Monday, October 22, 2012

My favorite French dish

Apologies for the crummy photo. I'll take another next time!
From the first time she made it, I have adored my wife’s coq au vin – not that I don’t adore other things about her, too! Making it plays to her strengths, too. She’s great with “stew-like objects” where she can prep everything, put it all together and then step back. Ala minute cooking is not her forte.

This is provincial French cooking at its best. To be really faithful, you need a rooster, but that can be tough unless you know a farmer who raises poultry. Since this fowl will be on the elderly side, it needs slow cooking at a low temperature for a long period to come out tender. While that’s admirable (and well worth the effort of finding a stewing hen), most people don’t want to bother with that. I’ve done it, and it is fantastic, especially what the slow braising does to the sauce using my cast iron Dutch oven. The recipe given here is for using a good-size roasting chicken.

For me, the whole peppercorns make this dish with a bit of very nice heat when you bite into one. Vicki and one of our sons generally pony up with most of their peppercorns, which I don’t mind at all. We’re also blessed with our home-smoked bacon, which adds another whole layer of flavor.

Julia Child made this dish famous in the US, but our recipe is a bit easier and quicker to put together. Vicki generally takes the skin off the chicken pieces these days which keeps a good deal of extra fat out of the sauce, but it’s also not quite as tasty, in my opinion. A good suggesting might be to keep the skin on some of the pieces like the legs, wings and maybe one of the thighs.

It’s important to brown the chicken well. This also adds a lot of flavor. Once you’ve dismembered the chicken, wash it thoroughly and get it thoroughly dry so it browns well. If the two breasts are on the large side, I suggest cutting them in half. They’re easier to manage on the plate and if you have a hearty eater at table, he or she can just have both halves.

We’ve been serving spelt pasta with this lately and it stands up well to the rich sauce. You won’t need as much, either, because it’s more filling. Try it. Any Italian grocer will have it, as well as health food stores or supermarkets with a health food section.

One other thing: as with most stews, this is always better reheated. Keep that in mind for your next dinner party, although you want to be careful with overcooking it.

Bon appetit!

Coq au vin
Serves 4-6

1 3 lb chicken cut into pieces or chicken parts, skinned if you want
3 Tbs olive oil
¼ lb thick-sliced smoked bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch lardons
1 cup onions, chopped
½ cup carrots, grated
2 tsp garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbs all purpose flour
2 Tbs fresh parsley, minced
2 Tbs fresh chervil, minced or 2 tsp dried chervil
3 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 Tbs fresh thyme, minced or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 Tbs black peppercorns
¾ tsp salt
1½ cups full-bodied red wine (burgundy is traditional)
1½ cups mushrooms, sliced
2 cups baby carrots

1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Have all ingredients at room temperature. In a heavy pot such as a Dutch oven, sauté the bacon in 1 tablespoon of olive oil over low heat until the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the onions, grated carrots and garlic to the fat, sauté over medium heat for 3 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. Add the rest of the olive oil, and sauté the chicken pieces until they are lightly browned on all sides, taking care not to crowd them. Remove them from the pot and set aside. Drain any remaining fat from the pan and discard.

4. Return the vegetables to the pot, add the flour, parsley, chervil, salt and peppercorns. Sauté for 1 minute over medium heat, stirring frequently.

5. Add 1 cup of wine, stir well. Reduce the heat to low. Tuck the bay leaves into the mixture. Arrange the chicken parts on top of the vegetables, pour the remaining wine on top of the chicken. Cover tightly. Place in the oven.

6. After 30 minutes, stir everything thoroughly, making sure the chicken pieces are turned over in the sauce, then add the baby carrots to the pot.

7. Fifteen minutes later, add the sliced mushrooms and the bacon pieces to the pot, stirring them in as best as possible. Add more wine if necessary or it’s gotten too thick. Cook 15 minutes longer.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On the lookout for a fantastic out-of-the-ordinary hors d’oeurves?

We don’t entertain all that often, but it seems that whenever we do, we spend the most time trying to figure out what to serve while we’re sitting around before dinner. The ideal thing to serve is something that doesn’t need last-minute cooking, so when everyone arrives we can just bring the hors d’oeurves out of the kitchen.

We have some tried and true recipes, but one can’t keep serving those to the same guests. Our grilled mussels are always a favorite, but they can’t be made in winter or when the weather is wet.

A number of years ago, we were browsing through cookbooks looking for something new for an upcoming dinner party when we happened across something really quite fantastic in Lulu’s Provençal Table a source of a number of our favorite recipes – including grilled mussels (moules à la Catalane) and ratatouille – two recipes we’ve already featured on AMFAS.

Today’s recipe is called pissaladière, something best described as a French version of what the Italians call a “white pizza”, since it has no tomatoes. The dish seems to have originated in southern France, and it’s often found as street food, being served room temperature from carts around markets.

At first reading, the ingredients seem a bit of an odd fit in the same dish, but believe me, the combination is inspired, and as long as your guests appreciate anchovies, I guarantee they won’t fail to be impressed – and surprised. The tender, buttery crust and the sweetness of the almost-dissolving onions work perfectly against the salty jolt of the anchovies and the fruitiness of the olives.

Often pissaladière is made with a bread dough much like that used in Italian pizza, but Lulu’s recipe uses a pâte brisée which I think works better with the flavor and texture of the onion base. You need to only use salt-packed anchovies for this. We once made it with those filleted anchovies that come packed in oil in little tins, and frankly, the result was very disappointing. The choice of olives is also important and niçoise seems the best choice here.

Learn from our mistakes. Stick to what the recipe calls for to avoid disappointment! You may have to work a bit harder to source the exact ingredients, but it will prove worth it. Salt-packed anchovies can be found at good fish monger, especially those with a more southern European bent. The nice thing is that they keep practically forever in a tightly closed container in your fridge. (We generally keep a half-dozen on hand.) Niçoise olives can be found at any shop specializing in good olives. Do yourself a favor and buy pitted ones if you can – unless you have a good olive pitter.

Another thing: pissaladière is best when freshly made and served warm-ish, but I think you’ll discover that’s not a problem since it usually disappears rapidly.

Serves 8

2 cups all purpose flour
¾ tsp salt
10 Tbs cold butter, diced
4 Tbs cold water (approx.)
4 Tbs olive oil
2 lbs sweet white onions, thinly sliced
8 whole anchovies, rinsed and patted dry, then filleted
½ cup Niçoise olives, pitted
olive oil

1. Sift the flour and salt together into a mixing bowl, add the diced butter. Rapidly crumble the butter and flour together between your thumbs and fingertips. Above all, don’t overwork the pastry. Add enough water to gather the pastry into a ball. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out.

2. Warm the olive oil in a heavy sauté pan, add the onions and salt, and cook covered over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for an hour or more, or until the onions are so soft as to form a semi-purée. Remove the lid and continue to cook until much of the liquid has evaporated; the onions should remain uncolored. Season with pepper.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°. With the palm of your hand, flatten the ball of pastry on a generously floured surface, sprinkle over with plenty of flour, and roll it out to a thickness of approximately ⅛". Roll it up on the rolling pin and unroll it onto a large baking sheet. Roll up the edges and crimp them.

4. Spread the onion purée evenly over the pastry, press the anchovies and olives into the purée, then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the surface.

5. Bake for 30 minutes or until the edges of the pastry are golden and crisp. Let it cool a bit before cutting into two- or three-bite sized pieces, making sure each has a few olives and some anchovy filet.

Note: To filet a whole anchovy, use a sharp paring knife and start just in front of the tail, gently lifting the meat from the backbone. If you work slowly, you should be able to peel of most of the meat in one go. If you don’t get it all, simply pull off any that remains with the tip of the knife or your fingers. Then, flip the fish over and repeat on the opposite sides. If there are any large bones at the front end where the head was removed, pull these off with your fingers. The rib bones are so tiny you don’t have to worry about any that remain in the meat. Once you’ve done a few, it gets pretty easy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Meanwhile, back in France…

Back in town again after a trip down to the States for a book signing in Ann Arbor, MI, and an appearance at Bouchercon (the big crime writing conference) in Cleveland, I was in severe cooking withdrawal. With yesterday being Thanksgiving up here in Canada, I was out in the kitchen making the usual turkey dinner. We’d gotten an absolutely delicious, Mennonite-raised bird from our friend Nick at Gasparro’s down on Bloor Street.

But that’s not what this post is about.

One of the things the French do very well are salads. It’s not the sort of thing one automatically thinks of when one is contemplating French cuisine, but during our trip to Paris in the fall of 2008 to research the novel I was writing (The Fallen One, which has just been released), we had some absolutely terrific cold plates of exquisite greens, vegetables and other nice things. To be honest, we never had anything evening approaching a bad one.

Beauvais’s rather odd-looking cathedral. That’s all there is!
When we returned home, we spent a lot of time discussing the food we’d experienced, and I kept commenting on a salade composée, especially. Was it found at a fancy restaurant with 3 Michelin stars? Nope. We were out in Beauvais, a sleepy backwater market town in Picardy, northwest of Paris, a place so quiet that they started building a grand cathedral 800 years ago – and never finished it! It’s quite a strange place that goes more up than out.

The salad was found at a restaurant that I decided to use as a setting in my novel for a pivotal scene: Café Victor.

A salade composée is just what it sounds like: everything is laid out artistically on the plate with an eye to colour and texture, as well as flavor. While the traditional way to add the dressing is to do each component separately, letting some things marinate longer than others, and then assembling the salad, most people just lay out their work of art, then carefully dribble a classic French vinaigrette over everything so nothing is disturbed. The way this dish looks is nearly as important as how it tastes.

Since researching it, and trying every one I come across on any menu, I can say that what goes in is very much a free-for-all. The recipe I’m offering today for this classic is the combination my wife Vicki favors, and to be honest, at the height of summer on one of those scorching days where you almost don’t want to eat, I can’t think of a better luncheon choice or first course. With a crisp white wine and crusty bread, I can’t think of much better. Try it and see if you don’t agree.

Salade Composée
Serves 4

1 head Boston lettuce
4 strips prosciutto, thinly sliced (this is definitely not traditional, but bear with us. It’s fantastic.)
12 spears asparagus
4 hardboiled eggs, quartered lengthwise
12 slices 
roasted red peppers, approximately 2" long and ½" wide
1 large vine ripened tomato, cut into 8 wedges
12 whole Kalamata olives, pitted
some fresh tarragon leaves
“a bit of” red onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbs tarragon white wine vinegar
7 Tbs olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
salt & freshly-ground white pepper to taste

1. Place the strips of prosciutto on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Broil until crisp. Let cool. Meanwhile put the salad plates you’re going to use into the freezer to chill them completely.

2. Steam the asparagus until just done but certainly not soggy. We usually pop it in the freezer to cool it quickly.

3. Pull off 8 whole lettuce leaves from the head. Wash and pat throughly dry. Place two on each plate.

4. Arrange the vegetables and prosciutto on the lettuce. Sprinkle the tarragon leaves over the salad.

5. Whisk together the vinegar, oil and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

6. Carefully drizzle the dressing over the salad.

Note: To give this a bit of southern French feel, you might want to include a couple of salt-packed anchovy filets. I like a small piece of these with a quarter of the hardboiled eggs, but that may be just me…

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

And now for a short break in Germany!

I’m getting ready to hightail it out of town tomorrow for the States for a spot of book promotion and won’t be around for several days. I had planned on dovetailing my previous entry (confit de canard) with one of my favorite recipes: cassoulet, since it uses confit as one of its ingredients. Problem is, the recipe is rather long and involved (and somewhat difficult, truth be told), and I just don’t have time to get into it today. But I will, so stand by for that one!

Today, I’m going to share one of the Blechta family’s favorite summer recipes, Peach Kuchen. It’s a recipe we inherited from my mom, and I’m pretty certain that she got it from her mother. How far back it goes is anyone’s guess, but I’ll bet it’s pretty old.

Judging by the name, it must originally come from Germany where her people were from a few generations back. All of us make it at least a few times when those fantastic local, tree-ripened peaches show up. This just isn’t worth making with peaches that haven’t seen a tree for several weeks. Get the best peaches you can find. Usually, they’ll need a day or two on the counter to get to that perfect stage of ripeness.

My sister Lynette is the queen of this particular dish. There was one summer year’s ago when she seemed to produce one every night for about 2 weeks. Not that anyone complained! It turns out best when the peaches are really ripe. That way the skins come off easily. My suggestion is to use one of the thicker-skinned freestone peach varieties. That way they’ll skin easily and you’ll be able to pull the fruit off the pit with your fingers or with minimal knife work.

We generally serve this two ways: with vanilla ice cream or with whipped cream. Either way is quite nice, but some good homemade whipped cream tastes best in my opinion.

We’ve also shared this recipe with lots of people who love it as much as we do. Now it’s your turn. Do yourself a favor and make two!

Elsie’s Peach Kuchen
Makes 1 8-inch kuchen

2-4 peaches, depending on size
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking powder
1 lemon rind, grated
1 egg, slightly beaten
2-3 Tbs dark brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 375°. Have all ingredients at room temperature.

2. Dip peaches in boiling water for 3-5 minutes to loosen skins.

3. Skin and slice peaches into eighths.

4. Cream butter, then add sugar, and beat until fluffy.

5. Add flour, salt, baking powder, lemon rind, and egg, and mix well.

6. Press the batter into an 8" pie pan with a fork and arrange the sliced peaches on top. A spiral design really looks nice, but concentric circles are easier.

7. Bake for 20 minutes, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for another 15 minutes. Watch that the crust doesn’t get too brown. Let this cool a fair bit so it will set up, but it should still be slightly warm.