With The Artist’s Daughter staying with us in Provence over the last month, we seemed to have got through an awful lot of back episodes of ‘Come Dine with Me’, (that’s right, blame the children….) the English TV show where 4 or 5 people cook dinner for each other and judge the dining experiences on a rating of 1-10 with the highest scorer winning £1,000. In France there is a version called Un Diner Presque Parfait, and in the US, ‘Dinner Takes All’.
Recently my friend and blog mentor, Julie Mautner arranged for me to get a copy of French Classics Made Easy by Richard Grausman and I decided I would have my own ‘Come Dine with Me’ experience using recipes from the book.
Richard Grausman, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, gives us the recipes for French Classics like Bouillabaise, or Coq au Vin, in a more digestible form, reducing, where possible, the use of cream, butter, salt and eggs and simplifying the cooking methods. His aim is to show that anyone who knows how to boil water or dice an onion can master a soufflé.
I decide to put his recipes to the test and chose a menu of dishes I have never cooked before. On Friday I go shopping to get my ingredients. I am going to make ‘Chicken Salad with Fresh Peaches in a Curry-Lime Dressing’ Salade de Volaille aux Péches, for my starter, substituting crab meat for the chicken (something the author suggests). I can’t find any pre-cooked crab and end up with a live one but am too squeamish to put him in the pot and have to enlist The Artist’s help.
I go to my butcher for his free-range chicken and tell him I am cooking Poulard Pochée à L’Estragon, Poached Chicken with Creamy Tarragon Sauce. He suggests I buy a whole chicken, which he chops into portions as it is much tastier than using chicken breasts. The rest of the ingredients, I pick up at the local Intermarché Supermarket.
Saturday I prepare all the dishes in advance and for dessert I make a Chocolate-Orange Sorbet and Almond Tuiles.
By the time my guests arrive at 8.40, I am ready and have even had time to wash my hair, put on a frock and do my nails! They come bearing wine and gifts, assorted mustards and Joel Durand’s chocolates.
We go through into the courtyard where The Artist serves Bellinis, which, for those that don’t know, originate from Harry’s Bar in Venice and were made famous by the many ex-pats who imbibed there in the 30’s (Hemingway amongst them) and are made with sparkling wine and white peach purée.
With regards to our guests, Julie, obviously, I know, but we have only met Olivier once before and Carlos not at all; luckily there is nothing like a sparkling drink to break the ice and we are soon being regaled with tales of Belarus strip joints by Carlos who has just got back from there, literally, he arrived at our station at 8.30pm from Marseille Airport (I know, I too had to ask where Belarus is, it borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and belonged to various countries in the past, most recently The Soviet Union from which it got its independence in 1991, oh yea Wikipedia!).
After a while I leave the merry-making to plate up the first course of avocado, egg, scallions and peach in a lime and curry mayonnaise dressing, topped with crab meat (the author says to mix it all up, but I thought it was nicer to keep the crab separate) on a bed of lettuce and a tomato garnish (I am getting quite fluent with the culinary lingo!).
The verdict? Olivier felt it could have had more curry powder, I agree as with just a pinch, you could hardly taste it, he also thought that chopped chives might have been a nice addition, (was he saying the dish was bland?). Carlos said he loved it as it was, especially the fresh lime dressing and the avocado and crab mix, Julie and The Artist agreed with him.
Next I go back to the kitchen to cook the rice and green beans, accompaniments to the Chicken which I heat up in the stock I poached it in, as well as the velouté sauce, which I had made earlier but which is still a little thin. Olivier comes to see how I am doing and suggests adding Maizena corn flour, (the great French cooking cure-all!) but I tell him I have to follow the recipe to the word and carry one stirring. It finally thickens and I take the chicken out of the stock (forgetting to wipe it with kitchen towels as instructed) and arrange it on a plate and pour over the sauce.
I bring it to the table together with the rice and green beans.
Everyone seems to enjoy it ‘though The Artist later said his chicken was a bit dry; did I poach the chicken for too long, or dry it out by re-heating? I don’t know.
Finally I serve the Chocolate-Orange Sorbet, (I added a couple of capfuls of Cointreau to the mixture before freezing), along with a shop-bought raspberry sorbet and homemade Almond Tuiles (so called because they are shaped like the French roof tiles).
Despite my miss givings, the Chocolate-Orange Sorbet is very good (great for all you lactic intolerant people out there) but the dish is marred by my addition of the raspberry sorbet (I felt it needed another colour to brighten it up) and the Almond Tuiles have gone soggy as I put them into a tin before they were fully cooled, but they still taste good (I later revive them by drying them out in a cool oven).
Everyone leaves together around 12.30. We’d all had a lot of fun and I hope that everyone enjoyed their meal, would I have won the £1,000? You’ll have to ask the others……
And what about the book? My cooking tends to lean more towards Provençal food, which is much simpler than Classic French food and uses olive oil, garlic and vegetables over butter and cream, but it was interesting to try these more haute cuisine, or fine-dining, recipes for a change. I was impressed with the very clear step-by-step instructions and Richard Grausman really does simplify, what would otherwise be daunting recipes. I did feel a sense of satisfaction that the food had turned out exactly as it was supposed to and I learned how to make Almond Tuiles!
Please add you thoughts in the comments below.