Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lunch of Little Fishes

The other day for lunch my father's friend and honorary patron at La Touche cooked up a very tasty fishy treat from Brittany. Brigitte is from Bretagne, a region in north-western France. Bretons are sadly the butt of many French jokes which make light of their accents, dress, and food. Sometimes, however, the food is delicious, as was the case with this crêpe sarrasin à la sardine, or buckwheat crêpe with sardines. Brigitte artfully grilled fresh sardines over a wood fire to impart a smoky flavor and lessen the sardines' greasy fishy quality. She then deboned and filleted each little sardine with great finesse and served them in piping hot crêpe with a generous pat of quality breton butter. She also threw in a few thinly-sliced green onions from the garden, which was a departure from the breton classic, albeit a scrumptious one. Props to Brigitte for teaching us a new way of eating often-neglected little fishies and for sharing a piece of her heritage (which we will try not to make fun of her for.) As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Rigatoni Alla Norma

I realized the other day that I have gone longer than usual without eating pasta. I love pasta and I tend to eat it at once a week which some may argue is too much but hey, it’s cheap, versatile, and easy. We have been eating extremely French food for the past week which is perfectly normal given our setting but every now and then it is fun to mix it up with some Italian. My father presented me with a recipe for something called “pasta alla Norma” that came shockingly from French Elle. Elle features a cooking section in France and my dad regularly cooks from it much to my chagrin. As a matter of fact the tagine that he is making for dinner tonight comes from its pages. Pasta alla Norma has more of a poetic name that it deserves, basically a pomodoro sauce with the addition of eggplant which I took as the base of my pasta dish. I started out by sautéing some shallots and garlic in olive oil then added strips of eggplant and a splash of red wine. After the liquid evaporated I threw in a couple of cans of whole tomatoes, a teaspoon of dried oregano, and a handful of chopped basil. I cooked the whole thing over low heat for about 40 minutes before mixing in al dente rigatoni. The funny thing was that my father boiled way too much rigatoni so we had about four cups of cooked noodles leftover to work with at lunch the next day. I grated some Parmesan and threw another handful of fresh basil on top before serving the heady pasta packed with succulent eggplant pieces.

Valerie was in charge of dessert which is a recent development in her cooking career. She has recently been baking up a storm making cookies, tarts, pies, as well as ice creams and sorbets much to my delight. She had a large box of absolutely gorgeous long stem strawberries from the local farmer’s market to work with and set about doing so. These were no ordinary strawberries however. Not only were they organic and cultivated by a local farmer, they were Mara des bois, an exceptional Mediterranean variety valued for its amazing taste reminiscent of fraise de bois. This particular variety along with Garriguet are the two kings of French strawberries therefore it is best to serve them with as little manipulation as possible. Valerie arranged each plate with a generous handful of strawberries and dressed them with Chantilly, a thick whipped cream sweetened with vanilla sugar. It was an excellent dessert that really highlighted the summer fruit and seemed rather light despite the cream. Overall it was a tasty meal that showcased two of my favorite things, pasta and strawberries. Way to go team. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Courgettes, Courgettes, Courgettes

Our garden at La Touche is impressive and I feel obliged to further sing its praises. In the fruit department there are multiple old growth trees including three varieties of apple, two pears, and three plums. There are also a couple of fig trees, one wild that popped up of its own accord and a second that was planted in honor of my 21st birthday a few years back. Neither produce fruit but it is only a matter of time. We also have a few cherry trees scattered about the property but the birds get to them before we even spot the ripened fruit. The vegetables we harvest include potatoes, leeks, onions, carrots, haricots verts, artichokes, tomatoes, lettuces, and of course our famous courgettes de Nice. I have already devoted a significant amount of copy to these light green gems hailing from the south of France (see 7/30/09) but there are so many to eat that they keep recurring in our meals.

The problem and the joy of having a significant vegetable garden at home is that when things are in season they must be eaten and sometimes eaten in redundant surplus. For the past three or four days we have been racking our collective minds to figure out ways of cooking these tasty zucchinis and in turn eating them for almost every meal. We have had them baked in gratins, pureed into soups, steamed, and sliced into carpaccios. I have been the one in charge of dressing and/or marinating these large plates of thinly sliced courgettes. These are two examples of my handiwork, an Asian inspired circular carpaccio and an Italian style cut lengthwise. I wanted to crate a sort of East meets West dynamic between the two so I brushed the former with soy sauce, sesame oil, and purple basil and the latter with olive oil, lemon juice, and mint. Among those present at lunch I think it was a toss up between the two, some preferred the Asian flavors and others the simple Mediterranean marinade. Either way we made use of about four large courgettes which is a victory in my book.

The second salad among the many we ate for lunch on the lawn in the sunshine under the shade of a parasol consisted of golden string beans with mustard vinaigrette and purple basil. These long yellow beans are another summer vegetable that we have in excess but thankfully they are not as well adapted to our climate. They are a little less fibrous than their green cousins and have a milder flavor and less waxy skin that takes on sauces nicely. Normally we eat them with some quartered tomatoes and black olives but in this case I went with a Dijon and sherry vinaigrette with chopped basil which I had leftover from the Asian carpaccio. It was a simple and delicious summer salad that showcased the golden beans inherent flavor.

The main course of the meal was a Spanish omelet packed with onions and chorizo eaten with a green salad and crusty bread. My father and I went to one of our favorite little markets in Paris last week to buy some Spanish and Basque treats like Pata Negra, pickled sardines, and chorizo. They sell big honking pieces on long strings that are much wider and better aged than those sold in the States. I often use chorizo in omelets and scrambles, particularly my chorizo, scallion, and smoked Gouda scramble, because of its lovely color and amazing flavor. This one was a bit spicy which brought a welcomed bite to our farm raised eggs whipped with a bit of cream for richness. It was flipped halfway through cooking to crisp both sides and give the whole thing a quiche-like appearance, served in wedges right from the pot. Lunch was very tasty and the setting was stunning with a nice view of the house and the adjacent woods. We also managed to use the courgettes in a relatively new fashion and at the very least killed a few of them off. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Regional Meal Back At La Touche

After a lovely though overly brief stay in Paris last week doing the tour of the usual museum suspects and tasty restaurants Valerie and I made our way back to the countryside. We left on Sunday morning accompanied by my cousin Nick and his lady Delphine despite traffic warnings due to the August rush of vacationers leaving Paris. We made good time however and made it in time for arriving in the early afternoon for a tasty lunch that I completely forgot to photograph. Dinner was another story however. We spent the day lounging around the property and went for a walk in the late afternoon when Delphine spotted some cèpes. Cèpes are woodsy mushrooms akin to porcinis that grow among the forests of France particularly around Bordeaux though we have a variety, cèpe des pins, in the Sologne. The large light brown and white mushrooms resemble porcini in flavor and texture but I find them much superior. Eaten fresh they are nutty and meaty with a smooth, creamy, and slightly slimy texture. Cèpes are eaten raw in Italy sliced paper-thin and dressed with olive oil and sea salt and in France they are commonly sautéed with butter or added to pasta, risotto, or soups. At La Touche we prefer them cooked and eaten with minimal preparation which allows you to really savor the flavor of the woods. We foraged quite a heavy load and brought them back to the kitchen to be fried up with a bit of minced garlic and parsley. They were absolutely delicious and I look forward to going back into the woods in search of more.

The dinner was a typical Solognot meal with a roasted meat, garden side dish, and tasty foraged appetizer. The only difference was that we did not raise, hunt, and dress the lamb ourselves, opting instead to buy a lamb leg from the local butcher. I love lamb and it has become one of my go to meats when I host company at my apartment in New York. Leg of lamb also happens to be one of my favorite cuts, the perfect roast for a large crowd that usually guarantees leftovers. The bone insures that the meat remains moist throughout cooking and imparts a delicious flavor to the roast which I stuffed with tons of garlic and rosemary. I rubbed the whole thing with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper before throwing it into a hot oven to cook for about 40 minutes give or take. It was a little overcooked but I like it very rare or seignant as they say in France. I think that generally people enjoyed it especially when eaten with our new favorite; truffled mustard, basically Dijon loaded with black truffle paste.

We ate the crisp roasted lamb packed with garlicky goodness and herbal flavor alongside roasted potatoes plucked from the garden. These spuds happened to be of the Ratte variety. La Ratte is a small French fingerling potato held in high esteem by French chefs for its nutty flavor and creamy texture. I have mostly encountered them in France whether at Parisian markets, restaurants, or from our garden at La Touche. In the past five or six years however Ratte potatoes have been popping up at Farmer’s markets in the States much to my delight. There is an ideal function for every potato and unfortunately roasting is better suited to Charlottes or potatoes with a higher starch content that will not dry out. Our roasted la Rattes did exactly that and some where simply to hard to chew through, much better steamed with a bit of sweet butter or olive oil and tons of fresh herbs. We ate our meat and potatoes followed by the ubiquitous green salad and cheese course consisting of Roquefort, Comte, Brebis Bleu, Cantal, and my current favorite, Rocamadour. It was a tasty meal that was very much a product of the region and Michael Pollan would have been beside himself because we used all natural whole foods coming from the woods, garden plots, and pastures around us. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dinner With Family At Auguste

Last Tuesday evening my father, Valerie, and I went to dinner with some very cheery company at a highly regarded new restaurant in the neighborhood that my father wanted to try. My cousin Cuote, his lovely wife Ashley, and their golden retriever Cassidy joined us for dinner and it was great to catch up after not seeing them since Christmas. My dad is always on the prowl for new places in Paris and combs through countless magazines, newspapers, and cooking channels to find them. Auguste, a one star restaurant in the 7th arrondissement boasted a short but ambitious menu full of interesting sounding things and a modern décor dominated by reds and blacks. Chef Orieux could be considered a young executive chef/proprietor at 32 but he has an impressive resume behind him. He was a disciple of Bocuse in his youth before working as sous-chef under Yannick Alleno at Meurice in Paris. His food is typical nouvelle cuisine using international ingredients mixed with seasonal produce to create vibrant and exciting dishes. My father and Cuote started their meal with tomates anciennes confites de Jacky Mercier, chantilly de yaourt au basilic, et rouget à la fleur de sel. The appetizer is roughly translated to slow-roasted tomatoes with basil-yogurt mousse and salted red snapper. They thought it was good but not great with a clever concept behind it though overall the flavors were dull. The red snapper was the best part but it looked out of place on the plate, isolated from the rest of the dish.

For my first course I had the special of the day, langoustines frito au basilic et petites pois a la verveine or fried langoustines with basil and peas. The peas came in the form of a bright green mousse that tasted exactly like fresh peas and reminded me of spring. The langoustines were good, I am so crazy about them that there is no way they cannot be, but it was a shame to fry them so thoroughly which jeopardized their delicate texture. They were wrapped in filo and would have benefited from a lighter material like a tempura batter to really keep the seafood bits tender. There was supposed to be lemon verbena somewhere in the dish but I think it was omitted otherwise it was tasteless. I was bummed about that because it was one of the main reasons that I chose the dish other than the fact that if there is langoustine on the menu I order it without fail. Like the tomato and red snapper dish it was a good idea that got a little lost in the execution and the flavors were not as clearly pronounced as they should have been.

There is a trend that happens all too frequently in restaurants these days whether in Paris or New York where the entrees and desserts are excellent while the mains are sub par. Unfortunately Auguste adhered to this increasingly common model and I was disappointed with my main course and I do not think I was alone in my judgment. I had the other special of the day which ended up biting me in the ass; cabillaud aux herbes, mousse de carrotes, et curcuma espuma or herb crusted cod with carrot mousse and curcuma (wild turmeric) foam. The fish was perfectly cooked but bland despite the herbs and the chunks of steamed carrots surrounded by carrot juice elevated with butter was really boring. The curcuma mousse was interesting and contrasted nicely with the fish and sweetness of the carrots but overall the dish was not good; if I had served it, let alone as a daily special, I would be ashamed. Overall the highlight of the meal was the company, a rich ensemble of family and friends that I was thrilled to spend the evening with. The food was ok but way overpriced for what it was and chef Orieux was overly ambitious in the planning of his dishes. I did not learn until afterwards it had a Michelin star and I would certainly not have guessed. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!

La Patrimoine Gastronomique Au Villaret

Upon my return to Paris this past week from the countryside my father and I scheduled a tour of restaurants. Our first stop was Le Villaret, an interesting bistro with a rustic farm-like atmosphere in the 11th arrondissement. My father and I both started with a Provençal tomato tart topped with garlicky frog’s legs. The tart was overly greasy, practically drenched in olive oil but the frogs were wonderful and I always relish the opportunity to eat them. Paris is a great place to eat because there is such a diverse range of cuisines and foods to choose from, whether French, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern. There is also a wealth of regional restaurants in Paris testament to a wider trend in French gastronomy. Terroir and la patrimoine gastronomique or culinary patrimony have become embedded in French culture since the early 1980s with the arrival and subsequent widespread acceptance of fast food chains like McDonalds. Much like in the United States, European city centers like Paris and Rome have seen the birth of alternate food movements that have rapidly grown in popularity. The organics, sustainability, locavore, and slow food movements have incarnations in France largely driven by people opposed to globalization and industrial food. These twin antagonists have given rise to a revival of two cornerstones of French culinary identity: regional cuisine and local foods.

Regional cuisines, local food goods, and anything related to terroir are in demand right now and restaurateurs, chefs, and politicos are responding to the trend. As a result Paris is rife with Basque, Provençal, Breton, and Niçois restaurants serving the regional foods of that gourmet cultural microcosm. This increased focus on regionalism and local knowledge lies at the heart of the social movement French food anthropologists call la patrimoine gastronomique, which situates itself in opposition to widespread homogeneity due to globalization. Le Villaret has its own characteristic cuisine that I would call neo-bistro fueled by la nouvelle cuisine, another major element of French culinary identity. The second courses all looked amazing and my father decided on the warm lobster salad with spring vegetables and herb vinaigrette. It was a simple dish composed of a perfectly steamed lobster half on a bed of sautéed carrots, peas, asparagus, and baby potatoes drizzled with a peppery vinaigrette reminiscent of pesto. I was jealous that I did not order it because it was both tasty and summery. The chef used fresh seasonal ingredients in inventive ways to produce rather light and intriguing dishes that were beautifully plated, directly inspired by the nouvelle cuisine movement in French cooking. La nouvelle cuisine is a response to the orthodoxy of la cuisine classique characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes and an increased emphasis on presentation. It is marked by a move from excessively fattening and rich dishes featuring large amounts of animal protein like butter, cream, and eggs in favor of more imaginatively prepared food and inventive usage of a diverse array of ingredients. Some of the main tenets of la nouvelle cuisine include that cooking times should be reduced to preserve natural flavors; that cuisine should feature and highlight the freshest possible ingredients; and that chefs should always strive to experiment.

Another aspect that I find particularly interesting is that the founding chefs of the movement, Bocuse, Troisgros, and Chapel, used regional dishes for inspiration instead of dishes. I believe the celebration of regional cooking in cuisine classiquela nouvelle cuisine is a product of French culinary identity rooted in the preservation of uniquely French regional foods and at odds with the perceived homogeneity brought by industrial food conglomerates like McDonald’s. My main course at Le Villaret was rabbit medallions with buttered cabbage and caramelized shallots, a gamey dish that was exceptionally well presented. The dish looked too artistic to eat and it was a shame that I did because it looked better than it actually ended up tasting. The rabbit was a little tough due to overcooking though the shallots were sweet and almost candy-like. Le Villaret is deeply emblematic of French nouvelle cuisine with hints of Provençal cooking, inventive pairing of flavors, and a detailed attention to presentation. La nouvelle cuisine is one of many social movements advocating locality, terroir, and the preservation of la patrimoine gastronomique, critical aspects of French culinary identity. As always, I encourage you to enjoy and share delicious food and home cooked meals with yourself and others!