Wednesday, October 26, 2011

French sojourn in Provence nourishes a cook's soul and palate

State fruit - TomatoImage via Wikipedia
Oct. 18, 2011

Written by
Ron Mikulak | The Courier-Journal

I have just returned from a “busman’s holiday,” a vacation during which I did pretty much what I do during my workaday life. I spent two weeks with friends in a house in a Provencal village south of St. Remy, France, during which one of my deepest pleasures was cooking meals for the group, using ingredients from local groceries and the weekly village market.

I didn’t prepare every meal, of course. We ate at local restaurants a few times, and one of the other couples was enthralled by French markets, and had ideas for making a couple of dinners.

While I am adept at winging it in the kitchen, I thought I should bring with me at least one cookbook to get me focused on Provencal food. I thought immediately of Elizabeth David.

I have briefly written about David before. She traveled extensively around the Mediterranean after World War II, living for extended periods in southern France and Italy.

Returning to the still food-rationed England in the early 1950s, David missed the vibrant foods she had eaten in her travels and consoled herself by writing a small book of recipes of dishes she had enjoyed. The success of “The Book of Mediterranean Food” led her to return to France to research her next book, “French Country Cooking,” a survey of regional Gallic cuisine, which starts in Provence.

“Provence,” David writes, “is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train.”

The food that is grown on Provence’s “warm, stony, herb-scented hillsides,” she explains, “is not primitive food; it is civilized without being over-civilized. That is to say, it has natural taste, smell, texture and much character. Often it looks beautiful, too. What it amounts to is that it is the rational, right and proper food for human beings to eat.”

Although I did not have to read this to be eager to cook in a Provencal kitchen, with local ingredients, David’s prose certainly gave my eagerness a boost. The fact that our rental house was right next door to a wonderful fruit and vegetable market with a fine little cheese department, a selection of a dozen or so olives and several shelves of wine (crisp local rosés went for 4.95 euros, less than $7) all added to the pleasures of cooking while on vacation.

One of the first truly Provencal dishes I ever ate, in a small restaurant some 30 years ago on my first trip to France, was daube, a beef dish somewhere between a pot roast and a stew. I was eager to try my hand at this quintessential “home-cooking” dish of southern France.

David says this about daube: “There must be scores of different recipes for daubes in Provence alone, as well as all those which have been borrowed from Provence by other regions, for a daube of beef is essentially a country housewife’s dish. In some daubes the meat is cut up, in others it is cooked in the piece; what goes in apart from the meat is largely a matter of what is available, and the way it is served is again a question of local taste.”

In her inimitable, narrative way, David writes her recipe as a sort of essay, with often impressionistic allusions to quantities, assuming that her readers will have enough experience in the kitchen to know to taste before adding more salt or pepper to a sauce. My recipe is a mash-up of David’s instructions and my own approach, couched in the more standard format of modern recipes.

Other characteristic Provencal dishes include tian, a casserole named more for the local style of pottery casserole than for the recipe, which can be various. Tomates provencal farcies — “stuffed” roasted tomatoes — is usually made with ripe tomatoes, but I have adapted a recipe for green tomatoes, which are more abundant in markets at this point in the season.

I was bemused that the “in” desserts in French restaurants, both modest and upscale, were fruit “crumbles,” apple or pear crisps, with a pastry dough undercrust and a streusel topping. My poached pear over crumbles is a sort of deconstructed fruit crisp.


La daube de boeuf provencal | Provencal-style beef stew

  • 2-3 pounds beef chuck or shoulder roast, cut into 2- to 3-inch square chunks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ pound bacon (unsmoked is preferable, but not essential), cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ¼ pound salt pork or pork rinds, cut into thin strips
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed flat with the blade of a knife
  • Bouquet garni of a bay leaf, a generous sprig of thyme and a few sprigs of parsley, tied together
  • 4- to 6-inch strip of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler
  • 1 cup bold red wine
  • 2 onions, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 2 carrots, scraped and cut into chunks
  • ½ pound new potatoes, scrubbed and cut in half
  • ½ pound grape or small Roma tomatoes, stems trimmed but tomatoes left whole
  • 1 cup pitted black olives
  1. Season the chunks of beef with salt and pepper.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat, and when shimmery, add the beef pieces, in batches, and sear until nicely browned on all sides. Remove and set aside.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add half the bacon and half the pork rinds or salt pork. Place the browned beef chunks on top of these, stick the garlic and bouquet of herbs in between the pieces, then add the orange peel and the rest of the bacon and pork rind, scattered over the top of the beef. Add the wine, bring to a simmer, cover first with foil, then with the pot lid and reduce heat so the dish simmers slowly.
  4. After one hour, add the onions, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes, and simmer for another hour. Add the olives, and simmer until the meat is very tender — until a testing fork slides into and out of a chunk of beef without catching. Serve with salad, hearty bread or a side of tian or tomates provencal farcies.
  5. Serves 6.


Tomates provencal farcies | Provencal tomatoes

In France, these are made with ripe tomatoes. But this late in the season, gardens are bursting with green tomatoes, so I adapted the idea to use one of my favorite late summer vegetables.


  • 6 green tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • ½ cup minced parsley


  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Trim both stem and blossom end of tomatoes so both sides are flat. Slice tomatoes in half at the equator. Salt the tomatoes lightly, then place upside down on paper towels to drain for about 30 minutes.
  3. In a large ovenproof frying pan, heat 1½ tablespoons of olive oil until shimmery. Squeeze the tomatoes lightly to work out excess moisture and some seeds, then pat dry. Add the tomatoes, largest side down, to the pan, and cook 5 minutes over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Carefully turn tomatoes over with a spatula, and cook other side about 3 more minutes. Then place tomatoes in an oiled baking pan, largest sides up.
  4. In a small bowl, mix together the breadcrumbs, minced garlic, minced parsley and the remaining 1½ tablespoons olive oil, and spoon evenly over the tomatoes. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, until topping is nicely browned and the tomatoes are starting to bubble.
  5. Serves 6.


Tian of zucchini and rice

  • 3 pounds fresh zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ pound rice
  • ½ stick (4 tablespoons) butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced parsley
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup cream or half-and-half


  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Wash and trim zucchini, but do not peel. Grate coarsely into a strainer set over a bowl. Sprinkle the grated zucchini with salt, and let drain for 15 minutes.
  3. Bring 3 cups of salted water to a boil, add the rice, stir and cook until al dente, about 12-15 minutes.
  4. Drain and fluff with a fork.
  5. Squeeze excess moisture out of the zucchini by wrapping and wringing in a clean tea towel. In a large frying pan over medium heat, melt the butter, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, add the grated zucchini, and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes or so, until softened. Stir in the minced garlic, parsley and thyme. Taste, and adjust seasoning. Fold in the cooked rice.
  6. In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then beat in the cream or half-and-half until custard is smooth. Oil or butter a 3-quart baking dish. Spoon in the zucchini and rice mixture, and then cover it with the egg mixture, mixing lightly so custard is evenly distributed. Place in oven, and bake until set and slightly browned on top, about 45 minutes.
  7. Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish, but is a good basis for a vegetarian main course.


Wine-poached pears in a crumble bed


For the pears:


  • 4 cups cold water
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 6 firm but ripe Bosc or Bartlett pears (with stems intact)
  • 1 bottle light red wine
  • 1¾ cups sugar
  • 4- to 6-inch strip of orange rind, removed with vegetable peeler
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 whole vanilla bean, cut in halves
  • 1 whole clove
  • 1 cinnamon stick


For the crumble base:


  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped pecans or walnuts


  1. In a large bowl, combine the water and lemon juice. Peel the pears, keeping the stems intact. Cut a small slice from the base of each pear so the fruits sit without toppling. Drop each one into the water; set aside.
  2. In a saucepan large enough to hold all the pears, combine the wine, sugar, orange rind, anise, vanilla, clove and cinnamon. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.
  3. Add the pears, and simmer for 25 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with a skewer, turning as needed to get all sides immersed, and turning the same ruby color. They may need to poach longer if they were not ripe.
  4. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Leave the fruit to cool completely in the poaching liquid.
  5. Transfer the pears and their liquid to a large container. Refrigerate for at least several hours and as long as 3 days.
  6. Strain about one-third of the poaching liquid into a saucepan. Bring it to a boil over high heat, and reduce it by at least half, until it has the consistency of a light syrupy glaze, like thin honey.

To make crumble base:


  1. Heat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. In a bowl, mix all ingredients until crumbly. Spread in a shallow baking pan in an even layer, and place in oven. Bake 15-25 minutes, until the mixture is nicely browned on top. Let cool.
  3. When cool, but before the mixture sets, use a fork or your fingers to break up the mixture into a “crumble” or streusel-topping texture.
  4. Spoon a layer of the crumble into a shallow serving bowl. Place cold poached pear in the center. Spoon over some of the reserved reduced poaching syrup, and serve.


Reporter Ron Mikulak can be reached at (502) 582-4618.


Taken from Courier-Journal.com; source article is below:
French sojourn in Provence nourishes a cook's soul and palate


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