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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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.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines; there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays.
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet (scene V)

Why is fennel such a neglected child? A culinary tragedy of sorts.

It seems incongruous that this versatile perennial herb always warms the bench in cooks’ imaginations…especially given fennel’s illustrious past. In Greek mythology, the wily titan Prometheus smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk. The decisive battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians (490 BC) was allegedly waged on a plain covered in wild fennel. Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder lauded its medicinal properties, and had numerous herbal remedies linked to fennel. The almost omnipotent medieval king, Charlemagne, had fennel cultivated in his garden to serve the household, perhaps to be shared by each of his nine wives. He later regally mandated that fennel be nurtured in every imperial garden. During this era, fennel was used to protect against witchcraft and evil spirits. Later, in the new world, Puritans chewed fennel seeds during church services, calling them “meeting seed.” (Only Puritans would fail to grasp that double entendre, but perhaps Charlemagne was on to something.)

The fennel found in your local market is Florence fennel, or finocchio, which are topped by fragrant, delicate emerald fronds attached to stout stalks that resemble celery. The edible white “bulb” is actually not that at all, but rather concentrated stacked leaves that unpack like the base of a celery stalk.

You are not alone if you have never cooked with fennel, but I implore you to re-evaluate. Fennel has a subtle flavor that is enticing enough solo, but it also blends well and enhances the flavors of nearby foods. It is eaten raw (often shaven), sautéed, steamed, braised, roasted and grilled with a whole host of food mates—a versatile one.

BEET & FENNEL SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE

6 medium beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T red wine vinegar
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
2 T white wine vinegar
1/2 T organic honey
1 T lemon juice
1 T orange juice
1 T grapefruit juice
Sea salt
1/4 t lemon zest
1/4 t orange zest
1/4 t grapefruit zest

1/2 C hazelnuts, roasted and chopped

1 fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 C frisée, torn in pieces
1 C watercress

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, lightly splash them with water, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel using a paper towel. Cut into wedges, put them in a bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, then toss.

In the meantime, wash and dry greens and carefully shave the fennel quarters on a mandoline or slicer.

In a bowl, whisk together the shallot, white wine vingar, honey, citrus juices, and a pinch of salt. Allow to rest and macerate while grating the citrus for zest and preparing the hazelnuts. Slowly drizzle olive oil into the bowl while whisking constantly and then stir in the zests and hazelnuts to complete the vinaigrette. If necessary, add salt to taste.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss beets, fennel, and frisée and watercress in vinaigrette to lightly, but thoroughly, coat. (The French believe it takes 33 turns for a salad to be properly dressed.) Drenching a salad with vinaigrette is a cardinal sin which carries a sentence of temporary banishment from the kitchen.