Pêches caramélisées aux figues et pignons de pin

caramelized peaches2Peaches and fresh figs are piled irresistibly on market stands at this time of year. So I didn’t resist … and combined them to create a late summer dessert. What makes it special is that the peaches are caramelized before being mixed with the figs and nestled on a mound of creamy fromage blanc (or Greek yogurt). Pine nuts and mint add a Mediterranean touch. It’s light, it’s bright — perfect for savoring the last warm days before autumn sets in.

Pêches caramélisées aux figues et pignons de pin / Caramelized peaches with fresh figs and pine nuts

The inspiration for this recipe came in part from my recent trip to California. While visiting the ranch of my brother’s friends Tom and Gayle — a magnificent place in the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada — I decided to make a tart, and used the fruit that happened to be on hand. Peaches and figs. The result turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. If you’d like to try that, go to the Plum Tart recipe on this site and, instead of plums, arrange peach slices in a outer ring and place quartered figs in the middle.

Meg 1980sNow then. This week marks the start of Year Three of The Everyday French Chef. And not only that, it marks the 40th anniversary of my arrival in France. Ah oui, mes amis. I arrived here in 1974, when Paris was less crowded and far less globalized. It was a different kind of place, with romance in the air, and of course I was much younger. What can I say? Thanks for the delicious memories. It’s been a great ride.

Because it is an anniversary week, I was particularly touched to discover that a new food blogger, Allison Stubbings of Classic Taste, picked up an Everyday French Chef recipe a few days ago for her first food post. She chose Mussel and Saffron Soup, which went up on this site in March 2013. Her idea is to record a year of learning to cook great French dishes by consulting a range of cookbooks and blogs. It was fun to read about her struggles with the mussels, and her ultimate success with the dish. So — welcome, Allison.

And happy cooking!

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Salade souterraine

underground salad1There’s nothing subversive about this ‘underground salad’. It’s simply made of veggies that grow beneath the earth. Carrots, finocchio, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, beets, radishes — it’s up to you to choose. Add a few leaves of arugula or another tender green, and you have a dish that’s lovely to behold as well as crunchily pleasant to eat. I owe the inspiration for this salad to my Parisian friend Jocelyne, an aspiring vegan, and to the menu of a cool Italian restaurant where I dined in San Diego, La Buona Forchetta.

Salade souterraine / Underground salad

Yes, that’s San Diego, California. It was the last stop on our summer road trip and, as promised in July, I’ll now write a few words about California cuisine. Fresh, inventive and modern, with accents from both France and Mexico, it was a revelation for both me and my teenage daughter, although her highlights would be different from mine (see below).

Mint margheritaSome of my favorites (with recipes to follow in the weeks ahead): my brother’s gazpacho; a fig, caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza to die for at Greens in San Francisco; Tom’s mint margueritas at his ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada; the world’s best barbecued ribs at Everett & Jones in Oakland; melt-in-your-mouth skirt steak gorditas (like mini tacos) at The Cliffs north of Pismo Beach; incredible sushi (served warm) at Sugarfish in Santa Monica; and the amazing fish tacos at Duke’s in Malibu. I should mention that many of these meals were enjoyed at places overlooking the Pacific, which added a little je-ne-sais-quoi to the flavors. Just delightful.

wheyOf course, we also encountered unusual (from a French point of view) food items, which I immortalized in a series of photos. Among them: organic peanut butter balls, packaged protein smoothies and a lot of whey (whatever that is). My daughter’s favorite was a crepe called S’Mores — topped with toasted marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate kisses at a place called Crepevine in Berkeley. (I took a pass on that.)

MalibuWould we love to go back? Absolutely, although not in the immediate future. My pocketbook needs time to recover first. But I will be experimenting through the gray Paris winter with ideas gleaned along the sunny Pacific Rim. And I may just make myself a mint marguerita. Happy cooking!

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Foie gras

foie gras3Let’s face it — foie gras is controversial. Beloved in France, where it is served as a special treat on festive occasions, it is shunned elsewhere by people who object to the force-feeding of geese or ducks to fatten their livers. Two years ago, the state of California actually banned foie gras, and this summer India followed suit. Other countries, among them England, have sought to find alternative methods of fattening the fowl. And yet this controversial food is not only considered one of the finest products of French gastronomy, it has ancient roots. Foie gras was enjoyed by early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and by East European Jews for whom the fat could replace butter. Its use spread from Hungary to the Urals before it made its way to France via Alsace a few hundred years ago.

Foie gras / Foie gras

Since then it has been joyously consumed by the French, the world champions in foie gras production. They serve it as an elegant canapé at cocktail hour, with Champagne or a chilled sweet white; on a salad of tender leaves and green beans (known here as salade folle, or crazy salad); or in large slices as a first course on Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

There is an art to serving foie gras that may appear obscure to the uninitiated but is actually quite simple: it has such star power that it needs no embellishing. Foie gras, as a canapé, should be served on its own. I was asked recently whether it could be accompanied by cheese and crackers. The answer, most emphatically, was ‘No!’ If you need to serve an assortment of canapés, choose something with equal star power, and serve it on a separate platter — red salmon caviar on buttered rounds of toast, for example.

Apart from Champagne, which adds a festive air to any occasion, the best wines to serve with foie gras are those from the region of southwest France where the duck and geese are raised. At cocktail hour, choose a chilled Monbazillac or Sauternes, sweet wines with a sublime flavor imbued by the use of grapes affected by ‘noble rot’, which increases the concentration of the grapes’ natural sweetness. If foie gras is served at the table, it marries well with sturdy reds like Bordeaux — or Monbazillac, or Champagne.

However you choose to serve it, foie gras will add an unmatchable gourmet touch to your occasion. And any occasion can be a fine one. It’s the end of summer? Vacation’s over, the kids are heading back to school, you’re back to reality? Perfect. Get out the foie gras.

I have included three ways of preparing foie gras on the recipe page that accompanies this post. Happy cooking!

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Soupe froide de tomates

cold tomato soup1We’ve had a can of Campbell’s tomato soup sitting around the house for several months now. It was brought by a friend to my teenage daughter in Paris as an icon of life in the United States. She has never wanted to taste the soup since she treasures the object — which, by the way, she used in her final 9th grade art project (on Andy Warhol). I, too, enjoy seeing this reminder of girlhood lunches of hot tomato soup on a cold winter’s day. But that was yesteryear. These days I prefer a more sophisticated version of this classic soup.

Soupe froide de tomates / Chilled tomato soup

Fresh ripe tomatoes, lovingly simmered, retain a bit of interesting texture in this recipe. The flavor of the soup is intensified by a touch of balsamic vinegar and some fresh herbs. It makes a delightful start to a cool supper on a hot summer evening. Or you can serve it as the main course at lunch. As a bonus, it’s quick and easy to prepare, for a simple reason — you don’t need to peel the tomatoes.

And with this, dear readers, I leave you for a month. We are California bound and looking forward to discovering new tastes during our three weeks on the Pacific rim. Hopefully I’ll be able to incorporate some of that California culinary genius into the recipes on offer here in the fall. In the meantime, I leave you with this heartfelt thought:

Enjoy the summer, and happy cooking!

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Rascasse à la tapenade

rascasse tapenade1The fish known as rascasse in French is called scorpion fish or rock fish in English. Apparently the name derives from the Provençal word rascous, meaning ‘rough’ or ‘ornery’. It’s a rather ugly creature and some varieties are even venomous — but, thankfully, not on the plate. The rascasse is plentiful in the Mediterranean, and marries well with Provençal flavors like black olives, garlic and thyme, especially when blended together.

Rascasse à la tapenade / Mediterranean fish with black olive sauce

Because the rascasse is a firm-fleshed fish that holds together pretty well during cooking, it is often used in southern French dishes like bouillabaisse. The good news for cooks who don’t have access to rascasse is that this recipe may be made with any firm-fleshed saltwater fish — cod, porgy, striped bass, etc. Served with a tapenade olive sauce, and some tomatoes and basil for garnish, it makes a delightful summer meal.

Site news: This is the penultimate recipe of the summer. After one more post next Friday, The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation in August, resuming the recipes in September. (Looking ahead, don’t be surprised to find some California flavors coming your way.) In the meantime, the Everyday Menus have been updated for summer and I will update the Weekend Menus over the next week.

If you have not yet explored the Menus section, you may want to take a look. As it happens, Everyday Menus is the most popular page on the site after the home page. It includes menus for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans, is arranged in seasonal fashion, and may one day form the basis of a cookbook. I’m still pondering how to proceed on that front. Maybe California dream time over the next few weeks will provide some answers.

Happy cooking!

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Confiture de prunes

plum jam1Lightning struck my plum tree. At least that’s what I thought when I arrived in Burgundy last Friday and saw my proud, 100-year-old, fruit-laden tree split in two. Then my gardener friend Mathias arrived and said, no, it was the weight of the fruit plus the weight of the recent torrential rain that that had caused the tree to break. But there were the boughs, brought to the ground and crushing a lavender patch. What was to be done?

Confiture de prunes / Plum jam

I’ve been making jam for decades and, of all the varieties, plum is perhaps my favorite. Plums are versatile fruit — you can used them in jam, in tarts, in crumbles, and in fabulous sauces like the Georgian tkemali, which combines slightly unripe plums with cilantro, garlic, coriander seeds, cayenne pepper, lemon juice and olive oil to produce an exotic relish to serve with roast game or duck. I use Anya von Bremzen’s recipe from Please to the Table, her amazing book of recipes from the republics of the former Soviet Union. Plums come in blue, red, green and yellow and range in size from tiny to huge. I am lucky enough to have several varieties in my garden in Burgundy. All make wonderful jam.

Now for the good news: 1) It has finally stopped raining. 2) Mathias has figured out a way to save half of the tree. I am heart-broken about losing even part of my plum tree, which presided grandly over my cottage. But one of the miracle qualities of jam is to preserve not just the fruit but the memories — of the long days of summer and that sultry feeling that comes over you when a warm breeze wafts past. Just a spoonful of jam is enough, in the depths of winter, to bring on a Proustian moment. I will put aside my four jars of plum jam, with their July 2014 labels, and open them months from now to think back on the wonder of nature that created a tree so heavy with fruit in its glory days.

As plums come into season wherever you are in the world, I hope you will try this recipe. Happy cooking!

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Pâtes aux tomates fraîches, mozzarella et basilic

tomato mozza pasta1On a very hot day in Sicily many years ago, I wandered into the kitchen and found my friend Gisella chopping tomatoes into a large bowl. I sat and watched as she smothered the tomatoes in basil, chopped in some garlic and added olive oil. ‘What are you making?’ I asked as she put a large pot of water on to boil. ‘It’s Sicilian pasta,’ she replied. ‘You don’t cook the tomatoes.’ Was it a deep longing to recreate this scene that inspired me, a few days ago, in the dark of my Burgundy kitchen, as rain poured down outside and 4 housebound teenagers clamored for lunch, to make a version of Gisella’s dish?

Pâtes aux tomates fraîches, mozzarella et basilic / Pasta with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil

Here in France it is hard to find the salty, hard sheep’s cheese known as ricotta salata that Gisella used in Sicily. But I loved the recipe so much that I have been making it for years, using mozzarella as a substitute and adding plenty of salt. It makes a perfect everyday French chef sort of meal — quick to prepare and highly popular with the younger set (and grownups, too). We have quite a few vegetarian friends down in Burgundy, and this is a fine dish to serve when they visit. Even on days of rain.

Now then. Would you mind if I went on about the rain for a moment? This is the coldest, wettest July I can remember in my 40 years in France. The high yesterday was 15 degrees C. (59 F.) — equal to the average low in July. It rained so hard two nights ago that my veranda got flooded. And last night, in the middle of the night, again awakened by rain pounding on the roof, I found my daughter snuggled under a pile of quilts wearing a winter parka and big flowered scarf, my old Russian shapka (fur hat) perched on her head.

It’s still wet this morning and I’m facing a difficult drive back down to Burgundy to collect our puss, Fifi, who got left behind at a cat hotel on Wednesday because I couldn’t fit her plus 4 teens into the car. No barbecue in view this evening, no happy splashing in the village pool. Is this a perverse consequence of global warming, or what? If it continues, you may well find next year that this column has changed its name. I am dreaming of decamping to a warm Pacific island. Would you believe The Everyday Tahitian Chef?

Happy cooking.

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

Assiette anglaise

assiette anglaise2The infamous rivalry between the French and the British is perhaps expressed most explicitly in their traditional slurs for each other, each of culinary origin: ‘the frogs’ and ‘les rosbifs’. Sure, the French eat cuisses de grenouille (frogs’ legs) and the British love their roast beef. But can this explain why a French dish that appears on so many bistro menus is called an ‘English plate’? The only explanation I can find, and I’ve been scouting around, is that this platter of cold roast meats almost always includes … roast beef.

Assiette anglaise / Cold roast meat platter, French style

This is the kind of dish you can prepare in advance on a summer’s day, leaving you cool, calm and collected when company arrives in the evening. There is no standard combination of meats, as I found when I searched the web and my collection of French cookbooks — none of which, oddly, included a recipe for assiette anglaise, not even Julia Child. According to some sources, the platter should include not just roast beef and cold cuts, but also boiled beef tongue. This I have never seen in France, and my advice, based on personal taste, would be to avoid it. But roast chicken, roast pork, roast lamb, roast duck, roast turkey would all fit well on the platter, along with a small dish of homemade mayo, some Dijon mustard and some pickles.

As for the Franco-British rivalry, it dates back at least to 1066 when William the Conqueror crossed the Channel from Normandy to invade Sussex, fell down on the beach, grasped a handful of sand and proclaimed, ‘I now take hold of the land of England.’ (The source for this interesting tidbit is The Independent.) Since then, the two great nations have had at each other on the battlefield (Trafalgar and Waterloo), at sea (the sinking of the French fleet by the English off Algeria in 1940), in the sporting arena, in linguistic jousting and, more to the point on this site, in matters of food.

‘One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,’ Jacques Chirac, the former French president, once remarked of the British. But is it really? Not in my opinion, at least not these days. I do remember going to England in the 1970s and being served terrible pub food of various sorts, from soggy Cornish pasties to frozen peas. But those days are long past and many food critics now say that bistro cuisine is better in London than in Paris. Unfortunately for those of us who rely on Air France, the food served on board has gone steeply downhill and is far inferior to the cuisine on British Airways. Et cetera.

Leaving that argument aside, various English friends of mine are fabulous cooks: creative, subtle, and often with that wacky little je-ne-sais-quoi inventiveness that imbues the British sense of humor (humour). So let’s drop all those stereotypes about British cooking. This being said, this is a French culinary blog and nothing will ever make me change my opinion that French food is the best in the world — possibly because this country’s regions have produced such a wide and wonderful variety of great dishes.

Nonetheless, from time to time the French pinch a dish from their neighbors, the assiette anglaise being a prime example — in spirit if not in reality (I’ve never seen this dish in England, but if I’m wrong please correct me). And from time to time, the British really get it right, for example in sneering at frogs’ legs. French friends tell me they are fabulous, but I couldn’t say, having never tried them. Green slimy things? Even with garlic butter, I’m not about to go there. Still…

Happy cooking!

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Aubergines au four

roast eggplant2Planning a dinner party takes a certain amount of organization. You need to think about the menu, do the shopping, buy the wine, set the table and, of course, do the cooking. This all takes time — and when I invited ten friends for dinner last weekend, I found myself cooking for two straight days. Not that anything was all that complicated. But it adds up. Which is why it’s so important always to include a couple of dishes that can be prepared with a minimum of fuss — for example, oven-roasted eggplant with spices and herbs.

Aubergines au four / Oven-roasted eggplant, Mediterranean style

This dish may be served on the side of a main course or, cut into smaller pieces, as a starter, which is how I presented it last Sunday. Here’s the menu. We started with a garlicky salad of mixed greens, thinly sliced smoked breast of duck, the roasted eggplant served at room temperature, chunks of bright orange melon and the large green olives from Provence known as lucques. This was followed by a one-dish main course, poulet au pastis (chicken in a sauce of garlic, finocchio, tomatoes and pastis). The chicken needs to marinate for 24 hours, hence my two days in the kitchen. We went on to an assortment of sheep and goat cheese, provided by my friend Vera, and the dessert was a tart of fresh fruit brought back from my garden in Burgundy — rhubarb, red and black currants, and cherries. An improvisation that worked out fine.

I owe to my mother the art of the dinner party. She was a great entertainer, and evenings with my parents’ friends lasted long into the night, usually with my father pounding out honky-tonk jazz on the piano. Until, at last, he was ready to hit the hay and announced, “That’s all, folks. Time to leave.” Alas, I, too, find myself shepherding friends to the exit when the conversation, the wine and, sometimes, the song, leave me feeling sleepy after hours at the table. And thus to dream, of starry summer nights and the wonderful feeling of having shared a golden moment with people you love. Happy cooking.

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Tarte à la rhubarbe et aux pêches

rhubarb peach tart1They say necessity is the mother of invention — and that goes a long way toward explaining the origin of this rhubarb-peach tart. Here’s what happened. It’s a great year for rhubarb here in France, and I’ve been bringing stalks of it back with me from my garden in the country. Friends invited me to dinner and I offered to bring a rhubarb tart. But when I went to make it, I discovered there wasn’t enough rhubarb to fill the tart shell. What to do? I had some peaches, so I added them — et voilà. Applause all around when I served the tart. By the way, this recipe is dedicated to the memory of Frank Zappa.

Tarte à la rhubarbe et aux pêches / Rhubarb tart with peaches

Now that rhubarb is flourishing, the red currants and cherries are starting to ripen. Either would make a fine substitute for peaches if you prefer. As I was reminded recently, rhubarb is more commonly paired in tarts with strawberries — in the United States. Over here in France, that would be an unlikely combination. I’ve never seen cooked strawberries in a French tart, probably because they tend to get soft and release a lot of juice.

A classic French strawberry tart has a crisp shell, a vanilla cream, fresh berries standing tall, and a bright red glaze. It’s similar to the recipe for raspberry tart that is already on this site. Both are absolutely perfect in early summer, if you feel like taking the time to produce an elegant and beautiful dessert. But they are a bit more complex than today’s rhubarb-peach confection — which is surprisingly quick to prepare. As we celebrate the summer solstice, it makes a fine tribute to the lazy, hazy days to come. Happy cooking!

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