Salade thaïe au magret

This Thai duck salad with French accents is a dish my friends ask for time and again when they come over. It combines Thai flavors — lemongrass, cilantro, Asian fish sauce, lime juice and red pepper — with the supremely French cut of duck known as magret, aka the breast, fat attached. The duck is cooked to a warm rosiness, then sliced and placed over or beside the herbal salad. Add a glass of chilled rosé, and lunch or dinner is ready.

Salade thaïe au magret / Thai duck salad, French style

The inspiration behind this dish is a Thai cookbook given to me by my sister-in-law a few years back: New Thai Food by Martin Boetz, an Australian chef with a passion for Asian cooking. His inventive recipes include many ingredients not easily found in Paris, so I quickly learned to improvise, for example substituting ginger for galangal. It may not be as authentic, but it tasted just fine. Over time, I began to understand the technique for achieving the balanced combination of flavors that defines Thai cooking — salty, sour, sweet and spicy. Then I began to experiment.

One of my first attempts was to use magret de canard instead of beef in a Thai salad loosely based on a recipe by Martin Boetz. I tried it out on my daughter, who loved it. We added some rice on the side to create a more substantial meal. Since then, I’ve been making this salad regularly when guests come by. It is a lovely warm-weather dish, and now that we’re nearing midsummer this is a perfect time of year to try it out.

Magret de canard is omnipresent in France, where ducks are raised in abundance in the southwest. The breast has the advantage over whole duck of being quick to cook and easy to slice. If whole duck breast is not available where you live, it may be ordered online. I’ve included some sources in the recipe.

Meantime the news from Paris is good. Our nighttime curfew was moved back this week from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and the city is finally starting to feel normal, with sidewalk tables full of outdoor diners and happy sounds filling the air. In a few weeks the curfew will be lifted altogether if all goes according to plan. And there’s even talk of lifting the mandatory outdoor mask requirement that has been in effect since last autumn.

I don’t know about you, but this everyday French chef plans on spending less time in the kitchen in the weeks ahead. Last night, for the first time in months, I had a leisurely dinner out and made it home just as the last rays of light were fading, around 10:30. But who can afford to go out every night? So, as ever, my message to you is…

Happy cooking.

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Crumble aux fraises

This is a very unusual crumble in that the strawberries are not baked but rather piled fresh into a glass and layered with crumble baked separately, whipped cream and homemade caramel sauce. The result is a light, fresh spring/summer dessert that is as lovely to behold as it is to eat. I can tell you that the crumble in this photo was devoured in seconds by my daughter, and its twin by her boyfriend. And this all came about thanks to French TV…

Crumble aux fraises / Strawberry crumble

Throughout the interminable French lockdown, with cafés, shops, museums and pretty much everything else closed, I fell into the habit of watching the television news at lunchtime. As a news person by profession, I tend to channel hop between the BBC, CNN and the two main French channels, TF1 and France 2. The latter is better for serious news most days, while TF1 has a great presenter on weekends and runs a feature called Quatre à table, which roughly translates as ‘Lunch for Four’. It has a gimmick — the cook is given 30 euros (about $36) to shop at the market to make a meal for four people.

In a recent episode, the cook — a French culinary journalist — was tasked with preparing a meal for her son, who balks at fruit and veggies. After the market visit, we followed her to her kitchen where she prepared a salad of cherry tomatoes and sliced kiwi (the starter), a ‘burger’ of mozzarella and Parma ham sandwiched between pancakes made from grated potatoes and zucchini, along with improvised French fries made of carrots (the main dish), and the strawberry crumble for dessert. Joining the mother and son for lunch were an unidentified man, presumably the boy’s father, and the journalist from TF1.

The strawberry crumble looked so delightful that I decided to try it myself. I didn’t follow the cook’s method exactly — to show her son that the cream had been whipped enough, she picked up the bowl and inverted it over his head — but the rest I did more or less as she did. I halved the strawberries. I made the crumble pastry and baked it on a sheet of parchment paper. I whipped the cream, and I made a caramel sauce by melting sugar in a little water and letting it brown, then adding a bit more water at the end to liquify it.

This dessert is known in French as une verrine because it is served in a glass (un verre). One can of course serve it in a bowl if one prefers, but then one wouldn’t be able to see the lovely layers. This new addition to my culinary repertoire joins strawberry tart, strawberry schaum torte (berry-topped meringues), strawberry charlotte, sliced strawberries with basil and balsamic vinegar, strawberry and rose petal jam, strawberry mousse, strawberry crepes and various other recipes on this site. You guessed right — I’m a fan of fraises.

And the good news is, the lockdown here was partially lifted last week, with sidewalk cafés reopening and the curfew moving from 7 to 9 p.m. So we can at last take a break from cooking and go out for lunch! But those of us who enjoy the arts of the kitchen won’t go out for every meal. So my message to you, as always, is…

Happy cooking.

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Omelette aux petits pois

A lovely way to serve an omelet in springtime is with freshly shelled peas, with a scattering of mint and scallions for an extra burst of flavor. You can add cheese, ham or bacon, baby spinach or arugula — anything your palate desires. The omelet is light, fresh and ultraquick to prepare. Peas straight out of the pod need to be cooked for only a minute. Then whip the eggs, swirl them into the pan, and lunch can be on the table in just ten minutes.

Omelette aux petits pois / Spring omelet with fresh peas

As soon as peas come into season each year, I make a beeline for the market. Stands are piled high with peas in their pods and the other fabulous offerings of spring. Rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, spring onions, baby carrots, baby turnips — it’s beautiful. I enjoy the rite of shelling the peas. Unless you plan to make a meal of them, this goes quickly and can be done while chatting with friends, listening to music or watching the news. It’s hard to resist tasting as you go. The peas can be sweet as sugar, and they’re virtually calorie free.

When I had my place in the Burgundy countryside, I enjoyed growing peas. My neighbor taught me to plant crisscross bamboo stakes over the tiny sprouts in early spring. Pale green tendrils soon wrapped themselves around the poles, blossoms appeared and the first baby pods took form. Waiting for the peas to mature was a challenge, but worth it — by late May or early June, we could gather them up and serve them in any number of ways.

The classic French way of preparing fresh peas is called, aptly, petits pois à la française and includes … cooked lettuce. That may sound odd, but when baby lettuce leaves are sautéd in butter with baby onions and then gently braised with peas and a little thyme, the result is surprisingly wonderful. Like other French chefs, I often include bacon.

My love of fresh peas translates into many other recipes: fresh pea soup with mint, risotto with asparagus and fresh peas, tagine of veal with fresh peas and lemon, pasta with peas and country ham, and perhaps my favorite, jardinière de légumes, a medley of tender spring veggies. I made that this week alongside grilled salmon, with rhubarb compote as a dessert. If any of these dishes tempt you, it’s time to head to the kitchen.

Happy cooking!

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Poulet au pistou

This dish of roast chicken with a garlicky basil sauce tucked under the skin was inspired by my friend Valérie, a superlative cook. It’s a spin-off from a venerable ancestor, poularde en demi-deuil, or ‘chicken in half mourning’, a specialty of Lyon in which truffle slices are slipped under the skin. As truffles are expensive and hard to come by, Valérie often substitutes herbal sauces. One of her favorites is pistou, the Provençal version of pesto.

Poulet au pistou / Chicken with pistou

In fact, pistou is the same as Italy’s pesto genevese minus the pine nuts. To make it you just need a bunch of fresh basil, a garlic clove, a little grated parmesan, olive oil and a blender. While the oven is heating, you create a pocket for the sauce and slip it beneath the chicken skin. If you like, you can add chopped tomatoes and shallots and/or whole garlic cloves to the roasting pan. The result is succulent and ultra flavorful.

Valérie says this dish is not her invention, but I’ve never encountered it before. A quick search of the web turned up nothing identical — plenty of chicken-and-pistou dishes, but none with the sauce inside the chicken. On the other hand, there are many, many recipes for poularde (or poulet) en demi-deuil, one of the triumphs of French gastronomy.

That dish, which rose to fame in the 1930s in the eponymous Lyon restaurant of La Mère Brazier, France’s first female three-star chef, takes its name from the contrast between the black of the truffle slices and the white of a creamy sauce bathing the chicken — half mourning. But Mother Brazier didn’t invent it. She learned how to make it from one of her precursors in Lyon, La Mère Filloux, whose clients never asked for anything else according to Curnonsky, an early 20th century food critic known as the Prince of Gastronomy.

I would love to try my hand one day at demi-deuil, in which a whole chicken is poached with veggies for an hour and a half before the insertion of the truffle slices, then allowed to cool overnight and poached for 90 minutes more the next day. A sauce of broth, cream and wine completes the recipe. As that’s kind of a major production — and I don’t have any truffles at hand — I’ll settle for poulet au pistou for the time being.

Happy cooking.

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Purée de haricots blancs

The idea for this Mediterranean-style dip came my way the other day when a friend brought me a packet of beautiful dried white broad beans. I wanted to use them quickly, but they were so large that I feared they might be intimidating if served whole. So I cooked them to tenderness and puréed them with lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and a dash of cumin. As my friends and I appreciate spice, I added a crushed cayenne pepper as well.

Purée de haricots blancs / Mediterranean-style white bean dip

There were smiles all around when I served the dip at cocktail hour, accompanied by warm pita triangles and some veggie sticks. It is similar to hummus but lighter because there is little olive oil and no tahini, the rich sesame paste that is puréed with chick peas to make hummus. It’s the sort of dip you might find in Provence, or along the French coast near the Spanish border, or (let me dream) in a Greek taverna on a sparkling cove.

My first experience with Mediterranean-style beans was in the 1990s when a Lebanese friend in Paris served me ful medames, made of darker beans but with essentially the same flavorings as white bean dip. I was so blown away by this zingy, earthy dish that I had to have the recipe — and made it at home the next day. Ful medames, in which the beans are cooked to mouth-watering tenderness but not puréed, is actually an ancient Egyptian dish described as ‘probably as old as the Pharoahs’ by Claudia Roden in her Book of Middle Eastern Food. The dish is now served across much of the Arab world.

Like ful medames, the white bean dip offered today is packed with nutrients and also vegan. But the main thing is that it’s a crowd pleaser that can get any festive occasion off to a good start. And as I discovered, leftover dip will last a while if refrigerated. A snack to have on hand while waiting for the day when we can travel to Greece…

Happy cooking.

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Gnocchis à la sauge

Fluffy gnocchi sautéd with fresh sage in melted butter is one of my go-to dishes when I need to get a quick meal on the table. The butter is browned ever so slightly, enhancing the lusty flavor of the sage, and a topping of freshly grated parmesan adds a delightful tang. This subtle Tuscan-inspired dish is elegant enough to serve for lunch when last-minute guests arrive. And its real beauty is that it takes just five minutes to prepare.

Gnocchis à la sauge / Gnocchi with fresh sage

Now that the weather is finally turning nice in Paris, I’m more than ever looking for dishes that are quick to put on the table. Especially now that I’m cooking for one most days due to lockdown. I have to admit that cooking fatigue sometimes sets in, and fresh ideas can be hard to come by. Which is why, when I spotted some fresh gnocchi dumplings the other day, I brought them home to cook with the sage growing on my veranda.

I’m sprucing up my veranda at the moment, having failed to do so last spring due to our very strict lockdown at the time. With the virus numbers rising alarmingly in Paris, new lockdown rules were announced a couple of weeks ago. These measures allow only ‘essential shops’ to stay open for business. So I rushed down to the flower and plant shops along the Seine to stock up before they closed. Well, I was happy to learn that France is a country where flower shops are considered essential…

Along with rosemary, thyme, basil, lavender and campanula (bellflowers), I bought a small lemon tree, which is rewarding me with lovely white blossoms that I hope will be lemons by the autumn. They have joined my my venerable sage plant, transplanted from the country some years ago and still producing darling new leaves every spring and pale flowers in the summer.

Remarkably easy to grow, sage is a great addition to numerous dishes. It has also been used throughout the ages for medicinal purposes including, allegedly, curing snakebite and increasing fertility among women. The kings of France enjoyed sage, from Charlemagne, who recommended its cultivation in royal gardens, to Louis XIV, who liked a cup of sage tea. More recently, sage has been found in clinical trials to improve memory.

Dishes on this site that feature fresh sage include an omelet, a thin-crust pizza (with bacon), cheese ravioli and roast guinea hen. If you can’t grow it yourself, fresh sage can be found at farmers markets, fine grocery stores and online. And gnocchi are available at Italian delis, the fresher the better.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Epinards sautés à l’ail

Baby spinach lightly sautéd in olive oil with garlic is one of my favorite ways of preparing this versatile veggie. Add a dash of lemon juice and you have a treat with a southern French edge. In northern France you’re more likely to find spinach prepared with cream or butter, the leaves most often served whole in a generous pile. I use spinach in maybe a dozen ways — in salads, in omelets, in savory tarts and as a side dish, as in the photo.

Epinards sauté à l’ail / Fresh spinach sautéd with garlic

Yet until today this site has not included a recipe for cooked spinach — an anomaly that is now rectified. Spinach, a popular vegetable in France, has become much easier to prepare with the introduction by supermarkets of prewashed baby leaves. Sometimes I start with spinach straight from the garden, never mind the time it takes to wash away the sand clinging to the leaves and to trim away the thick stems. But often I opt for convenience.

After already writing up and photographing this week’s recipe, I was surprised last weekend to see a feature on spinach in the glossy weekend magazine of Le Monde. This most authoritative of French newspapers reported that spinach was unknown in Europe before the Middle Ages and arrived via Iran and Central Asia around the 12th century during the Crusades. It is considered a spring vegetable here, being most often planted in the autumn, but these days one can find it throughout the year.

Le Monde included some culinary suggestions: a salad of freshly picked young spinach with chopped spring onions, sliced apples and roasted hazelnuts in a lemony sauce; freshly squeezed spinach juice; spinach sautéd quickly with a lump of salted butter; or spinach-stuffed crepes. It noted that spinach historically was served during Lent in various forms, including preserved in clay pots — presumably a forerunner to canned spinach.

Ah, canned spinach. I remember it all too well. It was a dark gray-green and tasted of — well, I’d rather not go there. It’s understandable why this healthy, flavorful veggie acquired a bad rep for a time among children ordered to eat their spinach. In the postwar years, even Hollywood got into the act, summoning American kids to heed Popeye’s famous words: ‘I’m strong to the finish cause I eats me spinach…’

We’ve come a long way. If you like spinach as much as I do, here are more recipes: Mediterranean spinach-feta pie, French pizza with mushrooms and baby spinach, spinach soup with garlic cream, spinach quiche with pine nuts and parmesan, spinach salad with egg and red onion, smoked salmon omelet with spinach, spinach salad with strawberries and pine nuts, oysters gratinéed with spinach and spinach salad with pancetta.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Pageot au four sauce citron vert

This is a fish story, the upshot of which is a dish of baked sea bream with a delicate lime-flavored sauce. It started two weeks ago when I went to the market and my fishmonger wasn’t there — he’d apparently gone on vacation during the French school holidays. So I wandered through the market and found another fish stand with a remarkably beautiful display. In the middle was a large red fish that looked like a giant goldfish.

Pageot au four sauce citron vert / Baked sea bream with lime sauce

The label said pagre, a member of the bream family that translates as red porgy. It’s a fish I associate with southern France as it’s often used in bouillabaisse — yet there it was in Paris. This was on a Thursday. I thought it looked perfect for a lunch I was planning for the following Monday, and decided to wait to buy it until the next market day, Sunday. But when I returned, alas, no pagre. Instead, there was a smaller pink fish labeled pageot.

Although I had never encountered pageot before, I bought two, brought them home and looked it up: red sea bream. Fine. The next day I set to work for my guest. I coated the fish lightly with olive oil, inserted a couple of lime bits in the cavity and oven-baked it whole. While it was baking, I chopped and steamed a leek and made a sauce of cream, lime zest and lime juice. When the fish was done, I set it on a bed of leeks and drizzled it with the sauce. On the side I served steamed baby zucchini. My guest was delighted.

As I thought this would be a good recipe for the blog, I took some photos before serving the lunch. Alas, once again — the photos did not do justice to the dish. So the next Thursday I went back to the market, bought another pageot, came home, cooked it (just for me), took more photos and had it for lunch. And was not disappointed.

In fact, the discovery of this fish stand set me off on a cooking spree. Last Sunday I bought carrelet (plaice), a bottom-dwelling fish that, like sole and turbot, is dark on the upper side, in this case with red splotches, and white on the bottom side. I again had a lunch guest — this is allowed in France, while dinner with guests is impossible due to the 6 p.m. curfew — and we pan-fried it, served with small boiled potatoes and a watercress salad. I also bought bar de ligne (wild sea bass), which I served to my daughter the next day — oven-baked, with beurre blanc and a veggie medley of asparagus, peas and carrots.

To give you an idea of the wealth of fish on offer at this stand, here’s another photo. On display in just this tiny corner of the stand are daurade royale (gilthead sea bream), merlan (whiting), limande sole (lemon sole), encornets (squid), seiche (cuttlefish), tourteaux (crab), praires (clams), rascasse (scorpion fish), colinot (hake), colinot friture (small hake for frying) and bar d’élevage (farmed sea bass). This is what makes it so delightful to be a culinary-minded person in Paris, even in a time of lockdown.

As we head towards spring, here’s hoping that you and your loved ones are well, and ready to enjoy the new season’s bounty that will soon bring pleasure to your table.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Croque-monsieur rustique

If you’ve ever been to Paris, you will most likely have encountered a croque-monsieur, the classic French grilled sandwich of ham, cheese and a creamy sauce. No one makes them at home because they’re served on virtually every street corner, at virtually every café. But with the cafés closed now and snow drifting down the other day, I decided to give it a go. And being in a non-traditional mood, I made an open-faced version on rustic country bread.

Croque-monsieur rustique / Open-faced croque monsieur

The traditional croque-monsieur consists of two slices of white bread filled with ham and cheese and topped with a béchamel sauce and more grated cheese. This one instead uses French-style country bread, a rustic loaf with a crisp crust and a tender, chewy interior. The slices are large, making for a generous sandwich. As there’s plenty of body in a single slice, I prefer to serve it open-faced — lighter and just as delicious.

According to the Grand Larousse gastronomique, the first croque-monsieur was served in 1910 at a café on the Boulevard des Capucines, near the Paris Opéra. But the esteemed encyclopedia of French cuisine does not say how the sandwich got its name.

Croque-monsieur translates literally as ‘bite the man’ (croquer means to bite into something, and monsieur is, well, what you call a man). One story goes that it got its name when the Boulevard des Capucines café owner, who was reputed to practice cannibalism, presented the sandwich to a customer and joked that it contained human flesh. But both this off-the-wall explanation and the account in the Larousse are proved false by the fact that the croque-monsieur was mentioned in periodicals well before 1910.

In 1891, for example, a sports publication called La Revue athlétique tells of a gathering when it is past lunchtime and the guests are hungry. One has an idea: ‘Let’s make croque-monsieur. Quick, bread for toasting, butter, Gruyère cheese, ham, a little cayenne pepper. One slices, the other butters and the third puts everything together in sandwiches that Vincent sautés in a pan. They’re exquisite, these croque-monsieur, perhaps a bit big, made for giant jaws, but no matter. We eat, we come back for more, we’re in ecstasy.’

I’ve quoted the whole passage, which I found on the French version of Wikipedia, both because it gives the original recipe — the croques were pan-fried, not grilled as today — and because it is so funny. Other 19th century publications mentioned the sandwich. Even Marcel Proust wrote about it in his masterwork, In Search of Lost Time.

When I decided to make a croque, my first step was go down the street to a bakery called Dupain (Bread) that makes an exceptional miche, a large round loaf of mixed white and whole wheat flour with a sourdough leavening. The shop assistant told me that the flour comes from Gilles Matignon, a miller in the Gâtinais region south of Paris who grinds organic grain using traditional methods, a rarity these days.

Most cafés serving open-faced croques use pain Poîlane, a similar bread, which is available throughout France and also in London. Elsewhere, you can just use your favorite loaf, preferably one that will make large slices. And there is also room for improvisation in your choice of ham and cheese. Baked ham and Comté or Gruyère are traditional, but some cafés take liberties, using cured ham, goat or other cheeses, and sometimes adding anything from tomatoes or pesto to honey or bacon. And then there’s the croque-madame, with a fried egg on top. One can only speculate on how it got its name…

Personally, I prefer the more traditional variety, and I’d suggest you start with that, too. So when lunchtime rolls around, if you’re hungry and would like to experience a sandwich that at least once left its eaters in ecstasy, why not try your hand at a croque-monsieur?

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4a. Savory Tarts and Tartines | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Salade à l’ail aux croutons

I like the challenge of going into the kitchen and creating a dish with whatever ingredients happen to be around. So the other day I made a zingy salad from a couple handfuls of lettuce leaves bathed in a garlicky mustard vinaigrette, topped with croutons straight out of the oven. I didn’t exactly create it because I’ve been making this salad for years. The pleasure was in finding the fridge nearly bare and still being able to produce a tasty lunch.

Salade à l’ail aux croutons / Salad with garlic and croutons

Usually I serve this salad as a first course, followed by anything from steak or Provençal chicken to pasta, for example penne à l’arrabiata or spaghetti with garlic and olive oil — these last two choices being vegan, like the salad itself. The point being that this salad packs a punch and deserves a main dish that will not be overwhelmed by the garlic. If you like, you can top the salad with crispy bacon cubes in addition to the croutons.

As we head toward spring, I’m finding myself increasingly wanting salads after a long, wintry spell of indulging in comfort food. And I’m not alone. The most popular recipe on this site has long been salade verte à la française, the classic French salad of Boston lettuce in a mustard vinaigrette, first published nearly eight years ago.

I find this surprising, and yet the statistics are there. As you may have noticed, there’s a list of Most Popular Recipes at the top right of this page. I update it from time to time using the Site Stats module attached to my web publishing software. I checked just now, and that basic French salad is right up at the top — for the past week, the past month and since it first appeared, with more than 30,000 of the site’s 1 million plus views over time.

Of course, looking at statistics over time doesn’t give a true picture of what’s currently most popular, because recipes that were posted several years back can accumulate more views than newer recipes. I recently tried to add a list showing which recipes had been most popular over a shorter period but, being technically challenged, I failed.

Maybe I’ll manage some day. In the meantime, here are some dishes that didn’t make the all-time top 10 but were among the past year’s 10 most popular: couscous royal (couscous with lamb, chicken and merguez), cerises à l’eau de vie (cherries in brandy), poule au pot (chicken boiled with vegetables) and artichauts vinaigrette (artichokes with vinaigrette).

Why these recipes? I have no idea, but suspect that somewhere along the line someone may have tweeted them or linked to them, sparking a burst of interest among people who then retweeted them, sparking more interest. This happened last August when someone with a huge Twitter following tweeted my recipe for coulibiac (fish pie in puff pastry), causing the site to crash repeatedly for a day due to the increased volume of clicks. And by the way, coulibiac briefly bounced French green salad out of the top spot as a result.

I find it interesting to try to imagine why certain very simple recipes remain consistently popular — for example, porc grillé aux herbes de Provence may sound sexy in French but it’s basically just pork chops. Yet it’s in the number two spot. And what’s so special about oeufs mimosa, the French version of deviled eggs, which features in the past year’s top 20, just behind the more exotic roast quail? And why do French classics like boeuf bourguignon or blanquette de veau rank well down on the all-time list?

It’s a puzzle. Perhaps it’s the very simplicity of certain dishes that explains their appeal — in which case this week’s salad with garlic and croutons fits the bill.

Happy cooking.

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