February 18, 2008

Good food ingredients in the U.S. ? Yes, they exist but you only will get what you pay for...

Story of a lost “ lapin chasseur”.

As you know, Stéphane, I too frequently complain, when I cook , that the results I obtain here are not as good as those that I get when I cook the same dish in France. The dish rarely reaches the same level of flavor and personality and too often turns bland. And I always add: ‘’It is because the ingredients are not as good as in France’’. Last summer, every time I went to shop for food, I was amazed when I bought various ingredients, like meat, chicken, eggs, cheese, and especially vegetables and herbs, how expensive they were compared to what I pay in Chicago. But when I cooked with them, it really smelled good in the kitchen, and when we ate them it really tasted much better. So, I would say to your mother: ‘’ Au moins, on en a pour son argent’’ (At least, what I got is worth what I paid for ’’). Anyway, as I told you a few weeks ago, since we have a really rough and depressing winter, I feel like preparing old French bistrot-type winter dishes, that are most of the time cooked in a sauce. As we say in France, ‘’ Des plats roboratifs qui tiennent au corps’’ (invigorating and filling dishes). And now that I have a ‘’cocotte-minute’’ (pressure cooker), thanks to you... Er... Santa Claus, it is less a time-consuming event to prepare them, even during the week. So, this week-end I had decided to do a ‘’Lapin Chasseur’’ (Rabbit stewed in ‘’hunter’’ style, meaning with mushrooms and wine). To me rabbit is the ultimate ‘’comfort food’’ and I have been an avid rabbit eater since childhood. To the point that for my Fiftieth birthday, I had asked my friend Yves Roubaud, who was the executive- chef at Shaws at that time, to prepare a provençal lunch for my friends and I, that would include a ‘’lapin à la provençale’’. That was 18 years ago, but I still have the exciting aroma of his rabbit on my taste buds. I have no idea where he had found that rabbit, but it was quite a tasty and meaty animal.
So, since a good fresh rabbit is very difficult to find in Chicago nowadays, and when you find it, like at Fox & Obel, it is so expensive that you give up, I went to this huge Korean super-market in Niles, where you not only find an amazing collection of fresh fish, shellfish, and mollusks, but also tons of frozen rabbit, for a ridiculously low price. Since it was only for your mother and me, I bought a small rabbit, barely 2 Lbs, for only 4.75 dollars, instead of the 18 dollars a fresh one would have cost me at Fox and Obel. . Problem is, it took a whole day to thaw, and like almost any rabbit that you buy in a U.S. supermarket, it had no head, no liver, no heart, and worse: no kidneys. Besides it was way too lean. The kidneys are very important because of the very white pieces of fat attached to them that gives a special taste to the sautéing.
I tried to ask a butcher where their rabbits were coming from, domestic or from some Asian country, but got only a very evasive answer from the giggling man who tried to tell me that they were American. Once my rabbit was defrosted, I had serious doubts that it was an American rabbit, since this poor anemic animal looked like it had been deprived of nourishing herb and carrots, and was probably the product of an industrial production chain. Some years back, I used to buy fresh American rabbits raised in Arkansas or Mississippi, that I found at Treasure Islands, and they were quite meaty and tasty, not as much as a ‘’Lapin du Gâtinais’’, but they were quite edible. Anyway, since the color of the meat was totally adequate, and it was smelling OK, I hoped for the best and decide to proceed with my initial cooking plan, that involved a simplified and quick formula. I cut the rabbit in 7 pieces, browned them briefly in a pan in a mix of butter and olive oil, while I was sautéing 2 chopped onions, 3 shallots and the “lardons” (small pieces of sliced thick-cut bacon) in the cocotte-minute. Then I added the pieces of rabbit, 2 pinches of dried thyme, a bay leaf, 2 cloves of garlic (diced ), 1 sliced carrot, and 1 small can of already cooked white mushrooms (what we call in France ‘’champignons de Paris’’), + one spoonful of tomatoe concentrate diluted in warm water. Then I covered everything with one and a half cup of dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc), and mixed in one Tb spoon of cornstarch diluted in warm water. After stirring everything , I covered the pressure cooker with the lid , turned the flame a little higher, and once the steam came out with a hissing sound from the safety valve, I cooked the dish for 20 minutes at relatively low heat. But when I opened the pot, I was quite surprised by the very limited amount of aroma that came out of it. I served the sauce, that looked like it should be, over farfalle pasta. The meat was very tender but totally bland and could not hold the comparison with my fresh rabbits of a few years back.  
What a disappointment. I think that the quality of the rabbit was at fault. And that I should have used salt pork instead of bacon. And that the dish would have been tastier if I had used fresh sliced mushrooms instead of the cheap generic can from Jewell that I bought in a hurry. And that a little flour instead of the diluted corn starch I used to go faster would have made a more unctuous sauce. After dinner I said to your mother: ‘’ After all, you get what you pay for’’. But we could not find an exact equivalent of this saying in French. So, the always biased me told her : ‘’ It is because in France the ingredients are much better’’. So, over there we say the reverse: ‘’ At least, what I got is worth what I paid for ...’’ Next time I will try to put to practice what I learned again for the 100th time last night Don’t be cheap with the ingredients. And if you cannot afford the right ones, cook another dish.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe it's the euros. Or the fact that buying ingredients to cook your own meals is so much cheaper than dining out. But I never seem to mind paying for food in France.

    The peppers we bought - and we bought a lot, because my husband and I love peppers - were twice as thick as those in the U.S. The tomatoes were tangier and firmer fleshed.

    You do indeed get what you pay for in France.

    Lately, I've noticed water is added to meat. I made Chateaubriand a while back and the meat decreased in size while it was cooking - much more than usual.