Tourte épinards féta

Tangy and delightfully crispy, the Mediterranean spinach-cheese pie known variously as spanakopita, borek or boureka is both fun and easy to make. In this version, cinnamon is added to the spinach-feta filling for a slightly exotic taste that seems to please. When I made this pie for lunch the other day, it disappeared in minutes. Although the dish can be found in Greek shops in Paris, it tends be bland. The best idea is thus to make it yourself.

Tourte épinards-féta / Mediterranean spinach-cheese pie

I did a little research into the origins of this dish and, although it is often assumed to be Greek, or perhaps Turkish, it apparently reached the Mediterranean via the nomadic Turks of Central Asia, spreading west across the Balkans, north to Romania and Moldova and south to North Africa. In most versions, the pie is constructed using paper-thin filo dough — the name of which, I just learned, is Greek for feuille, or leaf.

It’s great fun working with filo, but you do need some sophisticated equipment — a paint brush. Working quickly, you coat each sheet of dough with melted butter or olive oil and layer them into your pie pan one at a time before adding the filling. When baked, they puff up like the French pâte feuillété, but are arguably more delicate and definitely crispier.

Other fillings for savory filo pies include mixed cheeses, minced meat, potatoes, roast peppers and squash, while the best known sweet filo pie is baklava, filled with walnuts and drizzled with honey. The pies may be baked in a round or rectangular pan, formed into individual triangles or rolled into ‘cigarettes’. Sometimes they are fried in oil, for example in North Africa — where the word borek morphed into brik, and a single (slightly thicker) sheet of pastry is used to encase the filling, most typically a raw egg.

But why is this pie called une tourte in French rather than une tarte? Mes amis, I have the answer thanks to my very recent acquisition Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique, a fabulous 1000-page encyclopedia of food that was presented to me as a gift this week.

A tourte, as it turns out, is a pie with an upper crust, while a tarte is open-faced. Although aware of the distinction, I’d never seen it spelled out before turning to the Larousse entry on tourte: ‘Akin to pâtés en croute and English pies, today’s tourtes are considered rustic or regional cuisine. Formerly, they played an important role as starters: tourtes filled with truffles, oysters, pigeon, foie gras, small delicacies, forcemeat, etc. were highly fashionable until the 17th century, when they were replaced by lighter dishes…’

Well! I’m not sure I’ll be posting recipes for truffle or oyster pie anytime soon, but I am extremely grateful to have access to such history at my fingertips. More French food lore will be coming your way in the weeks ahead. And in the meantime…

Happy cooking.

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

Tarte aux figues

Pretty as a picture. That’s what my daughter said when this tart of fresh figs set on vanilla-flavored cream came out of the oven the other day. She posted a photo on Instagram and got, like, a jillion likes (so she said). That evening I took the tart to a friend’s birthday dinner where it was speedily consumed with evident satisfaction — all the more so since this elegant dessert can only be made when figs are in season, a few months a year.

Tarte aux figues / Fresh fig tart

The good news is that, once you get hold of the figs, the tart is quite simple to prepare. You make a buttery pâte sablée — or go buy a roll of sweet pastry dough if you’re in a rush (shh! I didn’t say that) — then mix together cream, an egg yolk, sugar and vanilla, cut up the figs, assemble the tart and pop it in the oven. When it comes out, you can add a sprinkle of powdered sugar if you like.

My love affair with figs began many years ago when I spent a summer in France for the first time. Growing up in Wisconsin, I never saw a fresh fig. They didn’t grow there, and they weren’t imported. Imagine my surprise one day when, walking to class in Avignon at the age of 19, I followed my nose to an enticingly musty aroma that turned out to be emanating from a shrublike tree, its boughs heavy with fresh figs. Checking to see no one was looking, I picked one and tried it. Pure bliss.

Fresh figs — robed in violet, green and shades in between — can be found at farmers markets in France from July to October, and the season is extended these days by imports from Turkey and North Africa. Most French figs are grown in Provence and the neighboring Languedoc-Roussillon region. A few summers after my stay in Avignon, one of the loveliest towns in Provence, I spent a month at a friend’s country place in the hilly Cévennes region just to the west. There was a fig tree in the garden, and its profusion of fruit inspired us to make jar upon jar of fig jam. (I’ll post that recipe one day.)

Many years later, I thought about planting a fig tree in my garden in Burgundy, but locals said it wouldn’t thrive due to the cold rainy winters. What with climate change, however, fig trees are popping up these days beyond their native Mediterranean region — in northern France, Germany and even in England. They’re also grown in California, much of Asia and Australia. So, with any luck, you’ll find a source of fresh figs nearby. If you do, snatch them up, take them home — and enjoy creating a beautiful tart.

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Leave a comment

Pot au feu

As cool, rainy weather set in the other day, I had a hankering for pot au feu. Ran out for the ingredients, came home to look up my recipe on this site — and was astounded to find it wasn’t there. So today I offer you this classic French dish of broth, beef and veggies. In past centuries, pot au feu (literally ‘pot on the fire’) was made in a cauldron, simmering for hours over a fire. Although the ingredients are humble, the result is regal.

Pot au feu / Pot au feu

There are as many ways to make this dish as there are cooks in France. The basic ingredients are stewing beef, onion, carrots, turnips, leeks, potatoes, bay, thyme and marrow bones. And then the discussion begins. In her excellent French Provincial Cooking (1960), Elizabeth David devotes five pages of tiny type to the preparation of pot au feu, including a passage on what type of soup pot to use (‘earthenware, copper, enamelled iron or heavy aluminium’) and another on why non-French cooks often suppose that pot au feu ‘holds some special secret which eludes them’.

Not to be outdone, Julia Child, in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 (1961), makes still more of a meal of pot au feu with what she describes as a Normandy version including pork, chicken and sausages in addition to the boiled beef and vegetables. This version, by the way, I have never seen. Most French recipes tend to be simpler, differing mainly in the cuts of beef and the types of vegetables to use.

I also make a simple version, although it’s a lengthy process. The beef is boiled for more than four hours, reaching a sublime tenderness and producing a deeply aromatic broth. The veggies are added at the end to retain maximum flavor. This is a healthy dish, as the fat is skimmed away during cooking. It is served in two stages — first the broth, then the meat and vegetables arranged on a platter, often with sea salt, Dijon mustard and sharp French cornichons (little pickles) alongside.

Break out a bottle of hearty red, bring on some crusty bread and you have a meal fit for a king or a queen, not to mention the little princes and princesses. Pot au feu is a family dish par excellence, and a wonderful addition to the menu as cold weather arrives. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Leave a comment

Anchoïade

‘Cauchemar en cuisine’ is a popular French TV show starring a celebrity chef: it translates as ‘Nightmare in the kitchen’, which pretty much defines the situation over here for the last couple of weeks. In a word (well, two), no water. But limits can spark creativity. I needed to make something quick and easy for the blog this week. And so I offer you anchoïade, a zingy anchovy-based dip from Provence that can be whipped up in minutes.

Anchoïade / Anchovy-garlic dip

Like it’s cousin, olive-based tapenade, anchoïade is often served on toast at l’heure de l’apéritif (cocktail hour). In Provence, this often involves chilled rosé, pastis, or the musky sweet wine Muscat. But unlike tapenade, which is rarely surrounded by veggies, anchoïade may also be served as the star of a colorful first course. And making it is child’s play. You simply combine anchovy fillets, garlic and olive oil in a blender. Pulse, and it’s done.

Now back to my nightmare in the kitchen, which has actually been going on since June when a salesman at Picard, the excellent French frozen food chain, advised me to use a hair dryer to defrost my freezer. Which I did. After which the freezer died, along with the fridge unit on top.

As you may remember, we had a couple of fierce heatwaves in Paris this summer. With everything melting, I called Darty, the excellent French houseware store, and ordered a new refrigerator-freezer, of  ‘exactly the same dimensions’ as the previous one. They delivered it the next day. Alas, it was 1 centimeter too tall for the available space. Never mind — they plugged it in, shoved it in as far as it would go, and departed. Fine.

Except that the next time I ran the dishwasher, which sits beside the fridge, it caught fire! Another call to Darty, and a new dishwasher was on the way, along with a substitute (shorter) new fridge. In the meantime, as it appeared the powerful first new fridge had shorted out the electrical circuit accommodating both appliances, I called an electrician to get a new circuit installed.

About a week and 800 euros later, everything was working again. Fine. But this month the nightmare resumed when my downstairs neighbor informed me that his bathroom had sprung a leak from the ceiling, which sits under my kitchen. There were no visible leaks up here. A plumber was called. He deduced that the leak was coming from beneath my pink-tiled kitchen floor. Next thing I knew, he’d removed the cupboard beneath the sink and was busting through the lovely tiles with a jackhammer.

He found a leak in a drainpipe, repaired it, filled in the hole with cement, told me the problem was solved and departed. This was on a Friday evening. Two hours later, my neighbor called to say his ceiling was still leaking. It turned out the plumber, who had the keys to my neighbor’s place, had cemented the pipe without checking to see whether the leak was actually fixed! When I called the plumber to ask him to come back and finish the job, he didn’t answer the phone. Until Monday.

It took another major round of jack-hammering through my kitchen tiles before the leakage was finally stopped, for the tidy sum of 3600 euros. We had been without water for … nine days. The moral of this story? It helps to have friends living across the street who are willing to lend you their shower. And take-out can be great.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters | Leave a comment

Purée de courgettes au basilic

If you’ve ever grown zucchini, you’ll know that it goes forth and multiplies at this time of year, producing an overabundance at farmers markets. You’ve made ratatouille throughout the summer, tried your hand at tian or fried zucchini with garlic, and would like to attempt something new. May I suggest zucchini puréed with fresh basil, garlic and olive oil? An Everyday French Chef creation that scored plaudits in this household…

Purée de courgettes au basilic / Zucchini puréed with basil

It takes only 15 minutes to make this dish, which can be served alongside just about anything. You steam the zucchini, purée it and then blend it with a sauce of fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. Add a little salt, grind in some fresh pepper, and you have a zesty, flavor-packed side dish ready to go straight to the table. And did I mention it’s light? This is comfort food without the calories, a perfect treat as summer heads into autumn.

I’ve always liked zucchini — but I have to say we had a major contest of wills in the summer of 2000, when I planted my first organic veggie garden at what was then my new country place in Burgundy. In late spring, I put in six baby zucchini plants that I’d bought at the farmers market in Toucy. They settled in nicely and, soon enough, began to produce opulent yellow flowers that turned into baby zucchini.

It was thrilling to pick the first ripe zucchini and cook it straight off the vine (hint: you can also eat baby zucchini raw, sliced thinly and sprinkled with sea salt and olive oil). But as the summer progressed, the plants went into overdrive. Suddenly I was drowning in zucchini. I couldn’t pick it fast enough, more and more kept coming, and soon I had giant marrows on my hands. What to do?

That summer I found myself making huge pots of zucchini soup, which I packed in plastic boxes and stored in the freezer. The soup would be nice to have around over the winter, I figured. Then one snowy weekend, when I was back in Paris, the electricity went out in the country. By the time I returned, the soup had melted and had to be thrown away. Sigh.

From then on, I put in only a couple of zucchini plants each year, and still had more than enough of this versatile vegetable to grace our table. And now that I no longer have a garden, I find myself gathering zucchini every Sunday at the market down the street in Paris. I whipped up this purée the other day and served it alongside pork that had been slowly roasted, surrounded by cherry tomatoes. A great summer meal.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poulet harissa

This dynamite dish of harissa-infused chicken, potatoes and leeks, topped with fresh herbs and a tangy yogurt sauce, is (full disclosure) not my original creation. I found it on the site of the uber food blogger David Lebovitz, who had himself adapted it from a cookbook by Melissa Clark. Reader, I tried it — and have made it many times since, to the delight of family and friends. As it is now part of my Paris repertoire, I wanted to share it with you.

Poulet harissa / Harissa chicken

If you’re not familiar with harissa, it’s a fiery North African chili-pepper paste that is most often seen in France served alongside couscous dishes. Generally imported from Tunisia, it comes in a colorful tube or small can and is readily available at supermarkets. In other parts of the world, you can order it online or make it yourself, for example using this recipe from the culinary web site Epicurious, which reprinted it with permission from the excellent Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.

This brings me to a question that arose when I first started out as a culinary blogger and discovered that other sites were ‘borrowing’ my recipes. Is this ethical, I wondered? Is it even legal? I got the answer at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York, which I attended back in 2013: There is no copyright on recipes. Anyone can use and share them. It does seem fair, however, to credit the authors. You can find David Lebovitz’s version of this dish here. He includes a link to Melissa Clark’s Dinner: Changing the Game.

My version is slightly different from theirs, notably in that it uses deboned chicken. It is quite easy to make. You immerse the chicken in a sauce of harissa, olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper, add the potatoes, and let it all marinate for a while. Pop it into the oven and, when it’s half-cooked, scatter thinly sliced leeks over the top and pop it back in. About a minute later, the captivating aroma of roasting leeks will come wafting from your kitchen. If anyone’s home, you’ll find them clamouring to know when dinner will be ready.

By the way, I wasn’t planning on posting this recipe this week — the weather made me do it. We in Paris are just emerging from our third brutal heatwave of the summer, and when the mercury goes up I find myself longing for spicy food. Have you noticed that the world’s spiciest cuisines come from hot places? Think India, Mexico, Thailand, Mali, Szechuan… Why is that? Will look forward to your answers. And…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Soupe d’agneau aux herbes

The subtle flavors of lamb, barley, carrots and gentle spices combine to make a soup that is both satisfying and light, perfect for taking the chill off now that cooler days are arriving at last. Topped with fresh cilantro and dill, with a touch of lemon juice and cinnamon for zest, it evokes the exotic tastes of Central Asian cuisine. I concocted it at lunchtime one gray day this week — a welcome change from the sweltering weather of July.

Soupe d’agneau aux herbes / Lamb soup with fresh herbs

Barley is rarely used in French cuisine these days, although it has been cultivated here for centuries. One of the world’s oldest staples, having arisen 15,000 years ago in the Middle East, it was most commonly used in medieval France as flour, combined with rye flour, in a rustic bread consumed by peasants, white bread being reserved for the gentry. Barley is still widely grown here — it’s the third most commonly farmed grain in France — but it is mainly used in the production of beer. Nonetheless, it has a wonderful flavor and is highly nutricious, a welcome addition to soup.

In this recipe, lean lamb is used as the base for a broth simmered with onion, carrots, coriander seeds, bay and two kinds of pepper. The barley is cooked separately. Before serving, the lamb and carrots are cut into thin slices and returned to the strained broth, along with cinnamon and a dash of lemon. The fresh herbs are added on top.

The soup is hearty enough to be a meal in itself, accompanied by a sturdy red wine, some crusty bread and perhaps a mesclun salad. For a more elaborate late summer meal, you could begin with spicy eggplant caviar or goat cheese pastries, and follow with assorted cheeses and fruit, or a fruity dessert like caramelized pears or plum tart.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Leave a comment

Salade d’été aux figues

There’s a wildness to the combined flavors of figs, garlic and mint that I find absolutely irresistible when fresh figs appear in farmers’ markets in midsummer. Add some tender leaves, olive oil and a spritz of balsamic vinegar, and you have a palate-pleasing summer salad that can be ready in a couple of minutes. This salad marries well with proscuitto-style ham or with goat cheese on toast. I tried it both ways during the recent heatwave.

Salade d’été aux figues / Summer salad with fresh figs

Man, was it hot in Paris last week — and this, mes amis, is the future. On Thursday, when the mercury hit 109 F (43 C), I spent a large part of the day immersed in a cold tub, and repaired from there to the local pool, which exceptionally stayed open until 9 p.m. during the three hottest days of the canicule. (This is French for heatwave, and derives from the Latin canis, or dog, which is also at the root of our expression ‘dog days.’)

With more sweltering days to come both in France and elsewhere, here are some dishes you may enjoy despite the heat. Most can be made with a minimum of fuss.

Assiette de crudités / French vegetable plate
Tapenade / Black olive spread from Provence
Soupe de petits pois à la menthe / Fresh pea soup with mint
Soupe froide de tomates / Chilled tomato soup
Salade estivale / Summer salad with melon and bresaola
Salade niçoise / Salade niçoise
Grand aïoli / Cod with vegetables and garlic mayonnaise
Trilogie de coquillages persillés / Shellfish with parsley and garlic
Poulet au miel et au thym / Chicken with honey and thyme
Poulet grillé en brochette / Grilled chicken brochettes
Assiette anglaise / Cold meat plate, French style
Côtelettes d’agneau au romarin / Lamb chops with rosemary
Courgettes sautés à l’ail / Zucchini sautéed with garlic
Tian de légumes d’été / Summer vegetables, Provence style
Pâtes aux tomates, mozzarella et basilic /Pasta with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil
Torsades au pistou / Summer pasta with French basil sauce
Charlotte glacée aux framboises / Iced raspberry charlotte
Fruits d’été au cassis / Summer fruit cup with cassis

Last night I saw my friend Nicole, my inspiration for everyday-style French cuisine and with whom I once cooked at a small Paris bistro. She is taking a cruise to the Arctic later this week. Now that’s smart. I, on the other hand, am heading to Washington, D.C., where the dog days are in full bloom (to mix a metaphor). Yikes!

The Everyday French Chef will return in mid-August.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 3. Salads | 2 Comments

Trilogie de coquillages persillés

I discovered this dish at a beachside restaurant near Sète in the south of France, and found it so delicious that I asked the chef for the recipe. It is a trilogy of shellfish — mussels, clams and razor clams — that are cooked until just tender and then coated in a persillade sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil. The recipe is simple, quick and fun to make. The combination, redolent of sun and sea, will knock your socks off.

Trilogie de coquillages persillés / Shellfish with parsley and garlic

The restaurant in question, La Canopée, offers a range of seafood, from squid sautéed with chorizo to octopus salad and grilled gambas. Take a look at the menu to get a sense of the kind of cuisine on offer now at trendy French eateries. I’ve been going to La Canopée for the past three summers. New this year is a poke bowl — marinated raw salmon, avocado, mango, rice, sesame seeds and cilantro.

The poke bowl, which emanates from Hawaii, has taken France by storm in recent months. I discovered it via my 19-year-old daughter, a font of wisdom on the latest food trends. But is this kind of innovation a good thing or a bad thing? I got to thinking about it recently when a friend sent me an article from The Guardian headlined ‘The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine‘.

In this article, the author states that French cuisine became increasingly dull and repetitive in recent decades (he calls it ‘gravied blandness’), but has since been revived thanks to the addition of mojitos, cappucino, Asian food and le hamburger. I beg to disagree. Of course French bistros, like restaurants everywhere, have had their ups and downs, but to pour scorn on an entire national cuisine? Non, non et non!

Only laziness and lack of imagination can have prevented this author from seeking out gems where simple French food is and always has been fabulous, or from visiting the homes of everyday French chefs who have kept tradition alive. I do not see the addition of the hamburger — which is now offered everywhere, including expensively topped with foie gras by leading chefs like Joel Rebuchon — as an improvement of the French culinary repertoire. Ditto cappucino and the poke bowl.

But while purists may decry such deviations from classical French cuisine, we live in a globalized world, and innovation is not about to stop. In fact, I welcome the new arrivals. What I don’t appreciate is a journalist bouncing into Paris and proclaiming that French cuisine has been saved by Cuban cocktails. (To be fair, he offers a detailed and lively look at the history of French restaurant cooking.)

Thank goodness my summer reading has not been confined to this article. In contrast is Save Me the Plums, the wonderful new memoir by Ruth Reichl, who edited Gourmet magazine for ten years. She is a fabulous writer and raconteur whose mouthwatering descriptions of food filled me with admiration and envy. Highly recommended.

I am currently on a hiatus from summer travels and will be back in a few days with another recipe, this time for a salad with fresh figs that I created during the ongoing Paris heatwave. Then I’ll take another break, returning in mid-August.

Happy cooking!

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | 3 Comments

La Cobb

This classic American salad has taken Paris by storm in recent years, although the French have a way of doing things slightly differently. You will never see iceberg lettuce in a French Cobb, and instead of the traditional sweet dressing it will be served with a tangy mustard vinaigrette. The French also don’t worry about lining up the toppings in rows — they prefer to scatter the chicken, tomatoes, avocado, eggs and bacon over a bed of greens.

La Cobb / Cobb salad, French style

The original Cobb salad — involving chicken, tomatoes, avocados, eggs, bacon and Roquefort on a bed of leaves — was created at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood in 1937 when, according to this amusing account,  the owner, Bob Cobb, was hungry one evening and raided the fridge. I first encountered a French Cobb around ten years ago at the Café Beaubourg, a delightful spot across from the Pompidou Center where it’s still on the menu. Since then la Cobb has spread to cafés and bistros across the city.

It’s especially popular in the summer — and the good news is that it’s incredibly simple to prepare, especially if you buy a rotisserie chicken instead of roasting your own. We are currently in a fierce heatwave over here, and I’ve made la Cobb twice in the past week. I was in a hurry due to a situation that can only be described, to use the name of a popular French TV cooking series, as Cauchemar en Cuisine (‘Nightmare in the Kitchen’).

It started last week when I decided to defrost the freezer. I took the advice of a frozen food salesman and used a hair dryer to melt the ice faster. Bad idea. The fridge/freezer stopped working. The new one I ordered turned out to be too big for the space. The delivery men plugged it in, gave a gallic shrug and shoved it in as far as it would go. The next day I ran the dishwasher. Suddenly our apartment was filled with electrical fumes. It had caught fire. It was on the same plug as the new fridge, which apparently used more power than the old one. I hired an electrician to put in an extra plug and ordered a new dishwasher. But when they installed it, the door was defective and wouldn’t close. What the heck?

This story has a happy ending because I now have a second new fridge, a second new dishwasher, and everything is working properly. The moral? Don’t defrost your fridge with a hair dryer. Or, better: forget about pre-cooked frozen food — cook the food yourself!

Meantime, a friend in New York has alerted me to the recent publication in English of The Madeleine Project, in which a young woman moves into a Paris apartment and documents what she finds about the previous inhabitant’s life, which spanned the 20th century. Among the things she uncovers is a charming recipe booklet. To view it, click here.

So, my friends The Everyday French Chef is heading into vacation mode. You will be hearing from me less frequently over the summer, but watch this space because some dynamite recipes will be coming your way. Happy summer and…

Happy cooking!

Posted in 3. Salads | 2 Comments