September 4, 2009

Come Over for Dinner

Putting on a dinner party seems daunting, but it gets a whole lot easier when you have the helpful french merchants to help you plan it. We decided we would have a dinner, and that I would cook. We had had people over on previous occasions, but not at the current 17th arrondissement apartment. Because the Marais apartment is used primarily as a vacation rental, it isn't set up all that well to cook. But the place we're in now has someone living in it full time and so there were actually lots of pots and pans and utensils.

Ultimately, this meant instead of roast chicken from the butcher I was going to make a real dinner. Cook, in fact.

I decided to make magret de canard aux peches -- duck breast with peaches. Now Paul always gets nervous when I make something for guests that he hasn't seen me make before, (I think I'm a pretty good cook, he is occasionally skeptical). But I have made this before, it was just a long time ago, and in my own kitchen with a gas stove and an oven I knew well.

First stop was the butcher. Going to the butcher here is actually a pleasure, rather than a chore. You tell the butcher what you want, and then you can ask for little tips. How long should I cook it? Do you think it's better to put it in the oven or in a pan on the stovetop? And the butcher is always happy to oblige. 14 minutes he said. 7 minutes each side -- whether in the pan or under the broiler. It's my choice, he said -- no difference. That alone would have been helpful. Then, I asked him what he though I should serve as a side dish. I said I had planned to serve it with peaches and he said are you going to use butter to cook them? Of course, I said (although last time I think I cooked them in some of the duck fat). Well, he said, then you don't need anything else. Another side dish would be too much. The peaches were sufficient.

And then, the ultimate. He prepped the breasts for me. I was a bit concerned at first, because it was a straight butcher and not a bird butcher. So he didn't specialize in duck breast, but more in beef and porck. Thus, the duck came prepackaged. But he took them out of the package, cut off the excess fat while leaving plenty to cook with, then scored the fat twice and showed me how to slice it when it was ready. I was just so pleased that he'd done all the hard work. In the end, all I had to do was get it cooked -- whether in the oven or in the pan. My choice, of course.

(A side note here. Those of you who have had roast duck, perhaps in a Chinese restaurant, know there is very little meat. The difference between a magret and a fillet -- both are breast meat -- is that magret comes from ducks fattened to make foie gras. Thus, the breast is very large -- the size of a good-sized chicken breast, in fact, and very meaty. Duck is more like red meat than like poultry.)

The we went to the wine store. I told the owner what I was serving, and asked him to recommend a wine. He asked if I wanted a red and I said yes. Not too expensive, I added. He scanned his reds, thought a minute, then picked out a E4.50 wine and said "This one." He never tried to upsell me, or convince me to get something I didn't want. I asked him for something and he gave it to me. It's a neat trick, isn't it, to actually get what you want. Then I asked him if the E20 Champagne was any good. It was a few euros below all the others, and I was trying for something good but again, not too expensive. Oh yes, he said. That one is excellent. Again, no effort to make me feel cheap, or feel bad that I wasn't going for a big-name Champagne.

So far, the hardest part of the dinner was done. All the figuring out of stuff. I added some very nice cheese, including a Normandy Livarot made with Calvados, some great bread from the now-open bakery across the street (and it was still warm when we bought it!!) and knew we'd have a dessert from one of our guests. That's the other thing I've learned in France. I used to try to do all of it myself, and now, when someone asks if they can bring something, I let them. Usually a dessert, because that always seems like such a hassle.

In the end, we had a lovely meal, with very good company. We had two bottles of Champagne and three and a half bottles of red. We had a view of the Eiffel Tower through our floor-to-ceiling windows, one of our guests brought a marvelous Bourdeaux which we had with the cheese course, and we oohed and aahed over the darling tarts brought for dessert. (the lemon tart with lime shavings was amazingly good).

Life here can be incredibly civilized. I know in my heart it's impossible to duplicate this sort of thing in California, and believe me, I've tried. It just goes against everything in American culture. We don't want to linger over dinner, talk about non-work topics with our friends, invite interesting people over and see what happens. We don't want to drink too much wine, or drive too far to get where we're going, or interrupt our TV schedules.

And it's a shame.

In any case, life is different here -- even cooking dinner for friends -- for both good and ill. And as reluctant as I am to leave, I think I'd like to do it before my current love affair with Paris comes to an end; before we have our first inevitable fight.

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