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

Compote de rhubarbe

We’ve got one week left of spring, time enough to get creative with one of my favorite seasonal fruits — rhubarb. Well, to be exact, it’s a veggie, but for culinary purposes rhubarb stars in desserts. This simple, flavor-packed compote can be prepared in 15 minutes. I like to serve it with a dollop of something creamy on top, for example fromage blanc or Greek yogurt. Add a leaf of mint or a strawberry and it makes an elegant finale to any old meal.

Compote de rhubarbe / Rhubarb compote

As it happens, I served it last night, right after the cheese course. I’d brought a special cheese back to Paris from my country place in Burgundy — Le Petit Soumantrin. This cheese, somewhat like Epoisses, is very hard to find outside its region of production, and none of the guests at my table had ever seen it before. They finished it off, and while they were enjoying it the talk turned to President Charles de Gaulle.

‘How can you hope to govern a country that has 258 types of cheese?’ de Gaulle famously said (although in some versions of this quote the number is 246). Doesn’t matter. What the crusty president was saying, in effect, is that French cheeses are tied not just to national identity, but to the identity of regions or even villages, each with its own character. And how can you govern a country with 246 identities?

In any event, either General de Gaulle got it seriously wrong in terms of the number of different cheeses produced in France or that number has skyrocketed since he uttered his words on the subject in 1962. According to the web site of the French National Center for Dairy Products, that number now exceeds 1,200! Which means that you can try a different type of French cheese every day of the year for three years plus 105 days…

Getting back to rhubarb, a compote makes a light but satisfying ending to a meal, whether preceded by cheese or not. I have fond memories of this dish dating back to my childhood in Wisconsin, where my Aunt Marge grew rhubarb in her garden.

I also grew rhubarb at my country place, and as it is perennial the new owners will also enjoy it. Ah yes, my friends, I sold the dacha this week. It’s a major life change, but one that was necessary. I will miss my garden, but will look forward to creating dishes from all of the fabulous garden-grown fruits and veggies on offer in France.

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Omelette mixte

It’s lunchtime, a guest is coming, you’re in a rush. The omelette mixte is a classic of French cuisine that can be whipped up in just 10 minutes, from eggs, ham and grated Comté or a similar cheese. But, you may be thinking, what’s so special about a ham and cheese omelet? Well, mes amis, the art is in the making — the gentle lifting of the edges to create a fluffy concoction, the flick of the wrist to fold the omelet over itself, French style.

Omelette mixte / Ham and cheese omelet

I was surprised to learn upon arrival in France that omelets are not a breakfast dish. They are served at lunchtime or as a simple supper, accompanied perhaps by crusty bread, a green salad and a sturdy bottle of red. Most cafés and brasseries have a variety of omelets on the menu, almost always including the mixte, with frites (French fries) served alongside. If eggs are consumed in the morning in this country, they are served à la coque (soft-boiled), accompanied by mouillettes — sticks of fresh bread.

France’s love affair with omelets can be gauged by the popularity of ‘giant omelet’ events in small towns across the country. In my corner of Burgundy, the tiny village of Les Ormes (population 337) attracts hundreds to its outdoor omelette géante festival every June. After consuming an omelet made of 5,000 eggs, participants are treated to fireworks and dancing. But this is nothing compared to the giant omelet festival in Bessières, near Toulouse in the southwest, where every year on Easter Monday more than 15,000 eggs (!) are cracked by 50 volunteers and cooked on a huge outdoor skillet.

The omelet is also part of French popular wisdom, as in the expression ‘on ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser les oeufs’ (you can’t make an omelet without cracking the eggs) — meaning, you can’t achieve your aims without taking the necessary risks.

And that’s my thought for today. So whatever your aims, have fun cracking the eggs and making the omelet. And…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4. Omelets, Soufflés, Quiche | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Boeuf Stroganoff

The origins of beef Stroganoff are murky but the consensus seems to be that a French chef had something to do with it. I therefore offer you my version of this classic dish of thinly sliced beef and mushrooms in a tangy cream sauce. I was inspired to make it recently after a visiting Russian friend, to my great surprise, asked for the recipe. Further inspiration came from an expert on Russian cuisine who is in Paris doing research for a new book.

Boeuf Stroganoff / Beef Stroganoff

Anya von Bremzen is co-author of the fabulous cookbook Please to the Table (Workman Publishing, 1990), a treasury of dishes from the 15 former Soviet republics (although they weren’t yet former at the time of publication). As there is some considerable debate over the origins of beef Stroganoff, I asked her for her opinion over lunch last week. She suggested that it was it was likely the creation of a French chef working for a noble household in Russia, noting the influence in the 19th century of Antonin Carême.

‘Carême was the first celebrity chef,’ Anya told me. ‘Alexander I took him to Russia, where he was a chef in the court of the tsars. It was his idea to start naming dishes after the nobility.’ So far, so good. It is, however, uncertain which member of the Stroganoff family inspired the naming of the dish.

The French culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique attributes the dish to a chef named Charles Brière, ‘who was working in Saint Petersburg when he submitted the recipe to L’Art Culinaire in 1891’, according to John Mariani, author of an article on the subject in the magazine Restaurant Hospitality. However, he adds, the dish appears to be older.

Indeed. The first known mention of beef Stroganoff appears in an 1871 Russian cookbook called A Gift to Young Housewives, which I happen to have in a re-edition bestowed on me by a dear Russian friend as I was leaving Moscow in 1994. The recipe, titled ‘Beef stroganovsky with mustard’, says nothing about the origins of the dish. It is amusingly different from current versions as it calls for cutting the beef into cubes, not strips, and tenderizing the steak for two hours in … allspice (not used these days).

Anya von Bremzen’s recipe in Please to the Table is a classic current version of the dish, using beef stock and flour to thicken the sauce as well as two kinds of cream (sour cream and heavy cream). She describes the dish as ‘indulgent and restrained at once’ and suggests using filet mignon, and wild mushrooms if available.

I’m afraid my version is less classic but it has the advantage, for the everyday French chef, of being both less expensive and quicker. And after just 20 minutes in the kitchen, you can bring the dish to the table and prepare for applause.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rigatoni gorgonzola noix

Gorgonzola and walnuts, rigatoni and cream, topped by arugula — a perfect dish for a rainy May in Paris. They say April is the cruelest month, but this is not the case in my city. After a couple weeks of sunshine, summery temperatures and chestnuts in blossom, we are back to raincoats and sweaters. Given the weather, a comforting dish of pasta seemed in order the other day, and this recipe came to mind. I whipped it up in 20 minutes.

Rigatoni gorgonzola noix / Rigatoni with gorgonzola and walnuts

This pasta makes a one-dish lunch that’s bursting with flavor. At suppertime, you could start with bresaola or proscuitto, or a veggie opener like pan-seared baby artichokes or asparagus with parmesan, and finish with a fruit dessert, for example strawberries and raspberries with basil or rhubarb crumble in springtime.

Gorgonzola, which hails from northern Italy, is usually used with short-cut pasta. If you don’t happen to have rigatoni to hand, use a different type — fusilli, farfale, pipe rigate, penne, conchiglie, whatever. While the pasta is cooking, you melt the gorgonzola in cream, adding the walnuts and arugula at the end. It’s simple, quick and a crowd pleaser.

And while we’re on the subject of cheese, The Everyday French Chef was featured recently in a round-up of the world’s cheeses. I was asked to contribute some words about Roquefort — which, readers of this site will know, is one of my favorites. If you also enjoy Roquefort, recipes you might like to try include Walnut-Roquefort savory cake, Scrambled eggs with Roquefort, Salad of Belgian endive with Roquefort and walnuts or Roquefort soufflé. On my list of future recipes: Roquefort quiche.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Asperges blanches

This spring in Paris has seen a great profusion of white asparagus. It came onto the market in early March, ahead of the green variety, and at prices so tempting I couldn’t resist. This, plus a request from a Japanese cooking student, has sparked my creativity this season. I have served white asparagus many times, with a wide variety of sauces. For the delicate flavor of this versatile vegetable can be complemented in many ways.

Asperges blanches / White asparagus

Opinions differ on white asparagus, but the French generally consider it a greater delicacy than the green variety. Its white color stems from the fact that it is grown underground. It is generally available only during the spring. In terms of preparation, the main difference between white and green asparagus is that the white spears must be peeled. This is not a major conundrum, however. A light touch with a vegetable peeler will do the trick.

And now to the sauces. The asparagus shown in the photo above is adorned with a sauce of crème fraîche, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chives that I invented in my kitchen (well, perhaps someone thought of this before, but I’ve never seen a recipe). It is light and fresh, and marries well with the asparagus without overwhelming it.

Another sauce I invented combines sesame oil, lemon juice and salt. It is shown here on asparagus spears that have been cut into segments and piled up for an elegant starter. The asparagus is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, drizzled with the sauce and topped with fronds of fresh cilantro.

If you’d like to go for a more classic combination, serve white asparagus with mustard vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette or, the princess of sauces, hollandaise. For an egg-based sauce that is far easier to prepare than hollandaise, you could try another of my springtime creations, a ‘mimosa’ sauce made of a minced soft-boiled egg mixed with olive oil and lemon juice. (This sauce came about on a country Sunday when we had a leftover soft-boiled egg after breakfast. As they say, or as Frank Zappa might say, necessity is the mother of invention.)

Moving on, some restaurant news. Le Monde ran a big article this week on the revival in Paris of old-fashioned bistros — places that serve old-fashioned dishes like blanquette de veau, oeufs durs mayonnaise and … white asparagus, and where red-and-white checked tablecloths, bread baskets and pyrex glassware hark back to an earlier era. The author attributes the trend to a quest in our complex era for l’authentique (the authentic), which he goes on to rename le fauxthentique, (a play on the word ‘false’), for of course we can never recapture the true nature of what used to be.

One restaurant highlighted in the article is Aux Bons Crus, a bistro located near the town hall of the 11th arrondissement. I dined there recently with a friend and would have to say the false comes through more strongly than the true. The place has all the touches of an old-fashioned bistro — chalkboard menus, retro decor, etc. — but the food did not live up to the reputation, or my memories, of classic French cooking in days gone by.

What the article did not mention is another trend in Paris, of young chefs putting a modern spin on classic dishes. The latest such establishment to open is JJ, a very contemporary bistro located, I am extremely happy to say, right downstairs from my apartment. It is run by two friends — John, the British-born chef, and Jérémie, who takes care of the front of the house — and the cooking is absolutely inspired. For example, at a private opening last weekend, they offfered a delicate, creamy carrot soup with cockles and herbs (to die for), foie gras with hazelnuts and a foamy morel appetizer served in a small cup.

I am looking forward to visiting JJ as often as possible. They have a lunchtime menu priced at 20 euros for two courses or 22 euros for three, and the place, which opened on Tuesday, is already packed. As time goes on, I hope to be able to offer you an Everyday French Chef rendition of some of their creations. And in the meantime…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Poulet bonne femme

A Russian friend was coming over for a cooking lesson. He wanted to learn to make easy dishes he could prepare ahead of time to serve when friends came for supper at his dacha. Top of his list was … beef stroganoff. I found the idea of teaching beef stroganoff to a Russian to be rather fanciful, so I suggested poulet bonne femme, an earthy dish of chicken, bacon, mushrooms and onion that, like stroganoff, is finished with cream.

Poulet bonne femme / Chicken with bacon, mushrooms and onion

Reader, he liked it. And found it surprisingly simple to make. We chopped for about five minutes, then got things going on the stove. While the chicken was cooking, we made some rice. Within half an hour, the food was ready to bring to the table.

This classic French dish is  a crowd pleaser for young and old alike. But why ‘bonne femme’? The term translates as ‘good woman’, as in ‘my good woman’, but in cuisine it connotes a rustic style of cooking, often a one-pot dinner that incorporates bacon, onion, potatoes or some combination of the three. (Anecdotally, the term can carry a slur when applied to a woman in general parlance. Best to avoid it outside the kitchen.)

To date, there is only one other bonne femme recipe on this site: omelette bonne femme, an omelet with bacon and potatoes. But bonne femme dishes abound in France, from filets de sole bonne femme (sole in a mushroom cream sauce) to lapin bonne femme (rabbit stewed with mushrooms and bacon) and even laitue bonne femme (hearts of Boston lettuce cooked with bacon and onion). Now that’s country cooking.

My Russian friend went home to his dacha, and I haven’t yet heard whether he’s attempted making poulet bonne femme for his friends. But I’m sure he will one day. And when you’re in the mood for a simple, tasty supper, why not give it a try?

Happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments