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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Soupe angevine

With Thanksgiving and the holiday season around the corner, here’s a crisp, citrus-flavored apéritif from the Loire Valley to add sparkle to the festivities. Soupe angevine, literally soup from the Anjou region, combines sparking white wine with lemon juice, sugar syrup and Cointreau. It is traditionally mixed by pouring the bubbly into a large bowl and adding a soup ladle of each of the other ingredients — hence, perhaps, its name.

Soupe angevine / Sparkly Loire cocktail

I owe this recipe to my friend Nancy, who was served soupe angevine during a festive occasion with relatives outside the Loire city of Nantes. When she returned to Paris raving about it, I had to try it. It produces an effect similar to a kir royale (Champagne and crème de cassis) — light enough to go down easy, powerful enough to deliver a pleasant kick.

The bubbly used in the region is Crémant de Loire, crémant being the name for Champagne-style French sparkling wines produced outside the Champagne area. Burgundy has its crémant, as do Alsace, Bordeaux and Savoie. Differences are minimal — in fact, if making this drink outside France, any dry sparkling white will do.

The ‘angevine’ part of this cocktail’s name derives from the city of Angers, the capital of historic Anjou, which is renowned for its fine cuisine. A beloved native son was the culinary critic Curnonsky, known as the Prince of Gastronomy, who described the region’s cooking as ‘reasonable, sincere and good-natured’, particularly praising its butter, its river fish, its fruits and its crémet, a whipped cream dessert.

When preparing to write this post, I got to thinking about Angers and other French places with English-looking names. Of course Angers (pronounced ahn-ZHAY) has nothing to do with anger, deriving from its region, Anjou. Tourists rarely visit Nevers, the seat of the central Nièvre region, but never say never — say nuh-VAIR. As for the jewel of the French Riviera, Nice (NEESE), it’s definitely nice but its name apparently derives from Nissé, the ancient name of a natural spring used by Greek tradesmen who settled there.

This brings me to a town in southwest France that I visited many years ago when my boyfriend bought a crumbling farmhouse nearby. The postcard I sent home from Condom (kohn-DOHN) produced gales of hilarity when it reached my father. And indeed, this town lent its name to the protective sheaths amusingly known colloquially by the French as capotes anglaises (English hoodlets) and by the English as ‘French letters’.

If you’ve read this far, you may need a drink to get over this bout of etymological silliness. So head to your kitchen, break open the bubbly and mix up a little French soup, Angers-style. Pour it into pretty glasses and enjoy. You won’t regret it.

Happy cooking.

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Tourte épinards féta

Tangy and delightfully crispy, the Mediterranean spinach-cheese pie known variously as spanakopita, borek or boureka is both fun and easy to make. In this version, cinnamon is added to the spinach-feta filling for a slightly exotic taste that seems to please. When I made this pie for lunch the other day, it disappeared in minutes. Although the dish can be found in Greek shops in Paris, it tends be bland. The best idea is thus to make it yourself.

Tourte épinards-féta / Mediterranean spinach-cheese pie

I did a little research into the origins of this dish and, although it is often assumed to be Greek, or perhaps Turkish, it apparently reached the Mediterranean via the nomadic Turks of Central Asia, spreading west across the Balkans, north to Romania and Moldova and south to North Africa. In most versions, the pie is constructed using paper-thin filo dough — the name of which, I just learned, is Greek for feuille, or leaf.

It’s great fun working with filo, but you do need some sophisticated equipment — a paint brush. Working quickly, you coat each sheet of dough with melted butter or olive oil and layer them into your pie pan one at a time before adding the filling. When baked, they puff up like the French pâte feuillété, but are arguably more delicate and definitely crispier.

Other fillings for savory filo pies include mixed cheeses, minced meat, potatoes, roast peppers and squash, while the best known sweet filo pie is baklava, filled with walnuts and drizzled with honey. The pies may be baked in a round or rectangular pan, formed into individual triangles or rolled into ‘cigarettes’. Sometimes they are fried in oil, for example in North Africa — where the word borek morphed into brik, and a single (slightly thicker) sheet of pastry is used to encase the filling, most typically a raw egg.

But why is this pie called une tourte in French rather than une tarte? Mes amis, I have the answer thanks to my very recent acquisition Le Grand Larousse Gastronomique, a fabulous 1000-page encyclopedia of food that was presented to me as a gift this week.

A tourte, as it turns out, is a pie with an upper crust, while a tarte is open-faced. Although aware of the distinction, I’d never seen it spelled out before turning to the Larousse entry on tourte: ‘Akin to pâtés en croute and English pies, today’s tourtes are considered rustic or regional cuisine. Formerly, they played an important role as starters: tourtes filled with truffles, oysters, pigeon, foie gras, small delicacies, forcemeat, etc. were highly fashionable until the 17th century, when they were replaced by lighter dishes…’

Well! I’m not sure I’ll be posting recipes for truffle or oyster pie anytime soon, but I am extremely grateful to have access to such history at my fingertips. More French food lore will be coming your way in the weeks ahead. And in the meantime…

Happy cooking.

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

Tarte aux figues

Pretty as a picture. That’s what my daughter said when this tart of fresh figs set on vanilla-flavored cream came out of the oven the other day. She posted a photo on Instagram and got, like, a jillion likes (so she said). That evening I took the tart to a friend’s birthday dinner where it was speedily consumed with evident satisfaction — all the more so since this elegant dessert can only be made when figs are in season, a few months a year.

Tarte aux figues / Fresh fig tart

The good news is that, once you get hold of the figs, the tart is quite simple to prepare. You make a buttery pâte sablée — or go buy a roll of sweet pastry dough if you’re in a rush (shh! I didn’t say that) — then mix together cream, an egg yolk, sugar and vanilla, cut up the figs, assemble the tart and pop it in the oven. When it comes out, you can add a sprinkle of powdered sugar if you like.

My love affair with figs began many years ago when I spent a summer in France for the first time. Growing up in Wisconsin, I never saw a fresh fig. They didn’t grow there, and they weren’t imported. Imagine my surprise one day when, walking to class in Avignon at the age of 19, I followed my nose to an enticingly musty aroma that turned out to be emanating from a shrublike tree, its boughs heavy with fresh figs. Checking to see no one was looking, I picked one and tried it. Pure bliss.

Fresh figs — robed in violet, green and shades in between — can be found at farmers markets in France from July to October, and the season is extended these days by imports from Turkey and North Africa. Most French figs are grown in Provence and the neighboring Languedoc-Roussillon region. A few summers after my stay in Avignon, one of the loveliest towns in Provence, I spent a month at a friend’s country place in the hilly Cévennes region just to the west. There was a fig tree in the garden, and its profusion of fruit inspired us to make jar upon jar of fig jam. (I’ll post that recipe one day.)

Many years later, I thought about planting a fig tree in my garden in Burgundy, but locals said it wouldn’t thrive due to the cold rainy winters. What with climate change, however, fig trees are popping up these days beyond their native Mediterranean region — in northern France, Germany and even in England. They’re also grown in California, much of Asia and Australia. So, with any luck, you’ll find a source of fresh figs nearby. If you do, snatch them up, take them home — and enjoy creating a beautiful tart.

Happy cooking.

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Pot au feu

As cool, rainy weather set in the other day, I had a hankering for pot au feu. Ran out for the ingredients, came home to look up my recipe on this site — and was astounded to find it wasn’t there. So today I offer you this classic French dish of broth, beef and veggies. In past centuries, pot au feu (literally ‘pot on the fire’) was made in a cauldron, simmering for hours over a fire. Although the ingredients are humble, the result is regal.

Pot au feu / Pot au feu

There are as many ways to make this dish as there are cooks in France. The basic ingredients are stewing beef, onion, carrots, turnips, leeks, potatoes, bay, thyme and marrow bones. And then the discussion begins. In her excellent French Provincial Cooking (1960), Elizabeth David devotes five pages of tiny type to the preparation of pot au feu, including a passage on what type of soup pot to use (‘earthenware, copper, enamelled iron or heavy aluminium’) and another on why non-French cooks often suppose that pot au feu ‘holds some special secret which eludes them’.

Not to be outdone, Julia Child, in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 (1961), makes still more of a meal of pot au feu with what she describes as a Normandy version including pork, chicken and sausages in addition to the boiled beef and vegetables. This version, by the way, I have never seen. Most French recipes tend to be simpler, differing mainly in the cuts of beef and the types of vegetables to use.

I also make a simple version, although it’s a lengthy process. The beef is boiled for more than four hours, reaching a sublime tenderness and producing a deeply aromatic broth. The veggies are added at the end to retain maximum flavor. This is a healthy dish, as the fat is skimmed away during cooking. It is served in two stages — first the broth, then the meat and vegetables arranged on a platter, often with sea salt, Dijon mustard and sharp French cornichons (little pickles) alongside.

Break out a bottle of hearty red, bring on some crusty bread and you have a meal fit for a king or a queen, not to mention the little princes and princesses. Pot au feu is a family dish par excellence, and a wonderful addition to the menu as cold weather arrives. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Happy cooking.

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