FOOD WISE: Celebrating French cooking on Bastille Day

Creme brulee with lavender flowers

Creme brulee with lavender flowers

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

I first came to know of Bastille Day while I was a student at Le Cordon Bleu. There, Bastille Day was celebrated with all pomp and circumstance, and every manner of French delicacy. This, of course; was due to the French origin and traditions of the school.

Last Sunday, July 14th was Bastille Day and you know what that means…..an excuse for me to make lots of French food, as if I needed an excuse. What is Bastille Day, you ask? We’ll get to that in a moment but right now, it’s all about the food, as always in my world.

Allow me to just spend a sacred moment thinking about it. Tender trout meunière, flaky, buttery croissant, deep, rich coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon and cassoulet, the smokey vegetable goodness of ratatouille, delicate, creamy macaroons, profiteroles and crêpes suzette, cheesy gougères and my all time favorite…sweet, custardy, crunchy sugared crème brûlée. Ahhh! I feel like light should be shining down from heaven and angels should be singing just now.

So, Bastille Day. What is it? This is France’s national holiday. On this day, France remembers the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the beginning of the French Revolution. Adorable hubby says that it represents the only time the French have ever won a war. Get it? It was a civil war. Ha! Here’s a funny fact. At the time of its storming, the Bastille only housed seven prisoners. Seems a little anti-climactic, but the French consider it a symbol of their liberty. It marked the end of absolute monarchy and it is celebrated with parades, fireworks, parties and specially prepared foods. It’s kinda like our Independence Day.

But aren’t the French and their food kinda snooty and uppity, you ask? Well, to be honest, I did have a French chef instructor in culinary school who was pretty snooty. Always going through our garbage bowls to find scraps of food to make something out of to prove that we were wasteful and hadn’t utilized every shred of food. Always tisk-tisking our equipment and knife skills as if we were complete morons. Other than that, I have always found my French friends to be delightful and lovely.

But what about French food? Isn’t it pretentious and highfalutin’? Oh sure, I suppose some of it can be, but there is high-end, fancified food in most all countries. There are also wonderfully hearty and soul-satisfying peasant dishes that are anything but pretentious. Their boeuf (beef) bourguignon is quite akin to our beef stew. Their pommes frites, our french fries. Their cassoulet, our red beans, sausage and rice.

The great thing about French food, besides the unabashed use of butter and cream, is that the cooking techniques the French have taught us, makes all food better. If you know French cooking techniques, you can cook anything, with or without a recipe.  Furthermore, French cooking is built on layers upon layers of flavor, so food cooked after this manner is delightfully complex in flavor, texture and taste. Of course, as we’ve talked about in other articles, many foods and techniques the French lay claim to as their own are really the best of what other countries that they explored or invaded had to offer. The French were simply smart enough to adopt the best of each country as their own and if that is the case, then we are smart to learn “French” cooking techniques. By learning, we are essentially adopting the best of every country.

Another good thing about French cooking is that it is incredibly frugal and efficient. If you are looking for ways to inflation-proof your food budget, you would do well to learn some of the techniques central to French cooking. For example, if you know how to properly braise, you can make the cheapest cut of meat taste like something fit for a king.

One of the best tricks I ever learned was how to properly butcher a chicken. With practice, I’ve been able to learn to break a chicken down in about 2 1/2 minutes. For my small time investment, I have a cut up chicken for about $5-6 as opposed to $8-9 for one bought already cut up. Additionally, I save the backbones in my freezer until I have enough the make a large pot of chicken stock, which is richer and thicker than anything store bought. Another $2.50 or so per quart of chicken stock saved and it doesn’t take me any more time since I let it simmer while I’m already cooking dinner. French housewives do not waste anything. They make breadcrumbs and croutons out of stale bread, seafood stock out of shrimp shells and whole meals out of a few eggs, herbs and cheese. We would do well to learn some of their ways.

Ever notice how the French are fit even though they eat plenty of butter, cheese, eggs and bread? Only 10 percent of the French are overweight as compared to 33 percent of Americans. How do they do that? It seems that the French way of thinking about food is very different than ours. They are committed to taking care of their bodies while still enjoying the pleasures that rich foods provide. They enjoy a sensible but sensual way of eating. Most of their meals are prepared at home, while we spend most of our time eating out. The portions are much smaller than ours and they eat at a very leisurely pace. Americans, on the other hand, scarf down huge portions of fast food at a break-neck speed. The French would rather eat smaller portions of real butter and sugar than to introduce disease-causing chemical pink packets into their diets. There is a definite commitment to quality over quantity. They also typically eat a lot of digestive-aiding yogurt, while chips, sodas and candies are practically non-existent in French grocery stores and they enjoy desserts and fruit separate from main meals. We could learn a great deal in this arena.

Ah, Bastille Day! While visions of the lavender fields of Provence dance in my head, I invite you to try my favorite version of creme brûlée, laced with the delicate lavender of France.

 

Lavender Brûlée

serves 6

(Lavender flowers add a delicate flavor to this dessert and capture the essence of summer.)

 

10-12 dried lavender stems, plus more to garnish

1 vanilla bean

2 1/2 cups heavy cream

8 egg yolks

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons superfine sugar

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degree. Strip the lavender flowers off the stems and put them in a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the inside pulp with the back of a knife. Add to the saucepan. Pour the cream into the pan. Slowly bring almost to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 15 minutes for the flavor to develop.

2. Whisk together the egg yolks and 1/4 cup of sugar in a bowl. Reheat the cream and gradually mix it into the yolk mixture, a little at a time, whisking continuously to keep from curdling the eggs. Strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve.

3. Place 6 oven-safe ramekins in a roasting pan. Pour an equal amount of custard into each ramekin and place the the roasting pan with the ramekins in the oven. Carefully pour hot water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the ramekins, being careful not to splash water into the custard. Bake for 20-25 minutes until custards are set with a slight softness at the center.

4. Leave in the dishes to cool completely. Then remove the dishes out of the water and transfer to refrigerator for 3-4 hours. About 20 minutes before serving, sprinkle the custards with the remaining sugar. Caramelize with a blow torch, then allow to come to room temperature before serving. Garnish with extra lavender stems.