When I enrolled in a 4-day "Boot Camp" in French Bistro cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, I knew almost nothing about French cuisine. Sure, I had read Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child cover to cover. But it is one thing to read about cooking techniques in a book; it is quite another to have a chef walk you through the proper execution of a rolled omelet, a perfectly seared mushroom, or a luxurious lemon beurre blanc.
As a chronically distracted home cook, I wanted to spend time in the kitchen uninterrupted by my life whizzing around me. I wanted to be organized, focused, and efficient, thinking only about what I was whipping, whisking, folding, kneading, searing and sauteing.
Besides a total lack of formal education in the culinary arts, I suffer from a long list of cooking afflictions: a squeamishness about using heavy cream, a reluctance to make any sauce besides marinara, a mostly helter-skelter approach to food preparation, and a tendency to overcook eggs.
An enormous chandelier made out of saucepans greets you as you enter the CIA.
So I arrived at the CIA with a long list of culinary goals, and a twinge of nervousness that felt very much like the first day of medical school.
Making Tomato and Goat Cheese Tarts taught me how to work with puff pastry dough.
And just like in medical school, where it important to wear scrubs, a cap and a mask before entering the operating room, at the CIA our first task was to don the traditional chef's uniform: checkered pants, a chef's jacket, a toque and an apron. It sure does help to look the part.
Fellow boot camper Blanca and I making Ravioli stuffed with Roasted Chicken, Spinach and Cremini Mushrooms.
Jennifer with our perfect ravioli.
Cooking without distraction was a real vacation for me. On Bistro Lunch day we made French onion soup, frisée au lardons, smoked tomato bisque, pickled cherry tomatoes, gaufrette potatoes with aioli, Croque Monsieur, and open-faced hanger steak sandwiches with caramelized onions (see last post).
Heirloom tomato and goat cheese tarts are baked briefly, then topped with a chiffonade of basil and drizzled with olive oil.
Next we tackled classic and contemporary bistro dinner fare: Mussels in saffron and white wine broth, Cabernet-braised beef short ribs with horseradish mashed potatoes, roast chicken ravioli with cremini mushrooms and spinach, and Provencal herb-crusted salmon with lemon beurre blanc and rice pilaf.
One of the perks of being a Boot Camper is getting to sample what the real CIA students are working on.
The CIA students in the neighboring kitchen were perfecting their brunch dishes. I quickly learned to eat like chefs do: taste everything, but don't actually eat anything.
Nicole getting ready to sit down to our 'Family Meal' after cooking for 6 straight hours.
By Day 3, we were really rolling. We tackled my nemesis: breakfast and brunch. This was by far the most stressful day due to the huge number of dishes and the importance of timing them all perfectly. First we made cheese blintzes with a mixed berry sauce, French toast with orange sauce, and honey grapefruit á la Salvador Dali. Next we learned how to properly scramble eggs (per my request), and how to make a perfect French rolled omelet.
The eggs are constantly agitated over low heat until starting to set, then the curds are flattened out evenly with the spatula.
With a tilt of the pan, and a flick of the wrist, Chef rolls up the omelet...
And gives it a bit of shape with a paper towel.
Voilá: the perfect French omelet is tapered on both ends, has little or no color, with an interior like soft scrambled eggs, and a smooth exterior: no wrinkles.
We baked mushroom, leek and Brie turnovers and ham and cheddar scones (my latest breakfast addiction.) We learned how to trim a beef tenderloin, shape filet mignon, make hollandaise sauce, and steak and eggs benedict. We smoked a salmon and prepared gravlax, a 3 day procedure involving tequila.
Gravlax was one of the easiest brunch dishes we learned; since we were in Texas, if felt fitting to use tequila to cure the salmon for 3 days.
Rolling blintzes: crepes filled with ricotta, farmer and cream cheeses, which will then be sauteed in butter, and served with a mixed berry sauce.
Cheese blintzes with mixed berry sauce. My kids would just flip if I made them this for breakfast.
Meet my Chef Instructor, Chef Michael: a great guy who knows his stuff, and doesn't mind sharing his secrets. In Chef Michael's kitchen there is no haughtiness, no condescension, no tantrums, no Charlie Trotter-like raging on the underlings. With a can-do attitude and a common sense approach to food preparation, Chef made my fellow Boot Campers and I feel like we could actually cook.
He actually laughed when I made the world's worst pizza, which stuck to the pizza peel, then stuck to the pizza oven, then shredded upon exit.
Chef Michael demonstrates how to make mozzarella.
After 3 solid days of turning out dozens and dozens of French Bistro dishes, my teammates and I were starting to feel competent in the kitchen. Then Chef threw us a curve ball: on the 4th and last day, we would have all of our recipes memorized. No cookbook. The ultimate in Mis en Place (see below). Yipes.
A mixed green salad with apples and mustard vinaigrette. A sauteed mushroom souffle. Poached pears with roquefort and vanilla ice cream, which required making a creme anglaise first. A cheese souffle, caramelized onion quiche with brie and smoked salmon, roasted beet and orange salad with goat cheese, molten chocolate cake. Margherita Pizza with homemade mozzarella. Gastrique. Yipes.
Chef demonstrates how to make pasta to fellow students Jennifer and Rudy.
We survived that last day with only a few small disasters. Cooking without the book helped us be more prepared and more intuitive. Back home in Jackson in my high altitude kitchen, I tried to apply what I learned at the CIA from Chef Michael. Here's a sampling, in no particular order, of a professional chef's secrets that can apply to your home kitchen.
- It's all about Mis en Place. If the CIA is the holy grail of higher learning in the culinary arts, Mis en Place is its religion. I knew that Mis en Place referred to having all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you cook, but I learned that it also means that you understand the recipe, you've given it some thought, and you know how it's going to work. You are mentally prepared.
- Small details are important. You know that little green sprout that you'll find in a garlic clove? Do you remove it before chopping your garlic? Chefs do, because it makes the garlic taste bitter. Attention to detail is one of the qualities that distinguishes a professional from an amateur in the kitchen.
- Your most important kitchen utensil: the Tasting Spoon. At the CIA, we would each go through dozens of tasting spoons a day. You can't prepare a dish if you don't know how it tastes.
- When you are learning a challenging recipe, be prepared to chuck it and start over. Even though chefs frugally save every scrap of food that can be used somehow, they are not averse to tossing a failing dish in the trash. If you are challenging yourself in the kitchen, you are going to make mistakes. I noticed that chefs don't get emotionally attached to their food; if they mess up, they do it again until they get it right. (Although I did feel like crying when my bechamel base for the mushroom souffles was too thick, and I had to throw it in the trash. Twice.)
I was proud of my mushroom souffles even though I had to throw out the first two batches.
5. How to dice an onion (hint: I've been doing it wrong for 30 years). First, chop off the stem end, leaving the root intact. Then, place the onions cut side down and bisect it through the root. Now, peel off the outer layers. Place each half flat side down, and cut in two planes while holding to the root to protect your fingers. This works for shallots too.
When dicing an onion, keep the root intact. Hold onto it as you cut in two planes; it will protect your fingers.
6. Sear a mushroom much like you would a steak. Heat the pan on high, then add oil. When a drop of water will dance on the hot oil, add the mushroom slices so that they do not touch and have plenty of room. Sear without moving the mushrooms around. When very brown on one side, flip each piece over. Sear until very brown. Now season.
Mushrooms release a lot of water when they are cooked. If they are too close together in the pan, they will steam instead of browning nicely.
Perfectly seared cremini mushrooms.
7. When removing the skin from a side of salmon, place the fish skin side down on a cutting board. Place your knife between the skin and the flesh pointing to the skin. Hold onto the skin and pull it towards you as you cut down along it.
Chef wraps the salmon skin in a kitchen towel, and pull is toward him, as he peels off the flesh.
Chef makes this look easy; it's going to take me a lot more practice.
8. Stock vs. broth: stock is made from bones; broth is made from bones and meat. Thank goodness someone finally straightened that out for me.
Chef Michael demonstrates how to make a proper chicken stock.
9. Clarified butter. Finally, I learned why I always burn the eggs. Real chefs use clarified butter, which is unsalted butter that has been slowly melted, separating the milk solids from the golden liquid. After skimming off any foam from the top, the clarified butter is poured away from the solids on the bottom of the pan. Clarified butter has a higher smoke point than butter, so it can be heated to higher temperatures without burning. It also keeps longer than butter, covered in the refrigerator, since it lacks the milk solids that turn rancid.
One of my favorite menus from the CIA Bistro Boot Camp is elegant and simple: Crispy Herb-Seared Salmon, with Lemon Beurre Blanc, and Perfect Rice Pilaf. It is the perfect spring/summer menu.
To print a copy of each recipe, click on the file below it.
Crispy Herb-Seared Salmon
This yields 6 servings. If you only need enough salmon for 3 or 4, keep the other quantities in the recipe the same, but adjust the amount of salmon.
This recipe is adapted from the Culinary Institute of America, where I learned the secret to perfectly seared salmon: grapeseed oil. Its high smoke point allows the herbs to form a nice crust on the salmon without burning.
I couldn't find savory or lavender at my little grocery store, so I used Herbes de Provence instead. Herbes de Provence is a spice blend of those herbs as well as rosemary, thyme and marjoram. Just make sure you have a fresh jar; it should give off an intensely floral aroma.
One other thing: dried orange peel comes in a jar, or you can make your own by cutting the peel from an orange in strips, leaving behind any white pith, and toasting it in a 300 F oven for 5 or so minutes. Watch carefully so that it does not burn. Once just toasted, cool and chop finely.
Crispy Herb-Seared Salmon is part of the perfect spring menu. Although we are still skiing powder, we can pretend it's spring!
for the herb mixture:
- 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. dried savory, 1 tsp. dried rosemary, 1 tsp. fennel seeds, and 1 tsp. dried lavender OR 4 tsp. Herbes de Provence plus 1 tsp. fennel seeds
- 1 tsp. crumbled bay leaves
- 1 tsp. ground cloves
- 1 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 1 tsp. dried orange peel
- 6 Salmon filets, 6 oz. each, skin on or off
- Kosher or sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 4 tablespoons diced butter
Herbes de Provence, fennel seeds, nutmeg, cloves, bay leaves and dried orange peel coat the salmon fillets.
- To prepare the herb mixture, place all the herbs and spices, including the dried orange peel, in a mortar and pound them to a fine powder. Or whiz them in a coffee grinder (I have an old one that I use just for grinding herbs).
- To prepare the fish, spread the herb mixture on a plate. Season the salmon with salt and pepper, then press the rounded side of the fillets into the herb mixture to coat evenly.
- Place a rack onto a baking sheet, and reserve.
- Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat until hot. Lay the salmon, coated side down, in the pan. Cook just until the herbs have formed a crust and have browned. Remove the salmon from the pan and transfer, herb side up, to the baking sheet. The salmon should appear very rare.
- Top the salmon filets with butter.
- Finish cooking the salmon in a 375º F oven until firm and just cooked through to your liking; if you like it rare, this should only take a few minutes.
- Serve the filets on a heated platter atop a heaping pile of Perfect Rice Pilaf, accompanied by the Lemon Beurre Blanc.
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Herb-crusted salmon is seared on one side, to produce a crispy, Provencal-spiced coating.
Perfect Rice Pilaf
At the CIA, they teach 3 crucial steps for perfect rice pilaf: measure your ingredients precisely, check your oven temperature accuracy with an oven thermometer, and use long grain white rice.
- 1 1/2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
- 1-2 tablespoons minced onion
- 1 1/2 cups long grain white rice
- 2 1/4 cups chicken stock, heated
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme
- Kosher or sea salt and pepper, to taste
- Heat the butter or oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes.
- Add the rice and saute, stirring frequently, until coated with the butter or oil and heated through.
- Add the heated stock to the rice. Bring to a simmer, stirring the rice once or twice to prevent it from clumping together or sticking to the bottom of the pot.
- Add the bay leaf, sprig of thyme, salt and pepper. (I use 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1 grind of the pepper mill. You can taste again for salt before you serve it.)
- Cover the pot and place in a 350º F oven for 15-20 minutes. (Check for doneness at 15 minutes; at high altitude it may take the full 20 minutes.)
- Remove from the heat and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Uncover, and using a fork, separate the grains to release the steam.
- Adjust the seasonings with additional salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaf and thyme.
- Serve hot.
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Lemon Beurre Blanc
Please do not be alarmed by the amount of butter in this sauce. You will only use a small amount to elevate the salmon to an new level of Frenchness. This is another great recipe from the CIA.
Yields 1 1/2 cups
- 6 tablespoons heavy cream (more if needed to thin the sauce)
- 2 tsp. minced shallots
- 2 black peppercorns
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
- 1/2 lb. unsalted butter, cold, cubed
- Kosher or sea salt, to taste
- ground white pepper, to taste
- 1 Tbsp. lemon zest, grated
I just loved taking pictures of our beautiful ravioli.
- First, cut the butter into cubes, and place them in a bowl into the coldest part of the refrigerator, or the freezer. They should be ice cold when you add them to the sauce.
- In a small saucepan set over medium heat, bring the heavy cream to a simmer and reduce by half.
- Combine the shallots, peppercorns, wine and 2 Tbsp. lemon juice in a separate saucepan. Reduce over medium-high heat until nearly dry (au sec).
- Over very low heat, add the butter a few pieces at a time, whisking constantly to blend the butter into the reduction. (Do not boil the sauce as this will cause it to separate.) Continue adding the butter until the full amount has been incorporated.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Finish the sauce by adding the lemon juice and lemon zest. Remove the whole peppercorns with a spoon.
- Place the sauce in a hot water bath, and keep warm until ready to use.
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Gastrique (gah-STREEK): a syrupy reduction of caramelized sugar and vinegar, sometimes with wine. At the CIA, we made a gastrique of apple cider and vinegar, and drizzled it on a mixed green salad with apples.
Survivors of the CIA French Bistro Boot Camp: Tom, Nicole, me, Chef and Blanca.