La Cuisine du Placard
Almost every day, I watch a cooking show in French on YouTube while burning off 200 calories on a treadmill. The idea is to improve my French, body and cooking all at the same time.
It’s had miraculous results: How can all this self-improvement leave a girl pretty much the same as she started out? It defies the laws of nature!
Actually, though I never lose much weight, my French really is getting better. But my cooking? That’s debatable. The French have some funny ideas!
I know that France is supposed to be to food what Cuba is to cigars but really lots of the recipes are fuss fuss fuss—let dough rest an hour, boil meat before roasting, use six eggs but save two whites for another use— and in the end what you get is something no American would know what food group it belongs to or what meal it should be served at.
There were gougeres geantes, giant cheese puffs, that seemed to be the Cheetohs that ate Paris; oeufs cocotte au jambon, baked eggs with ham covered with a sauce you make by pureeing more ham in the blender with sour cream; and saucisson chaud en brioche, a greasy mega-hot-dog baked whole into what looked like pound cake.
These I took note of with a certain sick fascination but without any desire to try—liquefied ham? I don’t think so!—but I’m afraid I was unable to resist having a stab at poulet en croute de sel. This is a whole chicken that you roast after having painstakingly made and plastered around the bird a pastry composed mostly of salt. You put in enough flour and water to make the dough stick and enough fresh chopped herbs to make it a lot of trouble.
Then you form it with a rolling pin into two thin circles, a smaller circle for the bottom and a bigger one for the top. You put the chicken on the bottom piece, place the top piece around it, and pinch the pastry closed to seal the chicken in hermetically.
Or that’s the theory. Actually, the pastry tears and splinters—remember, it’s mostly salt—and you cuss and cry and paste it back together again until you and your kitchen are grainy and white and bitter and you figure, hell, close enough.
Then you roast the whole shebangs in a very hot oven, which does not burn the chicken because—“Voila le secret!” says Chef Michel—it is protected by its salty shell.
When the chicken is done, the pastry is rock-hard, and what do you suppose you do with it then? This is the part where I was sickly fascinated. You take a hammer, smash it, and throw it away, triumphantly revealing the chicken sealed within, which is moist and steaming and—
—well, salty. What did you expect?
I’m not complaining. The chicken was fine, very moist, I must say. But all that time and all that trouble for fine? For moist? For salty?
Well, now that I’ve gone into all that detail to tell you what not to make, I will change tacks and say there was one thing I liked about the show. In one episode, Chef Michel introduces the idea of La Cuisine du Placard, a concept much nearer to my housewifely little heart than all that fussing.
In French, a placard is a closet or pantry, so la cuisine du placard just means cooking with what you have. You go through your shelves and your refrigerator, determine what you’ve got, speculate how it might go together, roll up your sleeves and hope for the best. To me, this is the true art of cooking.
The dish Chef Michel made in that episode was another that struck me as medium-weird, salade nordique, a pasta salad with canned salmon. But I have dishes of my own I’ve improvised from whatever happens to be on hand and it pleases me now to classify them under the glorious name La Cuisine du Placard.
The first C du P category we’ll discuss here is Pasta With Something. What you do is chop up some garlic and sauté it in olive oil with something else while you boil the noodles in salted water in a separate pan. If you’re a vegetarian, the something can be vegetables; or for that matter, you could stick with the garlic and toss in some herbs. But let’s go traditional, hearty and easy here, and start out with:
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Pasta (noodles or shapes). In keeping with the spirit of this page, all amounts here are “Some.”
Two eggs (Except for the eggs. In carbonara, it’s always two.)
Fresh garlic cloves, two or three anyway
Bacon (or ham) (or both)
Grated Parmesan or Romano or other hard cheese
Fresh herbs, if you have any
Peel and chop the garlic and cut the bacon and/or ham into small pieces. Sautee meat and garlic in olive oil. Beat the eggs with a little milk and a dash of salt and set aside.
Meanwhile, boil the pasta in salted water. When pasta is done, drain, then quickly put back into the pan (or into a warmed bowl if you have company), add meat mixture, and pour in the eggs. Toss with two forks until the eggs have been cooked by the hot pasta.
Add grated cheese and any desired herbs (I usually have some chopped fresh parsley or marjoram in the freezer and these are good) and toss again. Serve immediately with a salad.
I generally use turkey bacon as is the Fat Girl Creed. but my friend Mary tends to have ham around the house and she gave me leftovers once which I used in this recipe instead. It was delicious. Mary studied in Italy and for her own carbonara she is a stickler about grating her own Parmesan; but to tell the truth. the stuff in the green can that seems to be mysteriously present in all refrigerators at all times is what usually what goes into mine.
Salad served with pasta, as far as I’m concerned, should always be dressed with a vinaigrette. So here, at no extra charge, is the “recipe” for mine, which I make almost every day of my life. For solitary lunches, I use ¼ of a large lemon; for two or more people, ½.
Robin’s Famous (As Far as Wildwood) Lemon Vinaigrette
(I learned from Chef Michel that a vinaigrette that uses lemon instead of vinegar is called a citronette. I use both so I’ll stick with the name as read.)
Chop fine 1 clove fresh garlic and place in small jar. Cover sparsely with olive oil. Squeeze in some lemon juice, then add a generous splash of balsamic vinegar and a miserly capful of good soy sauce (Rule of Life: You can’t unsalt). Shake, pour over salad greens and serve immediately. You can add fresh herbs if you have any and you want to. I’m going to stop saying that.
Another impromptu category I’d like to cover is what Noel Coward called “a little eggy-something on a tray.” I love using eggs in scratch-up meals, breakfasts certainly but also leftover-night improvisations. For either purpose, here’s a standby, “Fried Otter.” Purists call this a frittata,but honey, this is the South.
Basic Little Eggy-Something #1: Fried Otter
Two eggs per person
Leftover cooked brown rice
Vegetables of choice: fresh squash from the garden, or frozen vegetables, or leftovers of either, in small pieces. Try broccoli, corn, zucchini.
Chopped sweet red peppers are nice, or jalapenos if you like it hot
Shredded cheddar cheese
Melt some butter in a small nonstick skillet and fry up the onion and any uncooked vegetables over medium heat. Add any leftover cooked ones toward the end of cooking.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with perhaps a little milk and a couple of pinches of salt. Stir in ½ cup cooked rice per person.
When the vegetables are tender, pour the egg mixture into the pan with them, stir gently, turn down the heat a bit and put a lid on the pan. Cook undisturbed five or so minutes until bottom is set, then invert onto a plate, slide undone-side-down back into the pan and continue to cook a few more minutes until bottom is done. Put grated cheese on top, turn off heat and cover briefly to let cheese melt. Serve, with hot sauce if desired.
Try not to scorch the eggs but if you do the melted cheese covers a multitude of sins.
Basic Little Eggy-Something Variation:
If you have leftover hash browns or cubed baked or fried potatoes, these make a nice base for eggy-somethings. Brown them in olive oil, add any fresh or frozen vegetables you have going begging, pour in beaten eggs and cook gently until the egg is set. Melt cheese on top.
Basic Anything Soup
I am married to somebody who considers soup the supreme culinary accomplishment and anything I do in that department genius, so that I am always threatening to heat up the dishwater. I almost have, and it’s usually good.
Like if you have to poach chicken for some purpose, like chicken salad or some other more exotic recipe, don’t you dare throw away the poaching liquid! Toss in some peas or something and call it soup.
But basically, what I want to tell you about here is the easiest soup I ever made from scratch. I had two meager chicken thighs, not enough to feed two people for dinner, so I threw them into a small (two-quart) saucepan with some water, salt and garlic, brought to a boil and turned down to simmer while I did something else. When the thighs were cooked all the way through, I removed them and while they were cooling I added to the soup some sliced carrots. When the chicken was cooled I pulled it off the bone and added the meat to the soup. While I was doing that I added some egg noodles to the pot. When the noodles were done I added some soy sauce.
That’s all. (I didn’t have any peas.) And it was good.
Simple is good! I make some complicated soups that you have to thicken with cornstarch or flour or egg, or cut things into matchsticks, or introduce some of the ingredients to your spiritual adviser. But there is a great beauty in simple things.
I am remembering a story I read in one of the books of the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher: She was hosting a Russian Jew, so had decided to prepare him her favorite Russian Jewish soup, a grand borscht with beef, cabbage, sour cream—everything up to an army of Cossacks singing Volga Boatman. Her guest was pleased but puzzled because to a real Russian Jew, borscht was "a cup of water in which a beet had been boiled."
Likewise, chicken soup is supposed to have chicken in it, and water; the rest is optional. And they keep using it as a metaphor for healing—“chicken soup for the soul”—but I think culinarily it’s important to remember, as Sigmund Freud would have said, that sometimes chicken soup is just chicken soup.
We’re out of space, so I have to go now. Anyway, don’t cook what I tell you to. Go through your shelves and go from there. Ca, c’est La Cuisine Du Placard!