I'll get to the holy symbol a bit later, but first some relevant background: My MIL is an absolute Francophile. She is ethnically Chinese, grew up in Hanoi, went to French Catholic school. She speaks French fluently (among several other languages) and belongs to several French clubs. She only reads French novels. She named her 3 sons w/ very traditional French names.
Whenever I cook for just my in laws I know that classic French food laden w/ a good dose of cream and butter is sure to please. In fact, the first time I met them, we went to a French restaurant where my MIL got the rich prix fixe meal and was flattened the next day by all the cream and butter. She didn't seem to mind though...
Since they are getting older (as am I), I didn't want to make the meal too crazy rich, but I did want it to have an old world authenticity. The wintry, rainy weather also got me into the spirit and called for such a hearty meal where the stove/oven is going for hours. This also was the perfect occasion for me to finally pull out Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking (both volumes), which I recently bought used. I didn't use it for every dish, but here was my menu:
*Baked miyagi oysters w/ topping of breadcrumb, butter, parsley, shallot, garlic, and lemon juice (made up my own recipe)
*Cream of cauliflower and upland cress soup (upland cress is similar to watercress but the leaves are bigger and flavor is full, spicy, and sorta fruity; used the recipe in Vol. II but reduced butter and omitted cream)
*Boeuf bourguignon w/ buttered egg noodles (used recipe in Vol. I w/ minor modifications)
*Tarte tatin w/ mock creme fraiche (used recipe from Chateau Cuisine by Anne Willan w/ minor modifications; mock creme was made by mixing full fat sour cream w/ a little superfine sugar)
Used a 2003 Chateau Grimard Bourdeaux in the stew and drank a voluptuous 2003 Plan Pegau red table wine w/ the meal. Champagne would have been great to start, but our group can't drink that much.
Overall, the meal was a big success and I was generally happy w/ how each course turned out. In laws were very pleased too! What I love about these more rigid "theme" meals is that everything naturally fits together...tradition has done some of the work for you.
My favorites were the baked oysters and boeuf. I typically prefer raw oysters that taste of the sea, but my inlaws prefer cooked. I baked them for just a few min. and then finished them under the broiler to brown the topping. The flavors melded beautifully and the topping didn't overpower the wonderfully sweet flavor of the bivalve. Texture was still soft and juicy, but the raw, briney edge was mellowed. We scarfed these down in delight and could've eaten more...
The boeuf bourgignon turned out great. I used rump roast as suggested in the recipe. After browning, I started cooking it in the oven per the instructions but decided that I'd prefer to simmer gently on stove top instead and that worked fine. I didn't like the fussy steps w/ the mushrooms and onions at the end, so just sauteed them together in a little butter and then finished simmering them in the stew for the last 30 min. At the end, I removed the meat to reduce the sauce to thicken a bit. It also needed more salt. I might try chuck roast next time. Does that have more fat/marbling than rump?
To critique Julia's books, I must say that I don't love them based on this experience. I don't really care for the format of the recipes, and the wording and organization seem convoluted and not that clear at times. Some of the steps also seem like they could be further streamlined w/ no detriment to the result. And there's too much butter and cream even for moi, so I just reduced amounts. I think the technique discussions are more useful than the actual recipes for me, but I'm glad I have these for reference.
I didn't use Julia's tarte tatin recipe b/c it's just layered upside down and baked, not actually started on the stove top. While Anne's recipe was tasty enough, it didn't have the sticky caramel and jammy quality I've had before and the crust wasn't flaky enough. I'll try the recipe from Julia's The Way to Cook next time. Any other tarte tatin suggestions?
Photos of my meal can be viewed at the link below. This finally gets me to that holy symbol. I always chuckle at those stories like of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich and I'm not particularly religious, but my first thought when I saw the picture of the tarte tatin w/ mock creme fraiche was that it looked like a hooded woman praying in the creme. I didn't drink that much wine, so I'll take it as a good sign (culinary and otherwise) for the holiday season and new year. Holiday wishes and good eating/cooking to all!
Any feedback on refinement of these dishes is appreciated, and I'll be happy to answer any questions about specific dishes.