What could be more appealing at this time of the year?
A froth of yellow forsythia, a shower of pink apple blossoms - as the promise of another growing season looms, we start to think once again of using market-fresh produce. What better way to prepare these seasonal treasures than in the carefully considered manner of the French? Silky sauces, perfectly balanced flavors, breads that are crisp and soft at the same time, regional cooking that stays in the region - the French have a way with food that makes any visitor a Francophile for life.
I asked Executive Chef Ron Boucher of Chez Boucher in Hampton to tempt us with a taste of Paris in the springtime. His passion for French cooking started with a high school trip abroad. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of Art and opened his own restaurant, Ron's Landing in Hampton, by the time he was in his mid-30s. He has been teaching French technique at his Chez Boucher French Cooking School since 2003. The teaching center recently relocated to Depot Square in Hampton, offering additional space.
The format for the adventure was a Cooking with Friends class - a one-night immersion into a French-inspired menu, complete with instruction on French technique and, most importantly, enjoyed with friends.
I joined a local Hampton group, the Wayne and Irene Frost family and friends, as they donned aprons and rolled up their sleeves to get hands-on for the night's menu preparation. A quick rundown of the four-course menu by Chef Boucher - clams with lemon basil beurre blanc, halibut with a Maltaise Sabayonne sauce, salad with a Parmesan tuile and a champagne vinaigrette - left everyone a bit stunned. All that in one evening? Chef Ron says that most groups have the same response.
Professionals do it every day. Here, professionals help the uninitiated weather the whirlwind evening that starts at 6 p.m. and ends with a sit-down dinner starting around 9 p.m.
Before the students arrive, the mise en place is prepared - all ingredients are measured and set together with the tools necessary to complete the recipe. Several trays on the large work surface had all the components for preparing a specific dishes or sauces. Chef Boucher says that 90 percent of cooking failures at home are due to mismeasurement, so that bump in the road is avoided.
The group divided to conquer the menu items one by one, step by step. There was simultaneous instruction as Chef Boucher and his assistant Chef Miles rallied each group into motion using the proper techniques. The assigned potato peelers were not merely flicking off skins, they were taught to cut the potatoes to have seven sides, or to tourne. The technique produced attractive faceted potatoes, but to get exactly the seven sides the first time is quite difficult. Chef Boucher claimed to have only one student with immediate success - he happened to be a woodcarver by trade. The tournage lesson produced a mound of peelings, but Chef Miles turned the castoffs to gold by drizzling on olive oil and dried rosemary leaves and roasting the lot in a hot oven. It made for a pleasant snack while a few sauces simmered.
Meanwhile, the garde manger station learned to "pencil" the asparagus tips, blend a classic vinaigrette and cook a Parmesan tuile. The toasty tuile added a dash of sophistication to a simple salad. Here, grated Parmesan is dropped into a biscuit cutter in a non-stick pan. In three minutes the bottom melts and browns, and the cheese is transferred to a wooden rolling pin or metal form to cool and harden. In a pinch the class lined up the tuiles on the end of a mixing bowl.
The salad was finished with the chilled cooked asparagus, shaved carrots for color and raspberries for a touch of sweetness. With the saltiness from the cheese and the tang from the vinaigrette it was yin-yang dance for the taste buds.
The amuse bouche was a bit complicated. The clams were steamed in a nice broth of white wine, sweated onions and carrots, and left to sit while a parsley jus and lemon basil beurre blanc were whipped up. The parsley jus was simply a handful of minced parsley blended with some of the stock from the cooked clams and a dash of white vinegar. The beurre blanc was a reduction of the other half of the stock with cream and finally a full pound of butter cut in slowly piece by piece. I winced at the amount, but Chef Boucher explained that butter is a classic French staple that adds a silky texture on the tongue. Finally, a chiffonade of basil leaves was added. The clams were reheated in the oven and garnished artistically with a swoosh of the two sauces. As Boucher explained, the amuse bouche is intended to be a treat for the tongue and a hint of the promise of what is to come next. Indeed. Silky, salty and fresh.
The main course entrée was a simple preparation. Chef Boucher crushed a handful of multi-colored peppercorns by pushing down and shoving across them with the bottom of a sauté pan. "I get a better consistency this way,' he claimed, also noting that white peppercorns are black peppercorns with the outer layer removed after the berry ripened. Lastly, he pressed the mixture on one side of a fresh filet of halibut and did a quick pan sear. The filet was finished in the oven. "The worst crime is to overcook fish," said Chef Boucher. "The oven is more gentle, but it still only needs a few minutes."
Dessert featured a gingersnap cookie that flattened in the oven as it baked and then was rolled before it totally cooled. The cookie was filled with a decadent marscapone mousse and drizzled with a Port wine sauce. Chef Miles showed the "pastry division" how to pipe the filling into the cooled cookie with a pastry bag. Also, by folding the bag over his hand while filling it, he was able to deftly twist it closed without a mess.
The demonstrations were making one thing clear. There is more to cooking than following a recipe. The tips and tricks and insider information can make all the difference - even for the old dogs.
Chez Boucher offers a variety of ways to take the culinary arts seriously or to add a few new twists or menu items to your repertoire.
The school continues to offer its popular Culinary Arts Professional Training Certificate Program, an accelerated, six-month program endorsed by the American Culinary Federation and licensed by the N.H. Department of Education. Additionally, students enrolled in the general studies program at Great Bay Community College can now attend Chez Boucher and earn credits in culinary arts toward their degree.
For the enthusiast, Chez Boucher offers introductory classes that meet one evening per week for six weeks. Topics cover basic principles of French cooking, cooking essentials and food fundamentals. Other six-week classes cover Provençal and International cuisine. In addition, one-day workshops cover a gamut of topics, from barbecue and grilling to vegetarian cuisine to an excursion to the Portsmouth farmers market.
Specialty classes, like the one briefly outlined above, offer opportunity for family and friends to gather for a night of instruction, cooking, dining and fun.
New at this location is a bistro night on alternate Thursday and Friday evenings. Here, students in the professional-level classes prepare a four-course meal that is served to the dining public. Reservations are required, $45.
Finally, the group sat down to enjoy their hand-wrought meal. A few lessons had been learned that evening, a few minor disasters in the kitchen averted, but most of all, under the clink of wine classes a fine meal was enjoyed in the company of friends. How French is that? NH
Boucher - butcher
Chiffonade - to cut into ribbons
Beurre blanc - Meaning "white butter," this classic French sauce is composed of a wine, vinegar and shallot reduction into which chunks of cold butter are whisked until the sauce is thick and smooth.
Amuse bouche - literally translates to "mouth amuser"
Jus - its own juice; au jus - with juice
Garde manger - meaning "keeper of the food" or pantry supervisor; refers to the task of preparing and presenting cold foods
Maltiase - a sauce with blood orange for flavor
Sabayonne - egg-based sauce similar to the Italian zabaglione
Mise en place - everything in its place
Tournage - the art of "turning" vegetables with a knife until they have seven faceted sides
Maltaise Sabayonne Cream
This is a savory version of the usually sweet sauce for desserts. Serve with a white fish, such as halibut or haddock,
or serve over asparagus.
1 blood orange, juiced, plus zest
1 cup champagne
1 cup fish stock
1/2 cup orange juice
1 shallot, minced
8 egg yolks
Place the blood orange juice, champagne, fish stock, orange juice and minced shallot in a small saucier and reduce on medium-high heat until a half cup of liquid remains. Cool.
Place the egg yolks in a medium stainless steel mixing bowl. Blend in the reduction liquid, place the bowl over a pot of simmering water and whisk vigorously until smooth, light and creamy.
Adjust seasonings with salt and white pepper if needed and finish the sauce with a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.
Find the complete list of recipes in the Recipes section under the Food & Drink tab.
Looking for Fresh Fish?
Elisha Ewing transports fresh fish from Boston on Thursdays to the indoor Amherst Farmers market at Salzburg Square. For custom orders contact her at (978) 270-3788 or email@example.com.
This article appears in the April 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine