Butterbredel

I had a surprise recently when a friend from Alsace presented me with a recipe for butterbredel, small butter cookies in festive shapes that are traditionally served over the holidays. They’re not just pretty but incredibly easy to make. And fun! You can get the whole family involved. There are many variations on the recipe, but this one is the real thing. It’s from a bakery in Saverne, a small town near Strasbourg in northeastern France.

Butterbredel / Holiday cookies from Alsace

Saverne has an interesting history. The town’s emblem is a unicorn — why, nobody knows, but the local beer is named in honor of the mythical beast:  Bière de la Licorne. It has apparently always been a drinking town. It was called Tres Tabernae — ‘three taverns’ — when Julius Caesar’s troops were there, and this evolved over time to Saverne. The town blossomed in the 18th century and acquired a sizeable Jewish population. It switched hands from France to Germany and back many times, most recently in 1940 when it was annexed by the Nazi regime. It was liberated and returned to France in 1944.

Butterbredel are enjoyed not just in Saverne but across Alsace throughout the Advent season, from early December until Christmas. A Jewish friend with family roots in Alsace told me that the cookies are enjoyed during the eight days of Hanukah too, and in fact throughout the year. They are traditionally small, cut into holiday shapes or rounds and decorated with a wash of egg yolk and milk that turns them golden.

While we’re on the subject of the holidays, this might be a good time to check out the Holiday Menus section of this site, which presents a variety of festive French meals and has just been updated. A traditional feast might feature oysters on the half shell or foie gras followed by roast partridge or turkey. There are variations from the farm, from the sea and, for vegetarians and vegans, from the land. Desserts range from chocolate truffles or pears in red wine to … you guessed it … butterbredel.

The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation over the holidays this year. I’ll be back on Friday, January 5, with a dynamite recipe I was given this week by the chef of a perfect bistro. Here’s wishing you and your loved ones a joyous year’s end. And…

Happy cooking!

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Plateau de fruits de mer

Sharing a shellfish platter in fond company is one of the great pleasures of life in France, particularly if you happen to be enjoying it by the sea. Add a bottle of crisp white and the sound of waves breaking against the shore, and you’re in for a romantic afternoon. This is of course not always possible. But with a little effort and ingenuity, you can create a shellfish platter at home. It makes a fine addition to a holiday meal.

Plateau de fruits de mer / Shellfish platter

But how to do it, and what to include? A French shellfish platter nearly always features oysters on the half-shell along with various other ‘fruits of the sea’. I was hoping to include lobster or crab on the platter pictured above, but by the time I got to the market on Sunday none were to be found. So I improvised, choosing instead gambas and two types of sea snail — bulots (whelks, the large ones) and bigorneaux (winkles, the small ones).

Improvisation is the name of the game here. Perhaps sea snails are not available where you live, or perhaps not to your taste (it took me several years of living in France before I deigned to try one). Not to worry. Many other types of shellfish typically feature on such a platter: langouste (rock lobster, which have large tails and are virtually clawless), langoustines (scampi), palourdes or praires (clams), moules (mussels) and oursins (sea urchins). Go for whatever’s local, or whatever you can find.

An opulent shellfish platter makes a perfect start to a Christmas or New Year’s feast. It’s convivial and very special. But serving shellfish at home need not be restricted to two days a year. If you’d like to keep it simple, make an oyster plate instead.

Assiette d’huîtres / Oyster plate

Opening oysters can be a challenge. I do it when I must, although if possible I let my fishmonger or a skilled friend do it for me. Here’s a bit of lore. 1) You do not need an oyster knife to open oysters. Any sharp, sturdy knife will do. 2) You don’t need to struggle to keep the oyster’s liquid intact. It’s best to throw it off, allowing the oyster to produce a new, fresher, sweeter liquid. This I learned only this summer, when enjoying oysters near Sète in the south of France.

Oysters in summer? This would seem to contravene the rule about eating oysters only in months containing an ‘R’ — i.e. from September to April. The rule was invented to prevent poisoning via oysters plucked from warm seas. But if you happen to be right beside the place where the oysters are produced and you eat them virtually straight out of the water, they do not pose a health risk.

Oysters are generally served here with lemon halves or a sauce made of red wine vinegar and minced shallots. Add some thinly sliced rye and salted butter, along with a good bottle of white, and you’re in business. An oyster plate is usually served as a first course in France, but oyster lovers may choose to make a meal of them, followed perhaps by a salad, cheese and fruit or dessert.

As for the full shellfish platter, it can stand alone as a main course, perhaps preceded by an elegant starter — for example, salmon terrine or blini with red caviar — and followed, again, by salad, cheese and a special dessert. Or it can launch the proceedings at a holiday meal, setting the stage for a roast bird with all the trimmings.

In my next post, I will revisit some of the holiday menus that have appeared here over the years. We are now entering into the bleakest months. It’s time to start thinking about how to add some sparkle to these long winter nights.

Happy cooking.

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Boulgour aux oignons rouges

A guest was coming to dinner, a friend from the literary world. I didn’t want to have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen while he was here, yet wanted to produce a satisfying, palate-pleasing meal. What to do, what to do? After some considerable thinking, the solution appeared: Russian-style gravalax and beet-lamb’s lettuce salad followed by grilled guinea fowl, bulghur with red onion and mint, and sweet potato purée.

Boulgour aux oignons rouges / Bulghur with red onion and mint
Purée de patates douces / Sweet potato purée

The date was November 7. Without realizing it, I had concocted a menu that tipped its hat to the former USSR — on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution! Most of the dishes were variations, with a French touch, on food served in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The exception was the sweet potato purée, which I never encountered there but which was on my mind with the approach of Thanksgiving. As was the bulghur dish, which pairs brilliantly with poultry of any kind. And everything could be prepared in advance, including the guinea fowl breasts, which I marinated in olive oil, garlic, cumin and ground coriander and popped into the oven while we were having the starter.

In this week’s main recipe, bulghur’s nutty flavor is enhanced by the addition of sautéd red onion rings and zesty fresh mint. It’s a dish I invented last summer and have since served many times, as it proved to be a crowd pleaser. Unlike tabbouleh salad, which uses bulghur but is served cold, this dish is best warm or at room temperature. Despite its humble nature, it may surprise you. A friend who came over during the July heatwave liked it so much that she insisted I post it on this site. Et voilà.

Moving on to the sweet potatoes, this is an ultrasimple recipe for a classic dish that is served every year in the United States in late November. But this succulent purée marries well with many dishes other than turkey and can be served throughout the autumn, or even throughout the year.

However, if you are thinking ahead to your Thanksgiving menu and would like to give it a French touch this year, you may also wish to try:
Roast turkey, French style, a recipe kindly contributed by the three-star chef Georges Blanc, in which the turkey is stuffed with ground veal and pork flavored with thyme and walnuts and is served surrounded by roasted fresh figs;
Pumpkin gratin, another Georges Blanc creation, in which the pumpkin is flavored with garlic, nutmeg and heavy cream and topped with grated Comté cheese;
Pumpkin purée with parmesan, my own creation from a few years back;
Sweet potatoes with herbs;
Green beans, French style;
And for dessert:
French apple tart;
Pear tart with almond cream;
Chestnut mousse.

Meantime, the Menus section has been updated for autumn, with new selections for everyday and weekend cuisine for all, and special pages for vegetarians and vegans.

Bon appétit, and happy cooking!

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Quiche lorraine

You can find quiche lorraine in virtually any bakery or deli in France, but it is even better when made at home. The rich filling of eggs, milk cream, bacon and cheese fluffs up in the oven to marry delightfully with a buttery homemade crust. Served with a crisp white and a salad of tender leaves alongside, it makes a fine lunch dish or a great starter at suppertime. If you cut it into little squares, you can also serve it with drinks at cocktail hour.

Quiche lorraine / Quiche lorraine

Unsurprisingly, this quiche hails from the Lorraine region of northeast France. It has gone through many permutations over the centuries, the most recent of which is the addition of cheese. Purists may tell you there should be no cheese at all in a quiche lorraine, and they would be right, historically speaking. But cheese, which deepens the flavor, is often included these days. For the record, the great chef Paul Bocuse includes cheese in his quiche lorraine recipe, and that’s a good enough recommendation for me.

Another difference from years gone by is the crust. Nowadays, quiche lorraine typically uses a pâte brisée, or savory crust. But when they first started making this dish in Lorraine, back in the 16th century or perhaps even earlier, the filling was encased in bread dough and the quiche was baked in communal village ovens on baking day — a convenient way for home bread bakers to use up any leftover dough.

These days, cubed ham is sometimes used instead of bacon, and the bacon itself is sometimes included in the filling uncooked (although I wouldn’t suggest that). Quiche lorraine is often sold in individual portions, made in tart pans about 4 inches (10 cm) wide, and if you have pans that size you can make about six from this recipe.

Lorraine lies close to Germany, separated only by Alsace, and the culinary roots of quiche are evident in its name. It derives from the German word kuchen, meaning cake, which in French came to be pronounced kichen (KEY-shen) before morphing into the present-day quiche (keesh). The dish bears some resemblance to the Alsatian dish flammekueche, aka tarte flambée, a fine-crust tart with bacon.

You can take a shortcut to making this quiche by using store-bought pie dough. But if you have the time and the inclination, make the dough yourself. It is far superior, and your guests or family will appreciate it. Happy cooking.

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

Poissons fumés en salade

A salad of smoked fish makes a delightful lunch as the days grow cooler. In the salad pictured here, I used smoked mackerel, which is sold in France covered in crushed black pepper. Its tawny hues contrast nicely with the deep green of lamb’s lettuce and pale Belgian endive. Other options for the fish include smoked trout, smoked salmon or the perennial French favorite, smoked herring, a bistro classic that is popular here in the winter months.

Poissons fumés en salade / Mixed-leaf salad with smoked fish

In the bistro version, whole fillets of smoked herring are served alongside boiled potatoes, most often with a couple of carrot rounds and raw onion rings on top. As indicated by its name — filets de hareng pommes à l’huile — the dish, which is served as a starter, is bathed in oil. In my salad version, the herring is chopped and accompanied by greens. It’s a bit lighter and brighter, and can make a proper lunchtime meal.

When I first arrived in France, I was surprised to learn that herring came in two varieties — smoked or pickled. The latter, known as hareng de la Baltique, is served in thick cream, either chopped or rolled up tightly stuffed with capers and chopped onions, in which case the dish is called rollmops — ‘roll ’em ups’, get it? But the real revelation was smoked mackerel, which is fleshier and richer in flavor than herring. I buy it at the farmer’s market nearly every Sunday. Just delicious.

Smoked fish has played a long role in French culinary history. The smoking and salting allowed the fish to be preserved in the centuries before refrigeration was available. Perhaps this is why smoked fish also have interesting linguistic connections in France. The unfortunate maquereau is not just a tasty fish but also means ‘pimp’ in French. And as for smoked herring, when sold whole but split in two it becomes un gendarme (a policeman).

But this need not concern us cooks. All we need is a few minutes and a chilled bottle of white and voilà — our smoked fish salad is ready to grace the table. Happy cooking.

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Purée de fenouil

When the days draw shorter, a warming dish like finocchio purée provides comfort. Yet it is not one of your heavy comfort foods. Light, with a delicate flavor, this purée marries well with all sorts of autumn dishes — meat, fish or poultry, grilled or lovingly simmered — and makes a spectacular pairing with game. It also makes a fine addition to a vegetarian meal. And the beauty is that the finocchio growing season is … all year round.

Purée de fenouil / Finocchio purée

I mentioned this dish in my last post, saying I’d served it to guests with sauté d’agneau. There was a guessing-game moment at the table when my guests tried to identify the purée. The distinctive anise-like flavor of finocchio, aka fennel bulbs, becomes more subtle when it is cooked, perhaps explaining the confusion. And cooked it is, at least in France, where it is one of the most versatile veggies around.

On this site alone, cooked finocchio appears in recipes for braised fennel soup, chicken bouillabaisse, pork with autumn vegetables, braised with Belgian endive and roasted winter veggies. It appears raw in a root vegetable salad, on a platter of grand aioli and in a winter salad of blood oranges, and its seeds are a star ingredient in a pizza of homemade sausage with broccoli. You might think I kind of like it.

You would be right. Various cookbooks on my shelves include finocchio dishes I haven’t tried making yet: thinly sliced in a salad of raw fennel, peaches, avocados and pan-seared shrimp; lightly grilled in a salad with beef bathed in homemade anchovy purée; in a rabbit terrine; in a carpaccio of sea scallops; in stuffed red mullet; and in a salad with green olives and lemon that I was once served by an Algerian friend. I plan to try them all.

Perhaps finocchio’s culinary versatility is tied to the fact that it has been around for centuries — even millennia. The fennel plant grows wild all across the Mediterranean region, its fronds topped by delicate yellow flowers that resemble Queen Anne’s Lace. It was used in cooking by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed it had healing qualities, a belief that persists to this day. Rich in vitamins and minerals and low in calories, it is a perfect food for dieters and gourmets alike.

The finocchio purée presented here is a recipe I invented, based on tasting it at restaurants. It is ultra-simple to prepare, and a crowd pleaser.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sauté d’agneau

Sauté d’agneau is one of those great French classics that used to feature frequently on bistro menus, especially when the weather turned cool. These days this succulent lamb dish is harder to find in Paris restaurants, where current culinary fashion favors small plates of designer food. Nonetheless, it has been a personal favorite since I first tasted it many years ago at l’Entrepôt, an airy, veranda-style restaurant tucked away behind Montparnasse.

Sauté d’agneau / Sauté of lamb

But what exactly is sauté d’agneau? When setting out to write this recipe, I spent a considerable amount of time wondering how to translate the dish. Is it a stew? Not really, at least in my opinion. The word ‘stew’ conjures up a dish I was served as a child in which meat was boiled with carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and peas until it had blended into a kind of unpalatable glop. This does not resemble sauté d’agneau, in which the lamb is first sautéed with onions and garlic — hence the name — and then simmered gently in wine and broth, with a little cream added at the end.

The result is a dish rich in flavor that marries well with veggie purées of all sorts, with pasta or rice, or with white beans, a traditional partner of lamb in France. I served sauté of lamb to friends this week, paired with a finocchio purée. We started with country ham and figs, and followed up with assorted cheeses and plump red grapes. A fine seasonal meal.

During our dinner, one of my friends asked how I got the recipes for this site. Did I look them up in cookbooks or online, or were they my original creations? The answer is: all of the above. When I begin with a cookbook or blog recipe, I credit the source in the post. But far more often I make the dish as I always have, without consulting anyone. I weigh and write down the ingredients as I go. That was the case with this recipe.

For the record, I did scout around a bit, but there are few recipes on the web for sauté d’agneau — and even Julia Child fails to mention it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, even though this dish is an absolute classic of the French culinary repertoire. Then I called my friend Nicole, with whom I used to cook in a weekend bistro when I first arrived in Paris. I wanted to confirm my version against her version, but she swore she didn’t remember how to make the dish. That’s when the automatic pilot kicks in. It’s like finding your way to a place you used to frequent when you can’t remember the exact address. I begin to cook, and it somehow all comes together.

Getting back to l’Entrepôt, the restaurant is part of a congenial cultural space that also features a cinema, concerts, art exhibits and lectures. I rarely get over there these days, but I have fond memories of dining there in my twenties and thirties. The menu, however, has evolved with the times. These days it features quinoa tabbouleh, Thai chicken salad, beef carpaccio and — I kid you not — a cheeseburger. Nothing vaguely resembling a classic dish like sauté d’agneau is to be found. The solution? Make it at home. And…

Happy cooking.

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Omelette basquaise

This tangy omelet hails from the French Basque country and is filled with the regional veggie dish known as piperade, a mixture of green peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic and pepper slowly sautéed in olive oil until it reaches aromatic, spicy perfection. This is a good time of year to try it out, when peppers and tomatoes are at their prime. Unsuprisingly, the omelet is also known as omelette à la piperade. It makes a nice lunch or a light supper.

Omelette basquaise / Basque omelet

Piperade takes its name from the regional word for pepper, pipèr, and traditionalists may try to tell you that only one type of green pepper will do — piments d’Anglet, which are grown in southwest France and are thinner and more tapered than standard bell peppers. But that is poppycock, in my opinion. The difficulty of finding piments d’Anglet outside the Basque region ensures that green bell peppers are generally used in Basque cuisine throughout the rest of France.

There are many variations on the recipe for a Basque omelet, which itself is sometimes known simply as piperade. Some recipes omit the garlic, which I view as essential. Many include piment d’Espelette, another regional ingredient — it’s somewhat akin to paprika, made of ground, sun-dried, rather mild red peppers. Black pepper or cayenne may be substituted. Often the omelet is served with lightly fried country ham alongside. Julia Child goes so far as to mix country ham in with the veggies — highly unorthodox!

As for the piperade, it is a bit like ratatouille, minus the eggplant and zucchini, and may be served on its own, alongside grilled meat, poultry or fish, or as a topping for pasta. A restaurant I used to go to near the offices of the International Herald Tribune served piperade alongside cod bathed in a delicious beurre blanc — a great combination.

Meantime, as we head into the new school year, I’d like to mention a site that has been a major promoter of The Everyday French Chef, which is given top billing on a page titled ‘9 Cooking Blogs to Follow for Amazing French Recipes‘. The site, takelessons.com, is currently offering live online French classes, with a 30-day free trial period. If you’d like to brush up your French, or want to dive in for the first time, this might be a good place to go.

Happy cooking.

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Tarte à la tomate

This is high season for French tomato tart, and the good news is that producing one is as easy as, well, pie. But there’s a secret ingredient without which this tart would lose its special French identity. No, I’m not talking about the garlic, thyme and olive oil that give French tomato tart the flavors of Provence. The secret ingredient from which the tart gets its zing is … Dijon mustard. Now as you may imagine there are many variations.

Tarte à la tomate / French tomato tart

The key ingredient is of course the tomatoes. Any variety is just fine, the best being those straight from the garden. The mustard is also a given, and only the real thing will do. Beware of impostors like American-made ‘Grey Poupon’, which unfortunately tends to include sugar. But as for the other ingredients, opinions diverge widely and there is no consensus even on something as simple as garlic. Many French recipes for this tart skip the garlic, but it marries so well with tomatoes that I always include it.

Very many recipes include cheese, usually grated Comté or Gruyère. Another option is to sprinkle the tomatoes with feta. I prefer it without the cheese, but this is a matter of personal taste. Up to you. The tart is sometimes topped with anchovies, olives or both. And fresh basil scattered over the tart once it comes out of the oven adds a delightful taste.

The key to keeping it simple is (shh!) to use an unbaked store-bought tart crust, the reason being that this tart is generally made with pâte feuilleté — French puff pastry — which is a bit of a production and not really within the realm of everyday cooking. If you’d like to make your own tart crust, I’d suggest pâte brisée. To see the recipe, click here.

This post comes at the request of a reader, who asked to see a recipe for tomato tart some time ago. Tomatoes are at last back in season — et voilà. I love getting your suggestions for recipes, so please keep them coming. And…

Happy cooking.

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

Fruits d’été au cassis

Fresh summer fruit piled into dessert cups with a splash of crème de cassis makes a lovely way to end a meal. Add a smattering of mint leaves, and you have a dish that is both sophisticated and simple to prepare. You can use whatever soft fruit happens to be available. For example, nectarines, fresh figs, raspberries and blueberries, as shown in the photo. Earlier this summer I used cherries, blueberries and peaches, and won applause.

Fruits d’été au cassis / Summer fruit cup with cassis

And now it’s time for a confession. I meant to post this recipe last week on my normal schedule of every other Friday. But I was on vacation in Sète, in the south of France, where the white sand beaches stretch for miles and the living is easy — so easy I forgot all about it. On the other hand, the trip was a culinary adventure as it allowed me to get acquainted with various dishes that are specific to the region, most of them involving seafood.

Sète, which lies southwest of Montpellier, about halfway between Marseille and the Spanish border, is a major Mediterranean fishing port. Canals slice through the town, which has the sea on one side and a huge saltwater pond on the other. Products in abundance in the town’s fabulous markets include octopus, mussels and oysters, and these all feature in the local cuisine.

Sète is perhaps most famous for a dish called teille sètoise — a pie of octopus bathed in a spicy tomato sauce and encased in a doughy crust. The ingredients include saffron and Frontignan, a sweet wine produced in the village down the road. I tried this once and have to admit I am not a huge fan, but the locals seem to love it. There are bakeries scattered around town that make nothing else.

First prize for local cuisine — in my opinion — goes to piste de moules, which is served in small dishes at cocktail hour. My friend Serge, a writer who lives in Sète about six months a year, makes a dynamite version. The mussels are opened over a hot flame, removed from their shells and bathed for a couple of hours in a marinade of olive oil, garlic and hot pepper. He may have a secret ingredient or two but I am still waiting for him to send me the recipe. Watch this space.

The third local specialty I tried was stuffed mussels — stuffed not with the usual breadcrumbs and garlic but with sausage meat! I found the idea peculiar, but was convinced to try them by another friend who goes often to Sète. Well, after tasting them I was less convinced…

These dishes may all be enjoyed at the canalside bars and bistros that make Sète one of the more colorful towns of France’s lovely south. Handsome sailboats, fishing boats and kayaks float past as you raise a glass of Frontignan and enjoy the sunset. On weekends, there is jousting on the canal aboard huge gondola-like vessels, with the aim of each team to push the members of the other team into the drink. It’s all in good fun.

I will try to get back onto my regular schedule by posting another recipe next week. In the meantime, try the fruit cup — seasonal, easy and delicious.

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments