Monday, March 10, 2008

Blame It On The Pissaladière

As I started regular visits to the south of France I learned that an early wander through the marché, no matter which town or village I happened to be in, would inspire me with visual gifts...

...and sometimes lunch!

The pissaladière first became a favorite pick-up meal at the morning marché along cours Saleya in Nice. Double bagged, it would go into my backpack for the day and be pulled out for lunch along the seaside...

...or in a little village...

...or sitting on a bench to watch a game of pétanque...

...or for a snack after spending an afternoon in the shadows of village rues collecting shots of colorful windows and doors...

...or at the edge of a little fountained square sipping an Orangina...

During my early trips to Nice, I would head to a little bistro at the end of cours Saleya to write in my journal and plan the next day’s adventure while sipping a glass of rosé and nibbling on Niçoise olives and bites of pissaladière.

As dusk fell, the color of the sky would change to shades of the wine in my glass and shadows would begin to fall across the face of the old clock where the market ends. Candles on the tables were lit and groups of people began to take up residence in this little café, including locals gathering for a drink before heading to dinner, tourists using the apero hour to refer to guidebooks for restaurant recommendations and business people stopping in before heading home.

Cours Saleya is a community strolling place in the evenings, the straightest line between two points. All in one evening's tableau, one can see new parents strolling babies in prams with toddlers peddling alongside on tricycles, young adults dressed in black with trendy coiffed hairstyles ready for a night out and gathering friends as they go from one spot to another and older strollers, slower in their step, who’ve seen countless nights such as this over the decades.

Blame it on the pissaladière, for it was while sitting at that café many years ago on just such an evening, nibbling on little squares of the lovely stuff, that I first decided that I wanted to live in this place amidst the sunflowers...

...and lavender...

...and olives.

Okay…fair enough…perhaps the pissaladiére is not to blame…but on that soft evening in Nice, it did have a starring role in what would turn out to be one of those significant moments in the course of my life.

There are probably as many versions of pissaladière as there are boulangeries in France. Like many Provençale dishes, it takes twists and turns depending on the interpretation (or perhaps inspiration) of the chef.

I do not promise anything life changing for you with this recipe, but rather a lovely sweet/savory tart-like (or pizza-like, given the proximity to the Italian border) dish that takes its name from pissalat, a sauce or spread of anchovies and herbs found around the Mediterranean since the time of the Romans.

Often made with bread dough (I go to my favorite boulangerie and ask for a raw baguette and trade less than a euro for a bag of dough – and let me tell you, anything less than one euro is a good thing right now!), the traditional pissaladière is topped, pizza-style, first with a salty anchovy spread and then a blanket of sweet onions just barely cooked to softness then studded with black olives. Today that anchovy spread is often replaced with anchovy filets, a modification I have adopted from that little bistro as well.

Cut from big rectangular sheets of it at the marché or in boulangeries, it can also be prepared in a tart pan for slices as a first course with a small green salad or cut into little squares for bite-sized appetizers to accompany an early glass of rosé as spring approaches.

As the weather warms up wherever you are, try this out for a lunch treat...or if you are headed into the outdoors for a hike, a walk along the seaside or a few hours of snowshoeing, wrap this up and put a little taste of Provence in your backpack for a picnic.

Bon appétit,

Pissaladière (Adapted from Matisse: A Way of Life in the South of France by Jean-Bernard Naudin, Gilles Plazy and Coco Jobard)

I’ve tried a few recipes for pissaladière from various books and slips of paper in my collections, some which call for additional sugar to enhance the sweetness of the onions. But this simple one continues to be a favorite. It goes together easily and although they recommend eating it “piping hot” right out of the oven, (which is very good, by all means) I like it at room temperature as well, when the sweet/salty flavors have blended gently into one another. With a pleasantly chewy crust, it may make anchovy lovers out of any resisters out there. It's one of my favorites to meet that sweet/salty craving that gets the better of me. (And seems a bit more refined than potato chips and Oreo cookies...although that always works!)

2 pounds onions (yellow or even the sweet Vidalia or Maui would work well here)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon dried thyme
1 dried bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, minced
sea salt
1 pound basic bread dough (get it from your bakery if you can)
12 anchovy filets in oil
20 small black Niçoise olives (or any oil-cured black olive that adds to the salty aspect of this specialty...I use pitted, but traditionally it's topped with the small Niçoise olives - pits and all.)
freshly ground black pepper

Peel and finely chop the onions. In a stockpot, heat the olive oil over low heat. Add the onions, garlic, oregano and thyme, and bay leaf coating all in the oil. Lightly season with sea salt. Cover the pot and allow to stew over very low heat for at least 1 1/2 hours. The onions must become transparent, but must not brown. Check often, stirring from time to time.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF.

Allow the bread dough to rise in an oiled bowl in a warm spot, away from drafts. Using your hands, shape the bread dough into a disk (or rectangle) approximately 1/4 inch thick. Place into a moistened tart pan (on a baking sheet), making an edge approximately 1 inch in height all around. Bake the crust for 10 minutes to dry it a bit. Remove from oven, but do not turn off the heat.

While the dough is in the oven, take the lid off of the onions and let the water cook out, stirring often. Do not let them brown! Distribute the onions evenly on the pre-baked dough. Smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Arrange the anchovy fillets in a star shape on the onions (or distributed evenly on the rectangle, if you've used the baking sheet). Bake for 15 minutes. Take from oven and distribute olives evenly then return to oven for another 5 or so minutes. Remove from the oven, season with freshly ground pepper, cut into serving size or bite sized pieces. Serve.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Keeping It Simple

My dreams of coming to France first became reality in 1990. I had arrived by way of Geneva then caught a train to Grenoble on my way to a Buddhist meditation retreat in a little village in the Alps.

To say I was slammed flat (I suppose some would call it “jet lag”) by the time I arrived at the village retreat grounds is a gross understatement. So I could only sit in silent disbelief when I was told that many more participants had shown up than were expected and there was not enough room for everyone. Some of us would have to be housed in a convent in a little village down the mountain, being transported back and forth by bus each day. In a state of shock and exhaustion, the gears began to grind to a halt as I tried to take in this unexpected information. (Not such a big deal, as I look back on it. But introverts don’t really love surprises...and jet-lagged introverts, even less.)

Instead of looking at the situation as an opportunity to surrender and go with the flow (which would have been a good idea, given the whole reason I was there) I chose to wander off numbly, find a vacant bunk and sleep...ever so soundly...for several hours. The Scarlet O’Hara approach is always worth a try when all else is crumbling underfoot.

It was the sound of voices nearby that stirred me back into reality…now the evening of the day I had arrived. With renewed energy, I emerged from slumber to discover a few fellow students who were in the same situation and awaiting the bus that would take us down the hill for the first of 21 nights together.

While we awaited our carriage, we found a spot in this mountain village – a skiing resort during the winter but it was now July – and dined as we got to know one another a bit. Given the circumstances of my first night in France, I was going for comfort food and found it in the form of a Gratin Dauphinois.

A trifecta, of sorts, this inspiration of potatoes, cream and cheese. Paired with a fresh salad of simple greens tossed lightly with a vinaigrette...I'm telling you, it was not my Buddhist practice that brought me to a calmer place about those circumstances, my friends, it was that meal...and those potatoes!

It turned out to be a very lucky set of circumstances for me...a lesson that I seem to learn over and over again. The convent as it turns out was like something out of an old French film. My little room was rather austere, furnished with a small bed, an armoire, a desk, a lamp and a chair. There was also a large window, which was shuttered when I arrived in the dark of night. The next morning, and every morning after that, those shutters opened out onto a meadow and an apple orchard that were veiled in a soft haze of golden light.

After long days of teachings that went into the night and a long bus ride back down the mountain and long discussions in our group about the day’s teachings that would continue into the wee hours of the morning, I would drag back to the sweet, cool air of that little room for a few hours of sleep before being awakened by an early bell, softly rung at the hour of dawn.

Only the whispers of footsteps could be heard through the ancient stone halls each morning as we all made our way to the dining area, where we would sit at long wooden tables worn shiny by who knows how many scores of communal meals. Nuns in blue habits and cotton headscarves would quietly patter into the room, serving warm baguettes with pots of fresh butter and apricot preserves. Hot coffee was poured into bowls and white porcelain pitchers of steaming milk were set out for us if we wished. It was magical. And just what I needed because at the time, I was going through a divorce and grieving the loss of a relationship, various family and friends and a home I had created from top to bottom, inside and out. There was a lot of loss going on in my little world. Before arriving, I had no idea how I was going to manage to survive leaving my home and leaping into the unknown. But in that simple room, in that austere dining hall, in the light of that golden meadow I came to realize that perhaps simple was better...and leaps into the unknown weren't so bad.

Something shifted. I was going to be okay.

The lesson has stayed with me and fueled, to some extent, my choice to trade a life that had many trappings that looked like success for a more simple existence in a smaller space, eating locally with the change of seasons, making daily treks to the marché, the butcher, the baker, "the candlestick maker", all arranged around walking instead of jumping into a car. I suspect the roots of my current life can probably be traced back to that little room in a convent at the base of the French Alps.

While the teachings and experiences at the retreat were indeed profound, I have such fond memories of those baguettes with fresh butter and apricot preserves alongside a bowl of café au lait...and the first gratin dauphinois of many that became my signature meal during that trip.

Oh yeah! Simple is better.

Bon appétit,

JR’s Gratin Dauphinois (from Patricia Wells At Home in Provence)

That’s JR as in Joel Robuchon...we’re in good company here, my friends! I started making my potatoes dauphinois in this fashion some years ago and the results are...well...“gorgeous”, to quote a friend of mine.

If in these last days of winter there a cold, rainy night in your forecast, get this in the oven and pair it with a simple salad – which always works for me. It’s also not bad with a grilled lamb chop and a bit of kale sautéed until soft in olive oil with some garlic slivers...a little glass of red wine. You see? Simple!

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream (I use a soy cream which works very well.)
4 ounces coarsely grated gruyere cheese
sea salt and freshly gound pepper to taste
A grind of fresh nutmeg to taste
1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and halved
2 pounds firm-fleshed potatoes, washed well and sliced very thin
3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 375ºF

2. Thoroughly rub the inside of a shallow 2-quart baking dish with garlic. Set aside the garlic for the next step.

3. Put the milk in a large saucepan and add to it the garlic you’ve set aside. Bring the milk to a boil over moderate heat. Add the cream and 3/4 of the cheese. Stir to blend. (Do not allow a boil here.) Season with salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Add the potatoes and mix well with a wooden spoon. Cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

4. Transfer the potatoes and their liquid to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and dot with butter.

5. Place in the center of the oven and bake until the potatoes are cooked through and the top is crisp and golden, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6 (or two, if it happens to be a cold night and it’s a couple of foodies!)

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