dimanche 31 janvier 2010

Grilled Sandwiches

To inaugurate the purchase of a “plancha,” as it’s called in France, which is a teppanyaki grill (smooth non-stick grilling surface), I prepared some grilled sandwiches, an old favorite from my college days. At The Bread Co., a small restaurant of Swiss ownership, I used to work behind the counter during the lunch shifts, assembling sandwiches and bagging sourdough bread.

It’s only now that I’m in France that I appreciate all the unique touches on the menu and in the decor, as they originate from this region of Europe (France and Switzerland). Cheese fondue, roasted potatoes, raclette, linzertorte, sable cookies, chocolate mousse, baguettes (well, that was obvious), tartines, balsamic dressing, San Pelligrino, Orangina, Nutella hot chocolates, red candles on the tables wood slat chairs and tables, their daily specials, the wine and beer menu being longer than the food menu.

Grilled sandwiches were the lunch specialty. You must start with good quality bread, preferably sourdough, and cut relatively thick slices. Butter one side of two slices, and place them butter-side-down on the grill. Sprinkle gruyere cheese on top of both slices. Next throw a handful of sliced vegetables (I used tomatoes, a yellow bell pepper, and eggplant; a red onion would make it better) next to the bread and spoon balsamic dressing on top (a mixture of mustard, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar). Mix to coat the vegetables and let them cook, maybe 5 minutes. When the vegetables are softened and the bread browned, pile the vegetables on top of the bread and fold into a sandwich. You might never eat a flimsy grilled cheese again.

Of course this vegetable cheese sandwich was not the only one on the menu (in fact I’m pretty sure I invented this version). Another good choice was the Portobello-brie sandwich, where the Portobello mushrooms were chopped and cooked in the dressing, while a slice of brie cheese melted on the bread. The second slice of bread was covered in a raspberry aioli, a mayonnaise mixed with raspberry preserves. Unusual, and very good.

I grilled everything very easily at the same time on the teppanyaki plate, but you could also use 2 different skillets or pans.

dimanche 24 janvier 2010

Butterscotch Pecan Bars

There are a certain number of foodstuffs beloved in the U.S. and widely misunderstood everywhere else in the world. The disregard foreign lands show towards peanut butter, for example, never ceases to confound me. Dipping French fries in vanilla shakes has also earned me no end of ridicule. Butterscotch, too, is grossly underestimated worldwide (besides the English).

Butterscotch syrup would be my ice cream topping of preference, butterscotch cream makes for a darn good icing, and butterscotch pancakes are quite simply the best. pancakes. ever.

My mother makes the best butterscotch pecan bars ever. They are very simple to make and quite attractive in a home-baking kind of way, with chocolate and butterscotch chips marbled on top.

My mom’s Butterscotch Pecan Bars

1 cup flour
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup coconut flakes
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup pecan halves

½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup butterscotch chips
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, butter, and coconut flakes. Mix until smooth and pasty. If too dry, add a Tbsp of water.
3. Press mixture firmly into an ungreased 9x13 baking pan. Press pecans into crust.
4. In a saucepan, combine sugar and butter. Cook over medium hear, stirring constantly, until mixture is bubbling (3-4 minutes). Pour over pecans and crust.
5. Bake for 18-20 minutes, until filling is bubbly.
6. Sprinkle butterscotch and chocolate chips immediately on top. Allow to melt slightly, stirring lightly as they melt for a marbled effect. Do not spread all the pieces—leave about half of the pieces whole.
7. Cool completely before cutting into bars.

vendredi 22 janvier 2010

Films on Food: Ratatouille (or: How to Learn How to Cook)

Seeing Ratatouille is rather like having a good home-cooked meal. It’s heart-warming, a good spin on your old favorites, well-executed, and, in the end, thoroughly satisfying. A quick summary: Remy, a rat, despised by humans and especially despised by restaurant staff, is nevertheless an aspiring chef. He finds his break in Gusteau’s, a previously top-notch restaurant that has fallen in acclaim. Using Linguine, the spineless mop boy, as a puppet, he succeeds in working his culinary genius, eventually winning over Anton Ego, a vulture-like restaurant critic, with a magnificent ratatouille. The film’s mantra is “Anyone can cook”, which Ego is forced to swallow as he realizes some of the finest food he has eaten was made by a rat.

“Anyone can cook.” Or, as the critic Ego finally understands, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

Now, I believe that anyone can cook. Artistic genius aside, getting to be a competent home-cook—that is, getting good food on the table in an efficient manner, is not so difficult. How does one learn how to cook? In my opinion, it takes four main things:

1. knowledge of food
2. experience
3. an equipped kitchen
4. technique

Knowledge of food. If you don’t like food—meaning, if you don’t pay attention to what you’re eating—you’ll never learn to cook. That’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is how to learn about food. You start by eating—not like a pig, but like a goat: an enormous variety. What foods exist on this earth? Try everything in the supermarket. Go to the foreign foods market. Ask your relatives for recipes. Travel. Then, learn about the individual qualities of the foods you cook with. When are they in season? How are they grown? What part of the world are they from? How is it best to cook them? What other foods do they go well with? This takes time and curiosity.

Experience. Like any skill, cooking takes experience. You aren’t going to cook the potatoes enough the first time. Nor will you wait until the onions are truly caramelized. Nor will you realize why it’s necessary to salt eggplant before you sauté it until you have a bone-dry pan and eggplants fat as sponges. You’ll make mistakes, and learn from them.

Equipment. Tools are necessary. If you are an aspiring pastry chef (like me), many tools (that you don’t have and don’t want to buy because you live in France) are necessary. Tant pis. You can’t really work around these things:

Cutting board and a good knife (a sharp knife should cut through a tomato without denting the skin). Colander. Salad spinner (bulky, I know, but soggy greens don’t cut it). Good non-stick frying pan. Pot and lid. Plastic spatula (metal will scratch your pan). Whisk. Potato peeler. Cheese grater. Kitchen shears. A food processor is really, really useful, but you can work around it (I do). There are loads of other useful things, but not much that you can’t absolutely do without.

Technique. This is the last step, because knowledge and experience are necessary well before you start learning actual cooking techniques. But without technique, everything you cook will basically be a big-ole-pot-o-stuff. Or, a big-ole-pan-o-stuff-with-oil. This is how everybody starts. You chop up things that you like and mix them in a pot. Voila, dinner. It satisfies hunger, but it gets a bit boring after a couple years. After that, you might learn how to fry things, because it’s easy and it tastes good. Then, sautéing, which is easy to do but difficult to do well. Then, on to roasting, stewing, grilling, steaming, baking, etc. One mistake a lot of beginning cooks make is simply putting too much in the pot. The best recipes are the simplest—maybe 4, 5 ingredients. Or less. Taste is like painting—mix too many colors and you end up with brown.

I’m no expert chef. But I love cooking and I know quite a few recipes. Some recipes I can do pretty well. And this has been my experience learning to cook.

. . . and Ratatouille? Can we return to this topic? What is a ratatouille? Let’s end this post with a recipe for the beautiful ratatouille that Remy serves to Ego at the end of the film.
A ratatouille is a vegetable dish from the Provence region of France. It is always made with tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and Provencal herbs (basil, bay leaf, and thyme). Usually, the tomatoes, garlic, onions, and herbs are made into a sauce, while all the other vegetables are diced and sautéed. It can be served as a side, or as a main dish over rice. What makes a good ratatouille is the softness of the vegetables; they must be thoroughly cooked, enough to intermingle, but not to the point of mushy-ness.

The key to making a good sauce in this recipe is to salt the vegetable slices before cooking. This takes time, but it’s necessary to relive excess liquid from the vegetables. If you skip this step, the sauce will end up too watery. Also, canned tomatoes make life easier but choose a tasty one—the sauce will, of course, taste like what you buy. To add flavor to the sauce, add herbs, salt and pepper, or just make your own sauce. And, because we’re layering, keep in mind when you’re doing the grocery shopping that the vegetables need to be about the same circumference.

1/2 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
1 cup whole tomatoes in sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small eggplant
1 smallish zucchini
1 smallish yellow squash
1 longish red bell pepper
Few sprigs fresh thyme
pinch Herbs de Provence
Salt and pepper

1. Trim the ends off the eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash. As carefully as you can, trim the ends off the red pepper and remove the core, leaving the edges intact, like a tube.
2. With a very sharp knife, cut the eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and red pepper into very thin slices, approximately 1/16-inch thick.
3. Spread the slices out on paper towels. Salt both sides and leave while you prepare the rest. You’ll need to blot out the excess water afterwards.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
5. Pour tomatoes into an oval baking dish. Smash the whole tomatoes into a pulp with a fork. Drop the sliced garlic cloves and chopped onion into the sauce, stir in one tablespoon of the olive oil and season the sauce generously with salt and pepper.
6. Atop the tomato sauce, arrange slices of prepared vegetables concentrically from the outer edge to the inside of the baking dish, overlapping so just a smidgen of each flat surface is visible, alternating vegetables.
7. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon olive oil over the vegetables and season them generously with salt and pepper. Season with the herbs de provence. Sprinkle the fresh thyme over the dish.
8. Cover dish with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit inside.
9. Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, until vegetables have released their liquid and are clearly cooked, but with some structure left so they are not totally limp. They should not be brown at the edges, and you should see that the tomato sauce is bubbling up around them.
10. Serve with a dab of soft goat cheese on top, alone, or with some crusty French bread, atop polenta, couscous, or your choice of grain.

vendredi 15 janvier 2010

Bean Burgers

I’m not a big fan of “imitation meat” such as Boca Burgers, Tofu-dogs, Tofurky. Soy is not meat. It has no need to aspire to be meat. It should be considered as a food in its own right. If you decide not to eat meat, take this opportunity to discover other protein-rich foodstuffs—tofu, beans, lentils, other legumes, nuts, grains—and learn how to cook with them. Don’t buy the usual meat dishes you are used to eating, but with soy instead of meat—they aren’t even good.

Bean burgers are really good. This is not, I repeat, not “vegetarian food.” A bean burger is equally as good as a hamburger (some say better), just a bit different. The patty is made with a combination of beans as opposed to ground beef.

Beans are neither fruit, nor musical, as The Simpsons informs us. However, they are rich in protein, iron, fiber, folic acid, and complex carbohydrates. They are low in fat and cholesterol. They are also inexpensive. Bean burgers can be made with any kind or combination of beans, including chickpeas, black beans, red kidney beans, white beans, or lentils. I prefer a combination of black and kidney beans. I use canned beans because dry beans take so darn long to cook, but of course home-cooked and seasoned beans would be best.

Like hamburgers, bean burgers have an infinite possibility for modifications. Feel free to experiment. The idea is to achieve a combination that is not too moist but not too dry, but the flavor possibilities are endless. I will give my basic recipe here. Variations suggested after the recipe.

Bean Burgers

Makes 4-6 burgers

2 cups well-cooked beans (see suggestions above), or one 14 oz. can
onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic
½ cup bread crumbs or rolled oats
2 Tbsp chopped chilies
1 teaspoon cumin
½ cup grated cheese
salt and pepper
1 egg
bean cooking liquid, if necessary
frying oil

1. Combine beans, onion, bread crumbs/oats, garlic, chilies, cumin, cheese, salt, pepper, and egg in a food processor. Process until chunky, adding liquid if necessary (this is unlikely).
2. Refrigerate mixture for 10 minutes.
3. Shape into patties, layering on a plate between plastic wrap. Return to refrigerator for another 10 minutes or so.
4. Fill a non-stick pan with oil over a medium flame. Wait for the oil to heat, then add the patties. Cook until well-browned on one side, then flip. Cook until thoroughly browned and firm.
5. Serve on buns with whatever you like.

--add spinach, about 1 cup
--add other vegetables, but not so many that the patties don’t hold together: carrots, bell peppers, celery, potato, sweet potato, zucchini
--add fresh herbs: parsley, basil, dill, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, etc.
--vary the spices: curry powder, cumin, ginger, cayenne pepper
--add lemon, lime, or orange zest.
--add mushrooms
--use cooked grains instead of the bread crumbs/oats and egg

mardi 12 janvier 2010

Films on Food: Our Daily Bread

Our Daily Bread is a 2005 documentary film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of modern agribusiness—specifically, the slaughterhouses, fields, and industrial farms of Western Europe. Don’t think PETA publicity—the film is not interested in provoking shock or creating scandals. In fact, it isn’t interested in feeding emotions to the viewer in any way. Consisting of unconnected, unnarrated scenes of actual working times in unidentified factories, the film attempts to give an objective window into a process which we all take part in, but very seldom see.

Watching the silent procession of scenes, often grand landscapes symmetrically arranged and without exception beautifully photographed, the emotions conjured within me were not shock and indignation, but wonder and awe . . . “How bizarre!” I kept thinking, on seeing a scuttling mass of baby chicks sucked into holding crates by a vacuum, or a giant tent moving at a snail’s pace in the dark across a vast field, while the illuminated workers below harvest lettuce heads.

The film gives an impression of the surreal, but why should looking at the most mundane of foods (eggs, tomatoes, fish sticks) be surreal?

When asked in an interview what moved him to make this film, the director Nikolaus Geyrhalter responded, “I’m fascinated by zones and areas people normally don’t see . . . the production of food is also part of a closed system that people have extremely vague ideas about. The images used in ads, where butter’s churned and a little farm’s shown with a variety of animals, have nothing to do with the place our food actually comes from. There’s a kind of alienation with regard to the creation of our food and these kinds of labor, and breaking through it is necessary.”

Our Daily Bread shows you the hidden processes behind what’s in your grocery cart, but it doesn’t tell you what to think about it. This absence of direction left me with a strange uneasiness—because I’m used to being pushed to be enraged about where our food comes from, but here we don’t see obvious animal suffering, or unhealthy working conditions, or accidents, and still these images of normal factory operation are unsettling.

What’s disturbing about the film, what makes the images strange and weird, is much more subtle. It’s precisely that the factories are running so smoothly, the machines are working so efficiently, exactly tailored to their function, the spaces are so clean and well-disinfected—because this has all been arranged to perform rather horrific, insensitive processes on organic creatures, such as spraying pesticides, clipping beaks of chicks, separating cattle innards. It becomes terribly obvious how the distinction between living and non-living goods is irrelevant in this system; i.e. the only thing taken into account is the material condition of the final product.

The world of food production today is not always beautiful, but it is often bizarre. This film is both—beautifully filmed, frame by frame, and a look into how far from Grandpa’s farm modern agribusiness has come.

mercredi 6 janvier 2010

Des Recettes Secrètes de la Famille Didet

Être avec un homme français ça sert parfois. J’en ai profité en piquant quelques recettes à sa mère. La première est une buche de Noël, glacée avec de la crème de marron. À Noël cette année, j’ai essayé une buche d’une pâtisserie—pas pareil du tout.

La deuxième recette est pour des pâtisseries qui s’appellent oreillettes. Bien faites, les oreillettes sont légères et croquantes, fines et saupoudrées avec tellement de sucre glace, que chaque fois que vous prenez une bouchée, vous finissez saupoudré vous-même.

Buche de Noël

200 grammes de farine
250 grammes de sucre
1 paquet de levure
6 œufs
750 grammes de crème de marron
200 grammes de beurre

1. Mélanger la farine, le sucre, la levure, et les œufs.
2. Mettre une feuille d’aluminium double sur une plaque. Faire un rectangle 28x27 en fermant les 4 angles.
3. Beurrer toute la surface de la feuille. Y verser la pâte et cuire 20 minutes. Elle va un peu montée.
4. La sortir. La roulée avec la feuille pour y donner la forme. Attention, c’est chaud. La dérouler et la laisser refroidir.
5. Faire la garniture avec 750 grammes de crème de marron et 200 grammes de beurre. Mélanger.
6. Tapisser l’intérieur de la génoise puis la roulée a nouveau et la reste de la crème dessus.
7. Mettre 15 minutes au frigo et ensuite passer la fourchette dessus pour le décor.


2 bon plats, peut être 30 oreillettes

500 grammes de farine. Faire un trou et mettre 250 grammes de beurre fondu. Mettre 2 cuillères à soupe de fleur d’orange ou pastis/rhum/cognac. Mettre 6 œufs entiers. Faire une boule et laisser reposer 1heure. Quand la pâte est reposée mettre de l’huile dans une tasse. Faire une boulette de la grosseur d’un kiwi. La trempée dans la tasse (c’est pour qu’elle n’accroche pas). L’étalée sur une table (ou plaque) à l’aide d’une bouteille.
Puis la décoller délicatement et la mettre à cuire dans une poêle ou se trouve la quantité d’un bol d’huile bien chaude. La retourner avec une fourchette. Quand elle est dorée l’enlever l’égoutter et la sucrée des 2 cotés. Faire de même pour les autres boulettes. Elles peuvent se déchirer quand tu décolles de la table—pas grave.


House Recipes from the Family Didet

One of the benefits of having a French boyfriend is lifting house recipes from his mother, like this buche de Noël, a Christmas cake rolled into the form of a log and iced with chestnut cream. Buches nowadays can be bought at the store, often filled with ice cream, or at the pastry shop, where they’re made light and fluffy, with a whipped mouse icing. But nothing compares to the homemade version—dense and cakey, with a rich icing.

Buche de Noël

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 eggs
30 oz. chestnut cream
1 cup butter

1. Mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and eggs.
2. Cover double-fold a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Make a rectangle 11 inches x 10 inches.
3. Grease well the entire surface of the aluminum foil. Pour in the dough and bake 20 minutes at 350 F. It will rise a bit.
4. Take out the cooked cake and roll into a log. Be careful, it’s hot. Then unroll the cake and let it cool.
5. Mix the chestnut cream and the butter to make the frosting.
6. Ice the interior of the cake, roll into shape, and cover the outside as well. Put in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Finally, run a fork through the icing to create the impression of wood.

Oreillettes means “little ears” in French. These airy doughnut-like pastries aren’t very little, but they’re kind of ear-like, in that the dough, when fried, contorts into strange shapes and develops irregular bumps.

The key is to roll the blobs of batter very thin, so the doughnut is light and airy after. Sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar.


These amounts will make 2 good plates, about 30 oreillettes.

You need 4 1/3 cups flour. Dig a hole in the middle of the flour and pour inside 1 1/6 cup melted butter. Add 2 tablespoons of orange liquor, rum, pastis, or cognac. Add 6 eggs, make a ball and let the dough rest for 1 hour. After the dough has rested, prepare a small container of vegetable oil. Take a bit of dough and form a ball, about the size of a kiwi. Dip the ball completely into the container of oil (this is so that the dough doesn’t stick when you roll it). Roll out the ball very thin. Fry in a preheated pan of oil. Turn over once with a fork, and when both sides are golden, take it out and place on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Repeat with the rest of the dough, making balls, rolling, and frying. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.