The essential recipes

A fruit tart made with French sweet pie pastry and filled with pastry cream. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
A fruit tart made with French sweet pie pastry and filled with pastry cream.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
If you were asked what recipes a beginner in the kitchen should learn, what dishes would come to mind? Havita ve’salat – omelet and salad – is what Israelis might answer. In many households, this popular pair is often served for breakfast or a light supper.
Interestingly, these were the dishes that aspiring chefs had to prepare at their competition for a scholarship from C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) that we judged at The Art Institute in Santa Monica, California.
There’s more to making an omelet and a salad than some might think. The egg confection the students were required to make was a French omelet, which is folded and supposed to be soft in the middle – in contrast to Israeli omelets, which are flat and often served well-done. The judges rated the students on whether their omelets were well-seasoned and had a texture that was just right. (See recipe.)
When we looked at the ingredient list of the salad the students were preparing, it reminded us of the elements of an “Israeli salad.” Yet making this dish was not as simple: In order to present it in a style befitting an upscale restaurant, the students had to prepare it as a molded salad.
This required them to demonstrate knowledge of several techniques: peeling tomatoes; draining the diced vegetable mixture so liquid wouldn’t pool on the plate; lining a mold with thin cucumber slices; and unmolding the salad. The students tasted the vinaigrette carefully so that it would have a good balance of flavors and wouldn’t be too salty, oily or vinegary. (See recipe.)
In addition, the aspiring chefs had to show they had mastered vegetable cutting techniques, such as using the correct knife for each task and properly making julienne strips that measured 0.3 x 0.3 x 5 centimeters (1/8 x 1/8 x 2 inches). We also graded them on how well they observed the rules of cleanliness, safety and hygiene.
At culinary school, becoming familiar with the building blocks of classic cuisine is an important aspect of chefs’ education. You have to learn to make the basic stocks, the mother sauces, the basic pastries and fillings. As a student arriving at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris in the mid-1970s, I received a copy of La Varenne Basic Recipes, a small, staple-bound book of these fundamental formulas.
These kitchen basics are the ones I go back to again and again, and not just for making special-occasion preparations like béarnaise sauce or fruit tarts. A few days ago, for instance, I poached some kumquats and of course, I used the La Varenne basic poaching syrup; I’ve used this syrup so many times that I know the recipe by heart. This year, the collection of recipes was published as Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen: 50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs to Know, by Anne Willan.
Today, these basic preparations continue to be central to fine cuisine and pâtisserie. A few months ago, at the opening celebration of the Culinary Institute of Los Angeles, a professional chefs’ school, chef-instructor Victor Gonzales made dessert tarts and tartlets and demonstrated how to garnish them. To make them, chefs need to master two basic components – the sweet buttery dough known as pâte sucrée, and the thick, creamy filling called pastry cream or crème pâtissière. (See recipes.) What gives the tarts a variety of colors and tastes is the fruit used to top them.
Chefs around the world benefit from these classic formulas. In Lima, Peru, the best rendition we tasted of the Peruvian specialty known as lomo saltado, or stir-fried beef tenderloin, had a richly flavored sauce that seemed familiar. We asked the chef whether he had used demi-glace, a basic French sauce made from reduced meat stock, and were only slightly off the mark. His “secret sauce” was the classic sauce espagnole, a roux-thickened, tomato- flavored meat sauce that was one of the basic recipes we learned at La Varenne; this sauce gives depth of flavor to such traditional French entrees as duck with orange sauce.
In her recent talk for the Culinary Historians of Southern California on secrets of the La Varenne kitchen, Anne Willan made the point that in spite of the many new trends in the culinary world, some things have not changed. She showed us, for example, a drawing of a conical jelly strainer similar to those used by contemporary cooks. The drawing was from the 16th century. 
Faye Levy is the former cookery editor of La Varenne in Paris, and author of the three-volume Fresh From France cookbook series.
This recipe is from At Home with the French Classics by Richard Grausman, founder and chairman of C-CAP.
The C-CAP teachers give these tips to students learning to make omelets:
• Practice, practice, practice: It’s the only way to learn to make the omelet well;
• Do not use too much butter, or the omelet will be greasy;
• Use a small heatproof rubber spatula for folding the omelet in the hot pan; and
• Traditionally, a French omelet should not be browned.
Makes 1 serving
■ 2 eggs
■ 1 to 2 tsp. clarified butter
■ Salt and pepper to taste
In a bowl, beat eggs with a small whisk or fork; the more air you incorporate, the fluffier and lighter the omelet will be. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat a nonstick omelet pan of about 15-cm. (6-inch) bottom diameter over medium-high heat; add clarified butter. Add egg mixture to pan and start rapidly stirring with a heatproof spatula while gently shaking pan at same time. When eggs are nearly set but with a little moist egg still remaining, stop stirring and shaking the pan for a couple of seconds, making sure that bottom of pan is completely covered by egg. At this point eggs should be set, yet still moist with no color.
Allow bottom of omelet to firm slightly, 4 to 5 seconds. Fold omelet into thirds by lifting handle and tilting pan at a 30-degree angle. With the spatula, fold portion of omelet nearest the handle toward center of pan. Gently push omelet forward in pan so the unfolded portion rises up side of pan. Using the spatula, fold this portion back into pan, overlapping first fold.
Turn the omelet out onto a serving plate so it ends up folded side down. Serve immediately.
This recipe for a molded diced salad is from the C-CAP Teacher’s Guide. The vegetable mixture should be drained properly so that the salad won’t collapse when it is unmolded. If you don’t have lime juice, use lemon juice.
You will have extra vinaigrette, which you can refrigerate and save for other salads.
Makes 2 servings
■ 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
■ ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
■ ¼ cup olive oil, or more to taste (see Note below)
■ 1 teaspoon coarsely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
■ Salt and pepper to taste
■ ½ to 1 tsp. sugar, to taste (optional; just enough to balance the acid)
■ 1 tomato – peeled, seeded, cut in small dice
■ 1 small cucumber – peeled, seeded, cut in small dice
■ 1 additional small cucumber, cut in thin slices
■ ¼ sweet red pepper, cut in small dice
■ ¼ sweet yellow pepper, cut in small dice
■ ¼ red onion, cut in small dice
■ Cilantro sprigs for garnish
To make vinaigrette: In a bowl, add lime juice and rice vinegar. Incorporate olive oil slowly, whisking vigorously until emulsified. Add minced cilantro, salt and pepper.
In a separate bowl, combine all the diced vegetables and toss with a small amount of vinaigrette, using just enough to coat the vegetables. Season with sugar, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.
Arrange the thinly sliced cucumber in a lightly oiled ring mold (5 cm. or 2 inches deep, 7.5 cm. or 3 inches diameter), on a large plate. Drain vegetables of any extra vinaigrette, preferably by placing them in a small sieve. Fill the cucumber-lined ring mold with the drained vegetables. Unmold the salad and garnish with cilantro sprigs.
NOTE: In the vinaigrette, you may want to use an amount of olive oil that is equal or greater than the total of the acidic ingredients (lime juice and vinegar). At home, we use at least 6 tablespoons olive oil for these amounts.
This recipe is from Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen. Use it to make dessert tarts and tartlets.
Makes an 18-20-cm. (7-8 inch) tart shell
■ 125 grams (4.4 ounces) flour
■ ¼ tsp. salt
■ 50 grams (1.8 ounces) sugar
■ 2 egg yolks
■ ½ tsp. vanilla extract
■ 60 grams (2.1 ounces) unsalted butter
Sift flour onto a marble slab or board and make a large well in the center. Put salt, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla in the well and mix them with your fingers until sugar dissolves.
Pound on butter to soften it slightly, add it to the well and quickly work it with the other ingredients, using the fingertips of one hand, until partly mixed. Gradually work in the flour, pulling the dough into large crumbs using the fingertips of both hands. Mix dough with a cutting motion, using a dough scraper.
When dough is smooth, work on it on a lightly floured marble slab or board, pushing it away with the heel of the hand and gathering it up with the dough scraper until it is pliable and peels away easily in one piece. Press dough into a ball. Wrap it in parchment paper, foil, plastic wrap or a plastic bag, and chill 30 minutes.
The dough can be stored, tightly wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
This recipe is from Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen. Use pastry cream to fill tarts or cream puffs. You can flavor it with liqueur, citrus zest, coffee or chocolate.
Makes 1¼ cups pastry cream
■ 3 egg yolks
■ 60 grams (2.1 ounces) sugar
■ 25 grams (0.9 ounces) flour
■ 1 cup milk
■ Pinch of salt (optional)
■ 1 vanilla bean (optional)
Beat egg yolks with sugar until thick and light. Stir in the flour and enough cold milk to make a smooth paste.
Scald remaining milk with salt. If using a vanilla bean, add it to the hot milk, cover and leave to infuse 10 to 15 minutes; remove bean and wash it to use it again.
Reheat milk to boiling. Whisk boiling milk into egg mixture, blend, return to pan and whisk over gentle heat until boiling.
NOTE: Be sure pastry cream is smooth before letting it boil. If lumps form as it thickens, take pan from the heat and beat until smooth. Cook pastry cream gently, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes or until the cream thins slightly, showing the flour is completely cooked.