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‘I hate people who are not serious about their meals’ is the formidable maxim of famous French chef, Raymond Blanc. Now, I don’t know about you, but as a student I take my meals very seriously. After hours poring over books and articles in the library, meals become the highlight of your day and Blanc’s new book Simple French Cookery provides a wide variety of recipes to suit every mood, from winter warming soups and classic meaty mains to delicious desserts.
Although many of the dishes are suitable for everyday cooking, there are also a few set menus which lend themselves well to entertaining: ‘Healthy Family Meal’ and ‘Elegant Dinner Party’ amongst them. A lot of the preparation can be done in advance, leaving you to sit back and enjoy the company of your guests while dinner gently bubbles on the hob.
What the recipes have in common is the aim of capturing the French relationship with food in a simple and easy-to-follow guide. Blanc wants us to ‘respect food, for its beauty, its freshness and also its price’. Raymond takes you through each recipe with a step-by-step picture sequence so there is very little room for error and the result is beautiful, rustic French cuisine. Of course, as students, the selection of herbs and spices is usually limited to ‘dried mixed’ and ‘chilli powder’ respectively, but even with these, it is possible to create some wonderful dishes and a quick trip to the market will prove very lucrative if you do fancy taking your cooking that one step further.
Overall, I was very impressed with Simple French Cookery I really do think it provides something for everyone, demonstrating how fancy-looking food is much more attainable than you might otherwise think.
Raymond says: A small tribute to ‘Maman Blanc’, and I should say to Papa Blanc too, as most of the vegetables would come from his garden. The success of this soup depends on the freshness and quality of the vegetables used. However, you can vary the vegetables and herbs according to the season. Chervil is one of my favourite herbs and is very popular in France but less well known in the UK.
Sarah Says: This was absolutely perfect, an ideal winter warmer, and was so quick to whip up. I was able to cook the dish before my guests arrived so all I had to do was switch the hob back on and wait. I did have a few minor issues with some of the ingredients; neither Morrison’s or Sainsbury’s in Headingley stock the main herb, Chervil, but I was reliably informed by Google that Parsley was an adequate substitute, so I used that instead. I didn’t receive any complaints from my guests about the switch, just don’t tell Maman Raymond.
1 onion, cut into 3mm dice
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 large carrots, cut into slices 3mm thick
3 celery sticks, cut into slices 5mm thick
2 leeks, 2 outer layers removed, cut into slices 1cm thick
15g (unsalted) butter
1 courgette, halved lengthways and cut into slices 5mm thick
2 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 litre boiling water
A large handful of chervil, roughly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon crème fraiche or 15g unsalted butter
Sweating the Vegetables- On a medium heat, in a large saucepan, soften the onion, garlic, carrots, celery and leeks in the butter for 5 minutes, without letting them colour (this helps to extract maximum flavour). Season with 8 pinches of salt and 2 pinches of white pepper.
Cooking the Soup- Add the courgette, tomatoes and boiling water (using boiling water reduces the cooking time and also helps to keep the colours bright). Boil fast for 5-7 minutes, until the vegetables are just tender. Stir in the chopped chervil.
Finishing the soup- Whisk in the crème fraiche or butter (or both, if you wish!). Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary, then serve. This soup can be puréed in a blender if you prefer a smooth texture.
Grilled Marinated chicken breast with courgette ribbons
Raymond says: I do urge you to try this dish. Although it looks quite long it is very simple. It can be prepared for a day in advance then only takes a few minutes to cook. You should experiment with other herbs in the marinade, or even spices if you wish.
Sarah Says: This dish was absolutely delicious and although it did take a bit of planning and preparation, it was definitely worth it. Both the chicken and courgettes needed to marinade for at least 6 hours, so make sure you leave plenty of time for this in your planning, but once this is done, they are quickly and simply cooked. I took a few shortcuts, again improvising with herbs and I used a frying pan rather than a griddle pan to cook the chicken, but the end result was still a scrumptious plate of food.
For the grilled chicken:
4 boneless, skinless organic or free range chicken breasts
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of ½ lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper
For the marinated courgettes:
4 large but firm courgettes, cut lengthways into slices 3mm thick
½ garlic clove, crushed
8 fresh basil leaves, torn
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the tomato dressing:
4 tomatoes, seeded (but not skinned) and cut into 5mm dice
1 shallot, finely chopped
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1-2 pinched of sugar (optional)
Preparing the chicken breasts- Slice each chicken breast horizontally in half, leaving it joined at one side, so you can open it up like a book. Place between 2 sheets of cling film and flatten with a meat mallet or rolling pin (be careful not to do this too forcefully or the texture of the meat will be ruined and it will taste dry).
Marinating the chicken- Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, crushed garlic, thyme, rosemary and 4 pinches of black pepper together to make a marinade. Put the chicken breasts in a large shallow dish, cover them with the marinade, then cover the dish with cling film and leave to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.
Marinating the courgettes- Mix the courgette slices with the garlic, basil, olive oil, 6 pinches of salt and 4 pinches of pepper. Cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 6 hours.
Making the tomato dressing- Whisk the tomatoes, shallot, oil, water and vinegar together with 4 pinches of salt. Taste and correct the seasoning, adding the sugar if necessary. Set aside in a small saucepan.
Grilling the chicken- Season the chicken breasts with 4 pinches of salt. On a very hot ridged griddle pan, cook 2 chicken breasts for 2 minutes on each side, then remove and set aside. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts.
Finishing the dish- Transfer the courgettes and their juices to a large saucepan. Cover and cook over a high heat for 2 minutes, until just tender. Meanwhile, gently heat the tomato dressing; don’t let it boil or the flavour will be spoiled. Remove the courgettes from the pan with a slotted spoon. Put them on 4 plates with the chicken and spoon over the dressing and serve.
Raymond says: Lemon tart is a favourite dessert. Making it is quite a lengthy process but relatively simple. You could prepare double the quantity of pastry and freeze half for another dessert, if you wish.
Sarah Says: A lovely end to the meal, even my lemon-tart-loathing guest had to admit that ‘this was pretty good’! Obviously, making a tart does require some specialised equipment but pre-rolled pastry, uncooked rice and a cake tin are definitely acceptable replacements for making your own, baking beans and using a tart tin. You can also adjust the sugar/ lemon juice ratios to adapt the sweetness of your tart to personal preference.
For the sweet pastry:
120g unsalted butter, at room temperature, diced
75g icing sugar, sifted, plus extra for dusting
3 egg yolks
250g plain flour
2 tablespoons water
For the lemon cream:
5 medium organic or free range eggs
150g caster sugar
85ml lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
150ml double cream
Making the sweet pastry- In a large bowl, with a spatula or wooden spoon, mix the soft butter and icing sugar to a cream; then beat in 2 of the egg yolks.
Add the flour and, with your fingertips, rub the butter mixture and flour together to achieve a crumble texture. Add the water and press the mixture together to form a ball.
With the palms of your hands, knead the pastry on a lightly floured work surface until it is blended (maximum 30 seconds- do not overwork the pastry or it will be hard and lose its crumbly texture). Flatten the pastry slightly with the palm of your hand, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes (this helps the dough lose its elasticity).
Making the lemon cream- In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, lemon juice and zest and whisk for a few seconds. Add the cream and whisk it in, then place in the fridge.
Rolling out the pastry- On a lightly floured work surface, evenly roll out the pastry into a circle 3mm thick.
Lining the tart tin- Roll the pastry over the rolling pin and unroll it over a 24cm loose-bottomed tart tin. With one hand lift the pastry and with the other gently tuck into the bottom edge of the tin so that it fits tightly. Be careful not to stretch it. Cut off excess pastry by rolling the pin over the top edge of the tin. Take a small ball of pastry and gently press it all around the base of the tart to ensure a snug fit. Prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork and refrigerate for 30 minutes (this helps prevent shrinkage during cooking). Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 160 C/ 325 F/ Gas Mark 3.
Cooking the pastry- Line the pastry case with aluminium foil and fill with dried beans, pushing them against the side. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove from the oven and lift out both foil and beans. Return the tart tin to the oven and bake for a further 20 minutes. Brush the inside of the pastry with the remaining egg yolk and return to the oven for 1 minute (this creates a seal on the pastry and prevents it becoming soggy when the lemon cream is added). Turn the oven down to 140 C/ 175 F/ Gas Mark 1.
Cooking the lemon tart- Pour the lemon cream mixture into a saucepan and warm it gently (this is to speed up the cooking time of the tart), being careful not to heat it too much or it will scramble. Pour the warm mixture into the pastry case and bake for 25 minutes, until barely set. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for at least 1 hour, then dredge icing sugar around the edge of the tart. Remove the tart from the tin and place on a serving plate.
Simple French Cookery is available now from BBC Books, priced £11.99