Today was the truffle market at Moussoulens, just northwest of Carcassonne. The beauty above is the one that came home with me, ringing in at 25€ (the going price is 800€ per kilogram). It will perfume my meals for a week, and that includes a truffled risotto dinner I plan to have with a few friends.Read more
Vegetarian in France
We’ve been doubling down on vegetarian meals, cooked from scratch. I want to share some of the recipes that have been hits.
Until recently, it has been hard to find vegetarian options at restaurants, especially here in France profonde. Even salads would be topped with gizzards, duck chitlings and foie gras. When I would ask for something without any of that, the waiters would be quizzical, like, that leaves the frisée, which is just for looks and not much to eat. The concept of other vegetables and beans was not dans l’air.
Suddenly, everybody has vegetarian options, as well as vegan and gluten free. We rarely eat out but I enjoy looking at menus posted outside restaurants for ideas. My main sources of ideas, though, are the Jow app (I wrote about it here), Marmiton, Smitten Kitchen, Bon Appétit and the New York Times (we subscribe to the last two–support journalism, including food journalism, by subscribing!). Bon Appétit has a series called Healthy-ish with lots of yummy ideas.
Another thing I do is make traditional dishes and replace ground beef with beans, mushrooms or both. I was listening to the podcast “The History of English,” which recently looked at “The Forme of Cury,” possibly the first cookbook in English. The host noted all the feast days and other days when meat was forbidden, and it added up to about half the year. People lived mostly on bread, used to scoop up a stew of vegetables, some fish and, when allowed, bits of meat. Bigger animals were for richer people. I know an elderly lady who insisted that beef and lamb were “noble” meats but pork and chicken were not. She also was very affected by having lived through World War II and the aftermath; anything that was scarce during the war was good, and everything they ate then (cabbage, beets) was bad.
I think these things affect how people eat today. It isn’t just in France, or Europe or the West–when I lived in Africa it was a big deal to serve guests meat and beef was considered “better” than chicken. People there tended to eat a stew of beans, maize and vegetables twice a day, every day, except for meat on Sunday.
Anyway, reducing or eliminating meat consumption is really going back to tradition, a tradition that is much, much longer than the meat-centric meals we now consider traditional.Here are some of my favorite recipes that I’ve made recently, in random order (we do not eat pasta on consecutive days, twice a week max). In fact, I’m kind of running through my saved folder on Instagram, which is heavy on NYT and Bon Appétit.
Cauliflower tacos with cashew crema from Bon Appétit. OMG. This is my favorite recipe on the list. Have made it a couple of times. Ate it all before getting a photo. Who wants to shoot a picture when you’re hungry? I just wish we had fresh tortillas and not Old El Paso. This is a sheet-pan wonder that is very easy. I made some pickled onions for crunch instead of radishes, which I didn’t have. You use what’s on hand!
Cauliflower bolognese from Bon Appétit. Pretty good. I found the cauliflower flavor to be strong, but that isn’t a bad thing. The “meat” is mushrooms.
Kale pesto with whole-wheat pasta from Bon Appétit. “Whole-wheat pasta”–DUH. Always. Kale is very hard to find in France profonde, so we tried it with frilly cabbage. Too cabbage-y. Must try again with other green winter vegetables, such as blettes (Swiss chard). We’ve made pesto with a mix of spinach and basil, but basil is out of season. Sniff!!
Creamy butternut squash pasta with sage and walnuts from New York Times Cooking. I’ve made this a few times. SO GOOD. I used sliced almonds instead of walnuts. Sage from the garden. Had this last night and didn’t want to make broth so used pasta water. It all works.
Crispy tofu with maple-soy glaze from Bon Appétit. This is great. I added a bunch of stir-fried vegetables, because….more vegetables. The point about cooking undisturbed is essential–turn too soon and it will stick. Didn’t have fresh ginger and used ginger powder; maybe fresh would be better but it was still delicious. To keep the tofu from getting soggy, I removed it when crispy, stir-fried the vegetables, then returned the tofu and poured over the glaze.
Farro with crispy mushrooms and sour cream from New York Times Cooking. This was the basic idea and I made it differently. I had some leftover millet-cauliflower mush (recipe in Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”), and used that for the base. Did the crispy mushrooms and leeks, and added a couple of sweet peppers (I know they are expensive in the U.S., but here they are cheap). No dill in the garden, so used fresh parsley, which is growing like gangbusters.
Mushroom Bourguignon from New York Times Cooking. Another big winner. If you are making polenta, it’s a good idea to pour what isn’t in your dinner dish into a greased cake pan so you can slice leftovers into pretty squares. Polenta sets up fast, and if left in a bowl results in unappealing blobs. No pearl onions in the pantry? Just add more regular ones.
Roasted yams and chickpeas with yogurt from Smitten Kitchen. I definitely should do more sheet-pan dinners. This was so easy. I threw in a bunch of accessory vegetables–broccoli, zucchini, fennel. Also swapped out the yogurt with a drizzle of almond butter, which is so good it’s criminal.
Lastly, one that’s just made up on the spot. Crispy tofu with vegetables in a curried tomato sauce, over rice. Cut a couple of blocks of firm tofu in half lengthwise; wrap in paper towels and let them dry (even better–put something heavy on top to squeeze out even more water). Mix some cornstarch with some curry powder in a liter/quart-size container with a tight lid. Set aside while you cut up a big pile of vegetables into about the same size/shape so they cook evenly. I also did mushrooms.
Start the rice–1.5-2 times the water for the amount of dry rice. A cup of dry rice is enough for two people, unless you want leftovers. You can replace part of the water with coconut milk for extra-yummy rice. Cover and bring to a boil; let it keep boiling (turn it down so it doesn’t boil over), still covered, until you see holes in the rice. DO NOT STIR. Turn off the heat, keep covered and let it finish steaming, about 20 minutes.
Pour a little oil (I use olive…whatever) into a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms. DO NOT STIR. Let them cook a good while, until the juices start to dry up, then turn them.
Meanwhile, cut the tofu into small cubes (about 1 cm). Put into the container with the cornstarch mix and shake well to coat all the cubes. Remove the mushrooms to a bowl, add a little more oil to the same skillet and cook the tofu. Let it cook all the way to brown before turning. I am not so fussy that I will turn every little cube on every single side. Two or three sides browned is good enough. Remove to a bowl.
Add a little more oil to the same skillet. Cook your vegetables, starting with onions (put on the lid to make them sweat). Add garlic, then other vegetables, starting with the hardest ones. So carrots go in before zucchini because they need a couple of minutes extra to cook.
Pour in a can of stewed tomatoes or diced tomatoes. If the tomatoes are whole, break them up with your spoon. Add some curry paste, to your taste. I used a ton of Indian curry paste, but sometimes I do it with Thai curry paste. They taste completely different. Such an easy way to change things up.
When the sauce is reduced a bit, return the mushrooms and tofu to the skillet to heat them up. Serve over the rice.
I’ll do some more recipe lists/recommendations as I cook (if I remember to take photos. All those bento shots are because I didn’t take a picture until I was putting away the leftovers).
Meanwhile, what is going on with the weather? We had 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 Celsius) earlier in the week. Today it’s 55 F (13 C), so it seems chilly, until you remember that it’s FEBRUARY. The almond trees are in full bloom, like ballerinas dancing across the countryside. The daffodils, even in the north shadow of the house, are ready to pop. Crazy. It’s hard not to enjoy the warm sunshine, but it’s worrisome. Et chez vous, comment ça va?
A Vegetarian Take on a French Classic
Even though back in the day, people didn’t eat much meat–it was too expensive, and only for special occasions–they did tend to put a little into everything. A cassoulet was mostly beans, with a sausage and pieces of pork and/or duck thrown in for flavor, not the current equation of a duck leg plus sausage plus pork per person. I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to re-adapt classic dishes using only vegetables.
This kind of cooking doesn’t require a recipe. It’s about process, which works whether you are cooking for two or 20. If you put in two onions instead of one, it will still be delicious. It isn’t like baking, where if you put in two eggs instead of one it might not turn out.
In the final installment of vegetarian dinner party recipes, we feature the main dish: a daube of eggplant and chickpeas. I considered including mushrooms, but then didn’t. You certainly can; you even can replace the eggplant with mushrooms completely. I chose eggplant because it acts a lot like meat (mushrooms do the same). There are good-sized pieces (I went for inch cubes). The mouth feel is similar to well-cooked meat. It’s filling. It plays well with other ingredients. The chickpeas were for protein, though in light of the eggs and cheese in the other dishes, we weren’t going to be short in that department.
A daube is a kind of stew, but the liquid is not as thick as stews you might know. It’s also not as liquid, more of a sauce than a soup. It’s great for entertaining because it cooks low and slow for a long time. It simmers away independently while you attend to other things. And if guests are late or the apéritifs last longer than you expected, no problem–it isn’t something that has to go into and come out of the oven on time and be served immediately. It can wait another 10, 20, 30 minutes. It can wait an hour. A daube lets your dinner party follow its own schedule, follow its own heart.
For some reason, calling something la daube is an insult, to mean bad quality. According to le Figaro, the word daube dates to the 16th century, coming from the Italian word dobba, or marinate. Then some folks around Lyon used the term to speak of rotten fruits and meat, and thus it became an insult. So unfair!Daube aux Aubergines et Pois Chiches (Eggplant and Chickpea Stew)
2 medium eggplants (one per two guests), cut into inch cubes
8 oz. (250 g) chickpeas (I used canned; if you use dry chickpeas, you need to cook them first), drained
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
5 oz. (140 g) can of tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano…)
Generously salt the eggplant cubes and place in a colander. Let them sit and sweat for about an hour, then rinse quickly and squeeze the liquid out with your hands.
In a heavy pot with a tight lid, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat, then add the onion. Cover so the onion sweats but doesn’t brown/burn. Add the garlic. When the onion is transparent, turn up the heat a little and add the eggplant, letting it brown a bit, so you get that carmelized umami.
Add the wine and tomato paste, stirring well to mix them. Raise the heat so it starts to boil, then turn down the heat to as low as possible. Stir in the chickpeas and cover the pot. I separated the parsley leaves from the stems, reserving the leaves for garnish and chopping the stems, which I also stirred into the stew. Let it simmer (mijoter) for at least 45 minutes. Stir from time to time, letting the liquid on the lid fall back into the pot. That’s a good time to check the seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed. If the daube seems dry, add water (or wine). Taste a piece of eggplant–it should feel cooked, but you don’t want it to cook to the point of turning into mush. If you’re making it in the morning, you can turn it off and warm it up later.
One way to do a slow-cooking dish like this, besides in a slow cooker or a crockpot, is to put it in the oven. Make sure the lid is tight, and you don’t have to stir at all. Because I made this during the heat wave, I avoided the oven.
Serve with rice. Polenta works, too. Even potatoes. Something to soak up the sauce.
At our dinner party, our friend brought homemade desserts. I’ve shared both recipes before–baba au rhum and crème catalan.
French Vegetable Terrine
Here’s an easy vegetable recipe that’s perfect for summer and pretty enough to garner oohs and aahs from dinner guests. You can serve it as a starter, but I liked it as a side to a vegetarian daube that was the main. I wanted a side dish that was structured, so the non-meat-eaters wouldn’t have a plate full of lumpy mush. Of course the vegetarian daube had vegetables but it’s nice to have variety on the plate. And it was an appealing addition for the guests who had steak.
Terrines are classic in French cuisine. Often they’re made with meat or fish. You can have a terrine of foie gras, but that isn’t the same as pâté of foie gras–a terrine is made of pieces layered into a deep, rectangular dish of the same name, and baked, whereas pâté is smooth–a paste. (If you see a circumflex, the hat symbol like this: ˆthen insert an “s” after the letter wearing the hat and you’ll probably recognize the word in English. Examples include forêt/forest), hôpital/hospital, rôti/roast. But the circumflex gets used for other things, too, such as differentiating when a word is spelled the same but means something completely different like sur (on) vs. sûr (sure/certain).)
In this case, the terrine might not be officially a terrine because I didn’t bake it. On the other hand, some of the fish terrines are made cold. Who cares, right? Restaurants are making ever-greater leaps of imagination in the naming of their dishes so that it’s hard to guess what will show up. I got the idea from things I’ve eaten and photos online and combined the parts I liked while omitting the things I didn’t. For example, one recipe called for frozen peas, but it’s summer and I have a bounty of fresh vegetables at my fingertips, so I used fresh zucchini. Don’t worry about the proportions too much–it will turn out fine with a little more carrot or a little less ricotta. Just make sure you really cook the vegetables you choose, otherwise you’ll have a hard time getting a pretty, clean slice.
The only hitch is that it really needs to be made the day before so it can set. But that’s usually a plus when entertaining, isn’t it?Vegetable Terrine
2-3 carrots, cut into small pieces
2 zucchini, cut into small pieces
3 red peppers (or red, yellow, green), WHOLE!
A bunch of fresh basil or other herbs, chopped finely
1 packet of unflavored gelatin (about 8 grams)
1 cup (25 cl) crème fraîche or half and half cream
400-ish grams (about 1 2/3 cups) ricotta (I had a 500g tub and used some of it for the tarte soleil and carrot rillettes in my earlier post)
Roast the peppers. The easiest way is to put them whole on the grill–they are easier to turn and it’s easier to roast the curvy parts. You also can do it under a broiler. When the skin is charred all over, put the peppers in a paper or plastic bag to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them in half from stem to bottom to remove the seeds. Remove the skins.
Line a loaf pan with plastic film. Leave plenty of overlap so that you have enough to fold over the top. Push the film down into the corners. You want it to really follow the pan or your terrine will have a weirdly shaped top.
Cut the carrots into small pieces. Cook in boiling water until they’re soft. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and put into a bowl to cool. Keep the cooking water. Drop the zucchini into the same water and cook until soft. Strain and put into a separate bowl.
In a small bowl, put about 1/2 cup of water, then sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let it sit while you mash the carrots and the zucchini separately with a fork or potato masher. It’s very easy and not worth the cleanup of a blender or food processor. Season each with salt and pepper.
In another bowl, mix the ricotta with the herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat the cream. Add the dissolved gelatin and stir. Then split the cream mixture three ways–into the carrots, the zucchini and the ricotta.
You have some options here. I saw a gorgeous photo of a terrine with a glistening red top of pepper, but I think that next time I’ll cut strips and make a design of diagonal stripes. In any case, set down your terrine top in the bottom of the loaf pan. If you use entire halves of pepper, squeeze them close together so you don’t end up with gaps.
Then pour in the layer of ricotta, then the layer of carrot, then the layer of zucchini. I did it like that for maximum color contrast, not to have the orange carrot next to the red pepper. You can get fancy and, for example, have extra carrots that you cut in half lengthwise and cook until they’re very tender. Just lay them down lengthwise in the dish and pour the mixture over them and they’ll show up very pretty when you cut it open. If you have extra pepper you can make another layer with that. Fold the plastic film back over the top and refrigerate for at least six hours. When it’s time to serve, peel back the film and place a plate or tray over the loaf pan, then flip the entire thing, remove the pan and peel off the plastic film. I wouldn’t try to lift it out and turn it over.
My terrine pan is enormous: 11″x7″ (28x18cm). In the future I will do it with a smaller loaf pan, 9″x5″ (23x13cm) so that the layers will be thicker and prettier.
This is one of those high-impact, pretty dishes that’s easy to make. You can get creative, with different vegetables and pieces of vegetables that make designs when cut. Why not!!
Midsummer’s Night Dinner Party
We had a little get-together last weekend, and I wanted to share some dishes with you. But first, some exciting news: We’re featured on Distant Francophile, on the “Franco-Files” audio interviews. Janelle, the Distant Francophile herself, visits France regularly and writes a great blog about French style, travel tips, culture and more. I was very flattered to be included. We talked a lot about buying property in France and renovating it.
On to the dinner: Everything was made ahead, no last-minute slaving in a hot kitchen. Like most people in France, even in the south of France, we don’t have air conditioning. But the evenings are cool and the climate is dry enough that we don’t battle bugs. It’s ideal for using our outdoor dining room, a pergola surrounded by stone walls.
Our neighbors and our kid are vegetarian; I am 99.5% vegetarian, too. When I was dating the Carnivore, he asked me, warily, whether I was vegetarian. In my mind, either you are or you aren’t, like being pregnant, or being an art thief. There’s no, “it depends.” Thus, having a hamburger once a year and steak tartare maybe twice a year, plus a chicken a couple of times, and fish, too, made me anything but vegetarian, even if the total came to once or twice a month. Certainly not once or twice a day, which is the Carnivore’s case. So I have been a huge disappointment in the meat department, especially because he doesn’t count chicken or fish as meat.
Anyway, my plan was to have a complete vegetarian meal, and he would grill ridiculously gigantic steaks for the meat-eaters. I wasn’t interested in the usual vegetarian option of making a menu and just leaving out the meat for the vegetarians–“let them eat potatoes.” I wanted to flip that and make a vegetarian menu and just add meat for the carnivores.
For starters, we had crudités with ranch dip (huge hit in France); oeufs mimosa (deviled eggs); and hard sausages.
The entrées were tarte soleil with zucchini and tomato, carrot rillettes and a clafoutis with cherry tomatoes. Une tarte soleil is just a tart with the crust cut to look like a sun. Very pretty. And while clafoutis is typically a dessert, this was a savory version with cheese.
The main course was a daube, or thick stew, of eggplant and chickpeas, served with potatoes–same as for the steak eaters. And there was a vegetable terrine on the side. I wanted the vegetable side dish to be cold, pretty, and something I could serve as a piece, not by the spoonful. It was an esthetic choice. I didn’t want the vegetarian plates to be just splotches of undefined stuff.
You never know the secrets people will spill after a few glasses of wine. The secrets cascade, too. One person divulges something, and, receiving nothing but empathy and caring from those gathered, someone else is emboldened to share something as well. One friend described being taken from his hard-working but impoverished single mother and shipped to a convent, where the nuns were cruel (this was a common theme in the friends’ stories). This guy is the sweetest, calmest, gentlest person. So many people who have had bad childhoods turn out with their kindness broken. It’s beaten out of them. But not him. And it all made me think of how the scars of separation never heal, even seven decades later. He described the scene of being taken from his mother in minute detail. Children belong with their parents. I have several friends who are foster parents, and some of the cases are heartbreaking proof that at times children are not safe with their parents. But then there are cases of cruel bureaucracy–back in the day it was against single mothers; today it is, in some places, against parents with brown skin fleeing violence that has its roots in the very country they’re fleeing to–their hoped-for safe haven created and fed the dangers in their homelands that caused them to run.Another friend is from Normandy. That I always knew, and I always knew his age. But what I failed to put together before is that he was born in 1941. Think of what was going on in Normandy in the 1940s–some of the worst of World War II. He said his earliest memories were the planes buzzing overhead and the German trucks trundling past the house. Can you even imagine raising children smack in the middle of war? But if you can’t escape…. And of course, the problems didn’t end with V-E Day. Communities were destroyed, food was rationed, malnutrition was rampant. Our kid listened, eyes wide, to his very unusual childhood memories. Talk about making history come to life. It’s too bad elders aren’t tapped in a better way as a resource for teaching.
There are titillating secrets, too. I heard about one villager, known as TinTin, who apparently quite the womanizer when he was young. To get even, his wife had an affair with one of his buddies…and got pregnant. As the son grew, he looked exactly like the buddy; it’s true he doesn’t look a bit like TinTin. I used to think he was always mad, and steered clear–our kids were in school together. But now I wonder whether his expression was of sadness, of probably knowing the story of his birth, even though TinTin raised him as his own. And I never would have guessed Mme. TinTin was the scheming, nasty person described; I knew her only as the very prim and proper lady, whom I would greet as she meticulously swept her front step.
Back to the recipes!
1 premade flaky pie crust (pâte feuillété…you can get a bunch of different kinds here).
2-3 tablespoons of soft cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, Boursin. Just so it spreads.
summer vegetables, sliced very thin. I used two zucchini and a tomato. I peeled the zucchini, cut rounds, then cut the rounds in half.
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Spread out the pie crust on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mine were too small, so I turned one over. The crust extended past the edge a little but didn’t slump.Put a bowl about 5-6 inches (12-13 cms) in diameter in the middle of the crust. Smear the cheese on the pie crust around the bowl. Then arrange the vegetables. I made two rings, facing opposite directions.Remove the bowl and cut the pie crust in the center as shown below. Fold back the dough over the vegetables. Brush with olive oil and bake until the crust is brown. Delicious at room temperature.
Rillettes are made from meat or fish, cooked very, very slowly in their own fat until they fall apart into shreds. The vegetarian version gets its name because the carrots fall to shreds and you can spread the stuff on bread, but that’s where the similarities end.
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
3 oz. or about 1/3 cup (75g) soft cheese like cream cheese, ricotta, St. Môret….I used cream cheese for both this and the tarte soleil, since the tarte requires so little.
Boil the carrots until they’re soft. Drain. Use a fork to smash them roughly into chunks. You don’t want purée.
When cool, mix the carrots with the cheese; salt and pepper to taste. You can jazz it up with spices–cumin is good.
Spread on baguettes or toast.
Usually clafoutis is a dessert, made with cherries. The batter is similar to the batter for crêpes, but instead of individual, thin pancakes, you pour it all into a pan.
1 cup/120 g flour
1 cup/25 cl milk
2 oz/50g parmesan, finely grated (please don’t use the ready-made stuff!)
30-50 cherry tomatoes (small ones are better, but you need more of them)
Butter for the baking dish
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Beat the eggs. Add the flour, then thin out the mixture with the milk so you don’t get lumps. Add the parmesan. Let it rest 20-30 minutes.
Butter and flour a 9×12-inch baking dish. Pour in the batter. Then drop in the tomatoes here and there. Sprinkle with thyme and peppercorns. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Then you can set the oven to broil for a minute to make the top browner, if you like.
Serve at room temperature.
I didn’t have enough tomatoes from our garden, and the tomatoes I found at the market were pretty large, with the result that they produced a lot of juice.. Look for the smallest size you can. A mix of colors is pretty.
You can do this other ways: instead of parmesan, try mozzarella (you’ll want to add some salt to the batter; note that this version doesn’t have any because parmesan is pretty salty).
More recipes on Friday!
Velvety White Bean Soup
The French have the best word for thick, velvety soups: velouté. Even the word is velvety. And we have been enjoying a velouté of white beans since the Carnivore picked up the recipe at a truffle market, where he got this beauty. They call truffles black diamonds for a reason.
It was velouté de haricots lingot et truffe–a thick, velvety white bean soup with truffles. OMG. Lingots are ingots, like the bars of gold, but in this case they refer to the special white beans grown just west of Carcassonne and used for cassoulet.
Here’s the recipe, handed out at the market. We didn’t follow it precisely because the box of lingots was 500g and we weren’t going to keep 100g sitting around lonely like that. Also, it calls for a 30g truffle, and ours had been whittled down to 13g. I tell you what, it was still fantastic.
We made it again, with rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms–yummy. A good alternative when truffles aren’t available.
Like so many French recipes, you have to make it over two days. The night before, soak 400 g (14 oz.) of beans (or more!). Separately, chop up your truffle and infuse it in 10 cl (about 3.5 fluid oz.) of heavy cream. (You might want to keep a few shavings on the side for garnish.) If you don’t have a truffle, use about a half a cup of shiitake mushrooms that you soaked and put through the blender or food processor to get the effect of shavings.
Next day, cook the beans. Start with cold water and cook them for two hours.
Peel and mince half an onion and one carrot (I set out two carrots for the Carnivore to use and he fell for it. And the soup was divine despite double the vegetables.)
When the beans are done, drain them and rinse with fresh water.
In a casserole, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the carrots and onion to soften them but not brown them. Then add the beans and half a liter (17 fluid oz. or just over a cup) of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat to low. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the truffle cream. Salt and pepper to taste. Use a soup mixer to turn it into a creamy, velvety, homogenous texture. If you use a blender, let the soup cool before blending–for safety–and then reheat.
Serve with a few shavings of truffle, if you have any left.
We have a mushroom hater in the house who devoured this because the mushrooms were reduced to tiny bits (we didn’t mention them, either). If you aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I guess you can go without, but since they’re so tiny here, you don’t notice them–you just get the depth of flavor that they add.
Couscous, a Perfect Winter Meal
The French are particularly proud of their own cuisine–rightfully so–and the “foreign” section of supermarkets is slim and perplexing (you can find marshmallow fluff but no chocolate chips, not even from Nestlé, which is right next door in Switzerland; there are canned beans in some unnaturally colored sauce but good luck finding black beans, canned or dry). All the same, the top take-out food is pizza, a favorite for feeding a crowd is paella and everybody loves couscous.
As pizza comes from France’s neighbor to the east and paella from its neighbor to the south, couscous comes from its neighbors across the Mediterranean–North Africa–which also has a large representation among the immigrant community in France, the former colonial power. Lots of restaurants serve couscous and tajines, either traditional or given modern twists.
At home, the thing about couscous is that you can’t go wrong. Cook some vegetables into a soup, grill some meat, steam some couscous semolina–the grainy pasta that gives the dish its name. What you put in depends on what you have, but the usual suspects are popular: onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, tomatoes (canned stewed whole, in winter), potatoes, peppers red and/or green. Chickpeas always. Other options: zucchini, eggplant, celery, fava beans, cabbage, squash or pumpkin, beets, artichoke hearts, raisins….I’ve even snuck in broccoli stems (nutritious but not beautiful! trim the woody parts and dice small enough that the pieces can get soft). An opportunity to empty the fridge. You also can add fresh or dried herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme….
For spices, you also get to pick and choose, though the dominant flavoring is ras el hanout, or “top of the shop”–a mix of the best spices the seller has on offer, and thus varying from vendor to vendor. Typical ingredients include cumin, ground coriander seeds, tumeric, ground ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, fenugreek, fennel, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and different kinds of pepper and chilies. If you don’t find it in a shop, you can make your own–and change it up so your couscous always delivers a bit of a surprise. I have no shortage of North African shops to turn to here and buy my ras el hanout in small quantities so I can always try different ones.
You’re supposed to cook the vegetables with a piece of mutton, often the neck, but I don’t appreciate the flavor of lamb and want to avoid meat altogether. After all, the chickpeas plus the couscous make a complete protein. A great meatless meal.
That doesn’t fly with the Carnivore, who wants lamb chops AND spicy merguez. You also can make couscous with chicken if you prefer. Couscous royale includes multiple cuts of lamb, merguez (which also is lamb but I guess doesn’t count because it’s always listed separately) and chicken. You can season the lamb and chicken with cumin and coriander powder or with herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram).
Whenever I make soup, I like to brown the onions in some olive oil first, which adds a depth of flavor that you miss if you throw everything directly into a pot of water (if you are including a piece of meat in the soup, then brown it first, too). Then I add minced garlic and the hard vegetables like carrots and potato, which I’ve cut into chunks. You want the pieces to be small enough to cook through but not so small that they’ll fall apart into mush. I keep adding the vegetables, then the canned whole tomatoes, which I break up with a wooden spoon. I add a two or three can-fuls of water to rinse out the last juices and to bring up the liquid level. I also add a small can of tomato paste, which has a richer flavor, and rinse that can, too. You don’t need to completely cover the vegetables–you’ll see how the liquid rises as the vegetables cook. Don’t forget the chickpeas. Add the ras el hanout and any other spices you fancy–a few strands of saffron, or extra cumin or tumeric? Or maybe some grated fresh ginger or diced fresh green chilies? Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s one of those dishes that’s better the next day. If you’re making it for the same day, count on at least 1.5 hours for it to cook.
If you are cooking with dried chickpeas, you have to plan ahead to soak them the night before in cold, salted water.
Now, the traditional way to make couscous is with a couscoussier, a special kind of steamer in which the bottom holds the soup, and it’s the steam from the soup that cooks the couscous semoule–the tiny pasta that looks like grain or rice–in the top part.
On my trips to Morocco, I got to visit local homes and see couscous being made the traditional way. In the movie “Julie & Julia,” Julie tries to handle hot canneloni without using utensils in order to get used to it. Well, in Morocco, the women would take steaming couscous and, with red, calloused bare hands, spread it out on the table to massage in olive oil, then repeat maybe half an hour later with butter, and again later with olive oil, etc. D.I.V.I.N.E.
I tried to replicate–NOT with my bare hands–the steps of adding oil and butter to the couscous, but it never came out the same as in Morocco. It was lumpy, not fluffy. Finally, I gave up and followed the directions on the package: measure your dry couscous (it comes in kilogram packages here, which is 2.2 pounds, or almost seven cups…make it all–it reheats well, and you’ll have leftover soup, guaranteed). Bring the same volume of water to a boil. While the water heats up, in a large bowl mix the dry couscous with two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of couscous. Pour the boiling water over this oiled couscous. Cover and let it sit for three minutes. Fluff. Add a half teaspoon of butter per cup of couscous and microwave for two minutes. Fluff again to distribute the butter. Voilà.Before making the couscous semoule, cook the meat–you can grill it, weather permitting, or cook it in the oven, on the stovetop (we use a plancha when it’s raining) or broil it. A rotisserie chicken is another option….
Couscous Maison shopping checklist
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves (more always welcome–up to you)
2-3 carrots, cut into inch-long chunks
1-2 turnips, cut into half-inch chunks
1 large can (480 g/ about 3 cups) whole, peeled stewed tomatoes
1 small can (140 g, about half a cup) tomato paste
Other vegetables as you like, cut into chunks–I aim for a few others, like one or two small zucchini and maybe a small slice of squash (it’s sold by the slice at markets here). More vegetable variety = more vitamins, but also more volume; consider how much you want to make, though leftovers freeze nicely.
Herbs–fresh parsley or coriander
Couscous semolina, 500 grams (about 3.25 cups) for four people
Harissa is the wild card here. It’s easy to find here, but you might have to hunt for it in other countries. It’s a Tunisian hot pepper paste and not 100% necessary if you don’t like spicy food. You put a little into the soup ladle and drop the ladle into the soup to get some broth, then mix the paste into the broth with your spoon before pouring it over your personal serving, because some like it hot but others not. Beware of squirting harissa directly onto your food!
Have you had couscous? What are your favorite ingredients?
Truffles Are Always a Good Idea
Of all the mushrooms, nay, of all the ingredients, that impart a deep, complex flavor to foods, truffles reign. They magically multiply flavor, while adding a mysterious earthiness that’s almost addictive. And the perfume! It’s like a walk in the forest after the rain, but with a seductive muskiness as well.
Maybe because they’re rare, expensive and have a short season, truffles don’t often appear on lists of umami ingredients. (Umami is the Japanese term for the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which some people scoff doesn’t exist, but obviously I don’t agree with them.) This list does mention truffles, far below dried shiitake mushrooms, so consider them a substitute if you want to make these recipes and can’t get your hands on a truffle. Having grown up with rubbery canned, I hated all mushrooms for years, but I eventually learned to love fresh mushrooms and correctly cooked ones. And, minced and mixed and nearly invisible, they can add a sophisticated je ne sais quoi to recipes.
A little, golf-ball-size truffle goes a long way. We got one just before Christmas and used it on oeufs brouillés, risotto and, for the Carnivore, magret de canard–duck breast–in brandy sauce with truffles and mushrooms. It adorned our meals for over a week. Not bad for a €30 splurge (the price this year was €1,000 a kilogram, down from €1,200 three years ago!)
Just as the movie stars on the red carpet wear dresses that don’t hide the borrowed diamonds that are dripping from their necks, so, too, dishes that work best with truffles are ones that let the black diamonds, as they’re called, shine. Mild things–eggs, rice, potatoes, polenta…Usually the truffle market includes a huge iron pan–really huge, like three feet across–of brouillade, or oeufs brouillés, kind of like scrambled eggs. Very easy. For extra truffle flavor, put the eggs (in shell) and the truffle in a tightly sealed container–the eggs will absorb the perfume of the truffle.
An omelette, which is fine for one, maybe two, but not great in the face of a crowd. With a brouillade you can cook all the eggs at once. Drop them into a bowl or directly into a cold skillet with butter. Do not beat them! How many? Well, how many does each person want to eat? Two? Three? Dump them all in at once.Set the heat to low, very low, and break up the eggs gently with a spatula. Keep stirring IN ONE DIRECTION. If there is one thing to remember about French cooking, it’s that you must always stir in one direction–for cakes, for chocolate mousse, for whatever. A little salt and pepper. Keep stirring over low heat. It takes forever, like risotto. The traditional way to make brouillade is over a bain marie, or double boiler, which takes even longer, so don’t complain.If you have a truffle, then, before you get started, melt some butter. I made this several times, and (unintentionally) browning the butter was even better. Turn off the heat. Drop in some slivers of truffle and let it infuse while you cook the eggs. Don’t cook the truffle.When the eggs start to “take” or come together, they’re done. They aren’t drippy/snotty (such eggs are called baveux in French–drooling), nor are they fluffy or dry. Similar to risotto, they are creamy, yet there’s no cream.Then stir in the truffle-infused butter.Serve immediately with more truffle on top.Fresh local truffles are one of the more convincing reasons to travel here in winter. Yes, there are summer truffles, but the tuber melanosporum is far more pungent. Are you team truffle?
Butter No Parsnips
Continuing my mission to try out the incredible cornucopia of winter vegetables available at the market, we come to parsnips. Panais in French (pah-nay). Have you had them?
As I noted last week, these white cousins of the carrot make regular appearances in baby food in France. Native to the Mediterranean region, these ancient vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals (especially potassium, calcium, vitamin C and Vitamin K1). They grow throughout the winter down here where the ground doesn’t freeze, and for folks up north, back in the pre-fridge days, they would be stored in a root cellar for months. Today, they are forgotten or ignored, though the French seem to still enjoy them.
The first thing that struck me about parsnips was the perfume–very strong yet pleasant. I wondered about the flavor, but that turned out to be mild and a little sweet, a bit like celery root. Parsnips can be served raw–sliced or grated in a salad, like carrots. They also can be roasted, boiled, sautéed, braised, you name it. They can be served whole, sliced or puréed. If you can do it to a carrot, you can do it to a parsnip.
However, they get bigger than carrots, and when they do, there’s sometimes a tough core that’s better to cut out. You can peel them but if you have a good vegetable brush, a scrubbing will do. Either douse them with lemon juice or cook them right away or they will oxidize and turn a bit brown, as potatoes and apples do, and similarly it doesn’t affect how edible they are but makes them not as appetizing. They don’t turn brown as fast as, say, avocados, and I skipped the lemon juice as it took little time to cut up three parsnips (one large per person) and toss them in oil.
I was serving them with a white bean gratin, so I wanted to cook both dishes in the oven. I cut them into sticks like fries, tossed them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread them on a baking sheet on the upper rack in a 400 F/200 C oven. I considered adding garlic and parsley, but we already were having dishes with those. When they started to brown, I put in the dish of beans on the lower rack. I took the parsnips out to turn them but found I didn’t need to–they browned all around. It took about 15 minutes, but I waited longer, distracted by the sautéed spinach, and some got overdone.
In retrospect, although the parsnips were yummy and we all took second helpings, they would have looked better with something other than white bean gratin (a big can of white beans puréed with some of their liquid and one clove of garlic, spread out in a small glass baking dish and topped with grated parmesan). Two white foods in one meal! We also had spinach (green) and some hard-to-get mushrooms that I scored at the market. (I don’t know whether it’s because of the weather or overpicking, but wild mushrooms have been scarce at the market, and the price for lactaires is now €20 a kilogram, vs. €13 two years ago.)
Although they look like and have a similar texture to potatoes as oven fries, parsnips are very low in carbohydrates. I’m not looking to eliminate any food group (except refined sugar), but I do find that on my plate potatoes tend to turn into a butter and salt delivery system that I try to rein in.
In this case, the parsnips were lightly coated with olive oil, to help brown them and keep them from sticking. Butter no parsnips! Actually the phrase is fine words butter no parsnips–butter is the verb, like butter up somebody, and it means the same thing here, that flattery gets you nowhere.
If you serve parsnips, the compliments won’t be empty.
A World of Finger Food
So many cultures have snacks or appetizers that involve stuffing wrapped with pastry or something similar. Greece has kreatopetes. India has samosas. East Africa has its own take on samosas, with spicy ground meat. South America and Spain have empanadas. Asian cuisines have various kinds of egg rolls and spring rolls. And Morocco has briouates–envelopes.
We had them a few times in Casablanca, but the best were at the home of friends, who baked, rather than fried, them. (Actually everything we ate there was heavenly.) When we got home, I had to try to make them myself.
I made both chicken and beef fillings, because the Carnivore considers chicken unworthy. While I gave these Moroccan spices, it’s clear from the international list at the top that you can make them however you like. With holidays coming up, it’s nice to have some easy-yet-impressive appetizers or snacks that you can make ahead.
You can fold the briouates into triangles or roll them like fat cigars. I did triangles. I used “brick,” which is easier to work with than phyllo/filo (you don’t have to worry about it drying out in seconds), but not quite as light. Although I linked to a recipe for making brick, I bought it ready-made–it’s easy to find here.
I used chicken thighs because all the meat gets pulled off the bone and minced up after cooking. Cooking with the bones adds flavor. I didn’t go so far as to cook with the skin, though. Chicken Briouates
500 g/1lb. chicken thighs, skin removed if you prefer
1 large onion, minced
3-5 garlic cloves, minced
a handful of pine nuts (if you can afford them!) or slivered almonds
1 carrot, grated–this is my determination to add vegetables to everything, not at all traditional
1 teaspoon ras el hanout (easy to find in stores here but you can make it yourself, too)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 package feuilles de brick
1/4 cup melted butter (you might use more, but melt it a little at a time)
Drizzle some olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep skillet–just enough to cover the bottom. Brown the chicken. Add the onions and garlic. When the onions start to get translucent, add the spices and carrots and stir to mix well. Add a good cup of water. Cover tightly with a lid and let it simmer until the chicken falls apart easily with a fork. If there’s still a lot of liquid, take out the chicken (see below) and cook the remaining mixture uncovered, stirring often so it doesn’t scorch.
Remove the chicken to let it cool so you can pull the meat from the bones. If pieces of chicken are large, tear them up or set them aside to chop up. Return the chicken to the onion mix in the skillet, and stir in the eggs. Cook it over low heat for a couple of minutes, just to set the egg a little. Let all that cool.
Heat up the oven to 180 C/350 F.
Using scissors, cut the rounds of brick according to the size you prefer–if you want big briouates, you can go with half. I cut each brick into four strips (about 7.5 cm/3 inches) to make dainty briouates.
Have a baking sheet ready (I use silicone mats for easier cleanup; you can put parchment paper, but I don’t think briouates pose a sticky cleanup mess). You also need a clean space for folding–I used a cutting board. And you need the melted butter and a pastry brush.
To fold, you have several videos: This one, or this one, or this one that has interesting music. They all do it differently. The first one folds the half-rounds of brick lenthwise to make a strip. The others cut the brick into strips. I did strips because doubling over a half-round seemed like way too much crust.
Swipe each strip with butter–not much, just enough to make them crisp up in the oven. Deposit a spoonful of filling at one end of the strip, leaving about a centimeter/quarter-inch flap at the end. Fold over to make a triangle; as you continue (anybody who was a scout will recognize that it’s like folding a flag), the flap will tuck in. Make sure you push the filling all the way to the tip of the triangle; you can add more filling if needed. When you get to the end of the strip, fold the excess or cut it into a triangle (like the first video) and tuck it inside. In some videos, they glue the ends with a dab of flour/water mix. But I didn’t find that necessary.
You can bake these fairly close together because they don’t expand. They will be brown and crispy in 15-20 minutes. About 10 minutes in, turn them over.
To make them ahead, make sure you don’t overdo the browning in the first place. They are best reheated in the oven for 5-10 minutes–it keeps them from getting soggy. While the folding takes time, it isn’t difficult. As recipes go, briouates are a sure-fire success.