The Peasant Dishes Continue with a Cream and Chicken Soubise
The parade of so-called “peasant dishes” from classic cuisine continues! A peasant dish (a term somewhat offensive to my American sensibilities), is a meal made up of low-cost, widely available ingredients that are improved with specific cooking techniques and spices. Peasant dishes evolved out of centuries of experimentation by working-class families in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and England; the by-product of cooks, housewives, and head chefs improvising, experimenting, adjusting, and modifying the foods they had on hand to create something extraordinary with limited resources.
Haute cuisine this is not. That is, of course, the point. There is a charm found in these sorts of dishes that cannot be replicated in pheasant or roasted duck displayed on gold-rimmed china. This is the sort of thing you make in the middle of an afternoon, wrapped in a warm sweater, as you grab a good book to read in the sitting chair by the window; that fills your home with the aroma that hits you the moment you walk in the door and that makes people run into the kitchen enthusiastically inquiring, “what’s for dinner?”.
Tonight, we picked up where we left off yesterday by remaking Julia Child’s soubise. This soubise is a rice and onion purée that is sautéed, then baked at a low temperature for an hour before having heavy cream, butter, and swiss cheese infused into it. The total cost for the recipe was $10 in fresh ingredients and it would make an excellent edition to any dining room table, regardless of family budget or skill in the kitchen. The soubise would have been equally delicious with glazed carrots or corn on the cob and is infinitely better – and cheaper – than anything you could get in a box from the local grocery store.
It was this dish that finally sold me on the central thesis of Mrs. Child’s writings, as well as the work of so many other chefs and food personalities I have been studying recently: Cooking methods and preparations are the most important consideration, followed by using fresh ingredients. There was nothing particularly complex about the recipe; it was very cheap, yet it was fantastic. It contained only:
- 3/4 cups uncooked Jasmine long-grain rice
- Two large yellow onions
- Heavy cream
- Swiss cheese
- Seasonings (Salt, Pepper, etc.)
With a Staub coq au vin and an hour or so of very low effort cooking while watching television with the family, the mixture somehow turned into one of the richest, warmest comfort foods I’ve ever eaten. What it lacks in visual flash, it makes up for in flavor.
It is not difficult to see why Julia Child dedicated her bestselling culinary Bible to the “peasants and Princes” of France. Some of the best foods were not coming out of the kitchens at Versailles, but in the small apartments and tiny cottages that filled the cities and dotted the countryside.
How fortunate we are that we get to inherit the work of our ancestors! The best recipes rose to the top and spread throughout the respective cultures, until they were passed down to us, today, who get to enjoy them, undeserved.
I will say the study of peasant foods has also taught me two other things I otherwise wouldn’t have known:
- Some things should never have been developed, no matter how hungry people are unless starvation is imminent. For example, hell would have to freeze over first before I ever had this dish in my kitchen. The entire concept is an abomination.
- There is a category of food below peasant foods called starvation foods. Interestingly, lobster was once considered one of these, to the point that servants would dictate in their contracts that they would not have to eat lobster more than a certain number of times per week. Similarly, the Japanese once considered sweet potatoes a starvation food when rice wasn’t available during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.