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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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

Endives gratinées au jambon de pays

This recipe adds a couple of twists to a French classic, endives au jambon, which is enjoyed across the north of the country in the winter months. Twist Number 1: Dry-cured ham is used instead of the traditional baked ham. This adds sophistication and flavor. Twist Number 2: Cream is used instead of béchamel sauce, making for a lighter dish. Travesty! Yes, for purists, but just try it.

Endives gratinées au jambon de pays / Endive gratin with country ham

Endives, aka Belgian endives, figure prominently in the cuisine of northern France and, you guessed it, Belgium. In the usual version of this dish, the endives are first boiled or braised and then covered with ham, smothered in béchamel and topped with grated cheese before being baked. The problem is that the béchamel, made with flour, butter and milk, is a bit heavy for contemporary tastes. Even in winter. And baked ham lacks the pizzazz of dry-cured hams like France’s Bayonne, Italy’s prosciutto or Spain’s serrano.

This version produces a flavor-packed one-dish meal that may be happily enjoyed at lunchtime or, of a winter’s evening, by the fireside, accompanied by a glass of hearty red and a green salad. For a more elaborate dinner, start with something from the sea — perhaps a curried crab remoulade or shrimp with homemade mayo. And for dessert, something fruity, like pears poached in red wine or a French apple tart.

With the start of the new year, I’d like to wish you all the very best for a pleasant, healthy and peaceful 2017. Including many cheery moments in the kitchen.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Galettes de pomme de terre

There is an art to making potato pancakes, known in French as galettes de pomme de terre, or potato flat cakes. The basic recipe is very simple — grate the potatoes, mix with a beaten egg, season with salt and pepper, and fry in oil or duck fat. A humble dish served in many forms around the world, potato pancakes are supremely satisfying when they come out crisp and light. But achieving this is more difficult than one might think.

Galettes de pomme de terre / Potato pancakes

I know, because I have been making potato pancakes once a year for as long as I can remember. The occasion is Hanukah, the eight-day festival of lights, which is celebrated by Jews around the world in late November or December, usually before Christmas. This year, in a rare confluence of the moon and the Western calendar, Hanukah begins on Christmas Eve. One night or another during the week, guests will come by and we will begin our festive meal with potato pancakes, aka latkes.

However, potato pancakes may be enjoyed on any occasion. They make a great side dish for roasted poultry or meat, and could also feature nicely in a festive Christmas dinner.

Potato cakes are perhaps most familiar to the French as rösti, a specialty imported from across the border in Switzerland. In that version, the cake is larger and thicker, more akin to American hash browns. German potato pancakes tend to include flour and baking powder, a definite no-no in my opinion. What you are going for is a cake that is lacy and light. This also precludes using mashed potatoes, as some recipes suggest.

So how to get it right? One trick is to press the grated potatoes dry with paper towels before adding them to the egg. This will remove some of the starch. Some recipes call for actually rinsing the grated potatoes, but I find it’s not necessary. The other key is to fry the pancakes in plenty of oil or, if you have it on hand, duck fat.

Some Jewish families serve potato pancakes with a little chopped onion or sour cream/crème fraîche on the side. My mother liked to serve them with applesauce. Personally, I prefer them on their own.

In this darkest season, they add a cheery note. Happy holidays!

And happy cooking.

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Canard rôti au miel et au thym

roast-duck2Roast duck is a festive dish in any season, but perhaps never better than in winter, enjoyed with a glass of hearty red beside a crackling fire. In this recipe, the duck is coated with a glaze of honey, thyme and balsamic vinegar, with garlic added to the roasting pan for a dish imbued with the flavors of southern France. Want to stay with the provençal theme? Serve the duck with pan-seared baby artichokes, this week’s second recipe.

Canard rôti au miel et au thym / Roast duck with honey and thyme
Artichauts poivrade grillés / Pan-seared baby artichokes

Now let’s talk about French duck. When I went to the market to order the duck for this recipe, I was told very firmly by my poultry man, Didier Breton, that I couldn’t get a canard (male duck) at this time of year, but would need to get a canette (female duck). This is because they save the larger males to put on the market closer to Christmas.

Monsieur Breton said he could offer me a canette de Barbarie, a breed of duck that, oddly, is primarily known as ‘Muscovy duck’ in English and as ‘creole duck’ in Spanish. Upon investigation, I discovered that the Barbary duck looks somewhat akin to a turkey, with red wattles around the bill. This is all academic, however, as when I went to pick up the plumed bird, it looked just like any other duck.

Not at all, said Monsieur Breton, who informed me that the four main breeds of duck used in French cuisine are all rather different, and that one of them — the canard mulard — is mainly reserved for the making of foie gras. The advantage of the canette, he added, is that it’s small enough to make a pleasant holiday meal for two to three people — a good solution if you happen to be celebrating in a small group.

roast-duck1Duck is served in many guises in France, although it is rather rarely seen roasted whole. The most common versions are magret de canard, or duck breast, for example in a sauce made with cassis — black currant liqueur — and confit de canard, in which the duck is preserved in salt and duck fat.

Duck is indeed so popular in France that it has entered the lexicon in various amusing ways. As a young journalist, I loved it when I learned that un canard also meant a newspaper. And back in the days when I still went out on dates, I enjoyed it when, after a meal, a snifter of cognac was brought to the table with, beside it, a lump of sugar with which to faire un canard (you dip the sugar into the cognac, like a duck dipping into a pond). Meantime, in Paris these days, il fait un froid de canard, meaning it’s cold as the dickens — literally, it’s cold as a duck.

As for the artichokes, I thought they’d make a nice change from the usual seasonal vegetables like pumpkin, sweet potatoes or celeriac. The artichoke season theoretically ends around October in France, but these days artichokes seem to stay on the market much longer. It’s an easy recipe, and one that may grace your table at any time of year.

For more ideas about what to serve during the coming festivities,  check out this site’s Holiday Menus page. And…

Happy cooking!

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

Deux tartes fines

mushroom-pizza2We’re galloping toward the holiday season, so this post kicks off a series of recipes that you may enjoy pre-, post- and during the end of year festivities — beginning with two tartes fines, the French version of pizza. The first marries bacon and fresh sage, while the second sets baby spinach and mushrooms on a layer of cream. These are of course not holiday dishes, but they’re perfect for serving between the feasts — quick, simple, crowd-pleasing.

bacon-pizza1Tarte fine bacon et sauge / French pizza with bacon and sage
Tarte fine champignons épinards / French pizza with mushrooms and spinach

Coming next: roast duck with thyme, and galettes de pomme de terre, the French version of potato pancakes. These two dishes may be happily combined for a holiday dinner, and may work well in a year where the Christmas-New Year season and the eight days of Hanukkah coincide.

There are already many holiday dishes on the site — you can see them by clicking on Holiday Menus. I’ve included some of my favorite recipes, like roast partridge with pears, pumpkin gratin and wild mushrooms with herbs, as well as a variety of holiday desserts. In addition to the traditional menus, there are selections for vegetarians and vegans, as well as a ‘from the sea’ menu consisting entirely of fish and seafood.

As for today’s tartes fines, the recipes are adapted from Simplissime, the cookbook I wrote about in my last post. It was hard to choose which ones to try because the author, J.F. Mallet, includes ten of them and they all look delicious. I’m happy to say they were a success on the first try. If you like this style of recipe please let me know. There will be more to come in the new year.

Happy cooking!

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