Food & Drink: High-speed haute cuisine: A stylish French meal in a matter of minutes? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. In the first of our two-part series for hosts in a hurry, Michael Bateman takes lessons in fast French

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I WANT to eat well, and I want to eat now. This might be the slogan of the contemporary home cook. The chill compartments of the modern supermarket pander to this wish, promising to take the waiting out of wanting. The food pages of many newspapers would not be complete without a recipe for an instant dish, a 15-minute gourmet treat or a triumphal 30-minute dinner-party menu.

And distinguished cookery writers such as Marie-Pierre Moine, just after she has delivered a lovingly crafted manuscript on granny's long, slow and patient cooking, Cuisine GrandMere, get a sudden call from the publisher: 'Hey, I've got a great idea, what about a book on cooking classic French food in five minutes. No? In 10 minutes, then.'

She said no, of course? In fact, she said yes and, teaming up with Henrietta Green, produced an instant hit, 10-minute Cuisine, which she followed up with Quick Cuisine (with Lewis Esson and Henrietta Green), and most recently Fast French. 'Fast French might sound like a contradiction in terms,' she admits. 'I accept that French cooking conjures up visions of slow-braising daubes and elaborate patisserie.' An understatement, surely. In Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the recipe for 'plain French bread' occupies 16 pages. Turning to chefs' masterworks, by Raymond Blanc or the Roux brothers, you wonder how you ever managed without your own personal vegetable cook, saucier and pastry chef.

But fast does not mean unauthentic. Marie-Pierre Moine would not deny her Gallic patrimony but she insists that there has always been a quicker style of French cooking represented by brasseries and cafes. That's certainly true: think of servings of grated celeriac in a sharp dressing, steaming bowls of moules marinieres, minute steaks with well-dressed green salad, followed by delicious ripe cheeses, and fresh or stewed fruit or a simple tart.

Marie-Pierre Moine was born in Paris, educated at Oxford and is married to an Englishman; she had no thought of pursuing a career in food but, inevitably, it was to her everyone turned for explanations of the mysteries of cooking. When Liz Glaze founded the food magazine Taste she appointed Marie-Pierre editor. 'It was then I realised that what everyone wanted to know was how to cook good food quickly.'

Marie-Pierre has a lot of sympathy for 'food cheats', people who give the illusion of having taken more trouble than they really have. There's no virtue in labouring long and hard if the results are terrible. 'But you must accept the limitations of fast cooking,' she says. 'You have to use top quality fresh ingredients because there is little time for radical improvements. Make the most of vibrant flavours, strong textures and fresh appeal. Don't be over-ambitious.'

Here are some tips for speedy cooks, followed by a selection of Marie-Pierre's recipes:

BUYING: Avoid the ready-to-eat cabinets and go for skinned and filleted fish, washed and cut vegetables and salads. Buy fresh young vegetables (not baby ones), but keep peas, spinach and broad beans in the freezer. Particularly useful are spring onions and shallots, with their milder-than-onion flavour. Most useful herbs: parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil.

It is a good idea to keep in the fridge lardons (thin strips) of smoked streaky bacon, thin slices of dry-cured ham, a chunk of saucisson (French cured sausage), a jar of pickled gherkins, a couple of unwaxed lemons, a bottle or pack of freshly squeezed orange juice, a piece of strong Gruyere or Parmesan and several fresh eggs. And in the freezer keep a packet of ready-to-roll puff pastry sheets and small quantities of stock (which you prepared when you weren't in a tearing hurry).

STAPLES: Rice and pasta are quick; pasta is the original 12-minute food. Couscous and bulgar wheat are other quick staples. Some tinned foods are essential: plum tomatoes, white haricot beans, green flageolet beans, tuna in oil, anchovy fillets and petits pois. Berry preserves are useful, as are bitter chocolate, slivered almonds, pine nuts and walnuts.

EQUIPMENT: Where would fast cooks be without a blender, creating instant soups and dressings? Non-stick pans are essential. The saute pan, a uniquely French concept which is halfway between a frying pan and a saucepan, is excellent for the cook in a hurry, the wide surface aiding evaporation of liquids (to reduce sauces rapidly). With its lid on, it speeds up the making of soups and fricasees (fried morsels of meat and poultry). Invest in a salad spinner to dry leaves in seconds, the well-dried, well-dressed green salad being the distinguishing mark of every elegant French meal.

COOKING TECHNIQUES: When frying, sauteing and grilling, always start with maximum heat, turning down as required. To poach, make sure water is boiling rapidly before adding ingredients, turning down heat as soon as little bubbles reappear. When simmering allow only small bubbles, or delicate ingredients will toughen.

De-glazing - the instant French sauce. First remove the meat or fish you've fried or sauted in a pan, turn up the heat and add a little acidic liquid (usually wine) - a few tablespoons go a long way - and mix with the pan juices. When you're ready to take it off the heat, whisk in a few knobs of chilled butter or a spoonful of cream, Greek-style yoghurt or fromage frais. Adjust seasoning.

MAYONNAISE

Golden rich mayonnaise is good served with assorted poached fish, cold meats, hard-boiled eggs, crudites and tiny boiled new potatoes. It is much more likely to emulsify quickly if all your ingredients are at room temperature.

Serves 4

1 large egg yolk

1 tablespoon French mustard

1 teaspoon red or white

wine vinegar

200ml/7fl oz groundnut oil

or 150 ml/ 1/4 pint groundnut oil and

3 tablespoons strong olive oil

few drops of lemon juice

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Put the egg yolk in a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper and add the mustard and vinegar without stirring. (If your ingredients are not at room temperature, cover with a very thin film of oil and leave to stand for at least 15 minutes without stirring.)

Wedge the bowl in place on a mat of dampened paper towels. Whisk the egg and other ingredients until well combined - I use an electric whisk but it can be done with a balloon whisk or even a wooden spoon and plenty of elbow-grease. Still whisking, trickle in a few drops of oil. As soon as the oil has blended into the mixture, trickle in a little more, still whisking.

Continue adding the oil very slowly a few drops at a time until the mixture thickens, then start pouring in a continuous thin trickle, still whisking, until the mayonnaise emulsifies. If you are using olive oil, start whisking it in once you have used up the groundnut oil. Carry on whisking until you have a glossy thick mayonnaise.

Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a few drops of lemon juice. Cover and chill until needed.

To make Garlic Mayonnaise: crush a large juicy garlic clove (more if you like) and add it to the egg yolk and other ingredients before whisking.

For a quick Rouille (the spicy Provencal mayonnaise, popular with fish soups): add a little crushed garlic and a dollop (no bigger than a hazelnut) of harissa (a chilli paste available from Asian shops and some supermarkets) to the ingredients before you start whisking. Whisk in two or three teaspoons of tomato paste once your mayonnaise has emulsified. Season with paprika or cayenne pepper.

HOLLANDAISE

MINUTE

This fast rendering of the classic sauce is a real doddle - but you do need a food processor. It is perfect with poached fish and asparagus.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

one large or 2 small egg yolks

about 150g/5 1/2 oz soft unsalted butter

sea salt

fresh ground black pepper

In a small saucepan, boil the vinegar with 4 tablespoons of water until reduced to about one tablespoon.

Whizz the egg yolk or yolks in a food processor until smooth. Tip in the reduced vinegar and whizz again for a few seconds.

Put the butter in the saucepan and melt over a very low heat. With the food processor running, trickle the melted butter into the yolk mixture. Whizz until the sauce thickens. Season to your liking with salt and pepper.

TARTINES

PROVENCALES

Serves 4

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 large spring onions both white and green parts,

chopped or snipped

1 garlic clove, crushed

4 slices of country bread

1 large ripe tomato, blanched and skinned

6 black olives, stoned and halved

4 anchovy fillets, drained (optional)

2-3 basil leaves

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the grill to high. In a small frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the spring onions and garlic and saute over moderate heat for 2-3 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. Brush one side of the bread with oil. Thinly slice the tomato, removing seeds and excess pulp. Spread the spring onion mixture over the bread and arrange tomato slices on top. Crown each slice with 3 olive halves and an anchovy fillet. Snip over a little basil, season and sprinkle with rest of the oil. Grill for a few minutes until bubbling hot and serve hot or warm with remaining basil snipped over.

SAINT-JACQUES

POELEES

Serves 2

1 garlic clove, halved

2 teaspoons groundnut oil

4-6 fresh scallops, cleaned and shelled

45g/1 1/2 oz chilled unsalted butter

cayenne

small bunch of chives (optional)

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Rub a frying pan with cut sides of garlic. Swirl in the oil and place over a high heat. Separate the orange coral from the white flesh of the scallops. Cut the flesh across into 2 discs if the scallops are large. Season lightly with salt, pepper and cayenne.

Reduce heat to moderate. Add a third of the butter. Swirl until hot. Before butter colours, add the white parts of the scallops and cook for 1 minute, stirring once or twice. Add the corals and reduce the heat a little. Turn over the white parts of the scallops and cook for another minute or so. Carefully turn over the corals after a minute and cook for another 50 seconds. Remove scallops from pan and keep warm.

Turn up heat a little. Cut remaining butter into pieces and add to pan. Swirl until melted. When lightly browned immediately lift pan off. Dribble hot butter over scallops. Season and snip over a few chives. Eat at once.

COLIN POELE

AUX CAPRES

Serves 2

2 cod steaks, each weighing about 170g/6oz

and about 2.5cm/1in thick

1 teaspoon flour

2 tablespoons oil, plus extra if necessary

2-3 anchovy fillets, drained and mashed

1-2 teaspoons capers, drained

about 15g/ 1/2 oz butter, plus extra if necessary

4 tablespoons dry white wine

1-2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons creme frache, soured or

single cream or fromage frais

few sprigs of fresh herbs (optional)

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

Pat the cod dry with paper towels. Season the flour with salt and pepper. Tip it into a fine sieve and dust the cod with this seasoned flour. Heat half the oil in a frying pan over a moderate heat. Combine the rest of the oil with the anchovy and capers and set aside.

Add half the butter to the pan and swirl until melted. Add the fish and cook carefully for 3-4 minutes over a moderate heat. To prevent sticking, slip a fish slice or palette knife under the fish and add a little butter.

Turn the cod steaks over and cook in the same way on the other side. Lift the fish from the pan and keep hot on warmed plates.

Turn up the heat a little. Add the anchovy mixture, stir and then pour in the wine. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Stir in the mustard, then the cream or fromage frais and adjust the seasoning.

Stir in the rest of the butter and dribble the sauce over the cod. Snip over fresh herbs, if using, and serve.

HARICOTS BLANCS

AU BEURRE

MAITRE D'HOTEL

Serves 4

55g/2oz soft butter

1 teaspoon lemon juice

several sprigs of parsley and a few chives

1 tablespoon white wine

1 teaspoon oil

450g/1lb tinned white haricot beans,

drained, rinsed and drained again

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

In a small cup, mash together the butter and lemon juice. Season generously with salt and pepper. Snip in plenty of fresh herbs. Moisten a wide saucepan with wine and oil. Add the beans and heat through over a very low heat. Scatter the butter over the beans and fold in until melted.

PECHES AU VIN

Serves 4

4 ripe peaches

icing sugar to taste

500ml/16fl oz medium or dry chilled rose

or white wine, preferably sparkling

few sprigs of mint, to decorate

small fresh macaroons, to serve

Bring a kettle of water to the boil. Put the peaches side by side in a saucepan. Cover with the boiling water and bring back to the boil. Leave to bubble gently for a minute or two over a moderate heat.

Lift peaches out of pan with a slotted spoon. Peel, cut in half and remove stones. Put each peach together again and place in a glass or coupe. Sweeten to taste with icing sugar, using a fine sieve. Cover with wine and chill. Put a sprig of mint in each glass and serve with small macaroons.

Recipes and pictures taken from 'Fast French' by Marie-Pierre Moine ( pounds 15.99 hardback, Conran Octopus).

Next week: Instant Italian

(Photograph omitted)

Comments