Archive for June, 2010

Black pepper, red wine, and strawberries

The conjunction of strawberry season with this series of blogs about French cooking takes us back to our first introduction to lightened French cuisine, which was not in France at all but in the second largest French-speaking city in the world, Montreal. Les Halles opened in 1971 as a grand Escoffier-like townhouse palace of dining in a city best known to that point for its great baked beans with salt pork. When Dominique Crevoisier took over as chef in the early 1980s, he skillfully blended the haute with the nouvelle to create magical meals that didn’t give the patrons gout. He gave us the best idea of what to do with leftover red wine: Turn it into a peppered syrup to serve on strawberries! He added his own touch by tossing the berries with grated lime zest, which is a surprising complement to the black pepper. Alas, Les Halles closed five years ago, but the dining revolution launched by Les Halles has made Montreal one of the great restaurant cities of North America. And every strawberry season Crevoisier’s red wine-black pepper syrup lives on.



2 cups intense red wine (cabernet sauvignon, syrah, etc.)
2 Tablespoons black peppercorns
1/4 cup sugar


1. Combine ingredients in large skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until reduced to 1/3 cup of syrup.

2. Strain to remove peppercorns.

3. Cool and serve with sliced strawberries tossed with lime zest and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.


06 2010

Making your own lunch in Paris

We used to have a professional dancer friend from New York who always signed up for a dance class when she visited Boston. We thought it was an amusing quirk–until we discovered that most dancers take classes when they travel. At worst, they get a good workout. At best, they learn something new.

In that same spirit, I signed up to make my own lunch in Paris with a half-hour express class through L’atelier des Chefs (Chefs Workshop), which offers a whole array of cooking classes for home chefs and, judging by my classmates, for bachelors who are cooking for themselves for the first time and women who would like to relieve them of that chore.

Most classes take an hour to half a day to prepare a three course meal or learn the secrets of sweet pastry. But the popular lunch-hour classes have students make a simple meal with enough time left over to eat before they go back to work. L’atelier des Chefs supplies the tools, ingredients, and kitchen. You supply enthusiasm and an appetite.

I signed up from home through the all-French web site ( for a class in the Galeries Lafayette department store, near the Opera stop on the Metro and the most central of the school’s locations. The kitchen turned out to be a glassed-in cubicle in the kitchenware department, steps from shelves of the same knives, cutting boards, saucepans, and woks we would use to make honey-soy laquered fish fillets with stir-fried vegetables.

All the classes are taught in French, and my instructor apologized for speaking no English. I apologized for speaking such amusing French, and proceeded to nod a lot in the next half hour. Fortunately, cooking is best learned by watching and copying.

This uncomplicated dish was well suited to our group of varied cooking experience. Three women had taken several classes from L’atelier des chefs and could have made the dish with their eyes closed. Two young women and a man in business attire were learning self-sufficiency cooking and had to be shown how to hold a knife.

Even with seven of us, the instructor carefully corrected our vegetable cutting techniques, swiftly taught the precision knife nips to remove bone tips from a commercial fish fillet without messing up the shape, and made sure that we each shared in the stir-frying. Five minutes into the stir-frying, we put the honey-soy coated fish into the oven so fish and vegetables would be ready at the same time. As the fish came out, each of us probed the fillets with a finger to learn exactly how perfectly cooked fish should feel. It was an impressive amount of technique for a short class.

After a demonstration in plating (complete with a decorative drizzle of balsamic vinegar), we sat down to eat and the instructor passed sliced baguettes and poured glasses of wine. (Ah, lunch in France.) My weak French made me a less than scintillating dining companion, but it was adequate enough to understand that the instructor was explaining how to generalize our new skills for different fish and vegetables. Besides, the women were more interested in the handsome chef and the obvious bachelor.

For details on classes and locations, see the web site Cost ranges from 15-72 euros.


Fresh baby corn is usually available in Chinese markets. If substituting canned baby corn, add to the stir-fry after the bean sprouts.

Serves 6


2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
6 fillets of sea bass, about 6 ounces each
salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, cut in half, then into thin vertical slices
10 ounces Chinese cabbage (one medium head), cut in 3/4 inch chiffonade
4 ounces French green beans (about 1 cup), cut in half-inch slices
4 ounces fresh baby corn (about 1 cup), halved, then cut in 1/2 inch slices
10 ounces bean sprouts (about 2 cups)
zest and juice of 1 lemon

balsamic vinegar for plating


1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

2. Heat honey, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce in sauce pan over medium heat, stirring until completely dissolved.

3. Carefully remove any remaining bones from fish fillets. Trim off the thin (belly) section of fillet and discard (or reserve for making fish stock). Add salt and pepper to flesh side of fillets. Place fillets skin-side up on lightly oiled baking sheet or silicon baking mat. Brush with honey-soy mixture.

4. Heat oil in wok and add sliced onion and Chinese cabbage. Cook two minutes over high heat, then add the green beans. Cook one minute more and add the baby corn. Stirring constantly, cook mixture another minute. Add bean sprouts and cook one additional minute. Stir in lemon zest and juice and remove from heat.

5. After adding green beans in step 4, place fish fillets in the oven and roast for 5-6 minutes, depending on thickness. Fillets are done when just barely firm to touch.

6. To plate, create a vertical line of vegetables across plate. Top with fish fillet and decorate with lines of balsamic vinegar.


06 2010

What to buy in a Paris grocery store

It is funny that France is such a fantastic country for eating but we rarely discover as many finds in French grocery stores as we do in other countries. Part of the problem is that most of the good stuff (like the sausages and the fresh produce and seafood) can’t be brought home. The other factor is that many French foods are available in our local groceries, so we have learned to be restrained. We have also found that the fancy stores like Bon Marché and Galeries de Lafayette are big on stocking what they consider exotic delicacies-like American ketchup. There are a few things we just cannot pass up. Here’s our shopping list when we visit Paris:

Herbes de Provence. We’ve been told that this blend of dried herbs typical of the Provençal countryside was invented as a marketing ploy in the 1970s. We don’t care. The blend is handy to toss into almost everything from a stew to a vinaigrette. Why bother to bring it all the way home from Paris? Because, unlike American manufacturers, the French don’t muddy up the flavors by putting lavender flowers and leaves in the mix of savory, fennel, basil, and thyme. And the herbs are cheap if you skip the fancy crockware packaging.

Cassis mustard. Talking with French mustard makers, we learned that even in Dijon, much of the mustard seed comes from Canada, even though it is processed in France. And we are fortunate that some good French mustards (usually Maille) are fairly available in our local stores. But we never see cassis mustard in the U.S., so we always try to pick some up. Its sweet-savory flavor makes it the perfect spread for a sandwich made with leftover charcoal-grilled chicken.

Dried morel mushrooms. Again, they’re available in the U.S., but here in New England they tend to cost an arm and a leg. In France they are relatively cheap, and 3 ounces of dried mushrooms yield about the same volume as a pound of fresh morels. The flavor is intense and meaty. We think the simplest treatment-a morel mushroom omelette-is the best. Rehydrate them by soaking about 5 minutes in warm water and sauté lightly in butter before adding them to the eggs.

Tinned foie gras. Tout le monde makes preserved foie gras, but only the French seem to do it really well. Or, more specifically, the Alsatians. We like the goose foie gras from Strasbourg, which is poached and packed in tins. Once in a while we’ll use some in a sauce, but it’s really best lightly chilled and cut in thin slices spread on a plate and served with a sweet wine. The French prefer Sauternes, but it’s also nice with an intense gewürztraminer from any of the Rhine regions (preferably an auslese).

Crème de marrons de l’Ardeche. This sweetened chestnut cream is France’s answer to Nutella. It’s used in cookies and making millefeuille pastries, as an additive to whipped cream, or just spread on a buttery croissant. The French also like to squirt some from the tube on a crepe and roll it up to serve. It makes a pretty impressive dessert with very little effort. This is one French fast food we heartily endorse.

Drinking chocolate. Every culture does hot chocolate (chocolate chaud) a little differently. In Paris you usually get a little pitcher of hot milk and a little pitcher of concentrated chocolate to mix to taste in your cup. The next best thing to ducking into Angelina (226 rue de Rivoli, (0)1 42 60 82 00) on a chilly Paris day is mixing up a pot of thick hot chocolate at home. The fancier grocery stores in Paris tend to stock Angelina’s mix along with several others. We often pick up extras for the folks who have been feeding the cat or picking up the mail.


06 2010