Friday, December 08, 2006

Potato Gratin like in the Alps

What? December already! Where did time go? I'm in shock. This fall has been so busy at work and otherwise. I guess I'd better post a new recipe before you guys give up on me...

Here is a very yummy potato gratin called "gratin dauphinois", very famous in the Grenoble region where it comes from (an hour east of Lyon, at the foot of the Alps). Purists would argue that this isn't a "true" gratin dauphinois because I am using cheese, which would make this dish a "gratin savoyard" (from Savoie region, just north of Dauphiné) but whatever. It tastes great!

Serves 6
Baking time: 1 hour 15 minutes
  • 3 pounds (1.5 kg) Yukon Gold potatoes
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) Gruyère cheese (either Emmental or Comté –Comté being stronger, or Beaufort if you can find some –it's very expensive in the US)
  • 8 oz. (225 g) crème fraîche (french cultured cream), or heavy cream if you can't find crème fraîche
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup (20 cL) milk
  • salt and black pepper
  • butter (just enough to butter the dish –no oil please!)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  1. Peel the potatoes. Slice them thinly (about 1/8") and place in water to remove excess starch.
  2. Butter a deep oven-safe dish (like this one). Peel and press the garlic cloves or chop them very finely. Spread at the bottom of the dish.
  3. Preheat your oven at 390F (200C).
  4. Dry the potato slices in a clean cotton cloth. Place a first layer of potato slices in the dish. Season with salt and pepper. Spread 1 tablespoon of crème fraîche. Sprinkle with shredded cheese.
  5. Add a new layer of potato and proceed as described above. Repeat until all the potatoes are layered. Make sure to keep 1 tablespoon of crème fraîche for later. Finish with cheese.
  6. Pour the milk on the potatoes.
  7. Bake for 1 hour at 390F.
  8. Beat the egg with the remaining crème fraîche and pour this mix on the gratin. Bake for 15 more minutes.

This is ideal with some crunchy, delicately bitter frisée salad. In Lyon we add poached eggs, garlic croutons and sizzling hot, diced bacon ("les lardons") to this salad, served with vinaigrette dressing.
Alternatively you could sprinkle a few whole or half walnuts on the frisée and serve it with vinaigrette dressing made of colza or sunflower oil (i.e. a not very flavored oil) plus 1 tablespoon of walnut oil.

    Sunday, October 15, 2006

    Pot-au-feu beef stew

    Believe it or not, "sunny vale" can get cold and cloudy... This always comes as a shock after 8 months of ever-blue skies. We had our first rain shower two weeks ago. Then sunshine again (birds started singing like in springtime -they have no patience) but as I am writing this post, the call for a lazy afternoon by a wood fire, sipping hot tea while reading a magazine, is getting stronger and stronger. But before I slip into warm coziness, let me give you the recipe for pot-au-feu (literally: "pot in the fire"): a traditional wintry beef stew. This one was inspired by my 1991 edition of Larousse de la Cuisine (that my grand-mother offered me when I graduated junior high...). My mom's recipe (that I learned after cooking this one) is slightly different. I'll give it at the end of this post.
    I can't describe how good pot-au-feu tastes. The meats and vegetables and so soft; the broth is so warming and fragrant. Pot-au-feu's flavors evoke so many childhood memories!

    For 6 people:
    Cooking time (total): 4 hours
    • 600 grams (1.5 pounds) beef short plate ("plat-de-côte")
    • 600 grams (1.5 pounds) beef shank ("gîte")
    • 600 grams (1.5 pounds) beef brisket ("macreuse")
    You would also usually add marrow bones ("os à moëlle")... given that you find some. The cooked marrow can be spread like butter on toasted bread.
    There are good beef cuts diagrams here and here.

    • 1 onion
    • 4 cloves ("clous de girofle")
    • 3 garlic cloves
    • "bouquet garni": bay leaf, sprigs of thyme and fresh italian (flat-leaf) parsley tied together with kitchen string
    • 10 whole peppercorns
    • 1 tbsp coarse sea salt
    • 4 carrots
    • 3 turnips ("navets")
    • 3 parsnips ("panais")
    • 3 leeks
    • 4-6 branches of celery
    1. Pour 2 liters (1/2 gallon) cold water in a (very) large pot (preferably cast iron). Place the whole short plate in the water. Bring to a boil. After 10 minutes, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour.
    2. Add the two other pieces of meat (whole), the onion (whole, peeled, with cloves nailed in it), garlic (whole cloves, peeled and crushed), herb bouquet, peppercorns and salt. Bring to a boil, skim then reduce heat again and simmer for 2 hours without a lid.
    3. Add the carrots and parsnips (peeled and cut in 3 lengthwise), turnips (peeled and cut in 4 crosswise), leeks (dark, hard ends removed, cut in 4 crosswise, rinsed and tied together - or one by one- with kitchen string) and celery (in 1-inch chunks). Cook slowly for another hour.
    4. If you are lucky and find marrow bones, poach them in slightly salted water 20 minutes before the end.

    The broth is usually served separately from the meat and vegetables (as shown in the pictures). The broth can be filtered (through a fine sieve). Serve as hot as possible with mayonnaise (home made that is...), mustards (Dijon extra strong or whole grain) and toasted bread.

    My Mom tells me that placing the meat in already boiling water keeps it more tender and flavorful than starting from cold water. She uses beef shank ("jarret") and short plate ("plat-de-côte"). She only cooks it for 2 hours total, adds the vegetables mid-way through and a few potatoes (peeled and cut in 4 or 6 pieces) half-an-hour before the end. She doesn't use parsnips (I had never eaten parsnips before this time, actually).

    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    Greek-style Okras

    Fish soup and grilled fish, rabbit in a wine sauce, wild goat, grilled octopus, tiny deep-fried fish, lots of eggplants and zucchinis, tomato salads with feta and herbs, more tomatoes in dakos salads, white wine and raki, fragrant bread coated with sesame seeds, sweet preserved fruits, prunes and figs fresh from the tree... Here are a few of the amazing foods and wines I savored during my trip to Crete last July.

    Now I'm back to endless days of stressful work, too short weekends and the wait for another escape to the other side of the world. In the meantime, dreaming of delicious foods and cooking dishes from paradise vacation spots is an easy cure to the traveller's nostalgia. I needed a fix last week and prepared okras - the greek way.
    • Choose small, firm okras (1/2 pound)
    • 2 ripe heirloom tomatoes
    • 1/2 yellow onion
    • 3 tbsp greek olive oil
    • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 cup water
    1. Rince the okras. Cut the hard, round extremity of each of them but try not to expose the seeds.
    2. Combine the vinegar and salt in a small plate or cup. Dip the cut end of each okra in this mixture and place in a deep pan.
    3. Cube the tomatoes and chop the onion. Place in the pan over the okras.
    4. Pour the tomato juice and the water in the pan.
    5. Bring to a simmer and relax for about 20-25 minutes, while the okras are cooking. Do not toss during the cooking phase: it would break the okras and they would become sticky. Just let the magic happen without doing anything.

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Five things to eat before you die

    When Susan in Italy from Porcini Chronicles tagged me for this meme originated by Melissa (The Traveler's Lunchbox) I was thrilled: this is such an interesting subject, there will be so much to learn from other bloggers! But after sitting for a (long) while in front of my computer, trying to give my own contribution to the project, I started getting the "writer's block". How on earth was I going to narrow down to 5 an ever growing list of dishes I would have died of not trying? My whole life is devoted to culinary experiments (like many food bloggers for sure). I rarely cook the same recipe twice and what waters my mouth the most when reading a restaurant's menu is dishes I can't pronounce or made of ingredients I have never heard of. This isn't really something I am forcing on myself (say I'd rather have something I know but try to get out of my comfort zone): I actually enjoy a dish more if it surprises me. Discovery is endless... and so is the list of dishes I wish everyone can try at least once in their life.

    On the other hand, of course, I often dream of renewing my best food experiences and do so if I can. So I guess I do have favorites. For this meme, let's stay in the French realm (since this is the subject of this blog), although there would be many more cuisines to talk about. I'll try to tell you about five dishes I dream of all year round until I go back to my home country (you have to be there to get the real deal, especially when it comes to childhood memories). Here is goes:

    1. Choucroute alsacienne. Alsace-style sauerkraut ("sauerkraut" became "choucroute" after centuries of interactions between french and german languages at the border) is a dish made of fermented cabbage garnished with various deli meats: saussages, pork... and more pork coming in all shapes and forms. The fermented shredded cabbage is slowly cooked in Alsace white wine (usually Riesling) and flavored with Juniper berries. Choucroute has become a traditional brasserie dish all over France, which allowed me to eat a lot of them in Lyon where I grew up. Most boucheries-charcuteries (butcher-deli shops) also sell the necessary ingredients (meats and cabbage) to prepare your own. The sourness of the cabbage, the tart taste of Juniper berries, the juicy meats spiced up with Dijon mustard are amazing.

    2. Steak tartare is on the long list of french dishes that are not "politically correct" and that some people don't dare to try (along with snails, frogs, very smelly and colorful cheeses, etc, etc). But it is soooooooo good that it would be a real mistake to not try it at least once (and then you'll want more). Technically speaking, steak tartare is raw ground beef, mixed with a raw egg yolk and just seasonned... The whole "uncooked meat" story is clearly against the "safe handling" warning displayed in huge red letters on each package of meat we buy here in the US. But let's forget about this somehow marginal issue and focus on the taste. If you like tuna sashimi you already have an idea of what raw beef tastes like. Steak tartare seasonning usually consists of Dijon mustard, chopped cornichons (delicious small crunchy gerkins that would deserve to be in this 5-item list by themselves), chopped onion, chopped capers, chopped flat-leaf parsley, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. This is yet another typical brasserie dish. In some restaurants they prepare it in front of you, bringing the meat topped with the egg yolk with spices on the side, and mixing everything at your table. It is served with thin and deliciously crunchy pommes frites.

    3. "Bouchon" cuisine. "Les bouchons de Lyon" are famous for two reasons: heavy traffic jams ("bouchon" means cork) and traditional restaurants. Les Bouchons emerged in the 18th century at the apogee of Lyon's silk weaving industry. They were generally held by women and offered various hearty foods for the silk workers ("les canuts"). Famous dishes include onion soup, "salade lyonnaise" (frisée with grilled bacon, poached egg, croutons and a shallot vinaigrette dressing) or "rosette" (dry saussage) for a start; veal kidneys ("rognons") or "andouillette" (veal tripe saussage) served with a creamy whole grain mustard sauce, "quenelles" (pike fish dumplings) or "cardons" (cardoons) au gratin as a main dish; "cervelle de canut" ("weaver brain", a weird name for "fromage blanc" fresh cheese seasonned with salt, pepper, garlic and chives), Saint-Marcellin cheese, "tarte à la praline" (bright pink sugar-coated almond tart)... Eating in a Bouchon downtown or on Croix-Rousse hillside (usually sharing a table with other patrons) is really something to try.

    4. Oysters from Marenne-Oléron. Oysters are mostly eaten raw in France, with minimal seasonning (a dash of lemon juice or a few drops of red wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots) so as to not mask the subtle flavors of this delightful "fruit de mer". They are served with a slice of rye bread coated with salted butter, and a glass of dry white wine. Marenne-Oléron is a famous oyster farming region on the french Atlantic coast. The oysters they grow there are small and delicate. Their taste is divine. Definitely something you want to try (and if you can go there: even better!)

    5. Cantaloupe from Provence. There had to be something sweet in this list... And I have eaten so many bland cantaloupes over here that it makes me sourly regret those grown in South of France. They are usually smaller that their American counterparts but much softer and sweeter: the juices are more concentrated. If you go to a farmers market they'll pick the right one for you depending on when you plan to eat it, so that it will be at its peak when you dive in it with a teaspoon. Eat it plain or pour a teaspoon of port wine in each half. It makes a lovely appetizer.

    Now I wonder what the following fellow food bloggers will come up with:

    Saturday, August 12, 2006

    Blueberry muffins

    Hello everyone,
    I hope you are all having a very nice summer.
    Our vacation in Greece and France were fantastic: seeing one's family on too rare occasions makes one cherish each and every moment with them. When these powerful moments happen on beautiful backgrounds such as the breathtaking landscapes of Crete or those of Burgundy, it's even better! We are still in the process of sorting our pictures and memories...
    Foodwise there would be much to talk about. In two weeks we ate at home maybe twice... All other meals were taken at restaurants where we had such a diversity of amazing regional dishes that it would take me hours to enumerate all of them. Maybe I will, in another post, just to salivate again at the thought of all these treats.
    But for now let me tell you about the blueberry muffins I baked last Saturday.

    When we came back from vacation our frontyard was a jungle: weed (there's very little grass in the patch of land facing our house) had grown higher than our knees, making the house look like it was abandoned. In our absence a neighbor had contacted the city council to complain about this pittyful display. And our landlord, who is always extremely kind to us, came to mow the "lawn". Last Saturday he came back with his wife to fill the stretch of weed and dirt along sideway with clean, flat and never-to-grow-an-inch concrete (this now looks much better indeed). As they were working in our yard under a burning sun, I felt very guilty (my plan for that afternoon was to read a novel in the much nicer-looking backyard where we've installed a very comfortable hamoc among fragrant flowers and aromatic herbs)... I decided to bake a few cakes to thank them for their efforts. But since I was in a hurry I could only use what was already available in the fridge and cabinets... This is how I came up with this modified version of a muffin recipe found on Marmiton. As mentioned on the web page, the recipe is based on "gâteau au yaourt" (yogurt cake), which isn't truely a muffin type of cake. You shouldn't be looking for a true American muffin recipe here. But if you are interested in a lighter muffin-shaped blueberry and yogurt cake, you are at the right address!

    Note that the yogurt's cup is used to measure all ingredients. What is called "cup" below is a yogurt cup.

    For 12 muffins:
    • one 7 oz. (200g) greek yogurt (FAGE 2%) - 1 "cup"
    • 3 "cups" all-purpose flour
    • 2 "cups" sugar
    • 3 eggs
    • 1/2 "cup" canola oil
    • 3 tbsp. heavy whipping cream
    • 1 tsp. baking soda
    • one 11 oz. (314g) box fresh blueberries
    • 150g (3-4 handfuls) whole hazelnuts and walnuts
    1. Start by emptying the yogurt in a large bowl. Rince the cup. You will use it to measure the other ingredients.
    2. Add the sugar to the yogurt and stir well until the sugar has disolved.
    3. Add the whole eggs and beat to incorporate.
    4. Sift the flour over the mix, little by little. Stir from the center outwards to incorporate without creating lumps.
    5. Add the oil, then the whipping cream. Stir until smooth.
    6. Coarsely chop the hazelnuts and walnuts. Add them to the mix.
    7. Rince the blueberries and incorporate them gently to the mix without breaking them.
    8. Pour into oiled muffin molds until almost full. Bake at 350F for about 30 minutes.
    9. Eat when they are still a little warm inside... Or keep in an air-tight box.

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    On the road again...

    What a wonderful year! We've just come back from Mexico and are ready to take off to our next destination: Greece! We are going to spend a whole week in Crete with Pierre's family then fly to France to spend a week with my family in Lyon and Burgundy. I'll be back in California and on this blog early august.... Until then I wish you all a beautiful summer!

    Wednesday, July 05, 2006

    Leek Omelet

    No need to have you wait any longer: here comes a very simple leek omelet recipe. I should say a French leek omelet recipe, as you will notice the use of lots of butter (apparently it's a sign!) and also because the eggs are only cooked up to a point where they are still a little bit liquid (which is pretty unusual on this side of the Atlantic). This doesn't mean that the eggs are raw: the whole operation takes place at high temperature. But the omelet is taken off the heat "before it is too late" so as to keep all the flavors intact.

    There are many "omelette" variants. The simplest is plain: just eggs (with seasoning). Eaten with a good piece of country-style bread, there's really nothing to add. Other famous recipes include fresh herbs ("omelette aux fines herbes" with chives and parsley), wild mushrooms ("omelette aux champignons"), etc. These ingredients are used as flavoring and should not mask the main ingredients: eggs and butter. To me, traditional French cuisine is all about preserving the flavors of the base ingredients without overpowering them seasoning or sauces. Modern "haute cuisine" hasn't forgotten this principle: it creates more complex flavors by adding subtle touches of spices and extravaganza. It's all a matter of balance.

    Back to our leek omelet. Here is what you need:

    • 3 or 4 small leek
    • 1 or 2 tbsp European-style unsalted butter
    • 4 eggs (or more -2 per person)
    • salt and pepper
    • nutmeg
    Choose young and tender leek. Cut off the sprouted white end and the dark-green leaf tips. You are left with the white core and the tender green leaves. There won't be much to throw away if the leek are small (which is usually the case in the summer). Split the leek twice in the length starting a few inches away from the white end, creating a kind of "whip" (a non-violent one!). The leek still holds together (from the base) but the leaves are now separated from each other and easier to rinse. Place the leek one after the other under the faucet and rinse them under running water. Drain. Lay the leek on a cutting board and slice into 1-inch long sections.

    Place a good chunk of butter (1 tbsp at least) in an anti-adhesive low-edge pan on high heat. Once the butter starts bubbling and crackle, add the leek all at once. Stir with a wooden spoon to cover each piece of leek with melted butter. Stir regularly. After a few minutes, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and slowly cook until the leek are transparent and soft. Season with salt and pepper. Turn down the heat to low while you are preparing the eggs.

    I always choose brown eggs (cage-free, vegetable-fed, antibiotics-free). I've never seen white shelled eggs in France and I've never gotten used to them -although I've read there's no difference. Break 4 eggs (or more -you need 2 per person) in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Whip vigorously with a fork. There are two purposes here: combine the yolks with the white and create an emulsion. The more the eggs are beaten, the lighter the omelet.

    Put the pan with the cooked leek on high heat again. Add some butter if needed (if the leek have absorbed all of it). Once the pan is very hot, pour the eggs and tilt the pan to spread them evenly over the leek (as shown above). Then wait without touching anything.

    After a minute or two, fold the omelet in a half moon shape (above picture). You can tilt the pan to spread the remaining liquid eggs on the entire pan. Then fold this newly formed disk on the half-moon omelet. Never flip the omelet: it would overcook it. Remove from the heat while the omelet is still runny ("baveuse" which means the inside has thickened but isn't solid yet, as shown on the pictures).

    And that's it! The trick is to keep the pan on high heat and go quick, trying to minimize the handling of the omelet to avoid breaking it.

    Serve with good bread and a side salad for lunch or dinner.

    Wednesday, June 28, 2006

    Faire le poireau

    I haven't posted a French food idiom in a while... So here it goes! "Faire le poireau".

    If you have ever seen a field of leeks, sticking straight out of the ground, one next to the other, quietly waiting for time to pass, you know why "faire le poireau" (to do the leek, to be planted like a leek) is synonym of waiting in line. There's even a verb: "poireauter" (also "poiroter" according to my Larousse dictionary).

    And if you "do the leek" too long, you could end up taking root ("prendre racines", "s'enraciner").

    I'll post a leek omelet recipe in the coming days... Stay tuned!

    Saturday, June 24, 2006

    Celebrating summer...

    .... with a gazpacho! There's nothing like an ice-cold soup on an oven-hot day.

    I posted the recipe last year here.

    Thursday, June 08, 2006

    Discovering Mexico

    Sorry for the long absence... We were busy visiting Mexico! And what a blast we had! We spent 3 days in beautiful Guadalajara with our friend Maite then we flew to Cancún and drove accross the Yucatán peninsula all the way to Mérida, visiting ancient Mayan cities, spanish colonial buildings and colorful pueblos along the way. Ten days to forget all about work, stress, fatigue and routine. This was a last minute trip and we didn't choose the best time temperature-wise (it was the hottest month of the year : over 90F every day and the air was very, suffocatingly humid) but the good thing was: we were all alone! No tourists at all. And the heat didn't stop us from enjoying every moment of this wonderful trip. I am still under the spell of this incredibly diverse country. The harmony and peace of spanish-style haciendas, the energy and life emerging from markets and off-the-beaten-path streets. Children playing everywhere. Flashy bouquets of flowers on the trees. Miles and miles of green tropical forest. Breathtaking centuries- old pyramids and sculptures. And so much more.

    Food-wise (since this is the topic of this blog) we made many very pleasant discoveries. In the Tlaquepaque district of Guadalajara we drank fresh coconut juice directly in the shell. When we brought back the empty coconut to the street merchant he cut the flesh into quarters, flavored it with lime, chili and salt and gave it back to us in a plastic bag. So good. Earlier that day we had eaten Mamey (a delicious tropical fruit), tequila and limón ice cream. Limón has almost nothing to do with what is called lime in the US. It's much sweeter. Amazingly refreshing. We also ate flan at the Mercado Libertad, which was litterally a beehive of several thousand square feet downtown Guadalajara. I really enjoyed eating chilaquiles in the morning at various occasions. We didn't miss the famous Yucatec specialties: sopa de limón (a chicken broth with tomatoes, tortillas and limes), pollo pibil (chicken breast marinated in a red sauce), alambres (was it goat meat?)... A waiter in Valladolid's market almost refused to serve me menudo (I think it was a beef tripe soup) that I had seen someone else eat. "I don't recommend it", he said. "Why?", I asked. "Because you're French" (meaning non-Mexican)... He finally gave me some to taste. It was a broth with a strong tripe flavor (the full size portion had pieces of tripes in it) and you had to add green onions, lime and of course jalapeño pepper to spice it up. I liked it! But I could see the waiter's point... It's kind of strong and different. We drank lot's of limonada, agua mineral and cerveza clara (Estrella, Superior, XX) in an attempt to rehydrate our sweating bodies. We had little veggies and fruits (because we didn't trust our ability to overcome potential germs), lots of frijoles and tortillas. I'm sure we could have been more adventurous but we ate exclusively Mexican during the whole trip, which is already honorable (ok, we had very good pizza one night).

    We flew back last Sunday night. It's around 70F in Sunnyvale these days with a nice and refreshing breeze. That's a relief. On Monday night we shopped at Whole Foods and bought lots of greens. This is nice too. But since we're back I feel overly uncomfortable in what now appears to be a blend, standardized, too practical and even too soft environment (what I mean is that everything here is made to be easy to live with, not necessarily enjoyable or beautiful or exciting). I miss the crowds in the streets, friendlily talking to anyone (including us, perfect strangers) at any occasion about anything, relaxing on benches of cities plaza's at dusk when the air is cooler, playing with their kids, buying snacks or toys from street merchants, enjoying life. I miss the beautiful colors of the houses, the masterfully sculptured stones (whether carved by Mayans or conquistadors), the sense that material comfort is not the secret to happiness. I do realize, though, that I am just idealizing what I've seen with my tourist eyes. But hey, it was good to see something different. Learning is the true key to happiness.

    Don't hesitate to contact me if you want info on hotels, restaurants, car rental, sight seeing or other travel tips. If you read French you will also soon find more details about this trip on Nouvelles de Californie.

    Sunday, May 21, 2006

    Fava beans

    It must be fava bean season because all the merchants were selling some at the farmers' market last Saturday. I had never cooked fava beans in my life before. And I'm not sure if I had ever eaten fresh ones either. Two good reasons to buy some! Trying to evaluate how many handfuls of pods would be necessary to feed two persons, I filled up a bag with almost 2 pounds of these long, slightly twisted, dark green vegetables, guessing that the weigh of beans would be much smaller than that of the pods.

    Pierre just turned 29 and he got a cute little Belgian cookbook called "Le Produit" (by Filip Verheyden and Tony Le Duc) from my parents. It's the second volume of a trilogy, printed in a classy black fabric hardcover with "gold" edges. The first book is called "La Base" (the basics). The one Pierre got is an index of products (veggies, fruits, meats, fish, spices, herbs) with a beautiful picture and a very simple recipe involving this ingredient alone (along with the necessary spices). We took advice for our fava beans.

    1. First we removed the beans from the pods.
    2. We blanched the beans in salted water for 1 minute.
    3. We rinsed the beans in cold water to stop the cooking process.
    4. We removed the thick, light green envelope around the beans. The bean itself has a nice and flashy, darker green color (as you can see on the above picture). As the book explained it, some beans split and some others didn't.
    5. We sautéed the beans in butter for a few minutes. That's all the book recommended. As we had prepared lamb leg steaks (just salted and peppered and sautéed in butter), we simply added the beans to the pot. The lamb steaks could have used a little more seasoning but the fava beans didn't need anything else: they were delicious, not too soft and extremely flavorful.
    I've seen a mouth watering recipe of fava bean, green bean and asparagus salad in my Jamie Oliver book. And I'm sure they would go well in a Mediterranean-inspired recipe too, with tomatoes, spices, herbs, roasted meat... There's room for many experiments.

    A few statistics on fava beans:
    • There are about 5 beans per pod.
    • We paid $1 per pound of pods last week at the Sunnyvale farmer's market.
    • Weight of the pods: about 800 grams (almost 2 pounds)
    • Whole beans (with skin): about 300 grams
    • Ready to eat (once skin was removed): about 200 grams
    • Which means we ate 25% of the initial weight.
    • Nutrition facts

    Thursday, May 11, 2006

    Carrots, beets and tomatoes

    Spring calls for refreshing salads. And sometimes a mosaic of various tastes and colors is better than tossing everything together! “Assiettes de crudités” (literally “raw vegetable plates”) can be served as an appetizer or even as a lunch on their own. The palette is almost infinite, from vibrant reds to bracing greens: sliced tomatoes of course, but also shredded carrots and red cabbage, cauliflower bouquets, sliced cucumber, lettuce, mâche… Green onions, olives and fresh herbs (chives, parsley…) can be used as condiments along with the inevitable vinaigrette dressing (or simply olive oil and lemon juice). Some cooked (but cold) veggies can also find their place among crudités although they don’t really belong here: diced beets, shredded celery root, sweet corn, macédoine salad (a mix of boiled green peas, green beans, diced carrots and turnip coated with mayonnaise)… Even non-veggie ingredients make their way to the dish: hard-boiled eggs, anchovies. The important thing is to dress a good-looking dish that emphasizes the variety of shapes, colors and flavors. And with so many options, you can have a brand new appetizer each time!

    On my plate the other day were simply tomatoes, spiced carrots and beets. I cooked the carrots and beets the day before since they needed some time to cool down.

    The carrots (skinned and thinly sliced) simmered in water (3 cups water for about 2 pounds carrots) with olive oil (3 tbsp), crushed cumin seeds (1 tsp), Cayenne pepper (a pinch), garlic (1 clove, crushed) and salt (a pinch) until all the water evaporated (a good 30 minutes on medium heat). The empty pan was then deglazed with red wine vinegar (2 tbsp) and this juice was poured over the carrots.

    The beet root was boiled (whole, with skin) in a pressure cooker (in salted water, for 30 minutes after the whistle started blowing), then sliced (1/2” thick) then cut into 1/2”x1/2” squares.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Pain d'épices

    Pain d'épices (literally "spice bread") is the French version of gingerbread. It's not as crispy as the little men American kids bite into. The texture is closer to a dense country bread than a cookie. The ingredients are very similar, though: spices, honey...
    According to Wikipedia, some breads were already prepared with honey in ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. But the Pain d'épices recipe used nowadays in France was borrowed from China in the Middle Age.
    Pains d'épices come in all shapes and forms and there are many variants to the recipe: use of different spices, different types of honey, nuts (usually walnuts or almonds), citrus peels (orange), glazing... Regions and cities like Alsace, Reims, Dijon, have renown specialties but pain d'épices is also widely baked at home.

    The bread on these pictures was inspired by a recipe in Bahadourian's excellent cookbook "Epices et Aromates". Mr. Bahadourian is the owner of a famous spice shop (épicerie fine) in Lyon, where many of the Lyon region top chefs get their spices and herbs. The book has a first section on spices themselves: where they are from and how to use them. There are several very interesting chapters (for spices, herbs, and blends like curry). The second part of the book is a selection of classic, well seasoned recipes from all over the world (from Indian samosas to Provence bouillabaisse, Hungarian goulash, Sicilian preserved pears and many more). There's even a bonus section with more elaborated recipes by Lyon chefs. It's a relatively small book but I love it. It's full of really useful tips.

    The recipe in the book was for a bread loaf but I made my pain d'épices flat instead, to mimic Swiss Laeckerli's shape (my sister Emilie studies in Lausanne and made me discover these sooooo delicious almond cookies). Here's what I used:
    • 1 pound (or 500g) all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1 pound (or 500g) orange blossom honey from California
    • 1 cup milk
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
    • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
    • 1/2 teaspon ground ginger
    • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
    • 1 clove
    • zest (peel) of 1 organic orange (I harvested an orange in my backyard one minute before using it: can it get any fresher?)

    The recipe is very simple. It's best to bake the bread a day or two in advance and store it in an air-tight container. Here's what I did:

    1. Sift the flour in a large bowl and mix with the baking soda.
    2. In a pot, heat the honey, milk and salt until they are almost boiling.
    3. Pour the hot honey on the flour and incoporate. You could use a bread machine here... I don't have one so I had a nice workout, using a wooden spoon!
    4. Grind the spices. Chop the orange peel thinly. Incorporate them to the dough.
    5. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the dough on it. The parchment paper will save you a lot of time and energy... Pain d'épices is pretty sticky.
    6. Let the dough cool down for at least one hour before baking.
    7. Bake at 300F (150C) for about 40 minutes, until the top gets a nice golden color.
    8. Once the bread is cool, cut in rectangles of about 1.5"x2".

    Saturday, April 22, 2006

    Chocolate Cake - the making of

    My friend Failop -she's a true friend: she asked me questions about my chocolate cake recipe. Which means I had to make one to take pictures! How great an excuse is that! Thank you Failop!

    You can click on the picture to enlarge it. The small pics are arranged in columns.

    Wednesday, April 19, 2006


    It's already the fourth edition of Foodography, a really fun food photography challenge organized by Sam (Becks & Posh) and Andrew (SpittoonExtra). I've found out about it recently... and am already addicted to it! Here's the photo I submitted for this month's challenge. Check out the Foodography 4 Flickr group, there are some really great pictures there.

    Sunday, April 16, 2006

    Easter Memories

    After weeks and weeks of nearly tropical rain (pretty much a non-stop deluge), spring has finally shown its face last Thursday (alas, it didn't last!). A few hours of sunshine were enough to warm the air and fill it with delicious flowery fragrances. I can't step outside in this weather without being instantly swamped with nostalgia. My head spins, memories of my childhood in France start scrolling in front of my eyes. I can't really explain this feeling, nor can I control it... I just have to bear this soon-to-vanish state of naive happiness!

    Last Thursday, in the sun, I pictured myself about twenty years ago, en route to my grand-parents' for our traditional Easter lunch. My Dad's parents, Edouard and Rose, "Pépé et Mémé", lived in Saint-Pierre d'Albigny, a big village (a small town) in Savoy. Imagine a bunch of white houses with steep slate roofs on a hill, surrounded by impressive mountains -the Alps. We knew we were close to arriving when we saw l'Arcluse in font of us -a huge rocky mountain above Saint-Pierre. Easter was usually one of the first nice spring days of the year. The air was still cool but you could see here and there fragile flowers coming out of the ground or blooming on a tree. A few birds singing, snowcaps melting at the summits.

    I don't really know how bunnies can lay eggs in a yard... That never happened in my grand-parents' yard. But the explanation we were given wasn't that much believable either. In my family (as probably in every french family with catholic-rooted traditions), bells traveled all the way from Rome (the Vatican) carrying and spreading all sorts of blessings (among them, I guess, the gospel, but most of all: chocolates!). Chocolates weren't shaped into bunnies. They were sometimes shaped into bells or eggs. Most of the time, what we discovered under a tree or hidden in a bush in the yard was a welcoming chick ("une poule"), filled with smaller chocolates... in the shape of small fish ("la friture")! I didn't really know what symbols were associated with these figurines. I just ate them all without asking. The chick was usually made of a delicious dark chocolate: shiny, crunchy, full of aromas. Even a child can appreciate good stuff. There wasn't an ounce of unneeded sugar in this little marvel. The fish (and a few shrimps, for diversity) came in different colors and flavors: milk, dark, white and even pink chocolate (don't know what was in there). They were usually of lesser quality than the shell, but very delicious nonetheless. Sometimes we had eggs too. Very small ones, either in the chick or in a separate bag. Those were usually candies (caramel or nougatine) covered with chocolate.

    After the treasure hunt began another of my favorite times: lunch! My grand-mother, "Mémé Rosine" (she's 96 now), always prepared a very traditional Easter menu that she had inherited from her own mother, an Italian from Montecassino (near Naples) -my great-grand-parents fled Italy in the 1900's, looking for work, and settled in Lyon, were Mémé and her brothers were born. Last Thursday I could only remember some of the dishes that Mémé prepared. I remembered an omelet served as an appetizer and thought it was followed by a roasted lamb shank, served with green beans. I asked my Dad to refresh my memory and here is what he replied to me:

    "Il y a bien longtemps que nous nous sommes écartés des traditions culinaires venues d'Italie et transmises par mémé, mais j'ai encore tout cela en mémoire.
    En fait il ne s'agissait pas d'agneau, mais de cabri (ou chevreau) cuisiné de différentes manières : les "abattis" c'est à dire les pattes sont rôties puis en fin de cuisson on leur verse dessus un mélange d'oeuf, de jus de citron et parmesan moulu afin d'enrober les morceaux. Il y a très peu de viande à grignoter mais on suce ces abattis en les tenant avec les doigts : un régal.
    La partie charnue (le gigot) était cuite normalement au four, accompagnée de ce que l'on veut (pommes de terre sautées, haricots verts). J'oubliais la fameuse "omelette de Pâques" qui est faite des abats du cabri (la fressure : coeur, foie, rate, poumons) coupés en petits morceaux revenus à la poêle avec de la saucisse italienne coupée en rondelles. On verse dessus des oeufs battus en omelette (je crois qu'il en faut au moins une douzaine) et on retourne l'omelette afin qu'elle soit bien saisie des deux côtés. On plante au milieu un petit brin de rameau béni lors de la fête de Rameaux qui précède Pâques, avec lequel le patriarche bénit les convives au début du repas, c'est l'entrée.
    La veille de Pâques on mangeait une sorte de gâteau de riz aux oeufs et à la saucisse que mémé appelait le "jarône": on fait cuire du riz créole, que l'on mélange avec des oeufs, du parmesan et des morceaux de saucisse rissolés. On laisse prendre le tout dans un moule haut ou une marmite que l'on doit mettre au four pendant un certain temps ? Et on coupe des tranches. On peut le manger chaud ou froid.
    Je me renseignerai auprès de mémé et de Denise pour plus de détails.
    En résumé il faut beaucoup d'oeufs (symbole du renouveau de la nature) et un cabri (ou un demi cabri que l'on commande chez le boucher car il n'en a pas régulièrement).
    Merci de m'avoir permis de me replonger dans mes souvenirs, j'en ai l'eau à la bouche... "

    Need a translation? Here it goes:
    "It's been a long time since we've stepped away from our culinary traditions, coming from Italy and handed down by Mémé [my Dad's mother]. But everything is still vivid in my memory.
    It wasn't lamb but kid [a young male goat], cooked in different ways: the legs were roasted and coated with a mix of beaten eggs, lemon juice and grated parmesan cheese. There was very little meat to nibble on these pieces but we sucked on them, holding them between two fingers: delicious!
    The fleshy part (the upper leg) is roasted normally and served with whatever one wants (green beans [simply boiled in salted water, served with butter and lemon], potatoes [fingerling, sautéed in butter]...). I was forgetting the famous "Easter omelet" which is made with the kid's giblets (heart, liver, spleen, lungs) cut in small cubes and sautéed along with sliced italian sausage. Beaten eggs are poured in the skillet (at least a dozen I believe) and the omelet is flipped so as to cook it well on both sides [this isn't the french way of cooking omelets]. A little boxwood branch, blessed during the Palm Sunday mass a week before Easter is stuck in the center of the omelet. The patriarch blesses all the guests with this branch at the beginning of the meal: the omelet is the appetizer.
    The day before Easter we used to eat a kind of rice cake made with eggs and italian sausage that Mémé called "le jarône" [it must be an italian word pronounced with a french accent] : rice is boiled, then mixed with eggs, parmesan cheese and sautéed slices of sausage. I guess this mix was for a while in a deep pan or a pot? Then sliced. We can eat it warm or cold.
    I will inquire the details of Mémé or Denise [my Dad's sister].
    To sum up, a lot of eggs are needed (eggs are the symbol of nature's rebirth) and a kid (or half kid, that is ordered in advance at the butcher's because he may not stock this meat on a regular basis).
    Thank you for allowing me to dive into my memories. My mouth is watering!"

    I'll let you know as soon as I get all the details of the feast!...

    Saturday, April 01, 2006

    Savory Tartlets

    Want some fun? I suggest you make a few savory tartlets! This is such a creative activity! It feels like being 4 again and playing with playdough or beads or whatever. Seriously.

    I was lucky enough to be invited to a potluck party last Friday and the host asked me to bring a hors d'oeuvre. She said other people in charge of appetizers were bringing salads, a vegetable tray, nachos and salsa... and that I should try to bring something else. I didn't really have time to go grocery shopping for that event but my fridge was well garnished already (which is pretty unusual). Unfortunately the content was very diverse: one tomato here, a piece of cheese there... Nothing in quantities large enough to make a big dish. It was the perfect occasion to bake bite-size quiches!

    First I prepared a pâte brisée pie crust following this recipe. Not knowing how many tartlets I would have time to bake, I doubled all the ingredients (but ended up freezing half of the dough). Half a pound flour was enough to make 5x15 (yes! That's 75!) tartlets.

    Then I emptied my fridge and started composing different fillings, following my inspiration.

    Each batch was baked in a silicon mold at 350F (180C) for 20 to 25 minutes.

    I. The first batch of 15 tartlets was made of:
    • Roma tomatoes (I think I used one or two), cut in small cubes (I removed the seeds and juice)
    • Black olives (maybe a dozen), pitted and sliced
    • Cheese. I used Saint Marcelin in some of the tartlets (it's a creamy, creamy cheese from the Alps, so creamy it's usually sold in a little cup) and Fourme d'Ambert in others (a soft blue cheese from central France).
    I placed a little piece of cheese at the bottom of each quiche crust then filled them up with tomato and olive dice.

    II.On the left of the above picture is a series of whole grain mustard mini-quiches. I used:
    I beat all the ingredients together before pouring the mix into the pie crusts.
    Since the custard is a little bit liquid, using a silicon mold can be tricky... I placed mine on a cookie sheet to give it the necessary firmness.

    III.The batch on the right of the above picture was made as follows:
    • 1 egg
    • 1 tablespoon crème fraîche (or sour cream)
    • salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg
    • 1 Roma tomato
    • walnut chunks
    • Gruyère cheese.
    I made a custard by beating together the egg, cream and seasoning. I poured 1 tablespoon of this mix in each pie shell. I added tomato cubes and walnut chunks on top (they sank). Then I sprinkled with grated cheese.

    IV. For the 4th batch I made a classic "tarte à l'oignon" (one before last on the above picture) with a personal touch (some wine!). I used:
    • 1 chopped yellow onion (coarsely chopped, that is)
    • some butter
    • 2 or 3 tablespoons white wine (Chardonnay or Pino Grigio)
    • custard made of 1 egg, 1 tablespoon crème fraîche, salt, pepper and nutmeg
    • Gruyère cheese
    I cooked the onion in butter (about 1 teaspoon) until transparent (a few minutes on medium-high heat). Then I poured the wine and simmered for about 10 minutes.
    I filled up the pie shells with 1 tablespoon custard, poured the onions on top and sprinkled with grated cheese.

    V. Last but not least (although it's the easiest one!), I simply placed a piece of cheese (Saint-Marcelin or Fourme d'Ambert) in the pie crusts and toped them with half walnuts. It's shown in the middle in the above picture.

    I placed all the tartlets on a cookie sheet and brought this tray to the party. It was so funny watching people trying to figure out what was in each of them!

    Tuesday, March 28, 2006

    Today's Lunch

    Today for lunch I brought an endive salad to the office. When endives are small and crisp white, they are not bitter at all and they are so refreshing! Eating raw endives brings as much pleasure to the ears as to the palate. They are divinely crunchy and juicy. Hmmm... I'm salivating!

    For 2 (as a main dish):
    • 6 small endives
    • 3 Roma tomatoes
    • 3 hard-boiled eggs
    • 2 handfuls half walnuts
    • 1 handful black olives
    • 1 finely sliced scallion
    • 3 tablespoons vinaigrette dressing

    1. If the endives are small, no need to remove the core. Simply slice them into 1" segments. The leaves will fall apart by themselves. Cut the core into 4 pieces.
    2. Cut the tomatoes into 4 wedges then in 2 again.
    3. Cut the eggs into 4 wedges.
    4. Slice the scallion thinly (use the white part and some of the tender green but not the whole length of it).
    5. Add the walnuts and olives.
    6. Toss with the salad dressing.

    Another popular endive salad is made with cubed Gruyère cheese, green apple slices, walnuts (and endives).

    Friday, March 24, 2006

    Last year on March 24...

    Last year on March 24, I hit the "Publish" button of my very first post! My French Cuisine was born, with the sweet taste of a chocolate mousse. It took me 365 days to make another one and take a picture this time.

    My first year of food blogging has been everything from fun to frustrating, from motivating (what a good excuse to try out new recipes,to spend the time to care about the details, and to try to make the dish look as nice as possible...) to discouraging (why work so hard on publishing recipes while there are so many wonderful blogs out there?). It has been rewarding many times (thank you all for your nice comments and emails!). And I guess overall it has been a very satisfying learning experience in many more ways that I could have imagined. The bottom line is that I feel like sticking around some more on the blogosphere. :-)

    I hope you enjoyed reading this blog so far and that you'll come back often! "Your opinion is important to us" so don't hesitate to leave a comment any time.

    Saturday, March 18, 2006

    La moutarde me monte au nez

    Be reassured, I'm not actually loosing my temper. I just want to explain another food idiom! La moutarde me monte au nez litterally means "the mustard is getting up my nose". Now if you've ever tried real Dijon mustard (it's much hotter than the one sold in the US; even French brands seem to make it milder for exportation), you can imagine the effect of eating a spoonful of this nose-tickling condiment. When someone is upset and his/her face gets gradually red (you know, like in cartoons!), you can tell that "la moutarde lui monte au nez".

    Talking about mustard, I have a new favorite brand! I was looking for Maille mustard the other day at Whole Foods Market but couldn't find it. Maille is excellent (they used to sell it in gigantic jars -1 pound!- at Williams Sonoma. Can't find it there anymore). Not knowing what to do, and not being able to live a few days without mustard, I picked a jar Beaufor's extra strong Dijon mustard at random (well not exactly. It was the "cheapest" -read the least expensive- jar on Whole Foods' gourmet shelves). And it turns out to be the best mustard I've ever tasted overseas! The fact that it is "extra strong" brings it to the the expected spiciness level. Their Moutarde à l'Ancienne (whole-grain mustard) and Moutarde aux Herbes de Provence are exquisite too.

    Tuesday, March 07, 2006

    International Women's Day

    No cooking today...

    March 8 is International Women's Day. Although there is much to celebrate about, this day should also be a time to remember that there is a lot left to accomplish for women's rights, health and education around the world, even in "developed" countries. The simple fact that there is a need for a yearly event to celebrate women's achievements speaks volumes.

    Here are a few links where you can find information on the subject.

    Back to recipes in my next post...

    Thursday, March 02, 2006

    "Quatre Quarts" Pound Cake

    Here is a cake recipe that's really piece of cake: the pound cake. The name of this cake comes from the fact that all ingredients are weighed and used in equal proportions (traditionally, one pound each of flour, butter, eggs and sugar). In French we call it "Quatre quarts" (litterally "4 fourths"), also reflecting the fact that all 4 ingredients are used in equal amounts.
    It is a very simple yet deliciously fragrant and addictive cake. No additional flavoring is needed if you choose good quality products. The biggest challenge is to beat and blend the ingredients well enough to make the cake moist and fluffy (otherwise "pound cake" will have a very different meaning!). So:
    • Take 3 large eggs and weigh them. They should weigh about 2 oz. each (60 grams).
    • Weigh the same amount of all-purpose flour: 6 oz. (180 grams) or 1 1/4 cups
    • Weigh the same amount of sugar: 6 oz. (180 grams) or 3/4 cup
    • Weigh the same amount of butter: 6 oz. (180 grams) or 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks).
      You can use unsalted and salted butter (50-50), or unsalted butter alone with a good amount of salt (up to 1 teaspoon). The first time I've used salted butter in a pound cake, I thought I'd just made a huge mistake (I intended to use unsalted butter) and panicked. But it turned out to be really good, maybe even better than with unsalted butter: all the simple and earthy flavors of the butter, sugar and egg are enhanced by the salt. And it gives the cake the unique flavor of Britany pastries, that also use "beurre demi-sel". Free trip to the beach!
    1. Pour the sugar in a large bowl. Pour the melted butter* and blend it in with a wooden spoon until smooth.
    2. Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Set the whites aside.
    3. Add the egg yolks to the sugar-butter mix. Stir well (with the wooden spoon). The more energetically you beat, the fluffier the cake.
    4. Slowly add the sifted flour and incorporate it gradually as it falls on the batter.
    5. Add some salt (up to a whole teaspoon). This isn't needed if you are using salted butter.
    6. Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites and beat until stiff. If the egg whites have been beaten enough you should be able to flip the bowl upside down and they won't fall down... Up to you to take the risk!
    7. Incorporate the egg whites to the batter, one big spoonful at a time, very delicately, making under-and-over motions until evenly blended. The foam (air bubble) shouldn't "break". This is also a very important step in getting a fluffy cake.
    8. Pour the batter in a buttered round metallic cake mold (about 12" 9-10 inches in diameter).
    9. Bake at 350F (180C) for about 45 minutes or until baked (if you stick a knife in the center of the cake it should come out dry).

    * For long I've melted butter directly in the cake pan, in the preheating oven. This way the mold was buttered and I didn't have to wash another dish. But it's easy to "over melt" the butter (i.e. get to the point where it's bright yellow and oily rather than white and foamy). Now that I have a micro-wave (it's only been a few months, believe it or not) I find it even more convenient to melt the butter in there. My micro-wave even has a "melt butter" button!

    Tuesday, February 28, 2006

    Food Idioms - C'est pas du gâteau !

    Have you noticed how food sometimes ends up in expressions that have nothing to do with it? Like "piece of cake", "apple to apple", "cool as a cucumber", etc. Well, you can imagine that French people, food-centric as they are, have tons of food idioms as well. Some of them are regional, others are used very commonly all over the country; and all are so picturesque!

    I thought it would be fun to explain some of them (the cream of the crop!) in this blog, along with pictures and a recipe if possible. I'll sum them up in the "Food Idioms" section under "My Recipes" (on your right).
    If you want to share your favorite French or English idioms, please do so! Leave a comment!

    Let's start with an easy one. "It's a piece of cake" can be directly translated into "c'est du gâteau", meaning "it's easy", like in English. But the French idiom is often used in the negative way : "c'est pas du gâteau" (it's difficult), sometimes substituting cake for pie: "c'est pas de la tarte". Does it depict a cultural trait ?...

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006

    Mushrooms à la grecque

    This supposedly Greek recipe has many variants but the idea is to cook white mushrooms in a spiced tomato sauce, and eat them cold as an appetizer, along with other salads. As the days are getting longer and warmer in California, this dish (which is great for a buffet or a barbecue party) came to mind to welcome the early spring time.

    • 250 g (1/2 pound) white mushrooms. Choose them small and firm.
    • the juice of 2 lemons
    • 1/2 cup white wine (a dry one, e.g. Pino Grigio)
    • 1/2 cup olive oil
    • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
    • 1 branch thyme
    • 1 bay leaf
    • about 20 whole coriander seeds
    • salt and pepper

    1. Clean the mushrooms (cut the end of the stem), wash them and dry them with a paper towel.
    2. Mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, white wine and tomato paste. Add the whole coriander seeds.
    3. Bring this sauce to a boil and keep at high heat for one minute.
    4. Add the mushroom and boil (over medium-high heat) for 8 to 10 minutes, uncovered.
    5. Let the mushrooms cool down then store in the fridge until it's time to eat!
    1. You can add 1/2 chopped yellow onion, 1 garlic clove and/or 1 cubed carrot to the sauce. Sautée the veggies first in olive oil, then add the other ingredients and bring the sauce to a boil.
    2. You can use 2 fresh tomatoes instead of (or in addition to) the tomato paste. Cook the sauce a little longer before adding the mushrooms (otherwise it will be too liquid).
    3. You can sprinkle the mushrooms with italian parsley once they are cooked.

    Thursday, February 16, 2006

    Crêpe Party

    Two weeks ago (February 2nd) was La Chandeleur. We've always celebrated this holiday in my family, mostly because of the culinary tradition associated with it (les crêpes!). Our parents and grand parents used to prepare the crêpe batter and we used to cook a few crêpes ourselves (my sister, my 2 cousins and me), even at an early age. There was so much excitement in the kitchen that accidents happened almost every year... I burnt my cousin's ear once (we were maybe 9-10 years old), carrying the hot pan all around the kitchen to find the best spot from where to flip my crêpe... I also crunched his fingers in a door another year... Ouch (you noticed that I only remember the accidents I provoked... I'm sure, though, that they weren't the only ones!). Fortunately these misfortunes were always soon forgotten, the tears were quickly dried and we could spend the rest of the afternoon eating crêpes with jam, chocolate, brown sugar and butter... never tired of eating sweets.

    Last Sunday night we had a belated Chandeleur party with our friends Vince, Tammy and Mitch. We prepared two batches of batter, one with buckwheat flour ("sarrasin" in French) for savory crêpes, one with regular all-purpose flour and some beer (a North-of-France recipe brought to Lyon by my grand mother) for sweet crêpes.

    Sorry, we ate all the crêpes before I could take any picture! But here are the recipes.

    Buckwheat flour crêpe batter:
    • 350 g (20 oz.) buckwheat flour
    • 65 cL (22 oz.) milk
    • 2 tablespoon crème fraî��che (alternatively, whipping cream)
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 whole egg
    • 2 egg yolks
    1. Use a wooden spoon to prepare the crêpe batter.
    2. Sift the flour over a large bowl. With the spoon, make a hole in the center of the flour pile.
    3. Pour the milk in this "well" and start incorporating the flour by making very small then larger circles from the center of the dish. The mix should become homogeneous.
    4. Add the crème fraîche and blend it in the batter.
    5. Then add the 2 egg yolks and the whole egg.
    6. When the eggs are fully incorporated, sprinkle with salt and mix well again.
    7. Let sit for 2 hours at room temperature, covered with a clean cloth.
    Batter for sweet crêpes:
    • 250 g (14 oz.) whole purpose white flour
    • 25 cL (8 1/2 oz.) milk
    • 25 cL (8 1/2 oz.) beer (mild-flavored pale ale or yeast beer)
    • 3 whole eggs
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 2 teaspoons melted butter (alternatively, but it's not as good: canola oil)
    • optionally (but not really necessary), 1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
    1. Use a wooden spoon to prepare the crêpe batter.
    2. Sift the flour over a large bowl. With the spoon, make a hole in the center of the flour pile.
    3. Pour half of the milk and beer in this "well" and start incorporating the flour by making very small then larger circles from the center of the dish. The mix shoud become homogeneous.
    4. Beat the 3 whole eggs in a separate bowl, as you would do to prepare an omlette.
    5. Pour the eggs on the batter and stir.
    6. When the eggs are fully incorporated, add the salt and butter and mix well again.
    7. Finish by pouring the other half of the liquid (milk + beer) and mix well. The batter should be fluid but not liquid.
    8. Let sit for 2 hours at room temperature, covered with a clean cloth.
    How to cook crêpes:

    To cook the crêpes, use a non-stick pan with low edges. Make sure to choose a really flat pan that will diffuse the heat evenly.
    1. Pour a little bit of canola oil on a paper towel and rub the inside of the pan to coat it with oil.
    2. Heat up the pan (on high heat). Pour about 1 ladle of crêpe batter in the center and quickly tilt the pan and rotate it to cover the whole pan surface with batter. Alternatively you can use a wooden ustensil in a T shape to spread the batter. The first crêpe is usually not good looking... So don't worry.
    3. Cook a few minutes on each side. To find out if the side in contact with the pan is cooked, shake the pan : it's cooked if the crêpe moves freely. If it sticks to the pan, cook some more. To flip the crêpe, either use a wooden spatula or flip it in the air: make some room around you, lift the pan, give a quick but strong wrist whipping motion to free the crêpe from the pan and make a loop in the air with the pan. It's hard to explain but after a few trial it's very easy to do. In my family we used to hold a golden coin (my grand-mother had a few "Louis d'Or" from long ago) in the hand holding the pan. If you flipped the crêpe correctly you'd be lucky and prosperous for the entire year. It's worth trying!
    Buckwheat crêpe fillings (what we had the other night):
    • ratatouille (1 yellow onion, 2 garlic cloves, 1 branch thyme, 1 bay leaf, 3 skinned red bell peppers, 4 zucchinis, 1 eggplant -cubed and salted 15 minutes in advance to remove bitterness, one 28 oz. can of whole peeled plum tomatoes. Simmer in olive oil 15 minutes without the tomatoes then 20-30 more minutes with them, until all the veggies are tender. Sprinkle with fresh italian parsley before serving)
    • spinach and ricotta (fresh spinach leaves sautéed 1 or 2 minutes in a pan with 1 tbsp butter, then add 2 or 3 tbsp ricotta cheese and cook 1 more minute. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg)
    • mushrooms (1 diced yellow onion and 1 pound sliced white mushrooms cooked in 1 tbsp butter with 1 cup white wine. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with fresh italian parsley before serving)
    • home-made fresh cheese (1/3 goat, 2/3 cow milk)
    • sliced Heirloom tomatoes
    • any combination of the above (e.g. ratatouille topped with fresh cheese, spinach topped with sliced tomatoes, etc...)
    Other ideas:
    • Brie, Boursin, grated Gruyere cheese, blue cheese...
    • ham and cheese
    • paté
    • sunny-side-up egg directly cooked on the crêpe, while the crêpe is cooking
    • ... you name it.
    Sweet crêpe fillings (what we had the other night):
    • jam (peach, fig and blueberry)
    • Nutella and roasted sliced almonds
    • honey (and roasted sliced almonds)
    • bananes flambées (slice 2 bananas in their length. Bake for about 10 minutes at 350F in a buttered dish. Pour 1 cup brown rhum in a sauce pan. Heat up a few minutes. When it's close to boiling, pour the hot rhum on the baked bananas and light up with a match -be careful). You can place a piece of dark chocolate on each banana half: it will melt... Yum!
    It would also be great with:
    • butter
    • butter and brown sugar ("cassonade", another North-of-France marvel)
    • honey and walnuts
    • ... much more.

    Friday, February 03, 2006

    Cream of Tomato Soup with Cumin and Greek Yogurt

    I've always been attracted by cookbooks and I've accumulated quite a few since I can read. Each of them has its very own style, its load of good ideas and advice, mouth watering pictures and descriptions... They are also full of memories of the place and time I bought them or the person who offered them to me and the occasion. They evoke so many past meals and daring recipe experiments! They are also a constant invitation to gustative discoveries.

    I got my latest cookbook a month ago in France (a thoughtful gift from Pierre): Bar à Soupes, published by Marabout. Anne-Catherine Bley (the author) explains how she opened the first soup bar in Paris, after having watched Seinfeld on TV and been to New York where she became enthusiastic about the whole concept. She has published several soup recipe books and some of them are translated in English. This one isn't yet...

    The recipes are sorted by main ingredients (tomato, carrot, greens, dry beans, etc.) or by type (broths, traditional soups, soups with cheese, dessert soups...). There are also a lot of variants: one basic recipe and several ideas on how to modify/enhance it. I also like the pictures (by Akiko Ida), taken in the soup bar, of people religiously (or sometimes gluttonously!) eating their bowl of soup.

    The very first recipe in the book is a cream of tomato soup. It comes with many inspired variants but I had to come up with my own, based on my fridge's content the other day... Here is my version of the "velouté de tomates":
    • 1 big can (28 oz., about 800 grams) whole peeled tomatoes
    • 1 or 2 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1 yellow onion
    • 2 garlic cloves
    • 1 branch thyme
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 2 or 3 tablespoons Greek yogurt (e.g. FAGE "Total", classic or 2%)
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 1 sugar cube (or 1 teaspoon crystal sugar)
    • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
    • salt and pepper as needed
    • 1 cup (about 25 centiliters) water
    1. Peel and coarsely chop the onion and garlic (remove the stem first). Heat the olive oil in a pot and start cooking the onion and garlic slowly (they shouldn't change color).
    2. Add the tomato paste, "le bouquet garni" (thyme and bay leaf), cumin seeds and sugar.
    3. Add the tomatoes and stir with a spoon to mix all the ingredients together. The tomatoes can stay whole.
    4. Pour the water and bring to a boil.
    5. Reduce the heat and let simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
    6. Remove the thyme and bay leave.
    7. Blend as smoothly as possible with an electric blender.
    8. Add the Greek yogurt and mix well.
    9. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
    10. Serve the soup and sprinkle with a few cumin seeds on top of each bowl.