Ever the vigilante of the American food scene, I note a trend in eating places across the nation to eschew " nouvelle anonymous" dishes (that have preoccupied chefs for more than a decade) for much simpler, heartier fare. Offerings that, in my naivete, I tend to think of as bistro food.
But then, to me, bistro is the most aromatic word in the culinary vocabulary. Say bistro to anyone who has ever been to France and the free association will be the same: cramped quarters, dark smoky wood, frosted glass and potted palms. In short: a clandestine, romantic hideaway in a very public place.
I never knew the privilege of this consumption until I was past 40 and in Paris for the first time. I was taken to a bistro, and while I can no longer remember the restaurant name, I will never forget the food so honest and so ample and the Beaujolais wine so fresh it made me sneeze at the first sip.
What I remember best of my first bistro is the clientele--an extraordinary cross section of Parisian society.
Indecipherable Bill of Fare
This bistro's bill of fare was a blurry scrawl of violet ink--as indecipherable as an Egyptian papyrus to me--so I ordered blindly. How I came to eat so well I will never understand, but the snowy plates were swabbed as clean at the end of the meal as they had been when the waiter laid them out hours before. And the phenomenon seemed not unusual in the least as platter after platter of intoxicating dishes--melting soups, gold-roasted birds with skins as crisp as tree bark, and pale, herb-scented veal stews whose perfume virtually took your breath away--were spooned, carved and ladled forth to the voracious customers.
That was my first bistro meal. There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, eaten in the interval since. And although not every culinary attempt whets my taste buds equally, I have never had a bad bistro meal yet.
My favorite bistro food is stew. I have the recipe for the best one in the Francophile repertory.
VEAL IN A SAUCE AS GREEN AS A FIELD
4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1/2 pounds boneless stewing veal, cut into 2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup chicken or veal stock, hot
3/4 cup dry white wine
Bouquet garni of 1 bay leaf, dash thyme, 3 sprigs parsley, 1 green onion, 1 crushed clove garlic, tied in cheesecloth
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds spinach, washed
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup whipping cream or half and half
Melt butter in Dutch oven. Add veal. Cook meat over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until all pieces are coated with butter and slightly golden in color. Sprinkle with flour. Cook and stir 3 minutes longer. Add hot stock, wine and bouquet garni. Cook over medium-low heat 45 minutes, turning meat frequently. Stir in salt and pepper.
Cook spinach in boiling salted water 1 minute. Rinse immediately under cold running water and drain. Press out all liquid through fine mesh sieve and chop roughly.
Remove bouquet garni from Dutch oven. Stir spinach into meat. Beat egg yolks with cream. Gradually stir into Dutch oven over very low heat. Do not allow mixture to boil. Cook and stir until sauce is thick enough to coat spoon. Serve with rice, noodles, or toasted croutons, if desired. Makes 6 servings.
There are certain cakes I would willingly dispatch as "my last meal on earth." The following bistro meal ending from Brittany is one of that variety. It is a dry, vanilla-and-butter-flavored torte.
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup ground blanched almonds
2 teaspoons kirsch
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 3/4 cups flour, sifted
1 egg, lightly beaten
Beat butter and granulated sugar in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg and egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in almonds, kirsch and vanilla. Fold in flour.
Spoon batter into buttered 9x1 1/2-inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom. Spread evenly. Brush with beaten egg. Bake at 350 degrees until top is golden, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan on wire rack. Dust lightly with powdered sugar. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Note: Cake improves in texture and flavor if allowed to stand, covered, at room temperature overnight.