The husband, boys and I just returned from 12 days in France.

We rented a charming three-room apartment in the Marais district from a lovely man named Dom. I knew I was going to love our temporary home as soon as I walked in the front door: A huge wooden dining table dominated the living room:

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Pulled away from the window and set for four, this table was the focus of our Paris living room.

A quick look across the courtyard and into our neighbors’ apartments confirmed what I already knew: Eating is serious business in France. With few exceptions, big dining tables dominated everyone’s living rooms.

The huge market at the Bastille. Even on a rainy Sunday, it was packed.
The huge market at the Bastille. Even in bouts of pouring rain, it was packed.

For 12 glorious days, my family and I roamed Paris’s neighborhoods and the surrounding countryside. We capped each day off with a visit to a local market — the fruits (and meats and cheeses and breads) of which became our dinner every night.

The slate counter between the sink and stovetop is all the space I had to prepare daily meals.

I learned a lot cooking in another country; mainly, that we tend to do everything “big” here at home.

The size of my Paris kitchen made my modest kitchen at home seem palatial. And the dearth of cooking supplies made the drawers and cabinets I’ve crammed with equipment seem foolish. Turns out, all I need to make a tasty dinner (besides great ingredients) is a sharp knife, good olive oil, sea salt, pepper and a couple of quality condiments. (Mustard and butter, anyone?)

Here, six more lessons cooking in Paris taught me (and the recipes they prompted):

1. Mustard is a must-have: Our first day in the city, we stopped at a grocer’s and bought some staples. Dijon mustard was one of them.

I used that mustard every day … slathered on baguettes for sandwiches and croutons; smeared over fish and poultry as a marinade; stirred into a hot pan to create a simple sauce; or whipped into this simple vinaigrette to dress greens and vegetables:

A lemony, mustardy vinaigrette was the kitchen workhorse of our vacation. Herei, it dresses a salad of greens, vegetables and chevre.
A lemony, mustardy vinaigrette was the kitchen workhorse of our vacation. Here, it dresses a salad of greens, vegetables and chevre.
  • Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon in a bowl.
  • Add 1 minced clove of garlic and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. (No exact measurements … I had no measuring cups or saucers!)
  • Whisk with a fork, then slowly pour in olive oil until the mixture reaches the consistency and taste that you like. Season with salt and pepper, and store in the refrigerator.

2. Butter makes it better: Highest quality, unsalted butter is the base for sandwiches and snacks of all stripes. We ate it in the afternoons slathered on toast, then topped with pickled, filleted anchovies or thinly sliced radishes. In the morning, we spread it on paper-thin slices of raisin bread and topped it with fruit, jam or nothing at all. And at lunch, we buttered baguettes and filled them with ham and cheese.

Our family ploughed through 2-3 loaves of bread a day, eaten as sandwiches and toast or xxx into crumbs.
Our family ploughed through two to three loaves of bread a day, eaten as sandwiches and toast or broken into croutons and crumbs.

3. Save those heels! The boys worked some kitchen magic every night by crumbing our baguette heels. After a quick saute in hot olive oil, the rough and nubby crumbs added a shower of crunch to sauteed veal, braised salmon and tossed salads.

4. Finish with a braise: I realized after bringing four pristine salmon fillets home from Le Bon Marche that we had no oven and the fish measured almost 2 inches thick. Could I pan-sear them without burning the outsides?

Fresh salmon fillets from Le Bon Marche get a different kind of cooking treatment.
Fresh salmon fillets from Le Bon Marche get a different kind of cooking treatment.

Not wanting to chance ruining the beautiful fillets, I decided to braise them in wine. The result was a silky, rich dish countered by a bracing leek and wine sauce:

  •  4 salmon fillets, 1- to 2-inches thick
  • 1 leek, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Red or white wine
  • Parsley & basil, coarsely chopped

Season the fish with salt and pepper.

Coat a pan with olive oil and a pat of butter, and place it over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, sear the fillets for 4 minutes on one side. (If your fillets have skin, sear the skinless side.) Remove the fillets to a plate.

Saute the leek and garlic in the hot pan. When tender, add the fish, non-seared side down.

Pour in enough wine to reach about halfway up the fish. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cover the pan with a lid.

Braise for 10-15 minutes, checking the fish periodically to ensure it doesn’t overcook. You want it to be silky and opaque — not dry and flaky.

When done, remove the fish to a platter. Boil the liquid until it has reduced, then stir in a handful of the herbs.

A giant prawn captivated the boys.
A giant prawn captivated the boys.

5. Try new things: We couldn’t resist getting four giant prawns at the market one afternoon, even though we had no idea what to do with them. They were pre-cooked and ice cold. Cold shellfish didn’t float our culinary boats, but we didn’t want to heat them in a naked pan for fear of turning them to rubber.

Our solution? A fresh tomato sauce that we could nestle the prawns into during the last minute or so of cooking:

This prawn and tomato dish was perfect over pasta, but you could serve it plain or accompanied by nothing more than bread.
This prawn and tomato dish was perfect over pasta, but you could serve it plain or accompanied by nothing more than bread.
  • 1 leek, halved and thinly sliced
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes
  • White wine
  • Basil & parsley, roughly chopped
  • 4 giant prawns, heads and shells removed

Puree 12 ounces of the tomatoes in a food processor. Set aside.

Pour about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a pan and place over high heat. Add the leek and garlic and saute until tender.

Pour in the tomato puree, the remaining whole tomatoes and enough wine to make the mixture saucy. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Stir in a handful of the basil and parsley, then nestle the prawns in the sauce for 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with pasta or bread.

6. Don’t cook: “Dinner” our first night in Paris was an assortment of fruit, cheese, bread and veggies from some shops in the Marais. It was by far our favorite meal — and one we turned to after daylong trips to Brussels and Bayeux.

Bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables make a perfect Parisian dinner.
Bread, cheese, fruit and vegetables make a perfect Parisian dinner.

We mixed it up one night by scrambling some eggs; another by adding pate and charcuterie (drizzled with that mustard vinaigrette, natch!). With a bracing bottle of dry rose and a plate of tarts and chocolates, it was the perfect dinner for many French memories.

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The view from our apartment in the Marais.
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