Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cheese Cuisine


After being abandoned at Rungis the day before, we rather grumpily returned to Tours - it was nice to have some free time that evening, but given the fact that the highway toll roads are fairly spendy, not to mention the cost of gasoline, there was some talk about asking for refunds, at least for travel expenses. And as a fellow student pointed out, the cost of this program is not insignificant, so the lost hours we didn't get in instruction, but that we've already paid for, means that we wasted forty dollars and four hours on Monday.

Fortunately, Tuesday was much more satisfying on many levels. We were at the Lycée des Métiers Albert Bayet, not far from the main campus where we've been taking classes all this month, and in the hands of M. Basile Huger, head of the restaurant/hospitality part of this vocational school. We spent a fun morning in the kitchen making tiny dice out of zucchini and apples, pounding chicken breasts flat, and playing with basil and strawberries. M. Huger had been asked to talk to us about cheese in cooking, but he said that rather than making cheese 90% of the meal - for example, a cheesy tart followed by a fondue - he decided to incorporate cheese into the three recipes more subtly, pointing out that many people (I'm assuming he's talking about French clients) don't really like big globs of melted cheese. We are far from the four-cheese-extra-mozzarella-please takeout pizza world here, or at least we were that day in class. There is, I must admit, a Domino's here in Tours, and I see their delivery motorcycle zipping past the apartment to the student housing on a regular basis.

In any event, there was a restrained use of cheese in the recipes, and in my case so restrained as to be nonexistent. I did get the standard "so why the hell are you in the cheese program then?" look when I explained that I'd like to make my dishes separately, without dairy or gluten, but M. Huger was very nice about it, and I was able to adapt the recipes and enjoy the cooking process (as if I had to force myself to enjoy playing in a professional kitchen!) as well as the final plates.

The entrée was a creamy soup made from carrots, potatoes, leeks, and onions cooked in a broth made from the heads and shells of prawns that were sautéed with finely-minced carrots, onions, and leek greens, thyme, and bay leaf, then flambéed with cognac and deglazed with white wine and simmered with water into a shrimpy stock. The bodies of the shrimp were lightly cooked, then we threaded some of them onto skewers with cherry tomatoes and wedges of the tangy local goat cheese, Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine. I snuck a bite of the cheese, but didn't put any on my plate. And I took a small pot and a big ladle of the soup after it was blended into a thick purée, but before he added the cream. M. Huger showed us three different plating styles: a traditional soup plate with a few shrimp on the bottom, garnished with a skewer and some chervil; in a heavy martini-style glass with cubes of cheese melting in the bottom like ice cubes, and the skewer in "with three olives" position; and finally brushed artistically across a square plate and decorated with shrimp, tomatoes, cheese, and chervil along the curves and dots of soup-paint. I stayed with a more standard presentation, because then I could eat all of my soup.



The main course took the most preparation because of the garnish of finely-diced zucchini and apples, sautéed separately with different spices (curry and tagine flavors for the zucchini, rosemary for the apples) and then layered in round molds and topped with a buttery parmesan crumble (or not). The primary dish was a chicken breast, pounded flat and folded over fresh basil leaves and slices of Beaufort, then breaded with a hazelnut crust and sautéed in oil before being finished in the oven. We were transformed into a real kitchen team for that part, with some people making the crumble and flattening the chicken breasts, others working on crushing the hazelnuts or preparing and cooking the garnishes, and a few keeping an eye on the soup. I requested corn starch instead of flour, and was glad I'd brought a gluten-free baguette, which was easy to crumble into breading. I thought the chicken tasted just fine without the cheese inside, and I liked the combination of flavors in the zucchini and apple layers, though I wouldn't have thought of mixing cumin, turmeric, and rosemary in the same mouthful.



I had to abandon M. Huger's dessert recipe entirely, as it was a terrine of crumbled sweet cream pastry and fromage blanc beaten with eggs and sugar, topped with fresh strawberries and raspberries. Well, I did keep the strawberries. I soaked a few slices of my baguette in beaten egg with a bit of sugar and made pain perdu, which turned out really well, actually, especially after I sprinkled some coarse sugar on top and caramelized it under the salamander. I ate a few raspberries while I was plating the slices, but they were too dull a color to use with the bright red of the sliced strawberries.

I think we all agreed that this was one of the best classes yet. And it tempted me back into thinking about cooking for a living, or spending more time again creating recipes, and about the food truck I would run, except for the fact that I'm totally uninterested in the business side of all that. But it was fun to play in the kitchen again.

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