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.