Monday, January 15, 2007

Stewing in Provence

On a cold November night in Nice many years ago, we were two jet-lagged and hungry souls finding our way in the South of France as first-time travelers to Provence. He was a bit conversant in French, et moi: pas du tout (not at all)! We had pored over guides and maps and sketched out a rough outline of our serendipitous tour but when it came to eating, gourmand that he was, he had the reins of finding our food...or at least finding the place where we would sit down to eat that food.

A fabulous cook, this man. He also enjoyed the finer things in life and was willing to go to any lengths if he "sniffed" a potential food pleasure. As a result, his instincts led him to some extraordinary places that were well-off the beaten path. On this particular night, though, I was hungry enough to simply stop at anything (short of the two-storey McDonald's on Promenade des Anglais) as a survival issue and leave the hunt for the next culinary adventure for the proverbial "tomorrow". He was hearing nothing of it (and I mumbled under my muffler against the cold that he must have eaten in secret sometime earlier to maintain this hunt with such unflinching stamina!)

As we trekked through the streets of Nice, there had been certain criteria established for our search: a packed restaurant in which no English was being spoken. If we walked into a place and heard English, we (he) took that to mean that the place was for tourists and we (he) would have none of that. And so we continued to wander through Nice, perusing the menu boards outside restaurants that looked interesting, poking an ear inside the door to listen for a language other than our own and determining “thumbs up”...or down. On and on this went. I’m sure at some point I must have fainted from hunger and had to be dragged from place to place (just kidding...sort of...). But then, on a tiny, easy-to-miss side street that skirts the main market area of Old Nice, there was a window out of which poured a warm golden glow. Parting the wooden beads that hang in front of the door with our noses, we pressed our faces to the glass to see that the place was packed! Of course, it’s not so hard to look "packed" when you only have 12 to 15 small square tables lined up against the opposing walls of the place and people seated on little backless stools! The menu board listed Provençal specialties that made our mouths water. As we reached through the beads for the door handle to poke our heads in for a quick "listen" to finalize the decision, the aromas wafting from the open kitchen at the back of this little place were enough to lift us off of our feet, cartoon style. I had an image similar to that of the "Goofy" character in the Disney movies: our bodies, having been lifted a few feet off the ground, would only have to follow our noses as they were seduced by a visible aroma that danced before us drawing us deeper and deeper into the place! But it gets even better: we heard only French! This was the place! Hallelujah! Just as my vision was starting to blur and my speech was becoming less and less coherent as the darkness of hunger began to close in on me...voilà! (And this search process couldn’t have been too pleasant for him as well, mind you...I’m not my typical cheerful self when I’m too hungry.)

By now it was very late in the evening and although we had missed the main dinner "crush", (at which point we would have been certainly turned away) there was still a wait for a table. After several minutes, we were seated at one of those little tables covered with a red checked cloth on a couple of those small stools with just enough of a cushion to take you through a meal without wiggling to get more comfortable. Nose-to-nose we were with one another and elbow-to-elbow with the diners on either side of us. It was definitely cozy but everyone was friendly, striking a nice balance between making contact and keeping to themselves. The waiter/manager of the place is an artist in the other part of his life and has that polite edge that conveys that his role has more meaning than one might guess. There are no menus so a smallish blackboard with the selections of the day is brought to the table for review before ordering.

Over the course of the evening, we would learn that the chef, Dominique Le Stanc (listed among the top chefs of France), had formerly been at the Hotel Negresco earning 2 Michelin stars during his reign at its Chantecler restaurant. After his successful run at the Negresco, he had opted for a slower lifestyle with weekends off and the ability to work with his wife, Danielle. The owners of La Merenda, who were ready to retire, were just waiting for the “right buyer” who would have the desire to continue the tradition of the restaurant rather than change it. The connection was made, a contract was signed and a new era of La Merenda began to take shape.

With a commitment to keep things simple – from the fresh produce purchased at the marché a few steps away and loaded into the box on the back of his bicycle to the straightforward preparations of traditional Provençal dishes – that simplicity continues into the nuts and bolts of how the place is run: no checks, no credit, no phones. It isn’t just the elbow-to-elbow seating or the ability to view the man himself at work in the open kitchen space as he prepares your meal that keeps people coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the consistent sense of simplicity apparent from the business operation to the food on the plates that feeds a deeper hunger than the most obvious one.

Here is where I had my first taste of fried fresh sardines. It was here that I discovered a pesto pasta that made little tears in my eyes. (So taken with it I was, that the lovely artist/waiter/manager told me a couple of secrets about what the chef does to finish this dish...but you’ll have to come back another time for that, because...) this was also the first place I had ever tasted Beef Daube. It put any and all beef stews that I had grown up with to shame and I never returned to those old tired and watery stews. This was something different. Perfect flavors. Perfect technique.

Cooked in a well-sealed pot, Beef Daube offers a rich, winy broth that cooks down into the meat over hours. The result is a hearty plate of flavorful vegetables and meat that melts at the touch of a fork. With a hint of orange and the complexity brought about by a mélange of spices...well, simply put: it is a lovely mouthful.

If that’s not enough to get you on the next plane to Provence, then the next best thing is cooking it up on your own.

I like to serve this rich, wintery dish with oven-roasted potato “fries” as the chef at La Merenda does. Another friend of mine, who prepares Julia Child’s version of daube, serves it with steamed baby potatoes. My ”favorite fromager” suggests potato gnocchi or a gratin of macaroni. I’ve also had this served with pasta but I’m just a potato-kind-of-girl. I guess if it’s good enough for M. Le Stanc and Julia...well, I’m okay with that company!

My friend, and new vineyard owner (!), Jean-Marc Espinasse, suggests the following wines in the following order to accompany your next Daube de Boeuf. Check them out and see what else is cookin' at French-Wine-A-Day.

Châteauneuf du Pape

(This was a "welcome-back-to-Provence" daube for friends who had arrived from Toronto for their annual six months of "French nesting" in a little village at the base of Mont Sainte Victoire. Welcome, my friends! It’s good to have you back in the 'hood!)

Bon Appétit!

Adapted from Savoring Provence (Williams-Sonoma)

Daube de Boeuf

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (175ºC)

2 pounds stew meat
3 yellow onions
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1 1/2-inch lengths
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs
5 peppercorns, lightly crushed
4 whole cloves
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 bouquet garni of bay leaves and thyme
1 bottle of red wine, such as Bandol or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
2 orange zest strips, about 1/2-inch wide
3-4 thick slices of bacon, chopped (we get small packages of lardons here, which make this part really easy!)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped.
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut beef into roughly equal pieces. Place the beef in a large dish and add 1 of the onions and the carrots, garlic, parsley, celery peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and bouquet garni. Add wine and vinegar, cover, and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

The next day, remove the beef from the refrigerator. Pass the marinade mixture through a sieve placed over a bowl to capture the liquid. Remove the onion and carrots from the sieve. Pat the beef and vegetables dry on paper towels. Pick out the bouquet garni and spices from the sieve, placing the peppercorns and cloves into a mesh tea ball, cheesecloth OR muslin bag and add the orange zest strips to whatever you are using to contain these ingredients. This parcel of spices will be dropped into the daube pot before it goes into the oven.

In a large, heavy Dutch oven or sauté pan, add the bacon and brown to render the fat.
Add the olive oil and the onion from the marinade. Working the meat in batches, add the beef and brown on all sides, 10-15 minutes. Return all the beef to the pan. Add the reserved liquid and carrots from the marinade, the remaining onion wedges, the tomatoes, the bouquet garni and the “bag” of spices to the pot. If necessary, pour in enough water just to reach the top of the meat, then cover the pot with foil, sealing it tightly, before securing the lid onto the pot. (Traditionally, a daube pot is sealed with a paste made of flour and water. Happily, I found the foil seal worked very well.)

Place covered pot into a 350ºF oven and cook for one hour. Lower the temperature to 250º F (120ºC) and cook an additional 3 to 4 hours (this time is very flexible after the 4 hour mark), until the meat falls apart easily. (During the last hour of cooking, I take the foil off and determine to continue “covered or uncovered” from this point based on the consistency of the sauce.)

Remove the pot from the oven. Remove the bouquet garni and spice bag from the pot. Adjust the seasonings and serve immediately with steamed or oven roasted potatoes, gnocchi or pasta. (Give them all a try and then decide which will star alongside your daube!)

Serves 6-8

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