When it comes to a culinary connection, French food is Ellen Picardy’s first amour. Picardy creates delicious dishes in her Leawood kitchen for friends and family, which includes Jack, her husband of 35 years, and daughter Erin, who teaches English as a second language in Prague.
Jack’s foreign service in Paris, as a State Department employee at the American Embassy 24 years ago, fueled the family’s love of food. “Erin was only 3 years old when we first moved to Paris,” Ellen says. “I still remember Erin’s wide eyes after her first taste of chocolate mousse, but learning how to cook in Paris was an eye-opening experience for me, too.”
Q: It seems like Paris is the place where you fell in love with food.
A: It was a magical time in all of our lives. I would never compare myself to Julia Child, but she attended Le Cordon Bleu, when her husband, Paul, worked for the U.S. State Department in Paris, so I thought I would look into attending the school for myself.
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Unfortunately, attending Le Cordon Bleu was cost-prohibitive, and bringing Erin to my classes would not have worked out anyway. Instead, we found a chef — coincidentally named Julia, as well — who agreed to give cooking lessons in my Paris kitchen.
Before we even started cooking, we shopped, and I learned about food by visiting fromageries (cheese shops), butchers, bakeries and patisseries (pastry shops). It was in Paris I bought the copper pans I still use to this day, and it was there I learned that one needs the right equipment and best ingredients in hand before you can begin to cook.
Q: What were your in-home cooking lessons like?
A: The chef had nothing written down in the form of recipes; I had to learn techniques. I still have my notebooks in which I would scrawl ingredients and instructions as quickly as I could. Erin would draw on the pages and dictate her own recipes to me. I treasure these notebooks, because it was an idyllic time in all of our lives, as told through the food.
Eventually, other people came into my Paris kitchen, each bringing wine and a baguette, to take cooking classes. We couldn’t afford to eat out, but we were eating some of the best food prepared in my kitchen.
Q: Generally speaking, do you think Americans and the French have differing foodie philosophies?
A: I think both recognize delicious food, but where the two cultures differ is in food portions. Americans tend to think “more is more,” but the French don’t need large quantities of food to feel satisfied. The French also take a long time to eat; people aren’t rushed, and children are taught to appreciate food and are generally more content to sit at the table during dinner.
A potato-leek soup, then a salad, would follow this salmon dish, which I would serve as a first course, and dinner would end with a fromage or cheese course and dessert. There is a variety of food, but it is never served in large quantities. In France, you are encouraged to savor the food in front of you.
This salmon recipe isn’t swimming in beurre blanc sauce. Instead, you get some wonderfully flavorful spoonfuls that have been reduced to yield a concentrated flavor. This reduction technique takes extra time, but it is a lesson that has been carried throughout my cooking when making sauces or gravy.
Q: Do you have any words of wisdom to impart for those who want to cook like the French but can’t afford to live in Paris?
A: The French treat food and the process of preparing it with the utmost respect.
I’m a real estate agent, and my clients place great importance on the functionality of the kitchen when it comes to purchasing a home. People want a kitchen with an open floor plan, so people are invited into the experience of preparing and sharing food. Many are looking for gas cooktops with large range hoods, which shows people are really cooking in their kitchens, too.
Invest in the best equipment you can afford — a good set of knives that you keep sharp, a saute pan, saucepan, Dutch oven and stockpot — these are all important tools. When preparing ingredients, take your time and learn knife skills. Cut similar ingredients the same size so that they will cook uniformly and finish with an appealing plate.
Mise en place — or “set in place” — is a French term for having all your ingredients prepared and measured before you start cooking. Also, all of your tools, mixing bowls and equipment should be set out.
Even though it is a lot of work on the front end before cooking even begins, using this technique helps a dish come together quickly. For me, the secret to preparing a wonderful dish is in the shopping and the chopping.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Steamed Salmon and Vegetables in Parchment Paper or Papillote de Saumon à l'étuvée e legume
Makes 4 servings.
For the salmon:
6 tablespoons butter, divided usage
2 large carrots, peeled and julienned into 1 1/2-inch lengths
2 large mushroom caps, cleaned and julienned into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 sweet onion, peeled and julienned into 1 1/2-inch lengths
4 (4-ounce) salmon fillets, skin removed, and cut into thirds
1 teaspoon salt, divided usage
1/2 teaspoon pepper, divided usage
12 fresh tarragon leaves, divided usage
1 shallot, minced and divided into 4 equal portions
1/4 cup dry white wine, divided usage
For optional beurre blanc sauce:
2 medium tomatoes
1 lemon, freshly squeezed
1 cup water
2 shallots, minced
1/4 cup softened butter, cut into tablespoons
10 fresh tarragon leaves, cut into a chiffonade
To prepare salmon:
Cut 4, 15-inch squares of parchment paper. Fold each sheet in half and, using a scissors, cut out a half-heart shape. Set aside. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat on stovetop. Add carrots, mushrooms and onion to pan and sauté until vegetables are just tender. Take off heat and allow to cool. Drain off excess liquid and divide vegetables into 4 equal portions in pan.
Place 1 heart-shaped piece of parchment paper on a large baking sheet. Place 1 portion of vegetables on right side of the heart-shaped fold. Top with salmon fillet cut into 3 segments, and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Top fillet with 1 tablespoon butter, 3 tarragon leaves, 1 portion minced shallot and 1 tablespoon wine.
Fold left side of parchment over salmon and, starting at the top of the “heart,” fold edges together, twisting paper together at the bottom to create a sealed packet.
Continue process with remaining salmon fillets. Place all sealed packets on baking sheet and bake for 5 to 7 minutes, or until fish is firm and opaque in color.
Place packets directly on dining plates and allow diners to each open their individual packets before eating.
To prepare optional beurre blanc sauce:
Make tomato concasse by first coring the tomatoes, then scoring the bottoms with a small “x” using a sharp knife.
Using tongs, carefully lower tomato into a pot of boiling water for 10 seconds. Remove tomato from boiling water and plunge immediately into ice bath. Repeat process for remaining tomato.
Peel skin off tomatoes and quarter. Remove seeds from inside tomatoes and compost tomato seeds and skin. Finely dice tomato flesh and set aside.
Bring lemon juice, water and shallot to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 5 minutes, or until shallots are translucent and a thick syrup coats the back of the spoon.
Reduce heat to low. Whisk in butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until thick and smooth. Remove from heat. Stir prepared tomatoes and tarragon into sauce and spoon sauce over prepared salmon, if desired.
Chef’s Note: For a chiffonade cut, stack leaves and roll tightly like a cigar. Cut rolled leaves crosswise into thin strips.
Per serving, without beurre blanc: 325 calories (61 percent from fat), 21 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 106 milligrams cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 799 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Per serving, with sauce: 446 calories (67 percent from fat), 33 grams total fat (19 grams saturated), 137 milligrams cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams protein, 923 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.