Over the past 10 years I’ve taught a variety of cooking classes for friends and neighbors. It started when I moved to Los Angeles in 2005 and many of my friends mentioned that they had never learned to cook. They wanted to make delicious and nutritious meals for their families but didn’t know where to start. We began with just a few simple meals, but our little group soon expanded into a monthly meeting complete with lunch and even a little wine afterwards.
After teaching these classes for years, I felt pretty confident that today’s practical on stocks would be easy. In fact, stocks were part of my first class in Tokyo just two days before.
Today we would make two stocks in class — chicken and fish. These did require the use of a cleaver, which I had never used before, but other than that I thought it would be old hat. I had not rewritten my notes from lecture and did not go over the finer points of the class. After all, stocks are very simple.
I felt confident and ready to perform. And so I did. The chicken stock came out just fine. It had a lovely aroma, and it was a pleasure to stand over the simmering pot, tasting and seasoning as the flavors developed. It was a confirmation of my many years of practice — I had this one right.
And now, the fish stock. Well, this one I had not made before, but it’s much like the chicken stock and only takes 20 minutes to simmer. No problem; there were still 30 minutes left until I needed to present my dishes to Chef. So I chopped my fish bones, cleaned them in cold water, placed them in the water to boil, added my (almost) evenly-cut vegetables of onion, carrot and celery, and made my bouquet garni (celery leaves, bay leaf, parsley stock, leek and thyme all wrapped in a green leek stock). No problem — except the time. I looked at the clock and realized my chopping was too slow. Trying to figure out the metric system on carrots is not a fast accomplishment.
Well, I needed to present something. I still had 15 minutes. That should be enough. But it takes time for water to boil and I needed to strain my soup too. Maybe, just maybe, it would work out. So, I put on a happy face and continued.
When it was time to serve, I put my lovely chicken stock in a bowl. Yum, absolute perfection! And now, the fish stock. All strained and ready for seasoning. I taste, and I’m totally bewildered. There’s no fish taste. I would think the bones, even though they only simmered a couple minutes, would have imparted at least a little fish flavor. I continue to stand there—staring at my stock, one hand on my hip—trying trying to figure out what to do. As nothing came to mind, I decided to give it a lecture: “Look, Mr. Poisson Fumet, I have been scared of your stinky fish bones my whole life. Don’t you think you could easily flavor my stock in two minutes? What kind of fish are you that you can’t flavor a stock?”
Before I could continue berating Mr. Fish Stock, Chef comes over and asks what is wrong. Uh oh. I share my assessment: “I just made a very lovely vegetable stock with fish bones.” He takes a taste, agrees, and moves on. Then he comes back and says, “At least you know the difference in taste.”
And so, feeling rather foolish after messing up something I thought I could do with my eyes closed, I needed some sympathy. “Well,” I thought, “better put it behind me and tonight I can have nice glass of wine with dinner.” And then I remember: wine! I was supposed to put some wine in the fish stock, and reduce it before simmering. I looked around at everyone else’s station and saw they had their mugs out, filled with wine. How did I miss 11 other people getting wine with their ingredients, and miss this in my notes too? It was an important reminder. Le Cordon Bleu cooking is not the same as Kelly’s home cooking classes. After all, Le Cordon Bleu should be special and the best — and I’m here to learn, not to demonstrate.
Tomorrow is another day, but this time I’ll prepare my notes!