Gaspacho

Sumer is icumen in… Yes, summer’s on its way, and with it gazpacho season. This flavor-packed chilled soup, which arrived in France from Spain, has many variants — including in spelling and pronunciation. The standard ingredients are tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, dried bread, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. My brother’s very excellent Californian version also includes spices: cumin, cinnamon and cayenne.

Gaspacho / Gazpacho

Of course it’s best to wait for red, ripe tomatoes before embarking on gazpacho. They’re already on the market here in Paris, imported from Italy and Spain. And we’ve been having a heat wave. So I made some the other day — very simple, providing you have a blender — and my lunch guests couldn’t have been more delighted. As garnish I added small cubes of cuke, tomato and pepper, along with little croutons and a swirl of balsamic.

I was curious, however, to know why ‘gazpacho’ is spelled ‘gaspacho’ in French. According to Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique, the dish originated in Seville, the capital of Andalusia (spelled Andalucia in Spanish, Andalousie in French). In most countries it retains the Spanish spelling, with a ‘z’, but in Spain this ‘z’ is not pronounced as a ‘z’. ‘Gazpacho’ is spoken, lispingly, as gath-PA-cho in most of Spain, and as gass-PA-cho in the south, including Seville. In France it retains the ‘s’ sound.

Research into the French spelling turned up nothing conclusive, so I will offer an explanation: a ‘z’ would change the pronunciation. The French word for natural gas, for example, is ‘gaz’, pronounced GAHZ. To retain the ‘s’ sound, the French had to change the spelling when the soup crossed the Pyrenees. This being France, the soup is of course pronounced differently anyway, with the accent on the last syllable: gass-pa-CHO.

From a cook’s point of view, this is all academic. What matters is the sublime mixture of flavors in this soup, which has been adapted to culinary styles around the world. I first made gazpacho when working as a substitute chef at Moosewood, an American pioneer in healthy natural cuisine. This was in the ’70s in Ithaca, New York, and gazpacho was already part of the American culinary repertoire.

Upon moving to Paris, I was delighted to find that gazpacho was popular here, too. French recipes tend to stick close to the Spanish original, as does the one in this post.

I first tasted my brother’s version a few summers back when we visited the California ranch of friends of his. It was a sunny, hot, lazy day, my daughter and I were in the pool, Bruce disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with beautiful soup — spicy and topped with avocado bits. I’ve included his version in the recipe.

Bruce is also responsible for me starting this post with a phrase from a medieval English round known as the ‘Cuckoo Song’. When very young, he made a water painting of a singing cuckoo with that phrase across the top. It was so lovely that my mother framed and hung it. Little did she know that her number one son would grow up to be an artist.

So with summer a-comin’ in, and the cuckoo starting to sing (and with my apologies for the mixed metaphor), go gather ye tomatoes while ye may, for gazpacho season is upon us.

Happy cooking.

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Orecchiette aux petits pois et jambon de pays

One of the pleasures of spring is fresh peas, and one of my favorite ways to serve them is in pasta with dry-cured ham and cream. The flavors marry delightfully, and the dish takes only moments to prepare. The only problem this spring, with farmers markets closed in France, has been getting hold of the peas. I found some the other day at an improvised veggie stand set up by chef Rodolphe Paquin of Le Repaire de Cartouche.

Orecchiette aux petits pois et jambon de pays / Pasta with peas and country ham

My pasta of choice for this dish is orecchiette — ‘little ears’ — which cup nicely around the peas. But you can use any pasta you have on hand — penne, fusilli, farfale, conchiglie, pipe rigate, etc. For the ham, I prefer a dry-cured variety, such as proscuitto or jambon de Bayonne. Other recipes call for cubed baked ham. Choose whichever you like.

Preparation takes less than half an hour if you start with peas in the pod, and even less if you use frozen peas. You can put a pot of water on to boil while you’re shelling the peas. When the water boils, add the pasta, slice up the ham, grate some parmesan and, just before the pasta is ready, throw in the peas. After draining the pasta and peas, you heat the cream to bubbling. Then everything is combined. Simplissimo!

Back to Rodolphe Paquin, a genial fellow and one of my favorite chefs (I interviewed him a few years back — you can read the interview here). Like every restaurateur in France, he had to close eight weeks ago when the lockdown started, taking a hit to his bottom line. But restaurants are allowed to sell food for take-out or home delivery. Monsieur Paquin is currently offering a three-course take-out menu at lunchtime — his fresh pea soup is a knock-out — and also began selling top-quality produce that he receives from his supplier.

The back-door veggie stand at Le Repaire de Cartouche is as magnificent as a painting. I neglected to take a photo the other day, which I regret. Monsieur Paquin proudly presides over rosy white-tipped radishes, asparagus spears in shades of green, white and violet, spring carrots bunched with their fronds attached, perky heads of lettuce, lush purple garlic, spring onions, plump strawberries, sturdy rhubarb stalks — he’s got it all. Also on offer are his homemade terrines, goat cheeses, thick country bread and fresh flowers. A couple weeks ago he had lilacs. Now the peonies have arrived.

Of course, it isn’t cheap, and I am hugely looking forward to the reopening of the markets next week. The French lockdown ends (partially) on Monday, with most stores allowed to reopen as well as the markets. But restaurants and cafés will stay shuttered until early June, if not longer. Beaches are also still off limits, and we can travel no farther than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from home. Happily, no one has declared a ban on home cooking.

So gather your ingredients, chill a bottle of crisp rosé and liven up your spring by trying this recipe of pasta with fresh peas. Guaranteed to cheer you up.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Schaum torte aux fraises

This delightful spring dessert of meringues topped with strawberries and whipped cream is, oddly, unknown in France, at least not as schaum torte. The recipe stems from my childhood in Wisconsin, where schaum torte (‘foam cake’) was popularized by the large German-descended community. My mother sometimes made it with wild strawberries gathered by me and my brother in the fields around our house. Does this sound delicious? It is.

Schaum torte aux fraises / Strawberry schaum torte

When setting out to write this post, I searched the web for a French recipe for schaum torte — in vain. This was indeed a surprise. Why no schaum torte in a country where cooking is an art form and where dishes from around our globalized planet appear regularly on bistro menus? I did find a recipe called ‘pavlova aux fraises’ — but schaum torte predates the meringue-and-fruit pavlova, which was created in New Zealand after the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova toured there in the 1920s. The schaum torte had reached Wisconsin by the 1870s, brought by German immigrants, according to The Joy of Cooking.

So I am very happy to be able to add this strawberry confection as my little contribution to the French culinary repertoire. It’s simple to make, and fun. You whip egg whites and sugar until stiff, bake at a low temperature, slice a few strawberries, whip some cream — and voilà. I made a batch the other day to take our minds off the confinement, and the four filled meringues disappeared in two minutes.

Speaking of the confinement, we are now in Week 6 here in France and it’s starting to feel a bit long. We’re allowed out for an hour a day, to walk or shop for food, and we’ve been blessed by fine weather. Concerned to avoid a resurgence of the virus, the government recently tighted the rules, banning jogging during daytime hours, and the police have handed out more than 800,000 fines to people deemed to be violating the confinement orders. (At 135 euros per fine, that works out to nearly $120 million for the state treasury.)

I became the recipient of one such fine the other day when I went shopping and, on the way home, sat down on a bench. The three officers who honored me with the fine ignored my protestations that I was resting to catch my breath. ‘Mais non, Madame, they said. ‘You are taking a sunbath.’ As far as I knew, I was not breaking any rules. I had been out less than an hour, was within the allowed radius of 1 kilometer from my home and was bearing a signed and dated authorization form. When they said they’d send the fine by mail, I had to laugh — no mail had been delivered in weeks. But today the fine arrived.

I’m not planning to pay it. In fact, I have already written to contest the fine, which to my mind illustrates an unfortunate excès de zèle (over-enthusiasm) among the police during this difficult period. Numerous others have received unfair fines, like the woman I mentioned in a previous post who got fined for buying a single loaf of bread. Clearly we all want to help prevent the spread of the virus. And we shouldn’t be sanctioned unfairly.

Overall, in my view, the French government has done a good job in a difficult situation. There have been shortages of masks etc. but this is being rectified. Unlike in the States, where millions have lost their jobs and health coverage, France has national health insurance and a social safety net that works. But there have been hiccups. Last week, for example, there was an uproar among France’s large electorate of seniors — nearly 20% of the population is over 65 — when President Macron announced that vulnerable groups including ‘personnes âgées‘ (older people) would be kept indoors when the confinement is lifted for everyone else on May 11. He ultimately came to his senses and relented.

The good news is that the spread of the virus is slowing in France, one of the countries worst hit by the crisis. The bad news is that there may be a second wave. The borders are still closed, and we’ve been warned not to plan to travel abroad this summer. In this situation, we all need cheering up — and strawberry schaum torte just might do the trick.

Happy cooking.

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

Omelette soufflée

Is it an omelet? Is it a soufflé? It’s both! Although more like an airy omelet that rises and browns delightfully in the oven to make a perfect brunch dish. This specialty of Alsace is generally served sweetened with powdered sugar and lemon, with caramelized pear or apple slices, with fresh fruit — or any of the above. Breakfast meats like bacon, ham or sausage also pair nicely.

Omelette soufflée / Omelet soufflé from Alsace

And the beauty of this dish is that it’s incredibly easy to make. Children can do it. Eggs are whisked with flour, milk and a little salt, butter is melted in a soufflé dish or high-sided cake pan, the batter poured in and — presto! — after 2o minutes in the oven, it’s ready. While it is baking, you can sauté some apple or pear slices in butter, adding a little sugar at the end to caramelize.

Creative chefs in Alsace have been known to add kirsch to the omelet, with or without the addition of cherries in brandy. Some recipes call for the addition of strawberries, but their weight would keep the omelet from rising so I wouldn’t recommend it. Other recipes call for the addition of cheese, potatoes, spinach or what have you. Could be delicious, but you would not achieve the airy effect.

I have been enjoying this dish since childhood, thanks to my Grandma Hilda, who passed the recipe along to my mother. Hilda had no Alsatian ancestry as far as I know, but her husband, my Grandpa Herb, did. According to family lore, one of his second cousins, Nettie Harris Hirsch, inherited two pewter plates made in Alsace in the 1700s and inscribed ‘Be Kosher’ in Yiddish.

As it is currently Passover, this particular omelet, which contains flour, cannot be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to keep kosher. But Passover ends on Thursday evening, and in the meantime there’s Easter. So for a fabulous Easter brunch, mix up some mimosas, set them to chill and whip up an omelet soufflé.

Happy cooking!

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Cordon bleu

In these stay-at-home days, comfort food beckons. And this dish of chicken, ham and melted cheese answers the call. It’s fun to make — the whole family can take part. Chicken breasts are butterflied (sliced almost in two horizontally), filled with ham and cheese, folded together, dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, and cooked — sautéed, then baked — to golden perfection.

Cordon bleu / Chicken cordon bleu

A schoolkid’s favorite, chicken cordon bleu can be tweaked for grown-ups by using prosciutto, coppa or bresaola instead of baked ham. Serve the cordon bleu with a salad alongside, and lunch is ready. Or make a meal of it at dinnertime, preceded by a seasonal starter — perhaps an assiette de crudités (French veggie plate) or, soon, asparagus (with hollandaise, parmesan or vinaigrette) — and accompanied by green beans, French style. Strawberries with sugar and/or cream would make a fine dessert. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could try strawberry mousse or berry meringues.

A number of friends have written to me this week to ask about recipes for the many of us who are now confined to our homes, with limited ingredients but plenty of time on our hands to putter in the kitchen. Well, the answer depends not just on taste, but also on who is in your household — just grown-ups, or kids too. Here are some ideas.

If you feel like this lull could be a good time to try your hand at gourmet cooking, why not attempt a cheese soufflé? To branch out, make it with goat cheese or Roquefort. Or you could prepare a dish that takes more time than you generally have available, like boeuf bourguinon, blanquette de veau or coq au vin. These slow-cooked French classics have the advantage, if you make enough, of being even better the second day.

Another approach is the one-pot meal, like poule au pot — a whole chicken boiled with veggies, yielding a rich chicken broth as the first course followed by the chicken and vegetables as the main course. Ditto pot-au-feu, a similar recipe using beef instead of chicken, or potée auvergnate, a hearty soup of winter veggies with bacon and sausages.

Family-friendly favorites that can be served as main dishes or sides include gratins of all sorts — of potatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, leeks or eggplant (aka eggplant parmesan). Baked gnocchi with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil is another crowd pleaser — I made it last night for my daughter and her boyfriend, who is staying with us during the lockdown.

The versatility of the humble potato makes it a great ingredient in this time of limited resources. Have you ever made French fries from scratch? It’s easier than you might think, and the flavor is sublime, bearing no relation to your standard frozen fries. Or you could try raclette — boiled potatoes topped with melted cheese, with cured meats and pickles alongside. Or potato pancakes, rosemary potatoes, smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes with horseradish, French potato salad, potato salad with anchovies, and the list goes on.

Pasta and rice are the staples that have been most coveted in France during the lockdown, and recipes range from the simple to the sophisticated. Some personal favorites are penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts; cheese ravioli with sage; risotto with asparagus and peas; and paella. If fresh ingredients are hard to come by, penne à l’arrabiata or spaghetti with olive oil and garlic are a couple of possibilities.

And what about bread? French TV reported this week that an elderly woman had been fined 135 euros for going out to buy a baguette, the long, narrow loaf that is a symbol of France. I found this particularly shocking. The woman — small, frail and white haired — seemed totally nonplussed, and not surprisingly, as the rules here allow people to shop for basic necessities. Her crime, it seems, had been to go out for a single baguette, and nothing more. The reporter said that the idea was to cut down on trips outdoors, with people expected to buy enough bread to last a few days and freeze what is not used immediately. Sacrilege! People often shop two or three times a day for bread here to make sure their loaves are fresh when brought to the table. What the report didn’t mention was the health risk in buying baguettes — as bakers often use their ungloved hands to slip the bread into a paper wrapper. It actually showed bakers doing this in a a French village, oblivious to the irony as they talked about the risk they were taking by continuing to serve custormers.

I am sufficiently concerned about this bread risk to have started buying packaged pita as a backup, and over the next week or so I’ll be experimenting with different types of pita sandwiches for lunchtime. We tried pita BLTs yesterday — not exactly French, but delicious. Meantime, I’d like to open the site to your suggestions for meals in the time of coronavirus. If you’d like to share an idea, please write to me via the site’s Contact page.

These days, with events intensifying our awareness of how precious life is, we can better appreciate the value of simple things. A good meal is not just a delight to the senses — it’s a blessing. My thoughts go out to all of you with hopes for your good health during these trying times. May you and your loved ones be well.

And happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Gâteau basque

This subtle and elegant cream-filled cake is hard to find outside the French Basque country — an incentive to make it yourself. Even in Paris, it’s rare to come across a pastry shop proposing gâteau basque, which is surprising because bistros around here regularly offer other Basque dishes. Making the cake is a bit of a production — the delicate dough has to chill for a couple of hours, and is then rolled out — but the effort will win you applause.

Gâteau basque/ Basque cake

There are actually two types of gâteau basque. This one is filled with pastry cream lightly flavored with rum and vanilla, while the other is filled with black cherry jam (and purists insist that only Itxassou cherry jam, from the region, may be used). In the first, the pastry is flavored with lemon zest, and in the second with almond extract. The cake is said to have been popularized in the 19th century by a pastry chef from the spa town of Cambo-les-Bains, who used a recipe inherited from her mother. The Basques are so proud of this cake that there is an annual Gâteau basque festival in the town and a Basque cake museum devoted in Sare, a village nestled in the Pyrénées foothills on the border of Spain.

While gâteau basque is not generally on my culinary agenda, I had the occasion to make it recently when one of my cooking students, a delightful woman from Japan, got in touch and asked me to include it in her lesson. I did a practice run ahead of time, and found the assembly to be quite tricky. The dough is beaten, as for a cake, then chilled and rolled, as for a pie. As it’s extemely tender, transferring it to the cake pan can be challenging. On the other hand, making the pastry cream is simple. When the cake has been put together, it gets an egg glaze and then a criss-cross pattern is etched on top with the tines of a fork. Fun! When Keiko and I made it together, it turned out perfectly.

This is a cake for special occasions. If you’d like to create a Basque meal to precede it, you could start with grilled squid with garlic and parsley, and serve Basque chicken with peppers and tomatoes as a main course. The cake may also be served at tea time. As for drinks to go with, unless you’re a Basque purist I’d recommend Champagne.

Happy cooking.

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Coques au satay

This dynamite French-Asian fusion dish of cockles in satay sauce is the creation of John O’Shea, a young British chef at the Paris bistro JJ, which happily for me is located in my building. The menu changes twice a day, according to John’s whim and what’s available at the market. Cockles appear often and, as they’re a personal favorite, I’ve ordered them more than once. Delicious! I asked John for the recipe, which he gladly provided.

Coques au satay / Cockles in satay sauce

Cockles, widely available here, were unknown to me until I moved to  France. I’d heard of them, of course, in the children’s song: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh. They are similar to clams, but smaller and sweeter. If they’re not available in your area, you can substitute very small clams, such as vongole (palourdes in French).

The first step of the recipe is immerse the cockles in cold, salty water to allow them to release any sand inside the shells, draining them and repeating the operation twice more over an hour. Once you’ve done that, preparation takes about ten minutes.

The next step is to prepare the peanut-flavored satay sauce. It is made from Thai green curry paste, coconut milk, lime juice, Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam), sugar, lemongrass, peanut butter and, for the bold, a red bird’s eye pepper. This combination produces the classic taste of Thai cuisine: spicy, sour, salty and sweet.

In the final step, you will cook the cockles in the sauce. This was a revelation. I had imagined that the cockles were cooked separately and added later, but John points out that cooking them in the sauce allows their juices to blend with the satay.

You can serve this creation either as a starter or as a main dish over rice or steamed fish, decorated with fresh cilantro. It marries well with a crisp, chilled rosé.

Happy cooking.

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Fondue savoyarde

What’s not to like about cheese fondue? Over here it evokes memories of ski vacations in the French Alps, where after a day on the slopes it is enjoyed in cozy chalets before a crackling wood fire. But of course fondue has emigrated far from its Alpine home and has been popular elsewhere for decades. It is a convivial dish, and if you happen to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, makes a friendly meal for two, accompanied by a crisp white wine.

Fondue savoyarde / Cheese fondue

A traditional cheese fondue is made with cheeses from the Savoie region of eastern France or neighboring areas. The exceptional flavor of these cheeses comes from the Alpine pastureland on which the cows graze. Beaufort, Abondance, Emmental, Gruyère, Reblochon and Raclette are made in Savoie, while Comté comes from nearby Franche-Comté and Appenzell and other similar cheeses from Switzerland.

These cheeses bear little relation to the bland Swiss cheese I consumed as a child in the States. They range from fruity (Comté) to slightly sweet (Abondance) to pungent (Beaufort), to name the three cheeses I used in the fondue pictured above. You can use a single variety, but making fondue with a combination of three is recommended as this yields a more complex and interesting flavor.

Another question is whether or not to add kirsch to the fondue. It is thought to enhance the flavor of the cheeses, but personally I find it’s not necessary. However, it’s essential to melt the cheese in white wine and flavor it with a little garlic some freshly grated nutmeg. Then all you have to do is to cut up some bread cubes, and voilà — the dish is ready.

Fondue is generally served with a selection of thinly sliced cured ham (proscuitto or speck), cured beef (bresaola or viande des grisons) and hard sausage (saucisson sec, rosette, etc.). In addition to the bread cubes, you can prepare little boiled potatoes for dipping in the cheese. And a green salad is de rigueur (essential) to lighten the meal. You can serve the fondue first, as a starter, or have everything on the table at once.

Happy cooking.

P.S. Followers of this site know that it mainly proposes recipes made the way the French cook at home — the easy way. However, there is a countertrend in Paris bistros now to serve fabulously creative dishes not made the easy way. Would you believe oysters with beet purée and pepper-flavored foam, or tarragon ice cream with a sesame cookie? Check out the latest restaurant review on site Paris Update to get a flavor of what else is cooking over here.

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Salade de haricots rouges aux noix

I first tasted this knock-your-socks-off red-bean-and-walnut salad in Moscow in 1984. Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, and young people from other parts of the empire still flocked to the capital to study or work. A friend introduced me to a Georgian woman who was studying particle physics. When she invited us over for dinner, I had no idea what to expect. Then she produced this fabulous dish. I’ve been making it ever since.

Salade de haricots rouges aux noix / Red bean salad with walnuts

It took a long time for this salad, aka lobio, to make its way to Paris, but we can now enjoy it here in any number of Georgian restaurants. If you’ve never encountered Georgian food, you have a treat in store. The walnut-plus-garlic combination is the basis of many dishes, from chicken with walnut sauce to salads of green beans, beets, spinach, leeks etc. It’s both delicious and healthy, perhaps one of the reasons — along with their love of yogurt and natural wines — that Georgians are among the longest lived people on earth.

You can serve this salad as a starter or as part of a simple or elaborate lunch or dinner. It marries well with grilled meat, poultry or fish, and could also pair nicely in a vegetarian spread with, perhaps, spicy eggplant caviar, goat cheese pastries, herbal tomato salad, pomegranate salad, spinach quiche with pine nuts and parmesan, mesclun, watercress salad, salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets, or a simple green salad, French style (which, to my surprise, remains the most popular recipe on this site). I also serve it (more Soviet influence) paired with smoked salmon or red caviar on buttered toast. Try it and see.

Happy cooking.

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Daube de boeuf

The French tend to rave about daube de boeuf, a flavorful beef stew from Provence, without it being clear exactly why. Like Proust’s madeleine, this dish must evoke memories of childhood. And indeed, daube harks back to a simpler time, when dishes simmered for hours in a pot set over an open fire, their aroma filling the house until the family was seated to enjoy a tender moment of togetherness. But after all, it’s only beef stew — right?

Daube de boeuf / Beef stew, Provence style

Well, not exactly. In this stew, the beef is marinated in red wine overnight together with onions, garlic, thyme, bay, cloves, peppercorns and … red wine vinegar … before simmering for several hours with an ingredient that is not generally found in other stews, but that is the key to success: dried orange peel. It gives the daube an unmatchable flavor. Other ingredients may be included, depending on the cook’s proclivities, from carrots, bacon or tomatoes to black olives, anchovy filets or, in my case, fresh sage.

Daube was traditionally cooked in a daubière, a covered clay pot that sat over the fire, or in a heavy stew pot with a concave lid filled with water to allow gentle cooking of the beef. Recipes were jealously guarded, handed down from generation to generation. There are many variations — some recipes even call for white wine. But the classic is made with a decent bottle of red, preferably a wine from Provence, like a Côtes du Rhone or Côtes du Ventoux, the kind of wine you wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve to guests.

I was inspired to post this recipe by my friend Martine, who made a sumptuous daube de boeuf with carrots for her guests at a dinner the other night. She served the daube with tenderly boiled potatoes. In Provence it is also served with gnocchi or fresh tagliatelle, preceded or followed by a green salad, and accompanied by a more than decent bottle of red. This is a hearty dish that will keep you warm on a cool winter’s night.

Happy cooking.

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