Featured Country of the month: France
I was feeling quite brave when this suggestion came through my Instagram - France is a biggun.
French cuisine is renowned worldwide as one of the most pioneering in terms of technique and is responsible for so many of what we now take for granted as essential skills for a chef. Sauteing, braising, confit, poaching (and many more) all come from the French tradition of cooking. Restaurants as a concept were invented in France as well as the idea of ‘fine dining’ or ‘haute cuisine’. Just think about it - how many cooking terms can you think of are indisputably French?
The influence of French cooking can be seen across the entire world, largely through colonization - the Vietnamese Banh Mi being a perfect example of such - the French brought their techniques with them wherever they went and this is evident in many dishes still to this day.
A level of reverence is held for french cooking that meant that this felt like a bit of a challenge - did it also mean having to eat lots of cheese and drink lots of wine? Yes, yes it did but these are the kind of sacrifices I am willing to make for this newsletter.
The current influence of French cuisine has been regularly called into question. Some people think that an aura of complacency around French cuisine and a reluctance to be influenced by new global players on the scene has led to a drought of French innovation. If you are interested in the like, I thoroughly recommend a read of this article which explores this phenomenon further.
However, French influence on the culinary world is indisputable; why else would the vast majority of the culinary world agree to be ranked and rated by a French tubby tyre man (yes I’m referring to Michelin stars). Without even trying to explore French cuisine, I have already documented my attempts at macarons, galette, tartiflette, croissants, profiteroles and bourguignon on my instagram account; such is the omnipresence of French cooking.
Given everything you have just read, I hope you will forgive me for indulging slightly this month and instead of the usual three dishes, I have explored four (five if you count the two souffles as separate).
When I was deciding which dishes to do, Cassoulet almost got the boot. Too simple I thought, It’s just meat and beans right? Much like Feijoada, a Brazilian meat and bean dish I explored here, the sum of the whole is far greater than the individual parts. As I read more about the dish I realised it was a must try and not quite as simple as it first appeared.
Originally a peasant dish, Cassoulet is typically made from scraps of meat that were available depending on region and time of year. The type of bean can also vary depending on region and personal preference. The recipe I chose to follow comes from Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to make the perfect’ - a particularly useful resource I find, when there isn’t a singular consensus on a recipe. Felicity will weigh up the pros and cons of each variation and give her opinion on the best overall version. This version included Haricot beans, confit duck legs, pork belly, sausages and ham hock - what was once a ‘peasant’ dish ended up being rather costly!
Like many great dishes, preparation began the evening before. The beans needed to be soaked, and unable to find pre-confit duck legs, I took it upon myself to give this a go. The process starts by salting the meat and leaving it overnight. The next day the salt is washed off and the duck legs are placed in a pan and covered with duck fat (there’s something slightly morbid about cooking an animal with another part of that same animal). The fat is heated to precisely 85c and then placed in the oven for 2 hours to maintain the same temperature. Meanwhile, the beans were submerged in water with various aromatics and left to simmer for a couple of hours.
The various bits of meat are all fried in the used duck fat until golden, including the duck legs. The recipe made no mention of the crispy skin that forms on the duck and so I will confess now to tearing it off the duck and shoving it straight in my gob - heavenly. I tasted some of the meat at this stage as well and was pleased to find that the duck, which has a propensity for turning tough and chewy, was meltingly soft.
Once the beans are soft but not falling apart, the meat is added along with sun-dried tomato paste (which I couldn’t find so just whizzed up some sun dried tomatoes into a paste - same thing right?!). The whole garlic bulb which is simmered with the beans is then squeezed and the golden ooze of soft garlic is added back into the dish.
The whole thing is topped with bread crumbs and then cooked for two hours. The crust that forms on the top is to be stirred in at least once throughout the cooking process, allowing a new, superior crust to be formed on top. As you will be able to tell from the photo - this dish is not a looker.
Did you like it?
Yes - this is an extremely hearty dish. The various fats in the casserole meld with the beans and the meat, causing them to become tender and soft, without losing texture. I foolishly ignored the suggestion to serve with a crisp green salad as this is exactly what the richness of this dish needed. I would choose to serve this dish again in the future on a cold winter’s night with some lovely red wine.
Marks out of 10: 9/10
French Onion Soup
This one is an obvious classic and had been on my list for quite some time so I was glad of the excuse to give it a go. French Onion Soup also originated as a ‘peasant’ dish, which felt more achievable this time round given how few ingredients are needed (largely onions). The recipe I used for this comes from Raymond Blanc, one of the best known French chefs of today.
The soup is very easy to make and the only real skill required is patience. The key thing is to just be vigilant with stirring and to have faith that the onions will turn a lovely deep brown colour. It takes time but once they have transformed to a lovely nutty, goopy, brown mass, some flour is added and then you ‘deglaze’ the pan with some white wine. Deglazing is just the process of adding a liquid and using that liquid to help lift off all the good stuff that is stuck to the bottom of the pan. Water or stock is then added to transform your onions into soup. After some gentle simmering, the soup is topped off with some form of crispy bread - you can let your imagination run away with you here (I’ve seen versions with an entire Croque Monsieur placed on top) and then the whole thing is topped with oodles and oodles of cheese (I used comte as suggested).
Did you like it?
I certainly did. It was simple and effective, although when making it again, I think I would like a bit more body to the soup. I felt a little bit gutted when adding in an entire litre of liquid into the pot and couldn’t help but feel this had washed away some of the oniony goodness.
Marks out of 10: 8/10
Galette De Sarrasin
This was a suggestion (thank you Verity!) and not something I had heard of before. It seemed relatively simple though and so I decided to give it a go. Galette De Sarrasin is a Northern French dish and originates in Brittany.
I have made quite a few Galettes in the last year and so was surprised to find that this wasn’t a pastry. The definition of Galette (coming from the French word for pebble) has a much wider definition than I had realised. A galette, as far as I can tell, refers to most flat circular creations - from a pastry to a pancake, as is the case here.
There is however, a clear distinction between a crepe and a galette, the former uses ordinary flour and can be a vessel for both sweet and savoury, whereas the latter is made using buckwheat flour and will usually only contain savoury fillings. I had heard of buckwheat flour before but only in relation to Japanese Soba noodles. Despite its confusing name, buckwheat flour is actually gluten free and oddly enough is related in species to rhubarb.
I had no real disasters in the cooking of this, a batter is made and then cooked in the same way as a crepe or pancake. Having not had the dish before I found it difficult to know how thick the galette should be, what size the holes in it should be, how many holes etc. but I was pleased with the result - it didn’t look dissimilar to photographs. After the galettes were cooked, I made the filling - I kept it simple with spinach and cheese filling, to be topped with an egg. Unfortunately, once I had spooned the spinach filling into the centre of the galette, the mound of spinach acted as a sort of slip and slide for the egg which I had to chase across the pancake a couple of times before scooping it up and discarding it. Attempt two saw me poking a little ‘nest’ into the spinach filling for the egg to be embedded in - much easier. The sides of the galette are then folded over to cover everything but the yolk and then it is baked.
Did you like it? Usually with a flour alternative, you may get quite a mild flavour difference but it is never something to write home about. This however, was a surprise to me, I nibbled away on the first ‘taster’ crepe I made and couldn’t believe how flavourful it was. I’d read descriptions of it tasting nutty but to me it tasted exactly like spinach. The spinach filling I had made did not help matters. If I were making this again, I would definitely include some sort of salty ham to complement the earthiness of the whole thing. Oh, and I would add more cheese!
Marks out of 10: 6/10
Another classic I couldn’t resist. Coming from the French verb ‘to puff up’, souffles are created using whisked egg whites and can be sweet or savoury. There are many ‘top tips’ out there on how to achieve the perfect rise - which as we all know, is what this is all about.
It comes down to a simple understanding of the science (not my strongest point but I tried to educate myself here). Normally, there will be two components to the souffle - the base which provides the flavour, ie. a creme patissiere or a white sauce, and then the egg whites which provide the volume. When the egg whites are whipped, air bubbles get trapped within the mixture, when the mixture is cooked, these air bubbles expand and the mixture rises. Simples right? There are various other things you can do to assist the process, such as a coating on the inside of the ramekin. Breadcrumbs for the cheese souffle, chocolate gratings for the chocolate souffle. This additional texture gives the mixture something to cling onto as it rises (allegedly).
I was CERTAIN I was going to a have a flop, which is why I decided to attempt both a cheese and a chocolate souffle. I wagered if one went wrong, maybe the other would be okay. Alas, both soufflés had a lovely rise to them, admittedly could be a tad higher but overall I was very impressed. Which leaves me wondering, am I a souffle wizz?! Or the other, more likely explanation - souffles are not quite as difficult as they make them out to be on TV. We live for the drama of the sunken souffle but I have let it put me off attempting these until now - don’t let it stop you any longer, give it a go!
Did you like it?
Both souffles miraculously (or not as the case seems to be) turned out airy, smooth and delicate. A resounding success which I can’t wait to try with some more adventurous flavours.
Marks out of 10: 8/10