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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Ahi “Niçoise”

May 13, 2010

Sorry, Charlie…Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste, Starkist wants tuna that tastes good.
~StarKist, Chicken of the Sea

A highly migratory, fish found in many oceans, tuna are from the family Scombridae, mostly in the genus Thunnus. They are swift swimmers, with some species capable of speeds of over 50 mph. Unlike most flat fish, which have white flesh, the muscle tissue of tuna ranges from pink to dark red hues. The coloration derives from high quantities of myoglobin, an oxygen-binding molecule.

Tuna have a remarkable ability to maintain body core temperatures above that of ambient seawater which enhances their superior swimming speeds while running at reduced energy rates. This endothermy is achieved by conserving the heat generated through normal body metabolism via the action of an intertwined meshwork of veins and arteries, known as the rete mirable (“wonderful net”), located in the body’s periphery.

Whenever your love life has gone south, rethink those urgings from friends that “there are plenty of fish in the sea,” as 90% of the big fish in the world are already gone; and if global fishing trends continue, there will be even fewer wild fish left by mid-century. Love the one you’re with?

Across the seas, tuna fisheries face a number of urgent problems that threaten their continued existence and endanger wider marine ecosystems. There have been alarming tuna stock declines and unfortunately poor conservation strategies have been in the making. Troll and long line tuna fishing techniques have resulted in large bycatch, including threatened or endangered species such as sea turtles, sharks and seabirds.

So, make a sustainable catch at the market and buy tuna nabbed with troll or pole & line gear to avoid the evils of indiscriminate bycatch. Above all, please make tuna a rare treat until populations have had a chance to reload.

SEARED TUNA “NICOISE” WITH TWO VINAIGRETTES & FRISEE

Sherry Vinaigrette
2 T sherry vinegar
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
Pinch of herbes de provence
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1-1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Whisking gently in a bowl, combine sherry and red wine vinegars, mustard, herbes de provence, salt and pepper. Then, whisking more vigorously, slowly add olive oil in a narrow steady stream to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. May be made a day or two ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Tapenade Vinaigrette
4 T tapenade*
2 t Dijon mustard
2 fresh plump garlics, peeled and crushed gently
1 t sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
2 T sherry vinegar
1-1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Gently whisk together tapenade, mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, and sherry vinegar. Whisking further and much more robustly, slowly add olive oil in a narrow steady stream to form an emulsion. Discard garlic cloves. May be made a day or two ahead and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator.

1 lb haricots verts, ends trimmed
3 T spring onions or scallions, thinly sliced

1 lb fingerling potatoes
Cold water
Sea salt

2 fresh ahi or yellowfin tuna fillets, thickly cut 1 1/2″ to 2″ thick
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped

3 T capers, rinsed and dried
1 C cherry tomatoes, halved
1 C yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
2-3 heads frisée, cleaned, cored and torn into bite sized pieces

Put green beans in large pot of boiling salted water. and blanch until just tender and crisp, 3-4 minutes. Drain beans in colander and plunge into ice cold water to halt cooking and retain the green hue. Promptly drain on cloth or paper towel—otherwise, the beans will become soggy. Then, in a bowl toss with the sliced spring onions or scallions and some sherry vinaigrette. Set aside.

In a large pot, bring water to a boil and add liberal amounts of salt. Add potoatoes and cook until fork tender, approximately 20-25 minutes. Remove from the pot and let stand until room temperature. Once cooled, slice and set aside.

Heat a large heavy nonstick sauté skillet over high heat. Brush each tuna liberally with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and lightly with thyme. Add tuna to pan and sear briefly until rare in the center, about 2 minutes per side depending on thickness. Take care just to sear quickly and not overcook, and do not turn the tuna over repeatedly—just once. When done, it should be rare in the center but not cold. Remove from pan and lightly brush one side with olive oil, and lightly season one side again with salt and pepper. Slice tuna across the grain and on the bias.

Toss the green beans, spring onions, potatoes, capers, cherry tomatoes and frisée with sherry vinaigrette. Arrange the green beans, spring onions, potatoes, capers, cherry tomatoes and frisée in a colorful array on each plate and top with tuna slices. Lightly drizzle some tapenade vinaigrette over the tuna.

*Tapenade
2 C Niçoise olives, pitted
3 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and chopped roughly
3 T capers, drained and rinsed
2 high quality anchovy fillets
1/2 t fresh thyme leaves
2 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 t Dijon mustard
Dash of brandy or cognac
6 T olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the olives, garlic, capers, anchovies, thyme, lemon juice, mustard, and cognac. Process in bursts to form a thick paste.

With the processor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated into a paste. Season with pepper, then allow the tapenade to stand for an hour or so to allow the flavors to marry.

Pourboire:  apparently, a Dutch study has found that swordfish exude body grease which allows them to swim so rapidly.  While swordfish are the sole members of their family, Xiphidae, and are solitary swimmers, one wonders if the same performance enhancement oil holds true for tuna.

A man taking basil from a woman will love her always.
~Sir Thomas Moore

This is admittedly not in keeping with the Tour, but it is a seasonal offering. Tomorrow is the next to last stage with the critical climb up Mont Ventoux, so I will return to France—always the migratory instinct. Oh, to be a tern.

GRILLED AHI TUNA WITH TOMATO, MINT & BASIL VINAIGRETTE

Fresh ahi tuna fillets, thickly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper and white pepper
4 T fresh basil leaves, chopped
8 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

3 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
4 plump, fresh cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 T fresh lime juice
1 T sherry vinegar
1 T minced fresh parsley
2 medium shallots, peeled and finely minced
Sea salt

Basil sprigs and nicoise olives, to garnish

Season the tuna fillets all over with black and white pepper. In a shallow dish, stir together 4 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons each of the mint and basil. Coat the tuna pieces in the oil and herbs to coat them. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 4 hours.

In a mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes and garlic with the remaining mint and basil, lime juice, sherry vinegar, parsley, and shallots. Drizzle in remaining olive oil, whisking vigorously, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate so the flavors coalesce.

Preheat the barbeque grill to medium high. Retrieve the tuna and the tomato mixture from the refrigerator and allow them to rest at room temperature until the grill is ready for cooking.

Lightly sprinkle the tuna pieces all over with salt. Grill the tuna about 2-4 minutes per side until seared on the outside and still rare in the center.

To serve, spoon a layer of the tomato mint mixture onto the centers of the serving plates. Slice the tuna filets and fan them over the vinaigrette. Garnish with basil sprigs and olives.