Thursday, June 24, 2010

Paris Day 5: Cooking with Class!

Our last day in Paris was the day I had been waiting for. Our time in the city was culminating in a chef lead market tour and cooking class offered by Cooking with Class.  We met our chef/ host Pino Ficara early in the morning in the residential neighborhood of Monmartre. I loved the neighborhood. I would compare it to the Upper Westside in NYC. It was a great mix of small businesses, restaurants, markets, and residential buildings. It had a homey feel. We made introductions with a couple from Darwin, Australia and a couple from Monterrey, California. Pino lead us through the streets in search of the perfect ingredients for our meal.

Our first stop was an amazing cheese shop. These small shops dotted the streets of Paris, but this one had a selection that made me want to cry. The smells of stinky cheese wafted out into the street. We were walked through the various types of cheese, their production, and type as well as interesting information about storage and use. Pino shared with us historical information about cheese in France and facts about government regulations and differences between the US and France.

Next we toured a butcher shop. There we were able to see the variety and differences in what French shoppers can choose from on a daily basis. There were many more birds than we readily find in the US at a general market, squab, duck, 4 or more types of chicken, hens, etc. There were amazing cuts of beef and pork and and entire counter filled with different cuts of duck. In the back of the store they offered house made terrines of foie gras, and other delicious pre-made treats.

Then it was onto the fish market. We were educated about how to choose a really fresh fish. Based on these qualities I am not sure we get really fresh fish in Atlanta. The shop keepers were friendly and descaled and filleted our choices on the spot.

Next was produce market. From the amazing strawberries, to the huge pears to the unlimited fresh herb section, I was in heaven! The fruit and vegetable selection was much more seasonal than what we find in the US, showing that the French like to eat everything when it is at its peak of flavor. We selected the perfect herbs to compliment the fish and duck as well as some fresh berries for our creme brulee.

Our final stop was the bread shop. Of course we purchased the customary baguette, but also some thicker more rustic bread, and nut bread to pair with out cheeses. This shop had been in existence for years and was originally the site of a communal oven for this neighborhood. They still have the oven in the basement under the store. We all stopped to smell and to taste some bread. Then we were off to prepare our meal.

The cooking school is located in an unassuming store font off of a main intersection. It was well equipped with all the tools for our class, but still small enough that we had an intimate experience with each other and with the food. Pino quickly put the group to work chopping onions, and beginning to saute shrimp for our fish sauce. He was instructive in knife techniques, food preparation tricks, and some excellent recipe ideas. Our first dish was a fillet of fish brushed with olive oil and cooked on a bed of herbs. To top it, we had a reduced sauce of creme, shrimp, shallots, and white wine. This was served on top of a fennel and orange salad with the shrimp in the side. I could not have thought of a more beautiful dish. The fish took on the herb flavor and overall it was light in flavor but filling. I would love to have this for lunch every day!

Our second dish was a seared and broiled duck breast served with quail breast drumsticks on the side. To sauce the duck, we created a reduction of caramelized onions. It was so rich and flavorful. In the preparation, I learned to de-bone and prepare the quail as well as how to use sugar and butter to caramelize onions, two skills I had always been afraid to try. With each dish, Pino instructed us on not only how to prepare, but hot to plate each item. The result was picture worthy!

Our cheese course, purchased at the market  was the largest I have ever seen, and fairly unrealistic for a party or even a restaurant, but it was a great way to try so many cheese I had not experienced. I of course loved the goat cheeses, my typical favorite, but was surprised by some of the blues, and well as one cheese we are calling spider cheese because spiders actually eat the rind as it is caved! 

Lastly we came to the creme brulee. While I had learned how to make this dish in other classes, I gathered some useful tips on the preparation as well as the cooking and storage. My favorite tip was to ditch my small Williams Sonoma kitchen torch in favor or an industrial model from Home Depot! I went right out to buy one when I got home. Pino instructed us in the proper way to spin the ramekin to distribute the sugar topping and the best ways to get the perfect carmelization on top. The result was pretty and delicious!

This was by far my favorite day in Paris. The market tour gave us insight into French food and culture. Pino was an excellent guide and able to talk with us about customs, culture, and differences in food between France, the US and other countries. I feel like I made friends, toured the city, learned some new skills and ate a delicious meal all as a part of this class. I would highly recommend taking a cooking class in Paris. This path seems to be less stuffy and formal than some other schools, and the experience is well beyond courses I have taken in the past. Thanks to our chef and guide for a wonderful day! I will be back to Paris in the future and signing up for another course with Cooking with Class will be first on my list of things to do!

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