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After my culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and the International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Center) in New York City, I spent some time working in the test kitchen at Saveur magazine and soon after became a recipe tester for Food52. I’m currently in Paris, helping an ex-colleague research a book about contemporary Parisian food culture. That includes seeing what home cooks are making, from Senegalese thieboudienne (fish and rice stew) to French classics such as blanquette de veau (veal stew); what ingredients they’re using; fancy (or not so fancy) tools they’ve found; and what they do to make cooking more pleasurable, and yes, speedier.
Sandra, an amazing home cook originally from South Africa, has kept her eyes and ears open since arriving in France 17 years ago. I enjoyed cooking with her because she’d do something and when I asked what she was doing, she would realize that it was a shortcut she’d acquired since her arrival.
Want to make the crispiest skin on a roast chicken? Put it in a shallow bowl and pour boiling water over it. Remove it from the water and pat it dry. Coat it with a little olive oil (or butter) and sprinkle it with salt before popping it in the oven. I asked her how the water make it crispy and she had no idea. It was something that her French husband always did, so she did, too. I was dubious, but the skin of that chicken was the crispiest I’d had. I’m a convert.
Another French husband trick: she left the giblets in the cavity, added a few cloves of garlic, salt and pepper (yes, she dumped the salt directly into the cavity), then broke some slightly stale bread and also put that into the cavity. That chicken was stuffed in less than 2 minutes. The results? The giblets added flavor and moisture, while the garlic lightly infused the bread. Sometimes she adds onion. Sometimes she adds dried apricot, prune or raisins, if they’re on hand.
I was also reminded that when making vinaigrette, it’s important to mix the mustard and vinegar before incorporating the oil. The oil emulsifies much better (and quicker) when the mustard and vinegar are first introduced to each other.
If I cut into a tomato and it’s not ripe or flavorful, I always feel disappointed and keep it for roasting with something else rather than eating it and being resentful. French trick: Toss it with a little salt and leave it for ten minutes or so. Along with drawing out a lot of the liquid, it also draws out a lot of flavor. A surprising amount of flavor.
At the moment, it’s cherry season, which also means that clafoutis is on most menus. It seems so disappointing when the cherries sink to the bottom and the batter envelops the beautiful color. It is a pity. An old trick which Julia Child picked up on her travels here is to put half of the batter into the clafoutis pan and par-cook before adding the remainder of the batter and cherries. The cherries then have a little shelf to sit on and not bury themselves.
Another home cook we met, known fondly to her friends and family as Madame Bon Bon (because of her love of candy-making), showed us how she makes a family dinner in a flash. She cooks a serving of rice. While the rice is cooking, she sautés a combination of onions, zucchini, red pepper (or your choice of vegetables). She places a long, rectangular strip of puff pastry on a baking tray and spreads the rice all over it, leaving about a 1” gap around each edge. On top of the rice, she puts the sautéed vegetables, a fillet of salmon, then tops it with chopped herbs. On the very top, she places another layer of pastry, covers it in egg wash and bakes it. The prep time is around 20 minutes and the results are outstanding.
Besides a new repertoire of recipes for my next round of dinner parties, I’ve gained some wonderful new tips and enjoyed the generosity of spirit I found amongst home cooks in Paris.
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.