I am a nutrition researcher. So food dominates the back corners of my mind when I am playing, sleeping, reading, walking, socializing and of course cooking. I think about what people eat, how they eat and where they eat. I try to imagine why I they choose certain foods over others and under what circumstances they might want to eat the foods the choose. I wonder if they eat a certain way because of their past or because of hopes for the future. Most of all I think about how to measure all of the things I just described to learn about food and how it impacts health.
In my PhD program we had a joke that anyone who gets a PhD in nutrition either loves food or has a former negative relationship with food or both. I fall into the both camp. In my sporty youth, I used to obsess about what I put in my body so I could perform a certain way or have a certain body. I did not see food as something to enjoy but as a means to an end. I don’t think the French who in general love food (even when they are trying to lose weight) would have cared much for my youthful attitudes about food. I believed there were good foods and bad foods. The perceived healthiness of a food was the tool for me to judge good food from bad food. The French also believe there are good foods and bad foods but they reserve their judgements for how it tastes or how it makes them feel. In fact when they put food down on the table, they typically say “happy tasting” or “happy digesting” or just “enjoy”.
I am at the perfect point in my life to be immersed in a culture that takes food so seriously. I also have ample time to cook relative to my life in Birmingham so I have been experimenting with French cuisine at home. Last night’s adventure was cauliflower gratin (pictured in this post). Basically you take cauliflower, smother it in a béchamel cheese sauce and bake it in the oven. So simple but tastes amazing. The ingredients are the key. I picked up the cauliflower at the market yesterday morning. It was brilliantly white and beautiful. Then it was off to the fromagerie (cheese store) to pick up the cheese for the base. The fromagère (cheese man) helped me identify a gouda with truffles that he said would perfectly bring out the astringent sweetness of the cauliflower. He was so right! It was absolutely the best thing I have made here.
As an aside, French cheeses can be tough to enjoy for some Americans. They are much stronger in flavor then American cheeses and they come from sheep, goats, and cows. So you not only choose a type but have to pick an animal too. It can be very overwhelming. But it is so important to try French cheeses. In fact, nutrition research recently pointed to the potential for French cheeses to be a source of health for French people. I am not kidding. French cheese is full of good bacteria since they don’t pasteurize their milk. So, if you do ever find yourself in France, I highly recommend going to a fromagerie to ask for a cheese plate. They will cut you off as little or as much as you would like to try. That way, you don’t feel like you are wasting food if you don’t like the cheese you try. It’s very different that the cheese section of my local grocery store.
I have attempted all kinds of meals here. A standard in our house is the rotisserie chicken. I walk down the street to the boucherie (meat store) and pick up a freshly roasted chicken. They pull it right of the rotisserie and hand to to you. It is so buttery and delicious. I try to make interesting sides to go with it. Basically I just pick up whatever I find at the market and come up with some concoction. Sometimes the folks at the market will tell me what I should make and so I will google a recipe to make sure I can do it. Sometimes I just put a little side like roasted Brussels sprouts together. Either way, it is really fun. Bon dégustation!