Sunday, May 25, 2008

98, 99... and a new address for my blog

I didn't really plan it this way, but just in time for my 100th post I'm relaunching my blog with a new look and a new address.
I've always been proud of the way my Edible Paris and Les Petits Farcis web sites look, and am thrilled that my new blog now has the same friendly, colorful feel. I owe all the credit to the fabulous Josh, creator of the Big Medium software which I now use for all three websites. He doesn't normally design websites, but his software can be used to make any website easy to update. Many thanks also to my artist friend Sonya, whose banner looks beautiful at the top of the page.
It would have been too time-consuming to transfer my first 99 posts onto the new site - and time is particularly short these days - so my original blog will serve as the archives for my first year of blogging.
I look forward to seeing you on my new blog, and would be grateful if anyone who currently links to my blog could change the address to Merci!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ravioli with avocado sauce vierge

When I first came across this dish at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, I thought it was sheer madness. Then I tasted it and decided otherwise.
A few weeks later, I can no longer buy sheets of Niçois ravioli stuffed with beef and Swiss chard or spinach without also picking up a ripe avocado and a punnet of cherry tomatoes. It helps that the first time I served this combination at home, Sam - who had never previously gone wild for avocadoes - declared it the best thing he had ever eaten as he lapped up the last drops of sauce.
Of course, I appreciate how lucky I am to have the fresh pasta shop Barale at the end of my street. Founded in 1892 and still run by the Barale family, it's the place I turn to whenever I feel like eating something delicious without going to any effort (which turns out to be quite often). I buy the pâtes vertes (thick-cut spinach tagliatelle) for pâtes au pistou, panisses (a kind of chickpea polenta) to cut into strips and fry as an apéritif or side dish, and ravioli à la ricotta to serve with a simple tomato sauce.
Until recently, it had never occurred to me to serve ravioli niçois, otherwise known as ravioli à la daube, with anything other than daube sauce, or perhaps tomato sauce (with or without meat). These ravioli were originally designed to use up leftover beef stew, known as daube in these parts, and the extra sauce from the stew would be spooned over the ravioli. Pasta shops in Nice almost inevitably sell this rich, winey stew, more for serving with pasta than eating on its own.
Avocado, lemon and tomato make a brighter, more summery accompaniment, one that works surprisingly well with these earthy-tasting ravioli. A generous quantity of freshly grated parmesan brings it all together, balancing the acidity of the lemon. If you don't have access to Niçois ravioli - I'll post the recipe one of these days - it would be worth experimenting with other types of meat or ricotta ravioli or even plain pasta.

* I'm thrilled to report that Les Petits Farcis was featured alongside other small and informal cooking schools in this month's issue of Gourmet magazine. If you happen to have a copy, turn to page 88 for the article and page 199 for my recipe for Lemon curd tart with olive oil.

Niçois ravioli with avocado sauce vierge
Serves 3

8 dozen Niçois ravioli, or about 450 g (1 lb) other ravioli
1 small avocado or 1/2 large avocado
150 g cherry tomatoes (6 oz)
Juice and zest of one organic lemon
Good-quality olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Plenty of fresh parmesan cheese
A few fresh basil leaves

Heat a large pot of water for the ravioli. Cut the avocado and tomato into small dice and toss together with the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon, measure the juice and add it along with the same amount of olive oil to the avocado and tomato. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook the ravioli just until tender and drain carefully (they are fragile). Top with the avocado-tomato mixture and its juice, a generous amount of freshly grated parmesan and the torn basil leaves.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Strawberry tiramisù

This might surprise some of you, but shopping and cooking are not the only things that eat up all my time. I also read - and not just cookbooks. When lovely, poetic Lucy invited readers to turn to page 123 of our current reading, count five sentences and post the following three, I came up with this:
"Look at the sky," she said quickly. The sky had grown darker. "I think it will thunder again."
It seems fitting that the haunting novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters explores the theme of greed, as today's recipe is for greedy people only (which means anyone who might be reading this blog, I hope). I first spotted this summery variation on classic tiramisù at the bakery Bread & Roses in Paris, and had been wanting to recreate their recipe for months.
A little research led me to a recipe by Alsatian Christophe Felder, former pastry chef at the Hôtel Crillon in Paris and a prolific author of pastry books. Felder uses ladyfingers, but I followed the advice of the pastry chef at Bread & Roses and replaced these with pavesini biscuits. He showed me the little packets of thin, airy biscuits and said, "This is the true tiramisù biscuit." Authentic or not - there seems to be some debate on the subject - the pavesini turned out to be just the right size for my tapas glasses, also known as verrines.
Another change I made was to add a splash of Baume de Framboise, a raspberry liqueur from Burgundy which I keep on hand for making kirs with white wine. I might have used more, but I knew that Sam would be testing this dessert. Finally, I replaced Felder's red-tinted sugar with crumbled amaretto biscuits, which added a touch of almond that complements the fruit.
By the way, if you think it sounds a bit technical to pipe the mascarpone cream with a pastry bag, consider that Sam was bouncing around at my side throughout the making of this dessert, and yet it still turned out fairly presentable. A spoon would do fine, too.
I don't think I need to tell you that you'll want soft, sweet strawberries for this - nothing that would bounce if you dropped it on the floor. Lately I've been flirting with bankruptcy by indulging in daily baskets of ciflorettes and gariguettes, early strawberry varieties for the impatient (and greedy).

Strawberry tiramisù
Serves 6-7

1 lb 2 oz strawberries (500 g)
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar)
2 tbsp cold water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp strawberry or raspberry liqueur or syrup (optional)
3 eggs
4 oz sugar (100 g)
14 oz mascarpone (375 g)
7 ladyfinger biscuits or 14 pavesini biscuits (small Italian biscuits)
A few amaretto biscuits, for the garnish

Take 200 g (7 1/2 oz) of the strawberries, choosing the least pretty ones. Place these in a blender or food processor with the confectioner’s sugar, cold water, lemon juice and raspberry liqueur or syrup, if using. Blend until smooth and strain into a shallow bowl. Set aside in the refrigerator.

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. In a mixer, beat the egg yolks and half the sugar (50 g/2 oz) until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add the mascarpone and whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, starting off on low speed and gradually increasing the speed. As they increase in volume, slowly pour in the remaining sugar (50 g/2 oz). Beat until stiff. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, starting off with 1/3 of the whites to lighten the mixture.

Soak the biscuits in the strawberry juice as you assemble the ingredients for the tiramisu. Cut the tops off the strawberries, then cut them in half lengthwise and place them upside-down around the bottom of the glasses. Using a pastry bag or a small spoon, place a dollop of mascarpone cream in the bottom of the glass. Top with a soaked biscuit (or 1/2 a ladyfinger). Cover with more cream, then place a biscuit on top of this and cover with a spoonful of the strawberry purée. Cover with cream to the top of the glass, then smooth off the surface with a palette knife.

Repeat this procedure for each of the individual desserts and chill for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle the top with crumbled amaretto biscuits.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Fava bean gnocchi

There hasn't been much time for experiments in my kitchen lately. That doesn't mean that I haven't been cooking, just that for the past couple of weeks most meals have consisted of leftovers from my cooking classes or the handful of dishes that I can make again and again without anyone in the house tiring of them.
This week, leftover monkfish from bourride - fish stew with aïoli - and its accompanying new potatoes came back as Thai yellow curry thanks to a tub of spice paste at the back of the refrigerator and a can of coconut milk. For lunch every day I ate a big plate of mesclun with buttery local avocados and the juiciest lemons from the organic shop across the street. With Georges' goat's cheese grilled on pain tonique - sourdough bread with sultanas, pistachios and hazelnuts - from the Moulin du Païou bakery, the meal was complete. Last night I fell back on spicy herbed meatballs served with instant couscous, cinnamon and raisins, my favorite use for the steak haché that is ground in front of me at my local butcher's. It's even better if you replace the couscous with cooked bulgur and whip up some hummus to serve with it.
Today being a holiday in France, I was in the mood to try something new and went looking for inspiration on the astounding blog B comme Bon (never mind if you can't read French, just admire the pictures). Her idea of making gnocchi with leftover fava bean purée appealed to me, even if I can't imagine ever shelling enough fava beans to have leftover purée. The instructions were charmingly vague, which made me a bit nervous as I've had some disasters in the past with non-potato gnocchi. Still, the knowledge that gnocchi and fèves are Sam's two favorite foods in the world - after chocolate, of course - gave me the incentive to try my luck.
For this recipe I looked for fully grown fèves rather than the smaller févettes, which are delicious raw but too tiny to consider using for purée. I came back with what looked like a big bag of the long, knobbly pods, but experience has taught me that no matter how many fava beans you shell, there are never enough. I ended up with about 2 cups of beans, which thanks to Sam's expert help became 1 cup of peeled beans and (sigh) about 1/2 cup of emerald green purée.

To this I added a beaten egg and a pinch of salt, as instructed by B comme Bon, then just enough flour to form the dough into long sausages. I kept in on the very soft side, for fear of producing tough little dumplings. At this stage, Sam got involved again in rolling and shaping the gnocchi. I resisted the urge to demand that they all be the same size and shape, concentrating instead on sautéeing thin strips of smoked duck breast to use as a garnish. I also mixed some chopped chives with crème fraîche, which I dolloped on top of the cooked gnocchi.
The verdict? "Génial," said Sam, who didn't mind that they were firm compared to the fluffy potato gnocchi we usually buy. I enjoyed them too, but wasn't sure that they made of the most of market-fresh broad beans. So please don't feel in the least bit guilty if you are tempted to use the frozen kind - I won't tell.

Fava bean gnocchi
Serves 2 as a main course, 3 as a starter

2 cups shelled fava beans (broad beans), unpeeled (I started with 1.2 kg of beans in their shells)
1 tsp olive oil
1 tbsp water
1 egg
A pinch of salt
About 1 1/4 cups flour (I used Italian 00 flour but all-purpose will do)
Good-quality olive oil

Crème fraîche or fromage blanc mixed with chives
Smoked duck breast or bacon, cut into matchsticks and fried until golden

Blanch the shelled broad beans in boiling water for 1 min, then drain and rinse with cold water. Pop each broad bean out of its skin, making a small slit in the opposite side from the pointy tip. You should have about 1 cup of peeled beans.

In a small pan, cook the beans with the olive oil and water until very soft, then purée in a food processor or put through a food mill. (I cooked them in the Thermomix for 5 mins at 100 C and puréed them on Turbo for 30 secs).

Transfer the beans to a bowl and add the egg, salt and 1 cup of flour. Mix well to form a dough using a rounded pastry scraper or wooden spoon, then add a little more flour bit by bit until the dough is sticky but workable.

Divide it into three and roll it as best you can on a heavily floured board into long sausages. Cut into short lengths and place on a floured plate. (My gnocchi could have been smaller, as they swelled up in the water.)

Meanwhile, heat a large pot of boiling water. Add 1 tbsp of coarse salt, gently add the gnocchi and cook for about 2 mins, until the gnocchi have been floating at the surface for about 30 secs.

Drain, toss with a little olive oil and top with the garnishes.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Three nights in Rosà... and four hours in Venice

We had been driving for eight hours in pounding rain and fog only slightly less puddinglike than riz au lait. Finally, after many wrong turns and some predictable griping about Italian road signs, we arrived in the little-known town of Rosà (nice, name, don't you think?). Our great friends from Canada were staying in Cittadella, just a few kilometers away, but suddenly the distance seemed insurmountable. "We'll just eat at the agriturismo tonight," we told our friends.
I should have known that there is no such thing as "just eating" at an agriturismo, a farmhouse that doubles as a restaurant and often as a bed and breakfast. La Dolfinella's owners cheerfully told us to come to the dining room no later than 8.30pm - what they didn't say is that we would be polishing off the crumbs of our ricotta torte three hours later. Before that torte (which would make a second appearance at breakfast) came a meal that could be described with many adjectives, none of them a synonym of "balanced."
There was polenta topped with chunks of meat, grilled white asparagus and a lot of melted butter. There was crespelle, a kind of crepe, with a mascarpone, ricotta and herb filling. There was the creamiest risotto made with more white asparagus, which was at its peak when we visited. I was starting to think that I might have eaten enough when the main course came: thin slices of roast pork from the farm with sautéed potatoes and salad. Oh, and with each course there were earnest offers of seconds.
When I complimented the signora the next day on the quality of her husband's cooking, she shrugged matter-of-factly. "It's Italian cuisine," she said.
I hardly need to explain why I had soon forgotten our ordeals on the road. As for Rosà, it's one of the few places in Italy that I would not describe as pretty. The Veneto has a lot going for it - the Dolomites, half of Lake Garda, cities like Verona and Venice - but the downside of its wealth is the thousands of trucks and hundreds of warehouse-style outlets that we passed on the way to our destination. That said, the medieval towns of Cittadella and Castelfranco are beautiful, friendly and a lot easier on the nerves than nearby Venice.
Once in the area it seemed silly not to see Venice, and the rain politely stopped for the duration of our whirlwind visit. I can't pretend to have formed any original thoughts about the city in four hours, but I did see enough to convince me that there is much to discover beyond its sometimes gaudy surface. I even spotted a restaurant where I would have liked to eat, though we contented ourselves with inoffensive panini this time (not a tragedy considering what we had consumed the night before, and what we would eat the next day).

We strolled through the Rialto market at closing time, and I marvelled at the sight of trimmed raw artichoke hearts floating in lemon water. What a brilliant idea! Why has nobody thought of this in France?

In Castelfranco we hooked up with our old friend Fabio, who specializes in sniffing out extraordinary restaurants in unlikely locations. He took us to the out-of-the-way organic osteria Pironetomosca (Via Priuli, 17/C, Castelfranco), with quite a stylish decor compared to the farm kitsch at La Dolfinella. This didn't prevent the kitchen from turning out country-style food such as my white asparagus flan with creamy leek sauce, thick spaghetti (I've forgotten the exact name) laced with chunks of duck, and enormous slab of beef roasted all night long at a low temperature. This might sound like rather a lot, but I'm not joking when I say that it seemed relatively light compared to what we had eaten two nights before. We even headed straight for the gelateria in Castelfranco after this meal.
Probably my greatest discovery of this brief trip was the white asparagus from Bassano, just up the road from Rosà. Though we didn't make it to Bassano, along the strip-mall-like road between Cittadella and Rosà were stands selling its DOP asparagus, tied into fat bundles. In France I had already learned to appreciate the delicately bitter taste of white asparagus; these sweet ivory stalks that barely needed peeling were something else altogether. They were delicious boiled standing up or steamed with a lemon and hazelnut vinaigrette, but braising turned out to be the best method of all - thanks, Susan, for sending out this recipe at just the right moment.

* I know I've been promising to tell you about Liguria, but my Easter weekend in Finale Ligure has lost its immediacy. This is a place I plan to go back to again and again, so with luck you won't have to wait long to hear about the best places to eat spaghetti allo scoglio, pasta with pesto, and focaccia dressed with nothing more than olive oil and coarse salt.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Château de la Chèvre d'Or

Spring has been in a playful mood this year, getting our hopes up only to dash them like the wave that swept through our beach picnic yesterday, soaking us from head to toe. Yet the season started promisingly with a brilliant if chilly day in Eze Village, a little town 20 minutes from Nice that clings to the top of a craggy rock overlooking the sea.
Philippe and I came here on the first day of spring (ages ago, I know) to have lunch at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or, named after an animal that frequently pops up in Provençal lore. Various tales explain how this old stone house came to be called La Chèvre d'Or, but what is certain is that the golden goat has prospered since Robert Wolf opened the restaurant in 1953. Now part of the Relais & Château chain, the Chèvre d'Or has transformed half the town into luxury accommodation, attracting wealthy Parisians in need of sun and tourists from all over the world. The hotel employs more than 100 staff to take care of its four restaurants and 34 rooms, which are scattered throughout the village.

I had heard nothing but good things about the food at La Chèvre d'Or before coming here, but with the restaurant freshly re-opened after its winter break who knew whether an unexpected wave might come crashing through this meal? Chef Philippe Labbé put any fears to rest with cooking that walked a fine line between traditional and daring, never slipping too far one way or the other. I also couldn't help but notice that he shares my love of citrus, which endeared him to me throughout the meal. Oh, and that champagne did put us in a good mood from the very beginning, as did a series of well-chosen glasses of wine from the sommelier.

Crisp parmesan cones perched in shot glasses set the tone, alongside a paper-thin parmesan tuile sprinkled with paprika.

Beautiful as they looked on their silver spoons, these salmon sushi couldn't help but seem out of place here - a small blip in the Provençal spirit of this meal.

I would normally be alarmed at the idea of Niçois ravioli (filled with beef and chard) with an avocado sauce vierge, but the chef pulled it off here with a good shot of acidity from lemon zest and juice. Surprising and delicious.

The meal's first course after the amuses-bouches involved different takes on sea urchin and caviar, as in this iced cocktail of fennel and spider crab jelly topped with sea urchin "tongues".

Most intriguing of the three small dishes was a translucent sea water "raviole" with an intense sea urchin filling. I had visions - most likely inaccurate - of the chef hiking down the steep trail known as the Nietzsche path from the top of the village to the sea to collect water in a bucket.

I loved everything about la barbue sauvage, wild brill with spiky artichokes and a separate small dish of gamberoni with artichoke. Labbé deserves credit for showcasing an often underrated fish, rather than choosing the more obvious turbot or sole.

You might have heard of Bresse chicken, but did you know that the Bresse region also produces rabbits worthy of star chefs? The doll-sized rack of ribs alongside the stuffed saddle and confit shoulder was not for those who squirm at the thought of eating bunnies.

A thin slice of mango filled with iced vanilla cream was fabulous and we could have happily stopped here, but along came trio of desserts...

This photo aims to disguise the fact that I had taken a few bites before I remembered my duty. Alongside it was a praline cream with a crumbly apricot topping and a chilled coupe of coffee, lemon, chocolate and nougatine - all as rich and over-the-top as it sounds.

As you might expect the Château de la Chèvre d'Or is not a cheap place, but with set menus at €65 or €95 at lunch (€180 at dinner) and spectacular plunging views of the sea, it's definitely worth a splurge. In summer the best seats are on the terrace, which gets a cool breeze even on the hottest days.

* Carol Van Rooy is the winner of my book giveaway - thanks to all you borage lovers out there! I've sent you an e-mail, Carol, and will put the books in the post as soon as I hear from you.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Book giveaway

My blog's first birthday is coming up and I'm feeling generous. Or maybe I'm just stalling for time, as I'm off to Italy today and won't be able to post for about a week. Whatever the reason, there are two fabulous paperback books up for grabs: Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food and Lindsay Bareham's A Celebration of Soup.
Though I wouldn't dream of being without either of these books, I happen to find myself with extra copies and want to be sure they fall into the right hands. All you have to do is send a comment correctly identifying the edible (now there's a clue) flower shown in this picture, and you will have a chance to win both of these books. I'll send them anywhere in the world, so whether you're in Hong Kong or Honolulu, you can play. Friends are eligible too, since I will draw a name randomly from the correct answers.
I'll be back to tell you all about the Veneto (and Liguria, and my early spring meal at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or). Ciao!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A quietly delicious Paris pâtisserie

My love affair with French food began with pâtisserie and I still take pride in knowing where to find the best, from Pierre Hermé's passion fruit and milk chocolate macaron to Sadaharu Aoki's green tea millefeuille. That's why I was surprised to come across an interview with Pierre Hermé in which he spoke of a pastry shop that had somehow escaped my notice.
Though I thought I could sniff out sugar from miles away, La Petite Rose is in a residential part of the 8th arrondissement not far from where I live when I'm in Paris. You can imagine that I wasted no time in dashing over there to see what I had been missing since it opened a couple of years ago.
In an age where pâtisseries and chocolateries are looking ever more intimidating, with stark facades that barely suggest there might be cakes inside, it was refreshing to find this cheerful shop with pastries in the window and a few tables scattered outside and inside. The walls are painted pale pink and chocolate brown, a combination that seems to me typically Japanese. Pastry chef Miyuki Watanabe is indeed from Japan, and she let me take a few photos while she shyly told me about training in Tokyo and working at Gérard Mulot before opening her own shop.

I resisted the small but exquisite selection of pastries as I was on my way to a three-course lunch, but chose a few chocolates, which I proceeded to gobble, lunch or no lunch. Most original was the soft nougat wrapped in dark chocolate, though my favorite was probably the subtly zingy ginger-spiked ganache. At €4.70 for about ten chocolates, her prices are well below those of the ultra-chic chocolatiers of St-Germain, and I couldn't detect a difference in quality.

Next time I'll be sure to try her Valentin, the chocolate mousse and crème brûlée cake that Hermé recommended, as well as her chocolate and raspberry macaron. (I won't be afraid to go back to this shop, since I didn't destroy any cakes.)
On the way out, I looked to my right and admired this view of Sacré Coeur as I crossed the street: proof yet again that Paris always holds new surprises.

La Petite Rose, 11, boulevard de Courcelles, 8th, 01 45 22 07 27.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pane Pugliese

I wasn't planning to bring you a bread recipe today, but when this chubby loaf came out of the oven I found it irresistible. It's the first time I've made bread in weeks: my once thrillingly active starter has been languishing at the bottom of the refrigerator looking gray and neglected (though I know it will be quick to forgive me).
The recipe is a remarkably simple one using fast-acting yeast from Australian-born, London based bread guru Dan Lepard. The difference is that it calls for fizzy water - Dan uses Italian, I substituted Badoit - and soft 00 flour, the kind that goes into fresh pasta. Containing a spoonful of delicate-tasting Nice olive oil and Claude's incredible deep amber honey that tastes of wild mountain herbs, the dough was soft, velvety and a joy to knead by hand.
While I made tabbouleh for lunch I had Philippe take over the kneading, which he did with such enthusiasm that my marble board broke in half. Talk about stress relief!
With a creamy-colored, bouncy crumb and surprisingly distinctive honey taste, this bread reminded me of a crusty milk loaf. It's definitely going into my file of "breads to make again and again."
A little tip for Thermomix owners: when I make bread using bottled water or milk, I give the liquid 1 minute in the Thermomix at 40 C to warm it up.

Pane Pugliese
Makes 1 round loaf

Slightly adapted from an article in The Observer Food monthly.

1 tsp fast-rising (easy-blend) yeast
150 g 00 pasta flour
200 g sparkling water, warmed
1 tsp honey

350 g 00 flour
100 g sparkling water, warmed
2 tsp fine sea salt
1 tbsp good-quality olive oil

Cornmeal or semolina, for the baking sheet

In a large bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the sponge to make a smooth batter. Cover with a plastic bag and set aside in a warm place for 1 hour.

Add the remaining ingredients and combine with your hands or a plastic pastry scraper to form a slightly sticky dough, adding a little more water if necessary. Clean your hands and rub a marble or other work surface with 1 tsp olive oil, also rubbing some oil into your hands. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until very smooth and velvety. Return the dough to the cleaned bowl, cover with a plastic bag and set aside in a warm place to rise for 45 mins.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured marble or other work surface and flatten with your hands, then shape into a ball. Line a small bowl with a floured tea towel, or use a linen bread basket if you have one. Place the dough seam-side up in the bowl or basket, cover with the plastic bag and let rise until doubled in volume, about 45 mins.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 220 C, with the baking sheet in the oven and a ramekin filled with hot water on a shelf underneath it. When you're ready to bake the bread, sprinkle some cornmeal or semolina onto the hot baking sheet. Gently turn the ball of dough upside-down into your floured hand, then slide it carefully onto the baking sheet. Slash a cross in the dough using a very sharp knife or serrated bread knife.

Bake the bread (I used the convection setting) for 35-45 minutes, until golden brown and very crusty. Leave to cool on a wire rack before serving.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A moment in the sun

With deadlines looming like thunderclouds I've barely had time to breathe this week, let alone turn my mind to blogging. But I did find a few moments to appear on the local news.
It happened after I ran into a camera crew from France 3 television while giving a tour of the Cours Saleya market. We chatted for a few moments and I explained what I do. "A Canadian teaching Niçois cooking to Americans? There's a story in that," said the journalist Olivier, looking amused and slightly skeptical (I'm used to that look).
A couple of days later, Olivier and cameraman Niels showed up to follow my class around the market and into my kitchen, where I had planned a vegetarian menu of socca, artichokes stewed in white wine, soupe au pistou and tarte Tatin. "I don't cook," said Olivier, "but I do know how to make artichokes à la barigoule, so I'll be watching."
I breathed a sigh of relief when he gave a nod of approval, adding only that he likes to throw in some chopped tomatoes in summer (something I'll be trying as soon as tomatoes are in season). A big thank you to Judith from Vancouver, Rosana from Texas and Io from Oregon - their names are mixed up in the video - who seemed completely unfazed by having a big camera pointed at their faces as they perfected their artichoke-trimming skills.
I struggled for ages trying to upload the video, but for the moment all I can offer you is this link. Scroll down to 27.03 - Cuisine niçoise on the right-hand side and you can watch the short segment.
The picture above, by the way, is from my recent lunch at the Château de la Chèvre d'Or in Eze, which I'll be telling you all about very soon.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tackling the artichoke

With leaves like Cruella's spiky fingernails and a spirit just as malicious, this is not a vegetable to be taken lightly. The spiky Italian artichoke seems hell-bent on causing injury - but oh, what a reward once you conquer it.
When my wine merchant saw the vicious thorns poking out of my basket this morning, his eyes lit up. "Ce sont les meilleurs," he exclaimed. "Comme du beurre." They even got the attention of the normally reserved Jouni, who became positively enthused at the sight of my acquisition.
Spiky or not, the artichoke is not as scary a vegetable as it looks. A member of the thistle family, this flower bud varies in color from pale green-gray to deep purple and can be bigger than a grapefruit or as small as a lime. As the name suggests, it contains a hairy "choke" (known as the foin in French) that can be removed before or after cooking to reveal its well-concealed heart: the real prize for all that effort.
Big globe artichokes from Brittany are the best for steaming or boiling whole and eating leaf by leaf with vinaigrette or mayonnaise. But a more familiar sight in the south of France is the small violet-tinged artichoke known as the artichaut violet or poivrade. With barely developed chokes, these can be eaten raw, stewed with white wine, onion and carrot in a barigoule or poached just until tender in water, the juice of a lemon and a tablespoon of olive oil before being added to salads or pasta sauces.
We often cook artichauts à la barigoule in my classes as a way of introducing people to the small violet artichoke. Preparing them gets easier - and definitely faster - with practice, but requires no special skill other than a bit of patience.
Today I decided to try a recipe that I had been eyeing for a long time in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. She described it as a primitive barigoule, involving only a startling amount of olive oil, water and artichokes. The water-and-oil emulsion spits and sputters as the water evaporates leaving only oil, but it's all part of the fun (as is cleaning up afterwards).
The result reminded me of the Jewish fried artichokes I had eaten in Rome, complete with crisp outer leaves, making this recipe well worth the mess. In hindsight, I could have discarded fewer leaves than usual for this recipe as the crunchy fried leaves - like little artichoke chips - were probably the best part.

Before you start, prepare a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon. Add each trimmed artichoke to this water as quickly as possible to stop it from oxidizing (which turns it from a lovely pale yellow-green to gray).

Cut off the long stems, leaving about 5 cm (2 inches) of stem attached to the artichoke. The remaining stem can be peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces and cooked asparagus-style or made into soup.

Now cut about 3 cm (1 1/2 inches) off the top of the artichoke and discard the trimmings. You might like to keep a half-lemon nearby to rub the cut top of the artichoke before you continue.

Remove the hard outer leaves, starting at the stem and working your way up. Normally I discard at least three layers, until the leaves are pale yellow-green tinged with pink, but in this recipe you really only need to discard about two layers.
Now trim the stem using a small knife or vegetable peeler. The artichokes are ready to go into the lemon water.

When you've finished trimming all the artichokes, place them (without the lemon water) in a frying pan or saucepan that will hold them in one layer. Pour in olive oil to about halfway up the artichokes, then add water just to cover them.

Bring the water and oil to a boil over high heat. They should bubble vigorously and emulsify, creating a creamy liquid. Lower the heat only enough to minimize the spitting, but since the aim is to let all the water evaporate it has to boil hard.

When the water has evaporated and only oil is left, the spitting will calm and the oil will continue to bubble. Now keep a close eye on the artichokes. You might need to move them around a little, and I placed them stem side up towards the end to brown the leaves. It took longer than the recipe predicted, about 35-40 minutes rather than 15-20. This could be because I used a saucepan rather than a sauté pan.

Once the artichokes are golden, remove them with a slotted spoon, drain them on a paper towel and serve hot, sprinkled with fleur de sel.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Celeriac and kohlrabi rösti

With spring around the corner, the last thing I should be thinking about is knobbly, hairy vegetables that grow under the ground.
There are true wild asparagus at the market, which I've tossed with cappellini pasta, lemon zest and juice, cream and parmesan, and stirred into just-laid eggs with cubed potatoes for a frittata to be eaten on the beach (it has been that warm).

Finger-thin carrots taste sweet and delicate, even if they are just a tiny bit knobbly and hairy; I bite into them just as they are or glaze them in butter and honey with whole cumin seeds.
How do you like these violet artichokes? Trimming them is a fastidious task but the result is always worth the effort, whether I slice them raw, cook them quickly in lemony water or stew them for an hour in white wine and olive oil.

On Sunday, at the Libération market north of the train station in Nice, I spotted the season's first fava beans (also known as broad beans). They cost €8 a kilo, but I didn't hesitate for a second. "Une caprice," said the farmer, smiling knowingly. There is no better snack in spring than emerald fava beans straight from the pod, each one peeled of its bitter skin if you have the patience.
But, just as it's not quite time to put away my winter coat, I can still get excited about the earthy taste of celery root (or celeriac) and the turnipy crunch of purple-skinned kohlrabi. I picked up one of each from an organic producer at the market last weekend, not quite knowing what I would do with them. As I was idly flipping through a folder of clipped recipes, I came across a brilliant idea from Clare Ferguson in an old (2005) issue of Homes and Gardens magazine.
Her recipe called only for celeriac, but as my root was small kohlrabi seemed the obvious addition. The use of chickpea flour made these rösti slightly reminiscent of socca, that Niçois classic (note: these rösti are gluten-free). I was also delighted that the recipe called for parsley stems, something I throw away unless I'm planning to make vegetable stock.
The tomato sauce with sweet chili that Ferguson suggests would have been perfect, but as a light lunch with salad and nothing else they were very good too: sweet, slightly nutty and fresh-tasting all at once.
I seem not to be the only one who has celeriac on the brain: I was surprised to see, as I blog-hopped after that lunch, that aforkfulofspaghetti also has a post on celeriac fritters this week. They involve whole slices of celeriac, but look equally delicious.

Celeriac and kohlrabi rösti
Serves 4-6 as a side dish, 2-3 as a light lunch with salad

1 small celeriac (about 325-350 g)
1/2 kohlrabi (about 100 g)
50 g chickpea flour
A handful of parsley, stems and leaves
1 egg
2 tbsp cold water
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cracked black peppercorns
Good quality olive oil, for frying

Scrub and peel the celeriac and peel the kohlrabi. Shred coarsely by hand or using the grating attachment of your food processor.
If using the food processor (I did), replace the shredding blade with the chopping blade.
Add the chickpea flour, thinly sliced parsley leaves and stems, beaten egg, water, and seasonings. Process, in brief bursts, until the contents are fairly evenly mixed. By hand, simply mix well.
Heat a good tablespoon of oil in a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Drop tablespoons of this mixture into the hot oil and cook for 2-3 mins on each side, until browned and cooked through. Set aside in a warm oven until all the rösti are cooked (you may need to cook them in two batches).
Serve alongside meat or with a tomato-chili sauce as a snack or light lunch.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mandarin marmalade

My downstairs neighbor Tony is normally quite friendly. When I run into him in the street, he says hello and sometimes stops for a chat.
On Saturday, though, he backed away from me slowly as if I were a madwoman, muttering "no thanks, no thanks" without meeting my eye. It was my fault for asking the seemingly innocent question that no-one who lives in Nice wants to hear during the month of March.
"Would you like some citrus fruit?"
Local lemons, oranges, grapefruits and kumquats, untouched by chemicals and with glossy green leaves, sell for €3.50 a kilo at the market. Yet just about anyone who has been in Nice for any length of time knows someone with at least one productive citrus tree that produces a glut of fruit at this time of year. Just when I start to long for sweet French strawberries (which have, rather bizarrely, already made their first appearance at the market), I find myself cooking up enough bitter-orange marmalade to supply the whole reluctant neighborhood.
A well-meaning friend with a lovingly-tended garden filled my shopping cart to the brim with mandarins and bitter oranges this weekend. Mandarins have a mysterious, almost exotic scent that I would love to bottle and wear as a perfume. But there is a good reason why they have fallen out of favor over the years: they are absolutely stuffed with pips. Try to juice a mandarin with an electric citrus juicer and these will fly all over the kitchen, I've discovered the hard way (I now squash them with my hands directly over a sieve).
With heaps of mandarins in my kitchen, there was no excuse not to make the most labor-intensive jam in my repertory (I've decided to ignore the bitter oranges for the time being). Thanks to Philippe's help with the slicing and de-pipping it wasn't as painful as I had expected, even if it was a little disheartening to see 2.5 kilos of mandarins become a mere 7 jars of marmalade.
Still, when I've had enough of strawberries I know I will be glad to have given those mandarins a home.

Mandarin marmalade
(Sorry, it's hard to predict the number of jars! Allow about a dozen, just in case.)

An important trick when making marmalade is to save the pips as you slice the fruit. Place them in a small bowl, covered with water, overnight. The next day, drain the pips and add the water to the jam as it cooks: it's full of pectin. Unfortunately, my pips got thrown out by accident this time, which meant that the jam had to be reduced more than usual before it set.

2.5 kg mandarins (about 5 1/2 lbs)
1 lemon
2 kg sugar (about 4 1/2 lbs)

In one or two large bowls, soak the whole mandarins in cold water overnight.

The next day, drain and discard this water. Cut the mandarins and lemon into thin slices, removing the pips. Set these aside in a small bowl, covering them with water. Place the mandarin slices in one or two large bowls, with the sugar and just enough water to cover the fruit. Set aside overnight once again in a cool place.

The next day, dump the fruit in its syrup and the pip water into a very large saucepan or copper jam basin. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a steady bubble and cook until the juices set when a small amount is dripped onto a plate. This can take anywhere between 1-2 hours.

Pour into sterilized jam jars. I sterilize my jars by washing them well, then placing the wet jars on a tray in the oven at 180 C (375 F) for at least 20 mins.

Friday, February 22, 2008

New olive oil and salade exotique

You could easily miss Claude's trestle table among the producers at the Cours Saleya market. Little pots of hand-labelled tapenade stand next to bottles of herb-infused red wine vinegar and deep golden oil, with a few jars of honey to one side and sometimes a long loaf of pain d'épice.
It might seem like a modest collection of goods, but if Claude sold nothing more than vinegar I would still be heartbroken if she stopped coming to the market on Saturday mornings*. Perfumed with basil or slightly peppery nasturtium, this pure ingredient goes into nearly every one of my twice-daily salads. Her deep amber honey is a revelation, tasting of the rosemary, thyme and other plants that grow wild on her unruly hillside, and her oil has the delicate almond taste, typical of this area, that I've come to love.
Modest and unassuming, Claude brightens visibly when anyone shows enthusiasm for her products. Her pain d'épice, made without eggs and spiced only with anise in the Provençal way, already has an avid following; for Christmas, she produced a sugar-free version to serve with foie gras. She is the only small farmer at the market who speaks English, and many a visitor has been won over by her tasting of olive paste and tapenade.
You can imagine my excitement when Claude invited me to see her transform freshly harvested olives into oil earlier this month. There are a few stone olive mills in the hills behind Nice, but they are rarely used these days and Claude is the only producer I know of who has her own old-fashioned mill. It's a legacy from her father who, amazingly, built the whole mechanism himself using a giant stone from a perfume factory and bits and pieces from other mills. In his day, the mill could produce oil on one level and flour up above; Claude uses it only for oil, making it two or three times a year.
February might seem late in the season to make olive oil: in many parts of the olive-producing world, the harvest begins in October or November. But the little black Niçois olive, officially called the Caillette, is traditionally left on the tree until most of the olives are purply-black. This results in a deep golden oil that might at first seem too subtle if you are used to a more peppery taste. I love its almost buttery character, particularly with fragile mesclun leaves and on white-fleshed fish.
Though Claude's farm is just 40 minutes from Nice, the countryside feels surprisingly remote. We followed Pierre's wife Anne in her bright orange car towards Contes, then to Coaraze where Claude lives next door to her 87-year-old mother Marguerite. It happened to be Marguerite's birthday, and her playful eyes as she offered us a glass (or three) of her own very quaffable wine told me immediately that she is a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, Marguerite kept an eagle eye on the olive oil making process all day, often pitching in to show how it's done.

First about 300 kilos of freshly picked olives went into the big stone mill, which efficiently ground the flesh and pits to a black paste. This so resembled tapenade that a couple of people, Philippe included, couldn't help dipping their fingers in. "Beurk!" Olives straight off the tree are horribly bitter.

Eventually the oil started to separate from the paste. This clear oil could be scooped out with a ladle, and tasted remarkably sweet and almondy.

Then Claude turned on a tap and nearly filled the big stone basin with lukewarm water, causing the oil to float to the top. While this was going on, a volunteer farm worker from Vermont (you too can work on an organic farm in exchange for room and board by visiting Wwoof) took us on a tour of the property. Taking care of nearly 300 olive trees and a few beehives too is a daunting task for Claude and her mother, and Claude has come to rely on her "wwoofers," volunteers from around the world who stay for a week or longer.

We said hello to the beautiful goats, who sadly no longer supply cheese for the market. Claude's goat cheese was legendary at the Cours Saleya, but European Union regulations forced her to stop her artisanal production and she didn't feel able to invest in the separate, surgically clean building that is now required. These regulations explain why there is now so little farmer's cheese to be found in this area. Luckily, the EU bent its rules for the olive mill thanks to its steel mechanism, which was considered nearly as hygienic as stainless steel.

Since Claude gave up making cheese she has taken up beekeeping, a project she originally intended to share with her sister. Unfortunately, her sister had a severe allergic reaction to her first bee sting and Claude is now on her own.

Sam had a go at beating the olives off the trees, which takes some strength.

Back at the mill, golden oil was floating on the water. We took turns scooping up the oil with a a holey frying pan intended for roasting chestnuts and transferring it to a bucket before filtering it. I wasn't entirely sure why we were using a pan with holes in it (and forgot to ask), but I think it allowed any water to run out before we poured the oil into the bucket. On either side of the mill, helpers used small brooms to sweep the oil towards the scooper. The most efficient helper was Marguerite, who can remember olive harvests year by year back to the 1940s.

Finally, Claude's sister toasted slices of baguette in the fire for the brissauda. We rubbed these with garlic, dipped them in the fresh oil and sprinkled them with oregano: heaven. I thought about how many people must have indulged in this ritual over thousands of years, and how lucky I was to be taking part.

By the time our potluck lunch was served we were a little less hungry, but all of us ate with gusto anyway: Claude with her mother, sister and nephew, Pierre, Anne and their two sons, Nadim, us, a few wwoofers and a couple of friends of Pierre. I contributed a bulgur and red pepper salad that Claude dubbed salade exotique, while Pierre brought fennel from his farm which, in Nadim's words, tasted as if they had been dipped in pastis. We simply cut the bulbs in half and bit straight into their white flesh, dipping them first in olive oil of course. Claude prepared a huge dish of pasta while her sister, who lived in Greece for 10 years, made a delicious Greek pea stew. Then there were several cakes, including a birthday one for Marguerite.

After lunch Claude got straight back to work, pressing the pulp to extract more oil (which she would use for her flavored oils) and then draining the water into a rectangular basin outside. My job was to gently rake the oil from the top of this basin while Philippe scooped it into a bucket.
Making oil this way is labor-intensive and Claude could easily save herself the trouble by taking her olives to a modern mill, which would turn them into oil with zero effort on her part in a couple of hours. But I got the feeling that keeping this mill running is an ongoing gesture of respect for her father's ingenuity and hard work.
We were the last to leave and, when we did, Claude presented us with a bottle of cloudy oil to take home. I'm tempted to treasure it, but I also know that oil this fresh is best savoured quickly.

* Claude is taking her annual break, but will be back at the market at the end of March.

My bulgur and red pepper salad came from the Casa Moro book, though I found the recipe in my Books For Cooks 7 collection. Red peppers aren't exactly in season, but at this time of year I think it's OK to overlook that kind of thing occasionally. I found that I needed to soak the coarse bulgur for a lot longer than the recipe said, and I added the juice of a lemon to the dressing. Of course, I also doused the salad liberally with olive oil fresh from the mill.

Salade exotique
Serves 4-6
(adapted from Casa Moro)

3 red peppers
175 g (6 oz/1 cup) medium or coarse bulgur
6 spring onions, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp hot paprika (I used Espelette pepper)
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp each roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley and mint
1 tbsp roughly chopped fresh dill
Salt, black pepper

Grill the peppers either under a preheated overhead grill or over the naked flame of a gas hob, or on a barbecue and cook, turning, until evenly charred and blistered all over. Put the peppers in a bowl, cover with a plate, and leave for 10 mins while the trapped steam loosens the peppers skins so that they may be easily slipped off. Then peel, core and seed the peppers before very finely chopping to a semi-purée.

Soak the bulgur in warm water for 15-45 mins or until no longer hard in the center, then squeeze dry and put in a large mixing bowl with the chopped peppers, spring onions, garlic, paprika, tomato paste, olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs. Mix everything well together and add salt and pepper to taste.