Crepe au Ble Noir

French crepes

Crepe au Ble Noir

I read about buckwheat crepes, or galettes au sarrasin, before we went to France. I knew to search them out because they were so lovingly described by David Lebovitz in his book, My Paris Kitchen. First he explained the confusion of names: A crepe is made with white flour, but when made with buckwheat flour it is called galette au sarrasin in French (unless, of course, it is called a crepe au ble noir, or crepe of black flour). While a white-flour crepe may be served with either sweet or savory fillings, a galette au sarrasin is generally reserved for savory fare.

Although there are many corner creperies in Paris enticing diners with the smell of crepes frying in butter on a hot griddle, it was on a chilly morning at the Bastille out-door market that I was totally smitten by crepe, or more accurately, galette lust. Two young men of North African descent stood behind a long counter expertly flipping and folding crepes fried to order on giant griddles. They each had two griddles and a vat of crepe batter–one of white flour and one of the coveted ble noir– that they ladled onto the griddle, swirled to a perfect circle with a flat wooden rake, flipped onto a second griddle, and filled with various savory fillings (caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, grated cheese, ham, chorizo, sausage, and chopped tomato) chosen by the customer. The folded galette fried to fragrant perfection in a generous brushing of butter. Each sizzling galette was doused with black pepper and chopped chives before being wrapped in paper and delivered to an outstretched hand.

Making Crepes

Crepes and galettes are perfect street food, and they’re also perfect party food and lend themselves to ensemble cooking. Two people can work the griddles, and guests can decide which filling combinations to wrap up. The finished galette is sliced into rounds like sushi and passed around the room to sample with drinks.

Galette au Sarrasin

Crepe with Filling

Lebovitz has this advice on making crepes, or galettes: “A good crepe, or galette, should be thin and lacy. The batter is best made a few hours before you plan to use it and should have the consistency of heavy cream. As it hits the griddle, it should be thick enough to coat the bottom, but not too thick, or the galette will be rubbery. The griddle must be hot enough so that almost immediately lots of little holes will form on the surface of the galette. That’s the moment of satisfaction, when you know that you’ve got it just right, and then it’s a pleasure to just keep going.” He goes on to say that the first one or two are usually duds, until the griddle reaches just the right heat…so don’t despair. Official galette batter is made with buckwheat flour, salt, and water. Lebovitz adds eggs to make the batter more manageable for novices.

Batter ingredients for 12 galettes: 1 1/2 cups buckwheat flour, 1/2 tsp sea salt or kosher salt, 2 1/4 cups water (more if needed). Lebovitz adds 2 eggs; I sometimes add 1/2 cup sourdough starter

Put the buckwheat flour, water and salt in a bowl. Whisk well to combine, cover, and refrigerate a few hours to overnight. When ready to cook, whisk the batter and add more water if needed so that the consistency is of heavy cream–no thicker.

Heat two10-inch or larger crepe pans or skillets (I use two cast-iron griddles), if you have two cooks, over medium-high heat. Coat the pans with a small amount of melted butter or oil, using a wad of paper towel to apply it.

Pour about 1/4-cup batter onto the hot pan, rotating the pan to distribute the batter evenly. Wait for the bubbles to appear and the underside to turn golden brown–about one minute. Flip the galette and cook about 30 seconds longer. Transfer the galette to a plate (or turn it over to a second cook for filling), and continue to cook the rest of the batter to same way. Wipe more butter or oil onto the pan as needed.

After the initial cooking, a galette is folded or rolled around fillings and fried again in butter. The Paris galettes were filled rather like an envelope: filling ingredients distributed over the middle section and the two sides folded in to cover the filling. Galettes may also be rolled up around the filling, as for sushi, and flattened slightly before frying.

Add some butter to a hot skillet or griddle (medium heat) and place as many galettes as will fit in a single, uncrowded layer. Cook until the first side is crisp, then flip and cook the second side. It takes a few minutes for each side, and as Lebovitz says, it’s worth the wait. Transfer the hot galettes to a cutting board, slice into one or two-inch pieces, and serve with chopped herbs, pomegranate molasses, and harissa.

Filling suggestions:
Fresh pork or chicken sausage and roasted red peppers
Roasted winter squash with pomegranate seeds and Gorgonzola
Sautéed kale with ham and feta cheese
Caramelized onions with oven-dried tomatoes and black olives

Gallette

 

Cooking for Friends/ Rick’s Fish Soup

“…Pearlescent black mussels, earthy gray-brown clams, and delicate pink shrimp all look beautiful floating in a fragrant broth redolent of the sea.” Cucina Rustica

Mussels

Who would not want to make this soup?

“Cooking for friends” is one of the best ingredients for any recipe. It’s right up there with love and joy, and a good way to insure plenty of the latter ingredients. While we were in Paris, Rick’s dear friends Marie and Jean-Charles came to visit, and Rick embarked upon a cooking odyssey. It was an all-day event that involved more than one trip to the market, improvisation, several bottles of wine, and much love and joy–especially on the part of  who got to eat Rick’s fish soup.

Vegetables at Paris Market

Luckily for Rick, the outdoor market fell on the day of his extravaganza. The Bastille Market is renowned even among the Paris markets, and stretches from the neighborhood of our apartment all the way to the Bastille, half a mile away. The fishmongers’ stalls are extraordinary, with fish so fresh they seem to have just jumped off the boat. Six-foot eels wind their way around the piles of seafood, and giant fish with giant eyeballs stare at you from their beds of ice. Rick went early and chose cod, snapper, scallops, and shrimp. He filled his shopping bag with onions, potatoes, red and green peppers, tomatoes, and a bundle of fresh thyme and set off for the kitchen.

Paris Fish Market

Rick’s cooking brought to mind the musings of Michael Pollan in his book about making food, titled Cooked. He wrote, “Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes–and in our lives.” Rick didn’t need to spend all day cooking to make this stew, but he did. There is something very wonderful about spending a day in the kitchen cooking for friends and infusing ingredients with love and joy. Another thought from Pollan: “Great cooking is all about the three “P’s”: patience, presence, and practice.” Rick used all three.

Rick’s Fish Soup

Fish Soup

Rick’s fish soup was very much in the spirit of using the catch of the day. He chose ingredients that called to him at the market, took them home, and turned them into a wonderful stew. Fish stew lends itself to a gathering of friends because it is best made in a wide, generous pot that allows the precious seafood to poach gently in the broth at the very end of cooking. Rick made enough for six, well-satisfied people.

Ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 finely chopped yellow onion, 1 tsp anchovy paste or 3 or 4 anchovy fillets, 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves (added in stages), 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 diced red bell pepper, 1 diced green bell pepper, 1 1/2 cups diced smooth-skinned potato, 1 1/2 to 2 cups dry white wine (Rick used Muscadet), 2 diced medium tomatoes (or 1cup canned plum tomatoes with juice), 1 lb. cod fillet (Rick chooses the thicker “Captain’s cut”), 1 lb. snapper fillet, 1/2 lb. scallops, 1/2 lb.peeled shrimp, 1 cup heavy cream, 4 Tbs chopped flat-leaf parsley, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, pimente d’espelette or red chile flakes (or, if you are lucky enough to have some, smoky Hungarian paprika)

Warm the olive oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Stir in the onion and sauté 8 to 10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the anchovy paste or chopped anchovy fillets (here’s where Rick had to use a handful chopped oil-cured black olives to get the briny flavor he wanted because in the Paris markets, anchovy paste n’existe pas) and stir until they meld with the onions. Stir in 1 tsp thyme leaves and the garlic; continue cooking 1 to 2 minutes. Add the peppers and potato; stir a few minutes longer and add the wine. Let the wine simmer for a few minutes and add the tomatoes and their juice. Add water or broth if more liquid is needed to barely cover the vegetables. Cook at a low, steady simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and the rest of the thyme. Cover and reduce the heat to very low. You can turn off the heat and go out to the market for more wine at this point, if you like.

Bring the soup back to a simmer and add the scallops and shrimp (being denser, they take slightly longer to cook, so are added first). Cover and cook 3 minutes. Cut the fish into 1-inch cubes or slices and season lightly with sea salt. Carefully add the fish pieces without stirring. Cover and cook about 3 minutes more. Stir in the cream and a pinch or two pimente d’espelette or smoky Spanish or Hungarian paprika.ungarian paprikapppap Sprinkle the soup with parsley and serve with a loaf or two of crusty bread and a few bottles of cherished wine.

More Fish Soup

More Fish Soup

Rick’s masterpiece inspired me to make a fish stew to share with friends when we returned home. The origin of fish soups from Italian brodetto to French bouillabaisse lies in the answer to the question, “What do I do with all the little fish left in the net after I’ve sold all the big fish?” Traditional recipes call for fish stock made with fish heads and bones, as well as a dozen or more varieties of fish and shellfish for the stew, all contributing to the many-layered flavor of the finished soup. Unshelled shrimp, mussels, and clams and very small whole fish make the most flavorful broth.

Alas, most of us don’t live in fishing villages and have a much more limited choice of fish. But, after sampling Rick’s wonderful soup, I knew I didn’t need an ocean of fish to make a tasty stew. I went fishing at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods; then I went fishing for recipes to match my catch. I turned to a recipe from John Ash, originally printed in Fine Cooking magazine, for turning chicken stock into a flavorful broth using shrimp shells. The stock is used to make broth for his version of Cioppino, a San Francisco-style fish soup.

Faux Fish Stock

Fish Stock

Ingredients: 1 lb. large shrimp, 6 cups homemade or low salt canned chicken broth

Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. Refrigerate the shelled shrimp to add to the soup later. Simmer the shells in chicken broth for 5 to 10 minutes, covered. Strain and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

I was able to test this recipe using trout heads from the giant trout lurking in our pond, known as “Troutzilla”. I simmered trout heads with chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic in homemade chicken broth for about 15 minutes. Then I threw in a handful of dried bonito flakes for extra umami and let the broth steep another 5 minutes before straining.

Celebration Fish Stew

Fish at the Market

I adapted two recipes for my celebration fish stew dinner party. I knew the fish would need the help of Ash’s brightly flavored Cioppino broth and I also liked the looks of a Tunisian fish soup in Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Jerusalem, which would let me use my beautiful fennel bulbs and preserved lemon. Ginny and Danny brought fresh Carolina shrimp to provide “redolence of the sea.”

Cioppino Broth: 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 cups coarsely chopped yellow onion, 2/3 cup coarsely chopped celery or fennel, 1 cup coarsely chopped carrot, 3 Tbs chopped garlic, 3 cups canned tomatoes with juices, 2 1/2 cups dry red or white wine (Ash uses Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese…I used Pinot Grigio), 6 cups faux fish stock, 3 large bay leaves, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 2 tsp. crushed fennel seeds, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In the olive oil in an 8-quart or larger pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery or fennel, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, wine, shellfish stock, bay leaves, thyme, fennel seeds, chile flakes, 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and maintain a low simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes.

Strain the broth, pressing the solids to extract all the liquid. Discard the solids and return the broth to the pot. Boil until reduced to 8 cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings. This broth may be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen.

The Stew: 2 Tbs olive oil, 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves. 1 large waxy potato (6 to 8 oz), 2 medium fennel bulbs (about 12 oz), 1/2 preserved lemon, 1 Tbs sweet paprika, 2 cups diced tomatoes, 1 lb scrubbed clams*, 1 lb scrubbed mussels*, 2 1/2 lbs fillets of firm-fleshed white fish–halibut, flounder, sea bass, monkfish, etc, 1 lb peeled shrimp, 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves, 2 tsp chopped fresh tarragon

*Use whatever fresh seafood is available.

Note: Adding more vegetables is optional. You can and go straight to cooking the seafood in the prepared broth, if you like. Cut the potato into 2/3-inch cubes. Trim the fennel bulbs and cut into very thin wedges. Warm the olive oil in a wide sauté pan or large Dutch oven over medium heat. Stir in the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add the potato, fennel, and chopped preserved lemon and cook 4 or 5 minutes. Add the strained broth, bring to a simmer, then cover and cook over low heat 12 to 15 minutes, until the vegetables are barely tender. Add the tomatoes and paprika and simmer 4 to 5 minutes more.

Now cook the seafood. Add the scrubbed clams to the simmering broth and cook until they open, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the mussels and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. When all the shellfish have opened, add the fish and shrimp, trying not to break the pieces. Cover, and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until barely cooked through. The fish will continue to cook in the hot broth until served. Garnish with chopped parsley and tarragon. Serve with couscous or crusty bread o sop up the broth.

Vegetables at Market

David’s Feast

French Cheese and Tomatos

On our way back north to Paris, we took a detour into a more austere and less populated region of France–a rocky land of forest, hilly pastures for beef herds, windy and narrow roads, and gray granite barns and houses. Our friends, David and Carrie, have referred to this region of central France as the “Ozarks of France,” and it is a difficult enough place to make a living that many of the farmers moved away and sold their old homes to people like David and Carrie. The thick-walled stone house has been renovated to make a comfortable country retreat where they tend a glorious summer garden and welcome visitors with warm hospitality. They shared with us all the best things–ripe plums picked from the community trees, mushrooms gathered in the fields, ancient stone ruins shrouded in mist, and a well-stocked wine cellar beneath the house. As if that were not enough, David cooked a feast! And he even let me help a little.

Cooking with the French

David cooks the way many good cooks in France cook–deeply connected to local and seasonal flavors and inspired by market or garden produce that looks, smells, and feels most alive. David shopped at the weekly farmers’ market in a nearby village and Carrie gathered beautiful fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden. The cool, rainy fall weather was perfect for a day of cuisine maison, or slow home cooking. Of course, we opened a bottle of good wine to sip with the meal.

 Goat Cheese with Honey

Goat Cheese Appetizers

For an aperatif, Carrie warmed small rounds of goat cheese and drizzled a little local honey on top. Cuisine du terroir of elegant simplicity.

Roast Leg of Lamb with Vegetable Gratin

Roast Leg of Lamb

David likes to cook from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells. This is based on one of her recipes.

Ingredients: 3 medium potatoes (2 lbs.), 3 medium or 2 large yellow onions, 5 medium tomatoes, 8 garlic cloves, 4 to 5 Tbs olive oil, several sprigs fresh thyme (1 Tbs. chopped leaves), 2 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 2/3 cup dry white wine, 5 1/2 to 6-pound leg of lamb

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the bottom of a large roasting pan or gratin dish with a split garlic clove.

Slice the potatoes, onions, and tomatoes about 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the peeled garlic cloves. Roughly chop the thyme leaves. Arrange the potatoes in a single layer in the bottom of the pan. Overlap slightly if necessary. Season with salt, pepper and thyme. Repeat with layers of onion followed by tomatoes. Pour on the wine and drizzle with olive oil.

Trim most of the fat from the leg of lamb, leaving only a thin layer. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Place a rack over the pan of vegetables and set the leg of lamb, fat side up, on the rack. Roast for 1 hour and 15 minutes for rare lamb, longer if you prefer more well-cooked meat. Let the lamb sit 15 minutes before carving into thin slices. Arrange the lamb slices on a platter and serve the vegetable gratin from the pan.

Chard Tart

Chard Tart

This was really, really good. Leftovers make a great breakfast.

The dough: 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2-tsp salt, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup pine nuts

Place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir them together until the dough comes together in a ball. Divide the dough into 2 balls, wrap in plastic, and set aside.

Filling: 1 1/2 lbs. chard leaves (no stems), 1 cup golden raisins, 2 beaten eggs, salt

Wash and dry the chard leaves. Chop them into narrow strips and place them in a large bowl. Season lightly with salt and stir in the beaten eggs. Add the raisins and mix well.

Roll out one ball of dough and press it into a tart pan. Spread the filling over the dough. Roll out the second ball of dough and cover the filling. Pinch the edges together.

Bake in a pre-heated 400 degree F oven for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.

Roasted Beet Salad

Another great way to eat those roasted beets from the street market…a lovely fall or winter salad and a great pairing of walnuts and beets. Roasted or boiled, the beets are delicious.

Ingredients: 4 medium beets, 3 shallots, 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh dill, 2/3 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts, 1 Tbs walnut oil, 4 Tbs cider vinegar, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, salt and freshly ground black pepper, 1 1/2 cups arugula leaves

To roast the beets, heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Wrap the beets in aluminum foil and roast for 1 hour or more, depending on size. Beets are done when they can be pierced easily with a thin knife blade. Cool and peel. While still warm, slice the beets into wedges, place them in a bowl, and drizzle with vinegar. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Finely chop the shallots and add them to the bowl. Add the dill, chile flakes, and walnut oil and toss to mix well. Put the arugula leaves on a platter, Scoop the beets over them, and distribute the toasted walnuts on top.

Market Day Cooking–Food, Glorious Food!

French Market

One of the true joys of traveling in France is shopping at the outdoor markets. Our guidebook called them “a barrage of color, sight, and sound.”The abundance and beauty of the produce is astounding–for me, it is Christmas Day. Stalls overflow with vegetables and fruits, nuts and olives, mushrooms and truffles, dried and fresh herbs and spices, cheeses, breads, sausages and cured meats, fish, chickens and ducks, and fresh meat. And then there’s the rotisserie chickens and grilled sausages… Lebanese specialties such as felafel, flatbreads with za’atar, and tabouleh…giant pans of paella, coq au vin…or trays of fresh pasta and ravioli. You can snack on galettes or pommes frites, or perhaps a bowl of onion soup. Oh, and take home roasted beets–what a great idea! One of our favorite markets included a van full of country bread, driven straight from the wood-fired bake oven located on a nearby farm.

Italian Market Vegetables

French Market Sausages

These are traveling markets. In rural France, the small towns host street markets on different days of the week, and various venders make a circuit to augment the more local and seasonal fare. The fall specialties include an array of wild mushrooms, fresh walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts, freshly pressed nut oils, juicy dried prunes, figs and pears, and the most gorgeous garlic I have ever seen. Southwest France is a land of small, traditional, family farms that is overflowing with the good things of the earth–food that is flavored with a benevolent climate, rich soil, and careful tending. This is the home of cuisine du terroir, country cooking seasoned with the flavor of the land.

Mushrooms At A French Market

Our home away from home in Dordogne was in a beautifully converted ancient stone barn, looking out over softly rolling hills toward the river valley and surrounded by fields of just-harvested tobacco, ripening walnut orchards, pasture, and forests of oak and chestnut trees. It felt like home, complete with a rusting vehicle in the field across the way. Each day we foraged at the markets and brought the loot home to our tiny kitchen. We emptied our shopping bags like Christmas stockings, and reveled in the riches. It was truly hard to know what to cook first. When the ingredients are so good, why get fancy? Simple is best.

French Rental Home

Roast Fingerling Potatoes

The markets were full of freshly dug potatoes, full of flavor and smelling of the earth. Fingerlings or other small, smooth-skinned yellow potatoes are first choice. Look for Red Gold, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, French Fingerling, or Russian Banana. They are best when not long out of the ground.

Wash the potatoes and dry them well. Cut fingerlings in half and larger potatoes into quarters so that the pieces are of equal size. Place the potatoes on a roasting pan that is large enough to hold them all in one layer. Drizzle them with a flavorful olive oil (2 Tbs per pound of potatoes) and toss well. Sprinkle on a generous 1/4-teaspoon sea salt and 1/2- tsp chopped fresh rosemary per pound.

Roast the potatoes in the hot oven for 50 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan and flipping the potatoes every 10 to 15 minutes so that all sides turn a toasty brown. They are done when the outside is crisp and the inside tender.

Signature Salad

On our very first day in France we stopped at a small bistro outside the railroad station where I got to eat what turned out to be the signature salad of southwest France. It was sublime.

Fill a bowl with bite-size pieces of red and green loose leaf lettuce (the most common variety we saw in the region was soft, frilly head of green-shading-to-red leaves) and curly endive. Dress the greens with a vinaigrette made with 4 Tbs mild olive oil, 2 Tbs walnut oil, and 2 Tbs wine or cider vinegar. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Top the salad with toasted walnuts and slices of toasted baguette with rounds of goat cheese, placed under the broiler to melt the cheese.

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

Market Veggies in France

It still felt like summer in the south of France in late September, and the deep purple eggplant, vibrant red and orange peppers, ruby-red onions, vine-ripe tomatoes, and shiny green zucchini were irresistible. Add some fat lavender-striped garlic cloves and a bundle of fresh thyme…it’s a lovely way to bake a summer garden. We had this dish as a filling for lasagne at the little railroad station bistro.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Ingredients: 1 large red onion, 1 beautiful shiny-skinned eggplant –12 to 16 oz.(or 2 smaller ones), 1 or 2 red or orange sweet peppers, 2 slender zucchini, 2 medium tomatoes (or 5 or 6 canned plum tomatoes), 3 to 4 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves, 1 tsp. sea salt or Kosher salt, 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, 3 fat garlic cloves, 3 to 4 Tbs fruity olive oil

Extras: fresh mint leaves, pitted green olives, splash of sherry vinegar

Slice the onion from top to bottom into thin wedges. Cut the eggplant into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut the peppers into 1/2-inch strips, then each strip into 3 or 4 pieces, slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch rounds. Slice the tomatoes 1/4-inch thick. Thinly slice the garlic.

Combine the onion, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, and garlic in a large roasting pan. Toss to mix. Sprinkle with thyme, salt, and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss again. Distribute the tomato slices over the top (or squeeze the canned tomatoes with your hand over the other vegetables.

Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown on the edges. Serve warm or at room temperature, sprinkled with fresh mint leaves and chopped green olives. A splash of sherry or balsamic vinegar is nice.

Smoky Grilled Fish and Beet Salsa

Our farmhouse in Dordogne had a patio and outdoor grill where the barnyard used to be. We brought home fresh fish from the market, and Joe fired up the grill with a bag of grapevine trimmings. The fire turned out to be quite smoky, rather alarming to our host, but the fish was delicious and greatly enhanced by a beet-orange salsa borrowed from a recipe by Yotam Ottalenghi. It’s surprising how many ways you can find to eat beets when they come ready-roasted from the market! The salsa was spiced with piment d’Espelette, a dried pepper from the Basque region. It is medium spicy and very flavorful–somewhat like Aleppo pepper, only brighter and fruitier.

Build a big, smoky fire and grill skin-on fish, whole or fillets, until cooked through–3 to 4 minutes per side. If you don’t like smoke, use a normal grill fire. While someone else deals with the fire, make the salsa.

Ingredients: 1 roasted or boiled medium-large red or yellow beet, 1 medium orange, 1 small red onion, 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olives, juice of 1 small lemon, 1/2 tsp toasted and crushed coriander seeds, 3/4 tsp toasted and crushed cumin seeds, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, salt, 1 Tbs walnut oil, sea salt or kosher salt, vinegar

Peel and cut the beet into 1/4-inch dice. Peel the orange and remove all pith and tough membranes from the segments. Chop into small pieces. Finely chop the onion. Combine the beet, orange, onion, olives and parsley in a mixing bowl. Whisk together the spices, lemon juice, and walnut oil and pour over the mixture in the bowl. Mix well and season with salt to taste. Add some toasted walnuts and a splash of cider or sherry vinegar, if needed, just before serving. This salsa is brilliant on top of a winter salad of spinach or spicy greens.

***

For dessert, all I had to do was walk down the lane to a long-empty chateau and pick fresh figs from the tree that hung out over the bank. Not so easy, but well worth the sun-ripened figs, bursting with juice.

In Paris, there are at least 100 street markets that set up in the various neighborhoods on specified days of the week. The market near our apartment stretched for almost a half mile along a narrow greenway between two avenues. It was the Louvre of street markets, and I gazed for hours at frilly green and red lettuce, stacks of wrinkled, moldy-rind cheeses, seductive radishes, and fish so fresh they seem to have just jumped out of the water

Joie de Vivre and Thanksgiving

Last summer, when I couldn’t cook, words I read in Su Mei Yu’s book, Cracking the Coconut, took on new meaning. She gives insight into the cooking of Thailand by explaining that “the Thai people are Buddhists who believe that life is marked by suffering, impermanence, and constant change. They seek and grasp at every chance to celebrate pleasure and happiness. Good food and the community spirits of sharing reflect this philosophy.”

The Thai philosophy of food can be summed up in two words, according to Yu: arroy, meaning delicious as well as “touching one’s heart”, and sanuk, meaning fun and spiritual joie de vivre. Sounds like they celebrate Thanksgiving every day.

We were in need of an infusion of joie de vivre, so we went with friends Joe and Suzy to France. As we traveled south into the Dordogne, I knew immediately that we were in the land of arroy and sanuk, as well as joie de vivre. This is a region of rich river valleys blessed with a temperate climate, ample sun and rain, and a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Contented cows and sheep dot deep green pastures, fields of vegetables and fruit and nut orchards thrive, and the wine is legendary. This is a land where almost every village gives it’s name to a kind of cheese, wine, or sausage–all you need to do is pop into the village baker, and you have a feast.

French Landscape

French Door

Our first stop was in Villaines les Rochers, a village of willow basket makers. We were the guests of David and Judy, who make their home in one of the cave houses common to the area. These houses are dug into the soft rock in the bluffs above the river to create a unique space that is open to light yet insulated from both the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The sun-facing rock wall has the added advantage of creating a superb microclimate for tomatoes and peppers and plants like grapevines and figs (even better, you can climb up on the roof and pick the figs!). David and Judy tend a garden that produces some of the most beautiful and delicious vegetables I have ever seen or tasted.

French Tomato Plate

One of the great things about being a traveler welcomed into someone’s home is that they know the flavors of their home terroir and want to share the best food possible. Our hosts gathered sun-ripened tomatoes and herbs from the garden, goat cheese from the near-by town of St. Maure, figs from the tree outside their door, mackerel from the Atlantic, and wine from a small neighboring vineyard to make a welcoming meal full of joie de vivre.

As you will see, this is not fussy cooking–not the image of the French chef. This is wonderful food staight from the earth and the sea, shared with good friends, and remembered forever with gratitude.

Appetizer of Goat Cheese and Figs

French Fig

Cut ripe, fresh figs in half and arrange on a baking pan. Place a 1/4-inch slice of goat cheese (Judy prefers the ash-coated Chevre de St. Maure) on top of each fig. Broil until the figs are softened and the cheese bubbles. Voila!

David’s Tomato Salad

French Tomato

David and Judy grow sweet, richly flavored heirloom tomatoes–Zebra and Corno-de- something, as well as the hybrid “Sungold” cherry tomato. Red, green, and gold create a spectacular mosaic of flavor and color. This is David’s speciality.

Arrange slices of red, green, and yellow tomatoes in a pleasing pattern on a large platter. Sprinkle with sea salt and pepper, finely chopped red onion, and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle fruity olive oil over the top. Enjoy!

Grilled Mackerel

We bought whole, fresh mackerel at the local grocery store (cleaned as we waited), and David prepared it for the grill, using fresh herbs from the garden.

Rub the mackerel with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and coat with finely chopped sage and rosemary leaves. Tuck a sprig of rosemary and a few sage leaves into the cavity of each fish and set aside in the fridge while you prepare the grill fire. Grill over medium heat until cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Bon apetit!

Serve with a salad of lettuce and gorgeous red radicchio.

Mia’s Garden Gifts–The Best New Taste Treats

Fermented Garlic Clove

The best thing about running Country Workshops woodworking school classes is the interesting people we get to meet and the many friends we have made over the years. We met Ryo and Mia Iwasaki because they are neighbors of our mutual friends the late Marlin Mathiessen and his wife Kathy, and live just on the other side of the mountain from us in Tennessee. Marlin enticed Mia into coming to woodworking classes, and she soon became a good friend and even serves on the board of Country Workshops. Mia translates when we have Japanese visitors and is my go-to person for any Japanese cooking questions.

Ryo and Mia tend a small, intensive garden full of wonderful Japanese vegetables like daikon, nira (garlic chives), and kabocha squash. They also planted a grove of bamboo in one corner of their yard to provide both beauty and a tasty spring harvest of bamboo shoots. Mia came over last week with a bag of freshly dug bamboo shoots, another bag of what looked like burnt locusts or grasshoppers, and a small tub of dark paste. She was very excited about what she had to share, so we took a leap and stuck some in our mouths. The bamboo shoots look prehistoric and have a crunchy and mildly wild taste. The unidentifiable black things turned out to be fermented garlic cloves–sweetly intense and can’t-stop-eating-them good. The little tub held fermented garlic butter, which we slathered on bread and everything else in sight.

These are very fun ingredients to play with, so I got the details of how to prepare them from Mia.

Bamboo Shoots

 Bamboo Shoots

Harvest bamboo shoots in early spring when the shoots are 3 to 5 inches tall. Older shoots will become tough and woody if allowed to grow taller. Cut the shoots off with a sharp knife or pruners at ground level, or slightly below if your soil is loose. Mia boils her shoots in water that has been used to rinse white rice. She says the residue that washes off the rice eliminates any bitterness in the shoots. Plain water is fine, also. Boil the shoots until tender, up to one hour for large ones. Let the shoots cool to room temperature in the water. Mia stores hers in the refrigerator in the cooking water until ready to use. Very young and tender shoots are delicious eaten raw.

The bamboo shoots were so beautiful to look at, I served them as they were, as an accompaniment to Thai curry. Here are more ideas from Mia:

* Slice them up and add them to stir-fry.

* Cook them with steamed rice: Wash and drain rice. Place in a pot or rice cooker and cover with slices of bamboo shoots. Add 2 Tbs soy sauce, 2 Tbs sake, 1 tsp dashi powder, and 1 cup water per cup of rice. Bring to a boil and allow the water to boil down to the surface of the rice over medium heat. Cover tightly and cook over very low heat until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 10 to 12 minutes. Allow to sit 10 minutes before serving.

* Spicy Bamboo Shoots: Sauté bamboo shoots in toasted sesame oil 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 tsp minced ginger, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste), and 1 Tbs. soy sauce (Mia adds a little Chinese soup broth powder instead of soy). Stir until the shoots have absorbed the flavors.

Fermented Garlic

Fermented Garlic

Mia made her batch of fermented garlic with 20 whole garlic bulbs. Separate the cloves but leave the peels on. Place the unpeeled cloves in rice cooker or slow cooker set to “keep warm”. Stir once a day for 3 weeks. The fermented garlic will turn very black, soft, and sweet. Peel the garlic before using, or just pop the whole thing in you mouth and enjoy.

We ate the peeled cloves straight, put them on crackers with goat cheese, used them in cilantro/sorrel pesto, and wrapped them up in grilled zucchini. All good.

Fermented Garlic Butter

Fermented Garlic Butter

Mash 1/4 lb best quality room temperature butter with enough peeled fermented garlic cloves to make an impact–12 to 24 cloves, depending on your taste. Use a fork or food processor, whichever you prefer.

We ate our blackened garlic butter on bruschetta and on cornbread, topped with watercress. I used some on top of salmon steaks, wrapped in rhubarb leaves and slow-roasted @ 250 degrees F for about 18 minutes. The butter would be equally good to top grilled steaks and is delicious to flavor plain rice.

Who needs truffle butter?

Hungry Gap

Old English farmers had a term for the time of year when winter’s stores were getting low and spring was still just a promise. They called it the “hungry gap.” It makes my stomach growl just to think about it. Modern grocery store shoppers don’t experience a hungry gap anymore; it’s always summer somewhere in the world, and produce from afar flows in year-round. Asparagus from Peru, zucchini from Mexico, greens in plastic boxes from California…they fill the hunger gap but leave a flavor gap.

Just when I am thinking that the spring garden harvest is a long way off, and we will indeed suffer a hungry gap, the garden and woods wake up. It’s a forager’s paradise; the wild plants and garden survivors offer some of the most vibrant and flavorful food of the year. Chives, sorrel, mint, corn salad, garlic chives, chervil, arugula, and chickweed emerge…full deep green. Last year’s chicory, radicchio, chard, kale, mustard, and celery send out new leaves, full of energy stored all winter. In the woods, the ramps are poking out of their blanket of fallen leaves. I am as happy to see these first leaves of spring as any of summer’s more extravagant bounty.

Eating foraged plants in spring is an immersion in the here and now. Every day brings new growth–mint creeps from between the rocks, chicory emerges from under the mulch, and the winter pea shoots become succulent and enticing. I notice each leaf…its shape, texture, and color, and how it unfurls, almost blinking in the sunlight. Flavors range from  sharp and intense to sweetly mellow, tamed by a long winter.

The most direct (and my favorite) way to eat these wild flavors of spring is to snip the tiny leaves into a salad. The Italians call this kind of salad misticanza, a mix of greens that includes a complex range of flavors and textures. My early spring mix includes peppery arugula, soft and mild leaves of chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste“, crunchy endive or escarole, spicy mustard leaves and flower buds, slightly bitter radicchio or chicory “Catalogna Pugliese” (Italian dandelion), delicate pea shoots, and mild chickweed. Pile the leaves into a salad bowl and toss them with good olive oil, a little salt and black pepper, and a drizzle of wine vinegar. That’s all you need.

spring green salad

Some people aren’t as fond as I am of the intensely green, slightly bitter taste of these wild and wonderful greens. For these taste buds, a little oil and vinegar are not enough. Happily, there is a remedy. Adding ingredients like cheeses, cooked beans, toasted nuts, and crisp croutons soften the overly zealous green-ness and introduce welcome contrasting textures. Crispy fried bacon or pancetta pair perfectly with salads of sturdy greens–a lesson we learned from the local old-timers, who dressed their foraged spring greens with bacon grease.

Spring Misticanza with Marinated White Beans

spring salad with beans

I made this with a perfect head of radicchio “Palla Rossa” that over-wintered under two layers of row cover, surviving sub-zero nights. The beans were big fat Borlotto beans that I shelled out and put in the freezer last September. Any large white beans or cannellini beans will work. The mild, soft-textured beans are the perfect foil for sharp, spicy greens.

Ingredients: 4 cups thinly sliced radicchio, 4 cups mixed spicy salad greens, 1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, 1/2 cup chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, chives, mint), 1 1/4 cooked white beans, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/2 tsp red chile flakes, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, feta cheese and/or crisp fried bacon or pancetta

Warm 3 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chile and cook 1 or 2 minutes. Add the cooked beans and 2 Tbs of their cooking liquid, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 to 4 tsp red wine vinegar, salt and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and allow the beans to marinate while you make the salad.

Toss the radicchio, mixed greens, herbs, and onion together in a large salad bowl. Drizzle with fruity olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the warm bean mixture over the top and garnish with crumbled feta cheese and pieces of crisp bacon or pancetta.

Frittata with Spring Greens and Ramps

Ramps

Ramps are a special member of the onion family that grows wild in rich, moist mountain coves. They are one of the first signs of spring and much beloved for their pungent flavor and ability to drive off the last of winter.

Ingredients: 5 large eggs, 12 ramps (substitute scallions or garlic chives–about 1 cup chopped), 1 small bunch greens (kale, chard, mustard, nettles, watercress–3 to 4 cups chopped), 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano, pecorino, or grana Padano cheese, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 2 to 3 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (parsley, chervil, mint), red chile flakes

Heat the oven to 275 degrees F. Clean and trim the ramps. Thinly slice the white ends and chop the greens into 1-inch pieces. Remove any tough stems and roughly chop the greens into bite-size pieces. Heat 2 Tbs olive oil in an ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped ramps and cook 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add the chopped greens and saute a few minutes until wilted. The young leaves should cook quickly.

Whisk the eggs with the salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir the ramps and greens and grated cheese into the eggs. Wipe the skillet clean, then set over medium-high heat with an additional 1 Tbs oil. When the oil shimmers, pour in the egg mixture into the pan. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the eggs are almost set, 15 to 20 minutes. Allow the frittata to cool 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

To serve, cut the frittata in wedges. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with chopped herbs and a pinch of chile.

Ramp Butter

I found the instructions for making ramp butter in a cookbook written by the owners of Franny’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn dedicated to simple, seasonal, Italian food. They cure their own meats and like to pair ramp butter with pancetta on crostini. I raided my small ramp patch for this recipe, but had to supplement with wild onions to make enough.

Ingredients: 2 2/3 cups thinly sliced ramp leaves (or wild onion tops), 2/3 cup thinly sliced ramp or onion bottoms, 1/2 lb. unsalted butter, 1 tsp chile flakes, 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

In a saucepan, melt 6 Tbs butter over medium-low heat. Add 1/3 cup ramp bottoms and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chile flakes and stir 20 to 30 seconds. Add the ramp tops and salt and cook until the greens are tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl, and cool to room temperature.

In a food processor, blend the uncooked ramp bottoms with the cooked mixture. Pulse in the remaining room-temperature butter. Transfer to a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap. Roll into a log and twist the ends of the paper to seal. Refrigerate until used. The butter will store 1 week in the refrigerator or 3 months in the freezer.