Thursday, September 27, 2007

Days with JJ (Poaching & Simmering)

I was sad to learn that today was our last class with JJ for a while. He's got to be one of the best food personalities in the world. He's very funny and very French (in a good way, I swear) and an amazing chef.

At first, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't think he'd be a great chef. I based this horribly incorrect assumption on the idea that he had worked for Legal Seafoods, a chain that I would charitably call a fancy Red Lobster. I've never enjoyed a meal there, I always thought the food was over cooked, lacking in freshness and uninteresting. These prejudices to the restaurant carried over into my initial judgment of JJ. All I can say is: Thank God I was wrong.

What a phenomenal chef! Everything he made in demos and during class was so much better than anything we ever made. This, of course, makes him a great cook... but what made the dishes better were impossible to explain or pinpoint, it was an elusive complexity of perfection that ended in such beautiful simplicity. I don't think I have the language skills to explain it.

Anyway, on to the food!

We started the day with chicken liver mousse because after we cooked it, we needed to let it cool for as long as possible because it would enhance the flavor. I didn't think it would make much of a difference, but after tasting the morning demo mousse after it was chilled properly it was much better. It lost the gamey, gritty quality and became a far more refined. I also think the overall flavor melded together much better. It was definitely a better product, but, of course, JJ's was the best.

The most surprising part was probably the way the cognac disappeared in the mousse. I generally don't like the taste of the liquor but somehow it blended so well with the mousse, it was hard to believe. I could taste it but at the same time I couldn't, it was so very strange. I want to explore more foods with this complex use of flavor.

I found the chicken a la creme more complicated than I had thought it would be but also surprisingly simple (in ingredients). I'd never poached anything before (I can't believe that! but then again, when I think of foods and making dinner, poaching isn't something that comes to mind immediately) and I didn't know that there should be wine in the poaching liquid. I always assumed that the liquid was generally water. Of course, in retrospect, it seems obvious that the poaching liquid should be flavored to impart fuller flavors into the food being poached. Something akin to salting pasta water.

I didn't expect the chicken to cook up so fast either. I thought poaching was a slower cooking method but the chicken cooked up very quickly. I found it very difficult to maintain the right level of simmer because the steady low flame kept going out. If the flame was too high, I was afraid the chicken would cook too quickly and leave stringy, fibrous chicken breast.

Typically... my sauce was a mess. I can't seem to make my butter sauces hold, they always separate. I know this means that I've applied too much heat, but I don't know how, as I try to keep the pan off the fire.

The other sauce, the tomato balsamic dressing, turned out great. Really creamy and rich with a good balance of acid and fullness. I hope JJ's water trick for helping an emulsion stay suspended really works because I'm looking forward to being able to make and keep a lot more salad dressings this way.

Funny thing is JJ mentioned that this is the only dressing that they use at Legal Seafoods these days (although there might be some variation) and I can't remember any of the restaurant's dressings having such a depth of flavor. Again, it's JJ's special touch! Can that man do nothing wrong?

Unlike the chicken, the poached salmon came out really well. After practicing our knife skills skinning and boning the salmon steak, I circled the two sides of the center cut into each other (kind of like a yin yang symbol) and stuck in a few toothpicks to keep it together, which I'd seen JJ do earlier in the day. Unfortunately, I was nearly impossible to remove the toothpicks after the salmon was poached. I mangled up the salmon pulling them out making all the earlier effort of having a pretty steak pointless. At least it helped cooked the salmon evenly.

It really did come out perfectly cooked though, wonderfully flaky and buttery. It's certainly something that I'd like to do again at home. It'd be fun to try the poached salmon with some different sauces and finishing touches. The recipe had called for the salmon to be slowly poached in the oven, but we tried it on the stove and found it much easier to manage than the chicken had been.

Unfortunately, true to my sauce curse my beurre blanc fell apart! Again! AGAIN! I think for my my streak of beurre blanc bad luck is from the stopping between steps. Everytime I've had to make a beurre blanc, I've had to stop after making the reduction and come back to it afterwards to finish it and add the butter. I think this segregation of steps makes me more paranoid and I feel the need to reheat the reduction before adding the butter, further reducting the reduction and making the pan too hot for the butter to be introduced.

After realizing this, however, I still couldn't make my sauce magically reform. Except JJ could! I showed him my sauce and with a whisk and a flourish of water dripping from his hand, me brought the sauce back from its separated, broken state. It was the coolest thing in the damned world. He truly is a genius.

The artic char in parchment was a fun deviation from our 'follow the recipe' format we'd been doing. Since we were all able to do our own takes on the fish, we got some great varieties of fish when it came to tasting. Everyone's was very different, even the ones that should be the same because they followed JJ's recipe were slightly different from each other. What I really couldn't get over was how insanely easy the whole process was. I'd forgotten to cut my filet into smaller slices, and I still think it turned out fine, but the whole seasoning and folding process couldn't have taken more than a few seconds and it waited patiently for us for a good while before we slipped them into the oven. I hardly had time to place the fish in the oven before it was time to take it out again, perfectly cooked. JJ jokingly referred to the dish as the ideal date meal, but after making it and seeing how easy and impressive it looked, I'm inclined to agree.

This is definitely something I would want to try at home, perhaps with a white fish though. Something a little lighter and flakier with a different set of flavorings. I had thought during class it would be an ideal way to cook Cantonese steamed fish on a smaller scale. With just two people to cook for at home, it isn't always practical for us to cook up an entire fish.

Finally, in a funny moment of repetition from the previous night, we remade poached pears and again JJ gave us some leverage with this one. Our group chose to do recipe with white wine because the previous night Al Forno poached their pears in red and I thought they were just awful. JJ did poach his pears in red wine and oddly it turned out beautifully. Yet another example of his weird and magical touch.

Meanwhile, our white wine poached pears were UNBELIEVABLY good. The only way I can describe our pears is to say that eating them and tasting the leftover poaching syrup was like sucking from the wine bottles of the heavens. It started with Stephanie mixing together the poaching liquid and ended with Catherine doing something magical with Grand Mariner and candied orange peel. The entire dish came together beautifully.

Of course, JJ in an act of defiance, I'm sure, dribbled a little of the red white reduction on our pears and with the whipped cream he had made for us, it was damn near the best thing I've ever had. I still weep at the memory of it.