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Archive for February, 2011

Saturday 26th February 1a.m: Is it time to get up yet..?

2.30a.m: Panic in a foggy half dreaming, half awake state that I had over slept and missed all trains to Lyon.

4.30a.m Pavlova related nightmares from Fridays Pavlova fiasco…

5.50a.m Alarm finally rings. Personal experience has since told me that nothing will get you out of bed faster after a disturbed nights sleep than to see a pair of creepy bug eyes staring at you a mere 20cm from your face…

I arrived in Lyon at 9.30a.m, nerves no more calmer than when I left Bonneville. Under the premise of getting into French mode, I treated myself to a lovely petit déjeuner that was only slightly marred by a beggar child kneeling at my feet playing an accordion.

To celebrate the end of a long 8 week term, I had enrolled myself in a French cooking class at L’Atelier des Chefs. Today was a big day.

I found my way to L’Atelier des Chefs building, by which time my stomach was churning, my palms were sweating and I was muttering to myself “Breathe, breathe…” This may also have been a side effect of the incredibly strong espresso I had just drunk… But as soon as I walked in I felt at ease. I was standing in a kitchen shop: a wonderfully familiar array of silicone baking pans; recipe books; spices in glass jars; serving dishes and utensils; exotic teas; aprons and pepper grinders in front of me. I caught a glimpse of the shining stainless steel kitchen out the back. This is a place I know.

Cuisines the world over: Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian, American, each one is different. They all have different flavours, different techniques and different traditions. Yet, there will always be knives, ovens, oils, passion and ideas. A veritable creative hub where if you mix a bit of this, add a bit of that you can make something extraordinary. This is what I love about a kitchen: it is full of warmth, often a fare amount of tense excitement and a universal understanding of the potential that lies within. So when the Chef handed me a white plastic bag apron and I was guided to my station, I felt kind of at home. Though a cloth apron wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Plat du Jour

Crème de potiron, oeuf poché, châtaignes et chips de jambon.

Dos de cabillaud en croûte de pavot, wok d’endive à l’orange.

Tatin de poire à la cardamome et chantilly de mascarpone au miel.

I could have been on the set of the food network. In an immaculate commercial kitchen, ingredients pre-measured in individual stainless steel bowls, knives of various sizes laid out straight and clean, white chopping boards ready to use. We were shown how to chop the produce in front of us: shallots and onions without tears, pumpkin, endives, pears and oranges. At our station I took on shallot chopping duty, successfully, without tears. It’s all in the knife action…

Handed a giant pair of tweezers, we tried to pull the bones out of our cod fillets without destroying the tender flesh. Next, we moved to the hot part of the kitchen. This was were things started to get serious. I now had to compete with the scraping of pots, the sizzling of oil and the ten whispered french conversations around me to follow the Chef’s instructions. My brow furrowed and my hands clasped tightly in front of me, begging myself to understand.

We filled the kitchen with the wintery fragrance of caramelised pears, lightly spiked with cinnamon and cardamom. Spooned delicately into mini tarte tatin pans and soft, buttery rounds of pâte feuilletée gently pressed on top.

In a searing fry pan, we lightly cooked the cod fillets. De-glazing the pan with soy sauce, incorporating deliciously crusty flakes of fish, adding poppy seeds to make a glossy crust.

For the grand finale we were taught the perfect method for poaching eggs. It was reassuring to see the fear of poaching eggs on everyone’s faces. Before Saturday I had only poached an egg once, in the privacy of my own kitchen, where if it was a total disaster no one need know. (For the record, it wasn’t a disaster but it’s nice to know the security blanket is there nonetheless.) With trepidation we each approached the swirling pan of simmering water and poached an egg. Beginner’s luck or I’m a natural egg poacher, je ne sais pas, but my egg was far from the stringy mess of white that some people made!

I was amazed at the simplicity of every step. As a notoriously messy chef, producing an exotic three course meal in an hour and a half is a feat I could never imagine myself completing. Every stage only used two or three ingredients at a time and none of the techniques were difficult to master (even in french!).

 

Cream of pumpkin, poached egg, chestnut and ham crisps.

 

 

Cod fillet with a poppy seed crust and sauteed endives with orange.

 

 

Pear tatin with cardamon and a mascarpone and honey chantilly cream

We were all given the chance to practice our food presentation skills but somehow the meals which I so beautifully and carefully plated ended up at someone else’s place setting, ruining my chances for lovely photographs. The meal was delicious though, an interesting, yet pleasing combination of flavours. My favourite course was the entrée. Partly due to my egg poaching success, but mainly because of the pure taste of the pumpkin combined with the creamy egg yolk and salty jambon chip. A delicious flavour combination I can’t wait to recreate.

My one criticism of L’Atelier des Chefs experience is their choice of whiteware! I don’t want to eat my meal off china that more closely resembles a bathroom tile or a UFO than a normal plate. What happened to the classic, round, rimmed, white plate? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

I walked out of L’Atelier des Chefs with such a sense of achievement. I had just cooked a french meal, in a french kitchen, in french! Could speaking like a french woman be next? Dressing like a french woman, drinking wine like a french woman, having the waistline of a french woman? I live in hope…

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I have been somewhat quiet on the blog front recently. Culinary adventures, or any adventures for that matter, have been a bit thin on the ground of late. Instead, I have been discovering the little adventures that are to be had when the purse strings tighten…

Last week I enjoyed 36 hours where 3 meals out of 5 were porridge. My inner home-eco queen economised further and created a more dinner appropriate take on porridge by using half oats, half couscous. (I promise this is not as disgusting as it sounds, but, rather like indulging in baby food.) I have often said that I could live off breakfast meals alone but I think I had slightly more lavish visions of waffles and fresh berries and pancakes and eggs benedict.

Today the Top Budget supermarket brand did me proud and I managed to do a weekly shop for just under €12. There is no meat. No cheese. No wine. No bread. But, I do have a 2kg bag of carrots which I picked up for a €1.09. If you happen to see me at the end of the week with a slightly orange hue you will know why.

For Elle’s birthday on Friday we all decided our budgets could be stretched to a night out. As the only language assistant in a 25km radius with an oven I was on cake baking duty. Rummaging through my sad looking pantry I discovered a cake could be conjured up with only a small trip to the supermarket for eggs and sugar. Crunch time: candles or icing? I made the executive decision that icing was a bit of an extravagance in our current situation. After having drunk our way through one cardboard carton of Rosé, I’m sure we could have closed our eyes and imagined a perfectly creamy frosting with the obligatory hint of birthday cake candle wax. And maybe just a slightly Rosé perfume…

It is reassuring to know that these cut backs have not been in vain. My cook books may be sitting forlornly, gathering dust on my kitchen table and my meals “out” at the moment with friends generally involve a trip to the ready-to-eat section of the supermarket but my travel plans just keep getting brighter! Accommodation, trains and ferries are booked for Austria, Strasbourg, Corsica, Bordeaux and plans are in motion for Lyon and Germany. What sympathy I had had over having to survive on porridge I suspect I just lost…

Pay day on Saturday. I am rewarding myself with a trip to Lyon to do a French cooking class. In French. Toute seule. I’m a little nervous but looking forward to being able to cook with copious amounts of butter and not feeling guilty.

And don’t worry, the class is already paid for. How I am getting to Lyon on Saturday is another matter entirely…

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I’ve got in to the wonderful (or wonderfully bad) habit of justifying my culinary escapades with the excuse of improving my repertoire and general kitchen handiness. Depending, of course, on the current state of Intermarché’s shelves.

I stroll around the supermarket and I look for what is on special and what is a new ingredient. This week a 2kg bag of endives appeared in my basket. After consulting my new bible, I came across Gratin aux Endives. I’ve never seen endives in NZ but the little bullet shaped lettuce intrigued me when I first saw them at the market in Bonneville. They have a slightly bitter taste when eaten raw and probably not my salad of choice so I thought why not cover them in cheese?? And Swiss Gruyere at that!

Endives

let's whack some cheese on that! I feel like Rachel Ray...

I braised half the endives and then topped them with home-made bechamel sauce. I had to restrain myself from abandoning my gratin aux endives plan and just eating cheese sauce for dinner. Damn, that stuff is good. But you know what is better? Baked bechamel sauce!! I also made a tomato salad to try to compensate for the artery clogging qualities of my gratin. My diet pre-intervention was slightly less abundant on the cream and butter front, but cooking with lavish quantities of butter is so much more fun!

I have made two successful recipes from 2000 Recettes this week and already have plans for my next: pot-au-feu. One of Intermarché’s greatest assets is their vege department. You are always guaranteed to find something on special. Generally it is vege packs for pot-au-feu but I normally make these into a soup. Though, this week I am up for a challenge…

Last week I read about the many delights of Nutella Hot chocolate on one of my favourite food blogs. This sounded like something I needed in my life but I lacked one crucial ingredient: Nutella. I was put off buying Nutella after I read in some trashy French magazine that Marion Cotillard stopped buying Nutella because it contains palm oil. I’m slightly in love with this woman so I put my Nutella love on a back burner for a while. But then I remembered that she still smokes like a pack a day (I’m not a stalker, I promise!) so maybe she could smoke and I could eat Nutella… That’s a good compromise, right?!

So, enter, Nutella hot chocolate! Delicious, hot, creamy, nutty, chocolate goodness! After a few mugs (over a few days not a few hours…) I still could not get the right consistency for the Nutella. So I thought I would melt it slightly first. Bad move. Nutella and microwaving do not go well together. My microwave just about caught fire. I completely nuked the blob of Nutella (such a waste!). A bubbling, black, smoking muck was dying in the bottom of the mug. Though around the edges the Nutella had become sort of like a hard moose, almost cake like. This got me thinking, could Nutella make the transition to cake form?!?

I’ve just realised how many times “Nutella” is in the above two paragraphs… Moving right along.

My flatmate, Sarah, works at the Lycée Hôtelier in Bonneville so today we decided to treat ourselves to lunch out in their restaurant. For only €12 you can have le formule de midi which includes entrée, main, cheese, dessert and coffee. The service is intense as the whole operation is run by the students and for the most part there is one waiter for every table. The food was delicious, though I did spy the woman on the next table subtly undo her belt before commencing so I was glad breakfast had been small!

Gnnoci à la Parisienne

Osso-Bucco Milanaise (this lamb was melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-fork tender...)

fromage-super fort! je ne l'aime pas bien...

Opèra-chocolate and coffee layered pâtisserie with flaky pastry...

I also ordered a small pitcher of Côte du Rhône but thanks to Sarah’s sweet connections c’était offert! I couldn’t quite finish all the wine, even though it developed quite nicely in the glass. I think had I drunk it all I would have come home for a nana nap in the sun as it is 12 degrees here today!!

Off to the cinema tonight and then skiing on Sunday-just another typical weekend here in Bonneville!

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Today was not a particularly good day. I was super exhausted after my weekend, I lost something precious, my wound was causing me a bit of grief and I experienced extreme frustration at a child.

I left my house in a hurry this morning, nearly running late for my morning briefing, due to a nasty run-in between the alcoholic sanitiser and open hand wound. I closed the door, flew down the first few steps and then heard a light ting ting as I realised a charm from my bracelet was hurtling down two flights of steps into the school corridors, i.e. the land of lost things. Never to be seen again. As I walked to work passing many of my students, each one cheerfully crying “Hello!”, I put on my “hospo” smile and tried to sound vaguely enthusiastic.

My next battle was unfortunately during one of my favourite classes, except for one especially revolting child. I’m no stranger to this particular child’s antics but today I reached my limit. I had found a colouring page of the map of New Zealand that included various symbols for regions in NZ. For Christchurch, the image was the Cathedral and no bigger than a 50c piece at that. This child took offence at the religious symbol and began to twink it out declaring “Ce n’est pas bon pour les Musulmans.” If this is his attitude at 8, I dread to think of him at 28. NZ, like France, is a secular country and I was by no means trying to push my own agenda; me of very little faith… It was a colouring activity to kill time and that is all!

I left the class angrier than I had been in a while. Not even my blissful Monday afternoon trip to the supermarket could lighten my mood. I knew that the only way to recover from such a day would be to bake something outrageously delicious, preferably complicated and time consuming and with warm, comforting flavours that would return me to my general calm positive nature. This was the perfect opportunity to create one of the riz au lait recipes from my 2000 Recettes Française book…

Alors, Gâteau de Riz d’Amélie was born into my life-and I am never looking back!

I started off by making a vanilla rice pudding. Off the element, I stirred in a beaten egg. I then filled my kitchen with the undeniably comforting, soul-warming scent of apples cooking in butter with a pinch of cinnamon. To my compote I added a handful of raisins and a sprinkle of sugar. I dissolved a few tablespoons of sugar in some water and vinegar for the bottom of my oven dish. (This is where my translation skills got a bit cloudy: I think I was meant to make a caramel toffee here but it was really more like sugar syrup…) I topped the rice pudding with the apple compote and baked until bubbling and golden. Hello, dinner.

Sometimes, in one’s life, it is necessary to eat rice pudding with delicious spicy apples for dinner on a Monday night. Maybe not start the week as you mean to go on, but rather ease yourself into it. It’s only reheated soup, porridge and rice crackers from here on in.

I won’t mention that my “entrée” tonight was a couple of spoonfuls of Nutella washed down with the last few slugs of milk straight from the bottle…

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Confession: I had never made a pavlova until about 3 weeks before I moved to France.

And I call myself a Kiwi!

I am now on a one-woman mission to make the best goddamn pavlova you have ever tasted. Which is why I am sitting on my kitchen floor typing this so I can watch over my cooking pavlova like a new mother. (What I am also seeing is that my house keeping skills leave certain things to be desired; it pays to never look closely at the nooks and crannies around one’s oven…)

I wanted to make a pavlova that would transport me to a golden sand beach framed with Pohutakawa trees somewhere in the Bay of Islands. A pavlova that would re-ignite the infamous debate with our Tasman neighbours. A pavlova that Pavlova Queens from Invercargill to Kaitaia would be proud to claim as their own.

This may not be possible when my mixing bowls are pots are my work space is the top of my washing machine...

The kitchen timer/cellphone just rang; oven switched off. I’d like to say I can relax now but I still have to get this baby to Annemasse in one piece. Wish me luck….

48 hours later

Pavlova made it to Annemasse, just. Pippa, Barbara and I devoured the pavlova for afternoon tea and got the ball rolling for the rest of our heart healthy weekend!

That evening we headed to Geneva for a night in England: Mr. Pickwick Pub! Wales was playing England so Elle and I painted Welsh dragons on our cheeks in red nail varnish!

Our dragons weren’t quite enough for Wales but it was a good night nonetheless-even the freezing walk home across the border!

Saturday afternoon I took the train back to Bonneville to pick up my ski gear. I didn’t want to risk the safety of my pavlova by carrying skis as well. Instead, just risk the safety of my bank balance by taking lots of trains… Elle, Barbara, Pippa and I headed over to St. Julien late Saturday evening ready for a super early start Sunday morning. After spending a fitful night on an air bed where they only thing that fell asleep was my leg, we took the ski bus to La Clusaz. It was a beautiful day for skiing-we even lounged on deck chairs!

notice the amount of green in this photo?!

this sums up quite nicely my life at the moment: chillin' in the Alps!

When I am skiing though, anything is possible! We couldn’t expect the day to slip by without a bump or two along the way. I escaped with only a minor cut to my hand. We were walking (with skis on…) back to the village of La Clusaz and we suddenly hit road. To be honest, labeling the track on the piste map as a green slope is slightly deceiving! When the walkers outnumber the skiers I’m pretty sure that’s a sign the skiers may be in the wrong area… So my skis hit bare road/mud and then so did the rest of me. It looks pretty darn ugly but it’s not too bad now after much care and attention from Elle, the poor woman who were trying to enjoy the sun at their piste-side Chalet and the club chairwoman! I also added several new words to my vocabulary! Everything has a silver lining…

All in all, a great weekend. Though, I think I still have a long way to go before the wives of the Invercargill RSA and the Kaitaia Lawn Balls look fondly upon my pav.

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