Sunday, January 30, 2011

A knife skills class at Appetite for Books

Last Monday, Laurent and I took a knife skills class at Appetite for Books. Most Montreal foodies are probably familiar with this Westmount bookstore, which is a true haven for people who love all things culinary:

1. They sell nothing but cookbooks and food-themed non-fiction.
2. There is a working kitchen inside the store (literally in the same room as the books).
3. The owner, Jonathan Cheung, is a trained chef, and regularly hosts classes, as well as demonstrations with personalities of the food world.

You can check out their classes and events on their website. It’s worth a look, although you usually have to register pretty early in the season to nab a spot – a sign that the food scene is getting pretty crowded around here.

We had already followed the Level 1 Knife class last fall. I can say without any exaggeration that that class completely changed my behaviour in the kitchen. I used to absolutely loathe chopping things, and usually delegated that task to Laurent. But after two hours of learning how to properly hold a knife and use it on a variety of fruit and vegetables (from onions to grapefruit), and after bringing home my brand-new chef’s knife (included in the cost of the class), I now actually enjoy cutting up ingredients into little tiny pieces. And I’m at least twice as fast as I used to be (keeping in mind that I really had no technique before that).

The Level 2 class, which we took last week, was a little more down-and-dirty: we learnt how to debone a whole chicken. Each student had to bring in two whole chickens – so Laurent and I had four birds between us. We were each given a boning knife, and got to work. (And, yes, I forgot to bring my camera that day – not that I could have taken a lot of shots, being wrist-deep in raw chicken.)

For some reason, I’d been under the impression that we would be using big-ass butcher knives, and I have to admit that the cheesy action flick fan in me was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to bring home a small hatchet. However, the knife we did use was probably more practical and versatile, albeit less visually impressive.

It turns out deboning a chicken is more about knowing the anatomy of the bird and following the bone than it is about brute strength and chopping stuff off. It takes a bit of practice before you can get to the point where you can cleanly scrape everything off the carcass and not waste anything. We also filletted some small fish, which is also definitely an acquired skill. However, I haven’t really had a chance to practice at home, because… we took our four now-boneless chickens home with us – with the carcasses on the side. So, no buying poultry for a while.

This is what our freezer looked like on Monday night:

Maybe it’s just me, but I am not in the habit of keeping that much raw meat in my freezer. My freezer is usually filled with homemade soups, bread, veggies, ice cream, and the occasional leftover stew (this month’s Daring Cooks’ cassoulet is in there somewhere). And, ok, some harder-to-find meats like shabu-shabu lamb. And, apparently, way too many frozen shrimp, because Laurent spotted a bargain a few of weeks ago. But I am not used to opening the freezer door and thinking an entire family was slaughtered and hidden away in there.

Since then, the carcasses gave birth to an amazing stock, and one chicken was cooked alla cacciatore. Tomorrow, there will be a giant curry, and that should take care of that. And then I can finally practice!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Daring Bakers' January Challenge - Biscuit Joconde Imprimé / Entremets

The January 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Astheroshe of the blog accro. She chose to challenge everyone to make a Biscuit Joconde Imprime to wrap around an Entremets dessert.

I was not looking forward to making this month’s Daring Bakers’ challenge. In fact, I put it off until the last possible minute. Why? Because it looked freaking hard.

To me, an entremets was something you serve between courses in a meal, to cleanse the palate, like a sorbet, or a shot of liquor. But the kind of entremets we were required to make this month was actually a dessert. The core of the challenge was to make a decorated biscuit Joconde, to wrap around a mould and then fill with whatever kind of sweet filling we chose.

It was the decorating part that had me scared. Making desserts look fancy and pretty has never been my forte, and I’d never worked with décor paste. In fact, I did have some trouble with that part. I wanted to make a simple striped pattern, but somehow my stripes all but disappeared during the baking process. Oh well, at least my Joconde is a cool, funky pink!

Once the tricky Joconde part was done with (and it really wasn’t all that difficult to make, apart from the disappearing stripes), I had some fun with the filling. I made three separate layers: lemon curd, raspberry mousse, and chocolate mousse – three of my favourite flavours. They half detached from the Joconde wrapping when I cut out pieces, but other than that I was quite pleased with the combination.

So, Asteroshe, thank you for pushing me to make more of a presentation effort with this challenge – even if I didn’t quite succeed in reproducing the picture I had in my head, it was still a great learning experience.

Don’t forget to check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen, along with the Daring Bakers’ blogroll!

I’ve decided to include the recipes for filling components, since they were initially components of different desserts. This filling would actually make a great dessert on its own, without the Joconde wrapping: just pour the layers in individual ramekins or glasses. The recipes were somewhat adapted for the purpose of this particular project. Namely, I slightly overcooked the lemon curd, and purposefully made the chocolate mousse drier than if it had been a standalone dessert, so that the entremets would hold together.

Lemon curd
Adapted from Tout un chef! Patrice Demers

The juice of 3 lemons
3 eggs
100g (3.5 oz, 1/2 cup) granulated sugar
100g (3.5 oz, 1/2 cup) butter, cut into pieces
1 sheet of gelatine

Soak the gelatine in cold water until softened (about one minute), then drain and reserve.

Combine the lemon juice, eggs, sugar, and butter in a saucepan, and whisk over medium heat until butter is melted. Whisking constantly, bring to a boil and cook until thickened (you should be able to make visible, lasting traces with your whisk). Remove from heat and stir in the gelatine. Strain, pour into mould, and chill.

Raspberry mousse
From José Maréchal’s Macarons

125g (4.5 oz) frozen raspberries, thawed
4 sheets of gelatine
240 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
2 egg whites
60g (1/3 cup) granulated sugar

Soak the gelatine in cold water until softened (about one minute), then drain and reserve.

Purée the raspberries with a blender or hand mixer. Transfer to a saucepan, cook over low heat, and stir in the gelatine until dissolved. Remove from heat, let cool, and reserve.

Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks, adding the sugar gradually.

Beat the cream into stiff peaks.

Using a flexible spatula, gently fold the raspberry coulis into the whipped cream. Fold in the egg whites. Pour into mould, and chill.

Chocolate mousse
From Patrice Demers’ La carte des desserts

500 ml (2 cups) heavy cream
125 ml (1/2 cup) whole milk
125 ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream
2 tbsp granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
350g (12 oz) dark chocolate discs or chips

Beat the 500 ml of cream into stiff peaks. Reserve.

In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks together with 1 tbsp sugar. In a saucepan, bring the remaining cream, the milk, and the remaining sugar to a boil. Pour the boiling liquid gradually over the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan and cook, stirring constantly, until thick enough to cover the back of a wooden spoon. Pour the mixture through a strainer onto the chocolate, and let sit for one minute. Whisk the chocolate and cream mixture together, until smooth.

With a flexible spatula, fold the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture. Pour into mould and chill.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Daring Cooks' January Challenge - Confit and Cassoulet

Yes, yes, I'm late posting the first challenge of the year. Good thing I didn't make any New Year's resolutions regarding punctuality, huh?

Our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.

I actually made my first traditional cassoulet a couple of months ago, based on this recipe I came across in The Gazette. Before that, I'd tried out a quicker, lighter, modified version, but when I tasted the slow-cooked version, the difference was obvious. Cassoulet is a time-consuming dish, but it's time well spent.

Making confit, however, was new to me. I've prepared slow-baked duck legs that pretty much taste like confit if you eat them immediately, but I had never attempted true-blue, preserved-in-fat, keeps-forever duck confit. It doesn't help that, around here, duck confit is actually easier to find in grocery stores than raw duck thighs. But all duck products are rather commonplace here in Montreal, so I had no trouble getting my hands on some beautiful (and cheap!) duck legs, and a liter of duck fat.

The confit was easy enough to prepare. I baked it for twice as long as suggested, because it just didn't seem tender enough, and it was just about right after that time. Sealing the whole thing in fat was... oddly satisfying, I have to admit. I prepared a couple of extra legs and sealed them separately for later use – two weeks later, and they still looked great. We had them for dinner tonight, just reheated with a side of vegetables.

The next step, apart from soaking the beans, consisted in simmering and/or sautéing the different cuts of meat that were involved in the preparation: pork belly, sausages, and bacon (which I substituted for pork rind, on the advice of both our hostesses). It all took a while, because I was making the full recipe (and I had some extra sausages, which I used in another dish), and by the time it was over, I was kind of sick of smelling, touching, and looking at greasy meat. I decided it was a good thing that I wasn't going to be eating the cassoulet until the following day.

Assembling the dish was an exercise in decadence. I lined my Dutch oven with thick-cut bacon, then stacked the ingredients as indicated. I used my biggest pot, and Lord knows I've cooked up some big stews in that thing, but this was a record. As you can see, the beans nearly overflowed!

Not much else to report on this. It's hard to screw up the cooking phase on this kind of dish. My only quibble is that some of my beans broke, which also happened last time. But other than that, this recipe, while slightly different than the first one I tried, was every bit as delicious. I'd be hard pressed to choose between them, although this one included ingredients which were easier to find.

Anyways, thank you, Lisa and Jenni! I learned a lot, and I now have a freezer full of delicious cassoulet! To make your own cassoulet, check out the challenge recipes at the Daring Kitchen. And even though I'm posting late, you can still look at the Daring Cooks' blog roll to look at all the beautiful dishes that were made this month!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Year's Feast - Seafood Spoons

A belated Happy New Year to everyone!

For me, the year is starting out with a tenacious cold and a massive computer crash. But I'm not too down about it: at least the cold isn't an all-out flu, and at least I didn't lose any important data.

We spent New Year's Eve in a chalet, with friends of Laurent's family. There were about twenty people expected for supper, so our hosts kept the main meal relatively simple: raclette and Asian hot-pot. Most of the preparation consisted in making dipping sauces and laying out platter after platter of cheeses, cured and raw meats, seafood, and vegetables.

However, as for Christmas, there were tons of appetizers and tapas to give the evening that fancy, glitzy vibe.

Pear and blue cheese bites (also featured at Christmas)

Egg-topped croutons with sauce

Seafood spoons

Salmon tartare

I helped out with the seafood spoons (recipe below) and the salmon tartare verrines, as well as a vodka-citrus granité (not pictured). There were also tons of dessert, including two which revealed to me that jello can actually be fancy:

Jello rainbow

Maple jello verrine

Other desserts included two kinds of chocolate tarts (courtesy of yours truly), a yule log, cardamom cookies, and a hardcore Death By Chocolate (which we photographed during the day, while it was chilling outside – we were afraid removing the plastic wrap would smudge the whipped cream topping).

Now that's the way to kick off the new year!

Seafood Spoons

Yields 20 appetizer servings

10 fresh tiger prawns (or frozen and thawed)
10 fresh scallops (or frozen and thawed)
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
One bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley
One 1 cm (1/2 inch) slice of lemon, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Pat the scallops and prawns dry with a clean paper towel. Heat 1 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp of oil in a skillet over medium high heat, and sear the scallops, 1-2 minutes per side, until browned and just cooked through. Transfer the scallops to a plate, wash the skillet (or use another one), heat the remaining oil and butter, and sear the shrimp in the same manner, until pink and cooked through. Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Put the parsley, lemon, salt and pepper in a food processor, and pulse until parsley is shredded. Gradually pour in the olive oil and continue to pulse, until your obtain a smooth, liquid texture.

Put a couple of tsp of parsley sauce into twenty china spoons, and divide the seafood amongst the spoons (one scallop or one prawn per spoon). Serve at room temperature.