A very simple tarte à l’oignon is a great starter for a dinner party–it’s good hot or at room temperature, so you can pop it out of the oven or make it ahead.
I routinely make a couple of different savory tarte tatins–a French kind of upside-down pie. A favorite that I often serve as a starter, is tomato tarte tatin.
For our cooking class, my cuistot-par-excellence Christine suggested her onion tart as the entrée (starter in French). It’s flavorful and rich, but not so rich that you can’t eat the main course. Perfect.Christine’s Onion Tart
1 flaky pie crust (you can make your own–recipe from Blanche Caramel coming soon–but the ready-made version here is really good. It even has its own sheet of parchment paper.)
4 big onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 1/3 cups (33 cl) crème fraîche semi-épaisse, or half-thick sour cream. Does such a thing exist outside France, with its gazillion kinds of crème fraîche? You can mix sour cream with liquid cream, or just use sour cream. When I remade the tart, I had bought thick cream by mistake. The tart turned out great anyway.
Salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and cook the onions on high heat, stirring constantly so they don’t stick or burn. It should take only a couple of minutes for them to soften up.
Mix the onions with the other ingredients in a mixing bowl.Spread the pie crust on its parchment paper in a tart pan. You can use a pie pan, but it will be smaller and deeper, and the portions will seem smaller.Stab the pie crust a few times with a fork. Spread the onion mixture onto the crust. Fold the edges toward the middle if necessary (Christine’s tart pan was bigger than mine and didn’t need folding).Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve hot or at room temp.
A classic dish of the south of France is ratatouille niçoise. It’s summer on a plate. It’s also a great dish for entertaining because it’s even better the second day, so it’s ideal to make ahead. Nice gets credit for its creation but it’s a dish common to all of Occitanie, the broad swath of southern France.
My friend Christine put it on the menu for our cooking class, along with grilled thyme lamb chops, which I’ll also include here.Remember, for a same-day dinner, we made the desserts first, starting with the crème catalan, then the baba au rhum. Once the baba was cooling, we tackled the ratatouille, or rata, as the French like to say. It’s very French to cut off words to two syllables: Coca-Cola becomes Coca (not Coke); McDonald’s is known as “MacDo”; spaghetti bolognaise is called “bolo”; Carcassonne is called “Carca”….
Even first names get shortened to two syllables (often one syllable repeated twice) to form a nickname: Laurence is Lolo; Louis is Loulou; Alphonse is Fonfon; Georges or Joseph becomes Jojo; Julien is Juju. Now that I think about it, all those are male names. Though I know a Brigitte who goes by Bibi. Female names often get -ou at the end: Michelle becomes Michou (sounds like mishoo); Giselle is Gisou. And there are another range of nicknames that also use the repeated two-syllable style: uncle (officially it’s oncle, but familiarly it’s tonton); I know a Tintin… But there are exceptions: a son (fils) may be affectionally referred to as fiston. Aunt (tante) becomes tatie. Grandmother (grand-mère) is more likely called mamie.Back to the rata.
Here’s what you need (easy to remember, it’s 3 of everything):
3 onions, minced
3 small eggplants, (large) dice. Purple ones should be peeled; white ones have a thinner, milder skin that can be left on.
3 zucchini, peeled and diced
3 tomatoes, peeled (blanche first) and cut into large chunks
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
salt, pepper, thyme, and a bay leaf or two
Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pan with a coat of olive oil. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring often, until they soften.
Add the eggplant, and continue to stir until it softens.Add the zucchini. Then the peppers. Then the tomato and spices.
Let it cook until everything has softened up. Don’t put on the lid or you will end up with a lot of juice.
Serve hot, cold or lukewarm.What I like about rata is that there are no mistakes (unless you really burn it or you overcook the vegetables into mush–one of the Carnivore’s sharpest insults for a mix of overcooked food is “ratatouille”) and lots of room for variation.
To reduce the juice, I like to cook everything quickly and separately over high heat, so the outsides of the zucchini and eggplants, especially, brown, but the vegetables aren’t too cooked. They get added in turn to a mixing bowl and then heated together before serving. Or not heated. I learned, while writing this, that cooking the vegetables separately is the method that the French bible of cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, suggests, though it says to cook the mix about 20 minutes in the oven. Putting the dish in the oven is a good way to avoid scorching the bottom, but I’d rather just keep it stovetop and not heat up the kitchen.I rarely peel vegetables–out of laziness and also for the added nutrition. I also add plenty of garlic–three or four cloves. Sometimes I use herbes de provence, a mix of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, basil and savory, which we tend to put into almost everything. Other times, I use fresh herbs from the garden–thyme, rosemary, basil. Rata is a good way to eat the rainbow. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables gives you different nutrients, since the colors are linked to different disease-fighting chemicals, called phytochemicals.
Another plus for ratatouille: leftovers are great, and you can even put it on pasta or rice for a vegetarian meal.
We served it with provençale tomatoes (recipe coming soon) and thyme lamb chops.For the lamb chops:
Cut off the egregious hunks of fat. They will just cause your grill to flame up.
Brush both sides with a little olive oil so the thyme sticks to the chops and so the chops don’t stick to the grill. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper on both sides.
Cook to taste on your grill. The Carnivore swears by wood charcoal, but we won’t get judgy if you use gas.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was such a gourmande that he not only has a dessert named after him but a cheese as well. Even better, it’s an especially rich version of Brie (75% fat!!!), a soft cheese with a soft, white rind. My mouth is watering just typing this. It previously was called Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight) before being renamed after the king of gourmets. (Note to self: get into cheese, too?)
Brillat-Savarin officially was a lawyer and politician, but he is best known as a food writer. This is no small feat, considering he was politicking (small-town mayor) during the French Revolution. Things soured, as they tend to during revolutions, and with a bounty on his head Brillat-Savarin fled to Switzerland, then the Netherlands, then the U.S.
Exceptionally for a refugee from war, he still managed to eat well and to write about it. His masterpiece, “Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusiers sociétés littéraires et savantes.” Translation: “Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendantal Gastronomy; a work that is theoretical, historical and on the agenda, dedicated to Parisian gastronomes by a professor and member of numerous literary and wise societies.”I want to be a member of numerous literary and wise societies, especially those that seriously discuss cheese and dessert and that meditate on transcendental gastronomy.
Renowned francophile-California foodie M.F.K. Fisher translated Physiology of Taste to English, and she doesn’t let many chapters of her own memoirs go by without raving about the genius of Brillat-Savarin. However, despite M.F.K.’s voluptuous praise of him, until I started to write this I wasn’t sure what Brillat-Savarin had accomplished, just that it was great.
Brillat-Savarin set out to deliver a scientific analysis of food, eating and pleasure. However, his most famous quotes are more sociological, still current considering he died in 1826, and very tweetable:
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being as long as they are under our roofs.
The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat.
The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.
The way in which meals are enjoyed is very important to the happiness of life.
Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.I totally understand why M.F.K. Fisher named him one of the two or three men she couldn’t live without (though to be clear, he died almost a century before she was born).
Before we get to the dessert, let’s dig into the metaphorical meat of the recipe. As the Brillat-Savarin cheese is a kind of Brie, so, too, the savarin dessert is a kind of baba, which is a kind of babka. (Cue the Seinfeld scene with Jerry and Elaine in the bakery, intending to buy a chocolate babka but ending up with a lesser babka in cinnamon). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasrVIZQ4AE
Babka is a kind of Polish yeast cake or brioche (hah! the circle comes back around to France! and hah again for my unintentional pun, because the savarin/baba bakes in a circular form), introduced to France by Stanislaus I, who had been king of Poland until he was exiled to France in 1709. Yet another refugee.
Stan was pretty tight with the French. He married off his daughter to Louis XV and regained the Polish throne in 1733 thanks to French help. He was deposed again in 1736, this time by the Russians. Some things never change.Stanislaw headed back to France and had a good gig as Duke of Lorraine until he died. At some point, the story goes, he brought along a babka for the road. It was a little dry, so he—more likely his chef—added a little booze to soften it up. As one does.
The boozy babka became a baba. This is understandable, as “baba” rolls off the tongue more smoothly without that K, and everything rolls off the tongue when alcohol is added. However, Larousse Gastronomique, authored by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, says that Stanislaw named the dessert after his favorite character in “1001 Arabian Nights”–Ali Baba. The baba contained raisins or dried fruits, was soaked in a liqueury syrup and topped with patisserie cream (like vanilla pudding but better) or whipped cream.
The savarin, invented by a pair of Parisian pâtissiers in 1844, ditched the dried fruits, a move I totally approve of, and gave the dessert its wreath shape (it used to be a long cylinder). So really, the recipe I’m going to share is technically for a savarin, rather than a baba, though in restaurants, the two are interchangeable (that is to say, if you see baba au rhum on a dessert menu, you can order it without fear of confrontation with dried fruit). Although I adore saying “baba,” now that I have learned more about Brillat-Savarin, beyond M.F.K. Fisher’s gushings in her memoirs, I like giving him the credit, even though, as far as I can tell, he appreciated food strictly from a consumption point of view and didn’t cook himself.
However, the best part about cooking is that you can make things exactly the way you like them. For example, with whipped cream and without dried fruit. As my (and undoubtedly your) mother always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
This is a great dessert for entertaining because (1) you make it ahead (the better for it to drink up its booze–you even can make it without the booze if that’s important to you–but making ahead is always key to successful entertaining) (2) anything with lots of whipped cream looks awesome (3) you certainly can make individual babas but when you make one big dessert that is cut into servings, the gourmands sometimes get a chance for seconds. And that is always nice.Baba au Rhum aka Savarin
120 g (1 cup) flour
50 g (a big half stick or 1/4 cup) butter
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 package (11 g = 2 big teaspoons) baking powder (yes, not yeast. but it turns out great)
3 tablespoons whole milk
3 eggs, separated
1/4 liter (1 cup) water
1/4 liter (1 cup) cane sugar syrup (you can use corn syrup; here, corn syrup is nearly impossible to find, but cane sugar syrup is in the cocktails aisle)
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is very white.
Mix the flour and baking powder.
Warm the milk and melt the butter. Add to the egg/sugar mix. Add that to the flour mixture.Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks (in French, this is beautifully expressed as beating them into snow). Fold them delicately into the batter. GENTLY STIR IN ONE DIRECTION! Chef Christine insisted on this!
Pour the batter into a buttered crown/wreath-shaped mold (a bundt pan will do).
Don’t overdo the butter on the mold, or the batter will make bubbles.
Bake for 25 minutes. When it’s done (a toothpick or knife comes out clean), let the cake COOL IN THE MOLD.
You must let the baba cool before adding the syrup!
Make the syrup:Mix the water, cane sugar syrup and rum and bring to a boil. Pour the WARM syrup evenly over the baba. It will stand on top; don’t worry—it will soak in after a couple of hours.
Just before serving:
Make the whipped cream by beating the cream and sugar (sugar to taste). If you use a stand mixer, check often lest you end up with sweet butter (voice of experience). Turn the baba onto a plate. Either fill the hole or frost the baba with the whipped cream. Serve with optional extra rum (to taste).
One of the highlights of last week was a cooking class for guests at one of our vacation apartments in Carcassonne. The teacher was my dear friend and excellent cook, Christine.
The idea sprang from an article some years ago in in a French magazine. The hilarious columnist often conducted various tests, and one of my favorites was one that asked whether a man could cook as well as a woman. She chose a well-known professional chef to get the answer.
The rules of the game were that the chef had to do what any French woman does daily: cook a well-balanced family meal of starter, main course and dessert. And he had a limited time to do it—because most French women work, they spend an average of just 36 minutes cooking a week night meal.
That meal turned out OK, although the chef managed to make a fool of himself (not least by turning over vegetable prep to a sous-chef, who was banished by the columnist on the argument that French home cooks don’t have such a luxury).In this spirit, I wanted to offer classes on French cuisine, not from a chef’s perspective, but from the experience of truly great home cooks. My role is translator and dishwasher. I understand that non-French speakers might be tempted by cooking classes offered in English, but they often are given by non-French cooks. What’s the point of that?
Christine is almost a sterotypical française. She is always, always chic. Even when she’s gardening, she dresses with flair. It’s ingrained. Her makeup is always tasteful, her shoulder-length blonde hair often swept up in a twist. She’s a grandmother, but in the style of Catherine Deneuve, whose younger self she resembles quite a bit.
And when she cooks, those of us invited to her table swoon.Our menu was for a dinner party, more elaborate than a weeknight meal, but with plenty of things that can be done ahead so the host/hostess can be devoted to the guests and enjoy the actual moment of the dinner.
Here’s the menu:
Hors-d’oeuvre: toasts with choice of foie gras, green or black tapenade and eggplant caviar.
Entrée (starter): onion tart
Main dish: grilled lamb chops, roasted tomatoes with persillade and ratatouille niçoise
Dessert: crème catalan and baba au rhum (Christine often serves two or three desserts. Miam!)
Egg yolks with sugar for the crème catalan. The leftover whites went into quiche a few days later and the egg shells into the garden to ward off snails.
Everything but the toasts and meat could be done ahead, either entirely or partly. In fact, some things, like ratatouille, actually are better the second day.
The weather was unusually hot and sticky. It often gets hot here, but such humidity is rare. It’s one reason why we sent the meat outside to the grill.
We’ll examine the dishes in separate posts. If you’re cooking the same day as serving, as we did, here’s the order for preparation:
First the crème catalan, which is similar to crème brulée. Reason: it needs to chill for a few hours before getting its sugar crust.
Second: the baba au rhum. Reason: it needs time to drink up the rum syrup.
Third: the tart. Reason: the oven was still hot from the baba. And the tart is good cold. Also, it’s better to cook oniony/garlicky dishes AFTER the dessert, not before!Fourth: the tomatoes: Reason: While the tart was cooking, the tomatoes were degorged. By the time the tart was done, we turned over the tomatoes, added the persillade and popped them in the oven.
Fifth: the ratatouille.
Last: the lamb chops.
Here’s the first recipe: for Crème catalane:
3 cups (75 cl) whole milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup (150 g) white sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup (75 g) brown sugar
Wash and dry the lemon, then grate half the peel.
Milk, lemon zest and cinnamon bark.
In a saucepan, put the milk, the cinnamon stick and the grated peel. Bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover and let the mixture infuse for 5-10 minutes before removing the cinnamon and zest (she poured it through a sieve).
In a mixing bowl, beat the yolks with 2/3 cup of sugar for about half a minute. Add the corn starch little by little. Thin the paste with the warm milk.Pour the mixture into a clean saucepan. (Tip from Christine: if you use the same saucepan, the milk sticking to the sides will burn). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (Another tip from Christine: make sure you’re using a spoon that doesn’t smell like garlic—keep one of your wooden spoons for desserts only.) Let the mixture thicken so it covers the spoon—if you swipe your finger, the line shouldn’t disappear. It takes about seven minutes to thicken.
Strain before cooking to thicken.
Pour the thickened mixture into ramekins and refrigerate for at least two hours. Again, make sure there isn’t anything that smells strongly in the fridge, or the crème will absorb it.Just before serving, sprinkle with brown sugar. Christine has wonderful old-fashioned irons that are just the size of the ramekins—you set the irons in the coals and then press them on the sugar to make a crust. Otherwise, you can put the ramekins under a broiler for a minute or two.
Among the delights found in the long-forgotten closet was a well-worn cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine” (The New Cookbook), by Blanche Caramel. That is the best pen name ever.
The book is barely held together with tape. Its pages harbor many hand-written recipes and others clipped from newspapers. Written in 1927, my copy dates to 1933. So it was conceived in the post-WWI boom years, but my copy was printed after the Great Depression had entrapped France. I think the clippings spanned many years.
One of the clippings is titled “Conseils et petits secrets” and subtitled “Quelques petites économies” (Some small ways to save), signed by “Le Grillon du Foyer” (The Cricket on the Hearth, like the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens).
The suggestion is to save the peels of oranges and mandarines to prepare “delicious liqueurs” by soaking them in 90-degree alcohol. And dried peels can be added to the fire to make a “gay and sparkling flame.” And if your mayonnaise has turned, don’t throw it out but add a spoon of very fine flower and work in the paste to get rid of lumps.
In the forward, Blanche (or should I call her Mme. Caramel?) says, “Dishes are welcomed by stomachs that are also well disposed; if the service is calm, friendly remarks can be exchanged completely naturally, chasing away the worries of the day and making the meal an hour of intellectual relaxation and of physical well-being. Each person will leave the table rested, comforted, with more courage and optimism for returning to his tasks.”There is a chapter titled “L’utilisation des Restes” (“Using Up Leftovers”), in which cooks are counseled to not have them to begin with by cooking only what’s needed.Another section, “Ce Qu’il Faut Manger” (“What you should eat”), surprisingly begins with grains. However, it says not to confuse pain de campagne (“country bread,” or a kind of rough, sour-dough-like loaf) with le pain complet (whole-grain bread), “which is found at certain specialists and which suits only men who face a considerable physical expenditure, such as the blacksmith or the ditch digger, not sedentary employees.”Under “Mangeons des Fruits” (“Let’s Eat Fruit”), Blanche says, “The simplest remedies are often the best and the most effective. We have on hand natural products, the good and beautiful fruits ripened in the sun, which can replace with advantages many medicines that are very expensive and that sometimes have bad side-effects.” People can tolerate up to two kilos (4.4 pounds) of fruits, though with heavier fruits like bananas and apples, one kilo (2.2 pounds) is enough.
Blanche offers advice about coming up with menus. A very luxurious dinner would comprise one or two soups; one or two relevés de potage (a light course, such as a timbale, a soufflé, fish, eggs); two entrées (starters/appetizers, such as ham, sautéed chicken, or meats in ragoûts, accompanied by mashed potatoes or another purée); a roast (“la pièce de la résistance du repas,” Blanche says); a cold dish (she suggests pâté, lobster or aspic); a salad (served with the roast and made with mayonnaise); vegetables (served after the roast); entremets (a tart, cake or ice cream); dessert, which would be cheese, fruit or small cakes.
I wonder when cheese came to move forward, before the sweets.Even more perplexing is how they managed to eat so much. I guess a roast wasn’t so outrageous if it had to feed a big family. In her books, “Long Ago in France” and “As They Were,” the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher reminisces about living in Dijon in 1929. She and her husband lived at a boarding house, where Madame and her cook turned out elaborate meals every day for the family and their tenants. Maybe meals were more like the tasting menus at El Bulli.
Blanche offers menus for special occasions, from Christmas and New Year’s to Easter to First Communions. There are “rich” menus and “simple” menus. For example, in the simple category: Lunch: Oysters; oeufs sur le plat à la crème (eggs sunny-side up with cream); salt-marsh lamb chops and matchstick potatoes; cold chicken with mayonnaise; refreshing fruits. Dinner: Potage Saint-Germain (split-pea soup); homard financière (lobster in a truffle and Madeira wine sauce); tarragon chicken; foie gras with port; Saint-Honoré (a dessert of cream puffs); Roblochon cheese; fruits.That’s simple. Sure.
The book ends with a chapter on the Calendrier Gastronomique, or the gastronomic calendar. For June, Blanche advises that meat from the butcher (beef, lamb–red meat) is less tasty and should be replaced by chicken, duckling and young turkey. Légumes de plein terre (leaf vegetables, but also broccoli, leeks, asparagus, radishes) are plentiful. Red fruits also are abundant: cherries, strawberries, raspberries, melons, with apricots appearing at the end of the month. I think Blanche must have lived in the north, because we are a good month ahead of this schedule.I intend to try out recipes from the book and its bounty of clippings and scribblings and present them to you. Look for the tag #blanchecaramel.
All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.
On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.
Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. “Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.” (That’s good.)
“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)
“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)
“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)
Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.
The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.
The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.
Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.
The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.
Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.
This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.
There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.
Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.
As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.
Seasonal produce is a moving target in spring. At first, there’s little difference with winter, except for the asparagus. But then other treats start to appear: fava, peas.
The weather is unstable, too. It can be warm enough for a dip in the pool in March, but the heat kicks on during the Ice Saints in May. Those rainy days are perfect for soup, especially a soup that celebrates the lively new flavors of the season: soupe au pistou. It was on a dark and chilly day that I decided we needed soup, one that used the big bunch of basil I’d bought–the first of the season.
There is no “recipe” for pistou. There are a few key ingredients that make it pistou and not, say, minestrone or bouillabaise or bisque. Any pistou soup needs pistou–a mix of basil, olive oil and garlic, like pesto without the nuts. And beans. And pasta. After that, you can add what’s in season at that moment. Because pistou soup is garden soup.I recently heard an excellent interview with the cookbook author Julia Turshen, who says she “never, ever follows recipes.” Her new book, “Small Victories,” aims to get people more at ease with cooking from scratch and reassuring them that they don’t have to follow recipes to the letter.
So here is one recipe for soupe au pistou. You can add/subtract depending on your tastes and what you find at the market.
Cocos, or flat beans, with green beans above.
Fresh sweet peas
Mange-tout–eat the whole thing–aka snow peas.
Soupe au Pistou
First the pistou:
A huge bunch of basil—imagine the leaves pressed into balls the size of each fist.
1 clove of garlic (I often imitate Guy Fieri and up the amount, but when I used two it got complaints for being too strong)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
The soup (all the vegetables are diced into bite size):
1 onion (but if you have leftover greens of leeks, this is a good place to use them)
2 tomatoes (we used canned because it’s too early for garden tomatoes)
A large can of white beans (the cans here are 400 g, or 14 oz.)
1 cup peas (frozen are OK)
1 cup green beans (frozen are OK—it’s what I used. Lazy, I didn’t cut them up and regretted it)
1/2 cup elbow macaroni, called coquillettes
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking
Also worth considering:
cocos (broad, flat beans very popular here)
fresh fava beans
thyme or herbes de Provence
You can start with dried beans, of course. We tend not to plan far enough ahead and are grateful for cans.
You can use a mix of beans—white, red, striped, whatever.
You can leave out the pasta; the beans are hearty enough
In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion/leek in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Throw in the other vegetables, the beans (if you are using dried beans, cook them ahead), then add enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. You can make it ahead to this point and heat it up later. Remember to stir in the pasta so it has long enough to cook, but not so long that it disintegrates; check the cooking time on the package.
While the soup simmers, make the pistou. Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to turn it into a pungent green slurry. I tried that, chopping the leaves down first, but mine was too minuscule; I tried a bigger bowl but that wasn’t better. I transferred it all to a blender, which wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t have a food processor; that might have worked. But who cares? The basil and garlic were reduced enough to make a kind of paste anyway. On the side, I sliced a baguette and topped it with grated Parmesan (fresh–not the powder in a can!). Two minutes under the broiler, and voilà. It probably seemed balanced because we had left out the pasta. Pasta + beans + bread seems like overkill. But to each his own.
After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.
One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.
So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.
“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.”
This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.
We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.
We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.
He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.
At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).
We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.
A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquance, Béziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.
Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.
We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.
I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.
He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.
We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.
Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.
“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.
Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.
Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.
Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.
The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.
Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.
Chicken cooked in wine is a classic French dish, one that isn’t difficult but that’s so delicious and easy to prepare ahead that it works very well for entertaining.
We have already shifted into grilling season, but our kid went to a loto (like bingo night) and won. In typical French fashion, the prize was 90% edible–a good farm chicken, a big artisanal hard sausage and a pot of paté–along with some baubles and a gift certificate for a manicure.
So coq au vin went on the menu stat.
The Carnivore generally disdains feathered food, except for duck, goose, pheasant, pigeons, guinea hen….hmmm. I guess he does likes volaille, as the category is called, but he does NOT like chicken, calling it “cardboard.” Unless it was farm-raised, not industrial, and has “flavor.”
He took charge of dissecting the beast. In fact, he took charge of the entire meal, including photographing the process for you. He is as excited about spreading French savoir vivre as I am.
Coq au Vin
1 chicken (about 3 kg/6 or 7 lbs.), cut into pieces
1 bottle of full-bodied red wine
250 g (9 oz.) lardons (like cubes of bacon; you could do bacon and crumble it)
250 g (9 oz.) Paris mushrooms (like button mushrooms), sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, cut into rounds
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of herbes de Provence
1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
50 cl (2 cups) beef broth
5 cl (3-4 tablespoons–oh, just go for 4) cognac
a couple of tablespoons of olive oil
a big tablespoon of flour
salt, pepper to taste
(2 medium potatoes per person, to serve on the side)
The day before, place the chicken pieces in a non-reactive dish (glass is good). Add the onion and carrots, then pour the wine over so the pieces are covered. Sprinkle on the herbs and the peppercorns. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
About three hours before you want to eat, take out the chicken pieces and dry them (wet meat won’t brown). Strain the vegetables from the marinade. Keep the marinade!
Heat the oil in a large pot (we have a mega le Creuset that is so heavy I can barely lift it, but it’s wonderful for cooking).
Brown the pieces of meat on all sides and set aside. Then add the vegetables and let them brown for about five minutes. Then sprinkle the flour over them and stir so they’re well-coated. This will thicken the sauce.
Put the chicken back in the pot, along with the garlic (crushed).
Warm the cognac, then light it to flambé and pour over the vegetables. (It wouldn’t be French if you didn’t flambé!)
Pour in the marinade and the beef broth. Bring to a boil then cover and let it simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Check the flavor and add salt/pepper to taste.
About half an hour before serving, prepare the potatoes (peel if you like, but we don’t–the skin has vitamins and it’s less work–win-win) and quarter them. Place them in a big pot and fill with cold water to cover them. Cover and crank up the heat to boil. If you add the salt after the water boils, it will make less of a stain on the bottom of your pot. Cook the potatoes about 20 minutes; check doneness with a fork.
While the potatoes are going, about 25 minutes before serving, brown the lardons/bacon and add the mushrooms to brown in the bacon fat for about 7-8 minutes. Add them to the coq au vin, so they can mix with the flavors for a good 15 minutes.
Sparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?
Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.
Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.
More about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.
The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.
A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.
Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.
It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.
We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.
There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!
The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.
We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!), ilsprennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.
Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.
The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.
Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.
We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.