25 April 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 10



Between mother and daughter. — Preparation of cabbage soup. — Veal à la bourgeoise. — How we peel carrots.

Yesterday evening, I could write nothing in this journal, since it was fairly late when the housework was finished, and I swear that I hadn’t the heart to stave off my sleepiness to note down here my impressions of the day.

However, I have so thoroughly developed the habit of recounting here whatever crosses my mind, what I learn each day by my dear mother’s side, that this morning, as soon as I awoke, I couldn’t hold off for very long. As soon as I was washed and dressed, I sat down at my table, and here I am writing.

Right at the start, I want to repeat one more time that I am very happy to be occupied with housework as I have been, not only because I am helping my mother but also because caring for the household fills my days most agreeably. In the morning, after sweeping out the bedrooms and tidying the house, Maman and I do our shopping; then we prepare lunch and, after lunch, we set about sewing, caring for the linens and clothing, all the while chatting together, the two of us.

What good things I learn this way! Surely, my former schoolmistress, Mademoiselle Fleuron, is very good and very kind; but how much more agreeable to hear are the lessons of my mother! My dear Maman has a way of saying things that makes me understand them right away. There is perhaps between a mother’s heart and that of her daughter an entirely natural communication that makes them feel and think the same way when they love each other well.

This is what I think when Maman chats with me. I would like to know how to tell her this, but I don’t know how to turn a phrase; so, at times, when I have a great desire to make her understand without my telling her, I throw myself at her neck and I kiss her with all my strength. Maman returned my kiss, then disengaged herself while smiling.

“What’s come over you, Madeleine?” she said.

“I don’t know, dear Maman, but there are moments when I feel my heart so full of tenderness for you that it is absolutely necessary that I kiss you. And it is good, then, it is good!”

“Well, for my part, I know why you find it so good, my little Madeleine,” she said. First, it is because you have an untroubled conscience, because you carry out your duties and because you apply yourself to the utmost each day. Then, you know that you make me happy, and nothing is sweeter to the heart than to bring happiness to those we love. Then, it is because you don’t waste your time, because you learn something new each day; you are training yourself for later, for the time when it will be your turn to take charge of a family, perhaps a husband and children to care for; and that is on your mind, without your realizing it, and that is also what makes you serious and attentive.”

This conversation with Maman (which I have summarized here) moved me very much, I don’t know why. Oh, yes! I want to continue to apply myself to housekeeping and to do everything I can to be like Maman when I am her age.

Her age! Ah! mon Dieu! Do you see Madeleine with grey hairs here and there and having a daughter my age of her own to teach in the art of housekeeping and cooking? It makes me laugh, just thinking about it. And yet, deep down, I feel that time is passing quickly and that Maman is right to make me think of the future.


What did we do yesterday? …. Let’s see, let me remember: housekeeping, marketing, a visit to Tante Victoire, who has a cold and can’t go out, some mending, and dinner.

The dinner kept me quite busy, since it took time to prepare: a cabbage soup and a piece of round fillet of veal.

I had a lovely cabbage, quite white, very firm, a piece of salted pork and some good fatty bacon. I removed the outer leaves of the cabbage because they seemed a bit tough, then I cut the cabbage into quarters and I washed it several times in cold water.

When it was clean, I “blanched” it, that is to say, I threw the pieces into a pot of water that I took care to begin heating earlier, so that it had just begun to boil. During the few minutes that I let the cabbage cook, I cut into small pieces the bacon that I had, and I “browned” it in a pot, then I put the little pieces of bacon (lardons) into the soup pot, which was empty so far. Next, I removed the cabbage that was in the water; I drained it in a colander and I browned it, as well, in the bacon grease that was left in that pot. Then I poured the bacon grease and the cabbage into the pot where I had placed my lardons. I added the necessary water, a big carrot that I had cut in two, and four mid-size potatoes. I also added the piece of salted pork.

To sum up, here is what I did:
1. I “blanched” the cabbage.
2. I “browned” the lardons and I placed them in the soup pot.
3. I “browned” the cabbage in the bacon grease, and I placed them in the soup pot.
4. I also added the salt pork, the carrot, and the potatoes.

My cabbage soup was ready, I had nothing more to do than to keep an eye on it while it cooked.

Up to that point, everything was going well. But my fillet of veal! How was I going to prepare it?

There are some people who, it seems, have cookbooks giving them all sorts of recipes. I don’t have any at all, and it’s Maman who is my principal advisor and guide. I explained to her my problem.

“Let us make it au blanc,” said my mother.

Au blanc? What is that, Maman?”

“It is a sort of sauce blanche, quite simply, which we also call blanquette or poulette. But I am thinking that the veal fillet is a bit too thin to be prepared this way. I would be better to make it à la bourgeoise.”

A la bourgeoise! What a funny name!”

“Yes,” said my mother, “it is rather funny, in fact. I think that this sauce got its name because it is that which is made most often for family meals and because it is a very simple dish and isn’t part of fancy dinners. I’m going to teach you how to make it.”

I took the veal from the larder where I had placed it upon returning from the market, and I set it on the table.

“Ah! What a nuisance!” said Maman. “Here we need bacon and we don’t have any at all.”

“Oh, yes, we do, Maman,” I cried, “we have some. I kept precisely a bit of what I used for the cabbage soup. I thought the piece of salted pork was so handy that I used a bit less bacon, to set aside in case of need.”

“You did well to think so far ahead,” said my mother; “That was a good idea, and you are going to see how it will serve us well.”

Maman cut into little pieces the bacon that I presented to her.

A modern-day lardoire, the tool Maman uses to lard the veal.

Then, with the help of a lardoire, a sort of big, special needle, she made holes in the piece of veal and put a small lardon in each hole. When the veal had been all “larded,” she set it to brown over the fire in a pot with a bit of butter.

Since the pot was uncovered, I hurried to put a lid on it.

“No, no,” said my mother, removing the lid, “meat and vegetables should always be browned in an uncovered pot, otherwise the vapor that they release will drip back on them and keep them from browning properly.”

Maman turned the meat in the pot so that it took on a beautiful color on both sides.

“You see,” she said, “I’m watching so that the veal doesn’t stick, and so that the juice doesn’t turn dark. If that happened, I would be forced to add one or two spoonfuls of hot water, but the meat would be less delicate. You will notice also that the flame is not too high, since, without that precaution, the meat would dry out and the bit of juice that came out would become like caramel very quickly. Now, prepare these carrots for me.”

I hurried to obey Maman, who, very busy with her cooking, didn’t watch me.

I brought to her five lovely carrots, well peeled.

“Scatter-brains!” said my mother. “You peeled the carrots? Don’t you remember what I said to you on this subject?”

“No, maman,” I said, a bit embarrassed.

“Carrots are not peeled, it’s enough to scrape them lightly, because their skin is so fine that it’s impossible to remove it without also removing much of the flesh of the vegetable. You will remember that next time, won’t you, girl?”

“Yes, Maman, but you know what? … I made the same mistake with the carrots in the cabbage soup: I peeled them.”

“Bah!” said my mother, “it’s not a great tragedy. Next time, you’ll do better. Meanwhile, let us continue the preparation of the veal.”

The carrots were sliced and put into the pot with the veal. We added to this a whole onion, a “bouquet garni,” two glasses of water (since we had no leftover broth), salt, pepper, and we abandoned the whole thing to the mercy of the fire [Sic!]

The fire behaved itself. When it came time to eat, the cabbage soup was perfectly cooked, and so was the veal.

We set aside the piece of salted pork that should be served cold the next day, and Maman poured into the soup bowl, over slices of bread, the broth and the cabbage that had been reduced to a puree, as well as the potatoes.

As for the meat, Maman uncovered the pot, releasing a delicious perfume. The meat and the sauce were a beautiful reddish color, and I was quite happy to see that the family did right by the veal à la bourgeoise.


[To copy and keep]

1. Every time I feel in my heart a burst of tenderness for my dear Maman, I will not permit myself to hold back, on account of a stupid timidity, and I will kiss my good mother with effusion.

2. I will understand that in learning to keep house and to cook I am preparing myself for the role of housewife and mother which I will play later.

3. When I buy a bit more bacon or butter or vegetables than are necessary to prepare a dish, I will set the surplus aside, which will be helpful in case of unexpected circumstances.

4. I will remember that to brown a dish properly, it is just like frying it: I must not cover the pot or the skillet.

5. I will remember that carrots must be scraped and not peeled.

Apart from that spiffy plastic handle, a modern-day French peeler looks exactly like the one Madeleine would have used. To my perpetual astonishment, the French, who are responsible for nearly every innovation in the kitchen, still haven’t adopted vegetable peelers with a pivoting blade, though these are standard in the U.S.

Next time: Madeleine makes pot-au-feu — under the watchful eye of Tante Victoire!

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