My husband and I form the ideal couple: he cooks and I bake. You see, he is as comfortable in front of the butcher’s counter and at the greengrocer, as happy in front of a cutting board, knife in hand, and in front of the stove as I am with my hands deep inside a soft mound of bread dough or whizzing up egg whites and melting chocolate. He learned to cook when he was a boy, all of those long years ago, preparing blanquette and boeuf au carottes while his mother worked, as I was watching, mesmerized, on the other side of the Atlantic, my father marble chocolate and vanilla cake batters and prepare choux pastry. Over our many years together, he has educated me on the ins and outs of savory cooking, teaching me to make couscous and tagine, potée and moules marinières. Yes, I did the cooking when he was at work and enjoyed it immensely (once the unbearable angst of having to make a decision on what to cook had been conquered), but come weekend or vacation time, he would once again tie on an apron and take over the kitchen. And happy was I to leave him the way.
Now that he is working from home, he cooks and I bake. Mostly. The urge comes upon one or the other swiftly, without warning, the desire for something savory, a warming plate of tender, long-simmered meat, vibrant tomatoes made sweet and meltingly luscious by slow cooking, a casserole gooey with cheese or sweetened with plump raisins or prunes. If it is early enough in the day, we shrug on coats and slip into shoes and, basket in hand, make our way to the neighborhood market. Fruits and vegetables, his preferred butcher or mine, maybe the Italian stand for fresh pasta, Bresaola and Scamorza Affumicata, or the Alsatian stand for choucroute, saucisses de Strasbourg or boudin blanc. Olives, a loaf of fresh bread, a bottle of wine snuggle deep amongst the crinkly brown paper sacks of oranges, endives and tomatoes and we hurry back home, sharing the weight of the basket brimming with fresh ingredients between the two of us. Once home, kitchen duties are divvied up and another savory meal is prepared.
If the weather is lousy, rain spattering against the windowpanes and the sky an unwelcoming leaden and dull, or if it is too close to mealtime, our morning or afternoon having slipped by unnoticed while we work, or if we are simply too lazy to trek out into the wilds of Nantes, cupboards are riffled through, cans and boxes shifted left and right, the refrigerator ransacked, emptied, leftovers, jars and Tupperware containers scrutinized, peered into, poked at and separated into old and fuzzy or perfectly good. A leftover lasagna or Parmentier is reheated or JP turns on the magic and the charm, takes everything that hasn’t withered and died of old age and somehow, wondrously concocts a delicious, flavorful meal.
I have traveled quite a long way from that small American town in the shadow of NASA’s rockets where fresh seafood straight from the ocean and citrus plucked directly from the tree alternated with frozen dinners, Hamburger Helper and pancake dinners. The most exotic, culturally significant meals in our home involved Borscht, chicken soup with matzo balls and Challah. Moving to France may have opened my eyes to an entirely new culture and cuisine, but it is thanks to my husband that I have discovered all the details and more: he has walked me through the repertoire of classic French home cooking, hearty, traditional and warming, enriching each dish with a tale from his childhood or a colorful episode in France’s history; he has introduced me to foods local and regional as well as the cuisines of Morocco and Vietnam, now part of the French national food culture, dishes rich in tradition and, again, history, recounting stories of his time spent in Morocco eating and learning to cook or comedic episodes of his time at university, hours spent eating bowls of Bo Bun in a familiar and much-visited Vietnamese restaurant near the school. Together we have wandered high and low, through France and Italy, spent time in Basque country, discovering food in Budapest or in Florida and New England. We have snapped pictures and tasted local foods and dishes, strolled through markets as if on an educational field trip. We have savored the new and the formerly unknown at the homes of both friends and strangers, asking questions and taking notes, and built up our personal encyclopedia of information, cooking methods, stories and foods. And with his advice, guidance and inspiration, I have learned to cook.
But learning how to make the perfect, traditional Blanquette de Veau, Couscous or Poulet Yassa aside, my living in France and my marriage to a food-passionate man curious about cultures and cuisines and a history buff to boot has been the means of my discovering special ingredients and obscure specialties from preserved lemons to supions and encornets, from salsify to celeriac, turmeric, coriander and cumin, cotechino, harira, stinco, not to forget a dictionary's worth of cheeses. And boeuf cuit. Boeuf Cuit is quite simply cooked beef, but it is not as simple as it sounds. Chunks of tender cooked beef, the same cuts usually selected for a bourguignon, having long simmered in a savory broth are compressed together into a type of terrine with tiny cubes of carrots and bound with aspic or jellied broth and sold in thick slices at the butcher’s counter. JP introduced me to this unusual ingredient early in our marriage when he would bring it home, cut it into cubes or crumble it into shreds and toss it together with slices of tender cooked potatoes, plenty of chopped violet shallots and a tangy vinaigrette. Delicious! Wonderful for a light weekend lunch, a casual dinner or packed and tucked inside a basket for a perfect picnic meal.
Our latest issue of French Saveurs magazine had him back at the butcher’s counter ordering a pound or so of Boeuf Cuit. He has been on a Cannelloni streak lately; boxes of cannelloni pasta accumulate joyously in our pantry and he purchased the perfect little stainless steal baking pan just the width of a cannelloni shell and large enough for one meal for a family of four. So, of course, the recipe for Cannellonis au Boeuf Fondant et aux Carottes, cannelloni of meltingly tender beef and carrots, jumped out of the glossy pages of the magazine and into his eager, waiting hands. He followed the recipe as well as someone who cooks au pif, by instinct or feel, can do, adding more carrots, using a tad less beef, flavoring it to his own exquisite taste, and served us this luscious, wonderful, hearty meal. As we only stuffed enough pasta shells to fill our tiny baking pan in one layer, there was enough filling left over to use as the base of a ragout, blended and heated with more homemade tomato sauce, to serve over fresh pasta.
In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
- Julia Child
* The title of my post? Froid, Brulé, Pas Cuit? It means Cold, Burned, Undercooked; i.e. a culinary disaster. As we are all inclined to expect the worst of everything and anything we cook or bake, JP pulled out this old phrase, coined during his university days by a friend, dusted it off and introduced it into our home. This phrase has become a joke in our kitchen, a way to mock the other when doubts of our cooking or baking prowess take over or our confidence in the results of an all-out culinary effort begin to waver, a way to lighten the mood and make the other laugh. Although I, the Nervous Nellie who doubts myself from beginning to end, am constantly finding fault with my own recipes, JP’s method of cooking leaves little room for disaster as he adjusts and corrects along the way.
Don't forget JP's other recipes:
Cauliflower and Potato Gratin
Lasagna Two Ways: Smoked Salmon and Spinach or Veal and Vegetable
On a final note, it is that time of year for Saveur’s Best Food Blog Awards and it would be tremendous to be considered for an award from this prestigious magazine. If you enjoy Life’s a Feast, if my stories touch you in some way, if you are interested in nominating my blog for one of the categories that you feel is the best fit, I would certainly appreciate your support and the time that it takes to put in the nomination. Just link over to their website. Thank you! It does mean the world to me!
And speaking of From Plate to Page, due to an unexpected cancellation, there are now a couple of spaces open for our exciting Somerset workshop in May. If you are looking for an intimate, hands-on, practical workshop providing you with the tools, instruction and inspiration to define and hone your food writing, styling and photography skills and kick start your creativity all in a convivial, fun- and food-filled weekend then Plate to Page is for you! For details about the workshop, the four instructors (I teach food writing) and registration, please visit out our website! But hurry, spaces are limited to 12 and they are going fast! Questions? Visit our new FAQ page!
CANNOLLONI OF TENDER COOKED BEEF AND CARROTS
From the March 2012 issue of French Saveurs
I will give you the exact recipe as given in the magazine. JP adjusted it to use less cooked beef and more carrots and mildly adjusted the flavorings to his taste. A delicious recipe but one I would actually change the next time we make it by doubling the tomato sauce and blending half the sauce in with the meat mixture to lighten it and add more moisture. As I said above, this is a fabulous filling turned into a ragout to serve over pasta.
12 cannelloni shells
750 g (1 ½ lbs boeuf cuit or cooked beef leftover from a pot au feu, bourguignon or similar)*
200 g (7 oz) carrots, washed, peeled and trimmed **
½ an onion or more if desired
500 ml (2 cups) meat stock (from a cube is fine)
1 Tbs tomato paste
Several tablespoons olive oil, as needed
100 g (3 ½ oz) grated Parmesan cheese
15 g (1 Tbs) butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
* We used 500 g (1 lb)
** We used 6 carrots
Shred the beef. Cut the cleaned carrots into tiny cubes and finely chop the onion.
Sauté the chopped onion in a few tablespoons olive oil for about 3 minutes or until tender. Add the carrots and the meat. Add enough of the meat stock to just cover the mixture, salt and pepper (taste the stock to verify how salty it already is so you don’t oversalt the dish) and allow to gently simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. At the end of the cooking time, allow the meat to cool to room temperature.
In a separate pan, bring the rest of the meat stock and the tomato paste to a boil; pepper and salt only if needed.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish or pan. Stuff the cannelloni shells with the cooled meat and carrot filling and line the filled shells up snugly in the buttered baking dish in a single layer. Pour the meat stock/tomato paste over and around the shells, sprinkle generously with the grated Parmesan, cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, removing the foil about 10 minutes before the end of cooking.