We began yesterday morning with a lesson on salad greens. Our headmistress explained that there is a great difference in nutrition (and taste) between freshly picked, soil grown greens and supermarket lettuce that has been grown hydroponically, or in water. Hydroponic growers add just enough nutrients to the water so that the leaves will sprout. This results in produce that has fewer nutrients and less flavor. In addition, supermarket leaves are washed in a chlorine solution that is eighteen times stronger than pool water!
After this quick (and disturbing!) lesson, we toured the four kitchens and divided into groups across six work stations. We worked on basic knife technique for chopping onions, carrots, potatoes, and mushrooms. Each student has an engraved knife set, wrapped in a canvas carrying case, comprised of a chopping knife, a filleting knife, a fruit knife, a boning knife, a carving knife, a palette knife, a carving fork, a sharpening steel, a peeler, a melon baller, and a piping bag with nozzles. I have no idea how to use 95% of the contents of this case, but I look like a Top Chef carrying it around. Our chopped ingredients contributed to the lunch of carrot soup, fresh bread, penne with mushroom a la creme, fresh green salad, and fruit salad with herbs for dessert. Those astute blog readers will notice that this is a repeat of what our headmistress demonstrated yesterday afternoon! This is a pattern...
After lunch, we sat down for an afternoon lesson on how to make potato soup (yes, we're in Ireland) with either basil pesto or chorizo and parsley, pastry for various 'flans' (tarts) and quiches, various tomato salads, and a blackberry and apple compote. Some lessons on making pastry:
- For the "fat" element, butter has great flavor and texture, margarine has great texture but not as good flavor, and lard has great flavor but is very difficult to find. We used butter.
- It's very important to let the dough rest in the fridge after working it into a ball and before rolling it (the gluten relaxes).
- Cut your butter into chunks and then pop it back into the fridge to re-chill before mixing it with the flour. Cold butter is essential and sometimes it warms while it is cut into bits.
- Roll pastry on marble or a smooth countertop- never on a wood surface
- Bake your pastry-lined tart pan with some waxed paper weighed down with "baking beans" before adding the filling. This is called "baking blind". The shell will get a headstart on cooking, the beans (unaffected by the heat of the oven) will keep the shell from rising, and the final quiche or tart will have a nice, flaky bottom rather than a soggy, undercooked one. Julia Child explains this in detail in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
- Making pastry isn't as scary as it looks or sounds! Try it!
Other than pastry tips, here are some other lessons my big ears picked up on throughout the day:
- Cut tomatoes (for a salad) as close to eating as possible. Otherwise they will get watery. Dress immediately after cutting.
- Ready-grated parmesan sold in the store is made from the worst bits of the cheese. Buy it in a block and grate it yourself!
- Save the giblets (the neck, heart, gizzard, and liver) of the chicken. The neck, heart, and gizzard are great in homemade chicken stock, and the liver is better saved for pate. If you are buying a chicken already gutted, and you're not too shy, ask the butcher and he might give you some for free!
- While making pesto, it is OK to use the Cuisinart (rather than the ye olde mortar and pestle) for mixing everything BUT the parmesan. That you fold in afterwords by hand or the cooking gods will appear and slap you across the face (don't as me why).
- Check out Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cooking cookbook series- she comes highly recommended by the superchefs over here.