ONCE UPON a time, a food writer in Bethesda was busy in her kitchen testing recipes, when the Fairy Godmother of Food Writers appeared with an adorable frog. The Fairy Godmother suggested she use the frog for her evening meal, but the food writer could not resist kissing him on his nose. Suddenly, the frog disappeared and in his place stood a handsome Frenchman.
The Frenchman and the food writer fell in love, got married and he carried her off to the city of Paris in the enchanted eating kingdom of France. The food writer vowed she would never again eat frogs' legs, and the couple lived happily ever after.
Maybe it didn't happen exactly that way, but that's the story we told the family. Nevertheless, I am now the possessor of two kitchens: one near the Madonna of the Trail in Bethesda and one near the Statue of Liberty in Paris.
It was having a French kitchen of my own for which I was not completely prepared. I thought that a kitchen was a kitchen, but I very quickly learned that my treasured recipes from home didn't come out the same way in France. I began to understand the plight of French chefs who arrive in the States for cooking demonstrations, only to find that their recipes don't always produce the same results this side of the Atlantic.
So my French kitchen became a challenge, a laboratory to develop another style of my own cooking.
The French restaurant food eaten in the States bears little resemblance to what the French housewife puts on the dinner table. In France, those who can, still prefer to go home to eat lunch; and in general, no matter what the meal, people dine rather than simply eat. Food is important in France, perhaps because it costs so much, and people still remember many times when there just wasn't enough to go around.
Although I found some "luxury" items were much less expensive in Paris than at home, everything else was more expensive. The package sizes were smaller, and there was little point to buying in quantity because no money was saved. I soon decided that I had to change my whole way of thinking and go native.
Parisians usually shop for food daily. So I sometimes found myself shopping for each meal. The baker, butcher, greengrocer and supermarket were situated within one block of my kitchen. Even so, on Tuesday and Friday, I would take my little net shopping bag and line up at the open-air markets, where things are cheaper than elsewhere and farm-fresh -- or at least, central-market fresh.
On my French dining table, just before each meal, are a loaf of bread, a bottle of light red wine, a bouquet of flowers and a large bottle of mineral water. The tap water in Paris is fine, but most people prefer to drink mineral water with their meals. Some people even mix the wine and the water, but that sort of information is generally not for export.
As far as what is served, the following ideas and recipes were first produced and adapted in my Paris kitchen and later tested in my Bethesda kitchen. I call this style of cooking Bethesda Bonne Femme.
GINGERED SMOKED SALMON WITH CREAM (4 first-course servings, 2 main-course servings)
Smoked salmon is extremely popular in Paris and can be found in almost every supermarket. 1/2 pound thinly sliced Nova Scotia-style smoked salmon (as unsalted as possible) 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely grated 1/3 cup whipped cream 3/4 cup sour cream 1 tablespoon shallots, minced 2 tablespoons chives, finely cut
Place salmon on each serving plate in one almost transparent layer. Sprinkle with fresh ginger. Combine whipped cream, sour cream, shallots and chives in a bowl. Let stand at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes, until the flavors blend. Serve salmon and cream sauce separately, allowing each guest to take the amount of cream desired. Thinly sliced toasted or fresh black bread should accompany the salmon, along with a pepper mill containing black peppercorns.
CHICKEN ZUCCHINI SOUP (4 servings) 5 cups clear chicken stock Salt and white pepper, to taste 1 1/2 cups zucchini, thinly sliced 3/4 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced Day-old French bread in 1/2-inch slices, enough to cover tureen or serving bowls 1 cup grated swiss cheese
Heat chicken stock. Add salt and pepper, zucchini and mushrooms. Simmer for 15 minutes. Place soup in a large heatproof tureen or 4 oven-proof bowls. Cover top of soup with sliced bread, and sprinkle with grated cheese. Brown quickly under a broiler until the cheese has melted and serve immediately.
Fresh herbs like tarragon are available almost year-round at outdoor neighborhood markets or from greengrocers in Paris. Here you can find them at specialty grocers like Hudson Brothers on Grace St. in Georgetown or from the Washington Cathedral's Herb Cottage. A 2- to 2 1/2-pound frying chicken, left whole 3/4 to 1 cup fresh tarragon leaves Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse chicken and pat dry inside and out with paper towels. Place tarragon leaves in the cavity of the chicken. Salt and pepper the skin and place in the oven at 350 degrees. Roast 20 minutes per pound, about 50 minutes, or until chicken is tender and the skin is crispy.
HAMBURGERS PHILIPPE (4 servings)
The ground beef found in the Parisian butcher shops is leaner than the extra-lean ground beef found in American markets. Although the leaner meat may be better for your health, the dry flavor leaves something to be desired. For this reason, French cooks use fat in sausages and pate's, and tie it around roasts to make them juicy. In this recipe, because the hamburgers are prepared in a sauce, there is no need to mix anything into the ground beef. If you prefer your meat well-done, simply flatten out the patties so that they will cook through faster. 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/2 cup shallots, thinly sliced Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste 2 pounds extra-lean ground beef, divided into 4 patties 2/3 cup dry red wine
Place oil in skillet and heat until hot but not smoking. Add shallots and saute' until transparent. Do not let shallots brown. Add salt and pepper. Place patties on shallots and cook for a few minutes until slightly colored, and turn. Add wine and blend ingredients in skillet. Lower heat and cook until sauce is reduced to half and meat is cooked to your taste.
NECTARINES ZELDA (4 servings) 2 ripe medium nectarines 1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier 1 pint vanilla ice cream Whipped cream and chopped almonds (optional)
Poach nectarines in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and place in a bowl of ice water. Slip skins from fruit, cut in half and remove pits. Place raspberries in a food mill or blender and pure'e until smooth. Turn into a bowl and blend in Grand Marnier. Place nectarines, cavity side up, on the bottom of a dessert cup or large-mouth wine glass. Spoon ice cream over fruit and add sauce. Garnish with whipped cream and almonds.