For part of the time I studied in Paris, I lived with a blue-blooded family in the 9th arrondissement. Drawing on fond memories of previous home stays, I thought I’d be eating dinner with the family and speaking with them regularly. This turned out not to be the case exactly; I was treated more as a boarder, a necessary evil. At first, I thought the children were joking when they told me that they spent the weekends riding horses at one of the grandparents’ chateaux. But they weren’t – I later learned that the lady of the house is a duchess.
Every once in a while Madame would take pity on me and talk to me for a bit. Sometimes she would make us coffee and confide to me her opinions on women who work outside the home. Namely, that their husbands will leave them for the nanny, since the husband will love the one who feeds him and takes care of his children. I would think of my own working mother and shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Madame did do me one favor, though. She taught me to make gratin dauphinois. This dish, a specialty of Dauphiné in the Rhône-Alps region of France, goes well with roasted chicken (one from nearby Bresse would be ideal).
Peel and cut 8 or 10 potatoes into thin rounds.
Find a pot large enough to accommodate them and fill it halfway with milk, then with water the rest of the way. (The 50-50 ratio can be modified if you find that you don’t have enough milk).
Add the potatoes, salt, pepper and finely chopped garlic (2 or 3 cloves).
Bring the water to a boil and cook until potatoes are soft but not to the point where they disintegrate when you touch them.
Grease a shallow casserole with butter. Put a layer of potatoes at the bottom, then crème fraÃ®che, then shredded gruyère. Keep layering these ingredients until you run out of potatoes. Top with more shredded gruyère.
Bake at 350 until the gruyère is brown and bubbling. Let the pan cool a bit before serving.
Now, if you do a little internet research, especially if you speak French, you’ll notice that there is a heated debate over “the real” gratin dauphinois. Purists insist that the shredded gruyère is an abomination, as are certain recipes using eggs. The message boards at www.gratindauphinois.com chronicle the debate.
An apocryphal story has it that the tarte Tatin was born when one of the Tatin sisters, distracted by a handsome soldier staying at their inn, forgot to line a pan with dough before adding the apples. Since she was in a hurry, she just dumped the dough on top of the apples and stuck it in the oven.
I was taught to make this tart in exchange for a double crust apple pie of the American variety. After my friend and I sampled both, we were unable to decide which was better.
Peel and quarter 5 or 6 apples. Melt an entire stick of butter in a cast iron pan. Add 1 cup of sugar. Then, place the apples in the pan in ring such that the curved interior portions of the quarters are facing up. This picture of a finished tart Tatin may make this clearer. Make sure they are packed tightly in the pan.
Cook the apples on medium or high flame until the juice around them looks brown (that is, until the sugar and the sweet apple juice have caramelized). To add to the authenticity of the dish, flirt with someone while the apples are cooking.
When the sugar has caramelized, take the pan off the heat and place a sheet of dough on top of the apples. In France, every supermarket has a prepackaged pâte brisée that works very well if you’d prefer not to make your own dough. In the states, the best facsimile I’ve been able to find is Pepperidge Farm’s frozen puff pastry. Tuck the dough snugly around the apples and put the pan in a 425 oven for 20 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown.
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes. Then, place a large plate on top of the pan and turn everything over so that the tart goes onto the plate, dough side down. Jiggle the pan a bit and remove it. You should see a neat circle of burnished apples surrounded by a golden crust. Serve the tart with crème fraîche if you would like.
Like the gratin dauphinois, the tarte Tatin occupies a sentimental place in the French gastronomical imagination, and as such is prey to fights over the “right” recipe that are every bit as bitter as those concerning the gratin. This time, my recipe is the “pure” one in that it only contains apples, butter, sugar and dough. Purists rail against such travesties as the tarte Tatin flambée. You can find information this debate at (where else?) www.tarte-tatin.com.
The Tatin sister’s inn was in the Loire region of France. Dishes like wild salmon and rillettes are also typical of the region. Visit this site for more information.
When I was an exchange student in a Parisian suburb, my job each night was to make the salad. My favorite part of the whole affair was making the dressing. I’ve found that knowing how to make a good, basic vinaigrette has helped me improvise at home (for example, using lemon juice instead of balsamic) and makes recipes from French cookbooks a bit clearer since recipes often begin, “Make a vinaigrette with the following ingredients…”
Put 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl. Finely chop one garlic clove. Add the garlic to the oil along with salt, pepper and a small forkful of Dijon mustard. Whisk the oil vigorously with the fork. Add 3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Whisk again with the fork. Voilá!
This versatile dressing goes well with almost any kind of salad and French cuisine.