Sunday, March 24, 2013

Flirting, French-style

The port of Honfleur
A while ago I was guiding someone across the French countryside when she accused me of flirting.  Well, it wasn’t exactly an accusation; more of an observation.

     We were sitting at a sunny table on the harbor in Honfleur, a picture postcard fishing town in Normandy on the Atlantic.  The waiter, admittedly a good-looking man, was looking a bit tired after two hours on the job, and all I was doing was what the French call “huiler les rouages” (lubricating the gears).  In other words, making things go smoothly.  The sun was hot.  It was late to be seated.  We were hungry and wanted a real lunch, not just a sandwich in a cafe.  That waiter had every right to tell us the kitchen was closing.  He held our fate in his hands.  In such a social situation in France, that requires a smile or two, assorted with some gentle humor.
     The meal was delicious.

It’s a game, really.  Like chess.  (And don’t get me started on the chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”.  That was another thing altogether.)  You do this.  I do that.  And we both enjoy ourselves.
Mont Saint Michel
     Come to think of it, my tourist had already accused me of flirting the previous night in Mont St. Michel.  And the day before that in the Loire Valley.  She was obviously missing the point.

What is flirting?  Maybe it’s a concept young people won’t understand anymore because it’s not Politically Correct in an age of sexual harassment litigation.  But I come from the era of Doris Day movies when it was okay to flirt, and even socially admired, provided you did it well.   And with class.
     Maybe a better question is, “What isn't flirting?”  Flirting is not innuendo.  Innuendo means, “Well, I wouldn’t say no.”  Flirting is innocent.  At least on the Continent.  And that’s a relief.  You can be a woman; he can be a man.  (But it’s better if the woman starts, or as the French say, “announces the color”, a reference to bidding in bridge.)  Flirting should be harmless.  It should be light.  It should be appropriate.  And the situation should be one where you will probably never see each other again.  In fact, some of the most delicious moments are when you know you’ll never see each other again.
     Example:  When we got back to Paris, we were driving along near the Opéra when I saw a man crossing the busy street.  He saw my car and stopped in mid-lane.  I saw him, slowed and motioned him across.  He shook his head, bowed slightly and waved me through.  I smiled to thank him and as I passed he flashed me one of the warmest, broadest smiles I’ve ever seen.
     Looking over at my passenger, I discovered she was smiling back at him every bit as broadly.  She was flirting, too.
     That simple exchange of smiles warmed us for the entire day.  And that’s what flirting, French-style, is about.

Disclaimer:  This was originally written in 1999.  Things are changing.  Sexual harassment is starting to become a cause célèbre in France as well.  So maybe flirting is a dying art.  And maybe that's a good thing.  But personally, I have enjoyed every moment of it, every single stolen smile.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Recipe of the Month: oeufs cocotte

Clockwise from top left:  with foie gras, asparagus and caviar

Sometimes things sound better in a foreign language.  Sometimes they don’t.  I guess it depends on whether the mystery outweighs the pronunciation.
     Take, for example, the oeuf cocotte (pronounced “uff co-cut”).  That sounds strange.  Perhaps not mysterious enough.  It means “shirred eggs”.  And if you’re not sure what “shirred” means, it means baked.  So now we’re down to something simple.  Just plain baked eggs.
     Cocotte sounds so much more romantic.  Especially if you know that it’s a term of endearment, as in “ma petite cocotte, he whispered in her ear.”  And yet it also can mean a courtesan, a woman of “easy virtue”, but not a prostitute... which is an interesting opposition for one word.  A cocotte is also a large, heavy pot, usually cast iron, used for braising or slow-cooking.  Add “minute” and you have a pressure cooker, a cocotte-minute.  Or, if paper is involved - cocotte en papier - you have a bare-bones origami bird.  And to help explain that, let me add that in baby talk, a cocotte is a chicken.
     Back to eggs.  (I guess the chicken came first here.  Or did it?)  While a baked egg is proletarian and a shirred egg is high-fallutin, call it an oeuf cocotte and you’ll mystify your guests.  Add in something deliciously inventive and you’ll have them bowing down before you.  Truffles obviously come to mind here, or foie gras, or a dollop of caviar after the egg has cooled for a minute,  but we don’t have to go that far.  There are many recipes that make for a delicious, nutritious starter.  Or even a meal, if you use two eggs and accompany them with a side salad of mixed greens with vinaigrette dressing.
     So here’s the basic recipe, followed by a few variations.

For each individual portion:

  • 1 egg, as fresh as possible
  • butter
  • salt & freshly-ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C).
- Butter the inside of a ramekin.
- Crack an egg into the ramekin, being careful not to break the yolk.
- Place the ramekin on a baking sheet and bake on the middle rack for about 10 minutes, or until the yolk is set and the white has solidified..  (Some people like to sit the ramekins in a bit of water and use a bain-marie style cooking; in this case, they’ll cook a bit faster.)
- Because the ramekin retains heat, the egg will continue to cook after you take it out of the oven, so it’s better to undercook it slightly.
- Sprinkle with salt (fleur de sel is best) and freshly-ground pepper and serve.

For children, who love to play with their food, you can serve this with some mouillettes, bread “soldiers” that can be dipped in the egg.

And for added color, sprinkle some cut chives or parsley over the top.  Or a splash of paprika.

In the following variations, place the ingredients in the bottom of the ramekin (even up the sides  for sliced meats or asparagus) and crack the egg over the top, then add a bit of any cream (heavy, half-and-half, or even skimmed milk).  In all these cases, the procedure is the same, but cooking
time may be a minute or so longer due to the added ingredients:

Italian:  minced tomato, grated parmesan & minced basil
Tyrolean:  slice of tomato, small slice of prosciutto
Provençal:  minced tomato, goat’s cheese (in pieces or whole), with chives when serving
Greek:  spinach, feta cheese
Forestière:  sautéed mushrooms, small cubes of ham
Basque:  minced and sautéed bell pepper, a pinch of piment d’espelette*
Printanière:  cooked asparagus spears

*Piment d’espelette is made from small red peppers from the Basque country.  Not particularly hot (4/10), but very flavorful, it can be replaced by hot paprika or New Mexico red chile powder.  But if you’re planning to try other Basque recipes, such as piperade or chicken basquaise, you might want to splurge and buy a bit.

For reasons of photography, the foie gras was put on top after the eggs were cooked, but it should be placed in the bottom of the ramekin, as in the recipe above.  The caviar is the only thing that you would want to add just before serving, as also stated above.