Recipe: Fond brun de poulet – brown chicken stock

Ingredients

1 or more chicken carcasses with its giblets, if you have them (keep the liver apart – that’s some good eating right there)

Per chicken carcass you will need:

100g carrots, roughly chopped

100g onion, roughly chopped

200g tomatoes OR 20g concentrated tomato paste

Bouquet garni (herb stalks, bay leaf, leek leaf wrapped together)

1.5 litres water

Method

‘Brown’ because you roast the carcass(es) first. If you don’t roast the carcasses it becomes white chicken stock. That simple.

So, break up the carcass(es) and colour them in an oven at 180C, while preparing your GA – Garniture Aromatique. This means just chop up the vegetables, then add them for the last five minutes of your 25 minute roasting of the bones.

Put the whole lot, plus the giblets, into a suitable saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and allow to simmer very gently for one and a half to two hours. I quite often drain off the cooking liquid after an hour and re-cover with more water, then mix together the two lots at the end and boil it to reduce by half. It seems to give a more concentrated taste than just using one lot of water.

And then that’s it, you now have a couple of litres of chicken stock. Usually I freeze it in half-litre portions and put some into ice cube trays. These I later decant into plastic bags so I can just add a little stock to a soup or sauce as necessary without defrosting a whole half litre. It really does add Scrummy and Yummy to your recipes and is well worth the effort.

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Chapter 17: Week 15: ‘Murican style

Delphine drives me to school this morning. I’m still not up to cycling, so she drops me off on her way to work and I’ll get the bus home this evening.

I apologise to Chef for missing last week and he checks to make sure I’ve been given the recipes they worked on while I was away. I’ve already copied them from Mr Whippy – Pascal, the guy who shares my workstation and who can whip anything into a better froth than I can. Including, obviously, the genoise they made last week. Chef moves on. I can’t tell if he’s mad at me for not coming last week or disinterested – he doesn’t seem impressed at my tales of the doctor wanting to cart me off to hospital. Clearly, unless you’ve lost entire limbs, preferably more than one at once, you should come to work. Not being able to work out which way is ‘up’ is no excuse at all.

So today we’re doing ‘Poulet à l’americaine’ and, like so many things given foreign names by the French, it bears little resemblance to anything Americans might do to a chicken. Well, that’s not true – essentially American-style chicken in this case means quartered and grilled with a tomato sauce, but Americans aren’t the only ones to treat poultry thusly. Mind you, Americans get away lightly – just about the only foods the French have named after the English are ‘légumes a l’anglais’, vegetables boiled in salted water, and crème anglaise which is really nothing like custard at all (no powdered eggs, for example). Everything else à l’anglaise is really quite rude – try checking out ‘J’ai les anglais qui arrivent’ or ‘Filer à l’anglais’ if you have a strong stomach. NSFW.

American chicken starts, as do all good French recipes, with some good stock; chicken, in this case, or ‘fond brun de poulet’, chicken stock made with roasted bones. At the restaurant we make our own but, since we don’t have enough time at school today, we use the powdered stuff. Add in a little tomato concentrate, carrots and onion and we’re good to go.

Well, good to start going. You take this sauce, reduce it down and then ‘diablé’ it, devil it by adding chopped shallots, white wine, white wine vinegar and ‘poivre mignonette’ which, literally translated, means ‘cute little pepper’ but in practise means cracked black pepper. ‘Diablé’ because anything vaguely hot in French gets a wicked name – the French simply cannot cope with hot, spicy food and need to give it a name that says ‘Warning! Warning! Danger of Death!’

Wimps.

So then we actually get down to grilling the chicken, first scrubbing the hot grills (cast iron plates that sit over a couple of gas burners) and then, well, grilling the chicken on them after seasoning and oiling the meat. This makes pleasingly large flames to frighten the girls, which is always fun.

We grill a few tomatoes and mushrooms too, and finish the whole lot off in the oven. Which sounds like a simple idea but is something that had simply never occurred to me to do before I started cooking professionally. Grilling things on hot pans gives them a nicely coloured exterior (Maillard reactions! Look it up!) but then goes on to burn the meat if you leave them on the hot gas. You can turn down the gas and keep turning the meat repeatedly, but it’s simpler to whack the whole thing into the oven and let it finish off there at a lower temperature, cooking the inside through without burning the outside. Good tip there, food lovers, which only seems obvious once you know about it.

Midday today and I eat a quick lunch to give me time to copy up notes from last week’s classes – the people involved in the justice system (judges, lawyers, bailiffs and so on), plus ‘La fiche de stock’, stock sheets which is how you’re supposed to keep track of what’s in the pantry by checking stuff in and out. I’ve never worked in a big enough kitchen to warrant using such a thing – they’re all small enough to stand in the pantry or cold room and say, ‘Hmm, I see that we need more flour and aubergines.’ Much less complicated than the enormous sheets Chef has handed out where you need a minor degree in accounting just to work out how much olive oil you have and whether you should order some more. Yet another thing that, if you need to have it, would be easier to do on a computer but all the French restaurants I’ve seen bar one have used exactly no computers at all. And that one used wireless handsets to take orders which were then printed out and passed around the kitchen.

Then on into a Hygiene class where we learn more about bacteria, including the fact that it takes just two hours for them to multiply in whatever food you leave lying around to reach critical mass, the point where they gain sentience, rise up from your work surface and suffocate you in a glooping mass of grey goo. Well, I exaggerate slightly for effect but that’s the general idea. It seems obvious to me that some things will go off more quickly than that, while other things can be left out for a lot longer than two hours, but again for the purposes of passing this exam the limit is two hours. We also learn about ‘sporification’, whereby the spores of bacteria can survive even boiling and that the only way to kill them so they can’t hatch into new, killer baby bacteria and fill your life with grey goo is to sterilise them at temperatures over 140 degrees Centigrade.

And then you can re-contaminate stuff by, say, letting beetles crawl over it when you leave it uncovered sitting on a windowsill. Good grief. All fine stuff but it doesn’t take an hour for a grown adult to understand it.

2818566224_3c58e2625f_bThis picture shows what I do for the next 50 minutes after I’ve grasped the meaning of this week’s lesson (which, don’t forget, is being given in French so I have to translate it first before I can understand it. The text at the top is my notes on bacteria. ‘Aglandau’ and ‘abeulau’ refer to two different types of olives from which olive oil is made – David and I were having a discussion about the merits of each instead of paying attention to teacher. ‘Beur-ger King’ is the name of a new, Arabic chain of burger bars recently launched in Paris, ‘Beur’ being an Arab word. The sums are me working out my wages and tax owed thereupon. The drawing bit is me doodling.).

I love the practical cooking parts of this course, and the classes on cooking techniques. And while I understand the necessity of teaching hygiene, nutrition and legal stuff to future restaurant chefs I do think it could be done more by way of handing out a small pamphlet at the end of the year, rather than making a group of grown-ups with better things to do than sit in a hot room and have a nap.

We do Quiche Lorraine this afternoon. The quiche is fine, any fule can fill a pastry case with flan, vegetables and bits of bacon. Bacon, of course, is counted as a vegetable in France so Quiche Lorraine is a vegetarian dish over here. I jest not; I’ve since worked for a couple of weeks in a restaurant where the ‘vegetable of the day’ was regularly ‘flan aux lardons’, flan with bacon bits in it. When I explain that, of all the ingredients – milk, eggs, bacon – none come from the food group known to the rest of the world as ‘vegetables’, I’m told ‘There’s salt in it!’. Well, salt isn’t a vegetable either. But flans are, apparently, so Shut Up.

Back home on the bus. Bus routes are the same all over the world – this is my first trip on a bus in Avignon and its route planners have followed the rules used by bus route planners everywhere: check departure point, check arrival point, draw straight line between two, then visit every other place you can think of within three kilometres of that line so the journey takes an hour instead of 10 minutes. And above all when you’re within 500 metres of the arrival point make sure you take an extra detour so as to frustrate passengers to the maximum.

And then back to bed. Standing up all day from 8 am to 6 pm has done me in.

Chapter 5 Recipe: Veal Stock

Ingredients

5 kgs veal bones – many butchers give them away. This is easy to say, but the idea of asking for something like this may frighten you. Don’t be frightened. Most good butchers – all good butchers – like customers who like interesting bits of dead animal. They literally throw away tens of kilos of bones every day, and they’ll be interested that you want to do something interesting with them. So don’t be afraid to ask. You want the good, thick, meaty ones from legs, about 5 cms long – do get the butcher to cut them on her bandsaw for you, it’s impossible to do this on your own at home and there’s no way you’ll fit a 70 cm leg bone into the average kitchen’s biggest saucepan.
500 grammes carrots, scrubbed or peeled – your choice. Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain say you’re lazy if you don’t peel your carrots. Me? Meh. Scrub them clean, which was the original purpose of peeling, and you’ll waste less. Tough skins? Nope. And – especially in potatoes – lots of the good stuff is just under the skin.
1 kg onions – Two or three big ones – peeled and quartered
500g of celery – a couple of sticks –  roughly chopped
Any other bits of root vegetables you have lying around like turnips or parsnips but no potatoes. Potatoes thicken your stock but not in a good way, they’ll also make it cloudy. The total should be around a third to half of the weight of the bones.
Some herb stalks. When you use parsley or thyme or whatever, use the leaves as normal and then put the stems in a plastic bag in the freezer, pulling them out by the handful when you want to make a stock.
Couple of bay leaves
A few peppercorns, whole

Method

Wash the veal bones – some boil them, but this is an exaggeration. You’re going to be boiling them for many hours so a quick rinse to get the worst of the muck and blood off is just fine. If you want brown veal stock, roast them in the oven at 180C for half an hour or so with half the above quantities of vegetables cut into a mirepoix – pieces about the size of the tip of your little finger. If you want white stock, don’t roast them. Bourdain adds tomato paste to his roasting bones, at school we didn’t. It adds a bit of umami (look it up, it’s the good stuff).
Put the bones in your biggest pan and cover with cold water. Add in the roughly chopped vegetables and herbs. Bring it almost but not quite to the boil and allow it to simmer very gently. By gently I mean, with a half dozen bubbles popping the surface every minute or two. This is a slow cooking process, if you boil your stock it will emulsify the blood and proteins in the water and give you grey goo.
Every 30 − 60 minutes skim off the layer of fat and scum floating on the surface. Do this with a BIG spoon or a ladle – press it gently onto the surface of the stock until the lip just goes under the surface, allowing the scum to float into the ladle. Repeat across the surface until it’s clean again.
Top up with water as necessary to keep the bones covered. Stir a bit once or twice to change the order the bones are stacked in. Leave it as long as you can – 4 hours is a very strict minimum, 8 is much better, 10 is best.
When you can’t stand it any longer, remove the bones and then strain the liquid through a sieve, a colander or, best, a muslin cloth. Do this at least twice, more if you like doing this. 5 times won’t hurt. 10 times if you have a stagiaire in your kitchen.
Store it in small batches in the freezer. You may have 3 − 5 litres of liquid. You can also reduce some of it down by half or three quarters and store it in ice cube containers and then plastic bags in the freezer to give an instant lift to your packet soups (only joking, if you’re caught eating packet soups I will be round to cut off your fingers). It’s a great lift for sauces, gravies and soups.

Chapter 7, Week 3: First presentation, top marks

In my diary today I wrote, and I quote: “Journée excellente à l’école aujourd’hui; Filets de Rouget, sauce bonne femme avec légumes glacés à blanc”.

I didn’t realise I’d written it in French until I read it later. I’ve started speaking and thinking in French almost all the time, even when I write my diary. Apart from half an hour on the ‘phone to my mother every Sunday I almost never speak English at all these days.

We were due to cook more Merlan at school this week but they didn’t have any, unfortunately, so we got rougets – the cheap kind, not the ‘de rochers’ type Chef buys at the restaurant, which have pointy, not rounded noses. The pointy-nosed ones live in among the rocks where they feast on whatever lives inside the cracks in the stone, hence the usefully pointy noses. They taste better as a result, so check your rouget’s nose before buying.

On average I clean (de-fin, scale and gut) about a hundred rougets a week in the restaurant, so cleaning and filleting 10 today wasn’t much of a hardship, really. We were supposed to do three or four each, but school Chef knows I know how to do fish so he gave me all the extra left-over ones to do. Which I enjoy doing anyway, so that’s fine and I’m pleased he has confidence in me to make me do them.

To go with the rougets we learn sauce Bonne Femme. It’s made with a “réduction glacé”, a reduced glaze of the fumet de poisson, the fish stock we made with the rouget bones and a handful of onions, shallots, leeks, vegetable trimmings and whatever you can scrape from under your fingernails. A glacé means reducing the cooking fluid (after cooking the fillets for seven minutes in the oven in the fumet) down to a syrupy consistency, then monté it au beurre – stir in lots and lots of butter (a hundred grammes in about 50 ccs of fumet).

We also had to cook three vegetables to go with the fish: carrots, turnips and more courgettes all “turned” – cut into pleasing shapes. The same shape for all three, of course. With minimal waste, too. You not allowed to start with a 100 gramme carrot to make a single, beautifully-turned 15 gramme presentation piece and they all have to be 2.5 centimetres long, oval-shaped and with no blemishes.

Today is also the first time we’ve had to present our work on a plate to Chef, and I’m extremely pleased to have got great marks for everything except for my courgettes, which apparently didn’t have enough salt in them. Chef is a demon for salt, however, and ‘enough’ for him is ‘blerk!’ for normal people, so I’m not too worried about that; still, know your client and cook accordingly. His problem is that he’s a smoker, and smokers really can’t detect ‘correct’ quantities of salt – they need about half as much again as everyone else.

He marked us plus or minus on seven criteria – overall presentation, cleanliness of the plate (ha! I was the only person who thought to wash their provided plate before serving, and then to heat it up in the oven), warmth of the dish, taste of the fish, sauce and vegetables. I got a plus in everything except the courgettes, which he marked  plus-minus, and the overall presentation which got a double plus plus as the most original of the day. Cool. I served it with the two fillets back-to-back in the middle of the plate, vertically, with the veg (two each of three veg – carrots, turnips and courgettes) arranged along the sides like rays of sunshine, the sauce at either end but not between the veg, then a long line of chopped parsley dribbled vertically up the plate and right over the edges. Looked nice I thought, anyway, and so did Chef. We’re supposed to go for height, too, but I’m really not into building towers and propping fish fillets up with lumps of turnip. I’m happy with my masculinity as it is, thankyou, but still, know your client. Especially when they want you to dribble chopped herbs across your plate – very old-fashioned these days, says my Restaurant Chef. He wants single, appropriate leaves poised delicately on dishes, not large amounts sprinkled willy-nilly on plates.

It’s here that cooking resembles my previous career, journalism; in principle in both jobs you’re writing or cooking for a large audience of consumers. In practise, you’re cooking for one person, your editor or chef. S/he is the person who decides what the consumer wants, and it’s your job as the writer or cook to match the vision of your boss. Only when you get to be an editor or chef do you get to decide what the punter wants.

Chapter 5: Week 1: First day at School

After weeks of preparation, months of planning and a couple of years of thinking about it, my first day at cookery school finally came and, just like in the restaurant, went in a fast-moving blur of put your stuff here, cut that, boil the other and find yourself a saucepan.

The biggest disappointment of the first day was that we weren’t allowed to eat what we cook – it goes to the school staff canteen or college brasserie the next day. And not much technique was taught either – “slice those apples,” Chef said, as we made a tarte fine aux pommes this afternoon; I knew how to slice them nice and fine, but the chap sharing my workstation was basically just quartering them to fan out on top of his apple tart. “It’s quicker that way,” he said. Erm… peel, core and halve your apple, turn it flat side down, convert to slices using your biggest (or smallest, depending on what you have to prove…) knife.

So Day One, Lesson One is exactly what you’d hope from a French catering college – we started the morning making fond de veau, veal stock, a real mainstay of traditional French cuisine. Take five or ten kilos of washed veal bones (some even boil them, but that’s exaggerating in a kitchen where you have far too many commis), cut into 4-5 centimetre lengths (butchers with bandsaws are handy here), add some roughly chopped carrots, onions and any other bits of vegetables you have lying around, some parsley stalks and a bouquet garni of herbs (thyme, rosemary, a bayleaf all wrapped up in a bit of green leek leaf and tied around with string), cover with water and set to simmer very gently on the back of the flat-top of the stove for 5 − 8 hours. Don’t let it boil fiercely, you’ll emulsify all the scum and fat together and end up with grey stock. Skim off the grey scum and fat that collects on the surface from time to time. When you’re fed up waiting for it to finish, or you just have to go home, let it cool down (it helps at this point if you have a blast chiller), filter it and use it at will. You can reduce it down which helps with finding room to store it all. It makes a great base for soups and sauces – its gelatinous qualities will add a superb unctuousness to everything and really improve what we’re now supposed to call ‘mouth feel’, I understand.

We had our first classroom lessons today, too; an hour on cookery theory with School Chef, and an hour of, today, ‘hygiene’, which is apparently more than just ‘wash your hands.’ Microbes, in fact, are really, really tiny organisms which can breed very, very quickly. I know we have to make allowances for the fact that this content is normally aimed at bored 16-year-olds, but still…Next week we have ‘Droit’, Law. Let’s hope it’s more interesting.

We make tartes fines de pommes this afternoon, complete with that non-lesson on how to slice apples in a manner which could be called ‘fine’. My pastry, as usual, is just ‘meh’; I’ve never been good with pastry, my hands are too hot, but I can do the compote de pommes and the apple slicing and peeling with panache (which, it turns out, is French for ‘shandy’). The compote and nicely sliced and arranged apples cover up the horror that is my pastry, and we’re done.

We clean down the kitchen together, hosing the floor with the special hosepipe like in the restaurant – it adds cleaning solution automatically, then we scrub and squeegee clean after washing down all the work surfaces. Another group of us wash up the pots and pans – I try not to do this one since it’s what I do all day at work normally.

Chef catches up with me as I leave the administration building. A lean, worn-down sort of guy (lots of good chefs have this pared-down appearance) with a shock of once-gingerish hair, he seems nice enough but he tells me off for turning up in my cycling clothes – trainers, jogging bottoms, anorak – and said I should be arriving in a suit and tie after cycling 5 kms from the centre of town. “But it’s only 50 metres from the gates at the entry of the school to the changing room and we stay in our kitchen clothes all day,” I say. “Of course I’m gonna put on a suit and tie for that distance!” I joke.

“Well, I do,” he says – and it turns out, he does! He tells me that he lives not far from me in the middle of town and cycles down on his boneshaker, loaded with kit and books, in a suit and tie. And there he is standing in front of me in a jacket and tie, heading for his bike.

“It’s the school rules – when on campus you should at all times be either in ‘tenue de cuisine’, cook’s whites, or ‘Smart apparel’. My cycling gear, he informs me with a superior air, is not ‘Smart’.

“Yes, Chef,” I lie because you never say ‘No, Chef’. I’m not really going to do that. The only suit I own now is of the monkey variety, i.e. A dinner jacket and I’m not planning to wear that on my bicycle even for a bet. No one says anything else to me for the whole year, but Chef cycles past me in a stately fashion every week in his tweed jacket and tie, me in my scruffy track suit and trainers.

Perhaps I lack the dedication needed to be a really good cook, let alone chef; if I were better at this I wouldn’t hesitate to slip into a little something from Saville Row and cycle five kilometres in it, before donning my immaculate whites. Then again, most of the chefs I see on the telly are scruffy, bearded monsters wearing watches, of all things, in the kitchen (watches catch on saucepan handles and bring your precious ingredients crashing to the floor).

Both my chefs in Avignon are old-school; neither of them has hardly ever had the time to watch the cooking Channel, let alone be aware of celebrity chefs. And it’s an attitude I’m not against.

I just don’t want to cycle to school in a suit.