PARIS -- It was the perfect Paris moment.
Chef Olivier Berte pulled the loaf pan containing a terrine of salmon out of the oven. Needing a place to let it cool, he threw open the window and set it on the 18th century railing high above the narrow, cobblestone street.
Could anything be more Parisian?
Paris is the food capital of the world -- it is not for nothing that the French invented the word "cuisine" -- and on a recent trip there I felt almost compelled to take a class in French cooking.
Obviously, a single class lasting just a few hours is not nearly enough to teach everything there is to know about preparing French food. Such a goal would take a lifetime or more. But even this thinnest slice of it, this tiny glimpse into the world of the culinary arts of France was enlightening, enchanting, and, in the hands of Mr. Berte, surprisingly informative.
It also was an absolute blast.
At his school Les coulisses du Chef (it more or less means "behind the scenes of a chef") Mr. Berte teaches the art of cooking to everyone from children to professionals. His well-stocked kitchen, the one with convenient and picturesque railing outside the window, lies in the heart of Paris about a half-mile from the Louvre Museum.
Our class on a Wednesday morning had just three students: me, my wife, and Jacques Fillion, a former sales manager who was given his first cooking class as a retirement gift and enjoyed the experience so much that he has returned another 15 times. The small size of our class, which can have as many as six students, meant that we received truly hands-on instruction. An entire three-course meal would be prepared by the three of us, with plenty of guidance from the chef.
There was only one problem. Mr. Bertre's knowledge of English is rudimentary at best, making it far more extensive than my knowledge of French. Fortunately, Mr. Fillion speaks English quite well and was happy to translate whenever needed. But mostly we managed quite successfully by pointing and with grammatically inexact sentences of three or four key words.
Food, as it turns out, is the universal language.
Our class -- and thus the meal we got to eat at the conclusion of our class -- consisted of the terrine of salmon as an appetizer, a leg of lamb baked in a lavender-scented salt crust served with a patty of quinoa with carrots and leeks as a main course, and a dessert of a frozen Grand Marnier souffle.
The whole thing took just two hours to come together, though it should be remembered that there were three of us working on it. Mr. Berte designed the menu like an interlocking puzzle to make the most efficient use of time and ingredients, which is one of any chef's most important skills. We prepared the souffle first, allowing it to set in the freezer while we made the other dishes. The souffle required three egg yolks (we only made half of the given recipe), so we reserved the three egg whites to use them to make the salt crust for the lamb.
No one part of the meal was particularly difficult to make, but the entire thing was a bit of a workout. And in the process of making it, we learned one important lesson: Food tastes better in France. That is true, at least in part, because their ingredients are better. Their leeks are much larger than ours, or at least the usable portions are larger, and their fish and meat are fresher than we often get here. Although this particular meal required no mushrooms, other dishes we ate with them revealed that there is no comparison.
The quinoa patties were fairly simple: We just boiled the quinoa (it's a grain from South America that can be found on the shelves of many grocery stores), sauteed some julienned leeks and carrots, added them to the quinoa along with chopped parsley, formed the entire thing into patties, and browned them in olive oil. To make our patties look perfectly symmetrical we formed them inside buttered metal rings, but you could also make them freehand, with no loss of flavor or even visual appeal.
The lamb they were to accompany was harder, if only because Mr. Berte believes (as chefs do) in removing the leg-bone himself. This he did, and presented the now-boneless leg of lamb to me. "This is Roger," he said, by way of introduction. He always likes his meat to have a name, he said.
We placed a few sprigs of rosemary in the middle, where the bone had been, rolled it up, and brushed the meat -- Roger -- with a grainy mustard. We added chopped leaves of rosemary, thyme, and lavender into a big bowl of coarse salt, added egg whites, and I got to mix the whole thing together with my hands; it was one of the most fun things I've ever done in a kitchen. Then we (all right, I) spread the damp, sticky, and fragrant salt all over the lamb, making sure the meat -- Roger -- was completely covered. Then, into the oven it went for an hour.
The terrine appetizer was marvelously light, a beautiful introduction to the somewhat heavy meal of lamb. We began by filleting three lovely porgy, and here is what I have to say about that: I am not good at filleting fish. Fortunately, these fillets were not destined to maintain their shape, so we could mangle the heck out of them. The next time I make the dish, I will use fish that have already been filleted; any firm, white fish will do. We pureed the fillets in a blender with heavy cream and two eggs, and did the same thing with chunks of salmon.
Then came the layering. In a buttered loaf pan assiduously lined with parchment paper, we first spread the pureed white fish. On top of that, we added a layer of smoked salmon, blanched thin slices of zucchini, and slices of roasted red pepper. Next, we added the pureed salmon and cooked it for 50 minutes before cooling it, as already noted, on a Parisian railing just outside the window.
As part of the terrine's presentation we also made a mint-scented foam, a bit of molecular gastronomy trickery that looked cool enough but added almost no flavor and was definitely not worth the effort. The next time I make the terrine, I will leave it out.
The Grand Marnier souffle was nearly as light as the mint foam, but so much better. This is a frozen souffle rather than a more traditional baked one -- really, it's more like the lightest imaginable ice cream -- so it uses more egg yolk than egg white. We mixed together the yolks and one whole egg in a blender, and added Grand Marnier mixed with a hot sugar-water syrup cooked nearly until the sugar began to caramelize. Mr. Fillion whipped a pint of heavy cream with a whisk by hand until his arm got tired, and then I whipped it until my arm got tired. That was when the whipped cream had perfect soft peaks. We asked Mr. Berte if we could have made it all in a mixer, and he smiled and said, "of course."
We folded the whipped cream into the egg mixture, spooned it carefully into ramekins lined with parchment paper edges, and popped it into the freezer.
All that was left was the eating, which we did, happily. As the French would say … well, I don't know what the French would say. But it sure was good.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.