One reader asked a great question: How do you cook inspired, France-vacation-worthy food when you have a tiny kitchen?
The answer: It’s easy, because it’s France.
It’s true that many of the affordable-but-cute rentals I stay in when I travel in France have much smaller kitchens than I’m used to: In fact, sometimes, it’s just a two-burner cooktop, a microwave, a small sink, and a refrigerator. There’s rarely an oven. (Happily there’s sometimes a little dishwasher which is a greater gift than I ever imagined.)
And yet, I eat extraordinarily well whenever I rent my studio apartments. Here’s why:
1. The Artisanal Butcher
• Artisanal butchers let you buy extraordinary cuts of meat. Simply sauté, deglaze, and serve (and of course, if you read this blog, you know all about sauté-deglaze-serve, right?).
2. The Daily Produce Stands
Ditto for all the open-air markets with in-season fruits and veggies for great salads and simple, veggie sides (bring something home, sauté it in a great olive oil with some garlic or shallots and parsley, and that’s your side).
3. Pasta Artisans
The closer you are to Italy (and Menton is about as close as you can get!), the more fresh-pasta shops you see. I’d go back to Menton just to buy this pasta again: It was Pasta Piemontaise with cooked veal, ham, herbs, and cheeses. Sublime and so easy to cook. The pasta-maker—a young guy—had won a major prize from Italy’s slow-food association. He told me exactly how to prepare it (3 minutes in boiling water), and recommended serving it in a butter-sage sauce (but just letting the sage cook in the butter a few minutes to flavor it, then taking the leaves out). It was the best meal I had in my seven weeks in Europe. And it cost about 7 Euros for two generous servings.
4. Artisanal Cheese Counters
5. Bread, Pastry-Shop Pastries, and Supermarket Desserts
Seriously–why would you bother baking when you can get the best bread and desserts in the world on just about every block? On another note, I’ve never been served a homemade dessert in a French home (see my post on whether or not French women bake).
When I’m not feeling the need for a pastry-shop indulgence, sometimes I go for a simple supermarket dessert. Here’s an article I wrote for Bonjour Paris on the topic.
Traiteurs are French deli counters but they serve more than meats: these are places to go for house-made readymades—everything from pâtés, quiches, and salads to roast chicken and cooked main dishes. Of note: Many change their main features every day, so you never get bored with the same old thing.
So, now that I’ve taken you on a tour of where I shop, how about a few ideas about what I cook on my French vacations? Most require no recipes–see it, do it, nothing to it!
The Fabulous French Cold Plate
This is one of the first things we eat the first lunch after we’ve gone shopping. French butchers and charcuteries have great sliced ham or pâté or other charcuterie. Place it on a plate with some salads, such as celeris remoulade (a great celery-root salad that’s as ubiquitous as coleslaw is in the US), carrots râpés (a bright carrot salad), French tabbouli (see my discussion of French versus Moroccan tabbouli, here), and beet salad. All of these salads are available at the supermarket (though they’re best bought fresh from a traiteur, if possible). Serve with a few cornichons, olives, some mustard, and baguette and you’ve got a fabulous summer lunch. We have this at least twice a week in France–mixing up the salads and sometimes switching in a high-quality ready-made quiche:
The Best First Course in Summer
Yeah, yeah, you’ve done the melon-prosciutto song and dance, but it’s never, ever better than when you get a Cavaillon melon (from around the small city of Cavaillon, in Provence), the sweetest, most intense melon in the world. And snag a real Prosciutto di Parma, if you, like me, are anywhere near Italy. It’s as good as this dish gets.
The Roast Chicken
Honestly–you can hardly beat a great French roast chicken, and you can generally find them everywhere: Traiteurs and butchers often sell them, but sometimes, the daily markets have a guy who specializes solely in roast meats–in my experience, his are the best. And if given the choice, splurge for a “poulet fermier”–a richer, better-tasting farmer’s chicken. Also, the market roaster stalls often sell roasted potatoes alongside.
Cooking with the Best Meats Around
I bought a wonderful “faux fillet,” which is a strip steak, from my favorite Menton butcher. A great piece of meat, that I served in my simple blue cheese-tomato salad.
Other nights, I go the sauté-deglaze-serve route (see my post about this), with everything from great pork chops to veal chops to chicken thigh-legs and more. ALWAYS go for the “poulet fermier”: the farmer’s chicken–check out the wonderfully yellow skin on this one! It was so beautifully rich….
Generally, I serve my sauté-deglaze-serve specialties with a salad and simple fork-mashed potatoes or pasta (or go low-carb, and just sauté a few veggies). You have two burners, after all, and that’s all it takes for a meat (with sauce) on one burner, and whipped potatoes or sautéed veggies on another.
On a particularly hot night, I cooked my Comté-Walnut Salad and just added some chicken. Generally, I roast the chicken, but this time (since I didn’t have an oven), I gently poached some breasts, and browned them a little for color. Of course you could easily use a purchased roasted chicken for this!
About That Pasta Dish
More please. Easiest and best dish ever; of course, the closer you are to Italy, the better the fresh pastas.
Lunch from the Traiteur
The Cheese Course:
I never overcomplicate it in France: Just a few slices of some of the best local cheeses you can find and some bread….Here’s a post I wrote about this a while back.
And Those Desserts
Again, I love pastry shops, but I’m also guilty as charged for getting a huge kick out of French supermarket desserts.
My new find this year was La Laitiere ice cream cups by Nestlé: This vanilla-nougat ice cream, with crème-brûlée-esque crunchy bits of caramelized sugar, was just about the best supermarket ice cream money can by. Go home, Haggen-Daz!
Yes–I could go on and on (oops–I guess I already have!). But seriously, I hope I’ve given you plenty of ideas for how and what to cook in your little French vacation kitchen.
And if you’ve got some favorite things you cook out of your own small kitchen in France, let me know in the comments selection, below.
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