The weather is cloudy and overcast but I am in good spirits as I drive towards the nearby Town of Huntington to the Barnes and Noble book store for an early breakfast. I am off today and tomorrow and have already started my Christmas shopping a few days ago, but today I am doing something I used to do all the time but stopped for lack of funds. The weather is warm as I cross the parking lot and enter the store. The warmth of the colors hit me as I enter, it is like a second home to me a bookstore; any bookstore feels the same way. I make my way to the loo, it seems that these days I need one everywhere I go, guess I must be getting older.
But soon I find myself standing in front of the section on international foods, there is an awesome array of books on French cooking, the ones that appeal to me most are the bright color photo jobs with a picture of each recipe, but the pièce de résistance is a huge volume put out by the French Culinary Institute in New York City whose web site videos I watched and marvelled at the relatively cheap cost of a six month course. The five-day a week daytime course is 46,500 dollars and they place you in your first job, I think they also give you a set of chefs knives to boot. The same course taught at night takes nine months and cost 36,500! The teachers are all very experienced and they take you from how to chop carrots to working a shift in the restaurant attached to the school L’ecole. I would love to go if I could, if I could afford to quit my job I would go just to learn classic French cooking, but that’s a lottery win dream. This book is for those who are not going to go to school but are more advanced than me, as is the same sort of book put out by a French School similar to FCI in NY, the pictures are beautiful and each lesson is a three to four course meal, starting with easy stuff and getting into very complicated meals half way through.
I take both books to a table at the Starbucks Cafe inside the store and order a Cafe Au Lait and a Caprese Panini sandwich, toasted cheese,tomatoes, and pesto on ciabatta bread cooked in a press toaster to melt the cheese, it’s pre-made but good and I munch as I flip through the volumes, my mind swirling with unfamiliar food, phrases and techniques. I put the books back and look around for gifts for others, but find little that would interest them, I do find a cheap book on Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the story of one of the most famous restaurants in the country. I know her name but nothing specific about Alice herself so I buy it and walk back to my car and set off for the Fairway market in Plainview, just a town over from mine and a place that will become my Mecca for my new venture. I plan on teaching myself classic French cooking just like the new movie “Julie & Julia” based on the book of the same name; which I got for my Mother but at this time still haven’t seen. I’m prepared to go to a lot of trouble to do just that, so I have already bought my first real chefs knives at Macy’s department store that I got on sale for 40% off plus an extra 25% promo which ends today, I bought a small pairing knife and a large chefs knife but I am going back to get the others I left behind. I have the money from my 401k which I’m paying back weekly from my paycheck so I can afford to splurge a little, with my bills caught up and deals made for lower monthly payments and interest rates I have come out on the other side of my financial disaster of a few months ago, in fact we also got a nice bonus this year as opposed to last year but half of what we used to get back in 2007. I didn’t know that yet with Christmas being 20 days away but it was a shocker when I found two envelopes to open on the 22nd! I pull into Fairways parking lot and find it a madhouse as usual, it is the largest food store around here and shopping here can be a hassle.
I can only imagine that this is a taste of the open market experience that you get in other countries, when you walk in your senses are hit with dazzling color and to your right a huge produce dept, to your left the cookware and the catering desk, opposite catering is the café area where a salad bar, sandwich bar, and hot food waits in large stainless steel chafing dishes for people to dish up for themselves, every kind of food is here. Fresh made lemon chicken, asian style ribs, ox tails in gravy, pork chops stuffed with fruit, sautéed vegetables, butternut squash puree, mashed potatoes, filet of sole stuffed with crab swimming in lemon and garlic butter, flank steak in barbeque sauce, garlic string beans with almonds, broccoli rabe in garlic and oil, an ever changing array cooked each day from about 11:00 to closing or until the food runs out, whichever comes first.
If you walk past the food area you come to what I call the maze, an area where cold prepared deli food awaits and here the vegans and vegetarians have a field day! The selection of humus alone will kill ya, roasted red pepper, plain, garlic, lemon, babaganoosh, antipasto, cheese salad, vegan General Cho’s Chicken, fire roasted veggies in olive oil, marinated cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes and basil with fresh mozzarella, couscous galore!, multigrain with vegetables finely chopped, couscous with fruit and grains… combos that will just make you insane there a sooo good. There is an olive bar where you can pick out from 16 different types from all over the world, and around the corner is a fresh hand-made mozzarella ball stand, an olive oil tasting bar where fresh bread is available for dipping, turn another corner and your in the biggest cheese market I’ve ever seen, with samples and tastes of anything you want to try! There is a cold case with French delicacies from goat cheese to pâté of all kinds to duck confit and crème fresh, and very expensive truffles! The next aisle over is a coffee lovers paradise, fresh roasted on the spot! I mean you gotta smell this section, it is beautiful with teas from around the world in tins, boxes, or loose as well as coffee of all kinds to indulge in your caffeine cravings. The back-drop for all of this is the back of the store beginning with the end of the produce section where the deli starts, all kinds of cold salads that were not in the other sections are here, potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw, egg salad, all the picnic stuff Americans crave and more as well as sliced meats and cheeses, always busy as hell with a wait. Next to that is the fish market, and let me tell you they have it all here, live lobsters and crabs, clams and mussels and slabs of bacalau still packed in kosher salt, and every kind of fish you could want or need. Then next to that is the meat market; a haven for meat lovers with dry aged steaks, Angus beef, and every kind of sausage you can think of…chicken, lamb, pork, beef, spiced in every possible way with cheese or fresh herbs added and ground meats of all kinds arranged in a beautiful display of neat clean rows, very clean and very fresh and cold. This makes the back area into a chaos of people bumping and jostling each other (especially with a holiday weekend) like roller derby for food.
I am making a traditional Navarin D’Agneau, which is a spring vegetable stew using a few cheap pieces of lamb tenderloin I found in the regular store we shop in for a discount. These are pieces of meat which have been pre-seasoned and are cheaper cuts cast off from better ones that sold for more money, but as Tony says on his show often, poor people discovered good food by taking cheap cuts of meat and cooking them just right … to make them delicious. I will need some lovely small white pearl onions which I pick out one by one from a large bin, a bunch of nice big carrots, turnips, peas, small fingerling potatoes, garlic, and parsley and thyme for a bouquet garni; which is a fancy French term for herbs tied up in a piece of cheesecloth. I finish my shopping and go home for a short break in the action before I start my meal, feeding my fish and talking with my brother briefly about our tanks and things before I start setting up my mise-en-place, which is another French term meaning having everything ready ahead of time. This means you get all your ingredients out and all the pots and pans you will need as well as the dishware your serving the meal in and for me a Rum and coke!
So as I assemble my “mise” my mom sits at the table using her laptop to chat with her friends on the Neil Diamond Fansite “Sweet Caroline” which she now is in charge of greeting new members daily. I’m absorbed by my task and after getting everything out I start to peel the little white onions, let me tell you this is a pain but the little pairing knife is a godsend, I cut through a paper plate like it was nothing just to show the quality to my family, who were very impressed by the way, then start cutting up the other vegetables. I can’t believe how easy it is to cut the carrots with this knife. I bought J.A. Henckels cookware from Spain, and I can see now that we never owned a really good knife before this, I am happy to have made what I consider a shrewd buy that I will have for years. I quarter the large carrots and white turnips, and I cut one large onion into eights ( expecting it will render down and flavor the gravy), and peel the small potatoes (covering with a damp towel) before I address the meat.
Now I take the pieces out of the packages and wash off the herbs and turn them over, very fatty on the back side so I have to trim all of that off before I can cube it. I don’t enjoy butchering meat, I like to eat meat very much but don’t enjoy handling it, I guess it’s the guilt of knowing you’re a carnivore and things die so you can live. But the trouble is that plants are alive too, we just can’t communicate with them yet, and fish-what about them. I am just starting to like fish when I have to go and get interested in keeping freshwater fish, so now the thought of cooking a whole fish in the beautiful long copper fish pot I got my Mom for Xmas is not as appealing as it was a few months ago. Still I have to be realistic, I’m not turning vegan any time soon so I brown off the meat and removing it for a while I toss the onions in the pan, let them cook for a few minutes (but not browned), add the garlic (cooking till aromatic) then adding the meat back in I sprinkle with a tablespoon of flour and stir to coat, finally putting in two cups of brown stock and the bouquet garni and covering to cook for 1 1/2 hours.
The rest is really simple, just adding the peeled and sliced potatoes, carrots and turnips into the pot and adding frozen peas at the end cooking till tender. But I am a little unhappy with the gravy, it’s like water so I mix up a little cornstarch and add it in to thicken the pot. The problem is I have to overcook things for my parents who can’t chew vegetables the way god intended- a little resistant . So I am basically forced to kill the meal a little for their sake, next time I will make some for myself done right and separate it from theirs so all will be happy. We sit down to a very good meal but it doesn’t look like the picture in the book, too much gravy comparatively, but that’s us Americans for you. I don’t feel like I made a major foray into the French gastronomy because I have made regular beef stew many times so this wasn’t a great challenge. The flavor however was very good and no one else was disappointed in the outcome, so I’m my own worse critic, what else is new.
I sip my glass of wine and think about the next meal, the next challenge, around me my family enjoys the meal. In the end what mattered is that they ate heartily, and enjoyed it and that is after all…the only thing that matters to a cook.