In these stay-at-home days, comfort food beckons. And this dish of chicken, ham and melted cheese answers the call. It’s fun to make — the whole family can take part. Chicken breasts are butterflied (sliced almost in two horizontally), filled with ham and cheese, folded together, dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, and cooked — sautéed, then baked — to golden perfection.
Cordon bleu / Chicken cordon bleu
A schoolkid’s favorite, chicken cordon bleu can be tweaked for grown-ups by using prosciutto, coppa or bresaola instead of baked ham. Serve the cordon bleu with a salad alongside, and lunch is ready. Or make a meal of it at dinnertime, preceded by a seasonal starter — perhaps an assiette de crudités (French veggie plate) or, soon, asparagus (with hollandaise, parmesan or vinaigrette) — and accompanied by green beans, French style. Strawberries with sugar and/or cream would make a fine dessert. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could try strawberry mousse or berry meringues.
A number of friends have written to me this week to ask about recipes for the many of us who are now confined to our homes, with limited ingredients but plenty of time on our hands to putter in the kitchen. Well, the answer depends not just on taste, but also on who is in your household — just grown-ups, or kids too. Here are some ideas.
If you feel like this lull could be a good time to try your hand at gourmet cooking, why not attempt a cheese soufflé? To branch out, make it with goat cheese or Roquefort. Or you could prepare a dish that takes more time than you generally have available, like boeuf bourguinon, blanquette de veau or coq au vin. These slow-cooked French classics have the advantage, if you make enough, of being even better the second day.
Another approach is the one-pot meal, like poule au pot — a whole chicken boiled with veggies, yielding a rich chicken broth as the first course followed by the chicken and vegetables as the main course. Ditto pot-au-feu, a similar recipe using beef instead of chicken, or potée auvergnate, a hearty soup of winter veggies with bacon and sausages.
Family-friendly favorites that can be served as main dishes or sides include gratins of all sorts — of potatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, leeks or eggplant (aka eggplant parmesan). Baked gnocchi with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil is another crowd pleaser — I made it last night for my daughter and her boyfriend, who is staying with us during the lockdown.
The versatility of the humble potato makes it a great ingredient in this time of limited resources. Have you ever made French fries from scratch? It’s easier than you might think, and the flavor is sublime, bearing no relation to your standard frozen fries. Or you could try raclette — boiled potatoes topped with melted cheese, with cured meats and pickles alongside. Or potato pancakes, rosemary potatoes, smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes with horseradish, French potato salad, potato salad with anchovies, and the list goes on.
Pasta and rice are the staples that have been most coveted in France during the lockdown, and recipes range from the simple to the sophisticated. Some personal favorites are penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts; cheese ravioli with sage; risotto with asparagus and peas; and paella. If fresh ingredients are hard to come by, penne à l’arrabiata or spaghetti with olive oil and garlic are a couple of possibilities.
And what about bread? French TV reported this week that an elderly woman had been fined 135 euros for going out to buy a baguette, the long, narrow loaf that is a symbol of France. I found this particularly shocking. The woman — small, frail and white haired — seemed totally nonplussed, and not surprisingly, as the rules here allow people to shop for basic necessities. Her crime, it seems, had been to go out for a single baguette, and nothing more. The reporter said that the idea was to cut down on trips outdoors, with people expected to buy enough bread to last a few days and freeze what is not used immediately. Sacrilege! People often shop two or three times a day for bread here to make sure their loaves are fresh when brought to the table. What the report didn’t mention was the health risk in buying baguettes — as bakers often use their ungloved hands to slip the bread into a paper wrapper. It actually showed bakers doing this in a a French village, oblivious to the irony as they talked about the risk they were taking by continuing to serve custormers.
I am sufficiently concerned about this bread risk to have started buying packaged pita as a backup, and over the next week or so I’ll be experimenting with different types of pita sandwiches for lunchtime. We tried pita BLTs yesterday — not exactly French, but delicious. Meantime, I’d like to open the site to your suggestions for meals in the time of coronavirus. If you’d like to share an idea, please write to me via the site’s Contact page.
These days, with events intensifying our awareness of how precious life is, we can better appreciate the value of simple things. A good meal is not just a delight to the senses — it’s a blessing. My thoughts go out to all of you with hopes for your good health during these trying times. May you and your loved ones be well.
And happy cooking.