The New Convivialist

Category: french

Salade Lyonnaise and Other French Mountain Fare

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A few weeks back I had the privilege of spending four days with friends at Benoit’s country house in Alsace. I say privilege not only because France, country house, and friends all in the same sentence is a delight which is self-explanatory, but also because this particular group of friends is so culinarily-oriented that we joked we could charge visitors a full-board fare of hundreds per night, if we were so entrepreneurially-inclined. The weather was not entirely conducive to the outdoor playing we had hoped for, but it did enable a kind of festive Christmas-like eat-a-thon that left us all basically incapacitated and unable to do much more than sit in front of the fire and play Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never eaten the Alsacian regional specialty Choucroute, I cannot lie and say you need to run out to your butcher tonight to try and recreate it. It’s rather a kind of dish akin to, say, Icelandic puffin, which one needs merely to check off the list one time as done. I had first learned of Choucroute when reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s thrilling account of eating his way through Alsace. This essay fermented the idea in my mind of Choucroute being an exciting, mysterious, even cult-like kind of delicacy. However, I soon found that this steamed ensemble of sauerkraut topped with an eye-popping array of sausages, hocks and other fatty pork pieces (some identifiable, others not) is not for the meat-phobic or ‘flexitarians’ among us. I myself was slightly queasy before we even started the feast. (I might also add here that dinner the night before had consisted of the not exactly light fare of saucisson, fresh Maultaschen in broth, flaky duck pie, and flan.) We ordered enough Choucroute from the local butcher for the nine of us, but were encumbered with leftovers upon leftovers well into the following day, which we tossed on the grill to a quite satisfactory result.

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The inclement weather did hold long enough for two or three solid walks in the Vosges trails. Between intermittent sprinkles of rain and brilliant sunshine, we foraged for the sweetest of wild myrtilles along the trailside. Upon Benoit’s warnings of the dangers of fox pee on wild berry bushes and the horrendous sickness that can result, we resisted snacking on-site. Even so, picking enough of these tiny berries for a proper tarte was a challenge. We managed, though, with enough left over for what was perhaps the most heavenly jam I’ve ever eaten on my morning toast.

Ahhhh, salad! When it was suggested one day for lunch that some fresh salads might be prepared, we all breathed a distinct sigh of gastric relief. It turned out that two of Benoit’s childhood friends who joined us at the house own and operate their own salad bar in Lyon. The four Lyonnaise in the group got to work in the kitchen, chopping fennel, garlic, onions, and oranges, like line cooks in a harmonic progression that only old friends can accomplish. But when I saw a big slab of bacon being sliced into thin lardons, I became suspicious, wondering what in the world was going on with this salad concept? Damian, a former Lyonnais now living in New York, showed me how to make the traditional Salade Lyonnaise: fresh croutons sautéed in garlic, fried lardons, mixed in with fresh, bitter greens and mustardy vinaigrette, topped with a runny poached egg. The combination of the savoury and creamy with the sharp and crunchy makes for an exceedingly balanced, yet still fairly light salad, one for which we were all grateful.

 

Recipe: Salade Lyonnaise

Day-old French bread, roughly cut

Garlic, two cloves

Olive oil

Butter

Smoked bacon, sliced against the grain thinly in strips (lardons)

Frisee or other bitter greens

1 egg per person, poached

Vinaigrette:

1 Tbsp. Mustard

1 Tbsp. Melfor Alsacian honey vinegar (or red wine vinegar if you do not have this)

2 Tbsp. Olive oil

Salt and pepper, to tastealsace-food-blog-convivialistsalade-lyonnais-convivalist-blog-foodsalade-lyonnais-recipe

  1. Bring frying pan to medium heat and add olive oil and garlic. When garlic begins to become fragrant, add the bread pieces and a few small cubes of butter. Fry until golden and crunchy. Set aside to cool.
  2. Fry bacon strips until crispy. Drain and set aside to cool.
  3. Make vinaigrette: whisk mustard and vinegar together and slowly add olive oil in a steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Toss the greens with the vinaigrette and mix in the croutons and bacon.
  5. Poach eggs: Bring pot of water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir in a spoonful of vinegar and swirl the water in a circular motion. Crack the egg into a small bowl or teacup and gently lower it into the swirling, simmering water. Allow it to cook for 3-5 minutes until the white has set and then remove with a slotted spoon and allow to drain. Repeat with remaining eggs.
  6. Divide the salad onto individual plates and top with one poached egg each. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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Autumn Means Apples and a Recipe for Tarte Tatin

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Autumn means apples. More specifically, apple picking. At least where I come from. Though, unfortunately, not where I currently reside.

After what felt like days spent in futile research for locales in the Berlin area suited for selber pflucken, I managed to find a small farm where one is allowed to roam the orchard, chomping and picking away through rows of Boskoop and Elstar. I only truly realized how typically American apple picking as an autumn activity is after noticing that there were more English speakers than German at this small orchard about an hour and a half outside of Berlin.

Now, many of you from the Northeast of the United States are familiar with that wholesome tradition of bounding out into the wild countryside on a sunny October weekend, in search of the kind of apples you just don’t find in the supermarket. You want not only to pick the apples yourself, but also to be guided out into the orchard by a friendly, suntanned farmer (ideally in the back of a hay-filled pickup truck or similarly-decorated vehicle) and given a hand-hewn wooden crook with netted basket on the end, to pluck the best trappings at the top of the tree. The apple trees should be large enough to climb, their branches dripping with red or golden-colored fruits. While onsite, you should eat apples from as many different branches as you possibly can without paying for them. If that means taking one bite, and throwing it aside, so be it. That’s the glory of apple picking. Because if you don’t eat it, its fate will be on the ground, in apple mushdom.

But the process of actually picking the apples is only the start, and, dare I say, a minor part of the experience. I have already mentioned farmer- driven hay rides. But let us not forget a stop by the cider house, to watch the rotten apples being churned to delicious cider (it’s not just for kids!) right before your very eyes. Buy a few bottles to bring home (you’ve rented that expensive car, after all – better fill it), and drink one on site, to wash down the two or three apple cider donuts that you will inevitably purchase and immediately consume. But, please, do me a favor and skip the fudge counter in the gift shop. You really don’t need all that white sugar after eating three apple cider donuts on top of countless apples back in the fields. You will only regret it later when the sugar crash hits during the car ride home.

Kitsch? Yes, maybe a little. The lowest on the totem pole of apple picking locales are simply over-priced traps for wide-eyed city folk wanting a day out in the fresh air. The best of them, typically lying far outside the reaches of the New York or Boston metropolises, are colorful, unpretentious hillside orchards marked only with a ‘U-PICK’ sign. A pile of half-broken baskets, a big scale, and maybe a couple of ladies selling fresh donuts and apple cider from the leftover harvest is really all it takes by way of ‘customer experience’. If the focus is on the farm itself, and caring for the apple trees, the decision to allow the public to come and self-pick being an option, the rest should follow naturally.

Long story short, I didn’t need the Disneyland of Apple Picking to satisfy my longing for a New England fall day. I won’t say that what we found was disappointing, but a bit lackluster when compared to what I know apple picking to be in my past. Nevertheless, we came home with a stash that’s still hanging around, with varieties I have never tasted before, from tiny plum-sized sour apples to huge and sweet crunchy ones.

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I have already written about my own (and – if I may say so – superior) apple pie. But this pie is currently being challenged by its French stepsister, the Tarte Tatin. My friend Benoit, with a fine reputation for down-home French cooking  (see previous canelé post), baked a classic Tarte Tatin to contend with my American-style apple pie. I’m not kidding; there was actually a well-attended competition. Complete with secret ballots. While the vote was close, I won’t say who the victor was, but only that I have secured his simple, mouth-watering recipe to share with you all here.

 

Benoit’s Tarte Tatin

Recipe

 

For the tarte dough:

-1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

-1/2 tsp salt

-1/2 tbsp. sugar

-125 grams (one stick US, or 8 Tbsp) chilled butter, in small cubes

-ice water

For the apple part:

-6 medium sized apples, peeled, cored and cut into quarters

-a pinch of cinnamon

-6 Tbsp (approx. 95 grams) butter

-1 cup (approx. 200 grams) sugar

 

1. Preheat the oven to around 200° C (almost 400° F)

2. Begin by preparing the tarte dough. Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl and cut in the small cubes of butter with a pastry cutter or two knives. When the butter is pretty well incorporated (crumbly feeling), drizzle some of the ice water, little by little and mix dough with hands. Add enough until dough just comes together without being wet or sticky. If too dry and crumbly, add a little more water. Shape into a flattened disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

3. Prepare the apples: peel, cut into quarters and remove seeds as needed. If you like, you can sprinkle with a splash of lemon juice so that they do not brown.

4. Prepare the caramel. Add the butter to an oven-proof skillet and melt. (Note that an oven-proof skillet is the ideal pan to use for Tarte Tatin. I don’t have one, so I simply used a medium sauce pan for the caramel and apple layer, pouring it out into a parchment-lined spring-form pan for the baking part. Though this is not the true Tarte Tatin way, it worked fine and the cake was still pretty when flipped.) Once butter is melted, stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon. Cook until the syrup bubbles and caramelizes, and turns a chestnut brown color, stirring occasionally. Benoit reminds to be sure it doesn’t darken too much or it will impart a bitter flavor to the end result. Remove from heat.

5. Arrange apple pieces in a layer over the caramel (largest on the bottom). Arrange the remaining pieces over the top. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Return the skillet to the burner at medium high heat and cook for about 15 minutes, covering after the first five. Every few minutes press down on the apples and baste them with the juices. When the juices are thick and syrupy, remove the pan from the heat. You will probably start to smell the caramelization of the apples here.

6. On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough into a circle, approx. 5-mm (3/16-inch) thick and 2.5-cm (1-inch) larger than the top of the pan. Lower the dough over the apples in the skillet, pressing the edge of the dough between the apples and the inside of the pan. Cut 4 small steam holes on the top of the dough.

7. Bake the Tarte Tatin for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden, with crispy caramel pieces bubbling up from under the edges. Take it out of the oven and let cool for 10 or 15 minutes, just long enough so that you can handle it. To make it look like a Tarte Tatin you need to turn it out onto a plate, so that the apple layer is on top.

8. Put tarte aside for a few minutes to let the caramel seep down and cool off a bit more. Serve with a spoonful of crème fraîche or ice cream.

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psssss: if you made it this far, I will share with you the results of the apple pie vs. tarte tatin competition…. apple pie by ONE VOTE! oh, YES.