I still remember the first ever home cooked meal I ate in France. I had just arrived as an au pair in a tiny (and I mean tiny) town in the French Alps about 45 minutes from Chamonix, and I felt out of place and homesick. But when I got to their little chalet, the family was waiting for me with a nice home-cooked meal made with fresh ingredients, and it helped me feel so much more at home. The more meals I ate with the family, the more I realized how important eating fresh, healthy foods was to this family and the French.
I lived with the family for a whole summer, so I was able to try a ton of different French meals. The mom, Estelle, and dad, Didier, were both nurses, so their schedules were always changing, and getting an au pair was the perfect option for them. I helped them with their four kids: 10-year-old Titouan, 8-year-old Natanael, and three-year-old twins Maelys and Noah. It was definitely a handful, but I loved it. We took walks that were more like hikes up the steep mountain to the local playground, turned circles on our bicycles in a parking lot that was used during ski season, and went foraging for wild berries.
Didier was super into gardening and had a huge garden in his yard where he grew a bunch of vegetables like les tomates (tomatoes), les pommes de terre (potatoes), la salade (lettuce), and les haricots verts (green beans). He also had 15 beehives, so every morning we ate our petit-dejeuner (breakfast) of sliced baguette with fresh miel (honey) and beurre (butter). Food-wise, things were pretty amazing.
They also made their own confiture (jelly) from wild berries they foraged, grew in their garden, or bought from local farmers. The dad also dabbled in making homemade alcohol and I still think about the honey wine he made once. Overall, I loved spending the summer with the French family and we still keep in contact after almost four years. Though, things were not all warm baguettes and wildflower picking because I was still chasing after four energetic kids, changing wet sheets, and struggling to communicate (and discipline) in my second language.
There were nights where I had to FaceTime a friend just so that I could feel what it was like to talk without having to think so hard. It was definitely hard to be plopped down in the middle of nowhere with a different family, a different room, a different phone, and a different car and still feel like myself. Eventually I settled into being an au pair, but I always found solace after a long day in the home-cooked meals made with fresh homegrown ingredients.
So for anyone who is feeling out of place or out of their routine, a good meal can really help bring you back down to earth for a little. I’m sharing two of my favorite recipes that Estelle used to make for dinner as well as a go-to classic that my boyfriend’s mom makes for us a lot. These are all recipes that can be easily made after a hard day and use mostly ingredients you’ll likely already have in your pantry. Enjoy a little trip to France right from your kitchen!
1. Croque Monsieur/Croque Madame
This is a go-to in my boyfriend’s household and what I consider the French version of grilled cheese. It’s a crowd-pleaser and can usually be whipped up without a trip to the grocery store.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
⅔ cup milk
4 slices of bread
4 slices of ham
½ cup of shredded Gruyere (or Swiss cheese)
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- To prepare the béchamel sauce, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once the bubbles disappear, add the tablespoon of flour and whisk vigorously for 1 minute. Add in the milk slowly while continuing to whisk until smooth. Bring the sauce to a boil, and continue stirring until the sauce thickens. Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add salt and nutmeg as desired.
- Take out a baking sheet and cover it with parchment paper or aluminum foil. This is what you’ll build your sandwiches on so that you don’t have to transfer them to the baking sheet later.
- Take two of your slices of bread and spread half of the béchamel sauce generously over them. Sprinkle both of the slices with cheese only using a little more than ¼ cup total. Now lay two slices of ham on top of the sprinkled cheese.
- Cover the two garnished slices of bread with the two unused slices and then spread the rest of the béchamel sauce on top of the sandwiches. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on both.
- Your sandwiches are now ready to put in the oven! Bake them for 12 minutes or until golden brown.
If you want to make a croque madame just fry an egg and put it on top of your croque monsieur when it’s done cooking. I love making croque madames because I don’t eat meat, so it’s a good way to add some protein if you take out the ham. Enjoy!
If you want to challenge yourself with the French version of the recipe, you can check it out here. There are also pictures that go along with each step, which can be helpful.
2. Tarte à la tomate et à la moutarde
While tomato and mustard pie doesn’t sound amazing, this is hands-down my favorite recipe from my days as an au pair. It even has my boyfriend’s approval and he’s a pretty picky eater. This is a simple recipe you can whip up quickly, but you might need to head to the grocery store to buy puff pastry or sugar-free pie crust. If you’re not sure what to find either of these, I linked two popular versions of each below that are available at most grocery stores.
The reason why I offer either using puff pastry or sugar-free pie crust in this recipe is because this tarte can be made either way. In France, there are three main types of premade crusts sold in stores that are used for tartes, quiches, and other French desserts: brisée, sablée and feuilletée. Feuilletée is puff pastry dough, brisée is a buttery sugar-free pie dough, and sablée is a shortcrust pastry dough. You can use either feuilletée or brisée for this recipe, so it’s up to you to decide which one you want depending on if you’d rather have something flakier or crumblier. They’re both good options, but I prefer feuilletée!
4 medium tomatoes
3 tablespoons of dijon mustard
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 sheet of puff pastry or sugar-free pie crust
½ cup shredded Gruyere or Swiss (optional)
1 tablespoon of Herbes de Provence (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 390 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the puff pastry or pie crust on a large baking sheet covered in parchment paper or aluminum foil. Poke holes all over the pastry or pie crust with a fork and then bake for 12 minutes.
- While the puff pastry or pie crust is baking slice the tomatoes into medium-thin slices.
- Once the puff pastry or pie crust is done baking, turn the oven down to 355 degrees Fahrenheit and take it out of the oven. You can then spread the 3 tablespoons of mustard over the entire thing. Add the sliced tomatoes and drizzle with two tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with Gruyere cheese, salt, and pepper (and Herbs de Provence if desired).
- Bake for about 30 minutes. Enjoy!
Here is the recipe in French if you want to check it out. The only difference between this recipe and mine is that I add shredded cheese and I lay mine flat instead of putting it in a pie tin.
3. Gratin de courgettes et riz
You’ve probably heard of potato gratin, but the French like to create gratin with a bunch of different ingredients. Pretty much anything that is thrown in the oven in a casserole dish with melted cheese on top can be considered gratin. When I was an au pair, I loved this gratin made with rice and zucchini. I like a good casserole because you can feed a crowd with it and there’s usually leftovers.
1 cup of rice
7 oz. of sour cream (This recipe is usually made with crème fraiche, but it can be hard to find in some grocery stores so sour cream is a pretty fine replacement in this recipe.)
1 cup of shredded Gruyere
1 cup of water
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 cube of vegetable stock
- Preheat the oven to 355 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Dice the shallots and cut the zucchini into slices and then cut the slices in half so that they look like half-moons. (You can peel the zucchini if you’d rather have it without the skin.)
- Add the two tablespoons of olive oil and chopped shallots to a medium saucepan on medium heat. Once the shallots begin to look translucent, add the sliced zucchini and cook for 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the cup of rice. When the rice starts to look translucent or golden brown around the edges, add one cup of water and the cube of vegetable stock. Let cook for 10-15 minutes. Depending on the type of rice you have you might have to add a little more water, so I would suggest tasting your rice to make sure it’s not too hard before continuing to the next step.
- Once the rice is done, remove the saucepan from the heat. While the mixture is cooling, beat the eggs in a small bowl and mix them with the sour cream.
- Next, add the eggs and sour cream together with the rice mixture, and put the mixture into a rectangular baking dish (15in x 9in).
- Sprinkle with the Gruyere cheese and bake for 10 minutes.
You can check out the recipe in French here.
I hope you enjoy making these recipes as much as I enjoyed sharing them with you guys. Feel free to tag us @rosettastone if you try any of these recipes out for yourself!