October 31, 2013

Lessons, Tips and Facts from Our Chef

It's great to be with a chef as he cooks something you're about to try cooking too. You can watch and listen and ask questions - here are some of the surprises I picked up from Chef Ian in my first 7 weeks of cooking school...you might already know these...but I was surprised by some of them.

Never stir stock.

Add bones to the pot, add cold water just to cover.

Bring it just to the boil, then to a slow simmer, skimming off the scum as it rises to the surface. (sounds like life doesn't it?)

Then add the vegetables and herbs.

For dark stock – use veal and beef bones...and knuckle bones give off a lot of gelatin…you’re looking for a gelatinous stock.

Remove the vegetables and bones when done and continue boiling down until you have a condensed stock – much easier to store in the freezer and then add water when you need to reconstitute. So don't add salt until you're making something with it.

The difference between broth and stock? Broth is made of stock and other things you add…stock is just stock…it’s the foundation of sauces, soups, and ahem, broth.

Cooking times are longer than you think – about 4-6 hours for chicken stock, 12-24 for dark stock – a slow cooker is good for making stock overnight.

Always cool down the stock by putting the pot in the sink and running cold water under it – needs to cool down fast. Then get it in the fridge or freezer.

To create a sachet for some stocks you can split a leek lengthwise, lay the bay leaf and thyme sprigs in the middle and then put the leek together again and tie with string. 

Tie sachets to the handle on the pot to make them simple to remove later.

Chef only cooks with black pepper. First night he passed around black and white pepper for us to smell - white pepper reminded me of horses or farms or something. Then he said he only uses black pepper because white pepper smells like a barnyard to him. But smell both and see which you prefer.

Use a steel on your knife every time you use it – sharpen it, professionally, once a year. (Unless it's Japanese, then you should check whether you need a special diamond or ceramic steel.)

Hold a chef’s knife with the thumb and forefinger at the front edge of handle…curl the other fingers under the handle.

Your other hand holds the food - like a lemon. Imagine you're holding a lemon with your palm down..see the shape of your fingers? That's how they should rest on top of the food you're cutting. The flat part of your middle finger the most prominent, nails tucked back, your thumb and pinky slightly behind.

Slice away with your food and your knife at opposing 45 degree angles - so you form a triangle - you, your knife arm, and the food held by your other hand…

How to slice vegetables – it's a rocking motion, the knife sliding forward through the food…blade shouldn't have to leave the board.

The food doesn’t move, the knife and your hand do.

Buy a rubber shelf liner at the dollar store to put under your cutting board to prevent it from slipping. Or in a pinch, lay wet paper towel under the board.

Use flat leaf parsley for cooking, use curly parsley for garnish. Curly leaf parsley releases too much chlorophyll turning food green.

Add salt, pepper and any citrus at the end.

Making sauce - either your roux is hot and your liquid is cold...or your liquid is hot and your roux is cold.

Roux: equal parts fat (butter/oil etc) to flour mixed together.

I'll pull together another list as we move along...If you have any to add, please do...let's build up our tipsheet together.

October 28, 2013

A Trout in the House with White Wine Sauce

You know when you are ladling something out of a pot – and it’s dripping and dripping and you can’t get it over to the bowl you need it in…and you stand there as a stream of stuff hangs like a string, then turns into drips then turns into slower drops and you just wait for that break in the dripping to get quickly over to the bowl…and then you rush and slurp stuff all over the place? And then throw the ladle back in the pot and it splurts up the sides…okay…maybe it’s just me…

But I learned last night that if you dip your ladle in the sauce, soup, stock whatever, hold it up, then dip the base again in the surface of the sauce, soup, stock, it will stop the stream, drip, or drop and you can cleanly get whatever over to the bowl you need it in.


That is one of the many lessons I’m picking up at cooking school. I’ll write a whole list out for you – stuff I didn’t know – that you probably do – but as home cooks we don’t necessarily run across in our books or online.

The class is very cool. We work in professional kitchens, on stainless steel islands for four people and I have a friendly, collegial group of Lisa, Sheryl and Anna…we get along great and everything is about cooperation – not a whiff of competition.

We’re now six weeks in and more and more comfortable wearing our chefs whites and hats, brandishing our chef knives, and even turning on the stoves. The ranges are big mothers – six burner Garlands. And they growl as you approach them, daring you to try.

We are in the fishbowl – so named for being right at street level, with floor to ceiling glass and we’re encouraged to wave at the people who stop to watch. One reason I grabbed the space at my island – one of the furthest from the edge of the bowl.

At the front is Chef Ian’s demo counter and stove, with cameras and monitors so you don’t miss any manoeuvre. We start the evening standing around watching him demonstrate what we’ll be cooking…taking furious notes…then we scatter like an offensive line coming out of a huddle.

They supply trays of ingredients portioned and to be shared with your teammates.

You know those towels that chefs wear tucked over their apron strings? They’re for using as pot holders – not for wiping your hands…I’ll master that one day…I still can’t bring myself to tear paper towel for every wet hand you have while cooking.

Last week we made fish. And it exercised our knife skills, our sauce skills, and our timing skills. And then as always our cleaning skills.

Ontario trout is quite lovely. These were farmed trout fillets.

We poached the fish and then made a beautiful sauce with the poaching liquid. Thought I’d share.

Poached Filets in White Wine Sauce

4 portions

1 Filet Ontario lake trout
2 oz butter
1 oz shallot, diced
2 oz white wine (recipe calls for reisling, but use a dry white if you have it)
8 oz fish stock (we cut ours in half because Chef thought it was too strong)
If you’ve cut the fish stock, make it up with water
Parchment paper cut into a circle (see video for a great tip on how to shape it easily – this is what the chef taught us too)

1 pint fish velouté - or have on hand some more fish stock and wine to bulk up liquid once you've cooked your fish
Whipping cream to taste (although recipe called for 3 ½ oz)
1 oz butter
12 green seedless grapes, sliced in half
4 sprigs flat-leafed parsley chopped
1 stem of fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste (there’s a blog to be done on white pepper)
½ lemon, juice and zest

You can make the fish velouté separately if you like, but why not use the liquid you poached the fish in? Then you dirty only one pot. Makes sense…Oui?


The fish. If the skin is on, you’ll have to remove it. Get out your best, sharpest filet or boning knife (mine, a Victorinox, was $30 at a kitchen store and the chefs all recommended it – no, neither they, nor I get anything for that).

Lay the fish skin side down on the edge of your cutting board (make sure your cutting board has either a sheet of wet paper towel under it, or a rubber mat, to prevent slipping – I bought a roll of that rubber stuff at a dollar store and cut it into pieces).

If you’re right handed, have the tail to the left, and if you’re a southpaw, like me, you put the tail to the right.

Starting about half an inch from the tail end, slice down and toward the tail (counter intuitive, I know). Then turn the blade toward the business end of the fish – toward the main body of the fish. Laying the knife firmly and flat against the skin, and with your other hand pulling the tail and skin taut, start carefully slicing between the skin and flesh (you’re actually slicing the membrane between the two).

It’s a slight sawing motion. If your knife is sharp enough, you’ll slide through fairly easily. The trick is to hold that tail taut. As you progress through the filet, fold up the flesh to check you’re not leaving any of the red meat on the skin. Adjust your knife lower if you are.

It should come off in one piece, and you can hold it up to your neck and pretend you have a fish tie. No, seriously…do it. It’s part of the ritual.

If you’ve come through the skin or it tears…and you can’t catch the edge again with your knife, you’re probably going to have to do what I had to do the first time I tried this – flip it over and laboriously pull the skin up with your filet or boning knife until you’ve got it all off. That way takes a good five to ten minutes…the proper way takes a minute. Worth trying.

Once you’re done, you can choose whether to poach the filet whole in your sauté pan, or cut it into portions. I found cutting it into portions much easier to handle…and they fit in the pan better. 


Get out your sauté pan. Do NOT put it on the heat yet.

Take a chunk of your butter and smear it along the bottom and sides of your pan (I used a pan with the vertical sides – not a true sauté pan).

Evenly spread the diced shallot all over the bottom.

Carefully place your filet portions on the shallots. Fold the tail section (the thinnest probably) in half to mimic the thickness of the other portions. Salt and pepper them.

Pour in your wine (dribble it over the fish).

Pour in your fish stock. And if you’re adding water, pour in the water.

The liquid should come halfway up the fish.

Cover the fish with your perfectly-made circle of parchment paper. Remember to cut it a little larger than the pan so it comes up the sides a little. Push the parchment down to touch all the filets.

Now, carefully bring it to a boil on the stove, and then turn it down to a simmer. It should take about 10 minutes. If the fish centres are not cooperating after about 10 minutes, just carefully flip them over and put the parchment back over them for a minute or two. The filets should look done and a little flaky.

While you’re waiting for the filets to be done, you can get a jump on the sauce. Make a beurre manié in a small bowl. Sounds fancy, but it’s just equal parts of butter and flour mixed together. (You can err on the side of more fat to flour) Mix it well. Set aside.

Remove the filets when they’re done and keep them warm.

Now for the sauce.

The rule for making sauces is that the liquid and the beurre manié have to be opposite temperatures.

So as our beurre manié is at room temperature or a little cooler and our pan liquid is hot…we’re good to go. Add more fish stock/wine/water if you need more liquid in the pan, bring it up to a boil, reduce it by about ¼, then turn down to a gentle simmer. Put some of the beurre manié in the pan and whisk. Don’t put all of it in…otherwise you might have too thick a sauce. As it heats and melds with the fish stock and wine and shallots, it will start to thicken. Add more if it's not thick enough.

The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. When you run your finger along the back of the spoon it should leave a gentle trail. Feel free to add more stock or wine if needed.

Add the cream, and add this to your taste, no matter what the recipe says.

Now add the sliced grapes and the chopped thyme and parsley. Simmer gently for 10 minutes or so.
Season with salt and pepper. Add some lemon juice and zest, if you’re like me I can’t resist the zest – but fair warning, be careful with the lemon, it can get too ‘citrus-y’ quickly.

Plate your fish – and drizzle the wine sauce over it, making sure each person gets a few grape slices.
I was amazed how good the grapes were in this. I didn’t think they’d add much. But I liked it.

In fact, I like this so much I made it again the next night with the spare trout filet they gave us. It’s a quick dinner believe it or not. Great if you’ve got guests coming over on a weeknight, or weekend…

So far, our friends are pretty happy with this whole cooking school thing – mostly because I bring stuff home and need help eating it.

By the way if you replace the grapes with button mushrooms you’ve made a different sauce – something called sauce bonne femme. Just add the mushrooms earlier in the recipe so that they cook.  Use it on sole filets or whatever you like…

Just try it…See where it takes you.

The lovely thing about sauce is that it is pretty generous. It will work with you – too thick? Add liquid. Too thin? Add more beurre manié.

Generosity – that’s what cooking is all about.