Monday, February 25, 2008

And the Winner Is...Ratatouille!

“If you are what you eat, I only want to eat the good stuff.”
Rèmy in Ratatouille

I'm with Rèmy.

Oh, I just couldn't resist! This recipe has been in my "On the Back Burner" file and it was just too good a chance to pass up! A dish with humble roots here in Provence, I offer you a twist on the simple ratatouille.

When I was young, the word evoked the image of a drum roll. Now it brings to mind images of roughly chopped vegetables, cooked soft. Their flavors marry in the cooking process to result in an earthy, sweet and gently piquant (even smoky in this version) pot of veggie stew.

Ratatouille comes from touiller which means, “to stir" or "stir up”. Those humble roots are just down the road from me in Nice, where it was originally a poor farmer's dish of courgettes (zucchini), tomatoes, green and red peppers (I leave out the green peppers...they don't do much for me and I like the sweetness of only red peppers), onion, and garlic. I’m not sure who started it, but someone along the line added aubergine (eggplant). And to that creative soul, I say: “Chapeau!” (Hats off!).

Served hot or cold, it makes an appearance chez La Fourchette in winter and summer. When it’s still cold outside, it might be served as a warm side dish accompanying, perhaps, a piece of breaded (with bread crumbs made from 6-cereal bread and grated parmesan cheese) pan-fried cabillaud (cod). Tomorrow it will be topped with a poached egg for lunch. mmmmm-hmmmmmmm.

In summer, it sidles up alongside a roasted chicken and potatoes that have been drizzled with pesto...or perhaps a piece of grilled lamb. (That summer version is generously topped with basil chiffonade, adding its own sweet and peppery taste and fragrance.)

Although I cooked my ratatouille on the stove for years, it was when I began roasting vegetables for a pasta dish that I discovered the depth of flavors and smokiness that lends itself to ratatouille when everything roasts together before a final stir with the tomatoes. Once they are added to the roasted vegetables, the mix can be left in the hot oven or put on a low heat to bring the tomatoes up to temperature for winter serving. Or simply let the added tomatoes absorb the heat of the roasted vegetables and blend together in the time it takes for the mélange to come to room temperature for serving during the summer. Pop into the frigo (fridge) overnight and it’s a cool salad for the following day...with the flavors having had even more time to carry on together for even better results the next day!

Anyway you stir it up and serve it, ratatouille is an award-winning dish!

It's still a winter marché out there where cabbages and root vegetables abound, but there are tulips in the flower marché! There is hope! One of these days, spring is sure to follow. (In the meantime, we have ratatouille to get us through the transition.)

And you? What goes with your version of ratatouille? I’d love to know what it fills (i.e., omelet, crêpe, etc.) or any other creative things you do with the version that comes from your little kitchen. Will you share?

Roasted Ratatouille Chez La Fourchette

Olive oil

1 courgette, quartered lengthwise and cut into chunks
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and de-ribbed then cut into chunks
1 eggplant, sliced lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices then cut into chunks
1-2 red onions, quartered lengthwise then each quarter cut in half to form chunks
1 head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
15 ounces of whole peeled tomatoes, hand-squished into the mix
(or an equal amount of peeled and seeded fresh tomatoes for the
summer version.)
Add to your taste:
herbs de provence
sea salt

Preheat oven to 375º F

Place all cut vegetables into heavy iron skillet or roasting pan. Toss with olive oil to coat. Sprinkle with sea salt, pepper and herbs de Provence to your taste. Place into oven and roast for 50-60 minutes minutes, tossing and turning the vegetables at the halfway point.

At the end of the roasting time, add the tomatoes and place on a low heat to bring the tomatoes to a gentle simmer before serving hot or allow to absorb the heat of the roasted veggies to serve just warm or at room temperature for summer.

Serves 4-6

Monday, February 18, 2008

It's Not Your Onions*

* The literal translation of the French expression, "C'est pas tes oignons!" but meaning "It's none of your business!"

Among my stacks of recipe books – owned and borrowed – and clippings from Bon Appetit, Saveur and now French publications, are a couple of thick three-ring binders and two boxes stuffed to the brim with recipes from various sources. Within those boxes and binders are some of my most precious recipes...if not for the gustatory results, for their soft-edged and stained condition that marks them as well loved...kind of like the Velveteen Rabbit. Although my cravings and tastes have changed significantly since living here and I’m much more interested in playing with my food in a Mediterranean/Provençal kind of way these days, sometimes the old stand-bys make an appearance...a test of their endurance.

It was just such a recipe that made the grade this weekend. In fact, I felt a renewal of affection. Successful transition into new life in France? Check!

A friend from London was in town and was coming in for dinner. I had planned to try out another recipe, but I offered my friend a choice. He chose spaghetti.

Since moving here, something about my old favorite just hasn't been the same for me so I’ve not made it for some time. It was just less than satisfying. Something was different and I’d not yet taken the time to play with it to figure out how to help it along in the transition to my new life. Here was the chance.

Okay, okay...I’m relatively confident that everyone has a favorite spaghetti sauce recipe of the bolognaise type. The recipe from my childhood was a regularly requested favorite of mine. I had only found a similar richness and hidden sweetness (from some unconventional ingredients – you’ll see which ones) in one other preparation. That of a fabulous cook whose Italian mother-in-law had given her the family’s “secret” recipe...which remains a secret to this day, I’m quite sure.

Pedestrian as it may be, I thought I’d share this favorite of mine along with the suggestion that I received from one of the vendors in the market. It was just the detail I was looking for to tip this dish into the favorite category once again.

The 4 onions called for in this recipe tend to surprise people but they cook down to a soft sweetness, lending to a lovely thick texture and depth of flavor that makes this sauce what it is. As I filled my little basket with onions at the marché, the youngster serving customers (I’m talking barely adolescent here) looked puzzled and asked me what I was making. I told him a spaghetti sauce and he nodded his comprehension, clarifying that it was a bolognaise-type. I confirmed his suspicion and he went on to suggest that I replace half of the onions with shallots. Hmmmm...a light clicked on in my head. He might be on to something here. I loaded up my tub with onions and shallots and he threw in a bunch of parsley that I would need and asked me to tell him about the results.

And those results: satisfying, indeed, if not downright tasty! “Gorgeous” was the adjective that my friend kept using. (I’m confident he was referring to the meal.) And you know, I think “gorgeous” works here. The shallots bring that sweetness back. Perhaps the onions in these parts pack a more powerful punch then I've been accustomed to. The entire mélange cooks down into the same lovely texture, of course. The young man at the marché has paid close attention to what goes on in his family’s kitchen and knows his stuff.

In the same way that the stains and soft-edges of my original recipe create all sorts of images in my mind’s eye of past preparations and even the original moments as I sat at the little kitchen table copying my favorites among my mother's recipes before moving out of the house, this sauce will forever more have another image accompanying it: that of the dark-haired, soft-spoken young son of my favorite lettuce vendeuse at the petite marché.

An added note here (and avert your eyes if beef details make you squeamish):
My request for ground beef at the butcher’s was made on the spot – ground in front of my eyes from a lovely cut of Label Rouge beef (highest quality).

When I got it home and plopped it in the pan to brown, it was red all the way through. I had to travel much further to a specialty butcher in my old life for that kind of quality. Now I walk a few blocks from my front door. I love this place!

Bon appétit(o)!

p.s. There is a move to an apartment upstairs in my future. If you are willing to help carry a few things up a few stairs, there is an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner in yours!

Sauce Bolognaise à La Fourchette (Adapted from Mama’s Spaghetti Sauce)

2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 medium onions, chopped
2 shallots (or whatever it takes to equal the amount of onions), chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
16 ounces of tomato sauce
12 ounces of tomato paste
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 pound of ground beef
a few glugs of red wine (for the sauce!)
1 pound of spaghetti
parmesan cheese for serving

Cook parsley, onion, shallots, and garlic in hot fats until soft and translucent. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Add meat browned in additional olive oil. Add wine. Cook slowly 3-4 hours on a low heat, stirring occasionally and adding wine to adjust consistency to your taste. Cook pasta in boiling salted water; drain and place on a warm platter. Pour sauce over and dust with freshly grated parmesan. Serves 8. (Although you may wish to add the drained pasta to the sauce pot to let the sauce really blend its flavors with the pasta before serving.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

I Heart Gougère

Valentine's Day is not typically a big-time holiday here in France. Although change is in the air...for whatever reason.

It was never a big-time holiday in my family as I was growing up either. Oh sure, there were the standard little paper punch-out valentines that were detached from their backing, signed and tucked into individual envelopes, upon which each name had been carefully printed. They were then distributed to classmates, each card being placed in the red construction paper envelopes (an art project from the week before) that were taped to the sides of the desks waiting to be filled. (In second grade, I received a very ornate full-sized, be-sequined card strewn with cupids, hearts and arrows and signed “with love” by one Eddie D., who later accompanied his declaration of Valentine Love with cartwheels and other various acrobatic stunts on the playground at recess. Me, I was mortified. Way too much attention for this introverted soul. But memorable, nonetheless.)

Back at the ranch, my sister and I would make cards for our parents and my father would always bring home little gifts for us. Something along the lines of a small trinket or tchotchke kind of thing along with a heart-shaped box of chocolates. My mother usually received two boxes: one was velvet with something beautiful in it and the other contained chocolate covered cherries – her favorites. Sweet memories.

For beaux of my past and a former husband, I was the kind to make special meals for this mid-February celebration. Something in the meal was usually heart-shaped. If it was soup, it had heart-shaped croutons floating on the top. Stuff like that. Such the romantic soul, I can be. I think I’m past that stage...well, almost.

This dish is a perfect Valentine’s Day special. Simple to put together and yet makes a lovely presentation for a lunch or light dinner.

The recipe comes from my equally lovely conversation partner, Danielle. We meet weekly and share conversations ranging from personal events, current events, various topics through which we can learn about one another’s culture, and films we’ve seen. (Films have become one of our favorite things to talk about.) It’s made a big difference in my confidence with this new language and fun to watch the natural flow of French and English as we navigate our discussions in two languages, foreign to each of us.

As it turns out, she is also quite the cook. It became obvious to me from the French cookbooks that she generously loaned me when she found out about La Fourchette several months ago. (Including the Richard Olney collection, I might add!)

Yes, I believe that she must have logged in a few hours in her own little kitchen in the south of France before taking a retirement along with her husband, a former judge here in Aix en Provence. (My former mother-in-law did the same thing, by the way, after her husband retired. There was a moment when she realized that she was still working. One afternoon she offered to her husband her resignation...along with a can of beans and a can opener - for whenever he felt hungry. A creative way to make the point! They began showing up regularly at the "Early Bird Specials" in their ‘hood outside of Washington D.C. shortly after this declaration of kitchen independence.)

Danielle prepared a Gougère for me the first time she invited me to lunch “chez eux” (their house). Served with sliced ham, fresh from the butcher, and a perfectly dressed mâche salad, it was a very satisfying lunch – as was the conversation between the three of us.

Gougère is from the Burgundy is her husband. While not-quite-a-soufflé, not-quite-a-cake, it falls somewhere in between. Blending the traditional Pâte à Choux (the batter used to make éclairs) with cheese, the result is the Gougère - rich in taste but light enough in texture to keep it from feeling heavy when the meal is over. The salty/nutty flavor of the parmesan has its edges softened in the eggy mix. Tasty and pretty to look at - it's so French! It will become a regular on my recipe “playlist”.

We still have cold temperatures here but are being teased a bit with lovely sunshine-filled days. Is it spring yet?!

Regardless of the temps in your world, perhaps by serving this to your Valentine with a bit of rosé, you can seduce more than just an early spring!

Bon appétit!

Gougère (Adapted from La Cuisine familiale et pratique by H.P. Pellaprat, the Pâte à Choux recette)

This is a bit of an intuitive process. When I asked how long it should be in the oven, Danielle told me that she always just knows by the smell at which point to pull it out. This was my first one so I was a little less sure of myself. There is definitely a point at which it will send you an olfactory signal that it’s ready! I also ended up not adding the last egg as it looked more than wet enough given what I was after. I turned out to be right. That is an important note in the original recipe. Watch for that. In addition, watch the flour...this could be a bit of a hiccup with my conversions...and translation, but just be ready with additional flour if you need it. It’s good practice for your intuitive cook! Very good served warm, right from the oven, it's also good at room temperature

1 cup of water
1/2 cup of unsalted butter
pinch of sea salt
1 cup of flour (all-purpose), sifted
4 œufs
2/3 cup of grated parmesan cheese

Bring to a boil the water, butter and salt. When it comes to a full boil, take it off the heat and add, all at once, the flour, mixing vigorously with a spoon or spatula. You must have a thick consistency, firm, so if you need to dry it out a bit to get this consistency, put it over a moderate heat for brief amounts of time, but not leaving it on the heat.

When it no longer sticks to the spatula and begins to form a plump ball of dough, add the 4 eggs, one at a time and one right after the other*, while mixing vigorously to combine them with the dough. The dough will become soft and more batter-like.
(*Do not add the last egg without checking the consistency at this point. Add it only bit by bit to avoid risking that the dough will become too sluggish.)

Distribute the batter evenly in a buttered casserole dish (or tube pan...or ramequins) and bake at 400ºF watching it carefully until it is golden brown on top and springs to the touch.

This dough serves as a base for many pastries, such as the eclairs. It can be served as a savory dish when used to make gnocchis or as a soufflé-type dish with the addition of cheese, a bit of pepper and a grind of nutmeg. (Like the gougère.)

Gougère can also be prepared as bite-sized morsels baked on a cookie sheet for an appetizer.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Leftovers of Super Tuesday in Paris

Americans abroad joined a number of other states in the primary voting on 5 February 2008, or Super Tuesday. This is notable as it is the first time that voters abroad have had the opportunity to vote at a physical polling place instead of sending in an absentee ballot. It's a big deal for us ex-pats. Democrats Abroad will be sending 22 delegates to the convention in August!

Voters arriving to the American Church in Paris were greeted then guided to the basement polls by a very friendly group of volunteers.

Passports were checked and printed ballots were handed over to voters who filled them out at tables...or seated on the floor...or leaning against a wall using a backpack as a desk.

Once ballots had been completed, they were reviewed by Lois Grjebine and Lisa Immordino Vreeland, both reisents of Paris and involved in Democrats Abroad here in France. (In fact, Lois is a former DNC member and officer in DAF.) Then it was into the ballot box, stuffed (and I mean that in a good way!) with the votes of other enthusiastic participants.

American in Paris, Jean-François Angevin-Romey, gave a lively interview to a French team of journalists who were filming a documentary on the occasion.

AP television was there to film the event for the evening news around the world, catching up with a couple of voters as they left the polls. After this interview, they ventured into the basement for some "live" voting action.

And in that quiet hall and bustling basement, history was being made for those of us who live on this side of the pond. From this day forward, showing up at the polls will be an option.

If you are one of La Fourchette's readers in the United States, when your turn comes around, get out there and vote!


p.s. To see a few more shots from Paris, go to the NY Times collection here.
Along the right side there is a search column to narrow the selection. Type "Paris" for the City and "International" for the Narrow by State. Hit "Search" at the bottom of the column and take a peek at my Tuesday in Paris.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Candles and Cookies and Crêpes - Oh My!

At the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (the second of February) we have Candlemas, or Chandeleur in France. With roots in both pagan and religious practices, we kick up the light and warmth in the middle of the dark and cold...and, of course, celebrate with food. Often this happens while we un-deck the halls, as this is the second of two times often chosen for dismantling Christmas. (Twelfth Night is the other.)

Pull out your pencils and notebooks, boys and girls. La Fourchette U. is in session! (Credits can be collected at the back of the room when class is over. Form a single line, please, and remember to use your “quiet voices”!)

In the agricultural regions in Europe, such as my little corner of France, this was the time of year when fields were prepared for the coming planting season. As the name would imply, candles play a big part in the celebration. It was the custom for people to bring lighted candles from the church service to assure good crops for the year ahead and chase away any evil with the light and warmth.

From a religious perspective, Chandeleur falls 40 days after Christmas and is celebrated by followers as the day upon which Mary presented herself to the temple for ritual purification. It was at this point that Mary and Joseph also presented their son, Jesus, to the temple for redemption.

Traditionally celebrated with grain-based foods, there are two standard specialties for this holiday:

The Navettes of Marseille

Shaped like little boats, these biscuit-cookies are made annually for the second of February to celebrate the arrival of St. Lazar and the two Marys (Mary Magdalene and Mary Martha) at Ste. Marie de la Mer, just east along the coast from Marseille, around 2000 years ago.

A creative and ingenious baker in Marseille hit upon the idea of creating the little boat-shaped cookies back in 1781 as a reminder of the following story (taken from the informative little pamphlet that accompanies the cookies):

“Picture this: at the end of the 13th century, the statue of the virgin ran aground on the shores of Lacydon (ancient name of the Vieux-port of Marseille). The virgin was made of polychrome wood and her green gown was soiled and spoiled by age. She wore a golden crown, which was enough for the small circle of craftsmen from Marseilles to look upon her as a mark of destiny and a sign of protection. To some she was ‘Notre Dame du Feu Nouveau’ (Our Lady of the New Fire), and to others she was ‘La Vierge Protectrice des Gens de La Mer’ (The Virgin Guardian of the People of the Sea) moreover, it is also said that the shuttle is the symbol of the small boat on which ‘les saintes’ came over here to the Provence coasts.”

The recipe has been a well-protected secret for more than 200 years. Each year during Chandeleur, the archbishop of Marseille blesses the Four des Navettes (the bakery where all of this goes down) in the presence of the mayor of the city and various local celebrities.

These particular navettes are a gift from a friend of mine. They were scored after an hour wait in a long line that wrapped around this famous little bakery. It’s serious stuff in these parts, my friends!

There are three types: the classic type made with orange flower water (known for being a natural preservative), those without the flower water and the more tender provençale type that do not last as long.

I received the classics - with the orange flower water. Whew! These little things are strong...strong, I tell you, packing quite the olfactory punch! My entire apartment took on the scent in no time flat. ( it’s not that much space to cover, but still!) To manage the impact, I ended up double bagging these new “guests” and putting them in exile on the window sill. I suppose orange flower water is an acquired taste. Perhaps it will kick in for me one day...but it doesn't look like it will be this year. (But the preservation factor is important. People would buy them by the dozens to last throughout the entire year for protection, and bring them out month by month.)

A specialty of the port city of Marseille,'ll find many pleasing shapes of navettes throughout Provence.

Chandeleur Crêpes

Crêpes are also prepared and eaten to celebrate Chandeleur. A symbol of wealth, good crops and health, the shape and color of the crêpe also serve as a symbol of the golden orb of the sun – a sign of things to come as that golden orb begins to make its return.

Usually made with the wheat flour from the previous harvest, there is a tradition of tossing the crêpe while holding a coin in the opposite hand to ensure prosperity in the coming year. If you are able to toss your crêpe successfully with one hand (without having it land on the floor or in the sink!), you will be blessed with good luck and prosperity until next year’s Chandeleur. (I’ll have to get back to you on this part. I’m not taking any chances so I’m practicing for next year...I’d like to give my bank a chance to pull itself together before I go about hastily predicting my prosperity.)

Although I have a favorite spot for crêpes here in Aix and have put a good dent in their output, this time I gave it a try in my own little kitchen. Keepin’ it real chez La Fourchette!

The key here is to let the batter rest. If you use regular flour, which is what I used (organic unbleached flour, in fact) the resting time is an hour according to Julia Child. The Rombauers suggest between 3 to 6 hours in Joy of Cooking. It was 2 hours of “sieste” (rest...actually "nap") in my little kitchen.

And the results: pretty tasty!

With a delicate eggy flavor and a bit of bounce to the chew, their pleasing texture with various spreads and drizzles made for a lovely afternoon celebration of Chandeleur. Try a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar to stay on the lighter side. Or, indulge (as I’ve been known to do occasionally) and slap on a schmear of Nutella. (Whoever invented that stuff should be nominated for the food Hall of Fame!)

For a bit of Chandeleur-Decadence, slip them into something sexier, like Joel Durand’s Framboises et Chocolat Noir sauce. Like Nutella...for grown-ups!

Whether you tossed a few crêpes, lit a few candles, set a few cookies out on the window ledge (!)...or simply waited to see if the groundhog would see his shadow in your neck of the woods...may your year that extends beyond Chandeleur 2008 be prosperous...and bright!

Bon appétit,

An All-Purpose Crêpe Formula (Adapted from Julia Child, The Way to Cook)

This is the crêpe that goes around, under, or on top of almost anything, from entrée to dessert – the formula you want in your freezer.

For 20 crêpes 5 1/2 inches across, or 8 to 10 crêpes 8 inches across

1-cup flour (instant-blending or all-purpose – see notes above for resting times.)
2/3 cup each mild and cold water
3 large eggs
1/4-teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons clear melted butter (clarified)

Equipment: A whisk; a 2 quart measuring pitcher or bowl; a frying pan with 5 1/2 to 6 inches bottom diameter or crêpe pan. (A well-seasoned cast-iron pan works well if there is enough room for your fingers to grab the edge to lift and flip.)

The crêpe batter: Measure the flour into the pitcher or bowl, then whisk in by dribbles the mild and water to make a perfectly smooth blend (if using regular flour, after mixing pour the batter through a fairly fine-meshed sieve to remove any lumps). Whisk in the eggs, salt, and 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Let rest 10 minutes – 1 hour or more in the refrigerator for regular all-purpose flour.

Cooking the crêpes: Heat the crêpe pan until drops of water dance on it, then brush it lightly with clarified butter. Pour 1/4 cup of crêpe batter into the center of the hot pan and tilt it in all directions. (The lighter the pan here, the easier this step is.) The batter should cover the pan with a light coating. After 30 seconds or so, the bottom of the crêpe should be lightly browned and the edges will lift easily from the pan. (It will “tell” you when it’s ready to be turned.) Shake the pan gently by its handle to loosen it from the bottom of the pan and lift the edge, turning it with your fingers or a spatula (or flip it over while holding a coin to divine your prosperity level for the coming year!) Cook the crêpe for 15 to 20 seconds on the flip side and slide from the pan to a warm plate that you keep covered as you stack the cooked crêpes.

Storing: Transfer the crêpes as done to the rack and, when thoroughly cool, you may stack them with no fear of them sticking. Slip them into a plastic bag; store in the refrigerator up to 2 days, or freeze for several weeks.

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