Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Our Daily Bread

Not keen on strolling around town spreading our cooties on the pretext of buying a baguette, I decided to bake some bread.  I highly recommend Emmanuel Hadjiandreou's book called How to Make Bread.  He also does killer bread baking workshops.  I left his books in the mountains where I usually spend my quiet hours there with the wood stove, but I had not forgotten much of what I learned from him 8 years ago while visiting Kate Hill.

I got my sourdough starter going, which always takes a few days to develop.  Since they strengthened the lockdown and we needed bread on the table pronto, I first baked up two small loaves of straight bread, meaning, I used baker's yeast I had in the kitchen. This is nice bread in a pinch. It was good the next morning with butter and fleur de sel.

The next day, I decided to do a loaf with a poolish, which is where you put flour and water in equal parts by weight together with just a tiny bit of yeast and let that develop and ferment just enough to add complexity to the flavor, overnight.  Incorporate it into your bread the next day, and the difference in flavor is remarkable.

The levain is coming along nicely and I will be baking with that soon, but tomorrow I will be baking with la pâte fermentée, which is where you take some bread dough you've got going, let it develop flavors overnight, and incorporate it into the next day's dough.  So today's bread with poolish will be tomorrow's bread with pâte fermentée. 


Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Story of Plum: Monsieur Oseille

During the work day, there were short windows of time within which the baby was now spending time at the creche. It was my opportunity to make appointments with real estate agents all over town to look at properties.  The goal was to find a commercial space within a certain list of arrondissements which could serve the dual purpose of containing both my teaching kitchen and a separate apartment to live in. Getting anyone to take me seriously over the telephone had proven to be a major task, and the properties I had managed to see were mostly inappropriate, either being grossly overpriced to the point of comedy, or missing some important element that would make them legally workable.  At this point I was beginning to lose hope.

There was a property in the Pentes de la Croix Rousse, a neighborhood that featured lots of hills and stairs, that had been on the market for a long time.  It was offered by just about every agency in town.  I called agent after agent about getting to see it, since it looked like a charming space with interesting and historical vaulted stone ceilings and a small private courtyard.  It had served at one time as a gallery.  The problem was that no one would show it to me.  Refusal after refusal to even open the door for a look had me on the road to obsession.  No matter how I worded my request, they always had the same answer.  "No, madame, that one is not for you… "

I recalled a little neighborhood I had recently explored based on narrative scenes from a book.  I took my camera back there one afternoon to get some photographs of some interesting architectural details in the back alleys and courtyards.  The rain was pouring down, I had my photos, and I began to lose steam.  Walking up a hill towards home, I slowed down and was distracted by a window of a small independent real estate agency I had not yet visited or called.  I pushed open the door, and bustled in, dripping from the rain.

"Madame?" a staff of 3 or 4 people glanced my way, halfway stopping what they were doing, sizing me up, "do you have an appointment?"

"Hello, I want to see that property." I was pointing to the back-side of the information sheet hanging in the front window.  They all continued to go about their business for a moment, silently glancing at one another to decide who was going to field this person they couldn't hang up on, since she was actually standing in their office.  Finally after a delay long enough to make me wonder if anyone had heard me, a pale-looking tall young man, perhaps a stagière, who had to duck his hair under a beam to reach me at the front door, approached me, whispered "please wait" and walked away again.

They had decided to send me to see M. Oseille, who apparently was not there.  After several minutes of me standing by the door being ignored and wondering if I should finally just leave, a man's polished shoes came scuttling down a cramped metallic spiral staircase that led to the second level of the agency.  He crouched as he came under the beam, came to the door and shook my hand.  "Come up to my office, madame." We climbed into what seemed to be a tree house.  After some shuffling about to clear some papers off of one of the old leather upholstered chairs in front of his desk, he looked at me for a moment with fingers pointed in a steeple under his chin, the small desk lamp on his desk illuminating his face from one side, the dim grey afternoon light softening the shadows from the other.

"Tell me about your project, Madame."  He was looking at me, straight on and without any reservation or hurry in his regard, which took me slightly aback.  Up to that point, I had made appointments over the phone with young pushy agents that always informed me they were on very tight schedules.  When they saw me in person, they barely bothered with eye contact, let alone actually showing any interest in my project when I met with them.  I found myself, that rainy afternoon, in the light of a little stretched parchment shaded table lamp, telling M. Oseille the story of Plum.  I began about three-quarters of the way through the story, as good a place as any to begin.  The words came tumbling out. I felt as if my chest was opening and the words were released, unrehearsed, but already tightly woven. My story landed at  "...which brings me to the reason I am here. I want to see that gallery with the small courtyard you have displayed in your window down there."

"Oh no, madame.  That one is not for you, especially with a baby."  He began to shuffle some papers as if to draw some conclusion to the matter.  I began to gather my coat, feeling slightly distressed that he'd encouraged me to reveal so much information and then refused to let me though the gate.  But I was there, and decided it would couldn't hurt to give the gate a nudge. I sat back down again.

"Can you be a bit more explicit about why having a baby might be a problem with this property?"

"You're going to have to trust me on this one," he said, scribbling something down on a small pad of paper.  He tore the paper out of the notebook, folded it in half, and handed it to me.  "Why don't you go to this address and take a look." He raised his hand and held it out to shake mine when it looked like I was going to protest.  I was ready to keep pushing to see the gallery.  "I think your teaching kitchen is a formidable project, Mme Vanel." His shoes began to skuttle towards the spiral staircase.  "Listen.  I have exclusivity on this one.   Go and visit, then come back and tell me what you think.  Tell me if this might be what you're looking for."

I turned the folded paper through my fingers in the pocket of my raincoat all the way home, and threw it, along with the keys on the sideboard in the lighted side hall on arrival.  M. Oseille.  An interesting character.


Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Poulet de Bresse à la Crème

Poultry in France is a subject with seemingly endless variety. On any given day, strolling through the market stalls, we see a typical volailler presenting birds of all sizes and flavors: from quail, pigeon, guinea hen, simple farm hens, chickens of various grades and breeds, duck, and yes, rabbit. You might not associate rabbit with poultry, unless you envision where it is traditionally found, in the basse-cour, which is the place where the small farm animals are traditionally tended to. Turn the pages of an old French cookbook where the true gems of French regional cuisine reside, and it's likely you'll see the poultry recipes grouped in such a way, with rabbit following along in its proper place.

Chicken is a passionate subject for many French home cooks, and it's common knowledge that there is a direct connection between not only the breed of chicken but also where a bird has been, how it's fed, living conditions for the animal and its ultimate flavor. For this reason, there is no question in any cook's mind about the superior qualities of a Poulet de Bresse, which is considered to be the very best of the best in poultry. Thankfully, due to Lyon's close proximity to Bresse country and local traditions here, we can find the Poulet de Bresse at the market on a regular basis at a reasonable price, as well as the cream and butter typical to the Bresse region on local shelves.

The Poulet de Bresse is not only a specific breed of poultry, but also bred in compliance with product specifications defined in the European AOP dossier. It is raised free-range with 10 square meters of open pasture per chicken to run in. The chickens are grown to ages 40% higher than the very much respected label-rouge chickens, a crucial few weeks that guarantees richer flavor and tonicity to the meat. They are fed with traditional locally-grown grains certified to be free of all GMO products, and a whopping thirty percent of their diet comes from their natural foraging activities, located within a specified geographical boundary that overlaps small parts of the Rhone Alpes, Burgundy, and Franche-Comté regions in France. Every aspect of the poultry's living condition falls within guidelines defined by the dossier that controls their Appelation d'Origine Protégé (Protected Name of Origin, i.e. "Bresse"). These chickens are even fed the local milk. Based on the age-old principle that terroir and tradition both play a crucial role in the product, the quality of this poultry is undeniable. You can definitely taste the difference.

You can recognize a Poulet de Bresse by its characteristic blue feet, white feathers and red crest. Each chicken will have a band around its foot indicating the farm it came from, as well as the labeling that distinctly signals the poultry's protected origins, yielding the "Bresse" name, and AOP label.

When I see plump Bresse hens at my volailler, it instantly becomes one option for our Market Table meal at Plum Lyon. What can be better than a locally raised poulet or poularde, flavors that for many are a first-time catharsis into what poultry was meant to taste like? One very nice way to prepare it is to carve up the bird, the carcass meant for stock or even consommé, and to fix a nice rustic fricassée with mushrooms which will bring out the very best qualities of this majestic poultry.

Recipe: Poulet de Bresse à la Crème et Champignons des Bois.


1 Poulet de Bresse, carved into eight pieces: Each breast with wing (suprème) removed from the ribcage and sliced in two, diagonally, leaving each wing with a considerable chunk of breast meat attached, the remaining breast pieces which have retained integrity in shape, and the drumsticks and thighs separated at the joint.
60 grams or 6 tablespoons butter
30 grams neutral flavored oil like grapeseed, or duck fat, should you have some on hand.
125 ml or about 1/2 cup of dry white wine, or Vin Jaune if you've got it.
1 onion
1 stalk celery
1 carrot
400 g or two cups crème fraîche (when in Lyon seek out Crème Bressane) or heavy cream
lemon, to season
12 morels , dried or fresh, or a half pound of mixed cultivated and wild mushrooms, brushed clean and sliced
125ml or 1/2 cup white wine, optional (when using morels)


Heat the oven to 425ºF, 210ºC.

Chop the carrot, onion, and celery into small dice. Melt 20 grams of butter in a large cooking pot suited to oven roasting the whole chicken, and sweat these aromatics (the mirepoix) over low heat with a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes, until they've softened and released their flavors.

In the meantime, season the chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and flour on all sides. In a separate frying pan, brown the chicken pieces over medium-high heat in a 50/50 mixture of butter and neutral oil like grapeseed. As the pieces brown, place them (white meat at first on the bottom of the pan, followed by the legs and thighs on top) into the cooking pot with the mirepoix. Once the meat is in the pot, turn up the heat for a minute or two to get it nice and hot. Pour the wine into the pot, and cover it immediately to contain the steam.

Transfer to the hot oven, and set a timer for 25 to 30 minutes. At the end of this time, transfer the chicken pieces to a roasting pan to keep warm, covered with foil, in the oven which has been turned off.

Prepare the sauce: Strain the cooking juices, skim off the considerable fat that floats to the top, and transfer it into a sauce pan. Turn up the heat, and reduce this liquid by one-half. Add the cream, bring to a boil, and reduce by one-half again, creating a rich, thick, creamy sauce. (note: low-fat cream will not work for this step, you need at least 30% fat, otherwise the sauce will curdle and separate.)

Cook the morels in the remaining 10 grams of butter briefly, then add the white wine wine and carefully simmer about 10 minutes until the wine is completely reduced.

Note: When preparing this dish with mushrooms other than morels, they don't need to cook in the wine. You can simply sauté them in a little bit of butter and a pinch of salt until semi-wilted and continue with the recipe.

Add the mushrooms to the cream sauce and toss to combine.

We like to serve this dish on a big platter. In springtime, this can be served over simply steamed new potatoes. During other seasons, rice or noodles are also a choice. Slice the steamed potatoes in half and pile them (or rice or noodles) in the middle of the platter. Place the hot chicken over the potatoes, followed by the mushrooms in sauce. Any remaining sauce can be offered at the table. Serve immediately.


A note on mushrooms for this dish: Morels are the ultimate choice for the mushroom in this recipe. The season for these little beauties falls typically in early spring, when we'll see piles of them, freshly foraged, moist, and clean offered by the farmers who gathered them. This year we had them locally for less than two weeks, which makes a short season. Don't worry, the morel is a mushroom that dries very well, and the poultry vendors on the market will offer them dried for sale, specifically for this dish. Don't be put off by the hefty price tag on the dried mushrooms, as you're buying them by weight dried so you needn't buy more than a dozen for one chicken - 50 to 100 grams might be enough - once reconstituted, they will render an amazing flavor.

With morels out of season, there's always the possibility that you can gather up either alternative wild mushrooms in season when you can find an abundance of amanite de cesar, coulemelles, girolles, les trompettes de mort and les chanterelles grises, OR pick a selection from producer's cultivated offerings of pleurotte, aka golden trumpet or oyster mushrooms for texture, combined with (why not?) the plentiful cultivated flavorful fresh shitakes which can definitely compliment a rich creamy wine-enriched Bresse poultry sauce. Tight and small champignons de Paris and brown button mushrooms will be your plan B. You can round out anything you've gathered with them from one end of the market to the other.


Monday, February 25, 2019

Une Sauce Ravigote Chaude

This sauce is making its way back into my rotation now that we're turning towards foods that can use the nice counterpoint of something acidic, lifting up and punctuating rich, long-simmered flavors and textures. I love a nice ravigote chaude with roasts of all kinds, from simple stuffed poultry to the more exotic tête de veau. Braised winter vegetables like endives, just now being offered by local farmers at the market this week, and steamed leeks, when served with a ravigote chaude, become a full entrée instead of a side. The cold ravigote is the reference in a lot of cooks' minds, mounted crushed cooked yolks with oil like a mayonnaise, but my favorite for this time of year is the hot version, a completely different recipe and technique. The hot version is a sauce that in my opinion plays a good role in the the steaming whole of a plate, keeping in tune with hot comforting foods - more enjoyable right now than something cold dolloped on the side like a condiment.

There are a lot of multi-faceted cooking words that can mean one thing or another, for example the word velouté, which in old school French cuisine is a classic sauce base, prepared with a roux of flour and butter, with the addition of poultry or veal stock. Having some stock on hand is important for this recipe, since it's necessary for the velouté which serves as a structural framework to weave in the texture and flavor of reduced shallots, wine, and vinegar, then layered again with flavor - using fines herbs, capers, and a little more butter, of course. This is a recipe where we build a triad of bold flavors into a velvety base: the herbs most bold of which is tarragon, enriched shallots, and capers. Try this with some simply braised leeks. Simplicity at its finest.

Recipe:  Sauce Ravigote Chaude

3 shallots
45 grams or 3 tablespoons dry white wine
30 grams or 2 tablespoons wine vinegar
25 grams or 2 tablespoons butter
25 grams or 2 tablespoons flour
300 ml or 1 1/4 cups veal or poultry stock, hot
2 tablespoons tarragon, fresh finely chopped leaves
1 tablespoon chives, fresh finely chopped herb
1 tablespoon chervil (if you've got it), fresh finely chopped herb
1 tablespoon capers in brine, chopped (make sure they're not too salty)
salt and pepper to taste (salt will depend on the capers you have)
30 grams butter to finish.

In one small saucepan, combine the shallots, wine and vinegar. Heat to boiling, then lower heat and reduce, that is let the liquid evaporate at a simmer, just until all the liquid is gone. Don't allow it to burn or brown at all. (note: this step can be done in advance and held for a day, chilled)

In another saucepan, melt the first 25 grams of butter and stir in the flour until it's a smooth paste. Allow to cook over medium heat briefly, stirring constantly, and then whisk in the stock until fully incorporated. Allow to thicken and simmer, and stir occasionally as the liquid becomes more translucent, indicating that the starches in the flour are fully saturated with the liquid and are now doing their job to thicken and stabilize. 20 minutes simmering should suffice.

Combine the reduced shallot mixture and the velouté. Add the fresh herbs and capers, and stir to combine. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste. Place the butter in one piece over the sauce and allow it to melt, then swirl it over the top to avoid forming a film. Keep this sauce warm until service, and whisk the melted butter on the surface into the sauce at the last minute.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Postcard Plum Lyon

A shot from our first Market Table Class of the season yesterday.  Looking forward to many memorable days as we progress through the spring season here in Lyon.


Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Button Phenomena

Seven years ago today, you drew in your first breath.

When you were only a few hours old, swaddled in hospital linens, I was sitting at the lunch table with a wine merchant in a Bouchon in the old town. I remember I had the “gratin d’andouilette” and pondered this formidable sausage and its condition. I recalled, as you took your first bath, that it used to have a milder flavor, and more chew, and in my opinion, was more interesting when it was made from veal. No matter, seven years ago I had this shallow dish of chitterlings, seasonings, mustard and cream. They're back to making them with veal now. It seems that some problems always straighten themselves out eventually.

The day you were born, in 2009, I was still open. I was standing on the edge of a precipice, staring out to the familiar vista of my beautiful city, in a state of waiting, silence, but also an influx of ideas, and most of all hope. I did not know you were coming. The waiting had evolved through long years of holding my arms out to catch you at their instruction, the persistent writing of letters to tell them that we weren't giving up. The big question had already fully changed from a resigned "Why?" to a more positive "When?". The years and dossiers dragged out, strung along bureaucratic corridors. I had begun, in order to cope, to see my world, this city, this ancient teeming town, my home, through a filter of detached curiosity that was central to my condition. It was a fruitful time.

On the day you were born, after duly noting a window full of pastry with the intention of focusing on les bugnes lyonnaises, I walked across the footbridge across the street from the courthouse over the Saone River to the Quai Saint Antoine, my market, the place where I felt very at home. The Tuesday market had packed up and was gone, and someone had lost a button. I took a picture of it.

It was the first day of your life.
It was the first day that my waiting was over, and I didn’t even know it.
I just noticed and pondered the button phenomena: these little lost things (coins, buttons, tokens, pebbles, parts of watches) that God seems to strew in my path as signposts, flags. For an instant I sensed something very important may be in the works. Thus the photo.

This is all in retrospect. When they place a baby in your arms and this time you don’t have to give it back, something happens. The world goes from being an immense place radiating from all sides and angles to being one small central focal point. Everything flips. You no longer receive, you give. You are still the same shell, but you are now filled with living breathing, pulsating matter. The question is, if this baby is the pearl of my oyster, do I pluck it out, slurp up the oyster, wash it down with wine, slip the pearl into my pocket like a button (is this something a man might do?) and continue on my journey of receiving, or do I come to a stop and start with a plan about how I'm going to help the pearl to grow?

You are seven today. You got a new scooter, a trottinette, the present you chose to open before school. This year, you are learning to read. You will learn so many wonderful things. And your maman? This is the year she is putting herself again into a receptive state. She is practicing herself again to a state of conscious open reception.


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.