Friday, May 2, 2008

From France with Love

Sorry to have been away so long. I was in France with my dad. Have you been to France? You should go. It’s beautiful. They love food.

The first meal we ate, I knew things were different. We were in a little restaurant in a small town, but the salad I ordered came with perfectly poached eggs, a handmade vinaigrette and thick pieces of beautiful ham. All through France we had the same experience…the bar was higher. There was no watery meat, no wonder bread, no gas station hot dogs. People wouldn’t stand for poor quality food.

But the longer we were there, the more I felt something different, something even more profound. The food was largely the same from town to town, restaurant to restaurant. Perhaps one would have slightly better bread, slightly more involved appetizers. But in general they were serving French food to French people. There was so much less variety than you would find in the US, even in a small town.

And really, to be frank, I wasn’t as wowed by the food as I expected to be. There was some wonderful duck, some delicious cheeses, a wide variety of cured meats. The wine was phenomenal. But the meat was sometimes tough, the sauces the standard fare. It was rarely exciting. To be fair, we were in small towns, places not usually known for encouraging creativity.

Luckily we had decided when we planned this trip that we wanted to cook. This was a father-daughter trip to explore the wines of burgundy, and to really explore wine you need to drink it with food, and to do that you need to cook. So we rented a villa in a small town in southern burgundy. It was remote and rustic, even more beautiful than we expected. And the kitchen was perfectly appointed.

Each day we would get up late, eat long slow lunches in cafes, taste wine in the afternoon, and then come home and cook dinner.

It gave us an excuse to wander the farmers’ markets and gape at the roosters. We bought white asparagus and fresh eggs “plein aire.” We went to the supermarche in Nolay, a pathetic little store that still managed to have reasonable vegetables, a large meat counter, and a whole section of foie gras.

And we cooked.

The first night I tried to make oeufs en meurette (eggs poached in red wine), but failed miserably. I made the sauce, poached the eggs in it and boiled it down, but sadly my poaching technique was not stellar and I ended up with strands of egg. After some straining and adding more wine it was edible, but barely. I didn't take a picture. I'll let you imagine it.

The next night I gave in and made something easy, an onion omelette. But this was no ordinary omelette. The eggs from the farmers' market were wonderful, with dark yellow yolks. And the onions had this sweetness that I have never found in the US. With some comte cheese and an impressive bottle of premier cru chassagne-monrachet, it was a wonderful meal. I also cooked up some of the white asparagus, not realizing that the outer skin is so tough you need to peel them completely. The flavor was wonderful, but we could have chewed them forever.

Next I tackled boeuf bourguignonne. We found a boucherie to buy the meat, but were perplexed by the cuts. There was no “chuck” or “rump.” When we asked for meat to use in boeuf bourguinonne, the bucher pointed to first his leg then his shoulder, holding up the appropriate cuts. Leg is like rump? I went with the leg. The stew turned out wonderfully, but even after 3 hours the meat was still somewhat tough. Perhaps I should have used shoulder. Or maybe I am spoiled by lazy corn-fed cows. I did discover that in france they have prepackaged pre-cut lardons.

My father’s favorite meal (or perhaps he was just placating me) was a salad
made of leftovers that we dubbed “salade beaunoise.” Endive, hardboiled egg, lardons fried crispy, browned garlic, morbier and my standard vinaigrette. I’ll give you that recipe, since it so perfectly reflected our week in burgundy: good meat, good cheese and above all good wine. I recommend drinking some Meursault with it, if you can find a bottle. Or at least a nice Chablis.

Salade Beaunoise

2 endive
100 g pre-cut smoked lardons OR 3-4 slices thick cut bacon cut into thin one inch strips
3 cloves fresh garlic (not dried) if you can find it, can substute dried, sliced thinly
2 eggs
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
good French mustard (I recommend Maille a la ancienne)
morbier cheese (or other good cheese, a little sharpness is nice, blue would be fabulous)

First hard boil the eggs. My favorite method is to put the eggs in cold water so that there is 1 inch of water above them (the depth is important as it changes how long it takes to boil the water). Then bring the water to boil. Immediately take off the heat, let sit in the hot water for 9-10 minutes (10 for very firm, 9 for a little softer). Then place in a cold water bath.

Saute bacon pieces in a medium hot pan with a small amount of oil until brown (5 minutes or so). Remove from pan and place on paper towels. Saute garlic in same pan.

Wash and dry the endive, cut into 2 inch pieces.

Make a dressing using the olive oil and vinegar. I usually guesstimate this, 1/3 vinegar to 2/3 oil (to make a total of ~1/2 cup). Then mix in 1/2 tsp mustard, 1/2 tsp honey, salt and pepper. Whisk or mix with a fork until mixed. The honey should keep it from separating. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Mix endive with dressing in a big bowl so you can get it all in. Divide endive into bowls. Top with garlic, bacon and hard boiled eggs (cut in half). Ladle on extra dressing onto the eggs. Top with pieces of morbier.


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