Taboulé

taboule2There are probably as many ways to make tabbouleh salad as there are cooks in the world. The dish hails from the eastern Mediterranean, but has spread to many countries, among them France. When I first arrived here (full disclosure: 40 years ago), the taboulé served in Paris mainly used couscous as a base. But this more traditional recipe uses bulghur, which marries beautifully with the salad’s tomatoes, parsley and mint.

Taboulé / Tabbouleh salad

Even so, this recipe differs from what some might consider true (Lebanese) tabbouleh in that it contains more bulghur than herbs. Chefs like the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi recommend the opposite — mainly parsley and mint, with just a smattering of bulghur — but I’ve tried it both ways and prefer to use more of the grain to produce a more satisfying salad. You can experiment to find your own favorite mix.

Tabbouleh works well as a lunch dish, as a salad alongside grilled meat or fish, or as part of a buffet assortment of Mediterranean-style foods. You could pair it, for example, with eggplant caviar, Moroccan carrot salad, chick pea salad or a simple mesclun salad with hints of Provence. Whatever you like. It’s the height of summer, the rosé is flowing, we’re at the beach, and I have only one thing to add: Enjoy!

And happy cooking.

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Penne au safran, roquette et noix

penne saffron2Is it alchemy? Is it art? Each of the four main ingredients in this knock-out dish — saffron, arugula, walnuts and parmesan — has so much personality that one could easily imagine it knocking out the other three. And yet, through some sort of culinary magic, they blend to imbue the pasta with a flavor that is slightly exotic and, as my student Louise would say, simply divine. Add a little cream, a little salt, and presto. A spectacular and unusual dish.

Penne au safran, roquette et noix / Penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts

This pasta works well in the summer, when it can stand alone as a main dish, preceded or followed by tomatoes or greens in salad with plenty of fresh herbs. But it’s also great by the fireside in winter — a warming and satisfying first course, perhaps followed by roasted game or veggies. It hails from the outskirts of Rome, where my friend Tony discovered it in a small roadside stand, virtually a shack. There was no menu — they brought whatever the chef decided to make that day. Once Tony had tasted this pasta he kept going back for more, in hopes that they would bring it again and again…

This week Tony came over to France from London and we took a little day trip to Reims, in Champagne country, only 45 minutes from Paris by train. After visiting the soaring Reims cathedral, where the kings of France were crowned (and for which Marc Chagall created the magnificent stained-glass windows behind the altar), we repaired to a local bistro for lunch. Again, alchemy and art were at work in my first course of ravioli filled with … snails. Very French, very local. This was followed by a bouchée de la reine, or queen’s mouthful — a pastry shell filled with chunks of veal, chicken and locally made ham in a sauce flavored with Champagne. I love sampling local dishes when moving about in France, and may just try to replicate one of the above for this site in due course. By the way, the restaurant was Le Pré Champenois, unpretentious but hardly a roadside eatery.

Other news: Plans for the Mallorca cooking workshop are moving forward and I hope to be able to provide full details in my next post two weeks from now. Briefly, the workshop will be held at a charming boutique hotel from April 23-30. French cooking classes will take place from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday — the rest of the time participants will be free to explore the island. Please let me know if you are interested. Five people have already contacted me about taking part, and places are limited.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Clafoutis aux cerises

cherry clafoutis2Cherry pie, cherry cobbler, cherry tart, cherry mousse, cherry soup, yes, but cherry clafoutis? Why such an odd word for one of France’s favorite homespun desserts, cherries baked in a batter of eggs, milk and sugar? Clafoutis (pronounced clah-foo-TEE) comes out of the oven all trembly and inviting. It hails from central France, and is a spring/summer staple in this country. Other clafoutis may come and go — there is a recipe for pear clafoutis here — but cherry clafoutis is the princess of this magnificently simple dessert.

Clafoutis aux cerises / Cherry clafoutis

I was curious about the origin of the word so looked it up in my Petit Robert, the prince of French dictionaries. Clafoutis derives from clafir, which in local patois means ‘to fill’. This in turn derives from the Latin phrase clavo figere, which is Greek to me. If any of you Latin scholars out there can shed some light on the meaning, please let us know. According to my Robert, the word became popular in the mid-19th century, which means that this dessert has been around for less than 200 years. Somehow I doubt that. It is a relative of flan, which dates back to the 12th century or earlier. What to do when the cherry tree is suddenly laden with fresh, lush fruit? Too much fruit for eating or even jam-making? Pop the cherries into a flan…

glaces1Now some news from Paris. A few days ago, a French-American couple launched a new ice cream shop named Scaramouche on a little street in Montmartre. The American in question is the writer Elizabeth Bard, author of two delightful memoirs with recipes — Lunch in Paris and the just-released Picnic in Provence — that tell the story of her encounter and love affair with the Frenchman in question, Gwendal Auffret. While living in Provence, they launched an artisanal ice cream making business using only the best ingredients, with a creative range of local flavors (rosemary, olive oil and pine nuts; lavender; geranium petals and crushed pistachios; saffron, etc.) as well as more typical flavors like chocolate and vanilla. In 2013 they opened their first Scaramouche shop, in the village of Cereste, and the next year were named to Trip Advisor’s list of the top 10 ice cream shops in France. This success has propelled them to Paris. If you’d like to stop by for a taste, the shop is at 22 Rue la Vieuville, beneath Sacré Coeur in the 18th arrondissement.

Mallorca1And finally, here’s something so new that I can only give a few details now, with more to come in the weeks ahead. It looks quite likely that I will be teaching a cooking workshop in April at an enchanting boutique hotel on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I am still hammering out the details with the hotel’s British owners, but the tentative plan is to hold the workshop during the week of April 24-May 1. Participants would arrive on a Sunday, have afternoon cooking classes from Monday to Friday, and leave on the following Sunday. During the day, they would be free to explore the island and its fabulous beaches, or to lounge beside the hotel’s lovely pool. The price, which is still being worked out, would be equivalent to the cost of seven nights in a mid-range hotel in Paris, London or New York. Included would be breakfast every day, five dinners with wine, and the five 2-hour cooking lessons with yours truly. Non-participating spouses/partners/friends may come along for a very modest additional price. French cooking on a Spanish island? If you like the idea and think you might come, please let me know via the Contact page. This plan will take off if there is sufficient interest. We can accommodate up to eight students.

Happy cooking!

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Pigeon rôti

Pigeon4It all started with a sail down the Nile in a felucca. That’s where an Egyptian named Refat took a fancy to me. In short order he invited me and my friends to his place across the river from Luxor. It turned out to be a feast, with colorful salads, unusual grains and a spectacular platter of roast pigeon in the center of the table. Succulent, juicy, lightly spiced, this was a dish to remember. So when I returned to Paris, I tried it out.

Pigeon rôti / Roast pigeon

Pigeons have been raised for centuries in France, where they are considered a delicacy. In the countryside, you will see the occasional picturesque dovecote, built during the Middle Ages by the nobility for raising the birds. And of course, before they were raised, pigeons/doves were plentiful in the woods, where they were hunted. One can imagine that they have been relished here since ancient times — as they were in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. The Bible notably mentions pigeons as a food raised by the Hebrews.

These days in France, raised pigeons are readily available year round at quality butchers and at farmers’ markets. Here they are often roasted or stewed in a large pot on the stove, and may be accompanied by bacon, mushrooms, garlic, cabbage, or even stuffed with foie gras. I prefer the simpler, Egyptian method of roasting the pigeons in the oven. They are first bathed in a marinade of olive oil, cumin, garlic and black pepper, then roasted at high heat until medium rare. The Egyptians often stuff the pigeons with rice, but again I prefer the simpler way of roasting the birds with no stuffing. I serve them alongside interesting vegetables, salads or wild rice.

This makes a lovely dinner for hot summer nights. The recipe is very quick and it allows you to place something special on your table with a minimum of fuss. Raised pigeons (often called squab) are available these days in many places, although in some countries you may need to mail order them. If you cannot find pigeon, you may substitute a different small bird. Whatever you choose, be sure to select an appropriately wonderful red wine.

Happy cooking!

During the summer, The Everyday French Chef will appear every two weeks instead of weekly. See you next on Friday, June 26.

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Haricots verts à la française

green beans2I lived in Paris for many years before I figured out how to cook green beans the French way. They would arrive glistening on bistro plates in deep green, succulent piles. Whatever I tried — steaming the beans, boiling them, adding butter or olive oil — I couldn’t manage to replicate the pleasantly nutty flavor. I tested every kind of green bean I could find at the market (and there are many), but still no luck. What was the secret?

Haricots verts à la française / Green beans, French style

The trick, as it turns out, is that the beans are cooked twice — first boiled until just tender, and then tossed in a skillet in melted butter until it turns a rich, nutty brown. This imparts the kind of flavor you can achieve when you allow vegetables to caramelize slightly as they are braising. It’s easy, and it adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi to the meal (something special).

Over here in France, green beans begin appearing at farmers’ markets in early April, mainly imported from Morocco, and by this time of year stalls are filled to overflowing with locally grown varieties. They come in a surprising range of colors — some of the best have purple stripes! — and are often thinner than the green beans available elsewhere.

This is apparently what distinguishes a so-called ‘French bean’ from the sturdier varieties typically found in other countries. The beans are thin for a simple reason — they are harvested younger. This produces a more tender mouthful, and also eliminates the need to string the beans. But I am hardly an expert on ‘French beans’ — the term doesn’t exist in French — so if anyone has any insight on this subject, please let us know!

The best beans of all come from one’s own garden, of course. I’ve had uneven luck growing green beans in France given the healthy appetites of the slugs who frolic in my garden. This year’s first crop of lettuce, radishes, peas and arugula was totally decimated by rabbits and slugs, forcing me to replant in late May. That’s when I put in the beans. Let’s hope they produce a beautiful crop…

food fightNow some news from the literary front. If you are looking for a good read this summer, don’t miss Anne Penketh’s Food Fight, in which one intrepid woman takes on a major food corporation amid many amusing shenanigans. As David Usborne, US editor of The Independent, wrote, ‘This addictive novel is closer to real life in Washington, D.C., than we’d like to think. Fun yet insightful about the lobbying and politicking in the American capital, this take-down of a fictional American food giant is irresistible.’

Happy cooking.

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Saumon grillé, crème d’aneth

salmon dill2A popular dish in Paris bistros these days is saumon à l’aneth — salmon with a sauce of cream and fresh dill. The salmon is generally served steamed or poached. In this version, the salmon is instead pan-seared for a crusty golden exterior and meltingly tender interior. The sauce adds a little je-ne-sais-quoi (French for I don’t know what it is, but it’s something special). Served with fresh veggies or a little salad, it makes a lovely summer meal.

Saumon grillé, crème d’aneth / Pan-seared salmon with dill sauce

But now comes the question: What kind of salmon to buy? Atlantic or Pacific, farmed or wild? Over here in France, the salmon on offer is mostly Atlantic, and I tend to prefer it, for taste and texture. But from what I’ve read, farmed Pacific salmon, with fewer contaminants, is preferable to farmed Atlantic salmon. As for farmed vs. wild, there is no question that wild is a better choice, healthwise and tastewise. The issue here is possible depletion of stocks. But if you treat salmon as a delicacy to be served from time to time, and not a staple of your table, then I think it’s a fair choice.

Now some news from the Paris food scene. An event took place across the street from my home a couple of weeks ago with the opening of Maison Plisson, a new high-end grocery shop with a few tables for drinks and light meals outside. This might not sound like much of an event in a city overflowing with fabulous farmers’ markets. But in fact they held a black-tie cocktail launch, and the days that followed saw ladies-who-lunch lining up outside to see what’s cooking. Some made their way to slightly scruffy eastern Paris from the fashionable 7th and 16th arrondissements — to shop for food! That is an event.

Of course I’ve checked out the place and can highly recommend it if you happen to live in the vicinity. They have a wonderful cheese counter, a fine selection of fresh fruit, veggies and herbs, and a fabulous meat department, headed by Eric Nieulat, whose team crisscrossed France for a year before the opening to find the best sources of fine meat and poultry. Alas, there is no fish department yet.

Maison Plisson, which has been written up in glowing terms in media from Le Monde and Le Figaro to Elle magazine, was founded by Delphine Plisson, who at the age of 40 left a career in fashion (she had worked for Agnès B, Yves Saint-Laurent and Claudie Pierlot) to pursue her dream of creating a food emporium in Paris with top-quality, mainly local products. Having lived in the States, she says she was inspired by places like Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods. Funny to think of American inspiration for French gourmets!

While the upstairs is devoted to fresh produce — and has a terrific bakery next door (the toast in last week’s photo of fromage fort was Plisson’s country bread, which they call pain d’ici, or ‘bread from here’) — the downstairs is stocked with less perishable foods and a fine if pricey collection of wines. For example, instead of Nutella, which includes palm oil, the shop stocks a more natural dark-chocolate-and-hazelnut spread from Corsica. Blind tastings were held for every product before a final choice was made.

It’s a great development, although the advent of Plisson is another step in driving my boulevard upmarket. The trend started a few years ago with the arrival of the Merci emporium and cafés. In Merci’s wake came hip fashion shops like Sandro, Swilden’s, A.P.C., Melinda Gloss, Leon & Harper and, only yesterday, Maison Kitsune. Yikes! It may be fashionable but, as they say, there goes the neighborhood.

Happy cooking.

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Fromage fort

fromage fort4Fromage fort translates literally as ‘strong cheese’, but — in a country known for its many strong cheeses — that does not begin to convey the pungency of this spread of aged cheeses, garlic and eau-de-vie. It could more rightly be called ‘knock-your-socks-off cheese’. I first discovered it at a Paris wine bar called La Tartine, where it was served on slabs of dense country bread, with a glass of sturdy Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône on the side.

Fromage fort / Pungent French cheese spread

But what, exactly, is fromage fort? Traditionally, it was a way of preserving cheese that had dried out or become so strong as to be unpalatable. Some will tell you it arose in Burgundy, where rich and wonderful cheeses like Epoisses are produced (it’s a creamy cheese from cow’s milk that is washed in marc de Bourgogne, the local eau-de-vie). But in fact there are as many recipes for fromage fort as there are corners of France. In the south it is often made with goat cheese, near the Swiss border it is made with gruyère, and in the rugged Auvergne region of central France it is made with blue cheese.

The names of these various versions could form a geographical dictionary of French culinary inventiveness. There is le brous (aka le cachetti) from the foothills above Nice; le miromando (served with blueberries) from Ardèche, west of the Rhône; le casgiù merzu from Corsica (fermented with larva), and — believe it or not — a cheese called le pourri bressan, which translates as ‘rotten cheese from Bresse’.

I wanted to track down a bona fide recipe for fromage fort, so I stopped by at La Tartine last week to chat with the chef. Unfortunately La Tartine changed ownership a few years back, and it is no longer served there. (In fact, it is rare these days to find fromage fort on any bistro menu — an excellent reason, if any was needed, to make it oneself. ) But the current owner, Bernard Séguis, was happy to share his recipe — a Burgundy version that incorporates a broth made of the whites of leeks into the mixture. He suggested serving the spread accompanied by walnuts or slices of pear.

My modernized version omits the broth. And you don’t need to wait for your cheese to get old in order to make it. The spread can be whipped up in a matter of minutes and served with wine during cocktail hour, at lunchtime as an open-faced sandwich (une tartine) or as a cheese course after a larger meal. Be sure to have some sturdy red standing by.

Happy cooking!

Food writing competition: My friend Jonell Galloway, author of the web site The Rambling Epicure, is sponsoring a competition for newcomers to food writing. If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at writing on food-related subjects — fiction or nonfiction — click here for details.

Posted in 4a. Savory Tarts and Tartines | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Soupe aux asperges

asparagus soup2How to turn a simple soup into a festive occasion? Add a spoonful of fish roe and a smattering of fresh herbs. I first encountered roe on soup at my favorite neighborhood bistro, Le Repaire de Cartouche. They served cauliflower soup with tiny black herring roe on top, and I have to say it was divine. In this recipe, asparagus soup is served with fresh dill and a bright spoonful of trout roe. Festive! I’ll leave you to judge whether it’s divine…

Soupe aux asperges / Asparagus soup

Now some news from Paris. The country is riveted — or should I say riven — by a debate over what the young Socialist minister of education is cooking up in order to reform French school system. As the mother of a child who is experiencing this system, I can say that it is definitely in need of reform. But…

The debate is about whether to scrap classes in Latin and Greek from the middle school curriculum, and how to revise the teaching of history (as someone who worked as a journalist in the USSR, I can testify that revision of history is a delicate business). The idea is to make the schools less elitist and more embracing of France’s multiethnic population.

As things stand now, 80 percent of the teachers throughout France will strike on Tuesday, effectively shutting down the schools. One of their main objections — ironically in a country known for educational rigidity — is that the reforms would give schools greater autonomy. The teachers also contend that the proposed changes to the curriculum would in fact increase inequality in the schools, not reduce it.

Not just the teachers are upset. Faced with howls of protest from across the political spectrum over the idea that ancient languages would no longer be offered from the age of 11 as an option, the education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has backtracked, proposing that Latin and Greek still be taught, for fewer hours a week.

But the proposal that has generated the most heat is that studying the history of Islam would become mandatory for 12-year-olds, while the history of Christianity in the Middle Ages would be optional. Even though both Islamic and Christian history are already part of the middle school curriculum, this proposal has elicited outrage from many quarters — even from those who recognize the need for France to be more inclusive of its large Muslim population, especially given the rise of Islamist radicalism.

According to one critic, Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent Jewish intellectual, the changes mean that ‘the school of knowledge will give way to the school of therapy through lying.’ And his is one of the milder voices in this virulent debate. Vallaud-Belkacem, 37, who was born in Morocco, has responded to her critics by calling them ‘pseudo-intellectuals.’

She has faced heat before, notably over her efforts to introduce gender equality in French schools. But this time, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres in January, she is responding to a campaign by President François Hollande to make the French school system more relevant. This is his proposed remedy for the massive disaffection of young people within France’s Muslim community.

In the meantime, due to severe cutbacks in education funding by President Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, this entire debate has an air of irreality. In my daughter’s Parisian lycée, for example, the physics teacher went on sick leave in mid-October and did not return until January. With no substitute brought in, the pupils were out in the streets. But that was nothing compared to the absence of the French teacher, who went AWOL at the start of October and was not replaced until mid-March.

So while teachers are in the streets protesting the reduction of hours of courses in Latin and Greek, the French schools are unable to provide regular education in this country’s most basic subject: French. No substitute teachers were available due to the budget cuts, parents were told. And since the French school system is competitive and the pupils will face nationwide tests on lessons they didn’t receive, everybody in the affected classrooms suffers, whatever their background.

It’s enough to make you dive for a warming bowl of asparagus soup, with a glass or three of strong red for fortification.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Meringues aux fruits des bois

berry meringue2What do the French mean, exactly, by fruits des bois? ‘Fruits of the forest’, yes, but then? Originally the term meant wild berries, but today it encompasses strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and perhaps the occasional red or black currant — all of which you are far more likely to find in a garden than in the woods. In English we’d just say berries, and as the season approaches a fine way to serve them is with cream on a meringue.

Meringues aux fruits des bois / Berry meringues

In this recipe, the meringues are constructed as shells, which is fun — you’re an architect as well as a cook. They are then gently baked before being filled with freshly whipped cream and topped with the berries. You can flavor the cream with vanilla, cognac or rum, depending on the age of those around your table. And by the way, these treats are a huge hit with the younger set — my daughter (15) devoured three of them before I had time to take a photo, meaning I had to make them again the next day…

The only tricky part is that egg whites can be temperamental — if they’re cold, or if there’s even a tiny bit of yolk in the whites, they may refuse to be beaten into firm peaks. But at the same time, eggs are easier to separate when they’re cold. The best plan is to separate them straight out of the fridge, and then allow them to warm up for about an hour before beating. When you’ve incorporated the sugar and the whites are firm, you can use a pastry tube to snake the meringue into the form of a circle and then build up the sides. Lacking a pastry tube, you can make mounds of meringue and then scoop out the middle.

The cream, in contrast, needs to be icy cold. Chilling the bowl in which you’ll be whipping the cream will provide best results.

I first encountered this dessert in a branch of the restaurant Le Pain Quotidien in a far-flung quarter on the edge of central London. My daughter loved it so much that she took photos of it with my iPhone, and these photos inspired me to try it myself. It’s as delectable as it is pretty, and a definite crowd pleaser.

Happy cooking!

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Spaghettis à l’ail et huile d’olive

spaghetti garlic oil2Did Marco Polo really introduce spaghetti to Italy when he returned from China in 1295? Apparently not. This ancient food — noodles, in one form or another — existed in China for millennia before the intrepid Italian adventurer arrived there, but it also existed in the Middle East and North Africa long before Marco Polo’s voyage, and most likely made its way to Europe from there. The French have enjoyed it for centuries…

Spaghettis à l’ail et huile d’olive / Spaghetti with garlic and olive oil

In this recipe, steaming spaghetti is added to a mixture of minced raw garlic, extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped parsley — a French touch. It releases a fabulous aroma, and you can bring it to the table as is or with the addition of grated parmesan, cayenne pepper if you like extra spice, chopped raw cherry tomatoes, sautéed shrimp or all of the above. Personally, I prefer it unadorned. It is a perfect peasant food, simple and oh so tasty.

So when did spaghetti reach France? The history of pasta is rather unclear, but here are a few factlets I’ve been able to piece together: 1) Noodles made from millet dating back to 2000 B.C. were found buried in a clay pot in central China by an archaeological dig in 2005 — in other words, they were 4,000 years old. 2) The process of turning grain into pasta may well have made its way west from China along the Silk Route, reaching the Biblical lands. It was mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic, in the 5th century A.D. — 700 years before Marco Polo set forth. 3) Pasta reached Europe even earlier than that. A noodle machine was uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii, the ancient city near Naples that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. 4) According to one theory, pasta was introduced to Italy from Greece, the evidence being of the etymological variety (the Greek word pastos meaning ‘sprinkled with salt’). I was unable to verify this, but I did also read that in Greek mythology there is a tale about Vulcan, god of fire, ‘pushing dough through a device that converts it into thin, edible threads.’ 5) According to another theory, pasta moved north across the Mediterranean from Libya, where it had arrived via Arabs from the Middle East. 6) The historian Al-Idrissi wrote about encountering spaghetti in Sicily in the 12th century, well before Marco Polo’s birth.

I’m not a historian, so please correct me if any of this is wrong, or if you have additions to make. What I can say is that pasta has featured on Parisian menus for quite some time, having presumably made its way north from the French Mediterranean. In fact, when Thomas Jefferson encountered pasta while serving as American ambassador to Paris, he liked it so much that he brought a macaroni machine back to the United States in 1789. Pasta today is one of the most popular dishes among the French. The rustic version in today’s recipe is one of the simplest, and tastiest. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment