Cooking in other people’s kitchens

Sometimes, cooking is about making do in a kitchen you did not have a hand in planning or equipping. It’s about dealing with someone else’s preferences, moving into someone else’s life for a spell.

The kitchen we use in Paris belongs to people who spend very little time there and who do not cook much. They have a vast array of different types and flavours of tea and no decent bread knife. Two venerable Le Creuset casseroles and no spatula. Acres of crystal wineglasses and only two coffee mugs.

There is a history to the place. In the 1980s, it was the pied-à-terre of a New York couple who ran a high-end travel agency, sending clients to Paris on the Concorde (there is at least one piece of Concorde memorabilia in the place). It was used for entertaining, hence the cupboard full of champagne glasses. These were people who went out to eat. Did I mention it is near the Champs-Elysées?

Little has changed since the 1980s, including the pink bathroom and the tortoiseshell cabinet fronts in the kitchen. However, on our recent visit in December 2012, we were delighted to find a new oven (the old one had long since died) and a new cooktop as well.  

We always bring our own small “batterie de cuisine” with us. A sturdy bread knife and a very sharp knife for regular kitchen tasks are at the top of the list. Plus spatula, tongs, vegetable peeler, and an efficient corkscrew. My apron, two oven gloves, and some extra dishtowels. We have bought things and left them there: this time it was a cheap pair of kitchen scissors and a couple of Rubbermaid containers for leftovers (I guess nobody previously had made food that involved leftovers).

In an earlier posting on this blog, I asked what kinds of things people felt were pantry staples; here I’d like to ask what sort of equipment my fellow cooks consider indispensable. Do you absolutely have to have a whisk or can you manage with a fork? Do you long for a wooden spoon, or are you OK with a plastic one? Do you need oven gloves (I do), or will a folded dishtowel do?

And what kind of recipes can you make in an unfamiliar environment, using ingredients from a foreign supermarket or street market? Pasta and risotto are widely available and endlessly variable. Salads are always an option (and one can buy lovely prepared salads in Paris). I always make my old standby, pork chops piquant, with Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and cornichons. But on occasion, I will lash out and try something new. Once it was rabbit in mustard sauce. This time I had a go with magret de canard. A qualified success, but I learned a few lessons for next time.

Here, for the record, is my old standby, culled from a copy of Saveur magazine circa 2002. The article had been written by a fellow who had discovered it in a 1970s paperback French cookbook. He had lost the original book, but had recreated a version of the original that uses some of our favourite flavours. We have tweaked it a bit.  

Pork Chops Piquant

5 tbsp. olive oil
2 lbs. thin-cut pork chops
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 shallots, peeled & diced
6 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
8 cornichons, chopped into small pieces
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

Heat half the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Season chops with salt and pepper. Brown chops on each side, about 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer the chops to a plate, and cover to keep warm.

Add the rest of the oil, over medium-high heat. Sauté the chopped shallots, until they begin to brown. Add vinegar and stir for a minute or so. Add wine and cook for a few minutes, until it thickens. Stir in cornichons, mustard, and any juices from the chops. Lower the heat and stir until the mixture makes a thick sauce. Put the chops back in, warm them through, and serve.

This recipe serves 4 people. For 2 people, use less pork, but about the same quantities of the other ingredients, because the sauce is what it’s all about.

The only picture I can offer is one of Norman wearing my apron and doing the dishes in the Paris kitchen. There is a dishwasher, but since there are so few everyday dishes in the cupboards, we do most dishwashing by hand. That’s why we bring extra dishtowels.

Happy New Year to everyone who reads or contributes to Eat and 2 Veg.

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