The Trout

I've been immersed in readings about women cooking in France. I finished the recent Julia Child memoir with the definite understanding that not only am I not Julia Child, I don't even want to be like her. I don't have her drive and enthusiasm for the details and technique of cooking. I'm not even especially intrigued by nuanced combinations of flavors. I cook for friends and family, and I'm still trying to figure out my nexus of cooking, pleasure and servitude.

After Julia Child, I picked up Madeleine Kamman's When French Women Cook, a memoir with recipes. She goes through each stage of her life, chapter by chapter describing the women who influenced her with their cooking. There's Marie-Charlotte, her great-grandmother, who taught her La Cuisine Misere ("cooking something from nothing"). A recipe for Cream of Dandelion Soup (Creme de Pissenlits) follows. I haven't tried this recipe, and I can pretty much promise that I never will. It's stipulated that you want two pounds of the early dandelions, and it's already too late for that.

Victoire the mushroom maven is Kamman's next mentor. She starts that chapter saying "Disappointment comes early in life." How true! Her letdown came when she injured herself in the audition for the Paris Opera Ballet and was sent off to a distant relative's care for recovery. This raises all sorts of unanswered questions; Kamman stays focused on her accidental apprenticeship, recording what she refers to as a "France that has disappeared."

She describes a time that she and Victoire celebrated a mushroom windfall by eating out, having Truites au Lard. Following the theme of disappointment, the special meal didn't "measure up," so Victoire promised to prepare the dish the way it was supposed to be. Her story goes on with the older lady catching a trout with her bare hands, and of course they tasted better than those from the restaurant.

Having passed on not only weed soup but Squabs with Grapes and Pineau and Poached Chicken in Vinegar, I decided it was time to recapture lost France in my kitchen. Even though I knew I wouldn't be able to grab any trout except at Citarella, I decided on Truites au Lard. It's basically trout pan-fried in fat rendered from diced pancetta. [Note to self: try to avoid using the word lard in recipes; real turn off.] It was one of those French recipes that are deceptively easy:

• soak trout in milk (I don't know why, but it said to, and I did)
• render pancetta fat (1/2 oz cubed pancetta for each trout)
• take out crispy pancetta.
• flour the trout and saute about 4 min. a side. (I had some big trout, so this wasn't nearly enough time.
When the trout are done, put them on a platter and return the crispy pancetta to the pan along with 2 cloves of garlic, 2 T parsley and 2 T butter. It's done when the garlic starts to color up.
• Pour this over the trout. and serve.

I had the full Madeleine Kamman experience: I was thoroughly disappointed. I don't know what exactly I was trying to conjure. This certainly wasn't the fresh trout my mom used to make when everyone had gone fishing in the Sacramento Delta. Nor did it seem decidedly French with the mammoth fish on offer in New York. I had high expectations, to be sure, anticipating being transported to some little French kitchen where nobody had to hurry about synchronizing dinner, piano practice, bath, and bedtime stories in two hours time.


Iron Chef Maurice!

The Husband's dad (my cooking mentor), Maurice, is here for a visit from California, and this presents an opportunity for both learning and anxiety. After a lunch out at Nick and Toni’s in Manhattan, we drove up to Fairway on 125th street to plan the night’s meal. “What should we do for dinner?” I asked.

Smiling, Maurice offered: “Hey, you decide. It’s up to you. Cook anything you want.” It all seemed so inconsequential to him. So easy.

When in doubt, fix chicken. So I got an organic broiler and had the butcher butterfly it for me. I thought of rice and then an endive salad. Maurice was being completely nonjudgmental, pushing the cart along and oohing and aahing at the shelves of oils and sauces and the tubs of olives and capers. He couldn’t resist though when we came along the little Italian cippolini onions. I had never noticed these before. They’re right next to the shallots and the ginger, across from the cornhusks for tamales. He noted that the price was about a third of that in Sacramento and started stuffing about eight or so into a bag.

We came across a heap of pears (Bartlett, Red Bartlett, Anjou) and Maurice bagged 4 of those, along with some heavy cream from the cold room.

Then we came by some “heirloom” tomatoes. One of the highlights of our annual trip to Sacramento is when Maurice takes me to the Farmer’s Market and we pick out wild and gruesome looking tomatoes to slice and drizzle with olive oil. I was hoping that these New York tomatoes might qualify as worthy. Maurice looked at the $5 a pound price and edged over the cheaper beefsteak variety. “You have breadcrumbs? Parmesan cheese?” We picked up some oregano and then headed over to the check out line.

When we got home I threw together a marinade for the chicken (lime, garlic, crushed cilantro, olive oil, s&p) and Maurice started in on the onions (peeling and trimming).

As I grilled the chicken and cooked the rice (sautéing in butter first, adding a sprig of the oregano, and covering the lid in a linen towel (I don’t know, that’s what a French woman taught me), Maurice was simmering the onions in some butter and olive oil and a bit of water. He was also halving and cleaning the tomatoes, crushing garlic, stuffing breadcrumbs, Parmesan olive oil and oregano into the nooks and crannies of the tomatoes—ready to be roasted in the oven.

Then I washed the escarole and made a 3:1 olive oil/ balsamic vinegar salad dressing. As the onions were perfuming the whole house with their heavy, sweet fragrance, he let the sauce cook down among the tender little buds and then caramelized them with some balsamic vinegar.

So there on the table was a nicely grilled chicken, some white rice, a nice green salad along with the most delectable little onion buttons you have probably ever seen and some squishy bright red tomatoes oozing with garlic and cheesy bits.

If you were lucky you got an onion small enough to pop in your mouth all at once, that way you had that little explosion happening as you bit into it. As for the tomatoes, I’m glad The Girl didn’t like them because that left more for me. I choose to cut them into pieces and plopped it on a piece of baguette. The only thing that would have made it better is if we were sitting in a café in Italy.

I got up to give The Girl a bath, and when we came back down Maurice was sautéing the pears, building up a caramel sauce, to which he added some of the heavy cream. He cooked it down and cooked it down, shaking the pan to keep the pears from burning or sticking. When the sauce started to turn a light brown, they were close to being done, and he carefully waited for that moment when they were just right. I was in charge of scooping up the vanilla ice cream that went on the side. He said he saw this recipe on the America’s Test Kitchen show and that they had said to serve it with blue cheese. We all agreed that cheesing up the caramel pears was just plain wrong.

As I scooped my final bite of pear, scraping whatever bits of caramel sauce I could onto my spoon, I considered not that I had been beat, for this wasn’t a competition. It was more like cooking with Master Kan, and I was trying to snatch the pebble.