Fennel Focaccia

29 09 2008

It kind of looks like an onion, with celery growing out the top, and dill instead of leaves.

I must admit, I was pretty excited when I saw the ingredients for this month’s Foodie Joust: Fennel, Dairy, and Parsley.  I’ve never been a fan of licorice or anise-flavored anything, but sometime over the last couple of years I fell in love with fresh fennel.  The anise-y-ness is mild enough to be tolerable, and it evolves into a subtle sweetness when the fennel is cooked.  So I immediately jotted down four or five recipe ideas – some old favorites, some new inventions – and ran them by Nick.  He wanted to try the focaccia with caramelized fennel, parsley, and goat cheese, so I started working on a focaccia recipe.

Dimpled focaccia dough

I have a little bit of starter going in my fridge for bread-baking purposes, and I thought it would give my focaccia the character that so many recipes seem to lack.  I have also determined that the potato in focaccia dough is by no means optional.  It gives the finished bread an unmistakable texture and helps to keep it moist, too.  And it turns out that focaccia is pretty fun to make.  Sure, it takes a while, but you can use all that rising time to prep your toppings, cook dinner, answer emails, do a little online shopping… or whatever it is you like to do in idle moments at home.


For this recipe, I essentially braised the fennel:  I sliced it thin, browned it in olive oil, then threw in some white wine and tarragon vinegar and let it cook down until the liquid was gone and the fennel was tender.  I figured the caramelization process could finish in the oven.  As for the parsley, I chopped it up with the fronds from the fennel andmade a sort of paste with a little olive oil.  And the cheese?  Well, I picked up an awesome little fresh raw-milk chèvre at the market.  It had a much fuller and more distinctly goat-y flavor than your average fresh goat cheese, and it stood up well to the bold flavors imparted by the fennel and the parsley.

So head on over to the Leftover Queen’s forum and vote for me!  (The voting should start on Thursday, October 2nd, and ends on the 5th.)  Keep reading for the recipe…

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More Tomatoes!

5 09 2008

On the way home from work the other day, as I walked past the corner fruit-and-vegetable seller, I noticed he was arranging tomatoes for his sidewalk display.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that they were some very cool, dark green kumato tomatoes, and I picked one up.  The man asked me if I was familiar with these tomatoes.  I responded in the affirmative and he informed me that these were very good.  So I picked up another one.  And another one.  Soon my hands were full, but the man had the foresight to go and get me a bag, which I filled to my heart’s content.  Two and a half euros later, I was the proud owner of an almost- kilo of kumato tomatoes.

It was sunny outside my kitchen window that day.

I’ll admit this wasn’t a completely random purchase.  I did have a recipe in mind when I saw them – Clotilde’sTomato Tarte Tatin recipe from her book, Chocolat & Zucchini.  (I have the French version, but I assume it’s in the English versions, too.)  I have a hard time leaving recipes alone, however, so I riffed on the idea of a roasted tomato tart baked with a crust on top, Tatin-style.

Awaiting their destiny

I love the way roasting brings out the deep sweetness and enhances the complexity of fruits and vegetables.  And I’ve done some good things with roasted tomatoes in the past.  These particular tomatoes, probably due to their being all squished together in my tart dish, took a lot longer to start getting roast-y than I anticipated.  I eventually had to very carefully pour out some of the excess liquid from the dish so that we could have dinner before 11 pm.  (Not that that’s entirely abnormal in France, but my alarm goes off at 5 am.)

While the tomatoes were roasting, I smeared a round of puff pastry with the contents of a whole head of roasted garlic which I had made a day or two before.  The pastry was store bought because I was feeling too lazy to make my own pâte brisée, but I think I’ll make the effort next time.  Even the supposedly all-butter pastry has a weird chemical taste that has no place on my dinner plate.

The roasted garlic was good...

Anyway, once the tomatoes began to dry a bit, I dolloped fresh goat cheese over them, like so:

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The French Make Pizza, Too!

2 06 2008

It goes by the name “pissaladière,” and is a traditional Provençal snack.  Like any regional recipe, there is disagreement as to what goes into a “real” pissaladière, though I think that all would agree is is made with a sturdy pizza-like crust and caramelized onions.  (No floppy extra thin crust here.)  Other traditional toppings include anchovies, niçoise olives, thyme, tomato, and garlic.

The cool thing about having extra calzone dough in the freezer is that it gives you the ability to make off-the-cuff pizzas, as long as you remember to thaw the dough a few hours in advance.  (You could also put it in the fridge in the morning, if that’s better for your schedule.)  When the time comes, roll out the dough, add your toppings of choice and bake.

Being in France, and finding myself with a handful of onions that needed to be used, I decided to go the pissaladière route.  I started by caramelizing the onions in lard with a pinch of salt and some fresh thyme.  If the pan started to get dry, I just poured in a little white wine to moisten the onions and let them continue cooking to a nice, deep brown color.

Roasted tomatoes and garlic

Meanwhile, I thought that some roasted tomatoes would make a good addition, so I sliced the one rather lackluster tomato I had and placed it in a baking dish.  I sprinkled the slices with salt and pepper and drizzled them with olive oil.  Then I thought that some garlic would punch up their flavor even more, so I threw in a couple of cloves and topped it all off with a sprig of thyme.  Into the oven went the pan while the onions slowly caramelized on the stove.  The added bonus of this step was that the oven was already preheated when I was ready to bake the pissaladière.

Assembly of the dish took no time at all.  First I smeared the roasted garlic onto my rolled-out dough (pissaladière is usually rectangular in shape, which is actually easier than a round pizza, in my opinion).  Then I spread the onions evenly over the whole thing.  Next came the tomatoes and a smattering of goat cheese because, well, I had it on hand, it is delicious with all the aforementioned ingredients, and I wanted something a little heartier than a straight onion and tomato tart.  I baked it on a sheet pan lined with parchment and sprinkled with cornmeal to prevent sticking (which probably wouldn’t have been an issue, but it never hurts to play it safe).


Even easier than the calzone, and it made an excellent light (well, except for the lard) meal which we finished off with a simple green salad.  I’m sure I’ll end up doing something similar with the last ball of dough, and then making a point of keeping such dough on hand for quick dinners.

A Picnic by the Canal

8 05 2008

Given the incredible weather we’ve been having this week, I decided it was too nice last night to have dinner inside.  I won’t go into the various unfruitful market trips I embarked on before realizing that most of what I needed was in my fridge, instead I present to you:

Spanish-inspired picnic salads

Arugula and Piquillo pepper salad with Chorizo and goat cheese in Sherry vinaigrette.  I packed the salads into individual serving-sized Tupperware (What do you call non-Tupperware brand Tupperware?  Airtight plastic container just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) and placed them in a bag with a bunch of grapes, a baguette tradition, a bottle of rosé, and a couple of cookies.  Now that picnic season seems to be in full swing, we have a cupboard dedicated to picnic supplies: paper napkins, plastic utensils and cups are all at the ready for a last-minute weeknight picnic.  We took our dinner to the Canal St. Martin, a few blocks away and sat by the water alongside hundreds of Parisians who had had the same idea.

Bridge over the Canal St. Martin at dusk

We got there just as the sun was setting, so the temperature was just perfect.  We enjoyed our picnic and watched the sky slowly grow darker.

Crescent Moon over the Canal St. Martin

Nick got this photo of the crescent moon just above the buildings.  I love pictures taken at this hour of the evening, where the sky is still a brilliant blue but here on Earth it is already dark.  It reminds me of a Magritte painting.

So this is what people are talking about when they wax nostalgic about Paris in the Spring!

Fish Stock Use #2: Trout with Polenta

29 04 2008

We woke up on Sunday to a gloriously sunny morning, perfect for hunting and gathering at the market.  When we got down there, Nick spotted some trout and decided that was what he wanted for dinner.  We learned the French word for “gutted” or “cleaned”in reference to a fish: vidé, as in “emptied.”  Good to know.  But how to prepare it?  Sometimes I find it hard to make decisions like these at the market, with so much going on around me.  All the smells and sights and sounds cause me to go into sensory overload, and my brain kind of shuts down.  The only cure is to find a wine booth that gives out samples. 

Eventually, after wandering the aisles and perusing the wares, we came up with a goat cheese and piquillo pepper stuffed trout, served with fish stock polenta and tomato salad.  We thought the piquillo peppers would be easy to find at one of the Spanish/Portuguese specialty booths, but we were wrong.  At the first one, the conversation went something like this: (translations my own)

Me: (pointing to a bin of roasted peppers) Ces sont quel type de poivron? (What kind of peppers are these?)

Girl at counter: Buh… rouge.  (What are you color blind?  Red!)

Me: Ummm… je cherche les poivrons “piquillo.” Je ne connais pas le mot en français, je connais le mot espagnol. (I’m looking for piquillo peppers, I don’t know the French word, just the Spanish one.)

Guy at counter: Doyouspeakenglish?  English?

Me: Oui, mais… I’m looking for piquillo peppers.

Guy at counter: Hablas español? (Do you speak Spanish?)

Me: No.

And it went on like that.  Red is not a variety, people!  Anyway, we did end up finding some beautiful fresh peppers at one of the produce stands.  They smelled great, so we bought those to roast at home.  What were they called?  “Poivrons Rouges Espagnols.”  “Red Spanish Peppers.”   Arrrrgh!

Fresh roasted piquillo peppers

The tomatoes were no problem, as almost every stand had gorgeous coeur de boeuf  (beef heart) tomatoes.  Goat cheese was, of course, plentiful, but by the time we got around to looking for it, many of the booths had begun to close down.  We were turned down at one fromagier, where the woman told us the goat cheese was already put away.  End of story.  But we persevered, and found a nice little ball of fresh goat cheese at the Auvergnat cheese stand.

Coeurs de Boeuf

After all that, actually cooking the meal was a piece of cake.  I started with the tomato salad.  This is one of the easiest, tastiest things you can do with a tomato.  The better the tomato, the better the salad.  Just dice up some tomatoes, add sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a minced shallot, and some chopped fresh parsley.  Drizzle with good olive oil, toss, and serve at room temperature.

Easy, delicious tomato salad

On to the fish…

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Baking Extravaganza, Act IV

31 03 2008

A week or two ago, I was browsing Doughmonkey’s website to see what I was missing.  The Goat Butter Caramelized Apple Strudel struck a chord, and I knew I would be attempting my own version in the near future.  Because I like to play around with flavors, I wondered how a caramelized apple and goat cheese strudel would be, and decided it was worth a shot.

The first step, obviously, is caramelizing the apples.  I thought that nice thick slices, à la tarte tatin, would be best, so I peeled two apples (they were Braeburns, I believe) and cut each into eight wedges, removing the core as I went.  Meanwhile, I was melting butter and cassonade in a pan, so when the apples were prepped, they went straight into the hot butter/sugar mixture.

Apples before

I cooked them over medium-low heat, turning them occasionally, until they were evenly browned on all sides.

Apples after

At this point I threw in another tablespoon or so of butter, to slow down the cooking and bump up the buttery flavor (let’s not forget the title of the dessert that inspired this one).  I let them continue browning until they were deep golden brown in color, then removed the pan from the heat and let them cool.

I wasn’t about to try to make strudel dough on my own, but I know from experience that it is similar enough to phyllo dough that the latter can easily substitute.  At the store I found phyllo without a problem, and next to it were packages of brick paper (feuilles de brick), a thin pastry dough which I believe is North African in origin.  It is quite similar to phyllo dough, but slightly easier to work with and perhaps even closer in texture to the strudel dough I was trying to emulate.  since brick paper is sold in round sheets, I had to figure out what shape I wanted the final dessert to be.  I decided that triangles would be easy and less likely to involve a huge mess than a roll- or beggar’s purse- shaped pastry was.  So I cut the circle of dough in half, brushed it with butter (and when I say “brushed,” I mean “smeared with my fingers,” since I don’t have a pastry brush yet), and folded it in half lengthwise.  I placed two pieces of caramelized apple at one end of the resulting strip and topped them with a dollop of fresh goat cheese.

Step 1

Then I folded it up, spanakopita-style, into a neat little triangle.  Note: this was just the right amount of filling – any more, and I would have had real trouble getting the dough to fold all the way around it.

Apple triangle, unbaked

I debated frying them in butter on the stove, but ended up opting for the less greasy (and cleaner) baking method for cooking my apple-goat cheese triangles.

Apple triangle - baked

They came out smashingly.  The crisp pastry surrounding the buttery-soft caramelized apples and the gently tangy goat cheese worked really well together.  We ate them unadorned, and enjoyed them quite a bit, but an apple gastrique sauce and a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream would have pushed these babies over the top.

Spring Pasta Supper

25 03 2008

Now that it is officially springtime (Paris in the spring being more cloudy and rainy than not, so far), new fruits and vegetables are beginning to show up at the market.  The pumpkins, oranges, and pears are slowly but surely being replaced by peas, spring onions, and Garriguettes (amazingly fragrant French strawberries).  Nearly every stand at the market is now carrying fava beans, which I thought would make a perfect meat-free dinner for Good Friday.  To say that fava beans are time-consuming to prepare is true, but misses the point.  If you have some good music or good company, the time spent shelling and peeling goes by quickly, and the reward is totally worth it.

Fava beans

First you have to take the beans out of their pods, which have a foamy padding on the inside to protect the fragile beans – looks comfy!  From these pods, I ended up with this many beans:

Shelled Favas

They look ready to cook at this point, but no, each bean must be stripped of its bitter, pale green skin.  This task is made a little easier by blanching the beans first.  I got a large pot of water boiling and added the beans.  After a minute or two (just long enough to soften and loosen the skins a bit) I drained them and ran them under cold water to stop the cooking and cool them off enough to handle.  Then I began peeling.  It may seem to be a tedious task, but I didn’t mind, I just kept my iPod rocking and my eyes on the prize.  And here they are, all ready to go, for real this time:

Peeled Favas

Because it takes so much time to get so few usable beans, I decided to stretch them out in a pasta dish with tomatoes and goat cheese.  I boiled some pasta and added the favas for the last couple minutes to heat them through.  After draining I returned the pasta and beans to the pot and gently stirred in some halved cherry tomatoes and crumbled fresh goat cheese.  This needs something else, I thought, but what?  Then I remembered how the mint at the market smelled so delicious that I had to buy it – if mint and peas are a match made in heaven, why not fava beans?  Into the pot went the freshly chopped mint, along with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Fava Pasta

Other than the fava bean prep, this was a really quick meal to put together.  As predicted, the mint and fava beans complemented each other beautifully, with the goat cheese and tomatoes lending their support in a non-scene-stealing way.  I make variations of this dish all summer long, and I love the way the goat cheese melts and coats the pasta with a tangy, creamy sauce.  And it was nice to have something light before our upcoming Easter gluttony-fest.  (Don’t worry, you’ll see.)


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