Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.
~Benjamin Franklin

Provence — a poetic, mystical southern land which extends from the French Alps on the upper edge, bordered by the bank of the lower Rhône River on the west, abutting the Italian border on the lower east and finally falling into the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

Where villages-perchés seem to cling to bluffs, where marchés quietly demand that you explore serendipitously, and where the sun kisses you throughout the year. The clarity of light, the luminosity is nearly unsurpassed…not to mention the sprawling vistas, microclimates, cobblestone streets, earth tones tinted in brilliant ochres, sparse yet gentle landscapes, lavender fields, from squat olive to narrow pine and cypress trees, an achingly azure shimmering sea with pristine shores and grottoes. There is a feeling of isolation there. An evocative feast for the senses.

Grande destinations include Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Carcassone, Gordes, Arles, La Camargue, Eze, Grasse, St. Tropez, Cassis, St. Raphael, La Luberon, Vence (to name a few). Remember, the papal capital was in Avignon and seven successive popes were housed in France, not Rome. Provence only joined France in 1860, so think Italy too.

Then again, there are some places like the Marseille ghetto with its infamous high rise slums and notorious drug related violence and gang wars. Best avoid (or repair) those.

POULET PROVENCAL et SALADE DE MESCLUN

6-8 bone in, skin on, chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour
3 T olive oil
3 T unsalted butter

Herbes de Provence (see below)
1-2 lemons, quartered
10 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
12 Niçoise olives, depending upon size
4-6 medium shallots, peeled and halved
1/2 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine
1/4 C pastis

1-2 T fresh local honey

8 sprigs of thyme, for serving on each plate

Preheat oven to 400 F

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Put the flour in a shallow bowl, and lightly dredge the chicken, shaking the pieces to remove excess flour.

Heat and swirl the oil and butter in a large roasting pan on the stove, and place the floured chicken in the pan, skin side up. Season the chicken on the skin side with the herbes de Provence. Arrange the lemons, garlic cloves, olives, and shallots around the chicken, and then add the chicken stock, white wine and pastis to the roasting pan.

Put the loaded roaster in the oven, and cook for 25-30 minutes, and baste several times with pan juices. Continue roasting and basting for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, adding the honey scantily during the last 15 minutes in a slow drizzle — until the chicken is quite crisp and the meat shows yellow juices when pricked. Allow to rest for about 8 minutes before serving.

Serve on plates or on a platter with warmed pan juices spooned over the chicken, garnished with thyme sprigs. Present with a mesclun salad with blueberries, French feta cheese, hazelnuts (June 28, 2010) and champagne vinaigrette (see below again).

Herbes de Provence

No doubt you can find herbes de Provence with your spice monger or even at the market. But, you can always and ever easily prepare your own.

3 T dried thyme
2 T dried savory
1 T dried oregano
3 t dried rosemary
2 t dried marjoram
1 T dried lavender flowers

Combine herbs, and store in an airtight container at cool, room temperature.

Champagne Vinaigrette

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t local honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a glass bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with whatever greens (ideally mesclun) you are serving.

As you may recall, mesclun is a varied amalgam of dainty salad leaves which originated in Provence.

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‘Tis an ill cook who cannot lick his own fingers.
~William Shakespeare

Breasts may receive all the attention. But, boring breasts candidly need a rest. On the other hand (so to speak), thighs should take home the praise in terms of sublime flavor, savory succulence, delectable simplicity, forgiveness, and even economy. Dark meated, myoglobin rich, luxurious thighs are the shit — sweet temptresses, in my humble. Plus, ’tis the season for figs.

THIGHS WITH PAPPARDELLE, FETA AND FIGS

4-6 boneless chicken thighs, free range

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
White pepper, a pinch
Cayenne pepper, a pinch
Fresh rosemary leaves, diced
Fresh thyme leaves
Fresh sage leaves, diced
3-4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Extra virgin olive oil, to just cover

2 T unsalted butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh, garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

3/4 C feta cheese
1/2 C capers, drained

Thyme leaves
1/2 C red wine
10 fresh figs (whether Brown Turkey, Black Mission, Kadota or Calimyrna), diced
1 1/2 T local honey

Artisanal pappardelle

Bring a large, heavy pot of water to a rolling boil and then liberally add sea salt.

Place the chicken between a thick wooden cutting board and plastic wrap. Firmly yet gently pound each thigh until thinner but also uniform in thickness. Season with salt and black pepper, white pepper, cayenne pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage and garlic. Cover with some olive oil and place the chicken in a large ziploc bag for about 2 hours, turning a couple of times.

Remove chicken and discard marinating garlic. Add two pads of butter, a touch of olive oil and smashed garlic to a large, heavy skillet and once sizzling, but not brown, discard garlic and add chicken thighs and saute about 5 minutes per side. Early on the second side, add the feta until it becomes warm at least and tent well or place in a low preheated oven. Right before serving thighs, add capers.

Then, to the same skillet add red wine, figs, and later honey until cooked. Meanwhile, cook artisanal pappardelle noodles for until tender, about 3 minutes, in boiling water. Carefully strain through a colander.

Serve chicken thighs plus feta and capers over pappardelle with cooked figs on the side on plates. (Feel free to eat the thighs with your fingers.)

Mesclun, Berries & Feta

June 28, 2010

My salad days—When I was green in judgment.
~William Shakespeare

Blithe, lithe designer greens.

Mesclun is a diverse blend of young, dainty salad leaves which originated in Provence. The traditional amalgam included precise proportions of wild chervil, arugula, leafy lettuces and endive. Modern iterations may fuse spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, chicory, mustard greens, endive, fennel, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche, purslane, radicchio, sorrel, and even edible flowers. A treat for the eye, mesclun touches upon varied tastes and textures: bitter, sweet, tangy, crunchy and silky. When tart blueberries, brisk feta cheese and nuts are added to the mix, the medley becomes nearly symphonic.

Mesclun derives from the Provençal words mesclom or mesclumo, which are rooted from misculare, a Latin word meaning “to mix.”

MESCLUN, BLUBERRIES, FETA & HAZELNUTS WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/2 C hazelnuts, lightly toasted and chopped
Large bunch of mesclun (about 12 C loosely packed)
1 C fresh blueberries
1 C Greek or French feta cheese, crumbled

Champagne vinaigrette

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette, hazelnuts and blueberries. The vinaigrette is meant to lightly coat, not drench the mesclun. Arrange on plates, and top with crumbled feta.

Champagne Vinaigrette

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with whatever greens you are serving.

Pourboire: You are the maestro here as always, so freely substitute other toasted nuts such as almonds, pine nuts, walnuts and create any olio of available greens or differing vinaigrettes.

Spanakopita(s)

November 22, 2009

Knowledge is the food of the soul.
~Plato

Some purists firmly claim they should be called spanakopitakia.

Having made too many of these classic, delicate Greek fingerlings one day I felt obliged to share. Although spanakopita (σπανακόπιτα) prep is time consuming, once done, you can hide a bag of these delectable deltas in the freezer. When you yearn a last minute or midnight meal, simply brush them with melted butter and slip them in the oven.

SPANAKOPITA

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1 lb fresh spinach, washed, drained, well dried and coarsely chopped
2 T fresh mint, coarsely chopped
2 C feta cheese
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten, at room temperature

16 sheets phyllo dough, thawed if frozen

8 T unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 F

Heat olive oil in heavy skillet over moderate heat, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until transluscent. Then cook the spinach, stirring, until wilted and tender, usually about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat and cool, about 10 minutes. Squeeze spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, drain, dry, then coarsely chop. Transfer to a bowl and stir in mint, feta, nutmeg, salt and pepper and then incorporate the beaten egg.

Melt 1 stick of butter in a small saucepan, then cool to room temperature and set aside.

Cover phyllo stack with a dampened tea towel.

Gingerly peel one phyllo sheet from stack, arrange on a work surface long ways and brush with some butter down the length of the sheet on one side. Place 1 tablespoon of the filling at end closest to you, and then fold sheet in half lengthwise. Begin folding into triangle (like a flag) brushing with butter after each fold.

Put triangle, seam side down, on a large baking sheet and brush top with butter. Repeat in the same manner, using all of phyllo.

Bake triangles in middle of oven until golden brown, 15-20 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool slightly.

Roasted Asparagus with Feta

February 18, 2009

It seemed to me that these celestial hues revealed the delicious creatures who had merrily metamorphosed themselves into vegetables and who, through the disguise of their firm, edible flesh, disclosed in these early tints of dawn, in these beginnings of rainbows, in this extinction of blue evenings, the precious essence that I recognized again when, all night long following a dinner at which i had eaten them, they played, in farces as crude and poetic as a fairy play by Shakespeare, at changing my chamber pot into a jar of perfume.
~Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

Given its variable nature and year round availability, asparagus is likely the most beloved green at our table. Whether steamed, boiled, sauteed, grilled or roasted, asparagus are finger food heaven and marry well with nuts, cheeses, vinaigrettes and some sauces. Do not dare deign to use a fork or knife with these darlings.

Asparagus officinalis is a perennial flowering plant species from the lily family. These delicate spears were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and a recipe even appears in one of the oldest surviving cookbook, Apicius’s De re coquinaria (3rd Century AD).

Asparagus shoots evolve into stalks several feet high, sometimes growing 6″ to 10″ in a single day. Some one half of the world’s asparagus is harvested white, which is accomplished by covering the spears from light, thus inhibiting chlorophyll production. This produces a more delicate and sweet version, but is also more fibrous—usually requiring peeling before cooking. A portion of each green or white asparagus spear’s bottom end is inedible, so simply bend the stalk until it naturally snaps.

Asparagus is seductively low in calories and sodium, and contains no fat or cholesterol…while remaining a hearty source of folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber, and rutin.

ROASTED ASPARAGUS WITH FETA

2 lbs medium asparagus, bottoms snapped off
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 C good quality feta cheese

2 t fresh lemon zest

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Toss asparagus with oil, salt, and pepper in a large shallow baking pan and arrange in single layer. Roast, shaking pan once about halfway through roasting, until asparagus is just tender when pierced with a fork, 8-12 minutes—but, with 2 minutes to go, sprinkle asparagus with cheese. When done, top with lemon zest and serve.

A Cupboard Not Bare

January 19, 2009

Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a riceless pantry.
~Chinese proverb

Before traipsing into the kitchen or addressing the grill, some thought needs to be given to the provisions on hand. Not only would it be unrealistic to expect all ingredients to be locally fresh throughout the year, but the time constraints of daily life often demand an impromptu table. Having a well supplied (and periodically restocked) pantry is simply essential for home cooks to produce remarkable meals without a last minute forage at the neighborhood market. Some cupboard items can even prove superior to the fresh versions in certain seasons or preparations while others only come in pantry form.

The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to be fairly comprehensive for the lay cook. Of course, you will tailor your pantry to suit your palate and home cuisine. However, before you reject this list due to storage size restrictions alone, please keep in mind that almost all of these items are carefully housed in the cabinets of our minimalist urban kitchen with a small frig.

Oils –- extra virgin olive, canola, peanut, grapeseed, vegetable, white truffle, avocado, walnut, sesame

Vinegars — red wine, balsamic, champagne, apple cider, sherry, port, rice wine

Spices & Herbs — black peppercorns, white pepper, green peppercorns, pink peppercorns, mixed peppercorns, cayenne pepper, salt (sea, gray, kosher), herbes de provence, fine herbes, ras el hanout, za’atar, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, tarragon, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, savory, celery seed, mustard, turmeric, cardamom, paprika, pimentón, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, curry powder (homemade) & curry paste, fenugreek leaves, garam masala, caraway seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon (sticks/ground), chipotle chile powder, ancho chile powder, star anise, sesame seeds (black, white), allspice, anise seeds, saffron threads, wasabi powder, rubs (i.e., asian, ancho chili, dried mushroom, rosemary & pepper, tandoori, basic barbeque), local hot sauce(s), barbeque (preferably near home) sauces

Grains & Pastas — rice (white long grained, wild, brown, jasmine, basmati), polenta, risotto, pastas (potentials: taglilatelle, linguini, spaghetti, penne, lasagne, orzo, tortellini, orcchietta, capellini, farfalle, capaletti, cavatappi, cavatelli, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, papparadelle, ravioli, vermicelli), couscous, Israeli couscous, rice (cellophane) noodles (vermicelli–bun & sticks–banh pho)

Asian –- soy sauce, shoyu, white shoyu, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce/paste, sriracha, nuoc mam nhi(fish sauce), nuoc mam chay pha san, hoisin sauce, red, yellow & green curry pastes, mirin, sake, coconut milk, miso pastes (white, red), oyster sauce, wasabi paste/powder, five spice, tamarind paste, mirin, rice flour, panko bread crumbs, kochujang, gochu garu, konbu

Garlic, shallots, ginger, potatoes, yellow & red onions, dried chiles

Mustards, chutneys, capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, tomato paste, harissa, tahini, creme fraiche, pickles

Canned tomatoes (san marzano + homemade), stock (homemade/canned)

Legumes –- lentils (several colors + lentils du puy), garbanzos, cannellinis, white beans, black beans, navy beans

Booze — red & white wine, cognac (brandy), port wine, Madeira, sherry, eau de vie

Baking — flour, sugars (white granulated, raw cane, light brown, confectioner’s), baking powder, cornstarch, cornmeal, yeast, cocoa, dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa)

Flavorings –- almond extract, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, Tabasco, Worcestershire

Dried fruits — currants, apricots, figs, prunes, currants

Nuts –- pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, unsalted peanuts

Honeys (local, raw, unprocessed), mi-figue mi-raisin, raspberry and strawberry preserves, apricot jam, pure maple syrup, peanut butter

Dairy –- whole milk, unsalted butter, eggs, buttermilk, heavy whipping cream

Fruits –- lemons, oranges, grapefruit, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, heirloom tomatoes

Cheeses –- parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, gruyère, marscarpone, roquefort or gorgonzola, feta, fontina, manchego

Meats proscuitto, serrano

Spreads tapenades, caponata, hummus