Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quiche Lorraine

After fish we moved on to chicken and poularde pochée sauce suprême (poached chicken with sauce suprême) last week, and in our practical we had to truss a chicken after we'd burned off all the tiny feathers with a chef's torch - which was quite scary. We've all been taught how to correctly pass a knife to someone (yes?), but few in our class had logically transposed that rule to the blow torch, so when I turned round to accept it from a Chinese girl with singed eyebrows, the blue flame licked all the hairs off my arm.

As I looked down the marble-topped work station at the poulardes flambées (the chickens on fire), the smell of burning hair in my nostrils, I realised just how dangerous a place a kitchen full of 14 wannabe chefs can be.

This week it's pastry and some of you will know that I'm a wee bit scared of pastry - but not as scared as I am of getting third degree burns from holding a hot tray of Quiches Lorraines whilst waiting for someone to shimmy past me as if they were moving from their office chair to the coffee machine.

The cooking's the easy part - so far.

Friday, March 26, 2010

filets de limande bercy

Where to start? It's all a bit mental - and I have so little time to write.

There are 44 of us in basic cuisine from over 15 countries (you can tell who's just jetted in from California or Brazil or Taiwan because they're the ones with creased faces, like old maps that have been folded and refolded a thousand times, from jet lag) and after three days we're all starting to find our own little clique. I'm in with an Australian and a Canadian - and surprisingly, I'm the only Brit.

Yesterday I was in school from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., caught the Métro home, had a quick chat with BB on Skype, then went to bed. The French have an expression: "Métro, boulot, dodo" (commute, work, sleep) and that pretty much sums up yesterday and how many of my days are going to be for the next few weeks.

We've been given a full set of Wüsthof kitchen knives (dangerously sharp) and the first practical lesson yesterday was learning different ways to cut vegetables without cutting your fingers off. So, there was mirepoix - cutting the veg into 1 cm cubes; brunoise - 2 mm cubes;  julienne - very thin strips, 1 mm thick and 5 cm long; and paysanne - 1 cm triangles. The recipe we had to create was rustic vegetable soup using the paysanne technique - which I thought was a bit ironic. I can't imagine Mini-B's Mum spending an hour cutting veg into tiny triangles for soup - or BB noticing for that matter.

Anyway, Chef said my soup was "très bien" (very good) and I was able to hold up 10 whole fingers when BB asked to see them on Skype.

Today's lesson was on stocks and how to fillet fish, so in our practical we made filets de limande bercy (lemon sole fillets in white wine sauce) using fish stock (after filleting our own fish of course). I'm afraid the recipes are LCB copyright and we're not allowed to reproduce them but this is a common French recipe which involves poaching lemon sole fillets in white wine and fish stock with some chopped shallots and then reducing the sauce and adding butter and parsley.

There are so many things to remember - what to wear in which classes, what to take to practicals and we're all battling for space in the tiny locker rooms - but I'm loving it. Most of the photos will be taken using a flash so they won't be up to the usual standard. Must dash to school now. Later.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


These are the lessons I've learned so far, after three days in Paris:

Some Metro stations require you to insert your ticket again to exit - so hold on to it. On Sunday, when I went to wave BB off at Gare de Lyon (sniffle), I threw my ticket away before the exit barrier and then had to rummage around in the bin like a plankton to retrieve it - which was rather embarrassing.

Don't walk around staring up at buildings admiring the architecture. It's true what they say about Paris and dog merde! Keep your eyes on the ground.

When viewing apartments for the first time, if the landlord says, "it's very quiet here", he is lying. I have a sideways neighbour who plays the piano (well) which is acceptable, but an upstairs neighbour who clops around in hobnailed boots on bare wooden floors which isn't. But I've found a solution - leave the extractor fan on in the bathroom to create white noise (which I'm used to at home with the sound of the river) and drown out everything else. Sorted.

I have my first lesson tomorrow morning. My school bag is packed (with a tarte tatin for the teacher!), my uniform ironed - and I'm just a little bit nervous.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Groundhog Day

It's 2 a.m. and I can't sleep. Strewth - it's Groundhog Day!

We're off on the train to Paris in the morning. BB's coming with me because he thinks I'll have trouble getting the WiFi and the telly to work in my studio (duh!) but I'm happy to play along because I need him to carry my bags after I knackered my back at step class on Monday!

But seriously, I'm glad he's coming with me, to help shoe me in to my new (albeit brief) life in Paris. It's a huge comfort.

School starts on Monday - so until then.

P.S. I made a chicken and sweetcorn pie for lunch today which BB said tasted like a pile of cack! (a bit uncharitable I thought!), so instead of the unsavoury cack pie, here are some pictures of fragrant spring flowers from my garden.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

the cat is a hat

It's 2 a.m. and I can't sleep so I've just extracted myself from a cat sandwich and come downstairs to write. The cats aren't allowed in the bedroom (BB's rule) but occasionally I accidentally on purpose leave the door open and as soon as they don't hear it closing, all three shoot up the stairs like rats up a drainpipe and assume their positions on the bed. Always the same positions - all three giving BB a wide berth.

If I've just washed my hair before going to bed, Loti lies on my head with her face buried in my hair - but only if it's just been washed. She's fussy that way. Otherwise she lies at my feet. (And when I say on my head, I mean literally on my head, like a hat. Once I sat up and she was attached, gripping on with her claws to stay on board - which smarted a bit - and nearly broke my neck as she's quite a big girl.) The other two take port and starboard, leaning in to achieve maximum body heat, making it impossible for me to turn over.

As I lay there, wedged in, staring up at the exposed beams, BB shouted out in his sleep: TWENTY FIVE KILOS! MINI-B! and fearing another one of his somnattacks, I decided to get up.

Only three days to departure.

We've been away a lot the last few days (hence my lack of blogging), visiting our 'winter' friends in Courchevel and Meribel for the last time this season and getting in as much skiing as possible.

The freezer is full to bursting with PC dinners, each one with a little bon mot scribbled on the lid. I know how BB operates - he will take the path of least bending down until he absolutely has to - so he'll start in the top freezer drawer (even if it contains 14 chicken curries - which it doesn't because I've mixed them all up for a bit of variety) and work his way down. Accordingly, the notes in the top drawer are gentle reminders such as: Remember to water the plants and Don't forget to feed Flippo (the goldfish) because he won't flip his bowl over to remind you like the cats do.

Then further down, round about drawer three and week six, they become slightly more pleading: PLEASE change the sheets and You REALLY OUGHT to hoover until finally, in the bottom drawer: Call an industrial cleaner NOW! and Buy new plants! and Replace Flippo!

To make space in the freezer I've had to use up all of last year's garden produce, including about 10 kilos of green beans. Green beans with mustard and garlic is a very tasty way to spice up the plain old French bean. For 4-6 people, place 1 lb/450 g French beans in boiling salted water and simmer until al dente. Drain and mix in 1-2 cloves of finely chopped garlic and 1 heaped tbsp of Dijon mustard and serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

country life

BB borrowed a scary bit of kit from Poire last week called a Spit Pulsa (a cordless nail gun that allows you to fix directly into concrete and steel without the need to drill, plug and screw), to nail plasterboard rails to the concrete floor in the new house. I won't bore you with the finer details of its workings except to say that it involves a gas cartridge, a combustion chamber, sparks and explosions - oh, and nails, obviously. Just reading all those words in the same sentence makes me want to call an ambulance.

BB is using the 'shotgun' version which takes ¾ inch nails, but the other week, a roofer we know was using the 'bazooka' version (for 6 inch nails) and when he tried to nail a rafter to a purlin (a piece of wood to another piece of wood basically) the nail hit something hard, deflected and went right through his knee, impaling him to the roof!

I've mentioned this before, about the dangers of living in the country, about the accidents with circular saws and axes and forestry equipment - and then just this week, three houses in our village burned down after a chimney caught fire. Thankfully, no-one was injured, but what a horrendous thing to happen!

Life in the country - in our country village anyway - isn't quite the tranquil pastoral image exuding from the glossy pages of Country Living magazine. Paris will seem like a trip to Disneyland in comparison.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

celery soup and 21st century existentialism

So there I was in Montmartre, sitting in this fabulous three-storey artist's "studio" sipping green tea with said artist and two musicians - one of whom is my new landlord. Ok, we weren't discussing existentialism exactly (more the latest Porsche 911, which one of them was about to take delivery of!) and there wasn't a ruffled floral skirt in sight, but it was pretty close to my romantic notion of living in Paris.

Yes, I've found a little studio - small but perfectly formed - in a lovely old building on a quiet cobbled street in Montmartre. This was my last appointment yesterday, having viewed beforehand: a squat above a Chinese restaurant in the 15th, a window-less cat's coffin in the 4th and an apartment with a fireman's pole in the living-room in the 16th! So when the Montmartre musician asked if I was interested in his studio, I was like: Helloooo? Take this cheque as a deposit toot sweet! And then we went off and had tea with his friends.

I'm back home now, exhausted after all that zipping around (and relieved to have found somewhere to stay), about to tuck into a bowl of celery soup. Bonne nuit.

Monday, March 1, 2010

spiced lamb ragout

The berger brought round some lamb for us the other day, all neatly bagged (in brand-new poly bags) and labelled: épaule, côtelettes, côtes baronnes, ragout. It was a million miles away from Mini-B's rustic presentation, when he delivers his goat meat wrapped in a bit of old bed sheet, probably off his own bed, which I doubt he sleeps in very much given the number of times he crashes on our sofa or in the field behind the salle des fêtes. That guy can sleep anywhere. Last summer a few of us spent the night in a hunting cabin way up in the mountains and as we all set about bedding down - unfurling camping mats and sleeping bags and plumping up pillows sultan's divan-style - Mini-B just curled up under the table on the concrete floor and went to sleep like a dog.

I'm off to Paris tomorrow for a couple of days to sort out accommodation so I leave you with this very tasty recipe for spiced lamb ragout which uses relatively inexpensive neck of lamb. It's even better reheated the following day.

Serves 4
2 lb (900 g) neck of lamb
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 heaped tablespoon flour
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 dried red chilli
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
12 oz (350 g) potatoes, larger ones cut in half
1 tin tomatoes (without the juice)
salt and freshly milled black pepper

Smash up the coriander seeds and chilli and mix with the oregano and rosemary. Roll the lamb pieces in this mixture. Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole dish and brown the meat a few pieces at a time then remove from the pan. Fry the onions in the fat left in the pan for about 10 minutes until softened and browned round the edges, add the garlic.

Next stir in the flour and gradually pour in 1 pint (570 ml) boiling water then return the pieces of meat to the casserole and season. As soon as it comes back to simmering point, put the lid on and transfer the casserole to the oven and cook for about an hour at 275°F/140°C. After an hour add the potatoes and tinned tomatoes and return to the oven for another hour.