Monday, October 27, 2008

Gratin Dauphinois

I don't make a gratin dauphinois very often but when I do, it disappears quickly. The region where I'm from, Le Dauphine, is very famous for this dish. It's very basic and easy: potatoes are cut thinly, layered and cooked very slowly in a mixture of milk and/or cream. I made it once for a friend's potluck here in Austin and someone said: "Oh it's just scalloped potatoes", so I don't want to sound all French and snobbish here, but I simply want to share a recipe that is a HUGE part of my culture. So please, allow me to introduce the pride of my region.

Gratin Dauphinois is commonly served along meat entrees in restaurants around Le Dauphine. There are different version of potato gratins all over the region. Some put eggs in it, some put cheese, some think it's a sacrilege (the real Gratin Dauphinois does not contain any cheese). My recipe below is the gratin dauphinois of my childhood, and what the real gratin dauphinois really is to me.

My dear grandma -who I call Mamie- used to own a hotel/restaurant/cafe in my village and always told me that the secret of the delicious potato gratins like the ones served in restaurants is the fact that they pre-cook the potatoes in milk and then put them in the oven to become a gratin.

I always saw my mother and grandmothers making it the same way and that is: 
  • Bake the gratin in a porcelain clay dish that has been rubbed with garlic.
  • Cut the potatoes thinly and stay consistent with the size so it cooks evenly.
You know you have a good Gratin Dauphinois when the top is grilled, brown and crusty. It goes wonderfully well with sauteed chicken or turkey (Thanksgiving dish anyone?) and it's even better the day after (what isn't?). I made it the other day with breaded chicken and lemon juice and it was a delight!

Gratin Dauphinois ( for 4 people)

4 large white potatoes
2 cloves of garlic
4 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp of butter
salt and pepper

Pour the milk in a saucepan, season with salt, pepper and a small pinch of nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and slice them thinly. Try to be consistent with the thickness of the slices. When the milk is boiling, add the potatoes. Cook for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven at 35o F. Slice a clove of garlic in half and rub it all over a 12 x 9 rectangular dish (type lasagna dish). Lastly, butter the dish. Chop another clove of garlic thinly and reserve. When the potatoes are cooked, strain them over a bowl to keep the milk. Arrange one layer of potatoes in the dish. Season with just a little bit of salt, pepper, nutmeg and some of the chopped garlic. Repeat and season until you have no more potatoes. Pour the heavy cream plus 1 cup of the leftover whole milk, until the potatoes are just covered. Scatter tiny dices of butter all over the top and bake for 1 hour 1/2. Turn up the oven temperature to broiler and allow the gratin to get brown and crisp for 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it so it won't burn and rotate mid-time. Allow to cool for 15 minutes and enjoy!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Velvety Laughing Cow - Zucchini Soup

This soup is amazing. Light, velvety, creamy and soft with a little kick. You will love it. Zucchinis are the star of this soup, and it definitely changes from the usual way we cook them. If I was a child, I would eat this soup for sure (maybe remove the red pepper flakes and garlic to make it kid friendly).

My Mom had told me many times about a zucchini soup she made with Laughing Cow cheese. And it always sounded delicious. The first time I made it, I followed her recipe and cooked the zucchinis in water, then blended them with the Laughing Cow and some water. It was fantastic (and it seems like most people on the French web do it this way). Today, I wanted to bring it to another level and decided to saute to zucchini. It was exceptional. So for a figure friendly version of the soup, choose the first version!

I'm glad I can find La Vache Qui Rit easily in my American supermarket now. I used to eat it a lot as a child in France and I've always loved the cow on the box (I want the same earrings!). My mom would always pack it for my school trip picnics. 

In France, La Vache Qui Rit is very popular. They even sell it in mini cubes version, to be served for an aperitif. They're called apericubes. The flavors of apericubes range from blue cheese, to goat cheese and rosemary, olive, tomato or ham. I love them!

I hope you get to try this recipe, folks. Believe me, it's delicious.

Laughing Cow Zucchini Soup
(makes about 4 cups - for 2 or 4 )

1 clove of garlic (optional)
4 big zucchinis, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp of olive oil
a small pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup of water
1 tbsp of heavy cream
3 portions of Laughing Cow

Heat the olive oil in a pan. Peel and chop the garlic and saute quickly on low heat. Add the red pepper flakes. Make sure to not let the garlic brown, it would get too bitter (you could simply add the garlic and zucchini at the same time of you prefer). Quickly add the zucchinis and saute until lightly brown, about 5 minutes, on medium heat. Stir often. 

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil (or heat in the microwave). Transfer the sauteed zucchinis and garlic to the blender. Add the heavy cream to the pan on low heat to deglaze and stir with a wooden spoon to detach all the bits of garlic stuck to the pan. Let is reduce by half for about a minute. Transfer everything to the blender. 

Add the Laughing Cow and add half of the water. Blend. Add the rest of the water and blend more. Check the consistency. If it is too thick for you, add more water.

Serve and enjoy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Apple Rum Spice Cake

I was new to the seasonal flavors of Fall in America when I moved here. I found out that Americans like their cinnamon, pumpkin and cranberries, to name a few. And I just love it! Every year, I get so excited at the approach of October and November for that reason.

When our friend Steven said he was going to organize a birthday get together for his lovely girlfriend Lauren, I thought it was a great occasion to make my first Fall cake of the year.

One my favorite is apple spice cake, which is an incredibly moist dessert. You would expect a blend of ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon to give it a robust flavor but the addition of the vanilla, the applesauce and - my personal touch - the rum and orange gives a wonderful balance of sweet and subtle warm bite. Almost as if you could imagine eating a sweet mulled wine cake - hmm, that actually doesn't sound too bad!

I made this cake for the first time last year at Thanksgiving and I copied it quickly into my notebook of "recipes that will become a tradition".

Last weekend, the cake - besides Lauren's great pumpkin pie - capped a copious BBQ meal at the Salt Lick, in Driftwood, TX. Platters of succulent ribs, brisket and sausages traveled back and forth on our large table, until the inevitable meat coma. Fortunately, everyone seemed to have kept some room for dessert.

Apple and Rum Spice Cake (inspired from Real Simple magazine)

1/2 cup golden raisins + 1 tbsp rum

1 stick of butter

1 cup of sugar

1 2/3 cups jarred applesauce

2 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground ginger

pinch of nutmeg

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp rum

1/2 tsp orange zest

1 tsp fresh orange juice

1 apple, peeled, cored and diced

2 cups of flour, sifted

2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

Heat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. Measure the rum for the raisins, place in a bowl and heat on high in the microwave for 10 seconds. Add the raisins and and let soak, covered. Melt the butter over medium heat, remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Add the sugar, applesauce, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, orange zest, orange juice and eggs. In the same saucepan in which you melted the butter, saute the apple until soft, for about 2 minutes. Transfer the bowl.  In another bowl, combine the flour, the baking soda and the salt. Combine to the butter and spice mixture. Measure 1tsp of rum from the raisin bowl, add to the mix and discard the rest of the rum. Drain the raisins, and add to the mixture. Stir well. Pour in the pan and bake for 35 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and allow to completely cool before serving. 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The grandeur of Yellowstone

It's always hard to get back into your daily life after a vacation, let alone a vacation in Yellowstone park! I had never felt as close to nature and looked at its wonders in such awe and respect. Observing the geothermal features and the wildlife will undoubtedly be the most extraordinary memory that I take away from this experience.

I know you will forgive my absence for the past few days. The French Fork is now back in the groove, with some more recipes on the way (I have a few soup dishes I need to tell you about).

But as the proverb says "a picture is worth a thousand words", so I leave you with this. (click to see larger)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ski lessons, Herbie and Heidi

It's a baby boom wave. Everyone around us is having a baby - welcome Daniel, Celeste, Paige and Tiago! Boy don't I start to feel older. Plus, my 30th birthday is approaching at a fast pace.

Of course, Juan and I want to have a family. We always have, but it really feels like the right time now. And with all this baby talk, I cannot help but think about the heritage that our child would have. A French mother and an American father. A foodie/writer and a producer/entrepreneur/filmmaker. A stubborn mother and a perfectionist father. Shake it up and what comes out?

Juan and I were raised 5000 miles apart, in different cultures but same ideals. One of the big difference between us comes from the fact that he grew up in American suburbia (big D, Dallas) and I, well, in a small French village (Bouvesse today has about 1000 inhabitants).

I really like to think of myself as a French Heidi, sans the orphan part. The woods were my friends, in which I dreamed to find some kind of secret waterfall. I built tree houses in which I hoped my parents would let me move in. I rode my bike everywhere, and I ate saucisson and pate as an afternoon snack. Yep, that about sums it up!

Maybe not the most ladylike image you can have of a Frenchie, is it?

Looking back, one of the best memories of my childhood in elementary school were the mandatory ski trips we would have every week during the Winter. Only 1 hour 1/2 away, all classes from CE1 to CM2 (which is the equivalent of 1st grade to 5th grade) would ride a bus to the ski resort of Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse. Packed with the lunch my Mom made for me (usually a ham and baguette sandwich, a Vache-Qui-Rit or Laughing Cow, and an apple), I usually headed for the ski slopes with a knot in my stomach.

Ski lessons were imperative -with a licensed ski instructor from the Ecole du Ski Francais or ESF. Because I had a very good level thanks to my Dad and our many ski trips, I was assigned to the group of skillful skiers. And skillful I was, but I was never fond of the humorless old ski instructor who every so often hit us lightly on the head with his pole if we did something wrong. The morning always went better when I discovered that I wasn't the only one in the group who felt nervous with the man. 

But just like anything else, the learning experience was worth the stress and the day was usually topped off with lunch in our half-open ski boots, stealing potato chips from one another and recounting our strenuous but fun morning. The movie series of La Coccinelle (that's Herbie in French) usually entertained our ride back home, in the most quiet school bus you had ever seen.

So sure, Juan never went on school ski trips, nor did he play in the woods, but we both value our rich and diverse childhood memories. It makes for interesting talks and I hope a well-rounded child. In the end, we really complete each other, and that's what I love about us.