31 December 2010

Two For The Road : The World On Sale

"I hate shopping!" Mr. B. declared today.

"Really?" I replied. "Then why do we have all these big shopping bags in our room?"

"Oh! But they're not for me!" he went on pointing at the chocolate and biscuits from Belgium for his sister, clothes for D., purse for his mom, mobile phone straps for his nieces, toiletries for colleagues, among other things.

"Did you buy anything for yourself?"

"No. I didn't even buy anything for you!" he replied.

"Maybe that is why it's no fun shopping." I told him. "You need to feel that you are spending money to pamper yourself. That would make you feel better and make shopping a more enjoyable experience."

Mr. B. thought about it for 5 second and nodded his head. "I completely agree with you. I will go shopping again tomorrow."

30 December 2010

Two For The Road : Palais Garnier

One of the most impressive thing I saw during my Paris trip is the Palais Garnier or the Paris Opera. Mr. B. said it is one of the places that he would always come back to when he is in Paris. This grand landmark designed by architect Charles Garnier and inaugurated in 1875 was the inspiration of Gaston Leroux when he wrote his Gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera in 1910.

The highly ornamented exterior and interior of the Neo-Baroque-style building is indeed one of the masterpieces in architecture. I was so inspired by this work of art that I made this short video to honor this Parisian opera house set to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Coney Island Waltz from Love Never Dies.

21 December 2010

Two For The Road : Classic and Modern Sauces

The pots continue boiling as Mr. B. attended yet another course on Classic and Modern Sauces. Here is his adventure in the world of culinary arts:

Bonjour, Chef.
Oui, Chef.
No, Chef.
Merci, Chef.

The professional kitchen runs like a military camp, I realized. Everything must be in order, in place, clean, precise. And you always refer to the person with the highest touque in the room as "Chef" pronounced with utmost reverence.

When I chose to take the "sauces course", it was based on the belief that French cuisine is founded by exquisite sauce, the very soul of each dish. And I was right. Until one actually witness how sauces were, it wold be hard to imagine that the few tablespoons of savory sauce with the piece of meat on one's plate actually started life with a huge tub of stock that was reduced, reduced and reduced for hours, hours and more hours. The most unforgettable quote I heard for the day was "anything will eventually reduce."

Day One of the program focused on making the 3 stocks that would be the basis of everything else we did - white chicken stock, meat jus and fish stock. The stocks were made of veal (or chicken or fish) bones, trimmings, vegetables, wine and spices and cooked in low fire for hours (never boiling) and skimmed, skimmed, skimmed. Eventually, these stocks were further combined with other other ingredients to form sauces for the dishes.

Fish stock was used to cook shells from prawns and expensive langoustines with added shallots, lemongrass, garlic, tomato, parsley and wine, further reduced until you get a savory sauce for Jumbo Shrimp and Langoustines a l'Americaine with Lemongrass Flavor.

Chicken stock was combined with cream and butter and slow cooked to form the sauce for Chicken Breast Sauce Supreme with Mushrooms.

The meat jus was used to make two kinds of sauces: with orange juice, sugar, vinegar and orange segments, it became the sweet-savory sauce for Magret Duck Breast a l'Orange; with red wine, shallots, peppercorn, thyme, bay leaf and parsley, it formed the dark, luscious Bordelaise sauce for Pan-friend Beef Tenderloin.

Day Two focused on various sauces for various uses: Pistou Sauce (the French version of pesto sauce with no parmesan and pine nuts) for pasta, risotto or fish; Sauce Poivade (dark savory sauce) for steaks; Bearnaise, Hollandaise, Mousseline and Mustard Sauce (which all came from the same family) for meat, fish, chicken or seafood stew; Mayonnaise, Tartare and Cocktail Sauces (again, the same family) for fried dishes or seafood; and Tomato Sauce for pasta, bread and steaks.

It was hard work with all the chopping, whisking, stirring, skimming, tasting and starting all over again, but at the end of the day, it was satisfying to see the sauce finally reduced to the right consistency, emulsify to the right thickness, and turn into the right color that blends with whatever one is spooning it over.

I shall never take sauces lightly ever again.


18 December 2010

Two For The Road : Foie Gras

Oui Oui. Oui are still in the lovely city of Paris and today Mr. B. attended the Foie Gras Preparation class while I keep myself warm and cozy in the hotel room. I'll let him tell you the whole story. Here goes.

The much debated foie gras. What can one say? Since ancient Egypt, fattening of birds by forced overfeeding has been practiced. This gavage method of fattening the liver of goose or duck has been a subject of international controversy. So controversial in fact that a number of nations completely banned the production of foie gras. The French, which produces and consumes almost 80% of the world's foie gras, has a law that states "Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France". I guess it means they don't care what you say. Anyhow, this is not the point of this post. This is about discovering this much talked-about French culinary delight.

Chef Patrick Caals led the full day demonstration and degustation (tasting) of the various foie gras preparations with the help of Chef Jean-Michel Chevreuil during the actual cooking. The first part of the class involves identifying a good foie gras, deveining and cleaning (which is a tedious task, unless a high quality "deveined" variation is purchased). As with the preparation of other dishes, the French are very, very particular in the temperature. When they say 56 degrees, you don't ask them what if the oven temperature goes up to 58 degrees. They might tell you to throw away what you have done so far and start again.

After an entire morning of lecture and demo, each student was given a foie gras entier (a whole foie gras, weighing about 600gm). This is the scary part as one understood one id working with a very delicate ingredient and the foie gras actually melts on the hand if handled for too long. Several courses were made including the following:

Foie Gras En Terrine - This is where the whole foie gras went. Deveined and cleaned. Seasoned with salt, sugar and pepper. Optional liquor added (I added armagnac in mine And drank the sweet port wine provided), The carefully lining in the terrine container for steaming until the center reaches 56 degrees then plunging into ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Another 48 hours of wait is required for the taste of the terrine to settle and reach maximum peak.

Foie Gras and Truffles with Seasonal Mushroom Cream - Made with foie gras trimmings mixed with eggs, milk, cream and seasoning and layered at the bottom of a small container, them topped with cream of mushroom (another tedious preparation), and finally topped with sliced black truffles (Don't ask the chef if white truffles can be used. He already said black.) And drizzled with truffle oil. This one tastes really smooth, velvety with the mushroom and foie gras blending beautifully.

Warm Foie Gras Steamed with Cabbage and Chestnuts with Rich Fresh Herb Bouillon - Basically a small piece of foie gras wrapped in steamed cabbage placed on top of a complicated but delectable broth of chestnuts stock, chives, sprigs, parsnip, cilantro and seasoning.

Foie Gras Roasted with Confit Quinces and Shallots with Reduced Bitter-Sweet Orange Jus - Very few people knew what quince was. Even fewer students dared raise their hands and asked the Chef what quince is? No one saw the entire supposed-to-be-like pear fruit because it arrived the kitchen peeled and sliced. Anyhow, the preparation is putting pan-fried foie gras and caramelized quinces alternately one on top of the other in a terrine container them further steamed to perfection.

After an entire day of degustating different foie gras dishes, I am all foie gras out. I still have an entire terrine I made myself that I don't know what to do with.


14 December 2010

Two For The Road : The Lonely Sock

Strange things happen to humans but stranger things happen to Mr. B. in particular. He is a natural magnet to things strange and unusual.

This morning at breakfast in the small hotel we are staying, Mr. B. was enjoying his toast with butter and honey in the empty restaurant when a lady server approached him.

"Pardon monsieur, est-ce que c'est votre?" she said pointing somewhere in the buffet table area.

With his limited French, Mr. B. tried to process what the lady was saying but looked to the general direction of where she was pointing. And there, lying on the tiled floor, alone and cold, was a single black sock; at the exact area where Mr. B. stopped a few minutes ago to get cheese. Even a few meters away, Mr. B. instantly recognized the lonely black sock. It was his.

"Non!!" he replied indignantly with an attitude comparable to St. Peter denying Jesus, only he didn't do it 3 times for that would give him away.

What would you have done if you were the lady server? Just shrug your shoulder, pick up the poor sock and dump it in the bin, which was exactly what the lady did.

How did the unfortunate sock got there? Static probably caused it to attach itself to Mr. B. jacket from the room to the hotel restaurant until it can't no longer hold itself and had to drop to the floor. It could have attached itself to Mr. B.'s head and he probably wouldn't notice. The only consolation was that the sock was clean and unused.

Now the real question is. Where is the other one and what should Mr. B. do with it?

11 December 2010

Two For The Road : Christmas Chocolate

Today is the day Mr. B. attended his first course in the world-renowned culinary school Le Cordon Bleu. This is one of the highlights of our European trip which Mr. B. has been planning for a long time. So I shall give him the chance to tell his story in this post. I hope you all enjoy it.

The Le Cordon Bleu Paris campus had a very simple facade. So simple one could very well miss it when not looking attentively. The Christmas Chocolate class started at 8.30 in the morning with a simple breakfast of coffee, Danish and orange juice for a chance for students to mingle around.

The class started at 9.00am with a French pastry chef Daniel Walter, an English interpreter and many helper chefs ready to take orders anytime. After explaining the basics of chocolate, we proceeded in making our own. The class was supposed to work in a team of two, but since there was odd number of people, I had the opportunity to have all the utensils and ingredients to myself.
We made several items in the course of the day:

Muscadine - A combination of praline, cream, milk chocolate, honey, cocoa butter and a dash of Cointreau, piped to a long log, refrigerated, cut into 2-inch pieces, dipped in dark chocolate then rolled in powdered sugar. This was one of the more laborious item to do.

Mendiant - Dark chocolate ring topped with one each of raisin, candies orange peel, toasted almond, toasted hazelnut, toasted pistachio and walnut. This is not as difficult but one needs to work really, really fast to top the fruits and nuts before the chocolate hardened (which was quite fast).

Orangette - This is the reason why I took the class, but was a bit disappointed when we were given candied oranges instead of teaching us how to "candy" them. The main challenge therefore is in the "dipping" technique which would take a lot of practice.

Losanges Pistache - Pistachio paste rolled into marzipan (a very messy thing to do), delicately rolled and cut into identical sizes and thickness then coating the resulting marzipan with dark chocolate before topping with a whole roasted pistachio.

Ganache Framboise - The ganache is made with raspberry puree, dark chocolate, cream, sugar and butter then piped into tiny cups before dusting with ground pistachio. This one is fun to do if one knows how to use the "pipe".

Marrons Glaces - This is not really chocolate but delectable chestnut in vanilla syrup dipped in white fondant resulting in something so sweet that even the American students couldn't eat a whole piece.

Lunchtime was fun when all students dine in one long table and feasted on terrine, salad, avocado shrimp, bread and wine. Aside of the few who are local, most of the students were on holidays. Since none of us were professionals, we all had fun during the entire class, laughing at our mistakes and messing ourselves with chocolate.

It was a good day.


Two For The Road : Fast Food in Paris

Because Mr. B. was really and he needs to sleep early, we decided to buy dinner from the supermarket to take back to the hotel. We ended up in Monoprix which is just across the hotel we were staying at.

We had a lot of food for dinner! We had Salad Piedmontaise which is a combination of potatoes, tomatoes, corn, pickles and roasted chicken meat. Mr. B. also bought a big slice of Terrine de Campagne and a big bag of seedless clementines for dessert. For breakfast the next morning, he bought Cherry Yogurt and Cocktail Fruits and Nuts for snack. Yummy!

After buying everything we need, I suddenly realized something.

"Mr. B., you don't have fork to eat your food with!" I told him.

It was great that Monoprix had a section selling plates and utensils so he spent another 5 Euro to buy a fork and a teaspoon.

We had a great, easy and happy eats!

10 December 2010

Two For The Road : Wish You Were Here

After a night of sleep interrupted by dreams (or nightmare) of his former boss in the funny farm, Mr. B. woke up at 4.30am to prepare for our trip to Paris. More than two hours later, the biting cold air of Paris, cloudy sky and the snow-covered streets greeted us. Because the hotel did not allow check-in before 2.00pm, Mr. B. and I took the Metro around the city for my first taste of Paris.

"Paris is not what I remembered it to be." Mr. B. proclaimed as we walked around Trocadero.

"How is it different now, Mr. B.?" I asked.

"It seems darker. I don't remember Tour Eiffel in that color too." he answered.

"Maybe it's the weather, Mr. B. It's winter. The first time you were here was more than 10 years ago and it was summer." I told him.

Mr. B. looked around for anything familiar that would remind him of his very first trip to the city. I guessed all the monuments and architecture should still be the same, only older by 10 or so years.

We ate lunch of croque monsieur (ham and cheese on toast and grilled with more cheese on top) and soda, we walked around the Trocadero now filled with shops of food and souvenirs, skating rink, carousel, Christmas things and other things that reminded one of the upcoming holidays.

By the time we returned to the hotel it was late afternoon. Mr. B. said he was exhausted and took a shower. We took a short nap and thought about D. Mr. B. and I both miss D. very much. It would be great if D. were here with us walking around the streets of Paris in this cold weather.

Perhaps it wasn't Paris that changed over the years but Mr. B. Perhaps his heart is left somewhere bright and sunny and no snow.

08 December 2010

Two For The Road : My Dutch-Speaking Friends

Traveling to different parts of the world makes me realize how little I understand about the world of humans, especially when they speak in a different language. During my stay in Belgium, I met two non-human friends who spoke only Dutch. One is a white polar bear and the other a mocha colored one. Since I identify then by the color of their furs, I can only refer to them as "Witte" and "Mokka".

For 3 days, we tried to communicate with each other, played, watched a lot of television (which I don't understand). I tried explaining to them that I have a blog they can visit although they probably wouldn't understand it anyhow. But it was all fun. My visit coincided with their celebration of the day of Sinterklaas, or the day of Saint Nicholas who is the patron saint of the Dutch people, and eventually the basis of the mythical Christmas character we all called Santa Claus. We had lots of candies, cookies and chocolates (who names I can't recall) which are traditionally eaten during this season.

On the second evening, our hosts Auntie Em and Uncle Ef prepared a wonderful 4-course dinner. We had a great time and enjoyed the feast consisted of : Stoemp with Honey Mustard Sauce and Pan-fried Smoked Duck; Cream of Pumpkin Soup; Three-fish Gratin in a Bed of Leeks; Brownies in Advocaat Cream Sauce. (While I was writing this, Mr. B. said I should not name the dishes because Auntie Em may have other official names to them.)

Anyhow, it was a beautiful meal to say the least so who cares what they were called. I don't have to speak Dutch to be friends with Witte and Mokka or to enjoy Auntie Em's fine cooking.

Thank you Auntie Em and Uncle Ef for having me as your guest! Hello to Witte and Mokka too!

02 December 2010

Two For The Road : My First Taste Of Snow

I am not a polar bear. I don't live in North Pole. So I am not familiar with snow at all. Before this trip, Mr. B. warned me that we might encounter snowfall, which I thought was very exciting. I had a picture in my mind of children playing in the snow, making snow angels; people making snowmen with carrot noses; throwing snowballs at each other or sliding downhill on a cart; of fireplace and hot cocoa to keep you warm.

So it snowed for two days in a row. It wasn't what I had in mind at all. Mr. B. and I went for a city tour where we initially sat on an open top tourist bus. But it proved to be too cold so we moved inside where it was warmer. Mr. B. said I cannot be in the snow for too long because we will both get very wet and cold. I also didn't like the way snow hit my face with the strong wind. It hurt my nose. Mr. B. said it hurt his face too.

Walking in the streets was also a big challenge for humans. I am glad Mr. B. carried me all the way. I saw people walking in the street about 6 inches at a time because snow turned into ice on the pavement and ice can be very slippery and dangerous. Reminded me of the ancient Chinese women with bound feet who took very small steps.

Snow was fun. Everything because white. I am very happy to see my first snow.


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