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Given a chance to live a life other than my own, I would choose to live Laura Calder’s, the quirky yet charming host of Food Network Canada’s French Food at Home. Despite its ups and downs, I don’t often wish my life to be any different from what it is. What would be the point? I’m also one of the least jealous people around, but can I just tell you that this woman’s CV sends me into paroxysms of envy?
Although she is currently a popular television personality and a cookbook author, Laura Calder began her career trajectory in journalism and public relations, after studying linguistics as an undergraduate and acquiring a Master’s degree at the London School of Economics. Laura soon realized that this path was not for her and enrolled in a program at a well-respected culinary school in Vancouver. Her diploma led to work in the Napa Valley and subsequently France, where she worked for British cookery writer Anne Willan at her school in Burgundy.
Laura ended up staying in France for the better part of a decade, which is where she wrote her first cookbook and contributed to a variety of magazines such as Gourmet, Vogue Entertaining and Travel, and Gastronomica. Finally, she returned to Canada and began shooting for the Food Network.
What I find so fascinating about Laura Calder, and so many other well-known chefs and food writers, is that she achieved a high level of education and career success before considering a life in food. Ina Garten also has a Master’s degree and used to work on energy policy for the White House. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten was once a lawyer. Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine, has an M.A. in Art History. When you have an all-consuming passion for food, it calls out to you. Food comes first. You cook it, eat it, read about it, talk about it, and spend all your money on it. It’s one of those passions that can’t be ignored. You may start off wanting to be an economist, a teacher, to work in banking, but sooner or later … food is going to get you.
So here I sit at forty, on the verge of my third career change, a career that has nothing to do with food, a part of me regretting that I hadn’t taken a different path. In the meantime, I have been writing about food: blogging, pitching magazines with a modicum of success–success I hope to build upon. I don’t know where it will lead, but hopefully somewhere. It’s always been my firm belief that when you work hard at something and have a passion for it, you can’t possibly fail. You just can’t give up too soon.
Laura Calder’s Coq au Riesling
6 chicken legs, split at the joint
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil
4 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Cognac
1 cup Riesling
1/2 cup stock
1 tablespoon butter, more if needed
1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered
1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
chopped parsley or tarragon, for garnish
1) Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and butter in a saute pan and brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches. Remove it to a plate and add the shallots and garlic to the pan. Cook for one minute.
2) Pour the Cognac in the pan to deglaze. Put the chicken back into the pan. Pour the wine and the stock over the chicken. Cover and cook until the chicken is tender–about twenty minutes-turning once.
3) In the meantime, melt a bit of butter in a frying pan and cook the mushrooms until golden. When the chicken is cooked remove it to a platter and keep warm. Boil the cooking liquid down to sauce consistency. Stir in the cream and mushrooms. Correct the seasonings. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Scatter with parsley and serve.
Although crêpes are often thought of as the province of the French, similar pancakes abound in countries as diverse as Greece and Iceland. Crêpes were a staple in my household when I was growing up. We knew them as palancinka, the paper think pancake ubiquitous in the countries formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. We would have them as a simple dessert on weekends, smothering them with jam or preserves, cinnamon, or cottage cheese and sugar.
Crêpes were the first thing I ever successfully made in the kitchen without a recipe. I would mix together an egg with some milk, throw in some flour and a pinch of salt and voila! the perfect little pancakes. I had no idea how I did it, but they were always delicious. I’d whip up stacks of them for my friends, who would look at me as if I were Julia Child incarnate.
Then somehow I stopped.
Years went by without my making a single crêpe. I cannot now fathom the reason. Perhaps I was busy with school and work and trying to create a life for myself. My twenties are a crêpeless blur.
Then one night, facing an empty fridge and an intense craving for something doughy and sweet, I decided to revisit my old friend.
The results were disastrous. The crêpes were rubbery. They stuck to the pan and tasted plain awful. What had I done wrong? Had I not once been the crêpe master?
I turned to the only person whom I knew could help me out of this mess.
One of her books, aptly named Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, contained a simple, master recipe that you can use for both sweet and savory crêpes. Although some recipes for sweet crêpes call for sugar, I find that this makes them stick to the pan.
Be sure to allow the batter to refrigerate for at least half an hour, to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, which will give you a tender crêpe. Instant-blending or all-purpose flour may be used, although the former will need less time in the fridge. You may have to experiment with the temperature of your range to get the heat right; the crepes must cook through to a golden color without burning,
If you are not using them right away, cool the crêpes thoroughly, stack and refrigerate for two days, or freeze them for several weeks.
This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.
Julia Child’s Master Crêpe Recipe
1 cup flour
2/3 cup cold milk
2/3 cup cold water
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan
1) Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate.
2) Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.
3) Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.
4) Cool on a rack or plate as you finish making the rest. Serve as desired.
Baked snails–escargots, as the French call them–is not a dish that many children outside of France recall from their childhood. For my brother and I, escargots conjure up memories of elegant dining rooms with heavy silverware and courteous waiters. Although they were hard-working, middle-class immigrants, my parents liked the good life. They traveled, made their own wine, ate in fine restaurants–and saw no reason to exclude their children from any of that. For this I am forever grateful. Their attitude has had a large part in shaping who I am in a positive way.
As a kid, I always had very firm ideas about what I liked to eat; although I was not as adventurous as my younger brother, I was always willing to try new things. I vividly remember tasting my first escargot, slightly squeamish at first, but ultimately reveling in the strange and unfamiliar texture and the intense flavor of the hot butter and crushed garlic. I would eat the sole of a shoe if it were browned in butter.
Still, I always had trouble connecting escargots to the snails that crawled along the underbrush of lettuce in our garden, much in the way many people fail to connect the perfectly packaged meat in the supermarket to animals in slaughterhouses. Some people can do this really well and become vegetarians. Others, like myself, remain unrepentant carnivores.
Then my mother told me how she had made escargots for our family while she was in Serbia. I was dumbfounded . “But where did you get the snails?” I asked her. I couldn’t imagine you could find cans of snails in Serbian supermarkets. Back then it was difficult to even find feta cheese.
My mother laughed. “Well, the garden, of course.”
“Good thing you didn’t poison anyone,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach. But at least now I got it.
Making snails edible is a lot of work. You have to purge them of toxins, clean them, simmer them, and extract the snails from their shells before you can eat them. No wonder most people buy them already prepared–and still in those attractive shells. For less than a couple of dollars, though, you can buy canned escargots the world over. Rinse them and they’re ready to sauté with parsley and garlic butter. When I confess that I sometimes make escargots for lunch, people look at my as though I’m a lunatic. Or at least extremely self-indulgent. I won’t argue with the latter. But making escargots doesn’t have to take any longer than putting together a sandwich, and eating them can be a lot more exciting.
This recipe is from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, my favorite French cookbooks of late. Anne has a whole chapter on snails and frog legs in this beautiful book, and even a write-up on how to catch and prepare your own snails for hard-core escargot enthusiasts.
Escargots à la Bourguignonne
one 14-ounce/390-g can large or medium snails
2 or more garlic cloves, to taste
1 cup/250-g butter, softened
3 tablespoons/45-ml cognac
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1) Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Drain and thoroughly rinse the snails. To make the compound butter, combine the shallot and garlic in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the butter and pulse until blended.
2) Work in the cognac, salt, pepper, and then the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If more garlic is desired, mince it first so it mixes into the compound butter evenly.
3) Add a small dollop of butter to each section of escargots baking dishes. Set the snails over the butter and finish with more butter. Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 5-10 minutes. * The broiler may be turned on for the last few minutes for extra browning.
4) Serve immediately alongside slices of fresh or lightly toasted French baguette.
*Be sure not to overcook or they will become very tough.
Today is an important day of sorts. A day that I–as well as thousands of foodies and food bloggers–have been awaiting anxiously for weeks now; the release of Julie & Julia featuring Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
It also marks the last day in a series of recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I have been attempting over the course of the last little while. Until Hélène from La Cuisine d’Hélène suggested a MtAoFC challenge a couple of weeks ago, my copy of Julia Child’s magnum opus sat largely unused on my bookshelf. But later is always better than never, and I’m so glad that I got the nudge to cook from this classic cookbook. I’ve always been the type of person who uses cookbooks as a starting point. I rarely cook a recipe all the way through as printed. With Mastering, however, I decided that it would only be fair to Julia and the challenge to cook the dishes exactly as described.
I’m so glad I did. Everything I’ve made has come out much better than expected. I have started out with the simpler dishes but liked them so much that I’ve made some of them twice. Although this is my last MtAoFC challenge, it’s surely not the last time I’m going to cook from Julia Child’s wonderful book.
Soupe à L’oignon Gratinée – French Onion Soup
The key to French Onion soup is the slow cooking of the onions in butter and oil, followed by a long, slow simmering in stock. This helps them to develop the rich flavor this soup is known for.
5 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 quarts beef stock, boiling
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons cognac
4-6 rounds of hard-toasted French bread
1-2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese
1) Cook the onions slowly in the butter and oil in a covered saucepan for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. The sugar will help the onions to brown. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned a deep golden brown.
2) Sprinkle in the flour and stir over heat for 3 minutes. Off heat, blend in the stock. Add the wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for another 30-40 minutes or more, skimming if needed. Correct seasonings.
3) Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Place rounds of bread in soup bowls or a tureen and pour soup on top. Sprinkle with grated cheese and brown under a hot broiler until golden and bubbly. Serve immediately.
Quiche Lorraine – Cream & Bacon Quiche
3-4 ounces lean bacon
8-inch partially cooked pastry shell
1 1/2 – 2 cups cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
pinch of nutmeg
1-2 tablespoons butter cut into pea-sized dots
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Brown bacon in a skillet. Drain on paper towels and press pieces into bottom of pastry shell.
2) Beat the eggs, cream, and seasonings in a mixing bowl until blended. Check seasonings. Pour into pastry shell and distribute butter pieces on top.
3) Set in upper third of preheated oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the quiche has puffed and browned. Slide quiche on a hot platter and serve.