Haricot de mouton

A couple years back I was served this intensely flavorful French dish of lamb and beans on a cold winter’s evening by an English friend who happens to be a superlative cook. Snow was drifting down outside her cottage as a maddeningly delicious aroma wafted from the kitchen — rosemary, thyme, bacon, garlic, tomato and lamb. When I asked for the recipe, she said she didn’t have one — she’d been making it so long that she did it by instinct.

Haricot de mouton / French lamb and beans

Fast forward two years and I made it myself, having at last wrested a rough description of the process from Jane, the friend in question. White beans are cooked to al dente tenderness, then simmered with the lamb and other ingredients with a splash of red wine. It takes a few hours from start to finish, although little of that time is actually spent in the kitchen. And you can make as much or as little as you like.

‘I used to serve it for 20 people at parties,’ said Jane, a diplomat’s wife who has entertained everywhere from Moscow to Brasília. She described it as a lamb cassoulet, but I checked with a friend from southwest France who noted that cassoulet always includes duck or goose and pork. This dish, she said, sounded more like haricot de mouton.

Literally ‘bean of mutton’, haricot de mouton is an ancient French dish, the first written mention of which dates back to the 14th century — oddly, because at that time beans had not yet been imported to France from the Americas. According to various sources, the original name of the dish was halicot de mouton, deriving from the Old French word halicoter, meaning ‘to chop into pieces’. The celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse cites a 1651 recipe that mentions a ragoût of mutton en halicot (chopped up) — with turnips, not beans. But at some point in history, there was slippage. Beans were added, and the dish switched from left to right (‘r’ replaced ‘l’).

I took some liberties with Jane’s recipe — a necessity, in fact, as she didn’t provide proportions. And as cooking for 20 seemed a bit daft in a time of lockdown, I made a smaller quantity involving a deboned shoulder of lamb and about a pound of dried beans. That made enough to serve five or six. As per her recommendation, I started a day ahead of time to allow the flavors to intensify overnight. And when I served it last Saturday, snow was drifting down outside my veranda…

Before leaving you, I’d like to mention the recent work of two more friends that you may find interesting. Ann Mah is a food and travel writer who also produces novels from time to time. Her monthly newsletter is a gem, and as she recently moved from Washington to Hanoi the stories and recipes have taken on a Vietnamese flavor. You can sign up for the newsletter here. And Julia Watson, also a food writer and occasional novelist, has just launched a new blog, Tabled, with recipes from around the world and news about the food business. Her latest posts feature rendang, a beef dish from Indonesia, and orange marmalade, one of England’s greatest contributions to global cuisine.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Soupe de pois cassés

This is a French take on that cold-weather classic, split pea soup. A traditional dish in Alsace, where it is known as as erbsesupp, it has a smoky flavor, imparted by bacon, while a drizzle of cream lends a soothing touch. It’s hearty enough to stand on its own as a lunch dish, perhaps accompanied by melted cheese on toast or some cold cuts. And it can be made in less than an hour.

Soupe de pois cassés / French split pea soup

With Paris still partially locked down and under an evening curfew, I’ve found myself making a lot of soup recently. This plus my fireplace (more on that later) is helping me to survive solitude during a cold, wet season. It started with chicken soup at my daughter’s request. She came over to get some because she’d caught a cold (and, yes, it cured her). I went on to make a weird and wonderful Georgian soup called kharcho, which I hadn’t tasted since leaving Russia in the mid-90s. It’s a rich soup of beef, spices, sour plums or tamarind, walnuts and fresh herbs. I used the recipe from Anya von Bremzen’s Please to the Table — it’s not available online, but a blogger’s version of it can be consulted here.

Preparing kharcho is a bit of a production that starts with makng a big pot of beef broth. Once I had the broth, I got a sudden hankering for beef-barley soup, so I made that too. And with the chicken broth left over from my daughter’s soup, I improvised a pot of avgolemono, the Greek egg and lemon soup. Yes, this everyday French chef occasionally abandons local fare for dishes from other horizons. Dining table traveling, as it were.

Except that I haven’t been dining at the table, instead sitting beside an open fire in my apartment’s tiny fireplace. We’re allowed to have people over — before 8 p.m. when the curfew starts — so various friends have stopped by to lunch by the fire with me in recent weeks. But a few voiced concern: is a wood fire legal in Paris? Having just paid 85 euros to have my chimney swept, and with chimney sweeps doing a booming business here, I was convinced that it was. Further investigation confirmed that it is, although wood fires were banned in Paris for a couple of years (2013-15) in an effort to cut air pollution. Which is ironic because they have yet to ban cars in this fair city…

And so, mes amis, I’ll leave you with thoughts of warmth for the months ahead, via soup, cheery fires, a good book or good company. For all of us, let this be a good year.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Terrine de poires au chocolat

This festive chocolate-pear dessert is the brainchild of the chef Rodolphe Paquin, who presides at the Paris bistro Le Repaire de Cartouche. A few years ago, M. Paquin gave me a book he’d written on the art of preparing terrines. In this elegant example, a rich chocolate ganache is layered with caramelized pears into a loaf-shaped pan to produce a treat that is perfect for special occaions. Do I hear Christmas or New Year’s Eve, anyone?

Terrine de poires au chocolat / Chocolate-pear terrine

Preparation is fun. Pear halves are sautéd in butter and sugar until they caramelize and are meltingly tender. The ganache, a classic of French cuisine, is a mixture of high-quality dark chocolate and warm cream, stirred together until they form a smooth, rich sauce. The dessert is refrigerated until set, and may then be served sliced — or whole, to achieve a Yule log effect.

Ganache has an interesting history. A Parisian playwright, Paul Siraudin, opened a pastry shop near the Opéra in 1860. A couple years later, one of his apprentice chocolate-makers mistakenly poured some boiling cream onto chocolate — and the poor lad was instantly labeled a dunce (ganache). But his creation, when tasted, met with approval. Shortly thereafter, another playwright, Victorien Sardou, staged a comedy called Les Ganaches (‘The Dunces’), and M. Siraudin soon began selling chocolate bonbons called ganaches — in honor of his fellow playwright, not the apprentice — and the rest is culinary history.

This is my last post of 2020, which will go down not just as the year of masks, confinement and sorrow, but also as the year when home cooking staged a comeback. There are more visitors to this site than ever before — people in search of a way to brighten the indoor hours by creating beautiful food. On one occasion, someone with a Twitter following in the tens of thousands tweeted one of my recipes — for coulibiac — and so many people clicked on the link that The Everyday French Chef crashed repeatedly for 24 hours…

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years now, with no compensation other than the occasional comment from readers (and the still more occasional amusing event like the coulibiac incident). Why do I do it? Simple. Because I enjoy it. Especially in times like these, when it feels good to be reaching out to the world. In October alone, readers from 121 countries clicked on this site, mainly from the United States, Britain, Canada and France, but also from places as far flung as Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea. I love the idea of someone in Papua New Guinea looking for a recipe for, say, coq au vin.

The site now counts more than 400 recipes — phew! — and I have a list as long as my arm of recipes still to come. Most I have posted with a blog entry, but every so often I slip one in surreptitiously for inclusion in the site’s Menus section. I did it again this week with kir royal. This festive champagne-cassis cocktail now appears in the Holiday Menus section, which I’ve updated for this holiday season. Check it out.

And so I leave you, dear readers, with hopes that 2021 will be a year of peace, joy and a return to life as we’ve known it. The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation on New Year’s Day, with my next post arriving on Friday, Jan. 8. Until then, here’s wishing you good health, happy holidays — and happy cooking.

 

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Pastilla

Pastilla, a splendid savory pie, is worth a thought for a festive dinner as we gallop toward the holiday season. Crisp pastry encases chicken and almonds simmered to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness in exotic spices. The pie is sprinkled with powdered sugar to lend a seductive sweetness that will have your guests asking for more. But beware — making pastilla is a bit of a production. In other words, this is not an everyday dish

Pastilla / Pastilla

Pastilla came to France via Morocco and is thought to have roots in Spain. In her Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden says, “There is a belief among the Jews of Morocco that their ancestors were responsible for bringing the country’s great festive pie from Andalusia.”

I had made it before, and was inspired to try again recently when my downstairs neighbor Manuela brought me a slice of pastilla she’d made while experimenting with filo pastry. When I reheated this treat and tasted a bite, I nearly fell over. It was fabulous, out of this world. I phoned her up and demanded to see the recipe.

I nearly fell over again when she showed me the recipe she’d used, from Nopi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully, named for their eponymous restaurant in London. To say their approach was unorthodox is an understatement. Their version contains many ingredients not generally found in pastilla, from spinach, red currants and chocolate (!) to cognac and wine — these last two being particularly unusual in a dish emanating from a Muslim country. But I couldn’t argue with the results — Manuela’s pie was fantastic. Still, I decided to go with a more traditional version for this post.

Pastilla was traditionally made with pigeon, but these days chicken is generally used. In France, pastilla is often served as small individual pies. But for a festive occasion like Christmas, New Year’s or Hanukah, a large pie makes an impressive presentation. One pie will serve 10 as a starter or 6-8 as a main dish. Preparation takes several hours, but if you’ve got the time and the patience, it’s well worth the effort.

In my next post, I’ll offer a recipe for what I hope will be a spectacular holiday dessert (if it turns out well). Hint: it’s not exactly a Yule log, but it’s close.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4a. Savory Tarts and Tartines | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Filets de poisson sauce citronnée

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking!

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

Soufflé au potiron

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

Soufflé au potiron / Pumpkin soufflé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking.

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

Ti punch, acras de morue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters, Drinks | 1 Comment

Velouté de brocolis

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

Velouté de brocolis / Broccoli soup

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | 5 Comments

Poulet aux coings

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

Poulet aux coings / Chicken with quinces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking.

Posted in 6. Poultry | Leave a comment

Piste de moules à la sétoise

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

Piste de moules à la sétoise / Spicy cocktail mussels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy cooking.

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