November 20, 2009


I KNOW HOW TO COOK, a French cookbook by Ginette Mathiot  

This ‘’bible’’ of French home cooking since the early thirties is finally translated and nicely adapted to suit the needs of the English-speaking average cook Stéphane, My grandmother, my aunts, my mother were all very good cooks and I learned a lot from watching them in their respective kitchens in both Geneva, Switzerland and in the various French cities where we lived in the fifties. But I have never seen them looking at a cookbook. Their knowledge of the ‘’cuisine’’ was transmitted from generation to generation. As far as I am concerned, I knew how to cook a few essential dishes when I was a student like a steak, an omelet, sautéed potatoes, or pasta. But it was not until we got married in Paris in the sixties, that your mother and I started to cook. In fact we had so little time in Paris and such a small kitchen, that our cooking and entertaining was relatively limited. It was not until January 1970, when we moved to Chicago and got a large kitchen that we started to entertain friends and colleagues during long and elaborate dinner parties, which implied cooking more complex and varied dishes. Your mom, who turned out to become a very good French cook, had an old copy of Julia Child’s first masterpiece and also had brought her small book of Provençal recipes written by her Provençal cooking class teacher in Aix-en-Provence where she was studying when she came from the U.S. in 1961. Me, I had only brought from Paris a very modest pocketbook version of Ginette Mathiot’s LA CUISINE POUR TOUS published in1955. I still consult it from time to time even though it is falling apart and is covered with handwritten notes, and seriously stained. It contains all the basic recipes and cooking tricks that any French home cook should know.

I had bought that book because it was a best-seller and it was cheap. At that time I could not afford Ginette Mathiot’s most famous big book, JE SAIS CUISINER that was offered to practically every new French bride between 1932 when it was published for the first time and the late seventies. Since that time it was re-edited and amplified many times and more than 6 million copies have been sold. During my last trip to Paris in September, I have seen many copies on my favorite bookstore shelves. It still sells like cupcakes.

Ginette Mathiot, who was born in 1907 and passed away in 1998, was essentially a teacher even though she published more than 30 books. She taught not only cooking, but also what I would call ‘’home management’’ in public schools for many years. She ended her career as the General Inspector for House Cooking and Management for the French Ministry of National Education. She was rewarded with the medal of Officer of the Legion of Honor. The reason for her immense popularity is very obvious: She managed to calm down the anxieties of generations of French women who were very apprehensive about cooking home meals and feared the disapproval of their husbands, mothers in law, and guests, by explaining in very simple terms what they should know about making basic dishes, sauces, condiments, pastries, etc, as well as how to use cooking utensils and choose the right product at the market, as well as how to set the table.
Her motto was: Let’s simplify everything and suppress any info that is not essential to the preparation of a dish. The application of this principle is very obvious in the way she wrote her recipes that never contain anything more that what is important to know in order to be able to complete the task. In some ways she was sort of an anti-Julia Child who wanted every American home cook to be as well-versed in every food specialty as a French scholar would be, and therefore discouraged many readers who felt totally submerged by the over-abundance of information that she supplied for every bit of food to prepare.

Anyway, I had completely forgotten the existence of Ginette Mathiot when an American friend of mine, Shirley Baugher, presented me last week with a wonderful and unexpected birthday present: a copy of the recently published English version of Ginette Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner, I Know How To Cook
I was taken by surprised because I was completely ignorant of the fact that this book, published by Phaidon, (from England) had been released. But knowing Shirley, who is a very good cook herself and knows a few extra things about French cooking since she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, one of the most famous cooking schools in the world, I should not have been surprised. The shelves in her beautiful kitchen in Old Town in Chicago are literally filled with hundreds of cookbooks. It is almost an addiction. She has herself published a very nicely illustrated recipe book that is a compilation of her famous and sometimes less famous neighbors and friends in Old Town: ``A Taste of Our Old Town``.

I spent some time last week-end to go through the 975 pages of I KNOW HOW TO COOK and I have to admit that the English adaptation of that beautiful book is very well-done, and should encourage many American home cooks to try and prepare French dishes. I should mention at this stage that this enormous task of not only translating, but also adapting and modernizing its content to suit the abilities of any American housewife (or man), and modernizing it, has been accomplished by CLOTILDE DUSOULIER,with the assistance of a team of translators and editors. This French woman has delighted millions of English-speaking Internet visitors worldwide since 2003 with her famous blog ‘’Chocolate and Zucchini’. She started it when she was a computer software engineer based in MountainView, CA in Silicon Valley. She lived there 3 years and then went back to Paris where she published 2 best-sellers in English : Chocolate and Zucchini in 2007, and the marvelous ‘’Clotilde’s Edible Adventure in Paris’’. Clotilde Dusoulier therefore knows from her own "on site" experience what the American cook likes and can or cannot (and will not) do. And she is a very creative cook who loves to innovate with recipes that are bold and healthy at the same time. I have to admit that I have been a fan of her blog from the beginning.  

My first impressions:
On the plus side: This book is very easy to read because its print is very sharp and very black , on a good quality very white paper. Its typesetting is practically perfect and leaves lots of space between recipes. It keeps the essence of Mathiot’s original French recipes, but adapts them for Today’s busy contemporary cook and uses Anglo-Saxon measurements and descriptions of food components and utensils The 1400 recipes are very clearly organized in 15 distinct groups: Sauces and Basic recipes, Hors d’oeuvres, Milk, eggs, and cheese, soup, fish, meat, poultry, game , vegetables and salads, legumes rice and pasta, fruit, milk and egg desserts, ice creams, cakes and pastries, candies, preserves and drinks. The cuts of meat are described the British and (sometimes) American way, not the French way. But some Americans may not recognize some of the terms she uses that are very British. After all publishing house is English and it is quite obvious in some of the language used. But I understand that this book was published and edited for an English-speaking readership at large, meaning the U.K, Australia, New Zealand, etc, not solely American. The recipes cover a very wide spectrum of products and dishes from very old-fashioned like Garbure soup, ‘’Croquettes of calves’s sweetbreads’’, Rice puddding, or Eel ‘’matelote’’, to more traditional like Coq au vin, Fish quenelles, Bouillabaisse, and Norwegian omelet (a kind of baked Alaska). These chapters are preceded by a very useful glossary, description of herbs and flavoring agents, explanation of various cooking methods, utensils, wines, and a very interesting month by month chart of seasonal food products that you can use all year long. The last section offers recipes of well-known French and Foreign chefs both in France, the UK and the US. There are also some good practical pieces of advice about Table Setting, and Dining Etiquette Last but not least there is a very useful index at the end. Once again everything is very simply explained in plain English. The book contains several beautiful photos of various types of dishes.

On the Minus side: The recipes, in my opinion, are sometimes a bit too simplistic and cryptic for somebody who has absolutely no notion of what French cuisine and cooking is all about. Often it becomes obvious that the original version of this book has been written by a French woman assuming that all her readers (French women) have already a basic traditional French cuisine knowledge in their genes. The new American cook will sometimes have to do a lot of guessing work before figuring out how to move forward to the next step when trying to execute a preparation. Some American home cooks will certainly regret that there are no more precise step- by- step explanations on how to proceed with some recipes. The lack of technical ‘’how to’’ illustrations might be of concern to many users, especially for more unusual or complex preparations. The photos are too often blocked in one section instead being shown directly after the dish that has been described in the corresponding recipe.

As I said earlier some translations are perhaps too ‘’British’’ or still too ‘’French’’for the average American reader. Nobody on this side of the Atlantic knows what an "entrecôte'' (rib steak) is and would never call Veal chops in papillotes ''Veal chops in parcels'' (parchment paper) . The book cover is, at least for my own taste, rather ugly. I suppose it has been designed for the purpose of attracting younger readers. But the majority of drawings and illustrations are charming. I would have preferred more photos shot in various areas and restaurants in France. But altogether it is a very informative and useful book that fills a void that Julia Child had left open.

November 18, 2009

Crus du Beaujolais

Crus du Beaujolais: These very flavorful and quite distinguished red wines are unjustly unknown and underrated in the U.S. 

On November 19, forget about the overblown celebration of Beaujolais Nouveau, an often not very exciting unfinished wine, and open instead a good bottle of Morgon, Chiroubles, Julienas, or Moulin à Vent.

In June I had the good fortune to attend a very professionally organized wine tasting of “BEAUJOLAIS CRUS”, at the very pleasant wine shop and wine seminar center of JUST GRAPES located on West Washington Blvd. in Chicago. That event that was repeated in 2 other U.S. cities in 2009, Washington DC and New York City, is put together under the sponsorship of EXPRESSIONS D’ORIGINE, Domaines et Châteaux en Beaujolais, a trade and promotion association comprised of 14 privately-owned wine-growing estates located in the 10 Crus du Beaujolais AOC production areas.
I was very happy to participate in that event since it allowed me to get reacquainted in a very positive perspective with the wines of some of these ‘’crus’’ that I did not have many opportunities to taste over the last 10 years in Chicago. Most of them unfortunately are not very commonly found in local wine stores and shops.
A very different and much more complex and interesting wine that the ‘’ Beaujolais Nouveau’’ that Americans enjoy so much for no valid reason, which will be pour on Thursday November 19.
It is very unfortunate that the “Crus du Beaujolais” are relatively unknown by the American public at large since they are very flavorful, well made, and in any case gazillion times more interesting that the over-hyped and over-marketed ‘’Beaujolais Nouveau’’ that you find in every store and bistro in town every year, when it is released on the third Thursday of November after midnight.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a fresh,fruity, sometimes aromatic, wine but, for my own taste, it is deprived of any real personality and structure. It first appeared in French cafés and bistros after its production was approved by the French government in 1951. In the fifties and early sixties, it was quite amusing and charming to drink that ‘’new wine’’ pressed a few days after harvest time, from a small barrel or a glass jug located at the end of the bar. You would drink a glass while eating some ‘’charcuterie’’ or a piece of cheese, and it would be an occasion to chat and laugh with other regulars of the café in a merry and relaxed atmosphere.
That tradition started in the bistros and cafés of Lyon, Villefranche sur Saône, and of course in the nearby producing villages of the Beaujolais region. But pretty soon it became popular first in Paris and then in other large cities where the ‘’négociants’’ (wholesalers and brokers) of Beaujolais wines where commercially active.
In the early 50s you did not find Beaujolais Nouveau in its present bottled form in wine stores. And its consumption was limited to a few cities in France, in Geneva, Switzerland, that is close to Lyon, and whose citizens have loved Beaujolais for several generations, and a few cafes in Brussels, Belgium, and that was it.
In 1966 the famous NICOLAS company, that has hundreds of wine stores all over France, organized for the first time special ‘’Beaujolais Nouveau’’ events in its 250 Paris stores.
Pretty soon, the famous advertising slogan ‘’ Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé’’ was posted on the windows and counters of every café and wine shop of France.
That type of wine is made by wine-growers producing the regular appellation ‘’Beaujolais’’ in 72 villages of the Southern and Eastern portion of the Beaujolais region, and in lesser proportion by wine-growers of the appelation ‘’Beaujolais- Villages’’ located in 38 townships . These wines are sold with a ‘’Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau’’ label. 

It is in fact, like all the red Beaujolais wines, made exclusively from GAMAY NOIR à JUS BLANC grapes. The Nouveau is hand-harvested. The not-destemmed whole bunches of grapes are then macerated for a very short time, 4 or 5 days at the most. (‘’Beaujolaise’’ vinification is almost always done through carbonic maceration).
After a first fermentation, the juices drawn from the vats and those resulting from pressing are assembled, an put in vats for a second cycle of fementation. The vinification last about one month from harvest time.
The well-known “négociant’’ Georges Duboeuf built a large part of his reputation in the U.S. on that Beaujolais Nouveau, when in fact several of his ‘’crus du Beaujolais’’ wines are much better and more interesting to drink all year long
In fact I am sad to say that the craziness about Beaujolais Nouveau, which started in the U.S. in the mid-seventies and lasted until the mid-nineties, probably killed the reputation of Beaujolais in general and of Crus du Beaujolais in particular.
Many trade people started to wonder where all this “Nouveau” consumed from Melbourne to Tokyo and from Vancouver to Rio was coming from, since simple math could allow you to calculate that more of that mediocre stuff was drunk than the legally allowed production would permit.
Several scandals regarding dubious production,blending, and distribution methods, (the most infamous one touching Georges Duboeuf, the largest négociant of that area), that were revealed in the 80’s and 90’s, had a negative impact of the marketability of good Beaujolais and Crus made by serious small producers.

Even in France the consumption of Crus du Beaujolais has been on the downside for more the last 15 years and has suffered from that unjust drop in reputation and favor on the part of wine lovers.
To be honest the fact that some of them have become increasingly expensive at the retail level did not help them either.
And that’s a shame since Crus du Beaujolais are excellent wines that deserve the same respect as wines from the Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Loire, Alsace, Languedoc, Southwest, or Provence areas.
When I was much younger my father would often open a bottle of Moulin à Vent, or of Saint Amour to accompany a good roasted chicken or some “vols au vent”, for birthdays or special occasions. I think he got that taste and tradition from my Grand Papa Laplanche, his father in law, in Geneva, where as I said earlier, this kind of wines have always been loved by the locals.
When I was a student in Paris in the eraly sixtes and did not have much money I would sometimes treat myself to a good camembert with a bottle of Morgon, almost a luxury for me at the time.
I remember that when I was an adolescent in Reims a well-known couple of ‘’’clochards’’ (hoboes) in our neigborhood, when they had collected a few coins, would go to the nearest café and order a glass of ‘’Beaujolpif’’, the somewhat vulgar knickname that was often used by blue-collar people to call Beaujolais after the war.
But later on, during trips to Lyon, I would enjoy drinking that wine in the traditional ‘’pot’’ de Beaujolais (a small bottle of around on pint) when eating charcuterie and other Lyonnaise specialties in the famous ‘’bouchons’’ (small bistrots in Lyon), like the Café des Fédérations.

A few facts about Beaujolais:

The vineyards of this AOC (Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée) officially recognized in 1936, have been producing wine since the days when the Roman legions occupied Gaule and planted vineyards.
The AOC Beaujolais-Villages was registered in 1950. It was the firtst time in the old history of French wines that the word ‘’village’’ was coupled with the name of an appelation. 39 villages were registered in that particular segment of the Beaujolais production.
The Beaujolais was named after the city of Beaujeu in the Western part of this area that was created by some local dukes in the 10th century. Beaujeu was for several centuries the capital of Beaujolais.
Nowadays it is accepted that the city or Villefranche, located more or less at the center of the appelation, is the main hub of that region.
It is located on a relatively narrow strip of land, South of Burgundy per se, 34 miles long and only 8 miles wide. The Southern part of the zone of production is located in an area just Northwest of Lyon, and the Northern part touches the region of Macon.
The vineyards are found in the Northern part of the Rhône Department and the Southern part of the Saône et Loire department.
The climate not as cool as in Burgundy, offers a good mix of sun and humidity.
The soils of the Northern hilly part of the region consist maily of schist, granite, and a little bit of limestone. The Southern part has more sand and clay.
The whole ‘’vignoble’’ covers about 55,000 acres. A little more than 20,000 acres poduce the basic Beaujolais.
There are approximately 3,000 producers
98 to 99% of the wines are red and made from the Gamay Noir à jus blanc.

The relatively rare Beaujolais-Villages Blanc is made of Chardonnay and sometimes Aligoté, and comes from vineyards way North not too far from the Maconnais. The even more rare rosé are made from Gamay.
There are 12 appellations of Beaujolais in 3 groups: Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages, and the 10 Crus du Beaujolais appellations.
Most regular (basic) Beaujolais (half of the total production) are produced in the Southern area (Bas-Beaujolais).
Some of the best Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 Crus are produced in the hilly areas of the North (Haut-Beaujolais).
In years when the alcoholic level might be too low winegrowers are authorized to add sugar, a process called ‘’chaptalisation’’.
All together these wines represent an average yearly production of 130 millions of bottles

Les Crus du Beaujolais

From South (north of Villefranche) to North (at the border with the Maconnais) there are only 10 of them:
Brouilly, and Côte de Brouilly,
Moulin à Vent,
Each of them have a different type of aroma and flavor. Some like Chiroubles , Fleurie and Saint-Amour are softer, fruity, and are considered as ‘’tender’’, elegant charmers easy to drink, and some would say ‘’feminine’’.
All of them are very fragrant

Chiroubles, the highest in altitude, is very ‘’gouleyant’’, meaning that it goes down your throat in a very easy and soft manner. It is calles a very tender wine.
Fleurie is very elegant and has a velvety body. It often develops a lovely aroma of violet.
The Saint-Amour, with its very seductive blend of cherry, peach, red berries, aromas, and a definite floral nose, is called the ‘’lovers wine’’
Some like the Morgon, Chénas and Moulin à Vent are more assertive, have a stronger structure and body, and could be called ‘’masculine’’.
Morgon is perhaps the most often found Cru in bistros and wine bars both in the U.S and in France. It has a very dark purple color and its aromas can be a powerful mix of prune, and dark cherry. Very robust, it can in good years be cellared for 5 to 10 years. It has such typical ‘’terroir’’ characteristics that people say sometimes ‘’that wine morgonne’’.
Some of the best are harvested around the Mont du Py.
Chénas It was Louis the XIII ‘s favorite wine. I love its sometimes explosive mix of aromas and spicy tones that change from year to year. It can be very floral, slightly woody, often spicy, and alays very fragrant. With a good body structure, it can age gracefully for 5 to 7 years. But it always remain pretty elegant and suave.
Moulin à Vent It always had the most prestigious image. It is in some ways the closest to a Burgundy. It can be quite tannic and spicy. Always quite strongly structured and complex in its finish. But it never loses its typically floral and fruity ‘’Beaujolais’’ qualities. Can aged for up to 10 years.
The new kid in town: Regnié: This appelation was created in 1988. This very aromatic and mineral wine is produced by only 80 winemakers from soils composed essentially of pink granite. Very long finish. Nice tannins. I love its subtle but very sexy aromas of small red berries. A well balanced wine practically ignored by most wine merchants in the U.S.
Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly
The first one is a very pleasant wine that is as aromatic, soft, and subtle without being too floral or jammy. It got its name from an officer in the Roman legions, Brulius,who was posted there. It is the largest (in terms of hectares) of all the crus du Beaujolais. Redolent of small red fruits and prunes, it reflects perfectly the fresh qualities of the Gamay. Its tannins are quite soft.
The second one has a much smaller acrage. It is a rather elegant wine with fresh aromas and a delicate finish. To be honest it is not one of my favorites.
Julienas One of my 2 favorites. It has lots of muscle and an ever changing personality, due in part to the large diversity of its soils. It offers a very good balance of structure, spice, aromas, and has a great finish. It is much better after 3 or 4 years.

Good vintage years: The 2007 is very pleasant
I would recommend the 2005 and the 2003.

What kind of food to eat with crus du Beaujolais
Pot-au-Feu, Poule-au-pot, Coq-au-vin, Roasted chicken and turkey, Rabbit stew, Charcuterie, Partridge, Quail, and small birds, stuffed baked vegetables, Hachis Parmentier, Camembert cheese 
Service temperature:
Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages should be served slightly cool, around 55-56 degrees, and Crus du Beaujolais, especially the more robust and full-bodied ones, at 60-62 degrees.
Beaujolais wines do not need to be decanted.
An 8 year-old Moulin à Vent will benefit from being opened 30 to 40 minutes before pouring.

Some producers of crus du Beaujolais I can suggest:

Domaine Marcel Lapierre
Domaine Dominique Piron
Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes (Côte de Py)
Domaine Jean Foillard
Georges Descombes
Brouilly :
Château de la Chaize
Côte de Brouilly :
Château Thivin
Fleurie :
Domaine du Vissoux
Domaine Michel Chignard
Domaine de la Madonne ( perhaps not yet distributed here)
Domaine du Clos de la Roilette
Moulin à Vent:
Domaine du Vissoux
Chateau des Jacques
Paul Janin
Michel Tête
Clos de Haute Combe
Domaine de Colette
Domaine Piron (Chenas Quartz)
Clos de la Brosse- Paul Baudet
Chiroubles :
Georges Duboeuf
Availability and prices

As far as prices are concerned, you can, in the Chicago area at least, find Crus du Beaujolais for prices varying from $ 14.00 for a Morgon to $30.00 for a Moulin à Vent.
But as usual Trader Joe's offers a decent Morgon ( producer unknown) for $ 5.99. Quite a deal.
Unfortunately, once again in the Chicago area, it is getting more and more difficult to find Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Regnié, Chenas, and Julienas from independant producers.
Several wine stores managers told me that there is practically no more regular demand for these wines.
If all you can find are wines bottled by some of the ''négociants'' try and limit your choice to good houses such as Tête, Jadot, Drouhin, Fessy, Mommessin, Latour, and Duboeuf.

August 19, 2009

Cru de Beaujolais

Hi Dad, Last month while in Chicago you poured us a very flavorful Morgon that I quite enjoyed.You mentioned it was a "cru du Beaujolais".I'm familair with regular Beaujolais especially Beaujolais nouveau, but not with Cru du Beaujolais. On our vacation in Cape Cod last week I found a couple bottles of Cru du Beaujolais and it went over well with our friends. What does this appelation cover? What are you favorites? Which one can you find in an American wine store?What food pairing you recommend? We had it with a nice light pasta and it seemed to pair well. Thanks for the intoduction to this delightful appelation! Stephane

August 10, 2009


JULIE and JULIA: A nice but very frustrating little film Where is the (French) meat?

Stéphane, 2 days ago you asked me over the phone if I had seen Julie and Julia. I have to admit that I did not want to see this film, for several reasons: I was afraid that it would be focusing too much on another of those Streep vocal circus numbers. I was not that excited about the idea of watching another Hollywood fantasy about an American in Paris. From what I read there would be too much time devoted to Julie’s agenda, solo gig, her own and her husband’s frustrations, and not enough to the ascent of Mrs. Child as a culinary expert and to her extraordinary free-thinking and “modern” personality. After all, in the repressive times of the fifties in the U.S, she was a breath of fresh air and a real free spirit. No wonder she loved Paris so much. And last but not least, I have never been that impressed by the talents of Nora Ephron as a film director.

But Yesterday, when we had a very a muggy 93 degrees day in Chicago, It was too hot in our small kitchen to cook the ratatouille that I had planned to do with the vegetables I had bought the day before at the farmer’s market in Evanston. So the alternative was to go see a movie. But our personal choices were limited to 2 bleak films, an Austrian ‘noir”, Revanche, that both previews and reviews encouraged us to see, and a tense war drama from the very talented Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. So, since we felt like seeing something lighter, we thought: Why not Julia after all. At least it will be interesting to see how they reconstituted the Paris of the late forties early fifties, and there surely will be some fine food buying and cooking scenes to watch. And as you know your mother has been a Julia’s faithful follower since the early seventies. How many times when we ask ourselves a technical question about something we are in the mood of preparing she still announces "let see what Julia says about it" and goes to the pantry to retrieve our very tired and stained “Mastering the Art of French Cooking" And, as a blogger, food and wine consultant, and person who loves to cook, I was personally intrigued by the treatment of this story.  

The result: The film was better than we expected and we sort of enjoyed it as it is: a very traditional piece of Hollywood entertainment. But unfortunately it also had a lot of holes, superficialities, and, above all, unbalances in the script, the editing, and the actors directing, that it sometimes made some sequences almost boring or just too loose-ended to be fully enjoyed.
On the plus side: The concept of creating a parallel montage between the personal lives and the cooking experiences of Julia Child and the young blogger Julie Powell works after all in a bit more successful way than I thought it would be. We managed to progressively get used to, and from time to time interested in, the very deep differences between these two couples, the personal motivations and objectives of the two women, the support or exasperations of their respective husbands and friends, and their very different integration in their social or professional environments. The cinematography is very pleasant and astute, particularly in managing to “expand” the physical aspect of Streep. The casting of the four main actors is also quite acceptable: Stanley Tucci provides a very complex and subtle personalization of Paul Child. To me his performance is the most impressive of the whole cast. And the image that he helps projecting of their couple is quite realistic. We believe in them. The light musical score by French Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat is a perfect fit for re-creating the mood of Hollywood films taking place in Paris in the post WWII and early fifties period. The sets and costumes are, once again, good replicas of those seen and worn in the movies of that time frame. Meryl Streep performance is one of her best in recent years: pretty restrained, expressive and often touching, especially in the scene when she learns about her sister’s having a baby. Sometimes it is on the verge, but not falling into, of becoming a bit too cartoonesque. But we manage to often forget about the fact that she plays and almost accept her as Julia. And Julia’s enthusiastic persona is very nicely projected.

On the minus side: Many of the scenes between Julie and her husband are overstretched and too conventional. The sequences where she writes her blog on her computer are way too long. We wait impatiently for Julia and Paul to return, only to be often disappointed by the shortness of substance in their dialogs. There is really an unbalance in the cutting and editing of their scenes. An other factor contributing to this impression of unbalance: Even though Amy Adams is a quite charming and competent actress, and Chris Messina does a more than an adequate job as her frustrated husband, they cannot stand the comparison in terms of “on screen quality level of presence”, with a couple of old pros like Streep and Tucci. Besides the “mise en scene” (cinematic directing, camera movements, etc.) is much more elaborate in the case of the two stars. The scenes in Julie’s apartment and at her office are shot in quite a pedestrian lazy way. I was very frustrated by the minimal approach to food scenes. There are practically no sequences were you can actually feel that any actual cooking, tasting, or eating is taking place. It is quite obvious that the two actresses are not cooking themselves. And their respective ways of shopping are quite unrealistic. By the way, I wondered all the time where Julie secured the funds necessary to buy all those, sometimes very costly, food ingredients, and cooking ustensils, considering the obviously modest financial status of her household. The scenes taking place in Parisian restaurants (very probably shot entirely in studio in the U.S., since I did not notice any mention of a Parisian eatery in the credits) look and sound phony. Even the waiters do not act or speak in an authentic fashion. The French fish mongers, bakers, and butchers even less. I was particularly horrified by the depressing look of that poor "sole meuniere", (that Julia Child tasted for the first time after her arival in France, in a restaurant in Rouen, and which would become her epiphany) presented to her, whole in the pan, by a waiter. Instead of the delicate "beurre noisette" and a few specks of fresh parsley and a slice of lemon that should have been covering that delicate Dover sole, I was under the impression that the butter that surrounded that fish had been burned to a point of no return.
The food consultants must have been taking a nap at the time this scene was shot. I would have loved to have a complete sequence devoted to Julia preparing a whole dinner for her husband and to watch them at the table enjoy and discuss the whole thing. At one point when the 3 gourmandes (Child, Beck and Bertholle) have lunch on the terrace of a Parisian bistro, I thought for a split second that the front of that bistro looked like Astier’s in the 11th arrondissement, but I’m not sure. Anyway, Astier does not have any terrace. Only the boeuf bourguignon looked authentically French. But Amy Adams keeps calling it “bouff bourguignonn’’. Also I cannot believe that there were so few scenes shot in real Paris locations.

But I had a nostalgic smile on my face (in the dark) when I saw the entrance of the house where the Childs move in when they arrive in Paris: 10 rue de Seine, in the 6th arrondissement, is just a few numbers down from were we lived in that street until we moved to Chicago, and where you spent the first months of your existence Stéphane. And later on, there is a long shot of the windows of the apartment, Quai aux Fleurs in the Ile de La Cite, where I rented a room when I was a student at la Sorbonne in 1963. I found it totally ridiculous to have not cast any French actors or actresses in some of the supporting roles. This is particularly crucial for the part of Simone Beck, aka Simca. Linda Emond is a fine stage actress, but I had a very hard time accepting her, and her phony accent, as being Simone Beck. But my biggest objection is to the over-simplification in describing Julia’s personality and relation with others. This portrait lacks psychological and socio-cultural complexity. But is the film supposed to include the portrait of a hyper-dimensioned star and human being or just a sort of gimmicky montage of the separate and not even parallel itineraries of two women, who just find “something to do with their lives”, and in so doing attained celebrity status. That is the question I often asked myself. To capsulate my impressions of this movie: I think that it is an entertaining little film that would have required a tighter script, the “savoir-faire” and always very efficient directing talent of a Stanley Donen, or a Blake Edwards, and a larger budget to film more scenes on location in Paris, to have a chance to reach greatness.

July 22, 2009

Brandade de Morue de Nîmes

The real Brandade de Morue à la Nîmoise : A very special treat.

When I was in my teens, in Reims the capital of the Champagne producing district, my father often said at the end of a good meal when everybody was thanking my mother for another of her culinary accomplishments:
“ La morue à la brandade, le gigot et la salade, tout était bien chez l’ami du cousin Barthélémy’’. This sentence, that he would pronounce slowly, was a quote of a phrase that one of his older parishioners when he was the Protestant (Calvinist) minister of our little town of Saint-Hippolyte-du- Fort, near Nîmes, had used several times to describe to my father a very good meal he had at a friend of his cousin’s house. Its translation is: ‘’the cod prepared in the style of a brandade, the roasted leg of lamb, and the salad, everything was fine at the house of the friend of my cousin Barthelemy’’
I do not know why this sentence was stuck in my father’s memory, but I would invariably ask my mother why we never had ‘’brandade de morue’’ at home.
I do not remember the answer, but I would be ready to guess that my mother, a Swiss from Geneva, was not a big fan of salted dried cod fish, and that this dish never entered her vast cooking repertory, even after 10 years spent before and during WWII in Saint- Hippolyte.
When we left Saint-Hippolyte in 1947 to move to Reims, I was barely 7 at the time. And in those days, when we had been deprived of most regular food necessities since 1942, I do not think that this fish specialty was easily found in our town.
So, I cannot remember having ever tasted that dish in Saint-Hippolyte, a town located only 35 miles from Nîmes where it is still the only really local culinary specialty of that old Languedocian city. And believe me, you would never find an ounce of brandade in a Northeastern city like Reims. As a matter of fact, until the late 70s, it would have been very improbable to find any brandade in a restaurant outside the areas of Nîmes and Marseille.

It took me 19 years before I could taste my first brandade in Nîmes

So I had totally forgotten the brandade when I moved back, alone without my family for the first time, to my native town of Nîmes in 1959, to get my baccalaureate degree there.
To secure room and board and make some money while studying there I was hired by a small private boarding pension to take care of young middle-school and high-school age boys from villages outside Nîmes who would live, eat lunch and dinner, and do their home work at night there during the week.
And what was served for lunch the first day I was there? You guessed it: Brandade de morue. I do not remember if it was home-made by the pension’s cook, or if it was one of the two locally-made commercial brands, whose names were Mouton and Raymond Geoffroy,

but I remember that I found that dish totally revolting, both in terms of structure, gooey and fibrous, and of taste, very fishy and oily.
I promised myself never to touch that stuff again.
I changed my mind several years later in the 70s when I was now living in Chicago and traveled to France often on business. With my best friend, who is also from Nîmes, we would regularly drive there from Paris to attend bullfights, and spend the week-end in his country house in a village near Saint-Hippolyte, called Lasalle. But once I flew to Nîmes on business, and was invited for lunch at a restaurant called Le Magister. The chef-owner, Martial Hocquart, whom I believe still cooks there, was not from that area, but he managed to produce an authentic Brandade de Nîmes, that was a pure delight: Light, very aromatic, unctuous but perfectly balanced. I became a fan of the real brandade and I still love it today when it is well prepared with good ingredients. 

Nowadays, you find brandade in many good Parisian restaurants, as well as in several good eateries in Chicago. It is offered in several variations, but never according to the original and authentic recipe from Nîmes.
In Paris: I used to like the brandade at:
La Bastide Odeon, Rue Corneille in the 6th,
Le Bistrot de l’Olivier Rue Quentin Beauchart in the 8th.
But I have to admit that I did not visit any of these restaurants for quite a long time
In Chicago I would suggest:
Le Bouchon at 1958 N. Damen (very close to what it should be)
Bistro Campagne 4518 N. Lincoln (they serve it in the form of “croquettes”)
Mado at 1647 N. Milwaukee
Avec at 615 W. Randolph

Now, let’s talk a bit about the origins of La Brandade de Morue à la Nîmoise.

Just for the fun of it, I would say that this old and beautiful city, located 706 kilometers South of Paris, 123 Km North of Marseille, and only 42 km North of the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes on the Mediterranean sea, is known for two other things, besides brandade: Its famous Roman arena in the shape of a round amphitheatre, where some of the best bullfighting festivals in Southern Europe take place between May and late September, and the famous Denim fabric, that was invented there under the name of "serge de Nîmes" in the 18th century. It was eventually colored in that well-known blue indigo color. But Denim means ‘’De Nimes’’ (from Nîmes).

The big question is: How did cod, a fish that has been for centuries caught in the cold waters of the North Sea and around Newfoundland, close to the Eastern coast of Canada, mostly from boats anchored in Normandy and Brittany’s ports, found its way to the Southern city of Nîmes, that is not even a port on the Mediterranean Sea?.
The reason is purely commercial and logical. In the 18th century, there was no refrigeration or freezing equipment on fishing boats. The French fishermen who left on fishing expeditions for several days in the North sea, or sometimes weeks when they were sailing as far as to the North Atlantic fishing grounds of Iceland or Terre Neuve (Newfoundland) needed a way to preserve the ‘’morue’’ (cod) they caught. Fresh cod is also called ‘’cabillaud’’ and it has never been found in the Mediterranean Sea.
The only way they knew was to completely cover the fish with salt.
In those days the best source of salt was the ‘’salines’’ (salt works) from the Provençal coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and more particularly the Camargue area and Aigues-Mortes, a port city totally surrounded by tall walls and ramparts, from were the crusades departed in the 13th century.

The fishermen would bring salted cod as payment, in a bartering system, for the tons of salt that they brought back in large bags to their Northern ports like Saint-Malo or Boulogne.
That is how that salted fish became, once desalted and cooked, a very common food on the tables of the department du Gard where Nîmes and Aigues-Mortes are located, as well as cities like Uzes and Alès. Over the years it became a very convenient, cheap and easy way to keep, source of protein for poor people in rural areas not only of Languedoc, but also Auvergne, and the Southwest all the way to the Spanish border, who could not afford to buy meat or pork belly.
It is precisely the cook for the archbishop of Alès, Charles Durand, born in that city in the Cévennes in 1766, who was the first to have the idea of blending desalted cooked cod with other major ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine like olive oil, thyme, laurel, and garlic, to make a paste that was continuously stirred with a wooden spoon during the whole process. The verb ‘’brandar’’ in the old Occitan or Provençal language means to stir or to vigorously shake or agitate. The result is a ‘’brandado’’ a product that has been stirred or shake.
The ‘’brandade’’ was born

As I said earlier, there are many versions of that dish, especially since it has been adapted by chefs with various backgrounds all over the world.
Nowadays, most traditional brandades are a mix of cod, milk or fresh heavy cream, olive oil, boiled mashed potatoes, garlic, salt, white pepper, nutmeg, and sometimes a bit of lemon juice.
Most often it is served with slices of baguette bread pan-fried in olive oil, sometimes rubbed with garlic. It is in fact the Marseillaise version of the dish that is found all over Provence.
Brandade started to be a very popular in Paris after 1830. Even more when the well-known writer Alphonse Daudet (Les Lettres de Mon Moulin) started a very popular “Diner des amis de la brandade” (brandade lovers dinner) at the Café Voltaire in 1894. Daudet suggested that cooks rubbed some garlic in the cooking pot rather than incorporating it in the preparation itself as it was done in Provence.
Soon la brandade nîmoise became a very common dish all over the Languedoc on Fridays. But even at the time of the French revolution in 1789, it is said that Parisian foodies would go to a restaurant called ‘’ Les 3 frères Provençaux’’ to eat the real brandade de Nîmes. So maybe it was already a regional specialty even before Durand.
Anyway, it seems that it is the Chef Durand who launched the commercial success of the brandade nîmoise that was made according to his own recipe and sold in jars or closed pots. 

Brandade de morue is now very popular in many bistros and home kitchens all over France.
  • It can be covered with breadcrumbs and some cheese and finished to look like a “gratin” in the oven for a few minutes.
  • It can be stuffed in red or yellow peppers, or mushrooms.
  • It is delicious in mini-tartlets as an amuse-bouche.
  • Some people add a touch of sophistication by serving it warm with thin slices of truffles.
  • Others mix the cod with halibut, sole, or even lobster and add an egg yolk for a richer texture and taste
  • In Languedoc it is often garnished with black olives and ‘’croutons à l’ail’’and accompanied by a salad of ‘’frisée’’ dressed with a good olive oil and sometimes pinch of crushed garlic.
You also now find frozen brandade in ‘’magasins de surgelés`’ (stores specializing in all kindsof frozen foods). One of them, brandade parmentier, is a very popular item at Picard Surgelés. But personally I would not touch it with a 10 foot pole.
And of course you can buy Brandade de Nîmes RAYMOND, from RAYMOND GEOFFROY, a company started in Nîmes in 1879, in containers from 100 grams to 1 and 5 Kilos. It will be closer to the authentic original product that any frozen stuff.
All of this can be delicious and creative but it is not at all the authentic Brandade de Nîmes, that does not contain any garlic or potatoes. And remember that Nîmes is not in located in Provence but in Languedoc.

Here is the way an authentic Brandade de Nîmes should be prepared:

First you have to find good quality dried salt cod, what we sometimes call stockfish in Europe. The best is sold in wooden boxes. The ideal is to buy about 2 pounds if you want to prepare brandade for 4 persons.
The best piece would be close to the head of the fish since it is meatier. Cut it in 2 or three parts.
  1. Desalt the fish for at least 24 hours by getting rid of as much salt as you can from the surface and then putting it in a pot, skin up, containing cold water and change that water at least 4 times. When its over, rinse the cod in cold water and drain it.
  2. Poach the fish in cold water where you add 1 bay leaf and 2 sprigs of thyme. But this addition of aromatic herbs is optional.
Put the heat on and poach the cod very gently until the water starts to simmer. 8 to 10 minutes. 
The cod should NEVER boil.
  1. Drain and put the fish on a board. Delicately remove the bones and the skin rapidly before the fish gets cold so that it does not get gelatinous or look like glue. In Nimes originally some cooks kept the skin on because it would increase the taste and the texture. Then coarsely flake the whole thing and keep it at lukewarm temperature in a pot in a corner of the stove.
  2. In the meantime you will have warmed in two separate little sauce pans some very good extra-virgin olive oil (just about 1 and 1/4 cup) and about I cup of whole milk. Make sure the oil is lukewarm, not hot, and to remove the "skin: of the milk that should be warm but not hot either.
  3. Put the pot containing the cod on very low heat and add a spoonful of olive oil to the pot and, using a wooden spoon, stir it into the cod and crush the pieces of cod again the walls of the pot, then add a spoonful of milk and stir. Continue the process for 12 to 15 minutes by alternating spoonfuls of olive oil and milk until none is left in the saucepans. Never stop stirring. When the mixture is reaching a creamy consistency, add some salt and freshly ground white pepper. Add a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, and a few squeezes of lemon juice. Make sure there are no lumps in the brandade.
  4. Stir again and serve the lukewarm brandade in the shape of truncated flat cone on a plate. Place a couple of black olives on top to decorate. Surround the mound with slices of French bread cut in triangles, lightly fried in olive oil and rubbed with garlic.
That’s it. No potatoes, no garlic in the brandade proper. Just the sweet taste of mild cod puree emulsified in good extra-virgin French olive oil.

  • If you want to make a modern version, follow the same instructions up to stage 4.
Then in the bowl of a food processor put 2 or 3 cloves of garlic and puree them, then add 4 warm large boiled potatoes and the cod and puree them, while slowly incorporating alternatively your warm olive oil and your warm milk through the funnel of the food processor until both are totally absorbed. Season with the same ingredients as above and make sure that the brandade that you obtained is smooth, not liquid, and not too thick, and without any lumps.
Serve with a slightly cool wine like Costières de Nimes rosé, Tavel, or a white Bandol.
Bon appétit.

May 18, 2009

Provencal Lamb Stew and Camembert

Provencal Lamb Stew, a new French Camembert, and a flavorful Vin de Pays de la Principauté d’Orange. 

 A comforting Sunday night dinner in rainy and depressing early May in Chicago 
  Hey Stéphane, hope everything is going well as far as barbecuing in your backyard in MountainView is concerned, and that you can still find that delicious locally fished fresh salmon steaks at your beautiful farmer’s market before once again a temporary ban may be imposed on that kind of catch off the coast of Northern California . Here in Chicago it is still rather grey and cold for the season with lots of powerful showers. I wonder what we will be able to find at the first farmer’s market in Evanston next week-end because I suspect that these deluges of rains that we have been exposed to since early April did not allow a normal spring planting process. Anyway I’m dreaming of sunny days in Southern France, and as it is the case every year, in early May, when the first leaves start to grow in a more assertive way on the sycamores facing our dining-room windows which look a bit like the platanes (plane trees) of my youth, I get a serious case of nostalgia. There is no “muguet” (lilly of the valley, the flower traditionally sold in the streets of Paris on May 1) growing in the park in front of our building, but my nostalgia nevertheless often focuses on our May Day (Labor Day in France) rustic and very proletarian picnics or lunches in Reims and Paris in the fifties and sixties where saucisson, pâté, camembert, œufs durs mayonnaise (hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise), baguette, and Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône red wine were generating many moment of pure and simple pleasure. You could read my piece on the Chicago origins of May Day celebration published last year on this blog to get a refresher course on what these Premier Mai celebrations in France were all about, especially regarding the food aspect of them. The other dining nostalgia I develop in early May deals with more elaborate lunches around Easter that always included some delicious spring lamb based dishes that we enjoyed in small restaurants in Aix-en-Provence or Avignon when I lived there. That is why at this time of the year I always love to prepare a simple Sunday lunch or dinner that reminds me of these happy days in Provence or in Paris and includes at least 5 major components that bring some sun to my heart: Some charcuterie as an appetizer, a good salad made of Boston lettuce, Dijon mustard vinaigrette, with chives (or crushed fresh garlic), a small leg of lamb (the shank part), or small loin lamb chops grilled with herbes de Provence. It could also be a more rustic lamb stew with tomatoes and olives. To finish the meal I need a good Camembert and a piece of good quality Roquefort, and for dessert a Tarte à la Frangipane (almond tart). As you know I am not a pastry specialist. So I let your mother be in charge of that marvelous provençal dessert which is one of her many specialties.

Hors d’œuvre: Pâté de campagne et saucisson sec 
  So this year we started our May 3 Sunday dinner with some “Pâté de campagne au Champagne” from Marcel & Henry , the French charcutiers from South San Francisco, a very peppery, strongly seasoned, very flavorful and very authentic-tasting pork pâté that they sell in individually wrapped thick slices at Fox and Obel for around $ 6.25. And some saucisson sec (dry pork sausage) from independent producer John Volpi in St, Louis (no connection with the better known and more commercial other Volpi). Since I cannot find in Chicago the delicious French Saucisson Sec from Fabrique Délices in Hayward, CA that we buy at your farmer’s market, I found that cheap but very tasty Italian-style and additives-free hard salami made with Chianti to be a perfectly edible alternative treat to French saucisson. It is sold at Trader Joe’s for $ 3.99 for the whole sausage. Of course this first course was accompanied by the traditional garnish of French ‘’cornichons’’ and pickled tiny onions, as well as authentic Dijon mustard, once again all from Trader Joe’s. The baguette is a crusty and well made affair from the very expert baker of Fox& Obel at a relatively acceptable price of $ 2.75.

Plat principal (Main entrée): Lamb.

But, why is American spring lamb so different from its French cousin? The problem that I find every year is with the quality of the so called ‘’spring lamb`’ that I can purchase in Chicago. In France ‘’Easter lamb’’, as it is sometimes called, either in the form of chops or leg, is very small, with a very delicate flavor, and the color of the meat is a light pink. It is practically impossible nowadays, or if you place a special order for it at your butcher it will cost you a fortune, to find authentic baby milk-fed lamb. That is a real delicacy. The baby lamb in this case is usually 4 to 6 weeks old when it is slaughtered and has not been weaned from his mother’s milk. Its meat’s color is almost white. Over here some very good Greek restaurants might offer it occasionally round Easter and it is spit-roasted. Baby lamb’s weight is around 20 pounds. In France a real spring lamb has usually been slaughtered between 70 days and 5 months after his birth. The meat’s color is a light pink and its taste is quite delicate. Not at all muttony as it is the case sometimes with so called “spring lamb” sold in some American supermarkets. A French spring lamb grew on grass exclusively. It never weighs more than 50 or 55 pounds. You usually find it in good butcher shops between February and June. French ‘’regular’’ lamb is most often 6 to 9 month old. You find it in retail points of sale between September and January. A whole animal is normally not heavier than 70 pounds and the color of its meat is a light red. Its taste is a bit more assertive that spring lamb, but normally still very tender But in Chicago when I buy a small leg of lamb in April or May, it is quite large compared to its French counterpart, its meat has already a relatively dark red hue and is not as tender as it should be. Besides the texture, the taste of the meat, as well as the weight of the piece, lead me to think that this lamb might have been put in a feed-lot for several weeks after it left the pasture and fed some cereal-based industrial feed in order to boost its maturity and weight more rapidly, and of course increase its meat yield. 
In any case I have rarely found a light-colored small delicate-tasting spring leg of lamb in a shop here. Even though I buy good quality lamb produced by Chiappetti, a reputable family-owned Chicago veal and lamb packer and processor that owns its own growing sites somewhere in Colorado or the Rockies, I’m always frustrated by the rather disappointing results I obtain when I get the leg of lamb out of the oven and into my plate and eventually my mouth. It is never as tender and mild as it was with the “gigots” that we ate in France. My favorite lamb was the lamb from “Pré-salé’’ (salt marshes or meadows) from Picardy and Normandy, especially at the Mont-Saint Michel

the ‘’Agneau de Sisteron’’ from the area of Haute Provence near the Durance River, or Agneau des Pyrénées (from the mountains separating France and Spain).
Here is my way of doing a roasted half leg of lamb (shank part) with ratatouille 

 I usually insert a 3 or 4 slivers of fresh garlic in the meatiest parts of the leg and coat it completely with a creamy ‘’pomade’’ (paste) of Dijon mustard, Olive oil, and Thyme that I have slowly whisked to the point where it is heavily emulsified and transformed into a paste. The meat should be at room temperature. I cook the leg (shank part) on a steel rack in a Pyrex dish with a mix of water and white wine at the bottom in a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes and then at 350 degrees for 80 more minutes in the case of a leg weighing between 3 and a half to 4 pounds. The meat internal temperature should be 135 degrees for medium-rare when you remove the leg from the oven. You should cover it with aluminum foil and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes before carving. I usually do carve the leg in round slices around the bone.
I serve it with a home-made ‘’ratatouille’’ made of 1 large eggplant that has been cut in 1 inch cubes that you let drain its acrid liquid and some seeds with coarse sea salt in a colander for 20 minutes, 4 sliced unpeeled zucchinis, 4 chopped seeded and peeled fresh tomatoes, slices of 3 yellow medium onions, 4 sprigs of dried thyme, 2 bay leaves, 4 chopped cloves of fresh garlic, and about 6 Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. I sauté all ingredients separately in olive oil, before mixing them in a Le Creuset ‘’cocotte’’. Then I season with salt and pepper from the mill, and simmer the whole thing covered slowly at low heat for 35 to 40 minutes and then reduce the juice for 15 minutes with the lid off.
But on May 3, the leg of lamb in the meat dept. of my supermarket was too red and fat for my taste, So I decided to cook one my favorite Provençal lamb dishes: 

Lamb stew with tomatoes, onions and black olives

  I buy already packaged cubed pieces of lamb stew from Chappetti’s (8 dollars for 1 pound) at Treasure Islands supermarket, trim all the apparent fat, dry the pieces with a paper towel and let it stand for 15 minutes at room temperature. I use either a Le Creuset cocotte (a French enameled cast iron Dutch oven with a lid) or a Fagor heavy steel gage pressure cooker from Spain. Meanwhile I slice 2 medium-size yellow onions and 3 large cloves of fresh garlic (chopped), and I sauté them at low heat in extra-virgin olive oil until soft but not browned with some herbes de Provence. Then I add the meat and brown all pieces (about 5 minutes). I deglaze the bottom of the cocotte by stirring in 2 Tablespoons of a good quality red wine vinegar. Then I add the content of one large can of San Marzano Italian peeled plum tomatoes, juice drained, that I have seeded and coarsely chopped. I add one tablespoon of olive oil. Then I put in about 20 to 25 small pitted Greek black Kalamata olives that I have gently simmered for 5 minutes in boiling water to remove part of the oily brine and soften the taste. Then I pour a cup of low-sodium low-fat chicken broth (usually I use Swanson’s because I find the organic broth from Whole Foods overpriced and bland) and 1 cup of dry white wine (I use the Sauvignon blanc from Shaws at Trader Joe’s. I would never drink it but it is perfect for cooking), or even better of a dry rosé ‘’vin de pays’’ wine from Languedoc, like the Domaine de Gournier. I season the whole thing with salt and freshly ground pepper and add a few more sprinkles of dried Herbes de Provence. Then I add 2 tablespoons of tomato paste blended in some hot water. I stir well and bring the content of the pot to a gentle boil, then cover and let it simmer for 90 minutes. Check for tenderness after one hour, adjust the seasoning, and add wine if necessary.
I usually serve this dish with ‘’farfalle’’ pasta (usually the good Italian one sold under the Trader Joe's brand) sprinkled with chopped parsley at the last minute. If you do this dish in a pressure cooker set up at high pressure, do everything in the same way as described above, then close the lid and bring the pressure up on high heat. Once you hear the hiss from the valve and see a continuous wet steam coming out of the valve reduce to medium heat and cook for 15 minutes. Then remove the cooker from the burner, release the steam according to the instruction manual, wait until the pressure is completely out of the system and open the lid carefully. Then pour the content in a rustic looking earthenware dish.

Salade à la ciboulette (ou à l’ail): Boston lettuce with chives (or fresh crushed garlic) 

The French love to have a green salad course after the main dish. I keep with that tradition that I find not only refreshing but also it helps your digestive track to adjust as a transition between a meat-based dish in a sauce and the next course of cheese. I would love to have a ‘’mesclun’’ (mix) of various fresh greens including ‘’frisée’’, ‘’roquette’’ (arugula), feuille de chêne (oak-leaf lettuce), Bibb, and radicchio. But in early May in Chicago it is difficult to find good quality fresh greens of this sort. So I limit myself to a single Boston. I wash it well and dry it in my OXO salad spinner that works pretty well without breaking the leaves. In the mean time I prepare my dressing, a simple vinaigrette, the following way: In a large ceramic bow I put 1 teaspoon of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard at room temperature. Then I add 2 Tablespoons of a good quality red wine vinegar (I usually use the Pompeian brand) and whisk that mix well to make sure there are no more lumps of mustard left. Then I progressively add the extra-virgin olive oil (I use the 100% Kalamata Greek extra-virgin olive oil from Martini’s from Trader Joe’s) . That oil is the best I could find so far for a full liter at $8.99 a bottle. The date of expiration, usually 2 years after bottling, which in my opinion is way too long, is engraved on the bottle and that allows me to make sure the oil is still fresh. I whisk the oil continuously while holding the bowl at an angle so that the oil easily gets emulsified in the mustard and vinegar mix without separating. It creates a very nicely smooth vinaigrette dressing. You should stop when you get about 1/3 of a cup which should be enough for a large Boston. Add the leaves of lettuce to the bowl and some freshly cut chives and mix them well with the dressing with a large fork and spoon made of wood. I personally use French ustensils made from the wood of olive trees.  

The cheese plate 

You can find practically all kinds of good quality French cheeses nowadays in Chicago. But most of them have become too expensive for my limited budget. So I can no longer afford the kind of cheese plate that I used to prefer. It included Camembert, Reblochon, Cantal, Tomme de Savoie, and Roquefort or Bleu d’Auvergne, and a Pyramide of goat cheese. At least I’m relieved to know that the U.S. government has reached an agreement of principles with the E.U and will no longer apply a 300% tax on Roquefort cheese. So these days I am content to find a good French Camembert from Normandy, if possible only ‘’thermisé’’ and not fully pasteurized in order to keep some of the original aromas of the real thing made with ‘’lait crû’’ (raw milk) that you no longer find legally in the US.. "Thermisé" means that the milk has been heated enough to kill bacteria but not at a temperature as high as in the pasteurization process that really diminish the real flavors and taste that a camembert au lait cru would offer. If you remember my piece on camembert published in this blog 2 years ago, the only two brands I had found that were satisfactory were Le Châtelain, and Isigny. But recently I found one that is even closer in taste and texture to the kind of Camembert I buy in France. It is sold exclusively by Whole Foods with a label saying: Selected by Hervé Mons. 
  Now, I have done some research and found out that Hervé Mons is a very reputable négociant-‘’affineur’’ (cheese ager) of cheese who sells from his specially designed ‘’caves et ateliers d’affinage’’ (specially designed cheese aging warehouses) in Roanne all kinds of ‘’artisan’’ cheeses to good restaurants, specialty shops and outdoor food markets.The company was started in 1965. They do a very good business with export. His importer in Washington state had asked him to produce a real camembert from Normandy that would be able to travel well to various points of the U.S market and keeps its intrinsic qualities of aroma, texture, taste, and appearance, while remaining fresh enough to avoid getting this unpleasant ammonia taste of many French camemberts that have been improperly aged or stored in U.S. warehouses, or in over-refrigerated conditions for too long. Hervé Mons worked for a whole year with local cheese makers in Normandy to reach this goal. The result was so impressive that Whole Foods Fromagerie asked him to be his exclusive point of sale to the public in the U.S. The Hervé Mons camembert I bought was perfectly aged, ’’à coeur’’ (ripe in the middle but not over ripe) and its rind was perfect in color (still bloomy with light golden colored strips) and texture. What a moment of pure pleasure we had. I paid $ 6.99 for it but its normal price is 8.99 dollars I also had a very small piece of a very good raw milk Roquefort from Binny’s cheese shop but I do not remember what brand it was. It was fine, freshly cut, but not spectacular for the price: $ 25 a pound.  

Dessert: Tarte à la Frangipane (almond paste tart)

Since I did not bake it I will only mention the basic ingredients and instructions: Pie pastry dough in a buttered mold after being rolled. In a small sauce pan mix by stirring well over low heat 3 whole eggs, half cup of sugar, 1 stick of unsalted butter, and one small can of almond paste cut in small pieces (Solo brand I believe). Pour the whole thing into the dough-covered mold. Bake at 400 degrees. When frangipane filling is firm (about 30 minutes) brush top with egg yolk. Stéphane: Ask your mother if you need more specific instructions.

And last but not least: The wine: 
  Domaine Grand Destré 2007 Vin de pays de la Principauté d’Orange

. A selection of Ravoire & Fils in Lauris, Vaucluse The country wines from that district usually come from grapes harvested in several townships in Vaucluse such as Orange, Valreas, Vaison-la-Romaine and Bedarrides, to mention the most well-known of them. I do not think that this blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah is a ‘’vin de propriétaire’’ (from a specific vineyard owner) but, I know that it is bottled by the family-owned Ravoire Company, a good wholesaling company also from Vaucluse whose president has a long tradition of winemaking in his family. Stephen Gaucher, the very competent president of the importing company, Wine Adventures in Iowa, that imports good and exciting French wines since 1999, told me that the grapes are harvested in the Sainte Cécile aux Vignes area, a few miles Northeast of Orange, in the beautiful Département du Vaucluse. In this medium-body red charmer you can feel the sun-drenched terroir of the Southern Rhône. It offers very pleasant notes of ripe plums and red berries, and develops well in the mouth with secondary touches of leather and licorice. It is indeed a very well made, but not too complex, wine who was awarded a gold medal at the Concours Agricole of Paris in 2008, it has a very good balance of fruit and acidity and would be an ideal companion for any lamb-based dish, grilled eggplants, zucchinis and tomates provençales. Also it can be a perfect wine for summer barbecues. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. I bought it at Binny's for a special "end of bin" price for Binny's club members, but the regular price is around 8 or 9 dollars. Bon appétit.