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!

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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!

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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!

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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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Potage lyonnais

potage lyonnais1It’s pumpkin season — and as we head from Halloween to Thanksgiving, what could be better than a French pumpkin soup? Not just any kind, but pumpkin soup from Lyon, the heart of French gastronomy. The ingredients read like a catalog of Lyonnaise cuisine: pumpkin, potato, cream, grated Comté or Gruyère, a leek and, yes, some butter. Okay, it’s rich, but oh so satisfying. Set off nicely by a salad, it makes a lovely meal.

Potage lyonnais / Pumpkin soup, Lyon style

So what is it about Lyon that has created its reputation as the heartland of French cooking? I’ll give you the answer in three words: location, location, location. Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, major waterways linking it to the Mediterranean in the south, the Swiss Alps in the east and the Vosges mountains of northeastern France. Back in Roman times, it was already receiving wine, olive oil and produce from Provence and beyond, transported by river. Over time, dairy products from the Alps and the Vosges, the fine poultry of the nearby Bresse region, beef from Charolais, fruit from the Ardèche, fish from the rivers and lakes, all made their way to Lyon. Local charcuteries specialized in cured meats. And so grew a culinary tradition.

As for the pumpkin, it is widely used in French cooking throughout the fall and winter. I was treated last year, as some of you may remember, to a spectacular pumpkin gratin prepared by Georges Blanc, a three-star chef at Vonnas, north of Lyon. This was his take on one of the classic foods of Thanksgiving, and he was kind enough to give me the recipe. The occasion was the filming of an episode of a French television series about food and art, the art in this case being the Norman Rockwell painting called Plenty. I’m mentioning it now only because the program is about to air in France, just in time for Thanksgiving. If you’re interested, it will be shown on Arte on Sunday, November 23 at noon.

In the meantime, happy cooking!

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Porc aux légumes d’automne

autumn pork2There’s a wintry chill in the air in Paris, and nightfall comes early these days. It’s the time of year when comfort food makes a welcome appearance on the table. In this recipe, succulent fillet of pork is surrounded by autumn vegetables and slow-roasted in the oven. The aromas will tantalize your guests as they tuck into a first course, for example a spinach salad with roquefort or a plate of briny oysters with some lemon on the side.

Porc aux légumes d’automne / Roast pork with autumn vegetables

Speaking of oysters, this is definitely the season. I bought a dozen at the market on Sunday, wrapped them in a damp tea towel, and headed for my cottage in the country. The scene that evening: a roaring fire, a plate of freshly opened oysters on the table, and three people expectantly awaiting the feast. One of those people — me — was sporting a bandaid.

Yes, I impaled myself while opening the oysters. It’s not my favorite sport, but I will do it if necessary (i.e. if no volunteers are around to help out). You need a strong sharp knife, or a special oyster knife, to get the shells open. I will post about this one of these days. But as I was struggling in the kitchen, with soul music pouring from the speakers in the other room, I have to say I started musing about how much easier it must have been to open oysters in another age — the Stone Age, to be precise.

As I may have mentioned before, I am now involved in a project about our prehistoric ancestors, and this has led me to think about how the women who preceded us managed to get dinner on the table. You can picture the scene — the kids clamoring for their evening meal, their father still out hunting with the guys. All their mother has on hand is the nuts and berries she gathered that afternoon and, if they live by the sea, perhaps some oysters. Metal tools have not been invented yet, so what does she do? She simply smashes the oysters open with a rock. Which is what I may try next time…

Whether you opt for oysters as a starter or not, you can follow this week’s roast pork with a cheese platter or just go straight to a seasonal dessert — for example, an apple tart or caramelized pears. It will make for a satisfying autumn meal, for family or friends.

Happy cooking!

P.S. If you’re interested on following my progress as I research the deep ancestry of myself and my adopted daughter in hopes of finding our most recent common mother, you can visit my new Facebook page, Footprints Through Time. It tracks recent advances in human evolutionary genetics, and raises the personal issues I’m encountering as I go back in time to find the link between my East European Jewish ancestors and the lineage of my daughter, who was born in Mali of unknown parents.

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Prunes poêlées à l’eau de vie

sauteed plums2Okay, okay, plums are no longer in season — at least, in the northern hemisphere. But when I happened upon some beautiful blue plums (imported from Spain) at the market last Sunday, I couldn’t resist … because I’d seen a dessert listed on the menu of a neighborhood bistro and wanted to try it out. The chef’s helper told me how to make it: sauté the plums in butter and sugar, add some brandy and spoon the warm fruit over vanilla ice cream.

Prunes poêlées à l’eau de vie / Plums sautéed in brandy

How did it turn out? I’ll just say it was consumed with delight at my table. The recipe hails from Le Repaire de Cartouche, which I’ve mentioned before on this site. (I even interviewed the chef, Rodolphe Paquin, a while back.) The trick is to go light on the brandy, whichever type you use. I happened to have some slivovitz on hand — East European plum brandy, which was perfect. But cognac or a local brandy or another fruit alcohol would also work very well. The ice cream gives a bit of a bite to the warm fruit: winter and summer combined, which is about where we are now in the calendar.

Happy cooking!

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Pizza saucisse fenouil maison

pizza saucisse fenouil1This is what is called in French a pizza blanche (or in Italian a pizza bianca), meaning there is no tomato sauce. Instead the pizza dough is coated with olive oil and then scattered with broccoli, smoked mozzarella and … homemade spicy fennel sausage. That’s right, you spice the sausage yourself, which is actually fun and — if my guests are any judge — ever so delicious. Succulent, smoky and a little mysterious…

Pizza saucisse fenouil maison / Pizza with homemade fennel sausage, smoked mozzarella and broccoli

It’s actually quite easy to prepare, providing you can find some high-quality sausages to work with. You then discard the casings and spice the meat with fennel seeds, dried herbs, garlic and cayenne. The smoked mozzarella — scamorza in Italian — is grated and scattered on top, along with tiny steamed broccoli flowerets.

I was inspired to make this pizza by a visit to Buona Forchetta, a fabulous pizza joint in San Diego. They had a similar item on the menu, the only difference being that the broccoli they used was rapini, a leaf broccoli that’s not available everywhere. So I substituted the flowerets and it worked out just fine. My one concern was whether I’d find the scamorza, but in fact when I checked at my local supermarket it was right there on the shelf. If you can’t find it, just use regular mozzarella instead.

I’d like to dedicate this recipe to my cousin Janice, who with her husband, Jack, took me to Buona Forchetta and many other fine places in San Diego this past summer. By the way, Janice is a writer, and here’s a link to her latest book, The Tin Horse, an award-winning mystery set in an old Jewish quarter of ’20s-’30s LA. It’s a great read, translated (or being translated) into seven languages (including French). Worth checking out.

And happy cooking!

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