Pain perdu

Forget maple syrup, bring on the powdered sugar. French toast, French style, is mainly served as a dessert or an afternoon snack. Known as pain perdu (‘lost bread’), it was a poor man’s dish until, according to lore, it was discovered by the nobility in the 16th century, becoming a favorite of King Henri IV. From the king’s table, French toast made its way abroad, and the rest is history.

Pain perdu / French toast, French style

Unlike the American variety, the French version of French toast is dipped into an egg-milk mixture that has been sweetened and flavored with vanilla, or possibly cinnamon. It can be made with any type of bread, from baguette to the currently trendier pain brioché, which is similar to egg bread or challah. (Brioche also had it’s moment in history, when Marie-Antoinette allegedly said, ‘Let them eat cake’ — Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.)

French toast had a moment in my family’s history during our first trip to Paris back in 1967. At our first café lunch, my perenially amusing 14-year-old brother got that look in his eye. We were in France? He wanted French toast. With two years of high school French, I was the only French speaker in the family. ‘Le French toast?’ I tried. The waitress stared at me blankly. I listed the ingredients – bread, milk and egg. ‘Ah, du pain perdu!’

Lost bread? That seemed illogical even then. The idea of using stale bread to create a confection surely meant that the bread was saved, not lost… For the record, my brother continued his quest to unravel the mysteries of French cuisine by ordering French fries (frites) and French dressing (an equivalent doesn’t exist). Meanwhile, I was trying French onion soup (gratinée) and loving every minute of it.

These days French toast is rarely seen on bistro menus. It is most commonly served in French homes for the afternoon goûter (snack), a national institution for French schoolchildren to tide them over until French dinnertime, around 8 p.m. But this can also be a sophisticated dish. Serve it at your next brunch, with fruit and/or bacon, and prepare for applause.

Happy cooking.

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Aïgo boulido

French garlic soup from Provence is called aïgo boulido, which translates amusingly as ‘boiled water’. Well, you can believe me — it’s a lot tastier than hot water. The garlic is boiled until soft, allowed to steep with fresh sage, thyme and a bay leaf, puréed with an egg yolk and olive oil, and served over toast topped with freshly grated cheese. Pale yellow, creamy and deeply flavorful, it’s a delight to the palate and the eye.

Aïgo boulido / French garlic soup from Provence

Although less famous than it’s illustrious cousin, French onion soup, garlic soup is served throughout France. In the north, the garlic is typically cooked in chicken broth with potatoes, carrots and cream or butter. Sometimes smoked garlic is used. In the southwest, where garlic soup is known as tourin à l’ail, it may include onion, flour and wine vinegar. The provençal version tastes like sage-infused aïoli (garlic mayonnaise), but is far lighter.

Even in Provence, there are many versions. As Andrée Maureau, author of the wonderful cookbook Recettes en Provence, explains, ‘A chaque famille sa recette‘ — each family has its own recipe. She provides several versions, the first of which consists simply of garlic boiled with sage, thyme and bay, unblended and served over toast. This may hark back to the days when hikers in the Alps of Provence made the soup using herbs they gathered and water from bubbling brooks, which they boiled for purposes of purification.

Possibly because it’s a family thing, or perhaps because the regional aspect of French cuisine persists to this day, garlic soup is rarely seen on Parisian bistro menus. In fact, I owe the inspiration for this post to my sister-in-law, Mary Foran of Oakland, California. I guess that means it’s a family thing for us, too. Mary encountered a recipe for garlic soup in a novel and ran it by me to check on its authenticity. That sparked my curiosity. I’d been wanting to try aïgo boulido, the version from Provence, for a long time, looked into it and finally made some. Very glad that I did!

Happy cooking.

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Mousse de rhubarbe aux fraises

Springtime in Paris means rhubarb and strawberries, and they combine delightfully in this light, bright dessert. The mousse can be whipped up — literally — in just a few minutes. The rhubarb is softened with sugar, the strawberries are puréed, the mix is lightened with a beaten egg white and whipped cream is folded in at the end. Topped with strawberry pieces and perhaps a sprig of basil or mint, the mousse makes a lovely end to a meal.

Mousse de rhubarbe aux fraises / Rhubarb-strawberry mousse

When I served this dessert the other night to three friends who dropped by for supper, the talk turned to rhubarb. Was it poisonous if eaten raw? Rather a moot point in my humble opinion, as raw rhubarb is so disagreeably tart that one bite would discourage anyone. But we asked Dr. Google and found that the raw stalks are not toxic, but the leaves are.

I looked into it further in the morning and learned that rhubarb has been cultivated for nearly two millennia, for both culinary and pharmaceutical purposes. Over the centuries it moved from China to the Islamic world over the Silk Road and then on to Europe and the Americas. Rhubarb was deemed so precious in the 1400s that it was included in a diplomat’s list of the best products arriving in Samarkand from China, along with silk, satin, diamonds, rubies, pearls and musk (merci Wikipedia).

It made its way to our table via a circuitous route stemming from my daughter’s request that I make a rhubarb dessert she’d had in England at the home of my friend Penny, a superlative cook. The email exchange that followed established that the dessert in question must have been ‘rhubarb fool’, in which the rhubarb is baked in the oven and then combined with the juice of a blood orange and custard, i.e. what is known in France as crème anglaise. Penny advised using forced rhubarb for its bright red color.

Well, mes amis, forced rhubarb, which is grown in sheds by candlelight, may be popular in England but I’ve never seen it here in France. Meantime the season for blood oranges is behind us, and preparing custard is a bit of a production. So I decided to go French and make a mousse instead. The moral of this story? Next spring my daughter will have to board the Eurostar and go to Penny’s for a very special April fool.

Happy cooking.

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Poêlée pois gourmands-petits pois-asperges

Snow peas, fresh peas, asparagus and chives star in this bright green medley of spring vegetables bathed in a French-Asian fusion sauce. With the sun making timid appearances and the chestnuts finally in blossom, it’s beginning to feel like spring in Paris. I’d been planning to make this dish for a long time, and at last it was the right season. So I headed to the market, where spring veggies were out in abundance — except for snow peas…

Poêlée pois gourmands-petits pois-asperges / Spring veggie medley with snow peas

… And therein hangs a tale. But first, the recipe. The veggies are cooked until just tender and then immersed in a sauce of olive oil, sesame oil, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, with chives snipped on at the end. The dish may be served either warm as a side or at room temperature as a salad. For example, I served this medley the other night alongside lamb chops cooked by my daughter (who had the brilliant idea of coating the meat with cumin and Chinese bean sauce). The flavors complemented each other beautifully.

The dish was all the more special because I rarely use snow peas, for a simple reason. They’re available in supermarkets, imported from Kenya or Guatemala, but they are rarely seen at farmers markets. I asked the man at my veggie stand about this. He was presiding behind tables laden with every spring vegetable you could imagine — artichokes, asparagus, peas in the pod, beautiful bunches of young turnips and carrots, fresh garlic, etc., but no snow peas. Why? ‘They’ve become too expensive for our clients,’ he said.

A few stalls down, I spotted some snow peas at a stand selling organic vegetables. They were homegrown. Good. But the price! At 14 euros a kilo, or about $7.50 a pound, that was too much for me. So I headed to the supermarket, hoping that a farmer in Guatemala would benefit somehow from my purchase.

Snow peas — known in French both as pois gourmands (‘delectable peas’) and as mange-tout (‘you can eat all of it’) — have been problematic for me before. I got into trouble a couple decades ago when I bet a friend that snow peas were actually just young peas. ‘Mais non’, she replied, ‘it’s a separate vegetable.’ We looked it up. I lost.

More recently, during lockdown, I began doing a lot of Chinese home cooking (mainly Sichuan) as restaurants were closed and we were feeling deprived. Snow peas sometimes featured in these meals, the recipes for which I often found on China Sichuan Food, one of my favorite cooking sites. But snow peas are still a relative rarity at our table. So I was all the more pleased when the snow pea medley turned out well.

If you prefer, you can make a Franco-French version of this dish simply by omitting the sauce and instead sautéing the veggies briefly in butter or olive oil once they are tender. Whichever method you choose, I have a belated message for you. Happy spring!

And happy cooking.

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Boulettes épicées en bouillon

Succulent spicy meatballs served in broth with cream and topped with fresh dill — now that’s what I call comfort food with a capital C, except that this dish is light, not heavy. I first made it on a winter’s evening and have since repeated it many times as it proved very popular here at home. What inspired this creation? I may have had Swedish meatballs on my mind, but I added cumin, ground coriander, cayenne and cilantro to spice things up a bit…

Boulettes épicées au bouillon / Spicy meatballs in broth

… and then –inspiration! — heated up some chicken broth, swirled in a couple spoonfuls of crème fraîche, added the meatballs and, just before serving, snipped fresh dill on top. This could probably be called a fusion dish as it combines flavors from various parts of the world. The cream and dill evoke Russian cuisine, the meatballs evoke the Middle East and Italy as well as Sweden. And, as I made it in my Paris kitchen, it’s also French (imho)…

So, to get down to specifics. The meatballs are made of a mixture of ground beef and pork (sausage meat), with onion and garlic in addition to the spices. I roasted the meatballs in the oven, which is lighter than frying and has the advantage of ensuring that they keep their shape. I then heated up some homemade chicken broth, which I make regularly and keep in small quantities in my freezer — for occasions just such as this.

When the meatballs came out of the oven, I swirled the cream into the broth (more = better), then added the meatballs with their juices. The final touch was the fresh dill. My daughter prefers these meatballs over rice, while I prefer them on their own. A chacun son goût, as they say (rough translation: ‘Whatever turns you on’).

This is the sort of meal that’s very easy to prepare, providing you have the broth on hand. I made it last weekend when I got back from England and needed a quick suppertime dish. And what about England? People keep asking me about the weather. Well, rainy, blustery, biting cold with the occasional sunny spell, but you don’t go to England for the weather. You didn’t used to go to England for the food either, but that has now changed.

I had some fabulous meals over there, and will mention just a few. An incredible Brazilian-style stew of monkfish in a tomato-onion-pepper and coconut milk sauce (recipe coming soon), Trinidad and Tobago-style spicy fish fritters, a vegetable dish of wild garlic, kale and other greens gathered in my friend’s London allotment (garden patch), a creamy soup of nettles picked by another friend during a woodland walk. Now that’s creative cuisine…

Happy cooking!

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Pita aux crevettes

This open-face pita sandwich with shrimp in curried mayo set on a bed of bacon and arugula and topped with fresh dill is an example of why I have often thought this site should be renamed ‘Meg Has Lunch’. Like many dishes proposed by The Everyday French Chef, it was invented one day when I went into the kitchen at lunchtime wondering what to make, checked the fridge to see what we had on hand and came up with a felicitous combination.

Pita aux crevettes / Open-face pita sandwich with shrimp and bacon

Preparation is easy and quick. You can use either fresh or frozen shrimp, and store-bought or homemade mayo (tip: homemade is better!). The shelled shrimp are steamed until pink, then immersed in a sauce of mayo with a pinch of curry powder — or hot curry powder if you have it — and a dash of lemon juice and salt. Bacon strips are cut in half and fried until crispy. A halved pita is toasted. And then you assemble the sandwich: toasted pita half, mayo, bacon, arugula, the shrimp and some fresh dill fronds on top.

I’ve been experimenting with open-face pita sandwiches all winter long and have found several other winners. One favorite is chopped egg with olive oil, onion and dill or cilantro — perfect for vegetarians. Another is smoked mackeral with olive oil, lemon juice, chopped onion and fresh herbs. All of these sandwiches can be made in a matter of minutes. For light eaters, a single sandwich with some tender leaves and cherry tomatoes alongside makes a fine lunch. For larger appetites, make two sandwiches per person.

It’s still raining here in Paris as I write, but we’ve had a couple of days when it felt like spring. I actually saw an iris in a public garden bed last week — quite early, in fact (usually the crocuses and daffodils come first). And the willows along the Seine have turned the shade of green you might see in a painting by Renoir. So things are looking up.

With Easter just around the corner, here are some seasonal recipes you may wish to try for a holiday meal: eggs with homemade mayo or eggs ‘mimosa’, rack of lamb or roast leg of lamb Moroccan style, roast chicken with spices, risotto with fresh peas and mint and, for dessert, strawberry schaum torte. If you’d like to kick off the festivities with an apéritif, I’d recommend a mimosa cocktail of champagne and orange juice, a kir royal of champagne and black currant liqueur or … just champagne!

The Everyday French Chef is taking a spring break this year. I’ll be back with a new post in three weeks, on Friday, April 12. Happy cooking!

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Risotto aux petits pois et à la menthe

Longing for a hint of spring as the Paris winter drags on and on, I made a cheery pot of risotto with peas and fresh mint the other day. The inspiration for this dish was not my own. I first had it last summer at a beautiful English country pub, The Duke of Cumberland Arms, in West Sussex, southwest of London. It was a rainy day, so my friend and I lunched indoors — and our eyes lit up when the supremely green risotto was brought to our table.

Risotto aux petits pois et à la menthe / Risotto with peas and mint

It was dotted with peas but also surprisingly creamy. How had the chef achieved this delightful effect, I wondered. When we were out in the garden for coffee after lunch — at a table with a big umbrella — I saw him wander by and had to ask. Chef Simon Goodman was happy to oblige. The trick, he said, was to purée some of the peas. Sort of like the famous (infamous?) ‘mushy peas’ that Britons enjoy with their fish and chips…

So you make a typical risotto — sauté onion in olive oil, add rice and stir-fry briefly, add white wine, then broth. Separately, cook the peas and purée about two-thirds of them with fresh mint while leaving the other third whole. When the rice is al dente, stir in the puréed peas, simmer briefly, then add the whole peas, butter and freshly grated parmesan. Let it sit a couple of minutes, covered, and bring to the table. Prepare for applause…

As readers of this site will know, I’m very fond of risotto and over the years have posted recipes with spinach, pumpkin, lobster, wild mushrooms, morel mushrooms, saffron, radicchio (one of my favorites) and asparagus … with peas! I serve the risotto either as a main course — it makes a great lunch dish, followed by a salad — or as the starter for a more elaborate meal, usually Italian themed. I might pair it, for example, with veal saltimbocca, parmesan chicken or oven-roasted eggplant, Mediterranean style.

Locally grown fresh peas have not appeared at Paris farmers markets yet, but that was not a problem — as this dish may be made with frozen peas any time of the year. That’s lucky, given the endless Paris winter. We have has been treated to months of cold, wet, gray, blustery weather and it just won’t seem to let up — the Seine actually burst its banks this week. But, according to the calendar, it will officially be spring in just two more weeks…

Happy cooking!

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Poulet au parmesan

Making parmesan chicken, a family favorite, is simplicity itself. There are only two ingredients — the parmesan and the chicken (plus a little olive oil for pan-frying). Unlike other similar dishes where chicken is coated before frying, this lighter version involves no flour, no breadcrumbs, no egg. The grated parmesan is simply patted onto the chicken breasts, which are then lightly fried until golden, et voilà — dinner is served.

Poulet au parmesan / Parmesan chicken

Of course, serving dinner may involve preparing other dishes to go with the chicken. For a family supper, my favorite go-to is small pasta with olive oil and snipped basil, plus perhaps a side salad of tender leaves and cherry tomatoes, as shown in the photo. For a more elaborate occasion, I’d suggest making a risotto — for example spinach risotto in winter or risotto with asparagus and peas in the spring. But in fact practically any veggie dish would marry well. As for wine, I’d go for a fruity red, such as a Beaujolais.

This recipe is standing in for the one I’d planned to post, lamb and onions braised in red wine, which didn’t turn out as well as expected. I’ll give it another try and post it next winter if it’s a success. For we are at last heading toward spring, thank goodness. The Paris winter has been unrelentingly dark and gray this year, sadly in tune with events. Tomorrow marks two years since the Russians invaded Ukraine, flouting international law and world opinion. This evening the French, who have supported Kyiv from the outset, are lighting up the Eiffel Tower in blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — to mark this regrettable anniversary.

Let’s hope that the weeks ahead will bring an end to the fighting both in Ukraine and in Gaza so that our troubled world can look toward a peaceful future. One in which families everywhere can sit calmly around the dinner table without fear of bombs exploding. Now that would be a delicious turn of events…

Happy cooking.

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Salade frisée aux lardons

This salad of curly endive with bacon is a French bistro classic and it’s one of my favorites. I often serve it to friends at dinner parties, usually followed by another bistro dish, for example boeuf bourguignon or Provençal chicken with pastis. This is what is known over here as cuisine à la bonne franquette — casual, unfussy cooking (more on that below). Indeed, to make this salad you need only two main ingredients: the lettuce and the bacon.

Salade frisée aux lardons / Salad of curly endive with bacon

Let’s start with the lettuce. Salade frisée is displayed proudly in French farmers markets, its yellow heart framed by a dark green crown. This type of salad is huge. It can measure up to two feet (60 cm) in diameter when spread open. When I took the photo at right, it virtually covered the picnic table on my veranda. So unless you are cooking for an army, you won’t need all of it for your salad. What to do with the rest? Either a repeat performance or you can use it to make Italian lettuce soup, a recipe I hope to post one day soon.

Now the bacon. In France lardons, or bacon sticks, are sold precut in supermarkets. But for best results with this salad, it’s preferable to start with a thick strip of bacon — about 1/3 inch (1 cm) — and cut the lardons yourself. The flavor and texture are better, and your guests will appreciate it. If that’s not possible where you live, buy thick-cut bacon strips and chop them. My advice: be generous with the bacon. It’s the star of the show.

What else? Plenty of garlic in the dressing of your choice. I prefer a tangy lemon-olive oil sauce. Balsamic vinaigrette and mustard vinaigrette are also popular. Some chefs incorporate melted bacon fat into the sauce, but I don’t as I find that a bit heavy.

To make the salad, you prepare the sauce in the bottom of a large salad bowl, stir in the minced garlic and pile the chopped and washed leaves on top. Just before serving, you fry the bacon. The salad comes to the table with the bacon piping hot.

There are many variations on this basic salad. Croutons are often added. Sometimes the salad is topped with a poached or soft-boiled egg. I’ve seen other additions as well. But personally I prefer to omit these extras. I find that the salad is at its best without them.

As for à la bonne franquette, the expression derives from the word franc, meaning ‘frank’. In the 17th century, Molière used à la franquette, in the sense of speaking frankly, in his farce on French medicine, ‘The Doctor Inspite of Himself’. In the 16th century, according to a Canadian government web site, à la franquette, evoking simplicity, was used in contrast with à la française (‘French style’), meaning ‘with ceremony’ or ‘luxuriously’.

While researching the origin of the term, I stumbled across some amusing translations of the word ‘France’, which I had mistakenly thought was etymologically linked to the word ‘franc‘. It appears that in the Navajo language, France is known as Dáághahii Dineʼé bikéyah, or ‘the land of those who wear the mustache’, while in Maori, France is known as Wīwī, which derives from — you guessed it — ‘Oui, oui‘.

Happy cooking.

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Saumon rôti aux lentilles épicées

Roasted salmon on a bed of spicy lentils is a dish that delivers the comfort we crave in winter without too much heft. Here, the dish is paired with spinach for a combination that’s as pleasing to the eye as to the palette. I made this dish last week during a cold snap in Paris — below-freezing temperatures and snow that didn’t melt for days, a rare event over here. After fireside suppers featuring heavier winter dishes, the salmon made a welcome change.

Saumon rôti aux lentilles épicées / Roasted salmon with spicy lentils

The weather has turned warmer now — can you believe I have daisies, carnations and nasturtiums in bloom outside my veranda? — but it’s incredibly gray and depressing. This is a typical Paris January. Last year I decided to get out of town in hopes of escaping the gloom. Went to visit my brother and sister-in-law in California, and got a douche froide (cold shower) as the state was treated to ‘atmospheric rivers’ (read: constant downpours) and a ‘bomb cyclone’ (read: gale-force winds). So this year I stayed home.

As the cold is bound to return, both here and elsewhere, I thought I’d share some of the dishes I’ve been making to cheer this frigid season, in hopes of inspiring you. Over the last month or so I’ve served: gratin of Belgian endive with country ham; paupiettes de veau (stuffed veal scallops) with celeriac purée, preceded by frisée aux lardons (curly endive with bacon — cannot believe I haven’t posted that recipe, coming soon); harissa chicken; veal stewed in white wine with cauliflower purée; sole meunière preceded by oysters and foie gras (Christmas Eve); stuffed roast of guinea hen with cabbage purée, preceded by Russian-style gravalax (Christmas Day); Ukrainian ‘syrniki’ pancakes (Boxing Day brunch); and lobster tails with beurre blanc sauce (New Years Eve). That was all in December.

After all that entertaining, I slowed down this month, mainly cooking for my daugher and myself, as well as a couple of guests. So far I’ve served roast chicken with mashed potatoes, preceded by leeks with vinaigrette sauce; brandade de morue (puréed salt cod and potatoes); potée auvergnate (cabbage and veggie soup with sausage); cauliflower gratin; poulet bonne femme (chicken with bacon, mushrooms and onion); penne à l’arrabiata; lamb chops with rosemary; chili con carne (not on the site yet); and the roasted salmon with lentils. Whew! That’s a lot of cooking. Think I’ll take a break…

For the record, although it is definitely a lot of cooking, I find that going into the kitchen is a great way to relax. I enjoy making beautiful food for my friends — indeed, I often say that cooking is my art form. And I also enjoy making lovely meals for just me and my daughter, or even just myself. It’s an esthetic experience…

Happy cooking.

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