Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

But what have you done lately?

The above headline is one of the industry jokes shared among the inmates of the profession of advertising when I was in the biz. It wasn’t really very funny and it basically addressed the fact that regardless of how many CLIO awards you’d won or whatever glowing peer recognition you’d tallied up for being brilliant, you were really only as good as your last ad campaign. The rest of it—regardless of how good your TV and print ads looked in your portfolio—was irrelevant compared to what you had done lately. Maybe a lot of professions are like that. I’ve been away from the business for several years now but I was reminded of this attitude the other day when I visited my mother at her house.

I walked in on her in the middle of the day and found her elbow-deep in clipped out magazine recipes and open cookbooks at the dining room table. When I asked her what she was doing, she sighed and said: “Still trying to find my signature dish.”

I sat down with a thump and laughed until I cried. We both did.

My mother will celebrate her ninetieth birthday in a few weeks.

What's YOUR signature dish?

What’s YOUR signature dish?

So it’s officially true. You never stop looking for that one thing that sets you apart, that one gift that will have people remembering you and immortalizing you. My mother was a gifted painter in her day and she was gorgeous to boot: thick auburn hair, ivory skin, hazel eyes, willowy slim. Like many people who’ve lived a long time, she’s done a lot in her life: raised kids, been adored by a special man, (thankfully for us kids it was our father), and travelled the world.

Seeing her at the dining room table looking for the dish that might be the lynchpin of her reputation as a cook was great to see because it reminded me that while I and the rest of my family are in awe (and fear) of her advancing age, that’s not how she sees things.

She sees that she’s not done yet and that reputations can still be made.

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it's "too cheesy" can it really be what I'm known for?

I think I make an awesome lasagna but if my teen son thinks it’s “too cheesy” can it really be what I’m known for?

I love that about her. In no small part since it helped me to see the world in more cheerful colors, because I’m also still searching for my “signature dish.” I don’t think my mother’s intention was so much in search of a legacy  after she’s gone but to fulfill a reputation right now. She’s looking for the thing her family will think of her today, beyond all her other accomplishments in life.

What about you? Are you still looking for your “signature dish?” The thing that sets you apart and that people will think of when they think of you? Would love to hear!