Saturday, 30 May 2009

Aglio & olio-simple pasta sauce

Another typical Saturday. Up (relatively) early to prepare for a huge BBQ on Sunday, my almost son-in-law pops his head through the kitchen door, followed by a friend of his. Both are pretty built & ravenous types. Naturally, since I spent the morning cooking for the next day, lunch was meant to be simple, for 4 people, not 16. Therefore I adapted a classic pasta dish, aglio & olio (literally garlic & oil-sounds better in Italian).

Classic aglio & olio is just garlic cloves sauteed in olive oil with a dried chili pepper.

This time I added the following:

6 cloves garlic
5 anchovies
6 sundried tomatoes
1/2 cup of green olives
chopped parsley

Slice all the ingredients. Wait until the pasta has been thrown into the boiling water & turn the heat on the olive oil, garlic & anchovies. Let the garlic saute nicely, the anchovies will melt. Add the , capers & olives. Pour onto cooked spaghetti, sprikle with parsely.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Light lunch again: Poulet à la moutarde de Meaux

Yet another one from Sophie's place, I'm afraid. Usual attributes: quick and easy, not particularly photogenic, and this time I'll tell you how a salad should be made.

First of all, get some chicken. Leg + thigh. As many as you think you'll need, plus extra if you have adolescent boys. This is the easy part. Put them, skin side down, into whatever you have that'll hold them and go into your oven, then actually put them into your oven. for about twenty minutes. (Did I mention that you need to turn the oven on? To "HOT"? No, thought not. Do it, otherwise the results will be, inevitably, disappointing.)

The chicken skin is now crisping, and it's time to take a small bowl down from wherever you keep such things and stick into it about a tablespoon (or two) of honey, ditto wholegrain mustard. Mix them. (Quantities may vary. How many adolescent boys do you have?)

At the end of the twenty minutes or so, pull the chicken legs out of the oven and turn them over so that the (hopefully) crispy skin is on top. Use your trusty couteau d'office to slash it a bit, then spread with half the honey/mustard mix from the bowl (see above). Back in the oven again, lower the heat a bit, get a drink.

Check from time to time that the honey mixture isn't burning onto the bottom of the baking dish: add water if necessary. Unless you really like cleaning your baking dishes with a jackhammer.

It should take you about 20 minutes to finish the bottle, which is good because that's when you'll need to operate on the chicken again. Luckily it's not too complicated: pour over the juice of an orange, slather with the rest of the honey/mustard mix (no, I hadn't forgotten it), and put it back into the oven for yet another 20 minutes.

Once again, you will have to watch it to make sure it doesn't burn, add more water (or orange juice) if it looks like getting uppity.

You now have all this time to drink and get the salad ready (for once). Luckily enough, the recipe for the dressing isn't that far off what went onto the chicken, so you should be able to keep it in mind.

Take a tablespoon of honey and another of wholegrain mustard (see?) and put them in a salad bowl. Mix well. Now, go into the darker recesses of the pantry and find the bottle of vinaigre au piment, which is nowt more than cider vinegar into which you've stuck a tablespoon or two of piments d'oiseau (bird peppers? I can't believe that) or any other small, really hot pepper, and left to marinate for a month or so in the dark.

Whatever, whether you've bought it or made it (Sophie bought me a bottle on a trip down to the Languedoc, but I've used it all and thus had to make my own), add a tablespoon to the honey and mustard and mix it some more. (But if you don't have any, just use cider vinegar. Then make some. The peppery kick is worth it.)

Now take a neutral oil like sunflower and start adding it - slowly - whilst whipping hell out of it. You should be able to add quite a bit: honey is a great emulsifier. When it goes thick and starts to turn whiteish, you're right. Just one thing: don't use olive oil. It'd be a waste. You just won't taste it, so why bother?

We call this Magali-dressing, after the friend who first introduced us to it. Mind you, she also puts pine-nuts into it, which is something I'd pass on, personally. But then again, I add chives, so who am I to criticize?

Check on the chicken again, add more water or orange juice.

Now get out the lettuce that you plucked from the garden (or bought at the market, wherever) but please don't let it be a batavia or yer bog-standard laitue. These are lettuce that are floppy and have neither flavour, crispness nor self-respect. A feuille-de-chêne (oak-leaf?) is good, a rougette (no idea) is even better.

Tear the leaves into bite-sized bits (whilst cursing the old ladies at the market with their frikkin' shopping trolleys with knives on the wheels that always take half your ankles off when they run into you, as they always will - who knew cooking was so good for anger-management?) and fling them onto the dressing. Toss - or turn, whatever - just make sure that it's all nicely coated in sauce. Add whatever else you want, but I'd keep it simple. Although a tablespoon or two of sour cream in the dressing and a quarter-cup of sweetcorn kernels make a nice addition from time to time.

You are now clear to eat. The salad is ready, the chicken bits should be cooked through and caramelised on top with a sort of orange caramel sauce around, what more could you want? Ah yes, you did remember to buy some bread? You'll need it, for the sauce.

This is France, after all.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Quick & cold Oriental-style meal

A heat wave hit the Alps, with the effect that I literally can't take the heat in the kitchen. Yesterday we had a BBQ, so technically I was away from the cooker. A few left over porkchops gave me the idea for tonight's dinner. These are quick adaptations of recipes from different Asian countries for when you have leftovers & don't feel like cooking ( or have friends show up unannounced-a frequent situation chez nous).

The porkchops were marinated in an Oriental type sauce, then expertly BBQd by hubby (he has his culinary contributions, greatly encouraged & appreciated!). The marinade is simple: soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, rice wine, sugar, tamarind (optional-can't always find it).

Thai style cold satay noodles
7 oz wide rice noodles
chives or green onions
fresh coriander
sesame seeds or peanuts
lime or lemon slices

Satay sauce: cocunut milk, peanut paste, sesame paste (tahini), soy sauce, vinegar & sugar

Put water to boil & prepre ingredients for all the salads. All the sauces can be made ahead of time & stored in the refrigerator.
Cook noodles, rincse, drain, sprinkle with oil & set aside to cool.
Add satay & garnish.
Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Cold pork salad with bamboo shoots
3 leftover chops
1 cup bamboo shoots
3 red chilis
fresh mint
fresh chives
Sauce: rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar

Debone pork. Slice as thinly as possible. Add other ingredients. Mix together. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mushrooms & waterchestnuts (hot or cold)
2 oz dried mushrooms (any kind)
2 oz waterchestnuts
1 carrot
Same sauce as above.

Bring water to boil. Place mushrooms in a bowl, cover with boiling water. Cover & let sit.
When mushrooms absorb water (about 20 min), let cool.
Add sliced waterchestnuts.
Peel carrot and shave onto mushrooms.
Add other ingredients.
Put aside until ready to eat.

Cucumber salad
Slice cucumber thinly. Sprinkle on the same sauce. Add sesame seeds & thin slivers of ginger. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Definitely NOT a light lunch ...

I can still remember, when we first turned up in France about 20 years ago, buying my first Savoyard cookbook. One of the things that struck my fancy was (page 273), "Les Pets de Nonne": nuns farts. Deep-fried fritters flavoured with orange-flower water, basically, but from the name I'd always imagined something sort of ethereal, light and fluffy ... every time I've tried to make them they've turned out heavy and lumpen, which I suppose is in fact closer to how they'd really be, given what a nun's diet is supposed to be - I think my deep-frier is just not hot enough. And yet I can make great doughnuts. I can see I'll have to go and upgrade my stove, get one of the Rosières jobs with the built-in deep-fryers that can go up to 300° - in my dreams.

In any case, setting aside these farty delights, what I really wanted to talk about was cassoulet. Not, I must admit, a light dish - certainly not one I'd plan on for a summer lunch. But for dinner, with a good Chateauneuf du Pape, it's hard to beat. And you don't even need a salad to go with it.

On the other hand, given that you simply cannot make cassoulet in any quantity other than what can be loosely described as gargantuan, you will need a very large dish or dishes to stick the stuff in. And an oven that'll hold them. I have one of those enormous German earthenware dishes for doing chicken and things - a Strummelwotsit, or a Strewelthingy - and by using both the top and the bottom halves I usually manage to fit everything in.

Anyway, cassoulet is one of those things where there are at least 500 recipes, each of which is the only true and traditional one. According to someone, anyway. Some call for goose only, no lamb - others banish our piggy friend from the menu. According to one, if you stick other than duck in you'll be excommunicated - go straight to hell, do not pass redemption. And I swear that I've seen one that called for putting lobster in, which in my opinion is definitely a sin of the worst order, meriting extermination. With buzzy noises.

My take on cassoulet is quite simple and I'm open to anything, except lobster. Start, anyway, the night before the feast with 500gm of dried white beans, stick then in a bowl - preferably large enough to hold them, if not it gets messy - and cover them with water. Then leave them like that for twelve hours or so. You could go and have a drink, they're unlikely to be going anywhere by themselves.

The next day, when you stumble bleary-eyed downstairs (or trip over the cat, for those of you that aren't blessed with the privilege of having stairs that actively try to kill you), you could probably drain and rinse the beans. They won't thank you for it, but they'll smell better.

Then, once you feel up to it, take a large saucepan and fry up some bacon in it (yeah, the home-cured stuff ...) and when that's smelling good have a large orange juice and eat some of the bacon before adding two coarsely-chopped onions and some (lots) garlic. When that's all gone transparent and smelling lovely it's time to stick in 2 (two) 200gm tins of peeled tomatoes and mash them up with a fork. A glass of white wine is also a good idea, and don't forget to stick another glass of it into the saucepan.

Add the beans, just enough water (or wine, if you've got any left - at this hour of the day you should have) to cover, thyme, basil - whatever, and let simmer for about an hour and a half. Or so. It's not that important. Then turn it off and let it consider the error of its ways, whilst you go and have lunch. I'd recommend something light, like a slice of stale bread and half a glass of water, considering what's in store.

OK, it's mid-afternoon and the beans should still be sloshy. Now you need to fry up at least:
  • 3-4 duck legs, cut into drumstick and thigh
  • 2-3 lamb shanks
  • a jarret de porc (pork foreleg)
  • 1 slab of pork belly, sliced thickly
  • 1 garlic sausage, ditto
There will be a lot of fat, don't chuck it. It's low-cholesterol, and anyway it is your friend. If there's anything else you want to stick in (apart from lobster) now would be the time to fry it up too.

Now it's simplicity itself: mix the beans and the meat and the fat and the juice, stick it into whatever you've got that's big enough to hold it and go into the oven (I told you I used both halves of my pottery thingy), sprinkle with breadcrumbs and chopped garlic, and stick in the oven on low. It's going to be cooking for about 4 hours, so open another bottle while you wait.

According to tradition (that is if you're making a traditional Toulousain cassoulet, which this isn't) you should stir the breadcrumbs in under the surface seven times during cooking: I can't be arsed, and no-one seems to worry. About an hour before the thing is done, bung in half a dozen good pork sausages - smoked if you've got'em. Just poke them in under the breadcrumbs. If it's drying out too much, add more wine. Or water. Whatever.

It's ready when everything is tender and it smells yummy. It also serves about ten people, with seconds, and probably leftovers. A simple green salad is more than enough with this - and bread, of course.

Oh, I hope you really really like beans. Our kids don't, but then they don't like choucroute either, which means they're on the direct route for the nether pits of hell. On the bright side, we'll probably get visiting rights.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

SARDINES, tasty morsels of good karma…

I'm a certifiable nut when it comes to raw bluefin tuna—I could eat it for every meal for the rest of my life (which would probably be conveniently shortened by the cumulative effects of the mercury and PCBs), but the reality is that it is prohibitively expensive, all the good stuff is consumed in Japan, and they are notoriously hard to catch on hook and line. And there's the fact that I don't freeze fish, so when I do get one it will be consumed in a series of gigantic sashimi meals stretching out over a small number of days and not a lifetime. Bluefin tuna is also severely overfished in all of the world's oceans, and I'm not helping things much by harvesting their juveniles (anything under 50-100 kg, depending on where the bluefin comes from) for my own consumption, or for that matter advertising to still more people (you) how worthy of a foodstuff this fish is.

If you find this interesting, I highly recommend the SeafoodWATCH site run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Did you know, Karen, that farmed Atlantic salmon are also on the "ecological disaster" list because of the impact that the salmon farms have on natural waterways and native fish? Yeah, I know that foodies tend to put "how it tastes" before any other consideration like ethics (think foie gras) or ecology (beluga caviar) or expense (either of the previous examples), but today I'm offering up something that is cheap, low on the food chain and has very healthy populations. You'll find it on any "best choice" list of sustainable seafood, and yes I mean sardines.

Aren't they beautiful? They're also very fresh—these are not more than an hour post-death—and herein lies one of the keys to preparing sardines or any of the traditional "pesci azzurri" like herring or anchovies. All of these small "baitfish" have a high oil content and some pretty active enzymes that break down proteins much faster than in other fish. If you're planning on eating the sardines, keep 'em cold and eat 'em right away.

My original plan was to remove head, innards and scales and fry whole. Adri reminded me that she is less than keen on having to remove bones from fish while she eats it. So how does one quantify one's affection in this household? If it's by the number of small fish that one will butterfly for the benefit of having the company of finicky spouse and kids, then I might score highly. I'm omitting the images of sardine beheadings and removal of backbones and skip to the just-before-frying shot.

I actually left a few sardines whole (because that's how I like them!) and they are in the plastic bag behind the board, which contains all-purpose flour, salt and hot paprika.

When using a dry coating like flour, it's a good idea to "rest" the floured thingies on a wooden cutting board before frying them. This gives the flour a chance to absorb some of the moisture and become more of a batter that will give a crackle-y crumb to the coating once it's fried. By the time these guys hit the hot oil they were looking less powdery and white than they do in the photo.

I used a little more than an inch of canola oil in a Dutch oven for the frying and cooked the sardines four at a time. I don't use a thermometer for cooking oil, but I would guess the temperature at around 375°F, based on the response of the oil to a wooden chopstick (moderately fast bubbles and no smoke).

My call on wine for this would be something like one of those Italian coastal whites "un poco mosso" (a little bit sparkling though not like a spumante). BTW, we're planning a wine-recommendation round table with Karen, me, and maybe our new Mouseketeer Trevor--I'm always interested in meeting someone who considers Tournedos Rossini a "light lunch." What's the proper wine choice for a spoonful of peanut butter at midnight?

Monday, 18 May 2009

A Light Saturday Lunch, redux ... scallops

Another one from Sophie's kitchen: quick, easy, delicious and, in this case, probably aphrodisiac as well, which definitely pushes all my buttons.

Just in case you're wondering, on Saturday mornings I head off to the market in Chambéry to pick up a week's supply of freshly-killed fruit and vegetables, and once the poor Alfa is groaning under the weight of all that plus the grocery shopping (do you know just how many packets of chocolate cereal a 14-year old goes through every week?) I stop off on the way home for lunch with Sophie. Who is a good friend - for the past 20 years or so - and my business partner's recently ex-wife. Which I suppose could make life complicated. I try not to think about that.

Whatever, after 15 or so years of Saturday lunches there, I occasionally try to push the karmic balance (or whatever) back in my favour by making lunch for the two of us, and as I don't always have that much time they tend to be simple, and this is one of them.

I did it a couple of months back, when coquilles St-Jacques were in season and even semi-affordable: on the other hand, given that they're about 20€/kg and for two of you 300gm is plenty, it's not really going to break the bank. Come to that, you can even use frozen scallops if that's what you've got. I've done it, and I'm still alive to tell the tale.

On the other hand, when I picked up these particular scallops from Carrefour*, someone very nearly did not get away alive, because the woman just ahead of me in the queue was asking loudly for scallops WITHOUT CORAL! I mean, how insane is that? You want to eat shellfish without their sex organs? Really odd. I thought vaguely of asking for my scallops with all the coral she didn't want thrown in for free, but realised that this was unlikely to come true so I just wandered off with my big packet of squishy molluscs under my arm and reflected on human frailty. And wondered what a Dalek would do in my place, but the answer to that one is pretty unspeakable.

Anyway, once you've arrived back with your bag of gastropods - or whatever they are, technically speaking - the fun begins. Carefully cut the coral off and put it aside - in the cat's bowl, for example. (No, don't do that. Not a good idea.) If your scallops are nice big ones, cut them in half - against the grain, you idiot - you should have disks about 1cm thick. Now take out your trusty frying pan and put it on to heat.

When it's nice and hot, add a good knob of butter (yeah, salted, not the devil's-spawn stuff) and when it's sizzling, stick in the scallops. After about a minute, turn them over, retrieve the coral from the cat's bowl and add that too. Then, after 30 seconds or so, add a half shot-glass of whisky and flambé the suckers. (This is optional, but I find it adds a smoky-sweet flavour which I personally rather like. Your call.) When the flames have subsided and you've convinced the fire brigade that it was a false alarm (you have to be quick, you do not want to overcook them or you will regret it, they should have started to turn opaque), slide everything into a bowl and go off and open the bottle of white.

A chardonnay is nice, muscat sec - if you can find it - is even better. So have a drink. Leave some, at least a large glass, you'll need it later. You may not be that hungry yet, in any case things can wait now, whilst you get the salad and the rice ready.

Don't rinse out the frying pan - we're not yet done with it.

I like Chinese-style steamed rice, which basically involves sticking about 120gm (for the two of you) rice into a saucepan and rinsing it repeatedly to get rid of the starch on the grains. Once that's done, add water until there's about an inch of water above the rice, and boil hell out of it. At some point you'll start to get great pits opening up in the rice - like volcanoes, or acne: turn the heat down low, stick a sheet of tinfoil over the top of the saucepan and fold it down around the edges, and put the lid on. In twenty minutes, you will have nice rice. Have another drink while you're waiting.

Oh, and make the salad. Or get your lunch date to do it. Whichever, I'll leave that to your discretion.

When the rice is done, it's time to finish the scallops. Put the frying pan back on really hot and stick the leftover glass of wine in: you may need to open another bottle for this. When it's reduced by half, add all the liquid from the scallops - there will be quite a bit - and reduce some more. Then - the good part - turn the heat down low, add some chives and garlic, and a good quarter-cup of sour cream. Let that reduce too. You probably do not want to let it boil at this point, or you will have a curdled mess which is pretty unappetising. If this happens, order in a pizza. And chuck away the rice.

(Since I discovered l'ail lyophilisé, I use that all the time. It saves a lot of bother. But you can always finely chop a few cloves of garlic and then crush them with the flat of your knife; it does as good a job as a garlic press and there's less washing-up - and a garlic press is a bitch to clean. Whatever.)

When the sauce has thickened, fling the scallops and coral back in there just to reheat for a minute (that's about 60 seconds, if you were wondering). Serve it right now, with the rice, bread (of course) and the salad - which you were supposed to make while the rice was cooking.

(No photos - again - sorry. Didn't have my camera with me that time either. Piss-poor effort, I know. Try to do better next time.)

*Big supermarket chain in France

Sunday, 17 May 2009

A Light Saturday Lunch ... filet de boeuf Rossini

For my first effort I thought I'd start with one of the trusty old favourites that I made the other day for lunch with a friend: good old filet de boeuf Rossini. It's quick, easy, delicious and decadent; great if you're planning on buttering up your mistress whilst demonstrating that you are in fact a multi-talented caring person, or alternatively if you just want a really nice light lunch with a friend. Or someone else, for that matter.

Start off with getting the sauce Béarnaise ready. I have heard of people buying this, and for a fact I have seen jars of the stuff on the shelves in the supermarket, but then again I've heard all sorts of weird stuff, not all of which was true, and I've never actually seen a jar in anyone's caddy, so maybe they're just there for show and this was all just a bad dream.

Anyway, for a classic sauce Béarnaise you start out by reducing wine vinegar by three-quarters with finely chopped shallots, then straining it ... quite frankly I just can't be arsed going though all that so I make Bastard Béarnaise, and no-one's yet pulled me up on it. Take an egg yolk, put it in a small saucepan, and add an equal volume of vinaigre d'echalotte or, if you want, balsamic vinegar. Personally I find that this latter makes a slightly sweet sauce, but Sophie really liked it (plus it's the only kind of vinegar she has, which rather limited my options) and I have to admit that it actually goes rather well with the foie gras, which we'll get to later.

Right, you have the two together in a saucepan, now put that on a really really low heat and start whisking shit out of it until it starts to thicken, at which point TURN THE HEAT OFF because you really do not want vinegary scrambled eggs. Well, you might, but that's not the object of the exercise here. Whatever, the residual heat in the saucepan will carry on cooking the mixture while you whisk in the butter: as much as you think it'll hold, probably around 50gm. If you've done it correctly you should have a thick yellow velvety sauce in the pan: if you have a puddle of melted butter with eggy lumps or something ghastly that looks like a curdled bit of sick, you have done it wrong. Try again. (Recipe books all tell you to do this in a bain-marie. If you really like extra washing-up, by all means go for it, but I don't, so I don't. Then again, I also have a stove where "low heat" means exactly that.)

Salted butter or unsalted? Silly question, unsalted butter is the invention of the devil and has no place in the kitchen nor, indeed, anywhere else in the house - unless you have found other uses for the stuff. In which case, don't bother to let me know.

Assuming that you've got this far, it's frying pan time. Cut a few slices off the bit of home-cured bacon that's lurking in the fridge - preferably the bit that you slathered with maple syrup whilst it was drying in the cellar. If you've run out, no worry: either make some more - which does rather mean that'll be a month before you can get around to finishing the recipe, by which time the sauce will have gone off - or go quickly down to the market and buy some, or leave it out. It doesn't actually feature in the traditional recipe anyway. But don't use the stuff in plastic packets at the supermarket, it's very nasty, full of water, and probably gives your brain boils. Do without.

Okay, frying the bacon. Do this, let it get crispy, take it out and let it drain, leaving as much fat and crispy bits as possible in the pan. Do not eat them just now.

About now would be a really good time to go get another glass of rosé, and ask your partner/significant other/friend why the hell it is that whilst you've been slaving your arse off in the kitchen all this time they've not made any progress on the salad?

Once you've cleaned and bound any wounds (if you're in the kitchen, you have the knives, which kind of reduces the risks of major damage) it's time to open up one of the tins of foie gras you have stashed away and cut a couple of thickish slices off it. Don't slash your wrists with the sharpy bits of lid, and don't bother using hideously expensive stuff: a 200gm tin at about 4€ is just fine for this. Considering what's going to happen to it.

If you're now ready to eat, heat up the frying pan with the bacon fat and crispy bits in it until good and hot, then stick in your two slices of fillet steak. (And I'm sorry, this has to be good. Which does not necessarily mean expensive - M. Bourraoui, the Arab butcher in Faubourg Montmelian* does great fillet at about 15€/kg - and you're only going to be using about 300gm for the two of you, but don't try using another cut. If you do it will be gross and it will all be your fault.)

Now stick the crispy bacon back in there too, and cook the steaks until they're just a shade underdone - which will of course depend on how you like your steak. Personally I find "bleu" (very rare) to be a bit too runny, but anything past "à point" (medium) is a heresy, and you'll have the Pope at your door. Turn the heat off, shovel the bacon bits on top of each steak, and top them with a slice of foie gras. And, with great patience, let them sit for a minute or two. Take the opportunity to get another glass, and check up on the salad.

Finally, the moment you've been waiting for - stick one steak per plate and pour a liberal helping of Béarnaise sauce over the foie gras, which should have started to melt into the bacon. There'll be a bit of juice in the frying pan - use the spatula to mix all the crispy bits into this and then drizzle it onto the sauce.

Serve to general acclamation and with plenty of bread to sop up the sauce. And for eating the rest of the foie gras (because in theory - unless you've been eating it all this while - there will be quite a bit left over). And don't forget the salad, given that you've been bitching about it.

(There are no photos to accompagny this. Partly because it's not really that photogenic, partly because we were actually quite hungry, what with the wait for the salad and all, but mainly because I didn't have my camera with me. Unless you count my phone, which I don't, because I've never bothered to learn how to actually use the camera in the damn thing. Whatever.)

Next time, if I feel like it, I might tell you how to get rid of the burnt-on sugary black bits that inevitably form in your baking dish when you stick a load of BBQ spareribs in the oven and then get on the phone with Karen.

*Shopping street in Chambéry, France.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

FOCACCIPOLLA, or maybe PISSALADIERE, hold the anchovies and olives

So my friend Karen gets this fancy new bread machine, and now she's baking loaves with it daily, I'll bet. Good for her. Me? Well, for now, I'm still the low-tech dude whose laziness when it comes to yeast doughs is almost the stuff of legend. I do them, but not with the temperature- and humidity-controlled risings and laborious punching-downs and kneadings (all done for Karen by her trusty robot). My idea of bread-making is far more casual, and luckily for me the more forgiving nature of flatbreads fits the bill nicely for us lazy guys.

It also helps that they are delicious. This rendition of flatbread topped with onions might be considered a homemade version of focaccia cipolla ligure, although I think it's closer to a French pissaladiere, but without anchovies or olives. Personally, I like olives a lot, and I'm an enormous fan of anchovies (brine-cured over a kilo of them last summer and am still using them!), but Adri doesn't share these passions, so when I'm cooking for the two of us I leave the stinkers out.

This is a really laid-back process that I like to stretch over a lazy late-morning-to-early-afternoon. Onions—red, white, or yellow—sliced (I use a Benriner mandoline) and sautéed in a small amount of olive oil over low heat until they are quite soft and lost a fair bit of their moisture. While the onions are cooking, they can be seasoned with pretty much whatever I feel like—quatre epices, paprika, salt, etc.—and after they're cooked I can forget about them until the afternoon when I prepare the bread for the oven.

Then I make the dough. About a cup and a half of very warm water is good to proof about a teaspoon and a half of yeast, and this gets added to about two cups of soft wheat flour (see my gripe below) and a teaspoon of sea salt. Mixing this all up thoroughly yields a floppy dough, which I then just gather into a ball and leave in the mixing bowl, coated with more olive oil and covered with a dampened kitchen towel. Then I forget about it for a couple of hours, maybe more.

About a half-hour before snack time, I turn the oven on to 400°F, and oil up (yes, more oil, because focaccia is oily!) my number 12 cast-iron skillet. The dough at this point is very flimsy because of all the air that it contains, and I just flop it from the mixing bowl directly into the oiled skillet and spread it around to an even thickness—no kneading needed because there's little gluten to develop. Only thing left to do is to strew the onions across the dough, and then it's just baking and eating.

I find it weird that focaccia—which I consider in the "breads" category—is best made with low-gluten "soft" flour—which I normally associate with cakes. I have made focaccia with regular all-purpose flour, and interestingly the end result is "odd" because of the softness of the texture, as compared with the desired coarse crumb I get with soft flour. I think it has to do with the interaction between the flour and the oil, but I'm not sure.

Now an ingredient as basic as flour should be pretty much a no-brainer, but in the U.S. it's not all that easy to get flours for specific purposes. Anyone growing up here would think that there are only two kinds of flour—"whole wheat" for the hippies and "all-purpose" for the rest of us. While it may be true that whole wheat flour really is just for hippies, the homogenization of the true diversity of all the other flours into a one-size-fits-all "all-purpose" really, really sucks. Sometimes you want a flour with a higher protein content, and sometimes you need a softer flour. All-purpose flour is okay for a lot of things, but being made from a blend of hard and soft wheat, it's definitely suboptimal for things that "prefer" to be made from either hard or soft flour, such as noodles, bread, pizza, focaccia, and cake.

Go to an Italian recipe site, and look for a recipe for focaccia. I'll bet that the recipe calls for "farina 00 di grano tenero"—flour made from soft wheat. Now in Italy, you can go to the store and select from flours that are harder, softer, or in between, but in the States we don't have this luxury. Some corporate bigwig—call him "the Man"—has decided that such decisions are best left to the professionals, and the average consumer will have only all-purpose to use. Well I for one say, "Screw the Man and his demeaning attitude towards home cooks"! We should have flour choices for our breads and our cakes, just as our colleagues across the Atlantic have!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Salmon salad

A quick, simple way to prepare a nice looking salad or appetizer for the summer. Leave the leftover salmon in chunks, mix with homemade mayonaise (my son has promised to put up his method for mayo, as it is one of the few things I can't make!), capers, echalots, fresh ground pepper. Cut a tomato in half & scoop out seeds, then spoon in salmon salad. Serve on a bed of lettuce.

Friday, 8 May 2009


Aahh. Springtime warmth fills the house, the yard, and… oh crap—are those weeds in my garden? They weren't there yesterday, and jeez, they're already seeding!! And what the… I just bought these avocados and they were hard as rocks! Now they're on the verge of smelling like the fermenting gym clothes of my middle schooler. Emergency run to the market to buy ingredients for the culinary rescue mission we all face from time to time: "consume avocados."

Now I don't want anyone to think that I am recommending very ripe avocados for guacamole, but IMO an avocado that is even slightly past its peak really isn't that good for anything else. A perfect guac requires a perfectly ripe avocado, so what I'm presenting in this post is a sort of "make the best of the situation" scenario, and it can also be a culinary "teaching moment."

This guacamole is probably rather derivative of Rick Bayliss' work—head chef and owner of the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants in Chicago. Adri and I went there as often as we could afford to back in grad school (where we met Karen!). It's not an exact replica, and about twenty years have passed since I actually tasted guacamole from Bayliss' kitchen, so I can probably claim some tiny fraction of this "process" (not a "recipe").

There's really not much to it. Once you have the ingredients prepared you'll have all elements ready to combine. I prefer to stay faithful to ingredients that will keep the flavor of the guac within the realm of Mexican: avocado, tomato, onion, Serrano (or jalapeño) chiles, cilantro, garlic, salt, and lime.

A short bit of fork action gives you a nice, chunky guacamole.

A couple of notes. Guacamole made with this amount of fresh onion and tomato needs to be consumed right away, so when necessity strikes, cancel your other plans for dinner and make chips and guac the meal rather than the appetizer. The ideal beverage to go with a dinner based on a large volume of guacamole is (for me) a Caipirinha, Brazilian cousin to a margarita. When I shake my lime tree for guacamole ingredients, I usually get a few more limes than I need. I can't let these go to waste now, can I?

The basic ingredients are limes, cachaça (Brazilian cane liquor or "rum"), and sugar. But the real key to a great caipirinha is in the muddle. I cut pieces away from the core of three limes.

Lime seeds should not go into the caipirinha, as they are bitter—I learned this from a Brazilian bartender. Then the lime gets muddled with about three tablespoons of sugar (to taste) in the glass—I'm using the end of my rolling pin in the shot below.

Then about 3 oz. of cachaça (yes, this is for one drink!), then a good stir or a shake with lots of ice. This is a very strong drink, so I like to fill to the top of the glass with carbonated water (not too much, though) and give a little stir—enough to bring some of the flavor up to the first sip. The drink gets a lot stronger as I make my way down the glass.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Chocolate chip cookies

Another request from France, where chocolate cookies are a phenomenon & sold in fancy bakeries, although they are nowhere near as good as in the US. French friends ask me to bring them as dessert when they invite us to a dinner party as if they were a delicacy! The kids also bug me daily to make them... This recipe comes from way back when I was a kid & is still the best.
For my kid's birthday parties I put the whole batch of batter onto a pan and make Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake. Decorate with sprinkles, M&Ms, whatever!

If kids don't like chunky pieces of nuts, then add ground walnuts, almonds, pecans.....
A little grated coconut goes a long way flavorwise!
I only use really good dark chocolate, smashed into chunks.

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cup white flour (or 1 cup flour, 1/4 cup ground nuts + grated coconut)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup or 2 sticks butter (room temperature)
1 pack of chocolate chips or 12 oz chopped chocolate

Preheat oven 375°.
Combine butter, sugar, vanilla until creamy.
Beat in eggs, singly.
Gradually add dry ingredients.
Add chocolate or other fun sweets.
Drop onto a cookie sheet with a tablespoon, don't flatten & space apart.
Cook until edges are golden but center is still soft, about 8 minutes.
Remove from oven, let cool a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack ( or plate).
If the kids don't scald themselves devouring the oven hot cookies, let them cool completely before placing in a tight lidded tin.
Theoretically they keep 5 days, or can be frozen, but normally the shelf life of cookies is maximum the next day (triple recipe, hidden tins)


The recent contribution of the Dutch Baby recipe from my collaborater reminded me that I've had quite a few requests from French friends to put up my pancake recipe. Pancakes are a huge hit in crèpe country! The spoiled brood of kids (ours & their friends) expect them every Saturday morning (actually, so does hubby....). Occasionally they make their own or assist, so other parents should be encouraged to teach them this simple basic recipe. That said, I tend to get "creative", so as usual I'll give some variations.

TIP: Pancake grills, although lovely, are not necessary. Here in France they don't exist, so not having one is not an excuse for not making pancakes. A large heavy non-stick griddle is fine: let's remember that pancakes were eaten in the Wild West, known as griddle cakes, then PANcakes!

TOPPINGS: Maple syrup, Aunt Jemima, Golden syrup (British), jam, homemade fruit syrups (fruit, sugar, water, fresh fruit), butter, Nutella, sour cream.....

1 cup flour (white or whole wheat)
1 cup milk (butter milk, kafir or fermented milk, yogurt....)
1 egg
1 tsp baking soda
3 tbsp vegetable oil (NOT olive oil: can substitute melted butter)

optional: fresh berries or other sliced fruit
optional: half cider (2% alcohol) half milk or yogurt

Mix ingredients together until smooth.
Heat pan over medium heat. Test by sprinkling a fey drops of water, if it evaporates immediately it's hot enough!
Spoon batter onto pan.
Wait until batter bubbles, then flip over. Let cook about a minute. Remove & place on plate.
When batter is finished, serve hot & enjoy!