Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Maybe not summer yet? A dish for all seasons

Having gotten some guff about jumping the gun on summer with yesterday's menu I though I'd do a dish today that can be served at any time of the year.

I come up with this one for a dinner party for 14 people. Linda just can't seem to not invite people so we end up with these numbers. We had three courses;

Entrée: Braised Endive with a walnut & blue cheese topping

Plat: Roasted chicken parts with a mushroom & tarragon sauce

Cheese: Of course, but I can't remember which ones except I know I bought a superb raw milk Camembert.

Dessert: Carrot Cake. A favorite.

I'll concentrate on the recipe for the chicken dish even though the endive was a big hit as well.


Chicken pieces. Number depending upon how many you're feeding. I like to use the leg/ thigh piece, one per person.
Mushrooms. I use a mix of dried reconstituted wild mushrooms plus lots of standard white cultivated mushrooms.
A brunch of fresh tarragon.
Full cream
Herbs de Province.


  1. Brown the chicken pieces in a bit of oil & butter on the stove top. Salt & pepper to taste.
  2. Place them, skin side up, in a roasting pan and season with salt, pepper and the HdeP.
  3. Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 30-40 minutes. Make sure the skin is crisp by using the grill if needed.
  4. Meanwhile chop the mushrooms into medium sized chunks.
  5. Remove the chicken pieces from the pan & pour off most of the chicken fat.
  6. Fry the mushrooms in the roasting pan tossing frequently until they just soften & scraping the pan to release the chicken juices.
  7. Add the cream. Enough to make a good thick sauce. Reduce as necessary to thicken.
  8. Add a good handful of the chopped fresh tarragon and mix it in. Remove from heat.
  9. Pour sauce over the chicken pieces and serve immediately.
I served this with Garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed carrots & Broad beans., but use whatever vegetables you like and are in season.

A good oaky chardonnay goes well with this.

Our guests seemed to like the dish & there were lots of questions about the 'mystery' ingredient. No mystery, just the fresh tarragon blending very well with the mushrooms.

Try & you'll see!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Summer? Maybe?

Has summer arrived? Well, maybe. At least the other evening it was warm enough to eat outside on the veranda. We had friends coming over in any case so I decided to do a "Summer" menu. Here's what I came up with.

Entrée. I did a garlic soup. This is an adaptation of a Jacques Pepin recipe. Its best done with fresh garlic. Chop up one leek, one onion and about 8-10 crushed cloves of garlic. Sautée them in a bit of oil for just a couple of minutes. (DO NOT let them brown at all!) Add 2 cups each of chicken stock (unsalted) and water. Add about 1 pound of potatoes which have been peeled and cut up into cubes. Gently boil for about 1/2 hour. Let cool a bit then puree the mixture. Meanwhile make some croûtons from day old bread. Before serving add one cup of cream or milk. Garnish with chopped chives. Because of the cooking this soup is very mild and silky smooth. I like it best hot, but its good at room temperature as well.

Plat. This is a fish stew, sort of. In the morning of dinner or better yet the previous day make up a nice batch of gnocchi. NOT the traditional potato based ones, but those based upon using a 5 egg choux pastry base. (let me know if you need the recipe.) As you make the pastry add a good tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a generous handfull of grated Gruyeres cheese. Finely chopped chives are another good addition to the gnocchi. Pipe the Gnocchi directly into just barely boiling water, cook, spread on sheets & freeze.
For the fish use salmon, a white fish of your choice (roughly a pound of each) & calamari. Cut the fish into bite sized cubes and fry gently in oil until just browned. Do not fry the calamari. Using a shallow baking dish put in about a tablespoon of capers and two tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon. Add the fish & calamari. Add roughly 2 cups cream. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. Take out & add some frozen peas and the gnocchi straight from the freezer. Push down to make sure they're covered & return the dish to the oven for another 10 minutes. Serve straight from the oven onto heated plates.

Cheese. This being France we normally have a cheese course. I leave the selection up to you & your cheese shop.

Desert. I was trying to recreate a desert we'd had at a local restaurant. I succeeded fairly well; certainly our guests liked it. So make a pate Brisée. (let me know if you need a recipe.) Roll this out into a pie tin or, as I do, onto a perforated pizza round. Buy about 6-7 stalks of rhubarb and three cooking apples. (I like Grannies). Cut the Rhubarb into about one inch lengths, place in a sauce pan, add two table spoons sugar,a teaspoon of powdered ginger & one tablespoon water & gently cook for 10-15 minutes. Be very gentle here so the rhubarb softens, but doesn't turn to mush. Peel & core the apples then slice them into thin wafers. Put a mixture of 1/2 powdered almonds plus 1/4 each of flour & sugar onto the rolled out pastry. Place the apple wafers around on this mixture. Put the rhubarb on top of the apples. Sprinkle over this a crumble mixture (let me know if you need a recipe.) If you're using the pizza round you now need to bring up & crimp the edges of the crust.Now bake in a 380 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until the crust starts browning. It may be necessary to turn on the broiler to get the crumble to brown, but be careful. Let the pie cool a bit then serve with good quality vanilla ice cream.

Voila! An early summer menu. Have fun with it & if you do decide to try it let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Exceptional Meals - Truffle mania

Over on eGullet I described our best ever bouillabaisse eaten during a vacation at Bandol. There I promised to describe a second memorable meal that took place during the same trip.

As mentioned on eGullet the deal was that one of the three couples would choose & pay for a restaurant each week, the rest of the time we shared all costs. The week it was my Sister-in-Law's turn she came up with a restaurant that she had read about in an English Sunday news paper. It sounded good; a young Chef, the restaurant in an old farmhouse, lots of local fresh ingredients. Sort of sounded as if you ate sitting around a table in a farm house kitchen. So I called and made a reservation for the next night.

The next morning I suggested that we explore the area and see if we could find the restaurant as I wasn't 100% sure that I'd understood the directions. Off we went in our holiday gear, shorts & shirts. As it turned out we found the restaurant, Chez Bruno, without difficulty. I decided to go in as it was now lunch time and check that our reservation was OK. Our first clue that this restaurant was not the simple place we had expected was when we were greeted in the car park by a young man in spotless white jacket complete with epaulets. The second clue was that as we entered the restaurant along an arcade there were boxes of wild mushrooms on one side & boxes of truffles on the other. Multiple thousands of dollars of truffles. In any case they did indeed have our reservation and having seen what a great place this was we were really looking forward to our dinner.

Only one problem; the ladies weren't about to go to dinner in a place like this dressed the casual way that they were. (All the French having lunch were casually, but stylishly dressed) Neither were they about to let we guys go dressed as we were either. No problem really we'd just take the autoroute home via Toulon, change clothes and return. Simple until disaster struck. As we entered the Autoroute a horrendous thunderstorm struck. The works! It was so bad that we could only manage 30 KPH on the Autoroute. Then we hit Toulon in the middle of the thunderstorm in the middle of rush hour! Virtual grid lock. We finally made it home, but told the ladies that they had 20 minutes only to do their turnaround. They made it!

Meanwhile we'd been looking at the maps & trying to find a way around Toulon so as to avoid the traffic. The thunderstorm was still raging. (We learned the next day that it had been the worst storm in decades & that several people had been killed during the storm) We found a route & decided that Leo would drive while I navigated so off we went. The traffic was still terrible, but our route through side streets seemed to be working. At one point we we were going up a steep hill on a street with 3 inches of water cascading down it when a car two ahead of us stalled. No hesitation! Go Leo, up on the curb and around the stall. Eventually we made it through Toulon and the storm abated. We were an hour late at the restaurant, but were still greeted warmly and with sympathy.

There were no menus. Bruno himself, all six feet, 300 pounds complete with beard, came to the table and described the meal we were to have, five courses. All in a local French dialect of course. When he finished Leo piped up: "could you please repeat all of that in English please" A hearty laugh and Bruno was gone. Every course except dessert featured truffles, wild mushrooms or both. Absolutely delicious. Truffle soup. Bar with a truffle & mushroom sauce. Mushroom & truffle sautée. Fillet steak with truffles. Very nice local cheeses and a wild berry compot for dessert. A splendid meal and given the circumstances unforgettable.

Afterwards we got a tour of the basement kitchen complete with life sized oil painting of Bruno. No ego this man. It was only much later that we learned of his reputation and as far as I know the restaurant is still going.

The storm had passed so we had a peaceful and contented ride home.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Star mania - is it really fun?

I've been reading reports of visits to France revolving around food & restaurants and it set off my muse mode. Is it really fun/ enjoyable to eat at Michelin starred restaurants five nights in a row? Not even taking into account the cost this, to me, gets to be a bit much.

At today's ridiculous exchange rate we're talking something like $300 per head - right? Every night? I don't care how much money I have I still find that a bit silly. Ok; once in a life time experience & all that I guess, but why not just come back more often?

I love to eat & I value great food, but too much too close together devalues the whole experience. One, or at least I, gets sated if I have too many of these meals to close together. A truly outstanding restaurant meal once a month does me with a good restaurant meal thrown in once a week.

Beyond all of this is the fact that spending a lot of time & money in top French restaurants doesn't do a lot for understanding or enjoying French culture & society. Far better to go to the sort of places John Talbot reviews regularly on eGullet. Those are the places where the French go where one sees true French life. (Question? Next time you are in a top French restaurant in Paris see if you can count the number of ordinary French people dining; not the tourists & not the obvious expense account types, but real couples or families. Interesting?)

I guess that I'm just not there on this. Trophy restaurants? Oneupmanship back home? Whatever? Guess I'm getting old & grouchy, but maybe older & wiser a bit.

Maybe somebody can explain the allure to me?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Pancakes by another name

Another day another repas. This one, last Friday, was with the mixed French/ English crowd. 14 French, 5 English & the lone Yank. The venue was a cooking school in the back of beyond. It was sort of near the pretty little village of St. Andre de Najac in the middle of Aveyronaise country side. We liked it immediately because as you drove into the little hamlet there were signs saying no smoking in this entire place!

The dining room was pretty, exposed stone walls, beams and a nice staircase going up. The propriétaire greeted us warmly in both languages then, he determined to practice his English talked to us in that language whilst we equally determined answered in French. After a few minutes we all had a good laugh. We were also introduced to our Chef, a hearty lady from Brittany. And then to table!

- The amusées were a perfect whole long radish complete with leaves placed upon your napkin; then a dish with thinly sliced radish, a little pot of cauliflower foam & broccoli foam and pieces of rolled crepe with a tuna & herb filling. Thus our first pancake.

- Next came a bowl of poached cod with carrots & shallots in a clear chicken broth. This was accompanied by a think buck wheat galette. Very nice and our second pancake.

- This was followed by a croustillant de crottin de Chavagnol. The infamous little droppings! (see previous post for explanation) The cheese had been almost melted and placed inside the croustillant. This was served with a fig compot.Guess what? The croustillant was a very thin crepe cooked at high heat so that it was crispy. This worked quite well & was our third pancake.

- Finally, dessert. You guessed it; a crepe. This filled with a creme Anglaise and served with a wonderful orange & Grand Mariner sauce. Our 4th pancake.

Coffee & rich chocolates followed. Wines were a red & a white from the Tarn; a Count's estate no less. They were Ok, but nothing special.

An interesting meal with some good conversation even though I was having problems hearing with that many people talking in a noisy room. 20 Euros plus 9 Euros for the wine coffee, not bad.

We said goodbye the the chef & the owner and the evening was topped off by the sight of a tiny hedgehog trundling across the road. We had to stop & shoo him off.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Language lessons

I've been thinking about language and wondering how to ever get fluent in French. Somehow, I don't think I'm ever going to truly get there. But I'm having a lot of fun in the process of trying.

The recent episode was posted on eGullet and was all about crote, crottins & bouse. All words describing various forms of dung in French. Only funny in context when you had a bunch of English vying with a bunch of French to see who could come up with the most dung describing words in their language. I think 'ka-ka' in English was the final winner!

Still they don't teach you these words at school and trying to learn to speak 'familiar' everyday French is not easy. Slang is difficult in any language; just think of the howlers that come up between the British & the Americans who speak sort of the same language. All one can do is to keep trying.

One thing that I have learned over my many years of living in countries other than where I grew up is that trying to learn the local cultures and value systems is every bit as important, perhaps even more so, than learning the local language. Time after time I've seen sympathetic souls with poor language skills more readily accepted in local society than those who are more fluent in the language, but don't try to understand what makes the locals tick.

Thus my piece of philosophical bit of advice for today; when planning a visit to foreign climes study the culture first, then the language.