One of the glories of traveling in Europe is that the food you encounter will almost always be local and amazingly fresh. There are exceptions, but for the main part, if you are dining in a small local restaurant in northern Italy, almost everything you eat will have come from a nearby farm. It’s a good rule of thumb and I call it “eating where you are.” I can think of countless examples of how this rule is applied, like the time I asked an old Vietnamese man where the best Vietnamese food could be found, and he said “Saigon.” The best Thai food I have ever had was in Thailand, of course. The best potatoes dauphinoise, France. It’s simple and it makes good sense.
So, it follows that what I cook in my kitchen is more often than not coastal, or at least very Southern. However, there are exceptions. I recently picked up one of my favorite books, When French Women Cook, by Madeleine Kamman. It’s a very nostalgic look back at the culinary ways of France, from as early as 1900 to the 1970s. Kamman describes visiting old relatives in the country and the curious ways they had of living and cooking. One old aunt used to poach trout by standing in a stream with her skirts hiked up and one hand in the water. When a trout came too near, she grabbed it and tossed it on the bank. I love it.
Rereading this old book has got me in the mood to cook French, or as close to it as I can get. I’ll never find the good cream that is almost yellow from the butter content or the amazing wines that can only be found in the French countryside, but I’ll do my best.
I think I will start with the leek gratin (gratin de poireaux) and then move on to the pan-fried shrimp, dripping in good butter (crevettes a la poele). What makes these dishes so good is the quality of the ingredients and a commitment to take the time that it takes to get it right. The leek gratin is cooked in a slow oven of 325 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes, bather only in stock, then heavy cream is added, and it is cooked for a further 30 minutes. It is finally anointed with Gruyere cheese and back in the oven just until the cheese is melted. It takes a little time, but it is worth every minute.
The shrimp is as simple as the leek but cooks so much quicker. Unwashed shrimp, still in their shells, are quickly cooked in butter, heavy cream is added and skimmed just until thick. This an amazing recipe that demands lots of good, crusty French bread for dipping.
Remember, as with everything you buy, you get what you pay for. Cheap butter and cream will not produce the same results. Go to the farmers’ market and spend a little more to get the best. I order French butter online from our friends at Amazon.
I do stand by my philosophy of cooking local and seasonal, but occasionally I step out and go for something really different. Get a copy of When French Women Cook, and I’ll bet you will be inspired too.