Saturday, July 28, 2007

Impressions of Bergamo

I will go anywhere in Italy at the slightest opportunity, but I have a special relationship with Bergamo. I've been travelling to this small city about 45 minutes north of Milan for about 10 years to visit my Canadian friend Roisin, who teaches medieval Italian history.
Italians don't think of Bergamo as the most romantic destination - let's face it, they have Venice and Verona to compare it to - but you will see chic Milanese strolling its cobbled medieval streets on weekends, jostling for gelato and window-shopping in the high-end clothing shops that are gradually taking over the walled upper city.
I've always loved the upper city, with its direct connection by funicular to the surprisingly lush surrounding hills, but this time I also spent a few very pleasant hours in the increasingly up-and-coming lower city. I can personally live without the sleek new lounge bars that are popping up everywhere, but they are a sign that Bergamo is keeping up with the times. Luckily, some things haven't changed: Angelo, the frutti vendolo (fruit seller) in the upper city, was so pleased to see us that he gave me a packet of Bergamo's famed stone-ground polenta, adding that a previous pope insisted it be made with water from Bergamo. (Perhaps a certain historian who might be reading this could remind me of which pope it was?)
To celebrate my arrival Roisin and I made our usual pilgrimage to the café La Marianna for an aperitivo. We both indulged in the Negroni, a cocktail made of equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth. These are not diluted with anything, so when you see the size of this glass you can understand why I felt extremely cheerful afterwards.

I learned for the first time, thanks to a Slow Food article posted on the door, that stracciatella ice cream was invented here in 1962 by Enrico Panattoni, who was the owner at that time. He apparently named it after an egg soup, as the soft chocolate in the creamy gelato reminded him of strands of egg floating in broth. I resolved to come back and taste their stracciatella but, as you'll see later, got sidetracked by a new gelato shop.
The nostalgia trip continued with dinner at Donizetti, a wine bar that I love for its terrace under arcades that might once have been a market. The German Shepherd that could once be seen lounging outside the door (and is still pictured on the business card) is no longer there, but the salumi misti (cured meats) plate is still as succulent as ever. I honed in on the culatello, a deluxe cured ham made from the pork buttock rather than the shoulder, which gives it more marbled fat.

The next morning I wandered off on my own into the lower city and quickly came across a new gelato shop, Grom. A glance at the list of flavors told me this was no ordinary gelateria: first, they were referred to as "July flavors," and second, some of them had the Slow Food snail next to them. Little bells went off in my head reminding me that I had read about Grom on various blogs - founded in Turin, it now has 15 shops around Italy and the world including one in New York.
With only a slight pang of guilt at not sharing this experience with Roisin, I asked for the pistachio gelato made with the prized nuts from Bronte. Unlike most pistachio ice creams this one was not exactly green - in truth, it was closer to brown. Most surprising was the texture, so soft that the conista was able to swirl it around itself like a ribbon. Passers-by stared at me, at first because I was photographing my cone and then because I was so obviously enjoying this solitary ice cream (sorry Roisin).

I made it up to Roisin with lunch at Enotica la Lanterna on a cobbled pedestrian street in the lower city.

The people of Lombardy have no qualms about eating heavy food all year round - polenta with cheese was on the menu at Donizetti - but with the temperature approaching 35 C we felt like something a bit lighter. At this inviting wine bar with arched brick ceilings and contemporary art, we both ordered the sea bream with octopus, cherry tomatoes and capers. It tasted at least as fresh as anything I might eat in Nice.

I then dragged my not-so-reluctant friend back to Grom so that she could try the gelato made with lemons from Amalfi. I could hardly just stand by and watch, so I ordered the lemon granita. I've always thought that lemon was a good test of a gelateria's worthiness, and Grom passed with flying colors - neither of us could detect any bitterness.

Then it was time for a walk in the hills to build up our appetite for dinner. As one Italian guidebook puts it, "There are many wonderful paths, but it is best to discover them on your own." We took the funicular from the upper city and wandered up and down paved roads and stony paths, with views of the valleys beyond. On the way we admired the well-tended gardens - look at this lavender.

Shopping for dinner is at least as much fun as eating in a restaurant in Bergamo, so we picked up some casoncelli - bonbon-shaped ravioli stuffed with various meats and cheese - along with a thick slice of pancetta, top-quality Italian butter and some parmesan that the man in the shop happily grated for us. To complete the dish all we would need was fresh sage and salad from Angelo down the street.

Before heading back to the apartment we treated ourselves to a Bellini at a café on Piazza Vecchia. I love the aperitivo ritual in Italy, with its little toasts and sandwiches - if I lived there I'm convinced I would gain a lot of weight and drink far too much. But I would also be extremely cheerful all the time.

The next morning, by a weird twist of fate, I missed my train to Milan and therefore to Nice (note to future travellers: the 1A bus does not always stop at the train station!). I spent little time bemoaning my plight, as this meant there was time for one last coffee. At a café next door to Grom, whose closed door I stared at longingly, I was reminded that even when things go wrong in Italy, someone always seems to care.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Haricots magiques

One of the things I love about shopping at the Cours Saleya market is that everything I prepare has significance. Producers want to know how I made use of their freshly picked vegetables and will tell me off for any lapses in judgement. Other shoppers listen in critically, throwing in their own remarks on how best to stuff les petits farcis (little stuffed vegetables) or fry zucchini flowers (the batter should be made with water, not milk, or frankly you don't deserve to frequent this market).
Producer Loulou was particularly proud of his ratte potatoes this year, which he sold at the market for two Saturdays running before there were none left. The ratte is a small, yellow-fleshed waxy potato, similar to what's called a fingerling in the United States. A similar tuber also goes by the name banana potato. When Philippe bought a large bag of these potatoes in my absence, Loulou wouldn't sell them to him until he promised that they would all be cooked within two days.
The next week, I duly reported that I had made roast potatoes, sautéed potatoes and potato salad. (Philippe, as you might have gathered, does not do most of the cooking in our house, though he makes up for it by washing dishes with boundless patience.) "How did you make your potato salad?" he retorted. "With green beans I hope? In Provence we say that's how a woman holds on to her man."
I would have thought that cooking potatoes three ways would be enough, especially for a man as easy-going as Philippe, but I've spent too much time in the south of France to discount the local lore entirely. Each time I have made potato salad since then, I've thrown in beans almost superstitiously. It helps that I have plenty of beans to choose from: yellow wax beans, purple beans that turn deep green when cooked, and the pelandron, a local variety with a mottled green-and-purple skin (again, it loses its color in contact with water, but it's a particularly tender and fast-cooking bean).
Yesterday I found myself with potatoes barely bigger than marbles from producer Dominique and the skinniest green beans with their flowers still attached, scoped out by Franck who never misses a thing at the market. Such tender little vegetables deserved careful treatment, so I forgot about my usual punchy mustard and red wine vinegar dressing and opted for simple lemon and olive oil instead. I cooked the potatoes in boiling salted water (nothing revolutionary there) and steamed the green beans lightly before tossing them with olive oil and juicy sliced garlic from organic producer Joël in a sauté pan. The green beans were piled on top of the potatoes, with some snipped chives courtesy of Sam and his scissors. Served with the crunchy, Romaine-like lettuce called sucrine and generously drizzled with the lemon dressing, this made a light Sunday night meal with George's exceptional goat cheese.
I don't know about Philippe, but I for one was happy to have my first tomato-less meal in weeks.

I'm off to Bergamo, Italy on Wednesday for two days! I'll be back to tell you about my latest adventures in one of my favorite Italian towns.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

In defense of the kiwano

There is something a bit primitive about the kiwano. This spiky vegetable (or is it a fruit?) belongs in a tropical jungle, not in some aseptic supermarket. Where else would I have come across it but at Pierre's stall, where it looked right at home next to stripy green tomatoes and miniature yellow pumpkins?
Looking like a cross between a cucumber and a hand grenade, the kiwano sat in my fridge for a few days while I wondered what to do with it and put off taking its portrait. In the meantime I discovered that it's one of the most hated foods on the Internet, reviled for its slimy flesh, tough seeds and off-putting taste.
I think the problem is that this native of Africa, which is also known as the horned melon, is being marketed as a fruit. When people think "fruit" they naturally think "sweet," and the kiwano is definitely not sweet. It's closer to a cucumber than a melon, with a lemon-like acidity and loads of Vitamin C. But, lest you start to think that the kiwano is in any way ordinary, consider that when I cut it in half this white-fleshed fruit released a blood-like pink juice. Spooky.

The kiwano most commonly despised by bloggers is orange-skinned while mine was green, which might explain why it was perfectly edible. The seeds were only slightly bigger and harder than those of an ordinary cucumber and I could have happily thrown small bits of it into a salad. Fortunately, it had none of the sliminess that I had read about with dread.
Still, I couldn't see myself eating a whole kiwano all on my own - and Philippe and Sam were showing little interest - so I decided to turn it into juice, using a couple of the firm little garden pears that I had recently bought from producer Dominique. They weren't soft enough to eat but they were just right for juice, as ripe pears turn into brown mush when pressed through a juicer.
I used 1 kiwano, 2 small pears and a knob of ginger for good measure to make a frothy, pale green drink.
You know what? It tasted good enough that I wondered why I don't use my juicer more often - until it came time to clean out all those little seeds.
Nasty as the orange kiwano sounds, I think the green one deserves a chance precisely because it doesn't aim to please. After all, the world has enough Golden Delicious apples and Del Monte bananas. I wouldn't want to see this rebellious fruit, which reminds me a bit of myself as a spiky-haired teenager, go the way of the dinosaurs.

Note: Since writing this I spoke to Pierre, who confirmed that the green kiwano is the unripe fruit. If he had left it on the vine it would have turned orange, but I think he was probably wise to snip it off.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fregola sarda

I had great plans for my bag of fregola sarda, which I bought at the Italie à Table show on the Promenade des Anglais back in early June. I meant to thoroughly research this Sardinian pasta, which looks like overgrown couscous grains or coarsely ground almonds that have been toasted until golden.
But then I was hungry, I had some diced raw eggplant leftover from the previous day's ratatouille and Sam was starting to get restless. I reached for the bag of penne but the fregola sarda was calling out to me, full of mystery and promise.
I remembered the woman who sold them to me saying something about tomatoes, which was all I understood of her rapid-fire instructions in Italian. Even at the height of tomato season my cupboard is never without a can of Mutti* crushed tomatoes, which I decided on impulse to combine with flavors that seemed to me vaguely Sardinian. There was time only for the briefest internet search to see how long to cook these little toasted pasta bobbles (about 12-15 minutes, or until just tender).
The result was a hugely satisfying dish thanks to the texture contrasts: the firm bite of the toasted pasta, the crunch of the walnuts, the silkiness of the eggplant and the dry crumbliness of the 40-month-old parmesan, which I also bought at the Italian show. Next time I would add chili pepper, as it seemed the pasta could take quite a bit of seasoning. I held back this time because of Sam, who reacts as if I've tried to kill him if I add the tiniest pinch of chili pepper to a dish: he grabs his throat, turns a dramatic shade of purple and spits out the offending mouthful. I at least had the satisfaction of seeing him gobble up the pasta, which looked to him like tiny gnocchi.
Note: I've just discovered that fregola sarda can be cooked like rice, by letting the cooking water evaporate. Luckily I still have half a bag left.

* I've just visited the Mutti website and discovered that Mutti claims to have INVENTED tomato pulp in 1971. I wonder how Italians made tomato sauce before then?

Fregola sarda with eggplant and walnuts
Serves 2

9 oz fregola sarda (250 g)
1 tbsp coarse sea salt
1 small eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) dice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 can crushed Italian tomatoes
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
A handful of shelled walnuts
A handful of flat (Italian) parsley leaves
A sprig of mint, leaves only
Fresh parmesan
Your best olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the coarse salt and throw in the fregola sarda. Cook for 12-15 mins, checking for tenderness now and then after about 10 mins. Drain in a fine strainer.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the eggplant and toss to coat with the oil, then cook, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the canned tomatoes, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium-high heat until thickened.

Meanwhile, toast the walnuts on a baking dish in the oven at 375 F (180 C) until fragrant and lightly browned. Chop coarsely.

Chop the parsley and mint leaves.

Toss the pasta with the tomato-eggplant sauce and divide between two serving bowls. Top with the walnuts, herbs and shaved parmesan (use a vegetable peeler for this). Drizzle with your best olive oil.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Living in the home of ratatouille, this is not a recipe that I take lightly. I make it only in the height of summer with eggplant whose skin is as flawless as a baby's, tomatoes that have basked luxuriantly in the sun, pale green zucchini so fresh that their yellow flowers are still open, and peppers whose skin gleams red or yellow.
The US release of the Disney film Ratatouille - which comes to French theaters on August 1st - smack in the middle of ratatouille season has brought this dish to the forefront of my mind. Writing an article for Agence France-Presse on the origins of this humble stew gave me an excuse to delve into my Provençal cookbooks, have a food chat with Franck Cerutti and eat dinner at the quirky Niçois bistro La Merenda, where I always take my visiting foodie friends (even if they do kick us out rather unceremoniously to make room for the next sitting).
The name, in case you're wondering, comes from the French word touiller, meaning to stir. According to the Larousse Gastronomique ratatouille once referred to "an unappetizing stew," which is exactly what happens when ratatouille is assembled hastily and cooked for too long. It's unlikely ever to taste bad if you make it with summer vegetables, but the better Provençal cooks aim for clarity in this dish, with each vegetable preserving its taste, color and texture.
I long resisted buying Jacques Médecin's cookbook because he was one of Nice's most corrupt mayors ever (and that's saying a lot), but I eventually had to admit that he could be relied on for good recipes if not wise politics. In Cuisine Niçoise: Recipes from a Mediterranean Kitchen, he advises using 1.5 kg (3 lbs 5 oz) tomatoes to 1 kg (2 lbs 4 oz) of each of the other vegetables, and here he hits upon one of the great truths about ratatouille: tomato is the main ingredient. Not that the vegetables should be drowning in tomato sauce, but there should be enough tomato to bind it all together effortlessly.
You might think that the chef of the Louis XV in Monaco would be above peasant cooking but nothing makes Franck more excited than the food of his childhood on a farm in the mountains above Nice. In an ideal ratatouille, he says, each vegetable would be cooked separately in olive oil and drained of any excess fat in a colander before joining the tomatoes in a pot. "I like it when it's served at room temperature, not hot or chilled. That might even be the best way to eat it. I also like to reheat ratatouille and poach eggs in the mixture."
Typically, his restaurant take on ratatouille involves lobster and only the most colorful parts of each vegetable, which are arranged into beautiful stripes.
Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Franck said that Niçois cooks prefer yellow peppers to green or even red because they are sweeter and not as strong. If these peppers happen to come from Piedmont, so much the better.
My ratatouille research wouldn't have been complete without a visit to La Merenda, where former Negresco chef Dominic Le Stanc seems to have found the ultimate recipe for every Niçois dish. Presented on a plain white plate, his ratatouille is surprisingly garlicky - my friend Louisa and I concluded that he added chopped garlic towards the end of the cooking time. I also noted that he hadn't bothered to peel the tomatoes, which will come as good news to lazy cooks.
Slightly intimidated by all this knowledge, I set about fine-tuning my own version of ratatouille. I've always liked to cut the vegetables very small, which allows me to use ratatouille not just as a side dish but as a stuffing for zucchini flowers or vegetables. By remembering the tomato-as-main-ingredient principle, substituting yellow peppers for green and adding some chopped garlic at the end of the cooking time, I took my recipe to a new level. I don't drain off the oil, but use the minimum I need to cook each vegetable, drizzling my best Baux de Provence olive oil over top when I serve the ratatouille.
Recognize the little squash in the picture? It's the mysterious vegetable that Pierre was holding the other day.

Courgettes rondes farcies à la ratatouille
(Round zucchini stuffed with ratatouille)

Serves 6 as a starter

6 small round zucchini
1 yellow pepper
1/2 large red pepper
1 small eggplant
2 medium zucchini
4 tomatoes
1 large shallot
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only
1 small dried chili pepper
1-2 cloves garlic
5 or 6 sprigs basil
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a teaspoon of salt and plunge the zucchini into the water. Boil for 10 mins, until they are lightly cooked but still firm.

Cut the top off each zucchini and hollow out the inside, discarding the pulp or saving it for another purpose.

Cut the yellow and red peppers, eggplant and zucchini into very small dice and sweat them one at a time on medium heat with a little salt in about 1 tbsp olive oil for each different type of vegetable (a little more for the eggplant, which should be cooked on medium-high heat). When the vegetables start to soften, set them aside in a large bowl (they can be combined at this point).

Meanwhile, peel the tomatoes. I use my Zyliss tomato peeler but you can also dip them in boiling water for a few seconds. Cut the tomatoes in half and squeeze out the seeds, then chop them finely. Finely mince the shallots and garlic.

Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a sauté pan, sweat the shallots over medium heat for 2 minutes and add the tomatoes, thyme and whole chili pepper. Cook for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce is starting to thicken. Add all the vegetables, chopped garlic and slivered basil and stew gently for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Let the mixture cool and, using a small spoon, stuff the zucchini and place them on a baking tray. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake for 15 mins at 375 F (180 C), until heated through. Serve warm or at room temperature to best appreciate the flavors.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Paris in the summer

For many years I never understood why French people take their holidays en masse, hitting the highways and airports like so many sheep. I made a point of staying in Paris over the summer to enjoy the plummeting stress level and traffic-free streets. Summer is the time for champagne picnics on the banks of the Seine, for parties on the pedestrian Pont des Arts, and for cycling the wrong way down cobbled one-way streets (something that intrepid tourists can now try thanks to Velib', a new program that is making 20,000 bicycles available for an annual rental fee of €29 plus an hourly charge, with the first half hour free).
The only downside to lingering in Paris over the summer is that hard-working chefs, shopkeepers and market stallholders are among the first to join the exodus. I remember visiting the Saxe-Breteuil market in late July to find it positively desolate, with only two lonely merchants. Most bistros close for the entire month of August and sometimes part of July, and even the famed ice cream shop Berthillon pulls down its shutters in hot weather as founder Raymond Berthillon didn't want people eating his intensely flavored boules "just to stay cool".
Fortunately, some of the city's best restaurants and food shops are going against tradition to stay open this year. If you're planning to be in Paris this summer, have a look at my article on the Fodor's news wire to see how you can satisfy the most likely food cravings, from cheese to ice cream. I can also design you a custom itinerary based on your interests.
Just don't try to get in touch between August 11th and 25th - I'll be on holiday.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Sunday at the farm

If there were a prize for the most exuberant farmer at the Cours Saleya market, Pierre would be a shoo-in.
To celebrate summer's bounty, he held an open house on Sunday with games for the children, a potent tropical punch made with real vanilla bean (it's a good thing someone else was supervising the kids), African drummers and plenty of nibbles that showcased his organic vegetables and fruit.
Some of these came from the restaurant Aphrodite, whose summer menu is largely inspired by Pierre's unusual produce. When complimented on his creations, chef David Faure modestly said, "I didn't do anything. It's all about the ingredients."
Still, someone had to think of dipping fragrant little mara des bois strawberries in caramel, giving them a paper-thin, crackly coating, and cutting tomatoes, long green salad peppers and spring onions into tiny dice to serve as an appetizer on a Chinese spoon (très Alain Ducasse).

I also discovered a new way of using tomatoes thanks to a friend of Pierre's whose specialty is ayurvedic cooking. She diced them small and tossed them with yogurt and Indian spices - mustard seeds, cumin, cilantro (fresh coriander) and curry leaves - to make a refreshing raita-style salad. I would have prepared and photographed the recipe, but some people think I have red and white on the brain lately.
Can you guess what vegetable Pierre is holding in this picture? Hint: it's not a tomato.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A classic tarte aux fraises

You know you've lived in France a long time when strawberry tart with crème pâtissière starts to seem banal. In any pastry shop in Paris you'll find this classic, the scarlet berries perched on an eggy cream and glazed with red jelly. I like it, but it's not something that I've thought of ordering in years (well, would you, when you could have Pierre Hermé's raspberry, rose and lychee tart or Sadaharu Aoki's salted caramel tart with milk chocolate?).
I associate crème pâtissière with the Cordon Bleu, where I worked as an interpreter for nine months when I first moved to France twelve years ago. Every Thursday the pastry chef, a man of blessedly few words, would turn out dozens of cakes and éclairs and tarts with quiet precision in the course of a two-hour demonstration. On these days my diet (if you can call it that) consisted solely of cakes and perhaps I had my fill of crème pâtissière, the obligatory filling for so many French desserts.
In Nice I like to fill strawberry tart with nothing but strawberries, the prettiest ones left whole and the rest boiled with sugar and a little lemon juice to make a vivid red jelly that I drizzle over top. As fate would have it, though, I found myself recently at a little restaurant in the pretty town of La Turbie called Café de la Fontaine. It looks like a regular café but is in fact the annex of the elegant Hostellerie Jérôme, where chef Bruno Cirino turns out some of the best food on the Côte d'Azur - or so I hear, as I haven't yet eaten there.
We arrived very late for lunch, past 2.30pm, but the waiters made room for us in the cacophonous dining room (the terrace is presumably a bit quieter). I went for the steak-frites with béarnaise, which was remarkable for the quality of the meat, while Philippe had the equally meaty pork with blood sausage and Sam devoured a plate of asparagus-stuffed ravioli. It was all lovely, not haute cuisine but clearly good quality ingredients prepared with thought and care.
All the time, though, I had my eye on the strawberry melba on the blackboard menu, hoping against hope that the waiter wouldn't come along and cross it out as he had most of the other desserts.
Finally, the plates were cleared and the moment had come.
"Three strawberry melbas, please."
The waiter looked regretful. "We've just run out. We have strawberry tart, though."
It wasn't much of an endorsement but at least I would have my strawberry fix. And then the big wedges of tart arrived, with delicate pastry, a surprisingly light vanilla-scented cream and sweet ruby berries. A marvel of simplicity, this tart reminded me of why crème pâtissière should never be filed away under "too old-fashioned."
Naturally I wanted to recreate this tart at home, with the same light pastry cream. The classic French recipe is often quite dense, with butter giving it a glossy finish but adding weight in the stomach. I slightly modified a basic pastry recipe from Books for Cooks no. 7, a compilation of recipes from my favorite cookbook shop in London, and tinkered with the pastry cream from O délices to make a strawberry tart that came remarkably close to what I had eaten in La Turbie.
In summer I prefer to make pastry in the food processor, which keeps it as cool as possible. Lately I've taken to sifting the flour, a step I used to ignore, as I've concluded that it really does produce lighter pastry. I didn't bother with red glaze (pastry chefs use melted redcurrant jelly), but you might sprinkle it with icing sugar.
The key is real vanilla bean and the sweetest, juiciest strawberries you can find - but you didn't need me to tell you that.

Classic tarte aux fraises
Serves 6

For the pastry:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (175 g)
5 tbsp icing sugar (45 g)
Pinch of salt
3 oz very cold butter, in pieces (90 g)
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice water (30 ml)

For the crème pâtissière:
1 1/3 cups whole milk (350 ml)
1/2 vanilla bean
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar (75 g)
1/4 cup flour (30 g)

1 1/2 lbs strawberries (700 g)

Pastry: Sift the flour and icing sugar and place in the bowl of a food processor with the salt. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and process until the dough forms a ball. Be careful not to overmix, but do let the dough come together. Turn the dough out onto a board and work it very lightly until smooth, pressing it forward bit by bit with the heel of your hand.

Roll the dough out immediately (going against tradition, which says to let it rest in the refrigerator) and line a 9-inch (24 cm) tart tin with the pastry, cutting the edges off with a rolling pin. If it tears, don't be afraid to press it back together, using stray pieces of dough to reinforce any weak spots. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour before using.

Preheat the oven to 425 F (200 C), or 400 F (190 C) on the convection setting. Line the pastry with a round of parchment paper and fill with beans or rice. If you don't have beans or rice, you can use a second tart tin of the same size instead (if you have one!).

Bake for 10-15 mins, until the pastry starts to brown around the edges. Remove the paper and weights or tart tin and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until evenly golden. Set aside to cool.

Crème pâtissière: Pour the milk into a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk and add the bean to the milk. Bring to a boil, being careful not to let it burn.

In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy. Add the flour and whisk well until smooth. Pour the boiling milk slowly into this mixture, whisking constantly. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and bring to a boil, whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Lower the heat and continue to cook the pastry cream, whisking, for 2-3 mins over very low heat to cook the flour (if you're using an electric burner, switch to another burner so as not to burn the pastry cream). Remove the vanilla bean, pour the cream into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap so that the plastic touches the surface, preventing a skin from forming. Set aside to cool.

When the pastry and pastry cream have cooled, pour the cream into the pastry shell and spread it out with a spatula. Top with the strawberries, cut in half, with the cut side facing upwards to prevent too much juice from soaking into the cream.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Canada Day

I've lived in France for so long that I rarely get sentimental about Canada, to the universal bafflement of the French who can't understand why I gave up the comfort and natural beauty of my homeland to live in cramped medieval conditions.
It so happens that I like hanging up my laundry on the vertiginous clothesline outside and trying to imagine who lived in my apartment 400 years ago (monks, apparently), and I've even adapted quite nicely to the 12 months of sunshine in Nice.
Every year, though, I like to indulge any lingering nostalgia with a Canada Day picnic. America has the 4th of July, France has Bastille Day and Canada celebrates its independence on July 1st, the one day when you'll see Canadians waving flags, saying "eh" even more often than usual and getting almost teary-eyed with patriotism.
Since living in Nice I've met an unprecedented number of Canadians - refugees from the cold, perhaps - and yesterday's picnic to mark our country's 140th birthday was the biggest ever.

(I'm the one looking at the camera.)
I sang along to Canadian music on CBC Radio as I prepared a red-and-white (well, pink and white) dish for the occasion. Having had my fill of carrot cake lately, I also made a banana and chocolate loaf from the Rose Bakery cookbook, whose recipes remind me of my favorite Canadian cafés even if Rose Carrarini is English.
Though Canada doesn't exactly have its own cuisine, it does have some lovely ingredients: Pacific salmon, great big steaks from my home province of Alberta, maple syrup, morel mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, Yukon gold potatoes and wild berries with names like mossberry and saskatoon. Immigrants have held onto their culinary traditions, which means that while no dish may be considered truly Canadian, no dish may be considered truly not Canadian either. With this in mind I prepared an Italian-influenced salmon dish, adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters.
My starting point was some beautiful pink-and-white beans from Pierre's farm. He refers to them as coco beans but they are known in English by their Italian name, borlotti. I know they lose their pink pattern when cooked, turning a creamy and even slightly gray color, but still couldn't resist them. If you can't find fresh beans, you can of course use dried beans soaked overnight.
To complete the dish I found some good quality Scottish farmed salmon - I would have preferred wild Pacific salmon, but it's not so easy to come by here - red and orange cherry tomatoes from organic producer Jean-Louis, little purple spring onions and a big bunch of potent basil. Beans are more commonly paired with tuna in Italian cooking, but I had my heart set on salmon for this occasion.
A real Canadian would have barbecued the salmon, even in one of those unexpected July snowstorms, but I settled for grilling the thin slices in my oven, which worked quite nicely. It was just one of many tempting dishes in our beach potluck, which also included a Lebanese tabouleh and an Asian noodle salad in true Canadian fashion.
I almost wept when Gary from Calgary, who had attended my cooking class on Saturday, presented me with a pair of Proud to be a Canadian oven mitts.
After all, who but a Canadian would pack those in his suitcase just in case?

Salmon with tomato-basil dressing and white beans
Serves 6

For the beans:
2 lbs fresh white beans or borlotti beans in their shells (about 1 kg)
1 sprig rosemary
4 garlic cloves
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
4 spring onions, preferably purple, with their stems
2 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp best-quality olive oil
A handful flat (Italian) parsley

For the tomatoes:
1 1/2 lbs cherry tomatoes, preferably different colors (700 g)
2 small shallots
1 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 large sprigs basil, leaves only

1 1/2 lbs salmon fillet, skinned (700 g)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Olive oil

Shell the beans and place in a large pot of water with the rosemary and peeled garlic cloves. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a gentle bubble and cook for 15 mins, then add about 1 tsp salt. Cook for another 15 minutes or until soft. Drain, discarding the rosemary and setting aside the garlic cloves in a small bowl.

Mash the garlic cloves with a fork and add the lemon juice, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Whisk in the olive oil. Peel one layer off the spring onions, rinse and slice thinly, using most of the stems as well as the white part. Chop the parsley. Stir the spring onions, parsley and garlic dressing into the cooled beans.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and place in a bowl. Finely dice the shallots and add to the bowl with the red wine vinegar and olive oil. Just before serving, add the salt, pepper and finely chopped basil.

Holding your knife at slight angle, cut the salmon fillet into slices about 1/2-inch (1 cm) thick. Line a large roasting tin with aluminum foil and place it in the oven, at the highest possible heat. Season the salmon with salt and pepper on both sides and brush with olive oil.

After 30 minutes, switch the oven to the broil (grill) setting. Remove the pan from the oven and arrange the salmon on the hot pan. Place as close as possible to the heat and cook for about 3 mins, until just cooked through. Carefully arrange the salmon on the serving dish.

Serve the salmon with the tomatoes as a dressing and the beans on the side.