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Monday, September 16, 2013

Eating with Ann Mah

     As a parody to Julia Child’s scholarly written work Mastering the art of French cooking, Ann Mah has written her own story of life in France, one of an American diplomat’s wife that makes me dream of what could have been for me, had my parents not died when they did and I’d achieved that dream of becoming a diplomat myself.  The dream of living in Paris, or even in France for that matter, is an elusive one for most of us, yet when one really wants it, anything that can get you closer to it is worth holding on to.


     Ann Mah’s story is that element (read her blog here).  Set in Paris, with some travels within France – the Auvergne, Burgundy, Provence, Alsace - that she mainly took to overcome a year of solitude when her husband was posted to Iraq during his then current assignment in Paris.  They had another 2 years after that in the City of Light, which they used productively to buy their own pièd-a-terre, while indulging in French food and culture.

     This is a very lovely memoir with a recipe typical of the region written about at the end of each chapter.  To me, the best one is that of aligot, which sadly I cannot make at home as the main ingredient, a cheese curd by the name of tome fraîche, is not found in the US; but one to go on my bucket list of things to try when visiting France.  The story of her visit to Aveyron is also the crown jewel of the book, providing a cozy, comforting end to a year of stories as an ex-pat foodie in France.

     Being an inveterate Francophile myself, and currently trending the way Parisians cook and live, I found her recipe for bavette aux échalotes a nice take on my entrecôte Vilette (see my recipe here).  The main difference is the cut of meat used.  Whereas for entrecôte one would use ribsteak, for the bavette one uses skirt; which is a thin, rather fibrous cut.  It makes for an incredibly tasty piece of meat.  You may accompany it with the ubiquitous frites (recipe also here), a fresh salad or even some warm legumes.  Of course when in France, serve it with aligot.  This recipe serves 2.

Bavette aux échalotes:

Ingredients:
  • 1 skirt or hanger steak, about 12 oz. trimmed of fat and patted dry
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. sunflower oil
Sauce:

  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
  • 4 large minced shallots
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Sprig of fresh thyme
  • ½ cup beef stock
Preparation:

     Trim the steak of any excess fat and season it with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  It must be sizzling hot.  Place the steak in the pan and cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is seared and browned.  Turn the steak over and cook the other side for about 50 seconds.  Bavette is thin cut, so it cooks quite fast.  The best way to eat this dish is medium-rare, so do not overcook!  Transfer the beef to a warm plate and cover loosely with foil in order to keep it warm.

     To make the sauce, heat 1 Tbsp. of the butter in the same skillet used for the steak.  Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes.  Add the red wine vinegar, thyme and beef stock; bring to a boil.  Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared.  Swirl in the remaining Tbsp. of butter and add any juices released from the meat.  Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding a few drops of vinegar if needed.

     Slice the steak against the grain into thin strips.  Serve with the shallots spooned on top.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Gourmand preferences of two French ladies that exude style


     The French are the epitome of chic.  In fact, one could argue that they are the ones that are solely responsible for the creation of all things pleasurable in life.  You don’t think so?  Let’s run by some of them: gourmet cuisine, world’s most distinguished fashion houses, beauté (which ranges from perfume to cosmetics), philosophy, bistros and sidewalk cafés, and general joie de vivre.

     French women in particular have always interested me.  Far and wide, they are the only ones that seem to have it all under control – beauty, fitness, looking gorgeous, eating like queens yet staying slim, managing children, an active sex life, a career, housekeeping… the list goes on.  Throughout my life, I have always wanted to emulate that feeling of total control I see in French women.  The main reason is because I find that being in control of everything I do in my life gives me peace of mind.  I have found, satisfying our own and our loved ones’ needs is what life is really all about.

     While not affirming that French women are always in full control of their particular situations (no one can do that, not even the French), they personify the one culture that most closely comes to this ideal.  

     Short of moving to France - at least for now - a very interesting incursion was to Anne Baronne’s book “Chic & Slim Toujours” (http://www.amazon.com/Chic-Slim-Toujours-Beautifully-French/dp/1937066096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341885449&sr=8-1&keywords=chic+and+slim+toujours).  


Ready for work in a simple
suit and statement jewelry
Turquoise is a colour not usually
 worn by Christine Lagarde, yet
with proper foulard, she looks
magnificient

     Apparently, Ms. Baronne used to be fat and frumpy in her 20’s, but then she discovered la vie en rose de les Français and set out to a discipline of general life improvement.  This particular book is written for women in their 60’s and older; and although I am in my early 40’s, I can only hope that if I am lucky enough to reach that age, I do so in my fittest possible way, looking and feeling great, and embracing life with gusto.

     There are two French women mentioned in this book that have caught my attention:  IMF Director and ex-Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde, and France ex-Minister of Justice, Muslim Rachida Dati.  These are both beautiful, stylish, powerful women who do not compromise and yet are able to leave their own mark of distinction in their path.  I have watched Christine Lagarde on television a few times, but the one that most strikes my memory was during an interview with Fareed Zakaria on his program GPS for CNN, when she was still France’s Finance Minister.  She does not colour her hair, yet her gray locks are always perfectly coiffed in a short bobby fringe.  She has a minimalist style, which I find I am favouring as well as I age, always dressed in high quality smart suits in neutral colours.  She wears her wrinkles with ease and pride, and looks great and fit.

     A closer look at her personal life, I found she is a consummate swimmer, rarely drinks wine nowadays (although she's no teetotaler by any means), and favours vegetarian cuisine.

Leather trousers and stilettos
for France's chic Justice Minister


© 2010 The Guardian
The chicest woman in France

Regal look for a soireé
     Rachida Dati has a more shaken story.  The daughter of impoverish Algerian immigrants, she has had some slips (especially of the tongue, confusing fellatio with inflation on national television, oops!), but as a woman of style I find really no other like her within the public personalities of France in these day and age, not even Carla Bruni (with whom she is said to have had a few high-strung encounters).  Ms. Dati looks the classic French modern woman.  Her strong personality comes through even in photographs.  She is not only beautiful but looks sexy, and in her mid-forties is my favourite French chic lady to emulate.  She runs 1 1/2 hours several times a week to keep fit and enjoys champagne, caviar and jellewery.  Certainly a girl's best friends.  

     I can imagine her on Sundays, for instance, relaxing at home with several French newspapers, breakfasting on a Bellini, some exotic fruits, a croissant and a strong cup of coffee.  But Rachida Dati is a hard-working, modern French woman, and during the week, even at intervals, nothing would preclude her from indulging in a nice kir while hard at work.



     For your own version of a kir, just pour 3/4 glass of white burgundy wine and add 1 1/2 Tbsp. of crème de cassis liqueur.  Mix and garnish with a lemon twist.  Voilá a typical French cocktail for any time "just because", and even if, like me, you are hard at work.