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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Harengs pommes à l’huile

Smoked herring and potatoes bathed in a gentle vinaigrette is a classic French bistro starter. In this rendition, two types of beets are added to the plate — cooked red beets and raw, striped heirloom beets — along with onion and cilantro. I was inspired to prepare the dish this way after encountering it last winter at one of my favorite Paris bistros, Le Desnoyez, where presentation is an art form and the food is modern and delicious.

Harengs pommes à l’huile / Smoked herring with potatoes and beets

All of the ingredients for this dish can be easily found in Paris. Every fishmonger carries unpackaged smoked herring — harengs saurs — and it is also available in supermarkets, vacuum packed in plastic. Red beets are sold precooked, which simplifies preparation, and the striped chiogga heirloom beets have come into fashion in recent years and can be found at farmers markets and upscale food shops.

Getting hold of the ingredients elsewhere may prove challenging. Smoked herring is available in Britain (Sainsbury’s carries it), but it appears to be quite difficult to find in the United States. I scouted around online and found some sites in Quebec offering smoked herring — in large quantities. This site, for example, offers shipments of herring in boxes that hold 18 pounds (8 kilos), or 60-80 fish per box…

As always, however, improvisation is the name of the game. Americans could substitute smoked mackerel (preferably) or smoked salmon for the herring. If you cannot find striped beets, you could slice up some raw red beets or another heirloom variety. The aim is to create a dish that is both beautiful and tasty, paying attention to color as well as flavor.

Although harengs pommes à l’huile is traditionally served as a starter in France, it also makes a lovely lunch dish. Serve it with fresh crusty bread or toast alongside, and uncork a bottle of white. At lunchtime you could follow up with cheese and fruit, while if this is your starter at dinnertime, afterwards anything goes. For example, you could create a bistro-style meal by starting with the herring, following up with boeuf bourguignon or roast chicken, and finishing with crème caramel or chocolate mousse.

Once you have assembled the ingredients, preparation is quick and easy. This dish is traditionally served in winter — now’s the time.

Happy cooking.

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Soupe de haricots blancs

With the holidays behind us, it’s time for simpler fare. Rustic and wholesome, French white bean soup makes a fine January meal. Begin or follow with a salad, add some cheese and fruit, open a bottle of red and voilà. In this version, the soup is flavored with garlic, onion and rosemary. When I cooked up a pot of it on a recent gray Paris day, I topped the soup with a drizzle of herb-and-garlic infused olive oil and some freshly baked croutons.

Soupe de haricots blancs / French white bean soup

This soup is a staple of French country cooking and comes in many guises according to region. In the northern half of France, some cream might be swirled in at the end. In the southwest, the soup might be topped with chorizo chips. You can cook the beans in water or homemade broth, as you prefer, and add some bacon to the pot for a smoky flavor. You can combine pinto beans and white beans, as I did in the soup pictured above.

Now for a little history. White beans, which are native to the Americas, have been popular in France since they were introduced by Catherine de Médicis of Italy after her marriage to the French king Henri II in the 16th century (so the story goes). What Anglophones know as navy beans, great northern beans or cannellini beans are often identified here by the region where they are produced: coco de Paimpol (Brittany), comtesse de Chambord (along the Loire), lingot de Castelnaudary (southwest), to name a few. This is largely academic for cooks, however, as any type of white beans can be used for making soup.

It has been gray for days in Paris, with no end to the clouds in sight. If you’re craving comfort food in this bleakest part of the year, here are some French winter classics:

Tartiflette / Savoyard potato gratin with bacon
Poule au pot / Chicken in a pot
Raclette / Potatoes with melted cheese
Moules marinières / Mussels in white wine
Brandade de morue
/ Puréed salt cod and potatoes
Endives gratinées au jambon de pays / Endive gratin with country ham

Here’s wishing you all a wonderful new year.

Happy cooking!


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Linzertorte is one of my favorite desserts, and when better to serve it than over the holidays? This classic cake, which takes its name from the Austrian town of Linz, is now enjoyed worldwide. The nutty shortbread-style pastry is filled with jam — typically black or red currant or plum — but in Alsace, where it is often served over the Christmas season, raspberry jam is preferred.

Linzertorte  / Linzertorte

I first began making linzertorte at the Café Dewitt in Ithaca, New York, where we turned out five fancy cakes a day along with soups, salads, sandwiches, quiches and a daily special such as boeuf bourguignon. The pastry is a sweet buttery dough to which ground nuts are added. Preparation is fun — you line a tart pan with part of the dough and use the rest to form ropes and create a lattice. The cake is often served with cream on the side.

There is plenty of lore about linzertorte, much of it dubious. If you search online, many recipes will tell you that this is the world’s oldest cake, with the first known recipe dating back to 1653. (Although the cake is said to hail from Linz, that early recipe was found in a document written in Verona, Italy). As it seemed unlikely that people began eating cake only four and a half centuries ago, I decided to look into the matter.

As it turns out, another of my favorite desserts, cheesecake, dates back to around 2000 BC, when it was enjoyed in ancient Greece, according to archeologists. Other forms of cake are still older. Pancakes have been dated to around 3300 BC, when Otzi the Iceman consumed them for what was to be his last meal. And corn-flour tamales filled with fruit are said to have been enjoyed by the ancient peoples of Central America as far back as 5000 BC.

So much for legend. What is certain is that linzertorte rose to fame from Linz, where one of the town’s museums has a permanent exhibit devoted to the cake. In an odd footnote to history, an operetta named ‘Linzer Torte’, by the German composer Ludwig Schmidseder, premiered in the town in May 1944, i.e. during the war. The town may have been chosen not just because of the cake but because Linz was Hitler’s childhood home…

Leaving history aside, linzertorte makes a wonderful addition to anyone’s culinary repertoire. It is fantastically delicious, and beautiful to behold. If you’re still thinking about your New Year’s Eve menu, it would make a very special dessert.

Add a couple of sparklers, et voilà. Happy cooking.

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Oie rôtie de Noël

Roast goose was a traditional Christmas dish in France for many years, probably for centuries, but it is rather rare on holiday tables these days, having ceded its place to turkey, capon or duck. Nonetheless, roast goose is delicious. This year I decided to roast a goose well before Christmas in order to post it here in time for you to think about it, and perhaps make it. But getting the goose proved harder than anticipated. In fact it was a bit of a feat.

Oie rôtie de Noël / Roast Christmas goose

It all began in early December when I invited a few friends over for dinner the following Saturday, promising them roast goose. I set out to the local farmer’s market on a Sunday morning, six days ahead of time, hoping if not to find a goose at least to order one. My favorite poultry merchant, Monsieur Breton, had no geese on display. When I asked if he could get me one when the market reconvened on Thursday, he gave me a Gallic shrug.

The problem was not just that geese are raised in France to be ready for the market only in the week ahead of Christmas. There was also the matter of the gilets jaunes, the protesters demanding a living wage who have blocked roads and, joined by hooligans on Saturdays, wreaked havoc in France for the last few weeks. Monsieur Breton said that even if he could find a goose that was ready for the market, he couldn’t be sure he could get it. For the protesters have not only blocked roads, they have blockaded fuel depots, and gasoline supplies are uncertain throughout the country. Trucks aren’t delivering the goods.

‘Call me Wednesday,’ said Monsieur Breton, handing me his card. On Wednesday I called. ‘Call me Thursday,’ he said. I tried, but he didn’t answer. By this time I had called off the dinner party. In any event, a couple of guests had begged off, saying they were afraid to cross Paris on a Saturday night, what with angry people setting cars on fire and smashing windows throughout the city, and the police riposting with tear gas. But I still wanted to make the recipe for the site. So I texted him on Friday morning. Again, no reply.

Early Friday evening, I was minding my own business at home when my phone signaled that I had received a text. It was Monsieur Breton. ‘You can count on a goose on Sunday morning,’ he wrote. Well! I quickly rescheduled the dinner for the following Tuesday. Four people could make it, and a fifth wasn’t sure.

On Sunday morning, I took my time about getting to the market. It was raining hard, but eventually off I went. Arriving at Monsieur Breton’s stand, I peered at the poultry display. There I saw … half a goose. As Monsieur Breton was nowhere to be seen, I hailed his wife. ‘Excuse me,’ said I in dismay, ‘but where is the other half?’ Again, the Gallic shrug. ‘We sold it,’ she said. ‘But I ordered a whole goose,’ I protested. ‘Would you possibly have another?’ She looked around for her husband. He might have one, she said.

As she picked her phone to call him, I noticed the price of the partial goose, written in blue grease pencil on the pink wax paper beneath it. 54 euros! ‘Hold on a second,’ I said. ‘Is this the price of half a goose?’ She gave me a cool nod. Mais oui, madame. I made a quick calculation. ‘Does that mean a whole goose costs more than a hundred euros?’ (108 euros = $122). Mais oui. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Half a goose will be fine.’

At that point, Monsieur Breton arrived on the scene. Along with the half a goose, he gave me half a liver, half a gizzard and half a neck. He also proposed half a heart, but I passed. The 9-pound bird would feed four or five, he said, and should roast for 2-1/4 hours.

I had my doubts about the cooking time, but had no doubt that I wanted my guests to have enough to eat. Not wishing to add another bird, I decided to make several side dishes — pear slices sautéed in butter, sautéed baby artichokes, stuffing and watercress salad  — with braised fennel soup to start, and cheese and clémentines to finish. One of the guests brought a poppyseed Christmas cake she’d acquired in Berlin. No one went hungry.

I roasted the goose on the Tuesday morning — I couldn’t wait until dinnertime because my recipe photos need natural light. Early preparation turned out to be a great idea. I was able to carve the goose at my leisure and reheat it just before serving. In the end, the roasting time was 1-1/2 hours, perhaps because it was only half a goose.

If you’ve never roasted a goose before, there are tips on the recipe page for ensuring that it stays tender and moist. In the next few days, I will update the Holiday Menus page with this recipe and others you may wish to consult for creating a festive occasion.

Happy cooking, and merry Christmas!

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Salade mâche-endives

This is a versatile salad featuring two types of greens that come into their own in late autumn and winter: mâche (aka lamb’s lettuce) and Belgian endive. Mustardy vinaigrette sauce and plenty of garlic turn the leaves into a zesty salad that may be served as is or enhanced with walnuts, Alpine cheese and/or country ham. This adaptability will allow you to enjoy it whatever your culinary proclivity — omnivore, vegetarian or vegan.

Salade mâche-endives / Salad of mâche and Belgian endive

I enjoy making this salad when the days grow cool and short. This is when mâche appears at farmers’ markets in Paris. In the old days, that was the only place to find it; now you can buy it in a bag, which simplifies matters. Mâche is grown in sandy soil, and washing it clean can be a bit of a chore. The difference between the fresh and packaged sort is not significant enough to matter except for purists.

Likewise, Belgian endive (aka chicory) is a winter vegetable, grown in two stages, the second of which takes place indoors in the dark. This ensures that its leaves stay white. These days you can find Belgian endive year round in France, but although not a purist I prefer it in the cool months, perhaps by association with past pleasures.

While either mâche and Belgian endive may be served on its own as salad, they pair nicely and can form the basis for a quickly prepared and tasty salad at lunchtime, with or without extra ingredients, or a salad course to precede or follow a main dish. The garlic adds zing, as does the homemade mustard vinaigrette, a French classic that also harks back to days of yore.

These days dressings made of balsamic vinegar and olive oil have perhaps surpassed mustard vinaigrette in popularity, and it is rare in Parisian cafés to find a salad bathed in a true vinaigrette rather than an ersatz version served out of a bottle. Making your own mustard vinaigrette is a minor culinary art form which, when mastered, takes about one minute. If you’ve never done it before, check out this video. The trick is to use more mustard than red wine vinegar.

Another trick: if serving the salad after a main course, you can get started ahead of time. Just sprinkle the leaves with a little bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice to ensure that the sliced Belgian endive stays white, and add the sauce only at the last minute.

Happy cooking.

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Penne au potiron et aux noix

This dish gives an interesting twist to pumpkin that may be of interest as the holidays approach. Yes, I’m thinking Thanksgiving. The combination of pasta and pumpkin is popular in both France and Italy, and the walnuts add depth. This version also has a touch of Meg thanks to the spicing — not nutmeg, as my childhood friends delighted in calling me, but cumin which, combined with a spritz of lemon juice, adds a welcome zest.

Penne au potiron et aux noix / Penne with pumpkin and walnuts

Other squashes, like butternut, may be substituted for the pumpkin. In fact, in Italy, the word for pumpkin — zucca — covers a wide range of squashes. So you never know exactly what you’re getting when you order gnocchi with zucca, ravioli filled with zucca, etc. I chose pumpkin over butternut because I find it easier to handle — removing the peel from a butternut squash can be a bit of a bore. But butternut is sweeter, so you may prefer it.

This recipe came my way via a favorite French cookbook, which I’ll refrain from naming here because when I first made it the results were disappointing. That’s when I decided to to add a personal touch. I find that cumin and lemon juice can enliven many recipes. You will find that combination on this site in recipes from zucchini soup to Moroccan carrot salad to parsnip purée. In the case of the pasta, it added a definite zing.

So will I be serving this dish on Thanksgiving? I felt like innovating this year, but was overruled. It seems that Americans in Paris prefer to hew to a more traditional line-up of roast turkey and sweet potatoes. One year I did manage to sneak in a French dish — a melt-in-your mouth pumpkin gratin created by the three-star chef Georges Blanc. As for dessert, a French apple tart can sit proudly beside pumpkin pie.

Getting back to the pasta with pumpkin and walnuts, it’s a vegetarian dish that can easily become vegan by substituting chopped fresh herbs for the parmesan. Served with a hearty red as a main course or a starter, it’s a fine dish for any occasion.

Happy cooking.

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Veau braisé aux épices

My friend Vera, a superlative cook, served this spicy slow-cooked veal dish on the occasion of her husband’s birthday last year. It was summer, and the birthday dinner was in the garden of their country house in Provence. There were many guests and many speeches, much wine and much merriment. Cheery lanterns hung from a mulberry tree over trestle tables festooned with patterned cloths. I loved it all, but what blew me away was the food.

Veau braisé aux épices / Slow-cooked veal with spices

Vera must have served ten dishes that evening, including another meat dish and many sides. It was a spectacular meal. I asked her for the veal recipe the next morning, but it took me all this time to get around to making it. It’s not exactly everyday cooking, as it takes … three days. And you need to have a crowd to consume it. But the effort is worth it.

How did she come up with this recipe? Vera is a multi-culti, multi-lingual person whose culinary knowledge spans the world. Born in Czechoslovakia, she came to France for university, and when the Russians invaded Prague in 1968 she decided to stay. That’s when she met her husband, a Canadian who became a TV correspondent for the CBC. His career took them to Beijing, Montreal, Jerusalem, Paris, Moscow (where we met), Berlin and London. From these cities, Vera traveled to other spots in the region, from the farflung outposts of China to Georgia, Uzbekistan and Iran. In each of these places, she picked up and elaborated on the local cuisine, adding her own personal touch.

She tends to favor rich, spicy dishes, and indeed uses many spices in this recipe: cumin, coriander, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, fennel seeds, curry powder and saffron. Instead of using store-bought ground spices, she smashes the whole spices with a hammer! She swears this produces better results than a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Besides, she says, ‘C’est plus jouissif’. Loose translation: ‘It’s more fun.’

Serving the veal is a pleasure, since everything is done in advance, including slicing, and it merely needs to be heated through before coming to the table. But what to serve alongside? I would recommend seasonal veggies and grains. As it’s autumn, I served the veal with a purée of pumpkin with parmesan, braised finocchio and spicy lentils with onions. The starter was a salad of tender leaves with red grape halves and walnuts, dressed with a mixture of olive oil, walnut oil, balsamic vinegar and garlic. For dessert we had ricotta with lavender and figs. My guests did not complain.

For my next post, I will return to a simpler style of cooking. But even everyday French chefs branch out from time to time. I hope you will try this recipe and enjoy it.

Happy cooking.

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Pommes au four

One of the delights of autumn is the baked apple — pomme au four in French. Served with cream or without, it’s a classic dessert that’s both healthy and easy to make. But is it so totally basic that it doesn’t belong on a French cooking blog? I thought it over, called a couple of friends and, with their hearty encouragement, decided to go for it. I’ve been wanting to add pommes au four to the desserts on this site for a very long time. Et voilà.

Pommes au four / Baked apples

The impulse behind this week’s recipe was a recent visit to my cottage in Burgundy, where apples are particularly abundant this year. They were falling off the trees, in many varieties. However, as the summer was very hot and very dry, they were smaller than usual. Although in the past I’ve tended to use large apples for this dessert, I decided to give it a try with the small ones, serving two or three per portion, as shown above and, with caramelized sauce but no cream, here.

There were a few big apples left on another tree, however, and I gave that a try also. The first one I baked exploded (i.e. its skin popped off) — see the recipe page for a photo. When I tried again, I took care to score the apple skin before baking, and it turned out perfectly, shown here with a dollop of crème fraîche.

The key to success with this recipe is of course the apples, which should be firm and slightly tart. Choose an heirloom variety if at all possible. As for the other ingredients, you’ll get best results if you use raw cane sugar (demerara or cassonnade), unsalted butter and the finest crème fraîche you can find. If crème fraîche is not available where you live, choose a high-quality heavy cream. And…

Happy cooking.

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