Saturday, September 5, 2009

What I Learned at Cooking School

I've always suspected that I'm just about the luckiest girl in the world, but now I know that it's true.

A few weeks ago, my dad invited "On Rue Tatin's" Susan Hermann Loomis to come and give french cooking lessons at our home on Vashon Island, and she agreed. Then he graciously invited me to be one of the lucky participants.

(Photo of Susan and Steve -- still smiling after three busy days!)

So, for three days I not only sliced, diced, poached, and sauteed, but I also helped set-up, break-down, and organize cooking classes. Being on both sides of the cooking school experience was fascinating (if not a *little* tiring), and I learned a few things that I thought I'd share with our readers.

LESSON 1: Mis en place matters.

(a shot of a mis en place set-up):

I have always understood that mis en place (or "putting in place") is a cornerstone of professional cooking, but have frankly always considered it too much effort to fully incorporate into my home kitchen. For those unfamiliar with the concept, mis en place basically refers to:

** first, as a pre-req. to mis en place, you must read the recipe through completely from beginning to end before you do anything else (or, if you are not using a recipe, thinking through all of the ingredients and steps you will follow)

** assembling everything you will need in advance, including tools and ingredients. This means that if the recipe calls for 2 tsp of minced garlic, you set out two cloves of garlic and a good knife for mincing; if it calls for 1 lb of chicken breasts, you get your chicken breasts out, rinse and pat dry, and set them aside on the counter to come to temperature. Essentially, once you are ready to actually begin cooking, everything is ready and at hand. There is no digging through the gadget drawer and cursing because you can't find your peeler. It is already waiting for you, sitting ready next to whatever needs peeling.

Susan prepares for every class by creating stations for each recipe with the mis en place completed, and -- as hosts -- we helped her with set-up. Doing so was sort of a revelation for me. This practice conditions you mentally to cook, refreshing your memory on each step you will take and in what order they should be completed. It also gets you set up to create minimal mess (something I personally struggle with), as everything is ready to go and you won't make the mistake of realizing you need a bigger bowl, another knife, etc.

LESSON 2: Use a small bowl for collecting detritus; keep a side towel tucked into your apron.

Here's a photo of Cindy modeling her side towel (see how handy!):

This wasn't a totally new lesson for me, either, but it also wasn't one I was good about following. And it makes SUCH a big difference. Having a small bowl on the counter to place your onion peels, garlic skins, fruit pits, and so forth not only cuts down on mess on the counter, but also eliminates messy handles on the door to the garbage bin :)

The same goes for the side towel. Now, rather than hunting for something to wipe messy fingers on, you've got a towel strapped to your apron. Ditto with hunting around for pot holders; as long as your side towel is relatively dry, you can use it to grab hot pan handles and lids. It also makes a great place to wipe off dirty knives.

LESSON 3: Flavor does not have to mean fat. French food does not have to mean butter.

Okay, this one was new for me. I am a big proponent of cooking with butter, cream, butter, cream, butter, cream (you get the idea). Most of the dishes Susan had us prepare, however, were pretty damn healthy. But they were also really flavorful. This was, I think, due to the proper and creative use of ingredients like radishes, fennel, lime zest, mustard, and vinegars.

She also used a lot of oils that I had previously admired and wondered about on the grocery shelves, but never used. Almond oil dressed up steamed green beans, walnut oil and pumpkin seed oil gave richness and flavor to salad dressings. She also achieved a lot of flavor through the use of more flavorful meats - such as gamier birds and animals like Guinea Hen and Rabbit.

LESSON 4: Use whatever you can from your own garden, even if that garden is just a few pots on the window sill.

In particular, fresh lettuces -- even quite small bunches of them -- taste a thousand times better than what you get at the store and will (if properly thinned) grow and grow all summer. Herbs, many of which you can continue to grow into winter indoors, provide much brighter flavors when picked fresh and used immediately (another great tip from Susan: don't mince the herbs until *just* before you plan to use them or they will lose all their flavor).

So, those were a few seemingly little lessons with big, beautiful consequences in the kitchen that I learned at cooking school.

I hope you find them useful.

Here is a parting shot of one of the groups of cooking class participants:

Bon Appetit!

1 comment:

Susan said...

Great job, great memories! Thanks,