Tomates farcies

Stuffed tomatoes are one of the glories of French country cooking. This is peasant food at its finest, and fillings differ considerably. The traditional recipe, which hails from Provence, uses sausage meat, often in combination with beef or veal, and flavored with onion, garlic, herbes de Provence and fresh parsley or basil. In a lighter, vegetarian/vegan version, the tomatoes are stuffed with a filling similar to ratatouille, with a little bulghur added for heft.

Tomates farcies / Stuffed tomatoes

It’s not known who first had the brilliant idea of stuffing veggies with meat, rice or another filling, but the practice goes back a long way, at least to the ancient Greeks. Related dishes include stuffed vine leaves, stuffed zucchini, stuffed eggplant, stuffed cabbage leaves (coming soon), stuffed sweet peppers and even stuffed zucchini flowers.

Fillings for tomatoes have evolved over the years in France. In the old days, leftover meat from boiled dishes such as pot au feu was often chopped to create the filling. Roast beef or chicken were also used. These days recipes generally call for ground meat. For the pork, use a high-quality sausage, such as Italian sausage or saucisse de Toulouse, simply removing the meat from its casing.

For the veggie filling, you can follow the recipe given here — with eggplant, zucchini, onions and garlic — or use your imagination. I’ve seen recipes that use combinations including potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, corn, pine nuts, raisins, goat cheese or olives. In all of these, the tomato pulp is also incorporated.

Both the meat and the veggie fillings presented here are flavored with herbes de Provence — a comination of dried thyme, rosemary and other herbs, for example marjoram, savory or basil. Snipped fresh herbs such as parsley or basil are generally added. If you like a bit of bite, you can also include cayenne.

There are many other French versions of stuffed tomatoes. In one, tomatoes au nid (‘tomatoes in the nest’), the tomatoes are hollowed out and an egg cracked into the center before being roasted. In another, tomates farcies à la reine, the tomatoes are stuffed with poached chicken, mushrooms — and sometimes truffles — in a cream sauce. In cold versions, the tomatoes may be stuffed with tuna or with crème fraîche and fresh herbs.

In other words, you can create the stuffed tomatoes of your choice. And with summer looming, this is a great time to try your hand at this classic French dish.

Happy cooking.

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

Soufflés aux framboises

If you’ve never experienced a raspberry soufflé, it’s like tasting warm, fluffy, raspberry-flavored air. Sweet, light and ephemeral. And the good news is that this elegant dessert is remarkably easy to make. I’m not an expert on dessert soufflés, but when I saw Michel Guérard, one of France’s most venerated chefs, whip up a couple of small raspberry soufflés during a television feature, I knew I had to try to make them myself. Instant success!

Soufflés aux framboises / Raspberry soufflés

Michel Guérard is one of the fathers of nouvelle cuisine, the lighter, fresher version of French cooking that became a sensation in the 1970s. He’s had three stars in the Michelin restaurant guide for more than 40 years, a rare distinction. He’s a genial man — in the France 2 broadcast, he held a freshly picked raspberry in his hand and said it felt like caressing a woman. Back at his kitchen, he showed viewers drawings he’d made in cocoa for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Versailles on her first trip to France.

But Michel Guérard was careful in the broadcast not to give away all of his secrets. For example, he didn’t say how much sugar to add to the soufflé batter and how much to use for coating the cups. I had to wing it. He also omitted to say how to make the sugar adhere to the cups. With butter? With egg white? I asked around — it’s butter.

Another thing. The soufflés go into the oven for just 4-5 minutes — so that the inside stays creamy, he said. I found that astoundingly brief, but guess what? The recipe works. I’ve made it three times now, to resounding applause. And it takes no more than 10 minutes to prepare. You purée the raspberries and push the purée through a sieve to remove the seeds, you add sugar and an egg yolk, you butter and sugar your soufflé cups, you beat three egg whites, you fold the whites and the raspberry mixture together and — here’s the master coup — when you pile the mixture into the cups you even it off with the edge of a spatula. In the oven, they pop up ever so nicely. And they are a treat to eat.

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Brochettes de porc grillé

It’s only May and it’s already summer in the city in Paris — a great time to enjoy grilled pork brochettes with tomato, cucumber and red onion, even if you don’t have a barbecue. Today’s recipe adds a French twist to a Russian summertime favorite, shashlik. The secret is marinating the pork in — wait for it — red wine vinegar. I couldn’t believe this when a Russian friend first gave me the recipe. In France we mainly marinate in wine. But it works.

Brochettes de porc grillé / Grilled pork brochettes

Shashlik, which is popular across the former Soviet Union, may also be made with veal, beef or lamb (favored in Central Asia). It is usually grilled over an open fire or barbecue, but may also be cooked tandoori-style in the oven. It differs from shish kebab in that no onions or peppers are threaded onto the skewers, only meat.

The French version adds olive oil and herbes de Provence to the marinade, which also includes sliced onion and minced garlic. But this recipe is highly adaptable. You can easily produce versions redolent of Greece (with tzadziki), the Middle East (with cumin) or Southeast Asia (with lime juice instead of vinegar and satay sauce alongside).

I first encountered shashlik while working as a reporter in Russia in the 1980s. The occasion was a yard party on June 21, the longest day of the year. In Moscow that means the light lingers until around 11 p.m. and is back just three hours later. The party was held in the courtyard of my building, a foreigners-only residence guarded by the KGB. Journalists, diplomats and a few bold Russians danced through the night to the strains of a Russian dixieland band. Beer, wine and vodka flowed as the genial U.S. ambassador to Russia, Arthur Hartman, manned the barbecue. It was a grand evening.

But normally shashlik is dacha food, prepared in the country in quiet, leafy surroundings. So when I returned to France and found a ‘dacha’ in Burgundy, it was only a matter of time before I wanted to try making it on my backyard barbecue. This happened when my friend Debby and her Siberian husband, Kolya, came for a visit. My daughter was about five at the time. She watched with rapt attention (I watched in horror) as Kolya poured vinegar over the meat. A few hours later we lit the barbecue. What came to the table was, well, perfect — tangy, juicy, tender. By the time Debby and Kolya left, my daughter had learned some Russian — podnimi menya (‘pick me up’), and shashlik.

Grilled pork on skewers has been back by popular demand many times in our home since then. As I no longer have the dacha, I now make it in a very hot oven. To be honest it’s best over charcoal, but it’s pretty darn good that way too.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fusilli aux courgettes

A culinary delight on a recent trip to Italy was an innovative pairing of twisty pasta and zucchini. This dish — the creation of my friend Gisella, a superlative cook — is not as simple as it sounds. The zucchini is cooked two ways so that the pasta is both bathed in a silky zucchini sauce and embellished with strips of sautéd zucchini. Grated parmesan, small squares of dry-cured ham and snipped fresh basil are added at the end.

Fusilli aux courgettes / Fusilli with zucchini

This dish can be made with any pasta but works best with the twisty form known as fusilli in Italian, torsades in French and rotini in the United States. Why? Because the spiral shape makes it easy for the sauce to cling to the entire surface. The sauce is made by sautéing grated zucchini with onion and then blending the mixture. Separately, julienne strips of zucchini are fried in olive oil until golden. This may all be done in advance.

The next stage involves immersing pasta cooked until it is just short of al dente in the (reheated) zucchini sauce. This technique, known in Italian as la mantecatura, binds the sauce to the pasta and produces a creamy, homogenous dish. The same method may be used to excellent effect with tomato-based pasta sauces such as arrabiata or bolognese — the results are far superior to simply placing the sauce on top of the pasta.

When Gisella made zucchini con fusilli, she added small squares of prosciutto, but apologized, saying that speck was better but she didn’t have any on hand. There was no need to apologize — the dish was spectacular. But when I made it at home, I made a point of using speck, a lightly smoked Italian cousin of prosciutto — not to be confused with Germany’s speck (pronounced SHPEK), which is closer to bacon. I honestly can’t say which I preferred, so if speck is unavailable in your area, not to worry. Just use prosciutto. And for a vegetarian version, simply omit the ham.

This dish is worth a try if you’d like to add a touch of green to your table in the midst of what, at least in Paris, is turning out to be a glorious spring. We’ve had a run of mild sunny days, the roses are in bloom and the little herbs out on my balcony are flourishing. Everything would be perfect if we could forget about climate change and war.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Radis au beurre

A quintessentially French dish that comes into its own in springtime is radis au beurre, or radishes with butter and salt. This traditional bistro fare makes a great start to a meal. I often serve radis au beurre at cocktail hour — fresher and much lighter than chips or nuts, especially if you go easy on the butter. Radis au beurre may also be served as a first course at the table, often accompanied by other back-to-the-land starters.

Radis au beurre / Radishes with butter and salt

As you can imagine, radis au beurre (pronounced rah-DEE oh brr) is ridiculously easy to prepare. You wash the radishes, cut away the root ends, arrange on plates or a platter and serve with unsalted butter and a small cup of salt. It’s both simple and convivial. Guests dip the radishes first into the butter, then into the salt, using the leaves as a handle.

Having lived in France now for nearly 50 years, it’s hard for me to imagine any other way to serve this super healthy veggie. Indeed, my encyclopedia of French cuisine, the Grand Larousse gastronomique, says of radishes: ‘They are served plain, with fresh butter and salt.’ That’s it. Radis au beurre recipes these days may include embellishments, such as adding chopped herbs to the butter or using flavored salt, but I prefer the original.

One thing to note is that French radishes are rosy red with a white tip and elongated rather than round. They also tend to be less piquant than round varieties. (Strangely, they are referred to in English as ‘French breakfast radishes’, although I have never seen radishes served for breakfast over here.) No need to fret if you live elsewhere. Any red radishes would be fine for this dish.

On the health front, radishes are packed with vitamins and minerals and are virtually calorie free. They’ve been around for more than 5,000 years — radishes were cultivated by the Egyptians, who allegedly fed them to the workers who built the pyramids, while the Greeks are said to have dedicated radishes to Apollo, god of the sun — and of healing.

While April in Paris may evoke chestnuts in blossom, as in the song, it is also the month when mountains of radishes appear at farmers markets. The fact that they’re inexpensive, even in these days of spiraling prices, only adds to their attraction.

In fact, radishes with butter are so popular over here that there’s a Paris bistro named Le Radis Beurre, as I discovered while researching this blog post. Oddly, radis au beurre does not feature on the menu they’ve posted online. It seems instead to be a metaphor for the philosophy behind the restaurant, which features dishes made of fresh, seasonal products.

If you’d like to serve radis au beurre at cocktail hour, they’d go well with a chilled white or rosé, a kir or another apéritif. When I serve this dish as a starter at the table, I generally include a couple more hors d’oeuvres, such as pâté, dry-cured sausage or ham (such as proscuitto), tarama, tapenade, or perhaps eggs with mayo or topped with red caviar.

I can already hear the skeptics objecting, ‘What? This can’t be French cuisine. It’s too easy!’ But no, mes amis. For the everyday French chef, simplicity is the heart of the art.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Poulet au paprika

This dish of chicken in a creamy paprika sauce came about as a result of current events. I thought I’d like to make something Ukrainian in honor of a besieged nation, and I also wanted to add to the poultry dishes already on this site. My first idea, rather naturally, was chicken Kyiv (suprêmes de volaille à la Kyiv). But a little research showed that this dish, which by the way is quite complicated to make, is actually Russian in origin. Nyet.

Poulet au paprika / Chicken with paprika

So I did a little more research and came up with a French version of chicken paprikash, a dish served across central and eastern Europe. The chicken is sautéd with onions, paprika, seasonings and a spritz of lemon juice, then water is added and the dish is simmered to tenderness, with cream stirred in at the end. Topped with fresh herbs and served over tiny pasta or rice, it’s a simple, satisfying dish that can be made in about half an hour.

Like so many people around the world, I’ve been horrified and heartbroken by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, all the more so because I’m attached to both cultures in one way or another — I worked in Russia for five years as a journalist and I also have Ukrainian roots. For the last month or so I’ve dealt with my personal distress by working with the French Red Cross to help Ukrainian refugees as they arrive at Paris train stations. Last week a high school classmate asked me to write about this for his newsletter. If you’d like to see my thoughts on the situation, I posted the piece online. Click here.

My Ukrainian roots come from my father’s side of the family — Jews who emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. My father’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Bortin, always said she came from Odessa. Only much later in life did I learn that when she said she came from Odessa, she meant that the boat for America sailed from Odessa. That branch of the family actually came from a small Jewish village near Berdichev, about 120 miles west of Kyiv. My father’s maternal grandparents also came from various parts of Ukraine. It is to my father’s mother, my Grandma Anne, that I owe my familiarity with Ukrainian cuisine.

Grandma Anne was a good cook, although her imprecision with measurements drove my mother crazy. For example, her recipe for syrniki — little pancakes made with smooth cottage cheese and served with sour cream and jam — calls for ‘one half eggshell water’. I’d like to post this family recipe here one of these days, along with two more, Grandma Anne’s fabulous stuffed cabbages and her wonderful cheesecake. Meantime when thinking about today’s post I was surprised to realize that I’ve already posted two Ukrainian dishes on this site — borshch and potato pancakes.

If you’d like to make an all-Ukrainian dinner during these dark weeks, you could start with potato pancakes (often served with applesauce on the side), follow with borshch and have the chicken with paprika as the main dish. For dessert, although not strictly Ukrainian, you could serve mini cherry cheesecakes made with goat cheese.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Salade de concombre sichuanaise

I discovered this spicy peanut-topped cucumber salad just as Sichuan cuisine began making it big in Paris. It’s on the menu of Deux Fois Plus de Piment (‘Twice as Much Hot Pepper’), a small Sichuan joint in my neighborhood that the chef Shaun Kelly once named as his favorite Paris restaurant. This was back in 2012. Fresh, crunchy and piquant, the salad had me going back for more on a regular basis — until the pandemic struck.

Salade de concombre sichuanaise / Spicy cucumber salad with peanuts

With only a couple hours’ notice, France shut down all restaurants in March 2020 and it was some time before home delivery was allowed. Suddenly I was cut off from Sichuan food. What to do, what to do? I had become hooked not only on the cucumber salad but also on Deux Fois’ Sichuan ravioli, spicy chicken and fabulous spicy beef soup. I had already found a first-class Sichuan cooking site, but their version of the cucumber salad wasn’t the same. So I improvised and started making it at home.

The key ingredient in this salad, as in many Sichuan recipes, is Sichuan peppercorn. It looks different from black peppercorn in that it’s a reddish brown and more wrinkled. Unlike hot red peppers (piments in French), Sichuan peppercorn is described as numbing rather than fiery. And its flavor is just unbeatable. You can find it at Asian grocery shops.

Which is not to say there’s no fire in this salad, which also includes cayenne. How much heat to add is up to you. At Deux Fois, diners may choose their level of heat on a scale of 1-5. I once made the mistake of choosing Level 2. Oops! Level 1 is already plenty fiery.

Preparation of the salad is easy and may be partially done in advance. The cucumbers are half-peeled and chopped, then mixed with a dressing of soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, garlic and the two kinds of pepper. Crushed peanuts and snipped cilantro are added on top. It’s both light and filling, and perfect for warm weather.

Once Sichuan cuisine debuted in Paris, Deux Fois became so popular that it spawned two offspring — Trois Fois Plus de Piment and Cinq Fois Plus de Piment (that’s Three Times and Five Times as spicy!). But visiting the original, a modest hole-in-the-wall around the corner from my place, was not my first encounter with Sichuan cooking. That event took place in Manhattan in the 1970s at a place whose name I no longer remember.

A large group of friends had invited me along one summer’s evening. We were seated around a long table and handed an even longer menu. One item intrigued me, so I inquired about it when the waiter finally got around to me. The conversation went like this. Me: ‘What is a sea cucumber?’ He: ‘What do you mean?’ Me: ‘Is it a fish?’ He: ‘No.’ Me: ‘Is it a vegetable?’ He: ‘No.’ Me: ‘Well then what is it?’ He: ‘What is a hot dog?’

Happy cooking.

Posted in 3. Salads | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cabillaud au chorizo

The other day I decided to try to recreate a dish I vaguely remembered — cod with chickpeas, spinach and chorizo chips. It felt just right for a brisk, pre-spring sunny day. I checked my favorite Spanish cookbook, couldn’t find it. Ditto my Portuguese cookbook. Then I looked online, and found not a single recipe for this precise combination. So I winged it. Well, dear readers, my guest was happy. And in fact so was I.

Cabillaud au chorizo / Cod with chickpeas, spinach and chorizo

When or where did I have this dish before? Or did I conjure it up in my imagination? It combines flavors typical of Spain, Portugal and the French Basque country — places where cod and chorizo are frequently served. The chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, add a Moorish touch. And spinach is often paired with chickpeas in Spanish cooking.

Moro: The Cookbook, my bible on Spanish cuisine, has a stew of chickpeas and spinach with saffron, cumin, wine vinegar and hot pepper. A simpler version of this is served at tapa bars in Barcelona. Another Moro dish combines spinach and chorizo in a paella. And cod topped with chorizo chips is currently hot in Paris bistros.

So whatever the origin of this particular dish, the flavors blend well. And, as I discovered, it is not just easy to make but has the significant advantage of being able to be prepared in advance. If you cook the chickpeas yourself — highly recommended — it’s best to start the evening before you plan to serve the dish. Tips on cooking chickpeas may be found here.

Once your chickpeas are ready, the dish requires three skillets — one for sautéing the spinach with garlic, one for pan-searing the cod and one for frying thinly sliced chorizo — as mild or spicy as you like. All the ingredients may be combined at this point and gently reheated later, with the chorizo chips added on top.

This recipe makes a healthy one-dish meal that could be accompanied by just a salad at lunchtime. If serving the cod as the centerpiece of a more elaborate meal, starters that pair well include tapenade, Moroccan carrot salad, eggplant caviar or, if you’re going all out, a seafood platter. And you could follow up with crème caramel or sliced oranges with star anise. As for wine, a crisp dry white or a light red would marry well.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Flamiche

Flamiche is a savory tart from Picardie made of leeks and cream encased in puff pastry. This is comfort food at its finest, perfect for cool days or nights as we wait for spring. Flamiche can stand on its own as a lunch dish or may be served as a starter in the evening, accompanied by a fruity red. Its versatility makes it a winner. Yet this pie from Picardie is rarely encountered in other parts of France, not to mention the rest of the world.

Flamiche / Flamiche

Making flamiche is fun and surprisingly easy. The key, unless you enjoy making pâte feuilletée from scratch, is to use a high-quality store-bought variety of puff pastry. The leeks are cleaned, chopped and sautéed in butter, then crème fraîche and seasonings are added. Unlike a quiche, which has only a bottom crust, this tart has a top crust as well. It is brushed with an egg yolk glaze before going into the oven to produce a beautiful result.

Flamiche is claimed as a local specialty in Picardie, a region northeast of Paris that stretches from the Channel to the edge of Champagne country. Also known as flamique or flamike, it has evolved over the years, having come into existence as simply a way of using leftover bread dough, which was flattened into a galette, or flat cake, baked and coated with melted butter. Exactly when the brilliant idea of adding the leek came up is unknown.

These days extra ingredients are often included — bacon, shallots, grated cheese or pungent soft cheeses such as Maroilles or Roquefort. But natives of Picardie consider it a sacrilege to add anything to distract from the star ingredient — the sacred leek!

Flamiche is rarely found in bakeries or restaurants, so the only solution is to make it yourself. I have had great success this winter when serving flamiche to guests. It’s just unusual enough to elicit surprise and delight. As we head toward what we must hope will be a peaceful spring, why not try your hand at this superlative and very French dish?

Happy cooking.

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

Salade d’oranges à la badiane

This light, refreshing dessert of orange slices in a flavorful syrup is best in winter, when large sweet oranges are in season. I first tasted it at the home of my neighbor Manuela, a superior cook. But on that occasion she barely cooked. The main course was a platter of oysters and langoustines straight from the market. She followed up with the sliced oranges, which were so delightful I had to have the recipe. The star ingredient was star anise.

Salade d’oranges à la badiane / Sliced oranges with star anise

You can use any any oranges for the dessert, but the plumper and sweeter the better. The syrup is infused with cinnamon, vanilla, cloves and star anise, which translates beautifully into French as badiane. For me, star anise conjures up visions of Asian beaches with palm trees swaying in the wind. I use it often in Chinese cooking. More on that later.

If you haven’t used star anise before, it’s a seed pod that comes in the shape of … a star. It has a flavor similar to fennel seed, and can be found at high-end food shops and Asian groceries. According to amusingly varying accounts, the star anise was brought Europe in the 1500s either by Marco Polo or by an English sailor. If you’ve ever had the Vietnamese soup pho, you will have encountered its flavor.

This I knew, but what I didn’t know is that apéritifs like pastis and ouzo also get their anise flavor from star anise. The seed is prized in Asia for its medicinal properties, while in Europe it is used to make spiced tea and spiced wine. In the recipe for the orange slices, the spices are filtered out at the end, but star anise is so pretty that I use if for decoration.

Now back to Chinese cooking. A secret little known outside my immediate circle is that I’ve been experimenting with Asian cuisine in recent years. It all started when my sister-in-law sent me a Thai cookbook one Christmas (New Thai Food by Martin Boetz). Once I’d assembled the basic ingredients, I found it was easy to produce delicious Thai food at home for a fraction of the cost of a meal at the local Thai place.

During lockdown I branched out to Sichuan cuisine, again inspired by a local joint. This is where star anise came into the picture, along with another spice I now use a lot, sichuan peppercorn. One favorite is a cucumber salad with peanuts, another is shredded chicken in a spicy sauce. Lately I’ve been having a go at Chinese dumplings, for example with ground pork, Sichuan peppercorn and other spices, or with shrimp and lemongrass. If you can find the wrapper dough at an Asian shop it’s, pardon the mixed metaphor, a piece of cake.

I’ve thought about posting some of these Chinese/Sichuan recipes here, but since this is a French cooking site I’ve hesitated. However, if you consider that the French love Asian cooking, and that Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean restaurants are doing a booming trade in Paris, then maybe Asian recipes are fair game. If you have an appetite for the occasional Asian dish on this site, please let me know. And in the meantime…

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments