Monday, 1 August 2011

24 Hours is Not Enough!

As I write today we approach the halfway point in intermediate cuisine. It's been a very busy and exciting few weeks for me, the cooking has really got more advanced and the ingredients more exotic. We're expected to produce a lot more every time we go into the kitchen now, at the very least we'll have to cook a starter and a main and sometimes a dessert. On top of my schedule at college I've been working around 30 hours a week at a modern British style restaurant in Balham. I have good days and bad days there as the commis chef, but the time I spend there is valuable to me as it's definitely teaching me new schools and ways of presentation which have gone down well at college.

Last Friday we had live langoustines and scallops flown in from Scotland and got to make the most incredible risotto and a dessert, here's an example of a typical 2.5 hours in the kitchen, in this case a main and a dessert:

Risotto, langoustines, mussels, scallops

Tuile, berries, lemon sabayon

And now just a random selection of some of the dishes we've cooked:


Moules Mouclade

Lamb Navarin, Spring Garden

Salmon, Scallop + Sole Mousse, Sorrel

Goats Cheese, Grapes, Poppy seed Vinaigrette


Dover Sole

Duck, Beetroot, Apple, Pear, Celeriac

Confit Duck

Basque Chicken

Monday, 27 June 2011

Back for Intermediate

Hi everyone,

Apologies for neglecting my blog the past few weeks and leaving everybody hanging over my exam day.

The past two weeks, despite not being at school and reprieved briefly from 6am starts, has been a busy time nonetheless. Between job hunting, cousins visiting, and tieing up various odds and ends (haircut excluded!), I'm looking forward to resuming at Le Cordon Bleu for my intermediate cuisine certificate course tomorrow and getting back into the kitchen.

The week before the exam was spent mostly on classic desserts, I'd been dreading the module for a while and it didn't disappoint. The numbers of cuisine students nodding off during demonstrations was at an all time high as we were taught the various temperatures needed for sugar work and the difference between soft and hard peak stages when whisking egg whites among other useful desserty type things. We made choux pastry, mine failed of course, and my pastry curse continued. This didn't impact my confidence too badly for my exam, I knew the dish inside out. Give me a piece of meat to transform any day, you can keep your eggs thank you very much!

I dug up some of the least disastrous desserts:

And then exam day arrived.

We assembled at 7:30ish for our 8am start. Two minutes before getting started on the 15 minute pre-exam recipe and technique test I remembered I'd left both my paring knives in my bag as I'd taken them home the night before to slay some more vegetables. Close one.

We drew numbers out of a hat to determine our location in the kitchen and starting time. I was hoping for an earlier number to get it over and done with but ended up with number nine, the second to last start time in the corner of the kitchen. Luckily for me I'd been on the station before and knew it had a faulty element that would go thermonuclear even if turned on to one. Not a great start, one of my two elements out of action, things would have to get clever...unless my usual kitchen buddy Jake hadn't landed in station ten and shared like we're used to.

I paced around for an hour until it was my turn to start, then got amongst it. My nerves evaporated as soon as set about carving my chicken, and time flew. Plating my dish in a near empty, quiet kitchen was a change from the usual carnage of people yelling for seasoning. Chef counted down constantly: "Number nine you can now present....number nine you have two minutes". I had intended to present my dish five minutes early but changed my mind and spent those five minutes on my plating, my presentation being notoriously bad in the past. I presented my dish and left greatly relieved, and quite confident that there weren't any major issues with it. At the same time I knew that in the past when I'd thought I'd nailed it something was wrong, and vice versa.

I went to school the next week and was told I'd passed, more relief.

The school hosted a graduation dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair which was incredible. The food was really impressive considering the number of people they served banquet style, the kitchen must have been carnage. The starter was a trio of salmon, smoked, gravlax and seared with a fennel salad and some tiny blinis with caviar and a miscellaneous sauce. The main was my favourite of course: beef fillet with some sort of potato, micro carrots and a ravioli which made the dish. Dessert was nice, some sort of caramelized white chocolate mouse with some sorbet and raspberries and things. Afterwards there were some speeches and then we all crossed the stage, shook the chefs hand and got our certificates. 

Can't wait for term two...

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The Black Hole of London

I write this blog after a few hours turning a kilogram or two of carrots into dinky little torpedoes, while watching the test cricket on my laptop and the French Open final on TV. It's been quite a pleasant afternoon all things considered apart from the rain. Conveniently both the cricket and tennis are both rain delayed so I might as well write about my penultimate week of basic cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu.

This week I've had a few days off to prepare for my exams next week, I dutifully decided therefore to give the exam dish a full practice run through and prepare a grand feast for three others. It was going to be a challenging task, this I knew full well......

I was going to have to conquer the dish entirely on a thirty centimetre circular chopping board on a piece of cleared bench space the size of a magazine. This is the only space in the kitchen dedicated to preparing food for human consumption, well that space and the gas hobs, but then the gas hobs are used for cooking cat food as well. I would have to dance around the kitchen placing pots and pans on chairs, dodging bowls of cat food on the floor, using my own utensils and bowls just in case I put food in a container used to make Boris/Izzy/Cosmo/Theo/Cleo's duck and prawn stir fry the night before. It was certainly going to be interesting.

Scene of Battle

Little did I know it wasn't just the kitchen that was going to cause me problems. I would have to overcome challenges born from the suburb of London where I live, namely can one even buy a fresh chicken and stock that doesn't come in cube form in Streatham?

My shopping experiences around the place hadn't been very extensive as I'd been reduced to going from store to store most evenings after 7pm in an attempt to buy discounted ready-made sandwiches in an effort to save money. Occasionally when I've felt extravagant I've wandered into an "upmarket" store (a relative term of course) and bought a wheel of cheese and maybe even some salami, but now I was going to have invest in a whole chicken.

So it was with trepidation I set off shopping for ingredients for my exam run through. Soon enough I formed a conclusion that had been circling in mind for the past few weeks that I've been living here.

I live in a Black hole....... a culinary black hole.

Good food does not exist this far south of London.

Walk in any direction from my house for twenty minutes and all you will encounter is:

1. One of 650,000 'Polski Schlep' , these are Polish themed and named corner stores containing nothing at all Polish, and run by enterprising Indian men attempting to profit from Streathams reputation as 'Poland Central'.

Keys to store ownership #101: Cover all bases at all costs

2. Numerous variations of "Chicken Cottage", "Dallas Chicken'n'Ribs",  and "etcChickenetc". NB: these are a huge downgrade on KFC and KFC is...well... You know what I mean.

One side of the road.....

....and the other

3. One of the five or so huge name brand supermarkets that have "Local" or "Everyday" or "Express" versions of themselves around the place. These are basically small, more useless versions of their hypermarket cousins. They are slightly larger than corner stores and contain just as little (as opposed to much), sadly it is in these stores where I buy most of my food. Why don't these name brand stores have any ambition to be as good as the bigger boys and pack themselves full of goodies? Some recognizable products rather than home-branded versions of everything from trifle to Thai salad. Maybe it's the area, maybe people around here want Tesco brand quiche lorraine for two in three minutes instead of a deli counter and a fishmonger.

Supermarket run out of chillies? Don't panic, head to your local Mobile Sales & Service.

Ambition, maybe that's it. Does nobody around here aspires to anything food-wise? Is it merely just a means to fill you up that happens to come out of a packet, which invariably comes out of a freezer?

Apparently the death of food and the death of Streatham is the councils fault. People used to come from miles around to go to the only Marks & Spencer south of the river, but when the application to expand the carpark was rejected M&S left and it's been downhill ever since. Never mind that, the lady I live with is very excited that a new Moroccan restaurant called "Marrakesh Sunrise" has opened down the road, apparently they sell falafel...

I discovered there isn't a single butcher for miles, so if I was to buy a fresh chicken it had to come from a chain store. After checking out a few stores that had the same brand of chicken I eventually gave in and bought one. When I got home I read the fineprint. "Made from chicken grown and sourced from Thailand".

Finding some chicken stock was harder. I walked into a store and asked a shop assistant if they had any, initially he said they didn't then had a brainwave and disappeared out the back, when he returned with a grin he was carrying a 5kg bag of frozen chicken wings.

I went home with my chicken, stock cubes, vegetables and cream and laid out my knives and ingredients on the table started my stopwatch and began. Everything went to plan perfectly and I found myself with 40 minutes to go, chicken cooked and resting, vegetables turned and ready for glazing, and sauce reducing in the background. I had a tidy up, cleaned my plates, warmed them up as I cooked the vegetables then at the last minute brought my chicken up to temperature in the finished sauce and plated it all. I had to plate them all quickly to ensure everything was hot and then served it to my guests who'd arrived earlier.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Sauce, seasoning and chicken I was very happy with. The vegetables weren't too fantastic, I had rushed through their turning to cook as fast as possible. I now know that in the final exam I can spend more time making sure they are perfect, which brings me back to today: turning carrots while it rains outside. The cricket's been rained off now and Nadal has won the tennis.

Might as well chop a few more carrots...

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Nearly done. Overdone.

This past week we continued applying the numerous classic techniques learnt over the last three months to various forms of seafood.

We began by cooking some pan seared crispy skinned trout:

Filets de Truite Meuniere aux Amandes

Pan-Fried Fillets of Trout with Almond Beurre Noisette and Hollandaise

Being a die-hard saltwater fisherman and not having the patience to fly fish for trout meant that this trout was the first I ever tasted. I've heard some people call the flavour muddy and I've never met anyone who was overly enamored with trout, so it was with trepidation I set about filleting my fish. Very quickly upon taking one side off I started noticing some similarities between trout and salmon, I didn't expect the flesh to be orangey-pink or for the skin to be the same fatty texture and taste as salmon. Overall I was happy with my trout and came to the conclusion that it is indeed a muddier inferior version of salmon, inferior but still very nice. I also whipped up my first hollandaise in the kitchen that day which was quite successful, and was a dream combination with the trout. Eggs Bene here I come!...

The next day we cooked the classic French dish 'Moules Marinieres,' mussels stewed in white wine with parsley. It was simple and delicious, apart from the quality of the UK mussels (tiny and inferior to our huge by comparison green-lipped mussels from NZ) it was good to learn the secret to finishing the plate the French way: with a mountain of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley. We also cooked and prepared a very large, very much alive Dungeness crab. After dispatching and cooking the crab in a court bouillon we extracted all the white and brown meat, cleaned out the shell and layered the meat in with various garnishes.

My phone had died that day so here's an example of our crab dish, this one was done by a classmate:

Crabe Farci a l'Anglaise

Dressed Crab

Moving on from the seafood at the end of the week we grilled some fillet steak to go with some sauce bearnaise (similar to hollandaise, some differences namely the addition of some herbs, the dominant one being tarragon) and pont-neuf (deep fried) potatoes. I didn't even mind coming in to school at 6pm on a Friday to cook because it meant a beautiful steak for dinner.

Fillet de boeuf grille, sauce bearnaise, pommes pont-neuf

I also managed a practice run-through on my exam dish which is in a week, the day is getting nearer and nearer and I'm starting to get a bit nervous.

Chicken Fricassee with Glazed Vege

This time around my piece of breast meat was overdone but my drumstick was perfect, it's a tight balance trying to get the white and dark meat evenly cooked in a braise. My sauce was again too creamy, and some of the vege got burnt but that was my sous chefs mistake, I was on meat/sauce duty. So again, I have some things to work on before the exam. I'm doing a full run through on Wednesday cooking for the lady I live with, her daughter and her daughters boyfriend. 

Four perfect plates, two hours maximum, can I do it?.. Find out in a day or two.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Fish at last

This week has been an interesting one for me, from offal to meat to fish it was a real mixed bag. We started the week cooking with offal, something I hadn't been exposed to at all outside of indiscriminate bits of kidney inside a good old steak and kidney pie. I knew that I disliked liver, something about the heavy metallic smell and taste and soft mouth coating texture of it put me off years ago. However I held a hope of having developed a taste for it and perhaps even enjoying it this time around being the rabid carnivore that I am. I thought liver may be for me like oysters, olives and mustard, food that I never touched for years that I suddenly woke up craving.

These are the dishes we cooked:

Seared Calves Liver, Potatoes, Caramelized Onions, Jus

Unfortunately liver didn't do it for me again, it was medium rare, slightly overdone for the chef. The flavour was just too strong and unfamiliar for me so I brought it home to my flatmate who absolutely loved it. Apparently offal is like that, completely polarizing, people either absolutely love it or hate and often family members may be completely split down the middle. It's important to be able to cook offal well because its a valuable addition to restaurant menus in that people who love it don't often get to eat it at home because some in their family may not so they order it when they go out.

Sweetbreads, Asparagus, Jus

Sweetbreads I didn't mind, I liked the creamy texture and the inoffensive flavour compared to liver.

Do you like offal? Let me know what you think in the comment section below!

We moved on from offal to cooking some paupiettes, meat parcels stuffed with various things:

Chicken stuffed with Savoury Mousse, Courgette Spaghetti, Tomato Sauce

This was a really nice dish, but I over-reduced my sauce to a nice heavy consistency, I think subconsciously it may have been my brain reminding me that I haven't eaten bolognese in too long.

Finally we started on seafood which continues next week. Seafood is my passion and I've been looking forward to tasting and comparing British seafood to back home.

Rolled Fillets of Lemon Sole with Mushroom Duxelle, Spinach, Beurre Blanc and (badly piped) Potato

It was my first time filleting a flatfish and its definitely more finicky than filleting a snapper, it has four fillets instead of two, all of different sizes. I enjoyed the fish and I'm looking forward to dressing crabs and cooking moules mariniere next week.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Exams on the Horizon

The arrival of the middle of May has brought with it the looming realisation that our final exams are at the start of June. Time has really flown and I find it hard to believe I'm two thirds of the way through basic cuisine, the first part of my three part diplome de cuisine.

Our final grades are composed of roughly 40% our work in the kitchens throughout the term, 10% a written exam and 50% the final dish, so it is exceedingly important. Suffice to say a meltdown in the final exam and a resulting fail for the practical would end up in an overall fail, everything's on the line.

We've known about what dish we have to prepare for our final practical exam for a while now, and indeed last Thursday was our first chance to gauge how difficult the exam was going to be as we prepared it for the first time.

The dish we have to produce in 2 hours is a Chicken Fricassee with Mushroom Cream Sauce and Glazed Vegetables.

Now this isn't a difficult dish at all to cook, but what I can say is that overall the difficulty of the dish is greater than the sum of its parts. Most of the key techniques we've learnt this term are included:
-turning vege
.....but none of these are difficult. The main difficulty is time, or more specifically the lack of it.

We have to singe, trim and butcher chicken into eight equal portions. Sear it, braise it, make a sauce, reduce it, prepare a mountain of different vegetables, turn 6 of each vegetable (carrots, courgettes, potatos, baby onions) perfectly, glaze them all individually in their own pans, and then the tough part; bringing it all together at temperature from five or so pots and pans.

Here is my first attempt which took me about 2.5 hours, I accidentally deleted the best photo I took but this'll give an idea:

Not pretty by any means, but it's a plate of food intended to demonstrate skills not win rosettes. I prepared the dish 30 minutes over time which isn't bad for a first attempt. It was a very frantic 2.5 hours I will admit, but hopefully due to a revision in my plan of attack and some improvement on the two main time consuming jobs (the butchery and turning of vege), I'll be able to get under that two hour mark comfortably.

Chef's feedback on my Fricassee:
-Chef said this was easily a passing dish, hooray! but I'm aiming for more than passing, I want to pass well.
-My vegetable turns which you can see in the photo were "OK but nothing to write home about.."
-The vege was glazed and seasoned well
-My chicken was cooked perfectly and well seasoned
and the negatives:
-Parsley wasn't a chiffonade, oops!
-Mushroom sauce too creamy. This was a byproduct of the fact that I had far too much stock to reduce for my sauce so I overcompensated with cream (the stock reduction also added immeasurable time despite double reducing in two pans).

Overall a definite success, but with a couple more practice rounds the final exam should run a lot smoother.

Last week we also made some more soups:

Consomme Celestine (clear beef broth with savoury crepes)

and Soupe a l'oignon gratinee ( French onion soup)

The onion soup was nice and hearty, we added some sherry which gave it more depth. The beef consomme was lost on me, it seemed like a lot of work and waste for a clear, not particularly flavoursome watery soup. Chef was happy with the consomme so it wasn't my cooking, just a matter of personal preference, I imagine I'd really enjoy a seafood based broth.

We also cooked a charming baby chicken who had kindly saved me his green entrails:

Poussin Saute a l'Estragon, Compote de Pommes

Baby Chicken with Tarragon and Mustard Sauce, Apple Compote

This is my favourite dish of the last few days in the kitchen and probably my best effort yet. 
"Not a lot wrong there, a good plate of food." 
From one of the Cordon Bleu chefs that sounded to me like: "You are an absolute God of the kitchen, a scholar and a gentleman."

Thats all for now, tomorrow is offal day!

I've seen this reading up to 50 degrees.

If you can't stand the heat ... ... .. ... .......!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Welcome to my life Foie Gras

The few days since my last post have been very busy, jam-packed with delicious delicious food.

Last Thursday a group of my good friends from school and I went to the spring-themed, multi-course, dinner extravaganza at school, cooked by the superior students. We don't often see the superior students at school, I imagine they spend most of their time locked away experimenting with exotic and expensive ingredients like lobster and foie gras. On Thursday they proved that they actually do exist.....and spectacularly so. However I'm going to leave you in suspense and come back to this at the very end. Sorry!

I went out on Saturday night to the apartment of one of my good friends from school, a girl from China who INSISTED I had never eaten 'proper' Chinese food. She was right. She cooked a number of dishes for us including: an incredibly good pork rib dish, so tender and rich in flavour, her own twist on 'sweet and sour' with a prawn dish, and a chicken dish which I can't describe but was a revelation, and served everything with a mountain of fried rice which I think she's probably still eating. It was a great night with food to match.....and this is concerning for me as it is now my turn to cook a selection of Kiwi dishes for everyone. I'm honestly having trouble thinking of anything as impressive as what we've eaten previously that I can cook for everyone, so those of you back home have any ideas for me please let me know!

Yesterday we spent a few hours cooking thousands of eggs and I can now gladly say I can competently cook an omelette, joy of joys! We also cooked eggs Florentine among other things, but that all pales in comparison to the mastery of the perpetually troublesome omelette.

We also cooked some monster pork chops:

 Sage-marinated Pork Chop with Honey Mustard Jus, Puree Potato and Sage Chiffonade

Tasted great, no complaints from Chef, so a definite success.

Today we made a soup or two:

Potage Julienne d'Arblay (left) , Veloute Agnes Sorel (right)

In English: a potato and leek soup with julienned vege and a chicken and mushroom veloute

And now the Superior dinner and some interesting food, not to mention decent photography.

Firstly I'd like to thank Jina, a friend and classmate of mine who knows her way around a camera and took the amazing photos of the food. 

It was a night of firsts for me. Mere minutes after arriving my life was changed forever when I picked up what looked like a small deep fried fish ball with a prawn on a skewer and without giving it a passing thought, ate it. Oh my God. Whatever was inside it was incredibly rich and beautifully textured, I thought it may have been some type of cheese, but it was different. Completely foreign to me. One of my friends must have noticed me looking puzzled when they asked me what was wrong, "nothing, what on earth was that?!". "Oh that? That was the crispy Foie Gras". It was good, life-changingly good. 

The second first was trying rhubarb for the first time as far as I can remember, the rhubarb course was also the catalyst for my second (and thankfully last) faux-pas of the night, you'll find about those soon.

The menu:

Le Printemps (Spring)


Iced Pea & Mint Cappucinno
Seared Tuna with Pickled Cucumber & Confit Cherry Tomato

Oyster Ceviche with Chilli, Lime and Cold Gin Dressing

Stunning, I absolutely love oysters and this one was a little beauty, I only wish he came with around five more of his friends.

Asparagus, Poached Quail Eggs & Pancetta with Tarragon Vinaigrette

Quails eggs were new for me, they were very delicate and perfectly cooked, oozing onto the plate when broken.

Stuffed Loin of Lamb with Yuca Frites, Shredded Lamb Shank on Sweet Plantain Puree

This was lamb how I've never seen it done. The sweet plantain puree was the underdog here, it seems an odd combination with lamb but it worked. Emphatically. The Yuca Frites were like deep fried chips only two hundred times better.

Bosworth Ash Goat, Bleu d'Auvergne, Unknown Brie

This dish really hammered home the skill of the Chefs involved for me. I was expecting three different naked cheeses on a plate. What they delivered was three different cheeses with three different garnishes which individually enhanced each cheese but also help tie each one in with the others. The blue cheese had a sweet balsamiccy type reduction drizzled on it and a walnut, the pungent goats cheese had a mysterious sweet fruit accompaniment and the brie, a simple red grape. The different garnishes brought varying levels of sweetness appropriate to each cheese and tied it all together into a great plate. 

This course was also the catalyst for faux-pas number one. I ended up sitting at the end of of the table with some girls doing superior patisserie including Claire (another Cordon Bleu blogger whose blog I linked in my very first blog post). Now I will be the first to admit my eyesight isn't the best in the world and this proved to be my downfall. The lights were dimmed and when my cheese plate arrived what was actually a cube of brie with two halves of grape beside it, looked to me like some sort of blurry zebra striped cheese. "What is this?" I remarked. One of the girls picked up a half of grape....."it's a grape". It was immensely embarrassing, I had an opportunity to prove not all of us doing basic cuisine are complete newbies and I blew it mistaking a grape!

Vanilla Cheesecake on Chocolate Sable with Rhubarb Glaze accompanied by Sorbet

I'm not much of a sweet tooth but I really enjoyed this dessert, in particular the mysterious sorbet with the flavour I couldn't figure out. To me it tasted passionfruity, but not really, maybe a blend of berries and passionfruit? I asked one of the patisserie girls and she looked at me incredulously, 
"It's rhubarb flavoured".
 "Oh that makes sense, I've never tried rhubarb before"
"You've never eaten rhubarb!?!"
Cue embarrassment and faux-pas number two.

Petit Fours:
Chocolate Coffee Cup
Lavender Macaroon
Chocolate Praline

And finally Jina (the excellent photgrapher) and I.

A great night, and amazing food to boot. To see what the Chefs produced has been inspiring and reaffirmed for me my choice to come Le Cordon Bleu. Excited for the future!