Oct 18 2010

Back to Basics

Published by at 4:52 pm under Cooking Classes

Recently at Tante Marie’s, it’s been all about the basics — meaning, in some cases, doing some of the old-fashioned kitchen stuff that’s out of vogue in the modern world. That’s a Tomato Chutney above, made with apple cider vinegar and a truly shocking amount of garlic — one of many delicious recipes to come out of the past couple of weeks.

Every Monday we have all-day workshops, meaning I’m on my feet cooking from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s actually amazing how quickly time passes when you’re running from burner to pantry to sink to dishwasher all day, but I secretly love being in a hurry. It makes me feel like I’m on Top Chef and someone in my head is yelling, “We’re plating NOW!”

Each of us was given a different recipe in our session on canning; some were jams, some jellies, pickles, etc. I was in charge of the Artichokes Preserved in Oil, which meant a) peeling and trimming more baby artichokes than you’ve ever seen, b) boiling them for a while in vinegar to avoid contamination and c) piling them in jars with olive oil, sprinkled with whole peppercorns and cloves.

If you’re wondering why you have to boil them in vinegar, it’s because artichokes are a low-acid vegetable and therefore more vulnerable to bacteria or general “turning” — in other words, canning’s worst enemy. Other plants like lemons that have a higher acidity don’t require the vinegar step. And if you weren’t wondering at all, then just ignore this little side note.

I find the whole process of canning and preserving completely charming (friends can expect to receive jams as Christmas gifts this year, because I can’t wait to do more of it). And if you pick fruit at its peak in season, you don’t need nearly as much sugar to make a good jam, in contrast to the store-bought stuff. My instructor explained that canning went out of fashion after people got freezers in their homes, but these days it’s trendy for artisans to produce and sell high-quality jams and pickles in farmer’s markets and specialty stores. In San Francisco at least, sampling chutneys made from home-grown plums and white peaches is half the fun of visiting the Ferry Building.

If canning was a fun basic to learn, other weeks’ lessons were less appetizing. We learned how to cook flour-based sauces, which all start out with a roux (butter and flour cooked together) and branch off in different directions. Basically, imagine a delicate, flaky white fish smothered in an alfredo sauce, and you have an idea of my lunch. Behold:

Of course, it’s not all bad. I know understanding how to make flour-based sauces is an essential building block in French cuisine, even if restaurants barely use the traditional ones anymore. And the following week we moved onto emulsion sauces like mayonnaise and hollandaise, which were just as challenging but a little more relevant. Check out this Grand Aioli, a compilation of blanched shrimp and vegetables served with an aioli dip (read mayo + finely minced garlic). Isn’t it beautiful?

It’s a French tradition to serve this dish at parties, and it’s hard to imagine better finger food. But the real star of the emulsion sauce show was our Herbed Rack of Lamb with B√©arnaise Sauce.

Hear me well: Of all the dishes we’ve sampled at cooking school so far, this one was hands-down my favorite. I actually stopped mid-bite, closed my eyes and savored every flavor in that sauce √† la Giada de Laurentiis. Oh, and I get now why rack of lamb is SO expensive, and so worth every penny.

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