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This is the chicken version of the Piedmontese dish, vitello tonnato. It’s less trouble to make, less expensive, and some would say equally delicious. It’s best made with poached chicken breasts which are then thinly sliced and layered in a mayonnaise-like tuna sauce. In a pinch you can use a store-bought roasted chicken or – as I often do here in France –  a smoked chicken, readily available at supermarkets. With a green or tomato salad and some crusty bread, it’s perfect for a summer lunch or light supper. For a larger gathering or festive occasion, it can even be made a day ahead of time, knowing that the flavors will only improve with time. In fact I think that, like vitello tonnato, it’s at its best if allowed to sit for a while so that the chicken absorbs the flavors of the sauce.

Serves 4

 Ingredients:

 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 5-6 oz. each

2 cups chicken stock, salted

For the tonnato sauce:

1 – 6 oz. good quality canned tuna

6 anchovy filets

1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade

1/2 cup light olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

For the garnish:

2 – 3 tablespoons capers

Lemon slces

Remove any fat or unpleasant bits from the chicken breasts.  Heat the chicken stock to boiling point in a shallow pan that will just accommodate the chicken breasts. Add the chicken and when it comes back to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer the chicken very gently for two minutes.  Turn the chicken breasts over, turn off the heat, cover the pan and let the chicken rest for a further 5 minutes.  Check that it’s cooked by cutting into a piece or by pressing it with your finger tips.  If it doesn’t give at all, it’s cooked.  Drain the chicken, saving the stock. Slice the chicken crosswise into thin slices (5-6 to each breast).  It doesn’t matter if the slices aren’t perfect – no one will know when you layer it.

Make the tonnato sauce:

Put the tuna and anchovies in a food processor and reduce to a thick puree. You can add the oil from the tuna can if it’s good quality. Add the mayonnaise, then the oil and the lemon juice. You want it to be a thick but pourable sauce; so you’ll need to thin it with a couple of tablespoons of the chicken stock. Taste for seasoning – you can add some pepper, but won’t need much salt (maybe even none) because of the anchovies.

Assemble the dish:

On a deep platter that will take all the chicken, spoon a few tablespoons of the sauce and spread it around.  Cover with a layer of chicken.  Spread enough tonnato on the chicken to cover it.  Sprinkle with some of the capers.  Continue to layer the chicken and tonnato, ending up with a layer of tonnato.  Sprinkle with the rest of the capers and decorate with lemon slices. Refrigerate the dish for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight, making sure you remove it from the fridge at least an hour before consuming it. You may have some tonnato left over — it’s especially delicious with hard-boiled eggs or sliced tomatoes.

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I’ve been chomping at the bit to write this blog for some time, but had to restrain myself until summer actually arrived. These are our favorite salads that we make over and over again – for picnics, for lunches on the terrace, and for cold suppers anywhere. Aside from being really delectable, they are ALL very easy to make — you won’t spend hours in the kitchen “dragging your tits over a hot stove”, as our friend Charles used to say.

These are not composed salads which can serve as an entire meal, but rather are meant to be part of a team for a picnic or buffet. While these four go together, any one of them would be happy with other players you might prefer to select.

Tuscan Bean Salad

This is my version of the famous tuna and white bean salad. Couldn’t be simpler, and the flavors are not muddied by unnecessary additions like olives and sundried tomatoes which, in my opinion, don’t improve it at all. It’s wonderful to take on a picnic, kids love it, and if by some remote chance you have leftovers, it can be trotted out a second or even a third time.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

 2 cans of your best cannelini beans, rinsed and well drained

1 can of tuna (see below)

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped red onion

Dressing:

1 clove garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon each lemon juice and red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper

I like to use the best canned tuna I can find – usually bottles of albacore packed in olive oil from Spain or Italy – but the salad will still be good even if you choose to use any-old-tuna packed in water. Make the dressing: Crush the garlic with a half-teaspoon of salt, add the oil, lemon juice, vinegar and pepper, stir well to blend.  Put the beans, parsley and onion in a serving bowl and add the dressing.  Drain the tuna, flake it, mix half of it into the beans and decorate the top with the rest of it. Taste to make sure the seasoning is right. 

Squid and Tomato Salad

This is a Richard Olney recipe from his Provence the Beautiful Cookbook.  Provided you have squid on hand, it’s a snap to make. Usually I use frozen squid, readily available in France and at Trader Joe’s in the U.S., but you can of course use fresh. Small squid remain meltingly tender if you cut them into rings and cook them over high heat for no more than a minute. Overcooked, they toughen and you end up with rubber bands.  I usually thaw the squid about halfway, cut it into 1/4 inch rings and then let it completely thaw in a colander.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 

2  ripe tomatoes cut into fairly large dice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 lb. small squid, 3-4″ long, cleaned and cut crosswise into rings

1 tablespoon chopped parsley and/or basil

Salt and pepper

For the vinaigrette:

1 small garlic clove

Pinch of coarse salt

1-2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1-2 tablespoon olive oil

Pepper

Put the chopped tomatoes into a strainer to drain for 20-30 minutes.

Heat the olive oil over high heat in a pan large enough to accommodate the squid in a single layer.  Pat the squid dry, throw them in the pan, and stir fry them over high heat for no more than a minute or until they have released their liquid and turned opaque. Scoop them into a salad bowl, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Reduce the liquid in the pan to a teaspoon or two.

Make the vinaigrette: Pound the garlic and salt to a paste (preferably in a mortar), add 1 teaspoon vinegar, one tablespoon oil and the reduced squid liquid.

Mix the drained tomatoes with the squid along with the chopped parsely and/or basil.  Pour over the dressing, toss well, add some pepper and check the seasoning. You may want to add the rest of the vinegar and oil.  It’s best if you can serve it immediately as the warm squid and the cold tomatoes make a lovely contrast.  However, it’s still certainly worth making if you need to save it for later.  It’s also delicious with pasta.  

Greek Beans

If you go into the kitchen of any simple taverna in Greece you are likely to find a pot of these green beans simmering gently on the stove.  I first encountered them almost fifty years ago and have been cooking them ever since, although I have recently changed how I make them.  Greeks simmer the tomatoes and beans together until the beans are tender which can take 40-50 minutes, but I have found that cooking the beans halfway first and adding them to the tomato mixture for a shorter cooking time works just as well. And the beans keep their color instead of turning a rather sinister  shade of green. They also usually start the dish with sauteed onions, but I prefer it with just olive oil, tomatoes, garlic, herbs – and of course the beans. I like to use young runner beans for this dish but any good quality green beans will be fine.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1- 2 tablespoons olive oil

3-4 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1-14 oz. can

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley 

1 lb. runner beans, or use any best-quality green beans

Heat one tablespoon olive oil over low heat.  Add the tomatoes, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper to the pan and cook

slowly for about 10 minutes until you have a nice thick tomato sauce.

Meanwhile, top and tail the beans and cut them into about 1″ pieces.  Depending on how young and fresh they are,

cook them (uncovered) in boiling water for about 5 minutes.  They should still be crunchy.  Drain them and add them

to the tomato mixture and continue to cook, uncovered, about 10-15 minutes.  Check the seasoning and stir in the parsley and a little more olive oil.  At this stage you can add some chopped dill, basil or mint if you choose (not all 3).  I like these beans best warm but they are also good hot or cold.  And they last for several days in the refrigerator.

Jamie Oliver’s Watermelon Salad

This is a great hot weather dish – crisp watermelon and salty feta zapped with mint, lime and olive oil. Many variations have shown up on the Internet that add all sorts of unnecessary ingredients. More is not always merrier.  As with the all these recipes, I believe that keeping things simple and letting the chosen flavors shine through usually produces the best results. So I just go with Jamie’s original.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 cups watermelon, seeded, and cut into cubes

1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves

1 tablespoon olive oil

The juice of a lime or lemon

Freshly ground pepper

Mix all the ingredients together gently in a serving bowl.  What could be easier?

Note: I have somewhat arbitrarily said that the four recipes above each serve four. This would very much depend on whether you serve all four at once, and whether you add other bits and pieces to your “buffet” or picnic.  Any two of them would probably serve four not-too-greedy people.

There are a zillion recipes out there for ratatouille, right? Everyone from Julia Child to Martha Stewart has a version. So why am I bothering with it it when I usually only write about dishes you’re not likely to run into or ones that I have a strong opinion about the right way to make it? Check the latter.  Ratatouille is one of the most abused dishes in the universe. It seems you can just bung a pile of veggies into a pot with some olive oil and garlic and 15 minutes later, voila, ratatouille!

It’s not a complicated dish but it does require some care. I think it’s important to cook the vegetables separately before combining them, allowing each one to maintain its individuality, so that you don’t end up with a sludgy mound of undercooked eggplant and overcooked zucchini.

With its olive oil, garlic, peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and herbs, ratatouille is about as Provençal as you can get. You can make it year ’round but it’s at its best in the summer when the veggies are at their peak. Not only is it delicious but it’s high in nutrients and low in calories, making it super healthy. I like to serve it on its own, warm or at room temperature, where its flavors can best be appreciated, but it is also good hot with roasts or grilled meat.  As it does take a bit of effort, I usually make a fairly large amount so that by the end of a week we never want to see ratatouille again.

Ratatouille

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients:

3 medium eggplants (aubergines)

3-5 zucchini (courgettes) depending on size, the smaller the better

4-5 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 red and one either green or yellow pepper, sliced thinly into strips

3-4 ripe summer tomatoes (about 1 lb.), peeled and chopped coarsely

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a bay leaf (optional), chopped parsley and basil

Cut the eggplant and the zucchini into 1/2 inch cubes.  (If the zucchini are less than 4″ long, cut them into rounds.)  Put them separately into colanders, salt them with a teaspoon of salt each, weigh them down with something heavy, and let them drain for at least 30 minutes.  Pat dry on paper towels.  I don’t like to saute eggplant because it absorbs too much oil. So I line an oven tray with foil, and toss the eggplant and zucchini separately, each with a tablespoon of olive oil. If your tray is big enough, spread the veggies out separately on the tray – otherwise use two trays. Heat the oven to broil and broil the eggplant/zucchini for about 10 minutes until beginning to brown. Turn them over and bake for a further 5 minutes, until soft and lightly browned.  Ovens and grills vary widely so keep a close watch and do not burn. 

While the eggplant and zucchini are draining and cooking, saute the onion in two tablespoons olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the peppers and cook for another 10 minutes.  Add 3/4 of the tomatoes, the garlic, thyme and optional bay leaf, salt and pepper, and simmer over low heat until the peppers are cooked and the liquid in the pan is reduced somewhat.  Add the eggplant and zucchini and continue to cook over low heat until you are satisfied with its texture.  I like it well cooked so let the combined mixture simmer gently for up to half an hour.  I also like to add the remaining tomato towards the end, especially if the mixture is beginning to stick, but also to give it a jolt of fresh tomato flavor.  This is of course optional.  Turn the ratatouille into a large serving bowl, check for seasoning, add the chopped parsley and torn  basil leaves and a splash of olive oil.  

Covered, it can last in the refrigerator for up to a week and is actually better on the second and third days.  

For something different, spread leftover ratatouille in a gratin dish, heat it and make indentations in its surface to accommodate as many eggs as you wish to serve.  Carefully break an egg into each indentation, return it to the oven at 350 degrees until the eggs are just set, about 10 minutes.

Portuguese Mussels

This is our favorite mussel dish. I guess we call it Portuguese because it mixes mussels, chorizo (or linguiça) and cilantro and this is thought of as a Portuguese combination.  We usually serve it with pasta although it’s good on its own and the sauce even without the mussels is so delicious that we’ve been known to serve it with pasta when no mussels are available. Here in France we get moules de Bouchot in the summer – they are small but the shells are completely filled so that a pound or two goes a long way. Make sure your mussels are fresh – no cracked or broken shells nor ones that don’t close up when you tap them. We steam the mussels separately in white or rosé wine and then either shell them and add them to the sauce or, better still, mix the sauce with the pasta and bring the steamed pot of mussels to the table so that your guests can shell them themselves and add them to their bowl of pasta.  It seems a pity to cook the mussels in the delicious sauce –  too much of it is lost to the shells. Either way, this dish is a winner.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped fine

1/2 red pepper, sliced thinly into 1″ pieces

1 large clove garlic, chopped fine

2 oz. dried chorizo, preferably hot, sliced into 1/4″ rounds

2-3 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1-14 oz. can, chopped

1/2 cup white or rosé wine

2 lbs. mussels

Pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Cook the onion in the olive oil over low heat in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, five minutes.  Add the sliced pepper and continue cooking another 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, chorizo, and tomatoes and cook until the sauce has thickened and reduced, about 15 minutes. If it gets too dry, add a little water or wine. If the chorizo is not hot, you will want to add a good pinch of cayenne or piment d’Espelette –  the sauce should be spicy.

Meanwhile, debeard the mussels (if you need to) and steam them until they just open, 3-4 minutes.  If they are very large mussels, they may take longer. Strain the liquid into the tomato sauce and let it bubble and reduce for a few minutes.

If you are going to serve the mussels with pasta (spaghetti or linguine are our favorites with this dish), time the cookingso that it’s ready at the same time as the mussels.  Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, mixing it in well, then adding the chopped cilantro. Check for salt – mussel liquid can be salty, so I don’t add salt until after the mussel liquid is mixed in. Serve the pasta in individual bowls, either topping each bowl with 1/4 of the mussels (shelled or not) or else bring the mussels to the table in the pot they cooked in and let the diners shell their own as they go, adding them to their bowl. 

Beyond delicious!