Saturday, February 23, 2008

Le Guide Culinaire

Georges Auguste Escoffier was surely a genius in his collection of recipes and techniques in Le Guide Culinaire in 1907. His subsequent edits, 3 in total over the next few decades added new techniques and new recipes that would become integral parts of the national French cuisine. My current readings and study of his text however has lead me to believe a number of people have misunderstood his purpose in this text.

It is not only the study of the text itself that has lead me to believe this, but additionally academic readings such as French Food: On the Table, On the Page, and in French Culture by L. Schehr, French Gastronomy by Jean-Robert Pitte and Jody Gladding, Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, and Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton have all lead me to believe that this book has been misunderstood by a number of professional chefs for many years.

Many of the chefs I worked for and talked to in the past talked about Le Guide as a reference book for Escoffier's cooks to use in his kitchens. This outlook seems sort of limited when you look at the broad scope of the book itself and then at the advertisements that were done for the text. Le Guide was researched (in Escoffier's and Gilbert's words) in three main ways, research into La Varenne and Careme's works, public domain recipes, and his own personal recipes. If Escoffier was looking to make a cookbook for his employees, wouldn't he just make a book with recipes his kitchen used on a regular basis?

The fact aside of the broad comparison of the text compared to his kitchen offerings, the advertisements for the sale of LE Guide must be addressed. If Escoffier was writing this book for his staff, why would he have promoted Le Guide so heavily in the United States of America. I will tell you why I believe he promoted the book so heavily in the United States. After the American Revolution the French Revolution occurred which caused a large number of French chefs to export themselves to the United States as we had become sympathetic to their plight through the leadership of men like Thomas Jefferson, who himself employed a French chef.

This large group of French chefs who had moved out of the France needed a set of codified recipes to make sure they "stayed French". I fully believe that Escoffier was creating a codified text to promote French cuisine throughout the word, not just in France. It is this belief that has become a large part of my understanding of cuisine. I have come to believe that in order to have a cuisine one must be able to understand the cuisine outside of its own place of origin. That said, us being outside of France must understand what French cuisine is from our shores, not just while we are in France. I believe, as do many other academics, that this is what Escoffier was attempting to accomplish. It is my belief that he was one of the first chefs to properly accomplish this in Le Guide Culinaire and I look to his example for reference.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Braised Silkie Chicken with Shallot and Onions

The Capital District in New York state is a great area. Much like Boston, we have a very diverse ethnic culture which includes a number of Asian cultures. It was this diversity that influenced me as a young chef to begin researching and cooking a variety of Asian cuisines. Recently I have been playing around with some traditional Chinese cuisine. By Chinese cuisine, I don't mean the dishes you find at your buffet or take-out place, I am referring to dishes brought over by cooks that probably only cook these dishes in their homes or back in China.

There are a number of great shops to pick up traditional ingredients in this area. I personally shop at Kim's Oriental on Central ave. in Albany, Lee's Market at 1170 Central ave in Albany, and the Asian Food Market, LLC on Colvin ave. in Albany. Asian Food Market is by far one of the better shops I have been to outside of Chinatown in NYC or Chinatown in San Francisco. A vast variety of fresh poultry, seafood, pork, and seafood, including live fish they will shock and cut to order for you on the spot.

On this last trip I picked up a number of things I do not use all that often. One of the most interesting was a fresh black skinned chicken called a Silkie. I have used these chickens before, but in the past I have always purchased them frozen. It is nice to have a place to get these items fresh. A warning to some of you squeamish types, in an Asian market the heads are usually still on much of the poultry when you purchase them as was the case with these fresh chickens. It is a sign of quality, much as in Italian culture, seafood is often served head on to show its freshness.

So I thought I would share a great traditional Chinese dish I prepared with the Silkie Chicken. This is a nice winter dish as it is a braise. Many might notice the extended period of time for braising this chicken and question why one would braise a chicken for so long. The Silkie is a small bird with a small amount of slightly tough flesh, this lends it to braised dishes which will create a pleasant fork tender meat. The Silkie chicken is also believed to have medicinal characteristics in Asian cuisine, so besides being tasty, perhaps it will cure some ailment you have as well.

Braised Silkie Chicken with Shallot and Onions

2 Silkie chickens separated into four sections, 2 breasts, 2 legs and thighs (A normal 4-5 lb. chicken may be substituted)
5 Tablespoons dark soy sauce or mushroom soy sauce
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
4 shallots, peeled and sliced thin
1 small onion, peeled and sliced thin
1 1/2 Tablespoons black bean sauce
3 Tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup rice wine
2 cup chicken stock or broth
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup cilantro, minced

1. Rub the chicken pieces with dark soy sauce and let marinate for 30 minutes.
2. Heat a wok or large saute pan over high heat. Add the vegetable oil to the pan when heated and add the ginger and garlic, quickly stir-fry until garlic begins to lightly brown.
3. Add the shallots and onion and stir-fry for a couple minutes, add the black bean sauce, oyster sauce, rice wine and bring to a simmer, then add the stock and remove from heat.
4. Heat a cast iron pot over medium-high heat, add a couple Tablespoons vegetable oil and sear the chicken pieces on each side until golden brown.
5. Once all of the chicken has been browned, add the sauce to the pot with the chicken, bring sauce to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover the pot. Let simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn chicken pieces over and let simmer, covered, for another 30 minutes.
6. Remove the chicken from the pot and simmer uncovered to reduce the sauce to about 1.5 to 2 cups.
7. Place chicken pieces on a platter and top with sauce, sprinkled cilantro over the top.

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