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Even people who claim to love food with near obsession will often tell you that cooking for yourself is either a waste of time or horribly self-indulgent. It wasn’t that long ago that I counted myself among them. Since a large part of eating is sharing and connecting with others, cooking was something I did to nurture family and entertain friends. I always wanted to impress people with what I made, which always added an element of stress to my time in the kitchen and made the whole process of cooking less pleasurable. Everything had to be timed just so and look worthy of the pages of Gourmet magazine. It was easy to forget the whole point of getting together and eating in the first place. It all got lost in some misplaced drive for perfection.
There were times when I came home from work and poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner. Or fixed myself a sandwich, even though I had already had one for lunch. I cooked for myself, but not every day. I didn’t eat packaged foods; I made fresh food, but the sort of food one makes when in a hurry or not wanting to make much of a fuss. Pasta with a bit of bottled pesto. Store-bought skewers of chicken thrown on the grill and eaten with a green salad and a microwaved sweet potato. Nothing was inherently wrong with this food, it just wasn’t very exciting. Furthermore, it wasn’t food I would ever serve anyone but myself.
Everything changed when I began writing this blog. I started Gratinée when I decided that I wanted to become a food and travel writer. I wanted a portfolio of writing samples I could show editors; this was my main motivation. But when you put so much work into something, you want others to read it consistently. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge audience, but I wanted a loyal one. People who would come to this site and find something compelling in the narrative, inspiring in the recipes, and keep coming back. To this end, I knew that the writing mattered, but that the photography and recipes I chose would also be paramount. The photography is an evolution, and I try my best with my limited resources i.e. major lighting challenges. The recipes represented here are for the type of food that I love to eat. Simple, classic dishes, often French or inspired by French technique, comforting and bursting with robust flavor, composed of fresh and easy to find ingredients.
When I started cooking for this blog, I was essentially cooking for one. I offered the full recipe, but always cut the ingredients by half, or even three-quarters. I froze a lot of food and began inviting people for dinner more often. Posting recipes that people would want to make required more. More ingredients, more herbs and spices, more trips to the grocery store. It required more of me. Because I was accountable to this project, I had to come home and cook something new instead of just plopping on the couch.
I learned a lot. I learned how to cook new dishes, of course, but I also learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. Through my exploration and sourcing of better quality ingredients, my palate changed. I learned what a really good cheese should taste like. I began to love cilantro even though I once hated it. I found my voice, not only in terms of how I wanted to say things, but also in the kitchen.
Here is what I noticed when I began cooking for myself with some effort; the things that I cooked, more often than not, turned out perfectly. Much better than they did when I cooked these same things for others. When I cooked for myself, I didn’t have to impress anyone. I felt much more relaxed about the whole process when it didn’t matter whether my souffle fell or not. No one else was going to eat it but me. Even when my food didn’t look that great, it always tasted fine. Learning this was a kind of liberation, wholly unexpected.
There are days when I still want something fast, something that I can throw together in a matter of minutes. But I’m no longer satisfied with the standard fare of singledom. The other day I noticed that in almost eight months of blogging that I have posted only one pasta recipe. This is amazing to me, because for years, I ate pasta on an almost daily basis. Not that there is anything wrong with pasta, but writing this blog has taught me that there is so much more in the world to cook and eat.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch dried rosemary
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
basil, chopped chiffonade style
juice of half
1) Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon juice and butter in a mixing bowl. Toss the prawns to make sure they are well coated.
2) Melt the butter in a skillet over high heat. Add prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until they turn pink and cooked through.
3) Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with more chopped basil, if desired. Best eaten with slices of French baguette or pita.
Where were you when you heard the news? I was hunched over my desk, eating a sandwich and perusing the articles on Salon.com ,when I stumbled upon the announcement that after a run of almost seventy years, Conde Nast was pulling the plug on Gourmet, the grand dame of food magazines. Even in this dreadful economy, this decision seems shocking to me. Gourmet began in 1941 during World War II, a time of food shortages, a time when food was not deemed worthy as a serious subject. It thrived despite the growing dominance of processed food and large agribusiness, and was there for all the major culinary movements in the decades since its inception. That its demise is being attributed to elitism in some circles is almost laughable.
Gourmet was out of touch with what was happening in American kitchens, they say. Its long and literary articles were not appealing enough to the masses. Who else but Ruth Reichl would publish a 6000-word treatise on boiling lobster, written by the brilliant yet often incomprehensible David Foster Wallace, who until his death last year, was deemed the most important novelist of his generation. Certainly, the articles on road food and falafel joints could not be called elitist, though these articles were couched between write-ups of five-star Parisian hotels and dining recommendations for some of the toniest establishments in America– establishments that you and I have very little hope of ever visiting. To be sure, Gourmet magazine sold the good life. A life that few of us could afford.
But what of it? Is that not what most magazines do? I don’t know about you, but I have not once picked up a copy of Vogue to help me decide which five-thousand dollar Louis Vuitton bag I’m going to buy this fall. I have never felt bad about my life because I could not afford a pair of red-soled Christian Laboutin shoes. Vogue has always represented a fantasy, an escape from the routine of everyday life. It has served as a sort of jumping off point of inspiration, and in this way, Gourmet was no different. Although I read the magazine for years, I rarely cooked any of the recipes. I reveled in the sumptuous photography, read the well-written articles with the rapt attention of a scholar pouring over a sacred text, and when I was done, waited eagerly for the next issue to come in the mail. Most importantly, Gourmet got me into the kitchen. It gave me new ideas, a deeper knowledge of technique and flavor combinations. It taught me what I had once not considered–that despite its inherent pleasure, eating is ultimately an ethical or unethcial act, depending on how you go about it.
I think that it is this jarring reality, not the perception of elitism, that affected the magazine’s bottom line and partly led to its demise. It’s not that we are unwilling to spend a few bucks in tough times in order to be transported because we so clearly are. When we are told that the tomatoes we eat were picked by someone who lives in virtual slavery, it makes us very uncomfortable. It asks us to change the way we eat, the way we shop and think about food. And as we all know, change is hard. It’s something we’d rather not do. With its focus on food politics under Reichl’s stewardship, Gourmet had a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves and showing us parts that many of us were perhaps not quite ready to see.
She was not an actress, not a singer, not a Kennedy–but a cook. Yet Julia Child remains one of the most iconic and well-loved Americans of the last century. It’s no exaggeration to say that if it weren’t for her and her classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking we’d all be eating boxed potatoes and canned green beans for dinner. There would be no boeuf bourguignon, no sidewalk creperies, no tarte aux pommes. No Martha Stewart or Ina Garten. No Food Network. Perhaps there would be no arugula, five dollar loaves of sourdough bread, or people willing to pay four bucks for a cup of coffee. Julia Child, among James Beard, Alice Waters and a handful of others, began an American culinary revolution that is still in an upswing. She took the grandest and most complicated cuisine in the Western world and made it accessible. “If you can read,” she used to say, “you can cook”. And how true this is, as long as you have Julia at your side.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Julia Child was. I used to watch her on re-runs of The French Chef when I was a kid, fascinated by her stature and that high-pitched warbly voice; I wondered if she was serious. Although she was deft and full of kitchen knowledge, she still made mistakes. Things didn’t always come out perfectly but that was a part of her charm. She made you feel like cooking wasn’t so hard and that if she could learn to do it, you could too. When I first started buying cookbooks, I bought Julia’s. She was the most famous, I reasoned, therefore the most trustworthy. The Way to Cook and Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom became bibles for me. But somehow, I never bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was somewhat intimidated by French cooking, and many of the recipes seemed overly involved and complicated. It took me a long time to realize what I was missing.
Certainly, it can take a good day to make a cassoulet or canard en croute, but there is so much more to this comprehensive and detailed cookbook. There are many simple recipes that don’t require fussy ingredients. Recipes that can take you from fumbling uncertainty in the kitchen to a confidence that you, you too can make French food–and make it well.
Now this is a lot–but there’s more. As much as Julia has been an inspiration in the kitchen, I find her inspiring in another–dare I say even more important–way. Julia Child was a late bloomer. In an age where most women married straight out of high school, she was in her thirties before she met Paul Child, the love of her life and constant companion for fifty years. She was also well into her thirties before she ever picked up a saucepan. She spent ten years working on MTAOFC and didn’t experience her first real achievement in life until she was almost fifty. When success finally shone its light on Julia Child, it shone with all its glory. Whenever I think that I will never find the person who gets me, who will always have my back, I think of Julia. When I feel I haven’t accomplished enough in my life, that I’m not where I want to be–that I should just give up–I think of Julia. She has taught me that it’s never too late, and that if you truly have a passion for something and you work hard enough, success will ultimately come.
On August 7, 2009, Sony Pictures will release Julie & Julia , a movie long-anticipated by foodies everywhere. To celebrate, the lovely Helene from La Cuisine d’Helene came up with the wonderful idea to have a Mastering the Art of French Cooking challenge in which several food bloggers agreed to cook recipes from Julia’s book and post them today.
Check out what some of us are cooking:
Salad Nicoise at La Cuisine d’Helene
Potage Parmentier and Chocolate Mousse at La Fuji Mama
Cherry Clafouti at More Than Burnt Toast
Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale and Biscuit au Beurre at Lisa is Cooking
Oeuf a la Bourgiugnonne at Confessions of a Cardamom Addict
Fresh Peach Ginger Peasant Cakes at Passionate about Baking
As for me, I decided to make Rapee Morvandelle, a gratin (of course!) of shredded potatoes with ham, eggs and onions. I thought no egg dish could top my beloved quiche, but this little dish is even better. The potato gives it substance and the ham is a perfect foil for the flavor of the slightly caramelized onions. Dotted with bits of golden butter, it’s like the mostly heavenly of potato pancakes.
Julia Child’s Rapee Morvandelle
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup (3 ounces) finely diced cooked ham
1/2 clove crushed garlic
2 tablespoons minced parsley, chevril and/or chives
2/3 cup (3 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
4 tablespoons whipping cream, light cream, or milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium potatoes (3 ounces)
an additional 2 1/2 teaspoons butter
1) Preheat the oven to 375F. Cook the onion slowly in the oil and butter until tender but not browned. About 5 minutes.
2) Raise heat slightly. Stir in ham and cook a moment more.
3) Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl with the garlic, herbs, cheese, cream or milk, and seasonings. Then blend in ham and onions.
4) Peel the potatoes and grate them, using large holes of grater. A handful at a time, squeeze out their water. Check seasonings.
5) Heat the butter in an 11-12 inch dish. When foaming, pour in the potato and egg mixture. Dot with butter.
6) Set in the upper third of preheated oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Serve directly from dish.
A year ago I was in Paris for the first time. It was a trip I’d dreamed of going on for years, and when the opportunity presented itself I didn’t hesitate to take it. I love to travel, and although I like lying on a sandy beach with a strawberry margarita as much as the next girl, my idea of a great holiday is a couple of weeks touring any of Europe’s great cities. I love museum hopping, wandering through art galleries, and sitting at a sidewalk cafe people-watching. I love to sample the local cuisine and wander aimlessly through the city streets, trying to soak up the energy of the place so I can always remember how it felt to be there.
I had some niggling doubts about Paris before I went. I was visiting a friend but during the week I would be on my own a lot while he was at work. I didn’t speak a lick of French, although I’m Canadian and we’re required to study it in school. I always found the pronunciation impossible, the grammar and spelling arduous. I studied Italian in university. I really liked Italian. Unlike French, it’s a phonetic language; once you learn the alphabet you can pretty much read it and write it.
The fact that I didn’t speak French wouldn’t have bothered me as much had I not heard that French people are rude to you if you don’t. Actually, every person I knew who had been to Paris told me that they were rude no matter what you did. There’s a saying I’ve heard repeated ad naseum. Something like, “Wonderful country France…pity about the French.”
Granted, I didn’t spend a long time in Paris–eight days–but I didn’t find French people rude at all. They weren’t friendly in the same way North Americans are, which people from other cultures sometimes find superficial. But in my experience, they weren’t rude. I think that a bright smile and a friendly attitude can serve you well no matter where you go. I’d like to think that my positive spirit was reflected back to me.
So in that same positive spirit, today I’ve decided to reflect on a few of the reasons I love France–and the French. I’m happy in my city and when I get right down to it, I wouldn’t really want to live anywhere else. But there are some things that I appreciate about France so much that I wish they were bigger part of North American culture…
1. For me, and perhaps many of you since you read food blogs, what I love most about France is the food. It’s a food lover’s paradise. Every other storefront is a bakery or cheese shop. You can go into any Monoprix or basic supermarket and for a couple of euros come out with the type of quality Camembert you would pay at least twelve bucks for in North America. The French take food and eating very seriously. There are stringent laws that protect the quality of their breads and cheeses and their chickens. There are even laws that limit the number of big box type of supermarkets that are allowed to go up. Sure, bad food can be found everywhere–even in France. But as far as I’m concerned, the less there is of it, the better.
2. The markets. Farmer’s markets have grown more and more popular in North America but we need a lot more of them. One of the reasons I think the French eat so well is that it’s easy for them to drop by their neighborhood market and pick up whatever they’re going to make for dinner. The food is fresh and they don’t waste money hauling bags of vegetables home from the supermarket only to throw them away a week later because they couldn’t get around to eating them all.
This past weekend I went to the Granville Island Market , our most popular market here in Vancouver, where you can get fresh produce, artisan cheeses and a variety of gourmet foodstuffs all under one roof. Although I went there shortly after opening, it was so packed that I had difficulty finding parking. I think that people are more concerned about what they eat and how it affects the environment. They want to shop like this. What they don’t want is to have to get into their car and drive to five different shops for their meat, bread, and vegetables. The French way is more convenient, with markets peppered throughout small towns and every city neighborhood.
3. Bakeries. OK, so this is also related to food … but is there anything better than a freshly baked French baguette from a Paris bakery? I think non. I am one of those people who could live on bread alone and am always on the search for the perfect ciabbatta or the flakiest croissant. One of the best meals I had in Paris was my first–a few slices of baguette smeared with Camembert cheese, eaten with a tomato and endive salad and chunks of sausage. I couldn’t believe the bread. It was crispy on the outside, chewy and unctuous on the inside. I would never dream of eating pastries for breakfast at home, but in France I started every morning off with an almond croissant or pain au chocolat without a scrap of guilt. They were just too good to pass up. Now I understand why people line up so patiently outside of French bakeries.
4. Cafe Culture. I saw one Starbucks when I was in Paris–at the Louvre museum. There is nothing more quintessentially French than a deep, dark espresso taken at a corner zinc bar or a cafe creme imbibed at a crowded sidewalk cafe. The French hold their traditions dear, and there is a lot of cultural resistance to the proliferation of companies like Starbucks, with its throwaway coffee cups and huge bakery sweets. Starbucks may have found a little niche in France, catering to tourists and French university students, but with the high costs of doing business over there, it’s not making a profit.
I’m not bashing Starbucks. I do my fair share of hanging out there. But the European-style combination of the cafe/bar is what I like the most. It’s nice to get together with friends and have coffee when you don’t feel like drinking, or have a beer or an aperitif while they have coffee, if that’s what you feel like. I’m not much of a drinker but I like to go to bars for a leisurely glass of wine with a friend. To me there is nothing more annoying than a waitress coming around every five minutes asking me if I want another drink or requesting my beverage order in a restaurant before I’ve even opened the menu. That doesn’t happen in France.
5. French people read. And we’re not talking cheesy romance novels on the Metro. We’re talking Sartre. Camus. Alexandre Dumas. I first noticed this on the plane from Frankfurt to Paris. Every other French person had their nose in a book. On the transcontinental flight to Europe I hadn’t noticed one person reading anything but a magazine. The Metro is full of people reading novels on their way to work. If the publishing industry is in decline and people are buying less books, its not happening in France.
Books have always been a big passion of mine. It’s nice to see that in this age of technology that books are still important to a lot of people. Being intellectual is highly prized in France, unlike in Anglo-Saxon culture, where its seems quirky or pretentious. Out of all the little things I noticed about the French and their ways, this impressed me the most.
These are some of the things that I really liked about my stay in Paris. What about you? Have you been to France? What did you like about French culture?
Note: The top two photos of Paris shown here come from Microsoft Office clipart, as my own pictures of Paris were lost in a hard drive malfunction.
Ever since the tender age of twelve when my adventures in the kitchen began in earnest, most of my attempts to bring a recipe off the printed page have ended up in the garbage with tears of frustration, or recriminations over wasted time and expensive ingredients. At best, they have left the lingering impression of something missing–a crucial ingredient or flavor–or a misstep on my part, caused by a lack of knowledge of some important technique that the cookbook assumed I’d have. I concede that my failures are mostly my fault but I don’t believe all of them are. Some recipes just don’t make sense. For example, one day I set out to make a recipe for zucchini in cream sauce created by a Famous TV Chef. The recipe called for heavy cream but no thickener. No flour. No egg. Nothing. Alarm bells sounded in my head. How was I supposed to make a cream sauce without a thickener, or at least instructions to reduce the cream? Full of doubt, I went ahead and made the recipe as printed. After all, The Famous Chef was Cordon Bleu trained with several cookbooks to her credit. She appeared daily in millions of people’s living rooms. What did I know? I ended up with a mess of soggy spears of zucchini floating in a soup of tasteless cream.
Now don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t love cookbooks because I do. I collect them the way some people collect ceramic figurines or Elvis memorabilia. Like an incurable romantic who is in love with love itself, I am in love with coobooks. I love the glossy photos, the alchemy of ingredients, the promise of endless pleasures at the table. But the recipes contained within my cookbooks are nothing but a starting point for me, an idea mill. I rarely follow one exactly because I am convinced that I’ll be disappointed with the results.
I am purely an improvisational cook. Over the years I think I’ve become a pretty decent one, honing my skills through trial and error, learning techniques from my mother–an accomplished cook whose idea of a measuring cup is an old brown stoneware mug from the 1970s. Obviously, she’s more of a natural in the kitchen than I. Lately, however, I have come to realize how limited my repertoire really is. Dinner at my house, whether I’m dining alone or having guests over, invariably inolves a pasta or curry dish, or something gratinee. I am the Queen of Gratins (hence the title of this blog). Dessert is uninvolved, usually requiring no baking, like tiramisu or chocolate mousse. Meat is something I have in restaurants or at other people’s homes because, apart from roasting chicken in the oven, I don’t really know what to do with it. Although I sometimes manage to impress people with my cooking, I rarely impress myself. For someone so passionate about food, I feel like I need to know a lot more about cooking than I do.
So, I think it’s time to get back to the basics. Take some of those cookbooks down from the shelf and go back to the beginning. What I have learned from all my improvisation in the kitchen is that cooking a dish well means cooking it over and over until you get it right. When you learn to cook one perfectly, you move on to another. We expect magic from our cookbooks because they are backed by test kitchens and authoritative chefs, but the science of cooking (and to a greater extent, baking) is too complicated to reduce to a set of givens. Variances in oven temperatures, humidity, and elevation, as well in the quality of the ingredients we use, are all factors that influence how a recipe turns out.
Maybe if I take a recipe that appeals to me and give it a proper chance, tweaking it until it makes sense for me, I just might cook something truly fantastic.