Thursday, February 26, 2009

There's no place like home

We had a little bit of a scare this week, after Juan hurt his back really bad. To make a long story short, we thought he had a bad herniated disc that would require him to have surgery and not allow us to travel to France to see my family. As it turns out, it is not as bad as we thought it was - and surgery is out of the question - and we will be on our way to Antibes in a few days.

It's always such an exciting time to go back to the country you grew up in. Going to France might sound like a vacation to a lot of people but to me it means going home. It means hanging out in my parents' home and not do anything. Wake up and help my Mom around the house. Go to the grocery store and make lunch with her. Watch the inevitable journal de 13 heures de Jean Pierre Pernaut after lunch, as we sip coffee. Mundane things yes, but that I miss oh so much.

Walking around our local grocery store in my village feels like being in a museum every time we go back. I cannot describe how much I love it. I love to check out food items that we don't see in the US, especially things like biscottes, cheeses, biscuits, prepackaged soups and sauces. And of course, I always end my visit in the toiletries aisle. Oh sure I find everything I want as far as face wash, body lotion and what not here in Austin, but I buy a bit of nostalgia when I bring back a Tahiti brand shower gel or several tubes of Labello chap stick. 

It's the first time since I have been blogging that I am going back to France. I am really excited to actually be able to share this experience with you. If you haven't done so yet, you can follow me on Twitter or stay tuned to this blog, as I will post mini updates and pictures as often as I can. 

The adventure will start on La Cote d'Azur on Monday, as we spend some time in our family home in Antibes. I'm back to packing. A tres bientot tout le monde!!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A taste of Provence

Juan and I will be traveling to France very soon. I am beyond excited! I haven't been home in more than a year and no one in my family has seen me pregnant yet. I foresee a lot of baby talk...

We'll be lucky to spend a week in my parents' second home in Antibes on the Cote d'Azur. I am looking forward to the unique sunlight of the French Riviera and sitting at the terrace of our usual cafe, right on the beach. I want to walk to the librairie and boulangerie to buy the Nice Matin (the local newspaper) and some bread, enjoy some shopping (maybe buy baby a few French baby books)...

Of course, Juan and I are also looking forward to some good food. We will celebrate his 30th birthday with my entire family (that's nearly 30 people) so my Mom and I are already planning the lunch menu. Right now we're heading for a dish called poulet aux ecrevisses, which I absolutely adore. It's chicken and crawfish in a creamy tomato sauce with a touch of cayenne. I will definitely keep you posted on that!

I cannot wait to eat some of the fresh fish from the Mediterranean. It's some of the best food memories from vacationing there when I was a child. And I know there is so much more that I need to experience still!

Thinking about the South of France inspired me to share with you a recipe for Tomates a la Provencale. It's a classic side dish in France but they're just as good on their own, warm or cold. I try to give you measurements in my recipe but there is no right or wrong. Just use lots of garlic, lots of parsley and herbes de provence if you have some. A good quality olive oil and you're all set!

My favorite dish to serve them with is a simple roasted pork tenderloin, along with rice or steamed potatoes.

Tomates a la Provencale (for 2)

4 big Roma tomatoes
about 1/4 cup of chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or pressed (I count 2 cloves of garlic per tomato)
3 tbsp of plain breadcrumbs
1 tbsp of Herbes de Provence (optional)
Olive oil
salt & pepper

You may core the tomatoes if you prefer. Personally, I leave them. Cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise. Using your finger, scoop out the seeds in each section of the tomatoes. Salt the inside and set them cut side down on a plate to drain for 15/20 minutes. 

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a bowl, combine together, the finely chopped parsley and garlic, the Herbes de Provence and the breadcrumbs. You can use the food processor if you want. 

Fill each tomato with mixture and cook in the oven for 45 min to 1 hour, until the top is cooked and brown. Serve warm or cold. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

You can't go wrong with meat and potatoes!

Me: "Hachis Parmentier".... Juan: "Bless you!". These words might be a mouthful for non French speakers to pronounce (go ahead try it), but don't let it scare you away! Nothing else than a meat and potato dish, Hachis Parmentier is the French version of the Shepherd's Pie. 

Un hachis in French is meat or fish that has been finely ground. Parmentier refers to Monsieur Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who (among other things) promoted the use of the potato as a food source in France and Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Don't the words sound less scary now? 

I was facing another night of pasta dinner (yet again), as I was staring into my fridge last week. I was definitely not in the mood to cook anything complicated. I had bought ground beef and wanted to do something a little bit different. The weather report was forecasting close to freezing temperatures (for once!) for the following day here in Austin, and so came to me the idea of making this comforting, and very classic French dish.

Commonly served in school cafeterias in France, Hachis Parmentier also always reminds me of THE ultimate frozen food dish sold in France. So there you go, cheap and filling, le hachis parmentier is a crowd-pleaser.

The version I made here is the classic one, with beef. But the beauty of this dish is how versatile it is; You could replace the beef with a mix of vegetables to make it meat-free or use duck meat (why not Confit de Canard?) instead of beef for example. I made enough to serve the both of us for nearly 4 meals, which truly feels good when you have a super busy week like we had last week...! 

Le Hachis Parmentier (serves 4 to 6)

1 tbsp olive oil
1 big yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound of ground beef
3 pounds of potatoes 
2 tbsp of tomato paste
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (for the meat)
Up to 1 cup of milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp butter
salt and pepper
1/2 cup of grated Gruyere cheese or Swiss 
1/2 cup Parmesan (for the mashed potatoes)

Boil water in a saucepan to cook the potatoes. Peel and cut the potatoes in quarters. When the water is boiling, add them and simmer for about 20 minutes or until tender (test with a knife: you must be able to cut through them very easily).

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the onions for 4 or 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 or 2 minutes. Add the meat, season with salt and pepper and cook until brown. Stir in the tomato paste. When everything is all cooked, turn the heat off, combine the egg yolk, stir and add the parmesan cheese. Reserve.

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F. Warm up the milk in a saucepan or in the microwave. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the butter and the cream. Slowly add some warm milk,  and mash with a potato masher, until you get a creamy consistency. You might not need to use all the milk. Season with salt and pepper. 

Lay the meat at the bottom of an oven safe dish (like a lasagna dish) and cover with the mashed potatoes. Sprinkle with Gruyere cheese (or Swiss) and Parmesan. Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes or until the cheese has melted. Turn the oven temperature to broiler. Place the dish under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes, until the top is brown. Rotate the dish when one side is brown enough (about halftime). Serve.

Monday, February 2, 2009

C'est la Chandeleur: let's eat crepes!

February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the United-States, but in France, we celebrate La Chandeleur. Say the word "chandeleur" to a French person and they will think CREPES, bien sur! Yes, Chandeleur is the day we make crepes in France! Or as Juan and I like to call it, "Crepe Day".

Beyond being a day to make crepes, La Chandeleur (or Candlemas) is a very old celebration, dating back to the Celts and Romans. For Christians, it meant marching in a candle procession to celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary - chandeleur is derived from chandelle, which in French means "candle". (I have to be honest, I had to look up the real meaning of La Chandeleur).

One tradition of eating crepes on La Chandeleur lies in flipping the crepe, carrying the pan in the right hand, while holding a coin (preferably an old Louis d'or coin) in your left hand. It is said to be a good omen for wealth for the coming year. 

Now that we all feel smarter, we can move on to the crepe eating part. In an earlier post, I had told you about my love for crepes. It's that kind of thing that I usually make once a year (well I also treat myself to crepes from a cafe or a stand when visiting back home). I love making crepes. I make the dough ahead - it's better if it rests in the fridge first - then prepare my fillings on the table for everyone to help themselves to, and the flipping begins!

Let's talk hardware before we go any further. I have made crepes in a regular pan before but I strongly encourage you to invest in a small non-stick crepe pan, like this 8'' one. Your crepes won't stick and the whole process will go that much smoother. They do sell bigger crepe pan sizes, but I own a 8'' one, and to me it's just the right size for homemade crepes. The crepes you can buy on the street in France are usually much bigger but I can assure you the taste will be the same and it will be faster for you to make. I use my crepe pan several times a week and for many purposes other than crepes: individual omelettes, scrambled eggs, small sauteeing jobs...  

Now as far as fillings, the classic ones are sugar (my favorite), Nutella (heaven on earth) and fruit preserve. You could flambe it (with Grand Marnier) and make it a crepe suzette, or fill it with bananas or strawberries and whipped cream, or even spread sugar and squeeze lemon juice over it. Honestly, let your imagination run wild. Juan made himself a peanut butter and jelly crepe this weekend. I thought it was okay but he loved it. 

I wanted to introduce you to the savory version of crepes. There's no limit as to what you can put in a salty crepe either: ham, prosciutto, cheese (Brie, Camembert, Mozarella, Gruyere), mushrooms, spinach, bacon, chicken... I'm very simple when it comes to my crepe fillings - sugar or Nutella for the sweet ones, and ham and cheese for the savory ones. 

When I make a batch of crepe dough, I usually put all the ingredients except sugar and rum and divide the dough in two. I keep 1/3 for the savory crepes in one bowl and the rest for the sweet ones in another bowl. I then add my sugar and rum to to the batch for sweet crepes. 

Crepe dough (recipe for sweet and savory crepes)
Makes about 15 crepes (8'' diameter)

2 cups of flour, sifted
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups + 2 tbsp of whole milk
1 pinch of salt
1 tbsp sugar (for sweet crepes only)
1 tbsp rum (for sweet crepes only and optional)

Measure the flour into a bowl and add the eggs. Stir and add the milk and the salt. Make sure there aren't any lumps, cover with a plastic film and refrigerate for 1 hour. 

When you are ready to make the crepes, prepare a small bowl with 2 tbsp of vegetable oil, along with a piece of paper towel on a small plate, crushed in a ball or a heat safe silicon pastry brush. Take the dough out of the fridge and whisk.

Very lightly oil the pan and heat it on medium - and make sure it's really hot, that's very important! Pour 1/4 cup of the crepe dough into the pan and quickly lift it and swirl it to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook on medium heat, until very lightly tanned. Check every now and then by lifting a side. Flip it to the other side using a spatula and cook until tan / light brown. I usually know my crepe is done when I see small dark spots on the last cooked side (see photo above). 

Repeat the same process and make sure you lightly oil the pan between each crepe.

Transfer to a plate and eat or cover with foil until all the crepes are done. To fold the crepe, either simply roll it, or fold it in half and then half again (closely resembling the shape of a triangle).

Ham and Cheese Crepes (serves 4):

2 tbsp of butter
2 tbsp flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 pinch of nutmeg
1 cup milk
4 crepes (they can be made in advance, it's okay)
4 slices of good quality ham
shredded swiss cheese
shredded mozzarella cheese

Pre-heat the oven to 350 F degrees. Let's make the Bechamel sauce (white sauce). Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add the flour and stir until combined. Cook for a minute. Add the milk and whisk constantly, until it thickens. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. If you think that the sauce is too thick, add a splash of milk. Reserve.

Inside each crepe, lay a slice of ham, spoon 1 to 2 tbsp of the Bechamel sauce, sprinkle with swiss and mozzarella cheese, roll the crepe or bring two ends to the middle. Lay in an oven safe dish. Repeat for each crepe. Spoon some more Bechamel sauce over the crepes and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Put in the oven for about 10 - 15 minutes or until the ham is warm and the cheese has melted. 

Serve along with a green salad. Enjoy!