Introduction

Introduction

By
Justin North
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740665377
Photographer
Steve Brown

When I look back, it seems to me that I sort of fell into French cookery. I wasn’t born in France, nor do I have French heritage, but by some happy accident, many of my formative cooking years were spent working in great French restaurants in Australia and around Europe.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with some of the greatest French chefs of our time – and I’ve made it a point to eat in the restaurants of many more!

To be honest, when I began my journey I didn’t have the same passion for food that I do today. In fact, I don’t really believe passion is something you’re born with. In my experience, it’s something that grows over time along with drive and determination to succeed. And it needs to be nurtured. With me, it’s been something that grew as I grew, that evolved and strengthened with each year and with each chef I was lucky enough to work with.

If a passion for good food is developed over a long time, a passion for French food can take even longer because it is such a vast and comprehensive cuisine to get to know and it is so steeped in tradition. But there is no doubt that in the West, at least, la cuisine classique is the model for most cooking schools and an understanding of the techniques and methods is well worth mastering even for the home cook.

The primary goal of this book is to provide an insight into the world of French cookery in a way that is accessible and feasible for home cooks of all abilities. It’s not intended to be a Larousse Gastronomique or to duplicate a professional Cordon Bleu cookery course, but rather, to bring a wide range of useful techniques within reach of even the most timid cook.

In my view, the somewhat rigid traditional approach to French cooking, with its reliance on heavy ingredients like butter, flour and cream, is fast disappearing in restaurant kitchens the world over. The modern choice is for lighter, more delicate and intensely flavoured foods. This shift is certainly reflected in my own approach to cooking and in the pages that follow.

Another of my goals in French Lessons is to encourage you, the reader and home cook, to develop a similar approach to food and to cooking to what you find in France. That is, to focus far more on quality and freshness than on convenience when it comes to selecting your produce. In many French towns, people shop for food on a daily basis, and fresh produce markets rather than giant supermarkets are still the preferred option, wherever possible. While I understand that not many people have the time or opportunity to shop daily, I do really encourage you to spend more time shopping at markets and greengrocers, to support your local butchers and fishmongers, to spend the extra dollar on organic and free-range, rather than mass produced foodstuffs. Not only will your dinner taste better, but you will also be doing your part to keep alive the dream of the small, local and passionate producers who so greatly need your support.

It’s important, too, to realise that good food takes a level of care. We all tend to rush about frantically, crying that we are ‘time-poor’. Well, cooking is a great way to make yourself slow down. Try to think of cooking as something to be savoured and enjoyed, not rushed through as a means to an end. A considered approach to cooking is quite different from grabbing ingredients and tossing them together as quickly as you can. But I believe the rewards are far greater. If you take the time to understand the techniques employed when cooking, it will be reflected in the finished dish. It is certainly possible to make good stocks and sauces at home, using top-notch ingredients and with minimal fuss.

In a nutshell, one might like to say that in this book you’ll find lessons that respect the traditions of the past, but with a definite nod to present trends and to the future. I hope you enjoy cooking the recipes as much as I enjoyed researching, practising and compiling them.

Getting started

Each chapter in French Lessons is based on a particular technique or a small group of related techniques. Most of the recipes are straightforward and fairly simple, and they have been chosen to demonstrate each specific technique or method.

As with all recipe books, I do suggest that before you start cooking you read the recipe through a couple of times from start to finish. This is an important step as it not only gives you a good overall idea of the extent and scope of the dish, but it also helps you develop a mental image of the finished dish; something to work towards. I also do recommend that you read the introductory part of the chapter – the lesson – so that you gain a good understanding of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the techniques employed.

You’ll see that each recipe is also accompanied by a suggested accompaniment – a sauce, starch or vegetable garnish, as appropriate. Putting different flavours and textures together to create a balanced meal is one of my passions … but don’t feel constrained by my suggestions. I’d love to feel that you take some of the ideas and run with them, that you develop the confidence to explore and develop your own ideas about matching different components in a dish or meal.

Choosing ingredients

It was the legendary Raymond Blanc who first instilled in me the importance of choosing good produce and not accepting second best. He used to say, ‘If you start with rubbish, you end up with rubbish!’ I firmly believe that you can’t cook good French food with mediocre produce, especially in this modern age, when taste and flavour are so critical. These days we are more and more focused on using less cream, butter and flour, which makes the cuisine lighter, more intensely flavoured – more honest.

When I was writing my first book, Bécasse, I learnt some valuable lessons. I discovered that there are wonderful growers, farmers and producers all around us, if only we’d take the time to find out where they are. I firmly believe that it is worth travelling the extra distance or paying the extra dollar to get the best produce. After all, we invest so much money in the latest recipe books and the flashest new kitchen equipment, why would we not want to invest in the best food?

In my view, supermarkets are fine for washing powder and nappies, but when it comes to fresh, quality produce choose the small retailer, specialty store or local market instead. It’s also well worth copying what professional chefs and restaurant kitchens do in building a relationship with their suppliers. I strongly urge you to make friends with your local butcher, fishmonger or greengrocer. Believe me, these are people who know what they’re talking about; they’ll welcome your interest in their produce and should be happy to assist you, offer advice and source hard-to-find ingredients for you.

Farming methods

Wherever possible I try to use produce that is farmed using free-range, organic or biodynamic methods rather than traditional mass-farming methods. Most producers who choose these approaches are passionate about their produce. They have the health of the animal or plant at the forefront of their mind, and are deeply focused on the quality and flavour of the end product, rather than their profit margin.

Meat

This is a particular passion of mine – especially when it comes to ageing. Mind you, this is a subject that only becomes relevant if you are prepared to pay what it costs to buy your meat from a good-quality butcher. Ageing meat is typically only done with export-quality carcasses. But the difference between this and the humdrum, flabby meat that predominates in the Australian food industry is vast.

Given a choice I always tend to choose meat that’s been dry-aged. This means that the carcass has been hung, uncovered in a refrigerator where the air can circulate freely. It should be aged at a steady temperature of 3–4ºC and 60–70% humidity. If the temperature is too cold the meat tends to tighten and age on the outside only. Above this temperature, and the meat is liable to spoil.

As the meat ages, over time it starts to dehydrate, which concentrates its flavour. Enzymes begin to breakdown within the meat and have a tenderising effect, so that you end up with a flavoursome meat that is wonderfully tender. Generally, the optimum ageing time is from 4–6 weeks, up to a maximum of 8 weeks. Any longer and you start to enter dangerous territory with the meat beginning to break down and spoil.

Perhaps more readily available (and less pricey) is wet-aged meat. This is meat that has been boned out and vacuum-sealed using cryovac technology. It is then aged in the refrigerator at a temperature of 0–2ºC. Soft-textured cuts such as the fillet (tenderloin) are aged for around 2 weeks. More robust cuts, such as rump (top sirloin) or strip loin (short loin), will be aged from 6–8 weeks.

Meat that is wet-aged retains its moisture content and doesn’t require such specialised conditions. The downside is that there is inevitably some seepage of blood out of the meat, which can impart an odour and liver-ish flavour to it. If you buy vacuum-sealed meat check to see that there is an absorbent pad in the bag which will minimise these negatives.

Another important decision to make at the premium end of the beef market is whether to choose grass or grain fed beef. Good-quality grass fed beef tends to have an earthy, beefier flavour, but it can be tougher in texture. Nearly all cattle are fed on grass initially, but many are then moved on to a grain diet as it allows for a more consistent product. (The quality of grass is of course susceptible to all sorts of other external factors.) A grain diet has the effect of increasing the marbling within the meat, making it more tender and juicier. Most of the meat sold in Australian supermarkets has been grain fed for up to 70 days, whereas specialty stores and quality butchers will buy meat that’s been grain fed for up to 150 days. This meat will be evenly marbled and have an even texture. At the very high end of the market is export-quality Wagyu beef that is grain fed for up to 600 days. But this is not readily available. Save your pennies and enjoy it at a top-notch restaurant.

Eggs, cheese and dairy

The golden rule is to always check the ‘packed’ date and ‘use by’ date to ensure you are buying a product at its optimum freshness.

With eggs, always try to buy organic, or at least free-range eggs, as these will have a much better flavour, colour and shelf-life. It’s a good idea to buy regularly and in small quantities so you always have the freshest products to hand. Store them in the fridge – but remember that their porous shells mean they risk absorbing flavours from other unwrapped ingredients. And use eggs as soon as you can: the fresher they are the firmer and plumper is the white; over time, this breaks down and becomes watery.

With cream, the flavour of an organic or biodynamically produced product is far richer and lusher than that from a large dairy. Remember, too, that the fresher it is, the better the flavour and the less likely it is to split.

Cheeses that are oozingly ripe, with a full, rich flavour, will be more appreciated by your guests than a cheese that is immature and somewhat chalky. It’s often a good idea to let the cheese seller guide you as to which cheeses are at their peak, rather than have a preconceived idea about what you think you want. Cheese should be wrapped in waxed paper (this will allow the cheese to breathe) and stored in airtight containers to avoid mingling aromas. Serving cheese at the correct temperature is imperative in order to release its full flavour and appreciate its true characteristics and depth of flavour.

Chef’s notes

Choosing quality applies as much with general ingredients for your larder or fridge as it does with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood. There are a few specific choices that I make for the recipes that follow, and they are:

–Salt is specified as fine table salt, or sea salt – preferably Maldon, fleur de sel or pink salt.

–Pepper is freshly ground white pepper, unless black is specified.

–Sugar is caster sugar, unless otherwise specified.

–Chocolate is the best quality dark chocolate you can afford.

–Oil is non-scented, either good-quality vegetable or canola, grapeseed or rice bran. These have no aroma and a clean, non-greasy flavour. I generally only use olive oil or other strong flavoured oils for dressings or to finish a dish.

–Butter is always unsalted, as it allows better control over the quantity of salt you use in each dish.

–Milk is always fresh, full-fat (whole).

–Cream is 35% butterfat content (whipping cream), unless thick (double/heavy) cream (45% butterfat) is specified.

–Eggs are free-range and weigh about 60 g.

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