Risotto aux épinards

I discovered spinach risotto many years ago at a dinner party in Venice. Our host, a genial fellow named Giorgio, was chatting me up, so I followed him into the kitchen and watched as he chopped and sautéd and ladled and stirred. Distracted by his charm, I didn’t know what he was making until he brought the dish to the table. ‘Risotto agli spinaci’, he announced with a flourish. One earthy, creamy, tangy mouthful and I was in heaven. Pure bliss.

Risotto aux épinards / Spinach risotto

Was it the ambience that made that evening so special? This was back in 1981 during the Carnevale, a magical time what with mist rising off the canals and masked Venetians saluting each other in the town’s bars and squares. When the faces weren’t masked, they looked straight out of the 16th century portraits in the Accademia. You could turn a corner and hear someone singing an aria through an open window. Nureyev was performing at La Fenice, and with luck you could run into him at a corner cafe. All senses were heightened. So tasting Giorgio’s spectacular risotto only added to my mood of intoxication.

The next morning I phoned him up to ask for the recipe. What was the secret? The ingredients were simple — onion, spinach, rice, wine, broth, butter and parmesan — and yet they combined to produce a sublimely subtle dish. Giorgio said he’d get back to me, but it took him a couple of months to oblige. By that time I was back in Paris and had almost forgotten about risotto. Then a letter arrived in the post.

The letter was divided into sections. Between Part I (‘Political’) and Part IV (‘Personal’) came Part III (‘Recipe for the risotto’). It called for well-cleaned spinach, rice (‘two handfuls per person’) and noted that the risotto must be thick — ‘it’s not a soup, one must be able to eat it with a fork’. I bought the ingredients, came home and made it. Success.

Shortly after receiving Giorgio’s letter, I learned that I have family roots in 16th century Venice, which could help explain why I took such a liking to risotto. It is a signature dish of Venice and comes in many other varieties, one of the best of which is made with the ink of a squid. On this site you can find recipes for risotto with radicchio, asparagus and peas, saffron, morel mushrooms, pumpkin and thyme, lobster and wild mushrooms.

I owe this all to Giorgio. I never saw him again, yet I’ve saved his letter all these years. His closing words were very touching. ‘Needless to say, I’d like to see you,’ he wrote, ‘and wish it could be soon. Who knows? Take care of yourself. Be kissed. Giorgio.’

Happy cooking.

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Choux farcis

The French love stuffed cabbage in winter. They serve it two ways — with meatballs rolled up in individual cabbage leaves and, impressively, as a reconstituted whole cabbage with the stuffing inserted between the leaves. This recipe, which uses the far easier first method, puts a French twist on a dish my grandmother used to serve, with flavors redolent of her Jewish Ukrainian roots.

Choux farcis / Stuffed cabbage rolls

Prepartion takes time, but it’s worth the effort. The first step is blanching the outer leaves of a large head of cabbage. In Eastern Europe, white cabbage is generally used, but the French prefer dark green Savoy cabbage, which has the advantage of being easier to handle. The next step is making meatballs and rolling them up in the blanched leaves. A sauce is then made of the shredded inner leaves of the cabbage, onion, garlic, tomatoes and broth. Red wine vinegar and sugar are added to produce a sweet-and-sour taste. The rolls are cooked in the sauce in two stages, first on the stovetop and then in the oven.

One thing that differentiates this version from more typical French recipes is the use of ground beef on its own rather than a mixture of beef, pork and/or veal. Another is the absence of bacon, which is often used in France to bard individual stuffed cabbage leaves that are then tied up with string. And then there’s the sauce, which in France rarely includes tomato and is never sweet and sour (at least I’ve never encountered it that way).

What makes this recipe more French than my grandmother’s version is the use of herbes de Provence, France’s go-to mixture of dried rosemary, thyme, savory and oregano. Preparation of the sauce is also different, as the veggies are sautéd in olive oil before the cabbage rolls are added. Grandma Anne simply boiled everything all together.

If you’d like to experiement with the whole cabbage version, typical of the rugged Auvergne region of central France, there are two ways to go about it. In the first, large blanched cabbage leaves are used to line a pot. The meat stuffing and more cabbage leaves are then layered in, with the large leaves folded over the top to form a globe. In a more elaborate version, a whole cabbage is boiled and, when cool, the center leaves are removed, the outer leaves are pried apart, the stuffing is inserted and the cabbage is formed back into a globe and tied up with string or crépine, a lacy pork membrane.

Now for a little history. In Ukraine, stuffed cabbage rolls are known as holubtsi, or little doves, because they are thought to resemble birds in a nest. In Yiddish, they are known as holishkes. I never heard this name in my family because my grandparents only spoke Yiddish in front of the kinder when they didn’t want us to understand. But my grandma — who was born in the States in the 1890s but conceived in Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire, before her family departed — would have known them this way.

According to Wikipedia, stuffed cabbage rolls have been part of Jewish cuisine for 2,000 years. Preparation varied according to region. Syrian Jews added cinnamon, while Persian Jews added dill and mint. The dish was often served on Simchat Torah, an early autumn holiday marking the end of the yearlong reading of the Torah scrolls and the start of a new cycle (rolls perhaps because the year was rolling around again?).

But Jewish versions are just one incarnation of a dish that has been served for centuries across much of Europe as well as the Near East and North Africa. Cabbage rolls may be stuffed with rice or another grain, mushrooms, potato, crushed walnuts or eggs, with or without meat. They may be served with sour cream on top, alongside or in the sauce (but not in Jewish families). In the Nordic countries, they are served with lingonberry jam on the side. There are apparently even Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese versions.

In France wine is often included in the sauce for stuffed cabbage rolls, but I prefer my grandmother’s recipe without it. Yet nothing says the dish cannot be accompanied by wine — in fact, in this country, that would be a travesty. I’d recommend a smooth red, for example a Bordeaux such as a Médoc or a Côtes du Rhone. For starters, you could serve beet salad with walnuts, winter salad with walnuts and pears or, if you’re feeling ambitious, homemade gravalax (which needs to be prepared one day in advance). For dessert, I’d suggest pears in red wine and cassis or sliced oranges with star anise.

Happy cooking.

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Crème de la crème, Part II

Winter’s here, bring on the comfort food! This is the second chapter of ‘Crème de la crème’, a seasonal feature marking the tenth anniversary of The Everyday French Chef. On the menu are my favorite winter recipes (not including holiday recipes — if you’re still thinking about what to serve on Christmas or New Year’s, click here). First up, a soup that a Frenchman recently told me was an American invention. Nothing could be more wrong.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée / French onion soup

French onion soup is known over here as une gratinée — because the soup is topped with a bubbly golden crust (gratin) of toast and melted cheese. It’s been around for several hundred years. According to one legend, it was popularized after being served to Stanislas Leszczynski, a former king of Poland and duke of Lorraine, who also happened to be the father-in-law of King Louix XV of France. He liked it so much that he learned the recipe and cooked it himself for the royal couple at Versailles. This was back in the 1700s.

According to the Grand Larousse gastronomique, my go-to book on French culinary history, onion soup served without the cheese hails from Lyon, while the cheesy version is Parisian. It was traditionally served in the wee hours at the huge market at Les Halles and at bistros in Montmartre. Among its other qualities (it’s healthy, inexpensive and easy to make), it was reputed to be the soup favored by drinkers, as the perfume of the onions was strong enough to disguise alcohol breath. This soup crossed the ocean only in the 1960s, when French cuisine became popular in the States. So, no, an American invention it is not.

I love serving French onion soup in winter because it’s one of those dishes that warms the vittles, as we said over there. While it may be served as a first course, it is hearty enough to be a meal on its own, accompanied by a green salad and a bottle of sturdy red. I make it once or twice a year — not because it’s difficult but because there are so many other wonderful cold-weather dishes to choose from.

So now for my list of favorite winter recipes. As fresh fruits and veggies are less plentiful than at other times of the year, these dishes feature root vegetables, shellfish, legumes and other ingredients that come into season in winter. As in my first Crème de la crème post this past autumn, I’ve chosen three dishes from each of the site’s categories — mix and match as you like. You will find some menu suggestions below.

Starters
Assiette d’huîtres / Oyster plate
Blini / Blini with smoked salmon or red caviar
Harengs pommes à l’huile / Herring with potatoes and beets

Soups
Crème de lentilles / Creamy lentil soup
Potée auvergnate / Hearty winter soup from Auvergne
Velouté de brocolis / Broccoli soup

 

Salads
Salade de haricots rouges aux noix / Red bean salad with walnuts
Salade mâche-betterave / Salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets
Salade pommes de terre anchois / Potato-anchovy salad

Eggs
Oeufs au caviar rouge / Eggs topped with red caviar
Omelette bonne femme / Omelet with bacon, potatoes and arugula
Soufflé au roquefort / Roquefort soufflé

 

Savory tarts and sandwiches
Croque-monsieur rustique / Open-faced croque-monsieur
Flamiche / Leek tart from northern France
Tarte à l’oignon rouge / Red onion tart

Fish and shellfish
Coques au satay / Cockles in satay sauce
Brandade de morue / Puréed salt cod and potatoes
Sole meunière / Sole meunière

 

Poultry
Cordon bleu / Chicken cordon bleu
Parmentier de canard / Duck parmentier
Poulet rôti épicé / Roast chicken with spices

Meat dishes
Escalopes de veau à la crème / Veal scallops with cream and mushrooms
Haricot de mouton / French lamb and beans
Steak au poivre / Steak au poivre


Vegetables

Gratin de chou-fleur / Cauliflower gratin
Julienne de champignons / Mushrooms julienne
Légumes d’hiver rôtis / Roasted winter vegetables

Pasta and grains
Boulgour aux oignons rouges / Bulghur with red onion and mint
Pâtes aux moules et pecorino / Pasta with mussels and pecorino
Penne au safran, roquette et noix / Penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts

Desserts
Crème caramel / Crème caramel
Salade d’oranges à la badiane / Sliced oranges with star anise
Tiramisu / Tiramisu

As an everyday French chef, how would I combine these dishes? Here are some examples:

For an everyday lunch, an open-faced croque-monsieur (ham and melted cheese sandwich) with a green salad. For a vegetarian version, French onion soup and flamiche (leek tart). For vegans, broccoli soup and red bean salad with walnuts. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could finish any of these selections with sliced oranges with star anise.

For an everyday dinner, herring with potatoes and beets followed by steak au poivre (steak with crushed black pepper in a cream sauce) or lamb and bean stew. For a vegetarian version, creamy lentil soup followed by cauliflower gratin. For vegans, a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets followed by roasted winter vegetables.

For a weekend dinner, an oyster plate followed by roast chicken and roasted winter veggies, then a green salad, finishing up with tiramisu. For a vegetarian version, a roquefort soufflé followed by mushrooms julienne and a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets, and concluding with crème caramel. You could add a cheese plate to either of these menus before dessert. For vegans, bulghur with red onion and mint, roasted winter veggies, a green salad and, for dessert, sliced oranges with star anise.

This may be the darkest time of the year, but we’ve passed the solstice, the days are already growing longer and as we cast our eyes toward spring I hope that these suggestions will inspire you to spend some happy moments in the kitchen. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season and a sparkling start to 2023. And…

Happy cooking!

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Bûche de Noël chocolat-noisette

It’s no secret that a highlight of French Christmas is the bûche de Noël that crowns a festive meal. What is less well known is that the traditional Yule log cake is rarely — but I mean, really rarely — made at home in France. This is because prettily decorated bûches in all sizes are on offer at every pastry shop in the country during the season. And yet, as I discovered in my kitchen, it’s both possible and amusing to make one yourself.

Bûche de Noël chocolat-noisette / Chocolate-hazelnut Yule log

Not that I’m saying it was easy. It required both patience and a bit of dexterity. But it all paid off when my carefully chosen panel of tasters (my daughter and a few friends) tried the log shown in the photo. The most common comment? ‘More, please!’ Second most common comment? ‘What’s in it?’ (Short answer: It’s a thin hazelnut cake with a tiramisu-style mocha cream filling decorated with dark chocolate icing and hazelnuts.)

Now, before I go on, you should know that bûches de Noël come in an amazing profusion of flavors. Chocolate, coffee and vanilla are common but so, these days, are raspberry, passion fruit, pistachio, mango, chestnut and the list goes one. Pastry shops sell family-sized logs as well as bûchettes (just big enough for one person) and many sizes in between. Frozen bûches are also popular — made of ice cream or sherbet, sometimes with cake involved and sometimes not. Liberties have been taken with the shape. Sometimes the ‘logs’ are actually rectangular. And the decorations vary wildly. Here are some examples from Picard, France’s excellent frozen food chain.

When I set out to make a bûche, my first port of call was a cookbook I’ve had for decades called Faites votre patisserie comme Lenôtre — ‘Make your pastry like Lenôtre’ (Gaston Lenôtre was a famous French pastry chef). Sure enough, M. Lenôtre delivered the goods, proposing a variety of bûches decorated with delicate snowmen and mushrooms made of meringue and leaves made of green almond paste. Very traditional, yet a bit over the top for an everyday French chef. So I turned elsewhere for inspiration.

To tell you the truth, I spent hours searching for a recipe that looked both delicious and easy enough to make in a couple of hours. One that caught my eye was a recipe for a chocolate-hazelnut log by Cyril Lignac, a well-known contemporary chef. But then I read the fine print. His very handsome log was filled with pâte à tartiner, aka Nutella, a sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread loved by schoolchildren and avoided by everyone else. And it was iced with melted milk chocolate mixed with (I’m not kidding) a full cup of sunflower oil! At that point I decided to innovate — and that’s when the fun began.

I made my log on a chilly November morning, not knowing how long it would take. I was prepared to spend the day at it, but in fact the entire process took only two hours. You start by making the filling — a blend of mascarpone, egg yolks, sugar, cocoa, coffee and beaten egg whites. Then you make a thin sheet of hazelnut genoise (I used my oven tray for this). When the cake is done, you cut away the sides to form a clean rectangle, then coat it with the mascarpone filling and roll it up. Next you make the icing — dark chocolate melted with a little butter and cream (no sunflower oil!). The last step is decoration.

I’m posting this recipe well before Christmas to give you time to think it over and gather the ingredients. The good news is that this Yule log can be made in stages over a couple of days, and may be refrigerated for a couple more days before serving, or frozen if you want to get it ready ahead of time. It’s a bit more challenging than most of the recipes on this site. But if you’d like to produce an unforgettable Christmas dessert this year, go for it. And add a couple of sparklers when you bring it to the table. It will knock their socks off.

Happy cooking!

P.S. Planning ahead for Hanukah, Christmas or the New Year? Plenty of suggestions for festive meals with a French touch can be found on the Holiday Menus page.

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Burgers de canard

Duck has always been a big deal in France, culinarily speaking, and what with the popularity of a certain American import it was inevitable that the French would put their own twist on it and create the duck burger. Some recipes use confit de canard, or preserved duck, but most use the magret, or breast. In this one, a magret is chopped by hand, pan-fried or barbecued and topped with caramelized onions in a honey-mustard-thyme sauce.

Burgers de canard / Duck burgers

Hamburgers barely existed in France until 1972, when McDonald’s opened a branch outside Paris. Before then, Wimpy had a few outlets in Paris. I had the dubious pleasure of lunching at one back in 1969. Their hamburger was a barely edible thin leathery patty. But going there was still a kick because with your burger you could enjoy a glass of rosé, something unheard of at hamburger chains in the States. It wasn’t until the arrival of McDonald’s that the French took to burgers, and now they’re everywhere.

You can find the classic American (thick and juicy) beef burger in most Paris bistros these days. A popular French version tops the classic with foie gras. The gourmet chef Yannick Alléno, who boasts three Michelin stars, opened a burger joint with his son that features a veal burger with tarragon butter, parmesan, caramelized onions and basil. We have vegan burgers, bao burgers, Waygu beef burgers, crunchy salmon burgers, etc., generally served with French fries but sweet potato fries are on the rise. For my money, the best burgers in town can still be found at Joe Allen, where I’ve been enjoying them for nearly 50 years.

But getting back to the making of duck burgers, the trick is to include some of the fat from the magret — otherwise, your burger will be dry. (Not to worry, because most of the fat melts away during cooking.) The duck burgers may be pan-fried or (better) grilled over charcoal, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a barbecue. I serve the burgers on toasted buns with the caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, sliced red onion and my own spicy burger sauce. You can do the same, or be as inventive as you like.

Happy cooking.

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Chou en purée

Many years ago, when making boeuf bourguinon for a party, I discovered a sophisticated side dish with laughably humble origins — cabbage purée. How I discovered it is a mystery. I thought it might have been via Patricia Wells, but when I looked through her cookbooks it wasn’t there. Perhaps it was Julia Child? Negative. Well, whatever. I’ve been making it for years, and am always delighted when my guests can’t figure out what it is.

Chou en purée / Cabbage purée

Yes, that’s the second mystery. On the plate, people mistake if for mashed potatoes. But when they taste it — ooh là là. Not the same. As we are moving towards Thanksgiving and then Christmas, I wanted to share this recipe with you in time for you to think about perhaps innovating this year with a dish that is both simple to make and lovely to behold.

Meantime regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy not just cooking but also word play. So while we’re on the subject of chou (cabbage), it’s one of those words in French that has evolved over the centuries to embrace many meanings. The most obvious, from a culinary perspective, is ‘cream puff’ (also chou), presumably because these puffy pastries could, if you used your imagination, look like mini heads of cabbage.

Linguistically that’s just the beginning. Say you’re a journalist. You’d like to cast aspersions on your rival’s newspaper? Quelle feuille de chou! Literally: ‘What a cabbage leaf!!’ Figuratively: ‘What a rag!’ Or if your rival writer can’t cut the mustard? Il est dans les choux. ‘He’s in the cabbage patch.’ (‘He’s floundering.’) You really want to insult him? Il est bête comme un chou. ‘He’s as stupid as a cabbage.’ (‘Quel dumb cluck.’)

But there’s sweeter side as well. Your tiny tot is amazing? Je t’aime, mon petit chou. Literally: ‘I love you, my little cabbage.’ Figuratively: ‘My little cupcake.’ Your boyfriend gives you a present? Trop chou! (‘Too cute!’) That guy’s amazing and you’re telling your friend about him? Il est chou. (‘He’s adorable.’) You’re telling him he’s amazing? T’es mon chouchou. ‘You’re my sweetiepie.’  (But be careful — chouchou is also French for scrunchy, as in the ponytail holders favored by Carrie Bradshaw in ‘Sex in the City’.)

And then there’s the childhood ditty ‘Savez-vous planter les choux?‘ As the song goes, ‘Do you know how to plant cabbages, they way we do it here?’ Well, by the time the song is finished you know that the French plant cabbages with their foot, with their knee, with their nose and with their elbow… But that’s enough silliness for today.

Chou en purée can be made either with standard white cabbage, which produces the mashed potato effect, or with curly Savoy cabbage, which produces a pale green purée with darker green flecks. It’s both quick to prepare and ultra inexpensive, and will marry happily with roast turkey, beef or chicken, with other veggies (such as roasted winter vegetables or sweet potato purée) or, well, with boeuf bourguignon.

Happy cooking.

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Tourte poulet-champignons

This savory pie of chicken, mushrooms and leeks in a creamy sauce encased in puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) makes a lovely autumn dish for lunch or a light supper. Full disclosure: I don’t make the pastry myself, but instead use a couple rolls of high-quality, all-butter store-bought puff pastry. This saves a lot of time. Then all you need to do is invite a couple of guests, make a salad, open a bottle of wine and voilà — your meal is ready.

Tourte poulet-champignons / Chicken-mushroom pie

But what exactly is a tourte? When English-speakers associate the words ‘French’ and ‘pie’, they are likely to think of the open-faced pastries that are so splendidly displayed in France’s patisseries, such as quiche or fruit tarts. The double-crusted tourte is seen less often here, yet it has a long and venerable history, having existed since Roman times.

Although versions with fruit exist, a tourte is most often savory, filled with meat, veggies, cheese or a combination. It comes in many variations across France. A common tourte in the rugged Auvergne region combines potatoes and fourme d’Ambert, the local blue cheese. A specialty of the Mediterranean port of Sète is tielle, which is filled with octopus. In eastern France, the tourte lorraine combines pork and veal (and sometimes rabbit) into a filling that resembles pâté. And the list goes on.

Across the Channel, where the British have made an art of the meat pie, the pastry of choice is a standard savory crust (pâte brisée), whereas the French prefer flaky puff pastry. I thought about it before creating today’s recipe, and opted for the latter. It makes for a lighter dish and adds, you know, that little je ne sais quoi.

Preparation involves sautéing the chicken, mushrooms and leek or onion and making a Béchamel sauce flavored with nutmeg, white wine and a little fresh thyme. When you’ve filled your pie, you can coat the top with a light egg wash to give it a pretty shine.

To allow steam to escape while the pie is baking, the French often cut a coin-shaped round out of the center of the top crust and insert a rolled piece of paper to create a chimney (cheminée). But I chose instead to cut a few slits into the top and, with leftover pâte feuilletée, added some cut-out diamonds for decoration. No sooner did the pie come out of the oven than it disappeared.

Happy cooking.

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Salade parisienne

This salad is a Paris bistro classic — tender leaves bathed in a light mustard vinaigrette and topped with cubed ham and cheese, boiled potatoes and quartered eggs. Or with other ingredients. Green beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, croutons, you name it. It’s a salad I’ve never encountered in a Parisian home, yet it is omnipresent in Paris cafés. I’ve put off posting about it for years for the simple reason that no one can agree on what it actually is.

Salade parisienne / Paris bistro salad

Looking for answers, I went to my sourcebook, the Grand Larousse gastronomique, and drew a blank. This encyclopedia of French cuisine has five pages of tiny print on the topic of salad, including 34 recipes, several by three-star chefs (Michel Guérard, Joël Robuchon, Alain Senderens, like that). There is what they call salade américaine (with pineapple, sweet corn, chicken, cucumber and egg — like, what?) and salade russe (chopped cooked veggies in mayonnaise), but nary a mention of France’s home-grown salade parisienne.

Further research indicated that the salad got its name from … mushrooms, which by the way are rarely seen in salade parisienne these days. The connection is that standard white mushrooms are known here as champignons de Paris. Introduced in France by the gardener of King Louis XIV, they were cultivated in abandoned quarries on the edges of Paris until the late 19th century, when production shifted elsewhere due to construction of the Métro. (In an odd twist to this tale, some of these mushroom-growing quarries were actually the Paris catacombs, where the bones of millions of Parisians are stored, having been there transferred long ago due to overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries.)

Back to the salad, which has evolved since I first encountered it in Paris nearly 50 years ago. In those days, the ingredients were piled onto a bed of Boston lettuce (laitue), traditionally the most popular salad leaf over here. These days, a mixture of tender leaves such as mesclun is more commonly used. When I lunched last week at a local café, Le Progrès, I took a photo of their menu to give you an idea. Their salade parisienne is composed of mesclun, potatoes, egg, ham and Emmenthal cheese.

How, you may well ask, does this salad differ from the ‘chef’s salad’ served in the States? First, it never comes with iceberg lettuce. Second, the presentation is not the same. But the most important difference is in the dressing. The mustard vinaigrette, with its slight tang of garlic, unites the ingredients and gives the salad a flavor that is sublimely French.

Today’s recipe is very close to the version served at Le Progrès. It’s a hearty salad that can stand on its own at lunchtime or as a light supper, accompanied by fresh crusty bread and, if wine is called for, perhaps a Beaujolais, such as Brouilly or Fleurie. If you’d like to vary the composition, feel free. For a vegetarian version, you could replace the ham with green beans or tomatoes, for example. Ditto for a vegan version — just also eliminate the cheese.

These variations are entirely within the range of what passes as a salade parisienne. While doing online research for this post, I found recipes calling for widely diverse ingredients, such as the one from Elle magazine’s culinary edition. It calls for potatoes, green beans, Boston lettuce, hard-boiled eggs (so far so good) but also green pepper, onions, artichoke hearts, parsley, tomatoes, tuna, anchovies and black olives! This sounds more like a salade niçoise to me. But with salade parisienne, apparently anything goes.

So go wild, use your imagination, and create the Paris bistro salad of your choosing.

Happy cooking.

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Oeufs brouillés à la truffe

For a supremely elegant brunch dish, you can’t do better than scrambled eggs with truffles. Wait! Did she say truffles? But yes, my friends. You may have heard that truffles cost as much per ounce as gold, but that turns out to be false. You may think they’re hard to find, but that’s also not true in these days of online ordering. Preserved truffles are fine in this quick and easy recipe. So go ahead — invite some guests and knock their socks off.

Oeufs brouillés à la truffe / Scrambled eggs with truffles

I’d been wanting to make scrambled eggs with truffles for a very long time, but when I went to my local farmers market recently in search of a truffle I couldn’t find one. Turns out they’re not in season. The season for the prized French black winter truffle begins only in mid-November, while the season for summer truffles ends in mid-September. But a shop in my neighborhood, Signorini Tartufi, sells the summer truffle preserved in a small jar for the remarkably affordable price of 15 euros for 25 grams. I used just one (the larger) of the jar’s two truffles, making the total cost of the dish for two about $10.

Creating the dish is child’s play. All you need is some very fresh eggs, a little cream, salt, pepper and a truffle or two. The night before you plan to cook, clean off the truffle and place it in an air-tight container with the eggs. This allows the truffle’s earthy aroma to penetrate the eggshells, creating depth of flavor.

To cook the eggs… but wait! First you need to figure out what else you’ll be serving and get it all ready ahead of time — as you’ll be making the eggs at the very last minute. For a very French brunch you could start with Champagne and parmesan apéritif chips, then serve the eggs and follow up with a green salad, cheese and a seasonal dessert — for example, in autumn, fresh figs roasted in vanilla cream. To put an American spin on things, start with Bloody Marys and serve the eggs with fresh fruit alongside. Another option, if you’re feeling ambitious, would be to start with the eggs and move on to homemade gravalax and blini. And maybe a shot of vodka to go with. Or use your imagination.

At last it’s time to make the eggs. This takes about three minutes. Slice the truffle thinly, reserve a few slices for garnish, beat the eggs with the cream, salt and pepper, and add the truffle slices. But how to cook them? The French method involves stirring the eggs into a creamy mass in a pan set over boiling water (au bain marie). But this is not strictly necessary. You can also scramble them as usual in a pan coated with melted butter.

And now for a little lore. Down in Provence, friends of mine have a country place not far from Carpentras, where a major black truffle market takes place every Friday in winter. I visited this market once, and it was quite a scene. The truffles are brought to the market by locals who find them with the help of specially trained dogs — chiens truffiers — who nose out the buried treasures but conveniently don’t eat them (as pigs tend to do, which is why they are no longer used). Various species can be trained to perform this task — beagles, spaniels, even rottweilers. One summer my friends’ neighbors got a puppy to train as a truffier, my chief memory of which is that they tied it to a tree and let it bark all night…

The main buyers at the market are professionals, for example local chefs who come to check the quality of the truffles for themselves and bargain over the price. The rate of sale varies according to — you guessed it — supply and demand. Some years are better than others in terms of quantity, while demand is consistently high. But it’s not true now, if it ever was, that truffles are worth their weight in gold. Last February, black truffles were sellling for 800 euros a kilo at the Carpentras market. That works out to 80 euros for 100 grams, or 40 euros for 50 grams. Of course, the retail price is considerably higher — at the Maison de la Truffe in Paris, fresh black truffles were selling last winter for 139.50 euros for 50 grams. Gold, meanwhile, is currently selling for about 54 euros per gram, or 2,700 euros for 50 grams. What did I tell you? Gold costs more.

Nonetheless, fresh truffles are among the world’s most expensive foods. (For an amusing take on the matter, check out this piece from 60 Minutes on CBS.) But don’t let cost considerations or the difficulty of obtaining fresh truffles stop you. As I discovered when researching this piece, preserved truffles at reasonable prices are available online all over the world. And they’re nearly as tasty as the fresh ones.

Happy cooking.

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Crème de la crème, Part I

This week marks the 10th anniversary of The Everyday French Chef. When I started the site, back in 2012, I could never have imagined that readers would check out my recipes more than a million times. Thank you!! I’d like to celebrate by sharing a personal ‘best of’ list of recipes for autumn (I will post similar ‘best of’ lists this year for winter, spring and summer as the seasons change.) And by saluting the site’s most popular recipe…

Salade verte à la française / Green salad, French style

This salad of Boston lettuce bathed in a mustard vinaigrette is a French classic. Elegant in its simplicity, it’s is an unpretentious dish that can grace any meal, from picnic to gala dinner, and that can please omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike. Yet the traditional version is becoming increasingly hard to find in French restaurants, where what is often served is an ersatz version with iceberg lettuce and – horrors! – a creamy sauce out of a bottle. Making it all the more useful to know how to create it at home.

The recipe for green salad, French style, has been viewed 42,444 times since it was first posted in May 2013 — more than any other recipe. And it’s not just the all-time favorite. It comes top in recipe views over the past year, quarter, month and week. What accounts for this popularity? It could be longevity — like five other recipes among the all-time top 10, it was posted during the site’s first year, giving readers more time to check it out. Or it could be that it’s hard to find an authentic recipe elsewhere for this very authentic French salad.

Other French classics among the top 10 include oeufs durs mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs with homemade mayonnaise), assiette de crudités (French raw veggie plate), foie gras, escalopes de veau à la crème (veal scallops with cream and mushrooms)  and profiteroles (cream puffs with ice cream and chocolate sauce). You can view the list of the site’s 30 most popular dishes at the bottom of this post.

But first, as we head into autumn, I’d like to share some of my favorite seasonal dishes from among the 475 recipes that have appeared on this site to date. I’ve chosen three dishes from each of the site’s categories — mix and match as you like. Many feature foods that come into season in autumn: figs, walnuts, wild mushrooms, butternut, mussels and so on. Others are end-of-summer dishes taking advantage, for example, of the last of the season’s tomatoes. And others are simply dishes I like to serve at this time of year.

Starters
Aubergines farcies aux noix / Eggplant with walnut sauce
Jambon de pays aux figues / Cured country ham with fresh figs
Poêlee de champignons des bois / Wild mushrooms with herbs

Soups
Soupe au fenouil braisé / Braised fennel soup
Soupe aux betteraves à l’ukrainienne / Ukrainian borshch, French style
Velouté de butternut / Butternut soup

Salads
Poires au parmesan en salade / Salad of pears roasted with parmesan
Salade de l’ambassadeur / Salad with bresaola and late summer fruit
Salade vigneronne / Winemaker’s salad

Eggs
Omelette à la sauge / Omelet with fresh sage
Omelette aux cèpes / Mushroom omelet with porcinis
Soufflé au potiron / Pumpkin soufflé

 

Savory tarts
Pissaladière / Pissaladière
Tarte aux champignons sauvages / Wild mushroom tart
Tarte chèvre-figues-romarin / Goat cheese tart with figs and rosemary

Fish and shellfish
Coquilles saint-jacques aux girolles / Pan-seared scallops with chanterelles
Cabillaud au chorizo / Cod with chickpeas, spinach and chorizo
Moules marinière / Mussels steamed in white wine


Poultry and game

Cailles rôties / Roast quail
Fricassée de poulet aux figues / Chicken with fresh figs
Magret de canard au cassis / Duck with black currant sauce

 

Meat dishes
Entrecôte bordelaise / Pan-seared steak with shallots
Filet de porc au romarin / Roast pork filet with rosemary
Sauté de veau / Veal stewed in white wine


Vegetables

Gratin de potiron Georges Blanc / Georges Blanc’s pumpkin gratin
Purée de céleri rave / Puréed celeriac
Tomates provençales / Roasted tomatoes, Provence style

Pasta and grains
Gnocchis à la sauge / Gnocchi with fresh sage
Penne au potiron et aux noix / Penne with pumpkin and walnuts
Risotto aux champignons sauvages / Wild mushroom risotto



Desserts

Poires au vin et cassis / Pears in red wine and cassis
Tarte aux noix / Walnut tart
Tarte Tatin / Tarte Tatin

As an everyday French chef, how would I combine these dishes? Here are some examples:

For an everyday lunch, country ham with figs followed by a porcini omelet and a green salad. For a vegetarian version, butternut soup followed by wild mushroom risotto. For a vegan version, sautéd wild mushrooms with herbs followed by the winemaker’s salad (tender greens with grapes and walnuts).

For an everyday dinner, the ambassador’s salad (tender leaves, late summer fruit and bresaola) followed by mussels steamed in wine. For a vegetarian version, a salad of pears roasted with parmesan followed by penne with pumpkin and walnuts. For a vegan version, Ukrainian borshch, French style, followed by pears in red wine and cassis.

For a weekend dinner, pan-seared scallops with chanterelles followed by roast quail with celeriac purée and winemaker’s salad, and finishing up with a walnut tart. For a vegetarian version, pumpkin soufflé followed by wild mushroom tart and winemaker’s salad, and concluding with tarte Tatin (upside-down apple tart). You could add a cheese plate to either of these menus before dessert. For vegans, eggplant with walnut sauce followed by roasted Provençal tomatoes and, for dessert, pears in red wine and cassis.

And now for the nitty gritty — the top 30 all-time favorites of readers of The Everyday French Chef. The recipes most consulted over the last 10 years come from every category except savory tarts. Some, like couscous royal and coulibiac (elegant fish pie), made the list because they were tweeted by someone with a large following (when this happened with the coulibiac recipe, there were so many hits that it crashed the site). Given its bad rep in parts of the world, foie gras is surprisingly popular. One dish, roast turkey, French style, came about when I was invited to contribute to a Thanksgiving lunch prepared by Georges Blanc, one of France’s most celebrated chefs (he made the turkey). Here’s the list:

1 Salade verte à la française / Green salad, French style
2 Porc grillé aux herbes de Provence / Grilled pork chops with rosemary and thyme
3 Foie gras / Foie gras
4 Rôti de boeuf / Roast beef, French style
5 Escalopes de veau à la crème / Veal scallops with cream and mushrooms
6 Oeufs durs mayonnaise / Hard-boiled eggs with French mayonnaise
7 Assiette de crudités / French vegetable plate
8 Aubergines au four / Oven-roasted eggplant, Mediterranean style
9 Couscous Royal / Couscous with lamb, chicken and merguez
10 Profiteroles / Profiteroles

11 Coulibiac / Coulibiac
12 Julienne de champignons / Mushrooms julienne
13 Pavé de cabillaud tout simple / Pan-seared cod with thyme
14 Soupe de légumes / French vegetable soup
15 Gratin de courgettes / Zucchini gratin
16 Cerises à l’eau de vie / Cherries in brandy
17 Oeufs mimosa / Eggs ‘Mimosa’
18 Sole meunière / Sole meunière
19 Coq au vin / Chicken stewed in red wine
20 Cailles rôtis / Roast quail

21 Artichauts vinaigrette / Artichokes with mustard vinaigrette
22 Poule au pot / Poule au pot
23 Omelette à la sauge / Omelet with fresh sage
24 Steak au poivre / Steak au poivre
25 Omelette au saumon fumé et épinards / Smoked salmon omelet with spinach
26 Sauce vinaigrette à la moutarde / Mustard vinaigrette
27 Soupe paysanne / French peasant soup
28 Turbot au four beurre blanc / Baked turbot with creamy butter sauce
29 Steak maître d’hotel / Pan-seared steak with parsley butter
30 Dinde à la française / Roast turkey, French style

Happy cooking!

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