The afternoon of my first French dinner, I set about making the blanquette de veau – or veal stew – that I’d decided to serve to my new friends Renaud and Odette.
It’s a classic French dish made up of veal shoulder roast cut into cubes and first simmered in water (to rid it of impurities), then braised in a light stock and finished with a velouté sauce – cream and egg – accompanied by noodles or rice or potatoes.
I didn’t have a French cookbook handy – I would later discover a copy of “Je Sais Cuisiner,” or I know how to cook, at a used-book stall. It’s the French equivalent of “The Joy of Cooking,” and I would come to use it for further inspiration with future meals. In the meantime, I’d found a recipe for the stew on the Cook’s Illustrated site.
The internet also gave me a sense of how to set the table à la française. I’m not a nervous host, but I had a feeling that the French prefer that things be done just right, and I wanted the table – an untrustworthy piece on unsteady legs that seemed to have been salvaged from the street after more discriminating passersby had chosen to leave it – to be correctly appointed. For it to be truly correctly appointed, of course, would have required a new table, but I made do with the shabby castoffs with which my hosts had decorated their apartment.
The glasses are placed in a way that’s a bit different than we Americans do it – water glass to the left, red wine at center, white wine glass to the right in a semicircle just to the north of the plate. Each plate also has a little dessert spoon and a little knife or fork for cheese placed to the south of the glasses. The napkin isn’t under the cutlery, but to its left. This wasn’t a formal dinner, by any stretch, but I still hoped that it would meet with the approval of my friends. (It turned out that no one really looks at the table settings – they pay far more attention to what’s being served than on what it’s served.)
Renaud and Odette were supplying the wine, and they arrived with two large bottles. Here was my first dilemma: I had to tell them that I didn’t drink, or that I hadn’t drunk in quite a long time.
When Renaud presented me with the bottles, I thanked him and said, in my faltering French, that I couldn’t share the wine with them, since I suffered from “la malédiction irlandaise,” or the Irish curse. He didn’t respond by saying, as I’d heard in France from time to time, “Not even wine?” Instead, with a tact that touched me deeply, he said, “Well, plenty of people here suffer from la malédiction française,” and I knew we understood each other without my having to explain further.
Dinner was a success, however, and we three were at ease with each other, their linguistic patience helping me overcome any lingering shyness I might have had over the pitiful state of my nascent French.
I served my blanquette de veau. It being a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, everything worked and, for me, it was perfect. But it being an American recipe, it had little additions that a French culinary purist would frown upon. Blanquette de veau is supposed to emphasize the whiteness of the veal and so be free of additional color, but this version had strips and fronds of fennel, some peas and a sprinkling of tarragon. Green amid the white.
Odette, une cuisinière superbe – an excellent cook herself – said to me, “C’est délicieux. Mais ce n’est pas français.” Delicious, but not French.
In other words, I shouldn’t confuse my own home cooking, however good, with real French home cooking.
Nevertheless, she’d cleaned her plate and asked for seconds.