Friday, 24 June 2011

Un Petit Festin Français

As the countdown clock continues to click toward my departure to France on Monday, my desire to cook continues to increase; and of the different "genres" of food, none makes more sense to me now than that of French cuisine. From it's recent attention in such shows as MasterChef (click here for a description of the show) to the technique and time often associated with its preparation, creating French dishes in Midwest America is but an example of the creolization of culinary perspectives that continues to interest me. All of that said, the countdown became even more evident two days ago when I cooked a French-inspired meal for my colleagues at the high school: ratatouille and toasted baguette, chicken cordon bleu alongside Parisian style vegetables, chocolate chip Hershey cake with dark chocolate ganâche and raspberry coulis. Though the menu may sound complicated, I promise you each dish utilises simple ingredients and is both simply delicious and doable... for about $3.50 a person!

When I'm essentially catering for a small group, knowing full well that reheating is next to impossible and should not be expected, the best route is to time things out perfectly so that the food arrives to its final destination warm and ready for consumption. This said, the ratatouille—the flavours of which meld best when given the longest cooking time possible—was first up on the cutting board. Of the many dishes I have cooked over the last few years, ratatouille has remained one of my most consistent and is dependent on three primary factors: long cooking time, sautéed garlic and onion, and blistered bell peppers. Outside of these components, the great thing about this rustic stew is that it can easily be edited to account for seasonal produce. As the sliced bell peppers were blistering in a non-oiled pan (i.e., left in the pan until the skin is charred and peeling; don't be alarmed by the sizzling and popping noises), the following ingredients were added to the garlic and onion base (about 4 cloves and a small white onion) as they were being cubed: three carrots, a small eggplant, two zucchini, and two yellow squash. At this point, your garlic and onions should have been taking the heat for about half an hour. Add 14.5 oz cans each of diced and petite diced tomatoes, as well as 1 can full of water. Add about a tbsp each salt, pepper, and dried thyme. Give everything a stir and cooked covered for half an hour on med-lo. Raise the heat to med-hi and cook for another half hour, stirring half-way; after that time has elapsed, bring the heat down to low, give it a taste and add more salt/pepper until you're satisfied. On low heat, simmer everything for at least half an hour, cooking uncovered.

Right after having added the tomatoes to your ratatouille, I started on the chocolate cake, cognisant of the fact the oven would be need for the chicken. Making sure to sift the dry ingredients and blending well the wet ingredients (minus the boiling water) before combining, I went with one of the first chocolate batters I ever made from scratch: Hershey's Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake (the recipe's on the back of their cocoa powder container). I've typically leaned toward using the recipe in its darkened form on different occasions but, as I wasn't sure how far up the cocoa scale folks were up for, I limited the dark chocolate intake to the frosting. As I was using a springform pan, note that I added about a cup of chocolate chips on the bottom of the pan, and then poured the batter from the center outward, pushing the chocolate chips to the side to create a pseudo-seal. Of course, you can just go ahead and arrange the chocolate beforehand. Check to make sure the batter doesn't leak (but to be safe, put the pan inside a larger one). Take note that I used a single pan, as opposed to separating the cake into two layers; with that said, the bake time (at 350 °F) is more like an hour uninterrupted than the half hour as listed on the packaging.

With the cake now in the oven, check on the ratatouille and then get to work on putting together the chicken cordon bleu: prep the chicken by splitting five chicken breasts (i.e., cooking for ten here). To help prevent the chicken from drying out, I decided to use my knife and make quick cross marks on the side cut by the knife. I then layered the Swiss cheese, followed by slice ham, with the thought being the cheese would melt and flow into those cross marks. To make the chicken a proper roulade, roll the chicken as tightly as possible (use toothpicks to hold the chicken), and lay on a lightly breaded baking dish. Do this for the remaining nine pieces, and top each off with more cheese and sprinkle breadcrumbs to lightly coat each piece of chicken. With the cake out of the oven by now, get the chicken in the oven for about 30 minutes (with the baking time being relative to the thickness of each piece).

While the chicken bakes, it's time to prepare a raspberry coulis (make sure to strain out any excess pulp if using a juicer) and the dark chocolate ganache to coat the cake. For the ganache, heat up a half pint of whipping cream and melt in a 3.5 oz bar of the most tolerable bar of dark chocolate you can handle; this being said, even the darkest of chocolates will be toned down by the general sweetness of a milk chocolate-based preparation as is the case here. Gently stir constantly until the chocolate has been well melted and the liquid has reduced by at least ¼. An additional counterbalance to the chocolate itself is the addition of a small layer of plated raspberry coulis and fresh strawberries allowed to mingle with a small splash of lemon juice and pinch of sugar.

By the time all of this has panned out, your chicken should be done. Take the chicken out and cut into one of the thicker pieces. If it's fully cooked (don't mistake a light pink which may have come from—or may actually be—the ham), the rest are good to move on. If not, put the chicken back for another 5 minutes. Continue doing this until the chicken is cooked. If you are particularly worried about potentially serving raw chicken, you can cut into all of them (halfway through is more than perfect enough), as you can always re-top the chicken with more cheese to conceal this fact. In any case, once the chicken itself has cooked, switch your oven to broiler mode and slightly brulé the top of the chicken cordon bleu to essentially brown the cheese and give it that awesome grilled look.

Meanwhile, get some frozen vegetables into a large sauté pan. Cover it with a lid to keep in the moisture and turn on the heat; as the vegetables defrost and eventually cook, the steam will aid that cooking process. Here, I used "Parisian style" (read: julienne) vegetables, and cooked these with salt, pepper and thyme to taste.

As the vegetables are cooking, the last thing to put together is the dark chocolate ganâche which is simply dark chocolate stirred until smooth into heated heavy cream. One example (which is not the one I ended up using this time around) may be found here. When the ganâche has finished, everything else should be ready for transport. By the time I got to the high school, everything was still warm and good to go. I should note here that I did layer and frost the cake at the high school, prior to the start of the meal so that the ganâche had some time to set. The only thing left to do was eat! Bon appétit ! And click here for all of the photos (plus additional guided notes) from this meal.

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