A Cooking Class with Patricia Wells
Patricia Wells has made her home in France for more than 25 years, and as the food critic for the International Herald Tribune and the author of cookbooks and traveler's guides, she has opened the door to the country's fabulous restaurants, markets, and specialty shops to countless food lovers from around the world. Wells is a friendly, elegant woman whose easygoing style helps to make the too-often intimidating topic of French food eminently approachable. She came to New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's to demonstrate favorite recipes, some gathered from the chefs of Paris and some born from her own Provençal farmhouse kitchen.
About Patricia Wells and The Food Lover's Guide to Paris
An intrepid culinary explorer and leading authority on French cuisine, Patricia Wells can be counted on to ferret out wonderful unknown gems and to offer the most thorough and reliable information on the famous gastronomic destinations. She's the author of several award-winning cookbooks that explore the cooking of France from haute cuisine to simple bistro food to home cooking Provençal style, but for anyone who longs to experience the food of France at its source, her two guide books, The Food Lover's Guide to France and The Food Lover's Guide to Paris, are indispensible.
Wells has just released the fully revised and updated fourth edition of The Food Lover's Guide to Paris, for which she revisited the more than 450 restaurants, bistros, cafés, markets, and specialty food shopslisted.She dropped those that had declined in quality since her last visit and added more than 100 wonderful new places. To her amazement, Wells testified, "prices were actually lower in many places than they were at the time of the last update in 1993." Still included and more essential than ever are the detailed French/English food glossary and the indices of restaurants organized by price range and by special features like outdoor seating or service on Sunday. Also unchanged is Wells's ability to bring the reader into the the heart of this food lover's paradise through her wonderful anecdotes, historical notes, and insider's advice. The book contains several dozen recipes, but look for more in a forthcoming book that Wells expects to publish next fall, a Paris cookbook that will offer what she calls "a modern history of Parisian cooking" with recipes that have been gathered at the markets, inspired by special dishes at food shops, learned in chef's kitchens, and collected over Wells's 25 years as a Parisian.
About the Menu
We started with a glass of lovely dry Taittinger Brut La Française champagne poured from celebratory magnums, accompanied by wonderfully aromatic almonds tossed with hot olive oil, sea salt, and thyme leaves that Wells first tasted at a café on the shores of the Mediterranean. The Provençal nibble typified what Wells considers one of the central tenets of good cooking: "What grows together goes together." Next came one of the freshest and most flavorful salads I can remember tasting, inspired by a spring special on the menu at the famous turn-of-the-century Paris bistro Benoit. Tender asparagus, snow peas, and thin haricots verts, each perfectly blanched and sliced on the diagonal into bite-size pieces, were tossed with tarragon and chives and a light coating of a simple vinaigrette made with walnut oil and lemon juice.
The salad's perfect balance between the character of the individual ingredients and the well-seasoned whole was achieved by following what Wells described as a very important part of French cooking, taking "the little extra steps that, put together, make a big difference." In this case, blanching the vegetables separately and icing them immediately, handling them delicately, and cutting them properly made for a slightly more labor-intensive but indescribably wonderful dish. A complex, slightly floral, rich Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc stood up particularly well to the salad's green, herby flavors.
After the salad we had a robust leg of lamb that had been marinated in a mix of coarse-grained mustard, ground hot red pepper, yogurt, thyme, bay leaves, and garlic, then seared to brown the outside and roasted to perfect pinkness, a Basque recipe from one of Wells's all-time favorite Paris bistros, Au Bascou. The rosy slices of lamb expertly carved by Wells's husband, Walter, who demonstrated his technique for the class were served alongside flavorful white beans cooked to tenderness with garlic cloves and sage leaves and flavored with coarse-grained mustard. A fruity, peppery, full-bodied Domaine de Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a wonderful accompaniment.
. We finished with a delicate and surprisingly simple raspberry, almond, and vanilla tart made with sheets of phyllo dough layered and baked with a buttery almond cream filling then topped with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.
Tips from Patricia Wells
Wells says that one of the most frequently asked questions in her cooking classes is about different types of salt. She's a firm believer in using good sea salt "When you use ordinary salt, your food tastes salty. When you use good sea salt, it tastes seasoned" but she recommends using the pricey fleur de sel, the "in" ingredient of the moment, only for last-minute seasoning. The delicate, pure, highly flavorful salt is hand collected and represents less than 1 percent of the sea salt gathered in the north of France, and its unique character lends a special accent to food.
Wells says taking special care with ingredients, something she learned about in the kitchen of legendary chef (and the subject of Wells's book Simply French) Joël Robuchon, really does make a big difference in the quality of the finished dish. This is especially true of green vegetables, and Wells's techniques for blanching illustrate how paying attention to each step can pay off. First, she recommends using water that is "so salty you can't stand to taste it" it won't make the vegetables salty, it will make them taste seasoned, and it will help preserve their fresh colors. Next, never cover the pot as they are boiling acids that can make the vegetables bitter will escape from an uncovered pot, and again the colors stay brighter. And always plunge the vegetables immediately into ice water as soon as they reach the perfect tenderness this is easy to do if you use a pasta pot and transfer the vegetables right into the ice water in the built-in colander. And if you can afford the time, it helps to preserve the individual character of each vegetable to use fresh boiling water for each ingredient. If you decide to reuse the water, then be sure to blanch the mildest vegetables first and the most strongly flavored last.
For many people, the challenge in cooking is just getting started. Wells's advice: "Make a list of the ten things you most love to eat, and start with number one. Perfect that dish, and make it until you're satisfied that you've got it down, until your family says 'No, not again!' Then move on to number two. And then at the end of a year, or two years, or however long it takes, you'll be able to make your ten favorite things perfectly."
When you're entertaining, don't try and do five really great things. "People come to see you, and it's much nicer if you can be a guest at your own party," she says. So why not just do one or two really great things, and maybe buy a dessert and keep the rest simple? And don't feel compelled to try something new every time: "Have the confidence to become known for something," Wells says. It's wonderful when people look forward to a particular dish you're very comfortable making each time they come to your home.
Kate Murphy Zeman