I mentioned on Monday that today, I’d be giving you what I’ve found to be the essential ingredient of French cooking & baking.For cooking, it’s mirepoix–similar to the Holy Trinity of Cajun/Louisiana Creole cuisine. For baking, it’s sucre vanillé.
Mirepoix (that’s meer-pwa) is less a recipe & more a concept. When I think back on our time in France, when I was deciding which new recipes to try & writing up grocery lists, I can’t think of a single time I went to the market & didn’t buy celery, onion & carrot. The “aromatics,” less ingredients of the recipe than fresh herbs & spices.
Whether you’re adding them in large, chopped chunks to water, some animal carcass* & bay for a simple broth (fond blanc) or dicing them up to sauté for a good, thick sauce to cover your chicken, these three lovely ingredients aren’t often found in the final dish.
I was surprised, when watching a friend make chicken fricassee the Julia Child way, that when the sauce was ready–had taken on the color & flavor of the three-vegetable saute–that the sautéed bits were scooped out & tossed away, to keep the texture of the sauce consistent. (Now, we’ve long known that the French aren’t overly concerned with balancing bread & meat with vegetable intake, so this shouldn’t be too much of a shock!)
So there you have it: the mirepoix. Next time you’re preparing stock or soup–or shoot, even chopping up a salad–and the casual onlooker asks about ingredients, just give them your best French stare & say, “Oh, well you just start with mirepoix.”
*No, but seriously. Just the carcass, not the meaty bits. I wasn’t all vegetarian-high-horse on that one!
Baking… oh, baking in la belle France. Vanilla-infused sugar is more common in recipes than brown sugar is in the States. (In fact, it actually took quite a bit of time to find brown sugar in France.)
As with mirepoix, sucre vanillé is largely an aromatic ingredient–just a small amount to replace the liquid vanilla we use. I tell you. French toast–the real stuff, the pain perdu with stale baguette & a bit of vanilla-infused sugar. Wow. No syrup necessary. You smell it frying in the pan, with the sweetness of the butter…
I feel like no French recipe collection is complete without acknowledging this magic ingredient. Use it sparingly, but use it often.
- 2 cups granulated, basic sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 airtight container
- Pour your sugar into your airtight container.
- Cut your vanilla bean open, running the knife from stem to stern without really cutting it all the way in half. Like a filet of vanilla. Like a book.
- Scoop out the delicious vanilla seeds. Drop them on top of the sugar. Use the vanilla bean to swirl all those flavor specks throughout the sugar.
- Leave the bean in the sugar; add airtight lid; give a final shake.
- Allow to sit for one week, shaking occasionally, before use.
If using French recipes, you’ll be given proportions of vanilla sugar–usually a “packet,” like a yeast packet (about two to three teaspoons). If you’re making anything else, I highly recommend using vanilla sugar, but you only need that packet-size for full flavor impact.
Replace several teaspoons of granulated & the vanilla needed for the recipe with several teaspoons of your vanilla sugar. Use some basic logic here. If you need multiple teaspoons of vanilla in a recipe (1) What are you making!? (2) Increase the amount of vanilla sugar used while continuing to decrease the un-vanilla sugar.
If the recipe also calls for brown sugar, then that’s enough flavor-altered sugar for one recipe. Let the molasses do the talking. Only add in sucre vanillé for those all-white sugar recipes, so that you get the full flavor (& save the expense, since vanilla beans can be pricey).
My favorite place for it? The crackling, brûlée-d top of crème brûlée. Equally delicious on cinnamon-sugar toast, in strong teas or in yellow cakes.