The best recipes are those which give maximum effect for a minimum of fuss, and among the most used cookbooks in my kitchen is Patricia Wells’ “Bistro Cooking,” published in 1993.
The recipes were gathered from small family restaurants all over France; easy, everyday dishes that have history and long experience behind them. Each recipe comes with Patricia’s notes on the restaurants where each was discovered, her own experience in making it, appropriate serving suggestions and wine.
I love the simplicity of the presentation – only a little over 20 years ago and as if from a different world.
Charming line drawings (no lush colour photos), the French name for each recipe just above the English one, little boxes filled with innovative serving or recipe ideas or food focused quotes, while the chapters follow one after the other like listings on a menu; Les Hor D’Oeuvres, Les Soupes, Les Salads du Marche, etc. on through to Les Desserts Maison.
And it was a dessert – an incredibly moist, almost mousse-like chocolate cake served by the caterers for a big family party – that originally led me to buy “Bistro Cooking.”
“Gateau au Chocolat Le Mas de Chastelas which Patricia describes as being from a beautiful restaurant near St. Tropez is one of two cakes that opens her chapter on homemade desserts and was so extraordinary that I begged for the source of the recipe.
In the end, I have made that cake only occasionally (although it is on my list to bake for a lunch this weekend) and it has been the main dishes that have been produced over and over, again and again.
Above all, “Estouffade Provencale” or Provincal beef stew – the Monday special at a traditional family bistro in Cannes, Patricia tells us. How great is a stew that you put into the pot to marinate in red wine on the first day, simmer slowly for several hours on the second day, and then reheat and serve on the third? Perfect for a big family lunch. All you need with it is a salad and lots of good chunks of bread. And maybe that amazing cake to finish.
Even simpler, useful (and much much quicker) is Chicken in Wine Vineger from Bistro d ‘a Cote or “La Volaille au Vinaigre de Vin Bistro d’A Cote” which Patricia “almost insists you prepare 24 hours ahead and then reheat it as it seems to improve with age.” The chef, Michel Rostang, serves it with a cheesy gratin dauphinois, Patricia reports, and she suggests a fruity red wine to go with both.
Chicken in Wine Vineger from Bistro d ‘a Cote or “La Volaille au Vinaigre de Vin Bistro d’A Cote”
ALL YOU NEED IS: Serves 4-6.
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons (2 ounces, 60gr) unsalted butter
1 chicken (3-4 pounds, 1.5-2 kg), well rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 serving pieces and at room temperature. Note: For speed and simplicity, I most often make this with chicken pieces.
Salt and freshly round black pepper
1 cup (25cl) best quality red wine vinegar
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, cored, deseeded and chopped
¾ cup (18.5 cl) chicken stock, preferably home made
About 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1 In a deep sided nonreactive 12 inch (30cm) skillet, heat the oil with 1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce, 15gr) of the butter over high heat. Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper. When the fats are hot but not smoking, add some of the chicken and brown on one side until the skin turns an even, golden brown, about 5 minutes. Carefully regulate the heat to avoid scorching the skin. Turn the pieces and brown them on the other side, for an additional 5 minutes, Do not crowd the pan. Cook the remaining chicken piece in the same manner.
2 When all of the chicken has been browned, remove it from the skillet and pour out the cooking fat. Return the chicken to the skillet. Very slowly add the vinegar. (If the pan is hot, and you add it too rapidly, the fumes will chase oyu out of the kitchen!)Over medium high heat, reduce the vinegar roughly by half, turning the chicken from time to time to coat it with the vinegar, about 10 minutes.
3 Add the tomatoes and the chicken stock. Cover and simmer gently over medium-low heat until all the juices mingle and the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. (The chicken can and should be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)
Note: I now put the chicken and sauce in a baking dish, cover with cling film and store in the refrigerator until the next evening. I take it out again about an hour before supper, so that the chicken returns to room temperature.
4 Heat the chicken though in the sauce, then remove to a warmed platter. Cover. Remove the warmed sauce from the heat and beat in the remaining 3 tablespoons (1 ½ ounces, 45gr) butter. Adjust the seasoning. Pour the sauce over the chicken, sprinkle with parsley (I sometime use spring onion) and serve, accompanied by a gratin dauphinoise.