Thursday, June 28, 2007

Epaule d'agneau aux petits oignons

This dish started with a big bunch of spring onions, their papery skins just starting to form. Producer Louis Berthon, affectionately known to us as Loulou, saw me eyeing them at his stand. "Roasted with a lamb shoulder and a couple of tomatoes they are fantastic," he said.
I can always count on the producers at the Cours Saleya market to give me recipes that are free of time-consuming frills and flourishes. These farmers are proud to call themselves paysans (which is somehow a more dignified word than "peasant") and you would never catch them doing anything so fussy as peeling individual fava beans or pitting cherries for clafoutis.
It was Loulou, by the way, who recently told me - or should I say ordered me - to make a clafoutis with tart griottes rather than the sweeter burlat, leaving the pits in for their distinct almond flavor. I don't think I'll ever turn back, at least during the brief period when griottes are available.
Loulou is someone I associate more with fruit than vegetables: my fridge would feel empty without a slice of his almond-studded fig nougat, lightly perfumed with anise and lemon zest, or a jar of jam made with his own green tomatoes, mirabelle plums or blackberries. His vegetable production is small but so natural-tasting that on a Saturday I like to visit his stand before I look elsewhere.
I pumped him for details of his lamb recipe but it really was as simple as it sounded, with just the three main ingredients plunked into a roasting dish. My lamb shoulder came from Boucherie St-Antoine in rue Ste-Réparate, though I could just as easily bought it from the orange-tiled Fulchieri around the corner or the tiny but big-hearted Viale a few minutes' walk away. Lamb shoulder is just the right size for four to six people, unlike leg of lamb which feeds a crowd. It takes well to roasting, either deboned and rolled or with the big round shank bone left in, paysan-style, though I more often use it in stews and Moroccan tagines.
Even Sam, who is not normally a big meat-eater, gobbled up every bite of this dish. I could have served it with roasted potatoes, preferably the lovely pink-skinned ones from Loulou, but the natural juice from the meat and vegetables tasted particularly delicious without any starch to soak it up.

Epaule d'agneau aux petits oignons
Serves 4

1-2 bunches spring onions (about 8 onions per person)
2 tomatoes
1 lamb shoulder, with the hip bone removed but the larger shank bone left in
2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
A few sprigs of fresh or dried thyme

Peel the papery skins off the onions if necessary and cut off the stems. Cut the tomatoes into quarters.

Rub the lamb with 1 tbsp olive oil and season well with salt, pepper and thyme leaves.

Spread out the onions in a roasting dish, toss with 1 tbsp olive oil, and place the lamb on top. Surround the lamb with the tomato quarters.

Roast at 425 F (200 C) for about 1 hour, basting once or twice, until the lamb is well-browned on the outside and barely pink inside.

Set the meat aside to rest for about 10 mins before carving, keeping the vegetables in a warm place.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Chocolaterie Galler

Like most people who have spent a large chunk of their lives in Paris, I'm a bit snooty about chocolate. I walked past Chocolaterie Galler in the boisterous market street rue d'Aligre many times before deigning to go inside, simply because it was a Belgian chain. I've long preferred the sober intensity of French ganache fillings to the nutty sweetness of Belgian praline, or so I thought until I met Yves Filleul, whose infectious enthusiasm - and surprising chocolates - quickly won me over.
Yves doesn't make the chocolates himself but you would think they were his babies, so lovingly does he present them. He is quick to explain that Jean Galler trained with legendary French pâtissier Gaston Lenôtre, with the result that his pralines are less sweet than those of his Belgian contemporaries (apart from Pierre Marcolini, who can compete with the best Paris chocolatiers). Galler loves to experiment with new fillings but his aim is always to please rather than to shock - as Yves put it, "when you taste one of his chocolates you should want another one."
Having been to this shop alone and with groups, I can confirm that a single chocolate here is definitely not enough. Yves likes to offer newcomers the curry-filled chocolate pictured above, which is the perfect example of how Galler achieves a balance of flavors. Twelve curry spices go into the praline filling, but Galler uses warm spices only so as not to bombard the palate with chilli or pepper. Because the curry filling is quite subtle you can really taste the Java milk chocolate coating.
At the moment Galler is also experimenting with different salts, which are all the rage in France this year. I tried a chocolate flavored with fleur de sel de Guérande, the pure white salt that rises to the top of the water on this island off the Atlantic coast. Combined with Breton butter, it creates a smooth filling with a surprising taste of the sea. If you're feeling really adventurous you can buy this chocolate as part of marine series that also includes chocolates made with black Hawaiian salt, wakame seaweed from Brittany and nori, the Japanese seaweed that's used for sushi.
I was also intrigued by the even more esoteric Kaori chocolates, which come in the shape of long, pen-like sticks for dipping into little "inkpots" of flavorings. Through a great stroke of luck (thank you, Sally), I received these as a gift recently. Philippe, Sam and I sat down for a serious tasting, dipping each of the seven filled chocolates (saffron, cardamom, yuzu, ginger, vanilla and coconut, and strawberry with balsamic vinegar) into the three pots (orange, matcha and poppy seed, and kalamansi, a type of lime). Not every combination was pure poetry but I was surprised by how good the ginger tasted with the green tea and poppy seed powder and I liked the kalamansi syrup with just about everything.
A house classic is the langue de chat (cat's tongue), a chocolate in the shape of a cat's head inspired by the Belgian political cartoonist Philippe Geluck. If you develop a cat's tongue addiction you'll be in famous company: according to Yves, Woody Allen indulges in one every day.
I still have a special fondness for the more austere French ganache-filled chocolates, if only because it's easier to stop at just one (or two). But I'll never walk down the rue d'Aligre again without dropping into Yves' shop and tearoom, where in colder weather you can taste one of the richest cups of hot chocolate in town.
You might be interested to know that Yves, like Jean Galler himself, recommends storing chocolates in the refrigerator in warm weather - it beats letting them melt into a puddle. Wrap the whole box in plastic to protect it from the humidity and take it out of the fridge 20 minutes before serving, if you have the willpower to wait so long.

Chocolaterie Galler
13 rue d'Aligre, 12th, 01 43 40 34 45.

Friday, June 22, 2007

More jam

Here is my latest batch, this time made with apricots and pretty dubious-looking peaches. I hadn't set out to buy peaches, but I don't argue with producers when they offer me heaps of blemished fruit for next to nothing.
I usually stick to a single fruit for jam and wondered how peach and apricot would work together, but if anything the flavor is even more marvelous than that of the apricots alone. I used the same recipe as for the apricots, first peeling the peaches by pouring boiling water over the fruit - the peel slipped off easily after about a minute. The peaches add a slightly floral taste and fragrance, making this a gentle jam for summer mornings.
This week has been a bit of a turning point in my jam-making - I've finally achieved that sense of "just knowing" when it's done. The one tip I can offer is: if it seems too runny, then it's probably not ready. It thickens in quite a definite way towards the end. Also, don't forget to stir, especially as the jam starts to thicken. At this point it's more likely to stick and burn, which is not what you want!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Really ripe apricots

I can buy perfect apricots at the moment at the Cours Saleya market. Big, sexily curved and deep orange, they have a rosy blush that almost looks painted on.
The truth is, though, that these apricots don't really interest me. Oh, I'm happy to bite into their sweet, sunset-colored flesh from time to time. But for me they are too perfect, maybe even a little suspect. I've learned over the years that the less flamboyant yellow-orange apricots at a few of the small farmers' stands have more acidity and a deeper honey flavor, one that makes you feel you are tasting the sun itself (whatever you do, don't eat your apricots chilled).
Even when I'm buying from the producers I snub the unblemished apricots: I want the ones so ripe they have dropped from the tree. I don't care if they look a bit bruised and battered, especially if I'm planning to make compote or jam. The riper the apricot the better it will taste, and I'm aware of how lucky I am to be able to buy ripe fruit picked that morning.
I've been buying my apricots this year from an old couple who sell a small variety of not-very-impressive-looking fruit. How unfortunate are the people who walk past their stand without noticing it! They cultivate old varieties of fruit trees, and what the fruit lacks in symmetry it more than makes up for in character.
The apricots on their stand looked suitably ripe for jam, so I asked for two kilos. It turned out the apricots weren't bruised enough - they brought out a supply of really bashed-up fruit from under the table. Even I was a little anxious as they chose apricots so mushy that I would hardly have to cook them to make compote. But, considering the couple's age and experience, I decided to trust them.
"I'll put in a few musqués for the flavor," said madame, choosing some big, slightly less beaten-up apricots from the table.
Back home, I separated the ones that looked like roadkill from those that were still holding their shape, more or less. I decided to make compote with the mushier ones, as I like my jam with well-defined pieces. For the compôte, I used 1 1/2 lbs of apricots, pitted and cut in half, 1/3 cup water, a little more than 1/2 cup sugar, and half a vanilla bean, with the seeds scraped into the pot and the bean placed inside the mixture. You might want to use more sugar, as my apricots were particularly sweet. I brought it all to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Nectar was the only word for the resulting compote: I couldn't believe how good it tasted, and I think the mysterious musqués had something to do with it.
With the rest of the apricots I made a traditional jam. One of the producers told me that you can use the almonds from inside the apricot kernels to flavor the jam. If they are bitter you should use only two or three, as they are slightly toxic, but if they taste sweet you can add them all, if you are patient enough to break open each kernel and peel the almond. He told me after I had made my first batch of jam, but I'm now working on a second batch with a few of the kernels, which will add an almond flavour.
I was thrilled, by the way, to finally use my copper jam basin to make this jam. It had been in storage until recently, but it makes the whole jam-making experience seem so much more romantic. Apricots have a lot of natural pectin, so this is one of the easier jams to make.
This is a standard apricot jam recipe, but it's the apricots that make the difference. It's a testament to the fruit, and not to my modest jam-making skills, that this jam far surpassed anything I have bought in a shop. I love its translucent golden color, soft texture and slight acidity, which balances the fruit's natural sweetness.

Traditional apricot jam
Makes 4 jars

2 3/4 lbs apricots (1.3 kilos)
2 lbs sugar (900 g)
Juice of 1/2 lemon

The day before you want to make the jam, pit the apricots and cut into large chunks. Place in a large bowl with the sugar and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, bring the apricots and sugar to a boil in a large saucepan or copper basin with the lemon juice. Turn the heat down, letting the mixture bubble vigorously without spattering. Place a small plate in the freezer. This is one recipe where you don't have to skim the foam - just keep stirring and it will incorporate itself back into the mixture.

To sterilize your jars, either place them in boiling water for 10 minutes or use a sterilizer for baby bottles (if you have one!). I sterilize mine by washing them well and placing them, still wet, in the oven at 375 F (180 C) for about 20 minutes, but not everyone believes in this method.

After about 1/2 hour, you should see the mixture visibly thicken. Take a small spoonful and pour it onto the cold plate. If it looks thick and doesn't spread when you tilt the plate, your jam is ready. If not, let it cook a little longer and keep testing every couple of minutes.

Transfer the jam to the jars using a funnel if you have one and seal while still hot.

Monday, June 18, 2007


This big bunch of red-ribbed leaves caught my eye yesterday at the stand of Jean-Louis and Katy, whose organic produce at the Cours Saleya market is consistently fresh and beautiful. I thought it might be a kind of chicory, or perhaps baby beet leaves, but Katy told me matter-of-factly that it was a type of sorrel. "You eat it raw, in salads," she said.
I previously knew sorrel only as a big, slightly floppy green leaf that loses its vivid color as soon as it comes into contact with heat. I love it for its lemony tang, particularly in my simplified version of the Troisgros classic saumon à l'oseille (I promise to share the recipe here one of these days), but have always watched in despair as the bright-tasting leaves turn a muddy green. Not only was this ruby variety even prettier than ordinary sorrel, it didn't involve any aesthetic compromise. There was only one bunch left so I grabbed it before any sharp-eyed chefs came along.
At home, I nibbled on a leaf and recognised the sharp taste of sorrel, without the tooth-stripping feeling that comes from a high concentration of oxalic acid (this is what makes it hard to eat garden variety sorrel raw). I had a few of Pierre's multicolored tomatoes left and decided to use the sorrel as a lemony accent in another salad of tomato chunks, this time with grassy Baux-de-Provence olive oil and a very small splash of balsamic vinegar. I'm not a big believer in using balsamic vinegar indiscriminately, but here I felt that its sweetness would balance the sorrel's tart quality. A good sprinkling of fleur de sel and my simple but refreshing salad was complete.
I'll be mixing the rest of the sorrel in with other young salad greens and perhaps cutting it into thin strips to garnish a soup - I know it's summer, but I think that anytime is a good time to eat soup. There is so much left that I might even try cooking with it, just to see if the leaves can retain some of their gorgeous color.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Saturday tomato brunch

Tomato season is here! You can safely assume that I'm not talking about mealy hothouse tomatoes or even the tasty little Merinda variety from Sicily that has been available in France for the past few weeks. Today was the day that organic producer Pierre unveiled his tomato collection for the summer, and a few of his most loyal customers celebrated the event with a casual tomato brunch at 8.30am (the early bird catches the tomato in Nice).
Just a few of the 100 or so varieties that Pierre is cultivating were on display today, but this season looks like a promising one indeed. The géante de Renneberg (I'm not sure of the spelling) is an orangey-red tomato so big it seems to burst out of its seams. Cut into the ananas, or pineapple, and you'll discover yellow-pink hues reminiscent of a spring sunset. The green zebra tastes much sweeter than its striped skin suggests, creating beautiful contrast in a salad. There were also orange and yellow beefsteak tomatoes, the green-tinged noire de Crimée and a couple of others whose names I never learned as Pierre was so busy handling the flurry of customers.

For our brunch several kinds of tomatoes went into a giant salad drizzled with Alpes de Haute-Provence olive oil courtesy of Nadim and sprinkled with fleur de sel and torn basil leaves. We also had ewe's cheese from producer Jean-Luc, whose sheep are about to stop producing milk for the summer, a tomme de chèvre (hard goat's cheese) and fresh figs from Pierre's trees. No French picnic would be complete without wine and Pierre, in keeping with his open spirit, provided Australian Shiraz for the occasion (I noticed a pot-bellied local cop who appeared to be on duty indulging cheerfully).
At lunch I recreated the same salad - well, what else would I do with such colorful tomatoes? - embellishing it only with mozzarella di bufala. Sam and his little friend Quentin ate up every bit along with a few slices of silky Parma ham, and I was feeling proud of their good French palates until Quentin asked politely:
"So, can we go to McDonald's now?"

Friday, June 15, 2007

Marie Quatrehomme

If lovingly aged cheese from every remote corner of France is not so easy to come by in Nice, Paris positively oozes with cheese possibilities. When I lived in rue Monge (home of several of the city's top bakeries, notably Le Boulanger de Monge, Eric Kayser and the lesser-known Boulangerie Grégoire), I could count five cheese shops in my neighborhood alone. Two of these were impeccably run branches of legendary fromageries, Androuët and Quatrehomme. Much as I loved popping into Marie Quatrehomme's charmingly cramped, stone-walled boutique in rue Mouffetard, sometimes for a hard-to-find hit of crumbly English cheddar, no fromagerie in Paris makes me happier than her main shop on rue de Sèvres.
Marie herself deserves much of the credit for this. Youthful looking, with a healthy glow that can only come from eating the very finest dairy products every day, she is unfailingly gracious to regular customers and one-time visitors alike. I saw definitive proof of this the day a group of 18 foreigners from a tour bus were herded into her shop on a busy Saturday morning by a tour guide who cut Marie off in mid-sentence with the words "Can I talk now?". Trying to fit that number of people into a typical Paris food shop is akin to stuffing the population of Delhi into a phone booth, but Marie, to her great credit, remained polite and unflustered.
I can't help but remark that several of the city's best cheese shops are run by women: besides Quatrehomme, there is Marie-Anne Cantin, Josiane Molard in rue des Martyrs, and Virginie Boularouah of Chez Virginie in the 18th, to name just a few. Then again, there are some pretty talented men in the milk business too, such as Philippe Alléosse and Laurent Dubois. Marie came to this profession by marriage after working in early childhood education, but in the past 15 years has established herself as one of the top fromagères in the country: she was the first woman to win the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France title, awarded to artisans who succeed at a gruelling competition.
So what makes her cheese so good? Well, first of all, she knows her producers personally, which means that she understands what they are trying to accomplish. This allows her to finish the ageing process in her own cellars with a real respect for the cheese. Her marque de fabrique, or trademark, is slow ageing in cool cellars to reduce the risk of the cheese going "off." One of her treasures is 36-month-old comté from producer Marcel Petite, a cheese from near the border with Switzerland that develops crackly crystals and an ever-more-complex nutty flavor as it ages (I never leave her shop without a chunk of this). She also has a soft spot for monastery cheeses, explaining that in France it was monks who originally taught farmers how to make cheese. Her shelf of goat cheeses is remarkable and following my visit last week I ate my way through an entire pot of her emerald-green "mousse" made only with fresh goat cheese and pesto. The bakery next door had the perfect baguette à l'ancienne to accompany this, which I think was called the Authentique (someone correct me if I'm wrong!).
Unlike many French fromagers, Marie respects the cheese of other countries and even has a whole shelf devoted to foreign cheeses - a rare sight, believe me. When I visited her shop with a couple from Texas she was able to talk to them about the state's best-known cheese maker, Paula Lambert. Marie has warm memories of the time she has spent in the United States, which is why she always takes the time to greet American customers. "Everyone was so kind to me, I'd like to give something back," she says. Her cheese is a gift in itself, but her ready smile makes it taste even better.
Fromagerie Quatrehomme, 62 rue de Sèvres, 7th, 01 47 34 33 45.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Pâtes au pistou

One of the things I love about Nice is the Italian influence in the food. But it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Nice adopted Italian cooking during its time under the rule of Piedmont and Sardinia, which ended in 1860. Rather, the ever-resourceful people of the Comté de Nice (the city and surrounding mountains) made Italian specialties their own.
Porchetta, which in Italy is a whole deboned pig rolled with herbs and roasted, became a pig stuffed with every bit of its innards so that nothing goes to waste. Pizza became pissaladière, a humble tart made of oily bread dough, slowly-caramelized onions and seasoned anchovy paste (pissala in the local language). And that Genovese classic pesto became pistou, a sauce of basil, garlic, oil and parmesan in which pine nuts are noticeably absent.
La Merenda, a little bistro two blocks from the end of the flower market, serves the definitive version of Nice-style pâtes au pistou. I've eaten this dish here time and time again and have always marveled at its unctuous quality, the perfect melding of green pasta and green sauce (in Genoa pesto would be tossed with little pointy-tipped white pasta called trofie, small cubes of potato and green beans). How does chef Dominic Le Stanc do it? There wasn't much hope of him telling me, since this former Negresco chef spent six months training with the old couple who ran this bistro in order to master their secret recipes. He has been kind enough to give me his recipe for daube, beef slowly imbued with wine and scented with porcini mushrooms (known as ceps in French), but when it comes to pistou his lips are firmly sealed.
Luckily, a few months ago one of the market stallholders introduced me to Jean himself, the former owner of La Merenda who still shops at the Cours Saleya market now and then. It couldn't hurt to ask, I said to myself, and boldly blurted out, "So what is the secret of your pâtes au pistou?"
To my amazement, Jean was forthcoming. "It's the cheese. You have to use emmental instead of parmesan to give the sauce its creaminess. When the pasta is cooked you drain it, but not too much, and then you toss it in the warmed bowl with the butter and pistou."
The butter???
I should have guessed. So often in France, when a dish is mysteriously delicious, butter turns out to be the key. In Nice I have got so used to dousing all my food with olive oil - preferably the smooth, almost buttery AOC Nice oil - that I rarely even think about butter. But sometimes there is simply no replacement for it. I've since made pâtes au pistou many times, using the thick spinach noodles sold at the fresh pasta shop Barale down the street. I could make my own, but Dominic Le Stanc doesn't, so why should I? My pâtes au pistou are very good indeed, though perhaps not quite as good as his. Maybe he uses a little more butter, maybe he sneaks in a little parmesan with the emmental, or maybe it's just the way he tosses it (very vigorously). Whatever the slight difference, it's what makes me not feel too guilty about giving away this recipe.
I'll be contributing my pâtes au pistou to Presto Pasta Nights, a weekly event at Once Upon a Feast.

Note: I used to make the pistou in a mortar, the traditional way, but I found that this resulted in a darker sauce. I'm now happy to make it less romantically in a food processor.

Pâtes au Pistou
Serves 2-3

1 lb fresh spinach tagliatelle (if you make your own, the dough should be rolled 1.5 mm thick. Sorry, I don't know what that is in inches!)
A handful coarse sea salt
1 tbsp butter (you could probably use a little more, but this is how much I use)

1-2 cloves garlic
1 small bunch basil (about 2 cups of leaves)
1/4 cup very good quality olive oil (50 ml)
A good pinch of coarse sea salt and a few grindings of pepper
2 generous tbsp finely grated emmental

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it boils, add the salt and the pasta. The pasta from Barale needs to be cooked for 4 mins once the water comes back to a boil, but yours might be ready a little faster.

Peel the garlic clove(s), cut in half and remove any sprouts from the center. Separate the basil leaves from the stems and discard the stems (or save to flavor a tomato sauce). Place the garlic, basil, oil and seasonings in the food processor and blend until you have a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the grated emmental. The sauce should be fairly runny, so add more oil if necessary.

Warm your serving bowl with the butter in the oven at the lowest setting. Drain the pasta quickly, transfer to the bowl and toss vigorously with the butter and pistou. Serve immediately.

La Merenda, 4 rue Raoul Bosio, no phone.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mazafati dates

I'm not obsessive about eating organic but I like to buy untreated food as often as possible. In Paris only a privileged few (the likes of Catherine Deneuve and the Barefoot Contessa) can afford to shop at the hippie-chic Raspail organic market, but the Cours Saleya in Nice is slightly more democratic: the organic producers don't charge a lot more than the other small farmers. They are also the only ones to sell bean sprouts, red- and yellow-ribbed Swiss chard, spring garlic shoots and multicolored tomatoes, which would be reason enough to shop at their stands. For organic buckwheat flour, big bags of green pumpkin seeds to sprinkle on my salads and virgin sunflower oil I ride my bike to Biocoop, a treasure trove of virtuous and obscure ingredients.
On my way back from the airport yesterday I saw that the annual organic show, Bionazur, was taking place in the Jardin Albert Ier and I didn't waste any time in returning to do the rounds once I had dropped off my stash of Parisian chocolate and cheese at home. This year's show was light on food and heavy on aromatherapy, spelt-stuffed pillows claiming to transmit the right energy for a good night's sleep, vibrating platforms to burn off fat (how can these be organic?) and donkey-milk beauty products, but I did enjoy a small moment of ecstasy as I popped a fresh date into my mouth.
Big, gooey and honey-sweet, it reminded me of a medjoul date, the Israeli variety that is now grown in California. But this was a more unusual date, the mazafati from southern Iran. Slightly smaller than the medjoul, the mazafati grows in an oasis near the historic citadel of Bam at an altitude of 1200 meters, which is unusual for date palms. If high-altitude potatoes can be special, why not dates? I bought two boxes - a steal at €6.50 for 700 g, about 1 1/2 lbs - and was pleased to learn that these fair trade dates will soon be available in organic supermarkets. They keep for about 6 months in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, though I have a feeling they won't be around for nearly that long in my house. I'll be serving the dates with goat cheese, adding them to Moroccan tagines and nibbling on them between meals.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Brioche at Bread & Roses

The story of the French and English has not always been one of deep understanding and mutual admiration of one another's cuisine.
That is changing thanks to Paris cafés such as Rose Bakery and the similarly named but unrelated Bread & Roses, which are patching up centuries of misunderstanding by displaying homey scones and crumbles next to chic lemon tarts and quiches.
I'll seize any opportunity to visit Bread & Roses and this morning's Edible Paris guided tour with a food-loving family of Americans from Colorado provided the perfect excuse to re-enter its kitchen.
Owner Philippe Tailleur is an unusual personality in the Paris food world. He ran a profitable shopping center outside Paris before trading it in for this run-down bakery just downstairs from his apartment and a few steps from the Luxembourg Gardens. In a triumph of quality over convenience, he now devotes himself to producing some of the finest organic bread and most tempting prepared goods in Paris (just try to resist the puff-pastry tarts loaded with roasted vegetables). He is a proud Anglophile and claims that his cheesecake is "the best this side of the Atlantic."
The scene in the basement kitchen is the opposite of Poilâne, where bare-chested bakers in traditional cream-colored linen shorts toil before the Roman wood-fired oven. Tailleur has invested in the most modern equipment: the mixers alone apparently cost €100,000 each and there is a nifty machine for dividing a batch of dough into evenly-sized balls. Stacks of white plastic bins hold the various organic flours and seeds that go into about a dozen different speciality breads, which are produced in small quantities - only about 10-20 loaves of each per day. Bakers shape the loaves by hand and are encouraged to invent new recipes, such as the wonderful currant-studded ficelle (a very thin baguette). To keep the bakery side of things small and confidential, Tailleur doesn't post the word boulangerie outside and the bread is displayed at the back of the shop.
On the other side of the kitchen a few cooks work on salads, savory tarts and pastries. Today they were making strawberry tiramisu, layering syrup-soaked Italian biscuits with strawberries, blueberries and mascarpone cream. One of the cooks was assembling a giant tiramisu in a big glass bowl which had been provided by one of the bakery's well-heeled customers. This is a popular request, she said. "That way they can say they made it themselves."
I was also intrigued by the Bread & Roses take on the tropézienne, a rich brioche-and-custard cake that originated in St-Tropez (a bit of a contradiction when you consider the beachwear there). Here it's filled with a lighter version of crème pâtissière and inauthentic strawberries, which add a welcome fresh note.
Brioche has become a specialty lately and I picked up one of the cloud-like golden loaves to try at home. Even more than croissant, brioche has the ability to transform a massive slab of butter into something puffy and ethereal that melts on the tongue. I wasn't hungry when I tasted it, but that didn't stop me from going back for a second slice, just to be sure it was as glorious as it seemed.
The rest of the loaf, toasted and perhaps spread with a little strawberry jam, will give me reason enough to wake up tomorrow morning.
Bread and Roses, 7 rue de Fleurus, 6th, 01 42 22 06 06.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Spring cauliflower soup

My favorite Paris bistro at the moment has an American chef.
To me there is nothing really surprising about this. After all, I'm Canadian and teach Niçois cooking, much to the initial alarm of the market vendors at the Cours Saleya (who have now accepted and even occasionally embraced me).
Former philosophy student Daniel Rose has solid credentials, having worked with the likes of Yannick Alléno, the brilliant young chef at Le Meurice. He also has a passion for the freshest ingredients, which is why he cooks up a single four-course menu every day with no substitutions at his bistro Spring. The only concession he makes in this age of food allergies, intolerences and general fussiness is to ask customers on the phone if there is anything they don't eat. He then tries to adapt the menu to the tastes of those who fill this little dining room in the 9th arrondissement every night.
On the day I ate at Spring, Rose had come back from the Place des Fêtes market in the 19th arrondissment with a giant octopus and transformed it into a meaty salad with new potatoes, crunchy radishes and herbs. He served generous chunks of poached guinea hen with roasted beet, carrot and parsnip, giving one customer who was unfamiliar with this vegetable a giant parsnip to take home. In his open kitchen he grated lime zest over a dozen plates of baked apple with pain perdu (French toast), walnuts and cream, bringing this homely dessert to life.
The dish that really stuck with me, though, was the crème de chou-fleur sans crème that started the meal. Cauliflower is not the sexiest vegetable, at least not normally. In Paris and Nice, though, you can sometimes find sweet young cauliflowers still encased in their pale green leaves, which don't have the strong cabbagey flavor of bigger cauliflowers. These are perfect for this velvety soup, which smacked of luxury despite the lack of cream. I had to know what Daniel's secret was, so e-mailed him the next day asking for the recipe. Below is his reply, which I haven't bothered to edit (except for adding US measurements) as he has written the recipe so nicely.
I've published a full review of my meal at Spring in the June issue of Paris Notes, for which I write a monthly restaurant column. I tried the soup as soon as Daniel sent me the recipe and I'm happy to report that he omitted nothing - it was wonderful. The version he served was with browned butter, toasted almonds and currants, but I plan to try the other variations too.
Sorry about the shadow in the photo but when I took this picture I was trying not to make it obvious that I was a restaurant critic (Daniel looked at me suspiciously anyway).

The cauliflower soup is very simple...

2 heads of cauliflower
1.5 medium sized yellow onions
salt and pepper
butter (demi-sel)
olive oil
sweat the sliced onions in the olive oil and butter
once nearly cooked, add just enough water (or chicken stock) to cover the onions, (under) season with salt and pepper and let reduce on medium heat
once nearly dry, add the chopped cauliflower (1/4 inch slices, then roughly chopped) and continue cooking on medium-high heat until the cauliflower is mostly cooked through and there is a strong, sweet smell of roasted cauliflower
cover with water (or chicken stock), season with coarse salt, and cook until the cauliflower is very soft.
Blend the soup in a powerful mixer in several small batches until it is very smooth. reheat, reseason
Spring garnishes vary, these are my favorites:
-jus de pigeon
-beurre noisette (browned butter), toasted almonds, currants
-chervil, crème fraîche
-curried pintade (guinea hen)
-roasted apple and vanilla

Sorry, I couldn't tell you how much butter/oil I use... I just do it!
about 70g (2 oz) of butter and a few squirts of olive oil?

Spring, 28 rue de La Tour d'Auvergne, 9th, 01 45 96 05 72.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Torta di carota (A big carrot cake)

When my friends Kathryn and Tristan announced they would be getting married in Tuscany on June 1st, I didn't even hesitate before offering to bake their wedding cake. Tristan was one of my very first friends in Nice, and Kathryn and I hit it off instantly when I met her two years ago. A frequent assistant at my cooking classes, she shares my capacity to talk endlessly about food, whether French, Italian or Asian. Kathryn is one of the best spontaneous cooks I know, especially with Asian ingredients - she is the kind of person who will throw together seared tuna spring rolls with sesame-soy dipping sauce when you drop by for drinks.
We quickly agreed that a giant carrot cake would suit this casual garden wedding perfectly. It's easy to make, suitably dense and everyone loves it - especially when the recipe comes from the Paris café Rose Bakery, run by an Anglo-French couple with a taste for the best organic ingredients. The only challenge would be to make it in an unknown kitchen with no room in the schedule for disaster: we arrived on Wednesday night and the wedding was on Friday.
To save half a day once in Italy, I brought all the ingredients from Nice. This was a perfect illustration of why it pays to make friends with market stallholders and small shopkeepers. Since a carrot cake can only be as good as the carrots that go into it, I asked Sandra, a producer based in St-Laurent-du-Var and St-Jeannet, if she could set aside 15 pounds of carrots for me. I was rewarded with several bags of big, sweet, juicy carrots that had been picked and washed on Tuesday. Antoine, who runs the convenience shop in rue Droite, picked up two 1 lb bags of walnuts for me at the professional supply store Métro. From the Italian deli Exquis d'Italia in boulevard Jean Jaurès I bought 20 packets of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which is popular in Italy but unknown in France. The rest of the ingredients, including organic flour, came from the big supermarket Carrefour courtesy of Philippe, who would like me to point out that there is nothing he hates more than going to Carrefour.
Having established that there was no food processor or mixer in the Italian villa, though there apparently was an oven, I then packed approximately half my kitchen into the back of the car, not forgetting essentials like several peelers (in the hope that I would get some help with that chore) and a pastry bag with a fluted tip for the finishing touches. Oh, and Sam, who as it turned out would play a crucial role.
I had been so busy making lists that I really hadn't given much thought to the site of the wedding itself, hastily printing out the Via Michelin itinerary before setting out. So Agricola Sforni came as quite a surprise: only 20 minutes from Pisa, this is the kind of place that makes you think "no wonder everyone loves Tuscany so much." One of four villas that hosted the 50 wedding guests, ours looked over wheat fields that until recently produced flour for the family's bread and pasta. It was quintessentially Tuscan in an unfussy way, and had a most impressive double-sized gas oven. Which didn't seem to turn on.
The owner quickly appeared to show us how to operate this beast: first we had to drag out the heavy iron tray, then contort ourselves to light the pilot light. If we then turned the knob ever so slowly, we could set the oven to the desired heat. The tray then slid back in, with much bashing and clanging.
So far, so good. Only, when it came time to bake the first two cakes, the oven kept turning itself off. Each time we struggled with the burning-hot tray, relit the flame and pushed it back in. When we had done this three times the technician was called, but by now the oven had found its groove and was purring like one of the many cats that hung around the kitchen, staking out the cream cheese. "There is nothing wrong with this oven," he declared.
Then it was just a matter of mixing and baking, mixing and baking: two layers for each of the first two tiers and one baby cake for the top, which I baked in a Charlotte mold. I stashed the cakes in a cupboard, out of reach of the cats, and prayed that they wouldn't look like a midnight snack to any occupants of the house.
The next day, in my trusty KitchenAid mixer, I whipped up three mega-batches of cream cheese frosting and got to work. I decided there was no point in going for a smooth finish with cream cheese icing, so left it natural, like the happy couple.

The only technical trick that proved necessary was supporting the heavy second tier with a few drinking straws, which I cut to the height of the first tier and sunk into the cake. Before using fresh roses from the garden for the decoration, I checked that they hadn't been treated with any chemicals.
When the cake was ready to go, I stood back and admired its homemade charm. Then I left the room. A few minutes later, I came back to find three cats circling the cake. Having no respect for me, they didn't even react when I shouted and flapped my arms. Thankfully Sam, who had spent the last two days befriending the cats, intervened. With him guarding the door they didn't dare enter.
Transporting the cake to another villa on the rocky, unpaved road was another adventure, but it survived with only a minor touch-up (tip to amateur wedding-cake bakers: always take extra icing to the venue). The caterers, from the wonderful restaurant Cavallino Bianco in Polesino near Parma (where the bride's family lives), whisked it out of my hands into their refrigerated truck and I breathed a sigh of relief. They were impressed with its size but a little mystified.
"Torta di carota? Is it sweet or savory?"
"Sweet," I said. "It's not traditional, but everyone loves it."
They still looked skeptical - until the cake was thoroughly demolished later that evening.
I multiplied the following recipe by six to make a carrot cake that would serve 50-60 as the sole dessert or up to 100 as part of a dessert buffet. The original recipe, from the book Breakfast, Lunch, Tea: Rose Bakery (Phaidon) calls for white sugar but I used light brown cane sugar.

Rose Bakery's Carrot Cake
Serves 8

Unsalted butter, for greasing
4 eggs
1 cup light brown cane sugar
1 1/4 cups sunflower oil
9 medium carrots, finely grated
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 rounded tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts

For the icing
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup cream cheese
1/2 tsp natural vanilla extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, depending on how sweet you like your icing

Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C / Gas mark 4.

Butter a 9-inch (23 cm) cake tin and line its base with parchment paper.

Beat the eggs and sugar until they are light and fluffy but not too white and meringue-like.

Pour in the oil and beat for a few more minutes.

Fold in the carrots and then the flour with the cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Finally fold in the walnuts.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 45 mins or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and cool the cake in the tin before taking it out.

To make the icing, beat the butter with the cream cheese for a few minutes till the mixture is smooth.

Add the vanilla extract and icing sugar.

When the cake is cold, ice the top with the icing - it can be as smooth or rough as you like.