Compote de rhubarbe

We’ve got one week left of spring, time enough to get creative with one of my favorite seasonal fruits — rhubarb. Well, to be exact, it’s a veggie, but for culinary purposes rhubarb stars in desserts. This simple, flavor-packed compote can be prepared in 15 minutes. I like to serve it with a dollop of something creamy on top, for example fromage blanc or Greek yogurt. Add a leaf of mint or a strawberry and it makes an elegant finale to any old meal.

Compote de rhubarbe / Rhubarb compote

As it happens, I served it last night, right after the cheese course. I’d brought a special cheese back to Paris from my country place in Burgundy — Le Petit Soumantrin. This cheese, somewhat like Epoisses, is very hard to find outside its region of production, and none of the guests at my table had ever seen it before. They finished it off, and while they were enjoying it the talk turned to President Charles de Gaulle.

‘How can you hope to govern a country that has 258 types of cheese?’ de Gaulle famously said (although in some versions of this quote the number is 246). Doesn’t matter. What the crusty president was saying, in effect, is that French cheeses are tied not just to national identity, but to the identity of regions or even villages, each with its own character. And how can you govern a country with 246 identities?

In any event, either General de Gaulle got it seriously wrong in terms of the number of different cheeses produced in France or that number has skyrocketed since he uttered his words on the subject in 1962. According to the web site of the French National Center for Dairy Products, that number now exceeds 1,200! Which means that you can try a different type of French cheese every day of the year for three years plus 105 days…

Getting back to rhubarb, a compote makes a light but satisfying ending to a meal, whether preceded by cheese or not. I have fond memories of this dish dating back to my childhood in Wisconsin, where my Aunt Marge grew rhubarb in her garden.

I also grew rhubarb at my country place, and as it is perennial the new owners will also enjoy it. Ah yes, my friends, I sold the dacha this week. It’s a major life change, but one that was necessary. I will miss my garden, but will look forward to creating dishes from all of the fabulous garden-grown fruits and veggies on offer in France.

Happy cooking.

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Omelette mixte

It’s lunchtime, a guest is coming, you’re in a rush. The omelette mixte is a classic of French cuisine that can be whipped up in just 10 minutes, from eggs, ham and grated Comté or a similar cheese. But, you may be thinking, what’s so special about a ham and cheese omelet? Well, mes amis, the art is in the making — the gentle lifting of the edges to create a fluffy concoction, the flick of the wrist to fold the omelet over itself, French style.

Omelette mixte / Ham and cheese omelet

I was surprised to learn upon arrival in France that omelets are not a breakfast dish. They are served at lunchtime or as a simple supper, accompanied perhaps by crusty bread, a green salad and a sturdy bottle of red. Most cafés and brasseries have a variety of omelets on the menu, almost always including the mixte, with frites (French fries) served alongside. If eggs are consumed in the morning in this country, they are served à la coque (soft-boiled), accompanied by mouillettes — sticks of fresh bread.

France’s love affair with omelets can be gauged by the popularity of ‘giant omelet’ events in small towns across the country. In my corner of Burgundy, the tiny village of Les Ormes (population 337) attracts hundreds to its outdoor omelette géante festival every June. After consuming an omelet made of 5,000 eggs, participants are treated to fireworks and dancing. But this is nothing compared to the giant omelet festival in Bessières, near Toulouse in the southwest, where every year on Easter Monday more than 15,000 eggs (!) are cracked by 50 volunteers and cooked on a huge outdoor skillet.

The omelet is also part of French popular wisdom, as in the expression ‘on ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser les oeufs’ (you can’t make an omelet without cracking the eggs) — meaning, you can’t achieve your aims without taking the necessary risks.

And that’s my thought for today. So whatever your aims, have fun cracking the eggs and making the omelet. And…

Happy cooking.

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Boeuf Stroganoff

The origins of beef Stroganoff are murky but the consensus seems to be that a French chef had something to do with it. I therefore offer you my version of this classic dish of thinly sliced beef and mushrooms in a tangy cream sauce. I was inspired to make it recently after a visiting Russian friend, to my great surprise, asked for the recipe. Further inspiration came from an expert on Russian cuisine who is in Paris doing research for a new book.

Boeuf Stroganoff / Beef Stroganoff

Anya von Bremzen is co-author of the fabulous cookbook Please to the Table (Workman Publishing, 1990), a treasury of dishes from the 15 former Soviet republics (although they weren’t yet former at the time of publication). As there is some considerable debate over the origins of beef Stroganoff, I asked her for her opinion over lunch last week. She suggested that it was it was likely the creation of a French chef working for a noble household in Russia, noting the influence in the 19th century of Antonin Carême.

‘Carême was the first celebrity chef,’ Anya told me. ‘Alexander I took him to Russia, where he was a chef in the court of the tsars. It was his idea to start naming dishes after the nobility.’ So far, so good. It is, however, uncertain which member of the Stroganoff family inspired the naming of the dish.

The French culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique attributes the dish to a chef named Charles Brière, ‘who was working in Saint Petersburg when he submitted the recipe to L’Art Culinaire in 1891’, according to John Mariani, author of an article on the subject in the magazine Restaurant Hospitality. However, he adds, the dish appears to be older.

Indeed. The first known mention of beef Stroganoff appears in an 1871 Russian cookbook called A Gift to Young Housewives, which I happen to have in a re-edition bestowed on me by a dear Russian friend as I was leaving Moscow in 1994. The recipe, titled ‘Beef stroganovsky with mustard’, says nothing about the origins of the dish. It is amusingly different from current versions as it calls for cutting the beef into cubes, not strips, and tenderizing the steak for two hours in … allspice (not used these days).

Anya von Bremzen’s recipe in Please to the Table is a classic current version of the dish, using beef stock and flour to thicken the sauce as well as two kinds of cream (sour cream and heavy cream). She describes the dish as ‘indulgent and restrained at once’ and suggests using filet mignon, and wild mushrooms if available.

I’m afraid my version is less classic but it has the advantage, for the everyday French chef, of being both less expensive and quicker. And after just 20 minutes in the kitchen, you can bring the dish to the table and prepare for applause.

Happy cooking.

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Rigatoni gorgonzola noix

Gorgonzola and walnuts, rigatoni and cream, topped by arugula — a perfect dish for a rainy May in Paris. They say April is the cruelest month, but this is not the case in my city. After a couple weeks of sunshine, summery temperatures and chestnuts in blossom, we are back to raincoats and sweaters. Given the weather, a comforting dish of pasta seemed in order the other day, and this recipe came to mind. I whipped it up in 20 minutes.

Rigatoni gorgonzola noix / Rigatoni with gorgonzola and walnuts

This pasta makes a one-dish lunch that’s bursting with flavor. At suppertime, you could start with bresaola or proscuitto, or a veggie opener like pan-seared baby artichokes or asparagus with parmesan, and finish with a fruit dessert, for example strawberries and raspberries with basil or rhubarb crumble in springtime.

Gorgonzola, which hails from northern Italy, is usually used with short-cut pasta. If you don’t happen to have rigatoni to hand, use a different type — fusilli, farfale, pipe rigate, penne, conchiglie, whatever. While the pasta is cooking, you melt the gorgonzola in cream, adding the walnuts and arugula at the end. It’s simple, quick and a crowd pleaser.

And while we’re on the subject of cheese, The Everyday French Chef was featured recently in a round-up of the world’s cheeses. I was asked to contribute some words about Roquefort — which, readers of this site will know, is one of my favorites. If you also enjoy Roquefort, recipes you might like to try include Walnut-Roquefort savory cake, Scrambled eggs with Roquefort, Salad of Belgian endive with Roquefort and walnuts or Roquefort soufflé. On my list of future recipes: Roquefort quiche.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 9. Pasta, Rice, Grains | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Asperges blanches

This spring in Paris has seen a great profusion of white asparagus. It came onto the market in early March, ahead of the green variety, and at prices so tempting I couldn’t resist. This, plus a request from a Japanese cooking student, has sparked my creativity this season. I have served white asparagus many times, with a wide variety of sauces. For the delicate flavor of this versatile vegetable can be complemented in many ways.

Asperges blanches / White asparagus

Opinions differ on white asparagus, but the French generally consider it a greater delicacy than the green variety. Its white color stems from the fact that it is grown underground. It is generally available only during the spring. In terms of preparation, the main difference between white and green asparagus is that the white spears must be peeled. This is not a major conundrum, however. A light touch with a vegetable peeler will do the trick.

And now to the sauces. The asparagus shown in the photo above is adorned with a sauce of crème fraîche, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chives that I invented in my kitchen (well, perhaps someone thought of this before, but I’ve never seen a recipe). It is light and fresh, and marries well with the asparagus without overwhelming it.

Another sauce I invented combines sesame oil, lemon juice and salt. It is shown here on asparagus spears that have been cut into segments and piled up for an elegant starter. The asparagus is sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, drizzled with the sauce and topped with fronds of fresh cilantro.

If you’d like to go for a more classic combination, serve white asparagus with mustard vinaigrette, balsamic vinaigrette or, the princess of sauces, hollandaise. For an egg-based sauce that is far easier to prepare than hollandaise, you could try another of my springtime creations, a ‘mimosa’ sauce made of a minced soft-boiled egg mixed with olive oil and lemon juice. (This sauce came about on a country Sunday when we had a leftover soft-boiled egg after breakfast. As they say, or as Frank Zappa might say, necessity is the mother of invention.)

Moving on, some restaurant news. Le Monde ran a big article this week on the revival in Paris of old-fashioned bistros — places that serve old-fashioned dishes like blanquette de veau, oeufs durs mayonnaise and … white asparagus, and where red-and-white checked tablecloths, bread baskets and pyrex glassware hark back to an earlier era. The author attributes the trend to a quest in our complex era for l’authentique (the authentic), which he goes on to rename le fauxthentique, (a play on the word ‘false’), for of course we can never recapture the true nature of what used to be.

One restaurant highlighted in the article is Aux Bons Crus, a bistro located near the town hall of the 11th arrondissement. I dined there recently with a friend and would have to say the false comes through more strongly than the true. The place has all the touches of an old-fashioned bistro — chalkboard menus, retro decor, etc. — but the food did not live up to the reputation, or my memories, of classic French cooking in days gone by.

What the article did not mention is another trend in Paris, of young chefs putting a modern spin on classic dishes. The latest such establishment to open is JJ, a very contemporary bistro located, I am extremely happy to say, right downstairs from my apartment. It is run by two friends — John, the British-born chef, and Jérémie, who takes care of the front of the house — and the cooking is absolutely inspired. For example, at a private opening last weekend, they offfered a delicate, creamy carrot soup with cockles and herbs (to die for), foie gras with hazelnuts and a foamy morel appetizer served in a small cup.

I am looking forward to visiting JJ as often as possible. They have a lunchtime menu priced at 20 euros for two courses or 22 euros for three, and the place, which opened on Tuesday, is already packed. As time goes on, I hope to be able to offer you an Everyday French Chef rendition of some of their creations. And in the meantime…

Happy cooking.

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Poulet bonne femme

A Russian friend was coming over for a cooking lesson. He wanted to learn to make easy dishes he could prepare ahead of time to serve when friends came for supper at his dacha. Top of his list was … beef stroganoff. I found the idea of teaching beef stroganoff to a Russian to be rather fanciful, so I suggested poulet bonne femme, an earthy dish of chicken, bacon, mushrooms and onion that, like stroganoff, is finished with cream.

Poulet bonne femme / Chicken with bacon, mushrooms and onion

Reader, he liked it. And found it surprisingly simple to make. We chopped for about five minutes, then got things going on the stove. While the chicken was cooking, we made some rice. Within half an hour, the food was ready to bring to the table.

This classic French dish is  a crowd pleaser for young and old alike. But why ‘bonne femme’? The term translates as ‘good woman’, as in ‘my good woman’, but in cuisine it connotes a rustic style of cooking, often a one-pot dinner that incorporates bacon, onion, potatoes or some combination of the three. (Anecdotally, the term can carry a slur when applied to a woman in general parlance. Best to avoid it outside the kitchen.)

To date, there is only one other bonne femme recipe on this site: omelette bonne femme, an omelet with bacon and potatoes. But bonne femme dishes abound in France, from filets de sole bonne femme (sole in a mushroom cream sauce) to lapin bonne femme (rabbit stewed with mushrooms and bacon) and even laitue bonne femme (hearts of Boston lettuce cooked with bacon and onion). Now that’s country cooking.

My Russian friend went home to his dacha, and I haven’t yet heard whether he’s attempted making poulet bonne femme for his friends. But I’m sure he will one day. And when you’re in the mood for a simple, tasty supper, why not give it a try?

Happy cooking.

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Salade pommes de terre anchois

The other day a friend brought me a humble present — a jar of anchovies. But not just any anchovies. They were from Collioure, a picturesque fishing port on the French Mediterranean coast, which by some accounts produces the best anchovies in the world. I decided to try them out in a tangy salad of potatoes and black olives, set on a bed of baby spinach leaves, with mellow eggs on the side. The combination proved to be a knock-out.

Salade pommes de terre anchois / Potato-anchovy salad

Collioure, a small town just north of the Spanish border, is a popular tourist destination. It is perhaps best known today for the artists who flocked there a century ago, among them Matisse, Braque, Picasso and Dali, drawn by the light. But well before the artists came, the town was known for its anchovies: the tiny fish, found in abundance off the coast, have been netted and salted by local fishermen since the Middle Ages.

When I looked into the use of anchovies in Collioure’s cuisine, I found only a single recipe: an apéritif plate of anchovies, roasted red peppers, olives and hard boiled eggs, sprinkled with garlic, parsley and olive oil. That sounded pretty good — but it felt like a dish for summer, and we’re only just entering spring. So I decided to improvise.

Anchovies marry supremely well with potatoes, which soften the salty tang. In this salad, the potatoes are bathed in a sauce of lemon juice, olive oil and crushed coriander. Anchovies and olives are added to the mixture, and the baby spinach leaves are coated with lemon, olive oil and garlic. Served with crusty bread and a glass of rosé, it will have you dreaming of summer — a fine way to spring into spring.

Happy cooking.

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Frites maison

Are French fries the ultimate French food? They may have been, but their quality in bistros has declined so much over the years that their enduring popularity here in France is a mystery. I would walk across Paris for good frites — crispy on the outside, meltingly tender on the inside — but they are not so easily found. There is another solution. Making your own fries is remarkably simple, and they are just as good as the delectable original.

Frites maison / Homemade French fries

If you’re new to French frying, aka deep frying, you may be put off by the idea of cooking in very hot oil. Don’t be. You need no special equipment to make French fries, just a sturdy pot, a strainer and paper towels. You chop the potatoes to the desired shape, rinse them and fry them — twice. The double frying is the secret to success.

And yes, that’s how restaurants do it. The problem with restaurant fries is that laziness has set in. Instead of using fresh potatoes, many chefs now stoop to frying up pre-cut frozen potatoes that often — horrors! — have been coated in flour. The result is a soggy, tasteless mess. And although decent frozen fries that can be baked in the oven are available for the home chef, they bear no comparison to the real thing.

But just how French are French fries? This is a matter of hot dispute on opposite sides of the French-Belgian border. The Belgians claim that pommes de terre frites are part of their national cultural heritage. The story goes that, a couple centuries back, Belgian fishermen would deep-fry tiny fish they caught in the Meuse river, and when the river iced over in winter they would substitute potatoes cut into the shape of the tiny fish. The French scoff at this version of events, maintaining that frites first emerged in Paris and were sold on the streets in 1789 during the French Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, who was ambassador to France around the time of the revolution, reputedly loved frites and brought the recipe back to the States. They were also a hit with American GIs who came over to Europe during World War I and popularized French fried potatoes across the country when they came home. Frites crossed the Channel around the mid-19th century, becoming part of the beloved British duo fish and chips.

Frites (pronounced FREET, rhymes with ‘feet’) are so identified with France that, in the infamous episode of 2003, American congressmen angry at the French refusal to invade Iraq renamed them ‘freedom fries’. They could have simply taken them off the menu — but in fact they never stopped eating them.

The French like frites so much that sometimes they will buy an overflowing paper cone of them as a snack. The first time I encountered this, while visiting friends in the Dordogne in the ’70s, I couldn’t believe my luck. Straight out of the fryer, crisp and salty, they were sinfully delicious. And for years, the frites served in restaurants were nearly as good.

That time having passed, why not try making them at home? French fries marry well with many dishes on this site, among them all the omelets, mussels in white wine, petite friture (small fried fish), roast chicken, lamb chops and all the steaks. They are not just vegetarian — they are vegan. So whatever kind of foodie you are, buy a bottle of cooking oil and some good potatoes, roll up your sleeves and set to work.

Happy cooking.

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Concombres à la crème

Simple starters are having a moment in Paris, and today I am featuring one of my favorites, cucumbers in cream. This tasty dish may be enhanced with the herb of your choice – cilantro, dill, chives or chervil – and served on its own, with another simple starter or two, as part of an assiette de crudités (mixed veggie plate) or alongside smoked salmon. And best of all for the everyday chef, it takes no more than five minutes to prepare.

Concombres à la crème / Cucumbers in cream

The trend toward simple starters began at Paris bistros a couple years back with the revival of another classic, oeufs durs mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs cut in half and bathed in sumptuous homemade mayo). It gets star billing at Le Desnoyez, a terrific bistro in the Belleville district, and many other establishments with young, innovative chefs. This is good news. Once a menu standard, the dish had fallen in stature to the point of becoming inedible, with cafes serving up overcooked, rubbery eggs with commercial mayo squeezed out of a bottle. No respectable restaurant would serve it this way. But now it’s back.

Another popular simple starter is avocado toast, a relatively recent arrival in Paris. A bistro down the street from me, Café Pola, serves it in the form of avocado and horseradish purée on toasted country bread garnished with slice radishes and cucumber ribbons, with or without smoked salmon alongside. Pola recently scratched oeuf dur mayonnaise from its menu in favor of a warm poached egg, but plans to restore it when summer arrives.

While we’re on the subject of starters, I’d like to mention the fact that they are known in France as entrées, which is confusing for Americans since ‘entrées’ in the States are main dishes. The French version is the accurate one, since entrée translates as ‘entry’, as in entry to the meal. How did this confusion arise? My understanding is that, back in the old days when elaborate meals featured many courses, the entrée was generally a warm dish, like a soufflé, that followed a soup or a cold hors d’oeuvre, for example radishes with butter or pâté, and preceded the main dish (plat principal). Over time, as menus simplified, hors d’oeuvre and entrée got conflated to mean any starter.

Returning to concombres à la crème, preparation involves simply peeling and slicing the cucumber, adding cream, salt, pepper, herbs and perhaps a dash of lemon juice. It is best prepared just before eating so that the cucumbers remain crisp. If you’d like to serve the dish with another simple starter, I can recommended grated carrots with lemon and olive oil, beet salad with walnuts, sliced hard sausage (saucisson sec) or cured ham, smoked trout or salmon, herbal tomato salad, warm lentil salad or … oeufs durs mayonnaise.

Happy cooking.

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Couscous Royal

When the French are asked to name their favorite dishes, couscous invariably comes near the top of the list. And why not? This import from North Africa is delicious, economical and healthy. The fluffy semolina grain forms a bed for veggies and chick peas cooked in a rich broth flavored with mildly exotic spices. Then along comes your choice of meat, poultry, spicy sausage, fish or a combination, as in this ‘royal’ version.

Couscous Royal / Couscous with lamb, chicken and merguez

If you’ve never encountered couscous, or even if you have, it’s important to note that the word has a dual function: ‘couscous’ the grain and ‘couscous’ the dish. I have prepared couscous the grain thousands of times to use as a side dish for meat, fish or game, or as a breakfast cereal with butter, sugar and cinnamon, but have relatively rarely made couscous the dish, which is readily available in restaurants here and is a bit of a production to prepare at home. Nonetheless, home cooking allows you to be creative in your choice of ingredients and to spice the broth as you desire.

The ‘royal couscous’ featured here, with a mixture of meats, is a French take on the original, which became a fixture of the French culinary repertoire after the country’s North African colonies gained independence in the mid-20th century. There are many regional variations. In Algeria, the broth may be made without tomatoes (clear) or with (red), while in Morocco and Tunisia it is typically red. Morocco uses spices such as saffron, ginger and cinnamon to impart a subtle flavor, while fish couscous is popular in Tunisia and Algerians often add broad beans. Beyond these generalities, every community has its own speciality, and sweet couscous with almonds or raisins is a popular dessert across North Africa.

According to Wikipedia, the French had tasted couscous by the 16th century — Rabelais mentions it his novel Pantagruel — and the dish gained ground in southern France during World War I when Algerian workers were sent north to replace French soldiers called away from their factories to the front. It became a nationwide phenomenon when pieds-noirs, or ethnic French born in North Africa, surged north at the end of the Algerian War in 1962 for fear of reprisals, bringing the local cuisine with them.

Today there is no contesting the popularity of couscous among the French. In a recent major poll on favorite dishes, couscous came in third, after magret de canard (duck breast) and moules-frites (mussels with French fries), and ahead of such classics as blanquette de veau (veal stewed in cream), côte de boeuf (thick rib steak) and leg of lamb.

I am delighted to be able to say that recipes for versions of most of the top 10 are already on this site, the main exception being French fries (coming soon). Here’s the list:
1) Magret de canard
2) Moules-frites
3) Couscous
4) Blanquette de veau
5) Côte de boeuf
6) Gigot d’agneau
7) Steak-frites
8) Boeuf bourguignon
9) Raclette
10) Tomates farcies

Happy cooking!

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