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.

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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.

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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.

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Salade niçoise

salade nicoise2Salade niçoise is a dish so evocative that you can probably remember where you were when you first tasted one. In my case, it was in … Nice, where I spent three weeks digging for pre-Neanderthal man as a student in the summer of 1969. We would wander into town along the Mediterranean, find a little café, order wine and something to eat. Once I ordered a salade niçoise — and was in heaven. But what, exactly, is salade niçoise?

Salade niçoise / Salade niçoise

These days in France a salade niçoise usually comes with tuna on top, but that was not part of the original recipe. Nor were other ingredients that are often seen today, like green beans, potatoes, rice or — say it ain’t so — sweet corn. No, mes amis, in the beginning a salade niçoise contained only local ingredients: tomatoes, small white onions, anchovies, perhaps some mesclun (mixed tender leaves) or basil and, of course, olive oil.

Over time, other ingredients were added — hard-boiled eggs, still warm; little black olives from the Nice region; green peppers, cucumbers, radishes, celery hearts or raw artichoke hearts, all thinly sliced; or fresh broad beans. Tuna, which was not widely fished a couple hundred years ago, was included only on feast days. And the salad was specific to Nice and its immediate region. Even today, my favorite Provençal cookbook, Andrée Maureau’s Recettes en Provence, contains no mention of salade niçoise. That’s how local it is.

Today’s recipe sticks close to the original. It’s a tangy, flavor-packed salad, perfect for warm summer days. It makes a fine starter or main course, accompanied by crusty bread and a bottle of chilled dry rosé. You can also serve it tucked inside a crusty roll drizzled with olive oil, as they do in Nice, where the sandwich is called pan bagnat. This being a creative cooking site, you may of course improvise by adding whatever other ingredients appeal. There are no rules here. Except for one: no sweet corn, please!

Happy cooking.

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Filet de bar sauce vierge

sea bass salsa2Sea bass is a highly prized fish in France. It is often grilled on a barbecue in summer with long, flowery fennel stalks for an aromatic flavor. But no barbecue is needed for this dish. The sea bass is pan-seared in olive oil and served with sauce vierge — a French salsa of tomatoes, shallots and fresh basil that translates literally as ‘virgin sauce’. With fresh veggies and a wedge of lemon, it makes a fine dish as we head into warm weather.

Filet de bar sauce vierge / Pan-seared sea bass with French salsa

But what about sauce vierge? I spent some time looking into how it got its name, but have not yet found an answer. Is it ‘virgin’ because it is uncooked (untouched by heat)? Because it calls for virgin olive oil? Or for some other reason? According to one theory, it may have been named for England’s Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, who reigned from 1558 to 1603. But that is simply outlandish, if only because the tomato — brought from the Americas to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors — was not cultivated in Britain until the 1590s, and was at that time thought by the English to be poisonous.

What I can say is that sauce vierge is quite popular in Paris these days, appearing often on bistro menus, usually to accompany fish. It clearly has southern roots, and by southern I mean Provence — or even Italy. It could easily be mistaken for the uncooked tomato sauce served over pasta by Italians in hot weather, topped with grated parmesan or ricotta salata. Over the years it has made its way north. But when did it first appear?

Julia Child makes no mention of sauce vierge in her extensive compendium of French sauces in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, first published in 1961. (I don’t have Volume 2, so couldn’t check.) According to bits and pieces gleaned on the Web, the sauce was popularized in the 1980s by Michel Guérard, the guru of nouvelle cuisine. (His version used garlic instead of shallots, and tarragon instead of basil.) But if he popularized it, who invented it? If anyone out there has an answer, please let me know.

And, in the meantime, happy cooking!

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Quiche aux épinards et pignons de pin

spinach pine nut quiche1There’s a Mediterranean flavor to this quiche with spinach, pine nuts and parmesan. Perfect for lunch, accompanied by a salad and a glass of rosé, it’s a fine dish as we head into the sunny days of spring. It can also be a starter at suppertime, or the star of a Mediterranean-style buffet, with a selection of salads and spreads: tapenade, tomatoes with fresh herbs, spicy eggplant caviar, chick peas with cumin and dill, a salad of mixed greens.

Quiche aux épinards et pignons de pin / Spinach quiche with pine nuts and parmesan

But is this really a quiche? Or is it rather a savory tart (tarte salée)? And what’s the difference? The borderlines aren’t clear, but in general a quiche has more eggs and cream than a savory tart in proportion to the other ingredients. In this case, to achieve a dense, green, flavor-packed dish, I mixed the spinach with two eggs instead of the usual four, and used just half a cup of cream. But when it emerged from the oven, it tasted more like a quiche than a tart, hence its name. The parmesan adds an edge, and the pine nuts provide an additional burst of flavor, making this quiche, tart, whatever, really special.

And now out of the kitchen and into a different kind of heat. Although this is a cooking blog, as a journalist I cannot resist a little foray this week into the political life of France, where a drama with Mediterranean flavor — Greek, to be specific — is playing out between Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right party 43 years ago. She says he went too far when he recently repeated his notorious remark that the Nazi gas chambers were ‘a detail of history’. He says she wants him dead. And she is effectively hoping to kill him politically off by bringing him before a disciplinary committee that could boot him out of the party.

Marine Le Pen, blonde, rough and shrewd, has over the last few years led her party to heights her father could never achieve. In the recent elections for seats on county councils, the Front won 25 percent of the vote — although, under an oddity of the French electoral system, the party received only 62 of the 4,072 seats, which works out to 1.5 percent. And by the way, no mainstream French newspaper has yet (to my knowledge) commented on the unfairness of this system in a democracy…

Will she follow through with parricide? Jean-Marie Le Pen retains a hard-core following in the Front, even as his daughter has sought to ‘de-demonize’ the party. He says his daughter is being manipulated, dismissing her suggestion that he step down from politics. But even as she maintains the party’s hard line on immigration and its anti-European Union rhetoric, she can no longer abide her father’s offensive provocations — like his comments this week praising the Vichy regime during World War II — which may have appealed to previous generations on the extreme right but are alienating to younger voters.

At stake is the political future of France. Marine Le Pen has succeeded in shifting the dialogue by tapping into mounting frustration in a country that may still have fabulous food and wine, wonderful art and fashion, and a high-minded literary tradition, but where people are feeling so squeezed economically and so revolted by mainstream politicians who have failed to address their concerns that they are looking for fresh solutions.

If Marine Le Pen exorcises her father, she is likely to broaden the appeal of the Front. At this stage, she has virtually no chance of being elected president of France, despite speculation to the contrary from some quarters — because a majority of the electorate, myself included, cannot accept her party’s xenophobic platform. But she has taken on a role that is essential in every democracy, and that the French political establishment has proven impotent to perform in recent years. She is a true opposition leader. And I, for one, hope that she continues to speak out and push the boundaries of political debate.

Happy cooking.

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Fromage blanc aux pistaches et miel

fromage blanc pistaches6I first discovered this light dessert at Yard, the erstwhile restaurant of Shaun Kelly, one of my favorite Parisian chefs. Crushed roasted pistachios and honey marry marvelously atop a bowl of fromage blanc, the fresh and creamy cheese that is ubiquitous in France. Elsewhere, the same effect may be achieved with Greek yogurt. Add a strawberry, and you’ll bring your meal to a spectacularly easy and scrumptious conclusion.

Fromage blanc aux pistaches et miel / Creamy cheese with pistachios and honey

The question — and it’s one I’ve asked myself for 40 years, since I first moved to Paris — is why this delightful form of fresh cheese is not available everywhere. The closest American equivalent, when I was growing up, was cottage cheese, which is actually not equivalent at all. While fromage blanc is smooth, cottage cheese has curds. Large or small, the curds were enough to put me off, possibly because of the image of a spider coming down beside Little Miss Muffet as she was ‘eating her curds and whey.’

In addition, cottage cheese is salty, while fromage blanc is neutral and can thus be used in both sweet and savory dishes. A revelation, upon arriving here, was that it can be used to make cheese cake with far greater ease than the dry ‘baker’s cheese’ my grandmother recommended for her cheesecake recipe from Russia. (It was a truly artisanal recipe. To my mother’s disdain and my delight, it called, among other things, for ‘one-half eggshell water’ — presumably to lighted up the leaden baker’s cheese.)

That recipe probably originally featured tvorog, the Russian version of fromage blanc. It is similar but slightly grainy and crumbly, and a bit tangy, while the French version is completely smooth and delicately bland (in a good way). Tvorog is a relative of quark (pronounced qvark), the German variety of fromage blanc, which shares its crumbly quality. If linguists are to be believed, the words tvorog and quark are related. Both varieties are used across eastern Europe in dishes like blintzes, pierogi (stuffed dumplings) and the Russian Easter cake known as paskha.

Thanks to globalization, French-style fromage blanc (or its relative, fromage frais) is now available in fine stores in cities from New York to London, and there’s no reason why this wonderful cheese should not make its way further afield in the months ahead. But if you cannot find it, or even if you can, this dessert works beautifully with Greek yogurt, which shares the smooth, creamy texture and delicate flavor of fromage blanc. Happy cooking!

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Tagine de veau aux petits pois et citron

veal tagine1This Moroccan dish is unusual in that it uses fresh lemons, which marry perfectly with veal and first-of-the-season peas to create a zingy blend of flavors. The tartness of the lemon juice is softened by honey and cilantro, and the slow cooking results in a rich and succulent sauce. While lemon is often used in Moroccan cuisine, most recipes call for preserved lemons, which are pickled in salt and have a flavor so strong that they can be overwhelming.

Tagine de veau aux petits pois et citron / Veal tagine with fresh peas and lemon

Moroccan tagines, or stews, typically combine meat or poultry with fruit or olives in an exotic blend of flavors that can feel almost Persian. When I first arrived in Paris (40 years ago — sigh) it was hard to find a tagine on a menu anywhere but at a Moroccan restaurant. But times have changed, and tagines have entered the French repertoire. You can now encounter a tagine pretty much any day of the week at a neighborhood Paris bistro.

I like to serve tagines with couscous and a green salad on the side, although this is unorthodox — in Morocco, tagines are served in the clay pots in which they are cooked, with nothing on the side except perhaps some local flatbread. A meal would typically also include some Moroccan starters — like carrots with cumin, chick peas, spicy eggplant caviar, olives or roasted red peppers and tomatoes — and it would end with a light dessert, perhaps orange slices with cinnamon. Sound good?

Happy cooking!

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