Posts Tagged ‘recipe’

Pouding chômeur – dessert on a shoestring


One Quebecois comfort food that doesn’t seem to have crossed over into fine dining is the very old-fashioned cake and syrup dessert known as pouding chômeur. It translates literally as ”the jobless person’s pudding,” although most English versions of the recipe call it ”Poor Man’s Pudding.” (Anglophone Montrealers call it pouding chômeur.) Either way, the original version is real Depression food, with a cake that’s like a butter-deprived biscuit dough and a brown sugar syrup. But as pouding chômeur makes its comeback on luncheonette menus, the cake is often more buttery and the syrup is maple. This recipe brings together some of the best we’ve tasted. The vinegar in the syrup curdles the cream, giving the syrup an instantly thicker texture.

POUDING CHÔMEUR

Serves 6

Ingredients

For syrup:
1 1/4 cups maple syrup (dark amber)
3/4 cup light cream
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/8 teaspoon salt

For cake batter:
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 350F. Have an 8x8x2 pan ready.

Make the syrup. Combine the syrup ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to mix well. Remove from heat.

Make the cake batter. Cream butter and sugar with mixer until fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until combined. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt; mix well. Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, add flour mixture to butter-sugar mixture and mix until incorporated.

Pour 3/4 cup of syrup into pan. Spoon batter over syrup. (Batter will expand to cover any gaps.) Pour remainder of syrup over the batter. Bake 25-30 minutes until top is golden and firm to the touch. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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05

02 2011

Making pâté chinois the cooking school way

In our most recent Montreal residency we were amazed by the explosion in cooking classes. Montrealers have always loved to go out to eat, but more and more they’re also dining well at home. One of the pioneers in teaching classes for the general public was the Académie Culinaire (360 rue Champ-de-Mars, 514-393-8111, academieculinaire.com), which has its offices and kitchens in a modern facility on the edge of Old Montreal.

The Académie created a modernized, jazzed-up version of pâté chinois that reflects the increased sophistication of even basic Quebecois cookery. We find it a wonderfully comforting supper dish on a cold winter night. The recipe required no tinkering at all, except that we adapted it for cooking in a 9×13 pan. If you prefer, individual portions can also be prepared in six small casseroles.

PÂTÉ CHINOIS

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 large potatoes, peeled and cut in cubes
1 tablespoon white truffle oil
1/2 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
12 oz. creamed corn
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds ground veal
1/4 pound pancetta
3 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, diced
1/2 cup brown stock
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter

Directions

1. Place the potatoes in a sauce pan and cover them with cold water. Season the water with a generous pinch of salt, and cook the potatoes until they are fork tender (7-10 minutes).

2. Place the cooked potatoes in a food mill and process them to prepare the mashed potatoes. Add cream and truffle oil and mix well to obtain a smooth texture. Season the potatoes to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve.

3. Mix the two types of corn together and reserve.

4. In a sauté pan, heat olive oil and sauté veal and pancetta. After a few minutes, add the sun-dried tomatoes and the brown stock and continue cooking until the meat has completely lost its pink color and the sauce has become thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Preheat oven to 400°F. In 9×13 pan, create three even layers for the shepherd’s pie starting with the meat, followed by the corn and finishing with the mashed potatoes (using a piping bag fitted with a star tip will add flair to the finish).

6. Cut remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into small cubes and distribute over top of potatoes. Place in oven until the potatoes start to brown, 25-30 minutes.

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29

01 2011

Cooking with Comté

If you’ve ever eaten a croque monsieur in a cafe anywhere in France (my absolute favorite is served at the News Cafe in Paris at 78 rue d’Assas across from Jardin du Luxembourg), chances are you’ve eaten Comté cheese. The firm and nutty Comté is the largest selling hard cheese in France. I’d always figured that only a big factory could turn out enough Comté to satisfy the appetites of the fromage-loving French, but it turns out that Comté is still made pretty much the same way that it’s been made for about a thousand years–that is, small-scale and personal.

And the whole process is open to the public: from brown-and-white Montbéliarde cows grazing in buttercup-laden meadows, to milk delivery and early morning cheese-making in the cooperative dairies that are town social centers, to row upon row of wheels of cheese aging peacefully on spruce shelves.

Sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, Franche-Comté is less than three hours from Paris by train. Yet it’s far enough off the beaten path to make an amusing Slow Foodie tour visiting some of the 3,000 family farms, 170 fruitières (as the cheese dairies are called), and 20 affineurs (aging facilities) squeezed into an area about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The cheese industry’s La Maison du Comté (www.maison-du-comte.com) in the tidy town of Poligny explains the whole process and provides a map to find farms, dairies, and affineurs that welcome visitors. They’re marked with a green and white sign of ”Les routes du Comté.”

It’s no surprise that locals eat Comté several times a day, often starting with a few slices on a baguette for breakfast. The cheese also melts with just the right consistency for fondue. All the locals are Comté boosters but they still debate the merits of young (up to 8 months of aging) Comté vs. cheese that has mellowed for a full year. This being France, they are all preoccupied with food in general. One pleasure of spending a few days in the region is the chance to visit some of the rustic inns where Michelin-starred chefs offer complete tasting menus for the price of a main dish in Paris.

One of my favorites was Le Bon Accueil (www.le-bon-accueil.fr) in Malbuisson. Chef-owner Marc Faivre has held a Michelin star for a decade and grows much of his produce on the grounds. Of course he uses Comté, including in amazing little cheese crackers (sables) that he sets out casually on the table with the appetizer course. ”It’s just equal parts butter, flour, and cheese,” his wife Catherine shrugged when I practically begged for the recipe. No seasonings, no herbs.

Comté tastes so good by itself that it really doesn’t need other flavors to enhance it. That’s certainly true with the local quiche. ”It’s just like quiche Lorraine but without the ham,” everyone says. I think the best versions are made with crème fraiche.

David and I have been working on the Comté recipes, and have decided that the cheese is going to brighten our holiday: the sables for New Year’s Eve with sparkling wine, and the tarte for New Year’s Day brunch.

SABLES DE FROMAGE COMTÉ

The proportions to make these addictive little crackers isn’t quite equal parts flour, butter, and cheese. We played around with several similar recipes until we came up with this version, which uses a little cream to form the dough. It is a pretty good approximation of Marc Faivre’s recipe. A food processor speeds up the creation of these crackers and allows you to make the dough without warming it with your hands. As a result, it’s ready to bake sooner.


Ingredients

1 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
5 Tablespoons butter cut in 1/4” cubes (pea-sized)
4 oz. Comté cheese, grated
5 Tablespoons heavy cream

Directions

1. Place flour, salt, and pepper in bowl of food processor. Pulse briefly to mix.

2. Add pea-sized pieces of butter and pulse several times until mixture is like coarse sand.

3. Add grated cheese and pulse perhaps a dozen times briefly to blend. With food processor running, dribble cream in feed tube until dough just comes together.

4. Remove dough to counter, divide in half, and roll each half into a log about 1 1/2” in diameter and about 4 1/2” long. Wrap in wax paper and place in freezer while pre-heating oven to 350F.

5. Work quickly to slice dough into 1/4” rounds. Place on baking sheet covered with parchment paper or Silpat sheet, leaving about 1/2” between crackers.

6. Bake 12 minutes, or until edges are brown and centers are firm. Remove and cool on wire rack.

Makes 3 dozen

TARTE AU COMTÉ

Crème fraiche can be tricky to find in American grocery stores. We make a good substitute by mixing equal amounts of whipping cream and Greek-style yogurt that contains live cultures, and letting the mixture sit on the counter for several hours until it thickens. Refrigerate any that remains after making the recipe, and use within three days.

Ingredients

1 cup crème fraiche
1 extra large egg
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (packed) shredded aged Comté
Partially pre-cooked 9” pie or tart shell

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350F.

2. Beat together crème fraiche, egg, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

3. Sprinkle Comté cheese over bottom of pie shell. Top with crème fraiche mixture. Bake 40-45 minutes until crust is golden and filling puffs up and browns

4. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

30

12 2010

A Cayman Islands version of a pepper pot

Chef Dean Max

As we were pondering how else to use our beautiful Cayman peppers, we were reminded that chef Dean Max is also a big fan. We met him last winter at an “Island Organic” presentation at the Cayman Cookout on Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman Island. When Max isn’t presiding over the kitchens of his Miami seafood empire, he’s often on Grand Cayman kicking back at the Brasserie, the restaurant he owns with King and Lisa Flowers.

For him, one of the pleasures of cooking in the Caribbean is drawing inspiration from local cooks. “I always take the traditional thinking,” he said. “We use their technique, but then we add things. Take chicken pepper pot soup. You’re making this beautiful chicken soup…and then you use the incredible peppers you get here.”

Like so many dishes, there are as many versions of chicken pepper pot soup as there are cooks. In most parts of the Caribbean, though, it can be a pretty spicy pot. We didn’t have chef Dean’s recipe, but we took his advice to adapt the dish to what we had. We played around with several chicken hot pots before we settled on this one. It has enough heat to earn its name, but not so much that it overwhelms the fruity taste of the Cayman peppers.

CHICKEN PEPPER POT SOUP

Ingredients

1/4 lb. bacon, diced
1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut in 1/2 inch dice
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large sweet potato, quartered lengthwise, half thin sliced, half diced
15 Cayman peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 small moderately hot peppers (Numex 6 or similar), seeded and chopped
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or marjoram
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2-4 drops Scotch bonnet hot sauce
7 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
5 oz. fresh spinach, roughly chopped
1 1/2 cups coconut milk

Directions

1. In large stock pot, fry bacon over medium heat. When browned, remove bacon to paper towels.

2. Add chicken pieces to fat and sauté until lightly browned. Add onions and continue cooking until onions begin to soften.

3. Return bacon to pot with sweet potato, Cayman peppers, red bell pepper, Numex chiles, garlic, spices and chicken stock. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

4. Add spinach and coconut milk. Simmer another 15 minutes.

19

09 2010

Burgundy eggs in red wine sauce

Of all the wonderful food in Burgundy, I have a special soft spot for the bistro staple known as oeufs en meurette. The dish is hearty and warming on a cool autumn night and it is a classic in the region. Maybe I like it so much because sauce meurette is very similar to the sauce in coq au vin. Despite its rich flavors, French cooks usually pair meurette with mildly flavored proteins, like poached eggs or a poached fish. Restaurants in Burgundy often feature this dish as a first course (one egg per person) because everything but the eggs can be prepared ahead and re-heated, making it a quick dish to assemble.

POACHED EGGS IN RED WINE SAUCE

Most of the ingredients for this dish are readily available in the U.S., though a light pinot noir from Oregon or Washington can be substituted for the Burgundy. And, in a pinch, so-called “Italian bread” will substitute for a pain de campagne. The key, though, is to use great eggs – ideally from free-range hens. The yolks have a deeper color and the eggs are easier to poach without making a mess of them. This recipe serves two as a main dish, or four as an appetizer, with a little extra sauce to go around.

Ingredients

For the sauce
1 bottle (750 ml) light red wine (a simple négociant Burgundy)
2 cups strong homemade chicken stock
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced or grated
a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
salt to taste

For the garnish
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 pound piece of bacon, diced
12 baby onions, peeled

For the toast
4 diagonal slices of white country loaf
2 tablespoons olive oil

4 fresh eggs

Preparation

1. Add wine, stock, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bouquet garni, and peppercorns to a large shallow pan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by half (about 20 minutes).

2. While sauce is reducing, prepare garnish and toast. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in saucepan, add mushrooms, and sauté until tender (about 3 minutes). Remove mushrooms and add remaining tablespoon of butter and bacon. Fry until bacon browns. Remove bacon to drain on paper towels. Add onions to fat and sauté gently about 10 minutes until tender and lightly browned all over. Remove and combine with mushrooms and bacon. Pour off excess fat from garnish pan (used in Step 2), then deglaze pan with some of the simmering wine. Return liquid to the wine/sauce.

4. Meanwhile, trim crusts from bread, making each slice about the size of a poached egg. Heat olive oil in small frying pan and fry bread until browned on both sides (about 1 minute per side). Drain on paper towels and set aside.

4. When wine-stock mixture is reduced, strain and return sauce to pan over low heat. Taste and add salt if necessary.

5. Blend 2 tablespoons each of flour and butter in a small bowl with a fork to form a soft paste. Whisk paste a little at a time into hot sauce. Stir constantly until all butter-flour mixture is incorporated. Bring sauce to boil, stirring constantly, until thickened (about 5 minutes).

6. Poach eggs for 4-5 minutes — until whites are set but yolks are still runny. Place two toasts each in shallow bowls and top with eggs. Spoon on sauce and add mushroom-bacon-onion mixture.

Serve with a glass of Burgundy.

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13

07 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.

RED WINE-BLACK PEPPER SYRUP

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

30

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 (www.atelierdeschefs.com) 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 www.atelierdeschefs.com. Cost ranges from 15-72 euros.

HONEY-SOY LAQUERED SEA BASS WITH STIR-FRIED VEGETABLES

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


Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

14

06 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.

——-

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

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

Down home flavors from New Orleans

Whenever we’re in New Orleans, our favorite spot to splurge on a night out is Restaurant August, the linchpin of chef John Besh’s six eateries. Not only is Besh a supremely talented chef and restaurateur who understands both great food and the whole concept of a great night out, he’s also one of the nicest guys in the business.

His fried oysters with pepper spoonbread or his lacquered pork belly with crawfish, olives and blood orange are the very definition of refined Southern cooking. (He also serves a mean whole roast sucking pig with grits, roasted onions and blackberry jam. Mm-m-m-m.) It’s no surprise that he’s won a slew of professional accolades, including recognition as Best Chef Southeast from the James Beard Foundation.

So when the nominations for the 2010 James Beard Awards were announced last week, we were delighted to see John Besh’s name again—this time in the American Cooking category of the cookbook awards. Last October Besh revealed his casual side in a delightful guide to the tastes of his home town in the appropriately titled My New Orleans: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC). It’s one of three books nominated in its category, and all three represent a strain of Southern cooking—maybe the country’s hottest regional fare right now. As Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys sang back in 1942, “That’s What I Like About the South.”

Besh has a magic touch, even with soulful simple fare. Here’s his version of a classic, complete with his commentary from the book. Thanks to his publisher for letting us share it here.

RED BEANS AND RICE


Serves 6

Time is the key to making successful red beans: they need to cook slowly and well. Using flavorful fat is another secret. Just as my grandmother did, I keep the fat from every batch of bacon I make, and I save the fat that solidifies on the surface of chilled chicken soup and roast chicken drippings, too. Just a little bit adds big flavor.


2 onions, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat
1 pound dried red kidney beans
2 smoked ham hocks
3 bay leaves
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 green onions, chopped
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Tabasco
3 cups cooked Basic Louisiana White Rice (see below)

Sweat the onions, bell peppers, and celery in the rendered bacon fat in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat.

Once the onions become translucent, add the kidney beans, ham hocks, bay leaves, and cayenne, then add water to cover by 2 inches.

Increase the heat and bring the water to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and allow the beans to slowly simmer for 2 hours. Periodically stir the beans to make sure that they don’t scorch on the bottom of the pot, adding water if necessary, always keeping the beans covered by an inch or more of water.

Continue cooking the beans until they are creamy and beginning to fall apart when they’re stirred.

Remove the ham hock meat from the bones, roughly chop it, and add it back to the pot of beans.

Stir in the green onions and season with salt, black pepper and Tabasco. Serve with white rice.

BASIC LOUISIANA WHITE RICE

Makes about 4 cups
This recipe will work with most long-grain rices, including Popcorn Rice. Save some of the fat skimmed from your chicken stock to perfume the rice with many wonderful flavors.

1 tablespoon chicken fat, extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 cups Louisiana long-grain white rice
3 cups Basic Chicken Stock
1 bay leaf
1–2 pinches salt

Put the fat, oil, or butter and the onions into a medium saucepan and sweat the onions over moderate heat until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Pour the rice into the pan and stir for 2 minutes. Then add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add the bay leaf and salt.

Cover the pan with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.

—From My New Orleans: The Cookbook by John Besh/Andrews McMeel Publishing

Here’s a link to Amazon to buy the book.

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03 2010