Filets de poisson sauce citronnée

Paris bistros often serve fish in a lemony cream sauce that I’ve never seen served in a French home. Why not, one wonders? It proved remarkably easy to prepare when I tried it out in my kitchen the other day after scouting around online for tips. And the beauty of this sauce is that it may be served over any type of filleted fish — cod, haddock, salmon, sea bass, you name it — and would also be delicious over scallops, lobster or other shellfish.

Filets de poisson sauce citronnée / Poached fish with creamy lemon sauce

The sauce is best over fish that is poached or steamed. That takes about five minutes, as does making the sauce itself. So once you’ve gathered all the ingredients, and providing you buy fish that’s already filleted, preparation of this lovely dish takes ten minutes in total. Which is great during lockdown if you happen to be developing cooking fatigue.

The sauce is a mixture of cream, butter, lemon juice, salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Chives are traditional, but you can branch out and use the herb or your choice, for example dill, tarragon, cilantro, thyme, parsley or chervil. Unlike sauces involving egg yolks (hollandaise, mayonnaise), or emulisification (beurre blanc), this sauce requires no special culinary wizardry. For equipment, you will need only a small saucepan and a spoon.

Likewise — and happily, if you have a kitchen as small as mine — you don’t need a special poaching pan for the fish. The French variety of such a pan is a long rectangle with rounded ends that tends to measure about two feet (60 cm) in length and can set you back quite a bit. The copper and bronze model sold by Dehillerin, Paris’s finest cookware store, costs 686 euros, or more than $800. Even if I love the look, I’d have nowhere to store it.

Instead, a simple skillet with a cover is perfect for poaching fish fillets. Add a layer of water in the bottom and simmer the fish until it’s done. Or you can use a steamer. Then spoon on the creamy, buttery lemon sauce and voilà — a bistro-style dinner is ready.

What to serve alongside the fish? The sauce is also delicious over steamed veggies, so that’s one easy option. Another is to serve the fish beside a salad of tender leaves with toast triangles, as shown above. If you have a little more time, you could make a veggie purée, potatoes, rice, bulghur or another grain — pretty much anything.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Soufflé au potiron

A pumpkin soufflé might be just the ticket this year for those of us who are under lockdown but still want to celebrate Thanksgiving. Here in Paris, where the lockdown is in effect until at least Dec. 1, a friend and I who give a gala dinner every year have begun thinking about how to get creative when gatherings are essentially banned. For the moment, we’re planning a twosome — meaning roast turkey with stuffing is off the menu. What is to be done?

Soufflé au potiron / Pumpkin soufflé

First, let me say that this soufflé is a lovely dish to serve whenever pumpkins are in season. It is light yet filling, flavored with tangy cheese and a dash of nutmeg. Preparation is fun, although a bit longer than most of the recipes on this site. Count on 20 minutes for cooking the pumpkin, 20 minutes for making the soufflé base and 40 minutes in the oven. You can do the first steps ahead of time — but once you’ve whipped the egg whites, the soufflé needs to be baked right away. And taken straight to the table.

You can serve the soufflé as a lunch dish for two, accompanied by a salad and perhaps a nice bottle of red, or as the starter of a larger meal. This is what I have in mind for this year’s mini Thanksgiving. Our menu could be: Pumpkin soufflé followed by roast quail, roast partridge with pears or chicken with walnut sauce as the main dish, accompanied by, say, sweet potato purée, puréed celeriac and a salad of lamb’s lettuce and Belgian endive. And what about dessert? No point in making a crowd-sized pie this year. Instead, perhaps caramelized pears, pears in red wine and cassis or chestnut mousse.

If you’re planning a vegetarian Thanksgiving, then I’d suggest starting with a  salad of tender leaves, walnuts and pears and serving the pumpkin soufflé as your main dish, followed by any of the side dishes and desserts mentioned above. Vegans could follow the same plan, although omitting the soufflé and substituting a dish like braised finocchio with Belgian endive or wild mushrooms with herbs. And I’ll just add that any of these menus would make a fine autumn dinner for guests.

Given all the difficulties of this season — the virus, terrorist attacks in European cities and the rocky political situation in the States — it can be hard to stay optimistic, and when these difficulties affect our holidays and traditions one’s mood can darken further. Yet I find that limits are in fact a spark for creativity, in the same way that the size of a canvas will help define the artist’s vision. Which is why I’m finding it interesting to consider alternatives for this very particular Nov. 26.

This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with a non-traditional Thanksgiving. A few years back, I was invited by the French television channel Arte to participate in a program called De l’Art et du Cochon — a play on the expression ‘du lard ou du cochon’, which translates literally as ‘bacon or pork’ and actually means not knowing what to make of something. The program’s theme was to take a well-known painting of food and have a famous chef reproduce it. The painting in question was Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom From Want’, in which a family looks on eagerly as Grandmother brings their Thanksgiving turkey to the table. And the man tasked with reproducing it was the three-star chef Georges Blanc.

My role as the token American was supposed to be simple — to make cranberry sauce and bring it to Blanc’s table in Vonnas, just south of Burgundy. At the last minute, I was asked to provide cornbread as well (oops, not my specialty). When we sat down, Georges Blanc produced a roast turkey unlike any I’d tasted before — stuffed with veal, pork, walnuts and thyme — and a fabulous pumpkin gratin. Here’s a photo from the occasion.

Getting back to the pumpkin soufflé, I served it one sunny day last week before the lockdown kicked in when a friend came by for lunch on my veranda. We ate and enjoyed the whole thing, and I’m thankful we were able to meet. I’m thankful that, despite the current limitations affecting our lives, we still have plentiful food that we can creatively turn into beautiful dishes. I’m thankful we have the telephone and the internet to bring us close to farflung family and friends. And I’m thankful to you, dear readers, for giving me the constant pleasure of writing about the joys of French cuisine.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4. Omelets, Soufflés, Quiche | 12 Comments

Ti punch, acras de morue

Strong drink may be needed to get through the next couple of weeks, so here’s a rum cocktail from the French Antilles and crispy cod fritters to go with it. The cocktail, ti punch, is based on rhum agricole, a clear rum distilled from cane sugar juice with a flavor remarkably different from other rums on the market. Add some lime juice and raw sugar, and your mood will definitely improve. The fritters are fun to make and come with a spicy salsa.

Ti punch / Ti punch
Acras de morue / Spicy cod fritters
Sauce chien / French Caribbean salsa

Let’s start with the cocktail. Ti punch is said to have been invented in 1848 on the tiny island of Marie Galante to celebrate the abolition of slavery. The island, which is temptingly described as having white sand beaches, lush greenery and sweeping views, is part of Guadeloupe, one of France’s two Caribbean island départements — i.e. they’re not territories, like Puerto Rico in the case of the States, but actual ‘states’ like Hawaii.

The other such island is Martinique, which produces the only rhum agricole to have been granted the AOC quality-control label (Appellation d’Origine Côntrolée). And here’s the thing about rhum agricole. It’s absolutely delicious. And while it may be harder to find outside of France, it’s available elsewhere via online shopping sites (see recipe for details).

If settling in for a long night of watching election returns, or for any other reason, you can mix up a pitcher of ti punch to go the distance. But this cocktail is traditionally mixed in the glass, one by one, often by the guests themselves (with as much rum as they care to add). Ice is not traditional — oddly, the drink is served at room temperature in the steamy tropics — but no one says you can’t add it if you prefer the drink chilled, as I do.

Now for the fritters. Acras de morue are traditionally made from salt cod, which must be desalted. But fresh cod may be substituted with no discernable difference in flavor. You mince the cod in a food processor, add shallot, parsley, allspice and hot pepper, and mix with a simple batter before frying in hot oil. As you drop each spoonful of the mixture into the oil, little balls magically take form. You can serve the fritters straight out of the pot — any kids who may be around will demand it — or set them aside for reheating later.

The fritters marry well with sauce chien, which translates as ‘dog sauce’ but has nothing to do with dogs. This French Caribbean salsa is in fact named for a steel knife used locally with the brand name Couteau Chien®. Sauce chien differs from Latin American salsas because it does not include tomatoes. It’s made of fresh herbs, onion, scallion, garlic, hot pepper, oil and water — you can make it as spicy as you like by varying the amount of hot pepper.

For the record, the Couteau Chien® is manufactured by the knife maker Thiers-Issard in Auvergne, in the heart of France, but is sold primarily in the Antilles. According to the broadcaster France Info, the knives are so popular there that the market was flooded at one point with counterfeits from China, identifiable because the dog on the fake knives immodestly displayed their private parts.

Meanwhile here in Paris, where we are now under a 9 p.m. curfew, the autumn nights are stretching not just longer but lonelier. In a country where the dinner hour begins around 8, friends can’t come be invited because they wouldn’t make it home in time. And fines for violating the curfew are steep: 135 euros ($160) for a first violation, 200 euros for a second and 3,750 euros plus six months in jail for a third.

Parisians are getting creative to ward off solitude. One popular solution is le cocktail dinatoire — an early evening cocktail party with significant hors d’oeuvres. Such events can include up to six people, the limit decreed by the government for any gathering. Another solution, and I claim credit for this one, is the sleepover dinner, aka le pyjama party. I’m trying this out tonight for the first time, with one guest only. We’ll see.

With restrictions tightening around the globe, we need all the help we can get to make it through this depressing season. But take it from me — wherever you may be, a few rounds of ti punch with spicy cod fritters on the side are guaranteed to cheer the atmosphere.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters, Drinks | 1 Comment

Velouté de brocolis

Some days you just need a nice bowl of soup. And the French take on broccoli soup is just right for easing body and soul given the climate of this turbulent autumn (and I’m not talking about the weather). The basic recipe is ultrasimple. Broccoli is simmered with potato, leek, and garlic, then puréed to smoothness. Add a dash of lemon juice, stir in some cream and top with croutons. That’s the French way — but there are many variations…

Velouté de brocolis / Broccoli soup

You can go Italian, stirring in some olive oil and topping each bowl with grated parmesan. For a Spanish flavor, add chorizo chips. Or — one of my favorites — skip the cream and instead add finely grated ginger and a swirl of coconut milk. All of these versions are healthy and tasty, and two are vegan — with croutons (no cream), and with ginger and coconut milk.

The funny thing about what the French call brocolis (why they dropped one ‘c’, nobody knows) is that despite this veggie’s huge popularity across the border in Italy, it was introduced here only recently, and still rarely appears on bistro menus. When I first arrived in the mid-70s, broccoli was hard if not impossible to find. A quick online check confirms this. Although broccoli was introduced to France during the Renaissance by Catherine de Medicis, it has been commercially cultivated here only since the 1980s.

Today, however, supermarkets in Paris are overflowing with broccoli. I make it often, usually cooked al dente in one of two combinations: with garlic, lemon and olive oil, or with soy and a dash of sesame oil. The Larousse Gastronomique, the French culinary bible, says that broccoli may be served ‘like asparagus’ — i.e. with hollandaise or another sauce — ‘as a purée, in a gratin, or alongside meat’. But in practice, I’ve only seen broccoli served in restaurants as one lonely floweret in combination with other veggies.

The thing to remember when preparing broccoli is that it loses its brilliant emerald color if it is overcooked, fading to an unlucious olive drab. The trick is to blanch it quickly if serving al dente, or — if making a purée or a soup — not to cover the pot. The Chinese are past masters of this art, as I’ve learned in recent months while experimenting with Szechuan cuisine. You can find a knock-out broccoli recipe on this Szechuan site.

For what it’s worth, when drawing up a list of recipes to post from now to the end of the year, I was taken aback to discover that I had yet to mention broccoli on this site. While broccoli has bad rep among some, mainly the younger generation, I depend on it through the cooler months. It’s low in calories and high in Vitamins C and K. The French now love it so much that they’ve doubly pluralized it — adding an ‘s’ to broccoli, the Italian plural of broccolo. So if, like me, you’re a fan, why not try this soup? In any of its many guises…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | 5 Comments

Poulet aux coings

One day a colleague of mine at the International Herald Tribune arrived with a bagful of quinces and handed it over. ‘Do you know what to do with these?’ he asked. Thus began my adventure in cooking with quince, a fruit I had rarely encountered before. Every autumn I try my hand at one dish or another. This year, I made chicken with quinces, a dish richly spiced with cumin, cinnamon, coriander and saffron, and sweetened with honey.

Poulet aux coings / Chicken with quinces

The dish is easy to prepare providing you have a sharp knife for paring the quinces, which are rock-hard even when ripe. The chicken is sautéd in olive oil and then simmered with onions and the spices, with quince pieces added halfway through. If there are no quinces in your area, not to worry — you can substitute pears. But the flavor won’t be the same.

If you’ve never encountered a quince, it’s an exquisitely perfumed yellow fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a pear. In France, it is mainly used to make pâte de coings, a sturdy jelly that is served in sugar-coated squares. In Spain, this firm jelly is known as membrillo and is served with Manchego cheese. Other countries, like Iran and Azerbaijan, use quinces in various savory dishes, often paired with lamb or poultry.

But cooking with quince can be tricky. For my first attempt, I tried my hand at pâte de coings. The recipe looked simple enough. After I chopped and boiled some quinces from my bagful, the next step was to wrap the softened fruit in a fine muslin cloth and squeeze to remove the juices. Oops. Next thing I knew, my kitchen walls and ceiling were spotted with blobs of quince. At that point, I gave up.

The next year, I attempted plov, an Azerbaijaini rice and lamb dish that I’d enjoyed while working as a reporter in the USSR. It turned out beautifully, and I’ve never looked back. Bukharian chicken pilaf with quinces and apples followed, both of these recipes from Anya von Bremzen’s wonderful cookbook Please to the Table.

Despite its relative rarity in contemporary cuisine, the quince has been part of the world’s culinary repertoire for millennia. It hails from Mesopotamia and, according to certain theories, was the fruit Eve tasted in the Garden of Eden — not an apple. (A skeptic might say this stretches the imagination, as raw quinces are virtually inedible. The wily serpert would surely have been smarter than to tempt her with such a fruit.)

I heard about quinces long before I tasted them via Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, in which, after a year at sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, this odd couple fell in love, bought a ring from a piggy, and were married the next day: ‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince…’ To my three-year-old ears, it all sounded terribly exotic.

My next childhood encounter came via ancient aunts who sent pretty fruit baskets at year’s end embellished with little jars of quince jelly. It was fairly tasteless. Given the choice, I vastly preferred my mom’s homemade strawberry jam.

But the real thing is something else. As Claudia Roden writes in her Book of Jewish Food, ‘It is the seductive flavor and perfume of the quince that makes it special.’ Her recipe for Poulet aux Coings, which is differently spiced than mine, is described as a sumptuous dish that was prepared for the Jewish New Year holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall in the autumn when quinces are ripe.

I made the dish pictured above last week for Rosh Hashanah, its sweetness fitting with a tradition of wishing your near and dear a sweet year ahead. And so, dear readers, here’s wishing you a very sweet year and…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Leave a comment

Piste de moules à la sétoise

Mussels with garlic, hot pepper, olive oil and fresh herbs, served in small glasses at cocktail hour, is a specialty of the charming Mediterranean port of Sète. This is local cuisine at its finest — le piste de moules, as it’s known, can be found at the many bars lining the canals of this Venice-like town, and in the homes of its residents, but practically nowhere else in France. I have a friend who lives there, and he was kind enough to share the recipe.

Piste de moules à la sétoise / Spicy cocktail mussels

It’s very simple. The mussels are cooked à cru, i.e. over high heat with nothing else in the pot — no wine, no butter, no olive oil. They are removed from their shells, bathed in a sauce of the other ingredients — the garlic and hot pepper are traditionally crushed in a mortar and pestle, with olive oil added little by little — and allowed to rest long enough for the flavors to blend.  Served in verrines or on a platter with toothpicks, the mussels make a perfect partner for the white wines of the region, like Picpoul de Pinet. As this wine is nearly as hard to find elsewhere as the dish itself, any crisp white or rosé will do.

I discovered le piste de moules on a visit to Sète a few years back during the height of summer, when the town is crowded with tourists and the beautiful white beaches are packed with lounge chairs, umbrellas and happy swimmers. I went back a couple of times, but decided not to go to the Mediterranean shore this year because of the virus. Nonetheless, I had a hankering for the dish and made it twice over the summer — in July in Normandy, and in August in Paris. Traditionally the fresh herb used is parsley, but I innovated, using basil once and cilantro the other time. Fine.

Sète, which is famous in France as the hometown of both the poet Paul Valéry and the singer Georges Brassens, has other gastronomic specialties that are found only there: la tielle and les zézettes. I tasted the former once, repeat once. La tielle is an octopus pie with a doughy crust that I found appealing neither to the eye nor to the palette, although other people I know think it’s fabulous. Zézettes are elongated sugar-coated cookies that take their name from a French diminutive for … the male organ. (I know, but hey, this is France.) They’re tasty if a bit bland, and are improved when dipped in coffee.

Another local specialty, la bourride de baudroie, is found in different variations all along the French Mediterranean shore. La bourride is fish served in a soup based on aïoli  — in this case, monkfish, which is known as baudroie in the south and as lotte in the rest of France. La bourride differs from bouillabaisse in that no tomatoes are used in the soup, which is a pale yellow color. It’s delicious, and I’ll post the recipe one of these days.

As for the name of the mussels dish, I wondered why it was called ‘piste‘, a word that generally means ‘track’ or ‘trail’ or ‘floor’ (as in dance floor) or ‘runway’, in which case it is a feminine noun. In the case of this dish it’s a masculine noun. I searched online and drew a blank, so I turned to the the excellent French dictionary Le Petit Robert and the culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique. No mention of the masculine noun or the dish. At that point I got in touch with Serge, my friend who lives in Sète.

He also didn’t know, but said he’d check with some local friends who were coming to dinner. Their consensus: ‘Pister, in pharmacies, means to crush something in a mortar. Le piste is thus a result of the crushed garlic. Even people from Sète don’t know this.’

After receiving Serge’s message, I took a closer look in Le Petit Robert and saw that I’d missed the essential etymological note at the start of the entry for ‘piste‘. It says the word derives the Italian pista, a variation of pesta, which comes from the verb pestare, ‘to crush’. How this evolved into the present-day sense of ‘trail’ or ‘track’ is a mystery, but the note verified something I’d already suspected — that piste (masculine) is related to pesto and pistou (French pesto), also masculine.

These days you don’t need a mortar and pestle (note the relation to pestare) in order to make le piste de moules. You can make the sauce in a blender, or simply put the garlic through a press and crush the red pepper by hand, as I do. Whichever method you choose, the result will be a tasty and eye-pleasing start to an evening.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Salade aux grains, sauce sésame

When staying with friends in Provence this summer, I was served a mixed-grain salad that knocked my socks off. The star of this salad was petit épeautre, or einkorn wheat, a rustic grain with a nutty flavor that is grown locally and has become popular among foodies throughout France. It married delightfully with the other ingredients — quinoa, lentils, chopped herbs, shallots, ginger and an Asian-inspired sauce of sesame oil, soy and lemon juice.

Salade aux grains, sauce sésame / Mixed-grain salad with sesame sauce

Allow me to set the scene, which couldn’t have been more charming. We were gathered around the long wooden table of my friends’ kitchen in an old stone house in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, lunching indoors because hot winds were blowing. In the cool dim of the kitchen, out came a tangy green bean salad, out came a surprising Greek salad — with more watermelon than tomato (wonderful, watch this space), and out came the sesame-flavored mixed-grain salad. I loved it most of all, and asked for the recipe.

When I got back to Paris and set out to duplicate the dish, I discovered that there were several varieties of the grain I’d always heard described simply as épeautre. Which to choose? A phone call established that it was not, as I had believed, spelt, or grand épeautre, but indeed einkorn, or petit épeautre, which has been grown in the region since the Romans conquered Gaul and in fact is one of the first grains to be domesticated, the earliest known cultivation dating back some 9,000 years.

Once I’d obtained the einkorn, making the salad was a cinch. You cook the grains and lentils until they are tender, chop the herbs, shallots and ginger, whisk up the sauce, combine it all and refrigerate long enough for the flavors to blend. It’s a salad that could stand on its own as a first course or be served alongside just about anything, in any season, enhanced perhaps with a glass of chilled rosé. It’s healthy, it’s vegan, it’s virtually gluten-free. Best, it’s absolutely delicious.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Pissaladière

This onion-anchovy-olive tart from the south of France looks remarkably like pizza. (And it’s name, pissaladière, would seem to be related to pizza, too. More on that later.) I had the good fortune on a recent trip to Provence to be treated twice to pissaladière, one homemade and the other from a bakery. When I got back to Paris last week, I decided to try my hand at this classic dish, which hails from the Mediterranean city of Nice.

Pissaladière / Pissaladière

I had actually been planning to make pissaladière for a while in order to share the recipe with you. What stopped me was the idea of making the pie’s special dough from scratch. Perhaps because I first tasted pissaladière at a sunny café perched high over the Mediterranean in August, I associate this dish with the heat of high summer, a period not conducive to kneading and baking. (Of course one could use store-bought pizza dough for this pie — but one wouldn’t get the same result.)

When I looked into the matter, however, I discovered that the dough for pissaladière requires no kneading. It is made not with yeast but with baking powder (levure alsacienne in French), along with a good dose of olive oil. It took approximately three minutes to put together the dough. I then patted it into a tart pan, ready to go. The topping consists, first, of an anchovy-garlic sauce that is spread over the dough, and second, of onions tenderly cooked to melting perfection in olive oil flavored with thyme and bay. The final step is decorating the pie with anchovy fillets and black olives.

As I was cooking, I wondered about the connection between pizza and pissaladière, etymologywise. Did one arise from the other and pinch the name? Apparently not, at least according to the eminent French linguist Alain Rey, a founding father of the dictionary Le Robert, the bible of French lexicographers. He believes the two dishes arose at different times and in different places, based on a 10th-century document found in the cathedral in Gaetà, outside Naples, that mentions pizza. The first mention he finds of pissaladière dates from the 16th century and derives from the word pissala, or pissalat, denoting a paste made of small salted fish (in old Provençal, peis = fish and sala = salted).

Am I convinced? Maybe, maybe not. The resemblance between the words and the dishes is too compelling to believe that they have no connection. And wherever the two arose, Nice is but a hop-skip-and-a-jump from the Italian coast, and sea connections and commerce have thrived across the region since prehistoric times.

What is certain is that the word pissaladière derives from pissala, a product hard to find outside the Nice region. It is traditionally made by layering anchovies and baby sardines in a jar with salt and a mixture of herbs and spices between each layer. The jar is left to macerate for several weeks before the mixture is passed through a sieve to remove bones and scales. It is then conserved in a clean jar topped with olive oil.

For those living far from Nice, an approximation of pissala can be made by blending anchovy filets with garlic and olive oil. This takes about five minutes — easy as, well, pie. All in all, preparing the pissaladière took me an hour and 40 minutes, including the gentle cooking of the onions and the baking time. I was able to concoct it during the current brutal heatwave in Paris, and lived to tell the tale.

Served with a bottle of chilled rosé on the side, it goes down a treat.

Happy cooking.

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

Gratin de blettes

Swiss chard makes a beautiful gratin that is as packed with nutrients as it is with flavor. I made the gratin this week on Bastille Day, on which I will say more later. My first question, as I was preparing the dish, was: Why did it take me so long to discover Swiss chard? Not until I moved to France did I encounter this wonderful vegetable. My second question was: Since there’s nothing Swiss about it, how did Swiss chard get its name?

Gratin de blettes / Swiss chard gratin

Research turned up a couple of theories on how the name arose. One is that it was first described by a Swiss botanist, even though it is not native to Switzerland. Another is that ‘Swiss’ got added to ‘chard’ in the 19th century to distinguish it from what was then called ‘French chard’, i.e. spinach. But while the two leafy green vegetables have similarities, they are from different botanical families — as chard is in fact related to the beet.

And indeed, the veggie’s name in French reflects this connection. Or should I say names. Chard is known here as both blettes and bettes, the latter very close to the name for beet: betterave, or literally ‘root of beet’. And the wide stalk in the middle is known as carde, which helps explain the ‘chard’ part of ‘Swiss chard’. (Making matters more complicated, another name in French for the same vegetable is poirée, which apparently derives from purée because chard was used in earlier centuries to make a thick soup, and which is confusing because of its closeness to poireau, or leek, another animal entirely.)

But getting back to the gratin, it is quick and simple to prepare. The chard is sliced, boiled until tender, then mixed with cream, a little garlic and grated cheese before being popped into the oven for half an hour. What emerges is a golden, bubbly dish that can be served on its own as a light meal, or as a side to accompany meat, poultry, fish or grains.

While my gratin was in the oven, I was watching the Bastille Day ceremonies on TV. The traditional military parade down the Champs-Elysées before huge crowds was scrapped this year because of the virus, and instead the forces presented their arms before President Macron at the Place de la Concorde in a smaller but deeply moving event. There was not a dry eye in the house — mine, or at the reviewing stand — when doctors, nurses and hospital workers were called to join the men and women in uniform standing at attention.

Recognition of the heroic efforts of this civilian medical corps was a moment of national pride, and for me it brought to mind the song by Josephine Baker: J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris — ‘I have two loves, my country and Paris’. I was born as an American, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in France, and in fact am now a citizen of both countries. I love my first, even in the era of the very stable genius in the White House, but am proud of my second, where we have now returned to near normalcy thanks to the population’s cooperation with sensible government efforts to combat the pandemic.

As a backdrop to the ceremonies, a giant red-white-and-blue poster was hung outside the National Assembly, just across the Seine from the reviewing stand. Une nation engagée, unie et solidaire, it proclaimed. Rough translation: ‘A nation of commitment, unity and solidarity’. This interesting tweak to the national motto — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — perfectly encapsulated the attitude of the French during the health crisis. We were locked down for two months, and the vast majority of the population obeyed the rules.

Beyond party politics, the French were united in commitment to each other’s health — witness the nationwide clapping from balconies every evening — and the government showed its solidarity by granting unemployment benefits to people who couldn’t go to work during the lockdown. Nobody lost their health insurance (take that, Donald). And now, as we head into what is expected to be a brutal economic downturn, a new prime minister is negotating with employers and unions on how best to cushion the shock.

I had the gratin for lunch, and in the evening my friend Nancy came over for a combined Independence Day/Bastille Day dinner since we had both missed celebrating the Fourth of July this year. The food was more American than French — guacamole and corn chips followed by barbecued chicken and potato salad, with a red-white-and-blue dessert of vanilla and raspberry ice cream with cherries, blueberries and crème de cassis on top. As I planted mini American flags in the ice cream — a gift someone gave me years ago — I thought to myself that I should try to get hold of some mini French flags as well.

I have two loves — my country and Paris.

Happy cooking.

The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation in late July, returning with a new post on August 14.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mini cheesecakes au chèvre et cerises

It’s cherry season in France, so when guests came the other night I served mini cherry cheesecakes made with goat cheese. A surprise and a delight! A surprise because I invented the recipe. This is a rare event. Most of the dishes on this site are French classics that I reinterpret in the everyday chef style — simple and modern. And a delight because the goat cheese lends a delicate edge to a dessert that’s both light and deeply flavorful.

Mini cheesecakes au chèvre et cerises / Mini cherry cheesecakes with goat cheese

And how did I come to create this confection? I’d originally planned to make a cherry cheesecake using sheep cheese from a recipe I’d spotted on French TV one day when I tuned in early for the news and a cooking program was running. But when I checked out the particulars, the recipe was complicated, used ingredients that are hard to find outside of France and — the killer — had a crust. After two months of lockdown and serious noshing, I wanted to make a dessert that was light. So I decided to experiment on my guests with a crustless version. Reader, they loved it.

The secret to success for this recipe is to bake the mini cheesecakes in the French bain-marie style — the batter is poured into little soufflé cups that are set in a recipient of hot water before going into the oven. This water-surround method (bain = bath) is used in French cuisine, either in the oven or on the stove top, for everything from crème caramel and chocolate mendiants to terrines and scrambled eggs. But, I wondered, why ‘marie‘?

I was surprised and delighted to learn that the bain-marie is thought to be named after a woman alchemist known as Marie the Jewess, aka Marie the Prophetess, aka Marie the Divine, who lived in Greco-Roman Egypt in or around the 3rd century AD. The method she used for gently heating mercury or sulphur water was later adopted for culinary purposes. In the case of the mini cheesecakes, the water bath protects the edges, which remain as tender as the cherry-filled center.

Speaking of cherries, and with an abundance available at the moment, a reader wrote in this week to ask whether it was safe to eat cherries in brandy that had been prepared a few years earlier because she had heard that cherry pits are poisonous. Could the poison seep into the brandy? Happily I was able to reply that it’s perfectly safe — provided you do not actually crush and chew the pit, which contains a chemical that turns into cyanide when ingested by humans. I did a little research online to find the answer, although I already knew from long personal experience that cherries in brandy improve with age and confer no ill effects other than a possible hangover if one overindulges…

And speaking of readers, The Everyday French Chef recently received an unexpected accolade from a celebrated chef in the United States. Rich Lee, the new executive chef at Antoine’s in New Orleans, who is in the process of updating the restaurant’s 180-year-old menu with newer recipes for modern palates, wrote in to say that the site has been an inspiration. I was, once again, surprised and delighted! Thanks, Rich.

And happy cooking.

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