Sunday, September 16, 2007

Stocks and Soups

I survived my first week of cooking school. To be honest, this wasn’t that much of an accomplishment, since Monday was orientation and Thursday Rosh Hashanah. Still, I was truly exhausted by the weekend’s arrival, though more from preparing a large holiday meal than from the toils of school.

Most school days are organized into two parts. In the morning, we attend a lecture and demonstration on what we will be making in the afternoon’s session, where the twelve students break into two teams and cook. Each team is lead by a sous chef, a distinction which is assigned to a new student each day.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s classes were dedicated to stocks and soups respectively. The class on stocks was more about getting acquainted with the kitchen, and no insights into the secrets of stock-making were offered that you wouldn’t find in any cookbook. Still, the experience of making stocks in class was wildly different from home cooking. Organization is imperative, as we were cooking many dishes simultaneously, and the quantities of food involved were much larger than you would need in the typical home kitchen. My team didn’t read our recipes as closely as we should have, so there was some confusion while cooking, and we forgot to sweat our fish stock’s mirepoix before adding the liquid. I was reminded of a passage from A Debt to Pleasure, where at the end of a recipe for an Irish Stew of layered potatoes, onions and lambs, the reader is instructed to sprinkle each tier with salt and herbs. The narrator explains that, “You will of course not be able to do that if you have been following this recipe without reading it through in advance. Let that be a lesson to you.” Fortunately, our omission had no discernable effect on the final product.

I wish I could say I was more organized on Wednesday, when I acted as my group’s sous chef. I tried to learn the recipes for consommé, French onion soup, and butternut squash soup before the class, but despite my efforts, I added flavorings for the squash soup at the beginning of cooking rather than after cooking, as the recipe suggested. Again, the mistake resulted in negligible consequences, but I was disappointed that I was unable to keep three simple recipes in my head. I’m sure this will become easier with practice.

Probably the most exciting dish we’ve prepared thus far is consommé. Consommé is made by combining a mixture of whipped egg whites, tomatoes, mirpoix and ground beef with chicken and veal stock. The egg whites bind together and form a raft at the top of the broth, bringing with them all the soup’s cloudy impurities (this method is also used to clarify wines). The acid from the tomatoes also helps to create a clearer stock. I hear that the addition of egg shells makes the consommé darker and more flavorful, but this practice seems to have gone out of fashion. Our consommé’s raft took a long time to form, and I became quite nervous that I had done something wrong. But, sure enough, the mixture finally did come together at the top of the pot, resulting in a perfectly clear liquid.

The real fun of consommé is the garnishes. Chef John explained that there are over 300 types of consommés, each distinguished by its own topping. The 2003 edition of Larousse Gastronomique only lists fourteen types of consommé; the Escoffier Cook Book lists 88; and La Répetoire de la Cuisine lists 189, so I’m not sure exactly how Chef John arrived at 300. Still, we can all agree that there are more individually named consommés than the average consommé enthusiast will ever sample. I read through a bunch of them, and the one that seemed the most appealing to me was consommé profiterole, which is garnished with small foie-gras stuffed pastries. Unfortunately, we won’t cover pastry until the end of October, so for now I’ll have to practice my knife skills and enjoy consommé brunoise, topped with vegetables cut into a 1/8 inch cube.


Laurence said...

Have you heard about Heston Blumenthal's cold gelatin consomme technique? Harold McGee wrote something about it a couple weeks ago in the NYT.

Jenny said...

I hadn't heard about Blumenthal's technique. It seems pretty badass. Thanks for the link.

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