Michel’s Red Onion Tart

We sat around the thick wooden dining table after sunset in Avignon. The sky was still deep blue, slowly turning black, reflecting the colors of a mood ring.

We’d made dinner for our hosts – as we like to do when we play the role of overnight guest. Stuffed tomatoes and zucchinis (courgettes), a reminder that summer was quickly on its way, and a salad as a starter.

Ottolenghi’s red onion, walnut, and goat cheese salad with arugula (rocket.)

Michel commented on the onions with a grin “Ah, l’oignon rouge… quelle douceur.”

“Wait a second, don’t you have a red onion dish that you make?” my partner in crime interjected.

Red onions

Red onions

Michel smiled and nodded, pleased that his good friend’s eldest son remembered the recipe, one of his potluck staples.

“What was it again? A savory tart?”

I remembered, too – I’d already heard about the red onion tart during family dinner discussions of summertime get-togethers with the friends from Avignon.

Michel told us the story of having been invited to a conference in Spain that he didn’t want to attend. The conference booklet had included the dinner menus for each evening. One night, the group was to eat a “Catalane onion tart,” and Michel, curious about what such a tart would possibly taste like, decided to make it up himself.

“So, I added a bit of cinnamon, some red wine, and some small dried raisins. Cooked the red onions in a frying pan, and then poured the whole thing into a pie crust and browned it in the oven.”

“Wasn’t there some crème fraîche too? Or shredded swiss cheese?” asked Michael, testing his childhood memory.

“No, not at all!”

“Do you put lardons?” I asked, inquisitively.

“Of course I do!”

Michel beamed in telling us that he’d made the tart for a neighborhood association dinner, and minutes after having laid it down on the table, it had disappeared.

After dinner and before bed, I scribbled down my notes about the tart and vowed to recreate it, myself. Like a game of Telephone, I give you the Catalan onion tart, and invite you to make yet another version, if you please.

Thyme

Thyme

Michel’s Red Onion Tart

Serves 6 as a light dinner main with a salad, or more as a happy hour snack.

Ingredients

25 grams (3 Tablespoons) pine nuts, lightly toasted
100g lardons, chopped fine
3-4 red onions, chopped (500 grams)
1 cinnamon stick
1.5 Tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
60 cl (¼ cup) red wine
45 grams (4 Tablespoons) Corinthe raisins (see note)
3 eggs
15 grams (3 Tablespoons) fine breadcrumbs
one puff pastry pie crust
salt, pepper, olive oil

Method

Start by sautéing the lardons until lightly browned and crispy, about 2 minutes.

Add a splash (about 1-2 Tablespoons) of olive oil, the onions, and the cinnamon stick and sauté over medium to medium low heat stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and sweaty, about 8-12 minutes.

Sautéed red onions with raisins

Sautéed red onions with raisins

Add the thyme and red wine, stir well to incorporate, and continue to cook until all the wine has evaporated.

Taking off the heat, add the raisins and allow to cool.

While the onions cool, heat oven to 190C/375F. Blind bake the crust with pie weights (or a bunch of beans that have been collecting dust in the back of the cupboard…) for 12 minutes, remove weights/beans and continue to blind bake for 3-4 minutes until golden brown.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, season with salt and pepper. Discard the cinnamon stick and add the onions to the egg mixture, along with the breadcrumbs and toasted pine nuts, and mix well.

Pour the mixture into the piecrust and bake for 28 minutes, turning halfway to ensure an evenly browned crust.

Serve lukewarm or at room temperature, with a glass of red wine.

Michel's Red Onion Tart

Michel’s Red Onion Tart

Note: Corinthe raisins are small, black raisins and they work perfectly in this tart because they are about the same size as the pine nuts. If you can’t find them, regular black raisins would work, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

La Camargue – La Telline

You could have missed the restaurant if you weren’t paying enough attention. Luckily, we were on bicycles, so we saw the little white wooden sign as it emerged from beneath a tree on the front of the property. La Telline.

For my inaugural multi-day cycling trip, we had embarked for 8 days in the South of France. A loop starting from Avignon, going southwards towards the sea, then up and west through Nîmes and Uzès, and back again. We would spend two nights in the Camargue – a preserved wetlands region at the mouth of the Rhône river. The Camargue is known for its rice cultivation, its wild pink flamingos, and its gypsy population in the main city – Saintes Marie de la Mer.

Flamingos in the Camargue

Flamingos in the Camargue

Having done some restaurant research (but not too much) I found mentions of La Telline in a number of places and was charmed but the down-home feel from its website. In red italics at the bottom of the page with a little “no entry” symbol reads the warning “The restaurant does not accept credit cards.” I decided that if we were going to go all-out for one nice (cash only) meal, it should be there. I’d packed a nice-looking skirt that fit smugly over my bicycle shorts, and we set out in the morning from Arles riding along the banks of the Rhône before our lunch.

The dining room at La Telline

The dining room at La Telline

The interior of the restaurant feels like someone’s home – smartly decorated with antique radios, bullfighting posters from decades past, cast-iron tools, ancient water jugs and drinking glasses. Everything delicate about France that you can spy at garage sale is here – but it’s clean and displayed in an attentive, cozy way.

One of their specialties, of course, is tellines – little oblong clams that can be fished in and around the Camargue. They serve them cooked and cooled in a tall round white ceramic dish, stirred with an aïoli thin enough to not disturb the pleasure of a simple dish of steamed clams.

Another specialty is the grilled bull steak. Bulls are grown in the Camargue to support the local tradition of the ferias, or local festivals featuring bullfights. The bulls that don’t have the right “character” to fight are used for consumption. The meat, grilled in front of us on the fireplace, had that same tender firmness of duck breast – but with a distinctly beef flavor.

I ordered the grilled eel, which was also cooked in front of us on the fire. Both of our main dishes were served with locally grown red rice, and a side dish of sautéed carrots with garlic and shallots.

We enjoyed a locally harvested wine with our meal – first, a white with our starter, and then a red from the same vineyard for the main.

As we finished our lunch, the mood of the restaurant loosened up a bit and the patron and his wife chatted with us.The wine we’d drank was from a vineyard just down the road – we’d passed it on our way in.

Where were we staying? asked the patronne, and as it turned out, our innkeepers were close personal friends of the restauranteurs.

During our two days in the Camargue, we’d come to realize that most of the mom-and-pop tourist businesses all knew each other. When we cycled back to the vineyard to pick up two bottles for our stay, the winemaker also nodded at the name of the inn. “Ah! You’re staying at Irène and David’s place.”

We arrived at the inn and Irène was thrilled we’d had a good lunch – “ce sont nos amis proches !” We enjoyed our dinner that night on the small terrace of our little two-room rental apartment.

Besides the restaurant, and the winemaker, our other favorite food-related visit was the Maison du Riz – founded by a local riziculteur, they sell rice from their own production, as well as beer made with their own rice flour. The red rice beer, in particular, had a nice full flavor, with a hint of sweetness from the rice.

Bike on the beach

Bike on the beach

Links for the Camargue:
Restaurant La Telline: http://www.restaurantlatelline.fr/
Mas de Valériole winemakers: masdevaleriole.com
Holiday home Les Mazets du Paty: http://www.lesmazetsdupaty.camargue.fr/
La Maison du Riz: http://www.maisonduriz.com/

and also… excellent bike rental in Avignon: http://www.daytour.fr/?lang=en

 

 

 

 

 

Fava (broad) beans with grilled lemons

“Do you need some help?” Susanne yelled down to the man in uniform (white pants, green polo shirt embellished with what must have been a company logo.)

She spoke bits of Italian, leftover from her years at a Swiss boarding school, but most of the time we simply got by with hand motions and speaking slowly (and loudly) in English.

The next thing I knew, she’d hopped over the guardrail, just as the worker had, and she was climbing down a ladder into what appeared to be an orchard carved into the hillside outside Amalfi. She later laughed about how he must have been peeking up her skirt as he helped her down the ladder.

I hurried towards the ladder. “Come down! C’mon!” she cried.

I laughed. “No way! I’m not getting my skirt dirty!”

Susanne stomped around the lemon grove for a while with this mysterious semi-urban farmer, who was tending to the trees and would presumably walk down the hill towards another grove once he was done. These “fields” of lemon trees were perched along hilltop plateaus between houses with breathtaking views over the Tyrrhenian Sea. We’d simply stopped to take a photo of the coastline.

The majestic Amalfi coast

The majestic Amalfi coast

She came back towards the ladder. “Do you want some lemons?” The worker was motioning to me with that classic Italian sign language that meant eating: fingers all pressed together and hand pointing to mouth.

A little while later, she climbed back up the ladder with two huge bags of lemons, two varieties, around a kilo each.

The worker asked me things in Italian that I understood, even though I don’t speak it.

Do you know how to prepare them?”

“No, what should we do?”

The small ones are for juice. The big ones you can eat- cold, thinly sliced, with salt and oil.”

Sir, yessir. We thanked him and dropped the lemon bags in the trunk of the car, and carried on with the harrowing drive through the Amalfi coast towards Agerola, for the mozzarella festival. The lemons would make for our youth hostel dinner the following night, along with a big ball of smoked mozzarella, some bread, cherry tomatoes, and salad.

—–

In Rome a couple of weekends ago, I spied some large Amalfi lemons at the Mercado Trionfale. They maybe weren’t as big as the ones we’d been given that day on the coast, but they were sizable and would fit in my carryon suitcase. I decided to grill them and toss them with fava beans and fresh herbs, and serve them today for lunch alongside some expertly roasted dorade (sea bass) and rice.

To make this more of a main, you could add feta and thick bread for sopping, or bulgur, or you could toss it with pasta.

 

Fava bean and grilled lemon salad

First, find the best lemon you possibly can. It should be untreated (organic). Its skin should be thick, and its flesh should be light yellow and meaty.

You should remove the zest first and do something else with it – freeze it for a later use, chop it up for vinaigrette, or put it in a small bottle with some olive oil to make lemon-flavored oil.

Amalfi lemons

Amalfi lemons

Other ingredients as follows:

400 grams fava or broad beans, frozen with skins
20 stems of fresh oregano
Handful fresh parsley, cleaned and lightly chopped
Flaky sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Best-quality olive oil (Provençal in my case)
Additional lemon juice

Fresh oregano

Fresh oregano

Blanch the fava beans: toss them into a pot of boiling salted water and let them sit, stirring occasionally, until the water comes back to a boil. Then drain and run under cold water.

Skin the fava beans and put them into a pretty salad bowl.

Meanwhile, heat a grill or a cast-iron grill pan until just beginning to smoke. Grill the lemon, sliced about ½ inch thick, brushed with oil and salt, about 2-3 minutes on each side.

Drizzle a bit of lemon juice (from the ends of the sliced lemon) over the fava beans. Pick the oregano leaves off their stems and add them to the beans. Add the parsley, sea salt, pepper, and some olive oil. Toss by hand, taste and correct seasoning.

Fava bean and grilled lemon salad

Fava bean and grilled lemon salad

 

 

 

Marché des Lices

“Des étrilles, s’il vous plait. Bien vivantes!”

DSC_0213

Les étrilles

The woman in front of me in line orders a variety of crab whose body is no bigger than the circumference of a coffee mug. The hairy, freckled crustaceans are clamoring around in a green basket atop the ice, next to the lobsters who roam lethargically around one end of the stand.

DSC_0216

Marché des Lices

The weekly open-air market in Rennes is a sight to behold, with it’s painfully tender kouign amann pastries (you can never eat just one,) and it’s locally farmed cheeses that don’t have nationally recognizable names, just subtitles on their price signs that read “Ça déchire grave !” (it’s seriously awesome!) Many of the vegetable stands are run by elderly locals, or young apple farmers trying to make a go of it. There are crepe trucks – many crepe trucks – and I stand on the sidelines observing which one has the longest lines to figure out which one is the best.

DSC_0214

Kouign Amann

Extensive Google searching has not revealed to me which market, exactly, is the largest market in France. This is difficult to search for in French because when you look for statistics about the “largest food market” you find all sorts of economic figures about general food sales. In any case, the Marché des Lices can’t be far off from the biggest.

DSC_0210

Breton radishes

There is a kind of overwhelming, food-induced joy that comes over me sometimes: the first time I tried French demi-sel butter, with it’s large sea salt crystals; the first time my taste buds had the pleasure of meeting a Mogador macaron by Pierre Hermé (milk chocolate flavored with passion fruit;) and the first fresh salicorne (samphire) stalk I was able to pick out of the ground myself, along the salt marshes in Guérande, and crunch on.

DSC_0217

Leek to go

When I was an American teenager employed at a gourmet grocery store in New England, I dreamed of French open-air food markets as glorious as the Marché des Lices. There is not one, but two covered market buildings: one filled with butcher counters, and the other filled with bakers, jam-makers, cheese-mongers, and other sellers. The outdoor space lying around the market has different sections: the fishmongers and oyster sellers on one side, fruit and veg crammed around everywhere else. Flowers are up the hill a bit, towards the Place Saint Michel.

The most difficult thing about shopping at this market is that I’m only buying food for a meal or two, before I have to hop back in the train to Paris the next day. It’s not exactly practical to carry home clams or crabs or whole fish filets. On this last visit, I decided to go with clams – sautéed with cider and topped with crunchy salicornes.

Cider-braised clams with salicornes

DSC_0219

Cider braised clams with salicornes

Sauté one finely sliced leek in a generous amount of butter, being careful not to let it brown. Once it is softened, about 8 minutes, add enough clams for a hearty starter for two, and about a cup of brut bubbly cider. Cover the pan, shaking gently every minute or two, until the clams have opened.

Serve topped with lightly steamed salicornes, a heaping of fresh parsley, and a cup of cold cider.

A few addresses in Rennes:

Crêperie Saint Georges, 11 Rue du Chapitre
We were almost put off by the gaudy décor in the entryway – don’t be! The crêpes are inventive and different, and most importantly, delicious.

DSC_0209

Chocolate and espelette pepper crêpe at the Crêperie St Georges

 

Le Haricot Rouge, 10 Rue Baudrairie
THE place to go for a coffee, tea, or hot chocolate on a weekend afternoon. Noteworthy for the various different flavors of hot chocolate, and board games at your disposal.

Bella Ciao, 16, rue Saint Georges
A small local designer boutique with jewelry, handbags, clothing, and home décor.

 

Bergamot-Lavender Meringue Pie

Bergamot. What is it? A flavoring, a tea, a perfume. Many people aren’t quite sure. You will love it if you:

  • Creak your neck to get a good whiff of the first magnolia blossoms at the end of winter.
  • Welcome gleefully any oriental pastry flavored with orange blossom water.
  • Love jasmine, and lemons, and lavender flavored soaps.
  • Drink Earl Grey tea (that implacable citrus flavoring is indeed bergamot.)

What is it, really? It’s a small, oblong-shaped lemon. It has a funny little nose on one end – the end where it was connected to the tree- and a flatter, rounder surface on the other end.

Bergamots galore

Bergamots galore

It is usually more golden in color than a regular lemon. Golden like the color of the sunshine in a Saturday morning cartoon. Golden like the top of a corn bread fresh from the oven.

Bergamots close-up

Bergamots close-up

The true magic of the bergamot is its zest. It has a powerful, perfumed flavor that is unlike anything else (I’ve tasted). The zest can be used to decorate, and delight, anything from a steam-cooked piece of white fish, to an endive salad, to a cup of yogurt with honey. The juice is a bit harder to put into practice, but I find it best in bergamot curd (along with more zest), which I’ve been making by the jarful and dousing onto brioche like there’s no tomorrow (check Riverford Farms for a great, easy, recipe.) David Lebovitz also dissects what bergamots actually are, as the names can vary from country to country.

This pie has been a dream of mine all winter long as I’ve devoured different ways to incorporate bergamot into desserts. In order to concoct it, I used some basic lemon-meringue-pie-principles gleaned from BBC Good Food, Martha Stewart, and Epicurious. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Bergamot-Lavender Meringue Pie

Bergamot-Lavender Meringue Pie

Bergamot-Lavender Meringue Pie Continue reading

Cuisine et Confessions

What did your Mom teach you about cooking when you were a kid?

To make the perfect omelet, you need four things: eggs, peppers, onions, and love.

C&C

This circus show doesn’t begin the same way as most others. As we filed into the theater in a suburb six kilometers south of Paris, something was cooking. The auditorium smelled of roasting red peppers… or maybe it was poulet basquaise, or lasagna. Some of the performers were having a picnic on stage, others were juggling, and others were roaming the audience. “Bonsoir,” one of the acrobats greeted us as she shuffled by, clearly looking for a certain kind of spectator to bring up on to the stage. She was white, with blond pigtails, and displayed the kind of acrobatic body with curves but not an ounce of fat. In tight daisy dukes and a blue top, she strutted around and later found her victim – a gentle-looking man in his 50s or 60s, loose-fitting khaki slacks and a long sleeve plaid shirt. He joined her on stage to peel the carrots, and seemed to have a good time chatting throughout.

One of the men took to the microphone and began telling us a passionate story, all in Spanish. At first we could pick up bits and pieces – a banana cake… they were going to make… and a spicy recipe from Thailand? Then his speech accelerated. I kept reaching for my elementary Spanish, the one that helps me eat at restaurants and ask for my clothing size when I’m in Madrid or Barcelona for the weekend, but there was none of that. He was rolling through a tale of great importance and there was no slowing him down. Finally one of the other performers came and whispered something in his ear. He looked back at the audience, incredulously, and asked “Alguien habla español? Alguien habla español?” That much I understood, but he continued, repeating the question with the same sense of urgency with which he had told us his story. Baffled, he paced around the stage, and finally crashed on the couch, defeated.

Once the show had officially started, the performers weaved stories of family life, cooking, and eating with acrobatic mastery and cooking utensils. The Spanish man danced and flipped whipping the air with two large metal whisks, the trim athletic blond showed off her acrobatics atop the wooden cooking block center stage. Another woman, small, brunette, and Russian, did a trapeze performance flipping around in the air with a very long chain of dishtowels.

They blended their circus skills with confessions around cooking. An Argentinean of Italian descent told of pasta, his grandfather, and then flipped up and around a pole, sliding headfirst down so quickly that the child behind us gasped. The Russian told us of borscht. A Quebecoise listed all her favorite desserts: apple tart, cherry tart, strawberry pie, chocolate cake, lemon cake, clafoutis, you get the idea…

Two young Black American men did back flips through hollow squares as a voiceover played, revealing that only time spent alone with Mom as kid was in the kitchen, while the half brothers were out visiting their father.

The show blends together the performance art of cuisine, with the performance art of circus, and results in a kind of enchanting interactive multi-sensory stimulation. I may just be saying that because I’m very passionate about cooking – but my fellow audience members seemed delighted all the same, enjoying the banana cake at the end of the show.

Cuisine et Confessions – performed by Les Sept Doigts de la Main

Théatre Jean Arp, Clamart, France

January 29, 2016

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

A friend of mine told me she’d met a woman who’d asked her to do a reading in a bathtub.

“What do you mean? Like, with water in it? Naked? Or with clothes on?”

“She’s going to host a literary salon in her home and she wants to cover her bathroom in red velvet. She wants me to read from the bathtub, with LOTS OF BUBBLES. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll have anything on underneath.”

“Ok, wow, count me in. But she’s going to have food, right? Does she have anyone preparing food? What about beverages?”

I’d bugged Shannon two or three times to know who was preparing the food for this thing, and let her know that if the author in question needed help preparing the food I’d be happy to lend a hand. Finally, about a week before the first event, I got a phone call from Anne.

“I would love your help preparing the food!”

The food for first salon was fairly low-key, planned only a few days in advance: beet tartare served in endive leaves, polenta topped with roasted peppers and chorizo, deviled eggs, etc.

The Kingdom of Flowers

The Kingdom of Flowers

The second salon I helped to cater would be deemed the Kingdom of Flowers, with big ideas to tantalize guests with flower-inspired treats. Orange blossoms? Lavender? Roses? Acacia flowers? And what to pair with it – chocolate? Almonds? Meringue? Vanilla? Lemon? My mind wandered…

Lavender Meringues

Lavender Meringues

After lots of thinking, lots of testing, lots of feeding of cupcakes to colleagues and friends, I came up with the menu:

  • Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting
  • Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant
  • Lavender Meringues
  • Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake
Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting

Persian Love Cupcakes with Rose Frosting

Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake

Orange Blossom Olive Oil Cake

I bring you my favorite recipe amongst the bunch, which has become my go-to chocolate dessert (and it’s gluten free!)

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

Dark Chocolate Pomegranate Fondant

Continue reading