It’s hard to believe that my Culinary Arts program is already one-sixth of the way over! After two nights of testing – a written exam and a 3 hour practical that went surprisingly well for all members of my class – it seemed appropriate to reflect on some highlights and lowlights of our first module (one of six!) After our second test last night, Chef Anna popped a couple bottles of Nicolas Feuillatte champagne and we all had a toast to a great first mod. Still, despite our apparent success thus far, we couldn’t help but wonder what we could be doing better, where we needed to improve.
Chef pondered this for a moment, sipping her venti iced tea while we swilled our champagne in paper cups. “Look, your knife skills can use some work,” she said gently, still thinking. “Seasoning too, but that will come with time.” We all watched her eagerly, hanging on her every word for a shred of corrective criticism, and finally she set down her drink and threw up her hands, clearly exasperated.
“Oh, come on!” she exclaimed. “What have you done so far? Butchered some meat? Made a couple of soups, some sauces? I wouldn’t exactly call the mother sauces a revelation!” Then she grinned. “Once we start Mod 2, we’ll get into the real stuff – sautéing meat, fish, really cooking. Then we’ll see where things stand.”
She was completely right, of course. After two solid months of culinary school, I feel that I can chop faster, cook a bit more confidently, and have learned some really cool tricks of the trade (Three Pillars of soup making, anyone?). But I really can’t say that I feel like a much better cook, that I’ve seen myself improve by leaps and bounds. We’re all in that room for a reason – we have a knack for cooking, and obviously a burning passion – and in all fairness, putting together a sauce that calls for four ingredients isn’t all that difficult even for a beginner, and certainly not challenging for a seasoned home cook.
So at the end of the day, what does this mean? To me, it means the stakes have been raised. Sharpen your knives and get ready for the real deal – what we came here for, to really learn how to cook fine cuisine, improve our technique and hone our skills, and hopefully gather any knowledge that will help us when we’re thrown into the shark tank that is a professional kitchen.
That being said, there were a couple of gems in Mod 1. Sunday night after our written exam, we capped off the mod with some of the most classic soups out there – the ones you’re likely to see in fine dining. The trio of soups we prepared included a rich lobster bisque, a fresh and spicy gazpacho, and of course, a savory and decadent favorite – Onion Soup Gratiné.
Were these soups rocket science? No – although I did rip a living, squirming lobster to pieces with my bare hands without actually screaming, so I was pretty proud of myself. What we have here is are honest-to-goodness great recipes; favorites prepared with very little complications or fanfare, but a professional twist that will make you feel like you’re serving something much more refined than, for example, onions, broth, bread and cheese.
Melting cheese. Hot broth. Silky smooth, salty and sweet.
I think you see where I’m going with this…
French Onion Soup is a classic favorite, served everywhere from TGIFridays to some of the finest haute restaurants in the country; it’s served traditionally, it’s prepared deconstructed; these are instictive flavors that chefs and diners alike just can’t get enough of. Personally, I’ve always liked but never loved French Onion Soup, but this Onion Soup Gratiné completely blew me away. Not only that, but was it ever so simple to make! This dish is foolproof so far as I can tell, as long as you practice diligent patience, which we’ve learned by now is as important in the kitchen as being able to think on your feet and react quickly.
And in the end, your patience will be unduly rewarded.
Onion Soup Gratiné (makes 4 bowls / crocks)
Recipe adapted from AllRecipes.com
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 large sweet onions, thinly sliced
- 48 fluid ounces of chicken broth
- 14 fluid ounces of beef broth
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 sprigs fresh parsley
- 1 sprig fresh thyme leaves
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 4 thick slices French or Italian bread
- 8 ounces of shredded Gruyere cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded Asiago or mozzarella cheese
- 4 pinches paprika
- 4 broiler-safe bowls, crocks, or ramekins
Melt butter in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and sweet onions. Cook 35 minutes, stirring frequently, until onions are caramelized and almost syrupy.
Mix chicken broth, beef broth, red wine and Worcestershire sauce into pot. Bundle the parsley, thyme, and bay leaf with twine and place in pot. Simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove and discard the herbs. Reduce the heat to low, mix in vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Cover and keep over low heat to stay hot while you prepare the bread.
Preheat oven broiler. Arrange bread slices on a baking sheet and broil 3 minutes, turning once, until well toasted on both sides. Remove from heat; do not turn off broiler.
Arrange 4 large oven safe bowls or crocks on a rimmed baking sheet. Fill each bowl 2/3 full with hot soup. Top each bowl with 1 slice toasted bread, a quarter of the shredded Gruyere cheese and Asiago or mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle a little bit of paprika over the top of each one.
Broil 5 minutes, or until bubbly and golden brown. As it softens, the cheese will cascade over the sides of the crock and form a beautifully melted crusty seal. Serve immediately!