A French Kitchen is Full of Shortcuts

Recently, I relocated from London to Paris with my family.

The old chestnut, ‘tired of London, tired of life,’ could not have been truer. I was tired. Really tired. F*cking exhausted.

After 2 years in the world of Covid, taking Zoom calls from my bedroom dresser-turned-desk, spending more time with my dear husband than either of us had intended when we’d said ‘I do,’ a pregnancy, and getting to grips with newfound parenthood as an expat couple, I welcomed any change of pace.

Paris immediately felt more relaxed. Within days of arriving, I didn’t stress over steering my massive pram down the street or fighting for a spot in the queue at the supermarket. I enjoyed reasserting my humanity by making eye contact and saying ‘bonjour‘ to strangers, and, for the first time months, I was prompted to prepare a real meal.

The preceding months were filled with a fair share of ready meals and take-outs, throwing together a sandwich if I really felt like getting creative. I made sure the fridge was stocked with yogurt and that we were never without bananas, to at least encourage that whole ‘balance’ thing. I’m a healthy eater. I love my veggies and fish and whole grains and all of that stuff. I was just a tired mom. A tired human.

So, there I was in the kitchen. I grabbed a couple of bowls and added some random market veggies I’d previously sliced into kid-friendly pieces and steamed. I threw in some leftover salmon and some quinoa for substance. Finally, I mixed some mashed avocado with yogurt and the juice from a remaining lemon wedge to make a sort of ‘dressing.’ 

It took me all of 10 minutes. 

Bringing the dish to the table, my husband joked, ‘it looks like a French poké bowl.’

French poké bowl for two

He was kind of right – I grew up in the US, where ‘salad’ is usually an enormous bed of leaves with cold cukes and tomatoes thrown in, a bit of protein, and a hefty coating of dressing. As ‘tossing’ is often part of the preparation, there’s no dipping or combining flavours as you eat. Whether good or bad, each bite tastes the same. When I lived in the UK, I found much of the same case, though with different flavour combinations (note to self: never got to try the classic tuna-sweetcorn-mayo combo…pity).

***

After a month in Paris, I could enter the supermarché without being overwhelmed of its newness, and leave without wondering where the past hour went (I only needed 2 things, damnit!). I’ve became more familiar with the products at my disposal, and look forward to getting my produce on our local market day twice a week. And so, my French poké bowls levelled up even more.

The French, with all the glory of their culinary tradition, are pragmatic cooks at home. They’ve figured out what’s worth spending time on, and what’s worth a shortcut. The average French meal – the type you’d find in one’s home, not a brasserie – is simple.

No one is baking their own bread or spit-roasting their own chicken, because they know where to get it from someone who does it well. A chain store, Picard, only sells frozen food, from stews to pastries. It is damned good and damned popular. In the supermarché, there are several prepared salads of grated carrots, beans, and cubed beetroot dressed in vinegar and mustard. There are pouches of prepared quinoa and lentils à la microwaveable rice, flavoured with herbs and vegetables and cheeses. If you search for salad dressing, it’s either olive oil, balsamic reduction, or a vinaigrette à la moutarde – things that flavour a dish without overpowering its ingredients. Entire aisles are stocked with so many jars of ratatouille that I wonder if any French person has ever actually made the dish from scratch. Perhaps, it’s not worth it.

Culinary shortcuts, avec plaisir

Maybe the true joy of food culture is not spending hours in the kitchen to have a reliably good meal. Maybe, it’s to make that reliably good meal with as little fuss as possible, and maybe, more importantly, to have the time to share that meal with someone.

I haven’t ordered take-out or eaten a meal away from the table in months. Much like wearing sweatpants in Paris, it feels wrong. Better yet, I’m enjoying sitting down with my family and helping my 7-month-old daughter discover the true joy of food through a variety of flavours…whilst hiding the pâtisserie for myself. For now.

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