Tag Archives: My Life in France

French Food Made Fun

French food has always struck me as the belle-mere (mother-in-law) of cuisine.

Like a mother-in-law, she has her own, iron-clad way of doing things; she is a little disdainful of time-saving tricks; she is convinced that old-fashioned hard work is good for everyone; she insists that you try everything – even aspic and bone marrow – and dares to look triumphant when you admit that it’s good.

She is challenging; she forces you to acquire new skills and step outside your comfort zone; and – if you succeed – she ultimately rewards you.

I’m not a French chef and I don’t aspire to be one.

I’m a home cook drawn to exotic foods from around the world. I live for blow-your-head-off spiciness. I’m undisciplined and a little lazy. I like near-instant gratification. Although I enjoy watching Julia and Jacques and reading their books, I never cook their recipes. I learned from Julie Powell’s lesson – I don’t need to live it.

But still, when I had a chance to take a French cooking class (one night only!) I thought the belle-mere and I should get to know each other a little bit better.

Although I can’t pretend to have really cooked any of these dishes, I did enjoy watching the real chefs pull it together. And – armed with lots of information on how to “cheat” my way to close-enough, I might even prepare some of these dishes on my own.

The sous-chefs pry the chestnut meat from the shell

Chestnut Soup with Madeira

I’ve never really eaten chestnuts before. Sure, I sing the song during Christmas but that’s about it. So my expectations were pretty low when I saw this soup on our to-do list.

The other students and I watched as the sous-chefs painstakingly picked apart roasted chestnuts to get enough for soup for 25.

As they slit into the shiny (and slippery) roasted chestnuts with extremely sharp knives, I closely examined the cut I had earned just a few days before trying to slice open an English muffin.

I knew – no matter how fantastic this soup was, and it was fantastic – that I would never prepare it myself. I just don’t have good enough insurance (or hand-eye coordination). But the chef assured me that frozen chestnuts or canned chestnuts would produce roughly the same result.

My own little cup of yum

Salade Nicoise

I really like Salade Nicoise and I have to say I was embarrassingly excited to make the vinaigrette for this dish. I would definitely make this for my family.

Coq au Vin

This classic dish was delicious and looked relatively easy to make (on the French scale, at least). I really loved the mushrooms and pearl onions we sauteed in bacon fat as a side dish.

Pot au Feu

As good as it was, I will not be making pot au feu for the next big family get-together. Too many “interesting” ingredients such as bones and oxtail. But I would definitely order it in a restaurant!

Fig Clafoutis

After this feast, who would still have room for dessert? It turns out, I did. By the way, I think Clafoutis would be a great name for a child of a celebrity.

By the end of the night I had reached an agreement with the belle-mere. All that was left was the bon digestion!


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The Joy of Julia

Julia ChildIn 1961, a gangly Californian with a funny voice introduced Americans to French cuisine – and culture.  The recent release of “Julie & Julia” has launched a renewed Julia Child love-fest.  The film chronicles Julia Child’s foray into French cooking in post-World War II France as well as how a Manhattan secretary named Julie Powell followed in her footsteps 40 years later.

But you don’t have to be a food-lover to appreciate Julia Child. In her book, My Life in France, Julia describes how she threw herself into the culture of France. Food was only a part of that. She describes meeting up with an old friend who was also living in France, “ . . . she loathed the Parisians, whom she considered horrid, mean, grasping, chiseling, and unfriendly in every way.” In contrast, Julia “loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.”

Julia also briefly describes her life in China during World War II, a country and a culture that she and Paul Child, who later became her husband, also enjoyed. “We loved the earthy Chinese people and their marvelously crowded and noisy restaurants, and we spent a lot of our off-hours exploring different types of regional foods together.”

It reminds me of an old proverb. An old man was sitting outside a city’s gates. A traveler stopped and asked the old man what kind of people lived in the city. He replied, “What were the people like in the city you just left?” The traveler responded that they were horrible, mean, and cheats. The old man replied, “You will find the same people here.” The traveler kept going past the city. A second traveler asked the old man, “What kind of people live here?” The old man replied again with a question. “What were the people like in the city you just left?” The traveler said, “They were wonderful, kind, and generous.” The old man said, “You will find the same people here.”

The moral is that a lot of our interactions with new people, new cultures, and new experiences are influenced by our own attitudes and preconceptions. Julia brought the same cheerful, pleasant attitude to the people she met in China and France and so she found happiness wherever she went.

It’s a lesson that she emphasized in her signature sign-off, “Bon appétit.” To enjoy life, people, and food, anticipate that it will be good – or “bon.”

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