Bourdain’s Kitchen Basics: Session 3

February 2, 2011

By Karen

The grand finale of Anthony Bourdain’s cooking classes hosted by Sur La Table was all about protein:

  • Poulet Roti (roast chicken) with Herb Butter *
  • Steak au Poivre (seared steak with peppercorn pan sauce) *
  • Boeuf Bourguignon (beef stewed in red wine) *
  • Bourride (fish stew with aioli) *

(From Les Halles Cookbook, chicken page 181, herb butter 259, steak 130, bourguignon 202, bourride 114, aioli 257)

Interestingly enough, there was none of Bourdain’s favorite — pork.

Since we didn’t have time to complete all the dishes, our instructor, whom I’m calling Sue, had already started a pot of boeuf bourguignon and had 2 chickens roasting, although we replicated the recipes for practice.

Sue did her preliminary run-through and it was, as always, too much information. As I felt the now-familiar panic rising, I realized it wasn’t over my cooking skills, but a bad flashback to biology class. I had managed to dodge dissection duty in high school and switched to chemistry in college when I heard they were disassembling cats.

The dishes I wanted to avoid were the chicken and fish. If you’re a regular reader, you know I have a raw-chicken-skin phobia.

So my first choice was the bourguignon, but that group came together fast and I ended up on the fish stew crew.

It turned out to be the night’s gross-out dish on every level.

Sue had managed to snag us a sizable fish “frame,” which is every bit of the fish you would choke on, including the head, with its glassy, accusing stare.

The frame “sweated” in a Dutch oven while we chopped vegetables (fennel AGAIN). I diced carrots like a bumbling amateur and stuffed herbs into a little bag for the bouquet garni.

At our table, a newcomer had knife skills and other slick foodie moves. Then a woman whipped out a camera and snapped the poor fish skeleton staring up from the pot. Why?

While the frame boiled, the eyeballs turned into white balloons and camera girl ATE one. She said it had a hard center, so she must have chewed it, too.

Our lone male teammate cranked the food mill, a messy, pointless attempt to squeeze moisture from the frame. A pile of pulverized yuck ended up in the broth and had to be strained.

Feeling hungry yet?

Last week’s chicken stock reappeared, but I never saw it finished before it went into the peppercorn sauce.

The boeuf bourguignon was tasty, although a bowl of beef and carrots does nothing for me. The chicken was a little dry, but white meat does that. The steak was peppery, but pleasantly not overcooked.

Our fish stew was slightly overcooked globs of monkfish swimming in yellowish grease. That broth made a nasty, stinky mess for virtually no payoff. Sue told us it never goes over well.

For the first time, I realized that Sue seemed to measure the class’s success by how much we ate. Mistake, I think.

After I’ve slaved over a dish, the last thing I want to do is turn right around and eat it. And in none of these classes did we end up with any combination that constituted a “meal,” so I’d suspect anyone who cleaned the plate of having eating issues.

Tomorrow I’ll share conclusions about my attempt to learn kitchen basics from Anthony Bourdain and whether I’m turning into a foodie.

Bourdain’s Kitchen Basics: Session 2

January 26, 2011

By Karen

Things were looking up with stocks, soups, and sauces, featuring:

  • Rich Chicken Stock
  • Fish Stock
  • Mushroom Soup *
  • Mussels Steamed in White Wine (Moules à la Grecque) *
  • Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Béarnaise Sauce

* (From Les Halles Cookbook, soup page 47, mussels page 84. Contrary to Sur La Table’s handout, the béarnaise recipe was significantly modified.)

Fish stock got postponed until next week. Fish heads were too hard to come by.

Our instructor, whom I’m calling Sue, gave us an overview of stocks and explained how roasting bones makes them richer. Then as she quickly ran through all the recipes, panic set in. The myriad details of stock, soup, mussels, and béarnaise reeled off at once made me feel as if I’d jumped into the deep end and couldn’t swim.

My partner and I tackled the chicken stock, which no one else had any interest in. We weren’t given a recipe, but everything we needed was assembled on a tray.

With a big knife (that felt no sharper than my own Henckels) I chopped, unsupervised and without peeling, some dried-out carrots and an onion. If Bourdain actually has any knife instruction in his curriculum, it hasn’t trickled down yet.

Our stock also got some brownish celery with wilted leaves, 10 peppercorns (exactly), thyme and rosemary (I think) with stems, store-cooked rotisserie chicken bones, and water.

We also threw in the onion skin. I’m sorry, but nothing will convince me that was called for. I’ve never made anything that started out looking like floating compost and had it turn out well.

While writing this post, I saw that Bourdain specifically says to peels carrots and onions and not to use celery leaves, stems, or other junk (page 38). And it was included in the section of Sur La Table’s handout that we didn’t have time to read.

Our stock simmered all through class, but was nothing special when we tasted it. It’s supposed to spend more hours on the stove, and next week we’ll skim off the fat.

The béarnaise was tag-teamed, with one person stirring and one person dribbling in the butter.

The mussel recipe called for fennel (again with the fennel!) and other spices. This time, the fennel contributed to the dish and the mussels were great.

Someone pounded the chicken and pan-fried it in butter, but it overcooked in the oven waiting to be served. I could have seen that coming.

While we took a break, Sue puréed the mushroom soup, which turned out absolutely delicious. It was easy and I’d definitely make that myself.

Even after sitting around for 15 or 20 minutes, the béarnaise sauce was perfect. They succeeded with smoothness where I failed on my first attempt. But it wasn’t the cookbook recipe. This version added sherry, lemon juice, and water, and substituted white wine or tarragon vinegars for sherry or red wine vinegar.

So what did I learn this week?

That commercial chicken stock/broth is not created equal. Let Top Chef be Swanson’s whore. I’ll never buy it again. We sampled a brand called Kitchen Basics that made Swanson taste like swill in a box.

That if you have to let chicken sit around, don’t cook it beyond medium rare.

That it takes more than 2 hands to make good béarnaise.

That you test a partially-opened mussel’s freshness by tapping it on the table. If it reacts and closes up, it’s alive and ripe for killing. If it doesn’t, and smells like the bottom of a bait bucket, toss it.

Speaking of which, as I was driving home, I started feeling queasy and thought, “Oh, no, the mussels!”

By the time I got home, I could have thrown up, but I’d left the TV on for the cats, and Tony was in Provence, which distracted my stomach. I drank some peppermint tea and took a Pepcid Complete before bed and woke up fine, so who knows?

Next week, we have the fish stock and meat grand finale.

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