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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Mussels with Fennel & Friends

September 13, 2010

Anyse maketh the breth sweter and swageth payne.
~Turner’s Herbal (1551)

(For the record, I am far from a licorice candy provocateur—whether red, black or other rainbow color or shape. My dislike for licorice candy is doubtless partly genetic and partly environmental. Yet, I have always adored the hints of anise and fennel in food. An infrequent pastis served straight up or on the rocks with a side carafe of water is rarely declined. So, to those licorice naysayers, please keep an open mind as kitchen affable anise and fennel are strikingly dissimilar to the candy species.)

Native to Egypt, anise (Pimpinella anisum) is cultivated for its carminative and aromatic seeds. Used by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C., the herb was also well known to the Greeks and Romans. The Arabic term anysum became the Greek anison and then anisun in Latin.

An annual plant, anise grows to about 1 1/2 to 2 feet high and has feathery upper leaves with clusters of dainty, creamy-white flowers. After flowering, the ribbed seeds ripen and are harvested. The cultivated seeds have a slight hint of licorice in flavor and the aroma of fennel.

Pastis, the so-called milk of Provence, is anise hooch. An ambience setting French apéritif (apéro), pastis emerged a decade or so following the absinthe debacle and the ultimate prohibition on that wormwood spirit during midstride World War I. In recent years, more complex, creative and aromatic blends of pastis have appeared on the market.

Pastis changes its appearance from dark transparent yellow to milky soft yellow and cloudy when lightly diluted with water. Cooking with pastis, whether to deglaze or braise, can be subtly radiant.

STEAMED MUSSELS WITH FENNEL & PASTIS

3 lbs mussels, scrubbed and cleaned

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 fennel bulb, cored, trimmed and and thinly sliced
1 T fennel seeds

1 large, ripe tomato, cored, seeded and diced
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup pastis, such as Ricard or Pernod
1 cup heavy cream
1 sprig fresh tarragon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped

Thoroughly scrub mussels and rinse with several changes of water. If an open mussel closes when you press on it, it is good. If the mussel remains open, you should discard it. Pull off beards, the tuft of fibers that attach each mussel to the shell, cutting them at the base with a paring knife. Do not beard the mussels more that a few minutes in advance or they will die and spoil. Set bearded mussels aside.

In a large heavy Dutch oven or pot, bring to medium and add olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and sweat until for 2-3 minutes. Then, add fennel, fennel seeds, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomato, white wine, pastis, cream, tarragon sprig, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cook for about 1-2 minutes.

Finally add the mussels, and cover the pot. Cook, shaking the pot occasionally, until the mussels open, about 3-5 minutes. Do not overcook or they will toughen. Those mussels which do not open during the cooking process must be discarded.

Transfer mussels to shallow soup bowls. Drizzle pan sauce over mussels and finish with chopped tarragon.

Serve with grilled or toasted baguette or artisanal bread slices.