Cooking with Jacqui: Salad Niçoise and French Onion Soup
I don’t think I’m a difficult person to buy gifts for. I rarely ever want anything besides food and alcohol. Every year for Christmas, my parents ask for my list and there’s usually very little on it, so my parents have to get creative. This past Christmas, I was pleasantly surprised when I received the gift of a cooking class with a local chef, from my mother.
I have never taken a cooking class, unless watching hundreds of hours of “Top Chef” and Food Network count. Local chef Jacqui Renager holds classes on Saturdays for six weeks at Kitchen Barn in Virginia Beach’s Hilltop North Shopping Center.
Jacqui, a frequent guest on local lifestyle show “Coast Live,” has been doing these classes for several years. Her classes are known to sell out quickly, so I marked my calendar for Saturday, February 2, and anxiously awaited my first class.
I arrived at Kitchen Barn at 3 p.m., 30 minutes before the class was scheduled to start. At each seat was a piece of paper listing the ingredients we’d use and instructions on how to make each dish. It didn’t take long for the cozy test kitchen to fill with eager gourmands. It was a full class, and everyone was ready to dive right in to making a Niçoise Salad and French Onion Soup.
Prior to this class, I had never had a Niçoise Salad. To be honest, the only reason I even know how to pronounce the dish is because of that Yo Mama joke scene on “White Chicks.” Jacqui explained to us that she was inspired by the Niçoise Salad she had at local French restaurant, Le Yaca. She said the salad was plated so beautifully that she almost didn’t want to eat it.
The salad we created combined an array of vegetables and seared ahi tuna. I started by plating my salad with the vibrant slices of watermelon radish. Though less peppery than a regular radish, I didn’t think the watermelon radish added much flavor-wise to the plate, but it certainly made it look like art.
Next came the fresh greens, blanched haricot vert green beans, slivered beets and ahi tuna. Ahi tuna is one of the few types of fish that I rarely eat because the texture and taste can be messed up easily if not prepared properly. Jacqui taught us that the more time you cook it for, the fishier it gets. Jacqui gave us each a seared rare tuna steak, seasoned top and bottom with black pepper and other spices.
Around the plate I meticulously placed some kalamata olives (my favorite), baby potatoes and hard-boiled egg segments. Over top of the salad I drizzled our homemade basil, anchovy and lemon vinaigrette. Slightly different from a traditional Niçoise salad dressing that uses red wine vinegar, this dressing was just as light. The anchovy flavor was subtle (nowhere near as rich as a Caesar dressing), but the basil and lemon kept it fresh.
The dressing soaked right into the salad and played well with the zesty tuna and other components on the plate. I never would’ve guessed that such a light salad could be so filling.
French Onion Soup is one of my favorites and I had never made it before. Jacqui took us through the simple recipe step by step. One of the best parts of French Onion Soup is the rich beef broth. Jacqui taught us that while boxed beef broth can get the job done, a beef base gives you the deep, savory flavor you love in French Onion Soup. Jacqui used a beef base that was in the form of a concentrated paste. I’d never seen anything like it but it combined easily with water to create the broth.
From there, the recipe was just a matter of giving the cooked onions time to marry with the broth. Before we arrived to class, Jacqui shredded a block of gruyere cheese to top the soup and bread. Instead of putting about 20 bowls in the broiler, we used a torch. In a matter of seconds, we had the perfect melted top layer of cheese for our French Onion Soup. It was about 50 degrees that day so French Onion Soup was the perfect comfort dish and a great way to end our lunch.