Crème de poivrons rouges

This little gem of a recipe for chilled red pepper soup was inspired by a recent visit to one of my favorite Paris restaurants, Zebulon, where it was served as a surprise “palate teaser”, with a tiny savory biscuit and finely chopped black olives on top. There were only a few spoonfuls in the tiny soup cups, but — wow — did they pack a punch. The flavor is reminiscent of gazpacho, but more sophisticated. When I got home, I had to try to make it.

Crème de poivrons rouges / Chilled red pepper soup
Biscuits salés aux herbes de Provence / Savory herbal biscuits

In cases like this, I sometimes ask the restaurant for the recipe, but this time I did not, perhaps intimidated by the star power of Takashi Aoki, Zebulon’s fantastically talented and creative new chef. I decided instead to experiment. I began by roasting red bell peppers until the skin charred and they were tender. I peeled and seeded them and popped them into the blender, along with olive oil, red wine vinegar and a little salt. That was it for the first experiment, which we polished off at home in a trice.

The second time, I stirred in a little cream at the end to lighten the flavor, which had felt a bit too pungent the first time around. I served the soup to a discriminating panel of guests — three top-flight journalists and an ambassador — who proved to be wildly enthusiastic. So whether it is an exact replica or not, it seems to be a perfect summer starter. The key is to serve very small portions to avoid overwhelming the meal.

What else is on the mind-bogglingly creative menu at Zebulon? As a starter I chose grilled green asparagus with sautéed langoustines (aka scampi), a grapefruit emulsion (foam) and cardamom-flavored crumble, all tiny but incredibly delicious. My main course was red mullet filets with small artichokes (poivrade), a purée of finocchio and green olives, and sauce diable. And for dessert, a mango mousse with mungo bean tapioca, lemongrass and hibiscus sorbet. Superb.

I doubt that I’ll be attempting to replicate these other dishes anytime soon, as they rise too far above my everyday style of cooking. But if you happen to be in Paris, give Zebulon a try. The three-course dinner menu is reasonably priced at 45 euros. It is, simply put, a treat.

Happy cooking.

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Poulet grillé en brochette

This is the time of year when I’m either in the country stoking up the barbecue or dreaming of being there. At the moment, as Paris swelters through its second heatwave of this young summer, I’m still dreaming. But that won’t prevent me from making grilled chicken on wooden skewers — au contraire. It’s a perfect dish for hot summer weather, even at home, as it can be prepared on the stovetop in a matter of minutes with minimal fuss.

Poulet grillé en brochette / Grilled chicken brochettes

Before being grilled, the chicken is marinated in a sauce of red wine, olive oil, garlic and thyme. I like to serve these brochettes with a garlicky yogurt sauce — or, for a Middle Eastern touch, with tahini drizzled on top. The chicken kebabs can be accompanied by a simple garnish, like a couple slices of melon and some chopped tomatoes, as in the photo, or by something more substantial, for example ratatouille, roasted eggplant slices, chick pea salad with cumin and dill, tabbouleh or French potato salad.

Variations on this dish have most likely existed since the dawn of time — or rather, since our human predecessors gained control of fire around a million years ago. We had pointed stone tools by then, and blades would follow in another 500,000 years. So it was simple: cut the meat into chunks, insert it on sticks, set the sticks over a pit filled with hot stones and voilà — kebabs for dinner. Of course, first they had to get lucky during the hunt…

It’s easier these days, when you can just go buy the meat. The little wooden brochettes are available in supermarkets and Asian food shops. With the heat persisting in Paris — and with President Macron planning to host a certain American on Bastille Day next week — I plan to get out of town and fire up the barby. As the saying goes, if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. And in summertime, that sounds like a fine thing to do.

Happy cooking.

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Terrine de saumon

A light start to a meal of a warm summer’s evening is a fish terrine — in this case, a terrine of salmon, shrimp and sea scallops, with a sauce flavored with curry and dill. For years I have enjoyed the fish terrines on offer at Parisian food shops, where they beckon elegantly in multicolor slices. But I only recently began making them. And the good news is that it’s fun. It requires a French technique known as bain-marie.

Terrine de saumon / Salmon terrine

Bain-marie, which translates as ‘Mary’s bath’, involves setting a pan of boiling water on the stove or in the oven and placing whatever you happen to be cooking on top. On the stove, it’s the equivalent of a double boiler, while in baking it is used in the creation of various dishes, among them crème caramel. I’ve been using the technique for years, but not until sitting down to write up this recipe did I start to wonder how it got it’s unusual name — and in particular, who the heck was Mary?

As it turns out, she was an ancient sage and alchemist variously known as ‘Mary the Jewess’, ‘Mary the Prophetess’ and ‘Daughter of Plato’, and is (not totally reliably) said to have discovered hydrochloric acid and to have inspired Carl Jung. When and where she lived is unclear. She is variously said to have met up in Memphis, Egypt, with Democritus of Greece (he lived from around 460-370 BC) and to have learned the art of making gold from Aristotle (384-322 BC) at the court of Alexander the Great. In one poetic account, she is described as a Syrian princess.

Whoever Mary was, we who dabble in culinary alchemy owe her quite a lot. And, thanks to the French, her name has been preserved through the centuries. If the weather gets so hot, as it has in Paris recently, that you feel you might be in Syria or Egypt, put on your apron, whip up a fish terrine and think of Mary.

Happy cooking.

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Salade grecque

When the weather turns summery, what could be more refreshing than a Greek salad, French style? It’s been so hot here in Paris recently that I’ve made several. All you need is feta, tomatoes, a cucumber, a red onion, some black olives and a little parsley or mint. Unlike the Greek version, salade grecque is generally served in France without sweet peppers or oregano, and with rosé instead of retsina. Call it an Adriatic of the mind.

Salade grecque / Greek salad, French style

When researching this post, I got to wondering why this particular combination is known as Greek salad, when there are many salads in Greece, my favorites (other than the above) being taramasalata, known in France simply as tarama, made of salted cod roe, oil and bread, and tzatziki, made of cucumbers, yogurt and garlic. I didn’t find the answer, but I did find quite a bit about one of the main ingredients of salade grecque, the cucumber.

It turns out that cucumbers came to Greece, and then on to the rest of Europe, from the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, where they grow in the wild. One thing that surprised me when I got to France was the shape of cucumbers here — they are smooth and very long, about 16 inches (40 centimeters), quite unlike the shorter, nubbly cucumbers I had encountered in the United States. One can only speculate on why the French prefer the longer variety, which, oddly, is known here as hollandais (Dutch). Suffice it to say that other varieties have begun appearing at Parisian farmer’s markets and grocery stores, including the suddenly popular short cucumber known as libanais (Lebanese).

Cucumbers were enjoyed in ancient Egypt, where they are said to have been popular with the Hebrews brought there as slaves. Le concombre had arrived in France by the Middle Ages, and was favored by Charlemagne, who instructed monasteries to cultivate the fruit (yes, it’s a fruit, not a veggie). By the 17th century it had risen to cult status among the well-heeled, who appreciated the fact that, unlike peasant food, cucumbers were not at all filling and therefore could be considered a pleasure food. According to one French historian of food, cucumbers were even viewed as useful in the art of seduction…

Getting back to the present day, one delightful thing about Greek salad, French style, is that it can be prepared in advance and refrigerated. It stays crisp if you wait to add the vinaigrette until just before serving. This salad can be served as a main dish at lunchtime or as a starter in the evening, followed perhaps by grilled brochettes of lamb or chicken (coming soon), or — if you’d really like to conjure up the seaside — grilled squid with garlic and parsley or Mediterranean-style fish with tapenade.

Other hot-weather suggestions can be found in the Menus section, which I update from time to time according to season. Off the top of my head, summer meals could include: salade niçoise, aïoli (fish and veggies with garlic mayonnaise), assiette de crudités (veggie platter), assiette anglaise (cold roast meat platter), ratatouille, eggplant gratin or cucumber soup. The main idea being to spend less time in the kitchen than at the beach.

Happy summer, and happy cooking.

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Fraises au basilic et vinaigre balsamique

Strawberries with basil and balsamic vinegar, aka strawberry carpaccio, appeared relatively recently on Paris bistro menus. The combination makes a refreshing dessert on warm summer evenings — light, tangy and sophisticated. And the real magic is that it takes about five minutes to prepare. You can also vary the ingredients, adding a few raspberries or replacing the basil with mint. Don’t tell your guests about the balsamic — let them guess.

Fraises au basilic et vinaigre balsamique / Strawberries with basil and balsamic

When thinking about this dish, I got to wondering about the name carpaccio. It is obviously borrowed from the Italian dish of thinly sliced raw beef, sprinkled with olive oil and lemon juice and often topped with arugula or basil. But how did that dish get its name? I did a little research, and the answer made me nostalgic for a romantic trip to Venice I enjoyed many years ago in the company of an Argentinian friend.

During our visit — a few days before Carnival, when Venetians stroll around in masks and vapor rises spookily from the canals — we went for cocktails one afternoon to a historic venue, Harry’s Bar. Hemingway used to hang out there, as did Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. It turns out that the owner, Giuseppe Cipriani, created the beef dish in 1950 for a countess who had been told by her doctor to eat raw meat. As the dish was red, he named it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, who used a lot of red in his paintings.

Okay, that’s the lore. In fact that dish already existed, in the Piedmont region on the other side of northern Italy, where it was known as carne cruda all’Albese — raw meat in the style of Alba, a Piedmont town south of Asti, famous for Asti Spumante, the Italian sparkling wine.  The Alba region itself in fact produces some great wines, among them Barolo and Barbera. But we’re getting off subject here.

As food lovers will know, the term carpaccio has since been broadened to include practically anything raw and thinly sliced, from salmon, tuna or sea scallops to mushrooms, fresh figs and, yes, strawberries. Given the origin of the term, I like the fact that strawberry carpaccio includes a touch of Italy with the balsamic. Whoever first dreamed up the idea, and this I didn’t discover, it’s a great invention. Give it a try.

Oh, and one more thing. Nearly forgot to mention that The Everyday French Chef has been named one of the 12 best blogs about France. Very delighted about this! Also on the list is one of my favorite food blogs, Chez Loulou, by an American who set out to taste as many French cheeses as she could. Her list now stands at 223 cheeses — worth checking out.

Happy cooking!

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Pâtes aux moules et pecorino

It is surprising, in our globalized world, that we can still travel only a short distance and find ourselves in a whole new foodosphere. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Naples. The first night, at a joint straight out of a Mastroianni-Loren movie, I was served pizza with sausage and friarielli, aka broccoli rabe, which is virtually unfindable in Paris. The last day, I encountered a simple but scrumptious dish of pasta, mussels and pecorino.

Pâtes aux moules et pecorino / Pasta with mussels and pecorino

The place was Pizzeria Osteria Manfredi, on a picturesque street around the corner from our hotel. We had dined there the previous evening and were so impressed that we came back for lunch. The place was crammed with Italians enjoying fresh seafood dishes — unsurprisingly, as the bistro lies about a ten minute walk up a hill from the Mediterranean. On the menu, the dish was identified as scialatielli cozze e pecorino. I recognized cozze — mussels — but had no idea about the scialatielli, which turned out to be a rustic fresh pasta that is typical along the Amalfi coast.

The dish arrived, the pasta lying tousled in a broth fragrant with plump mussels, and as soon as I tasted it I knew I had to try to recreate it at home. Not a problem, as it is quite similar to pasta alle vongole, or pasta with clams, which we enjoy now and again on Sundays when I’ve been to the market. The mussels are steamed open in wine and garlic, the pasta is cooked al dente, and they are combined at the end with a sprinkling of parsley and pecorino. As scialatielli are not readily available in Paris, I substituted spiraled girandole. In fact, any pasta would work well.

As for the mussels, did you know they have a season? In fact it’s just beginning, running from May to December, in France at least, as I learned this week from a TV feature on the start of the harvest off the Normandy coast. This was news to me, as I had always assumed that mussel season coincided with oyster season, which runs from September to April — the months with an ‘r’ in the name, as the saying goes over here. So the plumpest, tastiest mussels will be coming onto the market now. Go for it!

And happy cooking.

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Pintade rôti à la sauge

I first encountered this dish a couple of years ago at Yard, the restaurant opened by the Australian-born Shaun Kelly when he left his first Paris venture, Au Passage. The guinea hen was so deliciously succulent, its sauce of fresh sage sautéd in butter so richly satisfying, that I knew I had to try to recreate it at home. I would have called Shaun Kelly for advice, but he’s no longer at Yard and I couldn’t find him. Nonetheless, here it is.

Pintade rôti à la sauge / Roast guinea hen with fresh sage

The recipe is a cinch. The guinea hen is roasted in the oven — lacking an oven, you can cut it into pieces and sauté it on the stove top — and the bird is then bathed in its sauce. (By the way, lacking a guinea hen, you can use chicken.) The fresh sage is what makes the sauce so exceptional. Butter is melted to sizzling and the sage leaves are added until both they and the butter are starting to brown.

This combination hails from Tuscany, I believe, at least that’s where I first tasted it — as a sauce for cheese ravioli sprinkled with Parmesan. I was with friends dining at an outdoor trattoria, and we nearly jumped up to applaud. That’s how good it was. Since then, fresh sage has been part of my culinary repertoire. I grow it in my garden in Burgundy, and have a pot of it on my balcony in Paris. It appears in several recipes on this site — the Tuscany-style ravioli, a cheese omelet and a French-style pizza with bacon and sage.

Sage has been appreciated in France since the Middle Ages, not just for its flavor but also for its medicinal qualities. Used in an herbal tea, it was believed to increase longevity. The name of the herb itself — salvia in Latin and Italian — carries echoes of salvation. Louis XIV, the sun king, is said to have served it to his guests. For me, though, sage is hardly a royal plant. Its charm lies in its simplicity. Its musky fragrance rises up from the garden on a warm summer’s day as butterflies flit among its flowers and silver-green leaves. And when cooked, it fills the house with its delectable aroma.

As for the guinea hen, it is quite common here in France, where it is raised by country folk along with their chickens and geese. My Burgundy neighbors always have a few in their yard, the birds’ white-spotted black feathers looking straight out of an African painting. Which isn’t surprising, since guinea fowl originated in Africa, and their French name, pintade, derives from the Portuguese pintada, meaning “painted”.

Now, back to Shaun Kelly. He served the guinea hen alongside veggies drizzled with a fabulous sauce of cream and horseradish. I would love to get that recipe too — if only I could find him. If you happen to know where he is these days, please get in touch.

And happy cooking!

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Oeufs mimosa

The mimosa tree, its fluffy yellow blossoms a harbinger of spring, has loaned its name not only to a Champagne cocktail but also to the French version of deviled eggs. The eggs are stuffed and topped with of tiny pieces of yolk meant to resemble mimosa flowers. The filling includes parsley or other herbs. It’s a great dish to serve at this time of year — cheery, light and bright. And by the way, it’s also a great way to recycle Easter eggs.

Oeufs mimosa / Eggs ‘Mimosa’

I should note that in France, Easter eggs are usually made of chocolate — and, children are told, they are brought not by a bunny but by… bells! According to this story, when the church bells stop ringing on Good Friday and Holy Saturday in a sign of mourning, they fly off to Rome. When they return on Easter Sunday, they distribute the chocolate eggs in the garden for children to find. (This can make for amusing moments in midsummer when a forgotten chocolate egg, thoroughly melted, is suddenly found.)

Eggs, a symbol of rebirth and renewal, have played a ceremonial role in springtime since antiquity. Before the Easter egg there was the Passover egg, which continues to this day to grace the Seder plate. In Russia, the jeweled Fabergé egg is a spin-off of traditional painted eggs, and the tradition continues in the form of beautifully decorated wooden eggs. The French nobility used precious metals to decorate Easter eggs until the advent of affordable chocolate. These days the chocolate eggs are wrapped in colorful aluminum foil. And what of the Easter bunny? There is a French version, in Alsace, but the bunny is a hare.

Getting back to oeufs mimosa, the eggs may be served on their own as a first course, or as part of a larger hors d’oeuvres spread. If serving them as the start of a French-style Easter lunch, you could follow up with roast chicken or leg of lamb and a green salad. For vegetarians, one choice might be pasta with saffron, arugula and walnuts. Dessert could be as simple as strawberries with cream or, for a fancier touch, you could add a meringue.

If you’d like to kick off festivities with the other kind of mimosa, fill champagne flutes with 1/3 orange juice (fresh squeezed, of course) and 2/3 Champagne (or — shh! — another sparkling wine). It is traditional, but not necessary, to add a teaspoon of Grand Marnier or triple sec to each glass before topping up with the sparkly. For a blushing mimosa, add a teaspoon of grenadine syrup, then top with Champagne.

Happy cooking!

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Tartare de saumon

Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, an event marked in France by pranks known as poissons d’avril, or ‘April fish’. So this seemed an appropriate time to post a fish recipe, all the more so as spring has now sprung with a vengeance in Paris, with warm-weather dishes sprouting on bistro menus like precocious darling buds of May. Salmon tartare is one such dish — light and fresh, its flavor enhanced with avocado, fresh herbs and lime juice.

Tartare de saumon / Salmon tartare

I had originally planned to make tartare de thon, or tuna tartare, but fresh tuna was not available when I went to the market. It’s not only not the tuna season, my fishmonger informed me, but tuna fishing is actually banned in France for most of the year — the tuna we see in the markets of Paris has apparently been imported from the Maldives. Not a problem, however, as fresh salmon is easily obtainable. The key word here being fresh, as this is the absolute requirement for serving fish raw, as in sushi, or a tartare.

Tartares of all sorts are quite popular over here, most notably steak tartare, most often made of beef these days but formerly made of horse meat. I tend to prefer the fish variety. Sea bass, cod, sardines and sea scallops are also used. A fish tartare is most often served as a starter, but can also be a main dish, accompanied by anything from salad to (I’m not kidding, I’ve seen it) a deep pile of fries. When a friend and I tried a new fish restaurant last week, Fichon, raw fish was the only thing on the menu. They say it’s trendy.

Getting back to poissons d’avril, the April 1 prank-playing custom dates back at least to the Middle Ages in France. Its origins are obscure, being variously said to have involved popes, kings and competing versions of the calendar. The tradition is alive and well today, with schoolchildren taping paper cut-outs of fish on each other’s back and gleefully shouting ‘Poisson d’Avril!‘ at the victim. Older kids make up tall tales that they spin to each other, and sometimes the media get into the act. In 1991, for example, the main French television network, TF1, reported that the third story of the Eiffel Tower had been removed for repairs — and showed images of a truncated tower, with bystanders commenting that they hoped the repairs wouldn’t last too long…

As for the origins of the term tartare, which indicates the food is raw, opinions diverge here too. It attributed by some to an alleged custom of Mongol warriors of placing raw meat under their saddles and riding until it was tender, at which point it was consumed, and by others to the fact that steak tartare was formerly served with sauce tartare — the French version of which contains mayonnaise, capers, chopped pickles and fresh herbs.

Sauce tartare is often served with fried fish in France, but not with fish tartare — the flavors of a dish like tartare de saumon being so delightful that they need no enhancing.

Happy cooking.

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Salade de pommes de terre

You may say po-TAY-to, I may say po-TAH-to, but the French say “apples of the earth” (pommes de terre), perhaps an indication of their esteem for the humble spud. And French potato salad, simple and earthy, has a taste all its own. Unlike American potato salad, it has no mayonnaise. Unlike the German version, it leaves out the bacon. No, the French bathe potatoes in a vinaigrette while still warm, add chopped shallots and herbs — et voilà.

Salade de pommes de terre / French potato salad

This rustic culinary masterpiece was first presented to me shortly after I arrived in Paris as a student, served on the mixed veggie plate known as an assiette de crudités. It was surprisingly pungent, but also soothing. Over the years friends served it in many variations — warm or cold, with parsley or chives (or both), with dill or chervil or tarragon. Usually the vinaigrette contains Dijon mustard. When it does not, the dish becomes pommes à l’huile and is often served beside oil-cured herring.

Given the global renown of a culinary invention associated with this country — French fries — it is hard to imagine that pommes de terre were once so controversial that they were actually banned by the French Parliament. They were thought to cause leprosy and other ailments. This was back in 1748, before the Revolution and also before a certain Antoine-Augustin Parmentier revolutionized French thinking on the potato.

Captured by the Germans during the Seven Years War, Parmentier was forced to eat thin potato soup — and didn’t fall ill or die. Upon his return to Paris, he used his background as a pharmacist to conduct experiments with the potato. The more convinced he became of the potato’s nutritional value, the more creative he became in his struggle to persuade a dubious public. He planted a potato patch and had it guarded by day but not by night, inciting Parisians, who thought the plants must be valuable, to steal them — and try them. At one point he invited luminaries including Benjamin Franklin to a potato dinner.

By this time, potatoes — which had been brought to Europe from Peru by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s — were popular in Ireland, England and Germany, and had been brought back across the Atlantic to North America. The French finally lifted their ban during a period of famine in the late 1700s, even growing potatoes in the Tuileries Gardens to feed the populace. Parmentier today is viewed as a national hero. I live not far from Avenue Parmentier, a large Paris thoroughfare. Various dishes are named in his honor, most notably hachis parmentier, or ground meat topped by mashed potatoes.

Getting back to French potato salad, there are now many variations on the basic recipe. When researching this blog post, I came across versions including pickles, cockles, goat cheese, honey, eggs, olives and even algae. Sure, you can put seaweed in your potato salad. But as an everyday French chef, I’ll choose the traditional recipe every time. It will soon be the season for new potatoes — the very best choice for this salad.

Happy cooking.

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