Sunday, May 25, 2008

Crepe: Pancake's cousin

Crepes, the cousin of pancakes, is less a breakfast food in France and more a social comfort afternoon / evening one. We eat them as an afternoon snack, a whole meal or a dessert. You can make them sweet, or salty. Popular fillings for crepes are sugar, Nutella, fruit jam, whipped cream.

The earliest memory that I have of crepes is me and my brother walking to the house of a distant cousin of the family every Friday after school, to each get one of the crepes she had just made. I would always get a "crepe au sucre" or sugar crepe.

Since then, sugar has remained my favorite filling. I like it simple. Nutella isn't bad either. I absolutely love how gooey a crepe is when you bite into it. I also like to feel the sugar cracking a little. And my favorite drink to go along with crepes? Cider! If you have never tried the combination before, believe me, go ahead, it's worth the try!

Making crepes in France really is a social occasion. Teenagers, students make crepes in the afternoon or evening when they hang out together. "What do you want to do?". "Dunno.... Want to make crepes?". How many times did I do that with my friends! We would either choose the "cook, flip, eat, repeat" technique, which is to eat crepes right as they were made; or the "stockpile" technique, which means that you keep the crepes warm in a stack under foil to wait for the person flipping them to be done. I choose technique #2. #1 is not fair to the person on flipping duty.

Or you could buy Tefal's family crepe maker! You just have to make the dough ahead, let it rest, and when it's time to eat, you plug in the machine, everybody sits around the table and makes their own crepes -with their chosen filling- . I only used it once at a friend's and I thought it was fun but the best part of making crepes is really to flip them.

On a cold day, I love to stop at a cafe and have a crepe and some cider. Juan and I shared a crepe on New Year's Day while we were in Antibes; We watched fireworks while seating on the beach. It was very cold outside, and it made the crepe even better, on top of being very romantic.

When I'm in Lyon, I like to go to a crepe stand in the old part of the city, le Vieux Lyon. The guy uses a professional crepe-making station with a wooden T-shaped tool to spread the dough (like they do mostly everywhere in France). Their crepes are big, thin and delish! They are folded in half and then in quarter after being filled with your favorite filling. I let you admire the master:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bergamotes de Nancy

Our friends John and Glen gave us a bag of specialty candies called Bergamotesfrom the city of Nancy, in Northeastern France  (the same region famous for the quiche). They are very pretty:  square and yellow amber in color, almost glass looking-like. They have a clean acidic citrusy flavor that definitely reminded me of my oh-so-needed morning cup o' tea (earl grey, that is).  And sure enough, bergamot is a citrus fruit used in the making of earl grey tea, so it is no surprise. 

I share with John and Glen a love for cooking and good ingredients. But another thing that brings me closer to them is France. Glen's mom -Monique- is French and even though Glen was born in the US, we like to share bits of French culture as often as we can. I still haven't had the pleasure to meet Glen's Mom, who lives in Texas, but she let me borrow an old French cookbook of hers and passed along some Bergamotes candies. 

I have to be honest here, I did not know about Bergamotes before, but I will cut myself some slack: almost each region, city or town in France seem to have some kind of sweet specialty. 

Take my beloved city of Lyon, just an hour away from my village... My family has been enjoying its Christmas candy specialty called papillotes for as long as I can remember; But it wasn't until my brother David moved to Paris that he realized that only people from the Lyon region know about papillotes -well I'm sure other people do know about it outside of Lyon but I would say that on average, it's still unknown. What a shame!- . They're a staple of Christmas in my region and you cannot miss them: they're everywhere in supermarkets and grocery stores during Christmas time! 

Papillote is a chocolate wrapped in a paper with a joke or a quote printed on it. The exterior wrapper is usually festive shiny gold. They can also be candied fruit but chocolate is definitely a favorite. In my family, we eat them after dinner all throughout December but of course, the pleasure is expanded to January too (why waste them? Might as well finish them!). Eating chocolate in front of the TV at night is an institution at la maison Bertrand. The darker, the better! 

So thank you Monique, merci John and Glen for making me discover Bergamotes candies! How about you? Tell me more about some typical American candies. I would love to learn more about what you like!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Lentils and Superstition

A favorite of mine  -another one- ! During my first year of college in Lyon, I lived in a small studio and therefore, it was hard for me to cook anything complicated; But lentil salad was my friend and it was on my menu at least once a week. Back then, I was on a budget so I would buy canned lentils and hot-dog wieners. 

I have my grandmother Mamie to thank for my love of lentil salad! She would make lentil salad every January 1st, and I would always look forward to it, even as a kid. It's a superstition for some people in France to eat lentils on the first day of the year, to make sure you will be wealthy... Lentils kind of look like coins... Kinda...

The lentils I always use are the French green ones from Le Puy. Their quality is excellent. They are small and dark green with tiny specks and they keep their shape when cooked. I like them for how firm they remain after cooking, and that's why I think they're great in a salad (brown lentils can get too mushy). They're very earthy tasting. They're unique really. You should really try it! 

Mamie would serve them simply, with a vinaigrette, shallots and parsley. But the one thing that I loved about her salad is that she made it the day before. Make sure you pour the vinaigrette on top of the lentils when they are still warm. They will soak its flavor. And for the same reason, she used a lot of mustard in her vinaigrette (use that one, it's great). So I always make sure that I make my lentil salad a day ahead, and indeed, it's well worth it! That makes it a great dish for a picnic.

Make sure you rinse the lentils in cold water before cooking them, and cook them in cold water for about 20 minutes. Do not add salt to the water, it would make it longer for them to cook.

I usually serve the salad with a sausage called cervelat (cervelas from Lyon is made with bits of pistachios inside and it's absolutely divine, unfortunately I don't think we can find it in the US) but you can definitely use a smoked sausage or a polish sausage, or even no sausage at all! I was raised with  sausages hanging down from the ceiling down in my parents' basement, and ate LOTS of it, especially saucisson, so I really do love sausages in my lentil salad... My grandfather made saucissons, sausages, boudin, pates for the greatest part of his life; It really had an impact on me (and my hips!).

Lentil Salad with Sausage

2 cups of uncooked French green lentils (if possible, from Le Puy)
8 oz of sliced smoked sausage
1 shallot, sliced
2 teaspoons of French mustard
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2/3 cup of chopped parsley

Rinse the lentils under cold water, transfer to a large saucepan and cover with 6 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until just soft but still firm. Drain and transfer to a bowl.

While the lentils cook, saute the sliced sausage in olive oil, until just a little brown (If you use a fresh sausage, I recommend cooking it in water and white wine, it gives great flavor). Let it cool on plate covered with paper towel.

Make the vinaigrette by first combining the mustard and the salt. Mix in the vinegar and slowly add the olive oil. Add the parsley and the chopped shallot.

Add the sausage to the lentils and pour the vinaigrette on top. Cover and refrigerate. Best if made one day on advance.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ham & Madeira Pie

This is a recipe that my Mom used to make a lot. The smell and flavors of the Madeira wine have stuck with me since then. I love making it for Juan. And it brings back a lot of memories. I serve it drizzled with a sauce, along with a green salad.

The recipe is actually an adaptation from a Tupperware cookbook, believe it or not! I simply made a concoction of my own for the sauce. You could definitely add sauteed button mushrooms to the sauce to add some consistency. Madeira can be substituted for Marsala or Sherry. Madeira wine is a fortified wine, which means that alcohol was added to the wine. Other fortified wines include Vermouth, Sherry, Port. And they're all great to use in cooking either to deglaze a pan or for sauces. I personally love them!

Now, more and more Creme Fraiche is available in US stores. It is similar to sour cream but has a higher fat content. If you come across creme fraiche in your grocery store, go ahead and buy it. I have tried the recipe with sour cream and it works - but there's no comparison.

2 rolls of store-bought puff pastry
about 6 or 7 slices of good quality deli ham -wet cured- (like Country Ham or Black Forest)
1/4 cup of shredded Gruyere
2 tsp of cornstarch + 2 tsp cold water
1 tbsp of Madeira
1/4 cup of Creme fraiche
1 egg yolk
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 450.

Roll out one roll of dough in a quiche dish. Make one layer of ham, laid down flat. Sprinkle with the Gruyere.

In a little bowl, mix the cornstarch with 2 teaspoons of water. Set aside. Very gently simmer the Madeira for about 5 minutes until it reduces a little. Then add the cornstarch mixture. Mix and make sure it all dissolves in the Madeira. Add the creme fraiche and season with a little salt and pepper. Pour over the ham and Gruyere in the dish.

Add the last layer of ham.

Cover with the second roll of dough and make sure you seal the edges well. Cut a steam vent in the middle and place a piece of parchment paper or foil rolled in the shape of a chimney. Brush the pie with 1 egg yolk. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Let the pie cool down for about 30 minutes and prepare the sauce: In a saucepan, reduce 1/2 cup of Madeira to half. Meanwhile, slice 1 shallot and place in another saucepan with 2 tbsp of unsalted butter. Cook for about 1 minute. Add 2 tbsp of flour, stir and cook on low heat until blond in color. Add 1/4 cup of creme fraiche. Stir. Add the reduced Madeira. Stir and add 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Season with just a little salt and pepper.