25 February 2006

Happiness, pride and relief on Lamb Day

As you can imagine, Chefette had a moment to savour this week. Her First Ever Cheque for catering services. Truly, although it is a mere fraction of previous pay slips awarded for the sweat of her brow during the investment banking days, she is infinitely happier. People, give in to your career change desires!

Anyway, my kitchen karma was dire at the start of the week. On Tuesday, I served undercooked chicken (a spatchcock poussin, in this case), had an insufficiently reduced sauce (too acidic and runny!!), and then missed my dessert service time by around 25 minutes. Not the most auspicious omen before the dinner party.

But it all turned around, and by Thursday I was in the zone. We had "creative lamb" that day, and had to serve a boned, stuffed shoulder of lamb per 2, along with an individual leg of lamb dish of our choice, with two garnishes. I did a Nigella Lawson recipe for marinated, butterflied leg of lamb, along with saute potatoes and a skewer of grilled marinated vegetables. It was a variation of dishes I'd done before, and so felt in control of the whole process and pretty pleased with the result. Things went so smoothly, I had time to make the gravy for the shoulder, and felt proud when my partner said he liked it. Felt even more proud when he proceeded to drink around 300 mls of it directly from a jug at room temperature. Hit all my service times that day, and even managed to help out a fellow student who was "in the weeds", by giving her one of my vegetable skewers to present when her dish didn't happen.

So I guess all of that good luck with lamb put me in a really relaxed mood before the dinner party (where I was cooking rack of lamb). I had done quite a bit of mise-en-place in the preceding days (racks of lamb french trimmed and dry marinated, stock and sauce bordelaise made, chocolate pots filled in the client's special ramekins, etc.). Not to mention trying out several presentations of dishes on the Husband. So I had a really good idea of how the evening needed to go when I dropped off the food and in a cab at the client's house before school.

And in the end it all went off pretty well. The exacting hostess commented favourably on the presentation of the starter. The lamb came out unevenly, but with enough pieces at medium-to-medium rare to serve out to all the guests with the correct degree of pinkness. The best part was just feeling calm, in control and able to work cleanly at my own natural pace.

The only minor crisis was when the top oven - a proficient but extraordinarily overengineered and tempermental beast that was faintly incompresensible to me - developed a fault and stopped working. Rather than faffing about, I calmly got the hostess, and with the aid of the manual, we managed between the two of us to figure out how to get it going again in about 5 minutes.

When I went to pick up my cheque the next morning, the hostess said she'd definitely use me again before June. And then when she paid, she rounded up the cheque a bit.

Gotta dash now, off to get the Saturday chores done. Will hopefully be making a Chocolate Roulade cake on Sunday morning.

20 February 2006

The DP approaches

'DP' being the big dinner party on 23rd February. Otherwise known as Chefette's First Ever Paying Gig. (Cue drumroll.)

Turns out I'll be cooking for 10 people. Not quite so nerve-wracking as the originally planned 12, but still more than a little daunting.

Menu I'll be doing is:


Bruschetta with slow roast tomatoes & prosciutto


Rack of lamb with a herb & mustard crust
Sauce Bordelaise
Garlic roast potatoes
Fine green beans


Chocolate pots laced with brandy


Please, please send your messages of support for Chefette as the big day approaches. She'll welcome all the positive vibes she can get on this one!

Meanwhile, in class, presentation continues to be a struggle for quite a few of us. The Scotsman now wants us to be visualising our presentation of each dish before we even come into class. His new requirement is that we all have to make a little drawing every day on our timeplans showing how we are going to present each dish. Seeing as I'm rubbish at drawing (and not particularly gifted in terms of 3-D visualisation) I'm not wild about this new edict, but I'm willing to try anything if it will help me improve.

Best experience of the week last week was a demonstration by Peter Gordon, the head chef of The Providores in Marylebone High Street, and big-time advocate of 'fusion' food (using flavours and ingredients with a global perspective). Personality-wise, he was incredibly down to earth and generous with his advice to us students, even if he was somewhat shameless about plugging his new cookbook. He gave us some great recipes, including quite a good venison tataki and a very tasty saute of snails with sherry jus.

But his funniest advice was that, if he really hated something, he always tried to put it on the menu. I'm still not sure I can figure out the logic of this, unless it is just to push yourself into conquering a food phobia. Good advice or no, friends can rest easy that I have absolutely no plans to put andouillette on any of my menus in the near future! (Apologies to the husband, who loves andouillette....)

10 February 2006

Conquering the February blahs

Mes chers amis. Apologies for lack of a post last week. This was partly due to an influx of chores after being in Paris the other weekend, and partly due to the usual wave of unenthusiasm that afflicts me pretty much every February, after enduring the many long weeks of darkness that constitute a London winter. (Londoners, you'll know what I'm talking about.)

On the school front, Chefette also hasn't been terribly enthusiastic about some of the recipes we've been doing lately, which are starting to feel a bit same-y in terms of ingredients. Lots of flour, eggs, cream, butter and cheese. Pretty much all the students in my class are agreed that it's hard to get excited about cheese souffle (which no more than a white sauce with cheese lightened by egg whites) when you've just been doing lots of white sauce with cheese. Although don't get me wrong, we are united in the knowledge that learning souffles is Good For Us. We know we need to know it.

The other class bugbear of the moment -- a skill we have to know for this term, which has the dual sins of being (a) hard to master and (b) completely out of culinary fashion -- is Turning Vegetables. To whit, cutting veg into even sized little barrel shapes with anywhere from 5 to 8 even facets, so that the veg will lie flat on a plate. Took me over half an hour (!) to do just a handful in class last Wednesday.

The Scotsman, bless his heart, sensed my frustration with the little beasties, and when I served he told me I "didn't do too badly with them". However, the ugly reality was that Wednesday simply wasn't my day in the kitchen. I didn't manage to get my Espagnole sauce consistency / flavour right-- having been in such a rush that I served it without having tasted it, a pretty silly and basic mistake for an Intermediate student! Then I proceeded to make the dough for my Chelsea buns without adding egg, and in frustration threw my dough into the rubbish bin. The Scotsman gave me a bit of a stern look when he found out, telling me that I could still have saved it, by incorporating the egg in the Magimix. As it was, I had to come in early the next day and remake my dough. Oh well, live and learn. Won't make that mistake again...

Anyway, the good thing to come out of all these little class frustrations, is an increased self-awareness. I have realised I'm just not the type of student who will always do brilliantly under the time pressure of class-- although I'll still have my good days, there will be a good few bad ones as well. So to compensate I have resolved to practice more at home. And good things are coming from it already. In the past 3 days I've made a 750g bread loaf at home, put together a roast aubergine dip, boned out chicken thighs and cooked them individually wrapped in Serrano ham with fresh sage, and cooked teppan-yaki style beef with shitake mushrooms and spring onions (on the cast iron griddle plate I got for 10 pounds in the sale at Selfridges!)

Best news of all, I've found a full-service catering butcher, Ashby, only two streets away from where I live, and who will do any any small orders I'd like for pick up between 5am and 3pm Monday-Friday. None of the retail butchers I tried before would do bones for stock, even as a special order. Today I rang Ashby asking for veal bones to roast off for stock, and a smoked ham hock. He told me on the phone they could do me a kilo of bones for around £1, but couldn't do a smoked ham hock. Yet when I went to pick up the order, about 2 hours later, the proprietorer said in fact they did have smoked gammons, and he so got one of the butchers to stop what he was doing and cut off a hock for me specially, exactly where I wanted on the joint. Now that's full service. Can't wait to try their best end neck of lamb next week, and get some practice with French trim before my dinner party on the 23rd.

Happy eating to all.

PS: My kitchen is full of the gorgeous smell of roasting veal bones. Wish they had a Smell Option on the Internet that I could waft over the airwaves.