After a weekend full of French food, good friends, five bottles of wine, four movies and three loads with the dishwasher, my birthday weekend is coming to an end and it was the perfect climax to an amazing French week. I spent all week leading up to my birthday cooking French food and watching movies and listening to French music. There were so many French foods to choose from when deciding what to cook this week, but unfortunately my eyes and appetite are bigger than my bank account so I had to cross off duck confit, escargot, rack of lamb, and foie gras from my list. However, there are still plenty of options, including ratatouille, that I was able to make.
“Ratatouille, but it’s a peasant dish,” is a line from Disney/Pixar’s movie Ratatouille.
It is an incredibly simple dish to make so it was the perfect place to start. Also, it is one of my favorite movies, partly because it is a movie about cooking and food and partly because it is amazing. For those sorry sorts who haven’t had a chance to see this movie yet, it is about a rat who works with a poor kitchen garbage boy to create amazing French food eventually taking over a famous French restaurant. Peter O’Toole plays the harsh food critic who is won over by Remy the rat’s amazing layered ratatouille. Ever since the first time I saw this movie, I have wanted to make this dish. First step, buy a mandolin. No, not the musical instrument, but the food slicer so that I could slice the vegetables all the same width and very thin. I made a quick tomato sauce with a can of diced tomatoes, one fresh tomato, basil, and some diced onion and garlic. I cooked them on the stove until the tomatoes softened and the sauce was fragrant. I sliced up eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash on my mandolin.
After spreading a layer of tomato sauce in a baking dish I layered the vegetable slices in two concentric circles. Make sure when you buy the vegetables, they are all relatively the same width so that the slices are all about the same size. You will need to use Chinese eggplant or Indian eggplant since they are smaller.
Then simply bake until vegetables are golden and the sauce is bubbling!
I couldn’t quite plate it like Remy the rat, but it was still quite tasty! I also cooked the sliced vegetables that didn’t fit in the baking dish on the stove with the rest of the tomato sauce to make more of a traditional stew.
On Tuesday I watched The Pink Panther after making croque monsieur. It must have been a while since I saw this Peter Sellers classic because even though Inspector Clouseau is French, the movie mostly takes place in Italy. However, still a good choice for French week. Croque monsieur is traditional French sandwich that is basically fancy ham and cheese. I made open face sandwiches with ham and tomato slices and melted gruyère cheese topped with homemade béchamel sauce. Béchamel is a French creamy sauce made with butter, flour, and milk. It is pretty easy to make and extremely delicious. I’ve used it before as white pizza sauce and on vegetables.
Croque monsieur also has many variations and can be made with any number of meat and cheese. I’ve had it chicken and mozzarella and pesto, or even a vegetarian one with tomatoes and chèvre.
Continuing the week, on Wednesday some friends came over to enjoy a delicious pot of boeuf bourguignon. Since I do have a day job, I took a little bit a cheaters way out and put the stew in a crock pot before work to let it cook all day. The important things I learned about making boeuf bourguignon, you have to make sure to really sear the meat well before putting it in the pot. As silly as it sounds, cook the beef in batches to allow all sides to be completely browned, even though it takes longer. The second thing was that if you are making it in a crock pot, you don’t have to use as much liquid since the crock pot retains the moisture and you don’t want the stew to be too soupy. I added flour to the stew about a half hour before serving to thicken the sauce, but I either needed more flour or to put it in earlier to allow it to cook longer. The sauce was very good and quite flavorful, but it wasn’t quite the consistency I was hoping for. I also made toasted bread to go along and we all sat down to watch the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers starring Michael York, Charlton Heston, and many others. Classic French movie with a classic French dish!
By Thursday I realized that this goal of cooking every night was a little ambitious and I didn’t want to burn out before the weekend, so I sat down with some left over chicken pot pie I had made last week and watched Amélie.
Which brings me to the main event Friday. The one thing I knew I definitely had to make before French week was over was crème brûlée. I bough a little torch and a set of ramekins, and was ready to go. First I made the custard with cream, sugar, egg yolks, and I added a little vanilla and orange extract, but you can add any number of flavors for variations. Pour the mixture into the ramekins and bake in a dish with a layer of water on the bottom, then store them in the fridge for a few hours to let them set. Once those were done I started prepping everything else. The challenges for this dinner was going to be the timing. I had planned four courses and I wanted to be able to serve my guests each course hot and in a timely fashion but still be able to sit and enjoy my dinner with them. The menu I had planned out went as follows: wild mushroom tarts, steamed mussels in white wine and garlic, chicken cordon bleu with lyonnaise potato and roasted asparagus, and for dessert, the crème brûlée and chocolate truffles. With the crème brûlée in the fridge and the truffles had been made already, the next step was to prep the chicken.
Chicken cordon bleu is chicken breasts, ham, and swiss cheese rolled up, breaded, and baked. I decided to do a little twist and not bread the chicken completely. Instead I flattened the chicken breasts and put the ham and cheese layer on the chicken, folding it over and securing it with a toothpick. I put the chicken in a baking dish and set aside until I was ready to cook it. Next, I prepared the mushroom tart filling because I was going to bake the tarts, the filling could be prepared ahead of time and it would be warmed up in the oven. I chopped up oyster mushrooms and cooked them in a skillet with onions and garlic and a little butter. Once the mushrooms browned I set them aside in a bowl. I cut off the ends of the asparagus and arranged them on an aluminum lined sheet pan giving them a toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and set aside with the chicken. Then to make lyonnaise potatoes. These style of potatoes are often cut into slices, blanched, and then sautéed in butter and garlic. This style of potatoes are from Lyon, but there is a very loose definition as to the exact method of preparation. This a always music to my ears, since I often find it difficult to follow directions. It is one of the many reasons I prefer cooking to baking: less chance of screwing up if you stray from the recipe, especially since I make up a lot of what I cook anyway. So, that being said, I used baby potatoes and quartered them. Blanching veggies just means dropping them in already boiling water for about two minutes. While they were cooking I sautéed more onions and garlic (pretty much the magic fairy dust of most foods) and chopped up some parsley. Drained the potatoes and on medium heat in the potato pot I add the onions, garlic and potatoes with just a little bit of butter. After cooking for a few minutes to finish cooking the potatoes, I added the parsley and gave it a good stir. I was able to leave it on the stove and just turned on the heat when I put the chicken in the oven so that they could heat up again.
Just before my guests were expected, I took out the mussels and put them in a colander to wash them. Normally, you should soak mussels in water with a little flour in it to draw out any sand or grit that might be in the shells. Since I don’t really have a big enough bowl to fit them all and the pot had my potatoes in it, I skipped this step this time. However, I took a brush and scrubbed and rinsed all the mussels. If there are any open mussels or ones with broken shells, you should throw them away since that means they are already dead. I pulled out my brand new dutch oven and added a little olive oil, garlic and onions (sensing a pattern here?) and cooked until the onions were clear. Then I added the mussels, white wine, butter, and chopped parsley. Give it a good stir to coat all the shells and then cover them and cook for about 20 minutes. While the mussels cooked I took out some frozen puff pastry sheets. As I have said before, I’m not the best baker so decided to take the easy way out and buy frozen puff pastry. It is way easier and still tastes pretty good. I cut each sheet into 6 pieces and laid out 8 of the on a sheet pan. I wrapped the others in wax paper and put them back in the freezer. I put a thin slice of gruyère cheese on each pastry and I spooned a heaping teaspoon of mushroom filling on the center of each rectangle, then brush the edges with an egg wash. Bake until the edges are golden brown and then topped with goat cheese.
Now that everything was prepped or cooking, I was ready for my friends to arrive. We opened up a couple bottles of wine and I served up the mushroom tarts.
I wanted the dinner to be family style so once we were done with the tarts, I put out a couple bowls for shells and just put the dutch oven right in the center of the table for everyone to help themselves. Any mussels that don’t open during cooking should be discarded, but the ones that opened were delicious! Of course I also served up some baguette slices to sop up any sauce.
As soon as I put the mussels on the table I took the chicken and brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled some breadcrumbs on top, baked in the oven at 375, setting the timer for 20 minutes. I also turned on the burner the potatoes were sitting on medium-low. When the timer went off I put the asparagus in the oven and set the timer for an additional 20 minutes, this way they would both be ready at the same time. This also ensured that the entree would be ready just as we were finishing the mussels or close to it.
I am also working on my food presentation. I’ve always admired restaurants and chefs who have the ability to plate food so beautifully. I’m not quite there yet, but I’ll keep working at it. Needless to say my friends definitely were amused at my meticulous picture taking before I started eating.
After three courses of food, understandably we needed a little break before dessert. I chose The Scarlet Pimpernel as the movie of the night. Staring Anthony Andrews, Jane, Seymour, and Ian McKellen, it is one of my favorite movies, and is based on the book by Baroness Orczy. It tells the story of Sir Percy Blakeney who rescues French aristocrats from the Madame le guillotine during the Reign of Terror. He is a master of disguise and poor Chauvelin (McKellen) doesn’t stand a chance.
Halfway through the movie we took a break and dished up dessert. I pulled the crème brûlée out of the fridge and sprinkled the top with sugar. Now comes the fun part: I got to break in my new torch! People who know me may be rather worried about giving me access to such a dangerous cooking tool, but after a few lighting issues in the beginning, we, as a group, collectively were able to figure out how to use it.
And they tasted amazing!
The other adventure of dessert is that I had made two different kinds of truffles but coated them all in cocoa powder, and then stored them in the same container. oops! So my friends and I got to play, orange or chili pepper? Luckily everyone liked both kinds so there wasn’t too much risk in taking a bite. They were all extremely good sports and assured me that everything was delicious. I choose to believe them, if only because it is my birthday and I like to be happy on my birthday!
To round off my French week I hosted brunch on Saturday complete with quiche, crêpes and croissants. I did attempt to make croissants from scratch but realized too late that they apparently require three days and many steps in order to create that layered flaky deliciousness. I have a new-found respect for bakers who make croissants and I, instead served croissant shaped biscuits because they didn’t have the proper time to rise. I made two kinds of quiche: bacon/mushroom/spinach and tomato/mushroom/goat cheese and I used the leftover mushroom/bacon mixture as a topping option for people who wanted savory crêpes. For the sweet crêpes I had raspberries, oranges, blueberries, powdered sugar, and maple syrup. We had coffee, hot chocolate and orange juice to perfectly round out a week of France and cooking.
Thank you to all those who helped make my birthday week so much fun and special thanks to Steve and Judy for introducing me to a great Pandora station that provided my French soundtrack for the week: 60s French Pop.
Next week I think I’ll be tackling Iceland, so tune in next time!
Merci et au revoir!