22 February 2010

Chez Picard

Ça caille là-bas!
This is Picard’s recipe for “Quail on a Mirror of Chocolate.”
Only the garnish has never been frozen.

When I moved to France, I fully expected to import the very skills I’d learned there from my maître, Henri Boutrit. I was certain that I would attack the streets of Paris as I’d attacked those of New York — as Henri attacked the Marché Central of Royan. One buys only what one needs for the meals of that day. One buys fresh ingredients. One does not buy everything from the same vendor. And one gets to know the vendors, not quite personally, but well, as neighbors, more or less. If you’d told me that a staple of my cuisine parisienne would be frozen food, I’d have walloped you.

Now is the time to confess my ongoing affair with the Picard stores.

Picard is a retail chain specializing in frozen food, everything from appetizers to ice cream, from individual ingredients and sauces to fully prepared dishes. I underscore that these are not TV dinners: there is not a Salisbury steak to be seen in the place.

The quality of Picard products is exceptionally high, the prices are reasonable, the convenience unbeatable. When I’m in Paris, and going to several movies in the course of an afternoon, it’s been helpful to know that I don’t have to confront the maddening evening rush at the market: I can go straight home, because I’ve got plenty of good stuff in the freezer to make a perfectly good supper. (In Beynes, we have only an icebox, so frozen food is out; I have to adapt my schedule to that of the supermarket.)

I’ve collected a few pictures from the Picard website, to give you an overview of what, in all likelihood, you are missing out on.

The American approach to frozen food is a block of ice. You have to prepare the whole package just to have a single stalk of asparagus, for example. The Picard approach is to offer bags of individually frozen asparagus. Thus you can take what you need, and put the rest back in the freezer for use some other time. (You are also spared the hassle of peeling fresh asparagus, my least favorite part of preparing one of my favorite vegetables.) They’re wholesome, too, with no added salt or preservatives. I keep a stock on hand at all times.

By the way, if you want just a little whole-leaf spinach, Picard sells bags of it in pellets. Terrifically practical.

Likewise, Picard’s seafood is always at the ready, and the prices are much lower than those of the fishmonger. The quality is good enough that many restaurants serve Picard seafood, exactly as if it were fresh. (Of course you can tell the difference, and I stopped going to one restaurant down the street, because they served frozen langoustines. I could prepare the same dish at home, more cheaply and without the pretentious attitude.)

If you haven’t got time or courage to make dinner from frozen-scratch, Picard offers an astonishing variety of prepared dishes. Many of these, need I point out, are French.

In New York, preparing fish en papillote was one of my standard practices: healthy, easy, not terribly time-consuming. In France, however, the grade of aluminum foil available is so flimsy that it’s almost impossible to create a papillote that will survive the cooking process. Picard uses sturdy paper (who knows where they find it), and all I have to do is pop the thing in the microwave.

I’ve had great success with these marinated cuts of meat (above, beef with shallots, my favorite, but the pork is good, too). I don’t have to wait hours while the meat marinates, and though the quality is as good as what I’d find in most butcher shops, I don’t have to dicker with anybody to get it. It took me a little while to figure out the correct timing for thawing and throwing the meat on the skillet: it’s possible, the first few times, to wind up with a tasty but grey and visually unappealing main course. Once you get the hang of them, however, these are very handy for special occasions.

One of my all-time favorites, Picard’s duck legs preserved in fat are virtually impossible to screw up — and, just as with “real” duck, you can save the fat for use in other dishes (especially potatoes). French friends like to point out that duck fat is actually good for your cholesterol.

For those who object to the random slaughter of innocent quackers, Picard offers vegetarian specialties, too, such as this lasagna with goat cheese and spinach. Admirers of authentic cucina italiana are often caught off-guard by the French approach (not only chez Picard but throughout the country): French pasta sauces, especially, are creamier, less garlicky, and not exactly robusto. But you get used to it.

Modern France is more and more a melting pot — or anyway, there are more ingredients to French society, even if they don’t mix very well. Picard addresses the more cosmopolitan French palate with North African and Asian specialties. I haven’t tried many of the Asian dishes (frozen sushi?), but the Mediterranean dishes are pretty decent.

Texan friends will want to know that Picard also sells frozen fajitas and chili con carne; by the register, one can buy unfrozen chips, salsa, and guacamole. I see no cause to waver in my longstanding refusal to eat Mexican food in France, however, so you will have to ask somebody else whether the Picard stuff is any good.

Making venison stew properly can take a very long time — if you can find the venison. Which, in all likelihood, you can’t, even at the butcher shop. (If you have a butcher shop, which Beynes does not.) Picard solves all problems.

Picard also offers recipes, giving customers fresh ideas for combining frozen ingredients. This tourte is made with boar’s meat, and with the exception of the salad on the right, the entire thing was made with Picard products. (They even sell pre-chopped onion — though I can’t imagine why.)

For months, I’ve kept the recipe card for this lamb dish. I haven’t tried it yet. My experience with Picard’s gigot has been quite good: it requires only a little preparation and roasting time. Most years at Easter time, Picard lowers the prices on its lamb products — while French butchers raise theirs.

By now, you are probably wondering about dessert. Picard’s freezers are bursting with them. Some of the offerings are very simple indeed (the apricot tartelette is a personal favorite), some almost painfully refined. Many require only a couple of hours in the refrigerator to thaw before serving.

And I did mention, did I not, that Picard sells ice cream, too? The range of flavors is impressive, and in addition to its own brand, Picard also sells products by “master ice cream makers,” such as this one.

So there you have it. Picard stores can be found all over France — but not, alas, in the United States. American notions of frozen food are so different, we may not understand that it’s possible to apply the classic principles of French cuisine to something so simple and convenient. Again — these are not TV dinners. So it might take some hard-selling persuasion for Picard to find a foothold in the American market.



William V. Madison said...

I have just been informed that the Picard company is currently involved in a labor dispute. Allow me to take this opportunity NOT to take sides!

Anonymous said...

Oh flute! And I just got a four microndes largely to heat up cuisine Picard.

But wait, isn't half the country involved in an action sociale right now?

In the US, Trader Joe's has some similar frozen products, though not as many as Picard. TJ's frozen prepared foods aren't as good, either.


William V. Madison said...

Interesting — I’ve heard from others that Trader Joe’s has better-quality frozen goods, but alas, I left New York before TJ’s arrived. My rare visits (both in Union Square and in Los Angeles) haven’t given me much of a sense of the place.

Anonymous said...

TJ has better frozen food than is typical in the US, but I don't think the prepared dishes are as good as Picard's. All relative, I guess.