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Archive for December, 2011

After just three months of culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine, I have learned a lot, to say the very least. I remember when I could hardly wrap my head around preparing our first assignment, French Onion Soup. Slicing an onion seemed like an impossible task – I did not even know how to hold a knife properly. Nor could I hold a straight face as the onion burned my eyes. Let’s face it, there is no sympathy for criers in the kitchen.

To think I can now take a whole chicken and break it down into its breasts and legs in minutes blows my mind. Looking back on everything I have learned so far, here are three tips from school that I value the most in the kitchen –

1. Trust your Chef’s Knife.

Before culinary school, I had no idea this knife existed. Although its long length and thick blade intimidated me at first (I felt like Jason from Friday the Thirteenth!), the chef’s knife quickly became one of my best friends in the kitchen. This all-purpose knife can be used for just about anything – slicing, mincing or chopping. He (or she?) hasn’t let me down yet.

2. Take Advantage of Stainless Steel.

Growing up, my family only used non-stick, or Teflon, pans in the kitchen. I had never cooked with a stainless steel pan before I came to culinary school. It’s all we used, and for a good reason, too – stainless steel is a reliable, durable material that most chefs and restaurants rely on in the kitchen.

Of course, the main complaint with using a stainless steel pan is that the food will stick. The solution is quite simple – just use a fat with a high smoke point, such as canola oil or clarified butter (butter removed of its milk solids…check out this website for an explanation).

I also recommend a set of stainless steel mixing bowls. In culinary school, we use these handy bowls for anything and everything imaginable. Every class, I surround myself with several of these bowls – one for scraps and garbage, another one to catch prepped ingredients. Mixing bowls are essential for mis en place, or the act of arranging and prepping all necessary ingredients in front of you. As they tell us in school, if you want to be a successful chef, you must be organized.

3. Try not to waste!

In culinary school, we save almost everything. I have learned that there is a use for even the most obscure ingredient. For example, you are breaking down a whole chicken – what do you do with the excess bones; the parts usually destined for the trash can? Chicken backs (after the fat is removed) are perfect for a chicken stock. The rest of the bones can be used to add flavor to a pan sauce. We also save duck fat for duck confit. Even scraps like mushroom stems or shrimp shells can be used to add flavor to a sauce as well. It is important however, to make sure to strain them out of the sauce serving – No one wants to bite into shrimp shells!

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Whenever I’m visiting my boyfriend Paul in Baltimore, I try to cook as much as possible for him. He’s a good medium to test out some of the recipes I’ve been messing around with in my head. I love cooking for him because no matter how much I think I’ve screwed up the meal, he only says it’s delicious.

A few weeks ago, we learned how to prepare a dish in culinary school called L’OEUF MOLLET FLORENTINE, which is a soft-boiled egg with sauteed spinach and Mornay sauce (a very cheesy Gruyère sauce). The dish is assembled into a gratin bowl, which is then baked in the oven until the cheese starts to brown on top. The key is to make sure you don’t cook the egg to hard-boiled in the oven.

Not wanting to spend $50 on brunch Sunday morning, I decided to cook. It turned out, we had all of the ingredients, but only a tiny bit of Cheddar cheese. My rendition was not as “French” as L’Academie de Cuisine’s, but whatever. Here is what I did –

Ingredients:

  • Eggs, soft-boiled
  • Sauteed spinach
  • Any good melting cheese (such as Gruyère, Mozzarella or Swiss), grated

Preparation:

  1. Slowly lower eggs into boiling, salted water. Make sure the eggs are room temperature.
  2. Boil the eggs for 5-6 minutes. Immerse immediately in cold water.
  3. Carefully peel off the shells.
  4. Saute the spinach with butter and garlic/shallots if desired. Season as needed.
  5. Arrange the spinach like a nest in a gratin dish, if you have one. I actually used a shallow Pyrex bowl, which worked well too.
  6. Carefully lie the eggs on top of the spinach nest. Top with grated cheese, salt and pepper.
  7. Bake at 375 degrees until the cheese has melted (shouldn’t take long, just watch it). Serve hot!

Like the pizza, this dish not only tastes good, but looks pretty on the plate (or in the bowl), too. I served this with chicken sausage, already cooked but crisped in olive oil. A ham steak would also be really good. I think it would also be great with a loaf of crusty French bread. Okay, I need to stop – I’m already hungry again!

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I have recently enjoyed taking recipes we’ve learned at culinary school and making them my own at home. Last week, we made something called La Roulade de Poitrine de Poulet Farci a la Mousse de Vollaile Jus Lie. In English, this is essentially a chicken breast rolled tight with a filling of roasted peppers, sauteed spinach, sauteed chopped mushrooms (known in French as Mushroom Duxelle) and chicken mousse.

Chicken mousse is made by running breast or leg meat through a food processor until they look something like cotton candy. Don’t eat it!  Afterwards, the chicken is seasoned and combined with heavy cream until it reaches a light, fluffy consistency. Usually, the chicken and mousse mixture is poached because it is rather delicate in this form. Alone, chicken mousse looks like an alien substance from Mars. However, when it is paired with various ingredients, it can provide an interesting texture to a dish.

The chicken roll-up, the dish we made in culinary school, was delicious. I loved the combination of flavors of the fillings inside the chicken – this is what really added flavor. Paired together, these three distinctive flavors \ the mushrooms, the peppers and the spinach – caught my attention. Suddenly, in a stroke of brilliance (at least I thought it was brilliance), I had an idea.

Later, at home, I used these three flavors plus some chicken sausage (it was on sale at the grocery store) to make a pizza. I had to make this as soon as possible. Here is what I did (I used pita bread because it was what I had on hand):

Ingredients

  • Whole pita bread
  • Tomato sauce
  • Mozzarella cheese or goat cheese (or both!)
  • Mushroom Duxelle
  • Roasted peppers
  • Sauteed spinach
  • Protein, either roasted chicken leg or pork/chicken sausage

Toppings

-Mushroom Duxelle

  1. Finely chop mushrooms.
  2. Sweat shallots with salt and butter over low heat. When softened, add mushrooms and saute until cooked.
  3. Add lemon juice and stir to finish.
-Roasted Peppers
  1. Set oven to 400-450 degrees.
  2. Place pepper in oven whole and roast until softened.
  3. Peel off the skin and slice into thin strips.
-Sauteed Spinach
  1. Saute spinach leaves in butter (medium-high heat). Add a few garlic cloves or chopped shallots, if desired.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.

The Pizza
  1. Spread tomato sauce over top of pita bread (not too much).
  2. Sprinkle a light layer of mozzarella or goat cheese on top of the sauce.
  3. Place the toppings on the pizza. Start with the mushroom duxelle and protein chopped small, and top with bunches of sauteed spinach. Lie roasted pepper strips neatly on top of the pizza.
  4. Bake at 400 degrees or higher until cheese has melted and pita bread is crispy.
  5. Let cool a little, then eat!
I was very pleased with my pizza. The flavors go well with each other, and it looks pretty on the plate. Try it out!

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Meatballs, located in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown district, is Michel Richard’s latest stab at the casual dining field. You heard me right – Michel Richard, the owner of Citronelle, has opened a meatball shop. Hard to believe, right? While he is known for his intellectually stunning food at his flagship restaurant, Michel Richard has always had a soft spot for meatballs. According to an article on eater.com, meatballs are his “ultimate happy food.”

From the street, Meatballs will grab your attention, to say the least. A large glass window reads “meat” in small, fancy letters. Directly underneath is the word “BALLS” in large, bolded, all-capitalized letters. I admit that the immature self inside of me found this absolutely hilarious. I can just imagine telling a friend, “I’m going to eat Michel Richard’s balls…meat balls that is.”

Meatballs calls itself “purveyors of rounded meats.” I found this hilarious as well. Just say it out loud. As I entered the shop, I had to wonder if Michel Richard was responsible for this silliness.

The menu is simple – order at the counter, pick your meatball and pick a landing pad (grinder sub, spaghetti or salad greens) and sauce. You can choose from traditional beef, lamb, chicken and vegetarian lentil meatballs. There is an interesting array of sauces from which to choose – classic Marinara, roasted red pepper, tandoori sauce, mushroom sauce and more. The sides include collard greens, creamy polenta and “spuddies,” or tater tots. I recognized this, called “Michel’s Spuddies,” on the menu at Citronelle.

I ordered the mini meatball sandwich, a half-portion of the standard four-meatball sandwich. For my topping, I chose the roasted red pepper sauce and a little Parmesan cheese on top. On the side, I decided on collard greens. The presentation was pretty cool – the food comes on a quarter sheet tray (like we use in culinary school) covered with a sheet of parchment.

My meatballs were hot, juicy and delicious. The sweetness of the pepper in the sauce was a nice accompaniment to the savory flavors of the meat. The bread was crusty and crumbled whenever I took a bite. Napkins were essential, as this was one messy sandwich.

The collard greens on the side were also very good – I tasted what I thought was a little bacon. Overall, a satisfying, flavorful lunch.

Meatballs is an appealing concept that I foresee catching on in D.C. Although I found the menu to be a bit expensive for what it offers, the quality of the food is high. I’ve read that Michel Richard’s involvement with the shop is small, but as long as the food is good (and it is), that does not bother me. There is definitely something to be said about a chef who can serve you Escargot, Porcupine or Penguin Caviar in one place, and classic meatballs at another.

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Dinner at Citronelle

I always have a hard time buying gifts for my father. For years my mom and I have asked him, “What do you want for Christmas?” or “What do you want to do for your birthday?” The standard response –  “Nothing, don’t worry about it, I don’t need anything.”

For his 60th birthday, it was the same story. He definitely did not want a surprise party nor did he want presents. Eventually, it hit us. My father really only wanted to do one thing. Simple and straightforward, but ultimately more satisfying than almost anything –  eat good food.

He decided he wanted to treat himself and his family to dinner at one of D.C.’s finest restaurants, Michel Richard’s Citronelle. Consistently ranked with other fine dining establishments such as Komi, Minibar and Inn at Little Washington, Citronelle is a top-notch gourmet experience.

On the night of my dad’s birthday, we made our way to Georgetown, anticipating an incredible meal.

As we entered the restaurant, we were immediately impressed with the low-lit dining room, its walls splashed with soft hues of orange and red. I was most excited by the kitchen, which is visible from nearly every table in the main dining room. There is even a chef’s table inside the kitchen, offering diners a chance to be even closer to the food they’re enjoying. I’m sure it’s impossible to get a reservation!

Our waiter was a friendly French man who helped make our meal even more enjoyable. I don’t usually comment on the wait staff in restaurants, but this guy was really good. The menu, while not overwhelmingly large, offers so many incredible-sounding dishes, it is difficult to make a decision.

The first plate to arrive at the table was the Amuse Bouche, the chef’s gift to the table. Three mini-appetizers were presented to us – a tiny onion tart, yellow tail sushi with an asian sauce and a small piece of salmon. Not long afterwards, our appetizers appeared. I ordered Escargot and Veal Sweetbreads topped with a parsley garlic sauce and crispy shallots (pictured, right).

Sweetbreads are from the thymus of the veal. They may not sound very appetizing, but they actually are quite delicious. Together, the sweetbreads and the escargot were crispy, buttery bliss. The parsley garlic sauce had an intriguingly green color that paired well with everything, even the French baguette on the table.

Soon after my appetizer came my entree – roasted duck with a sweet, spiced citrus sauce. Accompanying this were haricots verts and a crispy duck confit fritter. What were the odds – the week before, I had actually made a duck confit fritter at culinary school. I prided myself on being able to create at least one thing from Michel Richard’s menu.

I don’t know what it is about the combination of duck and citrus sauce, but it works. The sweet, tangy flavors of the orange sections and apricots were a perfect companion to my duck. The duck confit fritter, on its own plate on top of a bed of greens, was an interesting contrast to the duck breast on my plate.

My father ordered venison loin with a red wine sauce, accompanied by a bowl of sausage and lentils. I liked how many of the “side” dishes were separately plated. Each flavor was able to stand alone making the sides just as important to the dish as their accompanying meats.

Satisfied, but still with ample room for dessert, I decided on “Snowman,” without having any idea what I was ordering. My father ordered “Fig Tart,” and my mother decided on “Chocolate Degustation.” Michel Richard got his start working with pastry, so I was very excited to see what his imagination could produce.

The presentation of the Snowman dessert was nothing like I expected – an actual snowman made out of hard meringue, holding a sprig of rosemary (for decoration), surrounded by raspberries and blueberries and dusted with powdered sugar (like snow!). What’s more, the snowman held a tiny sparkler that the waiter lit at the table.  The attention to detail was incredible, everything from his little chocolate hat to the red scarf wrapped around his neck. I felt a little guilty picking apart the snowman with my fork. This dessert was almost too beautiful to eat.

My parent’s dessert followed suit – this was fine art on a plate. Even as we finished, the show was not over yet. The waiter brought us a plate of petits fours, or miniature cookies, chocolates and pastries. And, just because it was my father’s birthday, the waiter brought out another sparkler to light. Three times as large as the snowman’s, this was one serious indoor fireworks display.

My experience at Citronelle was outstanding. Everything was perfect – the food, our waiter, the atmosphere, just everything. One standout quality was the pace of the meal. At no point did we wonder where our food was or when it would be arriving. Every movement was fluid, smooth and calm, like a watching a theatrical performance or listening to a symphony. I would agree, and so would my father, that this was definitely a notch up from a surprise birthday party.

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