How to Time Your French Meal

A reader emailed me with a great question. She wondered how the French truly eat in courses, without having the bonne femme (or whoever’s doing the cooking) leave the table again and again to prepare the next course.

I’ll show you how it’s done! It’s all about “make ahead.” Do everything you can in advance so you’ll only need to leave the table for a few minutes between courses. Recipe links are below the photo montage.

Say you’re serving a sit-down salad, such as this Endive and Blue Cheese Salad. Earlier in the day, you would have trimmed and washed the endive, toasted the walnuts, made the dressing and measured and crumbled the blue cheese.  All would be waiting in the fridge.

Stews, roasts, and braises (such as this Olive-Prosciutto Chicken) are perfect for entertaining, as you’ get everything done well in advance and you can just keep it warm while everyone’s eating that first course. No last-minute prep needed.

Comté Rice: A beautiful go-with to braised meats. Make it in a cast-iron pot, and it will stay warm for 30 minutes or more in a warm spot on your stovetop.

Comté Rice: A beautiful go-with to braised meats. Make it in a cast-iron pot, and it will stay warm for 30 minutes or more in a warm spot on your stovetop.

The easiest course to do, of course, is the cheese course! You’ve put your cheeses out to get to room temperature the whole time you’ve been at the table. After the main course, you simply set it in the middle of the table with bread, and let everyone help themselves. The little salad is optional (I wouldn’t serve it if I’d already had greens earlier in the meal.)

Desserts need never be last minute. Crêpes, for example, can be made long in advance. The caramel sauce is ready, the filling is ready, the strawberries are sliced. You quickly put this together after the cheese course. Done!

Recipes and Timeline:

Days beforehand:
• Make crêpes for the Strawberry-Caramel Crêpes with Mascarpone Cream Filling. Refrigerate or freeze. Thaw overnight in fridge if frozen. Purchase or make the caramel sauce.

Two hours beforehand:
• Start Vermouth-Braised Chicken with Black Olives and Prosciutto. When it’s done, simply keep it warm in a slow oven.
• For Belgian-Endive Salad with Blue Cheese and Walnuts, wash your endive, toast the walnuts, crumble and measure the blue cheese, and make the dressing. Cover and let the dressing stand at room temperature (up to 2 hours). Cover the walnuts and let them stand, too. Refrigerate the blue cheese crumbles and the endive (wrapped in paper toweling).
• Slice the strawberries and make the super-quick filling for the crêpes. Refrigerate.

One hour to 30 minutes beforehand
• Get Any-Night Baked Rice going. When it’s done, simply set it in a warm place up to 30 minutes.
• Set out cheese to get to room temperature. (Here’s more info on the cheese course.)

The Progression of the Meal:
•  Mingle a while with guests, then—after making sure everyone’s glass is full—sneak off to the kitchen to assemble and plate the Endive salad. This should take just a few minutes. Set the salads on the table and invite everyone to sit down.
• Clear the salad plates. Plate the chicken and rice on dinner plates. Again, because everything is ready, this will take just a few minutes
• Clear the dinner plates. Bring out salad-sized plates for cheese course. Set cheese in the middle of the table.
• Clear cheese plates. Back in the kitchen a moment, assemble the crêpes. This will also take just a few minutes.

The Bonne Femme Cookbook has dozens of main-dish recipes in the Stew, Roast, Braise chapter that work well with this formula. And plenty of first-course salads and desserts, too. Here are just a few ideas for switch-ins, using the above as a template:

First-Course Salads:
• One Bonne Starter Salad (with fennel, butterhead lettuce, goat cheese, and spiced toasted almonds)
• Green on Green Salad  (with arugula, cucumber, scallions, and avocado in a lime-honey vinaigrette)
• Melty Goat Cheese Salad with Honey and Pine Nuts
• Butterhead Lettuce Salad with Walnuts and Comté

Great Braises, Roasts, and Stews for Entertaining:
• Basque-Style Chicken
• Coq au Vin
• Roast Chicken Breasts with Goat Cheese and Three Onions
• Rosemary-Proscuitto Chicken Breasts with Garlic and Sherry Sauce
• Blanquette of Pork
• Choucroute Garnie for the Week-End
• Normandy Pork Chops
• Lamb Daube
•  Tuna Steaks Braised with Tomato, Olives, and Fennel

Make-Ahead French Desserts for Entertaining
Almost all of the nearly 30 desserts in the book can be made ahead. And imagine how confident you will feel when you know you have a great dessert waiting in the wings!  Or, do as many bonnes femmes do: Simply pick up a great dessert at your best local pastry shop. There’s no shame in that! Truly, French women do it all the time.

Any questions?



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