Every month for a long time now, Meagan, Julie and I get together for a homemade meal. It was my turn to host dinner this month. In celebration of Meagan's birthday and her upcoming trip to France this spring, I decided to make diner à la Française.
I like to read about French food, and I like the idea of French food, but the few times I do eat French food, it's always so heavy. I leave the meal feeling like there's a stick of butter sitting my stomach. I must be getting bad Americanized versions of French food because I know it can be amazing. Let me explain:
When I was 21, my boyfriend at the time Mark and I both studied abroad in London. I did my program through Syracuse University, which meant I spent most of my time hanging around other Americans, while Mark took courses at an English university which meant most of his friends were international students. When Mark and I decided to go to Paris for a long weekend, one of his French classmates suggested we stay with her parents, which seemed like a good idea.
During our three months of study abroad, Mark suffered all kinds of medical problems of comic proportions, so it was no surprise that we showed up at this girl's parents' doorstep with Mark in crutches. I am not talking about regular crutches one gets when they hurt their knee like Mark did, but the kind of crutches one might imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt or some other severely handicapped person to be using. Oh, those quirky Euros. The parents lived in a spacious apartment in a little street right off the Champs-Elysees, which we thought was quite impressive at the time, and they stayed out of our way as we pleasantly hobbled through the not-so-handicap-friendly streets of Paris.
Despite the disability, we had a wonderful time there, and on our last night, the parents hosted a dinner for us. The details of the evening are hazy (forgive my terrible memory). We definitely had some kind of yummy dinner, a salad, a cheese course after the meal which was kind of mind-blowing (cheese after the meal?) and then dessert, including some of the best macaroons I have ever tasted in my life. Of course, I remember the dessert.
The conversation was pleasant, and the father kept refilling my wine glass, and it was one of the first times I ever got drunk (remember, I wasn't all that cool in college). At one point, they were making fun of Canadian people's French accents. Other than that, I have no idea what we talked about. I have no recollection of the names of these people or even what they looked like. All I remember was thinking how good everything tasted and how warm and drunk I felt and I went to bed woozy and happy. It was first introduction to European hospitality and it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. Now, that's the way French food should be.
So it was with that fuzzy memory in mind that I planned Meagan's French dinner. To give me direction, Julia Child seemed like a natural choice, but I nixed that plan because I didn't want to scare of my health-conscious guests with all that butter. So I went with the expertise of Ina Garten. While I am a little leery of Food Network celebrities, many people I respect are obsessed with her and trust her completely, so for this dinner, I would, too.
All of the recipes come from her Barefoot in Paris cookbook. For the appetizer, I started with Ina's cheese straws. This was my first time using puff pastry. I always read in cookbooks and magazines how easy it is to use and that is true. For the main course, I went with her chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, which yes, had 40 freakin' cloves of garlic. Basically you cut a chicken into parts, saute it and then let it simmer in the garlic and white wine, which later becomes the sauce. As a side, I made Moroccan couscous, which impressed the girls because it had currants in it. Both dishes used far more butter than I am used to, which made everything very flavorful but without that heaviness. Score!
I was planning to serve a salad as a cleanser course, but completely forgot about it, so we went straight to the cheese. I enlisted the help of my friend and cheese lover Nell to help me pick out a cheese plate. We had Brillant Savarin triple cream, Chabichou goat cheese, and an alpine cheese called Comte, which I picked up at Murray's. Nell suggested I serve the cheese with dried cherries, almonds and crusty French bread--the divine combination made this every one's favorite course of the night (thanks, Nell!) For dessert, I baked chocolate souffles and served them warm. We topped them with fresh whipped cream that melted right into the cake. I played Edith Piaf during the meal, and the French transformation was complete.
By the time Dan came to crash our party (and polish off the rest of the cheese), I was completely full of yummy food and drunk with French wine. Somehow, the alcohol went right to my head and I felt just as warm and woozy and happy as I felt all those years ago. Which meant that the night was an absolute success. The best part is that I woke up this morning without a hangover! That butter must be good for something.
As I write this, the leftover chicken bones from last night are simmering on the stove. I am making Ina's chicken stock recipe. I read somewhere that you can't find canned chicken stock anywhere in France because everyone makes homemade. Love that. I am a new French food convert and Ina fan.
Yes, the birthday girl wore a beret.