A French Lunch with Americans
Un déjeuner français pour vos invités américains
Dearest food friends,
Welcome back! I took Easter Week off, but I have a marvelous new post about a recent lunch I had with friends.
You can say what you will about the many wonderful cuisines from all over the world — the Japanese have perfected the beauty of presentation of food, the Chinese have melded a widely diverse national palate into an integrated and internationally enjoyed cuisine, the Indian chefs have made seasoning a great art form, and many other world cuisines present us food which come to the outsider as a revelation — but if the French can be prouder of their nation than others, perhaps it is because they have made butter sing, wine purr, and every meal feel like a grand occasion. The French are quite proud of their culture — their lovely language, their sense of style, their talent of diplomacy — but what could be better than the French art of the table?
As we emerge from the isolation of the pandemic, I recently had over some of my French students for a celebratory lunch. We did not say this aloud, but we were celebrating our survival of a disease that has killed around a million Americans (and isn’t quite done with us yet). During the pandemic, I taught my guests French literature over the Internet, and then I had them come over for a meal and champagne.
Because the fields of Louisiana are overflowing, it seems, with strawberries this spring, I made strawberry champagne cocktails (see my recipe in a previous newsletter edition).
Americans tend to think that “French cuisine” is just another way to say “fancy food,” but millions of French home cooks make simple, delicious meals every single day. Not everyone eats like King Louis XIV at Versailles in France. Indeed, few do. What the French do right is choose fresh ingredients and make dishes that bring out subtle flavors with herbs.
The food I served was simple but quite French. I made this traditional ham quiche with filling as one might find on any family table in the French Alps on a cold day.
I tossed a salad of lettuce, pears, and walnuts in a traditional French vinagrette. The French really don’t put much fruit in salad; they don’t like to mix savory flavors with sweet ones as often as we do, but the vinaigrette was as traditional as one might find anywhere in France.
For dessert, I made a quicker version of a traditional dish made in the French countryside, instead of a clafoutis, which is a traditional baked custard which includes fresh fruit, I used instant vanilla pudding, hazelnut syrup, cinnamon, and fresh black plums. Here’s what it looked like when finished:
My guests commented that they thought I had slaved away over this meal, but it took me less than two hours to make every bit of it. I dare say it was elegant, satisfying, and parfaitement français. I cannot promise you a walk along the Seine without a plane ticket, but what I have done here for my company can be done by you with relative ease, whether you are landing at Charles De Gaulle Airport or, like me, go to a supermarket near De Gaulle Avenue in New Orleans. Whether you shop for tomatoes in a farmer’s market in Provence or in Poughkeepsie, the pleasures of French food can be yours. It isn’t as easy as sticking a frozen meal in the microwave, but it isn’t the labor of French peasants of the High Middle Ages grinding their own flour with millstones, either. Try the recipes below, and let me know what you think!
1 head of lettuce
1/2 pound of sliced ham.
2 packets of instant vanilla custard
1 baguette — (nobody makes their own baguettes at home in France — See the latest episode of Julia on HBO Max for an assertion backing me up on this. Buy this at the store.)
1 store-bought pie crust (or make your own).
The French tend to drink wine at both lunch and dinner in moderation. If you are serving a meal à la française , then assume that you will want to provide at least two glasses of wine per guest. I served champagne cocktails at this celebratory lunch, but you could easily serve a nice Chardonnay with this meal and not miss the bubbles. If you have as many guests as I had, you would therefore want to purchase two bottles of Chardonnay.
If you buy two bottles of wine to go with all the groceries above, at my grocery store, that would cost you about $14 for a meal for six people. If you don’t include the wine, that would cost you $112 at the grocery store this week near me.
Salade aux poires et aux noix
For the dressing:
3 tbsp. Extra Virgin olive oil
1 tbsp. Vinegar (I used balsamic vinegar, but white wine vinegar would be nice as well)
1 tsp. Mustard
Salt and pepper and copped herbs to taste
For the salad:
1 head of romaine lettuce, chopped
4 pears, chopped
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts
Toss all these ingredients together in a large bowl.
Quiche au jambon
1/2 pound diced ham
2 onions, sliced
1/3 cup of heavy cream
1/4 cup of grated cheese (I made this with Swiss cheese)