Pommes au four

One of the delights of autumn is the baked apple — pomme au four in French. Served with cream or without, it’s a classic dessert that’s both healthy and easy to make. But is it so totally basic that it doesn’t belong on a French cooking blog? I thought it over, called a couple of friends and, with their hearty encouragement, decided to go for it. I’ve been wanting to add pommes au four to the desserts on this site for a very long time. Et voilà.

Pommes au four / Baked apples

The impulse behind this week’s recipe was a recent visit to my cottage in Burgundy, where apples are particularly abundant this year. They were falling off the trees, in many varieties. However, as the summer was very hot and very dry, they were smaller than usual. Although in the past I’ve tended to use large apples for this dessert, I decided to give it a try with the small ones, serving two or three per portion, as shown above and, with caramelized sauce but no cream, here.

There were a few big apples left on another tree, however, and I gave that a try also. The first one I baked exploded (i.e. its skin popped off) — see the recipe page for a photo. When I tried again, I took care to score the apple skin before baking, and it turned out perfectly, shown here with a dollop of crème fraîche.

The key to success with this recipe is of course the apples, which should be firm and slightly tart. Choose an heirloom variety if at all possible. As for the other ingredients, you’ll get best results if you use raw cane sugar (demerara or cassonnade), unsalted butter and the finest crème fraîche you can find. If crème fraîche is not available where you live, choose a high-quality heavy cream. And…

Happy cooking.

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Lentilles épicées aux oignons

The humble lentil comes into its own in this simple, earthy dish flavored with gently sautéd onions, ground spices and fresh herbs. Lentils prepared in this way can be served as a flavor-packed side dish with meat, poultry or fish, or as part of a vegetarian meal. I served the dish recently with grilled guinea hen with walnut sauce, with a spinach salad alongside, and my guests were very happy. The full meal, with recipes, is described below.

Lentilles épicées aux oignons / Spicy lentils with onions

Lentils have been part of the Mediterranean diet since prehistoric times, when farming was first getting started. That dates back about 12,000 years… The variety used most often in French cuisine is the small green lentil, raised on the volcanic soil of the Auvergne region. Blonde lentils, used in today’s recipe, fell out of favor in France for a time but are now being grown again and are making their way onto the menus of celebrated chefs.

I discovered this dish via a Paris friend who enjoys Mediterranean/Middle Eastern flavors and often serves it alongside rich stews. Spicy lentils go equally well with roasted or grilled meat or poultry, and with fish prepared in any style. And this nutrient-packed dish is perfect for vegetarians and vegans. It could be served in this season, for example, with rosemary potatoes, sweet potato purée, wild rice and a beet and walnut salad.

If you’d like to replicate the meal I served my guests, we started with smoked salmon and a mushroom salad with cream and herbs. A version of the main course described above, using chicken instead of guinea fowl, can be found here. The salad combined baby spinach leaves with a balsamic vinaigrette and a finely-chopped clove of garlic. The lentils completed the plate. We followed up with an assortment of cheeses and some fresh figs.

Happy cooking.

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Tartare de thon sur riz noir

Fusion is hot in Paris at the moment, with Asian, African and Latin American-inspired dishes popping up on menus created by French chefs at trendy bistros. And among the popular dishes, raw fish — served as tataki, ceviche or simply tartare — might well top the list. In this version, raw tuna is marinated in a mixture of Asian flavors and set atop a bed of black rice, another new-ish addition to the Parisian culinary repertoire.

Tartare de thon sur riz noir / Tuna tartare on black rice

I was inspired to make this after dining at Le Desnoyez, a moderately priced bistro in the increasingly hip Belleville neighborhood. The chef, formerly a lawyer, creates a new menu every night. Everything is beautifully presented and, in my view, fabulously delicious. The tartare he made on the night I was there featured black rice topped by mulet noir, a variety of mullet that can be served raw. I was blown away not just by the fish but by the black rice, which I had never encountered before. Its nutty flavor married sublimely with the tartare. I phoned up to ask for the recipe, but the chef wasn’t there. So I decided to wing it.

But before I got around to attempting to replicate that dish, I was treated to dinner at another, pricier restaurant, Le Comptoir du Relais, where a ceviche of mulet noir was the first course of a five-course, fixed menu (no choice). The fish, mixed with tiny bits of Granny Smith apples, avocado, celery and cucumber juice (!), was served in a shallow bowl with a smear of tapenade alongside, as shown in the photo snapped by my friends.

As creativity seems to be the name of the game here, I decided to go with a black rice version but to top it with tuna instead of mullet, mainly for reasons of availability. Black rice is produced across Asia and in Italy, and I was lucky enough to find some at a gourmet store across the street. An online search showed that it can also easily be ordered via the web. I picked up the tuna at an outdoor market and made the dish the same day.

So what about preparation? The marinade combines sesame oil, soy sauce, onion, ginger and lime zest and can be made in less than five minutes. The tuna simply needs to be cubed. While the fish is marinating, you cook the rice, and when it’s done you add a little sauce to it, too. Assembly involves piling the fish on the rice and topping it all with fresh cilantro. As this dish was an experiment, I cannot tell you how pleased I was when my dinner guest went into ecstasy as she tried it. I hope you will enjoy it too. And…

Happy cooking.

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Poires au parmesan en salade

Fruit became a major issue this summer down in Burgundy, where a great year for fruit of all kinds — cherries, plums, apples and pears — turned my garden into a paradise for fruit-loving wildlife of the alarming variety (more on that later). Now that I’m back in Paris, where I can safely gather fruit from the market, I decide to try my hand at a salad featuring pears topped with parmesan and roasted to mouth-watering succulence.

Poires au parmesan en salade / Salad of pears roasted with parmesan

Preparation is very simple. You quarter the pears and (ahem) pare them, place them in a baking dish, top with grated parmesan and bake for about half an hour. When they’re golden brown and still warm, you place them on a bed of greens dressed with garlic-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Simple, but…

In the country it was impossible to gather the hundreds of pears falling off the tree in the back yard due to the profusion of hornets and wasps buzzing around them. Now before you start thinking I’m some kind of sissy, allow me to describe a French hornet. It is very different from the frightening elongated variety we sometimes saw during my childhood back in Wisconsin — in that it’s even more terrifying. Picture a buzzing yellow-and-black striped poisonous flying object about the size of a woman’s baby finger, or even thicker.

When I first bought my cottage in Burgundy, I was told by the neighbors that one sting of a hornet was enough to kill a horse. In previous years, you’d see one every now and again, but they didn’t come close to the house. This year, they were everywhere, particularly under the pear tree and feasting on the many apples that fell to the ground early due to the summer heat wave here, right in front of our front door. And, yes, they came into the house — until I got the bright idea of keeping all the doors and windows closed, never mind that it was a beautiful sunny day. (Also unlike my childhood, France does not believe in screens over windows.) Wasps were also out in force, and in fact they still are — even in Paris, where they’ve made outdoor café lunching into a dangerous sport.

What Paris doesn’t have is the small creature called the lérot, a cousin of the dormouse that thrives on fruit. I discovered the lérot my first year down in Burgundy. Incredibly cute, with a black mask over its eyes and a long, tufted tail, it would run along the branches of the plums trees out in back, happily eating its fill. I happily watched. I was less happy when I discovered that the lérot likes to come indoors at night. Not just one — the whole family. I could hear them partying in the attic. Was I imagining things? To prove I wasn’t dreaming, they left a trail of droppings behind them.

This year a veritable army of lérots invaded the garden, chirping to each other from the fruit trees. I won’t mention what they did inside the house. And it wasn’t just my place. The whole area is infested, as a friendly chap at the garden store informed me when I asked what could be done about it. Nothing much, apparently.

A country friend blamed the population explosion of rodents and stinging insects on the weather — a very cold winter, a very wet spring and a heat wave that started in May. Whether or not this is true, I was very happy to leave the wildlife behind this week and come back to Paris, where my kitchen is critter free. As we head into autumn, I’m looking forward to creating many new dishes to share with you over the months ahead.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 3. Salads | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Assiette de fromages

Cheese stands as a course of its own in France — and why not, in a country with more than 400 varieties to choose from? It is usually presented between the main course and fruit or dessert, with the number of cheeses ranging from one to many depending on the occasion and the number of people at the table. But which cheeses to choose and how to present them? A reader wrote in to ask this question. The subject is vast. Here goes.

Assiette de fromages / Assorted cheeses

The first point is that, in a proper French meal, cheese is a must. You can’t skip it, as French friends tartly remarked one year at an American Thanksgiving dinner in Paris where the co-hostess and I had presumed that no one would have room for cheese, given the bounteous nature of the meal. We were taken to task and have not repeated the mistake. Is this to say that I serve cheese at every meal? Absolutely not! But when guests are present — and unless it is a meal where cheese would be inappropriate, like Vietnamese food — I prefer to err on the side of caution and bring out the cheese.

When I first came to France in 1969, I spent several weeks as a lodger with a family in Avignon while on a summer study program. This was my introduction to French cheese. It was served twice a day, at lunch and dinner, almost always accompanied by fresh fruit. Sometimes a single cheese was brought out, and sometimes an assortment, served on a simple plate, a board or a platter. The variety was astounding.

With so many cheeses to choose from, where to begin? Cheeses are seasonal, varying according to the time of year when the milk is at its best and the amount of time needed for the cheese to mature. Cheeses at their best in spring include all types of chèvre (goat cheese, seen at right) and soft cheeses like Camembert, Brie and Epoisses. Cheeses that take a bit longer to mature, like Reblochon or Saint-Nectaire, come into their prime in summer. Autumn is the time to choose cheeses that have acquired character through longer maturation, like Roquefort, Ossau-Iraty (a hard Basque cheese made from ewe’s milk), Maroilles or Livarot. Winter is when cheeses needing the longest maturation come into their own: Comté and Beaufort, Cantal and Laguiole, and the unmatchable Mont d’Or, a meltingly delicious cheese eaten out of its round wooden box with a spoon.

Now the next question: How to compose your assortment? If you’ll be serving a considerable number of cheeses, as shown in the platter above, it’s best to present a wide variety — guests can each taste a couple of their favorites. The platter shows, going around the rim from top right, Chaource, Pont l’Evêque, Roquefort and Comté, and in the center Pouligny-Saint-Pierre. This assortment has three cheeses made of cow’s milk. The Roquefort is made of ewe’s milk and the Pouligny-Saint-Pierre is a chèvre.

Harmony becomes more important when assembling a cheese plate for fewer people. As I’m partial to goat cheese, sometimes I’ll compose a plate with two or more types of chèvre, as seen at left. The plate includes Pouligny-Saint-Pierre (from south of the Loire) and two Rocamadours (from the Périgord). Sometimes I’ll go regional, selecting cheeses from, say, the rugged Auvergne region of south central France. The board at right includes Laguiole and Fourme d’Ambert, both made from cow’s milk. By the way, since blue cheeses, including Roquefort, are not to everyone’s taste, I usually include at least one non-blue cheese in the assortment. (An excellent site for taking a look at French cheeses is Chez Loulou.)

The cheese should be served at room temperature, which means taking it out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to bring it to the table. Much more could be said on the subject, such as how to cut the cheese (a conundrum even for the French), whether to bring it to the table still bearing its label (don’t), and what kind of cheese to choose if you’re not in France. I have touched on this here, and await any further questions.

Now then — getting back to France’s many types of cheese. The number has risen since President Charles de Gaulle famously said, ‘How can you hope to govern a country that has 258 varieties of cheese?’ According to the French dairy producers’ site, France today counts at least 1,200 varieties of cheese, of which 46 bear the label Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which attests that they come from a specific region and are made according to traditional methods. But they go on to say that the number could range up to 1,800. Which means that you could try one a day for nearly five years without repeating yourself…

Happy eating!

The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation for the next few weeks. Here’s wishing you all a very pleasant summer.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Tarama

I first discovered tarama in France, where it has been popular as a starter for decades or possibly longer. It is traditionally made from bottarga — cured and salted roe that has been pressed and sealed in wax. But, as I learned when shopping for this blog post, it is more often made these days with fresh salted roe, which is a fraction of the cost of the cured variety. The other ingredients are oil, bread, milk and lemon juice, and preparation is easy.

Tarama / Tarama

Tarama, aka taramosalata, originally hails from Greece, but these days it is available and appreciated around the world. Commercial varieties are generally quite pink due to the addition of red food coloring, while the homemade version ranges from pale pink to golden yellow depending on the type of oil used.

I decided to experiment for this post and bought both kinds of roe — fresh and cured. The fresh roe cost 2.80 euros for 100 grams (about 1/4 pound), while the bottarga cost 14.50 euros for the same quantity. I also experimented by using sunflower oil with the fresh roe and a half-and-half mixture of sunflower and olive oil with the bottarga. You can see the results in this photo.

I took the two types of tarama produced by this experiment to a dinner at a friend’s house for a blind tasting (I didn’t identify which type of roe was used). The result was three votes in favor of the fresh roe version, and one vote for the one using bottarga. Personally, I found the bottarga version to be more delicate, but unfortunately the flavor was somewhat overwhelmed by the olive oil. From now on, I will use fresh roe and a neutral oil.

But this is for reasons of economy rather than culinary merit. Bottarga (poutargue in French) is rightly considered a delicacy throughout the Mediterranean. In France it hails from Martigues, near Marseille, and is typically made from gray mullet roe. Bottarga is popular in pasta dishes in Italy, while elsewhere it served with toast or flatbread. It has begun appearing in sophisticated starters in Paris bistros — for example, a fabulous dish of black rice with cubed raw fish topped with poutargue petals at Le Denoyez, in Belleville.

When I went shopping for bottarga, the sales clerk at Les Cyclades, a Greek food shop down the street from me, told me that shoppers wanting to make their own tarama mainly use fresh salted cod roe these days, while he mainly sells poutargue to the local Jewish community to be served finely sliced as a delicacy over the Sabbath.

Tarama was traditionally prepared using a mortar and pestle, but now it can be whipped up in a blender in a matter of minutes. The recipe is the same whether you use bottarga or fresh roe: After briefly soaking the bread in milk, you mix all of the ingredients in the blender. Et voilà. Some recipes call for the addition of onion or garlic, but I have never encountered this in France.

I learned to make tarama nearly 40 years ago during my brief incarnation as a chef at a small Paris bistro. Preparing it again for this post has been a revelation — it’s laughably easy, far superior to the commercial variety, and now, thanks to the fresh roe, remarkably inexpensive. I suggest you give it a try.

Happy cooking.

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Tarte aux fraises

It’s that strawberry time of year. So when friends were coming to dinner the other night I couldn’t resist the temptation to make a strawberry tart. This involves a little work, but the results are well worth it. And the assembly is fun. The strawberries are placed in concentric circles on layer of French pastry cream that you’ve spread over a delectably crumbly, pre-baked sweet tart shell. A bright red glaze produces the brilliant sheen. Sweet and fresh.

Tarte aux fraises / Strawberry tart

Making the sweet pastry, or pâte sablée, is child’s play once you get the hang of it. You mix together softened butter, an egg yolk and sugar, and then add flour until it holds together. When the dough is ready, you simply pat it into your tart pan — no need to roll it out. In other words, a child could do it (or be your kitchen helper).

Here in France many varieties of strawberry are available — gariguette, ciflorette, mara des bois, etc. — and opinions differ as to which is the best. Personally, I don’t think it matters a lot which kind of strawberries you use in this tart. They just need to be ripe and sweet. If you can get away with it, taste one at the market or supermarket to make sure.

A French strawberry tart is guaranteed to produce applause when you bring it out at the end of a festive lunch or dinner. It is also great at teatime. But don’t delay — we are already entering into cherry season over here, and the height of strawberry season will soon pass.

Happy cooking.

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Assiette saumon macédoine

I’ve been serving a medley of seasonal vegetables this spring — asparagus, young carrots, peas and red spring onion — and wanted to try it out in a salad version. So here it is, bathed in lemony homemade mayonnaise and served alongside steamed salmon on a bed of tender greens. The veggie combination is a fresh take on macédoine, a classic French dish of chopped vegetables in mayo that today feels decidedly old-fashioned.

Assiette saumon macédoine / Salad of salmon and spring vegetables

Macédoine has an interesting story. It is named after the Balkan region of Macedonia, which once covered a large swath of territory. The mixture of veggies is said to recall the mixture of populations that shared the region, and indeed an ethnic map of the area from the 19th century is a mosaic of different colors. Amusingly, in the Balkans today, the dish is known as salade française (French salad), while in other parts of Europe it is called salade russe (Russian salad). But when I was living in Russia, chopped veggies in mayo was a dish known simply as maïonez (a catered version of which once brought down the entire newsroom of The Moscow Times when the mayonnaise had gone bad).

I was curious about the difference, if any, between macédoine and salade russe, and looked into the matter. It turns out that a true Russian version is more complex due to the addition of chopped pickles, hard-boiled eggs and one or more types of meat or sausage to the basic mixture of veggies and mayonnaise. It is said to have been invented by Lucien Olivier, a Belgian chef who worked at a fashionable Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. (A version of the dish was already popular in Belgium at the time, so whether he actually invented it is open to question.) The dish became known as salat Olivier — until the chef’s assistant ran off to another restaurant and renamed the salad Stolichy (for the capital city, even though Russia’s capital was actually Saint Petersburg at the time).

Those two salads still exist in Russia, and have given rise to multiple foreign variations. A Swiss chef, Joseph Favre, created a gourmet version by adding chicken, partridge or grouse, ham, roast beef and anchovy fillets to the veggies and mayo. A Spanish version includes tuna, roasted red pepper and green olives. In Spain, by the way, the name ensaladilla rusa was banned during the Franco years, with the dish rechristened as ensaladilla nacional. Other countries that wanted no mention of Russia in their culinary repertoire were Romania and Moldavia, where it was called salata de boeuf, or beef salad.

Beef salad? We’ve strayed from the recipe in this post, which has no meat, eggs, pickles or olives and in fact is far lighter than the French macédoine of yore. When I first arrived in Paris, a scoop of inspid canned veggies drowned in thick mayo was commonly seen as a starter in unpretentious bistros. But thankfully French cuisine has evolved since then.

Happy cooking.

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

Soupe pho au boeuf

Pho, the remarkably fragrant, herb-topped Vietnamese beef and noodle soup,  is ubiquitous in Paris. I never considered preparing it at home until a recent day when my daughter asked me to make it for dinner. As one who enjoys a challenge, I looked into the matter and informed her that we could have it the next day — as preparing the broth for pho takes several hours. I went ahead and made the soup, with moderate success, then consulted an expert.

Soupe pho au boeuf / Vietnamese beef-noodle soup

I made it a second time, and this time everyone at the table proclaimed that the balance of tastes was just right. The broth, perfumed with many spices, was subtler and slightly sweeter. Each mouthful produced an explosion of flavor. What had changed?

My expert was Martin Charmoz, owner of Be Bo Bun, a casual Vietnamese restaurant around the corner from me. A French devotee of Vietnamese food, he makes a delicious pho and was happy to give me some hints. It turned out that I had omitted a key ingredient, lemongrass, and had added others in the wrong order. I had also gone too quickly. ‘Pho is a Paris institution,’ Martin said. ‘But making it takes time.’

This is true. The broth needs to simmer for at least three hours — they cook it for ten hours at Be Bo Bun — and assembling the soup is a bit of a production, not your usual Everyday French Chef-style fare. However, the results are so spectacular that it’s worth the time.

And now for some lore. Pho, written phở bò in Vietnamese, is said to have emerged in northern Vietnam during the French colonial period. Backing up this thesis is the notion that pho’s name is linked to the French dish pot-au-feu, in which beef is boiled with vegetables to produce a tasty broth. And indeed, pho is pronounced like the French word feu — to say it in English, follow the ‘f’ sound with the ‘u’ sound from ‘put’. However, a competing thesis suggests that pho derives from a the soup version of a southern Chinese dish, Cantonese beef chow fun. For an engaging discussion of pho’s origins, click here.

With its huge Vietnamese population, Paris boasts a wealth of restaurants that serve pho, as do many cities in the United States and elsewhere. So why bother making it at home? I could argue that the the delightful aroma wafting from you kitchen as the broth simmers justifies the time involved. Or that the pleasure of bringing a healthy, flavor-packed meal to the table makes it worth the effort. But there’s a simpler reason. In a word, it’s fun.

Happy cooking.

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Omelette aux asperges et parmesan

The French love affair with asparagus and eggs blooms every spring, when the spears — green, white or violet — are served bathed in luscious hollandaise sauce. This year I decided to try giving asparagus a starring role in an omelet, and this, too, proved to be a happy marriage of flavors, enhanced by tangy parmesan. As preparation takes less than 10 minutes, it’s an easy lunch dish that is both elegant and satisfying.

Omelette aux asperges et parmesan / Asparagus-parmesan omelet

Green asparagus is best for this omelet for reasons both esthetic (the color is beautiful against the eggs) and practical (you don’t have to peel the spears). I would not have been able to produce such an omelet when I arrived in France more than 40 years ago. At the time, only white asparagus was available. I learned to love it, but preparing it is a chore.

White asparagus is white because it is grown underground, like Belgian endive. The spears tend to be quite thick with a tough peel that must be removed. The flavor is reputed here to be more delicate than that of green asparagus, although I don’t find that to be the case.

Violet asparagus is seen here more rarely. It, too, is grown underground, but the heads of the spears are allowed into the light, which gives them their purple color. Why they don’t turn green instead, I don’t know.

Happily for lovers of green asparagus, it is now widely available in France and in fact begins appearing as early as March, imported from Spain. If you are lucky enough to live in a region where wild asparagus is available, by all means use it. (As it tends to be quite thin, you will need more spears per omelet.)

An asparagus-parmesan omelet can be the centerpiece of lunch or a light supper, accompanied by a green salad and followed by cheese and/or fruit. It can also be served as a starter at dinnertime. As for wine, I’d suggest a fruity red to accompany this omelet, for example a Beaujolais or a Chinon.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4. Omelets, Soufflés, Quiche | 2 Comments