Our French vacation at my parents’ ended just a couple of weeks ago and it is still gently rippling in our life back in Cleveland. One thing I particularly like about spending a big chunk of summertime in France is how easy it is to fix simple, tasty meals over there.
Mixed salads, rustic baguette, cheese, fruit, and savory and sweet tarts, are the key elements in our meal preparation on those precious lazy days. Unless Appa delights us with an Indian dish or someone has a special recipe in mind, that is.
For mixed salads the general idea is to pick one or two vegetables, sometimes add a grain, make a vinaigrette, et voila! We stock on couscous, bulgur, and Ebly pre-cooked wheat. We shop for tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, and herbs often enough to use only the freshest produce. Fortunately, the grocery store and the bakery are just a short walk away and going there is a favorite routine of Minette‘s, especially when it involves an “any subject welcome” chat with Grand-Père along the way.
Cheese… We do like a plentiful assortment and we are always curious to taste different cheeses. This year, my brother’s family brought a nice selection from their vacation in the French Alps. We brought a sampler from our hiking trip in Massif Central. But the one cheese you’ll find reliably at the end of our meals (sometimes at the beginning, in my case) is our local Comté, which my parents buy almost wholesale when our family spends time together. Not unlike Gruyère, Comté is a hard cheese with a nutty flavor, full of character but not so strong that it would overwhelm you. They do sell imported Comté in America, but I regret to say it’s not half as good as the one we get in France.
Tarts are a children’s game. For one thing because, in France, excellent ready-made fresh crusts are available everywhere, conveniently rolled with their own circle of parchment paper. Whether you need regular pâte brisée, pâte sablée (shortcrust pastry), or pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), all you have to do is unroll, position in your tart tray, make tiny holes with a fork (to let air pass), and add your chosen ingredients.
For savory tarts our favorite options include zucchini (sauté chopped onions and thinly sliced zucchini in olive oil; add eggs, liquid cream, salt and pepper; pour mixture in crust and top with grated Gruyère cheese before baking) and tomato and tuna fish. We like to spread some Dijon mustard on the crust before adding other ingredients, to spice things up a bit. For sweet tarts our favorites are apple (supplied by my parents’ garden in what seems to be unlimited quantities) and groseille (red currant, also supplied by my parents’ garden but in smaller quantities, which my mother freezes at the end of spring in anticipation of our summer vacation).
Our number one summer fruit is cantaloupe, hands down. I will contend that the cantaloupes we eat in France are usually way more flavorful than their American counterparts. The same goes for most fruit actually. From a French perspective it seems that what American fruit has gained in size, it has more than lost in flavor. For me, the taste of a good cantaloupe evokes the many summers I have spent in France since my childhood as powerfully as anything.
I can’t finish this post without paying my respect to apéritif. Apéritif is a beloved moment, especially in summertime. Grownups have a glass of wine, children have some juice, and everybody munches on cherry tomatoes (or even tiny groseille tomatoes from my aunt’s garden, pictured here), green olives stuffed with almonds, dices of Comté, or Apéricubes, the small cubes of Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese wrapped in shiny paper that contain quiz questions we trade endlessly — providing excellent French training for both Minette and Appa. Early evening apéritif in my parents’ backyard is somehow the signature of our French summer vacation, the satisfying moment I want to return to next summer and for as many more years as heaven will allow.