Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson Five: Preserved Foods


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

"Preserved" food doesn't sound so great; at Wookieehut, we do have a tradition of making jams and jellies, and sometimes pickles, too. But in the olden days, preserving food meant "keeping it edible," even if not tasty. (By the way, the opposite of "fresh" is "stale," so preserving foods actually preserves their freshness, or edibility. That's the premise, anyway.) For instance, freezing meat was accomplished by chopping blocks out of frozen rivers in winter, or hauling the same from mountaintops. However, the texture of the thawed meat was mushy, the juices all flowed out, and the meat was unfit to roast.

That said, it's important to understand that in general, preserved food is a completely different ingredient from the fresh product, and thus needs to be treated, used, and cooked differently. Anyone who's eaten a fresh peach vs. a canned peach can attest to this -- in some cases, they barely resemble each other. Another example would be plums vs. prunes. Or cucumbers vs. dill pickles. Etc.

The basic methods include: dehydration; dry salting/curing; we smoking/ brining; smoking; preserving with sugar, alcohol, or vinegar/ fermentation; heating/ sterilization/ pasteurization; freezing; freeze drying; sealing/ coating; vacuum pack/ cryovac. The whole idea is to deprive bacteria of at least one of the things they need to grow and multiply: food, warmth, moisture, oxygen, pH, and time. Or to kill them.

We combine fresh and preserved foods in several classic recipes: Potage St. Germain (anything with dried peas tends to be called "St. Germain"; also contains slab bacon, clarified butter), Salade Niçoise (vinegar, oil, tuna, anchovy, olives), Brandade de Morue (salt cod).

The pea soup is made not-German-style, meaning no potatoes. A mirepoix and lardons are sweated (meaning no color), the peas added (having been picked over and washed previously), then water added to the pot (not stock). It's advisable not to salt or spice the soup till the end, since metals (of which sodium is one) tend to react with the skins of beans and legumes, toughening them. This has two effects -- lengthening cooking time and making them less digestible. So hold the salt till serving. When the soup is done -- about 45 minutes or when the peas are cooked -- run it through a blender to smooth it. If it's still chunky, filter it through a chinacap. Don't use a chinoise, since that would remove too much of the solids and make the soup very thin.

Some tips on using the blender -- fill it no more than half full, and if the soup seems too thick to blend, add some cold water to thin it out enough. Put a teatowel over the bowl, then put the lid on -- this allows enough air to enter the blender bowl so the soup can expand to blend properly, and also absorbed splattering. This also prevents the famous "hot soup explosion" phenomenon (the hot soup expands quickly when blended, burning the cook!). Makes for a noisy blending party, though!

When the soup is as smooth as you want it, you can add cream, garnish with cream, or go without. After adding cream, it shouldn't boil again, so keep it over a double boiler or in a bain marie for service. It can also be garnished with little macedoine sized croutons, browned in clarified butter. The butteriness really adds to this soup. Oh, and season with salt and pepper before serving, of course. A chervil sprig is the recommended garnish rather than parsley, for it's delicate taste, texture, and pretty leaf. We skipped the cream, it was nice enough as is and the crouton garnish enriched it enough. However, if the soup is left to stand, it does thicken, so milk or cream can be added after reheating it to thin a bit.

Note that dried peas need a flavor boost, and can, in this application, be treated like tiny potatoes. In contrast, fresh peas tend to be blanched and refreshed, if cooked at all, and are used as a vegetable on it's own. Another note to remember -- cut the skin off the fatback before cutting into lardons, or you'll be going over all the pieces and cutting it off the tiny bits before cooking! It's a bit like forgetting to peel a carrot before chopping it.

The salad is a salade composée, meaning it's composed or arranged on the plate. It differs for a salade crudités in that the latter has raw vegetables only. Niçoise means "Nice-style" (the town in southern France), and noiçoise olives -- a vinegary cured olive. Olives can also be salt/brine cured. Like the bouquetière garni from a previous lesson, arrangement is everything. But it shouldn't look too overdone, but still "composed."

The salad required some cooked and some raw components. Potatoes and eggs had to be simmered, string beans blanched, tomatoes skinned and cut emmonder. The lettuce heads need to be soaked in a tub of cold water to clean, then split. Basically, it's one head per four servings. A soft lettuce like red-leaf or Boston (also called "buttercrunch") is recommended, rather than a harder leaf like Romaine. The lettuce should be de-leafed by hand, the bad bits thrown away, and shredded by hand to bite sized pieces. It's considered impolite to cut salad at the table, so that prepwork needs to be done by the kitchen. Since wet lettuce won't hold the dressing (the oil-laden mixture will glide right off), it has to be toweled. A lot of the other students actually blotted each leaf with a paper towel! I laid out a dry sidetowel/teatowel, put the wet leaves over it in a thin layer, then rolled it up like a jelly roll (not like sushi!) and left it to the side to blot dry on it's own till we needed it for service. At that time, a single serving of lettuce is placed in a bowl and drizzled over with vinaigrette, then tossed with a (gloved) hand, then plated.

There is a guaranteed method for cooking hard boiled eggs so that they are tender, are easy to peel, and don't develop that icky green rind at the surface of the yolk. Put the eggs in warm tapwater, or leave them out to come to room temperature. This is to 'temper' the eggs so that they can cook more evenly. Otherwise, the surface of the egg will cook before the center does. Cover the eggs with cold water, then bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, start the timer -- 10 minutes for medium to large eggs, 11 minutes for extra large or jumbo eggs. Then drain the eggs, wrap with a teatowel, crack the shells, then shock in an icebath. The shocking is necessary to prevent that green rind from forming (signifying an overcooked egg) and the cracking will make peeling easier later on. When ready for plaing, cut them into quarters or sixths. (I find sixths to be too thin -- the yolks tend to crumble out when too the slices are too fine.)

The potatoes for this are waxy, which are good for salad applications. They aren't good fried or mashed, since they can get gluey. They are simmered to hold their skins -- if cooked too hard, the skins will pop and the potato pulp will leak out into the cooking water. While still hot, remove from the water with tongs and slice about ½ inch thick, then toss in some vinaigrette so it can soak up the flavor of the dressing.

The peppers are peeled (use a veggie scraper), the top and bottom cut, ribs and core removed, then the rest julienned. The green beans are cut to the same length as the peppers. Tomatoes are peeled and sliced émonder and olives stoned and anchovies deboned.

To stone olives, you can crush it like a garlic clove with your knife, and the pit should pop out. If not, it may need to be cut away from it's pit. For the anchovies, a bowl is inverted and the fillet laid across the curve, bones up. With a paring knife or flat-blade tweezers, pull off the spine carefully; the rest of the bones should follow. The anchovies can be rolled up for presentation, or laid out flat over the salad.

The tuna needs to be drained, then fluffed up (putting something the shape of the can onto a plate is a no-no!). It is usually plated over the lettuce, and surrounded by the other elements. The size of the salad can vary, depending on whether it's an appetizer or a main dish; it's not normally served as a platter for people to serve themselves from.

The brandade is a sort of toasted, shredded treatment for cod. It can be combined with potatoes to form 'cakes' or be served au gratin in a cream-based sauce like a bechamel. To prepare the cod, the dried cod needs to be soaked in cold water at least 24 hours, with many changes of water to rehydrate the fish and extract much of the salt. When that's done, the fish is no longer preserved and has to be held in the refrigerator till needed. Cut into finger-sized strips and simmer in water till the meat flakes when pressed. Remove with tongs or drain, then rub them between your fingers to flake and to remove any bones or excess skin.

Heat up a pan, then add olive oil, then dump in the flaked up cod and let them 'crust' on the surface of the skillet (sauteuse or russe), then with a wooden spoon, scrape it off. You'll end up breaking, shredding and mushing up the cod. You can be as rustic or as fine as you please, but you keep letting it stick and scraping. Add mashed potatoes, garlic hacher, and milk or cream (or a mixture) warmed up a little. This can be made into croquettes, serves as is, in a gratin, soup, etc. It's also wonderful deep fried in little balls and served as appetizers or with cocktails. The saltiness is a nice flavor, and will encourage further drinking!

Remember Hollandaise? Mayonnaise is similar, but it's cold and made with oil instead of clarified butter. Also, mustard is added to help emulsification, since the egg is not cooked into a sabayon. The good thing is that you don't have to worry about scrambling the eggs. The bad thing might be the salmonella scare factor. (It's getting rarer that chickens are infected with salmonella, but make sure your eggs are clean, properly chilled and fresh. And ask the seller!) Adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar will kill off the germs, so be sure you use it according to instructions! And keep it well chilled after making it.

Vinaigrette is similar to mayonnaise, but it lacks and emulsifier, or binder. An emulsifier can dissolve in both fats/oils and in water/vinegar. The compound in food is normally lecithin, which is present in not only egg yolks, but in mustard, some seaweeds, milk, cream, butter, etc. Lacking these components, a vinaigrette tends to separate on standing, so needs to be whisked just before you need it.

Despite it's "saladyness," it's a filling meal. We had this for "family meal" instead of the sweeet and sour chicken and stir-fried vegetables that was normally scheduled. And thank goodness for that!

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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