Recipe Of The Day
I’m just starting to appreciate the fact that our local newspaper has a recipe each and every day, and almost all of them look good. Here you can see a random assortment of recent recipes. For those statisticians among you who may be wondering about my randomizing technique, I’ll just say that I pulled out all the papers in the recycle bin and cut out their recipes. We’re mad recyclers here, as is apparently everyone else in France, but some papers do go into the fireplace, so these recipes aren’t a perfectly consecutive assortment and tend to be a bit heavy on the dessert end of the scale.
But what we have is, clockwise from the bottom left: monkfish in a cheeseless pesto sauce, artichoke bottoms stuffed with vegetables, orange cream served in the orange shells, pita stuffed with tuna and vegetables, a flan with pineapple and rum, a crepe cake with a meringue topping and chocolate cream filling, a pear and chocolate tart, and a terrine of chicken livers.
I’ll start by saying, with a good measure of affection, that our local paper is the sort that mentions every school classroom that got a visit from Santa, every seniors’ club meeting in a 100 kilometer radius, which drug stores are open all night on any given day, and other similarly urgent matters. So the recipes might be expected to be rather pedestrian, at best. And while I’m sure it’s true that a more sophisticated paper would have more upscale recipes, think about a small town near you. Would you expect to find recipes like these in a small paper there each and every day? Although there’s nothing particularly exotic or wildly creative about any of these dishes, they mostly all sound worth trying, and several look positively good.
In looking through this random peephole into a French kitchen, the thing that strikes me first is the matter of timing. The pita recipe only takes 20 minutes to prepare, but that’s normal for a sandwich. The rest of the recipes range from 40 minutes to 2 hours in preparation and cooking time. That’s a lot of slow cooking, by today’s standards. The dishes do rely on a certain amount of pre-prepared ingredients: purchased all-butter puff pastry for the pear tart, a dehydrated court bouillon for the monkfish, frozen artichoke hearts and frozen vegetables to stuff them with, and the pita. But aside from that, it’s all made from scratch.
There are certain ingredients, like crème fraiche, powdered almonds, fromage frais for the pita, and vanilla sugar, that are probably not readily available outside of Europe. Other than that the ingredients are quite ordinary, and you could make any of these dishes at home. Let me know if you’d like to give any of them a try and I’ll post the details.
What really fascinates me are the assumptions that these are the things that people are likely to want to eat, and that the average reader is expected to spend at least an hour a night in the kitchen. And that French readers are expected to know how to cook, at a time when American recipe writers are looking for words to replace simple kitchen terms like whisk and sauté, for fear that today’s cook no longer knows what they mean. A very experienced cook myself, I had to read the crepe cake recipe three times to figure out that there are no instructions for cooking the actual crepes, you just need to know how it’s done. Challenging some of my other assumptions about French cooking, while there’s rum in the flan, not one of the recipes includes wine as an ingredient, and of the eight recipes only two include cream.
On the other hand, because the quality of the prepared foods that are available for purchase is so high, it’s ridiculously easy not to cook at all in France and still eat well. So why would a French woman come home from work and spend an hour or two in the kitchen putting dinner on the table?
I think it’s because mealtime is still more or less sacred here. Sitting together at the table is the glue that holds the fabric of French society together. If you want to really tick off a waiter in France, be in a hurry to eat and run. If you want to offend a drop-in visitor, forget to offer a glass of something. To mark yourself as a real outsider, just complain about the shops closing in the middle of the day. Of course everything is closed for two hours around noon! The people who work in those shops need to go pick up their kids from school and go home for lunch together. Ok, maybe a few of them sneak in a little housework or even a nap during that time. But for sure they eat lunch, and preferably in the company of others.
As an experiment, try taking a two hour lunch every day for a week and see what it does for you. Once the dust settles, I think you’ll find that your life has become richer, even without adding cream.