So French: Leeks

marketHave you ever seen a photo of the stereotypical French market basket without some leeks poking out? Of course not, because they are ALWAYS in the basket.

Yet I never ate leeks until I moved to Europe. This isn’t surprising: In this list of most-consumed vegetables in the U.S., leeks don’t even appear, yet turnip greens and mustard greens do.

In contrast, leeks turn up at No. 11 on the list of most popular veggies in France, beating out peas, cauliflower, asparagus and artichokes, among other surprises.

Maybe it’s because of the so-called magic leek soup that supposedly keeps French women thin?

Or because in a chunk of France, leeks grow all year? Whatever the reason, the answer is the French love leeks, or poireaux. Not to be confused with poires (pears) or poivrons (sweet peppers). We even get wild leeks around here, like the regular ones but the size of a pencil.

While the French use them all over the place, from the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” soup to potato-leek soup to leek-and-whatever quiche and leek-and-whatever omelettes and leeks with vinaigrette and leeks gratin, I had them once in a restaurant here in France without any fuss, really just leeks, and they were awesome.

Here’s how to overcome your fear of leeks. Call it entry-level leeks. Easy beyond all the “easy” recipes I linked here (1) because I’m giving it to you in English and (2) because it’s THAT easy, yet SO good. Sometimes simple and elegant are just right.

Leeks Braised in Wine

One leek per person (more if you’re daring. I like two, myself)

A hunk of butter (at least a tablespoon; more is better and you might need more)

2 glasses of dry (of COURSE) white wine

salt and pepper

whites and greensLeeks generally are sold whole, a good two feet long. Only the white part is considered edible. Cut your leeks at the boundary between white and green. Peel off and throw away any brown/icky leaves/layers.

Cut off the roots, but not too close. You want that button at the bottom that holds all the rings together.

Cut the white part in half lengthwise.

Cut the green part into small rings about a half an inch wide.

cut in halfFill the sink with cold water and put all the leeks in there to soak a few minutes. Then carefully bend the white lengths so you can see between the layers and rub out any dirt or sand. Rinse each piece and set cut side down to drain.

Vigorously swish around the little green rings. The green part is what sticks out of the ground, so it’s more likely to have dirt clinging. When the rings are clean, rinse and let drain.

greens cutI put the rings into a plastic bag and use them in soup. In this case, they went into a couscous a few days later. Usually the green part is tough, so you want to use it in a soup that will cook a long time, so it gets nice and soft. Waste not.

Pour two glasses of white wine. Sip one.

cooking 1Over medium heat, melt the butter in a skillet that has a cover. When it has turned a little brown and isn’t bubbling any more, place the white leek lengths cut side down in the skillet. Put on the cover and have another sip of wine.

cooking 2Keep a close eye, because this all depends on your stove and your skillet. Using tongs, check for when the leeks have browned. Turn them over, pour in the other glass of wine, turn the heat to low, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put the lid back on.

Leisurely finish drinking your glass of wine. Perhaps think about the other dishes you are serving with the leeks, or, if you are dedicating yourself to this noble vegetable and have delegated the other dishes to a sous-chef, crack the whip on the sous-chef.

add wineCheck the leeks occasionally; if they seem dry, turn down the heat some more and add butter.

When you have finished your aperitif of white wine (10-15 minutes), you may serve the leeks. They should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet not mushy.

Bon appétit!

 

 

Pillows of Swiss Chard Bliss

final-productHere’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.

But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?

shopping
What I bought. The blettes are between the lettuce and the sweet potatoes.

This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?

 

blettes-washedBeing a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.

This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).

other-ingredientsSwiss Chard Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard

one onion, diced

one egg

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.

1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)

salt and pepper

olive oil

chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.

stem-and-onion-cookingFirst, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

blanching-blettesBlanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

 

blanched-and-stretchedBeat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.

sauce

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.

ready-for-ovenSet them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.

flooding-right
Our house is just to the right of this!
view-right-after
Same view two days later. And normally, this would be “oooh! the river is high!”

A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.

 

But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.

flooding-bridge
Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
bridge-after
Two days later

We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.

 

Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.

view-to-park
To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
park-after
Same view two days later. The poor ducks who usually nest at the bend on the right must be refugees now.

Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.

 

Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.

 

Signs of Spring

pink-bloomsLast week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.

88-crepes
Many are missing because they were eaten as soon as the sugar got sprinkled on top.

The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.

I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.

Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)

Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???

irises-1And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.

rhododendronI keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.

bare-trees-and-greenThe vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.

fields-distanceToday, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.

Do you see signs of spring yet?

field

The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes

750 grams flour (6 cups)

1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

a pinch of salt

butter for cooking

Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.

Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.

If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.

Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.

Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).

 

Pineapple Mascarpone Parfait

verrineHere is an easy, high-impact dessert that you can make ahead. Pineapple confit in honey and vanilla, served with refreshing vanilla mascarpone.

It comes from the book “Verrines Toute Fraîches!” by José Maréchal. Verrines are small, transparent glass bowls, usually with straight sides like an Old Fashioned glass, not very big, and used to serve layered appetizers or desserts. They’ve been a big fad in France for several years.

bookI’ve made the recipe many times in the years since I was given this book, and I have tweaked it considerably: I cut the honey and sugar in half,  doubled the mascarpone and reduced the egg (more egg makes the mascarpone looser). I like the contrast of the sweet pineapple with the less-sweet mascarpone; if you want your mascarpone sweeter, you can easily add sugar. Here is my version:

Pineapple Mascarpone Parfait (serves 6-8)

1 fresh pineapple

1 tablespoon honey

1 vanilla bean

500 grams (about 16 ounces) mascarpone

3 egg yolks

2 packets of sucre vanillé (you can substitute 16 grams, or 4 teaspoons, of white sugar plus two teaspoons of vanilla extract)

Cut the pineapple into small chunks; I prefer half an inch but my sous-chef tends to go for inch cubes. Make sure to remove the eyes.

In a skillet with a cover, warm the honey then add the pineapple and vanilla bean. Cover and cook it slowly over medium-low heat. Stir often. Keep an eye for when the liquid starts to disappear and the pineapple turns a nice brown. It can take a good hour. You want the liquid to cook out of the pineapple so the dessert isn’t watery. Let it cool.

Meanwhile, stir together the mascarpone, sugar/vanilla and egg yolks.

dessert-pineapple-and-mascarponeServe in old-fashioned or brandy glasses (brandy glasses are harder to eat from), layering some pineapple at the bottom, then the mascarpone, then more pineapple. Chill until serving. If you’re making it ahead (a day or even several hours), keep the mascarpone covered so it doesn’t dry out.overhead

French Onion Soup

onions-not-peeledThe French saying, occupe-toi de tes oignons means “mind your own business.” This post takes the literal translation: “take care of your onions.” It’s a recipe for real French onion soup.

sharpen-knife
To avoid teary eyes when chopping onions, use a very sharp knife!

At my evening gym class in the village, a regular topic of conversation is food (are you surprised?), specifically, “what’s for dinner?” And the answer, especially in winter, tends to be “soupe.”

In olden times in France, and still in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, supper is “le souper.” You can’t miss that it contains the word “soupe.” It’s probably related to the adage: Manger comme un roi le matin, comme un prince le midi et comme un pauvre le soir–Eat like a king in the morning, like a prince at noon and like a pauper in the evening. Paupers got soup.

In France, it’s more common to call dinner “le dîner,” even when soup is the main course. (Souper tends to be reserved for a really late-night meal, say post-theater.)

Many of my friends go on a soup “cure” after an excessive weekend. With the holidays coming, a cure will be needed, though this soup is anything but “lite.”

A friend of ours shared his recipe for delicious onion soup. He protested that it wasn’t a recipe at all. Everything is measured “à vue de nez,” or intuitively/approximately, also often expressed as “au pif” or by the nose.

Onion soup for a crowd (about 8 servings)

About half a stale baguette, in 3/4 inch slices. “Not too much because it gets big”

Beaucoup (about 6 cups sliced) onions. It doesn’t matter what kind the onions are. Just slice them thinly. You need a lot because, contrary to the bread, the onions shrink.

Beaucoup (about 200 grams!  7 oz.) of butter. He would have put more but that’s what was left of the stick. He originally had less, but he dropped in the rest of the stick as soon as his wife stepped away. Don’t tell!

Flour–about two tablespoons

Salt

Pepper

Beaucoup (about a pound) of grated emmental or gruyère cheese

Melt the butter. Stir in the onions and cook until they get a little brown, or at least rosy. Keep stirring so they don’t burn. You’ll see the volume decrease. Don’t cover.

onions-cook-1When they’re a light brown, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour over them, one spoon at a time, and work it in. Keep stirring. Let the flour brown a little so the soup gets a nice color.

add-flour
Note: just a regular spoon will do. No need to level it off with a knife and all that.

Add water bit by bit. This is flexible, but he put in about 5 or 6 liters (about 5 quarts), stirring all the time.

Add salt (three pinches from a pot) and pepper (freshly ground from a mill). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer about 30 minutes.

While it’s simmering, toast the bread (he put it on a tray under the broiler). You want it nice and brown, so the soup has a good color. Then heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Celsius.

bread-cheese-layer-1
I clearly overfilled because I couldn’t get all the liquid into the pot.

Arrange the bread in a large ovenproof dish. Put down one layer, sprinkle grated cheese over it, then another layer, more cheese, etc. Don’t over fill with bread! There was sort of a pyramid of bread, with empty space around the edges of the dish.

onions-on-bread-cheeseWhen the onions have cooked their half hour on the stovetop, spoon them onto the bread. Then pour in the broth. Don’t overfill or it will boil over and make a mess of your oven.

add-brothSprinkle more cheese on top.

add-cheese-on-topBake for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with fresh bread.

soup-doneHe said that in his native Normandy, he grew up with onion soup made with milk, but since milk was expensive (it was just after the war) they couldn’t afford to use it for a crowd. I will have to try it with milk, but with real farm milk, not UHT pasteurized homogenized stuff.

Yum! Fungus Among Us

lacteres-ready-to-washLiving in France has overturned some of my long-held principles, including but not limited to a strong opposition to mushrooms.

market-de-parisGrowing up, mushrooms were those rubbery bits that came out of a can, often in a thick, white “cream” sauce. They squeaked when you bit them. Irredeemably revolting.

market-pleuroteI eventually made peace with raw mushrooms, and then opened up to others. (Chanterelles? YES. Truffles? Double YES.) The variety of mushrooms here is just amazing. According to the Société Mycologique de France, the country has 1,384 edible mushroom varieties out of about 16,000 species; 514 are toxic or deadly. The society has a semi-useful chart that matches the scientific name with the common French name.

market-2We play it safe and buy our mushrooms at the market. Our No. 1 favorite, shown in the top photo, are the lactaires, also known as roussillous or russulacées, or, more specifically, the lactaire délicieux. Yup. The Latin name is Lactarius deliciosus, so it’s official.

market

market-box-of-wine
Mushrooms in the foreground … and what do we spy atop the crates just beyond? Why it’s a box of wine!

If you think the name sounds related to milk, you are right–they emit a milky substance when the cap or spores are broken. Since the name of the Milky Way in French is la voie lactée, somehow my mind puts these mushrooms amid the stars, which I find fitting, because they are heaven on a plate.

market-3

There are a couple of ways to cook lactaires: straight up in butter or in a persillade of chopped parsley, garlic and butter. Here’s how:

lactere-mushrooms

Step 1: Clean them. You might notice that the wild mushrooms pictured above have pine needles and grass and dirt on them. Wipe off the tops with a damp paper towel and gently brush the underneath. Be gentle! Set them out to dry.

Step 2: cut off the bottoms of the stems. You can chop up the rest of the steps to cook.

lacteres-start-to-cook
Team Just Butter. See the bits of stem? More goodness.

Step 3.: Make your persillade, if you’re going that route: Finely chop a small bunch of parsley and a couple of garlic cloves.

lactere-mushrooms-cooking
Team Persillade.

Step 4: Melt some butter (don’t be stingy) in a frying pan over medium heat. Prepare yourself for amazing fragrance. They smell a little like a white cake baking. They don’t taste sweet, but the flavor is delicate. Cook stem-side up. Don’t turn.

lacteres-in-the-pan

They’re done when they’re hot and have browned ever so slightly. We had them with pan-fried steak, roasted tomatoes (we still get garden tomatoes!) and little grenaille potatoes.

What you see in the pan above set us back about €4 (they were €13 per kilo, down from €14 the week before).

And now for a few beautiful, but not-for-humans, mushroom marvels:

wild-white

The next one looked for all the world like a Thumbelina version of a chopped-down tree:

wild-flat-front-view
top view
wild-flat-side-view
Side view

This one was also very flat, but the top glowed translucent, like polished stone:

wild-flat-gray

While these might not be comestible, it looked like somebody had been nibbling:

wild-black-closewild-very-black

wild-black

So many kinds…

wild-beige

A tiny, perfect globe.

wild-little-button

Tomatoes!

tomatoesSeptember is when the market is full of big, ugly tomatoes. The best kind. The inside is solid flesh. They have flavors, each variety contributing a different perfume.

tomato-slicesSeptember is also when the weather cools down so that indoor cooking again becomes possible. We don’t have air conditioning nor do we want it. But when it’s 95 degrees outside and 75 inside because of careful juggling of shutters and opening of windows at night, you don’t want to mess up your hard-won coolness. With day temperatures in the upper 70s and nights in the 60s, the stove can be used again.

chez-fufu-outside
“Sale of garden plants” says the sign. The door on the left leads to a garage full of crates of vegetables.

The abundance of tomatoes at the season’s lowest prices (about €1 per kilo) coincides with ideal conditions for cooking. We have a number of gardens where fresh produce is sold out of a barn or hangar daily—no need to wait for the market. This is sometimes a good option, but then, we don’t go to the market just for vegetables but also for the social aspect.

However, the market involves a long walk back to the car, dragging the shopping cart. If 10 kg of tomatoes were in the cart, they’d be sauce before arriving at the car. So for the large quantities we head to the garden source.

chez-fufu-inside
Chez Fufu, the vegetable gardener. Get a load of that fireplace!

Once you have homemade tomato sauce, the industrial version tastes strangely…industrial. I haven’t canned—you need to maintain a certain level of acidity to prevent botulism, and my resistance to following instructions makes me leery of risking food poisoning. Instead, I put the sauce in zipper bags and freeze them.

freezer
Just part of Batch No. 1, millesime 2016.

Also, I put a lot more than tomatoes in my sauce. It’s an opportunity to toss in extra nutrients from other vegetables. So besides lots of onions and garlic, I add carrots, red peppers, beets, butternut squash—whatever’s on offer at the garden. Squash and beets make the sauce sweet without added sugar.

An aside here about stoves. We had gas but a few years ago got rid of our propane tank and switched to induction. What a dream! The first time we used it, to make pasta, we turned it on and off like kids, amazed at how it went from not boiling to a rolling boil to not boiling in a second.

cristel
Cristel cookware, made in France.

I raved about it to French friends, who informed me they had induction for years. Count on the French to be on top of the best cooking technology. Induction is as quick and versatile as gas, but with advantages: it works via magnets, so anything nonmagnetic on the stovetop doesn’t heat up, even if the stove is turned on.

I did have to replace my nonmagnetic copper pans with new ones. They are Cristel, a French brand, whose ads say “buy once for life.” There’s a removable handle so they stack very compactly, yet the lips for the handle are big enough that I often don’t even need the longer handle. An excellent investment.

washedHere’s a recipe of sorts:

10 kg of tomatoes (about 22 pounds). Go for real ones: UGLY. Not the perfect, tasteless hybrids that are raised on chemicals.

thyme
thyme

4 onions

10 cloves of garlic

A nice handful of fresh herbs (I cut some from my garden: mostly thyme that I rip off the stems, but also parsley, basil and oregano).

4 red peppers

4 carrots

1 butternut squash

1-2 big beets

choppedCut out the core of the tomatoes and chop them roughly. Some people peel them but that is just too much work!

Chop up everything else into about half-inch pieces. You want them to cook through.

Brown the onion and garlic in a tiny big of olive oil. Then dump everything else into a gigantic pot (I have to use two), cover and bring to a boil. I don’t add water—the tomatoes will let out plenty of liquid.

simmering-sauce
Simmering

Reduce the heat to a simmer. This is where induction shines. You can put a pot on at the lowest temperature to simmer and it won’t burn on the bottom. Love it. Stir a few times per hour.

cooked-down
Reduced by half. Almost no liquid left, which makes a nice, thick sauce.

Let it cook for several hours, until the volume has reduced by at least half. Cook longer if you like thicker sauce.

blenderUse an immersion blender to purée it, or else let it cool completely before running it in batches through the blender or food processor. Anyway, you need the sauce to be cool before it goes into the freezer.

spooning-in-bagTo put it in bags: put your bag in a plastic container that’s about the right size. This will keep the bag from flopping over as you’re trying to fill it. Use a measuring cup to ladle the sauce so you have an idea of how much is in each bag. Ideally, enough for a dinner.

tomato-coeur-de-boeuf

Suggestions/comments/other recipes welcome!

Ducks in a Row

sliced done
Magrets de canard

It’s still too hot to cook. The temperatures have settled into the upper 80s/low 90s for highs, and mid-60s for lows. Clear blue skies, no humidity. Pretty fabulous, but with no air conditioning it’s grilling weather.

in pkgOne of the Carnivore’s favorite food groups is duck. But we had a near catastrophe trying to grill duck the first time. Duck breasts have a thick layer of fat on one side. Usually, you score the fat and it melts into the skillet. (This is considered a good thing.) On the grill, however, the fat caused huge flames. A guest suggested catching the drippings with foil. The foil quickly filled up, and we were faced with trying to get a flimsy pool of boiling grease off the fire.

whole underside
Duck breasts all in a row
whole fat
Fat side

The Carnivore very much liked the idea of grilling duck and was determined to make it work. He started trimming off the fat. Not all of it–it’s there for flavor after all–but just enough to avoid flames. This is the result:

raw trimmed

whole done
And cooked

In the decade since he adopted this method, it has worked very well. He likes his duck cooked rosé–medium. And usually serves it with honey. Very easy, very French.

honeyWe also had ratatouille niçoise. While the traditional way is to cook the vegetables slowly for a long time, I like to cook them separately, very quickly, then mix and serve. Ratatouille works fine at room temperature, if you want to make it ahead.

ratatouilleRatatouille niçoise

1 eggplant, in half-inch cubes

1 onion, halved and sliced very thin

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 red peppers (or one red, one green), diced or sliced

2-3 big tomatoes, in inch cubes

3 small zucchini, in half-inch cubes

herbes de provence, salt, pepper, olive oil

Salt the eggplant and put it in a strainer.

In a nice, big frying pan or even a le Creuset style Dutch oven, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil, until they become transparent. Add the peppers and let them cook until a little soft. Throw in the tomatoes and a tablespoon or so of herbes de provence.

Set aside those veggies in a big bowl. Add more olive oil to the pan and sauté the zucchini. I do it pretty fast, just so it gets brown on most sides. Add to the veggie bowl.

Rinse the eggplant then squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add more olive oil to the pan and sauté the eggplant, again until most sides get brown. Put all the veggies back into the pan. Stir, so the tomato juices deglaze the bottom of the pan. I like to cook off the juice as much as possible, but it kind of depends on the tomatoes. Some are awfully juicy!

I don’t add salt and pepper until the end, because sometimes the eggplant retains more or less salt.

rata closeLeftovers freeze very nicely for later. With added tomato sauce, it also makes a nice pasta sauce.

 

 

Pizza on the Grill

dressed
Somebody doesn’t like anchovies…

It’s hot here. Of course, it isn’t the heat but the humidity, and usually we have no humidity. But for a couple of days over the weekend, the wind changed to the east–marin–and left us gasping for air.

The question of “what’s for dinner?” became reduced to “what wouldn’t be too hot to make?”

SliceOne of our favorite fallbacks is pizza. But it’s out of the question to crank an oven to the maximum heat when it’s so stifling. So we did it on the grill.

We have been up to these antics since the turn of the century. But we got lulled into complacency with delicious pizzas just down the street in summer. Unfortunately, those aren’t available this year, so we were motivated to try the grill again.

Pizza(s) on the grill (serves 4):

1 cup warm water

1 package yeast

a pinch of sugar

2 3/4 cups flour

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

couple of tablespoons of herbes de provence, or at least oregano

tomato paste (a can about 3 inches tall–142 ml or about 5 fl. oz.)

garlic–minced

toppings for your pizza

cheese

Dissolve a pinch of sugar into a cup of warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top, then swirl so it also dissolves. Let it sit until a nice layer of foam forms.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir the flour with the salt and herbs. Then drizzle in the olive oil and stir it into relatively fine bits. Add the foamy warm water/yeast. Knead with your hands for a while (oil your hands with olive oil before to keep the dough from sticking). If it’s too soft, add a little more flour. I start low and add rather than end up with a hard brick of dough.

Hold the dough in one hand and drizzle more olive oil into the bowl with the other. Again with one hand, smear the oil around the bowl and drop the dough back in. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave in a warm spot, preferably in the sun, for about an hour. The longer the better.

Now make some pizza sauce: tomato paste (dilute with about 1/2 can of water), garlic, more herbs. Assemble little bowls of what you want to top your pizza. We did diced red peppers, sliced Serrano ham, sautéed onions and anchovies. Maybe we go overboard, I don’t know.

Also slices of mozzarella cheese, and, because we’re in France, grated emmental. The sous-chef likes thick slices of cheese, but if you slice thinner, it will melt better.

ingredients
Ingredients carried out to the grill on a tray, covered with the most practical net to keep flies off. Clockwise from top left: caramelized onions, Serrano ham, mozzarella, red peppers, anchovies, sauce. Emmental in the bag.

Prepare the grill. Not a big fire, but you want it to last for a few pizzas, unless your grill is big enough to cook more at the same time.

roll doughWhen the dough has about doubled, divide it into two, three or four parts, depending on whether you want to do individual ones or share. We share because then everybody eats at the same time.

Roll out each ball on a floured surface. We have a wooden pizza paddle, which makes the transfer to the grill a lot easier. This is the moment of truth, where you might botch it. If the dough lands in a blog, it’s impossible to pick up from the hot grill. Take your time and slide the dough in the direction of the grill rods rather than perpendicular to them.

grilling
This is the hardest part. You see we didn’t get it perfectly flat. Yes, that’s a crown on the iron plate on the back of the grill.

Let the crust brown a little–not too much because you’re also going to cook the other side. Another moment of truth–it sometimes browns fast, so watch closely.

brown doughThen remove the crust, turn it over, and spread your sauce on the browned side. Garnish and return to the grill. If you have a cover, all the better because your cheese on top will melt. We have an enclosed grill with no door, so it mostly melted.

 

Watch the bottom more than the top, because that’s what risks burning. Pull it off and serve. While one is cooking, prepare the next. We planned for three smaller pizzas but in the end did two larger ones.

doneBon appetit!

 

Calçots

on grillFew things are easier on the grill than onions.

You can just throw them on, without doing anything. No cleaning. No preparation. Take onions, place on hot grill, wait. Then you cut them in half and scoop out the caramelized insides. We discovered this many years ago at Le Moulin restaurant in Trèbes, near Carcassonne, realized the sheer brilliance of its simplicity and have been employing it since.

cookedJust south of the border, the Catalanes also do onions, namely spring onions called calçots, that are like giant scallions. The calçot capital, Valls, Spain, even has a Gran Fiesta de la Calçotada. But you don’t have to go to Spain to get in on the goodness of grilled onions. You can do it at home.

Any old green onions will do. You can wash off the dirt, but it isn’t a must–that part gets peeled off later anyway. Put the onions on a hot grill.

When they’re done, wrap them in newspaper, which keeps them hot until they’re eaten, and the steam helps the outer layer peel away from the caramelized inside. Put the peelings in the newspaper for easy cleanup.

 

Dip your peeled calçot in romesco sauce (make the sauce ahead or else your calçots will be cold!). Tilt your head back and lower it in into your mouth like a sword swallower. Don’t forget to chew, though.

While the grill is still warm, roast some peppers for your next round of romesco sauce. Trust me, you’ll want more.

romesco

There are lots of recipes for romesco, which could be considered a Spanish red pepper version of pesto. I wouldn’t sweat the details too much. More/less pepper? More/fewer almonds? More/less garlic? It’s all good.

3-4 red peppers (you could use already-roasted ones from a jar)

1/2 cup almonds (a handful, or two!). Slivered, whole, whatever, as long as there’s no skin.

1-2 cloves of garlic (or 3-4 if you want!)

1-2 tablespoons tomato concentrate (one of those tiny cans)

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil

A hit of Jerez (sherry) vinegar

piment d’Espelette or cayenne, if you want a kick

Cut and clean the peppers. Roast. Put them in a paper or plastic bag (I prefer paper, but I’ve seen both ways) to make them easier to cool, which you do once they’re cool.

Toast the almonds in a skillet. No need for oil. Keep an eye on them that they don’t burn.

Throw everything into a blender or food processor and purée.

I had two lonely sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, and added them, using the olive oil from the jar. Why not?

Should you have leftover romesco, it won’t be around for long. You can use it on pasta, on bread, on potatoes, as a vegetable dip, on meat, on fish. It’s so yummy.