Bouillabaisse is only good because cooked by the French, who, if they cared to try, could produce an excellent and nutritious substitute out of cigar stumps and empty matchboxes.
- Norman Douglas, British novelist (1868-1952)
Before arriving in France, my ideas of French cuisine were based on a classic French high school textbook and a slew of elegant, sophisticated and expensive French restaurants in cities like Philadelphia and New York. French cuisine was luxurious, refined and too pricey for the likes of me. It was white tablecloths, hours in the kitchen and impossibly costly ingredients. Even the simplest of foods: a chocolate fondue, a roasted chicken, steak frites or an omelet was raised up to some dizzying height of sumptuousness as the magical veil of "French" was thrown over it. By the time I stepped off of the plane and onto rue Mouffetard in Paris, the mystique of French cuisine was gospel.
Until I married into a French family. A humble, working class French family. I finally began to see the truth about French culture and cuisine, finally understanding that, in fact, this was a truly frugal, humble cuisine in which time was as sacred and as valued as the cost of the ingredients, requiring dishes be simple and quick to execute, even if left on the stove to simmer long hours while one returned to work. So many meals that I as an American saw as fussy, complicated and expensive were actually thrown together quickly and simply from cheap cuts of meat and the hardiest, most common of vegetables and legumes, available all year round: potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, lentils and beans.
Over the years, moving from city to city, I also understood that French cuisine was incredibly local; each city and region had their signature dishes, breads and baked goods, traditional to the core. And these local dishes rarely, if ever, traveled. These dishes, like the ingredients, the weather and local history, were varied and diverse yet extremely personal, some heavier and more rustic, others lighter and more elegant, very unlike those more universal, standard classic dishes on which the reputation and repertoire of French cuisine are based.
Our own preconceived notions, those myths perpetuated and listened to, refer to more than the cuisine, they reflect on the culture, the history, the people behind the cuisine. Once I understood French cuisine, a door was flung wide open on the culture itself.
I recently participated in a live Google+ hangout So You Think You Know Food? Jenni Field and I hosted a fascinating discussion on the myths versus the realities of three cuisines: I presented French cuisine, Domenica Marchetti presented Italian cuisine and David Leite Portuguese cuisine in which we, time oblige, presented and busted a few myths about these three wonderful cuisines. If you did not have the chance to watch it, here is the video. (Thanks to Chef Dennis Littely for the tech support and input)
Feel free to add to the discussion, share your thoughts or ask questions on the Google+ Event Page.
My own French husband is constantly busting those myths in our very own kitchen. "How about a boeuf bourguignon for lunch?" he'll ask as we peruse the offerings at the market mid-morning. "Wow, but how can you make that in time for lunch?" naïve me will ask, mouth hanging open in astonishment. "It is such an easy dish to throw together," will be his reply. And as I watch him, I realize that it is.
This week, he announced, "I am going to make you a real leek and potato soup!" And as he placed a soup plate in front of me a short time later, I realized that once again something so beautiful, something so flavorful, something seen from the outside as the height of elegant and sophisticated dining, emblematic of French cuisine, was inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make. Vive la France!
JP'S TRADITIONAL FRENCH LEEK AND POTATO SOUP
Serve 2 for a meal, 4 for a small starter. Increase ingredients for more guests as needed.
3 leeks, whites only + 1 extra small leek for topping
2 medium potatoes (about 300 g)
1 small red onion
2 cloves garlic
50 g smoked lardons or bacon in small cubes
1 small cube vegetable bouillon (or 1/2 large cube) or enough homemade to cover vegetables (soup for 2 bowls)
Olive oil or equal parts olive oil & margarine
Salt and pepper
Prepare the vegetables by chopping the white parts of 3 leeks, the onion and 1 clove garlic. Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes. Simply crush the second clove of garlic, leaving in one piece.
Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil or half oil, half margarine into a soup pot. Heat and add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, for a minute or two; add the chopped leeks and bacon and a couple grindings of pepper, stir and cook “until it smells good” as the cook told me… just a couple of minutes until the onion is transparent. Add the potatoes and just cover with water, adding the bouillon cube, or bouillon.
Bring to the boil, lower the heat and allow to simmer gently for 15 – 20 minutes just until the potatoes are tender. Taste, add salt and pepper to taste. Remove the soup from the heat, cover and allow to sit until dinner time (he made this about half an hour or so before dinner).
When ready to serve, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a clean skillet or pot; add a tablespoon or two each of cubes of bacon or lardons and very thinly sliced white leek; cook, stirring, until crisp. Reheat the soup and serve topped with the crisp bacons and leek strips.