Omelette soufflée

Is it an omelet? Is it a soufflé? It’s both! Although more like an airy omelet that rises and browns delightfully in the oven to make a perfect brunch dish. This specialty of Alsace is generally served sweetened with powdered sugar and lemon, with caramelized pear or apple slices, with fresh fruit — or any of the above. Breakfast meats like bacon, ham or sausage also pair nicely.

Omelette soufflée / Omelet soufflé from Alsace

And the beauty of this dish is that it’s incredibly easy to make. Children can do it. Eggs are whisked with flour, milk and a little salt, butter is melted in a soufflé dish or high-sided cake pan, the batter poured in and — presto! — after 2o minutes in the oven, it’s ready. While it is baking, you can sauté some apple or pear slices in butter, adding a little sugar at the end to caramelize.

Creative chefs in Alsace have been known to add kirsch to the omelet, with or without the addition of cherries in brandy. Some recipes call for the addition of strawberries, but their weight would keep the omelet from rising so I wouldn’t recommend it. Other recipes call for the addition of cheese, potatoes, spinach or what have you. Could be delicious, but you would not achieve the airy effect.

I have been enjoying this dish since childhood, thanks to my Grandma Hilda, who passed the recipe along to my mother. Hilda had no Alsatian ancestry as far as I know, but her husband, my Grandpa Herb, did. According to family lore, one of his second cousins, Nettie Harris Hirsch, inherited two pewter plates made in Alsace in the 1700s and inscribed ‘Be Kosher’ in Yiddish.

As it is currently Passover, this particular omelet, which contains flour, cannot be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to keep kosher. But Passover ends on Thursday evening, and in the meantime there’s Easter. So for a fabulous Easter brunch, mix up some mimosas, set them to chill and whip up an omelet soufflé.

Happy cooking!

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Cordon bleu

In these stay-at-home days, comfort food beckons. And this dish of chicken, ham and melted cheese answers the call. It’s fun to make — the whole family can take part. Chicken breasts are butterflied (sliced almost in two horizontally), filled with ham and cheese, folded together, dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs, and cooked — sautéed, then baked — to golden perfection.

Cordon bleu / Chicken cordon bleu

A schoolkid’s favorite, chicken cordon bleu can be tweaked for grown-ups by using prosciutto, coppa or bresaola instead of baked ham. Serve the cordon bleu with a salad alongside, and lunch is ready. Or make a meal of it at dinnertime, preceded by a seasonal starter — perhaps an assiette de crudités (French veggie plate) or, soon, asparagus (with hollandaise, parmesan or vinaigrette) — and accompanied by green beans, French style. Strawberries with sugar and/or cream would make a fine dessert. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could try strawberry mousse or berry meringues.

A number of friends have written to me this week to ask about recipes for the many of us who are now confined to our homes, with limited ingredients but plenty of time on our hands to putter in the kitchen. Well, the answer depends not just on taste, but also on who is in your household — just grown-ups, or kids too. Here are some ideas.

If you feel like this lull could be a good time to try your hand at gourmet cooking, why not attempt a cheese soufflé? To branch out, make it with goat cheese or Roquefort. Or you could prepare a dish that takes more time than you generally have available, like boeuf bourguinon, blanquette de veau or coq au vin. These slow-cooked French classics have the advantage, if you make enough, of being even better the second day.

Another approach is the one-pot meal, like poule au pot — a whole chicken boiled with veggies, yielding a rich chicken broth as the first course followed by the chicken and vegetables as the main course. Ditto pot-au-feu, a similar recipe using beef instead of chicken, or potée auvergnate, a hearty soup of winter veggies with bacon and sausages.

Family-friendly favorites that can be served as main dishes or sides include gratins of all sorts — of potatoes, zucchini, pumpkin, leeks or eggplant (aka eggplant parmesan). Baked gnocchi with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil is another crowd pleaser — I made it last night for my daughter and her boyfriend, who is staying with us during the lockdown.

The versatility of the humble potato makes it a great ingredient in this time of limited resources. Have you ever made French fries from scratch? It’s easier than you might think, and the flavor is sublime, bearing no relation to your standard frozen fries. Or you could try raclette — boiled potatoes topped with melted cheese, with cured meats and pickles alongside. Or potato pancakes, rosemary potatoes, smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes with horseradish, French potato salad, potato salad with anchovies, and the list goes on.

Pasta and rice are the staples that have been most coveted in France during the lockdown, and recipes range from the simple to the sophisticated. Some personal favorites are penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts; cheese ravioli with sage; risotto with asparagus and peas; and paella. If fresh ingredients are hard to come by, penne à l’arrabiata or spaghetti with olive oil and garlic are a couple of possibilities.

And what about bread? French TV reported this week that an elderly woman had been fined 135 euros for going out to buy a baguette, the long, narrow loaf that is a symbol of France. I found this particularly shocking. The woman — small, frail and white haired — seemed totally nonplussed, and not surprisingly, as the rules here allow people to shop for basic necessities. Her crime, it seems, had been to go out for a single baguette, and nothing more. The reporter said that the idea was to cut down on trips outdoors, with people expected to buy enough bread to last a few days and freeze what is not used immediately. Sacrilege! People often shop two or three times a day for bread here to make sure their loaves are fresh when brought to the table. What the report didn’t mention was the health risk in buying baguettes — as bakers often use their ungloved hands to slip the bread into a paper wrapper. It actually showed bakers doing this in a a French village, oblivious to the irony as they talked about the risk they were taking by continuing to serve custormers.

I am sufficiently concerned about this bread risk to have started buying packaged pita as a backup, and over the next week or so I’ll be experimenting with different types of pita sandwiches for lunchtime. We tried pita BLTs yesterday — not exactly French, but delicious. Meantime, I’d like to open the site to your suggestions for meals in the time of coronavirus. If you’d like to share an idea, please write to me via the site’s Contact page.

These days, with events intensifying our awareness of how precious life is, we can better appreciate the value of simple things. A good meal is not just a delight to the senses — it’s a blessing. My thoughts go out to all of you with hopes for your good health during these trying times. May you and your loved ones be well.

And happy cooking.

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Gâteau basque

This subtle and elegant cream-filled cake is hard to find outside the French Basque country — an incentive to make it yourself. Even in Paris, it’s rare to come across a pastry shop proposing gâteau basque, which is surprising because bistros around here regularly offer other Basque dishes. Making the cake is a bit of a production — the delicate dough has to chill for a couple of hours, and is then rolled out — but the effort will win you applause.

Gâteau basque/ Basque cake

There are actually two types of gâteau basque. This one is filled with pastry cream lightly flavored with rum and vanilla, while the other is filled with black cherry jam (and purists insist that only Itxassou cherry jam, from the region, may be used). In the first, the pastry is flavored with lemon zest, and in the second with almond extract. The cake is said to have been popularized in the 19th century by a pastry chef from the spa town of Cambo-les-Bains, who used a recipe inherited from her mother. The Basques are so proud of this cake that there is an annual Gâteau basque festival in the town and a Basque cake museum devoted in Sare, a village nestled in the Pyrénées foothills on the border of Spain.

While gâteau basque is not generally on my culinary agenda, I had the occasion to make it recently when one of my cooking students, a delightful woman from Japan, got in touch and asked me to include it in her lesson. I did a practice run ahead of time, and found the assembly to be quite tricky. The dough is beaten, as for a cake, then chilled and rolled, as for a pie. As it’s extemely tender, transferring it to the cake pan can be challenging. On the other hand, making the pastry cream is simple. When the cake has been put together, it gets an egg glaze and then a criss-cross pattern is etched on top with the tines of a fork. Fun! When Keiko and I made it together, it turned out perfectly.

This is a cake for special occasions. If you’d like to create a Basque meal to precede it, you could start with grilled squid with garlic and parsley, and serve Basque chicken with peppers and tomatoes as a main course. The cake may also be served at tea time. As for drinks to go with, unless you’re a Basque purist I’d recommend Champagne.

Happy cooking.

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Coques au satay

This dynamite French-Asian fusion dish of cockles in satay sauce is the creation of John O’Shea, a young British chef at the Paris bistro JJ, which happily for me is located in my building. The menu changes twice a day, according to John’s whim and what’s available at the market. Cockles appear often and, as they’re a personal favorite, I’ve ordered them more than once. Delicious! I asked John for the recipe, which he gladly provided.

Coques au satay / Cockles in satay sauce

Cockles, widely available here, were unknown to me until I moved to  France. I’d heard of them, of course, in the children’s song: Cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh. They are similar to clams, but smaller and sweeter. If they’re not available in your area, you can substitute very small clams, such as vongole (palourdes in French).

The first step of the recipe is immerse the cockles in cold, salty water to allow them to release any sand inside the shells, draining them and repeating the operation twice more over an hour. Once you’ve done that, preparation takes about ten minutes.

The next step is to prepare the peanut-flavored satay sauce. It is made from Thai green curry paste, coconut milk, lime juice, Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam), sugar, lemongrass, peanut butter and, for the bold, a red bird’s eye pepper. This combination produces the classic taste of Thai cuisine: spicy, sour, salty and sweet.

In the final step, you will cook the cockles in the sauce. This was a revelation. I had imagined that the cockles were cooked separately and added later, but John points out that cooking them in the sauce allows their juices to blend with the satay.

You can serve this creation either as a starter or as a main dish over rice or steamed fish, decorated with fresh cilantro. It marries well with a crisp, chilled rosé.

Happy cooking.

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Fondue savoyarde

What’s not to like about cheese fondue? Over here it evokes memories of ski vacations in the French Alps, where after a day on the slopes it is enjoyed in cozy chalets before a crackling wood fire. But of course fondue has emigrated far from its Alpine home and has been popular elsewhere for decades. It is a convivial dish, and if you happen to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, makes a friendly meal for two, accompanied by a crisp white wine.

Fondue savoyarde / Cheese fondue

A traditional cheese fondue is made with cheeses from the Savoie region of eastern France or neighboring areas. The exceptional flavor of these cheeses comes from the Alpine pastureland on which the cows graze. Beaufort, Abondance, Emmental, Gruyère, Reblochon and Raclette are made in Savoie, while Comté comes from nearby Franche-Comté and Appenzell and other similar cheeses from Switzerland.

These cheeses bear little relation to the bland Swiss cheese I consumed as a child in the States. They range from fruity (Comté) to slightly sweet (Abondance) to pungent (Beaufort), to name the three cheeses I used in the fondue pictured above. You can use a single variety, but making fondue with a combination of three is recommended as this yields a more complex and interesting flavor.

Another question is whether or not to add kirsch to the fondue. It is thought to enhance the flavor of the cheeses, but personally I find it’s not necessary. However, it’s essential to melt the cheese in white wine and flavor it with a little garlic some freshly grated nutmeg. Then all you have to do is to cut up some bread cubes, and voilà — the dish is ready.

Fondue is generally served with a selection of thinly sliced cured ham (proscuitto or speck), cured beef (bresaola or viande des grisons) and hard sausage (saucisson sec, rosette, etc.). In addition to the bread cubes, you can prepare little boiled potatoes for dipping in the cheese. And a green salad is de rigueur (essential) to lighten the meal. You can serve the fondue first, as a starter, or have everything on the table at once.

Happy cooking.

P.S. Followers of this site know that it mainly proposes recipes made the way the French cook at home — the easy way. However, there is a countertrend in Paris bistros now to serve fabulously creative dishes not made the easy way. Would you believe oysters with beet purée and pepper-flavored foam, or tarragon ice cream with a sesame cookie? Check out the latest restaurant review on site Paris Update to get a flavor of what else is cooking over here.

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Salade de haricots rouges aux noix

I first tasted this knock-your-socks-off red-bean-and-walnut salad in Moscow in 1984. Russia was still part of the Soviet Union, and young people from other parts of the empire still flocked to the capital to study or work. A friend introduced me to a Georgian woman who was studying particle physics. When she invited us over for dinner, I had no idea what to expect. Then she produced this fabulous dish. I’ve been making it ever since.

Salade de haricots rouges aux noix / Red bean salad with walnuts

It took a long time for this salad, aka lobio, to make its way to Paris, but we can now enjoy it here in any number of Georgian restaurants. If you’ve never encountered Georgian food, you have a treat in store. The walnut-plus-garlic combination is the basis of many dishes, from chicken with walnut sauce to salads of green beans, beets, spinach, leeks etc. It’s both delicious and healthy, perhaps one of the reasons — along with their love of yogurt and natural wines — that Georgians are among the longest lived people on earth.

You can serve this salad as a starter or as part of a simple or elaborate lunch or dinner. It marries well with grilled meat, poultry or fish, and could also pair nicely in a vegetarian spread with, perhaps, spicy eggplant caviar, goat cheese pastries, herbal tomato salad, pomegranate salad, spinach quiche with pine nuts and parmesan, mesclun, watercress salad, salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets, or a simple green salad, French style (which, to my surprise, remains the most popular recipe on this site). I also serve it (more Soviet influence) paired with smoked salmon or red caviar on buttered toast. Try it and see.

Happy cooking.

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Daube de boeuf

The French tend to rave about daube de boeuf, a flavorful beef stew from Provence, without it being clear exactly why. Like Proust’s madeleine, this dish must evoke memories of childhood. And indeed, daube harks back to a simpler time, when dishes simmered for hours in a pot set over an open fire, their aroma filling the house until the family was seated to enjoy a tender moment of togetherness. But after all, it’s only beef stew — right?

Daube de boeuf / Beef stew, Provence style

Well, not exactly. In this stew, the beef is marinated in red wine overnight together with onions, garlic, thyme, bay, cloves, peppercorns and … red wine vinegar … before simmering for several hours with an ingredient that is not generally found in other stews, but that is the key to success: dried orange peel. It gives the daube an unmatchable flavor. Other ingredients may be included, depending on the cook’s proclivities, from carrots, bacon or tomatoes to black olives, anchovy filets or, in my case, fresh sage.

Daube was traditionally cooked in a daubière, a covered clay pot that sat over the fire, or in a heavy stew pot with a concave lid filled with water to allow gentle cooking of the beef. Recipes were jealously guarded, handed down from generation to generation. There are many variations — some recipes even call for white wine. But the classic is made with a decent bottle of red, preferably a wine from Provence, like a Côtes du Rhone or Côtes du Ventoux, the kind of wine you wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve to guests.

I was inspired to post this recipe by my friend Martine, who made a sumptuous daube de boeuf with carrots for her guests at a dinner the other night. She served the daube with tenderly boiled potatoes. In Provence it is also served with gnocchi or fresh tagliatelle, preceded or followed by a green salad, and accompanied by a more than decent bottle of red. This is a hearty dish that will keep you warm on a cool winter’s night.

Happy cooking.

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Chou-fleur sauce Mornay

Hello and happy new year! After all the celebrating, this light but satisying dish of cauliflower in a velvety cheese sauce will hopefully help you get 2020 off to a good start. Don’t be put off by the fancy name — the Brits call it simply ‘cauliflower cheese’. But the French version is slightly different. Mornay sauce is a Béchamel, or cream sauce, enriched with an egg yolk as well as with Gruyère-style cheese. But who, you may ask, is Mornay?

Chou-fleur sauce Mornay / Cauliflower in Mornay sauce

I asked myself the same thing and had a heck of a time coming up with an answer. My (relatively) new, 989-page encyclopedia of French cooking, Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique,  includes four entries on sauce Mornay: a definition, a brief entry on how to make it and two recipes that use it (over sole fillets and over any cooked fish set in a the shell of a sea scallop, in both cases browned in the oven). Interesting, but nothing is said about the origin of the sauce’s name. So I started browsing the web.

It appears that the sauce was created in the 19th century at the ultra-chic (at the time) restaurant Le Grand Véfour, which sits beneath the arcades of the Palais Royal gardens in the heart of Paris. It may have been named for a nobleman who frequented the establishment, the Marquis de Mornay, or for his brother, the count of Mornay. There seems to be no agreement on this point, however. Others who dined there included Victor Hugo, Colette (who lived virtually next door) and many other writers and political figures. The restaurant, originally a café, knew such success when it was taken over by its namesake, Jean Véfour, that he was able to retire within three years.

A few years after I began working as a journalist in Paris, I had the occasion to visit Le Grand Véfour to interview its star chef, Raymond Oliver, for a radio program in English. The time was the early 1980s and the theme was the French Christmas dinner. Monsieur Oliver, a charming man, regaled me with stories and descriptions of Christmas dinners past and present. But though I also deployed all my charm, he did not invite me to dine there, alas, and I never had the occasion to do so afterwards.

I did go back once, however, when Le Grand Véfour was bombed by unknown assailants on Dec. 23, 1983. I was the duty reporter for Reuters that evening and had been enjoying a pre-Christmas dinner with a man I fancied at a much humbler restaurant on the Left Bank when the call came through. So much for that. I had to find a cab and race over there. The scene was chaos. Twelve diners had been wounded and Raymond Oliver was beside himself. Happily, though, the restaurant reopened and is still serving diners today.

Returning to sauce Mornay, it was apparently served at first over barbue, or brill, a flatfish similar to a turbot, but its range has expanded in modern times. You can find it in recipes for eggs benedict, pasta, salmon, sea scallops and veggies from broccoli and brussels sprouts to leeks and asparagus. And, of course, cauliflower. Often, a dish bathed in Mornay sauce is popped into the oven to brown, in the process becoming a gratin. As for the cheese to use, in France it is always Gruyère, Comté or a similar cheese, while in Britain the go-to cheese is cheddar. Feel free to experiment.

One more detail (on the etymological front). When looking into the origin of the sauce’s name, I knew it had referred to a person, not a place, for a simple reason. The word ‘Mornay’ was capitalized, while place references in French cuisine never are. For example, la sauce hollandaise, which points to Holland, takes a small ‘h’, while la sauce Béchamel, named for Louis de Béchameil, takes a capital ‘B’. Similarly, if you are mentioning the French language in French, it’s le français (small ‘f’). Interesting, no?

Happy cooking.

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Galette des rois

One of the charming traditions of France is the annual gathering of friends and family in early January to share the cake known as galette des rois, or kings cake — frangipane-filled puff pastry with a dried bean or token hidden inside to designate who will be king or queen for the day. The tradition marks the Jan. 6 Christian holiday of Epiphany, celebrated to commemorate the visit of the magi — the three kings of Orient — to the newborn Jesus.

Galette des rois / Kings cake

But these days the galette is enjoyed by people of all faiths over a period stretching from Christmas to beyond the new year. It’s an occasion to raise another holiday glass — often Champagne for the grownups, apple juice for the kids. In a practice known as ‘drawing kings’ (tirer les rois), the youngest child present sits under the table and announces who will get each piece as the cake is cut. Whoever gets the fève — formerly a dried bean, now usually a small porcelaine token — wears a paper crown and names his queen or her king.

The popularity of this tradition can be seen in a 2014 survey showing that 97% of the French consume at least one slice of galette des rois each year (and that 9% do so five times!). This comes at a cost, however. Parisian bakeries can charge upwards of 30 euros for a cake for six people — a lot to pay, even though the galette will come with a collectible porcelain token concealed inside and a paper crown tucked into the box.

So I decided this year to experiment, and found that making a galette des rois at home is both simple and fun, especially if you use commerical puff pastry. The frangipane filling is made with powdered almonds, butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla. You cut out two rounds of pastry, place the filling in the middle of the first round, cover with the second round, glaze, pop in the oven and voilà — a cake fit for a king.

For the record, the word ‘galette’ is used in French cuisine to designate anything that is round and flat. A savory crepe made with buckwheat flour, for example, is called not a crêpe but a galettte. Potato pancakes are galettes de pomme de terre. And so on.

I am posting this recipe now to give you plenty of time to consider preparing your own kings cake this year. Beloved by young and old alike in this part of the world, a galette des rois would make a fine addition to your holiday menus. Speaking of which, an updated selection of holiday menus is available here.

Happy cooking, and happy holidays!

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Langouste beurre blanc Noilly

Lobster is a rare treat in Paris, largely because of the price. At my local farmers market the other day, they were selling small live lobsters for 30 euros a piece — far more than you would pay in other countries, or even parts of France where lobsters are grown, for example Brittany. But with the end-of-year festivities coming, I couldn’t resist offering you this elegantissimo recipe for lobster tails bathed in a buttery, vermouth-flavored sauce.

Langouste beurre blanc Noilly / Lobster tails with Noilly beurre blanc sauce

Preparation is relatively easy. The tails are split down the middle and roasted in the oven. While they’re cooking, or before, you prepare the beurre blanc — literally, ‘white butter’. It’s a sophisticated sauce made by boiling shallots in a slightly acidic liquid, usually wine vinegar but in this case the French dry vermouth Noilly Prat, and then adding pieces of cold butter one at a time to form an unctuous and incredibly tasty sauce.

But how to resolve the price conundrum? I did it by shopping at the excellent local frozen food chain, Picard, where I found two meaty lobster tails for 27 euros — 13.50 a piece, a more acceptable splurge. France offers two different types of lobster — homard (with pinchers) and langouste (without). As the langouste is essentially a lobster tail, that’s what I chose. The flavor is virtually the same.

Lobster is often served in France as the star of a Christmas or New Year’s meal, preceded or accompanied by Champagne. If you decide to try it this year, you could start with an oyster plate or seafood platter, then continue with the lobster, pairing it with a seasonal purée, say of sweet potatoes or celeriac, and a salad of tender leaves. A cheese platter could follow, along with seasonal fruit, for example clémentines (akin to mandarin oranges).

While the cheese and fruit are optional, a dessert is de rigueur — perhaps a vacherin (meringue with passion fruit and vanilla ice cream), or the Alsatian cake known as kouglof. And if you have the time and energy to do some extra-special cooking, you could finish the meal with homemade chocolate truffles or mendiants (dark chocolate wafers studded with candied fruit and nuts).

I am posting these holiday menu ideas early this year because my kitchen is being repainted and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to post again before Christmas — and also to give you time to consider whether this is the year for lobster. If all goes well, I’ll be back in two weeks, and if not in three, most likely with the wonderful cake served in France from New Year’s to Epiphany (Jan. 6) — the galette des rois, or ‘cake of kings’.

Happy cooking!

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