Flying without a recette

French cookbooksOther than my post about French bread, the one that was freshly baked pressed, I’ve rarely written about the wonders of la cuisine. And I am certainly no authority on the finer points of French food. But here’s the thing: I love to eat.

My husband was always a more knowledgable cook and expert in the culinary arts. Which is perfectly normal – he had a head start:

  • Born and raised in France
  • Father a professional chef who also did a lot of the cooking at home
  • Attended hotel school in Nice, where he learned the basics of fine cuisine along with French service

But he left hospitality behind shortly after we married and began a career in IT. As it happened, I ended up doing most of the cooking. Not because of any gender-based stereotypes but simply because I care about eating well. Every single day.

My husband can still pull off a fabulous meal with astounding efficiency, and from time to time he’s conscripted for kitchen duty. I also ask his advice about how to cook things – boil or bake, sauté or simmer? But the day-to-day stuff? If he was in charge, we’d end up eating a lot of pizza. So over the years I’ve learned to do a few basics.

I’m certainly not one for anything complicated. Forget the finicky or technically complex. As my husband says, I’m a good short-order cook. I do well with eggs, from quiche to omelettes, grilled meat, sauteed vegetables and au gratin casseroles. And like my late mother, who loved to bake, I’m a fair hand with simple cakes and desserts. The kind that don’t necessarily look that impressive but never stay around very long.

IMG_2352I still have a few of my mom’s recipes, written on index cards in neat, slanting script. Dog-eared, sauce-spattered relics of a bygone era: they are precious souvenirs of her and the love she brought to anything she made.

My cookbook collection has expanded over the years to include a few French tomes. There’s the fabulous ‘repertoire de la cuisine’ from my husband’s hotel school days, a primer on the elements of French food. And a little book about bread by master baker Lionel Poilâne (son of the original). There’s the one about la Mère Brazier, queen of the kitchen in the Lyonnaise tradition. And the only book I ever really used for cooking actual dishes, the Elizabeth David book on French provincial cookery that contains one of my favorite recipes, la raie au beurre noire (skate fish in black butter sauce).

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret: I do most of my cooking without a recipe. This is something a lot of my North American friends find surprising but seems to be quite common in France.

In my experience, the French don’t use recipes all that much, at least not in daily life. In la vie quotidienne, they cook simply and follow a few basic principles: fresh food, in season, home cooked. Or according to old family recipes embedded in their DNA.

The fact is, if you’re able to buy good quality ingredients, you don’t need to do anything all that fancy to make them taste good. And if you’re on a budget, it’s all about planning and organization.

My version of French cooking – or at least, cooking in France – is not fancy and it’s certainly not rocket science. In fact, you don’t even need a recipe. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you here in upcoming posts.

Please feel free to share any of your own!



  1. Food,Photography & France · September 25, 2014

    I’m with you totally. Funnily enough, I have a copy of Le Repertoire on my shelves and I just did a shoot in La Mere Brazier in Lyon:)

    • MELewis · September 25, 2014

      Lucky you! Hopefully you sang for your supper while you were at it. As for Le Repertoire – I only just rediscovered it in our moving boxes (from 2 years ago!) and it is a true gem.

  2. Suzanne et Pierre · September 25, 2014

    Nice post. I also cook mostly without recipe. I sometimes will look at the few cookbooks I have to get some ideas but mostly I just go with the flow with the ingredients I have or the recipes I know by heart with my own twists…(Suzanne)

    • MELewis · September 25, 2014

      Thanks Suzanne! I also try to go with the flow and make the most of what I have on hand. Something I never dared to do in Canada, strangely enough.

    • Mélanie · October 1, 2014

      same here, guys… and I often add ma touche personnelle! 🙂

  3. davidprosser · September 25, 2014

    I’m warning you Mel, there will be terrible consequences with rising sea levels if you start me salivating. You’re treading a very risky path talking about f**d and sharing recipes.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · September 25, 2014

      Lol! I’ll try to be considerate and post closer to meal times. Merci David! 🙂

      • Suzanne et Pierre · September 25, 2014

        Strangely enough, we haven’t changed much of our cooking habits since we have arrived in Paris. We are limited by the size of our kitchen and the tiny combined microwave/oven but otherwise we continue to cook the same way we have always done it.

  4. Nicholas C. Rossis · September 25, 2014

    Lovely post! I rarely cook from a recipe and it seems to work fine.

    As for cooking simple but fresh food, my wife has the following rule: to judge whether she will prepare a dish, she looks at the recipe. If the recipe has max 10 ingredients (she is relatively relaxed about salt and pepper counting as separate ingredients) and the preparation directions are about 10 lines long, then she is happy to continue with the recipe.

    If not, the recipe will never be tested in our house. I wonder whether we have missed some wonderful dishes or whether her rule actually makes sense.

    Keep posting!

    • MELewis · September 25, 2014

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I’ve heard the number of ingredients as a rule applied for buying food products off the shelf (usually 5 or less) but never for recipes. It makes good sense as a way of keeping it simple. And I find many French classics don’t require that many ingredients – it’s more about the quality and way you put them together. Hope to see you back again!

  5. Osyth · September 25, 2014

    Lovely! What is it about reading about food that is so comforting … its my guilty pleasure and I look forward to reading your recipes as and when you feel the urge to share 🙂

    • MELewis · September 25, 2014

      May the pleasure be yours, guilt-free, and may my humble ‘recettes’ live up to the promise. Cheers Osyth!

  6. peakperspective · September 28, 2014

    It sounds like you’ve landed a mighty good match with your husband–the delicious daily meals fall on your shoulders while he takes over the higher pressured, more fastidious work that falls within his wheelhouse. I’d have him do all holiday cooking and dinner parties. But perhaps he already does?
    Regardless, the key thing is that you both love your food. It would be a heartache to prepare meals for someone who was ho hum about the art and skill.
    Look forward to the recipes!

    • MELewis · September 29, 2014

      That’s true, in theory at least…sometimes the reality falls a little short (hotel school is a bit far behind him now!) But I count myself lucky that we both share a love of good food and that he is both willing and able to participate in its preparation. Merci for your comments!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s