Thursday, March 03, 2016

Instant Boost of Flavor: Onion Compote



Since I am always on the lookout for good recipes, I subscribe to the magazines, because there's always something to glean from them. One of the ones I like is called Femme Actuelle. It's a very popular magazine in France, targeted to working women. The recipes in this magazine are on level for beginner to established home cooks, and are often regional or focusing on a tradition in French home life, or an ingredient that is popular at the markets. I finally got around to picking up this week's magazine and on the cover, their Dossier Cuisine is entitled: Cooking for Women Who Don't Have Time.

There was some debate among my friends a few months ago, sparked by an editorial in the Atlantic. I read this piece as a skeptical calling-out of what some people consider to be the inherent one-upmanship in many recipe books being put out these days, citing exotic unavailable ingredients or long laborious prep tasks. I asked my friends what they thought. The piece made some people scoff, various devoted food enthusiasts claim that the author was whining or inexperienced, and others to raise their fist in indignant defense of the people of the world who can't cook. It got a little bit political. Toss in various on-the-fence type responses citing lack of energy or time for cooking in general in defense of the author, and the conversation fizzled out. I was a little bit sad about that, because I thought it was a good chance for a conversation. To talk about the whole idea of where we stand on nourishing our families and where we wished we could stand, and whether we're really devoted to it or not.

My work focuses on French food, history, and technique, and we practice this every day. I can say immediately that I witness people approaching cooking from a much different angle in this country. First of all, convenience foods are a relatively new thing here. There is no French industry-wide mission dating back 50 years to convince everyone that they are incapable of cooking. Incapable of baking, yes. (we'll talk about that later.) We're talking about general home cooking here. People in this country just don't consider the idea that there might not be time to cook. Let me give you a good example. During our visits to my in-laws, especially during the early years when my mother-in-law was still working at a full-time desk job, the cooking was done in the early hours in the morning. Brigitte was often parboiling and peeling tomatoes or doing prep work at 6:00 o'clock in the morning, and often dinner was done before we came down for breakfast. The smells and promise of what was coming later wafted into our dreams as the birds started singing. How many fabulous food dreams came true at Brigitte's table! She never puttered around in the kitchen during apero hour, but instead sat down with us, while the yellow sun streamed across the salon, and let potato chips melt on her tongue between sips of sparkling wine. She relaxed after her busy day at work. She served such beautiful meals every night, even with simple ingredients, seemingly without effort, with just enough decadence to satisfy, and always plenty of variety. I have never once ever heard Brigitte complain about not having time to cook.

When I turned to the Dossier: Cuisine in the Femme Actuelle, I was so happy to see this very French, in my experience, approach to cooking when you don't have time. But of course! Headline: "It's Better on the Second Day! (then in small letters underneath) Simmered, slow-cooked, baked… All of the lovely little casseroles and simmered dishes of winter are even better the next day. Reheat them gently, and APPRECIATE them." And the recipes are truly inspiring. Osso bucco. A simple but nourishing Indian inspired slow-simmered lentil dish. Slow simmered prunes and pork. 4-hour lamb shanks. Beouf aux carottes. Cassoulet. They are not pretending that this is going to be fast and easy, they're just saying, if you don't have time in the evenings, go ahead and cook something truly worth enjoying in advance, and nothing that cooks long and slow is going to be too difficult to put together.

So with this, I share with you my recipe for a simple onion compote, which is worth cooking for several hours, because what you get out of it becomes a building block for many other wonderful flavors in your home cooking. Slow-cooked onions and La Cuisine Lyonnaise go hand in hand. This onion compote requires very little surveillance, and having a batch of this on hand is a great way to boost the overall flavor of many dishes, as well as saving time.

Recipe: Onion Compote

Hands-on cooking time: 5 minutes
Time to simmer: 2 to 4 hours

4 medium sized onions, any kind, about a kilo or 2 lbs.
Butter 20 g. or 4 tsp.
Sea salt 4 g. or 3/4 tsp
Pepper 1 g. or 1/4 tsp
Nutmeg 1 g. or 1/4 tsp (optional)

Peel the onions, split them in half, and cut them into thin slices. Place them with the 20 grams of butter into a large sauté pan that has a fitting lid, and sprinkle them with 2 generous pinches of sea salt (4 grams). Turn the heat on high, and when the butter melts and the onions just begin to sizzle in the uncovered pan, immediately take the heat to low. Give them a good shake to distribute the butter, cover the pan with the lid, and leave them to steam slowly in their own juices for up to 4 hours, depending on how much time you have. If you are cooking on a gas burner, a diffuser is helpful to avoid having to stir the onions. If you are cooking on an electric or glass top burner, leave the heat on very low, and give it a stir from time to time. The longer you leave them to cook, the smoother, creamier and complex your confit d'oignon will be.

Check the onions periodically, stirring to keep them them from browning on the bottom, When the time comes near to finishing up, turn up the heat enough to evaporate the remaining liquid and allow them to turn a uniform light brown color. Taste and adjust seasoning with pepper and nutmeg at the end.

Notes: If you cook this recipe just to the point that the onions are completely soft in their generous liquid base but not beginning to brown in any way, you can purée the onions in their juice, resulting in a silky white sauce that is divine with poultry.

Here's a good secret: Long cooked onion compote is the key ingredient to the perfect hash-browns.

You can replace anything from the allium family to make a flavorful compote. Try freshly harvested garlic, shallots, grey shallots, onions of any kind, leeks, or a mixture of your own. Make this as often as you have to to keep a jar of it on hand at all times.

Often I substitute a nice dollop and a cup of water for any recipe that calls for a cup of stock. Whenever I see a requirement for the dreaded "bouillon granules" in a recipe, a generous spoonful of my deeply flavored compote d'oignon is a ready replacement.


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Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Button Phenomena



Seven years ago today, you drew in your first breath.

When you were only a few hours old, swaddled in hospital linens, I was sitting at the lunch table with a wine merchant in a Bouchon in the old town. I remember I had the “gratin d’andouilette” and pondered this formidable sausage and its condition. I recalled, as you took your first bath, that it used to have a milder flavor, and more chew, and in my opinion, was more interesting when it was made from veal. No matter, seven years ago I had this shallow dish of chitterlings, seasonings, mustard and cream. They're back to making them with veal now. It seems that some problems always straighten themselves out eventually.

The day you were born, in 2009, I was still open. I was standing on the edge of a precipice, staring out to the familiar vista of my beautiful city, in a state of waiting, silence, but also an influx of ideas, and most of all hope. I did not know you were coming. The waiting had evolved through long years of holding my arms out to catch you at their instruction, the persistent writing of letters to tell them that we weren't giving up. The big question had already fully changed from a resigned "Why?" to a more positive "When?". The years and dossiers dragged out, strung along bureaucratic corridors. I had begun, in order to cope, to see my world, this city, this ancient teeming town, my home, through a filter of detached curiosity that was central to my condition. It was a fruitful time.

On the day you were born, after duly noting a window full of pastry with the intention of focusing on les bugnes lyonnaises, I walked across the footbridge across the street from the courthouse over the Saone River to the Quai Saint Antoine, my market, the place where I felt very at home. The Tuesday market had packed up and was gone, and someone had lost a button. I took a picture of it.

It was the first day of your life.
It was the first day that my waiting was over, and I didn’t even know it.
I just noticed and pondered the button phenomena: these little lost things (coins, buttons, tokens, pebbles, parts of watches) that God seems to strew in my path as signposts, flags. For an instant I sensed something very important may be in the works. Thus the photo.

This is all in retrospect. When they place a baby in your arms and this time you don’t have to give it back, something happens. The world goes from being an immense place radiating from all sides and angles to being one small central focal point. Everything flips. You no longer receive, you give. You are still the same shell, but you are now filled with living breathing, pulsating matter. The question is, if this baby is the pearl of my oyster, do I pluck it out, slurp up the oyster, wash it down with wine, slip the pearl into my pocket like a button (is this something a man might do?) and continue on my journey of receiving, or do I come to a stop and start with a plan about how I'm going to help the pearl to grow?

You are seven today. You got a new scooter, a trottinette, the present you chose to open before school. This year, you are learning to read. You will learn so many wonderful things. And your maman? This is the year she is putting herself again into a receptive state. She is practicing herself again to a state of conscious open reception.


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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Simple and Perfect: Velouté De Cresson



At sundown we'd balanced our yogurt jars on the window sill and lit candles in them. After supper, it was time to go for a stroll. My son was happy to do this and found the simple candle-lit homage to be as delightful as the booming music, hi-tech projections and effects we've been herded through in the past here in Lyon.

There was a simplicity to it, perfection. A little bit like the night we eloped in Los Angeles, months before the big to-do in France. That night, I put on a dress I'd bought during a lunch hour for $39.95, put my hair up in a chignon, tied it will a little bit of tulle, and quietly prepared to be wed. I dabbed a bit of perfume behind my ears, tied some more tulle around the stems of the white tulips found on sale at the grocery store on the way home from work that day, and went downstairs, where he was writing down a mathematical formula on a piece of scrap paper.

We got into the old Toyota with the dent and broken trunk lock, and drove into the hills from Westwood to Bel Air. Margie, my office mate, was waiting on the front steps, all dressed up. We were ushered into the officiant's home office, cluttered with books, where he said something about many rainbows, and after signing some papers, it was done. She'd bought us a bottle of champagne. We went straight home and opened the door, and he managed to lift me up and carry me 3 or 4 steps before he put me down again. There we were, a married couple, looking joyfully into each others eyes by the light of the street lamp that shined into the kitchen, feeling only love for each other.

Last night marked 16 years and one day of official marriage, and although we generally wait until summer to celebrate, I prefer the elopement anniversary even better, because there are no expectations, no stressful planning, just love. Last night, lighting the candles with my son, I felt that freedom and joy. Strolling through the neighborhood, it came again. How it just came together. No production.

With that, it is my pleasure to share with you a recipe that also fell into our market basket this week with my students, naturally coming together with barely any planning. My kitchen notebook states it came from Chef Pascal Roussy, who is just now wrapping up his first year under the title of Maitre Artisan in his field. Watercress is only available in the autumn and winter in Lyon, disappearing for about 8 months of the year. I wait until the local farmers start to offer it before making this soup.



Recipe: Velouté De Cresson
French Cream of Watercress Soup

Serves 4

1 bunch of watercress
250 g or a half-pound of potatoes
1 fresh medium leek
50 grams or 5 tablespoons of butter
750 ml or 3 cups of water
1 egg yolk
50 grams or a generous dollop of crème fraîche
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
lemon juice, optional
roasted seeds and nuts, optional

Remove the leaves from the bunch of watercress, and clean them in abundant fresh water.

Peel 250 grams of the potatoes, then cut them into 1 cm or 1/2 inch cube. Wash them under running water and strain. Clean the white part of the leek, by slicing lengthwise and rinsing to remove all sand and grit. Mince fine.

Melt 50 grams of butter in a 3 liter saucepan. Add and cook the leek for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly, not allowing to brown. Add the watercress leaves, and cook them slowly over low heat until they wilt. Add 75cl or 3 cups of water, add the potatoes, stir to combine, and add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low. Cover, and let simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Remove from heat and blend the soup with a stick blender until it is smooth and velvety (velouté). Bring the velouté to a boil. In a separate bowl, whisk 1 egg yolk with the dollop of crème fraîche. Off heat, delay the egg yolks and cream into the velouté by pouring a bit of the hot soup into the egg and cream mixture, then transferring it back into the soup and whisking it in. Taste for seasoning, add salt and pepper if necessary, and brighten with a teaspoon of lemon juice, if you think it will improve it. Return to low heat and heat just to steaming. Do not let the soup return to a boil.

Dress the soup into warmed wide shallow bowls, sprinkle with roasted seeds and nuts if desired, and serve with crusty bread and a glass of crisp St. Véran. Note: you can replace the crème fraîche with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, if that is more convenient for you.


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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Touchstone: Bourgogne



Looking for Burgundy in Lyon is a fruitful exercise. When you narrow down the dishes that do Burgundy justice, they appear in one form of another over and over again, year after year on café menus here. How can they not, when we have the abundance of Burgundy tumbling onto the market stalls all year? When we seek inspiration in the seasons and the market, it is inevitable that we're going to choose the best from all of the distinct regions that Lyon is privy to by association. So many of the dishes served here are not only local, but distilled into a collection of the best coming from each point of the compass surrounding this great city.

Escargots de Bourgogne are at home on the Lyonnais table. Platters are slid onto tables, dishcloth covered hands pulling back, leaving the dish sizzling on checkered woven cotton and white linen tablecloths alike, ready to be devoured with their fresh spring garlic and chopped herb seasoned garlicky butter. We dutifully sop it all up with a rich spongy pinch of poolish-fed baguette. I fell across the perfect beurre d'escargot butter quite by accident when browsing through a collection of local recipes, then another. Several cook's notebooks referred to one source. Paul Bocuse, of course. I questioned the use of almond flour, wondering what on earth that might contribute. But it serves a little bit like a megaphone for the flavors of the earth, carrying them, pronouncing them to well harmonize and mingle with the aromatic seasoned butter. With a sip of a local white sparkling Burgundy wine, the moment becomes a touchstone of sorts, one that crystalizes an important idea. It shines brighter and comes easier in retrospect. We savor it, and each other, and the sun streams into the kitchen. We are in Lyon.

While we're chopping up bunches of fresh herbs and mincing the season's fresh spring garlic shoots, grating the nutmeg and such, I always like to slice a naked escargot into pieces, to be tasted alone before we stuff the rest into the shells with the prepared butter and pop them under the broiler. There is a silence that falls across the kitchen when I pass out the escargot forks. I explain that it's very important to taste now, that any well prepared escargot de Bourgogne is going to taste fresh and earthy, that it's going to give us something very special: In fact, when we put them into our mouths, we are reminded of just what it tastes like, the terroir of this rich and varied land.

Recipe: Escargots de Bourgogne

You can always find locally processed escargots in Lyon. Escargots de Bourgogne are considered to be a special occasion dish that are commonly served during the winter holidays in many regions of France, but in Lyon, they are available and readily consumed year-round. It is about as rare to find any restaurant that processes their own live escargots as a place that makes their own cheese or cured meats. It's not unheard of, but just not common since the experts local to Lyon like Maison Malatre, have got it down to a science. The escargots are first isolated from food source for several days to empty their digestive tracts, then they are boiled in their shells, removed from the shells, further processed by hand to remove inedible parts, then slow simmered again in an aromatic and herbal broth before being preserved for distribution. It is rare these days to find average home cooks going through this process, although some families have their traditions.

3 dozen medium simmered escargots
3 dozen clean dry escargot shells
200 grams butter
4 grams fleur de sel, or 3/4 tsp
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
10 g fresh garlic, minced
8 g shallot, minced
10 g fresh almond flour
20 g parsley, finely minced

Stuff one escargot, tail first, into each shell. Combine the butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg, almond flour, shallots, garlic and parsley and work them together until thoroughly combined, but without crushing the minced herbs so much that the butter turns green. With a butter knife, gently fill each shell to the brim with the seasoned butter. Place in trays or balanced on piles of sea salt, with the opening facing up to ensure that the butter doesn't flow out when it melts. Put the trays of snails under the grill or broiler and cook until the butter is sizzling and the snails are hot. Serve immediately with a splash of cold sparkling Burgundy white wine or Champagne.


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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Lamb Chops



The pickings were slim at the market. I was going to be teaching a class where we just cook together through to lunch time, based on what I find. I dropped my son off at school and only had 45 minutes before class. I had to be quick. I walked the length of the market and reached the end. Nothing. Nothing looked fabulous this morning.

There was a surge of some early autumn vegetables over the weekend, and I'd been looking forward to working with these ingredients, notably beets and watercress. I wanted to do a beet, goat cheese and watercress dish as a starter, and then follow with a nice egg dish. But the beets and the watercress had withdrawn from the scene this morning, and they were not the only things missing. It seems that a lot of producers like to take their vacation during the period after the summer harvest and before the autumn harvest begins. So we had some filler stands with ho hum standards, and my egg people were missing.

My egg people being gone was a serious problem. These are the only people who consistently give me fabulous eggs. I am talking about eggs laid yesterday, the ones that plump up into perfect ovals when poached. I had to start asking people about their eggs, and got shaky answers each and every time. "Tuesday" said one, looking off over my shoulder just long enough for me to know, without a doubt, he was telling a story. I finally settled on some eggs, wasting precious minutes.
"Where is your tarragon?" I asked the lady who provided me with my fines herbes.
"Sorry, some lady bought it all, she had to have 3 bunches this morning, none left." She rolled her eyes and so did I. This continued all the way back down and I realized I had done the whole market I still didn't have a starter.

I decided to shift my poached egg dish to a starter and go with a meat dish. Côtelettes d'agneau en aïado, which is aromatic herb marinated lamb chops I like to do with three sauces, a fabulous garlic sauce similar to an aioli but cooked, a buttery plumped reduction sauce from lamb stock, and a sweet onion and predominantly chervil based green sauce using Claire's secret olive oil. I got closer to the meat stand where the idea for the chops came from but saw he was one of those circular saw butchers that wear lab coats, the ones that use power saws, producing cuts addled with ugly to deal with bone schrapnel. That would not do.

I then remembered the butcher I sometimes go to when my producers on the market don't have what I need. I entered the shop.
"Bonjour madame, do you have any lamb chops?"
"Yes, we do. Honey, the lady wants lamb chops."
"How many?"
"Eight." I was thinking that would be fine. Eight lamb chops.
"Coming right up!" he called. I had 20 minutes at that point to finish this transaction and get down to the kitchen, open up, and print out recipes. I heard him bumping around downstairs. I looked at my watch and smiled at the butcher's wife.
"I'm teaching a class in 20 minutes." we both laughed. There was a silence.
"The lady's in a hurry!"
Up came the butcher with a lamb on his shoulder. He proceeded to carve into the lamb, removing the cuts he needed to get to the chops. "The lady's in a hurry, the lady's in a hurry" he sang, removing a shoulder, the heart, trimming and slicing with what looked to be a small razor sharp paring knife. He brought down a hack saw and pulled no more than two strokes to get through one bone, cut out the strip of ribs, and trimmed the end with a cleaver. His tools hung from the gorgeous hooks that looked like miniature metal bulls horns lined up in neat rows above him. I recalled that my favorite old butcher, a man who has retired and now lives in the neighborhood, used to suspend his meat on those kinds of hooks when he broke down the animal. But this one used it for his tools.
"Is this what you want?" he asked, coming out with something that looked alright but not what I had in mind.
"Can you give me the little ones? The little cute ones that look like a miniature côte de boeuf?"
"Oh, sure." He went back in and came out with a gorgeous trimmed lamb chop. I asked for some nice and thick and some nice and thin. I like it when I can stand the thick ones up on their end and the thin ones kind of lean along the side. Perfect.

I noted that the price was not that much higher than what I pay the producer for my lamb chops. The whole class was gathered in pairs along the street, waiting for me, although class would not start for another 5 minutes. I ushered them all in and we all had a cup of coffee while I printed the recipes. It came out that one of the students who had registered at the last minute was celiac, so instead of an autumn tarte, we went with some vanilla bean enriched îles flottantes for dessert. We had a delightful morning. The eggs were probably at least 4 days old, but I will take that up with him tomorrow.


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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcard: Lyon Croix Rousse


One of the workshops I will begin offering again on a regular basis at the rentrée is Herbs in French Cooking. Starting this fall, I'll be gathering up armfuls of fresh herbs, all the common ones used in French cooking and some that are wild or not so common but find their way to my markets when they are in season. We go through them one by one and by the time we've rubbed at least a dozen different fresh herbs between our fingers, we'll be ready to cook with them. There's something profound that happens when we get all these herbs and turn our attention to them. One of my favorite things to do with lemon verbena right now is to infuse it into a crème pâtissière, and serve it with strawberries. It is one of those combinations that leaves us all speechless as we greedily scrape the parfait glasses clean.


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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Foraged Things



This morning, strolling the market, I noticed the foraged Spring things have finally made their way to town. Tonight we will enjoy fresh morels in cream on our own hand cranked pasta, and tomorrow a rabbit, nettle and potato soup. We had a full day of clear bright sun today for the first time in weeks, and it completely filled the kitchen, putting a definitive end to the chill of this year's winter that wouldn't let go. While we chopped and stirred our way through this morning's class, surrounded by picked edible plants exploding with life, I felt relief and peace spread into my bones, the kind that comes with the promise of a new season. New onions braced in my hands under icy running water, tonic and crisp. I have leftover gibelotte and my weekend has begun.


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