Rachel Khoo didn’t speak a word of French when she left her fashion PR job in London to learn patisserie at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She picked up the language gossiping with the other sales girls at the department store where she snagged a part-time job, in between spritzing perfume. She was also taking classes at the Sorbonne at the time and working as an au pair to pay for cooking school, which she finished in 2010.
Since then, the Brit has truly made herself at home in Paris. She runs a catering, consulting and food styling business, has published two cookbooks in French and more recently one in English, The Little Paris Kitchen. A follow-up is coming soon. She also has her own BBC TV cooking series, shot in the tiny kitchen of her bacholerette apartment. (Episodes of The Little Paris Kitchen are available on iTunes in Canada.) We met in Toronto last month to talk about the secrets of fabulous presentation, making TV in a closet-sized space and upgrading the Croque-Madame.
If people want to try a few of the best recipes from The Little Paris Kitchen, where should they start?
The classic from this book has been the Croque Madame muffins. A Croque Madame is a cheese and ham sandwich with an egg on top. To make this one you use bread to line muffin cups, then you fill it with ham and eggs and you put a little bechamel cheese sauce on top. You bake it and get all these runny cheese sauces inside baked bread. It’s good for breakfast or with a green salad for lunch.
For dessert I’d say the chocolate lava cake. It’s really easy, do the basic one, and for something more advanced, you can try the caramel centre. You can also flavour the chocolate with different spices or orange zest. The trick with that cake is not to overbake it.
What presentation tricks can help a home cook make simple dishes look spectacular?
Always think about colours. What colours pop against a dull curry or stew? It could be as simple as putting a green herb on top. If you want to be a bit cheffy, you could get a plastic mandolin for about 20 dollars. You can make really thin slices of vegetables for a garnish. All the chefs do it for radishes, and you could use it for beets too. Or if you’re making a gratin dauphinois, you can use it to get really thin, uniform potatoes. It gets all your slices even.
A U-shaped speed peeler is good as well. You can use it to make ribbons from cucumber, carrot, zucchini and whatever vegetables you have to hand. So for salads, instead of slices, you can have ribbons.
Also, there’s a lentil salad in my cookbook that’s really simple, with goat cheese, beetroot and dill vinaigrette. A lot of people would toss everything through before serving it. You could do that, and it would taste great, but you wouldn’t get that bright green from the dill or all the other nice colours. My advice would be just to scatter the lentils and sprinkle the other things on top. Leave the vinaigrette on the side, so people can serve themselves and do the mixing.
How do you fit a TV crew into your tiny kitchen?
It’s a squeeze—in my kitchen you can literally touch the walls on both sides with both hands. They unpack their kit and put bits and pieces in my bathtub. Sometimes we need over-the-shoulder shots, and my head gets in the way, so the director will get up onto my washing-up surface and take shots from there. Jamie Oliver has five cameras in his kitchen, and they can do one take. We have to do at least three, each from different angles.
And how do you make such amazing dishes in such a small kitchen?
It’s all about being organized. Everything has a spot, and you clean as you go. You don’t really need gadgets and toys to cook well anyway, so I keep my kitchen tools to a minimum.
What could the British learn from the French about food, and vice versa?
From living in Paris, I’ve picked up the appreciation of fresh seasonal food, being able to go to the market, where my fruit and veg guy knows me, and my cheese lady knows me. In the UK and North America, farmers markets are quite pricey, and not everyone can have that relationship. I had it in Paris even on an au pair’s budget.
What the British have over the French is taking in influences from all over the world. Our way of cooking tends to be very ethnically diverse, while the French might be more inclined to say: “We make it this way, and we’re not changing it.” With my recipes, I’m more inclined to work with outside influences. Take my coq au vin: it’s more of a winter dish, but I thought I wanted to do it as a summer dish, so I took all the same ingredients and flavours, but did it on a BBQ stick, with a wine sauce for dipping. Same flavours, but lighter and fresher.
What French food traditions do you love?
I like one tradition I learned in Paris, when I was working for a French family. They have this thing in the beginning of January for the Fete des Rois (Epiphany). They hide a figure or a trinket in a puff pastry galette baked with almond paste. And the littlest kid goes under the table and shouts out the names of whoever gets the next slice. Whoever gets the figure in theirs gets the crown and is king for the day. It’s really cute… plus you get to eat some cake!
What are your favourite French food idioms?
I have my own one favourite expression: “Butter makes everything better!” It’s true! But I like how the French say “mettre la main a la pate.” [Put your hand in the dough, meaning: Get stuck in.] I used to teach patisserie and I always said the best way to learn is just to try it. Just practice… get your hands dirty.
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I tried Rachel red rice pudding out on my sister’s family in Croydon, England–coincidentally also the cookbook author’s hometown. The rice pudding itself (without the optional creme Chantilly) is gluten- and dairy-free, and you could sweeten it with maple syrup or honey, if you wanted to cut out the sugar. It calls for red rice from the Camargue region in the south of France, which I was surprised (and relieved) to find at the local grocery store. Check out your Bulk Barn or a specialty store in Canada. It makes for a nuttier, more solid rice pudding than the traditional kind., although you could sub in white rice or wild rice, if that’s what you have to hand; just sample as it cooks and adjust the cooking time.
I started out with the two cups of almond milk Rachel suggests in the recipe, but ended up using almost a litre as it evaporated and was absorbed by the rice. I also extended the cooking time by a good 15 minutes to soften the red rice more, and it still had a lot of bite when we came to serve it. This gave us three very small servings, so you may want to scale up. Everybody liked the marzipan flavour, the chewier texture and the vibrant colour of this dessert. Big hit!
Red Rice Pudding with Almond Milk
3/4 cup red rice
2 cups unsweetened almond milk
1/2 tsp almond extract
For the creme Chantilly:
1/2 vanilla pod
2/3 cup heavy cream
4 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp sugar, or to taste
Put the rice, almond milk and almond extract into a large pan and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover and simmer gently for 25-30 minutes or until the rice is tender but still nutty in texture. Stir occasionally to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile, make the creme Chantilly: Split the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and scrape out the grains. Put the grains in a bowl with the cream and sugar and whisk to stiff peaks.
Add the sugar to the rice and serve the pudding either warm or chilled, topped with the creme Chantilly.
From The Little Paris Kitchen, by Rachel Khoo, Chronicle Books, 2013