In stark contrast to Superbowl fare, the boyfriend's aunt cooked up a French feast for his cousin's birthday.
Once everyone had arrived, the evening began with some noshing. Uncle François popped open a couple bottles of champagne, which we drank liberally, while munching on green olives and flûtes au sel; light, flaky, savory bread sticks. This went on for about an hour as we stopped talking about our jobs and started telling jokes ; the noise level in the room steadily rose, laughter boomed and my ability to speak French skyrocketed.
Nice and red-faced we stumbled over to the dinner table.
Gambas (large Mediterranean prawns) in Flake Pastry with Mâche (Lamb's Lettuce)
Mâche is my favorite leafy green.
The lightness of the gambas and flake pastry was a great starter to the rich main course.
Hachis Parmentier aux Patates Douces et Canard
Duck and Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie
Eager reception of the shepherd's pie
This casserole is rich and delicious. I really liked the contrasting textures; the thick and juicy duck and the rich and creamy sweet potato was such an interesting match for my novice taste buds. The flavor contrast was exciting as well, with the slight sweetness of the sweet potato offset by the savory duck. This casserole was just a fantastic eating experience.
A note about the duck: In France, it is very common to buy canned duck confit in regular grocery stores. It's not too expensive and all you need to do is warm it up on the stove. In the USA it seems like one would either have to make their own duck confit or try and find canned confit at specialty stores or online.
Here is an easy duck confit recipe from simplyrecipes.com. Remember that for this shepherd's pie you will be removing the meat from the bone, so don't worry about the aesthetic integrity of the duck legs.
Marie-Noëlle's Duck and Sweet Potato Shepherd's Pie
- 4 medium-size sweet potatoes, peeled
- 1 cup heavy cream (or light if you want, but heavy is always tastier)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 2 lbs duck confit, with fat, removed from the bone and cut in pieces
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs, unseasoned
Preheat the oven to 350F (can be done after cooking the sweet potato)
In a large pan, place the sweet potatoes with enough water to cover them about halfway. Simmer over low heat for about 40 minutes. Marie-Noëlle says that this way the vitamins and sweetness of the sweet potatoes isn't lost.
Once the potatoes are mushy, transfer them to a large mixing bowl. Mash until creamy, and gradually add the cream and butter. Stir until smooth (a few lumps here and there is ok.)
If you're using canned duck confit, the duck is already cooked. Over a large bowl, pick the meat off of the bones. If you want, warm up the duck a bit in a pan over low heat. Though this step isn't necessary, Marie-Noëlle offered it to me as an option presumably after seeing the look on my face when she said not to cook or warm it at all.
In a large casserole dish, layer the duck and sweet potato making sure that the top layer is sweet potato. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly on top.
Bake for 1 hour
This dish is so rich and filling, but don't forget that you're also given many pieces of baguette throughout the entire meal.
A white Côtes du Rhône was first with the gambas and flake pastry
Followed by a red Bourgogne
The Cheese Course
From left to right: small pieces of goat cheese, cheese knives, roquefort, fromage Basque, camembert. Center: black cherry confit.
In France, no matter how stuffed you are, you eat cheese after your main course. Marie-Noelle fed us some excellent cheese that night, a hard Basque cheese served and eaten with tart black cherry confit, and an extremely delicious raw milk camembert, which is sold on a small straw mat (fromage camembert du lait cru de Normandie sur paille)
The tart cherry confit and the creamy, so slightly sweet Basque cheese was another fantastic matching of flavor and texture.
No French birthday is complete without some kind of decadent dessert. This time Marie-Noelle bought a Gateau Trianon, a 3-layer chocolate mousse cake with almond macaroon base, a second layer of crushed crepes and pralines and a top layer of milk or dark chocolate mousse dusted with cocoa powder.
I haven't made this since I don't have the facilities in this little closet I'm living in now. One day when I live somewhere normal I'll attempt it.