Fraises au basilic et vinaigre balsamique

Strawberries with basil and balsamic vinegar, aka strawberry carpaccio, appeared relatively recently on Paris bistro menus. The combination makes a refreshing dessert on warm summer evenings — light, tangy and sophisticated. And the real magic is that it takes about five minutes to prepare. You can also vary the ingredients, adding a few raspberries or replacing the basil with mint. Don’t tell your guests about the balsamic — let them guess.

Fraises au basilic et vinaigre balsamique / Strawberries with basil and balsamic

When thinking about this dish, I got to wondering about the name carpaccio. It is obviously borrowed from the Italian dish of thinly sliced raw beef, sprinkled with olive oil and lemon juice and often topped with arugula or basil. But how did that dish get its name? I did a little research, and the answer made me nostalgic for a romantic trip to Venice I enjoyed many years ago in the company of an Argentinian friend.

During our visit — a few days before Carnival, when Venetians stroll around in masks and vapor rises spookily from the canals — we went for cocktails one afternoon to a historic venue, Harry’s Bar. Hemingway used to hang out there, as did Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. It turns out that the owner, Giuseppe Cipriani, created the beef dish in 1950 for a countess who had been told by her doctor to eat raw meat. As the dish was red, he named it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, who used a lot of red in his paintings.

Okay, that’s the lore. In fact that dish already existed, in the Piedmont region on the other side of northern Italy, where it was known as carne cruda all’Albese — raw meat in the style of Alba, a Piedmont town south of Asti, famous for Asti Spumante, the Italian sparkling wine.  The Alba region itself in fact produces some great wines, among them Barolo and Barbera. But we’re getting off subject here.

As food lovers will know, the term carpaccio has since been broadened to include practically anything raw and thinly sliced, from salmon, tuna or sea scallops to mushrooms, fresh figs and, yes, strawberries. Given the origin of the term, I like the fact that strawberry carpaccio includes a touch of Italy with the balsamic. Whoever first dreamed up the idea, and this I didn’t discover, it’s a great invention. Give it a try.

Oh, and one more thing. Nearly forgot to mention that The Everyday French Chef has been named one of the 12 best blogs about France. Very delighted about this! Also on the list is one of my favorite food blogs, Chez Loulou, by an American who set out to taste as many French cheeses as she could. Her list now stands at 223 cheeses — worth checking out.

Happy cooking!

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pâtes aux moules et pecorino

It is surprising, in our globalized world, that we can still travel only a short distance and find ourselves in a whole new foodosphere. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Naples. The first night, at a joint straight out of a Mastroianni-Loren movie, I was served pizza with sausage and friarielli, aka broccoli rabe, which is virtually unfindable in Paris. The last day, I encountered a simple but scrumptious dish of pasta, mussels and pecorino.

Pâtes aux moules et pecorino / Pasta with mussels and pecorino

The place was Pizzeria Osteria Manfredi, on a picturesque street around the corner from our hotel. We had dined there the previous evening and were so impressed that we came back for lunch. The place was crammed with Italians enjoying fresh seafood dishes — unsurprisingly, as the bistro lies about a ten minute walk up a hill from the Mediterranean. On the menu, the dish was identified as scialatielli cozze e pecorino. I recognized cozze — mussels — but had no idea about the scialatielli, which turned out to be a rustic fresh pasta that is typical along the Amalfi coast.

The dish arrived, the pasta lying tousled in a broth fragrant with plump mussels, and as soon as I tasted it I knew I had to try to recreate it at home. Not a problem, as it is quite similar to pasta alle vongole, or pasta with clams, which we enjoy now and again on Sundays when I’ve been to the market. The mussels are steamed open in wine and garlic, the pasta is cooked al dente, and they are combined at the end with a sprinkling of parsley and pecorino. As scialatielli are not readily available in Paris, I substituted spiraled girandole. In fact, any pasta would work well.

As for the mussels, did you know they have a season? In fact it’s just beginning, running from May to December, in France at least, as I learned this week from a TV feature on the start of the harvest off the Normandy coast. This was news to me, as I had always assumed that mussel season coincided with oyster season, which runs from September to April — the months with an ‘r’ in the name, as the saying goes over here. So the plumpest, tastiest mussels will be coming onto the market now. Go for it!

And happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pintade rôti à la sauge

I first encountered this dish a couple of years ago at Yard, the restaurant opened by the Australian-born Shaun Kelly when he left his first Paris venture, Au Passage. The guinea hen was so deliciously succulent, its sauce of fresh sage sautéd in butter so richly satisfying, that I knew I had to try to recreate it at home. I would have called Shaun Kelly for advice, but he’s no longer at Yard and I couldn’t find him. Nonetheless, here it is.

Pintade rôti à la sauge / Roast guinea hen with fresh sage

The recipe is a cinch. The guinea hen is roasted in the oven — lacking an oven, you can cut it into pieces and sauté it on the stove top — and the bird is then bathed in its sauce. (By the way, lacking a guinea hen, you can use chicken.) The fresh sage is what makes the sauce so exceptional. Butter is melted to sizzling and the sage leaves are added until both they and the butter are starting to brown.

This combination hails from Tuscany, I believe, at least that’s where I first tasted it — as a sauce for cheese ravioli sprinkled with Parmesan. I was with friends dining at an outdoor trattoria, and we nearly jumped up to applaud. That’s how good it was. Since then, fresh sage has been part of my culinary repertoire. I grow it in my garden in Burgundy, and have a pot of it on my balcony in Paris. It appears in several recipes on this site — the Tuscany-style ravioli, a cheese omelet and a French-style pizza with bacon and sage.

Sage has been appreciated in France since the Middle Ages, not just for its flavor but also for its medicinal qualities. Used in an herbal tea, it was believed to increase longevity. The name of the herb itself — salvia in Latin and Italian — carries echoes of salvation. Louis XIV, the sun king, is said to have served it to his guests. For me, though, sage is hardly a royal plant. Its charm lies in its simplicity. Its musky fragrance rises up from the garden on a warm summer’s day as butterflies flit among its flowers and silver-green leaves. And when cooked, it fills the house with its delectable aroma.

As for the guinea hen, it is quite common here in France, where it is raised by country folk along with their chickens and geese. My Burgundy neighbors always have a few in their yard, the birds’ white-spotted black feathers looking straight out of an African painting. Which isn’t surprising, since guinea fowl originated in Africa, and their French name, pintade, derives from the Portuguese pintada, meaning “painted”.

Now, back to Shaun Kelly. He served the guinea hen alongside veggies drizzled with a fabulous sauce of cream and horseradish. I would love to get that recipe too — if only I could find him. If you happen to know where he is these days, please get in touch.

And happy cooking!

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Oeufs mimosa

The mimosa tree, its fluffy yellow blossoms a harbinger of spring, has loaned its name not only to a Champagne cocktail but also to the French version of deviled eggs. The eggs are stuffed and topped with of tiny pieces of yolk meant to resemble mimosa flowers. The filling includes parsley or other herbs. It’s a great dish to serve at this time of year — cheery, light and bright. And by the way, it’s also a great way to recycle Easter eggs.

Oeufs mimosa / Eggs ‘Mimosa’

I should note that in France, Easter eggs are usually made of chocolate — and, children are told, they are brought not by a bunny but by… bells! According to this story, when the church bells stop ringing on Good Friday and Holy Saturday in a sign of mourning, they fly off to Rome. When they return on Easter Sunday, they distribute the chocolate eggs in the garden for children to find. (This can make for amusing moments in midsummer when a forgotten chocolate egg, thoroughly melted, is suddenly found.)

Eggs, a symbol of rebirth and renewal, have played a ceremonial role in springtime since antiquity. Before the Easter egg there was the Passover egg, which continues to this day to grace the Seder plate. In Russia, the jeweled Fabergé egg is a spin-off of traditional painted eggs, and the tradition continues in the form of beautifully decorated wooden eggs. The French nobility used precious metals to decorate Easter eggs until the advent of affordable chocolate. These days the chocolate eggs are wrapped in colorful aluminum foil. And what of the Easter bunny? There is a French version, in Alsace, but the bunny is a hare.

Getting back to oeufs mimosa, the eggs may be served on their own as a first course, or as part of a larger hors d’oeuvres spread. If serving them as the start of a French-style Easter lunch, you could follow up with roast chicken or leg of lamb and a green salad. For vegetarians, one choice might be pasta with saffron, arugula and walnuts. Dessert could be as simple as strawberries with cream or, for a fancier touch, you could add a meringue.

If you’d like to kick off festivities with the other kind of mimosa, fill champagne flutes with 1/3 orange juice (fresh squeezed, of course) and 2/3 Champagne (or — shh! — another sparkling wine). It is traditional, but not necessary, to add a teaspoon of Grand Marnier or triple sec to each glass before topping up with the sparkly. For a blushing mimosa, add a teaspoon of grenadine syrup, then top with Champagne.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tartare de saumon

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, an event marked in France by pranks known as poissons d’avril, or ‘April fish’. So this seemed an appropriate time to post a fish recipe, all the more so as spring has now sprung with a vengeance in Paris, with warm-weather dishes sprouting on bistro menus like precocious darling buds of May. Salmon tartare is one such dish — light and fresh, its flavor enhanced with avocado, fresh herbs and lime juice.

Tartare de saumon / Salmon tartare

I had originally planned to make tartare de thon, or tuna tartare, but fresh tuna was not available when I went to the market. It’s not only not the tuna season, my fishmonger informed me, but tuna fishing is actually banned in France for most of the year — the tuna we see in the markets of Paris has apparently been imported from the Maldives. Not a problem, however, as fresh salmon is easily obtainable. The key word here being fresh, as this is the absolute requirement for serving fish raw, as in sushi, or a tartare.

Tartares of all sorts are quite popular over here, most notably steak tartare, most often made of beef these days but formerly made of horse meat. I tend to prefer the fish variety. Sea bass, cod, sardines and sea scallops are also used. A fish tartare is most often served as a starter, but can also be a main dish, accompanied by anything from salad to (I’m not kidding, I’ve seen it) a deep pile of fries. When a friend and I tried a new fish restaurant last week, Fichon, raw fish was the only thing on the menu. They say it’s trendy.

Getting back to poissons d’avril, the April 1 prank-playing custom dates back at least to the Middle Ages in France. Its origins are obscure, being variously said to have involved popes, kings and competing versions of the calendar. The tradition is alive and well today, with schoolchildren taping paper cut-outs of fish on each other’s back and gleefully shouting ‘Poisson d’Avril!‘ at the victim. Older kids make up tall tales that they spin to each other, and sometimes the media get into the act. In 1991, for example, the main French television network, TF1, reported that the third story of the Eiffel Tower had been removed for repairs — and showed images of a truncated tower, with bystanders commenting that they hoped the repairs wouldn’t last too long…

As for the origins of the term tartare, which indicates the food is raw, opinions diverge here too. It attributed by some to an alleged custom of Mongol warriors of placing raw meat under their saddles and riding until it was tender, at which point it was consumed, and by others to the fact that steak tartare was formerly served with sauce tartare — the French version of which contains mayonnaise, capers, chopped pickles and fresh herbs.

Sauce tartare is often served with fried fish in France, but not with fish tartare — the flavors of a dish like tartare de saumon being so delightful that they need no enhancing.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Salade de pommes de terre

You may say po-TAY-to, I may say po-TAH-to, but the French say “apples of the earth” (pommes de terre), perhaps an indication of their esteem for the humble spud. And French potato salad, simple and earthy, has a taste all its own. Unlike American potato salad, it has no mayonnaise. Unlike the German version, it leaves out the bacon. No, the French bathe potatoes in a vinaigrette while still warm, add chopped shallots and herbs — et voilà.

Salade de pommes de terre / French potato salad

This rustic culinary masterpiece was first presented to me shortly after I arrived in Paris as a student, served on the mixed veggie plate known as an assiette de crudités. It was surprisingly pungent, but also soothing. Over the years friends served it in many variations — warm or cold, with parsley or chives (or both), with dill or chervil or tarragon. Usually the vinaigrette contains Dijon mustard. When it does not, the dish becomes pommes à l’huile and is often served beside oil-cured herring.

Given the global renown of a culinary invention associated with this country — French fries — it is hard to imagine that pommes de terre were once so controversial that they were actually banned by the French Parliament. They were thought to cause leprosy and other ailments. This was back in 1748, before the Revolution and also before a certain Antoine-Augustin Parmentier revolutionized French thinking on the potato.

Captured by the Germans during the Seven Years War, Parmentier was forced to eat thin potato soup — and didn’t fall ill or die. Upon his return to Paris, he used his background as a pharmacist to conduct experiments with the potato. The more convinced he became of the potato’s nutritional value, the more creative he became in his struggle to persuade a dubious public. He planted a potato patch and had it guarded by day but not by night, inciting Parisians, who thought the plants must be valuable, to steal them — and try them. At one point he invited luminaries including Benjamin Franklin to a potato dinner.

By this time, potatoes — which had been brought to Europe from Peru by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s — were popular in Ireland, England and Germany, and had been brought back across the Atlantic to North America. The French finally lifted their ban during a period of famine in the late 1700s, even growing potatoes in the Tuileries Gardens to feed the populace. Parmentier today is viewed as a national hero. I live not far from Avenue Parmentier, a large Paris thoroughfare. Various dishes are named in his honor, most notably hachis parmentier, or ground meat topped by mashed potatoes.

Getting back to French potato salad, there are now many variations on the basic recipe. When researching this blog post, I came across versions including pickles, cockles, goat cheese, honey, eggs, olives and even algae. Sure, you can put seaweed in your potato salad. But as an everyday French chef, I’ll choose the traditional recipe every time. It will soon be the season for new potatoes — the very best choice for this salad.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 3. Salads | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tuiles au parmesan

The wonderful French phrase l’heure de l’apéro means you’re done working and it’s time to kick off your shoes and settle in to a drink as a prelude to a pleasant evening. It’s like cocktail hour, but with a nuance of difference. The drinks are generally not cocktails but variations on wine, and on festive occasions — or even ordinary occasions — amuse-bouches are served with the drinks. For example, lacy chips baked from grated parmesan.

Tuiles au parmesan / Parmesan apéritif chips

Golden and bursting with flavor, these chips can be made in half an hour or less. They take their name — tuiles translates as ’tiles’ — from the curved roof tiles seen across southeast France. You grate the cheese, bake it in mounds in the oven and shape the baked rounds around a rolling pin to give them their distinctive form.

Amuse-bouches (‘amuse the mouth’) — or, more common in every sense of the word, amuse-gueules — are a step up from the usual cocktail hour munchies in that the term implies more than nuts or olives. They range from the elaborate to the earthy, for example the Burgundy cheese puffs known as gougères. Typical drinks to serve with something like parmesan chips would be a good wine of any color, Champagne or maybe a kir.

As for l’heure de l’apéro, when it begins is open to interpretation. When the sun goes over the yardarm is one way of looking at it, but in Paris that can mean 4 p.m. in winter and 10 p.m. in summer. So the concept is usually that apéritif hour starts about an hour before dinner time — or lunch time, for that matter, on weekends. Actually you can still see workmen gathered at café counters to indulge in their first glass of white at 7 in the morning, but that wouldn’t count as an apéro — it’s just a way to start the day.

Whenever you choose to set the clock, you will certainly please the palates of your guests with these parmesan chips. In fact, when I made the ones shown above, with olives alongside, they disappeared within minutes.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Carré d’agneau

When is a lamb chop not a lamb chop? It may seem a minor distinction, but here in France a carré d’agneau (rack of lamb) is considered a different dish altogether than côtelettes d’agneau (lamb chops), the difference being that the meat is tender on all sides when the rack is sliced. The elegance makes it a dish for special occasions. Served with a sophisticated purée, for example of parsnips and cumin, it will add a touch of class to your table.

Carré d’agneau / Roast rack of lamb
Purée de panais au cumin / Parsnip purée with cumin

And then there is the difference between carré d’agneau and rack of lamb. In the French version, the rack is prepared by the butcher in a special way that in English is (amusingly) called being ‘Frenched’. What it means is that the ends of the ribs are exposed and the bottom bones cut away, which makes for easy slicing at the table.

A little lore was passed along to me by Robin from the butcher counter at Maison Plisson, a fine grocery across the street from me in Paris. He said this style of preparation began long ago, when meat was still being grilled over a fire — the idea being that the chops were easier to eat if they had a handle. That is still true today, although most diners now prefer a knife and fork.

If you are cooking for several people, you can go totally French and prepare what is called a garde d’honneur (honor guard). This involves using two racks of lamb of similar size and roasting them standing up and facing each other, with the ribs interlinked. Very impressive when brought like this to the table.

Some recipes for carré d’agneau call for coating the meat with a mixture of breadcrumbs, parsley and mustard before roasting, but I find that this obscures the delicate taste of the lamb. I prefer it coated in olive oil and with a light sprinkling of rosemary and garlic.

As for the purée, it is an Everyday French Chef invention that proved its merits when served to a friend, who pronounced it ‘a winner’.

If you don’t have access to a butcher who can prepare the rack for you French style, not to worry. You can attempt it yourself. There is a word about this on the recipe page. And once the rack is prepared, the dish can be produced in half an hour. Elegant, quick and easy.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Crème de chou-fleur

The humble cauliflower takes on elegance and class when transformed into crème de chou-fleur, a magnificent winter soup that is both light and packed with vitamins. It is essentially a purée of cauliflower with a spoonful of cream. Ground coriander seeds, lemon and dill enhance the flavor, while trout roe adds a bright touch — and more flavor. It makes a satisfying lunch dish and sparkles as a first course at dinnertime. Try it and see.

Crème de chou-fleur / Cauliflower soup

It took me a long time to embrace cauliflower, a vegetable many of us remember from childhood as dreary. Moving to France helped — chou-fleur translates as ‘cabbage flower’, a linguistic tweak that somehow changed my perception. As did the many French ways of preparing the pretty white flowerets: as a gratin, as a purée, as a savory tart, as an addition to an assiette de crudités, or sautéed with a bit of garlic.

Cauliflower has been in favor in France for more than 400 years, since Louis XIV had it grown in the gardens of Versailles. And it’s played it’s role in French history. When the calendar was redrawn after the French Revolution, with names tied to the seasons — Brumaire (foggy) for October-November, for example, and Floréal (flowery) for April-May — chou-fleur had its own day, the 7th of Frimaire (cold), which fell on November 27.

These days cauliflower comes in a rainbow of colors, from orange to green to purple, and in forms from round to spiky. These newfangled varieties are on sale across the street from me at Maison Plisson, but I admit I have yet to try them. Would you believe purple soup? No, the classic variety is just fine.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Strudel aux pommes

Some days you just need comfort food — so why not make an apple strudel? This delightfully flaky dessert has been popular in France since it was introduced at Versailles by Marie-Antoinette, who came here from her native Austria after marrying the future Louis XVI. It is exceptionally easy to make these days thanks to the availability of filo dough, which eliminates the painstaking step of stretching out kneaded dough until it is paper thin.

Strudel aux pommes / Apple strudel

Marie-Antoinette would have enjoyed other types of strudel when growing up in Vienna. Strudels filled with soft cheese, sour cherries and poppy seeds were all popular at the time. The pastry, defined by its rolled-up shape (strudel translates as ‘whirlpool’), can also be filled with meat or vegetables. It is said to derive from Turkey’s baklava, which entered Austria during the Ottoman occupation. It has many cousins, among them savory cheese pies like Greece’s tiropita, itself a variety of southeast Europe’s borek (watch this space).

You may be wondering whether strudel was what Marie-Antoinette had in mind when, upon being told that the peasants had no bread, she said ‘Let them eat cake’ — words reputed to have helped spark the French Revolution. Although whether she actually said this is far from sure, what is certain is that the phrase has nothing to do with strudel. In French it’s ‘qu’ils mangent de la brioche‘ (rough translation: ‘let them eat egg bread’).

Things didn’t end well, of course, for Marie-Antoinette, who lived a life of opulence and splendor only to be arrested, imprisoned and finally guillotined in public at the Place de la Révolution, today’s Place de la Concorde. Such are the risks of power when it is abused — glitz and wealth offer no protection. As we endure this bleak January, with or without strudel, we can take comfort in imagining that this may still hold true today.

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments