Think French cooking has to be fancy? - henrylin - 優仕網部落格

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Think French cooking has to be fancy?
My French mother-in-law, Madeleine, was everything I had learned French women were not: She was an unpretentious woman who wore a crisply pressed cotton housedress over thick stockings and sensible shoes every day I knew her, her wispy white hair in a boyish cut framing a clean-scrubbed face.
 
She was an unassuming, cheerful woman who worked next to her husband in their corner shop six days a week, raised four children on blind faith and old wives’ tales, and had a hot meal on the table at 1 p.m. every single day of the week.
 
But it was her cooking that threw my preconceived notions for a loop. Having moved to Paris after living in Philadelphia and New York, I arrived with a reverence for French cuisine that bordered on the religious. Restaurants and shops, magazines and cookbooks taught me that French food was the height of sophistication. It was delicate yet elaborate, refined and expensive — a performance art of finely julienned vegetables, sublime sauces, towering souffles.
 
When I moved to Paris in 1986 I found work as an interpreter in a professional cooking school, where I witnessed the rigid training, technical know-how and precision that went into each dish and pastry, from preparation to plating, confirming my opinion that French cuisine was complex and meticulous, impressive and intimidating.
 
But Madeleine’s cooking was far from all that. Her food was hearty and unadorned, yet so flavorful. No trendy or costly ingredients went into her one-pot dishes, no spices beyond salt and pepper, no sauces other than homemade bechamel, mayonnaise or vinaigrette whisked up quickly with a fork. There was little precision or delicacy: She would roughly chop leeks, potatoes, beets, shallots and carrots, staples of her cooking, with a wobbly, chipped paring knife, the bits of peel flicking all over the cheap vinyl tablecloth. Her recipes were estimates of classic dishes that were assembled and seasoned “au pif,” by taste and intuition.
 
Early in the morning she would prepare stews, leaving them to simmer on their own while she went back to work, or casseroles that she would pop into the oven between errands.
 
Ratatouille, veal blanquette, guinea fowl wrapped in cabbage, boeuf bourguignon and fondue weren’t fancy company cooking. They were economical, filling, easy everyday fare that, once assembled, basically cooked themselves, requiring no intricate technique to take time away from family and job.
 
When dessert was served beyond the cheese platter, it was plain poundcake, fruit pressed into a sweet pastry crust or rice pudding. Nothing was thrown away. Leftovers were always re-purposed into something else.
 
How was this French cuisine? I wondered. Le Bec Fin, Le Cirque, Lutèce, Le Bernardin, the pristine white traiteur in SoHo where the woman in a white blouse and black pencil skirt served tiny, perfectly roasted chickens for a splurge, the chic coq au vin we labored over for French Club — this was French cuisine!
 
But Madeleine’s cooking, I would discover, is just what I found in most French homes — more rustic or refined, depending on the household, but the same traditional dishes, the same casual, economical, uncomplicated approach. So how could what I had perceived as French cuisine back home be so different from what I was dining on with my new family and friends?
 
I dove into the history of French cuisine to understand where I had gone wrong.
 
 
To put it rather simply, French cuisine has developed across the centuries along two parallel paths: The first was what was cooked in royal kitchens for kings and queens, using spices and other ingredients that were rare and costly. Chefs continually pushed themselves to impress their patrons, developing sauces, cooking techniques and even new modes of presentation that expanded their repertoire.
 
This type of aristocratic cooking was innovative, exotic and elaborate. Foreign influences and ingredients brought back from expeditions around the world infiltrated their recipes and took much longer to trickle down to the common people. This opulent style of cooking has long defined French cuisine.
 
French home cooking, on the other hand, was a classic cuisine pauvre, humble yet hearty, developing at a much slower pace far from royal kitchens. Ingredients were locally accessible, often homegrown, and recipes were economically frugal and quick to execute, both by necessity. With no servants, the middle and lower classes tossed ingredients together and left them simmering while they started their workday, enjoying a hot, one-pot meal at noon that would fill them up and give them the energy to go back to work after their midday break.
 
Greensboro News & Record
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