learning from the professionals

It’s not too often that I have reason to hang out in a professional kitchen… so when offered the opportunity, I usually jump at the chance. There’s something about the coordinated chaos there that I love, a sense of awe that all these seemingly separate parts can unite to create something, and do it the same way every time.

So I was delighted when the folks at Petit Robert agreed to have me come in a couple weeks ago to learn how to make their vegetable paté. I’ve been trying to work up the courage to make paté at home for the past few months, and I figured what better way to get over my fears then to learn from the professionals?

My visit happened to fall upon one of those rainy fall days that makes you long to cook. I was greeted by Chef Jacky Robert, who brought me back to the kitchen, a small, but well-organized space. A huge pan of onions sat on one burner, slowly caramelizing for onion soup. Behind them, a pot of pork rillettes simmered quietly; they would eventually become paté. Chef Jacky introduced me to Juan, one of his chefs. The two have worked together for 13 years and get on remarkably well, considering that Chef Jacky’s Spanish is so-so and Juan’s English is so-so. A couple times a week, Juan makes giant batches of patés. Today, he was planning to fill three giant loaf pans with vegetable paté.

PA130108Juan was already stirring a pot of sliced onions coated in olive oil. “Suave,” he said. “Que no se queme.” Slowly, so they don’t burn. When the onions were just starting to turn translucent, he added a 6 lb. can of diced tomatoes, with all their juice (the restaurant uses fresh tomatoes when they’re in season), along with a tablespoon each of salt and sugar, a heaping handful of garlic and a touch of red pepper flakes. While that simmered, he set a large pot of salted water to boil.

Chef Jacky stopped by and explained that vegetables should always be cooked the French way- in salt water.

Jacky’s commitment to maintaining Petit Robert as a traditional French bistro is remarkable, and something that’s noted not just on the restaurant’s web site, but in the recent “Bistro Authentique” award bestowed upon it by Stuff Magazine recently.

“American restaurants shamelessly slap the term bistro on everything from awful chain outlets to places with $55 entrees,” the magazine wrote. “The French reserve the term for modest neighborhood spots like Petit Robert Bistro that unpretentiously serve delicious, relatively simple meals at working man’s prices.”

“This is what we try to do,” Jacky said, handing me the magazine.

Back at the stove, Juan was adding a large bunch of broccoli florets to the now boiling pot of water. He let them cook for precisely three minutes, then removed them with a slotted spoon and plunged them into and ice bath. Asparagus, cut into two-inch pieces with any white removed, was added. While that cooked, Juan worked on taking the broccoli from the ice, shaking each piece vigorously and putting it into a towel lined dish to remove as much water as possible.

The asparagus was tasted and tasted again. When it had reached the perfect point of tenderness (just very slightly crunchy and still bright green) it was removed from the pot and plunged into ice water, which keeps the vegetables from cooking any more. Green beans were added to the pot, which Juan stirred on occasion to ensure that everything cooked evenly.

PA130110While the green beans cooked, Juan got to work on the tomato mixture, which had been cooking continuously. First, the mixture was liquefied in a blender, then it was poured through a sieve. This ensured a smooth coulis, which would bind the paté.

Juan took six cups of the coulis and added 30 sheets of softened gelatin, which he returned to the stove to dissolve. While that heated, he whisked three cups of heavy cream (btw, forget fancy measuring cups, he used a standard Petit Robert coffee mug, the same ones diners sip coffee from after their meals) until it was foamy and retuned it to a refrigerator until later.

By that time, the gelatin had dissolved into the tomato mixture. Juan removed it from the stove and poured it into a bowl set over ice. He occasionally stirred the mixture with a whisk to keep everything smooth.

While the mixture cooled, Juan set to work on the molds, greasing them and packing the bottoms with broccoli florets set upside down. He packed them pretty tightly, getting as many florets as possible into the pans.

Juan then returned to the tomato mixture, which by this time was the consistency of a hearty tomato sauce. The cream was added, and the mixture took on the look of a vegetable mousse. Some of this was spooned into the loaf pans, pushed into the bottom of the pan until it just reached the top of the broccoli stems. (See below)

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The asparagus and green beans were folded into the remaining tomato mixture and then added to the loaf pans. Juan pushed firmly with a spatula to remove any air bubbles and to ensure as much of the mixture got into the pan as humanly possible. The molds were then covered with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator to set for three to four hours.

Petit Robert offers the “green and red vegetable paté” as an appetizer, serving it with herbed oil and topped with tomato concassé. At $5.50, it’s a substantial portion, suitable for a light meal on its own, or a good substitute for a salad.

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