Archive for category: Chef’s Blog

Blowing Hot and Cold in the south of France

Now summer is here and the balmy warm evenings are allowing us to eat out on the terrace of our French holiday home, Chez Maison Bleue. The salada, lettuce are in plentiful supply and tomatoes are getting cheaper on Mirepoix market so we are serving more and more salads as a first course at dinner. Although we do some simple salade jambon, salad with the local cured ham, I like to serve warm salads. Unlike in England, here in the south of France warm salads are very common. The most common warm ingredient is lardons, small pieces of fried bacon, but other diced meats are also used. An Ariege speciality is gesier, the gizzard of a duck. Although it sounds pretty awful it is absolutely delicious! If you are not feeling quite so adventurous try this chicken salad for a great light lunch.

Warm chicken salad, provenance of the food is assured

Warm chicken salad, provenance of the food is assured

Prepare a bed of lettuce with a circle of tomato slices around the outside of the plate and maybe some peppers or red onions finely sliced – anything you fancy really but leave space for the chicken in the centre. Next take a skinned chicken breast and cut into strips. Put a little olive oil in a pan and add 2 cloves of chopped garlic (home grown here) some herbs de Provence, and a little chopped dried chilli (the amount depending on how hot and spicy your taste). Heat the pan and fry the herbs and garlic until the garlic starts to brown then add the chicken strips turning them to brown on all sides. Keep tuning until cooked through, this will only take a few minutes. Put the chicken strips onto the centre of the salad and pour over some of the oil and fried garlic as a dressing, serve immediately.

You will also find cold soups on the menu at our B&B, again not a popular thing in the UK where soup is something to warm you up. Our holiday home is close to Spain so Gazpaccio is very popular. With all the delicious and plentiful tomatoes and vegetable from the potager or from Mirepoix market, it is a beautiful entree on a hot evening. The other classic cold soup is crème vichyssoise.  This classic dish is only associated with France because of its name and the fact that it was invented by a French chef. In fact it was first served by Louis Diat the chef at the Ritz – Carlton Hotel in New York in the summer of 1917 and is now considered an American dish. It is essentially a leek and potato soup with a significant amount of cream. It should be made well in advance and chilled for at least two hours before serving. It is important to only use the white part of the leek as the soup should be pure white in colour.

So we will continue to serve have hot salads and cold soups for dinner at our B&B in the south of France. They make delicious and healthy starters or a light lunch dish.

Vegging out in the South of France

At Chez Maison Bleue we are seeing increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegan guests. They commonly complain that outside Paris, France just does not cater for vegetarians and vegans who fare even worse. The most common meal that they are both offered is an omelette! The term vegan was coined in 1944 as a word to describe “non dairy vegetarians”. The principle is that man should live without exploiting animals. There is some debate within the vegan community as to whether products from insects are permissible, Vegan Action says that eating honey and wearing silk is a matter of individual choice and conscience.

The biggest difficulty we find here is sourcing vegan wine. Most wines are fined (the process which clarifies the wine) by using animal products. Some pragmatic vegans have decided that it is permissible to depart from strict interpretation if the culture of where you are makes it impractical and they use this to enable them to enjoy a nice glass of wine with an otherwise vegan meal. This type of pragmatic interpretation of rules is very typically French and it is no surprise that it is known as the Paris exemption!

The strange thing for me is that France has such an abundance of wonderful vegetables that it is really easy to produce fabulous vegetable dishes. Here at our B&B in the Languedoc we grow our own fruit and vegetables organically (and from next year will keep chickens) we serve vegetable dishes where there is only a matter of minutes between the vegetables being harvested and going into the pan. This means that they cook very quickly and are absolutely delicious. This area also produces large quantities of pulses from the wonderfully meaty haricot blanc, mainly used in cassoulet, to great puy lentils. Legend has it that these were introduced into France by Catherine de Medici, Comtesse de Lauragais when she was given some seeds newly brought back from America as a wedding present on her marriage to the Dauphin of France in 1533. I use them as the main ingredient in a great non-meat loaf. Other dishes on our menu include stuffed peppers. At this time of year the market in Mirepoix, the best in this part of south of France, has an amazing variety of squashes. Some of the larger ones are great for a vegetable roast. Slice off the top and take out the seeds and soft flesh from the middle then roast and fill with other roast vegetables. Pile them inside the squash when they are all cooked and serve. You have an edible oven to table serving dish!

 

Squash stall

So whether you are vegetarian, vegan or a meat eater who likes different fresh and tasty vegetables with your meat, Chez Maison Bleue, our 18th century holiday home in the south of France is a great place to veg out!

An Eggcellent Dish

Here at Chez Maison Bleue we like to source our produce locally. We get our eggs from two suppliers. The main one is a man on Mirepoix market who has a small holding. The reserve supplier is our neighbour here in Sonnac sur l’Hers, and were it not for the walnut tree in the farmers garden we could actually see the hens from our terrace. The eggs we get are superb with lovely golden yolks that are not the result of artificial colouring. Those who follow my blog will know how the eggs make great meringue; well the whole eggs are fabulous for omelettes.

Our guests seem to really enjoy the herb omelette we serve for breakfast. The herbs are cut from where we grow them on the terrace only when the omelette has been ordered. Some guests even enjoy choosing the combination of herbs themselves. If you have theses nice fresh ingredients it gives you a head start in producing a great omelette. The key to a first rate omelette is to get the pan fairly hot and give the eggs a thorough whisking so when you pour them in the pan there are lots of air bubbles visible. Then as soon as it is in the pan draw a fork through it and keep doing this. You will scrape the cooking omelette in towards the centre and allow the raw egg on the top to hit the hot pan. Keep on doing this until the egg will no longer run into the gap. Then allow it to cook for a few minutes until it is a light golden brown on the underneath. For the herb omelette I start by briefly frying the herbs in a little oil and then leave them in the pan and pour the egg mix on top.

At Easter here in Sonnac sur l’Hers we have a village gathering, aperitifs followed by salad and barbecued meat but the highlight is the sweet Easter omelette. This is made with a hefty lot of castor sugar added to the eggs and then the cooking is just like a normal omelette to start with. The best bit is the finish when it is flambéed in the local eau de vie produced from pears grown in the village. It is a good job that most people walk to the event as the amount of eau de vie that goes into it would definitely put you over the limit! This year we had our aperitifs outside in the sunshine, so Easter is a great time to visit. The eau de vie is distilled by the man who arrives with his mobile still in November. The weather can still be quite warm even then and there is often an evening gathering of locals round the still which gets more and more animated as the produce is tested, so come in November too!

Sweet Lavender Omelette

As a desert at our B&B here in the Languedoc I serve a sweet omelette. Mine uses an ingredient for which our neighbouring region of Provence is famous, lavender! You can make it by gently frying a few lavender flower heads for a minute and then adding the egg and sugar mixture and cook as per a normal omelette. Flambé is optional and use what spirit you like but one with a delicate flavour. The omelette has a gorgeous sweet scented flavour, and as lavender grows really well here it too is cut fresh to order. So whether you want sweet or savoury get cracking and make some omelettes.

Pudding at our B&B

I have been surprised at how popular pavlova and other meringue based desserts are here at our holiday cottage in the South of France . Most of our guests seem to love them but say that they could never make them. The reality is that provided you take some simple precautions they are very straightforward, but I’ll come back to that.

Many people suggest that meringue was the creation of Italian chef Gasparini when he was working in Mehringyghen in Switzerland and it is the place that gave the name. However there is a reference to meringue in Massialot’s book “Nouvelle instruction pour les confitures, les liquers et les fruits” published in 1692. Although not called meringues there are earlier references in English cookery books to “white bisket bread” and the cooking ingredients and method are the same as for meringue. The Pavlova is named after the Russian Ballerina Anne Pavlova. The invention is the source of dispute between Australia and New Zealand but on balance it was probably created in Wellington New Zealand during her 1926 tour.

There are essentially three types of meringue. The first and most basic is Suisse where egg white and sugar are whipped together in proportions of 1 egg white to 50g (2oz) of caster sugar. Second is Meringue Cuite (cooked) This is not actually cooked in the preparation but it is whisked over hot water and icing sugar is used in a slightly higher proportion. It produces a firmer meringue. The third is Meringue Itallienne. This is the meringue used in professional patisserie work giving a similar result to meringue cuit but is a lighter finer mixture. It is made by making the sugar into a syrup before adding to the egg white.

So what are the key pointers to successful meringues?

1 Make sure the bowl and whisk are completely grease free, clean and dry.

2 Make sure there is absolutely no trace of yolk in the whites.

3 Eggs should be at room temperature and a few days old, but not stale.

4 The shape of the whisk and bowl can affect the quality of the meringue. The best is a balloon whisk in a rounded copper bowl and although it gives the best volume it takes a long time and a strong arm! I use a slightly narrower bowl and an electric whisk. It is important to use a constant speed and not to stop until the whites are stiff ready for the sugar to be added.

5 Use fine sugar. Caster sugar or icing sugar. Granulated is not suitable.

6 Dry the meringue rather than cook it! Low oven temperatures are essential. If the oven is too hot the meringue will lack crispness and be tough, you will also see beads of moisture oozing out. Some chefs will even say you should do meringues at 90o for about 3 hours with the oven door ajar to allow the steam to escape but that was before we became energy conscious!

 

Birthday Pud

Recently at Chez Maison Bleue we had a guest with a birthday and as a special dessert we produced a strawberry pavlova using lovely local strawberries from Mirepoix market. I like to beat some of the strawberries in with the cream to give the toping a nice light pink colour and then decorate with the whole or cut strawberries. Summer is the perfect time for making meringues with loads of delicious fresh fruit. Apricots and cherries are in season at the moment here in the Languedoc and peaches will be coming at the beginning of July. If you are worried about having all those egg yolks left over use them for lovely rich custards.

Special People – Gluten and Dairy Free

When catering for people it is necessary to ensure that you provide the right kind of food. That is a statement of the obvious. What is not so obvious are the solutions. There is increasing awareness of food allergies and intolerances and these provide a challenge to the chef.

An increasingly common condition is celiac disease. This condition is intolerance to gluten. This protein is found in wheat, barley and rye. Anything that contains these or their products cannot be eaten. This means that normal baking and pastry making cannot be done. Substitutes need to be found such as potato or rice flour, maize flour and chickpea flour. The properties of theses flours is however slightly different to wheat flour. The amount of liquid they absorb is different and the elasticity of the finished product is significantly reduced. To overcome this sorghum can be added. Here in the Languedoc life can be particularly difficult as the condition is not generally recognised. The supermarkets are not as geared up to supplying suitable products. At our local supermarket in Mirepoix maize flour is about the only product available. The traditional French petit dejeuner is therefore off limits so the most common breakfast that gets dished up is eggs but without the toast!

Another prevalent intolerance is dairy. Strictly this is intolerance to all forms and products of mammalian milk. Some dieticians however describe it as relating to cow’s milk only. The reality is that the lactose which generally causes the difficulty is present in all mammals milk and it is just present in greater concentration in cow’s milk. This often results in initially sufferers being able to tolerate such products as goats and sheep’s cheese but then developing intolerance even to these. The usual substitute in terms of milk is soya milk but over use of this can also cause difficulty and it is best to use a variety of vegetable milks.

Pineapple Tartlet Gluten and Dairy Free

On occasions people have both conditions which can make life really challenging for the chef. Let me share a fine dessert we created at Chez Maison Bleue that caters for this. First you need to make a small flan case from a pate sucre using a blend of rice and maize flour (many UK supermarkets stock gluten free flour) and substitute sunflower oil margarine for the butter. Bake this blind as if you are making a normal mini flan. For the filling use a standard crème patisserie but use the same gluten free flour and in place of milk use coconut milk. This gives it a nice subtle coconut flavour. Then top it off with pieces of fresh pineapple. The combination of coconut and pineapple is a classic and works really well. This is a good illustration of how with a little imagination those who have these conditions need not miss out on fine dining.

Cooking The Books

The trouble with having worked in the UK and then moving to France is the need to sort out quite complicated tax rules. So I had to bite the bullet and visit an accountant. It was whilst getting stuff ready to take that it reminded me that I needed to do a blog about cookbooks.

As a chef I have a passion for cookbooks, I can happily just read them and browse through them. Here in France it also helps improve my language and gives insights into the culture – in France they sometimes use as a measure a cuilliere a cafe (coffee spoon) where English books use a teaspoon.

So how should you choose a cookbook? In his book Considerations sur la cuisine, Pierre de Pressac  advises, “Which is the best cookery book? The one you like best, and which gives you that confidence that cannot be called forth to order but which is instinctively felt.”  One master French work is Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne published in 1938. He was a master chef here in the Languedoc and although working at the top of his profession never forgot the regional cookery which had been practiced within his family for generations. Another great French chef who never forgot his regional roots was Escoffier and his great work Ma Cuisine published in 1932, when he was 88, contains many famous Provencal dishes. At Chez Maison Bleue I always try to follow one of Escoffier’s greatest maxims “Faites simple

a simple desert

In terms of great English cookbooks many people often refer to “Mrs Beeton” forgetting that her work is really about far more than cooking being, to use its title, a “Book of Household Management”

I suppose moving to the modern era many swear by Delia, I tend to swear at her because I find her recipes a bit verbose and sometimes unnecessarily complicated. Jamie Oliver produces some good recipes as do many of the celebrity chefs. However as a good foundation basic cookbook I reckon that the Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cookbook takes some beating.

For a real insight into French cookery everyone should read French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. This book first published in 1960 is more than a cookbook. Although containing some classic recipes it also gives fascinating cultural and historical information and is an interesting read even if you never follow any of the recipes.

So what books do I use, well loads actually. If I want to try a new dish I will read as many different versions of the same thing and then make an amalgam of them picking what I consider to be the best bits. I would never rely on just one version. I share the view of cookbooks expressed by Pierre de Pressac with whom I started this piece. He went on to say, “For myself I like those books which are not too complicated and which suggest ideas rather than being minutely detailed handbooks.” Although fans of Heston Blumenthal would probably not agree with de Pressac’s comment, “Mere freakishness is no passport to glory. It is not even to be recommended”.

A dish fit for ABBA

Duck a l’orange was an iconic dish at the time that Abba were pumping out the hits and we were all (well perhaps not all!) into disco and glamrock. Although a popular UK dish from the 70’s/80’s it is not really a classic dish. In terms of fruit accompaniments for duck the more classic way is with black cherry. However having experienced my first restaurant meals during the 70’s I do have a bit of an affection for duck with orange. The classic norm would be to cook the duck and then produce an orange sauce which in many restaurants was a thick and sickly concoction essentially put together by boiling up a bit of orange juice with some thin shred marmalade. From our B&B in the South of France I have two takes on this dish to share.

1 At this time of year vegetables are limited so put some leeks, potato and carrots in an oven proof dish and cover them in orange juice and the herbs and seasoning that appeal to you. At the same time slice a large orange and cover the veg with the slices of orange. Put the dish in the oven heated to approx 190c. Cook them for about 30-40 minutes until they start to go tender. The next bit depends on how you like your duck, well done or nicely pink in the middle. Place a duck breast, magret de canard, on top of the oranges, and cook for however long to suit your taste. Remove the duck to rest and thicken the sauce again to taste. Serve the duck garnished with the cooked orange slices and some fresh ones on a bed of the vegetables. The veg will have absorbed the orange flavours to produce a really citrus taste to accompany the rich duck.

2 Another one pot dish. Roast whatever vegetables you like in the oven, sweet potatoes, parsnip and squash work well. Again according to how you like your duck add it to the dish when the veg are starting to soften but this time also put in a couple of whole unpeeled Clementines or Satsumas.

 

Like the previous dish the essence of the orange combines with the juices from the duck to give a fantastic complement of flavours. When you serve cut the orange in half and lay either side of the duck. The taste of the cooked orange really complements the duck, delicious!

Like all of the dishes at Chez  Maison Bleue the principles are keep it simple, if possible use only one pot, allow the cooking process to fuse the flavours. Those flavours are vibrant and readily available here in the Languedoc but can also be found throughout the world. Don’t just follow the suggestions but innovate with your own favourite veg and flavours.

Popeye and Olive Oil

You have to be of a certain age to really remember these cartoon characters. For those too young to remember and those who are suffering senior moments Popeye grew huge muscles by consuming copious quantities of spinach, and Olive Oil was his love interest (a female character not just the pressings of the olive)! Needless to say it is the culinary ingredient, particularly spinach that interests me.

One of my hobby horses is that people are put off foods simply by them being served badly cooked. Spinach is a classic for this. Many associate spinach with a bitter tasting green mush. It does not have to be like this. At this time of year it is plentiful and cheap to buy at Mirepoix market, the lively, weekly market a few minutes from Chez Maison Bleue. I love to cook with it for its vibrant green colour and the knowledge of the richness of the iron and vitamins it contains. The secret is do not overcook. Spinach is perfectly edible raw but lightly cooked it is delicious.

One of my favourite ways to cook spinach at the B&B is not to boil it at all! Simply melt some butter in a saucepan on a low/moderate heat, add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon or if you prefer grated nutmeg and allow the butter to absorb the flavours for a minute. Then add the freshly washed and drained spinach and toss in the butter and cook over a gentle heat for 1-2 minutes until the spinach “wilts” then stir again and serve. The spinach should be soft but not mushy.

Spinach and grilled goats cheese starter or light lunch

The main drawback to this dish is it uses a separate pan! If you want to stick with the Chez Maison Bleue theme of one pot suppers you can add the spinach to a pan of roast vegetables for the last minute or two, the key here is to make sure the spinach is still wet from washing and I like to add a knob of butter too. For those who are dairy intolerant, for the butter substitute olive oil.

Which brings me back to the cartoon where we started. Whilst I can’t promise that the spinach cooked as I do here in the Languedoc will give the muscles it gives Popeye, it  will certainly preserve far more of the goodness than cooked to death the way it usually was in my school dinners.

Cassoulet in Castelnaudary

Sausage and Bean hot pot? Sacre bleue!!

My Collins French dictionary defines the French word Cassoulet as sausage and bean hot pot. Such a description is enough to restart the Hundred Years War that led to the creation of this iconic French dish.

There are many variants on the Cassoulet and each claim to be the authentic original. The three main contenders are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. These towns are all within easy reach of Chez Maison Bleue. I tend to support Castelnaudary, not only is it closest but is undoubtedly the most devoted. Each year they have a Fete du Cassoulet, a festival in honour of this great dish and organised by Grande Confrerie du Cassoulet (the Brotherhood of the Cassoulet), this years is 21-26 August. According to legend the original Cassoulet was developed to give strength to the soldiers defending the town against the besieging English. After eating this new creation they were so invigorated they charged out of the town and the English fled in panic never to return, except of course, centuries later, as tourists!

The Easy Way

So what does it contain, as well as the white haricot beans and Toulouse sausage (everyone seems agreed on this being the sausage to use), there is duck and pork. The classic way of cooking takes 2 days, which is why most people buy it precooked and ready to reheat! The first evening is spent preparing the beans and stock. The main cooking is over several hours and what emerges is a truly gorgeous dish. There is a recipe on the Castelnaudary town website as well as details about the festival. I wonder what would happen if I suggested using Cumberland Sausage?

 

Chef in Languedoc

As a chef I do not subscribe to Henry Ford’s view that “history is bunk”, the great chefs of years gone by have a lot to teach us, from Escoffier to Elizabeth David to the chefs of today, all have their own ingredient to add. My intention in all that I cook for our B&B in the south of France is to learn from the masters but be prepared to adapt and experiment. The key is, of course, the ingredients. Fresh produce that has been cultivated with respect is essential to any good dish. In the Languedoc we are spoiled for fruit and vegetables, raised in the sunshine but watered by refreshing rain from the Pyrenees. Equally we have easy access to the abundant seafood of the Mediterranean. When I cook for my mother she tells me not to “mess with it” and that is a big influence. Whilst I do have my own variations, my aim is to let the natural flavours show through, the twist is the combination of those flavours! My blog from Chez Masion Bleue, our holiday cottage and bed and breakfast, is a mix of foodie talk, historical context and some rough guides to the dishes I cook.

Produce of the terroir