Properly cooked! (the taste)
Going out to a restaurant is getting harder at the moment. In France, at least, you have to try and find one that has agreed to pass on the new lower rate of VAT at anything other than a symbolic level, and there aren't many.
And then, most importantly, you have to find a good one: one where you can some out saying “Ah, that was a good meal!”, where you can still remember the menu several days later, and where you can confidently send friends without risk of them trying to sound polite when they tell you afterwards “Err, it was… hmmm… not bad.”
Personally, I'm fond of classing restaurants in this way: a month later, can I still remember at least one of the dishes I ate there? If I can, it's a really good restaurant, if not…
In fact, it seems increasingly rare these days to come across something that actually has an outstanding flavour, which makes me want to go back for more and wipe around the plate with a bit of bread.
It's the flavour that comes of being what I call “properly cooked”, difficult to describe because it depends on the choice of ingredients, sometimes the cooking methods used, sometimes both.
An example to illustrate what I mean: hachis parmentier (the French version of cottage pie) is a good old standby, but how often do you eat one which tastes like it should? Alas, too rarely! So often it's just cooked mince with mashed potato dolloped on top and, if you're lucky, a bit of (tasteless) grated cheese before it goes in the oven.
Therein lies the problem. For the dish to have its proper flavour, of course the meat needs to be well cooked, but it is even better if it is left over from another meal. The second cooking releases different flavours. The mashed potato
also needs to be good, made with proper potatoes, butter and cream if possible, not the instant stuff reconstituted with water. Last, but not least, the cheese on the top should not be that awful tasteless plastic-wrapped Emmenthal, nor (even worse) ready-grated straight out of a sachet, but real good cheese, like a piece of Comté or a mature farmhouse Cheddar, that you grate fresh onto the potatoes just before the dish goes in the oven.
Of course it takes longer to make, but what a difference compared with those insipid offerings found in bad restaurants and canteens.
A restauranteur reading this might well be saying by now something along the lines of: another ranting amateur who has no idea that in the kitchen time is money! Of course, chef, of course! But you know very well yourself that a real well-made hachis parmentier gets better with each reheating (or almost), so why not make a large quantity in advance and reheat it as necessary? I'm sure the customers would come back for more...
So, to finish with, here's a good hachis parmentier recipe.
P.S. Please note that etiquette normally requires that one does not wipe the plate with one's bread in a restaurant, which is a rule I always ignore!
In high-class French restaurants you might find a spoon at the side of your plate intended to permit the discreet consumption of any remaining sauce in civilised fashion: it's totally inefficient and, above all, instantly renders cold anything that you might have struggled to collect in it.
Long live the bit of bread! [Translator's note: the French have this habit of mopping up sauce with bread so deeply ingrained that they even have a word for it: “saucer”, literally, “to sauce”.]
Back to top of page
The 3 essential knives
You must have heard a chef or cook say: "There’s no good cooking without good ingredients". This is very true, of course, but for any amateur or beginner it is equipment that really counts to start with. What I mean is that you should not skimp on [Read more...]
Using stretch food film effectively
Maybe you use food film in your own kitchen. You know, the very thin, clear plastic stuff that you can stretch, often used to cover food and protect it from the air. It’s become so widely used that it’s now an essential item for pros. They even [Read more...]
The mock CAP baker's certificate exam
The next instalment in my life as an apprentice baker at the French INBP professional school. I’m now halfway through training and it’s still as exciting as ever, and exhausting – but maybe I’m just getting old, or both… Anyway, a few days [Read more...]
Rosemary in recipes
Rosemary, as I’m sure you know, is a culinary herb:
It is one of the famous French "herbes de Provence", and is very effective in bringing a real taste of the Mediterranean to any dish.
The classic way to use it in a recipe is to add a [Read more...]
The Holy Grail of French bakers
While browsing through the recipes on this site, you may have noticed that while I adore cooking (everything, in fact, to do with eating and drinking), I am particularly drawn to bakery: bread, viennoiseries and all that goes with them – it’s a [Read more...]
Is it really necessary to cream egg yolks?
Let’s try and answer a question that crops up in cookery and patisserie, even if it verges on the existential: do the egg yolks in a custard recipe really need to be beaten until pale, or not?
You might already have noticed in many recipes [Read more...]
Egg yolks and caster sugar
We often come across recipes where we need to mix egg yolks with caster sugar. This would appear to be a very ordinary and simple thing to do but, be warned, these two ingredients can behave oddly together.
Let’s take confectioner's custard [Read more...]
The golden-brown finish on puff pastry
Let's take a look at the tricky matter of producing puff pastry with an attractive, golden-brown finish. French pastry chefs call this "dorure" (literally, "gilding").
Behind this quirky term there lurks a real problem (and the solution): when [Read more...]