My French mother-in-law, Madeleine, was everything I had learned French women were not: She was an unpretentious woman who wore a crisply pressed cotton housedress over thick stockings and sensible shoes every day I knew her, her wispy white hair in a boyish cut framing a clean-scrubbed face.
She was an unassuming, cheerful woman who worked next to her husband in their corner shop six days a week, raised four children on blind faith and old wives’ tales, and had a hot meal on the table at 1 p.m. every single day of the week.
But it was her cooking that threw my preconceived notions for a loop. Having moved to Paris after living in Philadelphia and New York, I arrived with a reverence for French cuisine that bordered on the religious. Restaurants and shops, magazines and cookbooks taught me that French food was the height of sophistication. It was delicate yet elaborate, refined and expensive – a performance art of finely julienned vegetables, sublime sauces, towering souffles. When I moved to Paris in 1986, I found work as an interpreter in a professional cooking school, where I witnessed the rigid training, technical know-how and precision that went into each dish and pastry, from preparation to plating, confirming my opinion that French cuisine was complex and meticulous, impressive and intimidating.
But Madeleine’s cooking was far from all that. Her food was hearty and unadorned, yet so flavorful. No trendy or costly ingredients went into her one-pot dishes, no spices beyond salt and pepper, no sauces other than homemade bechamel, mayonnaise or vinaigrette whisked up quickly with a fork. There was little precision or delicacy: She would roughly chop leeks, potatoes, beets, shallots and carrots, staples of her cooking, with a wobbly, chipped paring knife, the bits of peel flicking all over the cheap vinyl tablecloth. Her recipes were estimates of classic dishes that were assembled and seasoned “au pif,” by taste and intuition.
Early in the morning she would prepare stews, leaving them to simmer on their own while she went back to work, or casseroles that she would pop into the oven between errands. Ratatouille, veal blanquette, guinea fowl wrapped in cabbage, boeuf bourguignon and fondue weren’t fancy company cooking. They were economical, filling, easy everyday fare that, once assembled, basically cooked themselves, requiring no intricate technique to take time away from family and job. When dessert was served beyond the cheese platter, it was plain poundcake, fruit pressed into a sweet pastry crust or rice pudding. Nothing was thrown away. Leftovers were always repurposed into something else.
How was this French cuisine? I wondered. Le Bec Fin, Le Cirque, Lutèce, Le Bernardin, the pristine white traiteur in SoHo where the woman in a white blouse and black pencil skirt served tiny, perfectly roasted chickens for a splurge, the elaborate dacquoise with cognac buttercream I was asked to develop for a cookbook, the chic coq au vin we labored over for French Club – this was French cuisine!
But Madeleine’s cooking, I would discover, is just what I found in most French homes – more rustic or refined, depending on the household, but the same traditional dishes, the same casual, economical, uncomplicated approach. So how could what I had perceived as French cuisine back home be so different from what I was dining on with my new family and friends?
I dived into the history of French cuisine to understand where I had gone wrong.
To put it rather simply, French cuisine has developed across the centuries (since before France was even France) along two parallel paths: The first was what was cooked in royal kitchens for kings and queens, using spices and other ingredients that were rare and costly, sometimes even forbidden to the lower classes – protected as a sign of privilege. Chefs continually pushed themselves to impress their patrons, developing sauces, cooking techniques and even new modes of presentation that expanded their repertoire. This type of aristocratic cooking was innovative, exotic and elaborate. Foreign influences and ingredients brought back from expeditions around the world infiltrated their recipes and took much longer to trickle down to the common people. This opulent style of cooking, emulated since the Middle Ages, has long defined French cuisine.
French home cooking, on the other hand, was a classic cuisine pauvre, humble yet hearty, developing at a much slower pace far from royal kitchens. Ingredients were locally accessible, often homegrown, and recipes were economically frugal and quick to execute, both by necessity. With no servants, the middle and lower classes – workers and farmers – tossed ingredients together and left them simmering while they started their workday, enjoying a hot, one-pot meal at noon that would fill them up and give them the energy to go back to work after their midday break. And, if my in-laws are anything to go by, the evening repast was a light meal of soup, bread and leftovers from lunch.
With the birth of a newly wealthy upper-middle class (post-French and Industrial revolutions) who could afford cooks, the familiar, traditional recipes were often just elaborated upon with more-costly ingredients and fancy service.
The restaurant was born from the tradition of royal cooking, in large part thanks to the French Revolution. Chefs, having lost their noble patrons to the guillotine or forced exile, took their recipes and techniques and opened eating establishments for the public. This culture of fine dining, with its sophisticated dishes, soon traveled across the Atlantic and became what Americans today recognize as French cuisine, creating an ideal that excludes home cooking. The image of French cuisine as complex and costly to prepare has been perpetuated to the extent that even classic everyday dishes are now seen as extravagant, requiring skill and a special occasion.
There is an old tradition of eating establishments for humble workers that served a cuisine typical of what was cooked family-style in the home, but this type of restaurant tended to remain in France, even remain local – think of bouchons Lyonnais and neighborhood restaurants ouvriers – because it served the specific purpose of feeding workers who couldn’t get home for their noonday meal. Today, these quaint eateries still offer an excellent, local taste of quintessential French home cooking.
Immersed in the culture for more than 30 years, I’ve long considered Madeleine’s generous yet simple style of cooking the heart and soul of French cuisine. But haute cuisine has just as much claim to the sentiment; both styles have their own rich history, born from and steeped in the same terroir. Americans shouldn’t relegate French cuisine to the aristocratic. A challenge can be fun, but cooking shouldn’t be intimidating. French cuisine still deserves absolute reverence, but can be a lot simpler, more casual and relaxed than the gastronomic ideal. Just walk into any French kitchen, my own included. It’s what I learned from Madeleine.
• Schler is the author of “Orange Appeal: Savory and Sweet.”
Servings: 4 to 6
Overview: This recipe requires no marinating. Buy the ingredients at the market in the morning and have the daube the same day for lunch or dinner. And, of course, a dish like this is even better the second day. Use beef cuts that benefit from long, slow cooking: boneless chuck or shoulder, or cheek.
Serve over pasta or rice.
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 3/4 pounds boneless beef chuck (excess fat trimmed), cut into 2-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper
2 medium yellow onions, each cut into 8 wedges
3 or 4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 heaping tablespoon flour
Scant 1/2 cup (5 ounces) tomato paste or scant 1 cup (7 ounces) tomato puree
Small bouquet of herbes de Provence or bouquet garni dried or fresh (thyme, rosemary, bay leaf tied with kitchen twine)
2 long, wide strips fresh or dried orange peel (without the white pith)
1 to 1 1/2 pounds carrots, scrubbed well and trimmed and peeled, then cut into 1-inch chunks
One 750-milliliter bottle dry, fruity red wine, such as a zinfandel
Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the meat and sear it for 2 to 3 minutes, tossing the cubes continuously, until browned on all sides. Season with a large pinch salt and a couple of grinds of pepper.
Add the onions, garlic (to taste) and the flour; toss and stir until the meat is evenly coated. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil; cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions begin to soften and the meat has a browned crust.
Add the tomato paste, the herbs and the orange peel, the carrots and another large pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Pour in the wine. Stir to blend, dissolving the tomato paste. The meat should be just submerged in the liquid. Once the wine begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low; cover and cook for 3 hours, adjusting the heat as needed so the liquid remains barely bubbling.
Uncover, taste and add more salt and pepper, as needed; continue to cook (uncovered) for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until both the beef and the carrots are fork-tender. Discard the herbs and orange peel.
Serve hot, or cool completely before storing.
Nutrition per serving (based on 6): 540 calories, 28 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
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Warm Cauliflower Salad With Shallots
Overview: Quite a bit of vinegar goes in, allowing it to absorb into the vegetables, and that creates a nice sharp bite.
Start with a single shallot if what have you have is strong or pungent; use two or more if your shallots are mild.
1 large head cauliflower
1 pound firm, waxy potatoes, scrubbed well
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or more as needed
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar, or more as needed
1 or more shallots, thinly sliced (see Overview)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Discard the outer leaves and the large, hard stem of the cauliflower; break up the cauliflower into large florets.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the cauliflower and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until fork-tender. Drain and rinse very quickly under cool water so the florets don’t discolor. They should be just cool enough to handle, yet still quite warm. Break the florets into bite-size pieces, letting them fall into a serving bowl as you work.
Scrub the potatoes. Refill the pot with water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes; cook for about 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse under cool water until they are just cool enough to handle, then peel and cut the potatoes into bite-size chunks, adding them to the serving bowl as you work.
Add both vinegars and toss until all of the vegetables are coated and have absorbed the liquid. Taste, and add more of either/both vinegars as needed, until you have achieved a pleasant “bite.”
Add the shallot(s), oil, a large pinch of salt and a grinding or two of black pepper, tossing to incorporate.
Nutrition per serving: 210 calories, 7 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar