Columns Lifestyle

The Country Kitchen: La Cuisine de Campagne

J’aime la cuisine française. That’s about the extent of my French. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but for the past ten years I’ve had a deep-set love of French food and culture. In fact, I’ve decided that after a rather short dip into the world of Biochemistry (whatever that entails), I’m going to relocate to the South of France and live out the rest of my life buying fresh bread and produce, owning a little café-come-bookshop on a side street of Avignon. It might not be the chateau of the Loire I had initially planned, but I’m learning to “manage my expectations” – whatever that means.   

Perhaps this obsession was kick-started when I watched Audrey Hepburn learn to crack eggs with one-hand in Sabrina, prior to the most iconic glow up in Hollywood history . Whatever it was, I’ve been spending far too many undeserved coffee breaks scanning Le Cordon Bleu’s site (scrolling rather quickly as to pretend I didn’t see the hefty price tags) and searching for intensive french and cookery Courses.

Now, I would like to acknowledge that I am completely unqualified to teach or share French recipes. I am not French, (as much as I would like to be, I remain Cumbrian) and despite my rather surprising A* at GCSE and subsequent subject achievement award, I still have to check my accents and agreements. I think it’s about time I got back into Duolingo before the angry notifications start.  But, a lot of the essence of French cooking can be captured in some hearty, rustic dishes that anyone can interpret and tweak to be their own. It’s not all croquembouches and dainty mille-feuilles; sometimes something that sounds as refined as boeuf bourguignon isn’t that much different from, dare I say it, a hot pot.

Cheese Soufflé

I cannot take any credit for this cheese soufflé. I am not at a stage yet where I could formulate a recipe for something so technical. I couldn’t even follow the recipe without several outbreaks of panic and whining when I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was right or not. But, despite it being my first-time, I managed an impressive soufflé that didn’t burn and didn’t sink. Thanks Delia.

A couple of weeks ago my friends and I watched Julie and Julia via Netflix Party in which Amy Adams cooks her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. At some point I would like to do the same with Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course’ as it’s bursting with recipes that cover all the classics. As my mum always says whenever I want to cook something new, “Delia will have it.” No points for guessing where the cheese soufflé recipe came from then.

To make either one large or several smaller soufflés, place 150ml of milk, 25g of butter and 25g of flour into a saucepan and heat over a medium heat, whisking until smooth and thick. Then heat for another three minutes over low heat, occasionally stirring, and season with a pinch of mustard powder if you have it. Leave to cool for a few minutes before adding 75g of grated cheese and three egg yolks. Whisk up the three egg whites until stiff and fold into the cheese sauce. Pour this mixture into a large greased soufflé dish (or several ramekins) and bake in the centre of an oven at 190⁰C for 30-35 mins.

Coq au Vin

Traditionally cooked with an older cockerel, the French way to tart up a bit of slightly sub-par meat is to drown it in a lot of wine. A whole bottle will do. I’ve adapted this to work as a slow cooker recipe so that I could stick it in a pot at 2pm and forget about it until teatime. To serve enough for 6-8, I bought a whole chicken, jointed. If you are using a whole chicken too, ask your butcher to joint it for you. This is much easier if the local butcher’s Saturday boy is your brother. If you don’t want to go for a whole chicken (although it probably works out cheaper) I would recommend buying thigh joints instead.

Start by seasoning a bowl of flour and lightly coating the joints. Melt some (a lot) of butter in a pan, starting with around 25g, and fry the joints for a few minutes each side until golden brown. You might need to do this in multiple batches depending on the size of your pan, and might need to add more butter if it runs low. Transfer the browned joints to a large roasting dish or slow cooker pot and cook eight rashers of bacon, diced, and two sliced onions in the empty pan. Crush in up to five cloves of garlic. Add the onions and bacon to the chicken and pour over an entire bottle of red wine (750ml). Given the sheer quantity, I wouldn’t go stealing your Dad’s best burgundy, (I was sent on a Co-Op trip to buy the cheapest rouge I could find) and if you want to make the dish a bit lighter in flavour, help yourself to a glass before submerging the chicken. Leave to cook in the slow cooker at a high heat for two hours before adding roughly chopped chestnut mushrooms for the remaining hour. If you’re doing it in the oven, one hour will do before the mushrooms are added for another 30 minutes.

While, in the immortal words of Bella Swan, I’d never given much thought to how I’d die, I think if I was the chicken destined for my coq au vin, to be cloaked in butter and drowned in wine seems like a good way to go. These are the sorts of thoughts my mind wanders to with three hours to wait.

When you’re ready to serve, remove the solids (keeping them someplace warm) and heat the sauce on high heat to reduce the liquid by 1/3. Then, turn down the heat and add a roux made from a tablespoon of softened butter mixed with a tablespoon of flour. Beat this into the sauce to thicken it before pouring it back over the chicken and serving. You could eat this with some dauphinoise or gratin-style potatoes to stay on theme, but I settled on mash.

You could use dry cider instead of wine for a different, but equally tasty dish.

Cheat’s Tarte Tatin

Caramel is always a good call. I’d nearly go as far as to say there is no problem that caramel and apples can’t solve, or at least defer. While a lot of French desserts tend to be technically challenging, they needn’t be. After last week’s questionable upside-down cake aesthetics, I decided to challenge myself to one-up my performance. Yes, some apples still got stuck to the pan, but that’s nothing a bit of jiggery-pokery can’t fix.

I used apples, chopping two into thick slices, but quartered pears would be just as tasty. Add 100g of sugar and a tablespoon of water to a frying pan and stir over low heat until dissolved. At this point, turn up the heat and leave it until the edges start to turn brown. As the caramel thickens slightly, add a chunk (25g) of butter and arrange the apples in concentric circles. After they have softened slightly, roll out some pre-bought puff pastry (let’s make this easy) to about 3mm thick and cut out a circle just larger than your pan. Lay this over the apples and tuck in the edges. Bang the pan in the oven at 200⁰C for 30 minutes or so until the pastry has puffed up.

Take your tart out of the oven and leave for a few minutes to cool down. After which, all things going to plan, it should come out of the pan cleanly. If not, pick out the remaining apples and spoon the rest of the caramel over the top. It’ll still taste the same.

Anna McDonald is a second-year Biochemist at Lady Margaret Hall