Category: Main course

Lunch with my husband

Friday was the last day before the Toussaint. It is a Christian holiday to honor and pray for the deceased (All Saints day – November 1st and All Souls day November 2nd), where relatives gather and visit family graves, decorating them with chrysanthemums, which is the official flower for Toussaint. The kids get to have a well-deserved two weeks holiday from school, the best treat they could ever get. This time of the year is all about union and family, celebrating fall with all the pumpkins, squashes, mushrooms, brown ferns, acorns and pomegranates.

My husband and I realized it was the last Friday before a two-week fanfare parade at home with les enfants, so we decided to have late romantic lunch. Our days are filled with non-stop activities, from work, dogs, gardening, cooking and kids, so we really value a bit of quiet time together. We were thinking of going out to a nearby bistrot, but luckily I had a duet of coquelets in the fridge, and lots of squashes on my kitchen table, almost too pretty to eat. As much as I enjoy eating out, I had a great recipe in mind for those little chickens so we just had to stay in. I layed an elegant yet rustic table, opened a bottle of St Julien wine, and we happily savoured coquelets à la moutarde (spring chicken with mustard), roast thyme potatoes and baked squashes with garlic cream. Sometimes simplicity works best. This meal is inspired by all the countless lunches we had in Paris at Yves Camdeborde’s ‘le Relais du Comptoir‘ (9 Carrefour de l’Odéon 75006 Paris). It’s one of our regular (and favourite) places to eat for numerous reasons. The food is excellent, we adore Yves Camdeborde, the terrasse is charming, they have given me the best seats throughout my pregnancies, seen all our kids grow up and you can eat there at any time of the day. The menu is fantastic and we always order the same dishes. ‘Coquelet à la moutarde’ or ‘Joue de boeuf with coquillettes’ (beef cheeks with small shell pasta). When we are back in Paris, it’s one of our first obligatoire stops.

The squash with garlic cream was a little last-minute idea. Baking it nearly naked (only with one garlic clove, salt & pepper) was simple, so I wanted to add crème fraîche for extra density (I just can’t help it, I love cream and butter so much). The cream melts in the squash and does the job all by itself creating a perfect garlic cream mash. It was a real hit!

Roast coquelets à la moutarde (serves 2)

2 coquelets (spring chickens, or you can roast 1 chicken)
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp strong classic mustard (I use Maille)
1 tbsp Savora mustard (it’s a special mix of mustard and spices – available at supermarkets – I also love using this for my quiche lorraine)

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F.

In a bowl, mix 3 tbsp of mustard, 2 tbsp of olive oil and 1/2 tsp salt. Place chicken in a roasting pan. Spread the mustard marinade all over the chicken including the cavity. Place one garlic clove in each chicken and a 2-3 small sprigs of thyme. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Halfway in cooking time, pour some of the dripping on the chicken. Repeat if necessary. Bake for 35-40 minutes for a coquelet (spring chicken) or 1 hour-1 hour and a half if you are using a larger chicken.

Baked squash with garlic cream (serves 2)
2 squashes (I used carnival squash, but you can use any small-sized variety)
2 garlic cloves (peeled)
120 ml/ 1/2 cup crème fraîche per squash (alternatively you can use sour cream)
Salt & pepper for seasoning

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F

Slice the top part of the squash (leaving you with a lid), remove the seeds. Season the inside of the squash with salt and pepper, add one peeled garlic clove and close the lid.
Place squash in a roasting pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until soft. When ready, remove the lid and leave to cool on a plate. Scoop out the garlic and 2 tsp of squash and add to the crème fraîche. You can mash it up with a fork or place in a food processor and mix for a few seconds for a creamier sauce. Pour cream back into squash and close the lids. Serve on a plate with a spoon.

Roast thyme potatoes

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F
10-12 small potatoes, roasting types (I count 5-6 small potatoes per person)
Sprigs of fresh thyme (or dried thyme)
Coarse sea salt
60 ml/ 1/4 cup olive oil
Rinse potatoes, slice them in half or quarters depending on size. Place in roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprigs of thyme and coarse sea salt. Mix well and bake for 35-45 minutes (give the potatoes a good stir halfway).

You can roast both the potatoes and the chicken at the same time. I start with the potatoes first for 15 minutes, then add the chicken to the pan – this saves space & time.

The wacky and wonderful world of cèpes

Freshly picked cèpes mushroom and wild cyclamens

After all the excitement build-up since the kids started school, days of searching in vain, we finally found beautiful cèpes. I have been sharing a few moments from my mushroom adventures through Instagram, discovering amazing parts of the forest I never knew. Every morning, I feel like an explorer, entering the woods with my stick, scrambling the leaves, and always looking down. I have lost my trail several times, playing games of twister with the fern, spiky branches and leaves everywhere. Total freedom. If I was in the girls scouts, I think I’d deserve a few brownie points for bravery and eagerness.

Into the wild

It’s rare to meet fellow mushroom pickers where we are, but I have met a few retired farmers holding large cèpes-filled baskets. It is considered very rude and inappropriate to ask where they unearthed their cèpes. Everybody has their secret places and they are not to be shared. Cèpes are most likely to be found by oak trees, but they can really be found everywhere. I heard that grandfathers reveal their lucky cèpes locations on their deathbeds. It’s in the family’s vault. There are also women curiously referred to as mushroom witches. They know where to go and can feel the cèpes from afar. These women go home with thirty kilograms of brown buttons every day. Whatever it is, there is an element of magic in the forest. I believe it is enchanted, filled with secrets and powers. The overwhelming energy makes me feel like a stronger person. The other day, I stumbled across the most fairytale-like view. Thousands of pink and white wild cyclamens glowing in the darkest part of the woods. I don’t think I could have asked for a better movie-set. Now I should really believe in fairies!

My husband took the kids mushroom hunting Sunday morning. It was pouring with rain, but they were all geared up and super excited. They came back home totally drenched, but their faces were brightened with the biggest smiles. They found twenty gorgeous cèpes very near our house. For lunch, I prepared buttered tagliatelle with garlic cèpes (fried in garlic and parsley) for the kids. For us grown-ups, we had cèpes omelette and cèpes carpaccio (sliced raw) with olive oil, salt and pepper. The kids were so proud, and I could see how gratified they felt when we thanked them for ‘providing’ food for the family.

Cleaning cèpes is simple. I use a knife, toothbrush, a damp cloth and a potato peeler. Cut off the tip of the mushroom’s stalk, scrape off as much earth as possible, peel a single layer of the stalk. It is not advised to wash them in water, because they are like sponges. You can wipe them with a damp cloth for a proper final cleaning.

Médoc is immersed in cèpes culture. Here, the cèpe mushroom is the king of the forest and one of the most sought-after delicacies. They are so hearty and flavorful, with the perfect combination of earthy and sweet taste. There are so many ways to enjoy cèpes, this is only the beginning of this fall’s love affair. Here are a few recipes I’ve been cooking this week.

Basic cèpes cooking tips:

● Always season cèpes with salt as soon as you start to cook them.
● Cook mushrooms on a high heat so the water evaporates faster
● If your frying pan is small, cook mushrooms in batches to avoid soggy mushrooms (if there is too much water released at once, the mushrooms won’t brown and cook in its own juice)
● If you want to store cèpes, it is best to wrap them in a cloth and stored in the refrigerator. Never put them in a plastic bag.

Potato and cèpes soup (serves 4)

400 g fresh cèpes, sliced (+ 1 tbsp butter, one garlic and one shallot, finely chopped, for frying)
8 medium potatoes
3 cloves of garlic
A pinch of nutmeg
3 tbsp butter
6 tbsp crème fraîche (or more depending on your taste)
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Peel and chop potatoes into medium chunks. In a large pot, add potatoes, salt, nutmeg and garlic. Pour water just enough to cover the potatoes. Cover with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes. Mash soup with a potato masher. Add butter, pepper and crème fraîche. Cover and set aside. Now you can prepare the cèpes, which will take a few minutes. Melt butter in a frying pan, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a few minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take one minutes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve soup in large bowls, add a generous amount of cèpes per person, sprinkle with more parsley.

Cèpes en persillade (serves 4)

Should you not have any cèpes, many other seasonal mushrooms works well with persillade.

1 kg fresh cèpes mushrooms, sliced in half if they are small enough (see photo), or sliced.
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
3-4 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Peel garlic and shallot and chop them as finely as possible. I use my food processor – quick and easy. Finely chop parsley. Set aside.
In a frying pan, melt butter, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a 1-2 minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Cèpes omelette – serves one very generous omelette

4 medium-sized cèpes (sliced)
3 eggs
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp chopped shallots
A handful of chopped parsley
1 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Whisk 3 eggs in a bowl till slighly frothy. Set aside. In a medium-sized frying pan, melt butter (or olive oil) add garlic and shallots and fry for 2 minutes. Add sliced cèpes, season with salt, stir well and cook for 30 seconds on a medium heat. Take a few cèpes and set aside to garnish the omelette. Add beaten eggs, salt and pepper, lower heat and cook for 3 minutes (depending on how you like your omelette cooked). Sprinkle with parsley. Take off from heat, gently roll omelette on each side. Return pan to heat for a few seconds. Place on a plate, plate saved cèpes on top of the omelette, sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

Cèpes carpaccio

4 small cèpes per person
Olive oil, salt and black pepper for seasoning

Only choose smaller cèpes for this recipe. Slice cèpes into thin slices. Place on a plate, drizzle some olive oil, salt and pepper.

Why not eat black pudding?

“From Black pudding to pickled jellyfish, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. What we see and taste as beautiful depends largely on what our family and friends approve of — with just a little room for personal preference.” Laurence Mound – Keeper of Entomology, British Museum, Natural History. Introduction to 1988 reprint of ‘Why Not Eat Insects’ by Vincent M. Holt (1885)

Boudin noir (black pudding/sausage) is not for everyone. As a matter of fact, most of my friends don’t really like it. My husband loves it, the kids don’t like it, but have the ‘obligatoire‘ two mouthfuls each. I enjoy it once in a while, especially when the weather gets cooler. Lately, I’ve been getting up extra early and spend at least two hours every morning looking for cèpes mushrooms. I have never felt more adventurous than now, crawling under trees and beneath the fern. I get a real kick out of finding cèpes. It’s the most fun gift nature has to offer in the fall. This extra-curricular activity gives me a very earthy appetite, making me hungry for sturdy rich food, something that can fuel my energy throughout the day. This is when I am in the mood for boudin noir.

This is a very classic recipe of boudin noir served on a bed of warm potatoes and onions, a drizzle of vinaigrette, semi-caramelized apples and parsnip crips. The sweetness of these homemade parsnips crisps make this dish most enjoyable. Make sure to make an extra batch as they are very popular!

Ingredients: (serves 4)

12 slices of boudin noir sausage
1 kg/ 2 pounds potatoes (cut in chunks)
3-4 apples (peeled, cut in round slices)
1 onion or a handful of small onions (thinly sliced or halved if small onions)
8 parsnips (peeled and thinly sliced – I used my food processor with a special slicing blade)
Vegetable oil for frying
25 g/ 2 tbsp butter for frying apples & onions

Vinaigrette dressing:
60 ml/ 1/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp grain mustard (or to your liking)
1 tbsp Xérès vinegar (or sherry/ red wine vinegar)
1 tsp salt
Pepper for seasoning

Step 1) Boil potatoes in a large pot of salted boiling water. Drain and set aside.
Step 2) Prepare vinaigrette dressing. In a small bowl, mix olive oil, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix well.
Step 3) In a large heavy saucepan, fill oil no more than halfway and heat to 180°C/ 350 F. You can test one slice of parsnip, drop it in the oil – if it starts sizzling, the oil is ready. Fry parsnip slices by batches, 2-3 minutes each, or until golden. Set aside to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside.
Step 4) In a frying pan, melt the butter, add onions and fry till golden for 3 minutes. Add the apples, and continue frying 3 minutes on both sides, until golden. Set onions and apples aside.
Step 5) In the same frying pan, add the boudin noir and fry on a medium heat for 2 minutes on each sides. Slice potatoes, toss in the onions and vinaigrette.
Step 6) Start with placing the potato salad on a plate. Place three slices of apples, followed by three slices of boudin noir on top. Sprinkle a generous amount of parsnip crisps on top. Serve immediately while salad is warm.

Bread winner

When you think of France, do you see a béret, a marinière top and a baguette under the arm? To this day, this image has been inked into our minds. I sometimes reflect on the origins of this postal card, souvenir, movie-like ‘cliché’. The characteristics of a baguette remind us of the simplicity and originality of the French way of life. The morning ritual of going to the boulangerie, or in other words the village’s social rendez-vous. You meet everyone there, exchanging stories, saying hellos, overhearing gossip. You can also dive into someone’s life by knowing their bread preferences. And that is how life is all over France. We buy our daily baguettes, hold them under the arms, nibbling the tip out of sheer ‘gourmandise’. The crusty smell of a freshly baked baguette is enchanting.

Baguettes in the making & a charming client buying her baguette tradition

Perfect baguettes.

Baguette ordinaire (left), and a client buying a ficelle.

Baguette is France’s daily bread. Finding a perfect baguette is a sacred quest. Once found, you shall forever be faithful. It’s a family affair.

When we lived in Paris, we found a boulangerie with baguettes just how we like them (Pain D’Epis, 63 Avenue Bosquet, 75007 Paris note I just found out they closed down – Boulanger Thierry Dubois decided to take a year off for a ‘Tour du monde’). Everytime we bought bread there, we were grateful for the excellent quality. When we left Paris, one of the first things I said every morning was: ‘Oh how I miss my boulanger!’ So there we were, discreetly searching for a great baguette. We tried, talked, discussed, searched. After a few months of tasting and comparing (lots of good bread), we discovered ‘Le fournil de J & J’, located in Soulac-sur-Mer (24, Rue Trouche 33780, Soulac-sur-mer). This husband and wife bakery (Jeremy & Jessica) is certainly a bit of a stretch distance wise, but in exchange we get the quality we are looking for. Don’t be fooled by the simple décor. This place is all about excellent bread. It’s as good as any bread I’ve ever had, right up there with the very best, the kind of bread you would expect from a great establishment where the boulanger wears the French flag around his neck. That this bread is made by such a young artisan makes it even more special and bodes well for the future of French gastronomy.

Jeremy only uses flour from Charente-Maritime.

What is a perfect baguette? Golden thin crisp crust, light and airy inside. The bubbles of air keep all the flavours in. Jeremy is the ‘artisan‘ boulanger, a master of his trade. He started when he was fourteen years old and has been perfecting his art ever since. What is the secret to a good baguette, I asked? It’s the ‘action de la levure, la fermentation (the action of the yeast, the fermentation). But what is even more important is the time he lets his bread rise. From 24 to 72 hours. Quality is all about patience. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time, nor the staff, for such dedication. Additionally, Jeremy has a few tricks up his sleeve that make his bread unique. C’est le secret professionel, something he won’t share with anyone.

Fresh baker’s yeast (left), Jessica and boulanger Pierre.

The less yeast , the better the quality. The more water, the thinner the crust, the airier the crumb, therefore the bread tastes better. Jeremy leaves his baguette ‘tradition’ (their bestseller) to rise 48 hours in a cold room of 3 degrees Celsius. He uses ‘mitronette’ mill flour from the Charente-Maritime region. In high season, queues start forming at 7:30 am, clients buying the baguette classique, the ficelle, the céréales, the bio among many others.

I have learnt a great deal from Jeremy’s techniques and will take these very important tips:

● Only use fresh yeast (your baker can sell you some),
● Don’t be shy to let the dough rise for a long time (Jeremy lets his baguette rise 48 hours in a cold room 3 degrees), or at least 3 hours at home at room temperature
● Less yeast = better tasting bread
● While baking the bread at 240°C, use a cast iron skillet filled with 1 large glass of water placed under the baking tray. Traditional baguettes are baked in ovens that produce steam, which delays crust formation so the loaves can fully rise.

Cycling around the charming village of Soulac-sur-mer.

My favourite sandwich: saucissons secs, pickles and butter with baguette bread.

We came back home by lunchtime. I made my favourite sandwich. Baguette, saucissons secs, butter and crunchy pickles. Simplicity at its best.

Le fournil de J & J

September is for snails

There are only two hundred snail farms in France, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of them was just around the corner. Heliciculturalist Françoise Pion and her husband Francis have been successfully cultivating the Helix aspersa maxima, better known as the ‘gros gris’ snail. France remains the largest consumers of snails in the world, consuming 40,000 tons per year. It is considered a delicacy and loved by most, especially cooked in the manner of ‘Escargots à la Bourguignonne‘, baked in the oven with garlic butter. Snail cuisine represents a very important part of French heritage, just like foie gras, wine and cheese.

Françoise & Francis Pion

Françoise advised me to come on a rainy day, when the snail pens are most impressive. The wooden sheds are covered in thousands of gros gris (large grey) snails. Even in my wildest imagination had I never witnessed such a scene. Cultivating snails requires a meticulous understanding of nature, balance and patience. The mortality rate can be as high as 40% as these molluscs are very sensitive to the environment, but the couple discovered a homeopathic doctor, a snail whisperer, renowned for his herbal treatments. The water sprayed on the snails is infused with a special concoction. Since then the snails have been healthier than ever, with hardly any mortality rates. These treatments are also used in oyster farms in the Arcachon bay and have proven to be very successful.

I have always loved snails since I was a child. If there are escargots on the menu, I will most probably order them. Ancient Romans considered snails to be an elite food, often served during Lent as it was neither considered meat nor fish. In the old days, châteaux in France had their own private snail farms to cater to their gourmet tables. Snails are mature when a lip forms at the opening of their shell. Snail picking usually starts in September. Unless you live in an snail-friendly environment or a snail farm, buying them fresh can be a difficult task. However, you can find good-quality canned or frozen snails in most fine ‘épiceries‘ (grocery store/delicatessen). Françoise’s clientèle is mostly based around Bordeaux and Médoc, catering to some of the major chefs around the region.

It was obvious I had to ask Françoise and her husband Francis to introduce me to snail recipes, as I have never cooked them before. They kindly shared a few of their favourite ones, such as snails à la Bourguignonne (her favourite – baked in garlic butter), snails à la Bordelaise (his favourite – meat based wine sauce) and snails sautéed in cèpes mushrooms and persillade (parsley and garlic). I had so much fun learning how to prepare these delicacies with them – I couldn’t have had better teachers! The garlic butter was exactly what I had wished for (I kept the left-over butter in the freezer – it will be perfect for steaks), and the Bordelaise sauce was pure extravagance. It was so good, next time I will make a double portion so I can save some sauce for a pasta dish.


Preparing the snails:

Blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes. Rinse several times in clear water. In a large bowl of water mixed with 2 tbsp of vinegar, clean the snails with the help of a small brush (a toothbrush is good). Rinse in clear water again.

Prepare the court-bouillon (broth):

2 litres chicken broth
250 ml dry white wine
1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and pepper

Chop the onion, celery, carrot and parsley, add in a large saucepan with the wine and broth. Add bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a soft boil. Place snails in pot, the broth should cover snails entirely. Cover and cook them on a low heat for 2 hours. Let the snails cool in the broth. Use a small ‘snail’ fork to remove the snails from their shells. Insert the fork to separate the meat from the shells, twisting the shells away from the meat to separate. Discard (just tear with your fingers) the ‘twisted’ past of the snail (intestines). If you are cooking a recipe with shelled snails, return the snail back in its shell. Just push it back in with a small fork or use your index finger. If you are cooking the snail’s flesh, just set aside on a plate or prepare for freezing storage in a ziplock bag.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

For 7 dozen snails (84 snails)
250 g butter (at room temperature)
4 garlic cloves
1 shallot
1 bunch of parsley
1 tbsp fleur de sel/ coarse salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 pinch ground nutmeg

In a food processor, mix garlic and shallots for 2 minutes. Add parsley, salt, pepper and nutmeg and mix 1 minute. Add butter (at room temperature) and mix 30 more seconds until you get a smooth paste. Place a small piece of garlic butter (approx 1 tsp depending on size of snail) inside snail. Arrange snails in an appropriate dish and place them in a preheated oven at 200°C degrees for about 5-8 minutes and serve.

Escargots à la Bordelaise

For 9 dozen snails
450 g sausage meat
150 g ham (cut into small squares)
5 small shallots
2 garlic cloves
A handful of parsley
1 kg tomato passata
½ l red wine
½ l chicken broth
2 tbsp flour
Olive oil (for frying)
Salt and pepper
1 pinch chilli powder

In a large pan, heat olive oil and add minced garlic and shallots . Cook until soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add sausage meat, ham and parsley and continue to cook until browned. Take the pan off the heat, add 1 tbsp of flour and mix well. Return to heat, add tomato passata, mix well, cover and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes. Add chicken broth, red wine, salt, pepper and chilli. Cover and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add shelled snails and cook for 10 minutes on a very low heat. Serve immediately.

Escargots aux cèpes

300 g cleaned and coarsely chopped cèpes mushrooms
300 g deshelled snails
1 garlic clove (sliced)
A bun of parsley, finely chopped
Butter (for frying) or garlic butter (see previous recipe)
Salt and pepper to taste

Clean and slice mushrooms coarsely. Heat a frying pan on a medium heat. When the pan is very hot, add the mushrooms, without any fat. Fry for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Set aside and drain if necessary. Melt garlic butter (see previous recipes) in frying pan, sauté snails (deshelled) for 2-3 minutes. Return mushrooms to pan, stirring constantly. On a high heat, add chopped parsley and garlic, salt and pepper, mix well for 10 seconds. Serve immediately.

From quail to quince

The vineyards around Médoc are looking very handsome these days. The grapes have ripened to a velvety dark colour, looking robust and just about ready to be picked. I found out this week harvest dates will be postponed till October. It has been a dry year and the grapes need to mature for a few more weeks. Rumour has it that 2012 will be a good year.

Once in a while, we love going on a little family escapade. We drive through tiny villages, stop by a château and chat with winemakers. By chance, we met M. Gilles Hue, proprietor of Château Haut Garin, located in Prignac-en-Médoc. It’s exactly the kind of small château you want to find, where you can chat with the owner on wine, on the art of enjoying baguette, on the practicality of his old Citroen car and his general remembrance of things past. We bought a bottle of his cru bourgeois 2000 (the bottle cost 8 euros). Since I had previously bought a few quails, I had the idea to cook them wrapped in vine leaves. So I picked a few leaves from the vineyards and hurried home to make another little feast.

M. Hue was not pleased with his baguette delivery this morning – it was too soft. So he left it standing by the kitchen window for a crustier effect.

M. Gilles Hue, proprietor of Château Haut Garin.

On our way home, we saw a beautiful line of trees leading to what it seemed to be another château. And there it was, a hidden gem, a treasure left to its own devices, in the middle of the Médocan nature. A fairy-tale castle built for princes and princesses, tucked away in the bushes, fallen into ruins and reminding us of an elegant past. We were transported on a journey through the history of this abandoned castle where a lot is left to our imagination. The overgrown garden looks like the land time forgot. Could the story behind the castle’s abandonment be of lost fortunes? My daughter Mia suddenly looked like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, grabbing Harry (our little furry Jack Russell) in her arms – he was scared of the big white bull in the garden, she was frightened by the ghostliness of the castle. I am always the hopeful romantic, thinking it was fate that we found this castle and one day it shall be ours.

Back home I cleaned the vine leaves and the quails. I enjoyed wrapping the birds in the leaves and securing each one of them with butcher’s twine. I felt like a determined Babette (from Babette’s feast – a must-see food-lover movie) in the kitchen. My table was glowing thanks to the golden Chasselas grapes from Moissac. They always warm my heart as Moissac is my grandmother’s hometown. It’s a beautiful village, home to the impressive Saint-Pierre Abbey dating back from the 7th century. When you adventure about you will find ancient medieval monasteries, famous for their quince jams and honey. The remote lives of the monks chanting in the hills remain a mystery. It certainly provides a lot of inspiration for a novel.

Talking about quince, we bought several big ones last week. My youngest baby daughter Gaïa loves my home-made quince compote with honey and cinnamon. I try not to buy ready-made baby food anymore (unless I am travelling). I enjoy preparing little meals which I store in old labelled jam jars. To end the quail dinner, I made a quince tarte tatin. Quince have a delightful tangy taste, a mixture between pears and apples. This simple quince tarte tatin recipe is perfect for autumn evenings (and winter too!). The golden caramel melts through the quince, need I say more? I always serve this gourmand dessert warm with a obligatoire dollop of crème fraîche.

Ingredients:(serves 4)
Roast quails with vine leaves
8-10 quails (2 to 3 per person)
8-10 slices bacon
A sprig of fresh thyme
Chasselas grapes, or good-quality smaller grape variety
40 ml cognac
25 g butter (at room temperature)
5 cloves garlic (halved)
Vine leaves (smaller ones are better, 2 leaves per quail)
Butcher’s twine
Salt and pepper

Peel and deseed grapes (you can save a lot of time if you buy seedless grapes!), place in a bowl and soak in cognac for 2 hours. Clean vine leaves and pat dry.
Preheat over to 200 °C.
Wash and dry the quails. Add half a clove of garlic, thyme, 2-3 peeled and deseeded grapes, sprinkle with salt and pepper inside the quail. Rub the quail all over with butter, wrap with bacon. With butcher’s twine, tie the quail around the circumference, turn the quail over and tie the twine around the circumference again. Place a vine leaf on top, and one on the bottom, and secure with a small piece of twine. Sprinkle quails with salt and pepper.
Roast quails, and after 15 minutes, pour the grape mixture with cognac all over. Roast for a further 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how golden the quails look. Turn quails halfway. Make sure to check if the grapes and cognac don’t dry up or burn.

Serve with pan-fried potatoes with garlic and thyme.

Potatoes with garlic and thyme:
10 small potatoes (slice)
3 garlic cloves (sliced)
Olive oil
A sprig of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Slice potatoes, leave the skin on (6-7mm thick). In a large frying pan, heat olive oil on medium heat, add potatoes, making sure they are all coated in oil. Stir frequently so they don’t stick to the pan. After 10 minutes, add garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Lower heat slightly and continue frying. The potatoes should be cooked after 25-30 minutes.

Quince tart tatin with crème fraîche

Quince tatin

Quick & easy shortcrust pastry:
300 g plain flour (sifted)
150 g butter (diced and at room temperature)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
80 ml lukewarm milk

In a large bowl, mix butter, salt sugar and butter. Mix well with your hands, pour milk gradually and form a soft dough. Shape into a ball. On parchment paper, sprinkle a generous amount of plain flour, roll dough with a rolling-pin. Form a circle slightly larger than the diameter of the cake/tart tin.

3 large quince (or 5-6 small ones. Peeled, cored and cut into 2 cm thick wedges)
200 g caster sugar
100 g butter (diced and at room temperature)
1 tsp cinnamon
20 g sugar (for sprinkling)

Tip: I would advise to make the caramel in a sturdy pan and pour into the cake tin. Cake tins are usually very thin and somehow my caramel never seems to ‘work’ well.
In a 20 cm large pan, add sugar and melt on a low heat. Do not stir until the sugar has melted and starts to turn ‘golden blond’. At this point, take away from heat and add butter. Stir until butter has melted, and immediately pour into cake tin. It should cover the entire base. Set aside.
Peel, core and cut quince into 2 cm wedges. Carefully arrange the quince in the cake tin, round-side down. You may need to cut some of the quince into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon frequently. Seal the tatin with the rolled shortcrust pastry. Tuck in the edges, gently spike the dough with a fork all over. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Cool for 5 minutes. Serve warm with crème fraîche.

Dinner for friends

What to cook for homesick French friends? Well, les grands classiques, bien sûr! My friends Jean-Pierre and Alexia came over for a visit last week-end. They left Paris three long years ago and came back to France for a little holiday. They absolutely love their new life, but had turned into homesick Parisians, or, should I say homesick for good old French food. Nothing can really replace the authentic taste of baguette, country bread, Normandy butter and fresh foie gras from the Gers region. I can understand exactly how they feel as I have been in a similar situation when I lived abroad. Sentimentally speaking, I had to cook food that meant the world to me. Good times, good friends and good food have a precious link.

Pastis before…

And Pastis after (diluted with water).

So here was the menu: A little glass of Pastis for an apéritif. The hot summer nights call for a little anis seed infused cooling drink. For starters, a hearty old-fashioned onion soup that is so good you will want to keep this recipe forever. Served with Comté cheese tartines. The main course had to be special. In France, we have the Eiffel tower, we have couture, we have wine, and we have foie gras. Foie gras is the national festive food, often served for Christmas, new year’s eve or any special occasion. And there are so many special occasions. I got a glistening piece of foie gras from a producer in the Gers (he has a reputation for being ethical and working with proper methods).

Roasted foie gras with Chasselas grapes and cognac

Pan-fried foie gras with golden rosé apples (flambés with cognac) on toast

Pan-fried foie gras with poached egg and Périgueux sauce

As they are good old friends dashing with humour, I couldnt’ help making a little ‘Portrait Chinois‘ (if you were a dish, what would you be?) of them through my cooking. For Jean-Pierre, it had to be the poached egg version with Périgueux sauce as his family is originally from there. For Alexia, the golden rosé apples match her beautiful mane, for my husband, a baked version with Chasselas grapes macerated in Cognac, very masculine and deep. And for me, a simple pan-fried version with figs and Chasselas grapes, since they come from my grandmother’s hometown Moissac. September rhymes with Chasselas grapes.

And what a better way to finish this sumptuous meal than with a Paris-Brest? A decadent choux pastry filled with praline and coffee cream reminding us all of good times spent at Chez Michel (10 Rue de Belzunce, 75010 Paris), one of our favourite bistrots in Paris, where they make the best Paris-Brest in the world.

May good times last forever.

Main ingredients:
1 good-quality duck or goose foie gras (approx 500 g), veins and impurities removed, cut into 1-1.5 cm/ 1/2-inch thick slices
300 g Chasselas grapes (or good quality small green grapes)
8 small figs
1 golden rosé apple
Country bread

Fig heaven

1) Pan-fried foie gras with golden rosé apples and cognac.
Cut two thick (1.5 cm thickness) slices of foie gras, sprinkle lightly with flour on both sides. Slice apples horizontally.
In a sizzling hot pan, place the slices of foie gras and apples. Do not add oil/fat/butter as the foie gras will release its own fat. The foie gras should be cooked 1 minute on each side or less. Do not overcook foie gras. Quickly add a dash of cognac and flambé the foie gras and apples. Remove the foie gras and set aside on serving plate. Leave the apples to cook for 3-5 mores minutes turning them on each sides. Drain the pan, keeping a little bit of duck fat and fry slice of bread in pan for 10 seconds on each sides. Serve apples and bread with foie gras.

2) Roasted foie gras with Chasselas grapes and cognac
Preheat oven 200°C. Peel and remove pips from grapes. Place in a bowl and soak in cognac for at least 2 hours. Place foie gras in a heat-proof small oven dish (I use a small Staub cocotte) and bake for 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, drain the fat and add macerated grapes in dish. Bake for 8 more minutes and serve.

3) Pan-fried foie gras with Chasselas grapes and figs
Cut two thick (1.5 cm thickness) slices of foie gras, sprinkle lightly with flour on both sides. Slice figs in quarters. Rinse and dry Chasselas grapes. In a sizzling hot pan, place the slices of foie gras, figs and grapes. Do not add oil/fat/butter as the foie gras will release its own fat. The foie gras should be cooked 1 minute on each side or less. Do not overcook foie gras. Quickly add a dash of cognac and flambé the foie gras, figs and grapes. Remove the foie gras and set aside on serving plate. Leave the figs and grapes to cook for 3 more minutes. Serve immediately.

4) Pan-fried foie gras with sauce Périgueux and poached egg.
Sauce Périgueux:
50 g butter
200 ml stock
1 small glass white wine
1 shallots (finely sliced)
2 g salt
10 g flour
1 bay leaf
1 chopped black truffle
2 g pepper

Chop the truffle and set aside. In a small pan, melt butter and fry shallots until soft. Add flour, stir well, add wine and reduce for 2 minutes. Stir well. Gradually add stock and stir constantly. Add bay leaf, stir well. Cook for 10 minutes on a low heat. The sauce should be slightly thick and creamy. Strain the sauce and add the chopped truffle last.

Egg: In a shallow pan of boiling water, add 1 tsp of white wine vinegar. Prepare your egg by breaking it into a little cup so it’s easier to pour into the boiling water. When the water is boiling, pour in the egg in the water. Cover with a lid for 3 minutes, then check if it needs a bit of ‘pushing and shoving’ to make the form rounder. You can use a large slotted spoon for this. Depending on how well you like the egg cooked, 3-5 minutes should complete the task. When ready spoon egg onto a plate. Set aside and drain.

Foie gras: Cut two thick (1.5 cm thickness) slices of foie gras, sprinkle lightly with flour on both sides. In a sizzling hot pan, place the slices of foie gras. Do not add oil/fat/butter as the foie gras will release its own fat. The foie gras should be cooked 1 minute on each side. Do not overcook foie gras. Quickly add a dash of cognac and flambé the foie gras. Remove the foie gras and set aside on serving plate. Place the egg on top, drizzle generously with sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Old-fashioned French onion soup with Comté tartines
1 kg large yellow onions (sliced finely)
50 g duck fat (alternatively you can use butter instead)
1.5 litre good-quality chicken stock
100 g Comté cheese
Salt & pepper for seasoning

Old-fashioned French onion soup

Peel onions and slice them finely. In a large pot, heat duck fat and cook onions on a low to medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a soft boil and cook for 15 minutes. Scoop out half of the onions and purée the onions in a food processor. Return the pureed onions to the soup and mix well. The soup should have a nice smooth velvety consistency as well as bits of onions.
In a pre-heated oven 200 °C, grill a few slices of country bread topped with a slice of Comté cheese for a few minutes until cheese has melted and slightly golden. Serve soup in individual bowls, add a melted cheese tartine on top of each bowls and season with salt and pepper.


(serves 8-10)
For the choux pastry ring:
150 g plain flour
140 ml water
90 ml milk
90 g butter
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
3 tbsp flaked/sliced almonds
Icing sugar (for sprinkling)

For the cream filling:
5 egg yolks
80 g sugar
40 g flour
60 g ready-made praline mix (it’s a mixture of sugared ground almonds and hazelnuts – nearly like a paste)
350 ml full-cream milk
2 tsp instant coffee powder (optional)
175 g good-quality butter – at room temperature
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with parchment paper.

For the choux pastry:
Beat the eggs in a bowl and set aside. In a saucepan, add milk, water, butter, salt, sugar and bring to a simmer. Take the pan away from the heat and add the flour (in one go) and stir constantly until you get a smooth dough. Put back on a low heat for 2-3 minutes to dry it up slightly. Take away from heat. Off the heat, add the beaten eggs, slowly (reserve 4-5 tbsp for final brushing) and stir gradually to form a smooth dough. Leave to rest at room temperature. Line baking tray with parchment paper and trace a 20 cm circle. Place the choux dough in a piping bag with a large nozzle (2.5 cm) and pipe the 20 cm ring. Pipe a second ring around the inside next to the first ring. Finally, pipe another ring on top of these two rings. Use remaining beaten egg adding a small pinch of salt – brush top ring with egg and sprinkle evenly with sliced almonds. Bake for 30 minutes or until pastry is firm and golden. Take out from oven and immediately slice the ring horizontally into two layers so the steam escapes. Set aside and leave to cool.

For the cream filling:
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until fluffy and light. Stir in the flour. In another pan, bring milk to a boil with the salt and coffee, stirring until the coffee dissolves. Whisk the milk into the egg mixture, return it to the pan, and whisk over gentle heat until boiling. Once thickened, cook the cream gently for one minute. Pour into a bowl and set aside to cool completely, until cold. Once cooled, gradually ‘smooth’ in butter with a spatula, alternating with the praline. Note: If you are not a praline or coffee flavour fan, you can alternate and create your own filling with rum, vanilla, chocolate. As you wish.

Scoop cream into a pastry bag fitted with a star-shaped nozzle. Put the lower half of the pastry ring on a serving plate. Pipe the cream in ‘rosettes’ onto the ring and set the upper ring on top. Sprinkle with icing sugar. Keep in refrigerator for 1 hour before serving.

Pumpkin gnocchi with Saint-Nectaire sauce

Now that the kids are back to school, it’s time for me to play. It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to sip my morning coffee, nibble on a butter croissant, read the news, bookmarked blogs and even some magazines. But one glance at the autumn colours on our kitchen table is all it takes for me to surrender to my cooking instincts. Thanks to my friend Dania’s latest pumpkin offerings (see previous post), I got inspired to make something creative. I took out the potato peeler, one egg, nutmeg, flour and turned my workplace into a Jackson Pollock playground.

What better way to enjoy the start of the fall season than with pumpkin gnocchi. These little orange pillows are so delicious with a sweet nutty aftertaste, to be devoured with a rich Saint-Nectaire cheese sauce. It’s the cheese that reminds me most of autumn, with its hazelnut and mushroom hints. Another reason to love France! Let’s start the season and indulge.

Ingredients: (serves 4)
500 g pumpkin/ 1 pound
250 g plain flour/ 2 cups
1 egg
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
Extra flour, for dusting
A good pinch of salt and pepper

For the sauce:
200 ml double cream/ 1/2 cup
150 g Saint-Nectaire cheese/ 1/2 cup (you can replace this with any of your favourite cheese)
A handful of chopped walnuts

Peel and deseed pumpkin, slice in medium-sized cubes and cook in salted boiling water for 15 minutes or until pumpkin is tender. Purée pumpkin in a food processor until smooth, return to pan and dry-out the mash for a few minutes. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes. In a large bowl, mix pumpkin mash, flour, salt, pepper egg and nutmeg. Use your hands to mix the dough – it has to be slightly sticky leaving the side of the bowl. Divide dough into four sausage shaped rolls, and roll each portion gently on a slightly floured surface, about 1.5 cm thick. Slice dough into little cubic ‘pillows’, approx. 1.5-2 cm each. Sprinkle flour on gnocchi to prevent them from sticking.

In a small saucepan, heat cream, bring to a gentle boil and lower heat. Add slices of Saint-Nectaire cheese. When the cheese has melted, set the sauce aside.

Cook gnocchi in a large pan of salted boiling water (on a high heat) by batches if necessary. As soon as they rise to the surface, they are cooked and ready to be served. Drain.

Serve immediately with the Saint-Nectaire cheese sauce. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts, salt and pepper to taste.