Cooking for the French

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Although the French are sticklers for what constitutes French cuisine – haute or homey – they’re much more lenient about food of other cultures. In France you do things a certain way, and this applies to French cooking. As for other cuisines, the French attitude is more: Whatever.

I have learned about good French home cooking from Parisian friends, such as Odette, who has prepared for me such delicious dishes as poulet basquaise, navarin d’agneau aux cocos de Paimpolris de veau aux morilles, among others. The French grow up knowing what constitutes a good French dish, and they’re proud to share those dishes with you.

When it comes to other cuisines, the French are much more laissez-faire. Asian cuisines are often lumped together. The Asian traiteurs offer Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine at the same time. And sometimes sushi too. For the French, American cuisine consists of hamburgers (for a lot of Americans too, unfortunately), although I’ve tried to explain American regional differences such as the Mexican-inspired cuisine of the southwest, the Mediterranean style of the west coast, the French and African roots of much southern cooking, the Cuban and other Latin American influences of south Floridian cuisine. The response is usually feigned interest. At home in France, they’re eager to try something new, but the preparation is up to the chef. There’s no set way, as there is for French cooking.

But this is true everywhere. America has no national cuisine, and much of what we eat in America is drawn from a diverse immigrant cultural mix. But I find the variety of cuisine wider in New York than in Paris. France is a land of hundreds of cheeses – so it’s rare to see cheeses from other countries at your local fromager, though the selection of French cheeses is impressive in itself. French friends visiting me one time in New York were astonished at the wide choice of cheeses at my local cheese shop. My friend Roland said he had to come to New York to sample a Spanish cheese he’d been wanting to try, but that was never available in Paris. (That being said, too many delicious French cheeses are unavailable to Americans, because of restrictions pertaining to raw-milk cheeses.)

When I have people over in Paris, I often find myself preparing something Italian for my French friends. I’m comfortable in the kitchen, and have made my share of French dishes, but I know that my friends in Paris love Italian food, though many don’t really cook it at home. France is by and large a Latin country, and part of it lies along the Mediterranean, but many French, especially in the north, don’t really give much thought to Italian cuisine as something to be considered alongside French cooking. Certainly you can find pizzerias everywhere (though most pizza in Paris is forgettable) and a fair share of decent Italian restaurants. But for the home cook, pasta is just that thing you throw together without having to think about it. (A lot of Americans feel that way, too.)

Still, since I’m not likely to help my French friends discover anything new in French cuisine, I generally serve up something Italian, since I feel I can at least help them appreciate good Italian-influenced home cooking. Americans are more likely than the French to have been introduced to halfway decent Italian or Italian-American cooking (the French are far more likely to be acquainted with excellent home cooking in general, as well as a greater appreciation for quality food products). And although hosting a dinner is not at all a competition in France – the goal is to be among friends, not to show off some complicated dish – I still want to be able to offer my friends something that they might not think of cooking for themselves. And that’s usually Italian food.

An Italian friend of mine in France tells me that for him the French simply don’t understand the difference among pasta shapes – they’re all the same to most French cooks. And if the selection at grocery stores is an indication, he’s right. On supermarket shelves you’re not likely to find more than penne, spaghetti and farfalle (bow ties). An American friend of mine said that when he would buy fresh pasta in Paris and ask for suggestions about sauces for it, the answer was invariably, “Que de crème fraîche.” As if nothing but crème fraîche was enough for any sort of pasta, regardless of its shape. And what the French consider risotto – or what’s listed as risotto on menus at many small cafés – is often simply overcooked rice with a bit of gruyère mixed in, served as a side dish.

When I cook Italian for my Parisian friends, I make do with what’s on hand. That is, I try to prepare an Italian-style dish using French products (sometimes even with crème fraîche). In Paris, good fresh tomatoes are hard to come by (nothing as tasty as the summer beefsteaks you find at farmers’ markets around the U.S.). Nor will you find the same wide variety of canned tomatoes in France as you do at the most modest supermarket in the U.S. You have to search for ingredients such as anchovies (though in France you can find an astonishing variety of tinned sardines). But all cuisine is a compromise of sorts. You work with what you have and you make sure you can find the best to serve yourself and your guests.

So what I offer Parisian friends from my French kitchen is an Irish-American’s take on Italian food based on what I see at the open-air marchés and the supermarkets. I don’t know if it’s authentic. I don’t know what’s authentic, actually – or if any cuisine can actually be called authentic, given the varieties of interpretations a single dish might have in a single Italian town – but we all know if something’s good. And that’s what counts.

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