By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
What a happy coincidence that Valentine’s Day should fall during the very week I’d decided to “visit” France on my year long culinary journey. Wink! Wink! Adorable hubby started it all. You see, John and I don’t go out to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We used to, but one year I finally told him the truth. I don’t really like going to a busy, crowded, noisy restaurant for what is supposed to be a romantic, intimate time with my true love. That, coupled with the fact that I don’t really like chocolate, probably makes me a very strange woman in most people’s eyes.
Anyway, the year I confessed, we decided that we would start a new tradition at home. I would cook a beautiful meal. (I always let John choose what we are having. It’s my gift to him.) He brings home a nice bottle of wine and beautiful flowers. (John is positively expert at picking out the best flowers and I adore flowers.) We send the grandbabies elsewhere for the evening. The hardest part is getting everyone else to stay away. It’s the strangest thing how just when I’m planning a romantic evening alone at home with my sweetie, sonar waves are transmitted to every living, breathing entity in a 50-mile radius, hypnotizing and drawing them magically to my house.
This year, when I asked adorable hubby for his meal choices, without hesitating, he stared off dreamily and gave me the following menu: that steak you do with the special seasoning with THE sauce, those asparagus bundles all wrapped up in bacon with THAT sauce you do and some kind of potato….oh, and that dough wrapped apple thing with THE sauce. Sounds yummy, doesn’t it? See a reccurring theme here? My husband is all about sauces. Let me interpret his menu for you. Bangin’ New York Strip with Gorgonzola Sauce, Bacon Wrapped Asparagus Bundles with Brown Sugar and Soy Sauce, Loaded Baked Potatoes and Cherry Almond Stuffed Apple Dumpling with Honey Brandy Sauce. Ahhh, now that sounds better. Lucky for me, since I’d already planned a culinary visit to France this week, most of these choices had a basis in French cuisine. Love it when I can kill two birds with one stone, as it were.
Listen, I know what you’re thinking. France? Really? All that snooty, highfalutin’, fancified food. Why would any “real” folks be interested in that? Now hold on a minute. If it weren’t for the French, we wouldn’t have Cajun food or roux for our gravy. Even doughnuts were developed as a quicker answer to French pastries. And the sauces…oh, those lovely sauces. If the French hadn’t invented the five “mother sauces”, we wouldn’t have most of the sauces and gravies we enjoy today.
Here’s the thing about French food. The French are pretty haughty about how “zee French way is zee best” and they do have fabulous, solid techniques for food preparation. The food is truly phenomenal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have adapted so much of it to make the great dishes we enjoy here. But here’s the truth about French food. Most of the food they claim as their own invention is really elements they learned and brought back from other countries during conquests and explorations or imported throughout the centuries. The French have a great knack of picking out the very best of every cuisine and adapting into their own.
For example, in the mid 1500’s, an Italian named Catherine de‘ Medici married Henry, the king of France. She brought with her Italian chefs to work in the royal kitchens. Italy was much more culinarily advanced than France in those days, so the Italian chefs were able to introduce a more refined menu and ingredients. They used exotic ingredients, such as truffles, garlic and mushrooms…ingredients we associate with French cuisine to this day.
When we think of French food, we think of expensive restaurants, cheese and wine, and maybe french fries, or Pommes Frites, as they call them. But it’s so much more than that. It was Paris that gave us the first restaurant, called a restorative, after the French revolution. It was the French chef, Escoffier, who invented the brigade system used in professional kitchens to this day. It was a system used to assign specific jobs to each cook and introduce a chain of command. Before this, one cook prepared the entire meal for a guest, however many elements it contained.
It was a French chef named Carême, previous to Escoffier, who came up with the uniform chefs wear today. It was designed doubled breasted so there would be a double layer to help protect the wearer from hot grease splatters. Further, since it is double breasted, the outer flap can be reversed so that the chef can present a clean side, unsplattered by food, as he or she goes out to greet diners. Carême also invented the five mother sauces, from which all other sauces are derived. They are béchamel, velouté, tomate, espanole, and my favorite, hollandaise.
By the way, we have our own mother sauces, the redneck mother sauces. They are as follows: gravy, hot sauce, salsa, ranch and ketchup.
France has numerous regional specialties, just as other countries. The Champagne region specializes in, you guessed it Champagne. But, more than that, it lies to the north part of the country, along with Alsace and Lorraine (ever hear of quiche Lorraine?), so they are greatly influenced by German cuisine and produce a considerable amount of beer. Game is also a specialty. But, as you travel to the southwest, in the Normandy and Brittany regions, you’ll find more of an emphasis on seafood, especially oysters. They also produce some of the most wonderful cheeses in the world and this is where crepes, as in crepes Suzette comes from. There are 27 regions in France, each with their own wonderful food specialties, so it’d take half the year to examine them all.
Luckily for me, the dishes my husband picked for his Valentine’s meal had origins mostly in the regions of Burgundy and Franche-Comté, which lies directly to the south of Champagne. This region produces many of the rich, wonderful cheeses we enjoy. They also have the perfect growing conditions to produce many great wines, as well as apples. Ever hear of burgundy wine? This wine is produced from some of the oldest grape vines in the world. It is a deep, rich, complex ruby colored wine which is a perfect match for steak. Speaking of steak, this area is where such beef dishes as beef bourguignon originated from. Oh yeah, I’m cooking from the right region all right. Ya’ll know I’m a beef lovin’ girl. The one drawback – I’d have to go to Bordeaux to get the Armagnac I needed for my dessert. It’s a rough job, but someone’s got to do it.
With all of my ingredients gathered I was cooking with gas now, as they say. As I cooked, I realized again, how quickly I was able to bring together this impressive, Valentine worthy meal. This was largely because of the training I received in a French cooking school. Once I understood those French techniques, I could cook anything with or without a recipe, and do it in the most efficient way possible.
As we finally got everyone out of the house, turned on my husband’s version of romantic music (old, classic country and western, think Faron Young), and settled down with our dinner and wine, I felt grateful. Grateful to enjoy my husband’s company, although it was a little hard to converse, what with his eyes rolling back in his head as he sopped his steak (and everything else on his plate) in the gorgonzola sauce. Grateful that I could enjoy food as good as any fancy restaurant without fighting the crowds. Grateful to John for picking some of my favorite cuisine in the world, so I’d have the opportunity to visit France in my mind, if not in person. The meal was fabulous, if I do say so myself. Let me just say, adorable hubby owes me big time. Can’t wait to see how he returns the favor!
I’ve included the dessert recipe for you. I’ve made it quite easy by substituting homemade pastry for store bought puff pastry sheets. Easy breezy and sure to impress.
Cherry Almond Stuffed Apple Dumpling with Brandy Honey Syrup
All-purpose flour, for rolling out dough
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
For the Dough
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed in refrigerator
For the Filling
2 tablespoons Armagnac, or brandy
2 tablespoons dried cherries or cranberries, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons finely ground blanched almonds
2 tablespoons light-brown sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 macintosh apples
1 lemon, cut into quarters lengthwise
4 cinnamon sticks
For the Syrup
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 cups clear apple juice
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup Armagnac, or brandy
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Combine all syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until liquid has reduced by half and has slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat; set syrup aside.
2. Combine Armagnac and cherries in a small bowl; let sit 20 minutes. Drain cherries, reserving Armagnac; add Armagnac to reserved syrup. In another small bowl, combine cherries, flour, ground almonds, brown sugar, butter, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon; mix filling well with a wooden spoon.
3. Peel apples; remove stems and top 3/4 of core, leaving 1/4 inch intact at bottom. Rub each apple with a lemon quarter to prevent discoloration. Divide filling among four apples, filling cavities. Insert a cinnamon stick into each cavity. Wrap exposed end of cinnamon stick with a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Set filled apples aside.
4. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Unfold puff pastry onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll dough to an 1/8-inch thickness, and trim to a 14-inch square. Cut 4 squares, 7 inches each, from dough. Brush entire surface of one square lightly with beaten egg white; place a filled apple in the center. Bring 2 adjacent corners of dough together at the tops, and press together to create a triangular flap. Repeat, making four flaps. Lightly brush one side of each flap with egg white, and press firmly against the apple. Repeat with remaining dough and apples. Transfer to a plate, and chill 15 minutes.
5. Mix together the egg yolk and heavy cream. Brush dumplings lightly with the egg wash, and transfer dumplings to a roasting pan, spacing dumplings at least 1 inch apart.
6. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Remove roasting pan from oven, and pour the reserved syrup over dumplings. Return pan to the oven, and bake 10 minutes more, basting twice. Continue baking dumplings until deep-golden brown, about 10 minutes more. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve dumplings with the warm syrup and vanilla ice cream, if desired.