I felt a foreboding lump form in the pit of my stomach. Being asked to cook any meal would have worried me, but I was given the assignment to prepare French food—one of the more intimidating culinary forms in existence. As someone who relies primarily on fast food for calories and never cooks anything more complicated than store-bought pasta, I knew I was in for a challenge.
My editor assured me I could call her and ask any questions, and my mom, whose cooking expertise I trust wholeheartedly, would do her best to help me avoid a major catastrophe. Still, my worries persisted.
In keeping with the Alibi's Resolutions Guide, the task was to overcome my fear of cooking. I'd do it by preparing a three-course French meal with recipes provided by the new cookbook New World Provence: Modern French Cooking For Friends and Family (Arsenal Pulp Press), written by husband-and-wife team of Vancouver-based French chefs Alessandra and Jean-Francis Quaglia.
The plan: Pick an appetizer, main course and dessert from the book's pages and make all three without creating a structure fire. Choosing my courses was no picnic—it seemed like everything was either too complicated (I didn't want to make my own dough), too exotic (escargot is not my bag) or too dangerous (flambéing bananas would have broken the "no structure fire" rule). After a few conferences with my mom, I settled on three dishes that seemed doable.
Because it was the most time-consuming portion of the meal, I started with dessert, a hazelnut brittle. I roasted the hazelnuts in my toaster oven instead of browning them in the frying pan (it seemed easier that way). After mashing the nuts into pieces with a juice jar, I watched with child-like amazement as a pan of heated sugar metamorphosed into clumps, then a super-hot brown liquid. Mixing in the nuts caused the liquid to harden almost immediately, and upon snapping a wooden spoon in half while trying to pat down the mixture, it was time to move on.
I chose roasted red bell peppers for the appetizer. The most difficult part of this dish was remembering to constantly check the peppers, turning them every so often under my oven's broiler. I chopped parsley and garlic, then attempted to peel the skin off the bell peppers, cut them into strips and get rid of the 85 billion seeds inside them. After mixing the ingredients with my bare hands (a surprisingly therapeutic part of the experience), I set the peppers aside.
Dijon-roasted chicken would be my next challenge. There was going to be a lot of stuff cooking alongside the chicken, including onions, garlic, white wine and something called demi-glace which, the book explains, is a sauce made with beef and veal stock. I accidentally minced the garlic instead of leaving the cloves whole—a huddle with my support team resulted in trashing half of the garlic to avoid overpowering the dish. (Another valuable lesson learned: Garlic becomes more intense as you process it.)
After cutting most of an onion with my eyes closed to keep them from burning, I went on to sear, sauté and simmer the chicken—although I was unable to distinguish between any of those words. New World Provence assumes terms don't need further explanation, so I had no idea what concepts like "deglazing with wine" meant. Even so, the short cooking directions were usually easy to understand and uncomplicated.
As I watched my family genuinely enjoying the Provincial French meal I spent all day preparing, I surmised that, while it can be tedious and difficult, cooking isn't impossible. My fear was replaced with a sense of accomplishment that will hopefully lead to further ventures into the kitchen and a healthier diet, or at least fewer junior bacon cheeseburgers.
1) Set oven to broil. Place whole peppers on a baking sheet and broil for about 25 minutes, turning peppers occasionally, until they are charred all over. Remove peppers from oven, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to keep peppers moist until they are cool enough to handle. 2) Peel away skin of each pepper, cut in half lengthwise, discard seeds and slice lengthwise into 1-inch strips. Return strips to bowl, add garlic, parsley, oil, salt and pepper. 3) With a spoon, or even better, with your hands, mix until ingredients are well combined. Check for seasoning and serve on a platter.
1) In a large frying pan on high, heat butter and oil. Add chicken pieces and sear for 5 minutes on each side, until golden brown (use extra oil if necessary). Reduce heat to medium and add salt, pepper, garlic, bay leaves, thyme and onion and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onions are lightly golden. 2) Deglaze with wine, stirring continually for 3 minutes, allowing liquid to reduce slightly. Add mustard and prepared demi-glace and stir to combine. Cover with lid, and simmer for about 40 minutes, turning chicken occasionally to cook evenly. 3) To serve, remove chicken breasts first and place in center of a platter, then place remaining pieces of chicken around breasts. Strain sauce into a serving bowl, check seasoning and mustard flavors, and adjust sauce as desired. Pour sauce over chicken or serve on the side.
1) Toast hazelnuts in an oven or toaster oven until their skins begin to crack. After they've cooled a bit, gently break the nuts into small pieces, being careful not to create too many crumbs.2) Heat the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir continually while sugar caramelizes for about 5 minutes, or until it turns a Cognac-brown color. 3) Remove from heat and stir in hazelnuts. On a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, quickly transfer the mixture, pat down, and let cool for about 2 hours. Break into small pieces and serve.