.  So, I set out to create menus that challenged these obstacles.  As a result, I gained a new confidence in the kitchen, discovered an even more profound admiration for chefs who do this every day to such an effortless effect, and enjoyed some incredible dinners.

Monday Night Menu:  Seared Fois Gras with baked apples & prunes, Mixed Greens in vinaigrette with walnuts and Roquefort
I have come to realize that most people either love fois gras or hate it.  There aren’t many people in the middle.  I still remember my first taste of it.  I wish I remembered the name of the restaurant, but at a little bistro in San Francisco, I had a sandwich with toasted multigrain bread, cashew butter, boysenberry jam, and seared fois gras, which blew me away.  I loved everything about the fois gras, and I especially loved how the cashew butter and sweet boysenberry jam complemented it perfectly.  A few months later at Spoon by Alain Ducasse in Hong Kong, I was presented with a “fois gras” trio as part of a tasting menu, and it made me swoon.  It included a small piece of seared fois, a slice from a terrine, and a shot of warm fois soup…each element offered a straightforward presentation that showcased the beauty of the ingredient in its simplest form.  Those initial experiences happen to be the reason that I fall into the category of people who love it.

seared fois gras
So, where to start?  I didn’t really have time to run around Miami trying to figure out where I could buy a lobe of fois gras, so I ordered one from Hudson Valley Fois based on their impressive reputation.  I considered making a terrine, but I wanted to actually “cook” with it and try to understand the idiosyncrasies involved in searing a nice piece of fois.  I watched two or three You Tube videos about how to devein it and how to prepare it.  Deveining it was actually much simpler than I expected it to be.  The key is removing it from the refrigerator for a few hours so that the texture is malleable enough to remove the veins without having it crumble apart.  After I deveined it and molded the “broken” parts back together, I put it back in the refrigerator until I was ready to cook it that night.  I understood that the key to achieving a good sear on it is a very hot pan and only cooking it for about thirty seconds per side.  Some recommended flouring it a bit to help with the sear, while others noted that scoring it would release the fat and provide a better sear.  The BEST piece of advice I found was to be prepared to constantly pour fat out of the skillet.  Otherwise, the fois just “poaches” in the fat, instead of searing.  As I began to sear the pieces of fois, I quickly discovered that getting the fat poured off was the biggest challenge of making the dish.  I used my heavy cast iron skillet, because it holds so much heat, and I thought it would make searing it easier.  In retrospect, I wish I’d used a lighter skillet, because the skillet was so heavy I needed two hands to manage the job of pouring off the fat.  I served the fois over apples and prunes that I tossed in honey, sauternes, and fresh lemon juice before baking with fresh rosemary sprigs.  Overall, the dish was amazing.  A salad of mixed greens in a vinaigrette with toasted walnuts and Roquefort provided the perfect balance to the richness of the dish.  I wish I had achieved a better sear on the fois, but I was pleased with the fact that I got a sear at all and that the flavor and texture turned out well.  It was a great way to begin my week of French cuisine.

Tuesday Night Menu:  Duck Confit with braised Belgian endive, Pear Clafouti
duck confit fresh from the oven
Despite the fact that I knew Duck Confit was nothing more than duck cooked in duck fat, I always thought that it must be a little more complicated than that, but as it turns out, it really is that easy!  On Sunday afternoon, I rubbed six duck legs in a paste of coriander, cloves, juniper berries, black pepper, cardamom, fresh garlic, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, brandy, and honey.  I left them in a dry roasting pan in the refrigerator until Monday night. 
duck confit,
brasied Belgian endive
Then, on Monday night, I warmed a quart of duck fat until it was liquid, and I poured it over the duck legs.  I cooked them in a 300 F oven for three hours and let them cool in the fat.  When they were completely cool, I removed them from the duck fat and wrapped each individual leg tightly in plastic wrap.  When we were ready for dinner on Tuesday night, I simply melted a little duck fat in the cast iron skillet and added two duck legs when the skillet was hot.  I cooked it until the duck was warmed through and had crispy skin.  It was one of the most delicious and simplest dishes I’ve ever made.  I couldn’t believe it.  In an attempt to not serve salad with every meal this week, I opted to braise some Belgian endive in red wine and butter to accompany the duck.  It was the first time I ever cooked Belgian endive, and I must say that I really enjoyed it served this way.

pear clafouti
I’ve thought about making clafouti so many times, but for some reason, I always make something else.  I knew it was a simple dessert, so I thought it would be a nice addition to a weeknight meal.  It can be made with any fruit, although cherries and apricots are used more traditionally.  Since apricots and cherries are no longer in season here, I made a clafouti with pears.  I expected the dish to be similar to an “upside down cake” with fruit surrounded by a cakey batter, but I discovered that the dish is actually more flan-like because of the amount of eggs used.  The dessert was quite delicious, and the hubs loved it!  If I make it with pears again, I will sauté them before adding them to the dish so that they are a little softer, but otherwise, I found it to be a perfect dessert for a busy night.

Wednesday Night Menu:  Fish Quenelles in mushroom cream sauce
I knew this menu was a bit ambitious.  I originally planned to make Mark Bittman’s recipe for fish quenelles in a white wine sauce from The Best Recipes in the World.  Then, over dinner with a friend, I mentioned that I was attempting to make fish quenelles for the project, and a sort of uncontrollable joy came over her as she told me how much she loves Julia Child’s recipe for them, that she had never tasted anything like them, and how she has made them so many times that the recipe is so smudged that it’s almost unreadable.  I decided to up the ante.

Before heading off to work on Wednesday morning, I jumped online and started looking for Julia’s recipe in hopes of finding some of my friend’s inspiration.  Although I did find Julia’s recipe, it was a recipe by Jacques Pepin that caught my attention and reset my course for fish quenelles at dinner that night.  More than just a recipe, Pepin explains that white fish with high albumin levels, such as Dover sole or hake, bind better in the mousse, and he notes the importance of using more than one type of fish for flavor and texture.  Over lunch, I studied his recipe and determined that we could have dinner at 9:15 if I arrived home and was in the kitchen working by 6:30.  And so, the challenge began.

fish quenelles in
mushroom cream sauce
From 6:30 to 8:45, I made the fish mousse, refrigerated it, shaped it into quenelles, poached it, and cooled it.  In between those activities, I made a homemade fish stock, reduced it, and transformed it into a mushroom cream sauce.  Finally, at 8:45 PM, I put the quenelles in a casserole dish, covered them in the mushroom cream sauce, slid them into the oven, and sat down with a glass of wine to chill.  When we had dinner thirty minutes later, I could not believe that I had made this somewhat sophisticated dish.  The quenelles were light and fluffy, yet they stayed perfectly formed.  The rich mushroom cream sauce offered a nice, warm complement to the fish quenelles.  The hubs loved the mushroom sauce so much that when he went back for seconds, he piled the fish quenelles and sauce into a bowl and grabbed a spoon so he didn’t miss any of the sauce.  All in all, I was pretty proud of this one.

Saturday Night Menu:  Boeuf Bourguignon, New Potatoes roasted in duck fat, and steamed asparagus with sauce gribiche
boeuf bourguignon
roasted new potatoes
asparagus with sauce gribiche
Boeuf Bourguignon is one of my favorite dishes of all time, and while it’s relatively simple to make, it requires time, which is not something I always have.  My Saturday of French cooking began at 9:00 AM, and I started with this dish.  Boneless beef chuck, fresh mushrooms, a little bacon, pearl onions, a bottle of Burgundy, and about three hours on the stovetop transformed a few fabulous ingredients into a perfect dinner on a cool night.  I let it cool and then brought it back up to temperature when we were ready for dinner on Saturday.  By then, the flavors had melded, and the beef was fall-apart tender.  What a treat!

profiterole with
vanilla pastry cream
I couldn’t resist using some of the leftover duck fat in the refrigerator, so I tossed a few new potatoes in it and roasted them until the skins were crispy and the insides creamy.  I steamed some fresh asparagus and tried out a little sauce gribiche over it.  (I’d never had sauce gribiche, and I must say that we loved it with the asparagus.  It’s just vinaigrette with chopped cornichons, hard-boiled egg, lemon zest, and a few herbs, but give it a fancy French name, and you have a great accompaniment to steamed vegetables or poached fish.)  For dessert, we had profiteroles stuffed with vanilla pastry cream.  I was surprised that making profiteroles is quite easy and quick.  The only issue I had was piping them out of my pastry bag.  The dough is so buttery that it just slips and slides around on the pan.  I think it would’ve been easier if I had lined my baking sheets with parchment paper.  Nonetheless, they were airy and delicious.  We had the leftovers with coffee on Sunday morning.

Sunday Night Menu:  Onion Soup, Rabbit Terrine, Mixed Greens, and Tarte Tatin
I spent most of Saturday getting ready for Sunday night’s menu. 

onion soup
For the Onion Soup, I knew that the most important element would be the stock, so I began by roasting some beef bones and using them, along with carrots, celery, onions, cloves, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, and peppercorns, to make homemade beef stock.  In another pot, I cooked down thin slices of five large yellow onions in butter.  When the stock and the onions were finished, I combined them and let them simmer together for about two hours.  I let the soup cool and refrigerated it until Sunday night.  On Sunday afternoon, I made croutons out of Saturday night’s leftover baguettes, and I reheated the onion soup.  When we were ready for dinner, I put a crouton in the bottom of a bowl, ladled soup over it, and added a thin layer or parmesan and gruyere cheese on top.  (Interestingly, the most common complaint I read about French Onion Soup in America is that Americans use too much cheese, so I purposely went easy on the cheese.)  Ten minutes in the oven and our onion soups were finished.  I must say that it did not taste like any French Onion Soup I have ever tasted.  The broth was flavorful, yet delicate, and I’m confident that it was a result of using homemade broth.  It was a nice way to start the meal.

rabbit terrine with green
olives and pistachios
For our second course, I served a Rabbit Terrine with mixed greens tossed in a vinaigrette. So, why a rabbit terrine?  Well, when I started the project, I decided that I wanted to include rabbit, because I had never cooked with it, and it is one of my favorite dishes when cooked properly.  I also wanted to include a pate or some sort of terrine, and since I was already planning to sear the fois gras, I opted for a terrine, instead of a pate.  I opened my big yellow kitchen bible, the Gourmet Cookbook, and I found a recipe for Rabbit Terrine with green olives and pistachios.  Sounded like a great way to accomplish both goals, so I added it to the week’s menus.  This one took me longer to make than I ever imagined. 
  • The recipe called for a three pound rabbit, but I ended up using 2 rabbits (1.3 lbs and 1.7 lbs).  Because I purchased frozen whole rabbits, I did not have the option of asking a butcher to cut the rabbit for me, so I studied a few photos to figure out exactly how I was supposed to butcher a whole rabbit into eight pieces. And, of course, I got to do this two times since I had two rabbits.  It was not the most beautiful butcher job, but fortunately, the meat was going to be pulled off the bones and shredded anyway.
  • I cooked the rabbit in a large stock pot with water, carrots, shallots, parsley, thyme, leek, garlic, salt and peppercorns for an hour. 
  • I let the mixture cool for thirty minutes. 
  • I removed the rabbit from the broth, strained the broth, and proceeded to mix it with crushed egg shells and egg whites.  Then, I heated it on the stove top to attempt to clarify it.  When I poured it through a sieve lined with damp paper towels, the broth was not clear, so I had to reheat it and attempt to clarify it again.  I did this three times until I finally got it right.
  • I pulled the rabbit meat and shredded it into small pieces.  This took me much longer than expected, too.  I hadn’t anticipated just how many little pieces there would be to pull off, and I was trying to make sure I didn’t accidentally pull any bones into my mixture.  When I finally finished with the meat, I mixed fennel seeds, chopped picholine olives, chopped pistachios, fresh chives, fresh thyme, salt and black pepper into the meat and set it aside.
  • I reduced the clarified broth until I had the correct concentration and removed it from the heat.  I whisked in a mixture of cold water and softened unflavored gelatin until it dissolved.  I stirred in Madeira and salt for flavoring.
  • Finally, it was time to assemble the terrine.  I don’t own a special pate mold with a press, but after a little research, I determined that it is easy to create your own press if you are happy with your terrine being made in a loaf pan (and I was fine with that).  So, I lined a loaf pan with plastic wrap, filled it with the rabbit mixture, and poured the gelatin broth over it.  Then, I fitted a piece of cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil that I cut out earlier in the day over the rabbit mixture and pressed it down so that the gelatin started rising above it.  I lay the body of wine bottle that matched the size of my loaf pan on top of the cardboard “lid” and used kitchen string to tie it down and put pressure on the terrine.
  • I chilled the terrine with the wine bottle “weight” in the refrigerator for three hours.
  • After the three hours, I removed the wine bottle and cardboard lid from the loaf pan.  I reheated the gelatin that was on top of the lid until it was pourable, and I poured it back on top of the terrine.  Then, I covered the whole terrine with plastic wrap and put it back in the refrigerator until Sunday night’s dinner.
Thankfully, when I unmolded and sliced the terrine on Sunday night, I discovered a perfectly formed and flavored terrine.  The brininess of the olives and the crunchiness of the pistachios added a perfect balance of flavor and texture to the dish.  I do not foresee making another terrine for a long time, but I will never have another without appreciating the amount of work that goes into that dish. Wow!

tarte tatin
I ended Sunday night’s dinner with my favorite French dessert, tarte tatin.  This is a dish that I have made previously, but this time, I spent a little more time researching tips for creating an even better tarte tatin than I’ve ever made.  I found a great article by Felicity Cloake from The Guardian entitled “How to cook perfect tarte tatin” and followed her recommendations to use different varieties of apples and to let the peeled apples sit in the refrigerator uncovered overnight to intensify their flavor.  I made a shortbread crust (because I like it better than puffed pastry), and I baked it in a cast iron skillet.  Another great dish!  I wish I had let the sugar caramelize a little longer so that the apples had a richer color on them, but otherwise, I was very happy with the final result.  It was a fine way to bid adieu to my week of French cuisine.

I set out to challenge myself this week, and without a doubt, I achieved that goal.  Even now as I write about this week’s dishes, I am surprised at how many I squeezed into a few days and that I did not have a single failure.  Without a doubt, I will look back to this week as one of the project’s best!

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