One of the many cool things about culinary school is the Saturday skills-enhancement workshops. They’re included in the tuition, and a great opportunity to work on whatever you want. You sign up midweek so the school can have the ingredients you’ll need on hand.
On Saturday, I practiced knife cuts, trimming carrots, celery, and celery into julienne matchsticks. French cooking, like French gardening, is to some extent about turning transforming objects from their wild, natural state to geometric uniformity. Round carrots are rendered into perfect cubes; awkwardly shaped potatoes become football-shaped tournes.
I planned to use Saturday’s practice knife cuts to make consomme. Consomme is a clear, richly flavored, completely fat-free broth. It’s very expensive when you see it on a restaurant menu. It isn’t hard to make, but it requires patience, attention, and no small measure of nitpickiness. It’s also gross while it cooks–the culinary equivalent of the ugly-duckling-turned-swan.
You put the mirepoix of onion/carrot/celery, plus a little tomato, a couple of egg whites, a few ounces of “clearmeat” (ground chicken breast in this case) in a saucepot, and stir this mess to combine. Throw in a bay leaf, a few cracked peppercorns, and a parsley sprig for flavor. Add a quart of chicken stock. Put it on the stove and let it simmer. The solids gather and form a “raft” on the surface of the stock, with the proteins in the egg whites and clearmeat and acid in the tomato attracting impurities in the stock. You keep an eye on the raft while it forms, using a spoon to gently create a vent, or “chimney,” in the center. The raft looks disgusting, like the worst frittata you ever saw.
God forbid your raft should sink, or you’ll need to take emergency measures to rescue the consomme. Our textbook devotes pages to saving doomed consomme.
Once the raft has done its dirty job of capturing impurities, it’s time to reveal the beautiful consomme below. You set a chinois (fine-mesh strainer) over a very clean saucepot (you don’t want your consomme to pick up new impurities, after all). Place a coffee filter inside the chinois. Then carefully ladle the consomme into the chinois. It’s not a bad idea to repeat this process–and blot the surface of the soup with a piece of parchment paper–to eliminate any lingering impurities. Put your consomme back on the stove to get piping hot, and add salt to taste.
The result of all this is one serving of incredibly richly flavored, gorgeous broth. This is what I’d want when I’m sick, if it weren’t such a production to make. But beauty has its price.