Part II of this article series ~ where we return from the French market in Paris and set our sights on cooking up a French feast.
Back from the market, our purchases set out "just so," we look to our instructor on how to start on the making of our feast. She tells us to start with what takes the longest. So we start by making the crème brûlée. So simple in structure and ingredients, we begin with fresh vanilla bean, scraping the seeds directly into the pan. The flavor of the actual vanilla bean is more intense and visually, to see the little black specks falling into the custard mix, makes it seem more authentic.
We backslide our way to more healthier fare with a tomato, peach, and cucumber salad with a dressing using Calvados. Calvados is an apple brandy made in the Normandy region of France and possesses a history almost as extensive as the country itself. Its sweetness syncs well with the vinegar and acidic aspects of the tomatoes and the bitter flavors of the cucumber. Oh, did I mention the peaches were ripe to perfection? They were ripe to perfection. Following a lesson on slicing, each student had a pass at plating their own salad, after a short introduction on the basics of plating. Per our instructor, plating cannot be overlooked, most especially when in Paris. For in the words of Julia Child “It's so beautifully arranged on the plate - you know someone's fingers have been all over it.” Here is my attempt at plating our salad.
Apres salade, we were onto a type of poultry more familiar to the French than the U.S. Pass through any grocery store in the states and you’ll find chicken, more chicken, and then more chicken. Read the latest on animal abuses in the meat industry and you’ll read about poultry farms and the grave injustices and abhorrent living conditions of the chickens who reside in said farms. Rarely in the U.S., if ever, will you read about duck. Only in the speciality shops will you see it for sale, and sold for higher prices than it costs to clothe a family of four. Duck. It must be a French thing. Why, I wonder, can't it be an American thing too? If for no other reason than to give those poor chickens a break.
Fatty, flavorful, and easier to cook than I ever imagined, our duck is cooked in a skillet and served with a cherry sauce. We used cherries for a very simple reason. Cherries were in season. Lucky, lucky me. Served aside a salad with a mustard vinaigrette and it was almost time to move into the dining room. One last course. And it involved an open flame. Again, lucky, lucky me.
The ramekins of creme brûlée which had been cooling in the fridge came out. So did the blow torch! Sugar was sprinkled atop each ramekin. Then we torched each one nice and pretty. Caramelization never looked so lovely.
After raising a glass to toast our success the culinary compatriots of my class ate, drank, and talked of our homes and travels both past and future.
Most of all we enjoyed the gourmet meal we had collectively “whipped up” in the kitchen minutes before. If every day of vacation could be one of market shopping, cooking, and eating it would be a dream come true. As I savored the last bite of crème brûlée I realized sadly the meal was over. We spread our wings and filtered out of class, satiated and serene, to see the sights of Paris.
One month has passed after taking this class. A bottle of Calvados now sits in my pantry. I've made duck with plum sauce when the stone fruit was at the peak of perfection. I'm still working my way towards replicating the creme brûlée, though I have invested in a jar of fresh whole vanilla bean in anticipation of that day. Each time I visit the farmer's markets in LA I think of "terroir." When I plate our dinner the words "volume, color, taste, and texture" repeat in my head. A good class should change your life. This one surely changed mine for the better.