Monday, June 21, 2010

Bon Appetit!

Eating is a sacred pastime in France.  For real.  And with good reason:  French cuisine is indisputably, (as far as the French are concerned), the most delicious food on the planet.

My mother-in-law is a phenomenal cook, and I thrived under her tutelage in the early years of my marriage.  One of the things she taught me was always, always use fresh ingredients.  Here's a pic of Cody and Sidney helping her in her garden, where she goes each day with basket in hand to harvest the vegetables and herbs she'll use in her dishes that day:

 And this bottom pic is Sidney bringing in a basket of potatoes she and her grandfather had just pulled out of the earth.  Thirty minutes after this picture was taken, we were eating the most delicious French fries ever!

The French eat their meals in courses, which is a difficult custom to adapt to when you are used to eating family-style, American meals.  In fact, the first few meals I took in France were painful because I thought the first course WAS the meal.  I ate my fill.  And then another plate of food came out.  So I dug in...and then another was served...  My future in-laws were thrilled that I appreciated their food so much, and I didn't dare decline another serving.  I've since learned that you take just a spoonful of food at each course, so that by the end you have eaten the equivalent of a normal plateful of food.  Trust me though, I put on ten pounds before I had the whole thing figured out.

 The first course, called l'entrée is typically light fare, for example a plate of charcuterie: slices of cooked or cured jambon (ham), saucissons (dried sausage), and paté; or quiche, or soup (in the winter) or sliced cantaloupe drizzled with port wine (in the summer).  And wine, bien sûr.

The second course is la pièce de résistance, or the main dish.  It is meat (or chicken or fish), often served in the sauce it was cooked in and vegetables.  Many traditional French recipes are cooked "peasant-style," with all the ingredients in a large pot or dutch oven.  This is my favorite way to cook.  The key is the sear the meat in the pot to help it retain its flavorful juices, then remove the meat and déglasse the pan with white wine, scraping up the browned bits of meat stuck to the bottom.  Add the vegetables, herbs and stock, and let the pot cook over low heat for several hours.  There is simply no way to attain the depth of flavor the French have mastered without slow cooking!

The third course sometimes opens with a fresh, leafy green salad, but not always.  Whether or not salad is served, the cheese plate always goes around.  The French love their stinky cheese!  I was once at a dinner party with twenty people at one table.  Luckily, I was on my third glass of wine at the time.  The cheese was so pungent, I literally tried not to breathe through my nose.  My table neighbors couldn't stop raving, putting their noses as close to the plate as they could and inhaling deeply.  My nose wrinkles from the memory!

The dessert course is my favorite!  Although I'm a die-hard chocoholic, the fruit concoctions in France are fantastic.  My mother-in-law bakes a clarfoutis that is out of this world.  She starts out behind the garden, picking cherries off the tree.  Leaving the pits in, she dumps the rinsed cherries into a buttered baking dish and pours a homemade cake batter on top.  (She tried to teach me this recipe, but didn't know the exact measurements.  "Add some sugar..."  "How much sugar?"  "Oh, I don't know, a bowlful."  What?)

Last is the coffee course.  This was perhaps the hardest adjustment I've have to make over there.  I want my coffee with my dessert!  Oddly, the French don't believe the two go together.  It's the only issue I take with them -- Snaps to Americans for our dessert-and-coffee- combo genius!

Man, this post is making me hungry.... Hope I don't gain fifty pounds on vacation...!

Bon appétit! 

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