Maman’s Homesick Pie

24 10 2011

One of the perks of writing a blog is that occasionally, you get offers to receive review copies of books.  Generally these books have topics related to those of the blog, and writing a review is optional, but considering that a) free book! and b) free post topic!, it’s really a win-win situation.

Out this month, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, is a delightful read.  The author, Donia Bijan, was chef at Palo Alto’s L’Amie Donia for ten years.  Before that, she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris (under the same directrice as Julia Child!), gaining an internship at Fauchon and stagiare work at several of France’s starred restaurants.

Maman's Homesick Pie

The book outlines her journey from childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran to exile in the United States to France and finally making a home in the Bay Area.  Bijan’s mother, who sounds like an incredible woman, supports her daughter through the trials and tribulations of leaving loved ones, moving to new countries, and learning to cook.  The storytelling is warm and sympathetic.  Best of all, the recipes sprinkled throughout – two per chapter – are mouthwatering and make sense in the context of the story.  One of my pet peeves with these food memoirs that seem to be popping up everywhere these days is that the recipes feel like they’re just plopped in there with no rhyme or reason.  That is not the case with Maman’s Homesick Pie.  Each one belongs, from the simple childhood memories of Cardamom Tea, Pomegranate Granita, and Saffron Yogurt Rice with Chicken and eggplant to dutifully practiced French classics such as Duck à l’Orange, Ratatouille, and Rabbit with Mustard.

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Regional French Cuisine: Languedoc: Cassoulet

30 11 2009

It starts out so innocently...

Cassoulet.  Anthony Bourdain has been known to refer to it as “the single heaviest dish in the French repertoire.”  I can’t say I disagree with him.  (Although tartiflette certainly gives it a run for its money.)  Like so many other classic dishes, there are many who claim to having invented cassoulet.  The three towns most adamant about their version being the “true” cassoulet are Castelnaudry, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.  Depending on who you ask, the meats used in the dish are pork (skin, belly, and/or sausage), duck or goose confit, and mutton.

Three fat sausages, sitting in the pan...

Everyone agrees that the dish contains white beans, and that it is named for a special cooking vessel, the cassole, which is shaped in such a way as to increase the amount of delicious crust that forms on top.  After consulting a handful of recipes, notably those from Paula Wolfert and Bourdain and Ruhlman, I drew up an outline of how I would be going about the cassoulet.

I inadvertently sent Nick on a wild goose chase for Toulouse sausages, which were nowhere to be found on Sunday morning.  Finally he just asked a butcher for a sausage he could put in cassoulet, and came home with three beautiful, handmade links and a few thick slices of pork belly.

While the beans simmered in a mixture of veal stock and water with an oignon piqué and some thyme, I trimmed the pork belly and threw the skin and bony bits in with the beans.  The rest I chopped into lardons which I started cooking over low heat in a good layer of duck fat.  When they were nice and crisp, I moved them to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain and began browning the sausages.  After that, the duck confit went in to crisp the skin (for snacking purposes) and to warm through (to make the shredding step easier).  Then, I drained off most of the fat, reserving it for later, and added some diced onions and carrots to the pot to pick up the fond that had formed.  The vegetables softened and the bottom of the pot now clean, several cloves of garlic jumped in to join the party.  Meanwhile, I drained the tender-but-not-yet-fully-cooked beans, reserving that liquid as well.  The vegetables and the crisped lardons went in with the beans, and I was finally ready to start assembling.

Easy as 1-2-3
1. Beans, Sausage, 2. Beans, Duck Confit, 3. More Beans

First a layer of fat, then beans, then hunks of sausage, followed by more beans, the shredded duck confit, and the rest of the beans to top it off.  Between each layer I sprinkled salt and drizzled a bit more fat.  At the end, I ladled the bean cooking liquid into the very full Dutch oven until I could see the level was just below the top of the beans.  And into the oven my cassoulet went.

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Treasures of the Languedoc

25 11 2009

Sepia tone makes everything look classy.

I couldn’t possibly do Languedoc month without talking about the wine.  There is as much, if not more, acreage in the Languedoc devoted to the growing of grapes and production of wine as in Bordeaux.  Some of my very favorite French wines are from the Languedoc, including Fitou (rare, but if you find a bottle, pick it up, you won’t be sorry), Corbières, and Minervois.  The wines of the region generally use a similar blend of grapes as is used in the Rhône valley, heavy on the Syrah, Mouvèdre, Carignane, and Grenache.  The reds are fruity yet bold, with enough structure to make them worth lingering over, and usually very food-friendly, as well.  The best part?  They’re also some of the least expensive French wines!  Chalk it up to a lack of name recognition, but you really get a lot of bang for your buck when buying wines from the Languedoc.

Another important product of the Languedoc is rice.  The majority of rice grown in France is along the coast of the Languedoc, particularly in the marshy Camargue near the Rhône river delta.  Camargue is also an important source of France’s salt.

Sel Gros de Camargue

I usually use sel gros de Camargue in my cooking, its crystals being roughly the same size as Kosher salt.  It is slightly moist though, which gives me a feeling of indulgence – the stuff feels a lot more expensive than it is (around 1 euro a kilo).  Of course, where there’s salt, there’s fleur de sel.

Fancy finishing salt

Fleur de sel is the crunchy, extra-white “flowers” that form on the top of the regular sea salt crystals under the right conditions.  It’s a great finishing salt – try sprinkling it over a steak or salad just before serving, or even on bread with butter if you don’t have the butter with the salt crystals built in.

And now for an update on the duck confit.  Last week, I rinsed and dried the duck legs while I melted all the duck fat in the house.  There was a minor duck fat-related tragedy when I opened one of my three (!) jars and discovered that mold had sprouted inside.  I set it aside, and to make up for the missing fat – I wanted to make sure the legs would be amply covered in fat as they cooked – I added a bit of lard.  The smell of the garlicky duck as the confit did its thing for three hours was insanely good.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make one giant batch of this to save all winter – I wouldn’t mind filling my house with that smell every month.  Or every week, for that matter.

Duck legs, post-confiting

Now the confit, legs, fat, and all, is resting in the bottom of my fridge, waiting for the Thanksgiving hoopla to be over so I can turn it into cassoulet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





Trotter Gear and Duck Confit

17 11 2009

As part of my continuing infatuation with Fergus Henderson, I have made and cooked with his Trotter Gear recipe from Beyond Nose to Tail.  And I wrote all about it for the fabulous Nose to Tail at Home.  Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

Chicken and Bacon Pie... er, sort of.

How did I get from pig’s feet to this tasty meat pie?  You’ll have to click over to my guest post to find out.

* * * * *

Speaking of preserved meats, I believe I mentioned that it was my goal to make cassoulet for Languedoc month.  I left out the part where I planned to make my own duck confit.  Well, the process has begun.  Using an amalgam of recipes from Robuchon and Ruhlman (what’s with the five-hour difference in cooking time, guys?), I have rubbed three duck legs with a mortar-and-pestled mixture of coarse sea salt, black peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves, and garlic.

Neither R nor R told me to do this, but it seemed like a good idea.

Now I have to wait two days to cover the legs in more duck fat and cook them ever so slowly until they just about fall apart.  It’s going to be tough, but the kitchen now smells like garlic and bay, and that’s never a bad thing.

Soak it up, little duckies

Originally published on Croque-Camille.





L’Ambassade d’Auvergne

19 01 2009

Last week, in honor of a friend’s birthday, a group of us had the pleasure of dining at one of my favorite restaurants in Paris: L’Ambassade d’Auvergne.  Having been there a couple of times before (I celebrated my own birthday there last year and Nick and I also went there on our honeymoon) I knew to expect great service, delicious regional cuisine, and a cozy, country-inn atmosphere.  Situated in an old house near the Centre Pompidou, which I’m sure it predates, the decor is homey and inviting.  Exposed beams embellish the ceiling while ham legs and copper pots adorn the walls.  We were seated at a large,  sturdy wooden table that would have been right at home in a grand farmhouse or rustic castle, beneath a portrait of an old man who the maître d’ claimed was his grandfather.  (He also told us that the painting was watching us to make sure we cleaned our plates.)

The apéritif menu has plenty of choices, but most of us couldn’t resist ordering the vin de rhubarbe.  It lived up to its intrigue.  Sweet-tart with the distinct aroma of fresh rhubarb, it made an excellent pre-dinner drink.  We ordered our appetizers, but before they arrived we were treated to a plate full of gougères made with Fourme d’Ambert.  They were good, but I think a stronger-flavored cheese might have made for a more impressive nibble.  I also selected a bottle of red Saint-Pourçain wine, which our waiter deemed an excellent choice.  Saint-Pourçain is a tiny wine-producing region in the northern part of Auvergne.  Currently it has V.D.Q.S. status, which means that if they can uphold the standards set so far by the region, they will be granted A.O.C. status in the future.  The wines tend to be light and fruity, which is a good foil to the rich, hearty cuisine of the region.

When the first course arrived, we realized that almost all of us had picked the same thing: the salade tiède de lentilles du Puy.

A heaping bowl of warm lentil salad

I have mentionedthis salad before, though I don’t think I explained that it is traditional Auvergnat dish and employs the famous lentille verte du Puy, which has A.O.C. status and its own official website!  They’re great in just about any preparation, but the salade tiède really emphasizes their unique texture and hearty flavor.  Combined with lardons, shallot, goose fat, and a wallop of Dijon mustard, the lentils at l’Ambassade d’Auvergne were met with enthusiasm by the whole table.  As a bonus, since the salad is mixed to order (they do it tableside if you’re a smaller group) they leave the bowl on the table so you can feel free to help yourself to seconds, as if the three enormous quenelles the waiter has already dolloped on your plate aren’t enough.  Anyone at the table who didn’t order it is encouraged to have some as well.

Vol-au-Vent of Duck Hearts

The lone holdout at our table was Nick, who, being an adventurous eater, wanted to try the special: feuilleté aux coeurs de canard.  Duck hearts in puff pastry.  I had a bite and it was quite tasty.  The hearts were meaty and full-flavored while the puff pastry was as buttery and flaky as any I’ve had.

Between the appetizers and the main courses, another freebie appeared before us.  This time it was house-made terrine de campagne, a rustic, chunky-textured take on pâté.  (When I’ve dined here before, I’ve never gotten the between-course snacks – must be a benefit of coming with a large group.)  For the main event, the table was split evenly among those who chose aligot with duck, those who  selected the aligot with sausage, and those who opted for the stuffed cabbage mille-feuilleAligot is one of my absolute favorite Auvergnat dishes.  Potatoes, cheese, and garlic, beaten to a smooth, stretchy purée, it is comfort food with a fun kick.

The famous aligot (pictured here with duck)

Normally when you order aligot at L’Ambassade d’Auvergne, they perform an elaborate tableside mixing-and-stretching routine, which we didn’t get to see a lot of this time.  I’m guessing that the large amount of potatoes required by our table was best left to the kitchen.  We still got a mini-demonstration from our waiter before it was artfully spooned out onto our plates.  I went with the duck breast this time, which came out perfectly medium-rare.  I’ve had the sausage, which is probably more traditional, on previous visits, and can attest to its meaty goodness.  Just like with the lentil salad, extra aligot is offered to everyone at the table.

As for the stuffed cabbage, it couldn’t have looked more different from my attempt a few weeks ago.

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Le Marcab

24 11 2008

A table at Le Marcab

I found a new restaurant!  Or, to be more accurate, Nick found it.  Not far from Pierre Hermé’s boutique in the quiet 15th arrondissement, Le Marcab opened for business a little over a week ago.  Upon viewing the menu posted outside, and the chic décor inside, Nick thought it might be worth checking out. 

The tempting menu posted outside Le Marcab

So when we found ourselves in the neighborhood on a recent weeknight, we wanted to see if this place would live up to its potential.

Like sitting on a giant gold couch.

Stylishly decorated in tones of gray and gold, the dining room feels opulent yet welcoming.  The banquette, which takes up one entire wall of the restaurant, whimsically evokes an oversized, baroque couch.  Since Le Marcab had only opened a few days before, we were the only people there, but we didn’t let that daunt us.  The service was as polite and timely as any of my better dining experiences in Paris, and the restaurant, on the whole, shows the kind of attention to detail you would see in any top-tier establishment.

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Duck Dinner, Revisited

7 11 2008

Now that the weather has turned decisively cold, I find myself craving duck again.  Since I was so pleased with the results of my Winter Duck Dinner, and because Nick was so excited to see Brussels sprouts reappear at the market, I thought I’d do a rehash for Autumn.

Yet another photo of caramelized onions

On the same market trip, I found a guy selling baskets of red onions for a euro a pop.  For some reason, red onions are normally about three times the price of their less-stunningly colored relatives, so I jumped on the deal.  Once the onions have been caramelized, I’m not sure if there’s that much of a flavor difference between varieties, but Iove the color of deeply caramelized red onions.

Come here, you tasty little cabbages!

As before, the Brussels sprouts were seared over high heat in duck fat and combined with caramelized onions.  I added the last of the fresh sage, mainly just to use it up, but it turned out to complement the sprouts beautifully.  I’ve decided this recipe is too good to keep to myself, so look for it after the photo.

Rounded out with an apricot-based pan sauce and a pile of roasted potatoes and carrots, the Fall take on the Duck Dinner was every bit as fulfilling as the Winter version.

Fall Duck Dinner - photo by Nick

Brussels Sprouts with Caramelized Onions

 

Even if you think you don’t like Brussels sprouts, give this recipe a try.  Allowing them to brown a bit deepens their flavor, which is enhanced by sweet-and-savory caramelized onions.  Sage brings autumnal warmth to the dish and embellishes the earthiness of the sprouts, but the dish is equally good without it.  You could serve this with duck or game, and it may even be a surprise hit on the holiday dinner table.

 

2 Tbsp. butter

3 small red onions, thinly sliced (White or yellow onions will also work.)

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp. sherry vinegar

2 Tbsp. duck fat (Bacon fat would be good, too.  Olive oil is acceptable in a pinch.)

500 g/1 lb. Brussels sprouts

2 Tbsp. fresh sage, thinly sliced (optional)

 

  1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are deeply caramelized, about an hour or so.  Deglaze the pan with the sherry vinegar and scrape the onions out into a bowl.  Set aside.  (This can be done ahead of time and stored in an airtight container in the fridge.)
  2. While the onions are cooking, trim the root ends from the Brussels sprouts and chop them (the sprouts, not the ends) into small pieces.
  3. Wipe out the pan and add the duck fat.  Heat over high heat and throw in the chopped Brussels sprouts.  Let them sit still a few minutes to brown, then season with salt and pepper and stir.  Allow a few more minutes of browning time, add the caramelized onions and sage (if you’re using it) and toss to combine.  Reduce the heat to medium and cook until heated through.  Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.

 Serves 4.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.








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