A friend of mine wanted to take a cooking class and I recommended Dish Cooking Studio to her, where I’d enjoyed taking two classes on previous occasions: “brunch entertaining”, and “Simply French.”
I’ve successfully adapted recipes, and skills, that I learned from these classes to my everyday life, and so it was with great anticipation that we signed up for the French bistro cooking class.
A little bit of history here: The term “bistro” comes from the Russian word “quick.” According to an urban legend, during the Russian occupation of Paris in 1915, Russian soldiers who wanted quick service would demand “bistro.”
The French bistro menu of the evening:
Mussels in tomato Pernod cream sauce
Sweet onion and Gruyere soup, a lighter adaption of the classic French onion soup
Beautifully marbled onglet steak from Cumbrae’s, with Bearnaise sauce
Unlike the other two classes I took in previous years, however, this one was hands-on. The chef showed the class a short demonstration of the items we would prepare, before my friend and I were tasked with taking on the mussels, from cleaning the beards off the mussels to preparing the aromatic tomato-based Pernod sauce and plating it for our fellow students.
Within minutes, the kitchen was buzzing with the hisssssing searing of the steaks in cast-iron pans, the whirring of the blender as it ground the hazelnuts, and the chop, chop, chop as the Yukon potatoes made their transformation into double-fried pommes frites.
The recipe for the mussels will follow, along with some key tips I gleaned from our chef, Charmaine Baan.
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Pernod (or leave it out and include more wine)
1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or tinned in the winter)
1/2 cup 35 per cent cream (don’t substitute a lower fat content, so it won’t curdle)
2-3 lb cleaned fresh mussels
1 large shallot – sliced
3 springs tarragon
5- springs chervil
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1. Wash mussels very well under cold running water to remove any sand and grit. If any are slightly open, tap them to see if they will close. If they do, keep them. If they remain open, or cracked, throw them out. Check them to make sure they feel slightly heavy for their size. Good mussels should smell like the sea, not fishy.
2. Wash the herbs and dry them well. Remove the leaves from the stems and chop them coarsely, set aside.
3. Place the wine and shallot in a large pot, making sure it’s big enough for the mussels to expand in there. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add tomatoes and cream. Let simmer for a few minutes or until slightly reduced and thicker. Add Pernod and bring the mixture to a light boil.
4. Add the cleaned mussels to the pot and cover tightly. Don’t let yourself peek before 3-5 minutes. If they are about 75 per cent of the way there, stir them once and cover the pot again. They should all be fully open. Remove with a slotted spoon, place in a dish.
5. Add half of the chopped herbs, season with salt and pepper, then top with the remaining herbs, pour over mussels and serve immediately.
Would I make this again?The process was indeed so simple, providing you remember to “goutez, goutez, goutez” all the way through that I can’t way to impress some guests with this. The key is to have patience when you are cleaning the grit and beards off the mussels. This could take more time than you are used to.
Substitutions:While I hate the smell and taste of Pernod for the most part, it has a way of mellowing out and adding depth to the flavours of this sauce. If you’re still not wowed by the smell, or don’t have any on hand, feel free to increase the wine content. You can also substitute onions for the shallots, but the end result won’t be quite as refined and subtle.
Grade:Five stars out of five. Ever since my parents treated me to a trip to Belgium, and the Netherlands, for my 16th birthday, moules et frites ranks among my favourite meals. But it has to be done right. And what better way to control the result than to make it yourself?
Overall, I enjoyed the class tremendously. However, I am a visual learner and perhaps the demo classes that I took before are more suited to someone like me. The chefs take more time to explain the recipes as they are making them, whereas in this case, we learned how to make one recipe well by doing it ourselves. Still, there are no real complaints from this amateur chef, especially after eating this gourmet meal with other happy-as-a-clam (mussel?) foodies who can appreciate the hard work that goes into a big batch of frites.