Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Knick-Knacks and Easy Béchamel.

So, to start understanding Maminou, I think people need to see the setting.

You've got to imagine an old house in the south of France, where all the windows, doors and tiles were last replaced in the 1930s. There is peeling paint on most walls.

This is my great-great aunt, Henriette, in front of the house.

This is my grandfather's family home. It's currently housing its sixth generation of us for the summer.

This is my Dad's drawing of the front of the house

The house was built with an eye to keeping the inhabitants cool, rather than pleasing their eyes. It was only partially converted from the farm it used to be, so that all the living quarters are upstairs, whist all the ground floor is a giant, humid space used for storing anything and everything. 
When the evenings cool down, a toad or two will escape from the water tank there and make their courageous way through the bric-a-brac, into the delighted hands of an assortment of Maminou's grandchildren. 

All the taps and locks were assembled by some ancestor or other, often in a rather unconventional manner (you can tell the ones my left-handed grandfather was in charge of, as they open the wrong way round). The mosquito nets were made by my great-grandmother and great-grandfather immediately after their marriage (in 1928). She used her wedding veil (not that you can tell anymore).

87 years of keeping mosquitoes out.

You see, Maminou never throws away anything she can still mend somehow. And even then, she tends to simply exile them to the cellar with the toads. You never know when you might need a spare bit of wood to make a stair-gate. 

Mending the light switch of the lamp in the foreground.

She still mourns the piano which went to a different branch of the family when my great-grandmother died.

Without getting unduly attached to things, there is still a lot to be said for this approach. 

Yesterday, Patapon managed to grab hold of the children's bible we carefully chose some months ago, and tore out poor Moses in his basket. When I saw the destruction, I had this immediate urge to get a new one. This one wasn't whole anymore, it wasn't worthy of taking up prized real estate space on my shelves.

Then I remembered the old children's books my father inherited, and how, when I read them as a child, I was delighted to find the doodles of my great-great-grandmother along the pages. So the bible is staying, I taped Moses back in and will try not to get too sad that the pages still poke out a little.

If we want to truly fight the culture we are living in, I think we could do worse than simply keeping things. Not accumulating things, but just, not replacing them.

One tiny gesture of resistance to the planned obsolescence our crazy society thrives on. No thanks. I shall keep the torn bible.

Now, you have made it this far, so I am going to reward you with one of Maminou's simple hacks to French cooking: Béchamel. 

Back in Algeria, Maminou's neighbour was so overwhelmed by the perspective of making this sauce that she always brought the ingredients to Maminou's mum, and let her do it. Which is quite funny, because there is nothing quite as easy as a béchamel sauce.

Béchamel sauce.

It's the start of many sauces, it is the secret to a nice gratin (pour it over whatever you have cooked, sprinkle cheese on top, grill for a few minutes: voila, even more delicious) and to making vegetables a thing people look forward to eating. You can also add cheese to it, and use it as stuffing for toasties. 

Now, if you look it up in cook-books, I think there is a little bit of a conspiracy going on, trying to make out French cooking to be more complicated than it is (like you REALLY need a whole cook-book to figure it out). But French cuisine can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it: countless mothers have had to take a no-nonsense approach to it, just as countless reputed chefs tried their best to fancy it up as much as possible.


All this to say, if you want to pre-heat your milk, add onions, cloves, bay leaves and what-not to your béchamel, if you want to sieve it carefully, that's up to you, I'm sure it will be delicious.

If it sounds like too much work, here is the actual simple recipe:

Get the same weight of butter and flour.
Melt the butter over medium heat.
Add the flour in one go and mix into the butter until it comes off the sides of the pan (you need to be stirring pretty much constantly from now on).

Sorry it's blurry, Maminou moves fast.

When  it looks like this, add some milk (you can be extra careful and take the pan off the heat as you pour the milk in then put it back on, but I never bother. So long as you're stirring, it'll be fine).

Mix it in.

Repeat until it is liquid/thick enough for your purposes.

Add a pinch of nutmeg, some pepper and some salt (unless what you are using it with is already quite salty). That's it.

Or, you know, you can do the fancy cookbook way. Up to you. I, personally, do not enjoy sieving things. 

Here is a nice way to use your béchamel: 

Boil some peeled courgettes in salted water (if you can get the tiny ones from Nice, even better, if not, well, it will still be nice).

If you have some time ahead of you, salt them and leave them in the colander for a bit. If not, put some uncooked rice at the bottom of the oven-proof dish.

When tender, take out of the water, cut them in half and arrange them as a single layer in an oven-proof dish.

Sprinkle some shredded ham on top.

Pour out your béchamel until it covers everything.

Sprinkle with cheese. 

Grill for a few minutes. Done. Even my sister Banane will eat courgettes cooked that way.

Of course, you ideally want it away from the grill before it turns a bit burnt, but, for those of you with distracting toddlers around, it still tastes nice!

1 comment:

  1. La traduction française s'impose pour Maminou héroïne de ce post! I also cook béchamel as she does, of course! Agnès