Gifting With Phyllo Dough

A dinner gift of Phyllo Chicken.

The cooler fall days encourage a shift in my cooking. After a binge on vegetable soups in all stages, my taste buds are hungry for something I can sink my teeth into. Enter phyllo dough.

Most people know it as the thin layers of dough between ground nuts and honey in the Greek pastry baklava. But phyllo dough begs to be used in a million ways. My mom and I experimented with phyllo while I was in high school and I fell in love with its diversity.

My favorite and something I’ve been making since my 20’s, is phyllo chicken with tarragon and mustard. I don’t remember where this recipe came from but have made it for catering clients and shared it with friends over the years. I taught my dear friend Debbie how to make it right after college and to this day she tells me how much she still enjoys the recipe.

Phyllo chicken is the perfect dinner party entrée as the little packets of goodness represent gifts of love. It is visually attractive and your guests will truly feel special.

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Chicken breasts are first smeared with Dijon mustard and sprinkled with tarragon leaves, then wrapped into a square of layered phyllo dough. They bake into a beautiful golden brown bundle. I like to dress them up with a “ribbon” of thin roasted red pepper for an added touch of elegance. Set the baked parcel in a pool of delicate mustard sauce for an infusion of flavors. Don’t be afraid of the mustard in this recipe. The addition of cream tames its sharpness and produces a silky, delectable sauce.

Layers of buttery crispness shatter beneath the fork, exposing a savory chicken breast. The combination is undeniably delicious. I would serve this with haricot verts (thin French green beans), carrot mousse and crusty French bread. For dessert, poached pears or a flourless chocolate cake.

I have made these packets and successfully frozen them, unbaked, until the day of my party.
Treat your friends to this gift of love. Someone will ask you for the recipe.

5.0 from 1 reviews

Mustard Chicken in Phyllo
 
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This easy-to-make main dinner course is a great idea for a holiday get-together.
Author:
Recipe type: main course
Serves: 6

Ingredients
  • 3 boneless chicken breasts
  • Dijon mustard
  • 6 springs fresh tarragon or 1 about Tablespoon of dried tarragon
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 sheets of phyllo dough
  • Melted butter – about 4-5 Tablespoons
  • Mustard Sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced or 2 shallots, halved and sliced thinly
  • 1 teaspoon tarragon
  • 1 Cup dry white wine
  • 1½ Cups chicken stock
  • ⅓ Cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 Cup cream

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Cut chicken breasts in half.
  3. Spread about a teaspoon of mustard on the chicken breast. Top with either a tarragon sprig or sprinkle with dried tarragon.
  4. Unroll phyllo dough. Butter one sheet of dough and fold in half. Place mustard chicken one inch from narrow end of dough. Fold outer edges of phyllo into the chicken and roll up. Butter the top and sides. Place on a cookie sheet seam side down. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
  5. For the Mustard Sauce:
  6. Melt butter and add onions or shallots. Saute until soft but not browned. Add tarragon.
  7. Add wine to onions and raise heat to medium high. Add chicken stock and mustard. Whisk to combine. Reduce by one half. This takes about a half an hour.
  8. Add the cream, reduce heat and cook on medium low until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Keep warm on simmer until ready to use or cool and refrigerate to reheat later.
  9. Bake chicken phyllos at 375 degrees about 30 minutes or until deeply golden brown.
  10. Thinly slice a roasted red pepper. Drape over the package and form two loops to look like a ribbon. Serve on top a pool of creamy mustard sauce.

 

Ciao for now,

“Life is a gift. Don’t forget to live it.”
― Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything




A New Twist on Paella – Squid Ink!

Sepia, or Squid Ink Paella

I’m interrupting my travelogue of Sicily to tell you about yet another fantastic paella party I hosted on Saturday. This was our 4th annual party and my mom and I decided to take it to the next level. “I saw this interesting Garcima Paella Burner at Pata Negra,” my mom said enthusiastically. Pata Negra is our local Spanish food stuffs store and also carries every size of paella pan and accessories to throw a great paella party. I returned to the store with her and fell in love with the concept. Two propane-fueled ring burners attach to a tripod. The paella pan sits on top. No more messy charcoal! Click here to see them at La Tienda.

The knowledgeable salesman saw me eyeing the packages of squid ink or sepia, I so enjoyed in Sicilian pastas. He pointed out a sepia broth that he swore would make the BEST paella ever. How could we refuse? The black broth, from the squid ink, would turn the rice black!

Sepia or Squid Ink broth for the Paella. You can buy it at Spanish Table

Sauteeing the Bomba rice with olive oil. You can see the Garcima Paella Burner setup.

I love inviting guests who are eager to try new and different foods.

Me and my fabulous aunt Barb, who is a fabulous chef herself.

My cousin Ali, who is a master at organizing parties and who helped me more than I can say, and my beautiful mom, the birthday girl.

My co-chef Eva, me and my best friend Jenny!

Me and my dear friend Alan who makes the best cocktails on the planet!

Our guests: Jenn, Joanne, Jan, Barb and Mom

Here I was, trying something totally new on my 11 guinea pig guests! The entire paella prep was reduced by half by using the sepia broth. All we did was chop one onion, sauté it in a fair amount of olive oil, add the Bomba Spanish rice, stir, then add the warmed sepia broth. I stirred in a pinch of saffron (from Palermo!) and about a teaspoon of smoked paprika. Now all that was left to do was to let it steam while we prepped the seafood to top the paella.

Eva and me adding the mollusks. We are having fun!

We tucked clams, mussels, squid ringlets with their tentacles and shrimp into the cooked rice and covered it with foil for about five minutes. Mangiamo!

Finished Seafood Paella before garnishing with roasted red peppers and fresh parsley.

I think everyone agreed, this was the best paella ever. The sepia broth delivered a richness, almost as if I had slaved all day to make the perfect fish broth using fish heads and shellfish. The unusual squid ink that colors the rice black just made the entire dish more interesting and a great conversation piece!

Jenny and her colorful salad.

The perfect crunchy green salad to go with the Paella.

The paella was accompanied by a gorgeous green salad, made by my best friend Jenny, and some chunks of French bread. This was a celebration for my mom’s birthday and every year she craves Pavlova as her birthday cake. The meringue was one of the best I’ve ever made. Thick, soft marshmallow meringue with a lemon creme filling, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. Always a crowd pleaser and all the prep can be done in advance. Assembly takes about five minutes! My advice for throwing a party – keep it simple. Limit the dishes to one hearty main, a salad, bread and dessert and involve your friends in the cooking and prepping process. Don’t forget the after dinner dance party! Ours lasted until midnight!

Pavlova – a slice of marshmallowy lightness with a tang of lemon creme. Yummy!

My wonderful mom, the birthday girl!

The next time you make paella, I hope you try it with the sepia broth. You will thank me.

“When you hear a Spanish cook describe a paella or a cake, you realize she’s using a much richer repertoire of adjectives than what one of us would use to characterize a book or an important experience.”
Julio Cortázar, Final Exam

Ciao for now!




A Pistachio Inspired Pranzo

Il Fiorentino. Pistachio heaven with Pino and France.

A Pistachio Inspired Pranzo
A review of Il Fiorentino, Bronte, Sicily

Another lovely blue-skied day in Sicily. Today’s adventure and culinary find takes us from the aquamarine sea to a mountain top and then half-way down the other side. All this to reach our lunch (pranzo) destination, Il Fiorentino, in the paise (village) of Bronte. Bronte is well-known for its pistachios grown in the foothills of Mt. Etna. Sicilians take pride in this regional nut, claiming the minerals from the lava in the earth give the pistachios a special richness and intensity to their flavor.

It is a Monday and most eateries are closed on Mondays. Roberto called ahead to double-check and the owner replied, “Si!, viene!” Winding curvy roads, with views that resembled the Rocky Mountains, the terrain suddenly dips down into vast open meadows filled with colorful cows and even llamas. Around another corner and Roberto immediately swings into a street parking spot right in front of the restaurant. Arriviamo! We walk through the beaded curtain entrance and are greeted by Pino, the owner. A warm, fuzzy feeling takes over, like I am entering a friend’s home, someone who has lived here for a very long time. The room’s light comes only through its windows. Old memorabilia line the walls and shelves while crisp, white tablecloths anchor the maybe 10 tables. Charming. As it happened, Il Fiorentino is closed but Pino opens just for us! We will have a private pranzo, cooked to order.

Interior of Il Fiorentino, Pistachios are their specialty!

Pino is a small man, maybe mid 60’s, conservatively dressed in a shirt and buttoned up v-neck sweater, wearing a closed-lipped grin. He hands us menus but Roberto clearly knows the ropes and orders for both of us. A bottle of water and a carafe of red wine are placed on the table and the feast begins.

Trio of Bruschetta

A trio of caramelized onion, pomodoro and herb bruschetta sets the tone for the meal. Roberto orders a primi of antipasto to share. An abundance and variety of textures and colors activates my taste buds. Caponata, green beans, home-cured salami, local olives and caciocavallo cheese, fried potatoes and two kinds of stuffed and fried squash blossoms fill every corner of the plate. I first dig into the fried, mozzarella-stuffed squash blossom, its cheese oozing all over my fork. The salty, melting warmth brings forth a squeal of delight. Pino’s grin widens as he watches me eat with such pleasure. I enjoy the local caciocavallo cheese so much, he returns with another large slice and sets it next to me. So sweet.

Antipasto
Squash Blossoms

Il Fiorentino’s menu offers two kinds of their specialty pasta with pistachios, “Casarecci al Pistacchio.” It is a warm day and Pino suggests the “red” pasta with tomato, eggplant and onion for me. Roberto likes the “white” pasta in a light cream sauce. The presentation in beautiful Sicilian ceramic bowls make this experience extra special. Both dishes are heavily dusted with freshly chopped pistachios. Pino makes sure I understand that he has picked and shelled these pistachios. I eat slowly, savoring every bite. When I reach the bottom of my bowl to scrape every last morsel onto my fork, I am greeted by a smiling sun face! It was if she is saying, “I’m glad you enjoyed me so much!”

Pasta
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Smiling face

Click here to see Franca, Pino’s wife, making her pasta.

Our plates are cleared away and Pino asks, “Would you like some cherries?” Certo! A bowl of just picked and perfectly ripe burgundy beauties is placed between us and we eagerly bite into the juicy flesh. Pino is obviously still enjoying our display of delight with his food.

Palate cleanser of cherries

Il Fiorentino’s specialty dessert is pistachio gelato served with pistachio cake. Even though I am feeling pasta-full, I cannot resist, and can never resist, dessert. I take a scoop of the intensely flavored, nutty gelato and smear it on top of the cake to eat them together. Ice cream and cake! I especially love the moist cake with a slightly sugar crunch on top. My pastry mind is putting the ingredients together. Meringue? Flourless? So enamored with the cake, I ask Pino how it is made. He shrugs his shoulders and then leads me to the kitchen to meet his wife, Franca, who is the star chef of the restaurant. Delighted by the compliment, she eagerly shares her recipe with me. I am overwhelmed by her kindness.

Pistachio cake plus pistachio gelato. A match made in heaven!

For me, this is the definition of a great dining experience. Besides fantastic fresh food, it’s the warm hospitality in a comfortable home-like setting. Mostly, it’s Pino and Franca who so lovingly share their livelihood, that forever will endear me to Il Fiorentino. If you are ever in Sicily, do not miss the opportunity to dine with them!

Here is Franca’s recipe for the Pistachio Cake.

Sicilian Pistachio Cake
 
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This moist cake is perfect for dessert, especially when served with ice cream or whipped cream. With only three ingredients, it’s a snap to make!
Author:
Recipe type: Pistachio cake, gluten-free
Cuisine: Sicilian
Serves: 8-10

Ingredients
  • 200 grams sugar (1 Cup)
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 250 grams ground pistachios (2 Cups) Trader Joe’s has them!

Instructions
  1. Beat sugar with egg yolks in a mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Beat egg whites until soft but still holding their shape.
  3. Add vanilla and salt.
  4. Fold whipped egg whites into sugar mixture.
  5. Fold pistachios into all.
  6. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes or until golden on top.

 

Glossary of Italian words used in this story. Your Italian lesson for the day!

Pranzo – Lunch

Viene – Come, come in

Arriviamo – We have arrived.

Primi – First course

Certo – Certainly

Pomodoro – Tomato

Paise – Village

History of the Bronte Pistachio

Interesting article in the New York Times about the Bronte Pistachio

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Ciao for now!




My Tips for Hosting an Incredible Paella Party in 5 Simple Steps

Seafood Paella made with Love

Step 1
For me, the most important thing is starting with a great guest list. I choose family and compatible friends who have met before. This creates an intimate, comfortable atmosphere for all, and you, the host/hostess, need not worry about guests feeling left out because they don’t know anyone. You will be focused on making layers of flavor with the paella, with fleeting moments of conversation with your guests! Remember to read your guest’s facial expressions. Does everyone feel part of the party?
Oftentimes I encourage interaction between people who might not know each other well by taking photos of them together. This usually prompts a conversation between them and keeps the party moving along.

Step 2
Keep the menu simple. Paella, Green Salad, Plenty of Drink, Dessert. This is not a time to try a new recipe or overload your guests with too many appetizers. I usually ask one guest to bring light appetizers like olives and Manchego cheese. Something to snack on to absorb the alcohol while viewing the entertainment – me singing while stirring the paella! Making the paella on a grill outdoors keeps the party contained outside and creates a side show for the guests.

Involve your friends by asking them to help. Our Fire Man, Bob, kept the grill fire fueled. In between fire duties, he connected the Flamenco music to outdoor speakers and later in the evening switched it to good old rock ’n roll. When it comes to drinks, I have resorted again to keeping it simple. I’ve made Sangria for past parties but have found that most guests prefer their favorite cocktail or variety of wine. Pelligrino is a favorite sparkler to quench thirst between drinks. All beverages are on hand and within easy reach on a dedicated “bar” table. This year, my sister-in-law, Mirna, brought me a bottle of fine Vapor Distillery Rhok gin( formerly Roundhouse), made in Boulder, Colorado as a gift. It was a warm evening and suddenly gin sounded really good! I know this is not a traditional Spanish accompaniment to paella but Mirna started whipping up cocktails with the gin and they were such a hit, several of the guests were requesting her special drinks! This is when you just go with the flow and enjoy the moment.

Bob. The Fire Man

Step 3

Enlist a co-chef! What would I do without Eva who has been my co-chef for three years? Eva is able to co-taste with me and offer suggestions to improve the recipe or technique. Choose someone compatible that you work easily with, does not freak out and understands flavor combining. Discuss each other’s roles beforehand so you are not duplicating tasks. Two people cooking also helps keep the pace moving along so you are not eating at midnight!

Step 4
Prep all ingredients for the paella in the morning. Have them measured out and in bowls in order of appearance to be added to the dish. When you start cooking, there’s no need to look at the recipe. It’s all right there in front of you. Continue to monitor guests for engagement and over dinner, ask them to share a favorite summer food memory.

Step 5
End the evening with one spectacular dessert. I always make a traditional Australian Pavlova. It’s my mom’s favorite dessert and works well for a crowd. The mouth feel of soft and creamy meringue and whipped cream, accented by tangy lemon curd and fresh berries is undeniably one of the best combinations on earth. And, it’s different. Make the meringue and lemon curd the day before. The night of the party, just assemble by spreading the curd onto the meringue, lavishing whipped cream over all and sprinkling with the freshest berries you can find. Done. Your guests will thank you.

All the girls pitched in to help finish off the Pavlova. Such a great group! Love them all!

“He tastes of rice with a touch of saffron. He says I taste of seafood. I guess we’d make a good paella.”
Chloe Thurlow, Girl Trade

Ciao for now,

Mary




Koreatown Part I

A visual masterpiece. Galbi Jjim.

“I Love LA!” I sang, Randy Newman style, as I drove up the I-5 toward a city you either love or hate. To me, Los Angeles is a polar opposite of San Diego, offering everything from the glitz of Hollywood, and the Getty Villa, (my favorite LA hangout), world-class restaurants, and diverse neighborhoods brimming with authentic culture. I needed a fix. Here’s how it began: “Eva, I need to get out of Dodge! Let’s leave our comfort zone and explore Koreatown, LA,” I begged. Her spontaneous spirit kicked in and we were on our way. So, why Koreatown? Anthony Bourdain. I love his show, “Parts Unknown,” and since Los Angeles is just up the freeway, why not? Bourdain’s episode featuring Koreatown made my mouth water and aroused my curiosity. We researched some “not to be missed” places and found some new ones.

Sun Nong Dan’s entrance in a mini mall – Koreatown.

First stop, “Sun Nong Dan,” highly recommended by The LA Eater, Jonathan Gold. Open 24 hours a day, the cozy, maybe 15 table eatery, serves up strictly Korean dishes featuring steamy hot stews and bowls of soup, family style. An open doorway leads to the narrow kitchen where wafting aromas of spice and chili linger in the air, mingling with the sounds of sizzling dishes meeting the tables. Letters of gratitude from Korean celebrities?, taped to the wall are part of the decoration. Also on the wall, a mural of knife-yielding women and their somber observers. What are they doing?

Eclectic decor!

Closely knit tables wedged us between students, families and professionals. Feeling a bit conspicuous with our white skin, we were still afforded the beautiful hospitality which defines this culture.

We took Gold’s advice and ordered the #24, Galbi Jjim, braised beef short ribs. Our server advised that this special dish would take 20 minutes to prepare. To ready us for this eating adventure, accompaniments of pickled green onions, cabbage and radish were placed along the side of the table to be shared and we were given our own bowl of pickled jalapeno dipping sauce and bowl of black rice that turns purple when cooked. Eva and I watched the other diners to see how they ate the dish. “Were there rules?” we asked our server. He shook his head no.

The feast.

Voila! A large cast iron pot of the Galbi Jjim was placed between us. It was a show stopper! The brilliant garnet color of the stew had the appearance of shimmering, glossy lipstick. Mounds of hearty, thick short ribs, slices of beef, chunky potatoes, rice cake sticks, onion and chili combined for a beautiful presentation. We waited for the steam to subside before timidly taking our first bite. Sweet is the first taste which then becomes spicy but not too hot. You make your own heat with the jalapeno dipping sauce and chili paste. The onion gave it a sweetness while the rice cake sticks delivered an unexpected chewy texture. The depth of the layers of flavor was indescribable. It was impossible to discern the spices embedded in the stew. Not trying of over-analyze, we simply enjoyed every savory bite. The marrow in the flat bones was most likely meant to be eaten but there was so much food, we didn’t attempt it. The pickled vegetables were a cool bite during an intermission from the heat. We loved our experience at Sun Nong Dan and recommend it to anyone seeking truly authentic Korean cuisine.

Eva’s first bite.

We were now initiated into Koreatown! With full bellies, we continued the adventure. More next week so stay tuned!

“For me, food doesn’t just taste sweet, sour, spicy, what have you—it tastes of feelings, it invokes memories.”
Renita D’Silva, The Forgotten Daughter

Ciao for now,




Experience Risotto with Wild Bolete Mushrooms

Mushroom risotto. The flavor is so sublime, why complicate it with too many other ingredients? The essence that is the mushroom carries the flavor with the assistance of shallots, dry white wine and parsley. Watch carefully. Do not overcook. Do not overstir. It’s a lesson in patience – a zen experience.

Let the risotto evolve and reduce with gentle stirs and ladlefuls of broth as needed. Do not overwork it – just like life. Don’t over think. Just let the magic happen. Earthy, delicate, straightforward. A recipe that taught me when to add broth. When to stir. When to let it rest. This is why I love to cook. The food talks to you and lets you know how it would like to be treated. Maybe I should have a chat with each dish I make and get their opinion on how they’d like to be prepared.

Resist giving into the temptation to cook the rice until it’s mushy. Risotto should be like pasta, “al dente” with a little teeth to the bite. This gives the rice character so it doesn’t sink into the sunset as a nondescript bowl of cream of rice. What I want to share with you is not how to make risotto, but rather how to experience risotto.

Mushroom Risotto
 
Ingredients
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely
  • 1 cup chopped mushrooms or rehydrated dried mushrooms or wild Bolete mushrooms
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 3 plus cups vegetarian stock or chicken stock – warmed on the stove
  • ¼ – ½ cup grated parmesan cheese – optional
  • chopped parsley to garnish

Instructions
  1. Melt the butter and oil together.
  2. Stir in the shallots and sauté until soft.
  3. Add the mushrooms.
  4. Stir in the rice. Let the rice immerse itself into the oil.
  5. Add the white wine and cook on medium heat until the liquid is nearly evaporated.
  6. Now, slowly stir in the broth of your choice, about one cup to start. You will notice that it quickly is absorbed into the rice.
  7. Give a little stir so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom, then ladle in another ½ cup or so of the broth.
  8. Continue this method until the rice is cooked. The rice might absorb 2½ cups or 3 cups.
  9. Taste frequently and salt to taste. It is best when there is still some liquid in the rice so it is a bit saucy!
  10. If desired, stir in parmesan.
  11. Garnish with parsley. I also garnished with pieces of grilled zucchini as shown in the photo.
  12. Serve with a crisp green salad and crusty bread.

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ciao for now!

Mary




Party Paella

Spanish Paella. Ole!

Spanish Paella. Ole!

Lately I’ve been having fantasies – of Spain. Spanish tapas, Spanish olive oil, Spanish wine, the people, the music, the romance of it all. My feet have only touched the airport in Madrid and now they dream of dancing the flamenco in Sevilla.

This sudden enchantment was Anthony Bourdain inspired by his visit to bewitching Andalusia on his TV show, Parts Unknown. The spell is cast and perhaps next year I will indulge my fantasy. Until then, let’s explore a Spanish specialty!

Paella, as one version of the story goes, is Latin-named after the shallow, round pan it is cooked in, a “patella.” Farmers and laborers in Valencia, the southeastern region of Spain, created “paella” over a word burning fire to cook rice, a local crop, with whatever was available like rabbit, snails, chicken and white and green beans. The coastal version often incorporated seafood and soon paella emerged as a dish to suit all tastes using a variety of ingredients. nowadays, paella can take form as a “mixta,” a combination of chicken and seafood, a Valencia Paella, like the original noted above or a combination of chorizo, chicken and seafood, which seems the most popular here in America. Many forms of paella exist in Europe and other parts of the world, each infused with the region’s edibles. Spain is a major producer of saffron and it plays a prominent role by adding an earthy rich flavor and deep orange color.

The beginnings of a delicious dinner.

The beginnings of a delicious dinner.

I love paella but have been overwhelmed by what seems like a big deal. Well, paella is now more fun than fear thanks to my sister-in-law Mirna who showed me her secret to simplicity. All you need to do is to prep a few things before hand and the rest can take place while your guests sip a refreshing Sangria or cool Pinot Grigio on the patio. This is a great party food!

We love this flush of paprika's heat on her cheeks!

We love this flush of paprika’s heat on her cheeks!

Our imitation of the Paprika Girl!

Our imitation of the Paprika Girl!

The grill is the secret weapon where we literally cooked the entire paella. A real find was a large “paella-type” pan at Ikea that can comfortably sit and bake on the grill. Once the onions, garlic and peppers are chopped, just measure out the rest of the ingredients and have them handy. That’s it!

A sprinkling of parsley adds the final flash of color.

A sprinkling of parsley adds the final flash of color.

We made a few adjustments to the traditional paella and that’s the beauty of the dish. You can add or subtract ingredients to suit your liking. We like the flavor smoked paprika contributes. I adore artichokes and red peppers, other traditional Spanish ingredients. Paella can be your ticket to wherever you feel like traveling that night. Pick a destination and build your dish around ingredients indigenous to that locality. Make it fun!

Paella at the Vaison la Romaine market in the Haut Vaucluse region of France. Yummy!

Paella at the Vaison la Romaine market in the Haut Vaucluse region of France. Yummy!

I must mention that in the olden days, the farmers would sit around the fire and eat the paella straight out of the pan with a wooden spoon. No plates to clean up. It might be a fun way to share a dinner with family and friends!

A toast to family forever!

A toast to family forever!

“You should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.” Epictetus

Paella for a Family Reunion, serves 8
 
Ingredients
  • 3 chicken thighs
  • 2 sweet Italian sausages
  • 1 spicy Italian sausage (next time I will use Chorizo)
  • ¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 large or 2 small sweet red peppers, cut into 1” pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • pinch of saffron
  • 4 cups (or more) chicken, vegetable or clam broth
  • 2 cups rice – we used Arborio but the Spanish use Bomba. Be sure to use a short grain rice to absorb all the liquid
  • 3 Tablespoons Smoked Hungarian Paprika
  • 1 ½ cups frozen or canned artichoke hearts – no oil
  • 1 package Trader Joe’s Seafood Blend OR shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari to suit your taste
  • ½ cup frozen or fresh peas

Instructions
  1. Heat a grill to medium heat. Grill chicken thighs and sausages until brown but barely cooked. Remove from grill. Cut into 1” pieces. Set aside.
  2. Place paella pan on grill and add olive oil. Stir in onions and sauté until soft. Add garlic and peppers and cook another two minutes.
  3. Crush saffron and combine with broth. I read a recipe where Bobby Flay toasted the saffron before adding to the broth. I will try this next time.
  4. Stir in rice and coat well with oil and veggies. Cook for one minute.
  5. Stir in liquid and artichoke hearts. Sprinkle paprika on top and stir in.
  6. Cook over medium heat until liquid is evaporated, about 20 minutes. If rice seems dry, add more liquid. Try to refrain from stirring rice so it doesn’t get sticky.
  7. When rice is firm but tender, stir in cooked sausages, chicken thighs, seafood and peas and cook just until done, another couple of minutes. Give a generous sprinkling of parsley and voilà! Your party is a success!

If I’ve peaked your interest about paella, check out these great websites: www.lapaella.net, www.orceserranohams.com, www.lapaella.co.uk

Ciao & Adios!

Maria

 




Lucchese Style Cooking

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Luchese.

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Lucchese, a style local to the area of Lucca.

Are you interested in learning some authentic Italian recipes from a bona fide cooking school in Lucca, Italy?  If so, read on. Davino, my host from La Mimosa, had arranged for me to attend a cooking class at the International Academy of Italian Cuisine in Lucca, just on the other side of the hill from my house. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was grateful for the opportunity to join an ongoing class. This particular course trained students for a career as a professional chef. 10 were Japanese, two were Chinese and one was Italian. Mama Mia!

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The instructor was Mariela. She patiently went through the menu with us all, a translator changing Italian to Japanese and then to English for me. The clock started ticking. We started at 10 am and lunch was to be on the table by 1:30 pm. Then the switch went on. I felt like I was on Iron Chef. It was chaos – for a while. Pots began clamoring, students, almost in a panic, grabbed ingredients and bumped into each other, all in an attempt to put their ingredients in place for their designated recipes. The first minutes seemed uncertain, a searching for confidence, then this sense of order settled in. Dishes started to unfold.

A teaching moment.

A teaching moment.

I was told to go here, and then there, do this, then that. I felt a little out-of-place hovering, assisting, chopping, straining, the only sounds being Japanese words. Some students tolerated me and some were curious. Why was I here, interrupting this “professional” class? It certainly was not what I expected but I must say I learned a thing or two.

Like how to make the Torta Verdura. I had been curious about after eating it at the Festa. Made with swiss chard, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, candied citrus, raisins soaked in liquor, pinenuts and a little sugar.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

So it is a little savory, a little sweet and served as a dessert. The crust is like a pâté sucre, a sugary crust, and heavy with egg yolks. These happen to be brilliant orange – must be what the chickens eat.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

I learned a new technique for decorating the crust to create little “beaks” by slicing the dough on an angle, then with a knife, folding it over the dough to its right.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty "beak' decoration.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty “beak’ decoration.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

The spinach, for the lasagna, was pressed through a tami, or strainer, for extra fineness – another good tip.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

This sweet Italian student must be getting ready to finish her internship. We rolled the pasta outside on the patio!

This sweet Italian student became my friend. We rolled out the pasta layers outside on the patio!

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagne as the first layer.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagna as the first layer.

A tomato sauce is swirled into the bechamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

A tomato sauce is swirled into the béchamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

I helped make a timbale of cardoons, which when cooked, have a similar flavor to artichokes. We squeezed lemon juice on our hands to prevent the cardoons from turning them black due to the iron in the vegetable. Cardoons look like tall, fat celery.

Cardoons are first stripped of their "strings" then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

Cardoons are first stripped of their “strings” then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

A last minute plating of the appetizer.

A last-minute plating of the appetizer.

Lunch was served on a lovely patio outdoors and I sat with the owner, Gianluca who has taught here for 10 years.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sauteed greens.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sautéed greens.

Gianluca’s students have eight weeks of training and then are placed in restaurants all over Italy for a 10-month internship. The students are not paid but receive room and board in exchange for this opportunity to learn from master chefs. His success rate is high and the students seem to thrive on this experience.

The owner and operator of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The owner and proprietor of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The next time I visit Lucca I will participate in the evening classes which are designed for people who enjoy learning from local chefs and just want to have fun! Contact Gianluca for more information at:

The International Academy of Italian Cuisine In Lucca

info@italiancuisine.it

www.italiancuisine.it

I’m working on perfecting the Torta Verdura recipe so I can share it with you. Look for it in an upcoming post!

Abbandonatil all’amore e alla cucina. Love and cook with wild abandon! And that I did!

Buon Appetito!

Ciao and amore for now,

Maria




Pomeriggio di Pasta (An Afternoon of Pasta)

A tavola non si invecchia
At the table with good friends and family you do not become old.

Laureen's positive energy is contagious!

Laureen’s positive energy is contagious!

This last weekend, I enjoyed one of the finest stress-free parties I’ve ever thrown. What’s my secret? Read on for clues!

Recent trips to Italy have inspired me to excavate my pasta machine and crank it up. What better way to renew my acquaintance with this machine, than to invite other food lovers to share in the experience of making fresh, homemade pasta? The friends I made in Rome on a food tour were in San Diego for the weekend. Thus the inspiration for a pasta party with friends of all ages to gather, cook Italian and swap stories of Italy. I cranked up the Mambo Italiano tunes from Pandora and soon the spoons were stirring, hands were kneading and bodies were swaying to the beat of the music. Are we having fun? It was a blast!

Making spinach pasta - one of my favorites.

Making spinach pasta – one of my favorites.

Starting the kneading process.

Starting the kneading process.

Here’s our pasta featured lunch menu:

White lasagna layered with grilled veggies ala TV’s “The Chew”

Fettuccine with spicy Italian olive oil, fresh Pecorino cheese and black pepper

Spinach pasta ravioli filled with spinach, ricotta and Parmesan

Fresh greens from my garden

Homemade Ciabatta bread made by master baker Eva

Fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream and my homemade limoncello

After a how-to demo of using your fingers to gradually incorporate the flour into the well of eggs and olive oil, I turned the mixing over to Laureen, the friend I met in Rome. The dough almost looks as if it is not going together but it’s important not to add more liquid at this point. Sometimes strong hands are needed to pull the dough into a cohesive mass. Laureen’s husband, Brent was our man.

Folding the pasta.

Folding the pasta.

His strong hands swiftly kneaded the mixture into a beautiful soft and smooth dough which we let rest for 20 minutes. Even though I’ve made homemade pasta many times before, I did some research and thought Guiliano Bugialli’s method for rolling out the dough was worth a try. First, feed the dough through the machine on the widest setting. Then fold the dough into thirds like a book.

Notice how this pasta dough is much coarser than the multiple roller pasta.

Notice how this pasta dough is much coarser than the multiple rolled pasta.

A more refined pasta.

A more refined pasta.

Feed it through the machine again on the widest setting and repeat folding and rolling on this setting eight more times. After the ninth roll, reduce the settings to move the rollers closer together. Feed the dough through each of the remaining settings once until the dough is almost translucent.

Our egg pasta is perfecto!

Brent’s egg pasta is perfecto! We made two batches of pasta. One pure egg and one spinach. The egg is made with 2 cups of flour, 2 eggs and 2 tsp. of olive oil. Simple.

With patience, Brent folded and rolled and I must say, the texture of the pasta was the best I’ve ever made. This technique is a keeper!

How much more beautiful does this get? Or do I just love food??

How much more beautiful does this get? Or do I just love food??

Our antipasto munchies. The butter is homemade by moi!

Our antipasto munchies. The butter is homemade by moi!

Everyone had a task. My friend Eva made a red sauce from tomatoes I canned last summer. Laureen carefully cut out raviolis, made from our homemade spinach pasta, and filled them with spinach and ricotta.

Laureen's classy raviolis.

Laureen’s classy raviolis.

Sliced veggies ready for their grill marks.

Sliced veggies ready for their grill marks.

My mom manned the BBQ grilling thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini to be layered into the white béchamel-sauced lasagna.

La mama hard at work.

La mama hard at work.

Mom's finished lasagne The secret ingredient is lemon peel and lemon juice stirred into the finished bechamel.

Mom’s finished lasagne The secret ingredient is lemon zest and lemon juice stirred into the finished bechamel.

Eva tossed a salad with greens from my garden, southern Italian olive oil and thick aged balsamic vinegar from The California Olive.

The salad maker Eva.

Eva gives a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to the greens.

Eva showing off the eyes of her bread.

Eva showing off the eyes of her bread.

Lucky me for having a great friend who makes the best bread I have ever put in my mouth. Eva presented us with two huge loaves of crunchy Ciabatta with a chewy interior and perfect taste. She seriously needs to take this to the next level and sell her bread to all her fans.

Ciabatta made with love by Eva. Divine.

Ciabatta made with love by Eva. Divine.

This is one happy kitchen!

This is one happy kitchen!

The meal was coming together! A bottle of Prosecco and a toast celebrated our friendships. It was time to indulge!

Salute!

Salute!

Green garden salad.

Mangiamo!

Ravioli, fettucine and lasagne. Italian heaven.

Ravioli, fettucine and lasagne. Italian heaven.

The company IS the party!

The company IS the party!

È raccogliendosi a tavola che gli amici apprezzano la gioia di stare insieme.
 It is around the table that friends understand best the warmth of being together.

Delicioso!

Limoncello drenched ice cream and strawberries were the digestive.

Limoncello drenched ice cream and strawberries were the digestive.

If you haven’t thrown a spontaneous party recently, I highly recommend it. All you need is adventurous friends, happy, snappy, music, a few ingredients and a dose of quality time. It’s easier than you’d imagine and more fun too! Buon Appetito!

Thanks to Brent and Laureen for sharing some of their photos with me. Also, The California Olive is a great resource for local and delicious olive oils and balsamic vinegars: www.thecaliforniaolive.com

Abbandonati all’amore e alla cucina!
Love and cook with wild abandon!

Ciao for now

Maria

 

 

 




Nicola Cooks Tuscan

The chef Nicola in his element.

The chef Nicola in his element.

My friend Nicola is a cook, gardener, artist, historian and proud  Lucchese – a person born in Lucca. Angela, of La Mimosa, introduced us while gathered around her rustic wooden kitchen table, a fire blazing in the open-hearth to warm us during a fall rainstorm. She was in the midst of preparing rabbit stew for lunch and we were the observers. I was drawn to Nicola’s enthusiasm and knowledge of traditional Tuscan foods, their heritage and cultivation.

I learned that olive oil from Lucca is lighter and softer than the spicy southern version I usually cook with. Tuscan bread is unsalted. The reason being, during the medieval times a high tax was levied on the salt and the bakers decided to go without. Romans used faro before wheat, so in keeping with their roots, many Tuscans use it in salads and soups. Tuscan foods have more of a French influence than other parts of Italy.

To become more familiar with typical, local ingredients, I asked Nicola if he would cook with me in my barn kitchen and teach me his family secrets. He eagerly agreed.

Here is his menu:

Antipasto of Artichoke Hearts, Olives and Pickled Onions

Pumpkin Risotto

 Faraona stuffed with vegetables and braised on the stove top

Rutabagas, cubed and cooked with butter, sage and garlic

A medley of sautéed greens, shallots, garlic and white beans

Unsalted Tuscan bread

Salad greens from Nico’s garden, dressed with local olive oil

Tuscan country wine

Our antipasto and my table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

Antipasto nestles between my Tuscan table decoration of all things nature gathered outside at La Mimosa.

When I saw the abundance of groceries overflowing on my countertop, I wondered how we would be able to eat it all. Good thing Angela and Davino were joining us!

Faison is a type of guinea fowl. typical of the region.

The Faraona, a guinea fowl,  is stuffed with leeks, garlic, carrots and celery. It is then trussed and wrapped with a layer of lard. According the the famous Italian culinary writer Artusi, the Faraona is native to Numidia and considered to be the symbol of brotherly love in the ancient world. How appropriate!

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved this paper it was wrapped in.

Ummm. Lard. It gives the bird flavor and makes everything taste delicious. I loved the photo on this paper it was wrapped in.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water and wine are added during the cooking process and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The trussed, larded bird is browned in a heavy pot on the stove. Water just to coat the bottom of the pot, sage, garlic, pepperoncini and wine are added to braise and the lidded bird cooks slowly.

The artist, Nico, set to work creating dish upon dish so effortlessly. It was as if he were floating through time, not rushed, just enjoying the moment. I watched (and helped) in amazement as each dish came together.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto, chopped greens with white beans.

Nicola artfully balances four burners full of food all going at once: The Faraona, rutabagas, pumpkin risotto and chopped greens with white beans.

While the bird cooks, Nicola starts the pumpkin risotto. Italians call squash, “pumpkin.” Butternut squash is cubed and cooked in a pot of boiling water until tender but not overcooked. In another saucepan, sauté what else but olive oil, two minced garlic cloves, and  three chopped shallots until soft.  Add two handfuls of rice (arborio) for each person and water to cover. Stir and add water as needed. Drain the almost cooked pumpkin and add to risotto. When risotto is almost done, add white wine as the last reduction and salt to taste. Do not overcook!The secret is to cook al dente.

My kitchen was an infusion of mingling aromas – shallots, garlic, sage and roasting bird. In a soft tone, Nicola describes each step, keeping rhythmn with the courses. Rutabagas, which add a color contrast and bright flavor to our meal,  are cubed and cooked with garlic and sage in a small amount of water.

More olive oil, shallots and garlic are sautéed with a mixture of chopped greens, mostly spinach, that you can purchase ready-made at the store. This is all heated together, then white beans are stirred in. Very delicious and healthy.

Il primo. Creamy and al dented, it gets Davino's approval.

Il primo. Creamy and al dente, it gets Davino’s approval.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Tigre in a trance, dreaming of the bird that fills his senses. Of course, he will be the lucky recipient of tender morsels at dinner time.

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Il secondi. Now this is a dinner created with love!

Angela with Tigre upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Angela with Lily upon lap enjoying the camaraderie.

Everything is perfect and so very delicious. The Faraono is delicate and succulent. Angela, Davino and Nicola ate it with fingers, devouring every morsel off the bones.

The conversation (and wine and Prosecco) continued until 12:30am. I will always remember this dinner, the new friendships formed and the enjoyment cooking brings when shared with others. By the way, do all Italian men know how to cook like this? I am impressed!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

All the activity wore Gilda out!

So that’s my friend Nicola. The best part of traveling is meeting new people, discovering their artistic talents and sharing the journey. I wish you art and love everyday in your life.

Note: The photos in this story are off color. I had difficulty with the indoor lighting. They are not my usual standard!

Ciao!

Mary aka Maria




Cucina Italia

This morning Angela is cooking rabbit – coniglio- for lunch. I hear Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’ s Door” before I even enter and find Angela and her friend Nicola at the large wooden kitchen table, each with a glass of homemade wine in hand. At first my eyes popped. Wine at 11:30? Then I realized that this dinner was really a lunch. I soon joined them and am surprised at the light and smooth flavor of the local red. Nicola, knowledegable in food, produce and things agricultural, begins to tell me the history of Tuscan cookery.

Between Angela’s lesson on making the rabbit, I quiz Nicola on the various types of fruits and vegetables, learning their Italian names. It’s amazing how much Italian I understand. I learn that Tuscan food has a strong French influence. Just my cup of tea.

Braised Rabbit with Olives

  • Brown the cut up rabbit in olive with three whole large cloves of garlic and a few pepperoncini- small red chiles.
  • Add three carrots, cut into two inch pieces, two stalks of celery, cut into one inch pieces and one small whole onion. Let this simmer for one half hour.
  • Add about a cup of fresh (or canned) chopped tomatoes along with pomodoro (tomato) water to half way cover the rabbit. Simmer 15 minutes more.
  • Add one cup of white wine. Simmer another half hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper. A. slightly thickened sauce forms. Add more pomodoro water if too dry. At the end, stir in a handful of olives.

Olive trees outside the kitchen almost ready tp pick.

Angela and her husband Davino also make their own olive oil. Eager to taste the Tuscan variety, I found a spoon and poured myself a drink. Very smooth with a slight hint of heat on the throat at the end. Delightful. I learn that Tuscan oil is softer and lighter than its kissing cousin in Puglia which has a much more forward bite and heat. I love the diversity.

As the wine flowed, we eat an antipasti of marinated artichokes and olives both made by Angela. The baby artichokes are trimmed (they feed the trimmings to the donkeys which I haven’t seen yet) boiled 10 minutes in salted water and drained overnight. The next day they are submerged in a large jar of olive oil, dried peppers and peppercorns and left to marinate for three months.

Angela’s baby marinated artichokes

Olives brined with cinnamon sticks.

Fresh green beans are trimmed. Angela shows me how to “cook” the garlic and pepperoncinis in a small amount of olive oil just until they soften. We then add the beans and what else but tomatoes and cook on the stove 20 minutes.

Cooking the garlic and pepperoncinis in hot olive oil.
Fresh green beans added to the hot oil.

While we are cooking, Davino is slicing prosciutto on their red antique slicer to feed the cats and us.

The kitchen. On the right is the red antique prosciutto slicer.

We eat al fresco under an arbor of dangling grapes. The rain has cleared and the sun is breaking through. All the dishes are brought to the table and we serve ourselves family style.

This is Italian!

After a delicious lunch, the meal is finalized with dolce but just not any kind of dessert. Today we are eating chestnuts from this property that have been boiled with bay leaves and spices. They are served warm. Davino demonstrates how to peel first the outer layer then the inner to discover the soft white flesh inside. Delicioso!

Like mini bon bons! Dessert of boiled chestnuts.

Using a knife, carefully peel off the hard outer shell then again the thinner skin.

A cup of espresso and I am ready for a nap. Grazie Angela and Davino for sharing your home and bounty of La Mimosa with me.

Tigre doesn’t miss a beat taking every opportunity to look for leftovers.

Ciao,

Maria




Herbs de Provence 101

I love Herbs de Provence. I use it regularly and cannot get enough of it. Every time I visit France, I purchase the herbs at the open air Saturday market from local vendors. Packaged so sweetly in a small paper bag and hand labeled, I try to make it last for a year until I can return for more. This year, I purchased Herbs de Provence in Carcassonne and again in Provence in a small ville outside of Avignon.

A fragrant bouquet of herbs.

When I returned home, anxious to cook with the herbs, I noticed a very different aroma from each of these mixtures. Curious, I wondered exactly which herbs are in this aromatic mix. For some reason, I had assumed there was some sort of standard recipe. Well, there is not! I discovered that herbs frequenting the French table are a combination of local tastes, ranging from savory to sweet, using regional flavors. It was not until the 1970’s when spice companies decided to capitalize on the market demand for French herbs and name them “Herbs de Provence.” Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, bay leaf and savory are the basics but many companies also include fennel and more recently lavender, although sparingly. Some substitute the more pungent oregano for the marjoram and areas close to Italy add basil. I prefer the simpler variety with less outspoken flavors and spiked with just a hint of lavender. The fresh flavors of Herbs de Provence lends itself to poultry, vegetables, soups and sauces.

My herb garden is in full bloom with many of the herbs I’m writing about. Instead of using the dried variety, I decided to create version using the fresh herbs growing outside my kitchen door.

Love to inhale these aromas!

I’m not easily impressed with all the fancy olive oils and vinegars out there used in cooking. Sure, I love my Meyer lemon olive oil but have not really found anything that knocked my socks off until I tasted the California Olive and counterpart, San Felipe Olive Company’s infusions. Great News is our San Diego go-to store for all things cooking. I had a 35% off coupon and was itching to use it. As I perused the cutting boards, the knowledgeable sales rep guided me to an olive oil tasting. I met Jeff who introduced me to three of their featured items. As he poured the Peach Balsamic Vinegar into the tasting cup, I was already in love. The thick syrup and fragrance sold me immediately. Did I need bread with this? No! I wanted to drink it. Immediately I was dreaming of recipes with grilled peaches, figs, fruit salad, chicken. Then he poured me the Rosemary Infused Olive Oil. So fragrant and rich. This would be the base for my Herbs de Provence recipes. Ideas flooded my brain and I couldn’t wait to cook. When he mixed the thick White Balsamic with the Rosemary Infused Oil, a salad came to mind of mixed grains, white beans and Niçoise olives. I wanted to cook all weekend! Here is what transpired.

Butterflied and ready for the buttery herb rub.

A butterflied whole chicken, smothered inside and out with buttery Herbs de Provence and garlic mixture came to mind. I would enhance the flavor by drizzling it with a splash of olive oil but not just any olive oil. The rosemary infused oil that came home with me. Here’s how I came to rediscover a classic flavor – rosemary, a key ingredient in Herbs de Provence.

Hot, grilled and ready to eat!

Really such a simple dish, I grilled it for about 15 minutes on each side and paired it with zucchini from my garden and traditional ratatouille ingredients, eggplant, onions, red pepper and tomatoes.

Zucchini stuffing ready to be chopped. The zucchini is from my garden. I added mushrooms for more flavor although they are not traditional in ratatouille.

As you can see, I roughly chopped the veggies, tossed with salt and pepper and a bit of tomato paste. The veggies were then stuffed into the zucchini, wrapped in foil and placed on the grill for 15 minutes.

Ready for the grill. This is so good I’ve made it several times!

When you cook a whole chicken, there are always leftovers. Chicken salad is an easy way to use it up and create flavorful dishes. Immediately, aioli came to mind, a southern French creation of garlicy mayonnaise. I mixed chopped chicken with my own version of aioli by mashing garlic in my mortar and pestle and slowly adding mayonnaise and rosemary olive oil.

Making the aioli.

A dash of salt and pepper and voilà, the taste is gorgeous.

My creation. Gorgeous and delicious and garlicky!

Slices of fennel garnish the salad, add crunch and a bit of a clean taste to contrast the heat  of the garlic. Both dishes are easy to make, very healthy and tasty and make use of all the fresh summer veggies, hopefully from your garden.

A very French dinner including a delightful French rosé wine!

Next I share my passion for late summer and early fall fruit….




Shopping with Gaby

Do you remember days when you set out on a mission to do something but you end up somewhere completely out of your range? Well, that happened to us. My friend, Bonnie, had fallen the previous week, while visiting our beloved Cathars and injured her hand. Our hostess at Moulin de la Roque, Gaby, had sweetly offered her services to translate all injury-related issues at a nearby clinic in Avignon. Country driving suites me just fine but navigating in rush hour traffic through roundabouts with honking horns set my nerves on edge. We finally made it to The Clinic in the early evening only to find it was closed. Quel dommage! Ok, so we will table this visit until tomorrow. Since we were so close to a Geant, I asked if we could pop in to see if I could get some help with my Samsung camera that I had purchased in Carcassonne when my Nikon bit the dust. AS fate would have it, my Samsung shutter also failed after six days. Gaby asked if she could drive our car (I secretly think my city driving alarmed her!) and she took us straight away to the nearby Geant. Unhelpful, they said that since it was day eight, I could not return my camera. Had it been day seven, I could have exchanged it for a new one. One day shy! Strike two! Hungry to pick up dinner, Gaby asks if we had ever been to a big super market and we said ‘no.” She proceeded to take us to Hyper Marche, a store so large and overwhelming, it made Super Target look like a puppy whining for its dinner.

On an interesting note: Gaby told us that all the warehouse, mega grocery, box-type stores are all congregated together, usually outside of town so as not to interfere with the ambiance of village life. You will never find a “strip mall” randomly placed alongside the road for convenience. All you will find are hectacres of vineyards, lavender, olives, cow, sheep and other lovely vistas.

The first thing I loved were the carts on wheels so you could pull your groceries along instead of lugging a handcart. Why don’t we have these here?

Simplistic and easy on the body!

Next, the cheese selection was like being at an outdoor market with a knowledgeable and happy person eager to explain which cheese to buy for which course. Next stop, the fish department. I was expecting a shabby selection of ancient seafood but was blown out of the ocean by the fresh offerings beautifully displayed. My eyes fixated on the Raie. Glowing and almost still quivering, its eyes spoke to me and said, “Try me tonight.” So I did. I have had Raie before but have never attempted to cook it. Gaby suggested lightly sautéing it, then scraping the meat off the cartilage. Let’s see, capers, butter, lemon, finished with Fleur de Sel. My taste buds could not wait.

Fresh Raie so gorgeous if fish can be that way.

Gaby was anxious to show us her favorite aisle in the store – the yogurt aisle. Almost twice as long as our average freezer aisle, the yogurt aisle is lined on BOTH sides with every kind of yogurt imaginable. Cow, goat, sheep, unpasteurized, with cream, with fruit, for breakfast, for dessert, in beautiful glazed ceramic jars – anything your heart desires. She tells us the French are crazy about their yogurt and now I can see why. There are as many yogurts as there are wines. We choose a few to try and can’t wait until breakfast.

Let your imagination run wild!

One of our favorites. These containers are ceramic and make beautiful little flower vases.

Yogurt, yogurt everywhere!

Gaby explaining the finer art of Fleur de Sel.

On the way out, the wine aisle lures us in. Displayed in only a way the French can, bottles pop out of the shelf with a handwritten tag describing the contents. We learn that in Provence, 60% of the wine that is sold is Rose, that beautiful light pink softness of dry that resembles nothing of our Rose here. In fact, in most restaurants we frequented, the favored wine was Rose. I am now a fan – of French Rose.

French wines galore. This is the red selection. Rose was on the other side.

One of the better Roses. A Tavel. Check out the prices! This is about $ 6.75 and would easily be around $15+ in the US!

Back in our comfy apartment, I took on the Raie, cooking it to perfection, finishing it with a dash of cream and butter, and a smattering of capers and lemon slices. Delish. How I wish this fish would swim our way!

The Raie in its glory.

First, lightly saute.

A touch of creme and butter adds body and richness.

The plates just made this dish seem even more Provençal!

All fresh. All from the land and sea of Provence. All extremely delicious!




The Cooking Lesson

Bonjour! It is a gorgeous sunny day and the birds are chirping out melodies of joy. Today I am excited to share my cooking lesson with you. As you know, we four women ate at Le Sixieme Sens earlier in the week and were charmed by the “cave” experience and the owner, Lionel. He invited us back and said he would cook anything for us, perhaps a French recipe we had never tried before. We put our heads together, looked through some cookbooks and came up with Bourride, a type of fish soup. I emailed him our choice and on a second thought, asked if I might watch the process. The reply was “oui” and could I be there at 2pm? Of course!

I walked into the restaurant, and Lionel did not waste any time handing me an apron and asking me to please slice the fennel and leeks he had cleaned and organized on a cutting board. I was thrilled. Not only could I watch, I would be his sous chef for this recipe! I washed my hands and quickly got to work in his pristine kitchen. He asks me how I chose the recipe for Bourride. I reply that it is something you would not find on a menu in the States and I could smell the melange of flavors in my mind. He comments that it is an ancient recipe, one that your grandmother would have made. The recipe for Bourride is in Lionel’s head and ingredient after ingredient appears from a small refrigerator below the counter. Into a giant, maybe three gallon stockpot, we toss leeks, fennel, onion, parsley, garlic. I will write out a rough recipe to share on a separate page to this post.

Next we add a cupful of cherry tomatoes which he says have better taste than the larger whole tomatoes. “Now you can stir the pot.” The vegetable sweat as we continue to add a tube of tomato concentrate, generous sprinklings of pepper and sel gris (gray salt) which has more depth than regular salt. As we cook, I try to extract as much as I can about this man in my beginner French.  Lionel’s mother is a passionate cook who prepared international dishes for the family. This  influence and appreciation for food led him to experiment with different recipes while DJ’ing in St. Etienne for 14 years. Six years ago he came to Carcassonne to realize his dream, opening Le Sixieme Sens, appropriately named because he creates the taste and smell for your six senses. He manages the kitchen by himself and enthusiastically cooks for his guests.

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Back to the Bourride – into the pot goes whole fish, eyeballs and all. Poisson Roche, a kind of rock fish and Lotte. Next a handful of thyme and tumeric and a few quarts of water. This all simmers for three hours.

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A rouille is the traditional accompaniment for the dish so we begin with fresh, homemade mayonnaise to which I add finely chopped garlic, salt, pepper, turmeric and a tiny dash of hot pepper sauce. We reserve this for the dinner tonight. Lionel asks, can I return at 6 pm to finish the soup? Ma oiu!

The next step in this lengthy process is to strain the gallons of fish broth we prepared earlier into another stock pot. First Lionel uses a hand processor to blend all the simmered ingredients together.

Ok, I am game and in this steamy kitchen I sweat as I ladle spoonfuls after spoonfuls of broth into this small strainer.

15 minutes later, we have the Bourride. It again simmers on the stove to reduce by a third. The finishing touches come tonight…

First course is the delicious soup, so creamy with gentle fish flavors and a hint of the fennel and leek. I had never tasted such depth and richness without the help of cream and butter. Served with toasted baguettes and the garlicky rouille, it exceeds my expectations.

After the first course of soup, Lionel gently poaches fresh fish of lotte, loup, meurlu, squid and calamari. This second course is served separately on a giant platter, enough food for 10 people!

This chardonnay from Limoux, a local wine growing region paired perfectly with the Bourride.

Merci Lionel for a very memorable experience. I enjoyed every minute of cooking and learning with you! Good luck with your new tapas bar in fall.

Au Revoir!

Mary




Trebes & Le Canal du Midi

Bon Soir Mes Amies,

It is very late and yesterday my camera broke, yes, really broke, so I did my best with the iphone which really does take very good photos but not so good at close up and a bit more difficult in bright lights. This morning I found a Monde (world) camera shop in the bastide and a very nice gentleman fiddled with mon camera for 10 minutes before declaring it broken. The nearest repair? Toulouse or Montpellier. This was just not going to work. Not with four women trying to coordinate our voiture (car) and me having 2 more weeks here sans camera. So I went next door to prendre un café while pondering my dilemma. While paying my bill, I noticed an approachable French man and did not miss the opportunity to ask him in my weak French where I could purchase a new camera. He flashed a smile with twinkling eyes and said “Geant” near the airport. Of course, I knew the road for we had recently become lost and ended up at the airport and I noticed this giant warehouse, Costo/Target-type store across the street. Geant, as I now know it, carries everything from apples to diapers, and bikinis to cameras. There is even a wine bar and beer brassière. Take a hint Target. So, today, my friend Bonnie and I traveled the two miles out of Carcassonne to find Geant and of course missed the exit – but – we did see the sign for Trebes, a small ville on the Canal du Midi we were looking for yesterday and could not find. Deciding this was fate, we took the road to Trebes and were there within ten minutes. Trebes is a lovely ville. Small, quaint, not touristy and a hub for the folks who rent boats on the Canal du Midi.

 

It was a very warm day. We walked along the Canal, found lots of historic buildings and visited a sweet church, built in the 1600’s. While enjoying a refreshing Citron Presse at a café on the water, I noticed two large otter-like creatures swimming upstream. “Bonnie,” I cried, “Look at the river otters!” Much to my surprise, the server approached me with a giggle and said, “Those are not otters, they are rats.” I had never , ever seen a rat this large – really- about 20 pounds with a very long tail I noticed the next time they swam past us. The things you learn everyday!

 

Our day finished off with a late dinner at Le Delices de Tetouan, the Moroccan restaurant I talked about in an earlier blog. The owner was delighted to see us again and brought us jugs of local wine to start our dining experience. Three of us ordered the Tagine and one ordered the Couscous. As our meal was being prepared by Fatima, Nabil’s wife, I asked permission to venture into the kitchen to see how the tagine was made.

 

As I entered her tiny space, I gasped out loud as I viewed her inserting a plate of food into a microwave. She had not one, but two microwaves she was working with for our dinners. Disappointed, I still showed enthusiasm for her cooking, knowing she was doing the best she could to make a living and raise three young children.

Our food was unexpectedly good and pleasingly presented. The vegetable couscous was tasty but not extraordinary.

I loved the colorful tagine “hats” the food is cooked in.

Bonnie’s Tagine was delicious featuring apricots, cinnamon and honey. My tagine had my favorite flavors of confit of lemon and olives. I do love the mediterranean food.

 

Yes, I did get a new camera at Geant. The selection was limited but they did have quality cameras to choose from. My new Samsung is small and compact with a touch screen on the view finder, like an iphone. Pretty cool. So no more excuse for lack of photos. I am now a crazed camera waving woman shooting here and there and everywhere.

Tomorrow I’ll share market photos. Also, I am invited back to Le Sixieme Sens in the afternoon to view the technique for making Bourride. For now, Merci and Bon Nuit!




Dinner in a Cave

Bonjour mes amies! To celebrate my friend, Liz’s birthday, we dined in a tiny restaurant with a downstairs cave or wine cellar. So intimate, uplit to create a warm glow, Le Sixieme Sens was about to become one of my most memorable meals ever. The combination of rustic stone, bright green place settings and buddas somehow all work together to create an ambiance that I had never experienced before.

Our server, Sebastian, a quiet gentleman with a wry smile, answered our questions and guided us through the menu. We began with a Kir Royale, champagne and cassis, served with salted peanuts and pistachios. Sebastian suggested we try a local red wine, from Carcassonne, a 2008 Chateau Sesguieres Cabardes, soft with tones of dark berries.

I chose the Le Menu, meaning a meal at a fixed price (prix fixe) which includes three courses. The first course was a salade of duck breast with a slice of foie gras ( I know, it is so politically incorrect to eat this stuff) but we are in France and the French are proud of their traditions. I had not eaten foie gras for 33 years and enjoyed every bite of this creamy pate.

The main course consisted of a trio of seafood, prawns, salmon and a local seabass type fish, lightly grilled with a parsley butter sauce and served with angel hair pasta.

My companions all had the beef tenderloin with red wine or mushroom sauce. Enough for three hungry people!

Dessert was a slice of one of my French favorites, Tarte Tatin, a  rustic caramelized apple tart with a flaky puff pastry crust. This was so charmingly served with a small glass jar of creamy, cold, intensely flavored vanilla ice cream.

We profusely thanked our host, Lionel, who is the chef and owner of Le Sixieme Sens. He gave us all kisses and seemed pleased we had such a fabulous experience. Because the food and was so spectacular, he offered to make us a special dinner of our request later on this week. We promised we would do some research and come up with something delicious and challenging for him to make. What will he create? Stay tuned!

Au Revoir!

Mary