In a few days time I am leaving the windswept wet isles of Great Britain behind me in the woosh of a high-speed train all the way from London to Avignon in the South of France. I am practically delirious with anticipation, already envisaging my stripy blue and white t-shirt set amongst the rolling Provence countryside with a little black beret to match; spending my long sweaty journeys on the tube with teach-yourself-French flowing firmly into my ears; playing old French favourites Piaf and Trénet around my home; and now, super-indulging in la bonne vie of ultimate gastronomic excellence: French cuisine.
I don’t know all that much about French cuisine, being firmly inducted as I am into the Spanish school of cookery, but I do have one exeedingly pleasing French cookbook on my book shelves, and even that one I bought more for the fine pictures of Paris than through any hope of mastering French gastronomy. However, as technique goes, Rachel Khoo‘s Little Paris Kitchen certainly makes things less intimidating, and opening the book up for the first time in months, I set about creating a weekend fully loaded with French delights.
You’ll have to excuse what follows as being something more of a pictorial indulgence than an ingredient-by-ingredient recipe rehash. While I will try to stay faithful to Khoo’s recipes where I can (and of course reminding Daily Norm readers that the recipes are entirely her copyright, and of course urging you to buy her picture-perfect book ;-)), or otherwise link up to them where I can find them already published online, this post is really an unapologetic celebration of food, of the beauty of ingredients, of fresh produce, of flavour combinations and of the results that can be achieved through a toil in the kitchen.
So first up was a simple Gratin au poisson fumé, a rather simple little light lunch to make, once you master the creamy rich béchamel sauce. It’s also a great way to use up odds and ends from your fridge. For the béchamel, you need to melt 30g of butter in a large pan over a medium heat, adding 30g of plain flower and beating hard until it becomes a smooth paste. Take off the heat, leaving to cool for a couple of minutes, before gradually whisking in 500ml of milk. Place back on a medium heat, add 1/4 peeled onion, a clove and a bay leaf and simmer for 10 minutes, whisking frequently. Finish by removing the onion, clove and bay leaf and seasoning with a little salt, white pepper (if poss) and a pinch of nutmeg. Then it’s just a case of mixing this with around 750g of cooked, sliced baby potatoes, 200g of smoked haddock or other smoked fish, a handful of chopped parsely and sprinkling a handful of comté or gruyere on top and then popping into the oven or 200 mins at 180C. Serve with a fresh salad to cut through that creamy, cheesy sauce. I sprinkled my bake with a little pimento (you can take the boy out of Spain, but not Spain out of the boy…).
An alternative use of the béchamel is to mix it with 300g of cooked macaroni, and placing that in the oven with a load of cheese sprinkled on top – it makes an awesome macaroni cheese which easily beats the supermarket favourites thanks to Khoo’s welcome addition of aromatic flavourings in the sauce.
Onto the plat principal, which in anticipation of our voyage south just had to be a fresh summery fish dish. I wanted to make Khoo’s Trout en papillote dish, but failing to find any trout stocked in my local fishmongers, settled on a freshwater char, which I gather is a close cousin of Monsieur Le Truite. I did however opt for the en papillote technique, the masterful and easy method of cooking fish efficiently, ensuring that the moisture and flavour is all locked in and doesn’t escape the dark cavernous entrails of an oven.
Basically, all you need to do is take one trout per person (or one large char did it for the two of us), and rub its insides with a marinade of the grated zest of one lemon, salt, pepper and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Then fill the fish’s belly with finely chopped fennel, and rest slices of almost cooked baby potatoes alongside the fish (sufficient for the number of people the fish will serve). Then that’s it – lie the fish & co. on a large piece of baking paper and seal closed ensuring that those juices can’t get out – and if you’re wondering how this should be done, check out Rachel Khoo demonstrating herself! I served the fish with a good dollop of thick creamy crème fraîche and a little salad by way of pretence that I am in fact very healthy (and pigs will fly etc etc). The fish was unctuous, tasty, moist and so beautiful to look at – well before it was cooked anyway.
Finally, les desserts, and I went for two French classics which, while a little technical, are made pleasingly approachable in Khoo’s book. The first was Îles flottantes (floating islands), which I can very handily give you a link to to save me trying to unsuccessfully summarise what are three fairly complex processes to make this well-worth-the-effort delicious dessert. I first had some floating islands – unctuous soft meringue floating in a creamy vanilla custard soup – at La Bofinger in the Marais in Paris. After making may way through an indulgent multi-tiered mountain of oysters and seafood, this seemed easily the most decadent way to close a French meal, and now having made it myself, I am delighted to have so easily mastered what is surely one of life’s most decadent of desserts. I particularly love Khoo’s almond praline touch – sprinkled on top this gives the subtle eggyness of the meringue extra sugar and a much needed crunch.
For dessert number two (made the following day I might add – we’re not that greedy), I decided to indulge cataclysmically, with a creamy, ambrosial champagne based dessert, perfect to accompany the glasses of champagne which were already bubbling away in the hands of my partner and I by way of celebration of our fourth anniversary. Rachel Khoo’s ultimately delicious Sabayon de Champagne avec fraises just had to be the winner of the weekend. It was quite simple to make, and way too simple to eat – we finished off this exquisite elixir in mere seconds, but it was worth those few mouthfulls of pleasure.
To create this delight, simply whisk 4 egg yolks with 25g of sugar over a bain marie (heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water) until the mixture is thick and pale yellow in colour. Then add 100ml of champagne and whisk until the sabayon is very thick and foamy – this takes around 5-10 minutes, and you know when it’s done when you draw a shape in the mix and it stays put. Then simply pour into bowls and serve with stawberries. Oooo la la what a summer’s delight!
Vive le France! We’re coming to get you!
For more details of Rachel Khoo’s cuisine check out her BBC series page.
- ‘The Little Paris Kitchen’: Rachel Khoo puts a fresh spin on classic French fare (o.canada.com)
- Salmon en papillote (feedthepiglet.wordpress.com)