18 November 2011

Culinary Foundations II in Review

My station prior to our final cooking practical.

I'm currently two weeks into my third term at Le Cordon Bleu, which is called (wait for it) Culinary Foundations III. I'm just now getting around to writing about Foundations II. Suffice to say, it's been busy and the learning curve keeps going up. But that's another post for another time (hopefully soon).

The end of Foundations II marked my 57th day of culinary school. The first 29 days, which were divided between basic knife technique and sanitation, featured almost no cooking aside from a poached egg and two emulsified sauces.

The next 28 days?

37 different items if you count basic elements that don't stand alone as food. Stock and clarified butter and the like. Those 37 items did include some crazy deliciousness like French onion soup, risotto, and glazed vegetables. Almost one-fourth of the items featured potatoes as a primary ingredient. (By the way, in a French cooking school they aren't French fries, they're pommes frites.) I was happily surprised by some things I'd never eaten before, much less cooked, such as a warm lentil salad and white beans Bretonne. And some things, well… if I ever see celery root remoulade on a restaurant menu, I will not be ordering it.

While in the midst of Foundations II, it was pretty easy to get lost among the dishes thrown at us. The basic routine – instructor demo one day, student cooking the next – didn't leave a lot of time for reflection. Looking back at my recipe cards, I can see how those 37 or so dishes contained a wide variety of cooking techniques that I can use more or less confidently as I move forward as a cook.

It's a little like learning grammar. Not the most exciting process in the world, but it's basically the root of everything one can do in a kitchen. Not that I'm a master of any one thing after a 28-day culinary relay race, but I think my point of view has definitely shifted from reading recipes to knowing techniques. And after that it's really just a matter of choosing ingredients. Once you've made one vinaigrette, you can pretty much take any variety of oil and any variety of vinegar and whatever other flavors you like and know what to do.

Take risotto. We specifically did a recipe for risotto milanese, but we also learned the basic risotto method, and I feel pretty confident contemplating flavors I can throw into that particular equation. I've done mashed potatoes a few times before enrolling, and now having done pommes puree in class several times, I can knock them out without measuring a single thing.

What stands out even more than dishes are the little techniques – making a reduction, sweating but not coloring onions, simmering till tender, seasoning to taste – that always used to trip me up when going off of a recipe in a book. I'm actually starting to rethink basic things I've been making for years, wondering if the order of steps can be improved.

Or at least thinking up pseudo-French names for things. That's another benefit from being in a French technique-based school.

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