By Annabel Langbein for Canvas magazine
In my 20s I wrote to my all-time American food hero, Julia Child, asking her advice about where to take my passion for cooking. Incredibly, she wrote back, offering encouraging words and suggesting I attend a foodie conference in Seattle. So I packed my bags and off I went.
During one of the mix-and-mingle cocktail events at the conference, I met a charming French woman, and in that animated manner of conversation you have when neither speaks much of the other's language, I gleaned that she came from a farm in the southwest of France, was recently divorced and was in the US to help some people to establish a foie gras business in America.
She kindly invited me to stay at her apartment in New York, and so off I headed into the next chapter of my foodie adventure. Late one Sunday night I found myself on the doorstep of the address this stranger had scribbled onto a scrap of paper. It was one of toughest neighbourhoods in New York, down-and-out Brooklyn before it got gentrified - so rough that the prostitutes used to try to solicit me. My new French friend, who I now knew as Daniele, shared the apartment with six gay guys and my room was the broom cupboard. We were all penniless.
The next day when I got up, Daniele whisked me off to the market, over in Union Square. After perusing all the produce on offer, she chose a fat, heavy leek. Back in the squinty kitchen of the apartment she transformed this humble vegetable into an elegant, quivering tart. I was awestruck. For the next month we followed this simple daily routine - a trip to the market to find the freshest, cheapest vegetable, then back to the apartment to cook, each day something new, and always with flavours to make your heart sing.
Neither of us had any money but we ate like kings. I knew little of her past and neither us could then know this brilliant woman's future - that she would go on to be French President Francois Mitterrand's personal cook, that she would travel to Antarctica for a year to cook for a group of environmental scientists and that one day a film, Haute Cuisine, would be made about her and her amazing life as one of France's most talented cooks.
I feel so lucky to still have Daniele Delpeuch in my life as my mentor and friend. Whenever I travel to France I stay with her in the house that's been in her family for, "Well," she laughs, "Seven hundred years that we know about." A couple of years ago the family found records dating back to the Sun King, Louis XIV - her family used to sell him truffles.
Now in her 70s, Daniele still cooks over an open fire using her grandmother's pots, dries grapes in old wooden trays on the doorstep, and collects truffles from the family truffiere.
I have learnt many things from here but most of all what it means to be not a chef in a restaurant, but a cook preparing food in the home. In the French way, or rather perhaps in Daniele's way, cooking is not about fancy tricks and culinary gymnastics - it is about honouring what nature provides, cooking resourcefully with what's at hand and making people feel welcome and nourished and loved. In my book it's a simple mantra to live by.
To mark Bastille Day this week I'm sharing some of my favourite French-inspired recipes.
Pear and Prune Custard Cream
Ready in 1 hour + soaking
2 cups pitted prunes
3 Tbsp brandy or pear liqueur
4 small pears, quartered, cored and thinly sliced
finely grated zest of ½ an orange
5 Tbsp caster sugar
2 cups milk
3 Tbsp flour
To serve (optional)
lightly whipped cream or vanilla icecream
Put the prunes in a bowl and pour over the brandy or pear liqueur. Leave to macerate for 2 hours or cover and microwave on 30 per cent power for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and lightly butter a 26cm-diameter ceramic flan dish. Add the pear slices and orange zest to the macerating prunes and leave to soak while you make the custard.
To make the custard, beat the eggs with 3 Tbsp of the sugar until well combined and slightly fluffy. Add the milk and flour and beat until well combined, making sure there are no lumps.
Arrange the pears and prunes in an even layer in the prepared flan dish and sprinkle 1 tbsp of the sugar over the top. Pour the custard mixture evenly over the pears and prunes and sprinkle with the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar. Bake until set and lightly golden (about 45-50 minutes).
Pear and Prune Custard Cream will keep, covered, in the fridge for 2-3 days and can be served chilled, warm or at room temperature. Delicious with whipped cream or vanilla icecream.
Annabel says: Choose soft dried prunes for this unctuously rich baked custard tart, which is based on a classic French flan.
Roast Lamb with Herb Crust
Ready in 2¼ hours
A little butter, for greasing
8 large, floury potatoes
1 tsp salt
ground black pepper
1 cup chicken stock
1 boneless lamb leg (about 1.2kg)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
6 Tbsp finely chopped parsley leaves
1 tsp finely chopped rosemary leaves
A pinch of salt
90g butter, softened
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Butter a gratin dish large enough to hold the lamb leg. Peel potatoes and cut into ½cm slices. Arrange in overlapping rows in the bottom of the dish. Season with salt and pepper and pour the chicken stock over the top.
Trim excess fat from lamb leg, place on top of potatoes, season with salt and pepper and roast for 1 hour.
To make the Herb Crust, place garlic, lemon zest, parsley, rosemary and salt in a bowl with the softened butter and stir to combine. Add breadcrumbs and mix well. Spread over the semi-cooked lamb. Cook for another hour, reducing heat a little if it starts to get too brown.
Rest meat 10-15 minutes before carving thinly across the grain and serving with the potatoes.
Annabel says: Cooked slowly on a bed of potatoes with a rich herb butter, this melt-in-the-mouth lamb is a classic French dish to serve up on a cold winter's night. You can use a bone-in leg of lamb if you like - just cook it for an extra half an hour.
Garlicky Vegetable Toss
Ready in 10 mins
Serves 6 as a side
12-18 baby carrots, trimmed
2-3 zucchini, sliced
2 Tbsp butter
finely grated zest of ½ lemon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 handfuls snow peas
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
1 tsp thyme leaves
Boil carrots and zucchini in lightly salted water for 3 minutes. Drain. Return carrots and zucchini to heat, add butter, lemon zest and garlic and sizzle for a few seconds. Add snow peas and peas, if using, and season to taste with salt and ground black pepper. Cover and cook until snow peas are tender but still bright green (2-3 minutes). Sprinkle with thyme and serve at once.
Annabel says: The trick with garlic is not to let it burn, so I will usually add it to the pan after other ingredients - for example after the onions have softened when making a soffritto. Here it gives a gentle flavour background to a medley of vegetables. You can change out the vegetables to suit the season - zucchini and snow peas are expensive at this time of year, so use broccoli or cauliflower florets and green beans instead.
Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel's best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips and it's on sale now at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.