Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Beaujolais Nouveau

I was reminded again today why JJ has to be one of my favorite personalities, cooking or otherwise. There's something so lovably pompous about his Frenchy-ness it's really rather endearing. JJ returned for something I'm sure is near and dear to his heart, Beaujolais nouveau. And I was thrilled to see coq au vin on the menu, I'd be devastated if we'd completed this entire course in classic French cooking techniques and I never once made a coq au vin. It'd seem very wrong to me.

Also on the menu today was French onion soup and a simple apple tart that was magnificent, as far as tarts go. Actually, a great example of why JJ is so great: he asked us if we'd done a French onion soup yet, so we replied that we had with John. JJ pauses for a moment, shrugs and says, "It doesn't count. He's not French."

So, for the remainder of the morning, JJ makes all three courses, explaining the different steps and how to do it, beginning with breaking down the chicken and browning it in the pan. Meanwhile, he parboiled some salt pork and chopped the rest of the ingredients for the coq au vin. Once everything was well browned, he took out the chicken and browned the vegetables and salt pork, again, until well browned. Once everything was transferred to a large pot, he deglazed the pan with some red wine and poured that into the same pot. An entire bottle of wine later, the pot was filled and the lid put on top so it could simmer for about 40 minutes.

Catherine and I were both confused it was such a fast process, I think we'd both heard that coq au vin is supposed to take hours and hours--is this wrong? Is it like the myth of a turkey needing to roast for six hours? If I ever met someone who told me they roasted their turkey for six hours, I'd make a mental note to never eat their cooking. Some would say that's elitist, I say that life's too short to eat really bad food.

Cut to Catherine and I making the exact same dish three hours later and trying to do it all as well as JJ, a ridiculous aspiration, but ours nonetheless. The pans we used were uneven meaning some chicken browned faster than others, the heat was a little high making patches of chicken meat stringy and for some reason, it took so much longer than JJ's chicken had. JJ's chicken seemed to brown up quickly in the morning, but for us, it seemed to take almost 20 minutes before we could get a good color on the chicken.

Of course, it also didn't help that all the prep required for the dish took us forever to pull together. That's the only time I would say that JJ's dish might have been easier because he was able to pull all his ingredients from a tray prepared by Kevin. We should all be so lucky! By time we'd gotten to the stage where we combined everything into a pot, it had already been two hours.

Anyway, back to the morning demo with JJ where he showed us his faux puff paste dough, which came together laughably quickly and showed us how to prepare the tart dough and crimp the edges. I couldn't believe how easily his dough came out (and later on, how good it was). Although I love puff paste, if I can make something almost comparable in a fraction of the time, I'm there. After fanning out thinly sliced apples around the dough and sprinkling it all with some sugar, it was ready for baking. This really was the easiest tart in the world. The majority of JJ's time was spent preparing the apples and arranging them on the dough. When they came out of the oven and we could all finally have a taste, we were all bowled over by how good the most simple apple tart could be. Lots of us fought over second pieces, it was that good.

In the afternoon, I did the dough for our group and, gratefully, it came together just as easily for me as it did for JJ. It really was the easiest dough in the world to make - buttery and flaky without too much effort. After bringing it together, we needed to let it chill, so we started on the onion soup.

Caramelizing the onions for the soup always takes a long time. For the first seven minutes, nothing happens, not even a little color, and then it seems that suddenly they start to get some great color and you're off the heat in another four minutes. Talk about delayed reaction. Then I tried to deglaze the pan, but there just wasn't enough liquid because it would evaporate before I could get all of the browned bits stuck to the pan. I had to keep adding more and more white wine to get all the flavor. I was worried that the soup would become too boozy because of it, especially since there onion flavor was lacking after I added in the chicken stock. I just hoped that after it had a chance to simmer and reduce, the flavor would concentrate and make a better tasting soup.

Naturally, watching JJ cook the onions for his soup in the morning, I felt it came together far faster. It looked rich and fully flavored before they even added the chicken stock and didn't need to be reduced to develop the proper flavor. Regardless, the really interesting twist on the soup came afterwards. Instead of floating a crouton covered with cheese on top of a small bowl of soup, JJ mixes things up a bit and layers in the croutons and cheese making it almost like a bread pudding by time it comes out of the oven. This change in texture creates a heartier soup that feels more complete, which sounds strange, but after having some of JJ's soup, it made all the other onion soups I'd had before seem incomplete, like all of them should aways be finished this way before being served.

Our tart came out well, except the top didn't look brown enough. JJ explained this morning that occasionally the tart's top may not gain as much color as you'd like, at which point he said we could put them under the broiler for a few minutes. Because our tart hadn't developed the color on top, JJ decided to put our tart under the broiler for us... and then he burnt it. Sabotage!

I think when it came time to sit down to dinner, it was 4:30pm, which means it took us three and a half hours to do the same amount of food that JJ did in an hour thirty. Typical Frenchman! :)

Of course, I love JJ and I have a lot of respect and admiration for him. I only hope to be as effortless a cook as (he seems to be) one day.