Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Touchstone: Bourgogne

Looking for Burgundy in Lyon is a fruitful exercise. When you narrow down the dishes that do Burgundy justice, they appear in one form of another over and over again, year after year on café menus here. How can they not, when we have the abundance of Burgundy tumbling onto the market stalls all year? When we seek inspiration in the seasons and the market, it is inevitable that we're going to choose the best from all of the distinct regions that Lyon is privy to by association. So many of the dishes served here are not only local, but distilled into a collection of the best coming from each point of the compass surrounding this great city.

Escargots de Bourgogne are at home on the Lyonnais table. Platters are slid onto tables, dishcloth covered hands pulling back, leaving the dish sizzling on checkered woven cotton and white linen tablecloths alike, ready to be devoured with their fresh spring garlic and chopped herb seasoned garlicky butter. We dutifully sop it all up with a rich spongy pinch of poolish-fed baguette. I fell across the perfect beurre d'escargot butter quite by accident when browsing through a collection of local recipes, then another. Several cook's notebooks referred to one source. Paul Bocuse, of course. I questioned the use of almond flour, wondering what on earth that might contribute. But it serves a little bit like a megaphone for the flavors of the earth, carrying them, pronouncing them to well harmonize and mingle with the aromatic seasoned butter. With a sip of a local white sparkling Burgundy wine, the moment becomes a touchstone of sorts, one that crystalizes an important idea. It shines brighter and comes easier in retrospect. We savor it, and each other, and the sun streams into the kitchen. We are in Lyon.

While we're chopping up bunches of fresh herbs and mincing the season's fresh spring garlic shoots, grating the nutmeg and such, I always like to slice a naked escargot into pieces, to be tasted alone before we stuff the rest into the shells with the prepared butter and pop them under the broiler. There is a silence that falls across the kitchen when I pass out the escargot forks. I explain that it's very important to taste now, that any well prepared escargot de Bourgogne is going to taste fresh and earthy, that it's going to give us something very special: In fact, when we put them into our mouths, we are reminded of just what it tastes like, the terroir of this rich and varied land.

Recipe: Escargots de Bourgogne

You can always find locally processed escargots in Lyon. Escargots de Bourgogne are considered to be a special occasion dish that are commonly served during the winter holidays in many regions of France, but in Lyon, they are available and readily consumed year-round. It is about as rare to find any restaurant that processes their own live escargots as a place that makes their own cheese or cured meats. It's not unheard of, but just not common since the experts local to Lyon like Maison Malatre, have got it down to a science. The escargots are first isolated from food source for several days to empty their digestive tracts, then they are boiled in their shells, removed from the shells, further processed by hand to remove inedible parts, then slow simmered again in an aromatic and herbal broth before being preserved for distribution. It is rare these days to find average home cooks going through this process, although some families have their traditions.

3 dozen medium simmered escargots
3 dozen clean dry escargot shells
200 grams butter
4 grams fleur de sel, or 3/4 tsp
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
10 g fresh garlic, minced
8 g shallot, minced
10 g fresh almond flour
20 g parsley, finely minced

Stuff one escargot, tail first, into each shell. Combine the butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg, almond flour, shallots, garlic and parsley and work them together until thoroughly combined, but without crushing the minced herbs so much that the butter turns green. With a butter knife, gently fill each shell to the brim with the seasoned butter. Place in trays or balanced on piles of sea salt, with the opening facing up to ensure that the butter doesn't flow out when it melts. Put the trays of snails under the grill or broiler and cook until the butter is sizzling and the snails are hot. Serve immediately with a splash of cold sparkling Burgundy white wine or Champagne.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Lamb Chops

The pickings were slim at the market. I was going to be teaching a class where we just cook together through to lunch time, based on what I find. I dropped my son off at school and only had 45 minutes before class. I had to be quick. I walked the length of the market and reached the end. Nothing. Nothing looked fabulous this morning.

There was a surge of some early autumn vegetables over the weekend, and I'd been looking forward to working with these ingredients, notably beets and watercress. I wanted to do a beet, goat cheese and watercress dish as a starter, and then follow with a nice egg dish. But the beets and the watercress had withdrawn from the scene this morning, and they were not the only things missing. It seems that a lot of producers like to take their vacation during the period after the summer harvest and before the autumn harvest begins. So we had some filler stands with ho hum standards, and my egg people were missing.

My egg people being gone was a serious problem. These are the only people who consistently give me fabulous eggs. I am talking about eggs laid yesterday, the ones that plump up into perfect ovals when poached. I had to start asking people about their eggs, and got shaky answers each and every time. "Tuesday" said one, looking off over my shoulder just long enough for me to know, without a doubt, he was telling a story. I finally settled on some eggs, wasting precious minutes.
"Where is your tarragon?" I asked the lady who provided me with my fines herbes.
"Sorry, some lady bought it all, she had to have 3 bunches this morning, none left." She rolled her eyes and so did I. This continued all the way back down and I realized I had done the whole market I still didn't have a starter.

I decided to shift my poached egg dish to a starter and go with a meat dish. Côtelettes d'agneau en aïado, which is aromatic herb marinated lamb chops I like to do with three sauces, a fabulous garlic sauce similar to an aioli but cooked, a buttery plumped reduction sauce from lamb stock, and a sweet onion and predominantly chervil based green sauce using Claire's secret olive oil. I got closer to the meat stand where the idea for the chops came from but saw he was one of those circular saw butchers that wear lab coats, the ones that use power saws, producing cuts addled with ugly to deal with bone schrapnel. That would not do.

I then remembered the butcher I sometimes go to when my producers on the market don't have what I need. I entered the shop.
"Bonjour madame, do you have any lamb chops?"
"Yes, we do. Honey, the lady wants lamb chops."
"How many?"
"Eight." I was thinking that would be fine. Eight lamb chops.
"Coming right up!" he called. I had 20 minutes at that point to finish this transaction and get down to the kitchen, open up, and print out recipes. I heard him bumping around downstairs. I looked at my watch and smiled at the butcher's wife.
"I'm teaching a class in 20 minutes." we both laughed. There was a silence.
"The lady's in a hurry!"
Up came the butcher with a lamb on his shoulder. He proceeded to carve into the lamb, removing the cuts he needed to get to the chops. "The lady's in a hurry, the lady's in a hurry" he sang, removing a shoulder, the heart, trimming and slicing with what looked to be a small razor sharp paring knife. He brought down a hack saw and pulled no more than two strokes to get through one bone, cut out the strip of ribs, and trimmed the end with a cleaver. His tools hung from the gorgeous hooks that looked like miniature metal bulls horns lined up in neat rows above him. I recalled that my favorite old butcher, a man who has retired and now lives in the neighborhood, used to suspend his meat on those kinds of hooks when he broke down the animal. But this one used it for his tools.
"Is this what you want?" he asked, coming out with something that looked alright but not what I had in mind.
"Can you give me the little ones? The little cute ones that look like a miniature côte de boeuf?"
"Oh, sure." He went back in and came out with a gorgeous trimmed lamb chop. I asked for some nice and thick and some nice and thin. I like it when I can stand the thick ones up on their end and the thin ones kind of lean along the side. Perfect.

I noted that the price was not that much higher than what I pay the producer for my lamb chops. The whole class was gathered in pairs along the street, waiting for me, although class would not start for another 5 minutes. I ushered them all in and we all had a cup of coffee while I printed the recipes. It came out that one of the students who had registered at the last minute was celiac, so instead of an autumn tarte, we went with some vanilla bean enriched îles flottantes for dessert. We had a delightful morning. The eggs were probably at least 4 days old, but I will take that up with him tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcard: Lyon Croix Rousse

One of the workshops I will begin offering again on a regular basis at the rentrée is Herbs in French Cooking. Starting this fall, I'll be gathering up armfuls of fresh herbs, all the common ones used in French cooking and some that are wild or not so common but find their way to my markets when they are in season. We go through them one by one and by the time we've rubbed at least a dozen different fresh herbs between our fingers, we'll be ready to cook with them. There's something profound that happens when we get all these herbs and turn our attention to them. One of my favorite things to do with lemon verbena right now is to infuse it into a crème pâtissière, and serve it with strawberries. It is one of those combinations that leaves us all speechless as we greedily scrape the parfait glasses clean.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

Foraged Things

This morning, strolling the market, I noticed the foraged Spring things have finally made their way to town. Tonight we will enjoy fresh morels in cream on our own hand cranked pasta, and tomorrow a rabbit, nettle and potato soup. We had a full day of clear bright sun today for the first time in weeks, and it completely filled the kitchen, putting a definitive end to the chill of this year's winter that wouldn't let go. While we chopped and stirred our way through this morning's class, surrounded by picked edible plants exploding with life, I felt relief and peace spread into my bones, the kind that comes with the promise of a new season. New onions braced in my hands under icy running water, tonic and crisp. I have leftover gibelotte and my weekend has begun.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Simple Poached Pears

Poached pears keep well and are nice sweet touch to serve in their syrup when you've just had a family supper. Add vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, and you've got a poire Hélène. If you're feeling more ambitious you can dice them and add them with a dash of Poire William to a creme bavarois for a charlotte. If you want something in between, you can choose small pears and then use them whole to accompany petit pots de crème that you've perfumed with any other of the fresh herbs that are coming to market. The pears above eventually went into a tarte Bourdaloue. Martin Sec, Bosc, or Conference pears are all good for poaching.

Simple Poached Pears

4 small pears, not too ripe
2 cups white wine (or water with a dash of lemon juice, if you like)
75 grams granulated sugar
lemon zest (optional)
1/2 a vanilla bean (optional)

Put the white wine or water & juice and sugar into a small saucepan big enough to nestle the pears into. Add the vanilla bean and lemon zest and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Peel the pears and slip them whole into the liquid and let it simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the pears to cool in their juice. Keep them in the refrigerator in a non-reactive container. These will keep for at least a week.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gougères and Canapés

The transition from making your own puff pastry to croissant dough is a simple one, with croissants adding yeast to the mix. The butter is flattened the same way, the folds are the same, just a different number. The addition of yeast yields a different flavor and consistency altogether, along with the need to consider temperature not just for the butter, but also how it plays in the development of the yeast. The slower it rises, the better it tastes. Last week I had a student sign up for several classes in a row. On Friday we made croissants and on Saturday, after visiting the market and fromagerie together, we went back to the kitchen to do one last multi-course meal. One of the delights in being able to cook over the course of several days together is that it opens doors for projects, one very important one being putting together a reception's worth of canapés and gougères. They freeze well, baking straight from their frozen state into quick savory appetizers. Whenever I do a croissant workshop, I always take some time to roll out some of that extra dough that we always have at the end and tuck in fresh green herbs and minced leafy aromatics with sausage meat or fresh farmer's cheese, seasonal wild mushroom duxelles and dabs of sauces we've whipped up over the course of the week, so that at any time, when the weather gets warm, friends can pop in for a drink or supper and we can get things off to a good start. It is a nice habit to get into.


Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Humble Beginnings

My first experience with French cheese was as a young adult, traveling in The Netherlands for work.  I had taken the train to a tiny little town called Delft on a free weekend to take a gander at the pottery, and in the basement snack shop of the cobblestoned town's museum, they were serving a thin slice of hot brie on toast. I went back to the counter twice, and then later that afternoon, before catching my train back to Rotterdam. To this day, I remember nothing of the pottery, but I do have a clear image in my mind of the Brie dripping off that oval of toast onto crinkly paper, and the sky in Delft.

Years later, I met a very interesting man and found love hurling me quickly to France. In order to save money I had taken a cheap flight to London and was sleeping on the floor of a flat that belonged to a woman he knew before continuing my journey to see him in his own country for the first time. She and I talked that night and after plying me with a small glass of Grey Goose, she asked me what my vice was. I told her it was cheese.  In my mind, this was NY State Cheddar ideally eaten while standing in muddy cleats by the light of an open refrigerator door.

She was sitting very straight up in a cross legged position and she twisted her curly black hair with her actrice's finger and gave out a throaty laugh. "Well, you're going to like France, then". At that moment my hot brie in Delft came back to me. And that was all. I imagined shops filled from floor to ceiling with toasts dripping with Dutch museum snackbar brie with the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the background.

After we ran into each others arms in slow motion along the platform at the Gare in Paris and then found ourselves in his little love nest near the Canal St. Martin, I told him I wanted to go to a cheese shop, immediately.

We got dressed and he took me to La Maison du Fromage. I was deep in a state of shock and was unable to articulate any reaction to what was facing me at the counter that seemed to go on and on. What did I want, anyway? He took the lead and picked out three cheeses.  A munster, Brie, at my request, and an herb encrusted goat's cheese from Corsica called "Brin d'Amour". We took them to his little studio with a baguette and had them on a card table. Let me tell you, at that moment, I knew. This was the man I was going to marry.