Or HOW OUR HERO BECAME A GREAT COOK
It all started in a northern suburb of Paris in the 1960s, a working class family living over the small corner grocery that they owned and ran. Papa worked 7 days a week from early morning until early evening, climbing the stairs only for meals or at the end of his working day. Maman divided her time between the shop where she helped the clients, hand-made cheese, stocked the shelves and weighed vegetables, and the apartment above, overseeing meal preparation, making sure homework was done and the baby taken care of.
2, 3 and then 4 children sat around the long kitchen table doing homework. JP was the only son, about 10 years old, when it all began. His mother would start lunch, pot au feu or chicken and rice, peel, chop, add and stir, then fix the lid atop the pot and say “okay, as soon as it comes to a boil, come down to the shop and let me know.” Or “at 12:30 on the nose, turn off the heat and lunch will be ready.”
A year or two later, things had moved forward; everything started, she would get ready to head down to the shop and her clients and she would instruct the children, “When it comes to a boil, add the vegetables” or “when it comes up to a boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Then make the rice.” Little by little, the responsibility grew, the duties expanded. Preparing, chopping, stirring, adding…. But Maman still did the heavy work.
But as the old French saying goes : “Petit à petit, le petit oiseau fait son nid!” (Little by little, the little bird builds his nest!) By the time JP was about 13 or 14, the chicken or the veal would be on the table, the pot on the stove, the rest of the ingredients found down in the shop. Maman would now say “Today you make “Poule au Pot” or “Blanquette de veau”, intimating “you have seen me make this hundreds of times over the past few years, you know how by now.” So as the story goes, our hero was able to prepare anything his mom had been making, all of those French home staples, hearty one-pot meals, soups, stews, dressings.
But here-in lies the problem for a lover of good food like JP : his mom had a somewhat limited repertoire, only preparing the several dishes that her husband liked. Everything else he refused. The traditional Christmas turkey replaced with a capon? Sunday chicken replaced with guinea fowl? This was a man of habit, the man who expected the same menu every holiday, the same meal in front of him every Sunday noon, whether chicken, rabbit or beef, it had to be prepared in the usual way.
By 16, JP was ready to explore. Tired of the same old, same old, he pulled his mother’s Françoise Bernard Les Recettes Faciles out of the cupboard and set out on a personal challenge : as he (more or less) was now in charge of a certain numbers of meals, he decided to work his way through the cookbook, trying something new every week. All he asked for was enough money to run to the butcher’s shop across the square for whatever meat was involved, and the rest he grabbed from the shelves of the shop downstairs.
And the rest, as we say, is history. Our hero has done very well, having taught himself over this years’-long, self-imposed cooking challenge to make everything French from Rabbit Terrine to Beignets au pommes, from Daube to Crêpes, Ham-wrapped Endives baked in Bechamel to Potée to handmade mayonnaise.
Later, his repertoire grew. Two years living and working in Morocco, hanging about kitchens with the women, watching and learning, our years in Italy together as well as the cooking cultures I brought with me to the marriage and all we have discovered together.
He loves cooking, loves eating, loves exploring and discovering cuisines. But he is also a man adamant in his belief of cooking with and eating only the freshest, only the seasonal and only the local, when possible. He leaves the pastry to me, but he still and always will find the greatest pleasure in putting together a fabulous meal!
DORADE AU CITRON (Sea Bream with Lemon)
Made as a surprise Saturday morning as I was at the supermarket with Simon
1 whole sea bream, about 2 lbs (1 kg); ask your fishmonger to clean it if you prefer
2 to 3 shallots
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
Parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), 1 bunch
Butter or margarine, about 2 Tbs (30 g)
Thyme, fresh or dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 420°F (210°C).
Generously butter a baking dish large enough to hold the whole fish.
Scale, empty and clean the sea bream if not already done by your fishmonger. Rinse and dry it off.
Peel and chop the shallots and garlic, chop a large handful of the parsley or coriander. Mix together and then salt and pepper the mixture.
Stuff this filling into the open cavity of the fish, pressing it in so it is well filled with all of the filling.
Use toothpicks pushed through the skin to close the fish back up.
With a very sharp knife, make 4 or 5 incisions in the side of the fish which will be turned up in the baking dish.
Press a half-slice of lemon into each incision.
Salt and pepper the outside of the bream and dust generously with the dried or fresh, chopped thyme. Dot with butter.
Place the fish in the buttered baking dish and bake for 30 to 40 minutes – check after 30 minutes to see if the fish is cooked all the way through by pushing apart and looking deep into one of the incisions. Do not overcook.
Serve hot out of the oven with rice or fresh tagliatelle, followed by a cool, green salad. Perfect!