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.

…dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.
~Art Buchwald

This Provençal comfort food exudes the melodious aromas of poultry, olives, fennel and capers that so often waft from the region’s kitchens and tables.

Capers (Capparis spinosa L.) are perennial bushy shrubs that bear fragrant white to light pink petals, and fleshy leaves renowned for the delicious immature buds which are commonly prepared pickled in salt and vinegar. Native to the Meditteranean basin, the thorny caper bush is well adapted to the sun soaked, sandy and sometimes nutrient needy soil found in the region.

Intense manual labor is required to gather capers, for the buds must be picked each morning just as they reach the proper size—before they open. Merchants categorize capers by size with the smallest non pareil often being the most desirable. However, somewhat larger buds from Pantelleria, a hot dry wind-swept speck of a volcanic island south of Sicily, are also highly prized.

Freshly picked caper buds are not an especially savory lot, but their piquancy increases after sun-drying, salting and brining. Deceptive by size, these charming, petite morsels are tart, zestful and bring earthy, tangy, citrus dimensions to dishes. A pantry without capers should sense remorse. Capers are packed in glass jars in coarse salt or vinegar brine, and so it is incumbent to thoroughly rinse before use.

BRAISED CHICKEN WITH WINE, CAPERS, OLIVES, FENNEL, & SHERRY VINEGAR

1 (3 1/2 to 4 lb) chicken, rinsed, patted dry, cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Herbes de Provence
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 dried bay leaf
2 rosemary sprigs
1 C high quality green olives, pitted (such as picholine)
1 C capers, drained and well rinsed
4 fennel branches, roughly sliced into 2″-3″ pieces
2 C dry white wine
1 C chicken stock

1/4 C sherry wine vinegar

3 T fresh tarragon or flat parsley, roughly chopped

Season the chicken liberally with salt, pepper and a couple of pinches of herbes de Provence crumbled between finger and thumb. In a large heavy deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and butter and garlic over medium heat. But, do not allow to brown. With a wooden spatula, massage the garlic cloves into the entire pan surface. Then, place chicken in pan, skin side down; the skin should sizzle some when the pieces contact the surface. Brown chicken in batches, turning over once, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Remove crushed garlic cloves before they brown. Set aside browned chicken on a dish or platter, loosely tented.

Reduce the heat to medium or medium low, and add the onions. Sweat onions until soft and translucent, but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook one minute more. Return the chicken to the pan, and add the bay leaf, rosemary, olives, capers, fennel, wine and stock. Cover and simmer slowly until chicken is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Remove the chicken to the dish or platter, and tent loosely with foil. Also remove bay leaf, rosemary sprigs. Raise heat, fortify sauce with sherry vinegar and boil down rapidly until sauce begins to just lightly thicken and coat a spoon. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking.

Serve over rice, pasta or thick noodles.

Soupe Au Pistou

June 13, 2009

So, how do you grant shrift to spellbinding Provence? Note to Will: brevity is not always the soul of wit (whit).

Simply identify it as Provençal: Provença in classical norm or Prouvènço in Mistralian norm, a region of southeastern France? In a droning museum voice name it as a host to Paleolithic sites dating to 900,000 B.C? Call it home to a permanent Greek settlement called Massalia, established at modern day Marseilles in about 600 B.C. by colonists coming from Phocaea (now Foça, on the Aegean coast in modern Turkey)? Christen it the first Roman province outside of Italy? Baptize it as the “annex” of the formerly Italian Roman Catholic papacy which moved to Avignon in the 14th Century? Title it an abode to the souls of Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso? Or just not so blandly classify it as a region that comprises the départements of Var, Vaucluse, and Bouches-du-Rhône and parts of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes?

So many missteps, so much left out. Such is the construct of a blog. But, beyond cavil or retort, Provence and Italy are viscerally intermingled. Consider something as simple as pizzas or the subtle difference between pesto vs. pistou. Sans pine nuts, they are still divinely intertwined.

Soupe au pistou is a more than memorable Provençal soup that is brimming with summer garden bounty…gifts from friends at the market. Thanks, John, et al.

Footnote:
see I am Sam, Sam I am, infra for pesto.

SOUPE AU PISTOU

1/2 C dried lima or white beans
Bouquet garni I: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together
3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump, fresh garlics, peeled and minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Pistou:
6 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
Pinch of sea salt
3 C fresh basil leaves, washed
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
3 medium leeks, white part only, cut lengthwise, then into thin half rings
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
8 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and very thinly sliced (almost shaven)

2 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and cut into half discs
1/2 fennel bulb, finely chopped
4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
Bouquet garni II: bay leaves, fresh sprigs of parsley, thyme, and basil twined together

2 medium zucchini, trimmed and chopped
2 tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 C diminutive pasta such as ditalini, conchigliette or acini di pepe

1 C freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano
1 C freshly grated gruyère

Rinse beans and remove any imperfections. Place the beans in a large bowl and add boiling water to cover. Set aside for 1 hour. Drain the beans.

In a large, heavy saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic and bouquet garni. Cook over medium heat until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat with oil and garlic. Cook an additional minute, then add 1 quart of water. Stir, then cover, bring to a simmer and cook approximately 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove and discard bouquet garni I. Set beans aside.

Meanwhile, combine garlic, salt and basil in a food processor or blender or a mortar and process in bursts to a paste. Drizzle in olive oil in a thin, continuous stream while processing. Stir to blend well. Set the pistou aside.

In a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven, combine the leeks, onions, and garlic over low heat and cook until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally. Do not brown or burn. Add the carrots, fennel, potatoes, and bouquet garni II to the pot, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Now, add the beans and their cooking liquid, the zucchini and tomatoes, along with 2 quarts of water to the pot. Simmer gently, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

Add the pasta and simmer, uncovered, until the pasta is cooked, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni II. Stir in half of the pistou and half of the cheese.

Serve soup, passing remaining pistou and cheeses at the table.

France is every man’s second country.
~Thomas Jefferson

Daube is a sublime, rustic meal brimming with aromatics. Daube actually refers to both a method of cooking and a type of dish (much like tajine). The original daube referred to a food preparation in which meat and other foodstuffs, wines, vinegars and herbs were slowly cooked in a terrine or pot. The ingredients are layered inside the pot, with slow cooking meats — usually beef or lamb — at the bottom, vegetables and aromatics on top. It’s not surprising to learn, then, that the word “daube” comes from adobar, which in the langue d’oc (language of the Occitan) means “to arrange” or “to accommodate.”

The recipe allegedly originated in 18th century Saint-Malo, (Breton: Sant-Maloù), a walled port city on the coast of Bretagne in northwestern France. Then, they were a speciality that included artichokes, celery, pork, goose and beef…once cooked, the meat and vegetables were removed to be eaten without the sauce and often cold, in jellied form. Pots of daube were sent all over France, and the dish ultimately migrated to herb plentiful Provence where scores of these farmhouse recipes abound.

BEEF DAUBE WITH ORANGES & OLIVES

4 lbs boneless beef (different cuts—round, chuck, shoulder), excess fat trimmed, meat cut into 2-3″ cubes

1 bottle of dry red wine
3 medium carrots, peeled, roughly cut
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
8 fresh thyme sprigs
6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 bay leaves
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
1 large fresh rosemary sprig
1 strip orange peel

2 ounces pancetta, diced
1 large onion, peeled and chopped or a similar amount of shallots, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
Grated zest of 4 oranges
2 C pitted green and black olives
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C capers, rinsed and drained

Combine first 12 ingredients (beef & marinade) in large bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature 2 hours or refrigerate overnight.

If refrigeratered, bring marinade to room temperature and remove beef; pat dry. Reserve marinade. Cook pancetta in a heavy pot or dutch oven over medium low heat until fat is rendered, 5 minutes. Add chopped onion and garlic. Sauté
until onion is translucent, 6 minutes. Transfer to large bowl.

Heat olive oil in same pot over moderately high heat. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper. Working in batches, add beef to pot; cook until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes per batch. Do not crowd the pan and remain patient so the meat retains its flavor and moistness. Transfer to bowl with pancetta mixture.

Reduce heat to medium-high. Gradually whisk in reserved marinade. Bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits.

Add beef mixture and any accumulated juices to pot. Cover tightly; simmer until meat is tender, about 2-3 hours. Stir occasionally to evenly coat the pieces of meat with the liquid. During the last 30 minutes, add the orange zest and olives. The sauce should be glossy and slightly thick.

With a slotted spoon or tongs, remove and discard the herb sprigs, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, garlic cloves, cloves and orange peel.

Skim fat off surface. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper and strew capers over the top.

Serve over buttered noodles or other pasta with a red Gigondas or Cotes du Rhone.