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.

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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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Rôti de veau aux petits légumes

Tender veal served cold with tarragon mayonnaise and seasonal veggies — for example, asparagus, green beans and fresh peas in early summer — makes a delightful supper that can be prepared in advance for easy serving. Or you can serve the roast hot, surrounded by veggies and drizzled with succulent sauce. Either way, break open a bottle of wine, slice up some crusty bread, bring the roast to the table and prepare for applause.

Rôti de veau aux petits légumes / Veal roast with seasonal veggies

I served this roast the other night when a friend visiting from London came over for dinner. She loved it, all the more so because veal is harder to come by in Britain than in France. As a starter, we had smoked salmon tidbits and white-tipped radishes with salt — easy peasy — and for dessert, I made a rhubarb compote.

The star of this dish, when served cold, is the tarragon mayonnaise — which is, of course, homemade. Don’t let that scare you. I generally make homemade mayonnaise by hand using a bowl and spoon, but in this recipe the mayo is made in a blender for easier chopping of the fresh tarragon leaves. It takes just five minutes.

Roasting the veal is child’s play, and the veggies can be steamed or, depending on season, roasted alongside the meat. Later into the summer I might choose eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini, while in winter you could roast the veal with, say, potatoes, carrots and red onion, or with cauliflower, pumpkin and leeks.

Whether to serve the meat cold or hot is a matter of taste and the weather. When serving it hot, you skip the mayo and instead use the roasting juices to make a flavorful sauce that is drizzled over the veggies and the meat.

If you have leftovers, all the better. The next day’s lunch is ready.

Happy cooking.

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

Salade vietnamienne aux vermicelles

One day many years ago a friend took me to a tiny Vietnamese restaurant here in Paris where we were served the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had outside Vietnam. Our starter was a tangy salad of glass noodles, carrots, shredded omelet, cilantro, crushed peanuts and hot sauce — and it knocked my socks off. I’ve gone back many times for that salad. And today, thanks to Madame Duong, who owns the place, I’d like to share the recipe.

Salade vietnamienne aux vermicelles / Vietnamese noodle salad

The restaurant is Minh Chau, located on a narrow street behind the BHV department store in the heart of Paris. It’s a hole-in-the-wall where diners sit elbow to elbow, and it’s always jammed. Part of its popularity is the price — a full meal will set you back about 10 euros. The other part, and the main part in my opinion, is the quality of the food.

Starters also include Vietnamese standards — fresh spring rolls and fried nems (eggrolls) — but the star is the salade maison, in which the translucent noodles and shredded carrots are bathed in a slightly salty, slightly sweet, slightly sour sauce. I’d tried making it at home on occasion, with uneven results. I knew it contained salty fish sauce and sugar, and added lime juice for a hint of sour. It was good, but it wasn’t exactly right.

Madame Duong, a congenial woman who took over the family restaurant from her mother a few years back, was kind enough to share her secret: before being added to the noodles, the carrots are marinated in rice vinegar and sugar. No lime juice. I made it her way, and voilà — a perfect starter for a hot spring day.

Another key to the salad is the noodles — glass noodles, aka cellophane noodles, aka bean thread vermicelli — which made of mung bean starch. It’s worth seeking these out, as you wouldn’t get the same effect with rice noodles. If you can’t find them at an Asian shop in your neighborhood, they can easily be ordered online.

As a main course at Minh Chau, I generally order the lemongrass-flavored grilled chicken, which is crispy, juicy and delicious. I’d like to share that recipe with you at some point in the future, as well as the recipe for their sublime sliced bananas in coconut cream, the best dessert on the menu. And I’ve been experimenting with spring rolls, too.

In the meantime, if you’d like to make the noodle salad as a starter to an Asian-inspired meal, various dishes already on this site could follow it up nicely: pho, the popular Vietnamese beef-noodle soup; Thai-style chicken with lemongrass, cooked in a coconut milk sauce; or cockles in satay sauce, a French-Asian fusion dish.

For the record, France and Vietnam have a shared culinary heritage that dates back to the French colonial period. Ingredients imported from France, such as onions and beef, were incorporated into Vietnamese dishes, pho being a notable example, and successive waves of Vietnamese emigrants brought their cuisine with them to France, which now counts the world’s third-largest Vietnamese population, after Vietnam and the United States.

The many Vietnamese restaurants in Paris — the city’s telephone directory has 200 listings — range from formica-table joints to white-tablecloth luxury. All serve dishes that are fresh, light and flavor packed. Of the former category, my vote goes to Minh Chau.

Happy cooking.

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

Gaspacho

Sumer is icumen in… Yes, summer’s on its way, and with it gazpacho season. This flavor-packed chilled soup, which arrived in France from Spain, has many variants — including in spelling and pronunciation. The standard ingredients are tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, dried bread, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. My brother’s very excellent Californian version also includes spices: cumin, cinnamon and cayenne.

Gaspacho / Gazpacho

Of course it’s best to wait for red, ripe tomatoes before embarking on gazpacho. They’re already on the market here in Paris, imported from Italy and Spain. And we’ve been having a heat wave. So I made some the other day — very simple, providing you have a blender — and my lunch guests couldn’t have been more delighted. As garnish I added small cubes of cuke, tomato and pepper, along with little croutons and a swirl of balsamic.

I was curious, however, to know why ‘gazpacho’ is spelled ‘gaspacho’ in French. According to Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique, the dish originated in Seville, the capital of Andalusia (spelled Andalucia in Spanish, Andalousie in French). In most countries it retains the Spanish spelling, with a ‘z’, but in Spain this ‘z’ is not pronounced as a ‘z’. ‘Gazpacho’ is spoken, lispingly, as gath-PA-cho in most of Spain, and as gass-PA-cho in the south, including Seville. In France it retains the ‘s’ sound.

Research into the French spelling turned up nothing conclusive, so I will offer an explanation: a ‘z’ would change the pronunciation. The French word for natural gas, for example, is ‘gaz’, pronounced GAHZ. To retain the ‘s’ sound, the French had to change the spelling when the soup crossed the Pyrenees. This being France, the soup is of course pronounced differently anyway, with the accent on the last syllable: gass-pa-CHO.

From a cook’s point of view, this is all academic. What matters is the sublime mixture of flavors in this soup, which has been adapted to culinary styles around the world. I first made gazpacho when working as a substitute chef at Moosewood, an American pioneer in healthy natural cuisine. This was in the ’70s in Ithaca, New York, and gazpacho was already part of the American culinary repertoire.

Upon moving to Paris, I was delighted to find that gazpacho was popular here, too. French recipes tend to stick close to the Spanish original, as does the one in this post.

I first tasted my brother’s version a few summers back when we visited the California ranch of friends of his. It was a sunny, hot, lazy day, my daughter and I were in the pool, Bruce disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with beautiful soup — spicy and topped with avocado bits. I’ve included his version in the recipe.

Bruce is also responsible for me starting this post with a phrase from a medieval English round known as the ‘Cuckoo Song’. When very young, he made a water painting of a singing cuckoo with that phrase across the top. It was so lovely that my mother framed and hung it. Little did she know that her number one son would grow up to be an artist.

So with summer a-comin’ in, and the cuckoo starting to sing (and with my apologies for the mixed metaphor), go gather ye tomatoes while ye may, for gazpacho season is upon us.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Orecchiette aux petits pois et jambon de pays

One of the pleasures of spring is fresh peas, and one of my favorite ways to serve them is in pasta with dry-cured ham and cream. The flavors marry delightfully, and the dish takes only moments to prepare. The only problem this spring, with farmers markets closed in France, has been getting hold of the peas. I found some the other day at an improvised veggie stand set up by chef Rodolphe Paquin of Le Repaire de Cartouche.

Orecchiette aux petits pois et jambon de pays / Pasta with peas and country ham

My pasta of choice for this dish is orecchiette — ‘little ears’ — which cup nicely around the peas. But you can use any pasta you have on hand — penne, fusilli, farfale, conchiglie, pipe rigate, etc. For the ham, I prefer a dry-cured variety, such as proscuitto or jambon de Bayonne. Other recipes call for cubed baked ham. Choose whichever you like.

Preparation takes less than half an hour if you start with peas in the pod, and even less if you use frozen peas. You can put a pot of water on to boil while you’re shelling the peas. When the water boils, add the pasta, slice up the ham, grate some parmesan and, just before the pasta is ready, throw in the peas. After draining the pasta and peas, you heat the cream to bubbling. Then everything is combined. Simplissimo!

Back to Rodolphe Paquin, a genial fellow and one of my favorite chefs (I interviewed him a few years back — you can read the interview here). Like every restaurateur in France, he had to close eight weeks ago when the lockdown started, taking a hit to his bottom line. But restaurants are allowed to sell food for take-out or home delivery. Monsieur Paquin is currently offering a three-course take-out menu at lunchtime — his fresh pea soup is a knock-out — and also began selling top-quality produce that he receives from his supplier.

The back-door veggie stand at Le Repaire de Cartouche is as magnificent as a painting. I neglected to take a photo the other day, which I regret. Monsieur Paquin proudly presides over rosy white-tipped radishes, asparagus spears in shades of green, white and violet, spring carrots bunched with their fronds attached, perky heads of lettuce, lush purple garlic, spring onions, plump strawberries, sturdy rhubarb stalks — he’s got it all. Also on offer are his homemade terrines, goat cheeses, thick country bread and fresh flowers. A couple weeks ago he had lilacs. Now the peonies have arrived.

Of course, it isn’t cheap, and I am hugely looking forward to the reopening of the markets next week. The French lockdown ends (partially) on Monday, with most stores allowed to reopen as well as the markets. But restaurants and cafés will stay shuttered until early June, if not longer. Beaches are also still off limits, and we can travel no farther than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from home. Happily, no one has declared a ban on home cooking.

So gather your ingredients, chill a bottle of crisp rosé and liven up your spring by trying this recipe of pasta with fresh peas. Guaranteed to cheer you up.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments