Category Archives: French Connection

Pumpkin & Camembert Pici

on the plate

resistance is futile

This season is all about the pumpkin. You might not agree with the phenomenon, but you certainly cannot fight it. So here’s a recipe for pici pasta with pumpkin and Camembert to celebrate your submission to the pumpkin forces of fall. Enjoy!

Ingredients for 4-5 servings

400 grams pici pasta
300 grams circa fresh pumpkin
1/2 (or more) of a traditional round of Camembert cheese
1 small fresh red chili pepper
fresh thyme
olive oil
salt & pepper

Instructions

You have a couple options on how to prep the pumpkin. Option 1: Roast the pumpkin for about 25 minutes at 180° C /355° F. Let cool, peel, roughly chop, and set aside. Option 2: Peel the pumpkin, chop into large cubes and boil for about 10 minutes or until soft. Scoop from the water and drain but do not turn off the heat. Add salt to the water and use to cook the pici al dente.

Process the cooked pumpkin until fairly smooth (slightly chunky is fine), keeping in mind that the roasted pumpkin will be dry so you might add a bit of olive oil. The boiled pumpkin should not need any additional liquid. Mince the chili pepper and cook for a minute in a pan with olive oil. Transfer the processed pumpkin to the pan. Break the cheese into pieces and add to the pumpkin, stirring occasionally over low heat so it melts. Salt and pepper to taste. Then transfer the cooked pici to the pan and combine well. Serve with fresh thyme and ground black pepper (optional).

Leek & Potato Gratin with Blue Cheese & Thyme

oh, gratin.

oh, gratin.

After a lengthy hiatus from blogging—a delightful trip to California last month that saw quite a few amazing meals but almost no cooking on my part!—I’m back home and back to my regular kitchen routine. This gratin, inspired equally by Deborah Madison and a tempting chunk of blue Stilton in my fridge, was yesterday’s lunch. Enjoy!

Ingredients

2 large leeks, mostly the white parts, rinsed and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 large potatoes (about 450 grams/just under a pound), peeled and sliced into rounds roughly the same thickness as the leek rounds
1 cup (about 150 grams) crumbled blue cheese of your choice
1 & ½ cups circa béchamel:
2 Tbls butter
3 Tbls flour
1 cup (250 mls) fresh heavy cream
1 Tbls chopped fresh thyme, plus a few sprigs for garnishing (optional)
ground nutmeg
salt & pepper

Instructions

Set the oven to 350° F / 175° C. Boil the sliced leeks for 2 minutes in salted water. Scoop out, strain, and set aside in a colander to let cool. Boil the potato slices in the same water for 4 minutes, strain and let cool a bit. Meanwhile, make the béchamel:

Combine the butter and flour in a non-stick saucepan over low heat until a paste forms. Add the cream and stir or whisk vigorously until thoroughly combined. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often as it thickens to prevent the sauce from sticking. Add the chopped thyme about halfway through. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper and grate in approximately ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg. Keep the sauce warm while you proceed.

Butter a 9-inch (or similar) shallow glass baking dish or casserole. Line the bottom with a layer of potato slices, then a layer of the leeks. Now gently spread a layer of the white sauce over the veggies, followed by some of the crumbled blue cheese. You should have enough vegetables and béchamel for another layer. Tip: lightly salt and pepper the second layer of potato. Top with the remaining blue cheese and any straggler pieces of leek. Bake for about 30 minutes and remove from the oven when the top is bubbling and starting to turn golden. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.

just out of the oven

just out of the oven

Caviar d’Aubergine

caviar

the poor man’s caviar

I discovered eggplant caviar in Provence, where it is commonly served as an hors d’oeuvre with crackers or bread. It is sometimes called poor man’s caviar, according to Peter Mayle, ‘because the aubergine seeds, when looked at with an uncritical eye, resemble the eggs of the virgin sturgeon.’

Ingredients

1 large eggplant
3 to 4 cloves of roasted garlic (my addition, optional)
juice of ½ a lemon
¼ cup olive oil
1 Tbls fresh chopped thyme (savory or parsley too, optional)
salt & pepper

Instructions

You want a bed of glowing super-hot coals in your grill. It is absolutely vital that you prick the eggplant skin all over with a fork before placing it on the grill. Turn the eggplant every few minutes to cook evenly. The skin will soften, and eventually as it blackens the eggplant will start to collapse on itself. It is done when all the skin is blackened (and even blistered) and the veg is very soft and squishy.

At the same time, grill an entire head of garlic: slice off the top ¼ inch to expose the garlic cloves, drizzle with a little oil, sprinkle with salt, wrap in foil and grill until the garlic is very soft when pressed. Let cool.

When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut it open and scoop out the flesh into a strainer. Press out any liquid. Transfer the flesh to a chopping board or food processor along with the roasted garlic. You basically want a mash, so chop by hand or process as you see fit. Transfer to a bowl and add the lemon juice, herbs, oil, salt and pepper to taste. Blend well and serve with sliced bread or crackers.

Baked Goat Cheese

chèvre & tomino

chèvre & tomino, breaded & baked

A recipe from David Lebovitz, who says ‘this isn’t a strict recipe, but a technique’ (win!). The basic idea is to marinate rounds of soft goat cheese, dredge them in seasoned, toasted breadcrumbs, and bake. Easy, tasty, elegant on the plate. Have look at Lebovitz’s recipe for specs. He’s always a great read, anyway. I added two rounds of tomino piemontese, following the same technique. Enjoy!

Oeufs en Cocotte

un œuf très chic

I am a great fan of the egg and am always on the lookout for new ways to make them. This is Julia Child’s recipe for oeufs en cocotte aux fines herbes, or eggs baked in ramekins with herbs. While a bit more work than your average egg dish, these are very flavorful, and not a little stylish on the table. Bon appétit!

Ingredients for each serving

1 – 2 eggs
1 tsp butter
2 Tbls cream
1 Tbls of mixed fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, tarragon, or thyme, chopped
salt & pepper

Instructions

Heat the oven to 190° C / 375° F . Bring a panful of water to simmer, enough to reach about the halfway mark on your ramekins (about 3/4 to 1 inch of water, depending on your cookware).  Chop the herbs. Butter the ramekins and add 1 tablespoon of cream to each and sprinkle with the fresh herbs. Place the dishes in the simmering water. When the cream is hot, break in the egg(s), pour in the remaining cream and add a small tab of butter. Now remove the ramekins from the water and place them in the oven on the middle shelf and bake for 7 to 10 minutes. Child recommends removing them from the oven when they are slightly undercooked: “…when they are just set but still tremble slightly in the ramekins.” I removed them after precisely 7 minutes. This is really a matter of individual judgment, but do note that the eggs will set more after you remove them from the oven, and you do not want to overcook them. Season with salt and pepper and serve with good bread. Pictured here: rosemary focaccia.

Fricandò all’Ivrea: Ugly Never Tasted So Good

ugly but good

well hello, gorgeous!

Stews are not, as a rule, photogenic. This recipe from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy* for fricandò all’Ivrea, however, is too good to hide away in a corner. So look away if you must, but believe me this ‘meat stew in the style of Ivrea,’ a town in Piedmont close to the border with Valle d’Aosta, will win you over by the bite.

There’s a neat back-story to fricandò. Field reminds us of the French-Italian interplay coloring so many things piemontese, referencing two legends on the dish’s origins. According to the first, fricandò was introduced to the French by Caterina de’ Medici. Personally, I find Cate Medici’s purported influence on French culinary concerns to be a touch exaggerated, yet I will concede it is certainly possible. A competing theory has Napoleon’s cook bringing the recipe from France to his post-wars restaurant in Milan—a tale that intrigues to be sure but seems just as difficult to corroborate (Google was no help at all). Whomever we credit, the linguistic likeness of the Italian fricandò and the French fricandeau (veal larded in prosciutto or other pork fat then roasted and glazed in its juices) would suggest we’re dealing with a braise-and-stew cooking method that has long possessed broad appeal to Northern Italians and French alike.

Field’s recipe is reprinted here almost word for word. I reduced the overall portions by about a third, but did not alter the called-for amounts of the cooking fats, vinegar, and tomato paste, as I was striving for a smaller overall portion of stew without changing too much the characteristics of the sauce. This was a bit of a risk, I admit, but it worked out well. If you are cooking for 3 to 4 people rather than 6, follow my parenthetical notes on amounts. Do keep in mind though that Field’s comment ‘this dish tastes even better the next day’ is absolutely true.  If you end up with leftovers you won’t regret it, so if you want to make a really big pot of stew, follow Field’s indications for 6 people.

Ingredients for 6 people

2 ½ Tbls (about 40 grams) butter
3 carrots, finely chopped (I used 2)
2 onions, finely chopped (I used 1)
2 celery stalks, finely chopped (I used 1)
4 Tbls olive oil
3 mild Italian sausages (I used 2)
3 pounds (a little less than 1 ½  kilograms) baby-back ribs, cut into 2-rib sections (I used about 2 pounds of ribs)
6 cloves (I used 4)
2 bay leaves
2 ½  Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls tomato paste
water
salt & pepper
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (I used 3)

Instructions

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot and add the chopped carrot, onion and celery. Sauté until soft and transfer to a plate or bowl. Line the bottom of the pot with the olive oil and add the ribs and the sausages (prick them a few times first) and brown on all sides. Here Fields says to now drain off the fat, an indication I chose to ignore and would encourage you to do likewise. Add the cloves, bay leaves, and vinegar and turn the heat up high and let the liquid bubble until it evaporates. In the meantime dissolve the tomato paste in 1 ¾ cups water (I used 1 ¼) and add to the pot when the vinegar has mostly evaporated. Return the vegetables to the pot, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook over medium-low flame for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Turn the meat occasionally. If it gets dry add a bit of water. Add the potatoes and cook for another 30 minutes, turning them frequently so they absorb flavor.

For my version the total cooking time was 2 hours: 1 ½ hours for the meat then an additional 30 minutes after adding the potato.

culture bites

Fricassee, a similar dish typically made with chicken and a white sauce, and fricandò/fricandeau have a common word root in the French frire, to fry. Fricassee comes from frire + casser, to break or cut up (in pieces); while fricandeau derives from the formation frire + casserande/viande (meat) + the suffix eau. The English/French word fracas and the Italian fracasso, synonymous with skirmish/skuffle/uproar/crash, derive half their root from their respective language’s same-meaning verb—again casser in French, and fracassare in Italian, from the Latin quasser. Fricasso ‘the little skirmisher’ is one of many aliases of the ‘Capitano’ stock character in commedia dell’arte.

If Ivrea sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen footage or heard mention of the yearly Battle of the Oranges, a bizarre and savage old festival the town puts on every Carnevale season.

*The complete title of Field’s book is Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods 

Chevrè & Tomato Puff Pastries

caption caption

pâte feuilletée avec du fromage de chèvre et tomate

Today is a sad day. Back from France not three weeks and I’ve just realized how low my store of goodies is running. If your obsession with French ingredients matches mine, or if you happened to read this post about last year’s France trip, you get how disheartening a time this is (and it doesn’t help that ‘A Good Year’ is on the tube right now).

Save or use? That’s always the nagging question with the long-shelf-life ingredients we haul back from France. Relying on my formidable will power (I hide things from myself), I usually manage to forget for a time the glass jars safeguarding their various forms of yum. But the fresh stuff, those darlings of the bunch like crème fraîche, canciollotte, the fromages bleus—these require constant attention to expiration dates to thwart any bacteria uprisings.

The last of the chevrè rounds is expired. Not by much, and no way I’m tossing it, but it needs to be used asap. While cradling the precious disk in my hand, I remembered an appetizer served at the alpine B&B we stayed in last month. This is my interpretation of Les 5 Saison‘s tomato & chevrè puff pastries.

Ingredients

1 roll of pasta brisè or puff pastry dough (use store-bought; no one’s judging)
1 small round of chevrè (about 150 grams)
2 or 3 medium round tomatoes

Instructions

Heat the oven to 180° C (about 350° F). Cut the pasty dough into rectangles about 3″ by 1.5″ and score them lengthwise with a small sharp knife. Slice the tomatoes into thin rounds and gently shake out most of the seeds and liquid. Slice the chevrè into small pieces about the size of a nickel. Layer each piece of pastry with tomato, then cheese, then tomato and so on until each piece is covered. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the cheese gooey. Sprinkle with herbes de provence if you have some. Fresh thyme or chives would also be good on these. If you’re not fond of goat cheese, you could make these pastries with mozzarella or ricotta forte, in which case garnish instead with fresh basil.

 

Les Olives Noires de Nyons: The Identity & Flavor of the Drôme Provençale

tapenade nyonsaise avec pain

tapenade nyonsaise avec du pain

Black olives are important to the people of Nyons. Driving around this city in the Drôme department of southeastern France, you can’t help but notice the olive’s leading role status in local life: in the frequent turn-off signs to oil mills, in the ubiquitous olive tree symbol stenciled on everything from moving vans to store-front windows, in brimming marché  bins, and hillside after hillside of shimmering, immaculately-cultivated groves. But perhaps the strongest evidence of the olive’s influence is found on road-side billboards proclaiming the black olive of Nyons  ‘unique in the world’ and reminding those who pass through these parts that this is a terroir appellation d’origine protégée, and a ‘remarkable site of taste’ to boot!

More than the groundwork of micro-economies such as olive oil production and soap and other beauty products, olives seem to truly form part of the cultural identity here. Walking through the outdoor market in Buis les Baronnies on a recent trip, all activity—chatting, tasting, bartering, buying—turned on the olive and its variants. Tourists played a part in this scene, naturally, yet most of the olive-centered goings-on took place among locals themselves. I’d wager every man, woman and child of the Drôme is an expert on the olive and olive oil.

When eating out in or near Nyons, a small pot of black olive tapenade served with chunks of perfect bread is the essential hors d’œuvre nyonsaise (which reminds me a little of the chips-and-salsa starter tradition at Mexican restaurants). If you don’t order tapenade, it will be recommended, invariably and strongly, by your server, whose superior yet gentle tone I interpret to mean something like: ‘It’s not my job to evaluate whether or not you have good taste, but I see you know nothing about it, and I prefer you do not miss out on this unique and delicious dish of ours.’ With their strange blend of indifference and magnanimity, French servers are always to be complied with, in my experience.

Tapenade is unique. A dense, pleasantly-bitter, beautifully-black spread made of ground olives, capers, olive oil, and sometimes anchovy, herbs, and fresh garlic, tapenade needs a robust beverage partner: a red wine (ideally a Côtes du Rhône) over white, or a sweet, fortified apéritif (like Muscat de Beaumes de Venise) over beer or Prosecco.

Recipes for tapenade abound. Two of my favorite food writers, David Leibowitz and Georgeanne Brennan, both have great recipes (Leibowitz’s tapenade recipe post is, as always, a lovely read). For the purist, I suggest this traditional nyonsaise recipe I found in the gorgeous book Au Pays des Olives: Oliviers, Olives, et Huile d’Olive de Nyons:

Ingredients

500 grams (about a pound) of unpitted black olives, de Nyons if possible
2 Tbsp capers
juice of 1 lemon
olive oil
salt

Instructions

Juice the lemon. Pit the olives, finely chop the meat and place it in a mortar or ceramic bowl. Add the capers and crush with a wooden pestle until a thick paste forms. Drizzle with olive oil, add the lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and stir well. You can also use a food processor, but the consistency will be smoother, not the slightly chunky version obtained with the traditional mortar and pestle method. This recipe makes about 250 grams (1 cup) of tapenade. It will keep for up to five days in the fridge and is best stored in glass jars.

'unique in the world'

‘unique in the world’

Grilled Eggplant Rolls with Goat Cheese & Tomato Concassé

on the plate

on the plate

Here’s a solid summer recipe courtesy of Georgeanne Brennan, from her gorgeous cookbook The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence. These were a big hit at my recent Provençal-themed lunch with friends. Even the baby liked them!

Brennan’s recipe called for one large eggplant. As I was to serve this as a side dish for a party of 8 people, I used two large eggplants.

Ingredients for 6 to 8 people (as a side dish or appetizer)

2 large eggplants
2 Tbls herbes de Provence
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbls extra virgin olive oil
200 grams (about a cup) fresh goat cheese
8 to 10 small tomatoes
1/3 cup (about a handful) chopped fresh basil
salt & pepper

Instructions

Cut the eggplants lengthwise about ¼ inch thick. You should have about 15 slices. Place them in a large platter or baking dish and cover with salt, fresh ground pepper, the herbes, and olive oil. Turn them a few times to coat well. Let marinate for about an hour.

Finely chop the basil and set aside.

To prepare the concassé, peel, de-seed, and chop the tomatoes. Although Brennan does not say to, I always score and boil tomatoes if they are to be peeled, as it’s so much easier to get the skin off. This time I ‘flash’ boiled them: 2 minutes. Once they are cool, peel and de-seed the tomatoes, roughly chop the flesh, and transfer to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the basil and stir. Set aside, but not in the fridge.

Get your grill fire going. (You can also use a grooved grilling pan if you prefer, which will require more olive oil for the pan.) When the coals are ready, grill the eggplant slices about 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until they are browned and soft in the middle. Let cool for about 15 minutes.

When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, spread a small scoop (about a tablespoon) of the goat cheese onto each slice and set them on a platter. When this step is done, sprinkle the chopped basil over all the slices. Then roll up each one. Brennan uses a toothpick to secure them; I just made little folded pockets. Serve with the tomato, either by placing two rolls on each plate with a scoop of the concassé as garnish; or, as pictured here, on a communal platter with the garnish in the middle.

Herbes de Provence

les herbes

Herbes de Provence are the quintessential flavor of southern France, marketed throughout the region in decorative tins or rustic-looking canvas sachets. Stripped of their elegant appellation, however, herbes are simply a blend of some of your most common dried kitchen herbs: rosemary, summer savory, oregano, marjoram, basil, and thyme. In the truest Provençal tradition, dried lavender is included in the mix.