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La Belle Cuisine - The Basics

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Fine Cuisine with Art Infusion


"To cook is to create. And to create well...
is an act of integrity, and faith."




Stonewall Kitchen, LLC

"Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts,
but to cook well one must love and respect food."
~ Craig Claiborne

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La Belle Cuisine


"Cuisine is only about making foods taste the way

they are supposed to taste."
~ Chef Charlie Trotter


The Basics
(or How to Cook with the Ease of a Professional
Without Becoming One)
by Michele W. Gerhard

Hopefully you are an enthusiastic, serious amateur cook with a "knack"
for cooking, because this article is intended for you. No discrimination intended, it's just that professionals already know what is included here,
and then some.

In a nutshell, you learn how to cook with the ease of a professional by learning the basics. Our purpose here is not to train you in the classical French manner. There are already a number of excellent books on the market which can do exactly that if you take them seriously. Rather, our purpose is to convince you of the need to know the basics of classical training. It will simplify your life, allow you to cook well (with ease rather than with trepidation) and most importantly, allow your creative juices to flow so that you can become a truly excellent cook.

Do you love to cook? Despite this love affair, do you find that you're
afraid you don't really know how? Would you like to "really know how", but suspect you would have to have formal training to do it (and have
neither the time, money nor inclination to do so)? Do you know what is meant by duxelles, mirepoix and sauce bordelaise, but find you have
your doubts about quenelles and concassée (although, of course, you've heard the terms)? Does your husband threaten on an increasingly regular basis to add a room onto the house to hold your burgeoning collection of recipes, cookbooks, food magazines and catalogues? Do you find yourself automatically gravitating toward Williams-Sonoma when you go to the
mall? Would you rather receive a new Cuisinart or Kitchen Aid for your birthday than a piece of jewelry? Then, welcome to the club. You and I
have a lot in common.

Funny how all of a sudden things come together. All of a sudden they jell. The light dawns. Of course, it isn't really all of a sudden. Like the old cliché actors have to contend with when they appear to be an overnight success, but they've been acting for twenty years. In my case it was a lifetime of cooking without REALLY knowing what I was doing, but loving every frustrating minute of it. Years of reading cookbooks like novels. Collecting recipes like other people collect stamps or coins or Hummel figurines (current count is in the thousands on recipe cards.) Cooking, cooking, and more cooking, constantly changing, experimenting, improving, refining, perfecting, but struggling all the while. And then one day the veil lifted.
What every professional chef knows became crystal clear to me: it really boils down to a fundamental group of themes, with an infinite number of variations on those themes. Learning the themes well will eliminate a great deal of unnecessary confusion, frustration and excess in your life.
Simplify, simplify, simplify...

"The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin to those of a successful tightrope walker: an abiding passion for the task, courage to go out on
a limb and an impeccable sense of balance.”

~ Bryan Miller

Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to be able to cook the kind of
meals served in New Orleans' finest restaurants. New Orleans has finally
become my home! This marvelous city has been my second home ever
since I was four years old, so I was brought up with an appreciation of
excellent food, impeccably cooked and served.  I came to have a very healthy respect for the process as well.

The original Owen Brennan's Vieux Carré was my favorite restaurant at
age five
, and I cherish the memory of Owen stopping by the table to chat
and serving me an outrageously garnished Shirley Temple drink, complete with Japanese umbrellas and loaded with maraschino cherries, pineapple
and orange slices.

Ever since I can remember, people have said to me, "Hey, you really are
a great cook, why don't you open your own restaurant?" Naturally, I was
quite flattered, but spending 18 hours a day at least 6 days a week tied
down to the kitchen was not exactly what I had in mind. And of course,
I didn't REALLY know how to cook. Strictly trial and error, with lots of
frustration, blood, sweat and tears, and everything from butterflies in my
stomach to sheer panic.

Of course, as the years went by, my cooking improved, and as I continued to read, to experiment, and to change practically every recipe I ran across, things began to make more sense. In the meantime, my older son, Keegan, became a very fine professional chef who wound up specializing in the pastry field (and who is now chef/owner of D Bar Desserts in Denver
and D Bar San Diego
). Go figure. Keegan, of all people, who as a teenager was quite content to live on Kraft macaroni and cheese, pro-
vided someone else would cook it for him. None of that made-from-
scratch stuff for him! Or how about this scenario?

"Keegan, I'll cook anything you want for your birthday dinner! What
would you like?"
"Great, Mom! How about meat loaf, mashed potatoes and peas?"

Invariably. Year after year. Well, you just never know, do you? Chef Keegan had no formal culinary training, but what he has instead is invaluable. What we used to call OJT. Good ole sink or swim on the
job training. And even that was an accident.

Keegan did not intend to become a chef; rather, his professional culinary career just sort of evolved. But what an evolution! He has cooked with -
and for - some of the finest chefs in the world. With the enthusiastic zeal
so typical of him, his lust for life and insatiable curiosity, he soaked up everything he saw, heard and read as if by osmosis. Keegan's optimistic boldness and adventurous spirit continue to serve him well.

Chef Keegan is just as fearless in the kitchen as he was on the football
field and in the soccer goal. (Need I say that I much prefer to have him
in the kitchen?) What I have learned from him is beyond description. It
is an honor to be able to share some of this knowledge with you.

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking
you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."

Julia Child

My dad used to just shake his head and say, "Michele, why is it that you
have to learn everything the hard way?" I never had a good answer, but I knew he was right. I learned everything about cooking the hard way as
well. Trial and error. I finally learned how to put together an excellent Thanksgiving dinner, for example, with ALL the trimmings. But how I suffered in the process! What was wrong? I had so many cookbooks,
more recipes than I knew what to do with, and I loved to cook...

Just recently it dawned on me that I really don't NEED a bazillion recipes (although I admit I still love to collect them). All I need (all anyone needs) is to learn the basics and learn them well. Then it becomes obvious how simple it really is. Less really is more. Granted, it will help a great deal (in fact, no doubt it is essential) that your starting point be an innate love of food, sense of food, feel for food, an instinct that tells you how certain
foods need to be handled (or in some cases not handled). But assuming
that is there to some degree (or else you would probably not be reading
this) all you really need is a good solid foundation in basic techniques, a
creative imagination and an adventurous spirit.

"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon
or not at all."
~ Harriet Van Horne

What do I mean by "good solid foundation in basic techniques"? If you are
at all like me, by now you're thinking to yourself that you don't want to be
a professional. You just want to be an excellent cook, right? Otherwise
you would have gone to the CIA or one of the other renowned cooking schools around the world.

There is a lot of good educational literature available on the subject of
gastronomy, but I must admit that I used to find most of it somewhat
intimidating. No doubt intended for professionals only, I thought - it's
just going to confuse me. Wrong!

"The secret to good cooking resides in the cook's ability to say 'the hell
with the basic recipe' and improvise freely from it. If you haven't got
this kind of moxie, you might as well hang up your apron."

~ James Alan McPherson

Along with a deep appreciation of fine cuisine and a love of cooking for its own sake, I inherited from my mother an excellent culinary library which included the classic Larousse Gastronomique and both volumes of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It pains me to admit that I didn't even bother to open them for years, because I imagined they were somehow beyond me. The number of pages in the Larousse, for example (the edition I have contains 1193), I found somewhat daunting to the working mother. I was, quite honestly, frightened by it. Although Julia Child's tomes looked fascinating, I found them somewhat intimidating as well. Why would I want to master the art of French cooking? I did not
want to be a French chef!

Perhaps that has been your experience as well. If only I had known...
What I didn't realize at the time is that good classical training is essential,
no matter which art or craft you may choose to pursue. Why would I want
to master the art of French cooking? Simple, because the French wrote the book on cuisine, so to speak. Because that would be my foundation, my
classical training, whether or not it took place in a formal environment.
There is a certain inevitable discipline involved if one is to excel at what
one does. We may be able to sidetrack the formal education, but some-where along the line, it is essential that we master the fundamentals.

“Just as in music and theater, a classical food background
helps you find your own freedom.”
~ Michael Lomonaco

Consider, for example, how many pop, rock and jazz musicians have
had formal classical training, not because they wanted to become
classical musicians, but because they aspired to become excellent
musicians. "Sting" is one of my all-time favorite musical groups.
On the video "Bring on the Night", which beautifully chronicles the
beginning of the group, Sting says to his back-up singers,
"You sing a third, you sing a fifth, and I'll sing the tonic."
Because they have learned at least a basic knowledge of harmonics,
they know he didn't say,
"You bring a fifth of gin and I'll bring the tonic."

Ah, yes. Everything we have heard since childhood about building on a
firm foundation is just as true in cuisine as it is in any other area of life.
Those who have had no formal training have learned the essentials the
hard way - as they went along. It requires commitment, which means
discipline, but once we understand the essentials, everything else falls
into place and we are free to become truly creative.

Honestly now, among friends, did you cringe just a bit at the mention of
the d-word, discipline? I certainly used to. What did I need with discipline
in the kitchen? Just leave me alone and let me cook... It tastes great, does
it not? I know what I'm doing!
I had reluctantly given in to discipline in other areas of my life, strictly
out of necessity, I must admit. I was known in my professional world as
extremely knowledgeable, reliable, punctual, trustworthy, loyal and all of
those other good qualities that my grandmother and the Girl Scouts had
instilled in me early on. Why did I have to be disciplined in the kitchen as
well? I wanted cooking to be fun! I wanted to relax in the kitchen. After
all, cooking was just a hobby. Right?

Wrong again. Through the years I have learned that discipline is not a dirty word. It is not a synonym for drudgery or punishment. What it really is, is love. To me, that is the one essential ingredient, no matter what the topic.

Based on my own personal experience, I am firmly convinced that learning to make friends with discipline is the best thing I ever did for myself, the most loving thing. M. Scott Peck describes discipline as an "unnatural"
act. It does not come naturally. It must be desired, cultivated, nurtured.
It is what must happen when we make a commitment to excellence in our
lives. In order to achieve a certain standard, we must choose new attitudes and behavior.

This reminds me somehow of my younger son, the musician in the family, who surprised us all in junior high by announcing that he wanted to play football. Once he found out he would have to go to football practice ( in Mississippi in AUGUST?!?!?) in order to play football, it was all over. He had more important things to do, thank you, - like practice the piano and play the guitar. Those endeavors were worth his valuable time and effort. whereas football was not. Has he learned discipline now? He has become
an excellent computer software designer/engineer/ guru, so that's a definite yes! Otherwise I doubt seriously that Microsoft would have grabbed him. Just recently, as he was assisting me during a technical crisis, his advice
was, "Just be deliberate and patient." A very wise man, my son.

What if you could significantly simplify your life and reduce your bazillion recipes down to, say, 100? (I know, you probably don't want to, but just
for the sake of argument...) Actually, you would eventually reach the point of rarely needing recipes at all, except perhaps as guidelines, reminders, or for inspiration.

Take cheesecake, for example. There are basically three ways to make cheesecake, depending on the TYPE of cheesecake you want. Once you know that, and master the techniques involved, (which are basically very simple), then you can make an infinite variety of cheesecakes, limited only by your imagination and the availability of excellent ingredients.

Another good example is basic custard. What could be simpler? It consists
of egg yolks, milk, sugar and flavoring. Crème Anglaise is nothing more
than a soft custard. There is a certain technique involved, but once you
have learned that, just look what you'll be able to do! Crème Brulée,
Crème Pâtissière, Crème Caramel. Plus any number of other wonderful
desserts - pumpkin pie is simply pumpkin custard baked in a a pie shell.

Even ice cream is nothing more than a frozen custard. The only questions are: how many egg yolks, how much sugar, only milk, a mixture of milk
and cream, or only cream, and what kind of flavoring. Once again, you
are limited only by your imagination and daring. Anything from a simple
vanilla ice cream to pistachio to green tea and wild honey to lavender or
rose geranium, and everything in between.

But here's the point. The only recipe you really need is the basic one -
a really excellent plain vanilla ice cream made with only the very finest ingredients available to you: good fresh eggs and milk or cream and a
vanilla bean. Okay, I know they're expensive, but so is vanilla extract.
And if you're serious, if it's quality you're looking for, you won't settle
for artificial vanilla flavoring once you've experienced the real thing.

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Let's take another good example: basic short dough. Once you master the basic technique, you will be able to turn out a wonderfully delicious array
of pies, shortcakes, biscuits, scones and shortbread. Why? Because it's basically the same thing. Start with flour and a bit of salt, "cut" in fat
(butter, shortening or a combination) until the mixture resembles coarse
meal (some chefs say cooked rice). Slowly add a small amount of cold
liquid (water, juice, cider, etc.) and just barely mix it. That's basic pastry dough, a pâte brisée. If you prefer a pâte sucrée, a sweet dough, you
simply add a bit of sugar. Naturally there are differences in exactly how
you proceed, depending on whether you're making pie crust, shortcake,
or shortbread, but the BASICS are the same. After that, it's simply a
matter of variety.

Basic Pie Crust Recipes

Can you make Sauce Hollandaise?  It really isn't nearly as difficult as it sounds. And once you've mastered the basic technique, then you'll also
be able to make Sauce Maltaise (orange), Sauce Mousseline (addition of
whipped cream) and the delectable Sauce Béarnaise. Not to mention mayonnaise! Which will lead, sooner or later, to Sauce Aïoli, a garlic mayonnaise.

No doubt you've already made a basic white sauce or two even if you are
a novice cook. That's what the French call Sauce Béchamel, although the classic French Béchamel "always contains that salpicon of vegetables and/or that dash of nutmeg which makes it palatable; otherwise its taste is certainly not very assertive". (
The New Making of a Cook: The Art, Techniques,
and Science of Good Cooking
, Madeleine Kamman, 1997, William Morrow and Co., Inc.) Once you know how to make a béchamel, you'll be able to put together a Sauce Mornay (cheese), Soubise (onion), Velouté (chicken stock), Suprême (chicken stock and cream), etc. etc.

The list goes on and on. How do you make good soup? You start with an excellent stock, add imagination and fine-quality fresh ingredients and go from there. Making stock is not difficult, and to me it is tremendous fun
and totally rewarding. Just take a rainy Saturday afternoon and make it rewarding by loading up your freezer with delicious, aromatic stock.

 What about cream soups? Yum! There are so many different kinds that I have quite a ridiculous number in my personal collection. And still I can't resist one. Fun? Yes, I readily admit that I enjoy it. But necessary? No, because they are basically the same. Cream of anything soup will simply
be a mixture of a roux (which you know how to make since you have
mastered Sauce Béchamel), stock, vegetables and/or meat, milk and/or
cream and the herbs and seasonings of your choice.

If you can make Cream of Mushroom Soup, you can make Cream of Broccoli, Cream of Scallop, Cream of Kohlrabi and Leek, Cream of Artichoke and Chestnut, you name it. But FIRST, you have to know
the basics. You may want to add a splash of wine or Sherry, thyme
or curry, lemon juice, or a pinch of sugar. That's where the fun, the
creative part comes in. The same goes for chowder or bisque.

And if you really want to know what's going on, the following book
is an absolute must-read. As a matter of fact, when my son Chef
was hired by one of his first mentors, Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer,
he was told to read this book before he did anything else....

On Food and Cooking:
The Science and Lore of the Kitchen


The Essentials
Get your mess in place!
A Tribute to Julia Child
A Tribute to Craig Claiborne
Cooking with Soul:
A Memoir with Recipes

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