Monday, December 28, 2009

How to do a French Christmas dinner

We came back to Paris for the holidays this winter to be with Elodies family, but more importantly it was time to gorge ourselves on the french christmas dinner. After living in the desert and eating nothing but reconstituted dried beans (hummous and fhool) and Papa Johns Pizza (our Nigerian American housemate LOVES that stuff) we were just DYING to come home to France and go the distance with their famous 5 course meals (7 courses if your really looking for punishment).

Normally Elodie's parents go overboard so we have to tell them to go LEGER (light) with the food, but this year we gave them the green light to give us a food coma. There is nothing ultra gastronomic about our family dinners in terms of technique. Its simple cooking with a use of quality ingredients. Whats more important is how its presented and staged to accent the food and your appetite at each stage.

The first stage of any important meal is your aperitif. An aperitif is a sweet or light drink that you begin with to open up your appetite. More importantly I find it ties in with the french philosophy that families should socialize and focus on spending time to talk to eachother. The children have juice or schweppes, and the adults have vermouth, porto, or champagne. In our case, we were served a very nice bottle of Charles Lafitte Champagne that Elodies dad had been saving.

After the bubbly is finished, we all sit ourselves around the table and move onto the next course, which is a plate full of giant slabs of foie gras. This is the homemade stuff y'all. We sit around a table in november and blend goose livers with all spice and cognac to make this divine artery clogging dish.

To start, you basically take a knife and you spread it on a fresh slice of bread while washing it down with a sweet wine. Traditionally with a Sautern wine but in our case we went with a more 'minerally' white Condrieu wine.

After all the oohs and ahhs from the foie gras, champagne, and Condrieu, at this point the Christmas dinner is going full steam and there is no stopping it. Everyone is completely focused on the food and what was once an immense plate of goose liver is now being scraped with a knife to catch those last remaining morsels.

By this time, the conversations are broken up around the dinner table to different sections. Elodie and her parents are engaged in catching up on her life in Jordan. I'm sitting next to the grandparents so they are talking about stuff that old people talk about.

The next stage moves onto something more substantial so we are treated to an excellent dish of sauteed scallops with apples, cinnamon and créme frâiche. The Condrieu is still working its magic at this point so we stick with it up to this point.

In Paris, you would be surprised as to how there is a butcher in every neighborhood. In America for example, you do have butchers. But you don't have one in walking distance from every neighborhood. I have one right below me and maybe 5 within walking distance. Sure, you can buy a cheaper roast at the supermarket, but the French seem to uphold a tradition that what you put in your body should be of the highest quality. Our friend Caroline even has 5 side by side next to her house!

In my opinion, to make something for the french dinner table you keep it simple with a high quality main ingredient and combine it with something seasonal. Maybe enhance it with some wine or a special spice to get a little fancy. Take the previous dish for example. You sauté a couple of fresh scallops with a seasonal fruit like apples. When they are close to being finished you add créme fraiche, fresh ground cinnamon, salt.. pair it with a nice wine, and BAM.... Bob's your uncle.

In my Korean home, when you have a big meal you just drop every main course on the table and about 15 side dishes to go along with it. Finding a place to put your chopsticks down can sometimes be a challenge!

With these dinners, it is quite possible to have a few entrees and a few main courses served out in stages. In this case, Elodies family wanted to take it up another level and serve something Antillais Caribbean. The French have former caribbean colonies within the Republic and there is a deep appreciation for their cuisine. Here we have a peculiar dish made with lamb, plantains, curry powder, onions and caribbean chile (similar to mexican jabaneros). Since this dish is quite strong, Elodies dad chose a bold Chambertin wine from the Burgundy region which was gladly welcome as we needed something strong to wash down the heat from the chile.

Normally if I had eaten this much food, I would have stopped at the scallops. But this is Christmas.. NO WAY!! GOTTA CHARGE ON FORWARD since we are only at the Halfway point... Thats right.. you heard me.. HALFWAY(!)

Now you might think that we are total pigs for moving on forward but the truth is that at this point, you take 'La Pause'.. which is basically a short break on the meal. Some folks get up to walk around the yard or play with the dog. Elodie's brothers both succumbed to food coma and flopped onto the couch. I'm still with the old guys who are talking about their medical conditions and I'm busy trying to finish off the rest of the Chambertin when no one is looking.

Once the table has been cleared, its time for the cheese. This plate of cheese is quite simple, but they can get real fancy at times. This is just family, so yes, believe it or not this is just a selection of supermarket cheese. You don't always have to go expensive to have a great french meal. I as a foreigner however, have to go for the stinkiest and moldiest of the cheeses to win their respect. I read in some stupid Polly Platt book about integrating with French..'always cut the cheese in a way to retain its shape and beauty..' I have NEVER seen a French person follow this rule.. They just cut the cheese in any which way and nobody gives a damn.

French food is funny in that with every bite of artery clogging cheese or foie gras, your heart is screaming for help. And then you wash it down with wine and its saying.. ahhhhh... now that's relief.

Here you see my moldy goats cheese... my favorite. Its sharp and creamy and always washes down well with red wine. Once again Elodie's dad went crazy and opened a 1998 bottle of Sarget de Gruaud -Larose (Bordeaux) for this time around. Its been sitting in his cellar collecting dust. The label looks all nasty, from sitting in a dark room under the house for the past decade. Naively, I got laughed at when I once tried to wipe a bottle clean. Evidently, the dirtier it is, the more prestigious the bottle. Dumb americans...

Time for dessert, or should i say dessert(S). You gotta have the 'healthy desert' (because its good for you) accompanied with the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' desert. The healthy desert is a simple bowl of preserved peaches and fruit, covered in an extra dose of sugar syrup (just to make sure it tastes good). Once we pat ourselves on the shoulder for being so health conscious, we attack the 'danger of becoming a diabetic' cake like a pack of blood thirsty sharks.

The cake in question is called a Carolo, a very local specialty from Elodie's hometown. Its a brittle meringue made with almonds and praline cream. Can anyone say sugar rush??? Man, keep this stuff away from this kids. Better yet, give them some and they will love you forever and you can avoid that whole teenage 'rebellion' stage altogether. Its a good thing we served it with candied chestnuts to balance out the sugar in the cake.

By this time, I normally feel guilty as hell but how can you say no? .. Its just SO DAMN GOOD! I mean, I have been eating for three FREAKING hours by this time and yet.. there is still space?!? Which brings me to another notion about the french meal. When you eat slow, and take your time... you can somehow manage yourself through a huge meal. At some meals, you'll get something that will help you digest and move to the next stage.. an example would be a 'Trou Normand' which is basically a shot of distilled apple liquor that helps you digest and get to the next meal. I've had a Danish guy serve peppermint schnapps. You get the picture.

Anyways, by this time we have all but decimated the plate where the Carolo once stood and we are ready to wash it down with something. Some people like to take at this stage, what is called the 'digestif' which is basically a strong alcohol that will burn that lump of food just sitting in your digestive track. Take a shot of cognac, whiskey, amaretto, rum... you name it. If it burns, then its just right for the job of clearing out those pipes.

None of us are the digestif type.. I still have a four year old bottle of whiskey at my house that never seems to get we move onto coffee. My friend Gerald Wu visited us in France for a year when he did his study abroad and he was pissed off as hell when he saw us drinking nescafe at the end of each meal. WTF??? In seattle (his homebase), you have all these francophile snobs that mock your instant coffee at home. They tell you that in France, they would never dream of doing such a thing because they believe in the ritual of good coffee and using a french press. Yet here we were, drinking nescafe out of grandmas 30 year old coffee chalices. I have YET to see anyone use a french press (except for that one time we went camping), and pretty much everyone drinks the powder stuff and everyone knows George Clooney the nespresso salesman. The end.

So there you have it folks. You can have a french christmas meal with all the french recipes and ingredients, but remember its as much about protocol as it is about the food. If you were to serve all the food at once, you wouldn't get to appreciate all the high notes of the food without the appropriate wines to match. Plus, you would probably burst in about 15 minutes.


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