Assiette de fromages

Cheese stands as a course of its own in France — and why not, in a country with more than 400 varieties to choose from? It is usually presented between the main course and fruit or dessert, with the number of cheeses ranging from one to many depending on the occasion and the number of people at the table. But which cheeses to choose and how to present them? A reader wrote in to ask this question. The subject is vast. Here goes.

Assiette de fromages / Assorted cheeses

The first point is that, in a proper French meal, cheese is a must. You can’t skip it, as French friends tartly remarked one year at an American Thanksgiving dinner in Paris where the co-hostess and I had presumed that no one would have room for cheese, given the bounteous nature of the meal. We were taken to task and have not repeated the mistake. Is this to say that I serve cheese at every meal? Absolutely not! But when guests are present — and unless it is a meal where cheese would be inappropriate, like Vietnamese food — I prefer to err on the side of caution and bring out the cheese.

When I first came to France in 1969, I spent several weeks as a lodger with a family in Avignon while on a summer study program. This was my introduction to French cheese. It was served twice a day, at lunch and dinner, almost always accompanied by fresh fruit. Sometimes a single cheese was brought out, and sometimes an assortment, served on a simple plate, a board or a platter. The variety was astounding.

With so many cheeses to choose from, where to begin? Cheeses are seasonal, varying according to the time of year when the milk is at its best and the amount of time needed for the cheese to mature. Cheeses at their best in spring include all types of chèvre (goat cheese, seen at right) and soft cheeses like Camembert, Brie and Epoisses. Cheeses that take a bit longer to mature, like Reblochon or Saint-Nectaire, come into their prime in summer. Autumn is the time to choose cheeses that have acquired character through longer maturation, like Roquefort, Ossau-Iraty (a hard Basque cheese made from ewe’s milk), Maroilles or Livarot. Winter is when cheeses needing the longest maturation come into their own: Comté and Beaufort, Cantal and Laguiole, and the unmatchable Mont d’Or, a meltingly delicious cheese eaten out of its round wooden box with a spoon.

Now the next question: How to compose your assortment? If you’ll be serving a considerable number of cheeses, as shown in the platter above, it’s best to present a wide variety — guests can each taste a couple of their favorites. The platter shows, going around the rim from top right, Chaource, Pont l’Evêque, Roquefort and Comté, and in the center Pouligny-Saint-Pierre. This assortment has three cheeses made of cow’s milk. The Roquefort is made of ewe’s milk and the Pouligny-Saint-Pierre is a chèvre.

Harmony becomes more important when assembling a cheese plate for fewer people. As I’m partial to goat cheese, sometimes I’ll compose a plate with two or more types of chèvre, as seen at left. The plate includes Pouligny-Saint-Pierre (from south of the Loire) and two Rocamadours (from the Périgord). Sometimes I’ll go regional, selecting cheeses from, say, the rugged Auvergne region of south central France. The board at right includes Laguiole and Fourme d’Ambert, both made from cow’s milk. By the way, since blue cheeses, including Roquefort, are not to everyone’s taste, I usually include at least one non-blue cheese in the assortment. (An excellent site for taking a look at French cheeses is Chez Loulou.)

The cheese should be served at room temperature, which means taking it out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to bring it to the table. Much more could be said on the subject, such as how to cut the cheese (a conundrum even for the French), whether to bring it to the table still bearing its label (don’t), and what kind of cheese to choose if you’re not in France. I have touched on this here, and await any further questions.

Now then — getting back to France’s many types of cheese. The number has risen since President Charles de Gaulle famously said, ‘How can you hope to govern a country that has 258 varieties of cheese?’ According to the French dairy producers’ site, France today counts at least 1,200 varieties of cheese, of which 46 bear the label Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which attests that they come from a specific region and are made according to traditional methods. But they go on to say that the number could range up to 1,800. Which means that you could try one a day for nearly five years without repeating yourself…

Happy eating!

The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation for the next few weeks. Here’s wishing you all a very pleasant summer.

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I first discovered tarama in France, where it has been popular as a starter for decades or possibly longer. It is traditionally made from bottarga — cured and salted roe that has been pressed and sealed in wax. But, as I learned when shopping for this blog post, it is more often made these days with fresh salted roe, which is a fraction of the cost of the cured variety. The other ingredients are oil, bread, milk and lemon juice, and preparation is easy.

Tarama / Tarama

Tarama, aka taramosalata, originally hails from Greece, but these days it is available and appreciated around the world. Commercial varieties are generally quite pink due to the addition of red food coloring, while the homemade version ranges from pale pink to golden yellow depending on the type of oil used.

I decided to experiment for this post and bought both kinds of roe — fresh and cured. The fresh roe cost 2.80 euros for 100 grams (about 1/4 pound), while the bottarga cost 14.50 euros for the same quantity. I also experimented by using sunflower oil with the fresh roe and a half-and-half mixture of sunflower and olive oil with the bottarga. You can see the results in this photo.

I took the two types of tarama produced by this experiment to a dinner at a friend’s house for a blind tasting (I didn’t identify which type of roe was used). The result was three votes in favor of the fresh roe version, and one vote for the one using bottarga. Personally, I found the bottarga version to be more delicate, but unfortunately the flavor was somewhat overwhelmed by the olive oil. From now on, I will use fresh roe and a neutral oil.

But this is for reasons of economy rather than culinary merit. Bottarga (poutargue in French) is rightly considered a delicacy throughout the Mediterranean. In France it hails from Martigues, near Marseille, and is typically made from gray mullet roe. Bottarga is popular in pasta dishes in Italy, while elsewhere it served with toast or flatbread. It has begun appearing in sophisticated starters in Paris bistros — for example, a fabulous dish of black rice with cubed raw fish topped with poutargue petals at Le Denoyez, in Belleville.

When I went shopping for bottarga, the sales clerk at Les Cyclades, a Greek food shop down the street from me, told me that shoppers wanting to make their own tarama mainly use fresh salted cod roe these days, while he mainly sells poutargue to the local Jewish community to be served finely sliced as a delicacy over the Sabbath.

Tarama was traditionally prepared using a mortar and pestle, but now it can be whipped up in a blender in a matter of minutes. The recipe is the same whether you use bottarga or fresh roe: After briefly soaking the bread in milk, you mix all of the ingredients in the blender. Et voilà. Some recipes call for the addition of onion or garlic, but I have never encountered this in France.

I learned to make tarama nearly 40 years ago during my brief incarnation as a chef at a small Paris bistro. Preparing it again for this post has been a revelation — it’s laughably easy, far superior to the commercial variety, and now, thanks to the fresh roe, remarkably inexpensive. I suggest you give it a try.

Happy cooking.

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Tarte aux fraises

It’s that strawberry time of year. So when friends were coming to dinner the other night I couldn’t resist the temptation to make a strawberry tart. This involves a little work, but the results are well worth it. And the assembly is fun. The strawberries are placed in concentric circles on layer of French pastry cream that you’ve spread over a delectably crumbly, pre-baked sweet tart shell. A bright red glaze produces the brilliant sheen. Sweet and fresh.

Tarte aux fraises / Strawberry tart

Making the sweet pastry, or pâte sablée, is child’s play once you get the hang of it. You mix together softened butter, an egg yolk and sugar, and then add flour until it holds together. When the dough is ready, you simply pat it into your tart pan — no need to roll it out. In other words, a child could do it (or be your kitchen helper).

Here in France many varieties of strawberry are available — gariguette, ciflorette, mara des bois, etc. — and opinions differ as to which is the best. Personally, I don’t think it matters a lot which kind of strawberries you use in this tart. They just need to be ripe and sweet. If you can get away with it, taste one at the market or supermarket to make sure.

A French strawberry tart is guaranteed to produce applause when you bring it out at the end of a festive lunch or dinner. It is also great at teatime. But don’t delay — we are already entering into cherry season over here, and the height of strawberry season will soon pass.

Happy cooking.

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Assiette saumon macédoine

I’ve been serving a medley of seasonal vegetables this spring — asparagus, young carrots, peas and red spring onion — and wanted to try it out in a salad version. So here it is, bathed in lemony homemade mayonnaise and served alongside steamed salmon on a bed of tender greens. The veggie combination is a fresh take on macédoine, a classic French dish of chopped vegetables in mayo that today feels decidedly old-fashioned.

Assiette saumon macédoine / Salad of salmon and spring vegetables

Macédoine has an interesting story. It is named after the Balkan region of Macedonia, which once covered a large swath of territory. The mixture of veggies is said to recall the mixture of populations that shared the region, and indeed an ethnic map of the area from the 19th century is a mosaic of different colors. Amusingly, in the Balkans today, the dish is known as salade française (French salad), while in other parts of Europe it is called salade russe (Russian salad). But when I was living in Russia, chopped veggies in mayo was a dish known simply as maïonez (a catered version of which once brought down the entire newsroom of The Moscow Times when the mayonnaise had gone bad).

I was curious about the difference, if any, between macédoine and salade russe, and looked into the matter. It turns out that a true Russian version is more complex due to the addition of chopped pickles, hard-boiled eggs and one or more types of meat or sausage to the basic mixture of veggies and mayonnaise. It is said to have been invented by Lucien Olivier, a Belgian chef who worked at a fashionable Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. (A version of the dish was already popular in Belgium at the time, so whether he actually invented it is open to question.) The dish became known as salat Olivier — until the chef’s assistant ran off to another restaurant and renamed the salad Stolichy (for the capital city, even though Russia’s capital was actually Saint Petersburg at the time).

Those two salads still exist in Russia, and have given rise to multiple foreign variations. A Swiss chef, Joseph Favre, created a gourmet version by adding chicken, partridge or grouse, ham, roast beef and anchovy fillets to the veggies and mayo. A Spanish version includes tuna, roasted red pepper and green olives. In Spain, by the way, the name ensaladilla rusa was banned during the Franco years, with the dish rechristened as ensaladilla nacional. Other countries that wanted no mention of Russia in their culinary repertoire were Romania and Moldavia, where it was called salata de boeuf, or beef salad.

Beef salad? We’ve strayed from the recipe in this post, which has no meat, eggs, pickles or olives and in fact is far lighter than the French macédoine of yore. When I first arrived in Paris, a scoop of inspid canned veggies drowned in thick mayo was commonly seen as a starter in unpretentious bistros. But thankfully French cuisine has evolved since then.

Happy cooking.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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