Archive for May, 2010

Reprising Julia Child’s first French meal

The marvelously bourgeois restaurant La Couronne changed the way Americans eat, so when I was in Fécamp to write about Bénédictine for the Robb Report (see “Leisure: A Secret for the Centuries”), I had to stop off in Rouen on my way back to Paris. Mark your calendar: On Wednesday, November 3, 1948, Julia and Paul Child stopped for lunch after their ferry landed at Le Havre and they began the drive to Paris. Writing years later, Julia called it “the most exciting meal of my life.” It was her first taste of French food.



Founded as an inn in 1345, La Couronne (31 Place du Vieux Marché, 33-02-35-71-40-90, www.lacouronne.com.fr) has a strong claim as the oldest auberge in France, not that the countryside Art Nouveau décor suggests such antiquity. Nor does the kitchen: The cooking is timeless northern French cuisine. Since this was a pilgrimage to the spot where Julia Child figuratively discovered fire, I ordered the same dishes that she and Paul ate in 1948.

When I requested six oysters, sole meuniere, green salad, fromage blanc with berries, and coffee, accompanied by a half bottle of Pouilly Fume, my waiter nodded and smiled. “Le Menu Julia Child”

Minutes later he whisked over six perfect Brittany oysters so large and plump that each made two substantial bites. They were presented on a bed of ice with a plate of rye bread and a small pitcher of onion-steeped vinegar. As I paused between oysters to savor the clean salinity, the proprietor, Madame Darwin Cauvin, came over and we chatted about the pilgrims who had been coming since the release of “Julie and Julia,” which featured the First Lunch filmed at La Couronne.




The centerpiece of the meal the Dover sole, a European fish rarely seen fresh on my side of the Atlantic. The whole fish arrived on a presentation platter, perfectly browned with the butter sauce still sputtering. I approved and the waiter whisked it to a side table to de-bone, presenting me with four perfect fillets. Julia called the sole “a morsel of perfection,” and I won’t argue. I closed my eyes to savor the aromas, then opened them to take a tentative bite, chewing slowly and enjoying the mild salty fish and lemony sauce. It was a little like eating hot buttered ocean.

After the sole, the green salad with a lightly acidic vinaigrette was almost anti-climactic, though it did clear my palate for the subtle but unctuous fromage blanc (like a cross between tangy yogurt and sour cream) with fall berries. Black coffee and crisp little tuiles made a perfect finish.

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SOLE MEUNIERE

Here’s my version of that great fish dish, substituting New England winter flounder for the unavailable Dover sole. I also use fillets because they are easier to handle and serve than the whole fish, especially without a waiter to expertly de-bone it. The picture, though, was taken at La Couronne, a reminder of how to serve a seemingly unattractive dish. This recipe serves 2.

Ingredients

4 flounder fillets, 4-6 ounces each
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced parsley, divided
4 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon capers

Directions

1. Rinse the fillets and pat them dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread flour on a flat surface and drag each fillet through flour, patting lightly. Turn fillets over and repeat. Shake off excess flour.

2. Divide butter evenly between a large (12-15-inch) frying pan or fish sauté pan and a small (8-inch) skillet. Add oil to large pan and heat over medium-high heat, swirling to blend oil and butter. When mixture begins to foam, add fillets and cook without disturbing for about 90 seconds per side, until coating is lightly browned and fish is firm to the touch. Remove to warm platter, sprinkling half the minced parsley on top.

3. Heat butter in smaller skillet over medium-high heat. Swirl pan steadily until butter begins to sputter and brown. When it reaches the color of an almond, add lemon juice, capers, and remaining parsley. Stir vigorously with a slotted spatula to emulsify ingredients and serve immediately over the warm fish.

25

05 2010

More asparagus recipes from Friuli

Perhaps I have such an affinity for Friuli because I lived for more than a decade in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, where Hadley asparagus, grown on the rich riverbank soils of the Connecticut River, is some of the finest “grass” in the U.S. I’m in Cambridge now, but I still gorge on Hadley asparagus during the short May season.

For the last couple of years I have worked to adapt recipes from an authoritative Friuli book on the subject called simply Asparagi 103 ricette by gourmand Antonio Boemo. It just might be the final word in great asparagus cookery, featuring recipes from some of Friuli’s finest chefs. (Thanks, Bepi Pucciarelli, for finding the out-of-print book and helping with the translations.) Here are a couple of my favorite Friuli-style treatments of Hadley asparagus.

SEA SCALLOP AND ASPARAGUS TAGLIATELLE
This can also be made with small in-shore scallops, but the plate looks less dramatic. This dish was adapted from Vanni Aizza of Ristorante La Columbara in the amazingly ancient village of Aquilea (via Zilli 34, +39 0432-910-513). It serves 6 as a pasta course.

Ingredients

6 large sea scallops (about 1/2 lb)
1 lb fresh asparagus
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley
1 cup light cream
salt
1 lb fresh tagliatelle or linguine
pepper

Directions

1. Bring large pot of salted water to boil.

2. Clean the scallops and asparagus, removing tough ends from asparagus and peeling spears if they are large. Cut asparagus into 1-inch lengths.

3. Add olive oil to a deep skillet set over medium heat. Add garlic and brown lightly. Add scallops and sear on one side (30 seconds). Turn over and sear on other side (30 seconds). Add wine to pan. Remove scallops and set aside.

4. Add chopped asparagus and parsley to pan and saute, turning often, for about 7 minutes or until cooked al dente. Add cream to pan and stir well to mix. Bring to full boil for 1 minute. Add scallops and boil two more minutes. Taste and add salt, if necessary.

5. While scallops are cooking, add pasta to pot of boiling salted water and cook 90 seconds to 2 minutes. Drain.

6. Toss pasta with asparagus-scallop sauce, dust with a few grinds of black pepper, and serve.

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RUSSIAN SALAD WITH ASPARAGUS AND MUSHROOMS

This is a Friuli version of a classical banquet dish that celebrates the spring mushrooms and asparagus of the Friulian woods and fields. We have some pretty terrific spring mushrooms in New England, too, but this version employs a mix of grocery store fungi. It’s adapted from the recipe by Ivan Uanetto of Trattoria Da Nando in Mortegliano (Viale Divisione Julia 14, +39 0432-760-187). It serves 6.

Ingredients

1 lb. asparagus, peeled and tough ends removed
1 large waxy potato (Yukon, Red Bliss, etc)
2 tablespoons butter
small onion, minced
1/4 cup flour
12 oz whole milk
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 lb. white button mushrooms
1/4 lb. oyster, chanterelle or shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 large Roma-style tomatoes, peeled
5 hard boiled eggs
chopped parsley

Directions

1. Steam the asparagus until barely cooked (4-5 minutes depending on size). Cool immediately.

2. Cut potato into 1/2 inch cubes and steam until just barely cooked through (7-8 minutes). Cool and set aside.

3. Melt butter over medium heat in 10-inch frying pan. Add minced onion and saute slowly until onion is thoroughly cooked through but not browned. Place flour in mixing bowl and whisk in milk slowly, blending thoroughly. Slowly add milk mixture to onion in frying pan, stirring constantly. Cook until thick (5-7 minutes). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let mixture cool.

4. Remove tips from asparagus and set aside. Cut remaining asparagus into 1/2 inch lengths and combine with cooked potatoes. Cut mushrooms, tomatoes, and boiled eggs into similar sized pieces and gently combine with asparagus and potatoes. Mix in dressing and toss gently.

5. Place in serving bowl and lay reserved asparagus points on top. Sprinkle thoroughly with chopped parsley and serve.

19

05 2010

Friuli has the right wine for asparagus


Asparagus is notoriously difficult to pair with wine because sulfur-bearing compounds in the stalks produce a chemical bouquet that clashes mightily with the tannins in red wine or in whites aged in oak. Eat asparagus and drink your average pinot noir or barrel-aged chardonnay and the wine will literally taste like garbage.

The French solve the problem by pairing asparagus with Loire Valley whites or white Sancerre-wines based on Sauvignon Blanc that never see a whiff of oak. But just as Friuli grows some of the best asparagus in Europe (see If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli), the northeast corner of Italy also produces the best wine to pair with it. Since 2008 it’s been on the market as Friulano, though in Friuli some people still call it Tocai Friulano. (The Hungarians got all huffy about “tocai,” so the Italians had to change the name.)

Recent genetic research reveals that Friulano is first cousin to Sauvignon Blanc and is the grape known in France as Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. In France, it makes a thin wine with a “green” taste. In Friuli, where it’s considered a native grape, it makes a noble, forthright, steely white wine that is the perfect match to asparagus. (The acids also cut nicely through unctuous sauces like hollandaise).

Although Friulano is considered one of the best white wines in all of Italy, it is little known in North America. But I’m beginning to find some examples in better liquor stores near my home in Cambridge. The most intense and steely Friulano comes from the Colli Orientali region on the far eastern edge of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. My favorite is produced by Giorgio Colutta and sold under the Colutta label as Friulano Annata (about $16). Joe Bastianich (son of chef Lidia) also makes a very good version for around $1 more. Both are widely distributed.

15

05 2010

If it’s asparagus it must be Friuli

Guidebooks to Italy have a maddening tendency to completely ignore one of my favorite areas for gastronomic tourism: the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the northeast corner of the country. Sharing a northern border with Austria and an eastern border with Slovenia, Friuli has both a dialect and a cuisine with strong Germanic influences. The local version of Italian is full of the hard Rs and the chewy “sch” sounds of central Europe, and the menus are laden with pork and a bevy of mitteleuropan dumplings masquerading as gnocchi. Many of the dishes draw their depth of flavor from cream, butter, or smoked fish.

Piazza Libertà, Udine

But most food in Friuli is based on whatever is freshest from the fields. Right now that happens to be asparagus. Friuli is famed for growing Italy’s finest asparagus, and during the last half of April through May, every restaurant from the elegant dining rooms in Udine and Trieste to the most casual countryside osterias goes mad for spargs, as asparagus is called in the local dialect.

Many preparations require no recipe. Wherever I go in Friuli this time of year, I find small bundles of lightly steamed asparagus wrapped in the local San Daniele prosciutto and browned in butter. Or just as likely, large plates of steamed white and green asparagus topped with shaved Montasio, the local aged cow’s milk cheese. (The Friulanos grow a lot of white asparagus, too, hilling it up with dirt in the traditional manner rather than growing under black plastic.)

I use the city of Udine as a base for traveling in Friuli, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite restaurant for contemporary cuisine, Trattoria Agli Amici (via Liguria 250, +39 0432-565-411). But when it comes to asparagus cookery, no one matches Trattoria Al Grop in the neighboring village of Tavagnacco (via Matteotti 1, +39 0432-660-240), now run by Simona and Silvia del Fabbro, the fifth generation of the family to operate their temple of asparagus in the shadow of the belltower of Sant’Antonio Abate. In season, they offer a nine-course asparagus menu.

Here’s an adaptation of their dreamy, creamy asparagus soup as made by their mother Angela. She cooks her own cannellini (white kidney beans) from scratch, but canned beans work just as well.

Asparagus and orzo soup

Serves 6 as soup course

Ingredients

2 lb. fresh asparagus
1 16-ounce can of cannellini (white kidney) beans
1 quart beef stock, divided
1/3 cup orzo (rice-sized pasta)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light cream
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil for drizzling

Directions

1. Wash asparagus and snap off about 1 inch from tough ends and discard. Peel asparagus stalks from base to about 1 inch below the flower tips. Break stalks in half.

2 . Break top halves of stalks into short lengths, each about the size of the asparagus tip. Set aside.

3. Chop bottom halves of stalks into short lengths. Add to 4-quart saucepan with the beans and 1 cup of broth. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree in food processor or pass though coarse blade of a food mill.

4. Return puree to saucepan and stir in remaining broth. Add asparagus tops, orzo, butter and cream. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 15 minutes.

5. Serve with a fine thread of olive oil on top.

09

05 2010