"Christmas when I was a child meant leaving Paris and heading for our ancestral farmhouse in the village of Valdrome, about two hours south of Lyons," reminisced Lydie Marshall, author of "Cooking With Lydie Marshall" (Knopf, $18.95) and a popular Manhattan cooking teacher. "The family activities always centered around the large country kitchen, one much like this," she recalled, glancing at the spacious kitchen of her Greenwich Village brownstone, with its long wooden table and majestic hutch laden with pottery.
"We were very poor," said Marshall, who was born in Paris and came to the United States as a teen-ager, "especially during the war. Christmas dinner was primarily made up of foods grown locally -- with a few very special exceptions." Oysters, for example, were flown in from Brittany and eaten raw on the half shell to mark the formal beginning of the meal. "We always started eating at the stroke of noon," said Marshall with a laugh. "Try to get a French peasant to eat his main meal at any other time."
After the oysters came a much-prized portion of fresh foie gras trucked in from Gascony (in southwest France), where the livers of force-fed geese have been a regional specialty for centuries. "The foie gras was usually poached in a little broth and served in very thin slices on slabs of coarse country bread," said Marshall.
Next came pumpkin soup, made by pure'eing the cooked flesh of a big orange pumpkin and stirring it into a rich poultry stock. "Seasonings were always very simple in our house, just a little salt and pepper," she said. "We weren't used to cooking with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg because they were expensive and relatively unavailable." (To this day, Marshall finds she can't stand the flavor of nutmeg and considers cinnamon "a strange taste.")
After the soup came the hearty main dish, a stew made from a wild boar that had been hunted during the late fall in the hills surrounding the village. Until Christmas the boar was hung to age from the rafters in a cool barn. A few days before Christmas, the boar was marinated to tenderize the meat. It was then drained, dredged in flour and browned in oil on the family's wood-burning stove.
Then the meat was stewed with carrots, onions, garlic, a bay leaf and wine -- of course. Toward the end, a generous handful of dried wild mushrooms -- gathered in the surrounding hills during the fall -- were thrown in to give the stew its characteristic perfume. For vegetables, the family ate boiled cardoons (a relative of the globe artichoke) braised in butter with a little chopped parsley and raw minced garlic sprinkled on top. The traditional starch was a polenta souffle', made by cooking cornmeal with water and then baking the mixture with eggs, butter and cheese.
"It's typical in that part of France to cook with cornmeal," explained Marshall. "We were not all that far from Northern Italy, where cornmeal is a staple."
Asked to name her favorite part of the meal, Marshall did not hesitate. "Dessert," she said. "We always had a tomme frai che de che vre, a mixture of fresh homemade goat cheese and sugar topped with local lavender honey. It's the most fabulous honey you can ever think of, and the combination is something out of this world."
The dessert course was always continued well into the afternoon as the family sat around the long country table eating apples and the locally grown English walnuts. "It was always a wonderful meal," said Marshall, "but essentially very simple."
"Christmas wasn't at all commercialized back then," she said, recalling that once the only gift she received was a fresh orange -- a special treat during the war. "It was the first time I'd ever seen one," said Marshall with fond nostalgia, "and I bit into it, skin and all. I couldn't understand why anyone would want to eat anything so bitter."
Here are some of Lydie Marshall's favorite recipes for making a French country Christmas dinner in your home. RAGOUT DE VENAISON (Venison Stew) (6-8 servings) 3-4 pounds stewing pieces of venison (shoulder is good; beef rump may be substituted), cut into 1-inch cubes 2 carrots, sliced 1 onion, quartered 1 rib celery, sliced 1 tablespoon wine vinegar 1 garlic clove, quartered 2 tablespoons olive oil, approximately 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme A few sprigs of parsley 1 bottle of dry red wine, approximately 2 tablespoons butter Freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons flour plus an additional 1/2 cup to seal the pot 2-3 cups chicken or beef stock
In a large bowl or enameled pot, combine the meat, vegetables, wine vinegar, garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, the thyme and parsley. Pour over sufficient wine to cover the meat and marinate for 2-3 days in a cool place (approximately 50 degrees, which is about 5 degrees warmer than the average refrigerator), or otherwise in a refrigerator.
Drain the meat and vegetables in a colander, catching the marinade and reserving it. Separate the vegetables and the meat. Dry the meat thoroughly by gently squeezing it in paper towels.
In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, melt the butter with the additional tablespoon of olive oil. When the fats are hot but not smoking, saute' the meat in several batches. (Do not over-crowd the meat or it will not brown properly.) After browning the meat, place it in a 9-quart enameled dutch oven.
In the skillet used to saute' the meat, saute' the vegetables in the remaining fat for about 5 minutes. Add the vegetables to the meat and sprinkle the mixture with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and freshly ground pepper.
Then make a brown roux: If there is less than 2 tablespoons of fat in the skillet, add enough olive oil to equal 2 tablespoons. Heat the fat and whisk in 2 tablespoons of flour, whisking steadily over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the mixture is brown. Then whisk in the marinade liquids. Bring to a boil. Then strain this liquid over the meat and vegetables. Add enough stock to cover the meat.
To seal the dutch oven (so that the liquids will not evaporate too quickly), combine 1/2 cup water (or slightly more) with 1/2 cup flour to make a paste. Smear the paste on a strip of cloth that is about 3 inches wide and 2 feet long. Press this cloth on the seam where the pot and cover meet, fastening the end with a safety pin, if necessary. (You might have to cut the cloth to fit around the handles.)
Bake the stew for 4 hours in a 300-degree oven. Remove from the oven and break the seal with scissors. Remove the cloth, then lift the lid by tilting it so that the steam is directed away from you. Transfer the meat and vegetables to another pot. Cover and keep warm in a 200-degree oven.
To degrease and skim the sauce, place the dutch oven on half of the burner and bring to a boil. You will see that the fat will converge on the still surface (which is not boiling). Continue to skim off the fat until it is all removed. (This may take as long as 20 minutes.)
Pour the degreased sauce over the meat and serve from the pot, preferably with a polenta souffle' or steamed potatoes. POLENTA SOUFFLE (6-8 servings)
This souffle' is similar to Southern spoonbread, but considerably higher. It is essential to used stone-ground cornmeal, which is now commonly available in health food stores. 1 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup stone-ground cornmeal 4 tablespoons butter 3 eggs, separated, plus 1 additional egg white 1/4 cup grated parmesan or gruyere
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil with the salt in a 3-quart heavy pan. Holding a small amount of cornmeal in your hand at a time, about 1 foot above the pan, let the cornmeal drop like a light rainfall into the boiling water, while stirring steadily with a spoon in your other hand.
Cook the mixture over low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in 3 tablespoons of butter, 1 at a time. Then continue cooking for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks. Set aside. In another bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff. Stir the egg yolks and grated cheese into the polenta. Then fold in the egg whites as you would for souffle'.
Grease a 2-quart baking dish with the remaining butter and pour in the mixture. Bake in a 400-degree oven for one hour. TARTE FERMIERE (8-10 servings)
This is an unusual and delicious tart made with goat cheese. Be sure to select a young and mild goat cheese. 1 cup golden raisins 1/4 cup dark rum 1 pound mild goat cheese, at room temperature 1/2 cup whipping cream 3 eggs, separated 1/2 cup sugar 1 recipe pate brisee (see below)
FOR THE CHANTILLY (optional): 1 cup whipping cream 3 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon rum 2-3 tablespoons golden raisins
Marinate the cup of raisins in the rum for a few hours or overnight. With a mixer, cream the goat cheese. Add the cream and beat together. Add the egg yolks, beating all the while. Then add the sugar, continuing to beat.
Fold in the raisins and rum. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold in 1/4 of the beaten egg whites. Then pour the cheese mixture into the remaining egg whites and fold together gently.
Roll out the pastry as thinly as possible. Line a 10-inch tart tin with the pastry, prick the bottom and line with foil. Fill with pellets or beans, set on a cookie sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove the pellets and foil and bake an additional 5 minutes, pricking the bottom once again.
Fill the tart shell with the cheese mixture and bake at 400 degrees for 35 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake another 15 minutes. (It is best to set the tart tin on a cookie sheet to catch any drippings.) Cool on a rack, then unmold.
If using the chantilly, whip the cream with the sugar. Then fold in the rum. Decorate the top of the tart with the chantilly, using a pastry bag with a fluted nozzle. Sprinkle a few raisins on top. PATE BRISEE (Short pastry) (Enough for 1 10-inch tart)
In her cooking classes, Marshall shows each student individually the technique for making this pastry. The dough tends to break very easily and can get very sticky as the butter becomes soft. "It is a question of practice," she says, "but it is worth the extra work to learn how to make this classic French pastry." 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour Pinch of salt 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold sweet butter 3 tablespoons ice water
Spread the flour on your pastry surface. Sprinkle with salt. Cut the cold butter in small pieces with a knife, resting the butter on top of the flour, and then burying the pieces as they are cut. Cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter or 2 knives until the mixture looks like coarse meal. (This takes about 5 minutes.)
Spread the flour-butter mixture out and sprinkle it with ice water. Quickly gather the dough together into a pile, then start mashing about 2 tablespoons worth of the mixture at a time with the heel of your hand, away from you, to bind the dough. When finished, gather it into a ball. (Repeat the mashing process if ball of dough is still very crumbly.) Shape the dough into a 5-inch patty. Dust with flour and refrigerate no more than 15 minutes to attain the ideal temperature for rolling the dough.
To roll the dough, dust flour on the pastry counter and rolling pin. Gently pound the dough with the rolling pin, rotating the dough all the time. (Cracks may appear around the edges; just tap them gently together.)
Scrape the counter surface clean. Dust the surface with flour frequently while rolling the dough. At first, roll in quick, short strokes, putting pressure on the rolling pin with the heels of your hands. Every 10 seconds or so, rotate the dough counterclockwise, and proceed with rolling. Always check under the dough for a smooth counter surface, scraping if necessary, and dusting with flour. When the circle of dough has about a 9-inch diameter, continue to roll, but with much less pressure, until the circle is 15 inches. Pick up the dough gently with the aid of a dough scraper and wrap it over your rolling pin. Unroll the dough into a 10-inch tart tin and press it into shape. Roll the pin over the edges of the tin to cut off the leftover dough. Proceed as directed above.
NOTE: If the dough is too crumbly to roll properly, gather the bits and pieces together into a ball, and clean the surface of your pastry counter. Clean your rolling pin and start over. Ideally, however, when pastry crust is concerned, the less handling, the better.