Living in Paris has been a source of torture for me with my culinary hang-ups. You’d think marrying a Frenchman with an accomplished culinary maman would leach cordon bleu skills into me by osmosis. Mais non. I grew up secretly consulting our 1,200 recipe fat copy of The Creative Cooking Course edited by Charlotte Turgeon (who translated Larousse Gastronomique), hoping to master roasted racks of lamb, choux pastry, and jelly boats. While around me, Mom rotated family meals to raise her pack of seven kids: meatloaf, spaghetti Bolognaise, chicken à l’orange, tuna and mushroom on rice, lamb’s fry, and salads – always salads.
Although pocked with kitchen self-doubt, I do love throwing dinner parties and have mastered the art of fake French cuisine in these easy-to-follow ways that work – even for me.
It’s all about roasting meat
When my mother-in-law made stewed rabbit with prunes one lunch, I put my paw down and said, “Non, merci!” But when cooking dinner for French folks, I do the contraire and base everything around some prime cuts of roasted dead animal. If you’re like me and can’t get cozy enough with your butcher to be given the nice cuts of meat, then go to Picard, France’s favorite frozen food supermarket chain. Get confit de canard or something that is happy in a hot oven. Duck is always a good idea.
Pre-prepare pretty much everything
My mother-in-law whizzes up 5-course events for 20 without breaking a sweat. What I’ve observed is that she cooks the fish in advance and the vegetables ahead of time, and dresses the plates for the entrée early, so at crunch time, it’s just slicing pâté and drizzling vinaigrette. She pops the duck in the hot oven while we eat the fish course. And with le trou Normand (a shot of Calvados enjoyed between the fish course and main course), nobody notices her absence from the table to finish cooking. This pre-preparing is helped by my next point.
Don’t fret about overcooked greens
By adding a little cream, salt, pepper and butter, a multitude of sins are averted. Too raw or boiled-until-khaki-green, neither matters because it would be rude to pass comment on anyone’s side dishes. Or pass comment at all if anything isn’t “très bon!”, so don’t sweat the details.
Mix things up. Play the foreigner card if necessary.
One Christmas we arrived at my in-laws to find my father-in-law serving the dessert on the verandah – at 5pm. He said it was because by 1:30am (when we’d normally get around to dessert) nobody appreciates it. Totally true! Even the French like to mix things up on occasion. Another handy tip is that you can always go wild and serve something unheard of for dinner, such as lasagne, because as a foreigner in France, they assume we will get it wrong anyway.
The real secret to a successful dinner party?
The bread. Friends once ordered bread rolls with our names imprinted on each one – after that, they could’ve served dog roll. (They didn’t. They are incredible cooks, dammit.) The wine. Get that right and nobody will remember what the food was. Go ahead and outsource procuring those items. (Here’s where your French husband or friend can feel like they’ve really contributed to the meal because they have!). Just do not forget to buy mustard. Preferably Maille brand from Dijon, in operation since 1747. That’s mustard-making that pre-dates the Revolution by 40 years.
In a panic? Seriously, find your nearest Picard, which specializes in convenience. Delicious everything awaits. As long as you can operate your oven, you can create fake cookery that would make Charlotte Turgeon proud.