Sunday, June 29, 2008

Aperitif for Dinner

I know, I've been complaining about Texas heat way too much, but I've found it hard lately to cook anything that requires the use of the stove or the oven.

When my brother David visited us a few weeks ago, we made a dinner out of dips, raw veggies and bread one night. We prepared a tapenade ( a Provençal paste or dip, made from black olives, capers, and anchovies), an anchoiade (a purée of anchovies, crushed garlic, and olive oil) and guacamole.

Tonight was another lazy night. We made a dinner out of our aperitif. Aperitif is very common in France and it's a drink (alcoholic or not) served before a meal, around lunch or dinner time.We typically serve snack food along with it like peanuts, chips, pistachios. But you can serve canapes for example with pâté, or even with butter and saucisson (French sausage). Children usually drink fruit syrup, fruit juice or soda and adults Pastis, Suze, beer, kir, muscat, Pineau des Charentes, and even sometimes, for special occasions, Champagne.

To make tapenade (for 2) you will need:

1/2 cup of black olives (I bought Olives from Provence with herbs, my favorites. Not the tiny Nicoise ones)
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence or dried thyme
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup of olive oil

Pit the olives and put in the food processor or in the mortar. I use the food processor, it's faster. Add all the ingredients except the olive oil. Pulse while you slowly add the olive oil until you have a paste consistency. Season with pepper but NO SALT. Tapenade is a very salty dish!
If you wish, you can add 1 teaspoon of rinsed capers. I'm not a big fan of it.
Serve with toasted baguette, sliced carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes. Tapenade can be made a day ahead.

I also made my tuna mousse last night, which I really enjoy because of its smooth texture and how refreshing it is. Make sure you allow it to cool for at least 1 hour in the refrigerator before serving with sliced bread or toasted bread. For my tuna mousse, you will need (for 2 people):

1 can of good quality tuna
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 pinch of paprika
1/4 cup of thinly chopped chives (I honestly eyeball it)

Puree all the ingredients in a food processor until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Chill for an hour before serving.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Amour Toujours

Today celebrates our three-year
wedding anniversary. Juan and I met in 2001 when I was coming to Austin, TX for a year as an exchange student at UT. The relationship that we have built over the years is something I would not change for anything in the world. And marriage has brought us even closer! We listen to each other better, have more respect for each other, work together as real partners in life. I love my life! Juan is my buoy, my beacon and the reason for the better person I have become. 

The bumps on the road, the long months apart to finish college, marriage and life's little challenges, you don't realize until after the facts how much they are a crucial part of love's apprenticeship. They made us stronger, ready and happy to face our future.

I love my husband -so much- and I love our life together!

Here's a picture of us getting married in France. It was taken in my parents' backyard:

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Like a Pot of Gold in the Forest

The weather in France has been unusually cold and rainy for the past few weeks - the perfect conditions for mushrooms to grow. In June, the temperatures are usually like in California, making way to a very hot July and August. 

My father went to pick some mushrooms in the nearby woods of my village. Both he and my grandfathers have always enjoyed doing this. These woods, boy do I know them! I grew up walking and playing in them! I loved going there with my Mom to pick big bouquets of Daffodils and Lily of the Valleys. Very Laura Ingalls Wilder I hear you say? You bet I was!

These woods are the perfect environment for champignons (that's mushrooms in French) to grow: humidity, rain, dead leaves, moss. And the kit for the mushroom hunter? A small knife (we use Opinel knives in my family) and a wicker basket (never use plastic bags; mushrooms need to breathe). You enter the woods and soon, you become one with the trees, the bushes, the flowers and the small critters. Your senses become acute: woodsy and herby smells; beams of sunlight shining through the tall trees; you hear the rustle of the leaves, you feel the soft squishy ground under your feet.

When you spot a mushroom (edible that is), you feel like you have found the pot of gold and you already envision a big plate served on the dinner table, while narrating your mushroom adventures to admiring friends.  But don't forget, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature! Today you might find a full basket of mushrooms, but a few days later you might only find a small handful.

The mushrooms we commonly find around my village are Chanterelles, Morels -  my favorites - , Black Trumpets, Porcini... Yesterday, my Dad found Chanterelles. 

There are many ways to enjoy mushrooms. With what my Dad found, my parents prepared a Chanterelles omelet:

I think I would have sauteed them with cream and parsley. Here's how I do that: 

Melt 2 tbsps of butter and add the mushrooms. Cover and let them cook for 5 minutes allowing the water to seep and evaporate. While the mushrooms are cooking, chop a small handful of parsley and mix with 5 tbsps of heavy cream. Add the cream and parsley to the mushrooms, once all the liquid has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the cream has cooked down and the texture is thicker. Voila et Bon Appetit !

Now note that if you do not find Chanterelles in your grocery store, you could use simple Button mushrooms for this recipe. You could also add some garlic or shallots. But I like to keep the flavor of the mushrooms as intact as possible. My recipe is fantastic served with sauteed chicken or steak, along with some rice.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tomatoes, Quite Simply

I was reminded a few days ago, of our trip to Italy and the simplicity of the food. Pasta with olive oil, garlic and hot chili peppers (spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino)... Pasta with tomato and basil (pasta pomodoro)...

I am a big advocate of simplicity when it comes to cooking -most of the time-, so that ingredients preserve their original flavor. For example, I've always loved to eat pasta with a dab of butter and maybe some grated gruyere on top; or bite into a tomato like you would an apple...

Juan cooked lunch on Sunday and made a delicious tomato sauce that he served over fresh pasta. It hit just the right spot for me so I asked him to make it again for dinner. Quand on aime, on ne compte pas. I suggested sauteed fresh shrimp. And it was, again, just right: juicy, sweet, tangy, and both soft and crunchy.

I'm quite excited to try it again with pan seared halibut. I think it will be very good. A sauce with such flavor and that can be used in so many dishes definitely has a place in my kitchen. And I hope in yours too. 

There's nothing quite unusual about it but I realized, again, how much we overlook the use of simple ingredients. It's right there, under our nose but somehow we always try to add something to it...

The recipe serves 2. It really is the correct amount to serve over pasta or seafood. It's just enough to flavor the main ingredient. 

1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 large tomato, 1/2 inch diced
1 teaspoon of Herbes de Provence (if you do not have Herbes de Provence, you could use dried thyme simply)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper

In a saucepan, warm some olive oil. Cook the onion until soft on, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes (with their juice) and the herbes de provence and the crushed red pepper. Simmer until the tomatoes cook down and the sauce thickens, 8-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

As French as Tarte Tatin

I'm glad I was able to cook with my brother David while he was visiting us in Austin. He loves cooking as much as I do and I like to learn cooking tips from him. Before leaving Paris,  he had asked me if there was anything I needed from France as far as cooking gear or ingredients. 

One thing that my kitchen was missing was a tarte tatin pa-very easy classic French dessert-, like this one. It's basically a pan that is able to go from stove top to oven. For a tarte tatin, you need to make a caramel on the stove top, tuck a pie dough on top of it all and stick it in the oven for baking. 

Do you really need that type of dish to make it? No, you can definitely use a skillet or make the caramel in a stovetop pan and pour it on top of your apples already arranged in a basic round pie oven dish, that's for sure. But I'm all for minimizing mess and clean up. Plus, I am definitely planning on making tarte tatin over and over again, so it's a good investment!

David did bring me my long-waited-for dream pan and we set off to make our tarte tatin. The already very hot Texan Summer weather might not be the best time to make a tarte tatin; it's definitely a cold weather type of dessert but here's my take on this: if it's that good, then I don't care if it's hot outside. Just bring it on!

Traditionally, a tarte tatin is made with apples, which is what we did, but the recipe is versatile; pears, plums, apricots will work well too.

So here's the few tips I have gathered:

  • David prefers to use a puff pastry dough but I personally prefer a pie dough.
  • Better make a light caramel than a too dark one. A light blond color is good. Too dark and it makes the apples bitter.
  • Do eat the tarte lukewarm.
  • DO serve it with vanilla ice-cream or creme fraiche.
  • I know I could make my own pie dough, it's easy to make and I do like to make a lot of things from scratch but I've learned to take some shortcuts. A good quality store bought pie dough works very well!

1 pie dough, rolled out to the size of the dish
1/2 stick unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup sugar + 2 tbsp to sprinkly over the apples
2 tbsp water
5 big apples, peeled, cored and cut in quarters (Granny Smith for example)
2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Peel, core and cut the apples in quarters and drizzle with lemon juice to prevent browning. 

Let's get the caramel ready. Scatter the diced butter at the bottom of a flame-resistant dish. Sprinkle the sugar on top, the water and arrange the apples (core side up), making sure they are snug and tight. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar. 

Place on medium heat, and keep your eyes on the caramelization process, until the caramel has a  light brownish/blondish color. Do not stir. The lighter the color, the better, or it will taste bitter. Better stop the caramelization earlier than too late. Remove from the stovetop when done.

Place the rolled out dough on top of the caramelized apples, making sure you fold in and tuck in the edges. With a knife, make a small hole in the center of the dough and 2 more on either side of the center to let the steam out. Bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Allow the pan to cool for 5 minutes, then separate the edges of the tarte from the pan with a spatula. Invert the tart on a plate larger than the pan. 

Voila! Here's your upside-down tarte. It's better to eat the tarte tatin the same day. And definitely eat it lukewarm with vanilla ice cream or creme fraiche.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Parlez-vous Barbecue?

My brother David arrived from Paris a few days ago. He had never experienced Texas barbecue before so we took him to Black's barbecue in Lockhart, TX. Now that I've been living in the US for so many years, I realize how much barbecue is a BIG debate in the South. But I had never heard about it prior to that. 

Before, barbecue, for me, simple French girl, brought to mind grilling merguez (oh boy do I like merguez!), chipolatas and brochettes in the backyard. Little did I know that barbecue in the US is a religion!

My hat goes down to the American BBQ expertise, to the juiciness -yet crunchy- smokiness of briskets and ribs! I'm in love! The only thing left to do is convince my parents to build a smoker in their backyard now. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Miles of Stephanie Klein

It's too good to keep it just for myself! You MUST try Miles of Chocolate baked chocolate dessert. If you love chocolate, then you will adore it. It has an intense, I mean INTENSE chocolate flavor that is out of this world. I just can't get enough of it! It's addictive! It's made here in Austin, TX and sold at these locations. But you can order it and have it shipped to you in the US. Most people like it cold and dense in texture but I prefer it soft, when it's been left out a little... Gooey, sticky, sooo decadent. It's my personal sin.

And talking about Miles of Chocolate, my friend Stephanie Klein will have some for you to enjoy at the book signing of her excellent new book, MOOSE A MEMOIRE OF FAT CAMP, on these days, and at these locations.

Lately, I am devouring "Moose" as well - and can't wait to finish it!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Tomorrow's Forecast: Too Darn Hot

Today's temperature: 94 F (34 C).... Tomorrow's: 98 F (36 C)....

Sure, it's nice to live in such a sunny place as Austin, but sometimes, I could really do without the unbearable heat and humidity. In France, temperatures go down as the sun sets, but in Austin, they remain stagnant; It's too hot to eat outside. It's too hot to do lots of things outside actually!

My favorite time of the year at my parents' in France? May and June. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner outside on the terrace. It's a very tranquil spot: our house is on a hill and it overlooks the green mountains of Bugey.

We enjoy the tomatoes from our garden, the salads, the strawberries, still warm from the heat of the sun.

Regular dishes we enjoy during that time of the year are radishes with goat cheese, ratatouille, cold asparagus with vinaigrette, melon-port and cured ham, sauteed new potatoes and salad. I could go on and on. I love the dishes from that season!

On our terrace, dinners turn into long wonderful hours of talking about everything and anything. We soak in the cooler temperatures of the evening as we water the flowers and the garden to digest. The crickets sing their hypnotizing serenade, the frogs from the pond below our house croak and a few glow-worms light up the backyard. It's nighttime in my dear village of Bouvesse and I leave you with a recipe for you to enjoy on a hot evening, wherever you are!

My goat cheese and spinach tart is great served cold (the way I do it) - or at room temperature with a green salad and a simple vinaigrette. It's great because it can be made ahead and kept for several days!

1 store bought pie dough
1 shallot, chopped
1 pack of frozen spinach (about 1 cup cooked) - or use fresh spinach, whatever you have -
pinch of nutmeg
4 eggs
1 cup of heavy cream
7 oz of fresh goat cheese
1/2 teaspoon of Herbes de Provence
1/2 teaspoon of salt
lots of fresh ground pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Lay the dough onto a round tart dish, like this one.
Press down gently and poke the dough with a fork.

Cook the shallot in some olive oil until softened, about 3 minutes. Remove and reserve. Cook the frozen spinach in same pan, according to directions. At the end, add some nutmeg. Let the spinach cool a little.

Meanwhile, beat together the eggs and the cream and the shallots. Add the goat cheese (make sure you crumble it) and mix a little more. Add the salt, the pepper and the Herbes de Provence.

With your hands, squeeze the excess water from the spinach and lay on the dough. Pour the eggs-cream-goat cheese mixture on top. Bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes until nice and brown.

Let the tart cool for at least 1 hour before cutting.