Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ratatouille Nicoise

East coast weather has lately been giving us one heck of a summer. From the strange cloudy days the season began with, to the scorching heat wave we've experienced in the last week (43 degrees, that's celsius to you Americans) we've been on quite the roller coaster.  Thankfully although I'm no particular fan of heat waves -or hot weather in general- I know for a fact that tomatoes enjoy a good scorcher. This knowledge has provided those of us who've been scuttling from shadow to shadow, bolting towards any available air conditioning or lying lazily in front of a fan, with some solace, knowing that nasty heat means that yummy produce is on the way. With weather like this, followed by the torrential rain guaranteed by our post-heatwave thunderstorms we can rest assured that this year's tomato crop will be plump, juicy and most importantly tasty! Much as I love to gorge on fresh tomatoes, preferably with a dash of salt and pepper, a plop of olive oil and every now and then some fresh cheese, there eventually comes time where there are just too many tomatoes to be eaten before they go bad. This my friends, is the moment where the spotlight shines on this provencal delicacy.

Pixar animated rats aside, Ratatouille one of those heavily contested dishes where variations are endless and preparation, as well as ingredients are hotly disputed. Thankfully, the New York Times has a lovely version from which mine is inspired. I've altered the recipe significantly to fit my taste as well as suit what my garden (and the market) provide. Healthy, delicious and smooth as velvet, a huge pot of ratatouille is the perfect end to a substantial harvest of tomatoes or the perfect home for some, should you pick an overwhelmingly large box up from the farmer's market. It's is an excellent summer dish, best made when your vegetables are in season (though in a pinch, jarred tomatoes can be used shhhhh I won't tell anyone). What is perhaps most important when you cook this dish is that it must contain piles of FRESH herbs. Without anything unhealthy as a flavour crutch, Ratatouille relies on prime herbs and veg to really shine.

 Oh almost forgot! Best part? The fact that it's mushy and that it improves the longer it sits, means that ratatouille is 100% freezer friendly so it'll happily grace your table in mid February providing a little summer pizzaz to an otherwise dreary winter day. Serve as a main with crusty bread, on pasta, stuffed in a savoury crepe as a side with a light supper or even on a homemade crouton with some creme fraiche. Don't be afraid to change the quantities of veg, adding a bit more of what you like most after you've gotten a handle on the recipe, ratatouille is as adaptable on the stove as it is on the plate.

Brace yourselves people, tomato season is coming.


-1/4 c. fruity olive oil
-One large eggplant (about 2 lbs)
-4 zucchini
-2 green peppers
-2 yellow onions
-4 cloves of garlic
-3-4 Plump tomatoes (or a cup and a half to 2 cups tomato puree, preferably naturally sweet Italian tomatoes like San Marzano)
-2 bay leaves
-2 sprigs of basil
-2 sprigs of lemon thyme
-Salt and pepper to taste

The method that follows uses the slightly express version which I find suitably delicious. Some purists claim that all vegetables in a ratatouille MUST be cooked separately. If you have the time and patience, empty the pot each time you cook a veggie so that each is cooked separately, this also means rationing out your oil a tad more thoroughly so reconsider the following directions accordingly!

1) Crush garlic and dice all vegetable, keep in mind that you want to get a variety of veggies on your spoon/fork/eating implement of choice
2) Salt eggplant generously, let sit in a colander to drain for about 15 minutes
3) Meanwhile, heat half the oil on medium, coat onions and cook until soft
4) Add garlic and mix until fragrant
5) Add Zucchini, cook until liquid has mostly run out, rinse eggplant and add with some more oil, reducing heat to low, season with salt and pepper
6) When eggplant has softened and mixture has begun to stick add tomato and juice, this will unstick the veggies from the pot
7) If too thick and still sticking don't hesitate to add a tad of water or chicken stock
8) Bruise herbs by slapping them against your palm until very fragrant, remove any portion of the stalk that is tough and chop remaining leaves, add to the vegetables mixture.
9) Cook on low, adding water or stock if mixture begins to stick, cook for at least another 30 minutes
10) Enjoy!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Dining in the City of Lights; Foie Gras and Canard a l'Orange in Plentiful Paris

The last leg of our trip had us visiting the city that has long been considered a capital of gastronomy. While Lyon is known to compete in terms of food, and every region of France would surely contest it, the nation's capital certainly has culinary flair. While the world's most famous chefs have originated from all over the globe, Paris has long been a benchmark, a place in which skill and talent of chefs of all kinds have been measured and where careers have taken flight leading to fame and fortune or plunged into obscurity. It was Paris in the 19th century to which Auguste Escoffier, later of the Savoy and Ritz hotels, traveled to find fame and where Alexis Soyer grew famous, before fleeing in exile to England. More recently, Paris continues to be a proving ground for chefs being the city with the second most three Michelin starred restaurants in the world after Tokyo. Although we didn't dine in any of these restaurants (we did want to be able to afford our trip home) we were able to enjoy some fantastic food during our all too brief trip.

Our First big culinary stop was au Petit Fer a Cheval a lovely little restaurant located in the Marais section of Paris and one which featured delicious and fresh dining in a relaxed setting. The restaurant was tiny and comfortable and had a lovely ambiance that set us all at ease.

As Shannon headed off to scope out a neighboring boutique, Matt and I enjoyed some wine and foie gras. For those of you who don't know exactly what foie gras is, it is the fattened liver of a goose or duck generally obtained via force-feeding. While it is an extremely cruel process, one which makes me question its discoverer's sanity, it is absolutely delicious. In this case it was served with jam and toast which when chased down with wine was as amazing as it was guilt inducing.
Apologies to all my vegetarian friends, it's tragic that cruelty is so delicious.

au Petit Fer a Cheval was especially impressive because its products were so incredibly fresh. The restaurant sported a sign on the wall mentioned the name of the area which all ingredients were sourced from a few kilometers outside of Paris. A small blackboard on the wall had the daily menu featuring only three main dishes, each being executed with care an savoir faire. However, it is necessary to state that I can only guess that they were all equally incredible as Matt, Shannon and I were terribly unoriginal as we all chose the canard a l'orange. Original it was not, but delicious it most certainly was! The perfectly moist duck with its juicy crackling skin was served in a light sauce topped with fresh chives and candied orange zest. The orange taste was strong enough to be enjoyed without overpowering the other flavours in the dish. Served alongside a perfect little macedoine and potatoes fried to absolute perfection (again washed down with wine) the main course was absolutely divine.

For dessert, the three of us shared the house specialty, a slice of tarte tatin. Tarte tatin, a caramelized apple tart was alright but didn't quite blow our minds, not our thing I guess!

Tarte tatin with creme fraiche, the house specialty, although we were disappointed with it we figured it may have been due to our tastes, not the actual quality of the pie.
You may notice that wine has been mentioned a few times, not out of  inadvertent redundancy but because it is necessary to imply just how much wine was consumed *cough cough*.

Desserts that were of interest though  were those found at one of Pierre Hermé's famous bakeries. One of a small chain owned by the famous pastry chef of the same name, this lovely bakery was as posh as it was busy! Although a tad pricey, the pastries were very well executed with the croissants being light and flavourful, moist and well layered all the while maintaining a crunchy exterior. Of course, as one pain au chocolat was the price of three at the local bakery near our host's apartment we figured it definitely should be good! Most of all though it is necessary that Hermé is most well known for pioneering exotic flavours of macarons and starting the foodies craze that has taken the world by storm. While none of us are the biggest fans of macarons, we must state that the ones at Hermé were perfectly light and loaded with flavour, definitely worth at least trying!

Beautiful Hermé works of art.

Macarons, light, airy and fresh. Certainly the best I've had but not the dessert I'm most fond of.

Almond croissant.

Hermé pains au chocolat, the most decadent ones we had, a good example of the Parisian staple

A day or two later, in the center of Paris, Shannon, Matt and I hungrily stumbled into an atrocious Greek restaurant in hopes of finding cheap food. We had dry chicken, in a semi-clean setting that even featured a very dead cockroach in the washroom. While it did serve as a basic form of sustenance we were terribly disappointed when upon exiting we walked smack into Maoz falafel which I'd read about thanks to popular food blogger and pastry chef David Lebowitz. Honestly, when I say we walked into it, I really mean that it was right across the alley that the restaurant's side exit opened onto and it's open concept style actually led to us walking inside. While this did result in much swearing, it also led us to embrace the silver lining of our misfortune by sharing a delightful falafel.
Lovely choice of toppings for decadent Maoz falafel.
Billions of topping and spilled garlic sauce everywhere we came to a conclusion: their falafel was probably the best we'd had. Freshly fried as soon as you ordered it you falafel is crunchy and offered with a choice of countless toppings which are only limited by the size of your wrap. Although more than we'd ever pay for a falafel back home in Montreal, it was still welll worth it, this coming from people who weren't even hungry when they ate it!

Definitely the most decadent falafel we ever had!

We also had a brief stop at a lovely little café about fifteen minutes from the Eiffel tower. We tried the mysterious café noisette that we'd seen on posters everywhere, it was palatable and I'm still not sure what is noisette about it, the colour perhaps? Certainly didn't taste like hazelnuts and had some dry tasteless madeleines with it. However, our lackluster food was well worth it to enjoy the pretty little café and the antics of the extremely angry (and rude) owner, who taking us for Parisians spent the entire time complaining loudly to us in French about how stupid tourists were. Oh, Paris.
A wee café noisette and madeleine

Home of the afore mentioned café noisette and an incredibly unhappy café owner
Our trip ended with our culinary sendoff dinner. At our friend FX's gracious suggestion we headed out to La Cantine, an affordable venue next to a concert hall that just oozed with simple industrial Parisian bohemian flair. While we were surprised to find out that we'd arrived too early for supper (the kitchen only opened at 7 or so) we were happy to sit down, rest our weary legs and indulge once again in some wine. When the kitchen did open we ordered their generous table d'hote starting with appetizers: two terrines featuring crowds of different animals, and really coarsely made mayonnaise. As in all cases, we pilfered each others plates trying everything, a tradition well established amongst us and one which was repeated onto the main dish and dessert. We tried the bavette with cheese dressing and scalloped potatoes. While the meat was tough, the potatoes were great if somewhat rich, but then again rich meals are rather characteristic of Parisian cuisine. The dressing on our side salad was a standard mustard vinaigrette but its acidity cut the rich meal well. While the meal did not quite reach the standards we'd set with au Petit Fer a Cheval it was still a lovely meal and at almost half the price I'd definitely recommend it to any thrifty traveler looking to experience some French cuisine without breaking the bank. This meal (and the pile of pains au chocolats that we stuffed in our bags) marked the end of our European adventure, leaving us fond memories which still make us salivate and making us look forward to our next trip!

La Cantine, industrial setting and great prices, a bit out of the way but well worth if for anyone eating on a dime.


Real homemade roughly put together mayo

Terrine number two, a popular choice of ours

Although the bavette was a tad tough, the potatoes were to die for!

Simple but delish, chocolate mousse.

Thanks again to the people who made it all possible! FX in Paris, the Pagh-Senstius family in Denmark, Russ, Becca, Tom, Katie, Luke, Valentina, Olivia and everyone else in the UK for making sure we had a great time!

Oh by the way, we did try the tarte tatin again...still not big fans. It can happily remain in Paris ;)