Several years ago, Bill and I drove around Provence in southern France for 2 weeks by car. Due to its geographical location in the Mediterranean, the climate is very similar to our Southern California: blue ocean, southing sunshine, scented lavender, golden sunflowers… The scenery is picturesque and beautiful. Many famous artists in history were attracted by the natural beauty of Provence: Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and many more left their footprints and countless art treasures in Provence.
The trip to Provence was mesmerizing, which made me have a strong affinity with French culture. Today is the French Bastille Day, variety of summer vegetables in my vegetable garden are abundant. I will take advantage of my own produce to make a French summer meal.
The following video is about 3 years ago while we were celebrating French Bastille Day at home. It is a good holiday in terms of cooking country French food.
Only 10 days after the US National Day, the French National Day is here. Last year, due to the Covid, we celebrated it alone. This year we will invite friends to have a French country meal. I believe that the entire France will also be immersed in a sea of joy after the 16 months of isolation!
Last year, in the ruthless reality of “out of control” dilemma, all agricultural activities, cooking experiments, and being nostalgic are good panaceas for relaxations and boosting positive energy.
Our French friend Charlotte passed away a few years ago. She was charming, passionate, romantic and fashionable Parisian woman. We miss her very much. Because of Charlotte, we’ve been celebrating the Bastille Day every year. Bill used to be a culinary expert, especially good at French cuisine. He has practiced many many recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Now I continue his tradition. Three trips to France made me fall in love with French culture and cooking. Because the climate of Southern California is very similar to that of Provence, our kitchen decorations are all French country style: pots and pans, vegetable baskets, and humorous cartoons are all hung on the wall.
In the light of the French Bastille Day,
Summertime, purple lavenders and golden sunflowers sway.
Chopped garlic and shredded onion, fluttering in virescent olive oil in play,
Sautéing chicken segments crispy while sipping a glass of Cabernet.
Green peppers, scarlet tomatoes, yellow zucchinis, violet eggplants, harvested in my vegetable estate,
Stewing into a delicious rainbow like ratatouille francais.
The sound of pots, pans, bowls, silverwares, creating a song of soiree,
The colors of oil, salt, pepper, spice, making a watercolor of Monet.
Bastille Day is the common name given in English-speaking countries to the national day of France, which is celebrated on 14 July each year. In French, it is formally called Fête nationale and commonly and legally le 14 juillet . The French National Day is the anniversary of Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a turning point of the French Revolution,as well as the Fête de la Fédération which celebrated the unity of the French people on 14 July 1790. Celebrations are held throughout France. The oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe is held on 14 July on the Champs-Élysées in Paris in front of the President of the Republic, along with other French officials and foreign guests (quoted from Wikipedia)
Of course, the summer dinners are always the highlight. In memory of Charlotte, we celebrate this French festival year after year. For me, a woman from Shanghai (to be called “Paris of the Orient”), I am very fond of the “French romantic life”. I was born and grew up in the charming French Concession. In my childhood, we moved from quaint “Happy Garden” on Hunan Road to exquisite Alley 31 on Urumqi Road; then from ivy vine covered French garden house on Lane 200 on Yueyang Road to the enchanting Lane 9 on Fenyang Road diagonally across from the campus of Shanghai Conservatory of Music. To me, French culture seems to be innate, because my father was very passionate about French food, he often took me to the “Red House” and “Swan Pavilion” (both were French restaurants) not far from our home) dining. Those French country soup, fried pork chops, potato salad, and chicken noodles etc. were memorable. When I was studying for my Ph.D. at UCLA, I chose French as one of my compulsory courses. During our 3 trips to France, I used my broken French to communicate with local people. I’m particularly interested in the vocabularies related to French food. During the epidemic last year, I started to regain my hobbies and have been using “Babble” to further study French.
The climate in California is really great, it’s cool in the morning and evening. Our summer “garden party” is always popular among our friends. Our golden retriever Gigi is also very hospitable, wagging her tail to wander among our guests.
Speaking of Gigi, our dog is also a French name, from the famous musical “Gigi” (1958).
The story takes place in Paris at the beginning of 20th century. The French girl Gigi lives at home with her grandmother Mamita. Gig is naughty and lively but cynical. Under the guidance of her grandmother, she entered the society circle. She met the single man Gaston. Gaston is very surprised that Gigi gradually changed from an innocent and casual girl to a graceful lady, and he fell in love with her. This 1958 film won 9 Oscars.
The French people absolutely magnify their 3 meals, treated them as important events of the day in spite of fastidious preparations. Our party guests and I used to be watching Bill preparing “Duck a l’orange”, it was a superb performance. Through the aromas of Grand Marnier, as spectators, our taste buds were stimulated while we were sipping the wine and sharing conversations.
During last year’s epidemic, all concerts had been cancelled, and many of our musician friends are experimenting new recipes, turning their kitchen into an “artist studio” and pouring all their creative inspirations into cooking.
Our Bastille Day’s menu is always a touch of country French that is in accordance with the seasonal vegetables in our garden:
1. Coq au Vin: a popular French country dish, a perfect dish for our taste palate. There are many versions, I have tried many versions, my favorite is Robert Carrier’s Great Dishes of the World published in 1967.
My experience is that there must be no rush and sloppiness in French cooking. Like embroidering, it must be as meticulous as possible. Carrier’s recipe is complicated, including burning Hennessy etc., but it is absolutely necessary, so that all the all the detail will be lingering on our taste buds.
Ingredients for “Coq au Vin”: chicken pieces, butter, olive oil, bacons, pearl onions, mushrooms, flour, salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, Italian parsley, Hennessy, red wine and sugar.
2. Ratatouille: For us in Southern California, this summer dish is a Mother Nature-sending gift. I have to say that almost all the vegetables and herbs are in are from my vegetable garden. Everything is in season. In addition, it is also an ideal vegetarian dish. We serve it in room temperature.
After trying different recipes many times, my favorite recipe comes from The Silver Palate Good Times Cook Book written by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, published in 1985.
Ingredients for Ratatouille: half cup of olive oil, 1 onion, 6 cloves of garlic, 1 large eggplant, 1 red bell pepper, 1 green pepper, 4 chili peppers, 2 yellow curved neck summer squashes, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, 24 cherry tomatoes and coriander leaves.
- On medium heat, pour olive oil and sauté chopped onions for 10 minutes.
2) Then add the chopped garlic and stir-fry for 5 minutes, add the cut eggplant and stir-fry for 15 minutes.
3) Reduce to medium-low heat and add red bell pepper, green pepper, chili peppers, yellow curved neck summer squashes, oregano, cumin and stir-fry for 25 minutes.
4) Add the entire 24 cherry tomatoes to the pan and stir-fry for 10 minutes
5) Finally, decorate the dish with coriander leaves.
The above two popular country French dishes on French baguettes are great! Charlotte once told us if guests wiped his (her) dinner plate with baguettes, it would be a compliment to the host.
3. Lemon tart
We just planted various new fruit which are still young and not bearing fruit yet. Right now the lemon tree is the only tree which is really fruitful. It is perfect to make a lemon tart. This recipe, I googled from William Sonoma, is cool, elegant, moisturizing and refreshing.
1 tart platter at room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Based on this whole set of French meal, the 4th movement “Coq au Vin and Ratatouille (French Bastille Day) of my Episodes During the Plagued Summer (2020) is about that kind of French spirit: “Since I came from the French Concession in Shanghai and had 3 trips to France, French cuisine has left a deep imprint in my memory. In this movement, the keynote is the brisk “Sous le riel de Paris” waltz, which is interspersed with the French national anthem Marseille. The inspiration for this movement came from our late French friend Charlotte. Every year on this day, I will make the same recipe to commemorate the charming Charlotte.”
Engaging in French cooking is an exquisite experience, every French meal is a festive activity itself, allowing people enjoy the art of gastronomy of eating and drinking. Thus friendship and affection are strengthened through beautiful meals. It is also fascinating to discover the food culture geographically and seasonally. I call French meal is a multi-movement symphony: 1) Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails; 2) Soup, salad and bread); 3) Main course (Meat, [or poultry, or seafood] starches and vegetables); 4) Varieties of cheeses and grapes; 5) Dessert and coffee; 6) After-dinner liqueurs.
After dinner, we sat in the garden. The persimmon-colored sunset disappeared in the west. The breeze was gently blowing. The mixed fragrance of lavenders, basils, corianders, and rosemaries, mints, etc were staggering, filled the air, we were sipping Grand Marnier… We share this special day with friends, the French romantic spirit lives.
We have mountains and seas here. The climate of Southern California is Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azul. The romantic atmosphere of the French Mediterranean is permeated. The roses in the summer are still blossoming like crazy, the fireflies are still flickering sweet messages of teaser, the starry night sky is still blinking with “eyes” connected to our hearts, we are lying on our floating “boats” in the swimming pool, carefree, reminiscing good memories, contemplating with wild imaginations, yearning for the arrival of miracles…