So you’ve followed my advice and thrown yourself a killer dinner party chez toi, reaped the appropriate glory and even tackled the washing up (ok, let’s not go too far). You wake up the next morning, still glowing from your culinary success, but that sad, leftover crustificating baguette sitting on top of the freezer somehow puts a downer on things. It just didn’t get to fulfil its breadly purpose, poor lamb.
You pick up the rigid has-been and gallop around your minuscule kitchen for a while sword fighting with the apron hanging on the back of the door, before your inner adult gets the better of you and you come over all frugal-like. It’s not a weapon. I am not a jousting knight from the Middle Ages. There’s a meal to be had here if I’m just bold enough to take the chance. And a damn fine one at that.
Porridge is all saintly and minimalist as breakfasts go, but nothing says decadence like French toast in the morning. Here it’s done pretty sweetly and simply in the classic dish pain perdu, literally translating as ‘lost bread’. It’s a recipe akin to food alchemy as you take an otherwise wasted castaway from an imminent mouldy demise and transform it into fluffy, sugary magnificence with just a few added ingredients.
If breakfast to you spells as much coffee as your veins can handle before a mad dash to the bus, you needn’t let the delicious second-chance magic of it all pass you by. Though in many parts of the world French toast is considered an a.m. delight, here in France it’s quite allowed to tuck in for afternoon tea or dessert instead. Though if you take a look at the ingredient list below you’ll see how much of your svelteness might be lost if you sample all three (click here for a guide to losing the kilos for free in Paris).
Chillin’ in the custard stage
Makes enough for one very hungry camper, or two people with more dietary restraint than me
4 slices of stale baguette (or 6 if it’s a skinny one)
15g vanilla sugar
grating of fresh nutmeg
dash of cream
knob of butter
Put everything except bread and butter into a shallow bowl and beat together to make a custard. Soak bread slices for ten minutes, making sure they’re covered on both sides. Melt butter in a pan and fry for about three minutes on each side. Serve with a dusting of icing sugar, fresh berries or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And a jog afterwards, obviously.
Sometimes there are just perfectly coordinated moments. When you hit your breakfast cup of tea like it’s your birthday the minute it reaches core temperature. Arriving at the bakery just as the baguettes come out of the oven. Getting a seat on a crowded metro in rush hour (and not ending up sitting next to someone with flailing elbows and a personal hygiene problem).
I feel like this is one of those moments. Summer has come back for a welcome September encore, which means it’s salad time once again just as the food-o-meter was swinging towards soups and stews. We’ve got the last of the tomatoes to dive into before they disappear until next year (because winter tomatoes are about as worth it as vegan cheese). And I’ve got a freezer full of dog ends of baguettes not eaten because we were having too much fun at the dinner parties I’ve thrown recently. That could only mean one thing. Panzanella salad.
As lovely as baguettes are – hell, it’s practically a French religion – the crusty darlings do have a major flaw in that they are at optimum tastiness for all of ten seconds before becoming a hardened bread stick baseball bat. Rather than mourning the loss of that tiny gnome-sized window of deliciousness, embrace the stale remnants as the inspiration for this easy-as-pie Italian salad.
Like many of the world’s best dishes, there isn’t a definitive recipe per se (every Italian reader is probably hitting the screen in violent disagreement with said rock-hard baguette right at this very moment), but there are must-have inclusions. Proper ripe tomatoes, and if you can find the coloured ones even better. Stale baguette (or ciabatta if you like) chopped into decent chunks. Olive oil, salt and pepper, red wine vinegar and basil. That’s the classic foundation, but there are plenty of different recipes that add other delights like capers, anchovies, peppers and cucumber, even olives. It’s really up to you.
The important thing is to get all of the flavours to make friends with each other before you serve it up. So get chopping and let everything mingle for a bit (half and hour to an hour should do it, just don’t let the bread get soggy). Great on its own if you’re eating light, or you can serve it with a nice piece of fish or steak, however the mood takes you. The picture up above is my attempt, see if you can’t raise the bar a bit higher. Game on (cooking, not baseball – haven’t you been listening?).
Now the French like to pour scorn on British food at every opportunity, turning their noses up at suggestions that it is actually quite good I think you’ll find, whilst extolling the virtues and sheer superiority of their home country’s equivalent. Yes yes, we know that French gastronomy takes some beating and that its worldwide reputation is as easy to bring down as it is the National Front party (ooh, political).
But you can forget your elaborate sauces and posh peasant food that takes blinking ages on the stove to get right (beef boring-yawn anyone?), there’s little the French enjoy more than a moment of sheer simplicity. The English might revel in a pair of teeth sunk enthusiastically in a cheese and pickle sandwich, but over here where it’s a case of ‘between two slices of bread’, only ham and butter will do.
You could be forgiven for thinking that to enjoy good food in Paris, you need to spend a fortune in an independent traiteur or delicatessen. Sure, you can pick up a nice basket-full of foie gras, caviar, vinegars that cost more per bottle than Chanel perfume, and bread with an eye-watering price tag. But one of the things I love about being in France is the unapologetic worship of the simplest foods on the pile.
The humble jambon beurre is nothing short of a national institution, revered almost as much as the baguette itself. It’s apparently eight times more popular than the hamburger, and those who have dined out in brasseries lately know just how ubiquitous those foreign imports are on every menu in town. And the growing national trend of the forsaking the traditional two-hour wine-lubricated lunch break in favour of desk-based dining, means that the sandwich is now the go-to midday choice, with the plain old ‘ham butter’ being the most popular choice.
But this isn’t a case of slapping the first piece of water-injected value brand ham into the margarine coated slot of a day old baguette. Even the simplest ingredients demand a connoisseur’s nose and to experience the humble dish at its very best some of that fancy AOC butter with salt in it goes down especially well, topped off with a slice of farmer’s market ham and a carefully chosen bio baguette.
And ta-da! A lunchtime luxury for a few euros that could knock a plate of foie gras right out of the park (baguettes as weapons and sports equipment coming up in a future 100 ways with a baguette post, I promise).