What would a French woman do? Blanquette de veau
When I moved to France in 2005 I quickly learned—through a series of eliminations—that integration would be a brutal affair. I would never pull off an Hermès scarf or have cheekbones that could cut ice. I would never juggle children while maintaining a come-hither flirtation with my husband. I would never lean across a dinner table (showing just a hunt of décolleté) and make a wicked joke about President François Hollande. Other foreigners might, through sheer force of will, go native, but I was not one of them. Like a mindless addict, I inevitably fell back into my true American self: laughing too loudly, pouring the wine, informing random dinner guests that I felt fat. I had no flair for the art of seduction, and without that assimilation was hopeless.
But then sometime in the beginning of my marriage I began to cook. It was such an obvious gambit, and so integral to French womanhood, I now can’t believe I overlooked it. Here was a subject, if not a past time, that the French clearly enjoyed. The discussion of food—without the angst of actually eating (French men don’t get fat either)—aroused near universal interest. One day at work I googled endives au jambon and was startled by a coworker—smooth, cold, icily efficient—reading over my shoulder. “Oh no,” he said shocked. “This recipe is so old fashioned. Don’t do that. You’ll feel like you’re eating in a monastery. It will be far too heavy.” This was one of the warmest interactions we’d ever had, and I wanted to stretch it out, but he floated away when it became clear I was a culinary dilettante. I decided then and there that while I didn’t need a broad command of French cuisine it would be good to master a few dishes, and to have opinions about them. When someone told me I was cooking for fat monks I could say something like “Ben sûr, espèce d’andouille, il s’agit de la recette originelle. Loin de moi l’idée de la travestir!” That would get me some respect.
At first I toyed with boeuf bourguignon. This slow-cooked dish of braised meat is delicious, but time intensive and heavy. I found that if we had it for dinner one night, the leftovers sat sadly in the pot the next day and got thrown out the day after. Even a country boy like my husband Florent struggles to eat beef cooked in pork fat and red wine two days in a row.
After that I tried coq au vin— one of my favorite dishes and a staple of my childhood. I still remember my mother in thick brown glasses and a Pucci skirt laddling out the chicken dish on winter nights. Her brow would be furrowed and her face stern, but when she tasted the sauce keen satisfaction took over. “I hope you appreciate this,” she would say in that blunt Swedish way of hers. “It took some doing.”
I loved it, but now I was stunned to discover how long it took to make coq au vin. Hours. You browned the chicken, flambéed the chicken, braised the onions, fried the mushrooms. And about six times out of ten, it didn’t work. Blood would leak out of the chicken and the sauce would go bitter. No matter what I did it never tasted as good as it did in even the a low-rent Paris bistro.
The notion of asking myself, “what would a French woman do?” was still new to me in those years. I hadn’t yet developed enough respect for the culture, I suppose. But I did notice that whenever I went to my mother-in-law’s house in Beaune the food was amazingly simple. Madame L, married fifty years and mother to four children, didn’t mess around with coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. She strove for harmony, structure and simplicity. Her meats were always good, the cheeses superb and desserts copious. If she prepared anything that fell under the banner of ‘dish,’ it was blanquette de veau.
According to a 2011 TNS Sofres poll, blanquette is the fourth favorite dish in France. The dish consists of smallish cubes of veal shoulder cooked for many hours in a broth and maybe some wine with onions and carrots. At the end you add some mushrooms and thicken the sauce with flour, butter and an egg yolk. The veal becomes tender and falls off the fork; the sauce becomes something that you sponge out of the pot with brown bread. It’s not light, but in the scheme of French food it’s not the worst thing you can eat. The French love it as the embodiment of sophisticated comfort food.
In addition it’s very hard to screw up. Leave the meat on the stove for three hours not two? The sauce will be doubly creamy. Have no carrots around? Try leaks or celery. Some people, like Madame L, cook the veal in wine and add a spritz of lemon at the end to lighten it up. Other’s, like Julia Child, find this heretical. The only thing that must happen, is that it must be cooked on a low temperature for a long time or the veal will be tough. In a culinary tradition filled with potential catastrophes, this is the only one that can happen here.
To my mind it is the open-endedness of the blanquette that embodies it appeal, it’s inherent respect for the veal shoulder and flexibility around the sauce. Yet, like all things pleasurable but not quite defined in France, blanquette elicits a fair amount of anxiety. The debate over whether to add wine to the broth is fierce. “Never never,” says my office mate. “Why not?” says my mother in law with disturbing insoucience. What about the mushrooms? Should they really be added to the stew or fried separately and added at the end? No one knows for sure, yet opinions abound and the younger generation is feeling decidedly uncomfortable. Comedienne Valentine Fèau said just last week in a blog post that her feminist manifesto included the right to “have cellulite and wrinkles…to not want to make love every day…. To not know how to make blanquette de veau.”
Ah, Valentine, no one really does. It’s a stew! But then no one really wants to hear that in France where so many things feel like they are about to change, and for the worse. To succeed at this dish, one has to ignore the critical voices of the French self and that is hard when precision and mastery are equated to worth and intelligence. Happily my lazy, bullheaded American side, has never quite receded and when I tap into it, I can make a blanquette without falling into anger or despair. That said, I only ever make it for my family. I am told it is messy and controversial, but also delicious.
Blanquette de veau
Go get one kilo or about two pounds of veal shoulder from a butcher. Make sure he cuts it into cubes about two inches by two inches and that the veal has some fat on it, but not alot. Get a good cast iron stew pot and fill with water. Put in the veal and let it boil at a low but steady rate for ten minutes. The water will get white and frothy. Remove the veal and throw out the water. Wipe the pot with a towel. Return the veal to the pot, add two chopped carrots and fifteen pearl onions. If you don’t have pearl onion cut a regular white onion into quaters. Add a bouquet garni—a good handful of thyme, bay leaves and parsley tied with a string.
Now you are ready to stew.
Cover the veal with a combination of chicken broth and wine. Yes, I said wine. This is not what Julia Child does but I think she’s making a mistake. Let the veal cook at very low heat for about 2 hours.
When it is almost ready fry some mushrooms, the more the merrier, in salty butter. If the stew fails (and it won’t) people will eat the mushrooms.
Remove everything from the pot–the veal, the bouquet garni, the onions and carrots– and place in separate bowel. Take a look at the watery winey broth that’s left. If there is more than an inch off the bottom of the pot, boil it down. It won’t be that thick so add some butter and flour stirring quickly with a whisk so the flour doesn’t clump. When it is hot but not boiling add an egg yoke.
The sauce should be thick but not crazy thick.
Add everything back in as well as the mushrooms. Stir it around. Spritz some lemon on top.
Serve with rice and cold cold Chablis.
I never say this, but do you have good ideas about blanquette? French food? Let me know. I am always interested in ideas.