Tuesday Reviews-Day: The French House

Tuesday Revews-Day


“An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All”

Who wouldn’t be curious about a book with such an intriguing subtitle. Especially if that who happens to be me, at the time in the throes of purchasing my own home (which some would also have considered ruined where we just saw potential). In The French House, Don Wallace tells the story of how he and his wife Mindy came to own a falling-down house on the island of Belle Isle off the coast of Brittany, back in the 80s as fledgling writers living in Manhattan. 30 years after they purchased the home, almost sight-unseen, at the urging of a local friend and former school mentor of Mindy’s, the house went from ruin to what I would call full of character and quirks, and a fitting retreat in a French village that has staved off many of the modern advances and tourists threats over the decades.

The writing is infectious. Take, for instance, these passages from early in the book, a page of Instructions they uncovered in some old notebooks.

Bonjour et bienvenue

There are a few things that have to be done immediately when you open the house. Please read ALL these points carefully.

3. Water heater. To turn on the water for the water heater, go to the closet across from the cabinet. It is full of sporty stuff (tennis rackets, golf clubs, swim fins, masks and snorkels, spear guns, wet suits, Frisbees, bocce balls, all of which you may use after you complete every step of these instructions).
You want to get water going into the heater. To do this, peer behind the water take–at the base near the wall you will see a black switch. Turn it parallel to the floor. You should hear a clunk. Note: do not touch the red faucet. Nobody knows what it does. We think it connects to the secret core of hot magma that lies under the island and, if thrown, will result in worldwide catastrophe. You will have hot water in about three to four hours. And it will be hot. Very! Be careful not to scald yourself….

4. Bathroom. Go upstairs to the bathroom. By the toilet you will see boxes of the septic tank chemical that will keep everything smelling sweet. Put two packets in the bowl and flush.
Despite this, you may notice a sort of sickly odor that rises like a miasma at night when the entire village is humming behind closed doors and windows are fogged from all the shower baths taken in succession. This odor should be ignored; taking notice of it will only encourage it.
For Women Only: You will note that there is only one tiny mirror in the bathroom and no mirrors anywhere else in the house. This is deliberate and done for your own well-being…we recommend cultivating the Belle Ile look of bohemian-athletic-seaside dishevelment to go with that Coco Chanel suntan you’re working on. The same goes for clothes….
For Men Only: If you have any male children, it may be wise to have Daddy demonstrate how the toilet lid works, or fails to, if you’re attempting to take a whiz while standing up. Just when you least expect it–bang!–the lid falls like a guillotine.
Don’t worry if you botch this demonstration. Even if your son starts wetting the bed because you nearly amputated your own unit, you’re in luck–not for nothing is Belle Ile known as “the island of psychiatrists.” There are two in Kerbordardoue, another three in adjoining villages, and then all sit down at the beach together, which makes an informal consultation easy to arrange.

5. Stove/Oven: France uses propane for cooking, which is interesting if you think of her distinguished pedigree for cuisine and how, in America, a propane tank is associated with backyard barbecue or football tailgating.
Under the sink is a blue bottle with a round disk valve on top. Turn this all the way open. Wait a minute and turn on a burner and light a match to test it. Note: We turn off the blue gas bottle at night. (Just our neurotic American ways, I guess, but once you read about the the oven you will understand.)
Important oven note: sadly, the oven has become so unpredictable we have to say: try to avoid using it. The dials mean nothing, so you may think you have turned it off and it is merrily filling with gas.  There’s a reason the knobs are unreliable. One afternoon our son Ror’s older cousin Devo filled the stove with gas before lighting the oven. The resulting explosion removed his eyebrows and budding soul patch. It also blew the knobs across the room….I think one knob is still embedded in the wall, the others dangle on the stove, looking deceptively functional….

6. The fireplace: Works well….just keep the fires small, especially at first, so the smoke has a chance to draw up the chimney and dry it out after the long winter….
P.S. The barbecue in the fireplace goes outside, to the right, where our house’s white wall meets the rough stone of the shed….
P.P.S The bicycle in the chimney is also to be removed before starting any fires. If you can get the chain to stay on, feel free to ride it. Don’t ask why it’s there. That’s a story for another time.

Reading this before bed that first night I stopped and reread the entirety of the Instructions to Todd, stifling some giggles along the way. I don’t think the author would mind in the least, though.

Go ahead and laugh–at the joke, at the house, at us. We’re used to it.

With an introduction like the above, you might get the idea that The French House is all droll humor and quips when in reality it gets real, fast. They buy the Belle Ile house, their building in New York City goes co-op. They have a child. They have career struggles, are unable to make it to their crumbling island paradise some summers due to family and financial dramas, all while trying to orchestrate needed repairs on a shoestring via letters and phone calls.

Frankly I find it frustrating to deal with a contractor 30 miles and a state line away, I cannot imagine how it was for them; or, rather, couldn’t if not for Wallace’s way of getting to the point while maintaining a gallows-humor even through the rough patches. There were highs and lows, as is to be expected in a story that spans three decades, and the “end” is bittersweet as so much changes in this village we come to know and love through the story-telling skills of the author.

It’s not just the story of a couple or their home, it’s the story of a way of life, both one that pre-dated them and the one that will follow.

I read this book in spurts. It was easy to devour (just another section more) but I wanted to spread it out. Unlike a series where you know there’s more to come, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Wallace family or their village, so I would force myself to stop, put down the Kindle, and go to sleep. Now that I have read to the end, I’m left with the feeling of having had a wonderful, virtual vacation on that island, leaving behind good friends and fond memories.

For the rest I’ll just have to subscribe to his tumblr feed: DonWallaceFranceBlog.tumblr.com

***I was provided a digital review copy of The French House for purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. The French House was published June 1, 2014, by Sourcebooks.***

It All Started With Some Asparagus


I had picked up some beautiful asparagus at the farmers market and was trying to decide what to do with it. As great as it is steamed with a little salt, olive oil and lemon juice, sometimes you want to step out of your own little rut.

That’s when I remembered Marengo.

There are many things I remember from my 2 years at CCI, many excellent recipes, chefs and fellow students that I cherish. French Classical may not have been my favorite class, but at least it wasn’t at the bottom of the list (that honor goes to Garde Manger, in case you were wondering). One recipe in particular, though, does stand out from that class: Poulet Sauté Marengo.

And it used asparagus. At least, that’s how I remember it from class (the book says nothing about it, but that’s beside the point). So I decided that it was a perfect mid-week dinner.

Next time I decide to relive French Classical, it will be on a weekend.

Poulet Saute Marengo a la Scraps
Poulet Sauté Marengo (a la Scraps), with Duchesse-style Potatoes

Again, Escoffier doesn’t write recipes like we’re used to. Here’s his version of the dish:

3225 Poulet Sauté Marengo

Season the pieces of chicken and sauté them in oil. Drain off the oil and deglaze the pan with [5 oz] white wine and reduce by half. Add the roughly chipped flesh only of 2 tomatoes, or 1.5 tbs tomato purée, a touch of crushed garlic, 10 cooked small button mushrooms, 10 slices of truffle and [5 oz] Jus lié.

Finish cooking together then arrange the pieces of chicken in a deep dish and coat with the sauce and garnish. Surround with 4 heart-shaped Croûtons of bread fried in butter, 4 trussed crayfish cooked in Court-bouillon and 4 small French fried eggs. Sprinkle with coarsely chipped parsley.

I, of course, made a few adjustments both to ingredients and procedure. One was to substitute roasted red bell peppers for the tomatoes (it lists flesh-only, by the way, to mean leave out the seeds) and skipped the mushrooms and truffles altogether (the former as Todd’s not a big fan and the latter for lack of availability). The other was to make the sauce with the chicken still in the pan. I have two reasons for this:

  1. I despise the practice of cooking something and then letting it sit out on the side to cool (and toughen) while the rest of the meal cooks. In most cases I find it completely unnecessary. We call this hokey-pokey chicken at home and avoid it whenever possible.
  2. Cooking the sauce with the meat, when possible, adds additional flavor to the protein in question. Who wants more flavor? We do. I bet you do, too (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this).

Preparation is key with many dishes and this recipe was popular back when there were full kitchen brigades to handle the various steps. Thinking ahead will save you much anxiety when you’re trying to get dinner onto the table.

Start by chopping everything you’ll need for the entire process: chop the peppers or tomatoes and mushrooms if you’re using them, crush the garlic, stem the asparagus and shape the croûtons.

Next, make the Jus lié that you need for the sauce. Jus lié is a shortcut (even the great ones used them!) for demi glace–the concentrated veal stock that adds so much flavor. It’s gravy. Start with double the amount of stock you need (in this case, a cup and a quarter of beef stock) and reduce it (by boiling) by half. Make a slurry of cornstarch and water and whisk this into the reduced stock, cooking until it thickens and set aside until needed.

Steps to Marengo

Steps to Marengo--it sounds like a dance, and that's NOT far from the truth!

French cooking is notorious for being both complicated and messy. Remember what I said about kitchen brigades? Precisely. I prefer to combine steps and reuse pans whenever it won’t hurt the finished dish in order to keep my kitchen from looking as much of a wreck as it could.

For instance, the croûtons called to be cooked in butter. I figure I’m going to need a pan for the chicken, later, and it uses oil (olive, in my house), so why not start the croûtons in oil, first, set them aside to cool, and then move straight onto the chicken? No good reason not to, so on we go.

The chicken is seasoned with just salt and pepper–the flavor (as with many French dishes) comes from the sauce. Get them nice and golden brown on each side and then add the wine to the pan and deglaze it all together. Once the wine has reduced, push the chicken to one side (in this case, I stacked one pair on top of the other) and add the sauce ingredients to the pan until combined. Once the sauce is set up, spread the chicken around so that everything gets nice and cozy together and let it cook while you handle the rest of the ingredients.

While the chicken and sauce cooks, get your steamer set up for your asparagus and combine the crawfish tails with a little stock and seasonings to perk them up. I allowed 6 per serving, so about half a cup of tail meat. Set the crawfish on low—they’re already cooked, we just want them nice and warm.

Oh, right, now you need to do the French fried eggs! Go ahead and make those up while the sauce sauces and the asparagus steams. The idea is that everything comes together just before serving.

Building the Plate

Building the Plate

Now, I’m not usually one for architectural food (a dish piled so high you have to dismantle it before you can eat it) but, in this case, the stacking serves a purpose.

Beginning with the croûton, build the dish in layers: a croûton, a chicken breast, a large spoonful of sauce from the pan, asparagus spears, the crawfish tails and a single French fried egg. Add your side and you’ve got a beautiful dinner to share with someone special (or keep all to yourself—no one’s going to judge you, here).

Now, the point of the stacking rests solely on that French fried egg. See, you make your first cut down the center of the tower, egg to toast, and the yolk flows down, combining all the flavors into one lovely, rich sauce. It’s simply amazing.

An Aside on A Side (dish)

Originally I was going to go all out and make Tourné Potatoes as a side dish for the Marengo. Tourner is a cutting style that makes the vegetable look like a little football with 7 equal sides and blunt ends. A favorite for knife skills exams and fru-fru potato salad.

Not only is it a slightly wasteful cutting style (unless you’ve got something to put those peelings into afterwards) it’s also a pain in the ass, as I was so quickly reminded when it took 30 minutes to get a dozen cut and they weren’t exactly perfect.

Tourner Potatoes

the trimmed potatoes, a tourné knife, and the "discards"

So I just diced the rest of the potatoes and planned to par-boil and then saute them. A bit of a punt from the original plan, but it would work.

Well, it would have worked had I not let them boil a smidgen too long and they started to mash on their own when I went to saute them. So, out came the butter and milk and some garlic and mashed they were.

But mashed potatoes would look so… wrong beside the Marengo that I went for a Hail Mary: I turned on the oven, grabbed a pastry bag and humongous open star tip and piped out the potatoes Duchesse-style. 30 minutes in the oven and their little top edges were just starting to brown.

(Note: Duchesse Potatoes also include an egg yolk to be correct, but mine had olive oil from the botched sautéing and were fine.)

Meet the Reds: Beaujolais

With our trip through the Alphahol complete, at least this round, I thought it’d be nice to take a break from cocktails and, instead, discuss a gentler subject: wine. Since I’m more a fan of reds than white, this month I’ll pick a red a week and chat a little about it. Hopefully you’ll share your favorites with me in the comments.

Beaujolais is a Burgundy wine made from the Gamay grape in the southern portion of the French Burgundy district. It’s not generally an aged wine, with 5 years being the upper reaches of it’s optimum life-span. With it’s very fruity nose and hints of dark cherry, the flavor can be fruity and light or oaky with a hint of pepper. It’s definitely a dry red, not sweet, with a light body that is meant to be served chilled, but not ice-cold.

Like many of the Burgundy table wines, Beaujolais is a good all-meal wine as it pairs well with grilled red meats, white fish, cheeses and cold meat dishes without overpowering any of it.

My go-to Beaujolais is the Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages. The one in house right now is a 2005, so an older Beaujolais but according to the website it was an excellent year weather-wise for reds which is probably why this one is still so very drinkable. What I love about it is that it works well to cook with and to drink, is easily spotted by it’s black ink on yellowed parchment label and can be found in my local grocery store for under $20 a bottle.

Make sure to check out their website for more information about this vineyard and it’s history. I love that the vintage notes go all the way back to 1860 and that they seem honest: not every year was a good year, but for most they were able to find something worthwhile in the grapes. Like the 1877 vintage where the vines were affected by frost but still describe the grapes as “elegant.” Or the 1915 vintage that mentions the war and that women were largely responsible for the harvest.