Poissons fumés en salade

A salad of smoked fish makes a delightful lunch as the days grow cooler. In the salad pictured here, I used smoked mackerel, which is sold in France covered in crushed black pepper. Its tawny hues contrast nicely with the deep green of lamb’s lettuce and pale Belgian endive. Other options for the fish include smoked trout, smoked salmon or the perennial French favorite, smoked herring, a bistro classic that is popular here in the winter months.

Poissons fumés en salade / Mixed-leaf salad with smoked fish

In the bistro version, whole fillets of smoked herring are served alongside boiled potatoes, most often with a couple of carrot rounds and raw onion rings on top. As indicated by its name — filets de hareng pommes à l’huile — the dish, which is served as a starter, is bathed in oil. In my salad version, the herring is chopped and accompanied by greens. It’s a bit lighter and brighter, and can make a proper lunchtime meal.

When I first arrived in France, I was surprised to learn that herring came in two varieties — smoked or pickled. The latter, known as hareng de la Baltique, is served in thick cream, either chopped or rolled up tightly stuffed with capers and chopped onions, in which case the dish is called rollmops — ‘roll ’em ups’, get it? But the real revelation was smoked mackerel, which is fleshier and richer in flavor than herring. I buy it at the farmer’s market nearly every Sunday. Just delicious.

Smoked fish has played a long role in French culinary history. The smoking and salting allowed the fish to be preserved in the centuries before refrigeration was available. Perhaps this is why smoked fish also have interesting linguistic connections in France. The unfortunate maquereau is not just a tasty fish but also means ‘pimp’ in French. And as for smoked herring, when sold whole but split in two it becomes un gendarme (a policeman).

But this need not concern us cooks. All we need is a few minutes and a chilled bottle of white and voilà — our smoked fish salad is ready to grace the table. Happy cooking.

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Purée de fenouil

When the days draw shorter, a warming dish like finocchio purée provides comfort. Yet it is not one of your heavy comfort foods. Light, with a delicate flavor, this purée marries well with all sorts of autumn dishes — meat, fish or poultry, grilled or lovingly simmered — and makes a spectacular pairing with game. It also makes a fine addition to a vegetarian meal. And the beauty is that the finocchio growing season is … all year round.

Purée de fenouil / Finocchio purée

I mentioned this dish in my last post, saying I’d served it to guests with sauté d’agneau. There was a guessing-game moment at the table when my guests tried to identify the purée. The distinctive anise-like flavor of finocchio, aka fennel bulbs, becomes more subtle when it is cooked, perhaps explaining the confusion. And cooked it is, at least in France, where it is one of the most versatile veggies around.

On this site alone, cooked finocchio appears in recipes for braised fennel soup, chicken bouillabaisse, pork with autumn vegetables, braised with Belgian endive and roasted winter veggies. It appears raw in a root vegetable salad, on a platter of grand aioli and in a winter salad of blood oranges, and its seeds are a star ingredient in a pizza of homemade sausage with broccoli. You might think I kind of like it.

You would be right. Various cookbooks on my shelves include finocchio dishes I haven’t tried making yet: thinly sliced in a salad of raw fennel, peaches, avocados and pan-seared shrimp; lightly grilled in a salad with beef bathed in homemade anchovy purée; in a rabbit terrine; in a carpaccio of sea scallops; in stuffed red mullet; and in a salad with green olives and lemon that I was once served by an Algerian friend. I plan to try them all.

Perhaps finocchio’s culinary versatility is tied to the fact that it has been around for centuries — even millennia. The fennel plant grows wild all across the Mediterranean region, its fronds topped by delicate yellow flowers that resemble Queen Anne’s Lace. It was used in cooking by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed it had healing qualities, a belief that persists to this day. Rich in vitamins and minerals and low in calories, it is a perfect food for dieters and gourmets alike.

The finocchio purée presented here is a recipe I invented, based on tasting it at restaurants. It is ultra-simple to prepare, and a crowd pleaser.

Happy cooking.

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Sauté d’agneau

Sauté d’agneau is one of those great French classics that used to feature frequently on bistro menus, especially when the weather turned cool. These days this succulent lamb dish is harder to find in Paris restaurants, where current culinary fashion favors small plates of designer food. Nonetheless, it has been a personal favorite since I first tasted it many years ago at l’Entrepôt, an airy, veranda-style restaurant tucked away behind Montparnasse.

Sauté d’agneau / Sauté of lamb

But what exactly is sauté d’agneau? When setting out to write this recipe, I spent a considerable amount of time wondering how to translate the dish. Is it a stew? Not really, at least in my opinion. The word ‘stew’ conjures up a dish I was served as a child in which meat was boiled with carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and peas until it had blended into a kind of unpalatable glop. This does not resemble sauté d’agneau, in which the lamb is first sautéed with onions and garlic — hence the name — and then simmered gently in wine and broth, with a little cream added at the end.

The result is a dish rich in flavor that marries well with veggie purées of all sorts, with pasta or rice, or with white beans, a traditional partner of lamb in France. I served sauté of lamb to friends this week, paired with a finocchio purée. We started with country ham and figs, and followed up with assorted cheeses and plump red grapes. A fine seasonal meal.

During our dinner, one of my friends asked how I got the recipes for this site. Did I look them up in cookbooks or online, or were they my original creations? The answer is: all of the above. When I begin with a cookbook or blog recipe, I credit the source in the post. But far more often I make the dish as I always have, without consulting anyone. I weigh and write down the ingredients as I go. That was the case with this recipe.

For the record, I did scout around a bit, but there are few recipes on the web for sauté d’agneau — and even Julia Child fails to mention it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, even though this dish is an absolute classic of the French culinary repertoire. Then I called my friend Nicole, with whom I used to cook in a weekend bistro when I first arrived in Paris. I wanted to confirm my version against her version, but she swore she didn’t remember how to make the dish. That’s when the automatic pilot kicks in. It’s like finding your way to a place you used to frequent when you can’t remember the exact address. I begin to cook, and it somehow all comes together.

Getting back to l’Entrepôt, the restaurant is part of a congenial cultural space that also features a cinema, concerts, art exhibits and lectures. I rarely get over there these days, but I have fond memories of dining there in my twenties and thirties. The menu, however, has evolved with the times. These days it features quinoa tabbouleh, Thai chicken salad, beef carpaccio and — I kid you not — a cheeseburger. Nothing vaguely resembling a classic dish like sauté d’agneau is to be found. The solution? Make it at home. And…

Happy cooking.

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Omelette basquaise

This tangy omelet hails from the French Basque country and is filled with the regional veggie dish known as piperade, a mixture of green peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic and pepper slowly sautéed in olive oil until it reaches aromatic, spicy perfection. This is a good time of year to try it out, when peppers and tomatoes are at their prime. Unsuprisingly, the omelet is also known as omelette à la piperade. It makes a nice lunch or a light supper.

Omelette basquaise / Basque omelet

Piperade takes its name from the regional word for pepper, pipèr, and traditionalists may try to tell you that only one type of green pepper will do — piments d’Anglet, which are grown in southwest France and are thinner and more tapered than standard bell peppers. But that is poppycock, in my opinion. The difficulty of finding piments d’Anglet outside the Basque region ensures that green bell peppers are generally used in Basque cuisine throughout the rest of France.

There are many variations on the recipe for a Basque omelet, which itself is sometimes known simply as piperade. Some recipes omit the garlic, which I view as essential. Many include piment d’Espelette, another regional ingredient — it’s somewhat akin to paprika, made of ground, sun-dried, rather mild red peppers. Black pepper or cayenne may be substituted. Often the omelet is served with lightly fried country ham alongside. Julia Child goes so far as to mix country ham in with the veggies — highly unorthodox!

As for the piperade, it is a bit like ratatouille, minus the eggplant and zucchini, and may be served on its own, alongside grilled meat, poultry or fish, or as a topping for pasta. A restaurant I used to go to near the offices of the International Herald Tribune served piperade alongside cod bathed in a delicious beurre blanc — a great combination.

Meantime, as we head into the new school year, I’d like to mention a site that has been a major promoter of The Everyday French Chef, which is given top billing on a page titled ‘9 Cooking Blogs to Follow for Amazing French Recipes‘. The site, takelessons.com, is currently offering live online French classes, with a 30-day free trial period. If you’d like to brush up your French, or want to dive in for the first time, this might be a good place to go.

Happy cooking.

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Tarte à la tomate

This is high season for French tomato tart, and the good news is that producing one is as easy as, well, pie. But there’s a secret ingredient without which this tart would lose its special French identity. No, I’m not talking about the garlic, thyme and olive oil that give French tomato tart the flavors of Provence. The secret ingredient from which the tart gets its zing is … Dijon mustard. Now as you may imagine there are many variations.

Tarte à la tomate / French tomato tart

The key ingredient is of course the tomatoes. Any variety is just fine, the best being those straight from the garden. The mustard is also a given, and only the real thing will do. Beware of impostors like American-made ‘Grey Poupon’, which unfortunately tends to include sugar. But as for the other ingredients, opinions diverge widely and there is no consensus even on something as simple as garlic. Many French recipes for this tart skip the garlic, but it marries so well with tomatoes that I always include it.

Very many recipes include cheese, usually grated Comté or Gruyère. Another option is to sprinkle the tomatoes with feta. I prefer it without the cheese, but this is a matter of personal taste. Up to you. The tart is sometimes topped with anchovies, olives or both. And fresh basil scattered over the tart once it comes out of the oven adds a delightful taste.

The key to keeping it simple is (shh!) to use an unbaked store-bought tart crust, the reason being that this tart is generally made with pâte feuilleté — French puff pastry — which is a bit of a production and not really within the realm of everyday cooking. If you’d like to make your own tart crust, I’d suggest pâte brisée. To see the recipe, click here.

This post comes at the request of a reader, who asked to see a recipe for tomato tart some time ago. Tomatoes are at last back in season — et voilà. I love getting your suggestions for recipes, so please keep them coming. And…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4a. Savory Tarts and Tartines | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Fruits d’été au cassis

Fresh summer fruit piled into dessert cups with a splash of crème de cassis makes a lovely way to end a meal. Add a smattering of mint leaves, and you have a dish that is both sophisticated and simple to prepare. You can use whatever soft fruit happens to be available. For example, nectarines, fresh figs, raspberries and blueberries, as shown in the photo. Earlier this summer I used cherries, blueberries and peaches, and won applause.

Fruits d’été au cassis / Summer fruit cup with cassis

And now it’s time for a confession. I meant to post this recipe last week on my normal schedule of every other Friday. But I was on vacation in Sète, in the south of France, where the white sand beaches stretch for miles and the living is easy — so easy I forgot all about it. On the other hand, the trip was a culinary adventure as it allowed me to get acquainted with various dishes that are specific to the region, most of them involving seafood.

Sète, which lies southwest of Montpellier, about halfway between Marseille and the Spanish border, is a major Mediterranean fishing port. Canals slice through the town, which has the sea on one side and a huge saltwater pond on the other. Products in abundance in the town’s fabulous markets include octopus, mussels and oysters, and these all feature in the local cuisine.

Sète is perhaps most famous for a dish called teille sètoise — a pie of octopus bathed in a spicy tomato sauce and encased in a doughy crust. The ingredients include saffron and Frontignan, a sweet wine produced in the village down the road. I tried this once and have to admit I am not a huge fan, but the locals seem to love it. There are bakeries scattered around town that make nothing else.

First prize for local cuisine — in my opinion — goes to piste de moules, which is served in small dishes at cocktail hour. My friend Serge, a writer who lives in Sète about six months a year, makes a dynamite version. The mussels are opened over a hot flame, removed from their shells and bathed for a couple of hours in a marinade of olive oil, garlic and hot pepper. He may have a secret ingredient or two but I am still waiting for him to send me the recipe. Watch this space.

The third local specialty I tried was stuffed mussels — stuffed not with the usual breadcrumbs and garlic but with sausage meat! I found the idea peculiar, but was convinced to try them by another friend who goes often to Sète. Well, after tasting them I was less convinced…

These dishes may all be enjoyed at the canalside bars and bistros that make Sète one of the more colorful towns of France’s lovely south. Handsome sailboats, fishing boats and kayaks float past as you raise a glass of Frontignan and enjoy the sunset. On weekends, there is jousting on the canal aboard huge gondola-like vessels, with the aim of each team to push the members of the other team into the drink. It’s all in good fun.

I will try to get back onto my regular schedule by posting another recipe next week. In the meantime, try the fruit cup — seasonal, easy and delicious.

Happy cooking.

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Crème de poivrons rouges

This little gem of a recipe for chilled red pepper soup was inspired by a recent visit to one of my favorite Paris restaurants, Zebulon, where it was served as a surprise “palate teaser”, with a tiny savory biscuit and finely chopped black olives on top. There were only a few spoonfuls in the tiny soup cups, but — wow — did they pack a punch. The flavor is reminiscent of gazpacho, but more sophisticated. When I got home, I had to try to make it.

Crème de poivrons rouges / Chilled red pepper soup
Biscuits salés aux herbes de Provence / Savory herbal biscuits

In cases like this, I sometimes ask the restaurant for the recipe, but this time I did not, perhaps intimidated by the star power of Takashi Aoki, Zebulon’s fantastically talented and creative new chef. I decided instead to experiment. I began by roasting red bell peppers until the skin charred and they were tender. I peeled and seeded them and popped them into the blender, along with olive oil, red wine vinegar and a little salt. That was it for the first experiment, which we polished off at home in a trice.

The second time, I stirred in a little cream at the end to lighten the flavor, which had felt a bit too pungent the first time around. I served the soup to a discriminating panel of guests — three top-flight journalists and an ambassador — who proved to be wildly enthusiastic. So whether it is an exact replica or not, it seems to be a perfect summer starter. The key is to serve very small portions to avoid overwhelming the meal.

What else is on the mind-bogglingly creative menu at Zebulon? As a starter I chose grilled green asparagus with sautéed langoustines (aka scampi), a grapefruit emulsion (foam) and cardamom-flavored crumble, all tiny but incredibly delicious. My main course was red mullet filets with small artichokes (poivrade), a purée of finocchio and green olives, and sauce diable. And for dessert, a mango mousse with mungo bean tapioca, lemongrass and hibiscus sorbet. Superb.

I doubt that I’ll be attempting to replicate these other dishes anytime soon, as they rise too far above my everyday style of cooking. But if you happen to be in Paris, give Zebulon a try. The three-course dinner menu is reasonably priced at 45 euros. It is, simply put, a treat.

Happy cooking.

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Poulet grillé en brochette

This is the time of year when I’m either in the country stoking up the barbecue or dreaming of being there. At the moment, as Paris swelters through its second heatwave of this young summer, I’m still dreaming. But that won’t prevent me from making grilled chicken on wooden skewers — au contraire. It’s a perfect dish for hot summer weather, even at home, as it can be prepared on the stovetop in a matter of minutes with minimal fuss.

Poulet grillé en brochette / Grilled chicken brochettes

Before being grilled, the chicken is marinated in a sauce of red wine, olive oil, garlic and thyme. I like to serve these brochettes with a garlicky yogurt sauce — or, for a Middle Eastern touch, with tahini drizzled on top. The chicken kebabs can be accompanied by a simple garnish, like a couple slices of melon and some chopped tomatoes, as in the photo, or by something more substantial, for example ratatouille, roasted eggplant slices, chick pea salad with cumin and dill, tabbouleh or French potato salad.

Variations on this dish have most likely existed since the dawn of time — or rather, since our human predecessors gained control of fire around a million years ago. We had pointed stone tools by then, and blades would follow in another 500,000 years. So it was simple: cut the meat into chunks, insert it on sticks, set the sticks over a pit filled with hot stones and voilà — kebabs for dinner. Of course, first they had to get lucky during the hunt…

It’s easier these days, when you can just go buy the meat. The little wooden brochettes are available in supermarkets and Asian food shops. With the heat persisting in Paris — and with President Macron planning to host a certain American on Bastille Day next week — I plan to get out of town and fire up the barby. As the saying goes, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. And in summertime, that sounds like a fine thing to do.

Happy cooking.

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Terrine de saumon

A light start to a meal of a warm summer’s evening is a fish terrine — in this case, a terrine of salmon, shrimp and sea scallops, with a sauce flavored with curry and dill. For years I have enjoyed the fish terrines on offer at Parisian food shops, where they beckon elegantly in multicolor slices. But I only recently began making them. And the good news is that it’s fun. It requires a French technique known as bain-marie.

Terrine de saumon / Salmon terrine

Bain-marie, which translates as ‘Mary’s bath’, involves setting a pan of boiling water on the stove or in the oven and placing whatever you happen to be cooking on top. On the stove, it’s the equivalent of a double boiler, while in baking it is used in the creation of various dishes, among them crème caramel. I’ve been using the technique for years, but not until sitting down to write up this recipe did I start to wonder how it got it’s unusual name — and in particular, who the heck was Mary?

As it turns out, she was an ancient sage and alchemist variously known as ‘Mary the Jewess’, ‘Mary the Prophetess’ and ‘Daughter of Plato’, and is (not totally reliably) said to have discovered hydrochloric acid and to have inspired Carl Jung. When and where she lived is unclear. She is variously said to have met up in Memphis, Egypt, with Democritus of Greece (he lived from around 460-370 BC) and to have learned the art of making gold from Aristotle (384-322 BC) at the court of Alexander the Great. In one poetic account, she is described as a Syrian princess.

Whoever Mary was, we who dabble in culinary alchemy owe her quite a lot. And, thanks to the French, her name has been preserved through the centuries. If the weather gets so hot, as it has in Paris recently, that you feel you might be in Syria or Egypt, put on your apron, whip up a fish terrine and think of Mary.

Happy cooking.

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Salade grecque

When the weather turns summery, what could be more refreshing than a Greek salad, French style? It’s been so hot here in Paris recently that I’ve made several. All you need is feta, tomatoes, a cucumber, a red onion, some black olives and a little parsley or mint. Unlike the Greek version, salade grecque is generally served in France without sweet peppers or oregano, and with rosé instead of retsina. Call it an Adriatic of the mind.

Salade grecque / Greek salad, French style

When researching this post, I got to wondering why this particular combination is known as Greek salad, when there are many salads in Greece, my favorites (other than the above) being taramasalata, known in France simply as tarama, made of salted cod roe, oil and bread, and tzatziki, made of cucumbers, yogurt and garlic. I didn’t find the answer, but I did find quite a bit about one of the main ingredients of salade grecque, the cucumber.

It turns out that cucumbers came to Greece, and then on to the rest of Europe, from the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, where they grow in the wild. One thing that surprised me when I got to France was the shape of cucumbers here — they are smooth and very long, about 16 inches (40 centimeters), quite unlike the shorter, nubbly cucumbers I had encountered in the United States. One can only speculate on why the French prefer the longer variety, which, oddly, is known here as hollandais (Dutch). Suffice it to say that other varieties have begun appearing at Parisian farmer’s markets and grocery stores, including the suddenly popular short cucumber known as libanais (Lebanese).

Cucumbers were enjoyed in ancient Egypt, where they are said to have been popular with the Hebrews brought there as slaves. Le concombre had arrived in France by the Middle Ages, and was favored by Charlemagne, who instructed monasteries to cultivate the fruit (yes, it’s a fruit, not a veggie). By the 17th century it had risen to cult status among the well-heeled, who appreciated the fact that, unlike peasant food, cucumbers were not at all filling and therefore could be considered a pleasure food. According to one French historian of food, cucumbers were even viewed as useful in the art of seduction…

Getting back to the present day, one delightful thing about Greek salad, French style, is that it can be prepared in advance and refrigerated. It stays crisp if you wait to add the vinaigrette until just before serving. This salad can be served as a main dish at lunchtime or as a starter in the evening, followed perhaps by grilled brochettes of lamb or chicken (coming soon), or — if you’d really like to conjure up the seaside — grilled squid with garlic and parsley or Mediterranean-style fish with tapenade.

Other hot-weather suggestions can be found in the Menus section, which I update from time to time according to season. Off the top of my head, summer meals could include: salade niçoise, aïoli (fish and veggies with garlic mayonnaise), assiette de crudités (veggie platter), assiette anglaise (cold roast meat platter), ratatouille, eggplant gratin or cucumber soup. The main idea being to spend less time in the kitchen than at the beach.

Happy summer, and happy cooking.

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