We learn some professional kitchen secrets during a class at the French restaurant Bord Eau.
Back to cookery school
It's 10am on a Friday and a small group of rather bleary-eyed food enthusiasts is sipping strong coffee in an uncharacteristically empty Bord Eau, the fine French restaurant at the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri. Hailing from France and Spain, the attendees are regulars at the restaurant and are at the first of a series of cooking classes, to learn Chef Jean Hurstel's secrets. We file into the gleaming but compact kitchens, where we are given a recipe guide to the enormous meal we are about to cook and eat: celeriac velouté with foie gras, corn-fed chicken with mousseline (that's mashed potato to you and me), and coffee liégois (home-made coffee ice cream with crushed up biscuits, Chantilly cream and espresso). Of course, the home-cook method of one dish at a time has no place in a kitchen: we begin with the recipe that takes the longest, the chicken stock. Chopping up carrots, celery, onion and leek (all the same size, for even cooking), adding a bay leaf and peppercorns and putting them all into a deep pan with a whole chicken and cold water. This will continue to cook until just before the main course is served, when it is drained, reduced and turned, with a little roux, seasoning and cream, into sauce poulette.
Next up, more chopping. This time it is the potatoes, which are to be boiled, and the celeriac - the mention of which leads to a lively discussion concerning the French and Spanish translations for the vegetable's name (boule de céleri in French, apio nabo in Spanish). It is a tough, gnarled, spherical root that requires peeling and chopping, removal of any dark patches and instant submersion in milk to prevent the oxygen turning the vegetable black. (The final soup should be creamy white.) A little seasoning, and that, too, is on the boil, in milk. At this point, Hurstel shares one of those mystical kitchen tips for which the amateur cook lives. To prevent the pieces of celeriac floating at the top of the milk from turning black, he takes a square of greaseproof paper, folds it into quarters, then into a sort of tightly furled fan, whips his (devastatingly sharp) knife across the top and - hey presto! - creates a perfect circle of paper to place over the milk. Once in a while during the session, he lifts the paper to reveal a frothing mass, which he ladles off. "Skimming is absolutely essential for this and the chicken stock," he says. "You must take this oil and stuff off; that is the secret of a good stock." Green beans are next on the list. This might seem early in the process to be cooking the vegetable, and will strike fear into the hearts of those who remember arriving at school at 8am to the aroma of Brussels sprouts that would cook for three hours before being served in the school canteen. But this time it's all about keeping the beans as green as possible. After topping and tailing, the beans are thrown into fast-boiling salted water for about five minutes, then instantly plunged into a giant basin of ice. They will be quickly re-cooked later, with shallots and butter. At this point, we take a leap over to dessert, to make the coffee-flavoured crème anglaise that will form the base of the ice cream in the coffee liégois. Egg yolks, sugar, cream, milk and Nescafe - yes, Nescafe - are mixed and cooked slowly, up to only 65 degrees, then put into a bowl over ice to prevent further cooking. The mixture is frozen and the magical Pacojet machine will later turn it into fluffy ice cream in literally minutes. The other chef's secret, of course, is the team of underlings that jump to his every command - sadly something that most home cooks lack. It turns out that, while we've been learning about ice cream, Hurstel's team has been putting the potatoes through a "tamis" - a sort of drum-shaped sieve rather like the ones used for gold panning. It's slow, hard work, as the potato is squeegeed through the mesh to create a velvety purée, or mousseline. In the class, the two techniques we learn that are absolutely cuisine-changing - one old and one new - are the correct way to make a roux and the best way to cook a chicken breast without it drying out. The roux is a long-standing method of thickening a sauce: 30g of flour mixed into 30g melted butter and cooked for five minutes to remove the taste of flour, then added in tiny increments to thicken a stock-based sauce. Simple. Meanwhile, the chicken is a revelation: after jointing the Bresse chicken with surgical precision, Hurstel rolls a breast fillet in cling film several times, and ties each end to make it airtight. He then poaches it in water that's barely simmering, at 61C. If the water boils, the chicken will be tough; if not, it will remain moist even if you cook it for slightly too long (which is likely, as no one wants raw chicken). He recommends around 20 minutes, though you should check the temperature with a meat thermometer. It should be 74C in the middle. After drying, the chicken is seared in a hot pan, skin down, with oil and butter for a crispy exterior. At lunch, the flavour and texture are exquisite: moist and delicate. Not a bad way to spend your Friday morning. For more information, on classes call 02 509 8511.