Mastering the Art of French Eating
Posted on October 25, 2013
I just finished Ann Mah‘s recently published memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating. It’s a lovely account of the year that Mah, a food writer and diplomat’s wife, spent alone in Paris as her husband was called away to serve in Iraq for a year. Some may not view a year alone in the City of Light as some sort of punishment. There are pastel-hued sunsets, the city’s storied rooftops and Pierre Herme macarons, after all. But for all its beauty and luxury, for all its decadent pleasures in every patisserie and multi-starred restaurant, the French capital can be a lonely and confounding place, especially if you’re not from around there.
Like me, Mah is a Francophile and foodie, so when I read her book, I was immediately transported into a country and subjects that I love. In the year she spent apart from her husband, she sought ways to create a new life and friends for herself. One of the ways she did it was by traveling the country in search of the history, techniques and people behind some of France’s signature dishes, from boeuf bourguignon to delicate buckwheat crepes smeared with creamy Breton butter.
“I was intoxicated and my drug was Paris,” she writes. Quite frankly, I was intoxicated and my drug was Mah’s memoir, which made me crave steak frites, red wine and a cozy cafe from page one. If you love engaging memoirs, smart food writing and a dash of history, Mah’s book is just the recipe for your interests. I gave it five stars on Goodreads this week.
Speaking of steak frites…sometimes I dream about this dish, from the well-seared piece of meat that runs red when your knife slices into it, to the slightly tangy (and sort of buttery) shallot sauce that is served with it, to the crisp frites that soak up some of the juices on the plate. Let’s not forget the big glass (or glasses) of red wine to wash it down. You have to do this right, after all.
Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran a story about steak frites at Balthazar. The next day, I picked up Ann Mah’s book and went from thinking about steak frites to craving them. This meant I had to make them. So I did that last night, using Mah’s recipe for the steak and shallot sauce and my recipe for fresh, handcut frites. My wine choice: Chateau Coutet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. It worked for me.
I’m not sure why this is, but one of the secrets to making really good frites is soaking the Idaho potatoes you’ve cut in cold water. It has something to do with getting rid of some of the starches, but I’m not sure what that has to do with flavor or texture. All the same, I do it, and last night I was in such a manic must-have-frites state that I did it three times. When I was done, I put those babies in hot oil until they were golden brown:
Next, I took a skirt steak, patted it dry and then seasoned it with sea salt and freshly-ground pepper. I seared it for a couple of minutes on one side, then flipped it over to cook it for a few more minutes on the opposite side (the Mah recipe calls for about 50 seconds, but my husband doesn’t like his steak as red as I, or the French, do):
When the steak was done, I covered it in foil and then cooked some sliced shallots in the pan drippings with butter until they were tender. I added thyme, red wine vinegar and some beef stock and cooked it down until there was barely any liquid. Then I added more butter to the sauce. Here is the end result:
One of my Instagram followers said that I was “really killing it in the kitchen” last night. But honestly? I love cooking and do it frequently, even though I may not always post about it. This week I’m just feeling lonesome for Paris and wanted a way to connect myself with a food and a people that I adore. This got me there, if only for a moment. Judging from Ann Mah’s memoir, she probably understands the sentiment all too well.