mercredi 28 octobre 2009

Les salades

With all the richness and extravagance we normally associate with French cooking, it’s easy to overlook one of the simplest, most wonderful staples of every meal: the salad. I like the way salad is done in France. It’s always easy, always fresh, and best of all, always there. Often no more than a handful of romaine leaves and “la sauce”, or a quick handmade dressing, the starter salad is essential to accompany the first course of a meal (usually a dish made of seasonal vegetables as well). I’m talking everyday cooking, of course, and it’d be a good habit to incorporate this simple pile of greens (or otherwise vividly colored produce) into the beginning of every meal.

It’s important to think as well that a salad need not be—or even, for a starter, should not be—an elaborate dish, complete with tomatoes, onions, eggs, croutons, and grated cheese. A few crisp leaves, something fresh to throw on top (if you have it), and that’s that.

Some common salads I’ve had in France:

--lettuce (the most common, and yes, just the lettuce)

--quartered tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna

--lettuce, slices of goat cheese, and croutons

--boiled artichoke

--quartered figs and pears

--half an avocado, eaten with a spoon out of the shell

--radishes with salt and butter

*And everything goes with the vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Now let’s compare this to what Americans are eating as salads in the most popular restaurant chains in the country. I personally never order salads at a restaurant, because I don’t see the reason in spending $10-15 for something I could make in 10 minutes at home. But for those who order salads because they think they’re going to feel better afterwards about what they ate…well, they’re just plain fooling themselves.

The Cheesecake Factory’s Tossed Green Salad includes chopped greens, croutons, tomato wedges, cucumber slices and shredded carrots, zucchini, and beets. It has 189 calories according to (the restaurant provides no nutrition information on its food). A little bit too many ingredients for a side, but not bad. On the other hand, The Cheesecake Factory’s starter Caesar Salad with Chicken is 976 calories. Yup, that’s about half the calories you need in a day (the full portion has 1699).

Olive Garden’s popular unlimited-refill Garden-Fresh Salad has 350 calories per one serving with dressing (120 without the dressing) according to its own nutrition information. Add on the breadsticks and that’s enough calories for one meal already.

I think it’s generally well known that the fast-food salads are not even better for you than their burgers. To prove the point: McDonald’s Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken and Ranch Dressing has 540 calories, as listed on their website. A Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 510 calories.

While I think it’s a good practice to be aware of how many calories basic foods contain, I myself don’t make a habit of counting calories. Nor do I think of salads as necessarily “health food.” Salads can be rich, creamy, cheesy calorie bombs too. But the point to list out the calories here is that salads as starters to your meal are not by nature elaborate, calorific creatures. On the contrary, they’re an opportunity to enjoy the flavors of the season fresh and simple. And that always turns out healthy too.

Buy dressing? Quelle idée!

Recipe for the French version of French dressing, “La Sauce”:

Extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Dijon mustard

First mix a good spoon of mustard with about 2 counts of balsamic vinegar. Whisk in (or stir in well with a fork) 2 counts of olive oil, until smooth. Salt.

Of course the better quality ingredients you have, the better this will taste. Heinz yellow mustard is not allowed here (I hope I didn’t even have to mention that, but just in case . . .)! Apart from that, this is not rocket science. Lacking all tools and know-how, you could just drizzle olive oil over your greens and add a squeeze of lemon. I purposely didn’t give specific measurements of each ingredient; try to experiment with the percentages and see which pleases you. I myself like the vinaigrette rather strong and thick, with a lot of mustard.

Making vinaigrettes in general is very, very simple. You basically need two components—an oil and an acid, with other ingredients as you like. The oil is usually olive oil, but can surely also be a nut oil. The acid is usually some kind of vinegar, but can also be the juice of a lemon, lime, or other citrus. To go the way of making a dressing—thicker and creamier—add cream, yogurt, or cheese. To make a sweet dressing, add sugar or honey. If you’re in need of a stronger flavor, add fresh herbs, soy sauce or nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce), or even chilies. The possibilities are endless.

Hopefully by now you have already gone to your pantry and thrown out the bottles of orange stuff labeled “French dressing.” And all other plastic squeeze bottles. I’m particularly wary of the one called “Thousand Island.” What is that? I heard once that it was every condiment mixed together, ‘kamikaze’ style. At any rate, it’s probably mostly ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, which is sick and gross.

Have a look at the ingredients on the label of your store-bought dressings. If there’s more than five, it’s no good to you. If one of the first ingredients is sugar (likely), it goes bye-bye. The ingredient list for Hidden Valley Fat Free French Style Dressing follows:

Ingredients: water, sugar, corn syrup, distilled vinegar, tomato paste, salt, honey, less than 1% of garlic, onion, spices, modified food starch, natural flavor, hydrolyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean & cottonseed oil, oleoresin paprika, xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate, sodium benzoate & potassium sorbet (preservatives). Calcium duodenum delta (to protect flavor). A trivial amount of fat is added by the oils.

Compare that to four ingredients for the vinaigrette I gave above. Now which do you prefer?

Ce que j’aime le plus des salades françaises, c’est la simplicité. Avant ma venue en France, je n’ai jamais même pensé à faire une salade avec uniquement de la laitue et de la vinaigrette, comme on le voit ici dans toutes les assiettes le soir. Pour moi, une salade devait être composée : des tomates, des œufs, des carottes, des concombres; sinon, ce n’était pas la peine de la préparer. Maintenant, j’ai changé d’avis; en fait il n’y a pas besoin de faire trop compliqué pour une bonne salade. C’est-à-dire, une salade comme entrée est meilleure quand on n’utilise que deux ou trois ingrédients, afin de prendre plaisir à sentir tous les fruits et les légumes frais de la saison sans distraction.

Les américains ont tendance à faire des salades trop lourdes, un peu superflu (du moins si nous en préparons une pour le dîner). Mais ce qu’il y a de pire ceux sont les sauces que nous utilisons pour étouffer les crudités: la “French” sauce, la Catalina, la César, la Ranch, ou encore la Thousand Island, qui est la pire. Toutes ont des couleurs vraiment affreuses et ont leur eau et leur sucre énumérés comme les deux premiers ingrédients.

Moi, je préfère prendre la sauce vinaigrette avec ma salade, s’il vous plait!

lundi 26 octobre 2009

A potato salad to be proud of

Summer may be the time for picnics and potato salads, but now it’s fall, the time for turtlenecks and all things orange! Well, except oranges, but I prefer sweet potatoes anyways. What a perfect way to transition from summer into fall—sweet potato salad, which is better looking, more nutritious, and definitely more glamorous than its humble cousin, the regular potato salad.

The original recipe is Mark Bittman’s:

I didn’t follow his recipe exactly—not out of choice, but because I didn’t have all his ingredients on hand. I used kidney beans instead of black beans, white onion instead of red, parsley instead of cilantro, lemon instead of lime, and I omitted the jalapeno entirely. And voilà!—the salad was still beautiful and delicious. Red onion would have been better than white, but the other substitutions worked just fine. For a real southwest flavor, however, you would have to use lime, cilantro, and jalapeno.

Sweet Potato Salad

2-3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
can of kidney beans
one red onion, chopped
one red or yellow bell pepper, diced
lots of parsley

for the dressing:
minced garlic
olive oil
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper

The only time-consuming part of this dish is the first step: roasting the sweet potatoes, onion, and bell pepper together, which takes about 40 minutes. You will want to roast them rather than boil them because that way they retain more flavor and texture when mixed, so take the time to do it. When the potatoes are tender, throw in the other ingredients, and you’ll have a gorgeous salad on your hands!

lundi 19 octobre 2009

Cuisses de grenouille

Yes, French people really do eat frog legs. Going for the stereotype, I tried a plate at a restaurant in Dijon. They weren't bad--the texture resembling fish, I would say, more than chicken. That makes more sense anyways. It is a pain, however, to pick around all the tiny bones. Other than that, and the thought that I was eating a pile of plucked-off legs from about 9 frogs, they were not bad at all.

Le gratin de courgettes

Ce plat ressemble au classique gratin dauphinois, une spécialité de la région Rhône-Alpes, où se trouve Grenoble. Ici, le gratin dauphinois est le plat dont tout le monde assure que le meilleur est celui de sa grand-mère. Normalement le gratin dauphinois est fait de patates. Dans ce cas le gratin est fait avec des courgettes, c’est également délicieux (du moins moi je le pense). La touche secrète est la crème de soja, qui donne un goût plus riche qu’en ajoutant la crème seulement. J’imagine qu’on peut aussi le faire avec l’aubergine, ou n’importe quelle sorte de légume ayant une texture absorbante et douce.

La recette du gratin de courgettes :

1 grosse courgette
crème de soja
gruyère râpé (facultatif)
ail, 4 à 5 gousses
sel et poivre
beurre , pour beurrer le plat

Couper la courgette en fine rondelles, les saler et les faire cuire à l'eau légèrement salée ou à la vapeur 10 minutes.
Les déposer dans quelques serviettes en papier et les écraser à la fourchette de façon à ce que le surplus de liquide s'égoutte.
Mettre la pulpe des courgettes dans un plat allant au four, ajouter la crème et la crème de soja, saler, poivrer. Ajouter les gousses d'ail hachées finement au couteau.
Y ajouter le gruyère râpé.
Malaxer bien à la fourchette, directement dans le plat de cuisson.
Recouvrir avec le reste de gruyère râpé.
Mettre à four chaud (210°) 15 minutes et faire gratiner au grill deux ou trois minutes.Peut se manger chaud, tiède ou froid.
A classic example of regional cuisine in the Rhone-Alps is 'gratin Dauphinois.' Here, this is the dish that everyone will tell you their grandmother is THE best at making, hands down. You may be already familiar with potatoes au gratin, a similar dish to gratin Dauphinois, but have you thought of trading in the potatoes for zucchini? It makes for a completely new dish, and more colorful at that.
A gratin is basically two ingrediants: your vegetable of choice (zucchini in this case, usually potato) cut thinly into rounds, and cream. It is then baked, forming a consolidated mass of creamy softness. For more flavor add minced garlic and shredded cheese, and of course liberal amounts of salt and pepper. A gratin Dauphinois uses nutmeg, which is always nice. If your heart labors at the thought of eating something swimming in cream, substitute milk for half of it.
What makes this recipe special is that I use half regular (dairy) cream and half soy cream (apparently cream from soy...I'm not sure on the English name because I'd never heard of this before coming to France). The resulting flavor is wonderfully rich, with an intriguing taste of je ne sais quoi...

Zucchini Gratin
1 large zucchini
soy cream
garlic, 4-5 cloves
shredded swiss or gruyere cheese
salt and pepper
butter to grease the pan

Stripe the zucchini with a peeler and cut thinly into rounds. Cook by boiling or steaming.
Drain the zucchini and blot with paper towels to remove all excess water.
Grease a casserole dish with butter and layer in the zucchini. Add the cream, soy cream, garlic, and most of the cheese. Salt and pepper. Use a fork to mash down the layers, and spread the rest of the cheese over the top.
Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes, then broil for 2 or 3 minutes to brown the cheese on top.

Le gâteau d’anniversaire de Cristina

Pour son 59ème anniversaire, Cristina, la femme argentine avec qui j’habite, a fait une petite soirée. Bien que ce soit son propre anniversaire, elle a fait le dîner elle-même : un rôti de bœuf, un gratin de courgettes, une salade de tomates (comme on est en France, il n’y a pas besoin de parler du pain et du vin). Après le repas, c’était l’heure du gâteau—ou plutôt des gâteaux, comme il y en avait deux. Santiago et Nina, le fils de Cristina et son amie, avaient apporté une tarte au citron, et moi j’avais fait un petit gâteau au chocolat, modelé comme un cœur, avec un simple mais délicieux glaçage de framboises sur le dessus. On a donc mis 59 bougies sur les deux gâteaux, on a éteint les lumières, on a chanté « Joyeux Anniversaire », et Cristina a soufflé toutes les bougies en même temps. En Argentine, on a trois vœux pour ça !

La recette du glaçage aux framboises :

1 unité de fromage frais
1 unité de beurre, sans sel
environ 1 unité de sucre glace
des framboises

Ramollir le beurre et le fromage frais. Mélanger les au sucre glace, jusqu’à que le mélange soit lisse. Ecraser les framboises dans le glaçage, en en conservant quelques-unes pour la décoration. Mettre le tout au frigidaire pour tenir frais.
In Grenoble I live with a wonderful Argentine woman named Cristina. For the occasion of her 59th birthday recently she had me, her son Santiago, and his girlfriend Nina over for dinner. We enjoyed a pork roast and gratin aux courgettes (zucchini gratin), after which we stuck 59 candles on 2 cakes and sang Joyeuse Anniversaire! Santiago and Nina had brought a lemon tarte, and I had made a little heart-shaped chocolate cake with raspberry cream cheese frosting.
The frosting takes just a minute to make. It's about a third each cream cheese, butter, and powdered sugar. Start with the cream cheese and the butter at room temperature, mixing with a spoon, and add in the powdered sugar until the texture is smooth and the sweetness is to your liking. Then mash some raspberries inside, and the frosting becomes a beautiful pink dotted with plushy red spots. In the French recipe I used "fromage frais", which is a soft cheese similar to cream cheese, as cream cheese is not widely available in France.