There are many reasons for why I enjoyed going on Truffle Week with Culinary Getaways. Of tremendous value to me was the fact that the entire trip had been well-thought out, well-coordinated and planned, so that where we went, at what time and how got there, rolled together seamlessly. Even more important were the diverse activities on the trip, things I wouldn't have considered if I was traveling alone, such as the cooking instruction at Concept Chef. For this particular activity, I took away a few observations of about the French perspective on cooking in contrast to the American viewpoint. Neither right nor wrong, but I found several of them interesting.
Following a brief visit through Avignon Les Halles to gather our ingredients for the day, we rolled up our sleeves and got started on our menu:
- Cod Brandade with Truffles
- Chicken Fricassée with Truffles
- Truffle Mashed Potatoes
- Pineapple Kiwi Carpaccio in Truffle Syrup
The first thing Chef Julien did was to generously salt a fresh fillet of cod on both sides for the cod brandade before placing it into the refrigerator. He then instructed us to debone and cut apart the chicken so that we would have the breast, wing, thigh, drumstick, and the rest of the carcass to make a stock. Two thirds of the group had never taken apart a chicken, of which one immediately said, "I like it better when all of these pieces come in separate packages." I started giggling inside, I wonder how the French feel about all of the packaged goods we have in our supermarkets.
With the patient guidance of Chef Julien, each of us got through cutting the chicken apart, and agreed it didn't require much effort. While the chicken breast, thigh, drumstick and wing were browning in a skillet, the carcass, neck, and feet were placed in a pot with carrots, halved onions, a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf to make a stock, nothing was wasted. Once the chicken meat was browned, it was set aside to be placed into the pot with the strained broth when the stock was ready.
I was assigned the duty of peeling potatoes for the truffled mashed potatoes. I started to skin the potato by pushing the knife forward and was immediately corrected by Chef Julien that the proper way to peel is to pull the knife towards you as pictured below. I say, "forward." He says, "non, backward." So a little bit of back and forth go on.
After a few clumsy and hazardous attempts, we decided it was best to stick with the technique I was most comfortable with. I don't know if I will ever try peeling a potato backwards again. I do wonder why this is considered a better way to peel. I'd like to see this technique executed on a carrot.
These russet potatoes were diced, boiled in salted water for twenty minutes, and drained. Chef Julien underscored the importance of whipping the potatoes while they are hot in order to prevent a pasty, and gluey texture.
Next Chef Julien poured a thick liquid with the consistency of yogurt over the hot potatoes. Each of us were fascinated. We asked what the liquid was, and he, mystified by our question, told us that it was heavy cream or crème légère. We asked again why it was so thick, and he responded that it is because the cream was just taken out of the refrigerator. Duh! After some back and forth, we concluded that the heavy cream in America was simply not as thick as this one. I examined the container, but nothing indicated to me that it was anything other than cream.
A huge chunk of butter, roughly a stick, was tossed into the bowl before it was whipped with a balloon whisk. Now let me ask, has anyone of you ever whipped potatoes with a whisk? We have food mills, ricers and electric mixers, but it never occurred to me to whip up mashed potatoes using a whisk.
It was also about the time when I noticed that none of the ingredients were being measured. We received a copy of the recipes attached to the menu at the beginning of instruction, but it didn't reappear until class ended. After a few stirs Chef Julien determined the consistency wasn't as desired, so he added another huge chunk of butter, more cream and tops it with shaved black truffles. Almost immediately I heard a collective gasp at the avalanche of butter and cream flowing into the bowl. "Oh my gawddd!!! You're putting more butter!!!" says one. I wonder what the average French person thinks about our vocal protest to the cream and butter. It reminds of one of Julia Child's famous quotes, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream."
Chef Julien declares, "Okay this is done." And then proceeds to drizzle about a quarter cup of olive oil onto the truffled mashed potatoes. This pushed the girls over the edge as more than one exclaimed, "Argh!You're adding olive oil in there too?!!!" I chuckled, albeit nervously, and even my eyes brows cringed a bit at how fattening this dish was becoming. I think the only Americans who would find this much fat acceptable would be Paula Deen and her fans. How's it lookin' y'all?
Chef Julien seemed to get a kick out of the commotion being made in the kitchen. I think he found the anxiety amusing. Chef Julien is also quite easy on the eyes, so the ladies in the kitchen eventually found a way to forgive all of the butter. Oh, and yes, in case you are wondering, Chef Julien is an eligible bachelor.
But when he poured the rest of the container of cream into the pot of simmering chicken, I thought one girl's head was going to pop off. "Ugh! You're putting cream into that too!!!" At that point, everyone mentally threw their hands into the air. There was no reason to fight it, we relented at the ridiculousness of the cream.
Stephanie shaved a black truffle over the simmering chicken.
In the background, Chef Julien removed the salted cod from the refrigerator, which had been marinating for an hour, and rinsed off the salt. In bowl, he mixed the cod together with boiled potatoes, and what else, but a gentle cascade of cream and a quick drizzle of olive oil.
The cod potato mix was dolloped onto these fabulous cast iron plates from Staub, and after a sprinkle of bread crumbs, and minced garlic, the entire thing was placed into oven for ten minutes. I am going to have to find a set of these plates!
Sherry worked on the dessert, pineapple kiwi carpaccio in truffle syrup. She thinly sliced the fruit and fanned them out on plates. The truffle syrup was made with brown sugar dissolved in water that was brought to a gentle simmer. Diced truffles were added toward the end of the simmering when the heat was turned off. The flavors were allowed to cool and infuse over 15 minutes, after which it was drizzled over the pineapples and kiwi. It was an interesting combination, but I wasn't quite sure what to think of it at that point.
After each item was plated, we sat down to a well-deserved meal. So what did I think? The cod brandade was an exquisite combination of creamy, comforting potatoes with delicate flakes of lightly salted fish, all of which were beautifully contrasted by a sandy gentle crunch from the toasted bread crumbs. It was very good, and I will be making this dish again. The black truffle medallion added a nice touch, but the dish was good enough to stand on its own.
For the main course, truffled mashed potatoes were topped with artichoke hearts that were sauteed in butter and lemon juice, and was plated next to the chicken fricassée, which was topped with shaved black truffles. As soon as I tasted the truffled mashed potatoes all of the anxiety about the cream and butter melted away. Fluffy, creamy, and earthy, they were simply irresistible, offering all of the comforts of a traditional dish, but weaving in threads of complexity and sophistication. It was among the top memorable dishes from the entire trip, which is saying something because there were several incredible food memories accumulated over the week. Not to be completely overshadowed, the chicken fricassée was rich and elegant with succulent pieces of chicken and a wonderfully delicate cream sauce.
Our dessert of pineapple kiwi carpaccio was also quite good. The earthy and subtle cocoa flavors present in the black truffles complemented the natural acidity of pineapple and kiwi beautifully. If you can't imagine it, think about pineapples or kiwi with a touch of sweet cocoa powder. I was apprehensive about this dish, but I think it ultimately was successful in gaining my favor.
It always impresses me when delicious and consistent results are accomplished without recipes. I'm guessing Chef Julien's done this a couple of times. Of all of the observations I made in the kitchen about the way we cook, I do think that practice and a love of learning are two components to success. This was a very good experience for me, not only to learn how to cook new recipes, but also to see the differences in the way we think and cook.
Related PostsTruffle Hunting in Provence
Chez Bruno - The Ultimate Truffle Dining Experience in Provence
Saint Rémy de Provence
Bistrot Découverte in Saint Rémy de Provence
Château Beaucastel Winery of Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape - One of the World's Premier Wine Region