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Need menu ideas for an easy make ahead French bistro meal

I'm hosting my book club later this month. There is a group of 8 of us (all relatively adventurous eaters with no allergies or food restrictions) and we often try to pair the meal with the book that we have read. This month's book is The Paris Wife, which is a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage while living in 1920's Paris. There aren't really any meals described in the book (though plenty of drinking), but a good amount of time is spent in Paris cafes, so I thought it would be good to do some sort of Paris bistro menu. The other factor is that I will be working that day and hosting about 1 1/2 hours after arriving home from the office. Obviously, I can have the table set, etc before, but I'm trying to think of meals that could be made the day before and reheated. Maybe French onion soup and cassoulet? Anyone have any favorite (and not too complicated) recipes? Thoughts about dessert? Tarte Tatin seems like the obvious one, though I have never made it and am a little concerned about the moment of truth when I flip the pan over. Again, any suggestions for a dessert that can be made ahead?

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  1. If you have time, you might take a look at "The Movable Feast" (written by Hemingway during the same time in Paris). I seem to remember he goes into more details on the food ... unfortunately I don't have my copy with me to look.

    Some ideas -- Mussels Mariniere (assuming you can pick up some nice mussels.. and french bread.. on the way home from work) cook in just a few minutes. Beef Bourguignon can be done ahead and reheated. Dessert -- maybe a galette? I would think it could be done the night before.

    1. There'e always good old chocolate mousse! Before you all jump in and say it's been done to death, I say that sometimes something is done to death is because it's so good!

      1 Reply
      1. re: sandylc

        I think this is a good idea. It may have been "done to death" back in the day, but no one has served me chocolate mousse in many years. And it is made ahead of time, which sounds like it would be good for the OP's book club.

      2. I do not know where you live, but depending on your weather a salad nicoise would be lovely. You can pre chop lettuce, hard boil eggs, par boil haricut vert. The only thing you would have to do is gently sear the tuna (or use canned if you prefer). Serve it with a platter of some yummy runny french cheeses and a baguette. Sounds perfect for a group of ladies.

        3 Replies
        1. re: ctfoodie

          Made my first outrageous Niçoise last night, possibly our best dinner in weeks. I marinated the tuna steak and roasted it in a pan with carrots and onions. After 4-6 hours in the fridge it had a very subtle browned/ cerviche-like tang, adding appreciably to the effect of a well-rounded entre´ -perfectly complimenting the capers& minty blanched peas. As a side, I sauteed fresh spinach which looked excessive yet provided another level of contrast. Together, it felt exactly like dining on the Med.

          1. re: ctfoodie

            In France you would never see salad nicoise made with fresh tuna, only canned packed in olive oil.

            1. re: robt5265

              I know, and I've got three large cans on standby yet I shudder the thought of actually opening them. Maybe next week, for guests. Anyway, mercury is contaminating most tuna worldwide today. Now, with all of the dire new reports from Fukushima,-Yikes!

              Yesterday, LA just experienced their highest fallout yet. Which means you can't trust any of the California vegetables except tubers. Luckily, I have two small plots that have been covered since March 7th 2011, plus a 12x20' hoop-greenhouse. So far,- great lettuce, spinach & (soon) tomatoes, peas, etc. If we could grow lemons I suppose I would be learning how to make lemongrass soup!

          2. French onion soup followed by Cassoulet sounds a bit heavy... and Casoulet is anything but uncomplicated - I have made a few times, and very multi-step!

            I like Firecooked suggestions of mussels with beef bourguigogne to follow. Very Bistro-y. Doing mussels for 8 could be a bit of a challenge as well, so another entree (first course in France) might be an onion tart with caramelized onions and lots of fresh thyme.

            It would be great to have a cheese course after the plat, and Chocolate mousse sounds divine for dessert. or you could do Il Flotante with custard sauce and rasperrries, which would be easy and very different for an American audience. Easy-peasy trick my French BF's aunt taught me; you can make the floating islands in the MICROWAVE in seconds. SSSHHHH, no one has to know! I bet you can find a recipe on the internet, but basically a sweetened merangue cooks in spoonfuls on a plate in the micro for 30-40 seconds for each 'pile of puff', and serve on a pool of custard sauce with berries and perhaps some caramel sauce.

            1. CHICKEN GRAND MERE -- easy make ahead - i make a simple version of chicken grand mere using only skinless thighs (bone in or out, but i usually do bone-in for extra flavor) ... buy at least two thighs per woman guest (if men, add more per guest) ... dredge the chicken in flour and herbs, brown in canola oil, then layer (no more than 2 thick) in to a wide, shallow oven proof casserole (your le Creuset?) ... then brown some sliced mushrooms (at least 2 cups sliced), diced onions (one the size of woman's fist), a couple cloves crushed mild garlic - sprinkle evenly over the chicken.

              Drain any excess fat, then deglaze your pan with some white wine or broth, add to the casserole. Add some more broth up to a total of about 1 quart ( i cheat and use either the Pacific brand or the concentrate in the jar that is called Better than Bouillion) ... add your favorite herbs (thyme, pepper, bay leaf) and keep in your fridge overnight. (i generally cook it right away and don't refridge, but you can for make-ahead convenience) You might need to sprinkle a bit more flour in to the casserole to thicken the broth as it cooks in the oven

              oven at about 350 (or i think you could slow cooker this but i don't have one - maybe someone here is an expert on that) --- for about 90 minutes. Remove the lid from your casserole for the last 30 minutes or so to get a nice top and thicken it a bit more. I actually don't put the lid on tightly at all during the oven cooking - i don't want steamed chicken. Instead, i use a loose foil cover on a large fancy looking roasting/lasagne pan that i also use to serve it in.

              here is a link to a recipe attributed to Cafe Boulud
              clearly i don't use the whole chicken or the bacon etc etc.

              serve with rustic mashed or roasted NEW potatoes, some green beans or other green steam-able vegetable I notice there are lots of tasty green bean preparation ideas on this website. our chef friend steams the beans ahead of time (keep them bright and crisp) then takes out of fridge and heats in a quick saute pan with a bit of butter/oil mixture. Season to taste.

              i vote for the chocolate dessert idea too.

              1. Choucroute garnie, coq au vin and boeuf bouguignon are all good make-ahead meals - they're better, in fact, the second day. If you prefer cold food, salads are classic bistro fare -- a salade nicoise is easy and hearty, and I'm very fond of a nice celeri remoulade (shredded celery root in a mayonnaise dressing). Or a plate of charcuterie - patés and terrines are pretty easy to make ahead, lots of recipes out there. (A bit unusual, & more complicated because it involves gelatin, but very pretty and tasty, is a jambon persillade - a terrine made of ham chunks in a parsley aspic. A Burgundian classic.)

                For dessert, how about a classic fruit tart? -- Just a sweet pie crust filled with pastry cream (custard), and fresh fruit arranged on top. Or creme caramel (flan) -- easy to make in advance, just turn out the cups onto serving plates when the time comes. Another easy one - if you have strawberries, cut them into bite-sized pieces, soak overnight in some creme de cassis, and serve over sorbet. -- Easiest of all desserts is some fresh fruit (grapes are good) served with some cheese and bread.

                1 Reply
                1. re: benbenberi

                  i first thought of beef burgundy, but with this suggestion of salad nicoise, i think the weather change is callng for lighter fare-- and i'd go for the nicoise, or a version of some composed salad (with lots of crunch and color). check out this "chopped salad" http://applesandonions.com/recipes/co... -- there also follows a nicoise with a great-sounding basil vinaigrette recipe.

                  also, consider this beauty of a dish -- grape terrine in moscato aspic. http://cookeatshare.com/recipes/a-gra...

                2. Tarte Tatin is a little bit unseasonable right now. I've found that it's better to let it cool a bit before flipping, or else all the deilcious juice will fall out.

                  1. Thanks for all of the great ideas. I had considered beef bouguignon, but that had been made at a previous book club., so I probably don't want to do that. Coq au vin is another possibility.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: mountaincachers

                      Second day coq au vin is a worthy contender, however I've found few things in life to be more depressing than to over-marinate either meat in the wrong wine, so think it through. Saute w/prunes sweetens chicken out and allows you to use any cheap chardonnay. Accordingly, bouguignon can be remarkably dreadful in a poor wine, especially if it is not also absolutely tender.

                      1. re: chezKiva

                        Yeah. Cooking with crap wine produces cooked crap. (In my college days I once had a very large batch of beef stew ruined to the point of inedibility by a cheap jug of Carlo Rossi. Blechhh!!) You def. want to cook with something that's worth drinking too.

                        1. re: benbenberi

                          Cooking wines contain salt, although there are probably many (ahhem) Italian dishes where nobody would know the difference !

                          They say every restaurant manager in New York needs to take a course to at least know the basic skills of the sommelier. I've no time for that and must rely on the ill founded opinions of the few experienced vendors near my home. Since I plan to operate in a dry county, there is a high probability I'll get in trouble at some point for using spirits of any kind.Up front, we'll place a row of those awful imitation flavors for the customers to see. Imagine changing the colored waters about every few days just to disguise the facts. Perhaps it really would be easier for me to move to Nice.

                    2. What about boeuf en croute? That can be made ahead of time and then baked when you get home. Do roasted vegetables or salad. You can make ahead crepes or make ahead crepe batter for dessert.

                      1. The other day I was looking at 'http://www.amazon.com/Bistros-Brasser...;, a book that not only tries to sort out the difference among Paris bistros and brasseries (and how they have changed), but also has recipes from a number of notable Paris establishments. The first chapter is a kindle preview.

                        1. A fabulous make-ahead dessert no one does any more is Strawberries Romanoff. The strawberries are set to macerate a couple of days ahead (especially with the early crop varieties), then the ice cream/whipped cream mixture only takes moments to prepare right before serving.

                          I'm dishing up my first-of-the-season batch of it tonight.

                          (Have you thought about serving Hemingway cocktails with fresh grapefruit and lime juices?)

                          1. Chicken liver pate - It sets up overnight. Serve directly from the refrigerator w/ baguette slices.
                            Escargot Burgundy - Blend butter, parsley and garlic ahead of time. Top each snail and broil until bubbling. Your kitchen (if not entire house) will smell just like Paris.
                            Crepes - Make crepes and filling beforehand. Assemble and heat.
                            Confit - You can confit duck or vegetables before and serve immediately.

                            1. Wow, this thread is making me hungry! There is a reason French food is so famous....

                              1. This thread really makes me smile. My sister was a member of a book club for years that did this same thing - match the meal to the book. (The one that particularly comes to mind was a Garrison Keillor book where the meal consisted of a series of midwestern hot dishes!) This went on for some time but each month was getting more and more elaborate and the women were feeling very stressed out about it. The denouement occurred when one of the members took off two days of work to do a very elaborate Chinese feast that went on for many courses! Fifteen years later that book club is still going but now they go to a restaurant every month. Enjoy yours!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Toots4120

                                  We're not quite that elaborate, and the group is not above carry out (particularly from ethnic restaurants.) I guess it depends how carried away you get, but overall it's been fun. It lets us try cooking and eating things that we haven't had before. It's also rewarding to cook for a group who will enthusiastically try anything.

                                2. I have two suggestions: first, take a look at the soups in Dorie Greenspan's latest (French) cookbook. She has a lot of wonderful soups, any of which could be made a day or two before, reheated and served with a bit of crusty bread for a starter. Soup, like braises, is often BETTER the second or third day. So ideal for what you are thinking of. Second suggestion, if you don't want a soup, is a simple tossed salad to start, followed by a classic braise. I do love a braise for entertaining! Then cheese plate for dessert, and there you are.

                                  1. Thanks to all for their suggestions. I really had thought I would do Coq au Vin, but with the weather staying so weirdly and persistently warm (80 degrees at the end of March!!! Really?) decided to go with a warm weather menu.
                                    So here's what I'm doing:
                                    Platter with cheese, grapes, and pate out when they arrive. Followed by the chilled asparagus soup recipe featured in this month's BA menu "April near Paris" and Ina Garten's Roasted Salmon Nicoise salad. (Decided on the salmon because yesterday when I went to the fish market and NO TUNA. Anyway, I know everyone in the group likes salmon, so it should be fine). For dessert: honey lavender ice cream.
                                    Thanks to everyone for great ideas!

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: mountaincachers

                                      Wow! I'd like to be part of that book group!

                                      1. In "The Moveable Feast"', Hemingway describes shooting pigeons with a slingshot in the parks to fill the larder when the commission checks were a tad slow in arriving. I feel that rock cornish game hens spatchcocked and covered in Dijon moustarde would be an exceptable substitute.

                                        Having enjoyed Paris in all seasons, asparagus with a vinagrette would make a fine salad. Fried potatoes, preferably in goose fat, was a great hunger appeaser of the time, and please don't forget a loaf of crusty bread with Normandy butter alongside.

                                        Expensive now, dirt cheap then. Plus a bottle of the cheapest french white you can find. For each guest. Hemingway and each of his brides did not enjoy life by halves.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                                          Reminds me of an early episode of 'Allo 'Allo, in which Edith makes casserole of pigeon from carrier pigeons that were supposed to fly a secret message to London.