21 March 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 5



A good dish prepared with leftovers — It’s necessary to taste food before serving it at table

At last I know how to make a sauce rousse! [Sauce based on a roux, otherwise known as flour-based gravy.]

If I say “at last,” it’s because, for quite a few days, I tried and tried without being able to succeed. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to blend exactly, in the right proportions, butter, flour and water. What else is quite difficult, is letting the flour take color just enough for it to have a beautiful color, without getting burned or without being too pale.

It’s all a matter of finding a use for some leftover beef roast, and without resorting, let it be understood, to vinegar, pickles, shallots, all those things Papa is forbidden to eat, at least for a certain while longer.

Maman wasn’t at home, neither was our good neighbor, Tante Victoire, to whom I would have gone to ask advice. Both of them had taken the train that morning to visit a neighboring village, to see Tante Victoire’s notary. They were not supposed to return until the evening, just in time to sit down at table. So I was left to my own forces, to my own knowledge, which is not yet very extensive, despite my willingness and my application.

For lunch that noon, everything went smoothly: boiled potatoes en robe de chamber [in their skins; literally: “in their nightgowns”], as we say, with fresh butter; then a bit of cold roast beef from the night before; that famous beef of which the last leftover was to be used by me in a sauce for the evening meal.

Prior to being left over: Rôti de boeuf
Since Papa’s gastroenteritis, Madeleine would not have stuck the roast with garlic.

“Let’s go, Madeleine,” I said to myself, “take heart! Don’t be scatterbrained! Be very careful! You’ll succeed.”

The time to start dinner having arrived, I cut up my beef in slices, I pay attention to the amount and I see clearly that it is sufficient. So I prepare my sauce.

My stove worked very well. I placed my saucepan there with a good piece of butter in it. The butter having melted, I throw in a spoonful of flour and stir it in. I believe that it looks as if I need to add some flour, since the mixture seems to me still too liquid. I take another spoonful and I add it, and without stopping I stir again over the flame.

“Good,” I said to myself, “I believe that will go well. Now the flour is taking color, it’s turning yellow, a lovely reddish yellow…. It’s reddening further…. Stop now!”

I quickly removed my saucepan from the fire and I poured the water needed for the sauce. Then I added two small white onions, a bouquet of parsley, some salt, a pinch of pepper. Then I placed my meat cut in slices and I let it cook over a low flame, on a corner of the stovetop.

During this time, I began to peel some white mushrooms, those little mushrooms that in some places we call champignons de Paris; I cut them up, I washed them several times, and I added them to the sauce.

My ragoût cooked that way for an hour. It filled the kitchen with a very agreeable odor, and I was quite happy, since I understood so well that it would be good and that my mother, upon her return, would be enchanted to see me so able and so attentive.

Everybody arrived on time, Maman and Tante Victoire, returned from their little trip, Papa coming out of his workshop, my brother and my little sister coming back from school.

As soon as she entered the apartment, Maman went into ecstasies: “But smell that now, Victoire, what a good odor Madeleine’s cooking spreads.”

“That’s what I was going to say to you, my dear,” said Tante Victoire. “I can tell that there are mushrooms in there and that we are going to have a treat.”

With what pleasure I brought my dish to the table, once the soup bowl had been removed. We served, we tasted the sauce: it was perfect.

“Madeleine, how many times did you taste the sauce?” said Maman.

“I didn’t taste it at all, Maman,” I answered, “since I’m not gourmande [I don’t overeat].”

“It has nothing to do with overeating,” said my mother with a laugh. “I will even say that you shirked your duty and that it’s a stroke of luck that your sauce turned out just right. A good cook tastes her sauce at least once to be sure that everything is good. If there’s not enough salt, or pepper, if the sauce is too thick, too light, not flavored enough, she can fix the problem. And once the problem is fixed, she tastes again to verify if the sauce is better than before.”

“Well then,” cried out my little sister Jeanne, “I won’t even bother to ask before sampling all the dishes! Better ten times than not at all!”

“So,” said my father in good fun, “you have really found your vocation* as a cook. And it is Madeleine who will give you lessons when you are bigger,” he added, turning to me.

“I don’t ask for anything better, Papa,” I answered with a bit of pride.

“You’re going to say that I’m being quite difficult,” said Tante Victoire, “perhaps that I’m a complainer, but I want to make Madeleine the most perfect cook and point out to her the defects in her sauce.”

“What are they?” I asked urgently, since I don’t get angry at the observations of my good friend, who acts only in my best interests.

“Voilà,” said Tante Victoire. “You made your roux very well, prepared your sauce very well, and it is a good idea to add these mushrooms. But tell me, at what moment did you put the meat in the sauce?”

“Immediately after the sauce had been prepared, so that everything would cook together.”

“That’s precisely where you were wrong, my dear child. See how the meat is dry, tough. Ah! If you had been making a ragoût of raw meat, not cooked in advance and not roast beef, you would have done well to act as you did; but for meats that are already cooked and that one wishes to use in a sauce, you must not add the meat until ten minutes or a quarter-hour before serving, otherwise the meat will toughen.

“As for the mushrooms, I taste the flavor well enough, but I don’t see a single piece….”

I interrupted Tante Victoire: “I assure you, aunt, that I put a lot of them in, just the same.”

Above all, let’s not talk about the Dreyfus Affair!
...They talked about it.

“Oh! I know it well,” said Tante Victoire with a smile, “but you were in too great a hurry to add them to your sauce. They should have been thrown in more or less at the same time as the meat, that’s to say a quarter-hour before dinner, since it’s a food that melts, if you will, when the cooking is prolonged.”

A blush came to my face, no doubt, since Tante Victoire added quickly: “No matter, your sauce is excellent, and I congratulate you on it. There are quite a few professional cooks who wouldn’t do it any better.”

Then, turning to my mother, she added in a fairly low voice: “It’s true, my dear, this child has an astonishing disposition for cooking.”

Oh! How that, said with sincerity to my mother, gave me pleasure! At last! I could really help Maman, second her in caring for the household, and do so without making too many foolish errors! At last, I am going to be able to make myself really useful, to be agreeable to my father, to prove to him that I am grateful to him for all that he has done for me! Here is something truly very sweet to my heart; seeing that my efforts to do well did not go wrong, I feel overcome by a great joy that makes me want to run, to sing.

While I went back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, and from the dining room to the kitchen, serving and clearing, I sang softly under my breath, in fact, as I crossed the hallway. Maman, who didn’t see at all what was going on with me at that moment, cried out to me: “So you’re really content, Madeleine?”

“Oh! Oui, Maman,” I answered her, “more than you can imagine.”

Next time: Madeleine plucks and trusses a chicken for roasting in a wood stove.
(I told you this book was from 1895.)

Tante Victoire and Madeleine:
All the better to cook, my dear!

*Madeleine’s glossary defines “vocation” as “a particular disposition to exercise an art or a profession.”

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