How Not to Cook--French Style
There’s a heat wave all over the country, and if you’re looking for a way to dine well, without cooking, opt out of the kitchen French style. In France, you really don’t have to cook at all to eat a great meal at home. Case in point, this summer meal I put together often with items I simply picked up from the traiteur (deli), cheese shop, and charcuterie.
Here in the U.S., you can put together something similar, though alas, you may have to prep a few things yourself (at least, no deli here in my corner of Amerique profonde sells celeris remoulade!). Anyway, here’s the menu. Buy and make enough to last you a few days so that you don’t even have to think about turning on the stove.
1. Cured meats, thinly sliced. I always include La Quercia Prosciutto, which is made just up the road from me in Norwalk, Iowa, but you can also include some of your favorite French or Italian cured meats. Or Spanish or high-quality American, for that matter. Serve on a platter with some oeuf durs mayonnaises (hard-cooked eggs with mayo). Most US supermarkets will sell you eggs already cooked. Lucky French women have it even better–they can buy mayo in tubes so that they can be prettily piped on the eggs. Good olives and cornichons are a must.
2. A great deli salad (from a great deli). Every French deli sells celeris remoulade–celery root in a remoulade dressing. It’s as ubiquitous in France as coleslaw is here. Other faves are tabbouli, grated carrot salad, and roasted beets salad. Make your own, if need be.
3. A green salad with something extra. This one adds heartiness and great flavor to the meal with Comté cheese and walnuts. Simply toss matchstick-size pieces of Comté with butterhead lettuce, walnuts, and a mild vinaigrette.
Serve this simple spread with great baguette bread and butter (yes, the French do butter their bread, when they’re serving it with charcuterie…the sweet creaminess of the butter contrasts prosciutto beautifully). And pour some thoroughly chilled rosé—keep it cold, and keep it coming.
Restaurant workers dining together before their shift. Collioure, France
Recently, I was going through some photos of my most recent trip to Collioure, and I came across this one. It shows the view out the window of my apartment, which is of a small square across the street in which a casual restaurant sets up shop all summer.
I couldn’t remember why I took it. Then I looked closely and remembered what struck me. Every morning, I see the restaurant’s employees setting up for the day: arranging the tables, wiping them down, placing the cutlery, napkins, and glasses on the table…
And then, they sit down to a meal together. Every day, at about 11:15 (the restaurant opens at noon). The chef brings out what is likely the employee’s meal—usually something the restaurant serves, like mussel and fries and a big salad, and they eat together, family style, in the open air; I hear them talking and laughing, and sometimes there’s a small carafe of wine involved. A few minutes before the restaurant opens, the barman brings out a round of espresso for everyone.
I’ve noticed this often in France. In fact, if you happen to arrive at a restaurant before it’s open, you’ll often see the waiters sitting in the dining room or on the terrace, enjoying a meal together before the service starts.
It made me wonder how often our restaurants offer such a pleasant, convivial setting for their workers. I can tell you that no restaurant I ever worked in offered anything of the sort. Employee meals were eaten in a hurry, usually by oneself on a break. Or, if we did eat together, it was quickly and without much joy, usually in a windowless, cinderblock breakroom near the dishroom. Rarely in the dining room.
Maybe it’s not practical, but I can’t help but think what a difference it would make to have a chance to share a meal with colleagues before each night’s service begins. If you get a chance to partake in the pleasures of the table, you’re more likely to want to pass them on to those who come to your tables.
Just another boulangerie in France. (Collioure)
One of the great things about renting an apartment in France is getting your daily bread. There’s something that really brings the day to life when the first thing you do is walk down the street, saying “Bonjour” to the shopkeepers setting up for the day, and grab a loaf of bread from a boulangerie and a Herald Tribune from the nearby tabac. I also love the way you can buy a “demi baguette”—half a baguette, which is just the right size for two.
But alas, here in Amerique profonde, my nearest artisan bread baker is not by any means within walking distance, and most require you to buy an entire baguette. As everyone knows, baguettes don’t keep well after a day. So, what to do with the extra bread? How to stock up when you don’t want to drive all over town every day for bread?
It’s easy. French bread—and just about any yeast bread—freezes admirably. Just wrap whatever you didn’t use in the paper bag it came in and stick it in the freezer. Freeze up to 1 month. Thaw at room temperature.
You can also slice the bread into slices and place them in freezer bags; then, when you need just a slice or two, take them out of the freezer and thaw.
Daily Bread—in Collioure, France
Frozen and thawed bread may not be exactly as great as the day you bought it, but it should still be very good. And if it isn’t, then toast some slices, drizzle with olive oil and herbs, and make bruschetta (or “toasts,” as the French call them).
By the way—never refrigerate French bread. It will go stale in a flash.