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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

College Dorm Cooking: Frugal in France

When I started this blog, it was supposed to be a family affair, mostly me, but with help from the other 3. Luckily, Frugal Son is back on track, having sent us an email that recounts a meal he cooked circa January (c'est a dire janvier) in Nantes.

I love these stories about cooking for large numbers and having to deal with severe limitations in space, equipment, and, of course, cash. This is part 1.

Another exciting event from late January (oh man I’m so far behind in my writing it’s pathetic) was “The Last Supper” that we held in honor of Toby. Since I am known as the “guy who cooks,” I was given the responsibility of organizing everything food related, a task that I actually looked forward to since every now and then I like the challenge of cooking for a big group of people.

On the menu I planned to have:

1. Various hors d’oeuvres (olives, stuffed mushrooms, crudités etc.)
2. Boeuf Bourguignon served with tartiflette (scalloped potatoes with cream, lardons, and topped with reblochon cheese)
3. Salad with smoked salmon and a lemon vinaigrette
4. Cheese plate
5. Dessert

In addition, there would be an aperitif, a kir—an aperitif very popular in les pays Nantais that consists of six parts white wine with one part crème de cassis—, red wine to accompany the boeuf bourguignon, and then a white wine to go with the fromages and dessert. We were expecting about fifteen people and to complicate things even further, we wanted our budget to average out to less than 7€ per person. Have no fear, Frugal Son is here!

I did a quick tour of MarchéU, the little neighborhood grocery store about 100 meters from my dorm where I do most of my shopping, to get a rough idea of how much everything would cost. I planned on doing all the final shopping at Leclerc, the soulless mega store on the outskirts of Nantes, because I figured doing my shopping there would be about 20% less expensive than buying everything at MarchéU. The grand total after my tour of MarchéU was 110 euros, or 7.33€ per person, so we were well on track to come in under-budget. I did most of the shopping the day before the meal—we had reserved the foyer for Thursday the 28th—and Leclerc was even cheaper than I had planned especially for the more expensive meal components, specifically meat and cheese. The morceaux de boeuf pour mijoter were nearly half as expensive per kilo, which was fortunate since I ended up needing almost twice as much meat as I expected. The quantities I purchased were absolutely ridiculous: 2.2kg (5 pounds!) of beef, 1kg of onions, 1kg of carrots, 5 liters of red wine, 2 liters of white wine, 600g of smoked salmon, 1.5kg of mushrooms, 750g of reblochon cheese, and the list goes on. After the “starring” ingredients of the meal, I still had to get all of the things for the supporting roles: flour, bouillon cubes, potatoes, cream, garlic, multiple kinds of cheese for the cheese plate, lettuce (three kinds), lemons, jambon cru (cured raw ham), olives, vegetables, salad dressing, butter, and there are certainly things that I’m forgetting to list; it suffices to say, however, that I bought a lot of stuff and my room—this was BC, Before Cleaning—so my room really was like a war zone and with the addition of all the ingredients, it was nearly impassable.

On Thursdays I finish relatively early, around 15:30 and went straight back to the dorm to start cooking. The task of cooking for so many people is daunting enough in and of itself and the difficulty was magnified by the fact that I would be cooking with limited cooking supplies, both in quality and quantity. I personally have: one non-stick frying pan, one small pot with a handle, one medium pot with a handle, one enormous pot, one good knife, one cutting board, and various plastic cooking utensils (spatula, spoon, etc.). When everyone left last semester, I took all of the things they were going to leave behind and so I’ve stockpiled easily the best inventory of cooking utensils in the entire residence. My friends have various small pots and pans but there are only six heating elements per kitchen and often several of them are used by other people (who dare to cook at the same time as me!) so I have a very, very limited field of operations.

I started my Herculean task by chopping up the vegetables for the crudités (celery, carrots, bell peppers) while at the same time, I boiled 2.5kg of potatoes. I started off working by myself but fortunately people began to trickle in and give me un coup de main. I went down to the acceuil to get the key for the foyer and when I went to check it out, I realized that there was in fact NO OVEN, just a large metal box under the stove that looked like an oven. After turning on the stove, I also realized that it was completely non-functional. So, instead of doing the cooking in the foyer like I had planned, we had to change our tack; all of the cooking would be done upstairs and we would then bring everything downstairs just before starting to eat. Aye yi yi what a nightmare. In place of the tartiflette, I decided to make purée aka mashed potatoes with the cream and boiled potatoes so once the potatoes were done cooking, we mashed them up and put them off to the side in a giant Tupperware container. I had hard boiled 15 eggs at the same time that I boiled the potatoes so after setting them aside to cool for a bit, Floh and I began to peel them in preparation for the deviled eggs. I explained to Floh and Theresa how to prepare the filling for the deviled eggs and, entrusting them to the task, I started preparing the boeuf bourguignon. To start, I rolled the pieces of meat in a mixture of flour, salt, and pepper and then put them into hot oil. I had over 2kgs of meat (about 5 pounds!) so needless to say it was tough to do! I ended up using both my giant pot (quickly washed after boiling the potatoes) and my skillet and even so the meat was crowded so the flour didn’t brown as nicely as it should have. In spite of the inadequacies of the kitchen and my equipment, I pressed ahead as best I could. After browning the meat, I removed it from the pot and skillet and added the carrots, onions, and celery, which I had already cut beforehand. I lightly browned the vegetables as best I could and then re-added the meat and enough water to barely cover everything. It was at this point that I added some beef bouillon cubes (cheating and blasphemy, I know), a few cups of wine, some crushed cloves of garlic and some herbes de provence. I suppose this isn’t a classic boeuf bourguignon but tant pis, it’s good anyway. Now, I brought it to a simmer and just left it to cook while I started doing other things.

Theresa and Floh had done a good job with the filling (in addition to mayonnaise, salt and pepper they had also added some finely chopped cornichons) and so now we started stuffing the filling into the deviled eggs. We even had some paprika on hand to sprinkle on top and make everything pretty! Then, I started working on the stuffed mushrooms which, without the oven, were going to require some creativity. To make the filling, I took the stale ends of baguette I had been saving in my room and crushed them up as best I could with the non-sharp edge of my big knife to make some bread crumbs to which I then added some chopped up garlic. Next, I washed the mushrooms and de-stemmed them, setting the stems aside to chop up and add to the stuffing. I added the chopped mushroom stems to the skillet with a bit of olive oil and let the water cook out before adding the bread crumbs, garlic, some salt, and herbes de provence. While all of this was going on, I kept checking back on the boeuf bourguignon, which was contentedly gurgling away on a back burner far away from the main action, adding a bit of wine or salt depending on how I felt the taste was developing.


Duchesse said...

No oven when you think you have one- nerve wracking. Good man, press on regardless. You have left my stomach growling- and in a knot.

The great thing about boeuf bourg is that you can take a lot of liberties, it's a recipe with various interpretations.

simple in France said...

Cooking when not at home (in an unfamiliar kitchen with slightly different ingredients) is always a challenge. Also there's that damn metric system. I find myself using actual cups and actual spoons to measure things here rather than convert to metric. Sigh. Can't adapt.

But the tartiflette is a great dish for winter and for large numbers of hungry people. Yum!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse-The oven part was the nervewracker for me too. Also the 5 flights of stairs to bring stuff up and down.

@Simple--I visited a student in Italy a few years ago; she asked us to bring her plastic measuring cups and spoons (and dental floss).