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!

It’s June 21st(ish) and summer has officially arrived. And just as well, because after a somewhat cold and windy spring, it has in the past few days become unpleasantly hot.  The cicadas are all too aware of the change of season: they took up their summer posts today and have begun their high-pitched chant which loses its charm quite quickly, particularly as they position themselves very close to the pool and the house. Still, it’s reassuring to know that they’ve survived yet another year.

Summer makes us think first of all of tomatoes, which because of the cold spring, are just beginning to be worth eating.

When they’re at their peak we eat tomatoes virtually every day in one form or another – salads, stuffed, in sauces, and of course, as gazpacho.  I think we could probably go a whole summer on a diet of gazpacho. In Spain now you can find it made with watermelon and strawberries and beets and cherries and all sorts of other exotic ingredients but none of them really beats the original. Our gazpacho tends to be less liquid than most you’ll come across in Spain because we like to load it up with garnishes and don’t like to dilute the tomatoes with too much water. Suit yourself. If you like it thinner, add more water. I’m not keen on tomato juice as I think it subverts the pure taste of good tomatoes. I do think it’s important to use sherry vinegar and a Spanish olive oil, if you can find it.

I’m also giving our recipe for salmorejo, which is from Córdoba. It’s a close cousin of gazpacho, which originated in Seville. It’s made without onion or cucumber.  Some days we think we like it better.

Gazpacho

Serves 4

Ingredients:

3″ piece day-old baguette, crust removed

2 – 2-1/2 lbs. the ripest, juciest tomatoes you can find

1/3 English cucumber, peeled or 1/2 regular cucumber, peeled and seeded

1/2 light green, thin skinned pepper or 1/3 regular green pepper

2 tablespoons red onion or any mild onion such as Vidalia

1 large clove garlic

Salt and pepper

Pinch piment d’Espelette (optional)

2+ tablespoons olive oil (preferably Spanish hojiblanca)

1 tablespoon aged sherry vinegar

For the garnish:

2 tablespoons finely chopped cucumber

2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper

A few chopped basil leaves (optional)

Soak the bread in water for 5-10 minutes then lightly squeeze out the water.  Core the tomatoes and cut them into large chunks.  Cut the cucumber, pepper and onion into smallish pieces.  Working in batches, process a mixture of each of the vegetables until smooth, saving a few pieces of tomato. Process the garlic in the food processor and then add the bread, oil, vinegar, the saved pieces of tomato, salt, pepper and optional piment d’Espelette and blend until you have a creamy dressing, adding up to a half cup of water.  Add this to the tomato mixture and check for taste.  You may want more salt and/or vinegar. 

Now if you want a really smooth gazpacho, run the whole thing through a blender – not essential, but definitely an improvement.  Chill the gazpacho for up to 2 hours. If I haven’t planned ahead, I put the gazpacho in the freezer for up to twenty minutes, stirring it once half-way. I like to fold in the cucumber and pepper garnishes (instead of serving them in a bowl) and top each serving with a splash of olive oil and a sprinking of chopped basil if I have it on hand. For variety, or for a festive occasion, I sometimes add a dollop of guacamole or a few cooked shrimp as a garnish!

Salmorejo

Use the ingredients listed for gazpacho, increasing the bread to a 4″ piece and eliminating the cucumber and onion.

Make it in exactly the same way but I do think it’s important to put the mixture through a blender at the end.  The traditional garnish is finely chopped hard-boiled egg white and chopped Serrano ham.  I’m not keen on the egg but do like to use Serrano ham or proscuitto.  Try both and see what you think. 

We spent the past week in the Basque country, mostly in Spain but a few nights in France as well.  It is really a beautiful part of the world and well worth a visit.  I thought that I would collect recipes while we were there for some of the wonderful tapas we had in the bars of San Sebastián – there called pintxos – and put them on my blog, but in retrospect this doesn’t seem like such a good idea: A lot of the ingredients we love best are not generally available (foie gras, jamon Ibérico, salt cod, fresh anchovies, albacore tuna, piquillo peppers, wild mushrooms) and then the skewers and canapes that sparkle on the bar counters are mostly a lot of trouble to make.  So I’m just going to give my version of the most universally popular tapa of all – tortilla de patata – and hope that you will be able to make it to San Sebastián sometime soon to experience the tapas for yourselves.

Eggs are much loved in Spain and the tortilla is the most loved of all egg dishes. And why not? You can have it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, hot, warm or cold, take it on picnics, put in in a sandwich or serve it at your tapas party.

Not to mention it’s quite delicious.

Most Spaniards know how to cook a tortilla and most think that their version is the best.  You can fry the potatoes in a lot of oil with a little onion, mix it with the eggs, and then cook it fairly slowly.  Some don’t flip it but put it under the broiler to finish the cooking but I think this makes it tough. Some cook it for as long as 20 minutes, also a mistake.  Here is my version which I of course think is the best.

Tortilla Español

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 medium potatoes, peeled (preferably Yukon Gold)

1 medium onion, sliced thin

1 clove garlic, chopped fine

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 eggs

salt and pepper

Boil the potatoes over medium heat until almost cooked, about 15 minutes.  In the meantime, fry the onion in one tablespoon olive oil in a 8″ non-stick skillet over gentle heat until well softened, 10-15 minutes.  Set aside.  When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice them into 1/4″ rounds. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in the same skillet and fry the potatoes until cooked through and browned around the edges, about 10 minutes.   Stir the cooked onions, the garlic, salt and pepper into the potatoes mashing them up a bit and being careful that the mixture doesn’t stick and burn.

Meantime, beat the eggs until well mixed, adding a little salt and pepper.  Turn up the heat to high, add a little more oil if necessary and when the pan and the potatoes are sizzling, add the eggs. Flatten the mixture with a spatula so that it covers the pan fairly evenly. The eggs will immediately begin to set around the edges.  Turn the heat to medium and with a spatula, start pulling the set eggs into the center, going round and round the pan so that the uncooked egg runs to the outside.  When all the egg is lightly set but still moist, run the spatula underneath the mixture to make sure it hasn’t stuck. This should take 2-3 minutes.

Now comes the tricky part:  You will need a rimless plate, slightly larger that the pan.  Place the plate over the skillet and quickly invert the tortilla onto the plate. (Practice will make this easier.)  Add the rest of the oil to the skillet and slide the tortilla back into the pan, uncooked side down, straightening it into a round shape.  If the pan is hot enough, it will only take a minute or two for the bottom to cook – you don’t want it to get rubbery and dry.  Invert it on to the cleaned-up plate, blotting it with paper towels if necessary. It should be beautifully round and lightly browned.

You can eat it immediately for brunch or supper with a tomato or green salad and some crusty bread.  Cut it into wedges like a cake. It’s also great warm or cold on a picnic.  And if you want to serve it as a tapa, cut it into squares and serve it with toothpicks.

Variations: While I think a  straight potato tortilla is the most authentically Spanish, feel free to add sauteed red peppers (or piquillos) or chorizo or ham or even veggies such as artichokes or asparagus for variety. 

Image
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.

Nice is our favorite city in France, possibly the world.  With its spectacular placement between the Alps and the Mediterranean, historic old town, vibrant street market and upscale shops, it’s always a pleasure to visit.

At our favorite restaurant in the old town, Bistro d’Antoine, I recently ordered the salade Niçoise at the urging of our waitress who assured me that it was both “differente et delicieuse”. On one side was a pile of dressed roquette (arugula). In the middle were a couple of house-cured anchovies, a small piece of grilled fresh tuna, and a beautiful barely-cooked half egg. On the other side was a pile of finely chopped and dressed veggies – fava beans, fresh peas, baby artichokes, fennel, zucchini, radish, red and green peppers, tomatoes, basil and olives -that Antoine the owner painstakingly ennumerated, none of them cooked. And the fresh anchovies and tuna? “I never use anything canned”, he explained.

It was indeed so delicious that we hastened to make it a few days later, including curing our own fresh anchovies, but for us it was a “new” salad, not the Niçoise we’ve known and been making for centuries.

There are basically three kinds of Salade Niçoise – the original (stoutly defended by locals as the only authentic one) which has no COOKED vegetables of any sort; the one served almost universally which includes COOKED potatoes and green beans; and one that has emerged in recent years which is topped with a piece of grilled fresh tuna instead of the more traditional canned.  Our preferred version is the second one. The good thing about it is that it’s suitable for so many occasions – lunch, a simple summer dinner for four or a larger gathering, and kids love it.

I must admit that I’m fairly rigid about what goes into my salade Niçoise. The essentials: lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, black olives, cooked green beans and potatoes, canned tuna and anchovies; optionals: radish, sweet white onion, red pepper slices, capers and fresh herbs.

SALADE NIÇOISE

Serves 4 

 Ingredients:

 1/2 lb. green beans (the freshest and youngest you can find)

1 lb. new potatoes, either red or white skinned

2 eggs

2 or 3 ripe tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes), quartered or halved lettuce

basil leaves (optional)

a dozen black olives

1 can or bottle of the best tuna (preferably Spanish or Italian) in olive oil

1 can flat anchovies (or packed in salt or home cured)

For the vinaigrette:

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vinegar 

1/2 cup olive oil

Pepper

Vinaigrette:

Crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle and mortar.  Add the vinegar, then the olive oil and a good grinding of pepper.

Mix well.

Top and tail the beans and cook them to the degree of “doneness”  that you like.  Immediaty rinse them in cold water to stop the cooking and drain well. Mix with a teaspoon of the vinaigrette.

Cook the potatoes (15-25 minutes, depending on size). If they’re small, I like to leave the skins on.  Otherwise peel. When cool enough to can handle, cut into bite-size pieces and dress with a good tablespoon of the vinaigrette.  You can add herbs if you like – tarragon, parsley, and chives are all a welcome addition.

Put the eggs in a pan of cold water.  Bring just to the boil, cover, turn off the heat and leave for 12 minutes. Rinse in cold water, peel and cut in half lengthwise.

Now comes the fun part – assembling the dish.  You will need a fairly large platter.  I like to line it with beautifully fresh lettuce leaves, torn into manageable pieces.  Then I put the tuna in the center and surround it with piles of potatoes, green beans, sliced tomatoes, and the halved eggs.  Let your artistic juices flow.  Decorate with the olives, anchovies, and, if you choose, any of the following: basil leaves,  thin slices of red pepper, radishes, sweet onion and capers.  Dressing the dish is a bit tricky.  You already have some vinaigrette on the beans and potatoes but now you have to distribute the rest of it, particularly on the tomatoes and lettuce.  Sometimes it’s easier to just spoon it onto individual plates after serving.  But do serve it at once – with some crusty French bread and a glass or two of Provençal rosé.  Bon appetit!

Variations:  To make Bistro Antoine’s salade Nicoise, chop a selection of the vegetables mentioned into a dice and dress with the vinaigrette in my recipe, saving some for the roquette.  Serve with tuna, either cooked or canned, anchovies, and hard boiled eggs.

For version three, grill a 12-oz. piece of tuna on the barbeque or a grill pan and place it in the center of “my” salad instead of the canned tuna.  Three oz. a person should be plenty.

One could long debate the authenticity of any single recipe.  My only guarantee is that, whatever recipe you follow, you and your fellow eaters are in for a treat.

The English make really excellent desserts. Many of them, like syllabubs, trifles, custards, puddings and fools go back four or five centuries. I particularly like fools for their simplicity – at their best they’re made just with fruit, sugar and  thick cream – and yet they’re grand enough to serve at a special dinner party.

My favorite fools are strawberry and rhubarb. If most of the strawberries that come your way are in a carton, covered with plastic wrap, with maybe some large beauties on the top but either over or under-ripe ones lurking underneath, making a fool may be your answer. I am not suggesting that any old strawberries will do but if you are lucky enough once in a while to acquire perfect strawberries, you should just sprinkle them with a little sugar, perhaps a squeeze of lemon and douse them with thick, luscious cream.

Strawberry Fool

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1 pint strawberries (about 1 lb.)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup whipping (or heavy) cream

Select four of the best-looking strawberries and keep them aside for garnish. Remove stem, white core if there is one, and any blemished parts from the rest and pulse briefly in the food processor with the sugar. Be sure to keep some texture (your don’t want too liquid a puree.)  Meanwhile in a chilled bowl whip the cream until it just stands in peaks.  Carefully fold in the pureed strawberries. Taste for sweetness – you may need more sugar. You may also want to add a teaspoon of lemon juice. Divide the fool between four champagne coupes or other suitable glasses, top with a reserved strawberry and chill for an hour or two. Serve with a cookie, if you like.

Rhubarb Fool

1 lb. rhubarb (as young as you can find)

6 tablespoons sugar

1 cup whipping cream or créme fraiche

Wash and cut the rhubarb into 1 inch pieces. Put it and the sugar in a heavy bottomed pot (no liquid), cover, and cook over the lowest possible heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionly, or until soft and well cooked.  Drain the rhubarb, reserving the liquid, and puree it lightly in a food processor. Check for sweetness – you may need extra sugar which it’s best to add while the rhubarb is still warm.  Chill until very cold.  Meanwhile whip the cream until it just stands in peaks. Carefully fold in the rhubarb and a little of the reserved liquid to make ribbon-like streaks. if using creme fraiche, fold in the rhubarb and a little juice in the same way.

Mound the fool into champagne coupes or glasses and chill until ready to serve.

Variation: If you love the combination of strawberry-rhubarb (as in pie), you can certainly combine the two fruits before adding the cream, making enough for 8 servings.

We first had scoglio on a ferry from Genoa to Sicily several years ago. We noticed immediately that the ship was filled with a horde of unruly teenagers and, as the trip took 27 hours, we were greatly relieved that we had booked a sleeping berth so that we could at least escape them at bedtime. As the dinner hour approached, we also noticed that they had taken over the cafeteria, so we made our way to the upscale “restaurant” where we were the only occupants. With wine in hand, we asked the waiter what scoglio was and he said it was spaghetti with fruitti di mare. We figured that, even though meals on ferries don’t usually rate a Michelin star, this might be a good bet on a ferry in the Meditteranean on its way to Sicily. And indeed it was.

Since then, we always order scoglio when we see it on a menu and make it ourselves when tomatoes are at their best and we have on hand mussels, clams, shrimp, squid, and possibly a scampi or two.  Scampi are also known as Dublin Bay prawns, langoustines, and in America as shrimp scampi which has always seemed to me like calling them shrimp-shrimp. But back to scoglio (pronounced sko-lee-o): The dictionary gives many translations including “rock” and “stumbling block”, none of which make much sense but it has such a pure rich flavor of shellfish and tomato that I would eat it no matter what it was called. You can make it with any kind of shellfish as long as you have at least 3-4 varieties.

I have always thought that its success was due to the combination of fresh shellfish and barely cooked, peak-of-season tomatoes, but last week when we were in Italy it was on the menu at one of our favorite restaurants on the coast and the sauce was a rich, dark, long-cooked essence of tomato and shellfish, totally different from any scoglio we’d had before – but just as delicious. So I’m going to give both recipes in case you’re still waiting for the perfect tomato to arrive.

SPAGHETTI ALLO SCOGLIO

Serves 4

Ingredients (Both recipes):

1/2 cup dry white wine

16  mussels

16 Manila clams 

12 uncooked prawns or shrimps (heads on if you can find them)

8 small calamari, cleaned and thawed if frozen

All of the above are approximate.  If you can only find mussels, or clams, substitute double of one for the other.

There are so many varieties of prawns and shrimp available now that you should go with whatever suits you, including frozen. Fresh calamari may also be hard to find.  I use the small frozen shells or rings (in the US from Trader Joe’s).   

 

Recipe A (rich tomato sauce):

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped

1 cup canned tomatoes, chopped, or 1 cup Italian passata

Salt

A pinch of cayenne

1. Make the tomato sauce: In a heavy-bottomed casserole, cook the onion over low heat in the olive oil until soft (about 5 minutes).  Add the garlic, the tomatoes or passata and the salt and cayenne (go easy on the salt as the mussel liquid may be very salty).  Let it cook slowly for about twenty minutes until it is reduced slightly and thickened.

2.The shellfish: If your shrimp have heads, peel them and make shrimp stock by just covering the heads and shells with water, and simmering for about 20 minutes.  (I always try to buy shrimp with their heads on and, no matter what dish I’m cooking, I make shrimp stock and freeze it for future use.)

3. In the meantime, steam the mussels in the wine over high heat until they open (about 4 minutes, do not overcook). As soon as they open, drain them, saving the liquid, and remove to a bowl.  Steam the clams in the same liquid until they open, adding them to the saved mussels. Turn down the heat and poach the shrimp, 1-2 minutes, depending on size and add them to the other shellfish.

4. Cut the squid into rings, if they don’t come that way.  Dry them well and saute them in a little olive oil over high heat for 1-2 minutes.  Cook them more and they will toughen and be like little rubber bands.  Add them to the other shellfish.

5. Strain the liquid into the tomato sauce being sure to leave behind any debris from the mussels and clams.  If you are lucky enough to have shrimp stock, add it to the pot at the same time. Continue to cook the sauce until it is further reduced – you want to end up with about one to one and a half cups of rich sauce, total.  Check for seasoning – your probably won’t need  salt because of the mussel liquid.

6. Cook the spaghetti or linguine according to the package directions until just al dente.  Drain well and add to the sauce.  Toss for a minute to absord some of the sauce and then add all the shellfish to heat through.  Serve immediately.

Recipe B (with fresh tomatoes):

In addition to the shellfish ingredients above:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped basil or basil and parsley mixed   

Follow instructions for 2, 3, and 4 above. 

Then saute the tomatoes and the garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes to combine.  Reduce the strained liquid in which you cooked the shellfish (along with the shrimp stock if you have it)  to about a cup.  Add it to the chopped tomatoes and cook for about 2 minutes.  Check for salt. Then cook your spaghetti as in 6. and add it to the tomato mixture, along with all the shellfish.  Toss until the pasta has absorbed most of the liquid and the shellfish is heated through. Sprinkle with the basil, and serve at once.  

This probably all sounds quite complicated (I can hear Brenda saying, “I didn’t think it was complicated”) but if you assemble all your ingredients and take it step by step, both dishes really are worth the trouble.

Note from Brad:  For Recipe A, I think it’s important to brown a half cup of breadcrumbs in olive oil and sprinkle them over the dish at the last minute.

Note from Sam: Hello! I am still participating in the blog (light editing, as well as actually taking Jake’s text and putting it into blog format), yet Jake is now taking all the photos on her own. (She emails them to me, and I merely fine tune them). I mention this because some of the photos lately have been quite good, and I thought our esteemed readers might be confused as to who is actually taking the photos.  Is it Jake? Surely it couldn’t be Brad? Could Sam be in France at the moment? Here’s a handy rule of thumb if ever in doubt as to who the photographer is: check the edges of the white plate.  If it appears as though a small, possibly angry, insect has dragged itself through the inner plunges of the dish and then wiped itself clean on the perimeter of the plate before nary a bite has been taken, chances are very high that Jake took the photo.  Other than that, our photos are virtually interchangeable now!

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. 

I remember when salmon was such a luxury.  Forty, or even twenty, years ago there were no farm-raised salmon. Salmon were a springtime indulgence for those with an ample purse. I have mixed feelings about farm-raised salmon.  Yes, I know that it’s bad for the environment and the wild salmon population and that it doesn’t taste as good and isn’t as healthy, and, and…. but I can’t help feeling that it’s better for a whole lot of people to have access to salmon, no matter how inferior, than just a few.  Forgive me if I’m wrong.

It is the most adaptable of fish – you can grill, poach, steam or barbeque it, serve it hot or cold, smoke it, or make it into gravlax or tartare.  In this recipe you brine it overnight, cook it on a ridged grill pan, put it on a bed of spinach and serve it with a tarragon butter.  What could be simpler?

Salmon with Tarragon Butter on a Bed of Spinach

Serves 2

Ingredients:

2 – 6 oz. salmon filets, skin on, preferably wild

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 oz. unsalted butter

1 tablespoon tarragon leaves, finely chopped

A large pinch of lemon rind (optional)

1 teaspoon olive oil

12 oz. fresh spinach, large stems removed

I like to brine salmon because I think it makes it more succulent and tender, but, if time is not on your side, it isn’t esssential. To brine: Spread the salt on the non-skin side of each salmon piece, and put the two salted sides together to form a sandwich. Place in a dish to just fit, cover with plastic wrap and put in the relrigerator overnight or for up to 24 hours. 

Before cooking the salmon and the spinach, make the tarragon butter. Pound the tarragon leaves with a little salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the butter bit by bit until you have an unctuous green mass.  Add the optional lemon rind.

To cook the salmon: Wash the salt off well and pat dry. Brush the skinless sides of the salmon with a smidgeon of olive oil and some pepper (it won’t need salt).

Heat a ridged grill pan until dangerously hot (2-3 minutes), adding a few drops of oil. Cook the salmon, skin side down, for 4 minutes. Turn it over and, depending on its thickness, cook for a further 2-3 minutes.  It should be firm but springy to the touch and rare in the center. The skin can be served or removed easily with a knife or spoon.

In the meantime, wash the spinach, drain most of the water, and cook it over fairly high heat with the lid on, turning it over a few times until reduced and cooked (3-5 minutes). Squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Add a little butter, salt and pepper. When the salmon is just about cooked, reheat the spinach.

To serve:  Put half the spinach on each of two plates. Top with the salmon and a good dolop of the tarragon butter.  Enjoy!  

Variations:  If you don’t have tarragon available, there are a zillion other butters you can make with herbs – basil, dill, chervil, chive and lemon, garlic and parsley, sorrel (especially good with salmon), mixed herbs – the possibilities are endless.  In the case of garlic and parsley, you need to pound the garlic with the parsley before adding the butter and if you’re lucky enough to have fresh sorrel, you should blanch it briefly and pat it dry before adding the butter.

Herb butters are a wonderful addition to steaks, fish, chicken and fresh veggies.  If you have extra herbs available, increase the amount of butter to 2-4 oz. and roll the end product in plastic wrap to form a small cylinder.  Then freeze it and cut off slices as needed.

Sam adds: I am unfamiliar with sorrel, though I hear my mom mention it from time to time–I’m not sure it’s available in the U.S.? (I don’t remember ever coming across it, but maybe that’s just because I”m not looking for it!) In any case, you can find out more about it here, if you’re curious.

 

The first thing we do after we’re settled in is plant our lettuces. Not too many of them, nor a great variety, but there aren’t many things better than a salad made of greens rushed from the garden to the salad bowl. Just a simple vinaigrette and Bob’s your Uncle!

When we first bought our one-and-a-half acre property twenty years ago, we were much more ambitious.  We planted all sorts of crops –  fava beans, okra, corn, zucchini, and or course tomatoes – in that first flush of “back to the land” when you actually think that you are going to “grow your own vegetables”. The okra and corn were to replace two veggies that we love in America and thought we couldn’t live without in France. Wrong. It also took us far more years than it should have to realize that each precious tomato cost us 10 times as much in both personal energy and water than the better-tasting tomatoes we could buy from other tomato growers in the village.  We still persist with the lettuces because they’re so easy and rewarding; and zucchini (courgettes, here) mainly for the flowers, which are never better fried or stuffed than when you pluck them from your own garden.

Another thing we haven’t given up on is the herb garden. Many herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and savory grow wild here but we make sure we have a ready supply of basil, tarragon, mint, chives, sorrel, bay leaves and quite a few others as well.

We eat very differently in San Francisco and Provence:  San Francisco is a wonderful food city with an incredible range of ethnic  restaurants and ingredients from around the world, simply unheard of in France.  But while the French are, let’s say, quite insular in their tastes, the quality and variety of their raw ingredients is unsurpassed.  You might be able to track down rabbits, quails, ducks, foie gras, spanking-fresh fish, shellfish and veggies in San Francisco (often at considerable cost), but these are readily available here in supermarkets and village markets for everyday consumption.

I’m not going to spend six months saying how much better the raw materials are here.  But I will have to limit what I can blog about when I know that grilled fresh sardines wrapped in vine leaves or a roasted loin of rabbit or a whole fresh foie gras poached in the oven would probably be a stretch outside of France. Hopefully there are still enough ingredients-in-common to keep recipes flowing.

Spring Garden Salad

I have been making salad dressing in a pestle and mortar since I started cooking.  If the greens are very delicate, I probably use only my best olive oil, a splash of vinegar or lemon and salt and pepper.  For other salads I might start by crushing garlic or shallots with salt, adding mustard or not, and using a variety of oils and vinegars to bring out the best in the ingredients.  In most cases I go light on the vinegar – about 4 or 5 to 1 oil to vinegar.  I think vinegar too often dominates and overwhelms.

Serves 2

Ingredients:

4 cups of the freshest salad greens available

A small shallot

1 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or a little more if you prefer

2 tablespoons good olive oil

Salt (preferably Maldon) and freshly ground black pepper

Crush the shallot with a half teaspoon of salt.  Add the vinegar and let macerate while you wash and dry the greens, leaving no trace of water.  Stir the oil into the dressing.  Do not dress the salad until you’re ready to eat it. (You can wipe out the pestle and mortar with a few of the leaves.) Add freshly ground pepper at the table.