Monday, April 23, 2007

Poires Belle-Hélène


"Beautiful Helen pears" were invented in Paris in the 19th century and were named after an opera by Offenbach. What a romantic introduction for this French dessert par excellence, a true classic, found in at least (this is a guess) half of the restaurants of the Hexagone. It only takes a few minutes (maybe seconds!) to assemble this dish if you use ready-made ingredients; it is actually not much longer to prepare half of them from scratch (the poached pears and the melted chocolate). You can even make ice cream and cookies from scratch for a deluxe version (but this probably won't taste like in restaurants, because I am pretty sure they go for the fast and easy way in most cases...).

You need:
- 1 whole pear per person, poached (or 2 canned half pears)
- 1 or 2 scoops vanilla bean ice cream
- chocolate melt
- a few almond cookies (thin and crisp, no matter what shape you choose)

The combination of temperatures (ice cream, warm chocolate), textures (soft pear, crispy cookie) and flavors (all of them!) is simply out of this world. There is even a little bonus: although this dessert looks very fancy, it is very easy to prepare.

I usually poach the pears in the morning to let them cool down and eat them the same evening. They should be at room temperature when you serve them (they won't taste as good if they just came out of the fridge). Either leave them out all day, in a closed dish, or allow them to warm up if you store them in the fridge. Bosc pears are my favorite, both for taste and "handling" (they hold well, even after being cooked).

All quantities below are for 6 pears.

To poach the pears:
Peel them, keeping them whole (leave the stem for decorative purposes). Place them upright in a deep pot. Sprinkle 1/4 cup (50 g or 4 tbsp) sugar and pour 1 cup (20 cl) water over the pears. Simmer/steam (lid on) for 20 minutes on medium heat. Drain the pears but keep the juice. Let both cool down.

Just before serving, prepare the chocolate melt as follows:
Bring the pear juice to a boil in a small pot and allow it to evaporate until only half of the volume is left. Place this small pot in a bigger one, half full of water ("Bain Marie") and place over medium heat (water should never boil).
Cut 4 1/2 oz (125 g) high quality* dark chocolate (for example Le Noir Gastronomique 61% cacao by Valrhona...) into small pieces. Melt chocolate in the warm pear syrup, stirring until smooth and shiny. Add 2 tbsp (30 g or 1/4 stick) butter and let it melt, stirring continuously.

To assemble:
Place one pear in each dish, upright. Add 1 or 2 scoops vanilla ice cream. Pour warm chocolate on the pear and ice cream. Stick 1 or 2 almond thins (or even more authentic: "tuiles aux amandes") in the ice cream. Serve immediately.

* good rule of thumb for quality chocolate: the list of ingredients should start with cocoa beans rather than sugar!


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Springtime Lamb Stew

This recipe will be perfect for Easter.

Le navarin d'agneau (last word –lamb– is pronounced like the spanish "año") is a type of ragoût (pronounced "rah-goo"): a rich, thick stew in which the meat, poultry or fish is first fried (rissolé) then covered in flour (to thicken the sauce) before simmering (sometimes with vegetables) in a well seasoned liquid (wine, broth...). This should not be mistaken with the italian ragù, a meat sauce from the Bologna region. Navarin is a mutton or lamb ragoût cooked with young, springtime vegetables.*


The recipe is for 6 people. It takes about 1½ hours to 2 hours to prepare and cook. It is sufficient in itself as a main dish, but if you fear that your guests will need some carbs, you can boil a few small potatoes (peeled, boiled whole in salted water for about 15 minutes or until a knife goes through), served on the side, or added to the sauce at the last minute.
  • 3½ lbs boneless lamb shoulder roast (my Larousse calls for 800 g "épaule d'agneau désossée" –1¾ lbs boneless lamb shoulder, and 800 g "collié d'agneau désossé" –1¾ lbs boneless lamb collar). See the american and french lamb cut charts.
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 cup (20 cL) white wine
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 bouquet garni (pronounced "boo-kay gahr-nee") –a few sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf, a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, tied together with kitchen string
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) carrots (ideally the youngest, tenderest you can find –those sold with their leaves)
  • 1/2 lbs (200 g) turnips (ideally the smallest, youngest you can find –most likely sold with their leaves)
  • 1/4 lbs (100 g) onions (ideally small button onions)
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) green beans (ideally the thinest french green beans you can find)
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) shelled green peas, either fresh or frozen
  • salt, pepper, nutmeg
  1. Cut the roast into a dozen big chunks or slices. Heat up the oil in a big pot. Fry the meat a few minutes until it gets a nice golden color on all sides, without burning. Drain the meat and discard most of the fat. Place the meat back in the pot.
  2. Sprinkle the meat with sugar and toss. Sprinkle with flour and toss. Cook for 3 minutes, tossing continuously. Pour the wine and reduce the heat to medium. Season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg.
  3. While the meat starts simmering, dice the tomatoes. Peel the garlic cloves, cut them in half and remove their stems. Add these veggies to the pot along with the herbs. If necessary, add some water, just enough to fully sink the meat into liquid. Cover pot with a lid. Simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, peel the carrots, turnips and onions. If they are small you can keep them whole. Otherwise, slice them. Sauté in butter (in a dip pan) for about 10 to 15 minutes. Toss regularly.
  5. Steam or boil the green beans (about 6 minutes in a pressure cooker).
  6. Once the 45 minutes are passed, add the sautéed veggetables and the green peas to the stew and simmer for 20 more minutes.
  7. After this time, add the green beans and simmer 5 more minutes.
  8. Serve hot in the pot.
* info compiled from Le Larousse de la Cuisine and The Food Lover's Companion