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.