Award-winning chef Daniel Boulud will appear at George Brown College Culinary School in Toronto on Nov. 3 for a cooking demonstration featuring dishes from his new book, Daniel: My French Cuisine, and discussion with The Globe's Beppi Crosariol. In advance of event, The Globe selected some of Boulud's words of wisdom on seasoning from the book.
Seasoning and spicing is the first thing a young cook needs to learn, and it's the hardest thing to teach. There's no miracle recipe to follow. Is the fish fillet sliced thin or is it thick and meaty? Are we planning to finish the dish with fleur de sel? Does the steak get a pepper rub before or after cooking?
Great chefs are maniacs about seasoning. While there's no single rule one can follow, you can gauge a confident and precise chef from the way he or she seasons. A perfectly seasoned piece of meat will literally resonate with flavour.
French cuisine lies at the crossroads of what I see as the right balance between seasoning and spicing. At Daniel, we use a vast array of spices and many different techniques for seasoning. Every family of ingredients requires specific seasoning. Sometimes, as in the case of charcuterie, the seasoning must mature before the preparation is ready. A terrine always tastes better a few days after it was made, when the spices have reached the inner boroughs of the meat. But when we work with raw fish for a ceviche or sashimi, for example, we apply a short curing, imparting external flavouring and firmness as quickly as possible.
Let's turn to salt: My favourite way to measure and control salt is to use two, three or four fingers to pinch, and with each combination, you choose: small, medium or large. When a young cook puts a hand in the salt, I know instantly if this is someone who knows what he or she is doing? A golden rule: Never change the kind of salt that is being used in a kitchen or you will create terrible chaos. At Daniel, we prefer class sel de mer from La Baleine, and we never, never change the brand or the grain size; but beware, the degree of strength of that salt is very different from the kosher salt many chefs work with in the United States.
Do you know that pepper was the first spice to be introduced to Europe through India? For the peppered rib-eye at Daniel, we favour Pierre Poivre, a blend of eight different peppers named for an 18th-century French horticulturist and spice trader. The blend was created by our favourite spice master, Lior Lev Sercarz, a young Israeli chef who worked at Restaurant Daniel for four years, and whose passion for spices led him to create his own business in New York, La Boîte à Epice.
I am also particularly fond of piment d'Espelette, a pepper from the French Basque area. As opposed to many other strong spices, its intensity of heat ends in plateau. It doesn't carry on and burn your palate; it exudes a delicate, pleasant and almost perfumed heat, very different from more scorching chilies. I find that it is exactly the kind of heat that protects and even enhances the taste of a great wine. With Lior, we have developed many spice blends for several of our restaurants, and here at Daniel, we create spice blends for fish, for meats and even for desserts and cocktails. We use Vadouvan curry in the yogurt dressing that accompanies the squab pastilla and smoked paprika in our shrimp-coated halibut. The range of exotic tastes is endless, but we constantly strive for the ideal equilibrium that defines my idea of French cuisine.
As far as herbs are concerned, you may be surprised to hear that I often favour our own dried herbs rather than fresh ones to create an intense powder that can flavour a salt for a particular dish such as the Provençal loup de mer. Take a blend, such as herbes de Provence. Just as with tea, you need to dry the leaves to get the full length of flavour. I would not dry parsley or dill, for example, but I love to dry rosemary, sage, savoury and thyme.
My French cuisine can be perceived to be as global as New York's tasty mosaic of cultures, but its refined equilibrium of flavours makes it, in my mind, completely French.
For Daniel Boulud's shrimp-coated halibut recipe, visit tgam.ca/recipes.
Excerpted from the book Daniel: My French Cuisine by Daniel Boulud. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Boulud. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.