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Whether baked or fried, roasted, or boiled, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. On its own, it is a humble thing, a lowly tuberous crop that can be had for mere pennies; one that has, at times, provided sustenance to the poorest of nations. But with some oil and heat, a sprinkling of salt, a healthy dollop of butter or sour cream, the potato is transformed into something ethereal. In my opinion, the supreme leader of this magical potato kingdom is the scalloped potato–officially know as the Gratin Dauphinois.
I will tell you what I love about the French. Only they have a word for the golden, crispy bits of food that get stuck around the edges of a baking dish. This word, gratin, comes from the verb gratter, which means “to scrape”. Gratinée is from the transitive verb form of the word for “crust”. It is a culinary technique in which ingredients are topped with breadcrumbs, butter, or grated cheese, then baked or broiled until a golden crust develops. As you can imagine from the name of my blog, I am a fiend for gratins.
Virtually anything edible can be made into a gratin, but potato gratinée is most common, particularly the Gratin Dauphinois. This dish is a specialty of the Dauphiné region of France. It involves layering thinly sliced potatoes with cream and sometimes egg in a buttered dish rubbed with garlic. A Gratin Savoyard, on the other hand, found in a neighboring region, is made without milk but beef broth.
A good Gratin Dauphinois should be crispy on the top and bottom and have a rich, cheesy taste, even without any cheese added. If you look closely at your gratin upon taking it out of the oven, you will notice the cream has turned into a curdled, cheese-like substance. You should not be alarmed when this happens. In fact, this is a most desirable trait in a gratin. As the potatoes absorb water from the liquid, you get a concentration of fat and protein, just as you would with fresh cheese curds.
I have made a great deal of gratins in my lifetime, following many different recipes many times over, and I can tell you that they never turn out the same. The thickness of the potato slices, the way they are layered, the depth and width of the dish you use and where you place it in the oven all influence your end result. Even the thickness of your cream can be of great influence. Starchy potatoes are a must.
There are countless recipes for Gratin Dauphinois, some of which ask you to boil the potatoes before baking them. I am not sure this method creates a superior gratin, so why bother? This recipe is from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is fast and easy and produces the kind of gratin that will have you picking those crispy, delectable bits off the baking dish.
Julia Child’s Gratin Dauphinois
2 pounds starchy potatoes
1/2 clove unpeeled garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
1 cup boiling milk or cream
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.
2) Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
3) Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.
4) Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.
5) Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.
If you’re anything like me, you really don’t need another French cookbook. If you’re like me, you don’t need another cookbook, period. However, when it comes to buying cookbooks–and shopping in general–I find need is rarely part of the equation. It is precisely this attitude that has often gotten me into trouble. With shelves ready to topple over and books stacked in every corner, my apartment looks like a library exploded. I am afraid to move because I would have to move fifty boxes of books. I’ve done this before and I can tell you it’s not much fun.
As far as addictions go, my addiction to books is rather benign. It doesn’t hurt anyone. It costs me money, but a lot less money than I would spend on cigarettes if I were a smoker. And unlike smoking, reading is good for you. Like an addict, I will find ways to justify my addiction. Books are a hobby, I say, just like golf. Were I a golfer, I would spend money on golf clubs and weekly trips to the golf course.
But why not just go to the library, people say. Or frequent used book stores. Here is why; I am a writer. As a writer, I fervently believe in supporting other writers. A writer may slave away at a book for years before seeing the results of their labor. They will usually receive ten percent of the book sales. In Canada, where I live, 10,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Most books don’t become best sellers, and most writers don’t have a prayer of making a living from their writing. I know how difficult it is to put yourself on the page, to write something people will find meaningful. I know how much work goes into each sentence before it becomes good enough. I treasure each of my books as if I wrote them myself. I take good care of them and do not lend them to anyone except my closest friends, who respect books as much as I do.
I will admit, however, that the current economic situation has caused me to be much more careful with my book buying. I’m much less likely to pick up something on a whim. Recently, I realized that it had been some time since I had bought a book and I decided to allow myself one indulgence. I checked my Amazon wish list and ordered The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan. When it came in the mail, I did a little happy dance. It felt like getting a special gift when you don’t get gifts that often.
If you haven’t heard of Anne Willan, she is an English woman who runs the famous cooking school La Varenne in Burgunday, France, which she founded with James Beard and Julia Child. She has thirty cookbooks to her credit, which have been translated into a couple dozen languages, and has won a variety of prestigious awards. She has been honored as a Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier and inducted into the World Food Media Hall of Fame.
I cook a lot from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Some might argue that these two volumes are all one will ever need on French cuisine. But the focus of Anne Willan’s book is the sort of rustic country cooking that has seen a resurgence in popularity lately–the classic fare of the French country cook, or of the roadside bistros that pepper the French countryside. What is it that makes this kind of cooking so compelling? According to Willan, the key is terroir, the essence of what makes one ingredient in one area taste different from the same ingredient grown in another area. Terroir is much more than soil and topography, however; it is also a cultural and historical link to the land, an expression of that land and the people living there. It is an emotionally charged term for the French, a word with shades of meaning, and it has no equivalent in English.
The Country Cooking of France covers all the classics, from soups to fish to tarts, as well as fare less common in North America, such as frog legs and escargots, for which Willan supplies a variety of recipes. She even covers important finishing touches like liqueurs and preserves and includes chapters on rustic sauces and the country baker. It is a meticulously researched and tested cookbook. Some of the recipes are involved, as French recipes sometimes are, but there are plenty of dishes, like fava beans with bacon, that can be made quite quickly and with relative ease. The pot-au-feu and cassoulet are best left for weekends or when striving to impress dinner guests.
This is a cookbook that inspires you to get into the kitchen. It is also beautifully photographed and chock full of information about every aspect of the French country meal. On days you don’t feel like cooking, it’s perfect for enjoying with a cafe au lait.
Salade de Fromage de Chèvre Mariné
Marinated Goat Cheese Salad
6 ounces/ 170 g arugula or other salad greens, washed and dried
marinated goat cheeses (recipe follows)
8 slices whole wheat bread or French baguette
oil from marinated cheese, used for brushing
for the vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons/30 ml red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
6 tablespoons/90 ml marinating oil
1) Slice each cheese in half horizontally. Use a round cookie cutter or a glass to stamp out a round from each piece of bread slightly larger than the rounds of cheese. Brush the bread rounds with the oil and set a round of cheese, cut side down, on top.
2) Whisk together the vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually add the oil, whisking constantly so the dressing emulsifies and thickens slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
3) To finish, heat the broiler. Arrange the cheeses on a baking sheet and broil them until bubbling and browned, about 5-7 minutes. In the meantime, toss salad greens with the vinaigrette.
4) Pile the greens on 4 plates. Set two rounds of cheese on each plate and serve while still warm.
Fromage de Chèvre Mariné
Put 4 small goat cheese rounds (about 2 1/2 ounces/75g each) in a 1 quart/1 liter jar with a lid. Add 3 dried bay leaves, 2 teaspoons peppercorns, 3 sprigs fresh thyme, 3 or 4 tiny dried chiles, and 1 1/2 cups/375ml olive or walnut oil, or enough to cover the cheeses generously. Cover with the lid and leave in a cool place for at least 2 weeks before using. Keeps up to 3-4 weeks.
Makes 4 cheeses to serve 4, with salad.
If you’re from Vancouver or happen to be in the Vancouver area, you shouldn’t miss the autumn issue of Edible Vancouver, a magazine that tells the story of local food. Copies get snapped up pretty quickly, so if you miss it you can find it online.
Be sure to check out my article on making your own homemade Balkan-style yogurt. It’s a snap, and once you try this creamy and dreamy concoction, you may very well not want to go back to the store bought stuff.
Today is Thanksgiving in Canada but our family celebrated yesterday. I don’t remember ever having had turkey dinner on the Monday–always Sunday. Another thing–it hasn’t always been turkey dinner. My mother has been known to cook a goose, a ham, or even duck as the main dish at our annual Thanksgiving feast, just to break the routine. Mind you, there are always a lot of other dishes at the table, like cabbage rolls, homemade sausage and sometimes–if my grandma is cooking–even perogies. To some, it may seem like a sacrilege to forgo turkey on Thanksgiving, but on these occasions I can’t say that I’ve ever really missed it.
Here’s the thing about being an immigrant. No matter how long you live in your country of choice, that country’s holidays never really seem yours. A holiday is something you adopt, perhaps keep forever, but you never call it your own. Coming from a farming community in Eastern Europe, my parents are no strangers to celebrating the harvest. Autumn is a time when friends and family often come together to share the bounties of the season. There are many rites and rituals associated with this special time of year, but there is no particular holiday reserved for its celebration. Here in Canada, Thanksgiving is always an excuse for the family to get together and eat a lot of food. Until recently, I gave little pause to what I was thankful for as I loaded my plate with cranberry sauce and my mother’s chestnut and apple stuffing.
But I think that there is something about getting older and hopefully wiser that has made me appreciate the importance of rituals such as holidays. They connect us with the people that are important to us. They are passages in life that make us more fully human. This year in some way was not the easiest. The economy hit a lot of people hard, me included, and it’s hard not to wonder almost constantly how long it will take to get better. Yet yesterday it was easy to focus on what I did have: my family, my health, great friends. Since last year we have had a new addition to family, my beautiful nephew. We celebrated Thanksgiving at my brother’s big new house with a feast worthy of some of those harvest days back in Europe. With all that food, eaten with the people I love, it would have been difficult not to feel thankful.
Even people who claim to love food with near obsession will often tell you that cooking for yourself is either a waste of time or horribly self-indulgent. It wasn’t that long ago that I counted myself among them. Since a large part of eating is sharing and connecting with others, cooking was something I did to nurture family and entertain friends. I always wanted to impress people with what I made, which always added an element of stress to my time in the kitchen and made the whole process of cooking less pleasurable. Everything had to be timed just so and look worthy of the pages of Gourmet magazine. It was easy to forget the whole point of getting together and eating in the first place. It all got lost in some misplaced drive for perfection.
There were times when I came home from work and poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner. Or fixed myself a sandwich, even though I had already had one for lunch. I cooked for myself, but not every day. I didn’t eat packaged foods; I made fresh food, but the sort of food one makes when in a hurry or not wanting to make much of a fuss. Pasta with a bit of bottled pesto. Store-bought skewers of chicken thrown on the grill and eaten with a green salad and a microwaved sweet potato. Nothing was inherently wrong with this food, it just wasn’t very exciting. Furthermore, it wasn’t food I would ever serve anyone but myself.
Everything changed when I began writing this blog. I started Gratinée when I decided that I wanted to become a food and travel writer. I wanted a portfolio of writing samples I could show editors; this was my main motivation. But when you put so much work into something, you want others to read it consistently. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge audience, but I wanted a loyal one. People who would come to this site and find something compelling in the narrative, inspiring in the recipes, and keep coming back. To this end, I knew that the writing mattered, but that the photography and recipes I chose would also be paramount. The photography is an evolution, and I try my best with my limited resources i.e. major lighting challenges. The recipes represented here are for the type of food that I love to eat. Simple, classic dishes, often French or inspired by French technique, comforting and bursting with robust flavor, composed of fresh and easy to find ingredients.
When I started cooking for this blog, I was essentially cooking for one. I offered the full recipe, but always cut the ingredients by half, or even three-quarters. I froze a lot of food and began inviting people for dinner more often. Posting recipes that people would want to make required more. More ingredients, more herbs and spices, more trips to the grocery store. It required more of me. Because I was accountable to this project, I had to come home and cook something new instead of just plopping on the couch.
I learned a lot. I learned how to cook new dishes, of course, but I also learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. Through my exploration and sourcing of better quality ingredients, my palate changed. I learned what a really good cheese should taste like. I began to love cilantro even though I once hated it. I found my voice, not only in terms of how I wanted to say things, but also in the kitchen.
Here is what I noticed when I began cooking for myself with some effort; the things that I cooked, more often than not, turned out perfectly. Much better than they did when I cooked these same things for others. When I cooked for myself, I didn’t have to impress anyone. I felt much more relaxed about the whole process when it didn’t matter whether my souffle fell or not. No one else was going to eat it but me. Even when my food didn’t look that great, it always tasted fine. Learning this was a kind of liberation, wholly unexpected.
There are days when I still want something fast, something that I can throw together in a matter of minutes. But I’m no longer satisfied with the standard fare of singledom. The other day I noticed that in almost eight months of blogging that I have posted only one pasta recipe. This is amazing to me, because for years, I ate pasta on an almost daily basis. Not that there is anything wrong with pasta, but writing this blog has taught me that there is so much more in the world to cook and eat.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch dried rosemary
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
basil, chopped chiffonade style
juice of half
1) Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon juice and butter in a mixing bowl. Toss the prawns to make sure they are well coated.
2) Melt the butter in a skillet over high heat. Add prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until they turn pink and cooked through.
3) Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with more chopped basil, if desired. Best eaten with slices of French baguette or pita.
Where were you when you heard the news? I was hunched over my desk, eating a sandwich and perusing the articles on Salon.com ,when I stumbled upon the announcement that after a run of almost seventy years, Conde Nast was pulling the plug on Gourmet, the grand dame of food magazines. Even in this dreadful economy, this decision seems shocking to me. Gourmet began in 1941 during World War II, a time of food shortages, a time when food was not deemed worthy as a serious subject. It thrived despite the growing dominance of processed food and large agribusiness, and was there for all the major culinary movements in the decades since its inception. That its demise is being attributed to elitism in some circles is almost laughable.
Gourmet was out of touch with what was happening in American kitchens, they say. Its long and literary articles were not appealing enough to the masses. Who else but Ruth Reichl would publish a 6000-word treatise on boiling lobster, written by the brilliant yet often incomprehensible David Foster Wallace, who until his death last year, was deemed the most important novelist of his generation. Certainly, the articles on road food and falafel joints could not be called elitist, though these articles were couched between write-ups of five-star Parisian hotels and dining recommendations for some of the toniest establishments in America– establishments that you and I have very little hope of ever visiting. To be sure, Gourmet magazine sold the good life. A life that few of us could afford.
But what of it? Is that not what most magazines do? I don’t know about you, but I have not once picked up a copy of Vogue to help me decide which five-thousand dollar Louis Vuitton bag I’m going to buy this fall. I have never felt bad about my life because I could not afford a pair of red-soled Christian Laboutin shoes. Vogue has always represented a fantasy, an escape from the routine of everyday life. It has served as a sort of jumping off point of inspiration, and in this way, Gourmet was no different. Although I read the magazine for years, I rarely cooked any of the recipes. I reveled in the sumptuous photography, read the well-written articles with the rapt attention of a scholar pouring over a sacred text, and when I was done, waited eagerly for the next issue to come in the mail. Most importantly, Gourmet got me into the kitchen. It gave me new ideas, a deeper knowledge of technique and flavor combinations. It taught me what I had once not considered–that despite its inherent pleasure, eating is ultimately an ethical or unethcial act, depending on how you go about it.
I think that it is this jarring reality, not the perception of elitism, that affected the magazine’s bottom line and partly led to its demise. It’s not that we are unwilling to spend a few bucks in tough times in order to be transported because we so clearly are. When we are told that the tomatoes we eat were picked by someone who lives in virtual slavery, it makes us very uncomfortable. It asks us to change the way we eat, the way we shop and think about food. And as we all know, change is hard. It’s something we’d rather not do. With its focus on food politics under Reichl’s stewardship, Gourmet had a way of holding up a mirror to ourselves and showing us parts that many of us were perhaps not quite ready to see.
I grew up thinking that you made bolognese sauce by frying up some ground beef and mixing it with a bottle of Ragu. Understandably, I didn’t like it very much and took to saucing my pasta with cream and a variety of freshly grated cheeses like Asiago or Pecorino Romano. Enlightenment came in the form of a trip to Bologna itself. This Northern Italian city is the capital of Emilia-Romangna–the agricultural heartland of Italy. The food I ate in Italy was familiar,of course, but kicked up a thousand notches from anything I’d ever had in an Italian restaurant back home. The pizzas were crisp and paper thin, garnished with a limited number of toppings and drizzled liberally with olive oil, which always sat on the table next to the salt and pepper and other condiments. The pastas were fresh and lightly sauced in order for the true flavor of the noodles to come shining through. Dinner could just as easily mean steak or a bean stew as it did a bowl of risotto or pasta.
Before I went to Italy I had no idea that Italian food was so varied, so regional. My repertoire of Italian food was limited to pastas, and as I was a student during my time in the country, I ate a lot of pasta indeed. I’d like to say that I spent much time cooking in the tiny kitchen I shared with several other students in the large apartment by the Arno river, but the truth is I did more than my fair share of dining in restaurants, sampling an array of dishes that stunned me with their rich flavors and simplicity. My first taste of an authentic bolognese ragu took place in a trattoria close to the university in Bologna–the oldest university in the western world. My friend Nicole and I had taken a table outside facing the square, from which we were surrounded by a jumble of the kind of dusty pink buildings that characterize this beautiful city. Nicole ordered gnocchi and I the lasagna bolognese. With this lasagna everything I thought I knew about Italian food slipped away. Were the noodles any better than noodles I’d had before? Was there a bechamel in between the layers of the dish? I cannot tell you. All I remember was that meat sauce, which seemed light yet deliciously rich at the same time. At the first bite a complex melange of flavors burst across my tongue: the smokiness of good pork, the unmistakable bite of garlic and tang of onion, other notes I could not identify. Tomato, to be sure, but not the heavy acidic tomato taste that often failed to appeal to me. Maybe it was the atmosphere that heightened the experience, but at that moment I knew that I would most likely never taste a bolognese like that again.
Bolognese sauce is often thought to be a tomato-based meat sauce, as was my misconception for many years, but a true bolognese actually has very little tomato. It is also served with tagliatelle noodles instead of spaghetti, or tucked in between the layers of the green lasagna Bologna is famous for. Tagliatelle are similar to fettuccine, and are used because a broader noodle is a preferable cradle for a thick or heavy sauce. The ingredients in the authentic bolognese have even been officially named by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina: beef, pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato paste, red wine, and milk.
This is not to say there are no variations, even in Bologna. Italians often use chopped pork or veal in their famous ragu, and chicken and goose liver may be added on special occasions. The onion, carrot, and celery can be cooked in butter as well as olive oil, and enrichments such as prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh porcini mushrooms when they are in season are also popular.
After reading up on this classic sauce, I was ready to ditch the cream and make an authentic bolognese. It might not be as good as the one I had in Bologna on that summer’s day oh-so-long-ago, but it sure comes close.
1/4 cup olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds regular ground beef
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1) In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Cook pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until soft, about 10-15 minutes.
2) Add ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Stir in wine, milk, and tomato paste. Add salt and pepper.
3) Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
* I use white wine in my sauce, but purists will insist on the red. Both are lovely.