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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.

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Pissaladière (pronounced pees-ah-lah-dee-air) is often called the Provençale pizza. But it’s really something else entirely. No tomato, no cheese – just lots of lightly caremelized onions, plus anchovies and olives. Very simple to make and delicious with a glass of rosé or a chilled white. I like to use puff pastry, but you can make it with pizza dough if you prefer. The secret is to cook the onions until they’re beautifully amber colored and sweet. Of course if you don’t like anchovies and/or olives, this recipe is not for you. Tant pis!

Pissaladiére

Serves 4

1 packet (frozen) puff pastry

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 lbs. (about 5 large) onions, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

salt, pepper

1 small can anchovies

16 Niçoise or other small French black olives

Thaw the pastry, if necessary.  You can make the pissaladière either round or oblong, depending the shape of your baking sheet or pizza pan.

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over low heat.  Add the onions – it will seem like a lot but they reduce considerably. 

Cover and cook unti they are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.  Uncover and saute until most of the liquid has evaporated and the onions are golden, about 10 minutes longer.  Stir in the thyme and season with salt andpepper.  Remember that the anchovies and olives are salty. Drain the onions if there is still more than a teaspoon or two of liquid. Let cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Lightly oil your baking sheet or pan and roll out the dough on a floured surface to fit it.

Crimp the edges of the dough to form a border.  Spread the onions evenly over the dough and bake at a fairly low poisiton in the oven so that the pastry cooks through on the bottom, about 25 minutes.  

Decorate the dish. Some do this earlier but cooked anchovies lose their form and somehow begin to taste a little musty. In a round pan, place the anchovies as spokes in a wheel and put a couple of pitted black olives between the spokes. If your pan is rectangular, make a grid with the anchovies and place an olive in each square. To the good people of Nice either form can make the mouth water.

It’s best to eat a pissaladière as soon as it’s cool enough to handle but it can also be gently reheated. Brad says that even pissaladière at room temperature is way better than no pissaladière at all.

A sure sign that spring has arrived is the appearance of fresh morels. They grow wild in many parts of the U.S., so maybe you’re one of the fortunates who have them in your backyard or for whom they pop up on a country walk. You simply have to google “morel foraging” to see how passionate people are about them in nearly every state of the Union.

In France, people forage as well, but I just pick up an ounce or two in one of the outdoor markets where they’re available in April and May. They’re not exactly inexpensive, yet so delicious they’re worth a once or twice a year splurge.  We like them any which way – sauteed with asparagus is a local favorite – but the consummate French dish is Poulet de Bresse au Vin Jaune et Morilles. This is a popular classic from the Jura region of eastern France made with a Bresse chicken (regarded as the best there is), a white (yellow) wine that can last for at least fifty years (priced accordingly), and morels and cream. Somehow chicken with morels and yellow wine doesn’t sound quite as exciting, but why not offer a recipe for it anyway, I naively thought.

Well, Bresse chickens are not easy to come by even in France, nor is the sole imitation in America called a Blue Footed Something-or Other; Vin Jaune at $40-$50 a bottle is not something that you would want to toss nonchalantly into the casserole; and if fresh morels don’t grow underfoot, we’re talking big bucks IF you can find them. Not to be easily discouraged, I decided it was still a recipe worth passing on, especially as I’d already acquired my morels and chicken. So here is the poor man’s version of this revered dish: chicken breasts with a full-bodied white wine, cream and fresh morels if they miraculously become available to you.  If not, dried are a more than acceptable substitute.    

Serves 4

Ingredients:

2-4 oz. fresh morels or 1 oz. dried

4 plump chicken breasts, skin and tendons removed

1 oz. butter 

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Flour for dredging, salt and pepper

1 tablespoon shallots, finely chopped

3/4 cup full-bodied white wine 

1/2 cup chicken stock

3 tablespoons crème fraîche or whipping cream

 – If using dried morels, soak them in hot water to cover for 30 minutes, then drain well.  You can then use the liquid instead of chicken stock if you like, but make sure you leave any grit behind. If using fresh morels, cut them in half lengthwise if large and check for any foreign bodies.

– Cut each chicken breast lengthwise into thirds. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess.  Heat 2/3 of the butter and all of the oil in a large skillet and, over fairly high heat, brown the chicken 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a plate.

– Add the rest of the butter to the pan and, over low heat, cook the shallots (2-3 minutes)

– Add the morels and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. 

– Turn up the heat, add the wine and let it reduce by about half before adding the stock (or morel soaking liquid).  

– Cook for another few minutes before adding the cream. Let it reduce and thicken.

– Turn down the heat, put the chicken back into the skillet and simmer for a further 2-3 minutes until the chicken is heated and cooked through. Check for seasoning.  

 Serve with rice, egg noodles, mashed potatoes or crusty bread to mop up the rich, heavenly sauce. 

Alsatian Onion Tart

To tell you the truth, this is really a type of quiche, but because quiches developed a bad rap back when they were so overdone in the 80’s, we’re calling it a tart to avoid immediate rejection. Quiches have some excellent qualities–easy to make, relatively healthy, they can be eaten hot or at room temperature, taken on picnics, served at cocktail parties, and of course with a salad they make an excellent lunch or light supper. So bring back the quiche!  From the ubiquitous Quiche Lorraine to those made with spinach and mushrooms or ham and cheese, there’s a quiche to suit everyone’s taste.

My very favorite is the rich yet earthy onion tart. Its origins are in the Alsace region of France where it is often made without eggs or with the addition of cheese instead of bacon. I like to pack a pie shell to the brim with long-cooked, deliciously sweet onions, cover it with a mixture of eggs and cream and top it with a shower of crisp bacon. I start to feel hungry just thinking about it.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

1  9″ tart shell 

3-4 large onions (about 5 cups), thinly sliced and separated

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

4 slices bacon

3 large eggs

1 cup half and half (cream)

1 pinch nutmeg, salt and pepper

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line the tart shell with foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans.  Bake for 15 minutes until the bottom is cooked and the pastry shell is lightly browned around the edges.  Remove foil and weights and cool the baked shell.

Meantime, cook the onions:  Heat the oil in a large skillet, add the onions, the thyme, and a half teaspoon of salt. Cook over low heat, stirring, for a couple of minutes then cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the onions are soft and beginning to caramelize.  If there is liquid remaining, drain them in a colander, reserving the wonderful onion juice for another use.

Cook the bacon strips in a non-stick skillet until barely crisp.  Drain on paper towels and cut into small pieces.

Whisk the eggs and cream, adding a grating (or pinch) of nutmeg, plus salt and pepper.  

When the onions are somewhat cooled and drained, distribute them evenly in the tart shell, pour over the cream mixture, and dot with the bacon pieces.

Bake in a 350-degree oven until the filling is just set and the top is golden.

Even though there’s a wide variety of salad greens available year round, it’s not always easy to come up with salad ideas in the winter that are robust enough to suit the season.  Here are three that I hope pique your interest.

As I was making both the lentil salad and the Moroccan orange salad, I was torn about what garnishes to add.  The lentil salad is delicious without beets and feta, particularly if you’re serving it with an entree like chicken or pork or salmon. It’s also good with a garnish of crisp bacon or rounds of sausage.  There are many versions of the orange salad – some sweet, some savory, all delicious.  With this in mind, I’ve decided that it’s time to be more flexible with my recipes.  From now on, look for a “Variations” section within select recipes that I feel can be made more than one way.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Egg and Bacon

This is not one for which I would offer alternative garnishes – adding chopped hard-boiled eggs and crisp bacon to the Brussels sprouts is just the ticket.  The only variation I would suggest is that if you’re too lazy to roast the sprouts, you can boil them.  You can also separate the leaves if you prefer but I like the crunchiness of the sprouts just cut in half.  Roasting them until they’re a bit blackened at the edges definitely enhances their flavor.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 lb. Brussels sprouts

2 hard boiled eggs

4 strips bacon

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt, pepper

for the Vinaigrette:

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon diced shallot (or other mild onion)

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Trim the ends of the sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Halve the sprouts and toss them with the oil, salt and pepper.  Put them in the oven on a baking sheet, cut side down, and roast 30-35 minutes until they pierce easily with a skewer and are crisp and brown round the edges. 

To make the vinaigrette: Crush the shallot with the salt.  Add the mustard, then the vinegar and oil. 

When the Brussels sprouts are cooked, toss them with the vinaigrette.

Meanwhiile cook the bacon strips until crisp and then dice.  Chop the egg yolks and whites separately.

Mix some of the chopped bacon and egg in with the sprouts and garnish with the rest.

French Lentil Salad with Beets and Feta

The best lentils for this are the green French lentils du Puy, now readily available at most grocery chains. They hold their shape better, don’t go mushy if you overcook them slightly, and are low in fat, high in protein – and cheap.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 cup lentils (washed and picked over)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley (or half parsley, half mint)

2 medium sized beets

1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled 

for the Vinaigrette:

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely diced shallot (or red onion)

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Add the lentils to a pot of boiling water to cover by a couple of inches.  Simmer until tender, adding more water if necessary. This can take between 30 and 40 minutes depending on the freshness of the lentils.  They should not be bitey. Drain well.

Crush the shallot with the salt, then stir in the vinegar and olive oil. Toss the lentils with 2/3 of the vinaigrette.  Add freshly ground pepper and the herbs.

Wrap the beets in foil and bake in the oven until they pierce easily with a skewer or fork (about 45 minutes).  When they are cool enough to handle, peel and dice them and dress them with the remaining vinaigrette.

Assemble the salad.  Place the lentils in a shallow bowl, top with the beets and then the crumbled feta.

Variations:  Instead of the feta, mix the beets with a diced orange from which you’ve removed all pith.  Or, as suggested earlier, top the lentils with diced crisp bacon or sausage of your choice.

Moroccan Orange Salad

This is light and refreshing and, after a somewhat heavy or rich main course (like Moroccan couscous), it can serve as either salad or dessert. I like it best with black olives and mint, though you might prefer it on the sweeter side with orange flower water and dates and/or walnuts.  I sprinkle the oranges with Piment d’Espelette, a red chili pepper powder from the Basque region of France.  I always bring a bottle of it back from France because I can’t bear to be without it, but I recently discovered that you can order it online from Amazon.com and other food suppliers.  It isn’t cheap (a 1.4 oz. bottle costs $9.99), but if you’d like to add a sweet, smoky, mild chili pepper note to just about anything, this is more subtle than paprika or cayenne or any other chili powder.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3 large navel oranges

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

1  teaspoon olive oil

About a dozen black olives (preferably Kalamatas)

1 tablespoon chopped mint

1/2 teaspoon Piment d’Espelette (or paprika)

Salt

Put the sliced onion in a small bowl, cover with the vinegar and a pinch of salt.  Leave to macerate for 10-15 minutes, tossing frequently, to soften the onions.  Drain, saving the liquid. Add any juice you have over from slicing the oranges to it ,as well as the olive oil and  another pinch of salt.  

Peel the oranges, removing all traces of pith. Slice into thin rounds and arrange in circles on a large plate.

Pour the saved dressing over the oranges, decorate with the onions, mint, and olives.   Sprinkle with Piment d’Espelette, if you have it, or a light dusting of paprika. If the olives are large, cut them in half so that you don’t have too much olive on your fork when you compose a celestial bite of orange, onion, mint and olive. This will also give you the opportunity to pit the olives.

Variation:  An alternative is to sprinkle the oranges with orange flower water if available, a half teaspoon of cinnamon mixed with a half teaspoon of sugar and garnish the plate with chopped dates and/or walnuts.  A light and easy dessert.

**Disclaimer: Sam had absolutely nothing to do with the abominable photo above. Sam was not on hand to take a photo when Jake made this dish, so Jake took matters into her own hands. And while we’re on the subject of abominable, Sam does not at all like prunes with her pork. Or prunes with anything, for that matter.**

Pork Tenderloin with Prunes and Cream

Please don’t be put off by the thought of prunes.  This is a really sumptuous dish, rich in flavor and appearance, and a breeze to make.  It’s from the area around Tours in France, renowned for its luscious prunes, although I find those from California to be equally delicious.  Pork tenderloin is the filet mignon of pork – not to be confused with pork loin – and is tender, cheap and low in calories.  I always have a few of them in the freezer ready to pull out to marinate for the barbeque or to turn into this dish, perfect for a special dinner. I recommend that, at least the first time, you make the dish for just two.  If you make it for 4 or 6 you  may need  to brown the meat in two skillets, and it gets a bit tricky.  Its one drawback is what to serve with it as it’s pretty rich and pasta or rice just don’t do it.   I usually settle for mashed potatoes although couscous is a good alternative.

Serves 2

Ingredients:

8 pitted prunes, cut in half

1 cup white wine (a chenin blanc or dry riesling would be best)

1 teaspoon each butter and vegetable oil

1 pork tenderloin, weighing about 12 oz.

1 teaspoon currant jelly (optional)

2 tablespoons creme fraiche or whipping cream

Soak the prunes in the wine for at least 3 hours or overnight.  Trim the tenderloin of any fat or membrane and cut it into 1/2″- 3/4″ rounds – you should have 10-12. Season with salt and sprinkle with flour (or shake them gently in a tablespoon of flour mixed with a teaspoon of salt in a plastic bag).  Have all your ingredients close at hand as the whole cooking operation takes about five minutes.

Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet until beginning to brown.  Add the pork in one layer and cook until browned – no more than 2 minutes – then flip over and repeat on the other side.  Immediately remove the pork to a warm plate.  Add the prunes and their wine to the pan, let it bubble and reduce a little, add the currant jelly if you have it and then the cream.  As soon as it has thickened, put the pork back in, turn the heat down and let it all cook together for about another minute.  The sauce should be a lovely coffee-cream color.  Serve immediately. 


Antipasti, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, appetizers –  it doesn’t matter what language you’re cooking in, it’s always nice to have a few trusted standbys to serve with drinks, for a light lunch, or even a picnic. We’re quite spoiled living in San Francisco and Provence, being able to picnic and eat outside most of the year. Some of our favorites dishes are good for all these occasions: Grilled peppers with hard boiled egg and anchovies (or grilled peppers with just about anything), radis au beurre, Catalonian tomato bread, and a take on a Turkish eggplant dish, imam bayeldi. But let me stop there. No need to unleash all our favorites in one fell swoop.  And at this time of year with all its rich traditional food, it’s good every now and again to have something light and earthy, beyond the holiday mold.

Radis au beurre

This is an appetizer much beloved by the French, usually served with a pre-dinner apéritif or glass of wine.

The easiest way to present them is to generously butter slices of baguette and to arrange sliced and salted radish on top (see picture). You can of course serve the radish, bread, butter and salt separately and let guests make their own.

Peppers with Eggs and Anchovies

Peppers – red, maybe yellow, but definitely not green – grilled over a wood fire, under a broiler, or even on a gas burner and then peeled, dressed with your best olive oil, minced garlic and a drop or two of vinegar, is a purely sensual eating experience. If you’re doing them on the barbeque, you need to grill them whole until blackened (but not unrecognizable balls of charcoal). We mostly cook them in our toaster-oven close up under the broiler.  We find that instead of trying to grill them whole, it’s a lot simpler to lay them pointing away from you on the cutting board and more or less slice them into 3 pieces, leaving the seeds and center behind (trim off any white, inedible interior stuff). It also helps to have peppers that are not seriously deformed so that they present a smooth, flat surface. Broil on a foil-lined tray until most of the surface is blackened and blistered. You can then put them in a plastic bag, as most recipes suggest, but we find that if they’re blackened over most of their surface, the skins peel off easily as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.  Cut them into 1/4″ strips, add some good olive oil, some chopped garlic, a few drops of balsamic or red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and you’re all set.

As to what you do with the peppers, you can hide them in the back of the fridge until they rot (as my husband, the pepper-cooker, often does), or they’re also great loaded onto bread or toast that has been spread generously with goat cheese. Our favorite way is to pile them in a dish (2-3 red peppers grilled and dressed as above) sprinkle them with the yolk and white of a hard-boiled egg chopped separately, and then criss-cross several anchovies on top. If you’re not fond of anchovies, you can always substitute capers and/or parsley. A nice addition is to surround them with dressed arugula. We’re always delighted at how complex such a simple dish tastes.

Pa Amb Tomàquet

This is Catalan for bread with tomato. Ever-present in the tapas bars of Barcelona, it is so popular (and so good) that it is found far beyond Catalonia. There is a lot of deliberation about whether it should be oiled and toasted on both sides, whether it should be rubbed with garlic and whether it’s even worth doing when tomatoes are not at their summer ripest. Provided you can find a tomato that isn’t winter-tasteless, it’s worth trying at any time, particularly if you have some serrano (or any prosciutto-style) ham to serve it with.

Here’s how I make it: Cut a good quality baquette into about 6″ pieces and halve them. Rub lightly with garlic (optional, and easy to over do) and sprinkle with good olive oil. Broil until lightly browned. Cut your tomato in half and rub it into the toast, discarding the skin. Or you can first rub the tomato on a box grater, spreading the tomato on the bread, again discarding the skin. This is great with cured ham, with anchovies, or with the pepper salad above.

Turkish Eggplant Salad

The eggplant, or aubergine, is such a wonderfully versatile vegetable. It combines well with meat as in moussaka, with vegetables as in ratatouille, in purees and salads, and is much used in Indian and Chinese dishes. While I like to make caponata and baba ganouj, this Turkish salad is probably my very favorite.

The quantities below will make enough appetizer for at least 4, but it’s so good that you might want to double the recipe.

Ingredients:

1 large eggplant

Olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

7 oz. canned diced tomatoes, or 2-3 peeled and chopped 

1 large clove garlic

1 tsp. cumin pounded

1/2 tsp. allspice

Salt, pinch cayenne

1 tbs. currants or yellow raisins

1 tbs. each chopped mint and parsley for garnish

Cut the eggplant, unpeeled, into 1/2″ cubes.  Put them in a colander, salt them, weigh them down with something heavy (I use my mortar) and leave to drain for at least 30 minutes to remove the bitter juices.

Dry them on paper towels.  I don’t like to fry eggplant as I think it absorbs too much oil, so I put the cubes on a foil-covered tray, toss them in about a tablespoon of olive oil, and broil them in the oven (or toaster oven)  until well cooked – this will take 10-15 minutes.  Undercooked eggplant is truly awful.

Meanwhile, fry the onion in a little olive oil over low heat about 5 minutes until softened.  Add the canned tomatoes, garlic, spices and currants or raisins and continue to cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed and your kitchen is filled with the wonderful smell of garlic, oil and spices.  

When the eggplant is well-cooked (have I made my point?) add it to the tomato mixture and continue to cook it for about 5 minutes until well blended.  Add the chopped mint and parsley and let cool.  Serve at room temperature with crusty bread or as part of a buffet with the above dishes.

**The peppers and eggplant dishes have been adapted from Simon Hopkinson’s charming book Roast Chicken and Other Stories.