The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.
On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).
Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes.
The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.
I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.
On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.
The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.
Here are the links to the recipes again:
Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).
The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.
Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.
The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.
Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.
For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.
We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.
We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.
Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.
Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.
Other requirements for the food:
—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.
—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.
—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.
—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.
—Must be easy on the budget.
—Must be in season.
The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:
Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.
Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.
Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.
Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.
I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!
I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.
Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!
The day after Thanksgiving might not be the moment to share a recipe. Some of you will be reading this in a postprandial carb-induced stupor. But after you’re back from Black Friday consumption, you can turn to this little treasure, either for an appetizer—feeds a crowd!—or for a kind of pizza niçoise.
La pissaladièra or la pissaladière is a dish from the Mediterranean city of Nice, and like most dishes that carry the city’s name, it includes anchovies and olives. La pissaladièra is like pizza or focaccia, but topped with onions, garlic, olives, and, above all, anchovies. It can be served hot or at room temperature, which means you can make it a while in advance. For appetizers, cut small pieces.
Montagné’s recipe. Even the one (ONE!) garlic clove is optional!! Almost no quantities given.
As with many French recipes, there are several ways to go about this. Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, the great chef who wrote the original bible of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, says you can make it with bread dough or with demi-feuilletage, which is a simpler form of pâte feuilletée, but still with lots of butter. Montagné says that pissaladièra (he spells it with an “a” at the end) is much more savoureuse—tasty—with demi-feuilletage. The wonders of butter. He even offers an option using stale bread, because when it was published in 1936, people did not throw away food, even stale. Yet the French always eat well, even in bad times. They have much to teach us.
Rising under plastic wrap. Your astuce for success.
Someplace (and I can’t find it! but I didn’t imagine it nor invent it but I always do it) suggested dressing up the rolled-out dough and covering it with plastic wrap so it rises again, for an even airier crust. This works very well. For pizza, I want to eject the dressed-up dough onto the stone in the oven, so it can’t sit or it sticks to the pizza paddle. But pissaladièra gets cooked in a sheet pan, so it can rest and rise with ease. If you do this, be sure to use plastic wrap and not a tea towel. I tried to be all écolo (environmentally correct) and put a clean cloth on top, but the anchovies stuck to the cloth and came off when I removed the cloth. Blech.
While pissaladièra is associated with summer, there is no good reason for that, other than that people tend to visit Nice when it’s nice. But there are no seasonal ingredients and in winter, onions are a staple. A year-round winner.Montagné says to cut out a round of dough with a kind of straight-sided mold (un cercle à flan) and then to place it in a large pie plate called a tourtière (in Canada, tourtière is a kind of meat pie, just to keep it confusing). You can make it round or square.
For all that I love and respect Montagné, he suggests only ONE garlic clove. How is that even possible? I used a head of garlic, which I broke up and cooked, the cloves still in their jackets, very slowly with the onions. First, garlic makes this a great winter dish because it’s supposed to ward off colds. Second, the unpeeled garlic kind of steams in its jacket, rendering it very tender and mild. Being a nice chef, I peeled the soft cloves before putting them on the pissaladièra, because who wants to do that when they’re about to take a bite?Last, the European way is to measure ingredients by weight rather than by volume. It’s very convenient and once you try it, you won’t go back!
Make the dough:
500 grams (3 1/4 cups) flour
2 packets of yeast
200 ml (3/4 cup) warm water
60 ml (1/4 cup) olive oil
1 tsp salt
Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water in a small bowl. In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and olive oil. When the yeast has bubbled up, pour it into the flour mixture. Knead. Put in a large oiled bowl, cover with a tea towl and let it rest for at least an hour.
Cook the onions:
1.5 kg (3 1/3 pounds, but hey, onions are forgiving; you can go over or under) onions
At least 8 cloves to a whole head of garlic, broken into cloves with the skin still on
2 Tbs thyme
100 g (3 or 4 oz.) of black olives
10 filets of anchovies in oil (or more)
2 Tbs anchovy cream (optional)
Peel and thinly slice the onions. Heat a little olive oil in a large pot—enough oil to cover the bottom, and cook the onions over low heat. Stir in the thyme and the garlic. Cover and stir from time to time. It will take a good 45 minutes. Before the onions are finished, preheat the oven to as hot as it will go (400F or 200C).
The onions should be nice and soft, a little caramelized but not crispy, and the garlic should be completely melted. Pick out the garlic cloves and let them cool so you can peel them.
OMG those soft garlic cloves!
Spread the dough on a sheet pan. You can roll or use your fingers. Prick it all over with a fork. Spread the onions on the dough. Distribute the peeled garlic, anchovy filets and olives.
Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for another 30 minutes or longer.
Before cooking. This is the moment when it got too dark for natural light and I turned on the garish lamp in the stove fan.
Remove the plastic wrap and bake for about 20 minutes. Check on it; your oven might be faster or slower.
One of the easiest things to DIY is vinegar. Here’s what you need:
A vinaigrier, or vinegar crock, with a spout and a lid. Vinegar likes to live in the dark.Une mère–a mother–the starter.
Wine. Yes. It’s clearer in French. Vinegar is vinaigre, or vin aigre–sour wine.
Long before we met, the wise Carnivore had acquired a vinaigrier and a mother (of the vinegar variety). Whenever we have a bad bottle–whether it’s corked or past its prime or left over from a party and not sealed up–we dump it into the vinaigrier. The resulting vinegar mostly goes on salads. It’s possible to make your own starter. Plenty of foods rely on starter cultures–sourdough bread and yogurt, for example. You can buy a mother of vinegar or you can make one. I don’t have a photo because you can’t tell what it is–just a blob of slime.You put the mother and the wine into the crock and wait a few months. It takes us that long to go through a bottle of vinegar–and to round up enough wine to add to the crock. Red ferments faster than white.
Many choices at the vide-grenier.
You can get a vintage vinaigrier around here for between €10 and €50. Pretty and useful!
Cheese soufflé has been on my list of French dishes to master. Done right, it’s like eating a cloud. A creamy cloud. Of cheese. Are you swooning yet? You should be.
But it seemed so intimidating. All those jokes about the soufflé falling and not turning out. The expression retomber comme un soufflé –to fall like a soufflé–means to suddenly lose interest.
I bought a soufflé dish for €1 at a vide-grenier. It languished, reproaching me every time I passed it by for some other utensil. Finally, I committed to the act and set out to research.
After comparing many recipes, and not feeling any more confident about the mission, I decided to also watch videos. I just watched one: on 750g.com, a cooking Web site created by two brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Damien Duquesne. The recipe is demonstrated by Damien, who is a trained chef and who has a restaurant in Paris called 750g La Table. In typical fashion, I was listening to podcasts while cooking, so I watched the video with the sound off and it was still very clear. So don’t be intimidated if your French is rusty–the actions speak louder than words.
It was a revelation. It didn’t look difficult. And best of all, there were no fancy gadgets. Just a whisk. Of course. Cheese soufflé has been a revered dish for about 400 years, since the chef Vincent de la Chapelle invented it.
The base is béchamel. In my old French cookbook, soufflés are right next to choux pastries and gougères, which also start with a roux paste and then add eggs.
If you want the chemistry of why soufflés puff up, read “Histoire de soufflés.” It’s a battle of water vapor vs. egg whites. Your egg whites need to be very firm–beaten to the point that the whisk can lift the whites as a block. This keeps the vapor–and air–inside like blowing up a balloon.
Cheese Soufflé (serves four)
1 cup (120 g) grated cheese like Comté or Gruyère
salt/pepper (but be careful with the salt–there’s some in the cheese)
1 2/3 cups (40 cl) milk
4 1/4 tablespoons (60g) butter (plus a little to grease the dish)
2/3 cup (60g) flour (plus a little in the greased dish)
Preheat the oven to 360 Fahrenheit/180 Celsius.
Make the béchamel: melt the butter completely, then stir in the flour. Let it cook for 3-4 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the milk. I did it like Chef Damien, a little at a time at first, to avoid lumps, then the rest. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Raise the heat a notch. Stir!When the béchamel comes to a boil, take it off the heat and stir it vigorously for a minute or two. Then put it back on high heat for one minute, continuing to stir. Remove from the heat. Add the cheese. Do like Chef Damien and add the egg yolks one at a time, dropping the whites into a mixing bowl. Stir well between each yolk. Put the mixture into a (separate) large mixing bowl.
Beat the egg whites. Lazy, I used an electric mixer, but Chef Damien, being a pro, did it by hand. More power to him, especially in his right arm. As noted above, beat those egg whites to stiff peaks. (The French term is so lovely–en neige–in snow.)
Add half the egg whites to the béchamel/cheese mixture. Delicately mix, ALWAYS STIRRING IN THE SAME DIRECTION and gently folding them toward the center. Then do the same with the rest of the egg whites. This is where the video really helped–to see how homogenous the final mixture is.
Pour the mixture into the greased, floured dish. (You can also do this with individual ramekins). Wipe around the edges. Turn the oven to the grill/broil setting and put in the soufflé. Leave it at that temperature for 2-3 minutes. Then turn the oven back to 360F/180C. Cook for 20-25 minutes (much less for little ramekins).
Serve immediately.BTW, in the unlikely event that there are leftovers, they reheat fine in the microwave.
The names of French pastries and desserts don’t often give a clue as to their ingredients. When I first moved to Europe, to Brussels, I was flummoxed by menus offering delicacies I didn’t know. One of my early lessons with my French tutor was going over the carte des desserts at a café. Here are a few of the less obvious desserts and pastries. The strawberry tarts above are pretty obvious. Most people can guess that a fondant au chocolat is going to be a molten chocolate cake. But a Saint-Honoré? Read on.
I apologize for not having photos of all these. I am trying to avoid sugar, so I snap shots while in the bread line, and the offerings change constantly. I’ll do more of these, if you like, as I collect examples.
Baba au Rhum: A light brioche soaked in a rum syrup and topped with whipped cream. Also called a Savarin. See the recipe here.
Biscuit: A false friend, a French biscuit (bis-cuit means cooked twice) isn’t savory like the anglophone kind but instead a sweet cookie. Beware: tremper son biscuit means having sexual intercourse. I got caught out on this one when explaining my tiramisu recipe at one of my first dinners with the Carnivore’s family. I said, “you dip the cookie”–trempez le biscuit–“in the coffee and amaretto.” A cousin chortled, which was all it took for the entire table to erupt in laughter. “You were saying?” somebody finally managed to squeak out. I resumed, “you dip the cookie…” more laughter, even harder. They got clueless me to repeat it several times, each time sending them into paroxyms of laughter, before somebody took mercy and explained why it was so hilarious.Boudoir: Known to English speakers as lady fingers, these dry cookies also are called biscuits de Reims, after the capital of Champagne. Boudoir means a lady’s elegant but very small private salon (not bedroom! and that word is related to bouder, which is to pout or sulk). The name was chosen by the famous 19th century royal patissier Marie-Antoine Carême (his last name means Lent, which I find hilarious for somebody devoted to desserts), who adapted a recipe from the Medicis for a sturdier cookie that could be dipped in champagne. The reason is either because he was winking at the dangerous liaisons going on or that, like the lady in her boudoir, the cookie is elegant and rounded, and one’s lips round as they envelope it. Erotic either way, especially compared to the old name, biscuit à la cuillère—spoon cookies, because you lay the dough on the baking sheet and turn the cookies using a spoon (but most people use pastry bags). Use boudoirs in tiramisu (see above) or charlotte. Or dip your biscuit in champagne.
Charlotte: a creamy dessert in a mold that’s lined with langues de chat or boudoirs. Carême (him again) took the original version—plum compote enveloped by toasted, buttered bread—and lined his mold with biscuits à la cuillère with Bavarian cheese flavored with fruit. There also are vegetable versions. Charlotte aux fraises, besides being delicious, is the French name for the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake, though the two desserts have only strawberries in common.
Croquembouche: the name means crunches in your mouth. This is a mountain of little cream puffs that have been covered with caramelized sugar so they stick to each other and also crunch when you bite them. A favorite for weddings. It also can be made with macarons.
Dame Blanche/Dame Noir: Chocolate sundae. The white lady is with vanilla ice cream; the black lady is with chocolate ice cream. Always with whipped cream on top.
Divorcé: Yup, divorced. This involves two cream puffs, one stuffed with chocolate cream, the other with mocha. Each is topped with a fondant in the same flavor as its filling and stuck together with butter cream frosting. Similar to a religieuse, but with two flavors, and side by side. Hence the divorce.
Éclair: Most people know éclairs, the long choux pastry filled with pastry cream and topped with icing. However, did you know the name means lightning? The delicacy was known as pain à la duchesse before 1850. Câreme—yes, him again—decided to improve marketing of the fingerlike treat by calling it éclair, or lightning, because that’s how fast you’ll eat it.Financiers: a little sponge cake/cookie usually rectangular (though in the 17th century they were oval), made with finely chopped almonds or almond powder. They were made by nuns of the Visitadines order in Nancy to use up the egg whites left after the yolks went to make paint; it was a ruse because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. In 1890, the pâtissier Lasne made the cookies more popular. His shop was near the stock market and the delicacies were a favorite with brokers because they didn’t dirty their fingers (as if!). Lasne decided to change the shape to little rectangles that represent gold ingots. They’re nice with coffee.
Fondant or Moelleux? Fondant means melting, whereas moelleux means soft. A fondant is like an almost flour-less brownie. A moelleux is a soft, moist cake. If chocolate, it’s like a typical brownie, with more flour. A mi-cuit or coulant is not cooked all the way through (mi-cuit is half-cooked), so the middle is runny–coulant.
Fondant au chocolat
Langue de Chat: flatter and softer than a boudoir, often served with ice cream.
Lunettes de Romans: regional specialty of Romans-sur-Isère: oval butter cookie, with scalloped edges, in two layers, with two round holes in the top layer filled with jam. While lunettes are glasses, the cookie looks more like Venetian carnival mask.Madeleine: little sponge cake/cookies that look like sea-shell-shaped financiers but the recipe is quite different—they use whole eggs, baking powder and orange-flower flavoring. A popular primary school goûter, or afternoon snack. Proust famously dipped this biscuit in his tea, which brought back the flood of memories that constitute À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, previously known as Remembrances of Things Past.
Mendiant: The name means beggar, and includes some religious orders whose members were to live only from charity. It’s a dry cake (the recipe started with stale bread!) topped with almonds, dried figs, raisins and other nuts. The name is due to the colors of the toppings, which are in the browns, like friars’ robes. You’re likely to see them cookie size, with a coating of chocolate enclosing the cookie base and a layer of chopped nuts and fruits, then topped with whole nuts and fruits.
From left: Succès, Merveilleux (chocolate), Mocha, Baba, almond and vanilla tarts, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair.
Merveilleux: Like a macaron but with whipped cream in the middle, and covered with whipped cream. From Belgium.
Napoléon: a mille-feuille, or thousand sheet/leaf. That’s an exaggeration, because it’s three layers of puff pastry, with pastry cream between them, with a white icing decorated with chocolate stripes or marbling. The name possibly comes from the emperor, who took a liking to while warring against Russia in 1812 (he lost), though some posit it was named Napoleon by Russians savoring their sweet victory. Or it might have been an Italian treat (since everybody seems to have had similar layering ideas) known as gâteau napolitaine, for Naples, and just got mispronounced (see pâte à choux). Tip: turn it on its side to eat it. That way you can cut through the layers without making all the cream squeeze out the sides.
Opéra: a layered chocolate-mocha cake, with a base of biscuit Joconde, which is made from beaten egg whites with almond powder, soaked with Grand Marnier or coffee, covered with a layer of ganache (chocolate and cream) and mocha butter cream, then repeated and iced with chocolate. Supposedly it was named in honor of the dancers from the Opéra Garnier in Paris, who would visit the shop of its creator, Cyriaque Gavillon, to eat it. I don’t believe that for one minute.
Paris-Brest: A donut-shaped—or wheel-shaped—choux pastry, cut in half horizontally and stuffed with praline-flavored butter cream, with sliced almonds and powdered sugar on top. It was created in 1920 by Louis Durand in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race.
From left, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair, Paris-Brest, Napoléon aka mille-feuille, éclair.
Pâte à choux: This means, literally, cabbage dough, though you probably call it cream puff pastry. It seems the original name was pâte à chaud (hot dough) because it gets dried out with heat then rehydrated with eggs. The result is a pastry that puffs up without yeast or baking powder. However, it isn’t clear that chaud became choux as a result of people talking with their mouths full of it. It was invented in 1540 in Italy to make cakes shaped like women’s breasts. In the 18th century, another pâtissier used the dough to make cabbage-shaped buns and the name was changed. Or not. Savory versions include gougères (post to come). Sweet versions are all over this post.
Profiteroles: Speaking of pâte à choux, profiteroles are a decadent assembly of several cream puffs, often filled with ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Kind of a cream puff Dame Blanche.
Punitions: butter cookies. so named by famous baker Lionel Poilâne’s great grandmother as a joke (it means punishments).
Religieuse: Two cream puffs, one larger than the other, stacked snowman-style and glued with butter cream frosting. The filling is pastry cream, usually chocolate or mocha. Each puff is topped with fondant, with a dollop of butter cream on top like a button. The two balls (which are basically éclairs in the round) are supposed to represent a head and a body, and the icing is supposed to remind one of religious robes. Though the treat was created in 1865 by the Parisian café Frascati, the name didn’t appear in the dictionary until 1904 and its origins are murky. One thing is clear: the religieuse is heavenly.
Savarin: a lot like a baba, above.Saint-Honoré: another more-is-more dessert involving cream puffs. This one involves a base of puff pastry, upon which sit a ring of cream puffs that have been dipped in caramel (the better to stick) and whipped cream or crème chiboust, which is pastry cream that’s been lightened with egg whites (meringue, basically). Saint Honoré is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. He died on May 16, 600. His miracles: when he was little he told his baby sitter he wanted to become a priest. She answered, “And you’ll be bishop when my baking paddle sprouts leaves.” Which it did. Flowers, even. Honoré became not only a priest but bishop of Amiens at a young age. He didn’t want to be named bishop, but a shaft of heavenly light shone on him and a mysterious oil was drizzled on his head from above in a divine sign. Another time, during a Mass, the hand of God appeared to give him a communion host. In 1202, a Parisian baker gave up a parcel of land for a chapel in honor of Honoré, in the faubourg, or suburb, that took on the holy man’s name. The construction of the chapel inspired the millers, flour merchants and bakers of the area to adopt Honoré as their patron saint. The suburb was consumed by Paris, but a street there still carries the name and is now the epicenter of the fashion industry.Succès: meringue on top of crème mousseline praliné (pastry cream with extra butter, praline–sugared almond–flavor) on top of a crispy almond cookie, covered with almonds. Like a merveilleux, but praline.
September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.
In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad
I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.
In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.
I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.Les courgettes sont cuites
(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, lescarottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)The first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.Here you have it:
Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.
Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.
May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*
He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. Far be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.
*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!
Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)
While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)
1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)
2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt. Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.
Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.
By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.
Why go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?
The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.
Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.
Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.
Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.
Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.If you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.
Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.
Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.
Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.
From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.
They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.
Prices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.
Potted and cut flowers
When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.
Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.
Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
And I say tomate. They are at the height of their glory here in France these days, and we are enjoying them in so many ways.
A summer tomato bears no resemblance to the winter hothouse versions, which are nothing but ghosts of tomatoes, lacking flesh, with their watery insides dripping from mere skeletons of tomato-ness. A summer tomato is full and fleshy. It’s sweet and juicy and substantial enough to eat alone.
But we do like to gild the lily.
A little onion. A little garlic. A little olive oil. Some parsley. Or basil. Or thyme. A little breadcrumb crust to soak up the olive oil-enhanced juices. So many possibilities. It’s a good thing, because when tomatoes are in season, we eat them a couple of times a week. Same as with asparagus, or strawberries. In season or not at all. So make that season count. And do not refrigerate!
I had promised a while back to include the recipe for Christine’s tomates provençales from our cooking lesson. Here it is, at last.
How many tomatoes you need depends on their size (and what else you’re serving). If you have big ones, you might want just half per person, or one per person. If you have small tomatoes, like the roma variety, you might want one or two per person. We are tomato gluttons, and we like having leftovers, so I figure on a big tomato per person or its equivalent in smaller ones.
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Cut the tomatoes in half. Score them, sprinkle with a little salt, and turn them upside down to drain for 15 minutes or more. You can put them on a cooling rack or a flat strainer or just on paper towels. Chop up a big bunch of parsley. It makes no difference whether it’s flat or curly. Chop up two to eight garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic (there is no right or wrong in this recipe). The chopping is greatly aided by a food processor. Christine had a small one–a spice grinder–that she brought to the cooking class. I have only a knife and limited patience, so my parsley here is too big. You want it to be fine so that, when you mix it with the garlic and a generous half cup (15 cl) of olive oil, you end up with a green slurry. It’s good on lots of things–roasted carrots, chicken, potatoes… Persillade is to savory food as diamond studs are to accessories–it goes with almost anything.Place the tomatoes cut-side up in an oiled baking dish. Spoon the persillade over them and roast them for an hour. They should get caramelized but not hard or crusty.You also can cook them faster–20-30 minutes–in a hot oven (400 Fahrenheit/200 Celsius), but they don’t get as caramelized as the low and slow method. Also, the persillade risks browning too much (sometimes called “burning”). On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have an hour to get dinner on the table.
Other tomato alternatives:
I like to slice them, because it’s pretty, and I can tuck thinly sliced onions in between. Top with olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and parsley and olive oil, or with persillade. You have options. This version benefits from low and slow because the sliced tomatoes aren’t drained, and the juices need time to evaporate.
Did you know that if you have burned something in a pot or pan, you can get it off easily by squirting a little ketchup on it? Just let it sit–overnight, maybe a couple of days. It will come off eventually! The acid in the ketchup works off the burned material without scrubbing (or scratching your pan). The wonders of tomatoes never cease.