Soupe patates douces-poireaux

A nice warm bowl of silky-smooth soup of sweet potato and leek with coconut milk, lime juice and spices might be just what the doctor ordered as we head into December. I came up with this one when a glitch in this year’s Thanksgiving plans left me with an abundance of uncooked sweet potatoes. It was a cinch to make — took less than half an hour — and the result was a very soothing soup with Asian flavors that was both healthy and economical.

Soupe patates douces-poireaux / Spicy sweet potato-leek soup

What do I mean by economical? A single large sweet potato produces enough soup to serve three generously. What do I mean by a cinch? You simply peel and slice the sweet potato, boil it to tenderness with the white part of a single leek, purée it and add the coconut milk, lime juice and spices — coriander, cumin and cayenne. And as for healthy, this soup will receive a seal of approval from vegans and vegetarians as well as omnivores.

Now that we’re past Thanksgiving, I’m starting to think about the end of year festivities, notably Hanukah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This year I expect my addition to the Holiday Menus already on the site to be a family Christmas cookie recipe — my Grandma Hilda’s fabulous almond-butter crescents. More on that next time…

In the meantime, if you’re celebrating Hanukah, which begins on the evening of Thursday, December 7, you might want to check out galettes de pomme de terre, the French version of latkes (potato pancakes), which are fun to make and a crowd pleaser. A nice Hanukah menu might begin with these lacy pancakes, follow with roast chicken, roasted winter vegetables and a salad, for example of lamb’s lettuce and beets, and conclude with a non-dairy dessert such as poires au vin et cassis (pears in red wine and black currant liqueur).

Returning to the sweet potato-leek soup, it may be served at lunchtime, accompanied by sandwiches or a salad, or as a first course for a more elaborate meal. My daughter and I enjoyed it for lunch with salade vigneronne (winemaker’s salad), in which tender greens, walnuts and grapes are bathed in a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette. Herbal salad with hazelnuts would also marry well. At suppertime, you could begin with the soup and follow up with any seasonal main dish.

Happy cooking.

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Plov d’agneau

Plov is a rich and spicy rice dish from Central Asia that is traditionally made with lamb, although other meats are sometimes used. The lamb is browned with carrots and onions before being simmered with cumin seeds, paprika and turmeric or saffron. Quince or chickpeas may also be included. A layer of rice studded with whole cloves of garlic is added at the end and steamed to tender perfection to create a festive one-dish meal.

Plov d’agneau / Lamb and rice, Central Asian style

Although obviously not French, plov has made its way to Paris and beyond, brought by emigrés from Central Asian since the breakup of the former Soviet Union more than 30 years ago. Today’s recipe is based on the version served in Uzbekistan, where plov is the national dish — and in fact has been inscribed as such, under the name palov, on UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

These names derive from the Persian pilav, which is of course also the root of the English-speaking world’s pilaf — although there is a world of difference between pilaf and plov. Not just the exotic spicing but also the incorporation of some fat into the dish make plov a far more regal experience than the pallid pilafs I was served as a child back in the States.

And speaking of names, a cut of lamb often used for plov is shoulder, but in the version shown in the photo above I used a French cut from beneath the shoulder that is amusingly named épigramme d’agneau. It’s an inexpensive cut with some fat attached and plenty of bones, which add delicious flavor to the plov. But how did it get its name, I wondered?

A quick web search turned up a plausible tale. Apparently a young noblewoman was serving dinner to some officers in the mid-18th century when one of them said they had dined at the home of a count who’d regaled them with excellent epigrams. The young woman, who didn’t know an epigram (‘clever saying’) from her elbow, turned to her cook, a creative chap named Michelet, and asked him to rustle some up for the next day’s dinner. At a loss as to what to do, the poor fellow cooked up some lamb — breast and ribs — and called it ‘épigrammes d’agneau a la Michelet‘. And so a name was born.

This is hardly the only French cut of meat with an amusing name. One of the best cuts of steak is called poire (‘pear’), apparently because of its shape. You will rarely see it displayed, however, as butchers hide it away for their best customers, along with two similar cuts, merlan (‘whiting’, as in the fish) and araignée (‘spider’).

For those of you who may be interested in such arcane bits of French culinary terminology, I promise to write about it again on another occasion. But right now I need to go make dinner — lamb soup (with the épigramme leftovers!). I hope you’ll try the plov.

Happy cooking.

P.S. With Thanksgiving around the corner, here are some recipes that could lend a French touch to the festivities: Roast turkey, French style, Pumpkin gratin, Pumpkin soufflé, Penne with pumpkin and walnuts, Sweet potatoes with herbs and Walnut tart.

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Pommes de terre sarladaises

There are four key ingredients in these melt-in-the-mouth, intensely garlicky, skillet-fried potatoes from southwest France — the potatoes, the garlic, parsley and duck or goose fat. As duck fat may not be available to all readers, my question was, how would the dish be without it? The answer was: almost as spectacular. Which is why I am offering the original and an alternative version of this classic, which marries well with just about anything.

Pommes de terre sarladaises / Skillet-fried potatoes with garlic and parsley

Pommes de terre sarladaises (pronounced sahr-lah-DEHZ) take their name from the pretty town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in Dordogne. Farms in the surrounding area raise ducks and geese, which star in the local cuisine in the form of confits (preserved duck or goose), foie gras and cassoulet (a bean stew that I plan to write about in due course). Sarlat has a bustling farmers market throughout the year, and over the winter it also hosts a marché au gras, where fatted fowl and their products are sold according to ancient custom.

Among the products sold are duck and goose fat in jars or cans, which simplifies matters if you’d like to make Sarladaise potatoes the authentic way. These days duck fat is also available in stores throughout France and online in the States, Britain and many other countries. However, I have never purchased this product, as I prefer to make my own.

Rendering duck fat is easier than you may think, providing you cook duck once in a while. For example, if you’re preparing a magret de canard (duck breast), you can pour off the fat into a recipient as it cooks, then strain it through a sieve into a clean jar. Once it cools you can refrigerate the duck fat, which will keep for months. You can add to the jar over and over, and use the fat as needed for cooking — well, I mainly use it for Sarladaise potatoes.

Lacking duck fat, you can fry the potatoes in a combination of butter and oil.

For success with whatever version you choose,  here are some tips. First, don’t be tempted to accelerate preparation by steaming or parboiling the potato slices before frying — they need to be fried raw (à cru) to achieve the crispy exterior and meltingly tender interior. Second, wait until the potatoes are golden and ready to serve before adding the garlic. The minced raw garlic is what produces the delightful pungency of these potatoes.

If you’d like to try your hand at rendering duck fat, you could start out with one of these recipes: magret de canard au cassis (duck breast in a black currant sauce), salade thaïe au magret (Thai-style salad topped with sliced duck breast) or canard rôti au miel et au thym (roast duck with honey and thyme). Each recipe will produce about half a jar of duck fat — more than enough for frying up a panful Sarladaise potatoes.

Happy cooking.

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Salade d’herbes aux noisettes

I wanted to make an autumnal salad with hazelnuts and fresh herbs. This, I thought, would be a simple matter. Mais non, mes amis. I made the mistake of starting with hazelnuts still in their peels. Figured it would easy to blanch the nuts and remove the peels. I was wrong. It took me half an hour to rub the peels off just 20 hazelnuts, and the job was imperfect, with stubborn bits clinging on. Then I roasted the nuts, and they burned…

Salade d’herbes aux noisettes / Herbal salad with hazelnuts

Not to be defeated, I tried again the next day, this time with success. The solution was to buy hazelnuts that had already been blanched. I watched closely as they toasted and took them out when they had turned a light golden brown, enjoying the delicious aroma of roasting hazelnuts that wafted through my kitchen.

The rest was, pardon the mixed metaphor, a piece of cake. The leaves of assorted fresh herbs are stripped from their stems — cilantro, basil, parsley, dill, mint, tarragon, chervil, in whatever combination you prefer. The herbs and hazelnuts are scattered over a bed of tender leaves, then sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

The result is a salad that is easily made and can go with just about anything. You can serve it as a first course, perhaps with cured ham such as prosciutto alongside. You can embellish it with grapes, bits of dates or pear, crumbled roquefort, goat cheese, etc. Or you can serve it as a side salad with roasted meats, poultry, fish or veggies.

I’ve always enjoyed hazelnuts, but I grew particularly fond of them after discovering a hazelnut bush on the property of my newly acquired country cottage in Burgundy. This was back in 1999. For the next two decades, the local squirrels and I waged a battle royal every year to see who could get the hazelnuts first. Sometimes they won, as I only went down there on weekends, but often enough I was able to collect a small basketful that lasted right through the winter. I never tried to blanch the hazelnuts, however.

Having blanched almonds many times and easily slipped off their peels, I was surprised this week by how hard it was to do the same with hazelnuts. If I hadn’t managed to find some that were already peeled, this recipe (as such) would never have made it onto the website. So — what to do if you cannot find pre-peeled hazelnuts? I’d suggest substituting walnuts. It’s a different flavor, but would be good nonetheless. And just as autumnal!

Happy cooking.

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Eglefin au four sauce tartare

One of the simplest weeknight dinners I know is baked fish, in this case fillets of haddock with homemade tartar sauce, French style. The fish is dusted with salt, pepper and a little cumin — no flour is involved — and drizzled with olive oil before being roasted in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets. While the fish is cooking you can whip up the tartar sauce, and presto. Dinner is ready in less than half an hour.

Eglefin au four sauce tartare / Baked haddock with French tartar sauce
Sauce tartare / French tartar sauce

Before returning to the subject of the sauce, I’d like to say a few words on the subject of the fish. First, it doesn’t have to be haddock. The recipe works well with all types of fish fillets. Second, fresh fish will produce superior results, but frozen fish may be used as well (so long as the fillets are fully defrosted before you begin). Third, and here is where it gets interesting from a linguistic point of view, what do the French mean by haddock?

The answer, mes amis, is that they mean ‘smoked haddock’, which is sold here in bright yellow-orange skin-on fillets. But not to panic. This recipe calls not for haddock (pronounced ah-DUCK), but rather for églefin, or ‘fresh haddock’.

Oddly, the word églefin derives from a Dutch word, schelvisch, which looks more like shellfish to me. But languages evolve in mysterious ways, and somehow over the centuries the word changed to something that sounds far more French — égle evoking aigle, or ‘eagle’, and fin meaning ‘fine’ or ‘thin’…

But this does not answer the question of: why two words for the same fish? Well, one only has to think about ‘kippers’ (smoked herring) and ‘herring’ (other forms of herring) to understand. This fishy linguistic duplicity can be tricky for people new to France. I remember that when I moved to Paris in the ’70s it took me a long time to figure out that cabillaud (fresh cod) and morue (dried salt cod) were indeed the same fish.

Ok, now on to the sauce. How is French sauce tartare different from the tartar sauce served, say, in the States or in England? Well, for one thing it isn’t sweet. For another it uses capers and can dispense with pickles or pickle relish altogether. This produces a more sophisticated flavor, in my view.

French sauce tartare combines the capers with mayonnaise, lemon juice and chopped fresh herbs. You don’t need to make the mayo. Store-bought is just fine — but check the sugar content (no sugar = more authentic). The French sometimes also include chopped cornichons, the tiny vinegar-cured cucumbers that pass for pickles over here. But as they are hard to find elsewhere, I have omitted them from today’s recipe. And to be honest, I prefer my sauce tartare without the cornichons.

French tartar sauce marries beautifully with fish and shellfish, and may also be used alongside chicken, veggies and cold meats. It takes no more than 5 minutes to prepare.

Happy cooking.

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Tarte roquefort-poires

A savory tart made with pears and Roquefort cheese can be a lovely start to a meal, and with pears now in season this is a perfect time to try it. The tart is best if you make the crust yourself, in this case a pâte brisée — a tender, savory crust. This may be done a day ahead of time, after which preparation is remarkably quick. I had my tart in the oven 15 minutes after getting home with the pears, and 40 minutes later it was ready.

Tarte roquefort-poires / Roquefort-pear tart

By that time tantalizing aromas were wafting through the house. I waited a short while for the tart to settle, then had a taste — just to make sure it was safe to serve to the guests arriving later. Well, dear reader, I wasn’t disappointed. The tang of the Roquefort marries beautifully with the sweetness of the pears, and these flavors are enhanced by a fruity red. I’d suggest a Beaujolais, say a Brouilly, Fleurie or the delightfully named Saint-Amour.

The beauty of this tart is that it may be made in advance and reheated just before serving — as a lunch dish, accompanied by a green salad, or as the starter for a more elaborate meal. If you’re serving it at dinner time, you could stick with the fruity theme and follow up with a dish like chicken with fresh figs or duck with black currant sauce. Or you could choose a more classical main dish, such as roast shoulder of lamb or, for vegetarians, roasted butternut with pine nuts or caramelized celeriac with walnuts and greens. And for a fruity autumn dessert,  pommes au four (baked apples). Of course!

Happy cooking.

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Confiture de figues

I first discovered fig jam many summers ago when I spent a few weeks at a country house in the Cévennes region of southern France. The place was idyllic, lush with fruit both cultivated and wild. We picked the figs straight from the tree. Making the jam was easy, as no pitting of the fruit is involved. And, as I learned, fig jam is heavenly. It manages to capture the musty, lusty fragrance of fresh figs — which happen to be in season right now.

Confiture de figues / Fig jam

Fig jam is fabulous not only on toast or on buttered baguette, as in the photo, but also on yogurt (which we also made ourselves during that summer in the Cévennes). I usually make this jam with dark purple figs, which lend the jam a beautiful ruby color, but I suspect it would be equally good if made with green figs.

In today’s recipe, which was kindly passed along to me by a neighbor, rosemary and lemon juice are added to the figs and sugar as you set them on the stove to boil. The recipe is super quick, especially if you a) limit the amount you make at one time, and b) use jam jars with screw-on lids, which eliminates the need for paraffin (a vacuum forms when you screw the lid on a jar of hot jam, and this preserves it).

Fig jam didn’t exist in Wisconsin to my knowledge when I was a kid growing up. Nor did fresh figs. The only figs I tasted during childhood were the dried variety that came in Christmas fruit baskets sent by elderly relatives once a year. Then came a summer study program in Avignon. Walking to class one day, I smelled a deiicious aroma. I looked around, and there was a fig tree, heavy with fruit. Well, dear readers, that was an ‘aha’ moment for me.

Other recipes involving figs on this site include country ham with figs, salad with fresh figs, savory goat cheese tart with figs and rosemary, chicken with fresh figs, figs roasted in vanilla cream, fig tart and caramelized peaches with fresh figs and pine nuts. And by the way, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m quite fond of figs…

Happy cooking.

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Minestrone à la française

You don’t need to live along the French-Italian Mediterranean rim to enjoy a summer vegetable soup topped with parmesan and fresh basil. This version omits the beans and pasta but is otherwise rather similar to both Italy’s minestrone and Provence’s soupe au pistou. Oh, and did I mention that it also leaves out the tomatoes? It’s an improvisation I came up with one recent sultry day using the ingredients I had on hand in my Paris kitchen.

Minestrone à la française / Minestrone, French style

The result was a zingy, flavor-packed soup that had the people around my table calling for more. Instead of borlotti beans (Italy) or white beans (Provence), it features split peas. And instead of pancetta (Italy), I used a bit of bacon — although this may be omitted for a vegetarian/vegan version. The soup may be made with chicken broth, veggie broth, water or a combination. And the veggies? Well, that’s up to you.

In my case, what I had on hand was red onion, garlic, zucchini, finocchio and carrots. Other options include spinach, potato, celery, leeks, butternut, peas, green beans and the list goes on. The split peas add both substance and texture. And the fresh basil adds that little je ne sais quoi that gives this healthy, earthy soup its punch.

Minestrone has been around in one form or another since long before Caesar conquered Gaul. It began as a peasant soup, sans tomatoes, and has evolved over the centuries as it moved up the Mediterranean coast. Cooks in Genoa innovated by stirring pesto into the soup. In Provence, pistou — the local version of pesto, sans pine nuts — is used instead.

In my version, the basil is snipped over the soup just before serving — no need to make a separate sauce. Preparation is relatively quick. This is an advantage given the kind of heat wave we’ve been having here in Paris — the weather has had me heading for the swimming pool instead of the kitchen. The good news is that this soup may be made in advance, i.e. in the morning before it gets hot, and refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it.

Happy cooking.

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Pêches au vin au romarin

A bowl of sliced peaches poached in rosé wine with rosemary makes a light and refreshing dessert for hot summer evenings. You can serve the peaches on their own, as I prefer, or take a page from my daughter’s book and serve them over a luxuriously rich burrata. The recipe is simple — the peaches are slipped out of their skins, sliced and poached in a syrup flavored with the rosé and rosemary. A dash of freshly ground black pepper adds bite.

Pêches au vin au romarin / Peaches poached in wine and rosemary

I dreamed up this recipe in late July, shortly before leaving for 10 days in England — more on that later — but, as sometimes happens, the photo didn’t turn out well. So I put it on hold until I could make it again. This time I also used a different kind of peach. Here in France, peaches come in several varieties — round (pêches rondes) or flat (pêches plates), with flesh that is either peach-colored or white. The flat ones look like somebody stepped on them — they’re as wide as the round ones but only about an inch (2.5 cm) high.

I used flat white peaches the first time I made this recipe, with less than spectacular results. The slices came out more like small wedges due to the shape of the fruit, and the color of the peaches in wine was less beautiful than the second time, when I used round peach-colored fruit. So I’d recommend the second version.

And now to England, where I visited friends in Surrey and London and had various misadventures along the way, including 10 straight days of rain. Oh well. No one goes to England for the weather but rather for its charm, its theater and the British sense of humor (humour). And sometimes also for the food. I had a couple of truly spectacular meals and have brought home two recipes that I hope to share with you in future posts.

The first was at a country inn set in beautiful grounds. It was too wet to eat outside, so we perused the menu concocted by the inn’s very creative chef in a cozy room next to the very lively bar. My lunch companion and I both chose as a main course a risotto of mint and peas with watercress, fresh basil and parmesan. It was to die for. When the rain stopped and we went outside for coffee we crossed paths with the chef, who was kind enough to share the recipe. I hope to try it out at home soon.

The second was at a small, Spanish-themed restaurant in Covent Garden where the pre-theater menu included a dish of black rice with small bits of octopus and baby squid, and dots of aïoli flavored with red pimento peppers. Absolutely fabulous. That time I did not talk to the chef but will phone up one of these days to ask, among other things, whether he/she used black rice (less likely) or turned white rice black with squid ink (more likely). Once I’ve tried it out, I’ll let you know.

I like picking up new recipes when on the road. It happens less often here in Paris as I go out less often, mainly because restaurants have become very pricy and the food is often less good than what you could make at home. Which is why, for the foreseeable, I’ll continue to regale you with stories about my adventures as an everyday French chef.

Happy cooking.

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Boulettes de poulet colombo

Colombo, a spice mix widely used in the French Caribbean, gives its name to this dish of spicy chicken balls in a coconut-curry sauce. The dish is generally served over rice to temper its heat. Start off the meal with ti punch, a cocktail of rum and lime, and if you’re feeling ambitious you could bring out a platter of acras de morue (spicy cod fritters). Serve an avocado-tomato-cilantro salad alongside, and you’ll feel those trade winds blowing.

Boulettes de poulet colombo / French Caribbean chicken balls

The words ‘French cuisine’ tend to evoke classic dishes such as coq au vin, cheese soufflé and boeuf bourgignon. Much less often do people associate French cooking with the cuisine of France’s farflung overseas states (départements), like the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies. Their distinctive cuisine includes dishes like stuffed crab, fried plantain and le féroce, a fiery Creole take on guacamole made of avocado mashed with salt cod and cassava flour, as well as the cod fritters mentioned above.

Another classic dish of those islands is le colombo, which comes in many forms: with chicken, pork, fish or lobster, and goat is popular, too. Coconut milk, lime juice, green onion and hot red pepper (scotch bonnet or bird’s eye) are often involved. The essential ingredient, though, is the colombo spice mix, a milder version of curry powder that also includes Caribbean flavors like allspice. While colombo powder is widely available in France, it may be impossible to find elsewhere. But not to worry — you can mix it yourself.

As its name implies, the colombo spice mix has roots in Sri Lanka and its main city, Colombo. It evolved from spices that were brought to the Caribbean by Indian and Sri Lankan laborers who were sent to work on the islands by the British and the French during a less than glorious chapter of colonial times. From there it made its way back to France, where it is used in various adaptations of Caribbean and Indian cuisine.

Colombo with chicken balls is both easy and fun to make. You first chop skinless chicken breasts in a food processor with onion, garlic, cilantro, hot pepper, lime juice, salt and pepper. You then shape the mixture into balls and sauté them with the colombo spice mix, coconut milk, more lime juice and a little sugar. This process is even more fun if you have a glass of ti punch handy.

Happy cooking.

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