Soupe pho au boeuf

Pho, the remarkably fragrant, herb-topped Vietnamese beef and noodle soup,  is ubiquitous in Paris. I never considered preparing it at home until a recent day when my daughter asked me to make it for dinner. As one who enjoys a challenge, I looked into the matter and informed her that we could have it the next day — as preparing the broth for pho takes several hours. I went ahead and made the soup, with moderate success, then consulted an expert.

Soupe pho au boeuf / Vietnamese beef-noodle soup

I made it a second time, and this time everyone at the table proclaimed that the balance of tastes was just right. The broth, perfumed with many spices, was subtler and slightly sweeter. Each mouthful produced an explosion of flavor. What had changed?

My expert was Martin Charmoz, owner of Be Bo Bun, a casual Vietnamese restaurant around the corner from me. A French devotee of Vietnamese food, he makes a delicious pho and was happy to give me some hints. It turned out that I had omitted a key ingredient, lemongrass, and had added others in the wrong order. I had also gone too quickly. ‘Pho is a Paris institution,’ Martin said. ‘But making it takes time.’

This is true. The broth needs to simmer for at least three hours — they cook it for ten hours at Be Bo Bun — and assembling the soup is a bit of a production, not your usual Everyday French Chef-style fare. However, the results are so spectacular that it’s worth the time.

And now for some lore. Pho, written phở bò in Vietnamese, is said to have emerged in northern Vietnam during the French colonial period. Backing up this thesis is the notion that pho’s name is linked to the French dish pot-au-feu, in which beef is boiled with vegetables to produce a tasty broth. And indeed, pho is pronounced like the French word feu — to say it in English, follow the ‘f’ sound with the ‘u’ sound from ‘put’. However, a competing thesis suggests that pho derives from a the soup version of a southern Chinese dish, Cantonese beef chow fun. For an engaging discussion of pho’s origins, click here.

With its huge Vietnamese population, Paris boasts a wealth of restaurants that serve pho, as do many cities in the United States and elsewhere. So why bother making it at home? I could argue that the the delightful aroma wafting from you kitchen as the broth simmers justifies the time involved. Or that the pleasure of bringing a healthy, flavor-packed meal to the table makes it worth the effort. But there’s a simpler reason. In a word, it’s fun.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Omelette aux asperges et parmesan

The French love affair with asparagus and eggs blooms every spring, when the spears — green, white or violet — are served bathed in luscious hollandaise sauce. This year I decided to try giving asparagus a starring role in an omelet, and this, too, proved to be a happy marriage of flavors, enhanced by tangy parmesan. As preparation takes less than 10 minutes, it’s an easy lunch dish that is both elegant and satisfying.

Omelette aux asperges et parmesan / Asparagus-parmesan omelet

Green asparagus is best for this omelet for reasons both esthetic (the color is beautiful against the eggs) and practical (you don’t have to peel the spears). I would not have been able to produce such an omelet when I arrived in France more than 40 years ago. At the time, only white asparagus was available. I learned to love it, but preparing it is a chore.

White asparagus is white because it is grown underground, like Belgian endive. The spears tend to be quite thick with a tough peel that must be removed. The flavor is reputed here to be more delicate than that of green asparagus, although I don’t find that to be the case.

Violet asparagus is seen here more rarely. It, too, is grown underground, but the heads of the spears are allowed into the light, which gives them their purple color. Why they don’t turn green instead, I don’t know.

Happily for lovers of green asparagus, it is now widely available in France and in fact begins appearing as early as March, imported from Spain. If you are lucky enough to live in a region where wild asparagus is available, by all means use it. (As it tends to be quite thin, you will need more spears per omelet.)

An asparagus-parmesan omelet can be the centerpiece of lunch or a light supper, accompanied by a green salad and followed by cheese and/or fruit. It can also be served as a starter at dinnertime. As for wine, I’d suggest a fruity red to accompany this omelet, for example a Beaujolais or a Chinon.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 4. Omelets, Soufflés, Quiche | 2 Comments

Petite friture

This quintessential French dish evokes happy days at the seaside, where plates of small crispy fish are served up along with a chilled bottle of white or rosé. For me, petite friture inevitably makes me think of summer, which is perhaps why — after this long, dark, cold Parisian winter — I decided to try making it at home when I came across an inviting mound of tiny, silvery fish at a market the other day. Preparation proved surprisingly simple.

Petite friture / Fish fry, French style

As the name implies, the fish used in petite friture are very small, even tiny. The fish are rinsed, dried, coated with flour and deep fried in batches. You can keep them warm in the oven until ready to serve — and you eat them whole. They can be served with drinks at cocktail hour, or (more commonly) as a starter or a main course. They need only be accompanied by a little lemon, or if you prefer you can make a French-style sauce tartare, in which capers, tarragon and chopped pickles are added to mayonnaise.

The only problem may be finding the tiny fish. I have looked in vain for them many times at the farmers market in my neighborhood. The fishmonger says they are seasonal, but the season differs for different types of fish. Such a search may be even more difficult in other countries. But the effort of hunting is worth it.

The next question is which fish to use. The most common variety in France is the éperlan, which translates into English as smelt. Well — I know a thing or two about smelt. As a child growing up in Wisconsin, every year in the spring, when the close-to-shore ice over Lake Michigan had melted and the smelt run started, my brother and I were roused from bed in the middle of the night and driven to the shore, our father at the wheel, to join up with other families to go smelting. This involved wading into the freezing waters with large nets that would be dipped and raised full of wriggling small fish. Which my mother then had to figure out how to cook.

We did not do a lot of deep frying in my family — my mom pan-fried the smelt — and in fact I rarely attempted it until my daughter, then a young teen, decided one day that she absolutely had to have doughnuts, right then, right there. So she found a French recipe for beignets and headed into the kitchen. I was distracted, watching a movie on TV or some such, and couldn’t believe it when she reappeared with a plate of piping hot, sugary doughnuts. She went on to perfect the art of making frites — French fries — from scratch. (I may have to ask her to write a guest column on that.)

Since then, I, too, have waded into deep frying, with considerable success. By the way, friture, which translates literally as ‘frying’, is used in many expressions in France. For example, un bain de friture, literally ‘a frying bath’, means oil for deep frying. Petite friture, literally ‘small fry’, always refers to fish. Other fried foods are identified by their names — for example, friture de courgettes (deep-fried zucchini), calamars frits (deep-fried squid), etc. And of course pommes frites (French-fried potatoes).

This method of cooking is populaire over here — meaning not only that it is popular, but also that it is appreciated by people who live modestly, perhaps because it is typically used for dishes that are as inexpensive as they are tasty. Petite friture falls into that category — I bought a pound of éperlans for only 2.50 euros. And I couldn’t keep my daughter away from the stove as the fish came out of their frying bath, hot, crispy and delicious.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Leave a comment

Charlotte aux fraises

There’s an easy way and a hard way to make the delectable French strawberry dessert known as charlotte aux fraises, as I learned when setting out to make one for this post. A charlotte is an unbaked cake of ladyfingers with a creamy filling. Many modern recipes for strawberry charlotte use a thick dessert cream known as a bavaroise for the filling, and this involves the use of gelatin. As it turns out, that’s the hard way…

Charlotte aux fraises / Strawberry charlotte

My first attempt failed utterly when the gelatin didn’t set properly. The cake was beautiful when I unmolded it — for about 10 seconds. Then it proceeded to collapse into a Daliesque mound of strawberry cream. My daughter pronounced it delicious, but still…

The easy way, as I discovered by calling a couple of French friends who gave me their grandmother’s recipes, is to skip the gelatin and simply layer quartered strawberries mixed with whipped cream into a mold lined with ladyfingers dipped in crème de cassis. Well, the cassis was my idea. Traditionally rum is used as flavoring. And this method is also the traditional one, passed along from mother to daughter over the generations.

Because the easy way is so easy, the dessert is fun to make. If kids will be sharing it, you can skip the cassis and use strawberry syrup for flavoring the ladyfingers. Once assembled, the charlotte needs to be refrigerated for at least four hours, after which you can decorate it with sliced strawberries and mint. And no, the second time, it didn’t collapse…

Happy cooking.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Epaule d’agneau rôti à l’ail

Roast shoulder of lamb makes a fine centerpiece at Easter, Passover or any time of the year. In this recipe, the meat is surrounded by whole cloves of garlic, which soften while roasting into a sweet, succulent paste. The garlic cloves are roasted in their jackets, and the lamb may be boned for easy carving. Not counting the roasting time, preparation takes about 5 minutes. Add some roasted cherry tomatoes, and you’ll have a feast.

Epaule d’agneau rôti à l’ail / Roast shoulder of lamb

A French friend taught me the trick of roasting unpeeled garlic cloves (ail en chemise, or ‘garlic in its shirt’) many years ago. The technique may be used with equal success with roast chicken, roast beef, etc. When you’re using two entire heads of garlic, as in this recipe, not having to peel the cloves saves a lot of time. The garlic cloves may be served whole and their contents squeezed out by diners — or, if you prefer, you can squeeze the paste out in the kitchen and serve it in a small bowl beside the carved roast.

The lamb is imbued with the garlic flavor while it is roasting, and some sprigs of fresh thyme lend a taste of the wildness of Provence. Thyme may also be used on roasted cherry tomatoes, which you can pop in the oven at the same time as the lamb. They come out sweet and very tender.

Compared to leg of lamb, shoulder of lamb serves fewer people, and this can be an advantage if you’re making a dinner for four to five, instead of seven to eight. If you do have leftovers, the lamb pairs brilliantly served at room temperature the next day with homemade mayonnaise and a salad.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 7. Meat Dishes | Leave a comment

Avocat au saumon fumé

Here’s a fresh take on avocat vinaigrette, a popular starter on bistro menus when I arrived in Paris 40 years ago. In the original, avocado halves were filled with a thick, mustardy sauce. This version is both lighter and prettier, the pink-orange of smoked salmon contrasting with the pale green of the avocado and darker green flecks of dill. Although it has the look of spring, it can be made in any season — and it’s incredibly quick to prepare.

Avocat au saumon fumé / Avocado with smoked salmon

This recipe works best with thick-cut smoked salmon. I experimented a lot before settling on the right proportions for the sauce, which combines olive oil with fresh lemon juice. A halved clove of garlic immersed briefly in the sauce adds depth, and a good dose of freshly ground black pepper adds bite. There are many other possible combinations, however.

A simple one would be to substitute lime juice and fresh cilantro for the lemon juice and dill. Or you could use a milder oil, for example sunflower or grape seed oil. For an Asian twist, combine peanut and sesame oil and add lime juice, grated fresh ginger and lemongrass. Vegetarians can omit the salmon and double the quantity of herbs.

Whichever version you choose, set aside a small quantity of fresh herbs to use as a garnish on top. One avocado half per person is sufficient as a starter, but what if you’re home alone with a ripened avocado ready to eat? Treat yourself to both halves as a light lunch dish.

And now some food for thought (but not for the faint of heart). I recently posted a recipe for lobster risotto, which called for either live or frozen lobster. From now on, I will more likely use the frozen variety. This choice is based on a report in Le Monde that Switzerland has banned the boiling of fresh lobster on grounds that they deserve a kinder end. Click here for a BBC summary on the best way to achieve this.

Although I have not purchased a live lobster in more decades than I can remember, mainly because of the price, I found this article noteworthy. At a time when concerned citizens are becoming more attentive to animal rights, foodies can choose to become vegetarian — or, if they prefer to remain omnivores, as most humans have been throughout the millennia, they can adapt to a modern way of thinking about our fellow creatures.

Dear readers — each time I post a new recipe on this blog, a few people unsubscribe. I hope this foray into an area rarely touched on here will not spark a mass exodus. The point is that, as noted at the top of this page, The Everyday French Chef is ‘the modern cook’s guide to producing fabulous French food’. Today, let’s put the emphasis on ‘modern’.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 1. Starters | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Poireaux au gratin

Leek gratin is traditionally made with Reblochon, a pungent cheese from the French Alps, but it has been snowing in Paris. The snow brought the city to a standstill, and by the time it stopped the stores were empty. No Reblochon to be found! I wanted to make this recipe, so I improvised with raclette, a similar cheese. Tantalizing waves of aroma spread through the house as the leeks baked. This is winter comfort food at its best.

Poireaux au gratin / Leek gratin

For someone who has spent winters in Wisconsin, upstate New York and Moscow, the idea of a few inches of snow paralyzing a city is laughable. But few were laughing last week as the snow iced over and Parisians with broken bones poured into hospital emergency rooms. Bus service halted, taxi drivers went home, schools closed. The kids were in the streets tossing snowballs at passers-by. I ventured out among them, trodding carefully over the ice and dodging snowballs as I made my way to the local supermarket.

This is what I found. At the front of the store, the salad shelves were empty, a sign announcing that due to the weather, delivery trucks had been unable to get through. This was two days after the snow stopped. The dairy shelves, usually packed with a thousand types of yogurt, were empty too. In the cheese department, after hunting in vain for Reblochon, I found a lone packet of raclette and snatched it up. I already had the leeks.

It was time to start cooking. The beauty of leek gratin, beyond its delightful flavor, is that it’s so easy to make. You chop the leeks, steam or parboil them, drizzle on a little cream, add the cheese and pop them in the oven. Thirty minutes later, the gratin is ready to serve.

This dish has enough character to stand on its own, perhaps with a salad or some cured ham alongside. It marries well with roast meat or chicken, and deserves a hearty red. It’s a crowd pleaser — you may have to double the recipe.

So when it starts to snow, head immediately to the store to stock up on leeks and cheese (many other cheeses work well, as explained in the recipe). While the gratin is baking, if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, pile on the wood and light a match. Then watch the flakes drift down for a quiet moment. It will soon be time to eat.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Risotto de langouste

The lobster known as le homard — the one with alarming claws — is hugely expensive in Paris, and so is its kinder, gentler cousin, la langouste (no pinchers). But this winter frozen langouste tails began appearing at a reasonable price, so I brought some home and began to experiment. I served them French style, butterflied and grilled with a vermouth-flavored beurre blanc, on New Year’s Eve. And this week I tried my hand at lobster risotto.

Risotto de langouste / Lobster risotto

It was fun, easy and delicious. The trick is to pre-cook the tails, pull out the meat and then use the shells to make a broth. After that, it’s a standard risotto. You sauté onions in olive oil, add the rice (preferably Arborio or Carnaroli rice from Italy), stir until it’s translucent, add some dry white wine and, when it evaporates, add the lobster broth. When the rice is nearly cooked to creamy perfection, you add the lobster, stir in some butter and — if you dare, some grated parmesan. This would be a travesty to most Italians, who prefer their seafood pasta and rice sans parmesan, but non-purists such as myself tend to like it.

The langouste is a warm water creature also known as spiny lobster, langusta or (really?) crayfish. It is plentiful in the Mediterranean, and was enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and probably far earlier residents of the area. Still considered a delicacy in France, it is most often served during the holiday season. But that should not deter us from enjoying it at other times of the year, particularly as the frozen variety is available year round. If you can afford it and do not fear being pinched, you can use the other type of lobster (homard) instead. Whichever, this risotto makes a sublime comfort food on cold winter nights.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Velouté de butternut

Butternut soup is suddenly the rage in Paris. Walk down any street and you will see it listed on menu-of-the-day chalkboards outside bistros. This is all the more surprising given that butternut squash was virtually unknown in France until a few years ago, when it began appearing in farmers’ markets. Having captured the national imagination, it also captured mine, and today I’m offering two versions of this pleasant winter soup.

Velouté de butternut / Butternut soup

The first, pictured above, uses Mediterranean flavors to liven up what is — let’s face it — rather a bland vegetable. The second, pictured below, imbues the squash with Thai flavors. Either can make a tasty start to a cold-weather meal, and both may hold special appeal for vegetarians and vegans, as well as omnivores like yours truly.

Perhaps in their (probably hopeless) effort to protect the language, the French have rebaptized what is originally a New World vegetable as courge doubeurre, which translates loosely as ‘sweet butter squash’. But I have never seen it marketed under that name, and you would most likely get a quizzical look if you asked at a grocery store for doubeurre. In fact, you might instead be given a packet of butter (du beurre). Better to use the French pronunciation of butternut — boo-tair-NOOT.

Meantime, on the literary front (French food and wine style), three books have come to my attention that may interest you. The first, The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah, will be out in June. She says it’s ‘a story about wine, World War II and family secrets that have been buried for generations’. The second, Burgundy: Twisted Roots by Janet Hubbard, is the third in a mystery series set in the wine regions of France. And finally, a reader of this site has alerted me to the forthcoming publication of Minced, Marinated, and Murdered, a gourmet crime mystery set in Lyon, with pre-order gifts attached.

But back to squash. Butternut is not only tasty but also packed with vitamins and minerals. Its texture makes it perfect for velouté, the French name for velvety soup. The recipes are easy and inexpensive, and the flavors comforting. So treat yourself!

And happy cooking.

Posted in 2. Soups | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Parmentier de canard

Here’s a cold-weather dish that is both sophisticated and supremely French. Duck parmentier — shredded duck confit topped by puréed potatoes — has turned up on Paris bistro menus recently and I was lucky enough to be served this version in early December. It came surrounded by a parmesan cream sauce and, to quote a friend, it was absolutely divine. After finishing every bite, I asked the bistro owner for the recipe.

Parmentier de canard / Duck parmentier

The bistro in question was Chartier, in Levallois on the western edge of Paris. It’s the kind of place that you long to find but that is increasingly rare — a modern version of the classic bistro style, with an inventive menu that winks at past traditions. The owner, Thomas Chartier, a congenial man, was happy to share his culinary secrets.

Duck parmentier is a spinoff of the classic French dish hachis parmentier, or sautéed ground beef topped by mashed potatoes — the kind of food you might expect to find in school cafeterias, not at a classy joint for adults. Both are named for Antoine-Auguste Parmentier, the 18th century chemist credited with popularizing the potato in France.

In Monsieur Chartier’s version, duck confit is shredded and stirred into what he called a tombée de champignons, or thinly sliced mushrooms (wild and farmed) sautéed with onion until meltingly tender, before being topped by the puréed potatoes. For an extra flourish he adds an unctuous sauce of grated parmesan stirred into heavy cream.

In my version, I omitted the mushrooms for reasons of practicality — it’s not always possible to get hold of wild mushrooms, and without them this dish may be prepared in any season. I think it’s best in winter, though — a sublime comfort food that can be paired with a salad and a hearty bottle of red. If you’d like to add a starter, I’d suggest something light, perhaps smoked salmon, and for dessert possibly an apple or pear tart.

In the months ahead, I plan to bring you more French classics with a modern twist. This blog is now entering its fifth year and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Many thanks to all of you, dear readers. And on that note I’d like to wish you a very happy New Year and…

Happy cooking!

Posted in 6. Poultry | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments