24 October 2006

Herbes de Provence

My French Kitchen in America is almost never without an ample supply of herbes de Provence, even if I have to make them myself.

The basis for herbes de Provence are rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. Other additions are usually marjoram, basil, summer savory and fennel. I like it best when culinary lavender is included.

Now that I live in a small town, this blend is difficult to find locally. I usually buy a jar whenever I visit a Penzeys outlet, usually in Madison, or buy them online.

Fortunately, they are available from Esprit du Sel, blended with sea salt for about $8 at a local supermarket. In this form, I use them to flavor and draw moisture from cut-up eggplant before making ratatouille. Herbes de Provence make a great rub for summer grilling. Lately, I've run across recipes for turkey using herbes de Provence. Since my husband wants ham for Thanksgiving, I'll have to find another way to work them into the menu.

When I blend my own herbes, I use this mix:

  • 1 Tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon marjoram
  • 1 Tablespoon dried summer savory
  • 1/2 Tablespoon rosemary

To taste:
lavender buds
fennel seeds
dried sage

Note: Yesterday, our three-year-old iMac refused to boot. We are taking it to the nearest Apple repair shop tomorrow, which means an out-of-town trip. I'll be able to shop at a larger supermarket and visit some specialty shops.

How will I survive what is likely to be a two-week period without a home computer? Yikes!

21 October 2006

Potage a l'Oignon (Onion Soup)

“They’re very sweet,” said the farmer, rearranging the golden onions in the white basket. “But I won’t be here after this week. . .”

So of course, I bought them. There were only three farm market vendors braving yesterday’s chill and I noticed prices were up. No matter. The fresh produce is still a bargain, compared to the older stuff you find at the supermarket.

I loaded up on onions, thinking the weather was perfect for onion soup, usually Saturday night fare at our house.

This version was sweeter than usual. It could have been dessert. Oh, but it was wonderful.

Sweet Onion Soup for Two

  • 3 of the sweetest onions you can find, peeled and sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 Tablespoon flour
  • 2 cups beef bouillon
  • 2 cups chicken bouillon
  • ¼ cup warm milk
  • Dash ground pepper
  • Dash sea salt
  • Dash herbes de Provence

After you’ve sliced the onions, brown them slightly in butter in a heavy stockpot or skillet. Add flour and brown, until the onions turn golden.

Add hot beef and chicken bouillon and allow the soup to come to a boil. Lower the heat and allow it to simmer for 20 minutes.

Next, add the milk and allow it to simmer a bit longer. Add pepper, salt and herbes. My husband prefers his without cheese, but I usually do a blend of Mozzarella and Parmesan.

Sometimes I add croutons that have been sautéed in butter and garlic. Tonight: simple French dinner rolls.

18 October 2006

Coincidence? Or a Sign of Approval?

You can't always get what you want. Most of the time.

I had a meeting tonight at the public library. I got there early and went straight to the used-book room, where books are 50 cents each.

There it was. My father’s favorite French cookbook, the one he could not afford to own, but would check out of the library several times a year: “The Art of French Cooking by the Great Contemporary Masters of the Cuisine,” 861 pages with the pull-out gastronomical map of France still in its pocket.

The same book. Not the same book at a different library. The same book, for my husband and I moved back to our hometown a few years ago. The book sat on the library shelves for 40 years. It was already 10 years old when my father discovered it.

I thought about the book once in a while, enviously, wishing I owned it. I assumed the library got rid of it long ago, and since I borrow books from another library, I never bothered to check for it. Or I forgot to. Who knows.

“If you ever want to buy me something, buy me this book,” my father once said. I was in college then and had no money.

It was the book he often took into the pantry with him, to dream, to ponder to create.

Now it’s mine. Grilled Quails Berchoux. Breton Galettes. Anise Cakes. Beef Filet Dauphine. Larks in Shrouds. Spinach Jaqueline.

I may not work my way through the whole book.

But now it’s mine.

15 October 2006

The View from the Pantry Kitchen

My chef father may have cooked in the kitchen, but he maintained a small office area in the pantry. Here he could sit with his morning coffee and peruse cookbooks for new ideas. He kept a pad and pencil for jotting down ideas and even articles he wished could someday write. (He yearned to be a writer, not a chef. I write for a living, but hope to become an accomplished cook.)

After reading Lydia's Oct. 12 post at The Perfect Pantry — in which she poses the question, "When you think of a pantry, what comes to mind?" — I started thinking about that kitchen office. Our pantry was large and had built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves on one side of a long narrow room. At the end was a high window and a counter. The window overlooked a gravel driveway and our backyard. There my father pulled up his high stool.

Unwittingly, I created the same sort of perch for myself when I bought a high stool that can be pulled up to the kitchen counter. My own window overlooks a copse of cedar trees and a 110-year-old horse-and-buggy barn (pictured above).

In spring and summer I can watch birds of all kinds at the feeders or in the copper birdbath. In fall, I watch the garden turn to russet and gold and often see migrating birds flying above. One cold day I spotted a group of trumpeter swans undulating across the sky.

In winter, I watch cardinals, chickadees and juncos eat the sunflower seeds I put out for them. There are plenty of squirrels and rabbits but also the occasional wild turkey or fox.

It is a relaxing place to sit and dream, to conjure up new recipes or even pay bills. I expect it was for my father too.

12 October 2006

From the Heart of France: Gouere aux Pommes

One of the first cookbooks I bought on my own was Elizabeth David’s "French Country Cooking." I pictured David as a motherly sort, a bit plump perhaps, with an academic interest in the hearty French provincial dishes I yearned to master.

How wrong I was! David was a free spirit, a young woman of means who, after a short stint as an actress, ran off with a married lover. Her marriage to another man was one of convenience. (Like MFK Fisher, she was far ahead of her time in many ways). A cerebral hemmorrhage destroyed her sense of taste at middle age — what a tragedy!

Along with Julia Child, David and Fisher are a triumverate of “French” cooks whose books are now joined by Patricia Wells, Susan Herrmann Loomis and Georgeanne Brennan on my kitchen bookshelf.

Last night, I pulled Elizabeth from the shelf, thumbed through the now-yellowed pages and adapted this easy dessert, which she described as "a country sweet from the Berry district of France."

Gouère aux Pommes

  • one pound apples, sliced and chopped
  • two tablespoons brandy
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • squeeze of lemon

  • 1 ½ cups of plus two tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • pinch salt
  • two eggs
  • one teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 ¼ cup milk

Wash, peel and chop apples. Place in bowl and cover with brandy, lemon, cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In separate bowl, blend flour, sugar and salt. Add eggs, milk and vanilla to create a batter.

Blend the apples with the batter and pour into a square pan. Bake at 350 until top is brown and center of cake is firm, about 45 minutes.

• I used Pink Lady apples, and made cinnamon applesauce from the scraps that were left over, in a nod to my frugal French heritage.

• As always, I used fructose instead of sugar. Any sugar substitute, as long as it can be used in baking, will do. Next time I will use brown sugar for the apples, but not the batter.

• Even with the addition of cinnamon, the dessert is a bit bland for contemporary tastes, which is why I served it with a vanilla sauce made from American Spoon Foods' Vanilla Curd.

Cinnamon, lemon and brandy sauces would work as well. Perhaps a dollop of cream?

If you are lucky enough to watch the BBC, you can see "A Life in Recipes," a program about David, on Oct. 30. More recipes are included in the BBC link.

Finally, I was curious what the word "gouère" meant as it was one I had not seen before. Since I could not find a translation, even in my Harrap's dictionary, a hefty tome I've been dragging around since French 204, I can only guess it is a regional word. I found a reference to apple gouère in a magazine story about the Berry.

08 October 2006

Roasted Potatoes with Herbes de Provence

In October, even our weekends are busier than usual. Family and social obligations, getting the cars and house ready for winter, volunteering and having fun take time away from the kitchen.

So Sunday dinner was a bit rushed today. Meatloaf is one of my favorite comfort foods, but it's a bit plain, so I always try to dress it up a bit. This week, the "dressing" was a recipe I found on Epicurious. They call it "Potatoes Roasted with Olive Oil and Bay Leaves."

But I call it Potatoes with Herbes de Provence.

  • 8 medium red potatoes
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 40 small bay leaves
  • one tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat oven to 350. Wash potatoes but do not peel. Make 5-6 parallel slices in each potato, but do not cut all the way through. Tuck one bay leave into the cuts of each potato. Place potatoes in small, oven-proof dish that has been coated with olive oil. Drizzle with olive oil, coating evenly. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and herbes over the potatoes. Place in oven for about 55 minutes. Place under pre-heated broiler for about four minutes, until potatoes begin to brown. Remove bay leaves before serving.

The bay leaf imparts a delicate taste to the potatoes. I used small Yukon Gold, because that's what I found in the bottom of the crisper. All in all it was a good foil for the meatloaf, which was light but savory. Our vegetable was sliced tomatoes.

04 October 2006

The Ubiquitous Laguiole Bees

A few years back, when I set out to make my kitchen more “French” — long before I realized all the culinary accouterments in the world would not make it so — I bought a set of Laguiole steak knives. You know, the knives made in France and always decorated with a little bee design where the handle meets the blade.

I have no complaints. The slender, elegant knives cut meat swiftly and evenly. Because my knives have stainless steel handles they can be used in the dishwasher — a welcome convenience for a time-strapped cook like me.

It’s that darned bee. He looks different everytime I see him. If I want to buy — say table service for eight — I may get a different bee design. No big deal: I don't like matchy-matchy stuff anyway. But still.

As I learned last year, the Lagiuole is a type of knife, not a brand. The name is not restricted to any single company. An estimated 70-80 different manufacturers, some large and others cottage industries, produce Lagiuole cutlery. That explains the poorly made service for eight I saw for about 20 euros in a LeClerc store.

From what I've read, Laguiole knives originated in the early 19th century in the Avreyon town of Laguiole. Today, about 70 percent of the cutlery (the industry has expanded) is produced in the south of France.

Is the little critter on the handle a bee or a cattle fly? There is some debate there. (I say bee. The bees in France are so benign. They buzz contentedly and hover about, but never seem to sting. At least in my scant experience.)

The design differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. How many ways can a bee look? Many, it seems.

Ultimately, it does not matter that the Laguiole bees are not uniform, as long as the knives slice and cut and spread and do everything knives are meant to do.

All the Laguiole in the world won't make my kitchen French. It's — as I've said before — more of an attitude thing anyway. And my kitchen has plenty of attitude.

01 October 2006

Georgeanne Brennan's Provençal Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Red Peppers

For my husband’s birthday on Saturday, I made the same meal I made for my own birthday in July: Georgeanne Brennan’s Provençal Chicken, Patricia Wells' roasted potatoes, fresh green beans, and perhaps a caprese salad.

Georgeanne’s chicken recipe, available on her Web site (see link above), is full of tomatoes and herbs, and to my unsophisticated American palate tastes of deepest Provence. Here it is:

Provençal Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Red Peppers

1 fryer chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into serving pieces, or a selection of breasts and thighs
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup minced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped or 3 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes and their juice
2 sweet red peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried leaf
16 oil-cured black olives

Use half the crushed herbs as a rub for the chicken. Then, using a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer just when the oil and butter are near to smoking. Sauté the chicken pieces over medium heat until they are browned on both sides. This takes only 2-3 minutes per side.

Add the onion and garlic and cook a while longer (1-2 minutes) before adding the tomatoes, pepper and bay leaves. Cover. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 35-40 minutes.

Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium again, add olives and cook until the sauce thickens. Add the remaining herbs and serve. The chicken will be extremely tender.

I have used chicken breasts instead of chicken parts. I have also used green peppers when red were not available or were too costly. This dish is too good to forgo just because you have no red peppers!