Saturday, 29 June 2013

Pots and pans and Bruno's cocotte

It is presumably a sign of increasing age when one be ones excited by new pans. By which logic, I have already reached an advanced stage of decrepitude.

I have new pans - and not just any old pans, but a mix of Le Creuset and Mauviel. The former are wonderful - the latter makes me feel incredibly cheffy.

The old ones were dying. We'd had them for close to 18 years - not quite the 25 years of the guarantee, but not bad service. And particularly not given my early lack of any culinary expertise.

They were from an advert in a Sunday supplement and were paid for in three instalments. Before that, we'd already been through several pans, because we'd gone as cheap as possible.

We'd bought - and had to replace - more than a few basic pans; all from street markets and as cheaply as possible because that was what we could afford at the time.

Which brings me to a particular observation.

In the UK, good kitchen tool are more expensive than across the Channel. We first noticed this about five years ago, when we headed to Collioure for our second holiday - and our first self catering.

I was concerned that there wouldn't be any really decent knives. On the first two trips down there, we traveled via Perpignan, spending a night there before making the last, brief leg of the journey.

On the Saturday morning, we slipped into Galleries Lafayette and went to look for a basic cook's knife. And both of us remarked just how affordable good knives were.

It seems that, in France at least, a serious knife is not considered a luxury, to only be available at a luxury price.

That said, it's a philosophy that transfers to the UK market - at least a bit. My first set of knives, bought about 12 years ago were cheap and not of particularly good quality. Oh, they did okay for a few years, but they were very limited. And as my culinary skills improved, I felt a need for better tools.

Sabatier, I discovered, were actually a much better price alongside a range of much mor designery knifes - including the very costly Japanese ones that have been popularised by some celebrity chefs. It's not difficult to see a link in that.

A year or so later, I picked up a proper, heavy, copper omelette pan in Paris. It wasn't cheap, but if I harboured any doubts about the value, it was illustrated the first time that I used it - and it produced the best omelette I'd made. It makes jolly good pancakes too.

When I eventually - after a very deep breath - invested in a couple of Le Creuset pieces a couple of years ago (a seriously heavy casserole and a shallow one) again the difference was instantly noticeable.

Mind, I did read the instructions first to learn about how not to over blast them with heat - or stick them straight into water after cooking.

The old pans had long lost their conductivity - my earlier uses may well not have helped - and at least one was also now starting to leak as the base gradually started splitting from the rest.

So they have now been retired.

The replacements are the Le Cresuet saucepans with lids - 20, 18 and 16cm - and a 14cm 
Mauviel for serious sauce making.

All come with a lifetime guarantee. A lifetime. You're not supposed to ever have to replace these, but to hand these down to the next generation.

And that is craftsmanship and an investment.

It's also in complete contradiction to the prevailing attitude of goods being manufactured with a quite deliberately limited lifespan. Invest all you want, but in many cases, the whole idea is that you will have to buy - and buy again. Such is The Market.

But a glance online, at sites in France itself, revealed that they are all cheaper over there than here. Not cheap, but cheaper.

It seems to illustrate a culture where cooking is regarded as a luxury pastime rather than something that should be within everybody's grasp, and part of the nation's culture as a whole.

So, with spangly new pans on their hooks, what is first to be cooked in them?

Well, of course life doesn't really work like that.

And what the weekend brought was the chance to use kit that was already in the house.

First up, the shallow Le Creuset was used for a cocotte of summer vegetables.

A cocotte is actually what we'd call a casserole. In this case, I had been inspired by Bruno Loubet's new book to try his seasonal version.

For some weeks now, as the potager has grown increasingly green and lush, I've been wondering just how to use the produce I'm longing to harvest.

After all, you'd have to have a pretty sizeable plot in order to be able to harvest an entire, single portion of any one vegetable at any time. And most vegetables don't grow in the sort of synchronised way that makes that easy.

So far, I've had three pods of peas - and two tiny turnips.

Bruno's cocotte, on the other hand, takes care of this, as it's a dish of - in effect - what's available on any given day from your garden.

He describes, quite delightfully, how his father would return home from his own garden with a basket of various freshly-picked vegetables, presenting them to his mother as though they were the most beautiful flowers in the world.

And the cocotte allows you to use this variety of a produce in a single dish.

This first effort had little from the potager - but some. The two available pods of broad beans that have sped away from the rest. Thyme and bay came from the patio too, and I added a few young chard leaves to wilt at the end. In coming weeks, the proportion of homegrown crop will increase.

A cocotte also answers another question: what to do with a glut.

In Bruno's version, he includes radishes. 'Radishes?' you say. 'Cooked?' you say.

Well indeed. It's as alien to us as cooking endive or lettuce, but that's the sort of dirty tricks those Continental types play in the kitchen. But after all, how many radishes can you eat over a few days in salads?

And it's equally a great way to use up odds and ends.

My radishes aren't ready yet, so I picked up a bunch from the market, plus two small turnips, asparagus - the season isn't quite over - a bunch of young carrots, two of the thinnest leeks I could spot and fine beans. And went to work.

According to the recipe, you heat olive oil and pop in the root veg. Stir into the oil, season and add a clove of garlic. Lid the pan, turn the hob to its lowest, and leave for five minutes or until the carrots are al dente.

Actually, that took rather longer, so I may well not have got the oil hot enough to start with.

Then you add further vegetables, half a glass of water, and re-lid, but with a slight gap.

A few minutes later, the rest of the veg - you get the gist. At the end, a knob of butter, a spoon of cream and a squeeze of lemon.

Okay, it took longer that the recipe suggested. I added thyme and bay to flavour and, as mentioned, a few thinned-out chard leaves at the end, plus some large spring onion bulbs at the start.

It wasn't perfect - but it was the sort of first effort that means it won't be long before it's tried again.

It's funny that France has such a bad reputation for vegetarian eating, when it's also a country that arguably understand and appreciates veg far better than we do. This dish is an illustration of that.

To follow, we had filleted Dover sole, simply grilled and served with lemon. Fruit for dessert - with cheese, for me.

Good food doesn't have to be complex. But good tools most certainly make it easier to prepare - and they help increase the pleasure of cooking too.

And perhaps at least one of the new pans will get a run out tomorrow.

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