Brandade de morue

brandade2How to reconcile brandade de morue, one of my favorite winter dishes, with the modern era? A sublimely satisfying purée of salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and milk or cream, with or without potatoes, it has traditionally involved 24-36 hours of desalinating the fish and the use of a mortar and pestle to achieve the final blending. Not ideal for an everyday French chef who may be pressed for time. But now, with the wide availability of fresh cod and the use of an electric blender, making a fine brandade can be both easy and quick.

Brandade de morue / Pureed salt cod and potatoes

But will it still be a classic brandade? In fact, there is no such thing. As Andrée Maureau, author of Recettes de Provence, puts it, ‘Each home has its secrets.’ In the south of France, where salt cod has been a staple for centuries, truffles are often added to brandade. Sometimes garlic is used, sometimes not. Potatoes are controversial. But here in Paris, truffles are rarely seen in brandade and potatoes are almost universally included. In my recipe, I use milk instead of cream to cut down on the richness of this hearty dish.

Brandade may be served either as a starter or a main dish, accompanied by a salad and a crisp white or rosé. It may be prepared in advance and reheated just before serving. Triangles of toasted white or country bread, sometimes rubbed with garlic, are often tucked into the sides of each shallow bowl of brandade. In France, frozen desalinated salt cod is now available — this lends an authenticity of flavor to the dish, while cutting down hugely on the work involved. But I have also made brandade successfully many times using fresh cod, with the addition of sea salt to approach the traditional flavor.

On a separate front, a reader wrote in a few days ago to ask about the order of dishes in a classic French meal. Briefly, the traditional order is: starter, main course, salad, cheese, fruit and/or dessert. I will be posting about this at greater length in the near future. In the meantime, the Menus section above provides many suggestions for seasonal meals, including the order of dishes to be served. Happy cooking!

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Rôti de boeuf

rosbif1The French roast their beef astoundingly quickly. The first time I bought a roast in Paris — where it’s customary to ask the butcher about the cooking time — I nearly fell over when he said to preheat the oven to a high temperature and roast the beef for 10 minutes. And yes, roast beef is consumed very rare in France. But that sounded ridiculous! Over time, however, I have come to appreciate the French method of cooking what is called le rosbif.

Rôti de boeuf / Roast beef, French style

The dish that results from this almost Tandoori style of roasting is crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside. It’s true that I extend the cooking time by about 5 minutes per pound in order to achieve a roast that is rare to medium rare, and not bleu (extremely rare), the way many French diners prefer it. Accompanied by a potato gratin and a green salad, it makes a meal fit for the royals who were overthrown in the French revolution. Or you can serve it cold with homemade mayonnaise for a delightful lunch or supper.

For the last week, in a welcome distraction from the wave of terrorism here in Paris, I have been attending a seminar on paleo food — and by this I mean not the current trendy variety but the kind of food that was eaten by our ancestors in the Upper Paleolithic, or late stone age. And, as it turns out, roast beef or a variety thereof is perhaps one of the oldest dishes that our species, homo sapiens sapiens, has enjoyed. They hunted the aurochs, an ancestor of the cow, with increasingly sophisticated stone tools, and roasted the meat on a spit over a fire, or so I was told. As the class was in French, we were learning about the earliest modern humans who inhabited this part of the world — making it safe to say that le rosbif is truly a French classic. Its name, of course, is a tip of the hat to their neighbors across the Channel, the English, also known here informally as les rosbifs

With regard to last week’s post, I’d like to thank all of you who wrote in to express your concern and support regarding the events in Paris. I took part in the march of more than a million people here on Sunday, a moment of amazing solidarity. Things have calmed down in recent days, although this morning there was a bomb alert at the Gare de l’Est, the railway station from which trains leave for eastern France and much of eastern Europe. This atmosphere has put everyone on edge. But I find that going into the kitchen to do something creative is a great antidote.

Happy cooking.

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Crevettes mayonnaise

shrimp5I first enjoyed a significant French seafood platter in a small seaside town in Normandy during a romantic weekend. The three-tiered tray came to our table brimming with oysters, clams, sea snails, shrimp and a crab set on ice, accompanied by lemons and homemade mayonnaise. It took quite a while to make our way through all of that, and I have to say it was, well, erotic. Concocting such a tray at home might be difficult, but one element — shrimp with homemade mayonnaise — can be fun for the everyday chef.

Crevettes mayonnaise / Shrimp with homemade mayonnaise

If you’ve never made mayonnaise before, let me assure you that it’s far easier than you may think. Before beginning, you might want to check out this video. It was produced by Tom Feierabend, a fellow American in Paris, who like me lives just around the corner from the site of the deadly attack this week on Charlie Hebdo. (And yes, the rest of this post will be about politics, so if you are not interested in that subject please don’t read on.)

It’s too much of a challenge to write about food at a time like this, when all of France is convulsed by the violence of recent days. This morning there have been new developments as the police home in on the gunmen who massacred some of France’s most beloved cartoonists on Wednesday, shouting Allah Akbar. The gunmen have taken one person hostage and are believed to be holed up in a print shop in a rural area northeast of Paris, according to French press reports.

On a personal note, my daughter and I live two minutes by foot from Charlie Hebdo offices that were attacked on Wednesday, and the metro she takes to high school is a stone’s throw from where the violence took place. I am traumatized, of course, like the rest of this nation, but at the same time feeling proud to be among a population that has shown such resilience in the face of national tragedy. I’ve been writing at greater length about the recent events on Facebook. Here’s a link to my page if you’d like to read more.

Just one final thought for you here, dear readers: Vive la liberté, et vive la France.

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Potée auvergnate

potee4Now that the festivities are behind us, it’s time to get back to simple everyday food. Like this hearty dish from the Auvergne region of central France. Known as potée — literally, a potful — it combines winter vegetables with sausage and bacon to make a satisfying one-dish meal. Enjoyed fireside with a glass of good red, it will help fend off the January cold.

Potée auvergnate / Hearty winter soup from Auvergne

You will need only a green salad and wedge of cheese to complete your meal — perhaps some Cantal, which hails from the Auvergne region. (If you have never encountered Cantal, it is slightly crumbly like aged Cheddar but with a different taste.) Or a wedge of bleu cheese, another Auvergne speciality.

The region, which sits right in the center of the southern half of France, is rugged and mountainous, dotted with extinct volcanoes known in French as puys. Sparsely populated today, it has been inhabited for 15,000 years and was home to Gallic kings like Vercingétorix until Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in 52 B.C. The Auvergne also has the dubious distinction of having housed the collaborationist government of Philippe Pétain at the city of Vichy during France’s occupation by the Nazis in World War II.

But what has all this to do with food? I love the cuisine of Auvergne for its frank simplicity and its peasant roots. It is an earthy cuisine with plenty of character, as shown for example in the dish called aligot, a zingy blend of mashed potatoes, young Cantal and garlic (a family favorite). Auvergne is also renowned for its cured sausage and ham, and beyond la potée many other dishes feature cabbage, including a local recipe for stuffed cabbages that I plan to feature here one day or another.

So, on that note, here’s wishing you all a simple, earthy and delicious new year. Happy cooking!

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

Blini

blini2When I first moved to Russia in June 1986, black caviar was not only plentiful and cheap, but also — less than two months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster — seemed (to me) to be one of the safest foods around. Would radiation have had time to penetrate the Caspian Sea, home of the sturgeon? I thought not, and indulged as often as possible in the luscious black roe. On toast for breakfast most days and, on special occasions, with blini.

Blini / Blini

Blini being the wonderfully fluffy and yeasty pancakes that have spread from Russia to Paris and beyond. Served on festive occasions, they make a dazzling start to a meal.

These days the sturgeon is an endangered species, so I top my blini with red caviar or smoked salmon instead, or sometimes just with cream and herbs. Which doesn’t change the fabulous quality of the blini themselves. Unlike the kind one finds in supermarkets these days — which often resemble cardboard — homemade blini are light as a feather. They are fun to make, although to be honest it’s a bit of a production and I usually make them just once a year, during the holiday season.

So, dear readers, here’s wishing you joyous festivities this December and a spectacularly happy start to the New Year. The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation next week, back with new recipes on January 2. If you’re looking for holiday meal suggestions, please check out the Holiday Menus page here. I think that cooking wonderful meals for family and friends is one of the truest forms of love. Let’s hope there’s plenty of that going around as we see out 2014 and ring in 2015. The world needs it, and so do we all.

Happy cooking!

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Confit de canard

duck confit4Confit de canard — preserved duck — hails from southwest France and is widely served throughout the country, although it is rarely seen elsewhere. The duck is preserved first in salt and then in fat, usually on the farm where the duck is raised. But guess what? You can also make it yourself. Meltingly tender, with a hint of garlic and thyme, it makes a fine dish for the holiday season.

Confit de canard / Duck confit

But beware — this is a classic ‘slow food’ dish. You need to get started a day or two before you plan to cook the duck, which is first salted for a day, then cooked for a couple of hours in rendered duck fat, then refrigerated in the strained fat before being roasted in the oven.

This process dates back hundreds of years. Until recently, when freezers revolutionized food preservation, preserving meat by salting or drying was the only way to ensure a supply throughout the year. The preserved duck was kept in jars — and it is still sold like that today in French supermarkets. This makes it an easy matter in Paris, say, to walk down the street, buy a jar of confit and serve it up the same evening.

But as I discovered when trying this recipe, the duck tastes fresher and sweeter when you make it yourself. It can be a simple fireside meal, accompanied with sautéed potatoes or a salad of tender leaves, or the centerpiece of a special dinner, served with sophisticated vegetable purées. The one essential in every case is a bottle of full-bodied French wine.

If you are looking to create a holiday menu in advance, there are some suggestions here.

Next week I plan to give you my recipe for blini, the wonderfully yeasty Russian pancakes that may be served with red caviar, tarama or simply sour cream and fresh herbs to make a spectacular start to a holiday meal. As we head into the darkest days of the year, I find that spending a little time in the kitchen is a fine way to lend brightness and cheer to your home, wherever it may be. Happy cooking!

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Céleri-rave aux noix sur lit de feuilles

celeriac walnuts3Celeriac, although seen infrequently elsewhere, has long been a staple of French cuisine. When I first arrived in Paris, it appeared most regularly on the mixed veggie plate called assiette de crudités, grated and bathed in a mustardy remoulade sauce. These days chefs both here and abroad have become more creative and are using this versatile vegetable in many ways. For example, caramelized on a bed of greens sprinkled with walnuts.

Céleri-rave aux noix sur lit de feuilles / Caramelized celeriac with walnuts and greens

To be honest, the inspiration for this dish came not from France but from a column by the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, who wrote in September about a swing through London where he visited four hot new restaurants. Among them was Chiltern Firehouse, where the Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes (formerly of El Bulli) was presiding over the kitchen of a place billed by the Daily Telegraph in July as London’s ‘hottest celebrity hangout.’

There was no photo, just a description: ‘Planks of sweetly caramelized roasted celeriac are served with walnuts, onions and greens.’ I decided to give it a try, skipping the onions and serving the dish on plates instead of planks, drizzled with a few drops of balsamic vinegar and some first-cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil. For greens, I used arugula, dill, mint and cilantro. Given how quickly my guest and I finished it off, it seems it was a success.

Veggies, nuts and olive oil brought together in a succulent combination: this dish, like many others on this site, may be enjoyed not just by omnivores and vegetarians but also by vegans. As we head toward winter, I have updated the Menus section of the site with new everyday and special day menus for all. Take a look, if you like, and use these menu ideas as inspiration for your own selection of dishes.

Inspiration — that’s the name of the game in the kitchen these days. You don’t need to be Nuno Mendes to come up with a winning idea that translates into plaudits at the table. You just need some good ingredients and a spoonful of creativity. Happy cooking!

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mendiants

Mendiants3Sometimes words beggar translation. I can remember, as a student of French, being taught that gourmet meant someone with a discriminating palate, but gourmand meant a glutton. So you can imagine my confusion when, aged 25, out to dinner in Paris with my new French boyfriend, he exclaimed, ‘Mais tu est gourmande!’ And all I’d ordered was a dandelion salad and a lime sorbet. But the translation, it turned out, was wrong…

So it is with the French holiday chocolates called mendiants, a word that translates literally as ‘beggars’ and conjures up street people living rough. How could such a sublime confection — a palette of rich dark chocolate topped with coloful dried fruit and nuts — have received such a lowly name?

Mendiants / Chocolate mendiants

The answer goes back to the Middle Ages, when four French orders of monks were known as mendiants — mendicants — because they lived entirely from charitable donations. Over time they lent their name to an assortment of dried fruits and nuts served at the end of a meal, each item associated with the color of the monks’ robes: almonds for the Carmelites, figs for the Franciscans, hazelnuts for the Augustins, and raisins for the Dominicans.

Today the word mendiants refers to two fruit-and-nut mixtures — not just the studded chocolates, which are typically served over the Christmas season, but also a cocktail mix of salted nuts and dried fruit that is served year round. Both use a wider variety of nuts and fruit than in the old days, which lends a certain charm if you make your own. (Another advantage of making your own chocolate mendiants is that it’s far less costly than buying them in a shop, where prices can be sky-high.)

I tend to associate the chocolate mendiants seen over the holidays with the tradition in Provence of serving 13 desserts at Christmas dinner. According to Andrée Maureau, author of the wonderful cookbook Recettes en Provence, the 13 represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. A typical Marseille assortment, she says, would be: raisins, dried figs, almonds, walnuts, plums, pears, apples, candied citron, quince jam, light nougat, dark nougat, winter melon and pompe or fougasse, sweet cakes made with olive oil and orange.

Here in Paris we don’t get that elaborate, preferring the simplicity of chocolate mendiants. They are a breeze to make, and it’s a family-friendly activity. Everyone can get in on the fun. So treat yourself this winter, and don’t worry — if you enjoy the festive chocolates you may be gourmand, but you are not a glutton. As it turns out, the word means — in this context — someone who enjoys the pleasures of the table.

Happy cooking!

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Risotto aux morilles

risotto morels5The morel — morille in French — is a springtime mushroom, but that doesn’t mean we need to wait until spring to enjoy it. Dried morels work wonderfully with any number of dishes, for example this risotto, in which they add a woodsy touch to the flavors of Arborio rice, parmesan, butter, onion, broth and dry white wine. The result is a sophisticated dish with enough star power to stand on its own. It can also accompany a main dish with distinction.

Risotto aux morilles / Risotto with morel mushrooms

I tried drying my own mushrooms once, with dubious results. It was after a trip to the forest with my Burgundy neighbor Isabelle, who had agreed to show me her favorite spots for gathering cèpes (porcini). The mushrooms were out in abundance, and we returned with baskets overflowing. (We calculated later that we could have made hundreds of euros had we taken those baskets to the market). After putting aside some mushrooms to use in an omelet, we strung up the rest with a thread and needle, peasant style, and hung them in front of our respective fireplaces to dry. Well, I clearly did something wrong because when I took them down in the spring they were dusty and smoky. Better to buy them, says I.

Now, for any Americans who may be reading this post, I’d like to say a word about Thanksgiving. There are a few recipes on this site that you may find useful if you care/dare to break with the traditional turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce:
1) Rolled roast of duck with rosemary, Roast quail and Chicken with walnut sauce are possible substitutes for turkey.
2) Here’s the recipe of the three-star chef Georges Blanc for a fabulous Pumpkin gratin.
3) Pomegranate salad can make a nice change from cranberry sauce.

And in case you missed it, this week The New York Times ran an amusing (and controversial) list of 50 Thanksgiving recipes allegedly from the 50 states. I was delighted to see wild rice representing Wisconsin — the state where I grew up — but others were less so with recipes like Lobster Mac and Cheese (Maine) or Grape Salad (Minnesota). It’s a fun read in any event, and I actually found the list to be inspiring.

Finally, I am proud to say that my friend Astrid Volquardsen, a talented pastel artist from Germany, has written a blog post about the forthcoming Arte television broadcast in which I help Georges Blanc put a French-style Thanksgiving dinner on the table. The program, which runs this Sunday at noon in France, pairs food with a painting — in this case Norman Rockwell’s Plenty — to reflect on culture and history. I’m actually camera shy and had to conquer that fear to appear on the program. But it was worth it to enjoy the honor of preparing cranberry sauce for M. Blanc. Quite a thrill…

Happy cooking!

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Salade tiède de lentilles au saumon fumé

lentil salad1Lentils are often paired with salmon in France. In a twist on that combination, this recipe pairs warm lentils with smoked salmon in an herbal salad that takes the edge off a cold autumn day. It’s country cooking with a touch of sophistication. Served with a good wine — red or white — it can make a meal at lunchtime or a hearty starter for dinner, ideally before a cheery fire.

Salade tiède de lentilles au saumon fumé / Warm lentil salad with smoked salmon

Lentils have been grown in France for centuries, the finest — lentilles vertes du Puy — hailing from the rugged south-central region of Auvergne. They take their name from the French word for ‘lens’ — and in fact their Latin appellation is lens culinaris, or culinary lens, for the simple reason that a lentil looks like a small … lens.

One of the world’s oldest cultivated foods, lentils have been farmed since around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture was just beginning. Their popularity is linked not only to their flavor — nutty, a little smoky — but also to their wonderful nutritional qualities. They are packed with protein, vitamins and minerals, and have been ranked as one of the world’s healthiest foods.

This hasn’t stopped French chefs from elevating them to great heights of gastronomy. In kitchens boasting Michelin stars, lentils have been pounded into flour and served as blini, paired with lobster, used as stuffing for holiday fowl and blended into delicious creamy soups. (In case you missed it, one of my favorite local chefs, Rodolphe Paquin, shared his recipe for creamy lentil soup with me a couple of years ago. You can find it here.)

Known as le caviar du pauvre — ‘poor man’s caviar’ — lentils have traditionally been served most often in France in the dish known as petit salé (salted pork), in which they are paired with inexpensive cuts like ham hock, hearty sausages and slabs of bacon that are immersed in brine before cooking. This popular bistro dish is seen less often in Paris these days due to the rise of lighter cooking, and everyday chefs may prefer simpler preparations. For example, a warm herbal salad with salmon…

Happy cooking!

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