Serious Eats: Recipes
French in a Flash: Asparagus Parmesan Pain Perdu with Homemade Tomato Jam
What's in a name? According to Shakespeare, not a whole lot. But does Shakespeare really know everything? To me, there are two kinds of names that are of the utmost fascination in the culinary world: the dishes a nation names after itself, and the dishes nations name after other nations. It seems to me there should be some great linguistic professor like Henry Higgins raring to study this complex, absolutely loaded subject.
My story begins when I was a student in Paris when I was fifteen. Paris was easy to love. But after yet another Gruyère crêpe from the crêpe man near the Tuileries garden, I just wanted a taste of home. I found a pizza shop, and being the good New York girl that I am, I immediately went in for a slice. The pizza was rectangular, and as it does in Europe, it had been sitting under a glass case all day. The disappointment overwhelmed me. OK, I consoled myself, the shop is clean, and when in France.... I looked up at the pizza selections and spotted "Pizza Americaine" right away. "American pizza!" I exclaimed. Oh, thank goodness! Where is it? I look around and around the little shop for a great round pie, bubbling up with marinara and mozzarella, but alas, there was none. I spoke to the man across the counter in French, "Qu'est-ce que c'est, votre pizza americaine?" He then pointed to a little square slice under the glass and started enumerating the toppings: onions, ham, mushrooms, tomatoes, corn, and hard-boiled eggs. I was so desperate that I just started laughing. I had never once seen a pizza in America with a hard-boiled egg on it, much less corn.
On the reverse side of the affair, take French toast. The French toast that we know is thick, snowed with sugar, and drowned in maple syrup. Delicious. But if you were serving it to a poor, lost, homesick Frenchman, he'd probably burst out laughing. In France, "French toast" is known as Pain Perdu which translates to lost bread because it came about as a way to use up day-old bread. It is not a breakfast item. Instead, it is a nursery dessert, served as a comforting sweet finish to a meal, in the way that bread pudding would be served. I usually make mine from brioche, and serve it with a sweet syrup flavored with orange flower water.
This week, I wanted to do a little Franco-American fusion and bring pain perdu to the brunch table--in a definitely savory version. Thick, crusty slices of round peasant bread are quickly dipped into a custard of eggs and half and half that has been salted, peppered, and piled with grated Parmesan cheese. Stalks of asparagus roasted with rosemary are pressed into one side of the bread, and then the Asparagus Parmesan Pain Perdu is cooked over a low flame, where the bread crisps and turns golden, and the Parmesan toasts and melts and fills the whole house with a salty, nutty aroma. For something sweet, but savory too, I serve homemade tomato jam on the side. This dish is unusual and unorthodox, but it's delicious and different and so easy I was actually surprised myself.
Maybe Shakespeare was right after all. So long as I get to eat Pain Perdu, I don't really care what it's called. Especially if the American moniker calls it French.
About the author: Kerry Saretsky is the creator of French Revolution Food, where she reinvents her family's classic French recipes in a fresh, chic, modern way.