Mes oignons

My onionsI am here today to tell you all about onions. Mes oignons that is – mine, not yours.

Yours would not be at all appropriate. According to French wisdom, I must mind my own onions, which is to say my own business.

So here are my onions. Rather cheeky, no? There they were, all tressed up so prettily, until I started using them up and – voilà! Was inspired to take a photo that set them off in all their glory.

Ah, the onion. Such a wonderful member of the Allium family. So humble, yet so strong. Along with leeks, garlic, chives…this family is one like my own. Outspoken, atypical, memorable – if at times rather overpowering. The French favour the shallot, l’échalote, for its gentler, more subtle flavour. At least it doesn’t make me cry.

I love how the onion has all those intricately packed layers, hard yet soft, and a papery outer skin. I love its bulbousness. I love how it melts, how it browns and most of all, how it caramelizes. I love the onion in so many ways: pissaladière, onion tart, with tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, fish and, most memorably of all, cheese.

My favourite onions are red. Most often enjoyed raw, they’re also lovely on the barbeque, in a stir fry or combined with other kinds of onion. Here they are featured in one of my favourite winter dips – when it gets cold, I am a still a North American at heart.

I also love the French expression for minding your own business: Occupe-toi de tes oignons. Why onions? I looked it up and, lo and behold, there is a reason. It would seem that the French woman was first given a small measure of independence in being allowed to cultivate a portion of the garden as an onion patch, which she could then take to market and sell to make a bit of money. You can read all about it here (in French).

And let’s not forget that sometimes onions produce beautiful flowers.

Do you have a favourite onion? Or it that any of my business?

 

Système D

macgyver
MacGyver, aka Monsieur Système D

The French have a secret weapon. It gets them through many a sticky situation and even allows them to pull off some pretty amazing stunts. It’s called le Système D.

The D stands for ‘débrouille’, meaning to get on with it, figure it out, use any means available to do something. It also stands for ‘démerde’, a slang way of saying the same thing. Either way, tu te débrouilles or tu te démerdes is a very French way of getting it done. System D has now been adopted in English, thanks to Anthony Bourdain.

The French love a challenge. It’s probably just as well given the number of challenging situations they must face daily in the form of strikes, traffic jams, holidays and life in general. They love the television character MacGyver for his ability to get himself out of any situation on nothing more than wits and a Swiss army knife.

How has living in France taught me to use le Système D?

Traveling. No one is there to help you or tell you what to do when you arrive in a place not knowing what’s what. Even if you speak the language, it may not be clear where to go or what to do in a given situation – buying a ticket, signing up your children for activities, figuring out the best way to get from point A to point B. The information is always there, somewhere, but it’s usually hidden behind a counter or an unfriendly face. Système D teaches you to find it.

Communicating. Expressing yourself in a foreign language can be a matter of survival. You want your meat cooked rather than raw? Have a plane to catch? Refuse to accept such poor service? Better figure out how to get that across. In conversational terms, this means grappling with French grammar and a limited vocabulary to share your nuanced, erudite thoughts. Or just to let off steam. If you don’t know the word for something, you have to figure out another way to say it. Or say something else. Either way, it’s System D.

Cooking.  I used to cook by the book. Or by the recipe. One-half teaspoon of this, carefully folding that. But cooking in France is different: ingredients, pan sizes, cooking temperatures. French cookbooks use terms I don’t quite understand. Now I look at recipes for inspiration and then wing it. Use my imagination, substitute ingredients, taste while cooking. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not so great. Rarely is it the same twice.

Working: Somebody wants to pay you to do something and you really aren’t sure you can do it? One thing I learned in France is that you have to act like you know what you’re doing if you want to be respected. Teaching. Translating. Interpreting. Assisting. Coordinating. As Nike said, just do it. That said, there is a strict framework that must be respected. Customs. Laws. Hierarchy. So System D only goes so far.

Socializing. You’re at a crowded apéro and are dying of thirst but there’s a chatty person between you and the drinks. Do you: a) wait until he or she naturally runs out of steam and you can politely manoeuver your way to the bar, b) create a distraction by pretending to see someone you know and grabbing a drink or c) engage the person in conversation while discreetly rotating so that you can reach the bar?  Answer: B or C. if you said A, you need to work on your Système D.

What about you? Do you stick to the rules or are you a débrouillard?

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!