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.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Five minute soufflé

Soufflé is the quintessential show-off dish, so it's no wonder the French have kept quiet all these years about how easy it really is to make.
This version from chef Christian Plumail in Nice is one of the simplest and best I have ever eaten. It calls for only four ingredients - lemon, eggs, sugar and a pinch of salt - and comes together ridiculously quickly with the help of an electric mixer.
You can bake the soufflés in ramekins, but I've found that my tapas glasses withstand the heat of the oven and create an even more dramatic result.
The only secret to this recipe is to fill the ramekins or glasses right to the top and smooth them off with a knife before baking. If you get the timing right (the recipe below works perfectly for me), they will hold their shape for a good two or three minutes after coming out of the oven.
Of course, as the French say, "A soufflé waits for no-one." Be sure your guests wait obediently for their soufflés, and not the other way around: soufflés are not known for being docile.
I'm lucky enough to have heaps of local lemons in my kitchen as the lemon season is at its peak here. If this isn't the case where you live, look for organic or untreated lemons so that you can use the zest without having to scrub the fruit.
I often serve this soufflé with an apple and star anise compote, but have also paired it with raspberry sorbet: lemon and raspberries are made for each other, I think.

In Paris, the soufflé is the little black dress of the dessert world. Here are a few of the most spectacular that I've encountered (so far):

- Grapefruit soufflé with grapefruit sorbet at Le Jules Verne.
- Grand Marnier soufflé at the St-Germain bistro Chez Dumonet - Joséphine.
- Vanilla soufflé at the Le Troquet in the 15th arrondissement (the pastry chef made a collar of butter around the top of the ramekin so that the soufflé would rise evenly).
- Chartreuse soufflé at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon.
- Valrhona chocolate soufflé at Paule Caillat's cooking class.

Lemon soufflé
Serves 4

2 untreated lemons
3 eggs
50 g + 1 tbsp white sugar (1/4 cup + 1 tbsp)
A pinch of salt
Butter and extra white sugar for the soufflé dishes
Icing sugar (Confectioner's sugar)

Carefully butter four individual soufflé dishes and sprinkle with sugar to coat each dish evenly.

Zest the lemons and chop the zest finely. Squeeze one of the lemons and set aside the juice.

Separate the eggs. In a mixer, whisk the egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar until the mixture thickens and lightens in color. Add the lemon zest.

Clean the whisk and beat the egg whites in a separate bowl with the pinch of salt until stiff but not dry. Add the 1 tbsp sugar, then the lemon juice bit by bit.

Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the egg yolk mixture and beat with a whisk to lighten the mixture. Add the rest of the egg whites, folding them in gently with a spatula.

Fill the soufflé dishes right to the top, smoothing the surface with a knife. Sprinkle with icing sugar. Place the dishes on a baking sheet and bake in a 375 F (180 C) oven, preferably on the convection setting, for 8 minutes, until well risen and lightly browned.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Socca and sundried tomato hummus

Like most people who make a sort of living from writing, I rarely spring into action until I sense a deadline looming. With just two days left to take part in Susan's Legume Love Affair, I started thinking seriously about my own passions: lentils, especially the small, flinty-green ones from the volcanic land around Puy in central France; white beans, particularly the pearly coco de Paimpol from Brittany and the coveted crop from the town of Albenga in Liguria; and chickpeas, which make up for in versatility what they lack in glamor.
Everyone loves hummus and chana dal (don't they?), but not so many people know what to do with chickpea flour. It has become a staple in my kitchen since I settled in Nice, where a curious chickpea pancake called socca is sold at stalls throughout the Old Town. Consisting of nothing more than chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt, it probably once served as a sort of plate. These days, rough slices of it are wrapped in paper, sprinkled with pepper and eaten as a snack at any time of day or night. Socca made its way across the border from Liguria, where it's called farinata, and may have African origins.
Wherever it comes from, socca doesn't always inspire love at first sight. Bread guru Dan Lepard describes spitting out his first bite of socca in Nice before growing to appreciate this unleavened bread. I don't want to point fingers, but it may be that the socca he tried had been kept warm for too long or even (gasp!) reheated. Socca must be very, very fresh and very, very hot to be good.
The Niçois believe that only a wood-fired oven produces true socca. Don't listen to them. If your oven will heat to around 240 C (500 F or so), there is no excuse not to make socca. I love my copper socca tin, which doubles as a pizza pan, but again it's not a necessity - before investing in this, I used ordinary cake tins with great success.
I often depart from tradition slightly by adding some chopped rosemary to the socca batter; half a teaspoon of chili paste is just as welcome. With chickpeas on the brain, I was intrigued to see Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times this week for hummus with sundried tomato. For Susan's event, I decided to put together a double shot of chickpea by serving this with socca. I pretty much stuck to the recipe, though I felt compelled to add 1/4 cup of tahini and replaced the pimenton with Espelette pepper from the Basque region.

My little experiment had surprising results. On its own, the sun-dried tomato hummus didn't completely win me over - I think it's hard to improve on classic hummus and found the dried tomato taste a little overbearing. But with the socca the tomato hummus suddenly seemed right, its acidity and sweetness balancing the natural heaviness of the chickpeas. Plain socca will seem naked from now on.


Enough for 2 cake tins or 1 large socca or pizza pan

125 g chickpea flour (about 1 cup)
250 ml cold water (about 1 cup)
45 ml olive oil (3 tbsp)
1/2 tsp salt
1 sprig rosemary
Freshly ground pepper

In a mixing bowl, combine the water and chickpea flour. Add 15 ml (1 tbsp) olive oil, the salt and chopped rosemary leaves. Mix well until smooth. The batter should have the consistency of light cream – add water if necessary. Set aside at room temperature for at least 2 hours or, better yet, let the batter rest overnight, covered, in the refrigerator.

Heat the oven on maximum heat for at least 20 mins, with the cake tins or socca pan inside. Pour 1 tbsp olive oil into each of the 2 tins, or 2 tbsp oil into the large pan, and place in the oven to heat for 5 mins. Pour the socca batter into the tin(s). Place in the upper part of the oven.

After 5 mins, turn on the oven’s broiler (grill). Cook for 3-4 mins, until the socca starts to brown and even burn a little in spots.

To serve, cut into rough pieces and sprinkle with plenty of freshly ground pepper.