Seasonal Cooking, Holiday Baking

26 12 2012

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!  I hope you’ve already had a lovely long weekend with family and friends, and that you’ll have a few more occasions to celebrate the end of this year, the Winter Solstice, or anything else that gives you a chance to eat and drink with your loved ones.

I feel like I haven’t been doing as much cooking as I normally do this time of year – in lieu of planning elaborate meals, I’ve been focused on relaxing and reflecting, simmering big pots of stew to be eaten over several days.  Oh, I’ve baked some cookies and whipped up some eggnog, but instead of my customary Christmas foie gras, I got a capon roast from the butcher, neatly tied with a chestnut-and-liver-sausage filling.  All I had to do was sear it on the stove and let it finish roasting in the oven for a nearly effortless Christmas Eve meal.

And yet, that doesn’t mean I haven’t scored some hits all the same.  I’ve been noodling around with the McCormick Flavor Forecast, and found a couple of great ways to incorporate my very favorite of their proposed flavor combinations: Cider, Sage, and Molasses.  Of all the options, this one seemed to me the most supremely seasonal, with its earthy-herbal sage, bittersweet molasses, and tangy apple cider.  I toyed around with some pear cider ideas, but the apple ideas came out on top.

So I have two recipes to share with you today. One a lentil salad – we ate it once with pan-fried sausages, and finished it off with our capon roast on Christmas Eve; the other an indulgent bar cookie whose touch of sage and dark molasses make it distinctly grown-up (there are plenty of other cookies for the kids, anyway).

Here’s to a year-end filled with love, happiness, and delectable eats!

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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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Eating Locally

6 04 2010

The weekend before last, our neighbors Celine and Jesse invited Nick and I to accompany them to a cheese and wine festival being held in Coulommiers, about an hour’s train ride from Paris.  (Why is it that we’ve lived in this apartment for two years and only just now make friends with the neighbors?  Granted, they only just moved in this year, but still it’s a bummer to have to move now that we have friends in the building.)  Anyway, we all had a great time at the festival, tasting wines, cheeses, and an awful lot of sausage considering it was a cheese festival.  One of the coolest things about this particular fair was that many of the companies represented came from the immediately surrounding area.  We tasted hard apple cider from Île-de-France, which was good enough that we bought a case, and were amused to hear that many French people don’t accept their cider because it’s not from Normandy or Brittany.

One of the last tables we visited was selling bags of locally-grown legumes and flour.  I couldn’t resist, and bought a bag each of brown lentils, green lentils, and freshly milled flour.  I explained to the salesguy that I was really interested in cooking with local ingredients, and that I like knowing where my food comes from.  Upon hearing my accent, he asked me where I was from.  When I responded “Les Etats-Unis,” he quickly replied (in French) “Well, you’re not very local, are you?”  Touché.  I explained that I live in Paris now, and he threw in a free bag of split peas.  Hooray!

split peas from Brie

I love split peas, in part because split pea soup is so easy to make, yet so filling and tasty.  So a few days later, I boiled up the peas with a smoky Alsatian sausage (also purchased at the festival – and not exactly local, but still only 2 hours away on the TGV) and some carrots and leeks (which came from the Loire Valley via my CSA).

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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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Fauchon, or, I May Have a Problem

27 02 2008

I’ll admit it.  I’ve been to Fauchon a few times this week.  It’s nice to get out and see a different part of the city, and the 8th is a far cry from the 19th.  Fauchon is situated on the gourmet food end of the Place de la Madeleine, the other end mostly being occupied by major fashion houses such as Dior, Chanel, Gucci, and Ralph Lauren.  Ladurée is positioned among these heavy hitters and has a line out the door (I assume mostly tourists).  I for one, when I cannot hold out any longer and must try some of those famous cream puffs, will be shopping at the Ladurée inside the Printemps department store – fewer tourists and more affordable shopping – everyone wins!  But back to Fauchon, situated near Hédiard and La Maison de la Truffe.  They sell all kinds of gourmet products, from jam and coffee to caviar and foie gras, not to mention their extensive wine selection.  But the real draw for me is, of course, the pastry.

Chocolate Cake    Tarte Carré Citron (Square Lemon Tart)

Chocolate-Praliné Cake and Megève

These are some of the full-size desserts gracing the display window.  I love the golden chocolate shards on the chocolate cake – so elegant!  And that lemon tart is so streamlined and modern!  Anyway, one of the things Fauchon is most famous for is the éclair.  I have never seen less than five different types in their retail case, and this week was no different.

Fauchon’s Eclairs

I don’t know how well you can see from this picture, but the second row from the left is labeled “Eclair Smoking.”  There is no explanation as to what goes into an “éclair smoking,” but it sure doesn’t sound appetizing.  And at 8 euro a pop, I may leave that one a mystery for now.

One of my visits happened to coincide with lunchtime, so I thought I’d check out Fauchon’s variety of salads and sandwiches, packaged to eat there or to go.  I chose a lentil and sausage salad to go (if I’m going to have a salad for lunch, it had better be hearty, you know?) and stopped by the newly inaugurated (in 2007) boulangerie department for a baguette.  Naturally, I had to tear into it on the Métro ride home, and discovered some of the best bread I’ve had in Paris, a town where good bread is ubiquitous to the point of being cliché.

Fauchon’s Baguette, torn to show awesome interior texture

Dorée to perfection, with a crisp crust and chewy (in the best way)  open crumb.  Fantastic.  It was hard not to devour the whole thing with butter, but I didn’t want to spoil my lunch.

Lentil Salad    Tiny Roll

Which thoughtfully included a little roll – these French and their bread!  Lentil salad is quickly becoming one of my favorite dishes.  The earthiness and caviar-like texture of the lentils, the richness of the charcuterie (be it lardons, sausage, or some other delicious pork product), the freshness of the onions and parsley (and in this case apples and pears as well), and the creaminess of the vinaigrette combine to form something greater than the sum of its parts.  Restaurants often serve it warm, mixed tableside, which is a real treat.  Fauchon’s lentil salad did not disappoint, and the whole wheat roll was a nice complement with its slight sweetness.  However, I was almost as enamored with the size of the roll as with the flavor.  Check it out:

See? It’s tiny!

Such a perfectly formed little bread, and so tiny!

And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for…

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