Today starts my fourth week. I’m halfway through the program and still can’t believe I’m here. For me, much of this program is a remembrance of days past through the food I enjoyed on my visits to France. France has always represented a fantasy world, where the sun shines, the fountains flow and the flowers are always in bloom.
However, the first time I went to Paris none of these things happened, for it was late January. At that point, having lived in Los Angeles my whole life, I was shocked that the fountains were turned off. My Mom explained about cold weather and pipes freezing, but I felt that if Disneyland can manage this all year round, Paris should too. Nonetheless, the charm and beauty of the city and the grand castles of the Loire Valley were enough to wipe away my disappointment of the rain and cold.
Though I first came to Paris to enjoy the architecture and museums, it is the memory of the food that stays with me the most. For on that cold winter trip I had my first taste of Quiche Lorraine. It was warm and satisfying and made the rain seem more charming than chilly. It was on that trip that I had my first Pasta Bolognese with homemade pasta and I couldn’t believe how amazing Italian food was in France. (I’d learned later that pasta is not just Italian and in fact, homemade pasta and Bolognese sauce was a practical lesson at Le Cordon Bleu.)
And it was on that trip I had my first plate of Charcuterie (Char- ku-tree). Charcuterie is basically a plate of fresh and smoked sausages and pates, usually served with French pickles and mustard. This meat platter was so much more than my childhood Christmas lunch of Hickory Farms sausage and a plate of cold cuts. Later I would recognize these tastes as the flavors of the fields and the depth of time. Charcuterie is like being transported to a 17th-century farmhouse in Dijon where the mustard is growing wild in the vineyards, or maybe up north to an abbey in Alsace, where local monks serve beer and sauerkraut with my sausage. To me, Charcuterie is what connects the city to the countryside and makes us appreciate the farm way of life.
Today I couldn’t be any further from the farm. Tokyo is a city of 12 million people with an additional 2.5 million commuting into the city for work each day. It’s a city of bicycles, trains, subways and elevated freeways. It’s a city with award-winning modern architecture next to ancient Buddhist temples, and of skyscrapers dwarfing Shinto Shrines. Tokyo is the old and the new, the east and the west. And it is here in this island of opposites that I’ll learn the secrets of transporting myself to the fields of France, for today we take our first steps towards the countryside by preparing Pork Chops with Charcuterie Sauce and Potato Puree (mashed potatoes).
The technique for today’s lesson is to manchonner, which we call frenching in the United States. We will also prepare our first real sauce, Charcuterie Sauce. Frenching is commonly done on pork and lamb chops, but you can do this on any piece of meat that is served with an exposed bone. I’ve had my butcher at home prepare chops like this, but today I will have to do it myself. The chops are tricky, because if they are not perfectly cleaned, unappetizing burnt black bits will be hanging on the bones after it’s cooked; and who wants to eat a pork chop like that? Of corse the solution at home is to present the food with miniature frilly chef’s hats, or cutlet frills, on the the bones. No such piece of decoration is given to us.
It’s hard to describe in words what the meat looks like before trimming. I’m surprised at just how beautiful it looks. The contrast of the bright, shiny red meat and the pristine marble white fat is breathtaking. The racks come in a large portion: about 20 pounds, with 13 ribs attached to each piece. Each portion looks as though a thick, even layer of snow has fallen on the Arizona landscape. The meat is hearty and very firm, with geometric shapes. From the side, it’s very easy to see a central circular portion and near it, attaching to the bone, is the almond eye-shaped piece.
The goal is to trim the meat to preserve the bones, the eye, and the center.The technique is not very difficult; it just has a lot of steps. For the manchonner technique, most of the scraping is done with the tip of the paring knife and it feels more like a sculpting class than a cooking class. The snowy white fat that covers one entire side of the pork will be cut to just a 1/4 inch and only around the meat. It not only looks beautiful to have this thin layer, but as Chef always says, “Fat is flavor.” I also need to trim the meat so that only the round, central portion of the pork and the eye are left on the bone. These are the juiciest parts and the best for presentation as well. The remaining meat will be used for sauce.
Here is a photo of the meat prior to trimming.
And here is what they bones should look like when they have been expertly cut and cleaned.
The hardest part is balancing the time with the technique. However much the bones need to be cleaned, the food also needs to be cooked and presented on time. Thankfully our portion for class contains only two pork ribs. It will be faster to clean and we can move on to the final part of the practical, which is sauce. This sauce will be made from the meat trimmings of the pork chops and beef stock. Once these have been reduced to a thicker consistency, the sauce is strained, seasoned, and finished by adding some pickles and mustard.
The practical in the kitchen that day was very straightforward. My pork bones were cleaned on time and I easily moved onto the sauce and potatoes. I was really proud of my work and eager to take it home to share with my family. I imagined my family oo-ing and aw-ing at my perfectly-cleaned bones and enjoying my first Le Cordon Bleu sauce. I thought I might share a little about my first trip to France and we could talk about the countryside. When we finally did sit down for dinner together, my teenage son asks me what we we’re having. Ah, here’s my cue. Now the oo-ing and aw-ing can begin and we can start our trip along my memory lane. I answer, “Pork with a mustard and pickle sauce.” And without missing a beat, he says, “Oh, French hot dogs! — Yum!” And then my other son reminds us of eating hotdogs at the Brooklyn Diner in New York City. Well, not the rural memory lane I was imagining, but certainly a warm memory that was centered on family, fun, and lots of pork.