My Meatballs Could Be a Winner

On a whim last week I decided to finally enter a recipe in one of my favorite site’s weekly competitions and lo and behold, I was selected as one of the two finalists! I found food52 a few months ago and it has fast become one of the sites that I read on a daily basis. They have great innovative recipes and interesting food related articles and snippets.

The contest was “Your Best Meatballs” and the recipe I entered was Kefta Style Meatballs with Grilled Grapes and Yogurt Sauce. I know at first it can sound a bit odd, but it’s one of my favorite things to make and the leftovers are great for pita sandwiches the next day or even for breakfast with eggs. Check it out and even vote for it too if you like, but I’m fairly sure regardless that food52 could soon become regular part of your online browsing. Now I have to get back to studying, I have my Intermediate cuisine practical exam tomorrow and patisserie on Monday…I can’t believe that I am already 2/3 the way done with LCB!

(UPDATE: Unfortunately, I did not win the contest, but as the losers always say, it was an honor just to be nominated.)

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Paris Pinch-Myself-Moment: Number 4,862

Pinch-myself-moments seem to be a normal occurrence in my Parisian life. You know what I am talking about; those moments that you can’t believe are real, when you want to pinch yourself to see if you’ll wake up, because it’s so great that you feel as though you might be dreaming. (Oh and after seeing Inception, I’m thinking that it’s quite possible that the entire last five months might be one very long dream created by a very clever architect, but I suppose my neurosis surrounding that film is a whole other story.) Pinch-myself-moments happen to me when I’m least expecting it. I’ll be walking down the street and look up and spy the Eiffel Tower playing peek-a-boo between two buildings; I’ll be sitting in a café with some friends drinking numerous bottles of rosé because that’s what people do in Paris on a Sunday; or I’ll be in a practical class at school whipping what feels like my one hundredth bowl of egg whites (by hand) and I’ll stop for just a second in amazement and bask in the reality of my life.

About thirty minutes ago I had another one of those moments and I thought I’d share it with you, like the aforementioned examples of pinch-myself-moments, it wasn’t all that spectacular, but it was another reminder of how truly fortunate I am to be here in Paris. I was riding my bike home on one of my normal routes, when I happened to look up at a certain moment and see a beautiful angle of Saint-Sulpice Church backed by a lovely lavender Parisian sky, then I looked down to my bike basket filled with the wine, chunk of Roquefort cheese, pinot noir confiture, white peaches, and freshly baked walnut bread that I had just bought at Le Bon Marché and poof, just like that, a pinch-myself-moment. I warned you that it wasn’t spectacular, but it was just enough to remind me not to take it all for granted. Remind me that I need to enjoy the rainy days, just as much as the sunny days, because it’s on those rainy days that you get lovely lavender skies.

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Wow Foods: Category 3

The final category.

Category 3: “Wow, this is amazing; wow, this is really really amazing.” (which is usually followed by weeks of thinking about the dish on a daily basis and neurotically telling everyone I know about it)

Kouign Amann: This “wow food” has a back story or two leading up to the “wow” moment. Back story 1: A few years ago I was watching the Food Network, I don’t remember what show, and there was a segment on a bakery somewhere in the Northwest, I don’t remember exactly where, that made an obscure French pastry from the Bretagne region of France called kouign amann (pronounced almost like queen iman). It is the Breton words for cake (“kouign”) and butter (“amann”). The segment left me salivating and adding another thing to my ever-growing culinary bucket list.

Back story 2: Fast-forward to this past March and my third day in Paris, my friend Jenna, who happened to be in town, insisted on being the one to introduce me to the renowned patisserie, Pierre Hermé (to be clear she introduced me to the eponymous pastry shop, not Pierre himself – gosh I wish!). In my opinion, Pierre Hermé has not only the best macarons in town, but also the best croissants; it also on some days sells kouign amann. Jenna suggested we get one since they were available and I squealed like a schoolgirl when I realized what it was. Not being able to wait until we found somewhere to sit, we ate our croissants and kouign amann à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as we strolled down the street in our oversized black sunglasses and window-shopped. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed, the kouign amann was tasty, but didn’t have the wow factor I was anticipating (and the croissant really stole the show). Luckily Jenna had tasted an authentic Briton kouign amann the week before and she reassured me that Pierre Hermé’s kouign amann (surprisingly) wasn’t as good as the real thing. Thus, kouign amann went back on my culinary bucket list, waiting until I could find a more authentic version.

A few months later during a patisserie demo one of our chefs, Chef Cotte, was teaching us how to make croissants and in true Cotte style he had to throw in a “surprise,” so he also made a kouign amann. Chef Cotte, like all the chefs at LCB, is not a modest man. While making the kouign amann he shared with us that he learned to make it while working in Bretagne and created his own recipe that he then brought Paris and subsequently single handily “introduced kouign amann to Parisians.” It’s hard to believe that this is true since kouign amann has been around for over a hundred years, but I can say that his kouign amann is quite delicious. I could not stop saying wow. My friend and fellow kouign amann groupie, Marisol, and I talk about kouign amann on an almost daily basis. I don’t know how we do it, but it always manages to pop into conversation. We are actually planning a trip to Bretagne for the sole purpose of eating as much kouign amann as possible. I’m sorry, I just realized that I haven’t even described what a kouign amann is, how rude of me to leave you wondering, well… it’s made with a dough similar to croissants, but rather than dry butter it’s made with gorgeous Breton salted butter, which has delicate shards of sea salt in it, and then the layers are rolled out on sugar instead of flour, embedding sugar into each layer and resulting in layer, upon layer of sugary, salty, crunchy caramel and flaky buttery pastry!

Cantaloupe Soup with Chorizo Foam: A few weeks back, I had one of the most memorable meals of my life at Le Chateaubriand. I had added Le Chateaubriand to my restaurant black book* a few months ago after reading about it in a handful of articles and blogs. But once I heard that it was named number 11 on this year’s SP World’s 50 Best Restaurants, it quickly jumped to the top of my list; especially considering it’s a relative steal at 45€ for a 6-course-prix fixe, most restaurants on the list are well beyond my student budget, averaging $200+ per person (as a reference point for Bay Area-ites The French Laundry was number 32 this year). Reservations can be hard to come by, but they have a no-reservation, first-come-first-served 10 pm seating. Benjamin was in town and told me he was in the mood for a really good dinner, I took one look in my trusty black book and knew exactly where to go. I didn’t know how the 10 pm seating worked, but we showed up around 9:30 and luckily made the list. After a leisurely wait at the bar where we enjoyed a delicious effervescent white wine, I unfortunately cannot remember the name, we were shown to our table. Unlike the Michelin Guide, SP considers restaurants in and outside of the white-table-cloth circle of the restaurant venn diagram. Le Chateaubriand definitely is nowhere inside the white-table-cloth circle. The restaurant is simple almost Spartan, with warm, rustic, dark wood, table cloth free, tables and not much else. The menu changes daily and there are no options, you eat what they bring you. I should start by saying that the entire meal qualifies as a “wow food” moment, however there was a star of the night, but in respect for the rest of the delicious meal, I’ll describe it all.

For the amuse bouche we had a gougere (aka cheese puff) topped with poppy seeds, it was straightforward, but with something as deliciously simple as a gougere, there is no need for innovation. Next we had a raw shrimp in olive oil and lemon juice, topped with sea salt, mache, samphire and an untoasted blanched almond. If I had to pick a least favorite dish it would be this one. It tasted fresh and somewhat oceany from the samphire and sea salt, but it lacked any definite flavor. However, the soft crunch of the almond added a nice contrast to the supple shrimp that I think was supposed to be somewhat “cooked” ceviche style by the lemon juice and olive oil, but it was really just completely raw.  Next came the star, the cold melon soup with chorizo foam. It’s one of those wonderful food paradoxes; it sounds so wrong, but it tastes oh so right. It was served unassumingly in a simple metal bowl, no garnishes, no extras, just melon soup and chorizo foam. The melon soup wasn’t super cold, really just a few degrees below room temp. It tasted of pure melon, but somehow the savory qualities of the melon were highlighted rather than the sweetness. I know that foams are somewhat controversial; chefs seem to love them, but many diners don’t really see the point as it’s often completely superfluous and flavorless. But this foam delivered what it promised; it tasted like chorizo. They encouraged you to drink it directly from the bowl, as one would do with miso, which was smart, because it guaranteed that you got the spice from the foam and the mellowness of the melon with each sip. The combination was really spectacular. I can’t remember what they called the next dish, but I’ll call it a Moroccan spiced sardine taquito with shaved raw fennel. Sardines have a bum rap in the US, but when used fresh as they are in many countries in Europe, they can be delicious. And particularly delicious when doused in Moroccan spices and deep fried in a crisp pastry. Next was the main fish dish: quickly seared sea bass, topped with (what I think was) baby chard, pickled pearl onions, red currants and drizzled with a frothy raspberry butter sauce. This dish came in at a very close second to the melon soup. The sea bass was seared in butter and was crispy on the outside, but still rare inside (exactly how I like my fish prepared). The pickled onions and red currants were tangy and tart, which perfectly balanced the luxurious, salty, sweet raspberry butter sauce. I was so enamored by the sauce that I had to ask the waiter how they made it, he thought it was just dehydrated raspberries cooked in butter, strained and whipped to add some lightness. Next was the meat course, filet-mignon barely cooked in butter, served sliced and almost completely raw, drizzled with warm butter, topped with a perfect rectangular sheet of daikon radish, which was topped with a mixture of thinly sliced root vegetables that got their crunch from either being raw or fried, and because everything is better with truffles, it was all topped off with a generous shavings of white truffles. Oh there was some seaweed on top too, but since I’m not a big seaweed fan (unless it’s holding together my maki roll) I put it to the side and didn’t touch it. It was umami overload, extremely savory and earthy, with great textures. Then came the only choice of the night, cheese course or dessert. It took only one quick reassuring glance at Benjamin to know that the answer was obviously the cheese course. After an amazing cheese course at Gary Danko’s a few years ago, I don’t think either of us can pass up the option of cheese over dessert. The plethora of cheeses available in France still remain a mystery to me, so I won’t try to guess what they were, all I can say is that they were delicious and a wonderful ending to an amazing meal.

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Wow Foods: Category 2

Thankfully there is only one thing in this category:

Category 2: “Wow, that is the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten.”

Andouillette: During my Basic section of cuisine we had a market tour with one of our chefs. The chef was given $100 by the school and with a group of 10 we went to an open air market for some shopping and then returned to school to feast on our findings. Our group purchased a variety of normal market offerings: cheeses, charcuterie, fruit, breads; but we also purchased a few things that I hadn’t tried before: goose eggs, boudin noir (blood sausage), and andouillette (chitterling sausage). The goose egg was huge and greasy. The boudin noir, despite my timidity to taste it, was actually pretty tasty and not nearly as mineraley as I feared. The andouillette on the other hand was horrendous. In case you couldn’t tell from the translation, chitterling sausage, it’s made from pig’s colon. The taste is difficult to explain, but I’ll try. First of all the smell alone is nauseating, but I’ve come to learn that smell should not always be a deterrent as some very pungent smelling things have a much more appetizing taste (many soft cheeses for example). Andouillette is not such a thing. It has a very musty/old-dirty-sock smell and the taste, oh the taste is much, much more intense. I mean, I suppose it tastes how one might imagine colon to taste. It’s like that tent in your garage that has dust and dirt so deeply embedded into the fibers that no matter how much wash it and scrub it, it will always be somewhat dirty and dusty because the continuous exposure has made the dust and dirt one with the fabric. I think colon is like that. You can wash it, and soak it and even use chemicals, but it must be almost impossible to get rid of all traces of the “substances” that were being passed through it while it was in use. Not surprisingly, it’s considered an acquired taste, but you still find it on a fair number of menus in Paris. The other day I heard an American order it and somehow I could just tell that he did not know what he was getting into. I had a strong impulse to jump up and warn him, but lucky for me, the waitress saved me the embarrassment, because she must have had the same sixth sense as me. In a very un-French way (the French do not believe in getting involved in other people’s business), she asked him if he had ever had andouillette before. He must have realized from the tone of her voice that it was probably not the same as the spicy Cajun andouille sausage we have in the states and sensibly switched his order. I am all for trying new things and as a rule, I strongly encourage it…but regarding andouillette don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Wow Foods: Category 1

In the past few months I have had quite a few “wow” food moments. Here are a some of my most memorable, starting with:

Category 1: “Wow, how did they make this?”


L’ail Doux: At one of my favorite restaurants, Da Rosa, they serve this amazing garlic that they call l’ail doux (soft garlic). “Soft garlic” makes you think that it will be roasted and “soft” in texture, but it’s actually the exact opposite, it’s crunchy. “Soft” refers to the soft flavor, but regardless, the crunchy texture can be daunting. The first time I tried it I was pretty scared. You put it in your mouth and it crunches like raw garlic (well, I don’t think I have ever really put a whole clove of garlic in my mouth and chewed it, but I imagine that it would have this texture). It crunches like a radish, which makes you instantly worry that you are going to reek of garlic for days. But then you realize that it has a very mild, almost sweet garlic flavor. I have no idea how it’s made. It tastes as though it’s pickled in a vinegary brine, rather than confit-ed in oil, but how long it’s soaked or what exactly it’s soaked in is still a mystery to me.  However because it’s so addictive, I’m hoping to figure out the secret recipe soon. Don’t be surprised if you see a future post about my garlic pickling adventures.

Octopus Salad at La Mora Bianca: I’ve had some great octopus in past trips to Italy, so when I was in Sardinia earlier this summer I was really looking forward to enjoying some. After a few nights with no octopus on the menu I was getting discouraged, that is until we went to a restaurant, La Mora Bianca, suggested by our hotel. It was a little off the beaten path so we were skeptical at first, but one look at the local crowd seated in the restaurant and we were a little more confident; and after one bite of the octopus salad, I was sold. The menu didn’t have any description of the dish besides the name, so we didn’t know what to expect. Thus I was pleasantly surprised when the beautiful dish above appeared. As you can see from the picture, the octopus is served thinly sliced like carpaccio, piled up, and topped with a tomato-caper-onion relish and vinaigrette. The mystery to me is how they create the carpaccio like slices. The slices are solid making me think that the octopus is pressed into a loaf like shape, then perhaps frozen to firm up and make slicing possible, and then finally sliced to order on a deli/meat slicer. I really have no idea, but the resulting dish is fantastic. The octopus is ridiculously tender. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had.

(to be continued)

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On the Sweeter Side of Le Cordon Bleu

Like Intermediate cuisine, Intermediate patisserie has also been similarly more challenging: additional components, multiple layers, various types of mousse and gelées. By far, my favorite has been the fraisier, a fancy version of strawberry shortcake. It has a hidden layer of genoise cake, imbibed with a kirsh syrup, layers of sliced strawberries and vanilla mousseline, then topped with a brûléed swiss meringue. It was also fun to finally make macarons. Not to be confused with coconut macaroons common in America, French macarons are basically sandwich cookies, but oh so much better. The “cookies” have a thin crisp shell with an al dente interior, sandwiching a filling of some form of ganache, crème, or confiture. Usually they are small and dainty, but the ones we made in practical were of the large, fit-in-your-hand sized variety.

In terms of the layers and mousse, I referred to above, we made an exotic tarte passion-framboise with a layer of raspberry gelée, topped with a passion-fruit mousse and a passion-fruit glaze. Then later that week we stayed in the tropical realm with Jamaïque: layers of coconut-pineapple and mango mousse ringed in a chocolat genoise that is studded with dried coconut, pistachios and almonds.

We’ve also began to delve into the world of chocolate. We made bavarois aux trois chocolats, which has hidden layers of genoise and three layers of dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate mousse. We also took a stab at the revered opéra, a cake our chefs have been talking about since the beginning of basic, instilling a fear of the requisite decorative chocolate scrawl “opéra.” I made sure to prepare before the practical, sitting on the tile floor of my apartment (because my counters aren’t level) using countless cornets of nutella to practice writing “opéra.” However, when it came to the practical, despite my rehearsing, I found that I cut the hole in my cornet a little too large so the decoration wasn’t as delicate as I would have liked, but I still felt that my third-grade teacher Mrs. Rusk would have been proud of my cursive.

Next up in Patisserie: tablage du chocolat au lait et chocolat noir, préparation des intérieurs et trempage (aka we’re making chocolate candies).

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Getting to the Fun Stuff: Stuffing Sausage, Deboning Chickens and Killing Lobsters

The cooking in Intermediate definitely kicks it up a few notches. At first it seemed to be a similar formula to Basic, you know…breaking down and cooking a protein, creating a sauce from the remaining carcass or bones, making a starch or vegetable, blah, blah, blah…but then I noticed that there seemed to be an extra element thrown in. It started with an extra side-dish or two, a more complicated sauce, poultry with the feet still on so I had to rip the tendons out and cut off the feet too (all our poultry were feetless in basic, not sure why they all need to have their feet on now), and then suddenly we were killing lobsters, deboning chickens and stuffing our own sausage. Basically all the fun stuff that I’ve never done before, but always wanted to do.

Okay, well I should clarify that killing the lobster was NOT fun. It was actually pretty awful. I wasn’t looking forward to it in any way, but I thought I could do it. I thought that it wouldn’t be that bad. Nope, I was wrong, it was THAT bad. Before you start calling me a wimp, let me tell you how we killed the lobsters. We did not get to pierce their brains with a quick slice of our knives or plunge them into a large pot of boiling water and close the lid not having to bear witness to their deaths. I would have welcomed one of those less active forms of murder. But no, no, since we were going to be braising the lobster meat later, it couldn’t be overcooked and heaven forbid we should slice the head in half should we want to use it as a garnish; instead I had to submerge just its head into boiling water while I held its tail with one hand and the claws with the other. Needless to say, the lobster was not happy and it did not go down without a fight. For a little over a minute it bucked its tail and flailed its claws, hoping to have momentum enough to jerk its head from the scalding water. All the while I was holding it, tears welling up, as I felt it dying in my hands. I know I sound like a drama queen, but trust me, it was traumatizing. Also, since we were dipping only its head in the boiling water, it was really merely brain-dead at that point. I brought it back to my cutting board, and with the tail still moving since the nerves hadn’t died yet, I twisted and ripped the tail from the head. Even though I was emotionally exhausted at that point, the practical had just begun and I had to get to cooking. In the end, the dish was tasty, but I can say with 100% certainty that it is the last time I will be killing a lobster in that manner. I now know that I am just not cut out for murder. Holding a living being in my hands while I kill it just isn’t for me. Below is a picture of the resulting homard à l’américaine avec riz aux raisins (the lobster), as well as boudin blanc aux pommes (white sausage with apples…and my first foray into the archaic garnish that is the tomato skin rose), tourte de pintade (guinea fowl pie…aka the bird above with its tendons ripped out).

I enjoyed the boudin blanc practical so much that for a few days after I day dreamed about becoming a sausage maker. I know I sound like a culinary school nerd, but who knew stuffing forcemeat into pigs intestines could be so fun and I say that without any hint of sarcasm. I really enjoyed the whole making-something-with-my-hands aspect. And when else is it normal to hear people casually asking who has the bowels. (For some reason the translator in demo chose to use the word “bowels” to describe the “natural casings;” it made for an interesting demo: “the chef is very frustrated that his bowels keep breaking, in eleven years of teaching this course it’s the first time he’s had this many holes in his bowels”). Oh, and the boudin blanc was not only fun to make, it was tasty too. Even if I don’t open a sausage shop, I already have visions of future bbqs with all sorts of tasty home-made sausage creations. Perhaps someday I will have food-snob children who kindly ask their friends why their mothers buy hot dogs instead of making them at home like their mom.

As for deboning chickens, also pretty fun. Well fun in that challenging puzzle/ trying to get a dress off a Barbie doll sort of way. Since we were going to be making a ballotine with it, we had to make only one slice down the back and keep all the rest of the meat and skin intact. It might seem easy when you first think about it, but next time you are carving a chicken imagine it raw and imagine taking out all the bones with only making one cut down the back. In particular, think about those leg bones, they are trickier than you think. The opening picture in this post is the deboned chicken, before we stuffed it with forcemeat and foie gras mousse, rolled it up in saran wrap, punctured the saran wrap and cooked it in broth (that we made from the removed bones of course). Like the sausage making, that practical also has my imagination running thinking of all the things I could stuff into a deboned chicken. Who knows, maybe I really will open that sausage shop and I can sell deboned-stuffed-poultry too. I mean a girl can dream, can’t she?

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