April 29, 2006

Tacos and Taco Salad

Maybe it's the first Tex-Mex type of thing you eat as a kid, but Tacos were always something I wanted for dinner when I was young. Personally, I prefer "crunchy" tacos made with corn tortillas VS. "soft" tacos made with flour tortillas. Fried corn tortillas piled high with so much filling that they threaten to fall apart upon first bite have so much more texture and interest for me. A whole new world gave way after the first time I fried my own tortilla shells. Wow! They were SO much better. Where had these been all my life?

Having some friends over for Tacos is such a nice relaxed way to entertain since you prepare all the components and let guests build their own meal. Plus, then you can just worry about the drinks. A nice Mojito, anyone? Somehow when you fry your own tortillas, marinate the chicken, chop fresh cilantro and serve ripe tomatoes and avocado slices, you elevate the idea behind those janky store-bought Taco Bell kits into a thoughtful, healthful and fresh meal. You can keep it to yourself how easy it is.

There's a monthly "I Loathe Sandra Lee" recipe event at Foodie NYC and this was my submission. It's not that I'm against finding shortcuts in cooking or that I don't understand the need to make meals quickly. There are sacrifices to be made. But, there is a big difference between making these lovely Tacos posted here and Sandra Lee's version of quesadillas that includes jarred Kraft guacamole dip. Have you seen some of the crap this woman makes? Only the devil would actually use the powdered cheese packet from a package of macaroni and cheese in a separate recipe. She's not creative; she's insane! "Let's see, I've got a can of frosting, some Doritos, Kraft cheese whiz and 1/2 bottle of vodka...the sky's the limit!" So, I thought I'd join the fight to show that you can still use shortcuts and canned ingredients without poisoning your loved ones!

As you probably can guess, the usual suspects on this taco buffet are some type of shredded or diced meat, (I usually saute chicken breasts seasoned with chili powder, cumin and garlic, etc but marinated steak works well, too) diced red onion, chopped tomatoes, sliced avocado, shredded cheddar or monteray jack cheese, a bowl of salsa, a bowl of sour cream, and chopped fresh cilantro and/or lettuce. I usually also go for some refried beans or black beans, too.

My favorite Spicy Black Beans are these:

1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained,
and sautéed with some diced red pepper, diced red onion, a sprinkling of chili powder, cumin, 2 Tbsp salsa, 1 tsp chopped chipotle peppers and a pinch of cinnamon. Serve warm.

So, here is the method for the tortillas and a little encouragement from me to fry your own!
Heat 1 inch of olive oil (or veg oil) in a wide skillet. The oil is hot enough when the added tortilla sizzles aggressively.
Using 2 forks, quickly fold the tortilla in two, and hold for 5-10 seconds to cook the bottom side. When that side is firm, but not yet brown, rotate the tortilla to cook the other side. Remove the finished tortilla shell to a paper towel lined plate and sprinkle with salt. Let drain until ready to eat. Repeat with other tortillas.

For those times when we're feeling like a salad would be good for us, but are still craving Tacos or something equally divine, here's a
lighter Taco Salad. If you do a search for Taco Salad recipes, you will most likely find a plate of lettuce covered in a heavy, spicy ground beef mixture, crushed chips and a dressing made from all sorts of bottled ingredients. Usually this type of salad seems larger and less healthy than just eating tacos! I saw one that combined Thousand Island Dressing, salsa and sour cream for the salad dressing.

Anyway, I find dressings to be the main obstacle for me in taco salads. I've tried some that sounded good, like a mixture of lime juice, cumin and other spices and oil, which seemed logical, but tasted strange. This time, I just sort of ignored it and made an oil and vinegar dressing with a bit of garlic and it was perfect! It didn't add any weird flavors or take away from the other ingredients. Plus, when you add a dollap of salsa and sour cream, it sort of makes a dressing on its own. I find this taco salad to be just as delicious and satisfying as the heavier versions. It's easy and nothing terribly inventive, but it's fabulous nonetheless.
Chicken Taco Salad

2 large handfuls of sturdy greens...romaine lettuce, etc
1 1/2 cups shredded or chopped cooked chicken
1 can black, red or pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 small can corn, drained
pinch of chili powder, cumin and cayenne
3 Tbsp salsa, plus more for topping
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced and lightly salted
1/2 tomato, chopped
3 Tbsp grated cheddar cheese
2 handfuls plain tortilla chips
sour cream

Mix together a simple oil, vinegar and garlic dressing. Mince 1 small clove garlic into 2 Tbsp vinegar (I used balsamic but any will do) and stir in 2 Tbsp olive oil until combined. Toss the lettuce lightly with this vinaigrette.

Heat the beans and corn together in a skillet. Diced red pepper would be a nice addition, too. Season with the spices and saute a few minutes. Stir in the 3 Tbsp salsa and remove from heat. This makes more than enough for 2 salads, so you will most likely have leftovers of this.

Assemble the salad: Put a large layer of the lettuce down on a plate. Spoon about 1 cup of the bean and corn ragu over the lettuce. Top this with a handful of chicken. Scatter the avocado, red onion, tomato, and cheddar cheese over the salad and top with a spoonful of salsa and/or sour cream. Crush a handful of tortilla chips and sprinkle over the salad or serve on the side. Serves 2.

April 28, 2006

Only in France...

Did you notice the pillows shaped like pickles? That's my favorite part.

And by the way, where's the blanket ressembling a Kraft single? Every Hamburger-Bed needs one...

April 27, 2006

Chocolate Brownie Cookies

Fudgy chocolate with the texture of a brownie in the form of a cookie? Oh Mon Dieu! Three of my favorite things combined in one delicious little bite of heaven. You may remember my confession that I do not like chocolate chip cookies, but don't let that fool you into thinking I have anything against cookies or chocolate in general. I will tell you that I've only made cookies once (now twice) in the last 2 years. I do like to bake, but I generally feel that cookies are for a crowd (which we aren't) and in addition, my kitchen was lacking an oven until this year.

I was inspired to make these cookies because, A) we needed a little cheering up and B) the act of melting chocolate lets me pretend, if just for a moment, that Johnny Depp will take me dancing on his barge and we'll transform this small, cold French town into a bunch Pagan Chocolate-Lovers, who aren't afraid to smear it across their faces, à la Chocolat.

Paul and I ate our share of these straight from the oven, but we also had them for dessert with a scoop of sinfully good pistachio ice cream. These really taste as good as the chocolate you use, so use the best you can find.

Chocolate Brownie Cookies
recipe from Cindy Mitchell at Fine Cooking

2 oz. (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter; more for the pan
12 oz./340 g bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Lindt 70%)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1-1/2 oz. (1/3 cup) all-purpose flour

1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
4 oz. (1 cup) chopped toasted pecans

Position an oven rack on the center rung. Heat the oven to 350°F and line two baking sheets with parchment (or grease and flour the pan).

In a double boiler over simmering water, melt the butter and chocolate. Stir to combine; let cool. In an electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs and sugar on medium high to a ribbon consistency, 3 to 4 min. Take the bowl off the mixer. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and the vanilla; stir to combine. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Stir the flour mixture and the nuts into the batter; let the batter rest for 5 min.

Spoon the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a #4 tip (or into a heavy-duty zip-top bag with one bottom corner snipped to create a 2/3-inch diagonal opening). For each cookie, pipe 1 Tbs. batter onto the lined baking sheet. While you pipe the second tray, bake the first until the cookies are puffed and cracked and the tops barely spring back when pressed, 8 to 10 min. The cracks should be moist but not wet. Cool the cookies on a wire rack. Makes 4 dozen cookies.

I used a ziploc baggie as a pastry bag for a while, but quickly got sick of it. I found that using two spoons and carefully scraping off the batter worked just fine for me.

Variation -- Substitute 1-1/2 tsp. mint extract for the vanilla and the nuts.

April 25, 2006

Behemoth Scotch Eggs

I had a funny idea the other day to use this post to reminisce about some of the complete wrecks I've made in the kitchen. The disgusting ones I've attempted or the ones that just didn't work out. At all.

I'll preface this by admitting that I wasn't always a natural in the kitchen. My lofty goals weren't really met until I got some basic cookery under my belt. I blame Emeril, for one. Yes, about 6 years ago I had some friends who were very enthusiastic about Emeril. Who wasn't entertained by him at first? You know who you are...Bam! Cooking is fun! I dig it... So, my naive 20 year old self was ready to cook, or rather, conquer food. Bring it on, you 4 page recipe! Bam! I'll show you some essence...

What our friends still give us shit about is our famous joint effort of a "red wine reduction sauce." Yeah. It was more like red wine syrup with mushrooms in it. Thick and gooey, but my husband, then boyfriend, would not be scared off. I think he was a little proud of it. It might have been edible without the mushrooms, but as it was, the mushrooms gave it this disgusting, slimy texture. I shudder at the thought of it.

Anyway, the one that makes me laugh to this day takes us back to Emeril's loopy bamworld. This was the same time period as our "reduction sauce," but I guess that didn't turn us off enough because we went back to Emeril for inspiration. I knew by then that Emeril was all about bigger and better. I was 21 and it was the food network chefs that got me interested in food. Rachael Ray actually taught me a lot: how to make a quick marinara sauce, salad dressings, meatloaf patties, and mashed potatoes...the basics. Emeril inspired me to get a little fancier. I was totally in over my head most of the time, but it was fun. Paul's roommates and I especially got excited about grilling. Mostly huge cuts of meat. They were guys, so grilling whole chickens and 2-inch thick pork chops was some feat.

So, the most unbelievable recipe I've made does comes from Emeril. His recipe for Scotch Eggs would sound more than a few alarms if I was looking at the recipe now, but 5 years ago, I just made the recipe as written. I don't know if you've had Scotch Eggs before, but they're tasty hard-boiled eggs wrapped in a thin layer of sausage, rolled in bread crumbs and fried. Dip them in a little mayo and mustard...Yum! Add a pint of ale and you could be sitting in pub in Britain.

Click here to view a larger image.
photo and recipe from Food Network

Emeril's Kicked-Up Scotch Eggs

1 1/2 pounds country-style sausage, casings removed and crumbled
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 hard-boiled eggs, shells removed
1 cup bread crumbs
Creole seasoning, "Emeril's Essence"
1/2 cup flour
1 beaten egg
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying the eggs

In a large bowl combine the sausage, cayenne and salt. Divide into 4 portions and on a sheet of waxed paper, shape each portion into a thin round. Place 1 hard-boiled egg on the sausage round and wrap to enclose the egg, patting gently to smooth the surface. (This step is much easier with wet hands.)

Season the bread crumbs with Creole seasoning. Dredge the sausage-wrapped egg in the flour, then dip in the egg and roll in the bread crumbs until well coated. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to cook.

In a deep fryer or large heavy skilled, heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees F. Fry the eggs, 2 at a time until golden brown and crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels before serving.

So, I think this is a good recipe except for the part about 4 eggs and ONE AND A HALF pounds of sausage! Are you kidding me? That's .375 pounds per egg! Is he using ostrich eggs? I kind of remember making them and thinking, "Is this right? This is really too much meat to fit on one egg?!" It's the feeling you have when making mashed potatoes with 2 sticks of butter and 2 cups of cream, or thinking about ordering that steak where if you eat it all, you get it for free (never mind that it's 72 oz...) There's a line when it stops being food and starts being a spectacle and I think Emeril crossed it a while back, especially with these eggs.

I don't even know how that picture looks so normal. I mean, it's huge and takes up the whole frigging plate, but I'm telling you that the ones I made (following his recipe) were about 4 times the size of an egg. Plus, I'm a big ratio person, and the ratio of meat to egg in this thing was way out of whack. So, please, take the quantity of meat down a notch and I'm sure this will be a good recipe! Oh, Emeril!

Luckily, we've come a long way since then. Does anyone out there have a memorable mess up or unbelievable recipe they'd like to share?

April 23, 2006

Paris Wine Expo

The Paris Wine Exposition was held recently where 500 wineries from all over France showed up to offer tastes of their wines and hopefully sell a few bottles. Held at the Espace Champerret in the 17th arrondissement, it was an easy subway ride for Paul and me to gleefully partake in the event. This Salon de Vins welcomed only small, independent wineries, each pouring between 6-10 wines, so there was plenty to choose from.

We knew we were on the right track when we sortie-d the subway and made our way towards the exhibition hall. It was not uncommon to see people with carts stacked full of cases of wine.
Upon entering we were given a tasting glass (to keep) and ushered in with the masses to make our way through the randomly situated tasting counters. There was no organization by region, which was maddening at first, but understandable in that it encouraged wider sampling. So, it was difficult to keep to any sort of usual "white first, then reds, then sweet wines" order.

As we entered the exhibition hall, we were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of wines. It took a few minutes for us to realize it wasn't worth forming a strategy for attack, but rather necessary to just dive in and start tasting. Most of the people pouring the wines were the actual winery owners or wine makers, which made for many pleasant discussions and an intimate feeling within the general chaos of the crowded hall. Being the wine lovers we are, I went both Friday and Saturday; Paul went Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

We decided the first day to just try and cover a few aisles. I believe we tackled aisles D through K and were there about 3 hours. Of course, we didn't try every wine but just hit the ones that peeked our interest. Of those, the ones I remember most were wonderful reds from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cabardès, a region in Southern of France. We had really friendly conversations with both of the winemakers and a particularly interesting discussion with the woman pouring the Cabardès about American and French winemaking. I loved her immediately. There is definitely the feeling that even though Parker has recognized French wines like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and is the authority on Bordeaux, his influence is not necessarily a great thing for wine, in general. The French love their diversity in wine and I, too, would be sad to see things homogenize [to gain high ratings from Parker]. I must agree that I often find many American wines boring and I hate the thought, but perhaps they are going the way of the chain restaurant? Diversity is losing out in the race to create bigger and bolder Parker-pleasing wines.

Our favorite wines were a 2004 Domaine des Relagnes from Châteauneuf-du-Pape at 14 €, a deliciously complex, well balanced, and affordable wine when compared to its expensive cousins from that region; it was an exciting find. Our 6 bottles of 2000 Château Bournonville from Cabardès at around 6 € each, a great wine with smoky depth and soft prune flavors. Next was a 2 bottles of 2002 Domaine du Cinquau, a sweet white Jurançon at 8 €; a perfect meal-ender. We were also impressed with a bottle of 2005 Les Porcheronnes, a velvety Pouilly-Fumé at 9 €, and 4 bottles of the cheapest white burgundy in history at 3.50 € from Domaine Gille! We also splurged for the exquisite 2000 Chateau Ripeau, a Grand Cru from Saint-Émilion that was 21 euros. It's a huge, tannic, intense and delicious wine.

There are a few problems with a huge wine tasting exhibition like this one. With so many wines, it is difficult to corner the best wines since you will most likely wade through more than a few bad ones before finding something exceptional. I found my palate seriously compromised after an hour, even with pouring out most of the wines after one sip. I did see just a few people spitting, but the buckets were placed on the floor, which made it extremely awkward (and decidedly unfeminine) to spit either from a standing distance or bending over to sort of hurl your wine into the bucket. So, we were left with just dumping most of the wine out and being careful with our sips, which gets more and more difficult as you encounter better wines.

Another issue was switching constantly between styles, colors and regions of wine. I tried at least to avoid sweet wines until towards the end, but even changing regions of reds made it difficult to adjust and evaluate the wines. It was hard to trust my taste buds after awhile. So, all in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to try a lot of wines, but tricky to judge their true quality. Since we have also traveled a lot throughout France, this experience was definitely trumped by actually visiting a winery and having a private tasting with the owner among the grapevines! So, of course, it feels a little more generic.

Favorite region for whites: Alsace
Whether you enjoy dry whites or sweeter ones, you can find everything here. I can't say enough about how delicious these wines can be. I love their character. I enjoy cooking with them, not to mention drinking them. Never being one to prefer sweet wines, I actually find a good quality late harvest Muscat or Gewürztraminer really fascinating. Of course, I am biased because of visiting the region last fall. I have a feeling that in the States these wines unfortunately get grouped with the (gasp!) white zinfandel crowd because of their similar bottle shape. (Too many Fetzer Gewürztraminers graced our Thanksgiving table when I was growing up…)

Alsatian winemakers are really proud of how their wines pair with food, and it is something I've learned to recognize more and more. The wines that really interest me now are the ones where I can practically taste the food along with it. That complexity is what gets me. What can I say? I'm a convert. Alsace won me over completely with some of the best wines I've ever tasted. Je suis d’accord; “C’est pas du vin, c’est du parfum!”

Favorite region for reds: Impossible to say with so many good ones, but lately Southwestern regions.
Reds are tough in France for a few reasons. If you have in mind the big 3: Bordeaux, Bourgogne, C
ôtes du Rhone; you will be spending a lot of money for the best of those regions. But, go just a few km outside those regions, the price drops and the quality can be just as good. It takes a bit more effort to learn France's wine regions because of all grape varieties, but it can really pay off. I guess that within our budget, we are basically looking for wines with character. I know they won't be extremely complex, but we do enjoy the fact that for 6-8 Euros, you can find really quaffable, easy-drinking wines. Wines from Cahors, Cabardès, and Bergerac have been reliable for us.
Worst wines tried (sorry): Jura
Surprising in that we found it totally imbuvable, undrinkable. We had gotten a few recommendations to try wines from Jura (located just on top of Savoy on the eastern border). Perhaps we should have been warned by their choice of words: interesting, unique, if you've never tried it, you should...So, with what we knew of Savoy wines, it wasn't a total shocker. There was an odor to the wines that is immediately offensive and one that is impossible to describe. Just know that our glasses were tainted with it for the next 1/2 hour of tasting. It isn't just earthy or moldy. I don't think there is a word for it in wine-speak. Anyway, we did try and ignore the smell and just taste it but the Jura-ness was all over it. Each "dry" white just got weirder (made of the rarely seen Savagnin grape) and we were convinced that maybe this region was really all about their sweet wines. They are evidently famous for their "vin jaune" or purposefully oxodized wine aged for years. It’s sold in bottles about 25% smaller than regular wine bottles, I suppose to show its concentration. I didn't know what to expect but it was not pleasing and we both left hoping to never have to taste that taste again.

Coolest Find: Jurançon (Southwest France including Toulouse and Bayonne)
I preferred their sweet whites because they had greater complexity than their dry wines, and given my preference for Alsace, they didn't really stand a chance anyway! But, this being my first time tasting this wine, I was blown away. I read that drops of a Jurançon wine were placed on the lips of Henri IV at his BAPTISM in 1553. There you go. Made of the unheard of Manseng white grape, it tastes like caramelized pinapple to me; really delicious and worth checking out!

There you have it, the Chez Mégane report on the wine tasting. We came home exhausted after two (or three) days of masochistic wine tasting but really pleased with our purchases; our fingers stained purple, our mouths a bit parched and our heads swirling with new found loves.

April 21, 2006

Pommes de Terre Sautées

Our favorite breakfast place in Bloomington, IN was always The Runcible Spoon. A dive to say the least, its food happily counterbalanced the general grunge of the interior. They roast their own coffee, make their own hollandaise sauce, granola, bagels and jams, and generally attract the conscientious foodies who inhabit Bloomington. They taught me to love eggs benedict and we, along with our friends, would often find the cure for late, tender mornings here.

How hard it was to choose between their amazing whole-grainy pancakes bursting with berries served with a side of smoky bacon, or the eggs benedict covered with their silky hollandaise. No matter what you chose, though, you always had to get at least a side of their potatoes. Sautéed in butter and uniquely seasoned, it baffled me for awhile what exactly made them so good. It hit me one hazy morning…curry powder! It may sound odd, but pair these potatoes beside your morning omelet and you’ll be in heaven, too. I fell in love with breakfast all over again. An amazing brunch has a special place in my heart.

No matter how you choose to season these potatoes, this is my basic method for making hash browns or “fried” potatoes of any sort. Easy and reliable! Curry powder on roasted potatoes would be delicious as well.

Sautéed Potatoes with a hint of Curry

4-5 waxy potatoes, peeled
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp curry powder

Peel and cut the potatoes in half or quarters. Place in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook the potatoes in simmering water until almost done, but not quite. Drain the potatoes and let cool several minutes. Cut the potato chunks into smaller pieces according to your taste.

Melt the butter in a wide skillet and add the olive oil. When butter is hot, add the curry powder. Stir in the potatoes, tossing to coat in the butter. Spread out into a single layer, salt them, and do not disturb them for maybe 5-10 minutes, depending on how hot your skillet is. I usually peek at the underside of one potato to see how they are coming. If you leave them alone, they will be crispy. Once the potatoes seem brown enough, shake the skillet and try to flip over most of the potatoes to brown on the other side. Leave alone for another 5 minutes. Transfer to a serving platter and enjoy! Serves 2-3.

April 20, 2006

Tzatziki Tzastes Good

Tzatziki is a delicious cucumber yogurt sauce. I like it as a dip with toasted baguette slices or warm pita bread, but most of the time it's served beside lamb or with kebabs. It tastes refreshingly light. It is a wonderful dip for an hors d'oeuvres party, especially if the rest of the food is quite heavy.

The first time I tasted Tzatziki was at a party here and when I saw the white dip with flecks of dill, I assumed it was a standard sour cream based dill dip. I didn't bother trying it until a friend urged me to sample it late in the evening. I was so glad I did since now I'm such a fan. A good-for-you dip that tastes like it couldn't be.


2 cups plain, full fat yogurt (Greek yogurt preferred)
1 large cucumber, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 Tbsp lemon juice

2 Tbsp good olive oil
Salt to taste

one variation, optional: add 2 Tbsp chopped fresh mint

Cut the cucumber in half and scoop out the seeds. Peel and grate. Place the cucumber in a colander, sprinkle with salt and let it drain a few hours. I helped this along by squeezing out as much of the water as I could. Combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl, salting to taste. Refrigerate a few hours before serving. For a thicker dip, you can strain the yogurt in a colander lined with cheesecloth overnight, or at least a few hours, before combining with the rest of the ingredients.

April 16, 2006

Tartiflette or How I'd Go Skiing Just to Eat This.

I just love how my tastes have changed since living in France. It's not just the superficial differences between the USA and France, and all the sentimental jazz that visitors to this country walk away with. Yes, they appreciate wine, food, family and relationships. Their 35 hour work week combined with a reasonably productive economy is the envy of many other cultures. They live the good life in many respects. I thought I lived the good life before I moved here, but sometimes I just get the giggles about how far we've come. On a particularly good day, we're known to walk around with the most annoyingly broad smiles on our faces, feeling as though we alone have been entrusted with the greatest secret in the world. Dare I say? Almost as though we've discovered the secret of life. Why are we here? To live in Paris and be insufferably happy.

I think that most people who know us would categorize my husband and I as people who enjoy life. We probably drink too much, eat too much, care too much and generally make being good at life (a simultaneously ignorant and ingenious proposal) our main goal. I hope, at least, that this generosity of spirit is one reason we feel so loved, in return, by our friends.

So, what is the change within? It's not just that I now love crazy cheeses or would walk to the ends of the earth for a good baguette. The things I now consider normal sometimes strike my funny bone when I take a step back and think about my former perspective.

For one, I must have been French in a former life because I absolutely love what the French have done for cheese, bacon and starch. I mean, is there anything they haven't thought of in this arena? Since when would a meal in the States ever consist of just those 3 ingredients? I actually had to laugh when I recently saw a sandwich at our boulangerie filled with sliced potatoes and what looked like bacon. I don't know what else it had on it, but it made me think how completely unacceptable that would be in the US. A potato sandwich! Or how about those luscious looking baguettes that have the bits of bacon baked into them? or simply an onion quiche? When do onions take the staring role in American main courses? I have definitely felt a freedom with food here and recalling how wrecked everything seemed when we moved here makes me feel like I've changed my entire perspective. I can slightly recall how bizarre everything seemed when we were here just for vacation. The sandwiches were weird; the plat du jour was some unheard-of part of a chicken covered in sauce. They have appetizers like a hard boiled egg served with a side of mayo, and who knew fois gras could creep up in so many dishes?

The point is that my boundaries have been pushed and now I just like it that way. My palate was kidnapped, brainwashed and put back into society to forever wreak havoc on uptight trendy food. Bring on the bread, cheese and starch. Bring on the gigantic salads covered in fried potatoes. Bring on the steak frites, house wine and roast chicken, not to mention perhaps 30 lbs. But, regardless, bring on perhaps the most insulting dish to the American sensibility...Tartiflette.

Tartiflette is a recipe from Savoie for a gratin of potatoes, lardons, onions and reblochon cheese. The secret is in the Reblochon, which is absolutely heavenly. The texture is close to a Brie or Camembert, and although the Reblochon is stronger smelling, the taste is milder than those two. Reblochon is Paul's new favorite cheese. This being a heavy, après-ski sort of dish, it is best consumed after some heavy lifting, which is why I always like to do some extreme raking, jazzercise, or shoveling of snow while it's in the oven. Serve it with a green salad and promise not to eat cheese or potatoes for at least a few days.

1 kg (2.2 lb) waxy white potatoes (so, no russets)
250 g (about 1/2 cup chopped) lardons or chopped bacon
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp crème fraîche
1 wheel (250-350 g) Reblochon cheese
1/3 - 1/2 cup dry white wine (from Savoy, traditionally)
salt and pepper
ground nutmeg

Clean the potatoes and peel them if you like, but you don't need to. Boil the whole potatoes in a large pot of water just until tender but slightly undercooked, about 25 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Slice the onion and sauté in a bit of butter until translucent but not colored. Add the bacon to the pan and fry until crisp. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Slice the potatoes very thinly and layer 1/3 of them in a buttered casserole dish. (not quite a 9x13, but a large pan, depending on how many potatoes you have) Layer on half the bacon and onions, another layer of potatoes, and the rest of the bacon and onions. Sprinkle each layer with a little salt, pepper and nutmeg, too. Top with the remaining potatoes. Spread the crème fraîche evenly over the top and pour the white wine evenly over the gratin. Use the wine at your discretion, you don't want too much.

Cut the wheel of Reblochon in half to make two thinner wheels of cheese. Place each wheel cut side down on top of the potato gratin (the rind will be visible). You may have to cut the cheese to fit evenly in the dish, just cover as much surface area as possible. Bake in a hot oven, at least 400, maybe 425 degrees F (200-215 degrees C) for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and browned on top.

Here is where there is some discrepancy. Personally, I don't enjoy eating the rind of the Reblochon, although it's perfectly safe and many people love it as it adds extra flavor, my husband being one of them. So, I left the rind on one half of the cheese and cut it off the other half. Being a sort of soft sticky cheese, I just ended up cutting it the best I could into chunks and scattering it over the gratin so it would melt evenly.

So, this was pretty much divine. I was a little ashamed of myself while I was making it, you know, thinking...this is so bad for me, so unhealthy; this is WAY too much cheese, but I was really surprised. It wasn't too much cheese and the flavor wasn't as over the top as I thought it would be. Plus, I didn't feel any guilt at all. See how France has changed me?

April 12, 2006

Roasted Cauliflower and Pesto Stuffed Pork Chops

I was so pleased with myself last night. I tried 2 new recipes and 1 was a vegetable. I made Pesto Stuffed Pork Loin Chops, Roasted Cauliflower and the previously posted Salade au Chevre Chaud.

I think I'm the last person on earth to try this, but I roasted cauliflower for the first time. I must say that, outside of a gratin and covered in cheese, this is indeed the most delicious way to eat cauliflower. I was inspired by Molly of Orangette's description of this dish and I must agree. It's like eating cauliflower candy. There is a delicious nutty sweetness to it that I can't describe any better than that. You'll have the see for yourself.

Ever trying to expand my vegetable repertoire, I decided I needed to give cauliflower a second chance. Not quite broccoli and not quite cabbage, this white budded gem is in the family of cancer-fighting veggies. Though cruciferous or not, it's still very high in vitamin C and folate, if you cook it in a way that retains it's nutrients. It turns out that roasting vegetables, in general, is a very healthy way to consume them. High heat and quick cooking mean a minimal loss of nutrients. It's known that cauliflower, along with broccoli, gives off a sort of unpleasant odor, so boiling the vegetable does work to disperse these odor-causing acids, which increase with the cooking time, but it also disperses the nutrients in the water. Roasting cauliflower and thereby reducing the cooking time works beautifully to keep the odor to a minimum and the nutrients in tact.

I did have to laugh about my struggle with the way choufleur is sold here. I kept walking around the produce isles searching for an easier way but none presented itself. They sell it with a huge amount of the stem still attached and many leaves coming up and over the gigantic head. It was probably 12-15 inches across. I was fairly intimidated to lift this beast into my little basket, not to mention struggle for 5 minutes, in vain, to get one of those plastic sacks around it. Picture me, forcing that damn sack around the white exposed part of the cauliflower, while having to ever so discreetly break off a majority of the branches (and stuff them next to the cabbages) in order to do the job. My cart and I strolled away hoping like hell I wouldn't have to pay for this baby by the kilo.

Difficulties aside, this just tastes good! I decided to keep it plain, just with olive oil, salt and pepper and see how I liked it. I think next time the critic wants more spices. I'm excited to try it with some curry or cumin. Make this your next side dish!
Roasted Cauliflower

1/2 large head of cauliflower
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
kosher salt or sea salt
ground pepper

Place the large chunk of cauliflower on a cutting board and slice into 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick slices. It will crumble and fall apart a bit which is fine. Cut thicker slices if needed. Trim most of the stem off the pieces, but leave enough to keep the pieces intact. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast at 400 or 425 degrees F (200-210 degrees C) for about 25-30 minutes. Stir after the first 15 minutes and check frequently to prevent over cooking. The cauliflower will be crisp-tender. I prefer the bites with lots of brown caramelization! Yum! You can roast these at a lower heat, but they will be softer. Serves 2.

Pesto Stuffed Pork Loin Chops
recipe from Italian Cooking and Living website

2 boneless pork loin chops, about 1/2 - 3/4 inch thick
10 basil leaves, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp pine nuts, chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp grated parmesan or pecorino

1 shallot or small onion, thinly sliced
8-10 cherry tomatoes

Combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, oil and cheese in a small bowl to form a sort of loose paste. Butterfly the pork chops by making an incision horizontally along one side of the chop almost all the way through to the other side but leaving one side intact. You are creating a pocket within the pork chop. Scoop 1/2 the pesto filling inside the pocket and press firmly to seal the pork chop, or you can use toothpicks to secure it. Do the same with the other pork chop.

Heat a Tbsp of olive oil in a skillet over high heat. Season the pork chops on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear in the hot oil until nicely browned on both sides. Remove and transfer to an oiled baking dish. Scatter the shallot or onion and cherry tomatoes around the dish. Bake at 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) for 15 minutes. Serves 2.
This was good but not amazing. I liked the method of searing it on the stove and finishing in the oven, but it could have been more flavorful. I would have like a sauce or maybe a true pesto sauce over the top. I'll be trying this again though. It was so easy! The roasted cherry tomatoes went wonderfully with the pork and the roasted cauliflower.

So you see, I share with you my successes and my disappointments. Anybody got a great but easy pork chop recipe?

Salade au Chèvre Chaud

One of the simplest and most pleasing things in life is to eat this salad. As a person known to be suspicious of all things lettuce-y, it took me awhile to warm up to the idea of this salad since I was also skeptical of goat cheese. It shows up on almost every café menu and Paul always ordered it so I thought I'd give it a try last year. Having pleasantly discovered that goat cheese is one of the finer things in life, I can now recommend to you this oh-so-French salad. If you've ever thought French titles sound more elegant than English ones, Salade au Chèvre Chaud vs. Salad with Hot Goat Cheese is a fine example.

This salad consists just of mixed greens in a light mustard vinaigrette, topped with small rounds of goat cheese that have been placed on bread slices and broiled until warm. Think of it as a green salad with goat cheesy croutons. A delicious first course and one I crave.

Salade au Chèvre Chaud

4 (½-inch thick) slices goat cheese, from a log (or individual crottin de chèvre, cut in half horizontally)
2-3 cups mixed greens, something sturdy

4 slices country bread or baguette

handful of walnuts, toasted and broken in pieces
3 Tbsp olive oil or walnut oil
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar (or partly balsamic vinegar)

1 tsp dijon mustard

1/4 shallot, minced

salt and pepper

Place slices of goat cheese on the bread slices and broil just until the cheese start to melt. Do not let it melt completely. Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk in the oil and add the shallots at the end. Drizzle the greens with the dressing and sprinkle walnuts around the plate. Top the salad with the goat cheese toasts. Et voila. Serves 2.

Last night for this dressing I used ½ sherry vinegar and ½ balsamic vinegar, mustard, shallot and oil, which was delicious. I think any basic vinaigrette would work. I had also intended to place the goat cheese on slices of olive bread, but alas, there was no olive bread to be found, so I'll have to get back to you about that. Also scattering one of the following on this salad would be tasty variation: dried cranberries, sun-dried tomatoes, or chopped fresh herbs like basil, tarragon or thyme.

April 10, 2006

The Miracle Worker: Chicken Pot Pie

As the weather has turned a bit warmer, I have tried to take advantage of being outside in the sun and feeling all excited about Paris again, as one usually does come April. Alas, there's this little voice in the back of my head distracting me with mournful thoughts about never cooking that Tartiflette and wondering if it’s too late to indulge in fondue one last time? The season has perhaps ended, but I can’t help but feel a loss for meals gone by. Will I have to wait almost another year before I can indulge in a dinner of solely cheese and starch? Say it won’t be so. To delay the inevitable salad-eating season from enveloping me in a pit of despair (perhaps an exaggeration…) I made something last weekend that helped me feel better about things.

Paul and I have both been sick this past weekend but I’ve been a trooper and pushed through my hacking cough and snotty nose to prepare some great meals, if I may say so myself. I was a woman on a mission and couldn’t be distracted from my comfort food. After all, once I got it through my foggy, medicated brain that -- if I was going to eat some delicious home cookin', I would have to do it myself -- I was sufficiently motivated to get in the kitchen. I don’t care if it’s 55 degrees and sunny outside. I have a stuffy nose and we're gonna eat this chicken pot pie!

Chicken pot pie is one of those meals where I don’t want any surprises. I just might cry if I cracked the crust on a pot pie only to see the likes of broccoli or zucchini within. I like my pot pies à la façon de Swanson. A saucy chicken stew with the comfy combination of carrots, peas, potatoes, and onions baked under a puff pastry crust. I feel better already.

Chicken Pot Pie

Buy a roasted chicken, shred about 3 cups for this recipe
1 puff pastry crust (pâte feuilletée)
4 small Yukon gold or white potatoes, peeled and diced into ½-1 inch pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
2 small white onions, chopped
1/3 cup frozen green peas
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp flour
3 cups good quality chicken broth
Splash of brandy or sherry
1/3 cup cream
3 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
½ tsp dried sage

Amounts are approximate. Here is the method:

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Sauté the onions, carrots, diced potatoes and dried sage for 5 minutes over medium heat. Cover the pot and let the veggies cook until tender, stirring frequently. The potatoes are done when a knife goes into them easily. You want all the vegetables fully cooked at this point. (You can boil the potatoes and/or carrots separately if you prefer them in larger pieces. I found it easier this time to just dice everything on the small side and sauté until fully cooked, stirring frequently and adding a little broth to keep it from sticking to the bottom.)

Sprinkle the flour over the veggies; stir and cook 2-3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the brandy or sherry, stirring to incorporate the flour, over medium heat. Add enough broth to achieve the desired gravy-like consistency and bring to a simmer. Stir in the shredded chicken and frozen peas. You want there to be gravy covering the chicken and veggies but not so much that it is swimming in it. Stir in the cream and fresh herbs. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed.

Pour this mixture into a greased 9-inch pie plate. Place the puff pastry crust over the top and fold in the edges, creasing and pressing it to the pan as you go. Use a fork to poke some holes in the crust before placing it in the oven to let some steam escape. (You can also use a regular pie crust.) Bake for about 30 minutes at 350-375 degrees F (180/190 degrees C). If you were a better planner than I, you could double the filling and freeze one portion for the next time you’re craving pot pie. Serves 6.

April 8, 2006

Strawberry Clafoutis

I knew I could trust Clotilde's recipe for Strawberry Clafoutis, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite this good! This was really delicious and I will use this recipe for all future clafoutis, I'm sure. Try it! You won't be disappointed. You can check out this and her other NPR submissions here.

I think I'm such a fan of this clafoutis because it was a bit lighter than my previous version, although really just about the same. Recipes don't vary all that much for this traditional French dessert, but Clotilde's addition of ground almonds and cornstarch add great flavor and a little more puff to this baked custard. Since I can buy ground almonds in the grocery store here, this was even easier for me to throw together by hand, but her food processor version seems really quick, too!

This is best served warm from the oven or at room temperature, sprinkled with some powdered sugar. My husband definitely gave me the "you're a goddess!" look after his first bite of this delicious dessert. I'm posting her recipe here to simply make it easier for me to look up in the future, but please do read her wonderful NPR article.

Strawberry Clafoutis

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
3 cups strawberries
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds, ground (I used 1/3 cup already ground almonds)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
pinch of salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 Tbsp light rum, optional

You can read Clotilde's food processor or blender directions here.

Grease an 8x8 pan with a bit of the butter, or 6 individual 1-cup ramekins. Melt the rest of the butter in the microwave. Spread out washed and cut strawberries in the pan or ramekins. You can cut them however you like; I halved the small ones and quartered the larger ones. Combine almond powder, flour, salt and cornstarch in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Add the milk, rum, and melted butter, whisking until smooth. Pour 1/2 of the egg mixture into the flour mixture and whisk to incorporate the liquid. Add the rest of the liquid, whisking until you have a smooth thin batter. Pour over the strawberries and bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for 40 minutes, or 30 minutes for ramekins. Serves 6. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

April 5, 2006

Baked Italian Sandwiches

Fulfilling a request from my good friend Emily is always a pleasure and I hope this sandwich will do the trick for her. Italian sandwiches can take many forms, but I was always a big fan of Italian subs back in the States that were loaded with salami, pepperoni, cheese and spicy peppers among other things. I was craving something like that when I made this sandwich the other night. Salami, Ham and Chorizo were my meats of choice (no pepperoni here) layered with fresh mozzerella slices and an olive, artichoke and red pepper salad I whipped up. Wrapped in foil and popped in the oven until the cheese melts, these will surely satisfy your spicy cheesy food lust.

The Olive Salad:

1/2 cup mixed marinated green and black olives (with herbs, if available), chopped
1 can artichoke hearts, drained, rinsed and chopped
2 red bell peppers, roasted and chopped (can use canned roasted red peppers)

splash of balsamic vinegar

splash of olive oil

1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil, or pinch of dried

pinch of dried oregano (can leave out if olives are marinated with herbs)

To roast the bell peppers: Drizzle peppers with a bit of olive oil and put under the broiler and broil until the skin starts to turn black. Rotate peppers until all sides are black. This takes maybe 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and place in a ziploc bag or paper bag for 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Remove blackened skin from peppers, it should slide off fairly easily. Chop the peppers and place in a bowl. Combine the chopped artichokes and olives with the red peppers and the rest of the ingredients. Mix well.

This makes enough for maybe 6 sandwiches, so leftovers could be served as a side dish or antipasto. Mix in some small cubes of fresh mozzerella and combine with arugula for a tasty salad. I used the leftovers as a pizza topping the next day. I love all the uses for this!

For the Sandwich:

1 Tbsp pesto
sliced ham
sliced salami

sliced chorizo or pepperoni
sliced fresh mozzerella or provolone, or combo of your choice

bread of your choice, I used a baguette, as usual.

Spread some pesto (or just a little oil and vinegar) on the bread. Layer on the meats and cheese. Top with large spoonfuls of the olive salad, pressing down with the top slice of bread to secure the sandwich. Wrap the sandwich in foil and bake for 10-15 minutes at 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) or until the cheese is melted and bread is a little crunchy.

Simple but heavenly, I assure you.

April 4, 2006

A Parfait? C'est Parfait!

It's springtime in Paris and how do I know? Strawberries invaded the markets last week and who am I to resist such temptation? After spending too many euros at the open market near the Ternes metro, (marché Poncelet-Bayen) Paul and I returned home with our loot, lusting after those perfectly ripe berries.

It's rare when you actually get to buy produce at its peak, and therefore, eat it at its best. For those occasions, you don't need to embellish your ingredients very much and this recipe worked perfectly for a simple dessert last week.

Strawberries with Honey-Vanilla Mascarpone Cream
recipe by Ina Garten

3 cups strawberries (any berries work, of course)
1 cup mascarpone cheese
4 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
3-4 Tbsp heavy cream
1/2 cup whipped cream (I didn't do this, just added more cream)

Cut up strawberries however you like. In another bowl, combine the cheese, honey, vanilla, and cream until smooth. Taste and add honey if you prefer something sweeter. Layer berries and mascarpone cream in a short goblet or other pretty glass. Grate some good chocolate on top and serve with a nice square of dark chocolate on the side, or perhaps a cookie. This and a short espresso will surely round out a lovely meal, even if it does get you a few Bree Van de Kamp comparisons. Screw 'em, you're a goddess. Serves 4.

A few notes: I remember mascarpone cheese being ridiculously expensive in the US. In France, any sort of cream cheese is expensive, but mascarpone is cheaper than other American-style cream cheese. Of course, the texture of mascarpone is luscious, but I think regular cream cheese would work fine. I'm sure you could even make this almost fat-free if so inclined. Also, I cut up the berries and made the mascarpone mixture in advance, keeping them separate in the fridge, then assembled the parfaits at the last minute.

More to come for these strawberries...stay tuned!