Thursday, July 31, 2008

Un Menu de Provence

Wednesday night we had a small party of six friends over for dinner. We prepared an array of light French fare, and served it with a slightly chilled bottle of 2007 M. Chapoutier Belleruche, a tes-du-Rhône rosé.

Caramelized Onion Tart

This was incredibly tasty - the pizza crust was from scratch, a soft, pillow-like dough that came out *beautifully* when baked in the cast-iron Welsh griddle. We modified three things: we put about 1/3 cup Marsala wine in the onions, added a bit of Gruyère to the Parmigiano-Reggiano topping, and sprinkled it with fresh thyme after it came out of the oven.

The neat trick we learned from this recipe was to caramelize the onions under parchment cut to size. We've caramelized pounds and pounds of onions for French Onion soup, in cast iron or stainless, on the stove top or in the oven, covered or uncovered, fast or slow, and this little trick is worth the 30 seconds to cut a round of parchment. The parchment allows the liquid to escape, yet keeps enough of the vapor contained so that the onions cook throughout.

Although it was delicious, it too closely resembled onion jam pizza. We'll next make this with a gallette crust, and see how the soft, jammy onion texture goes with a flaky, crispy and buttery crust. The slight acidity often in this kind of crust (like cream cheese) might balance the Gruyère nicely.

Soupe au Pistou
This is a soup that doesn't need a whit of anything animal - all veg and hearty as anything. Unfortunately, it clashed a little with the delicacy of the other two dishes in its heartiness and strong flavor of the pesto; served between the two other dishes was...interesting. But good, nonetheless.

Changes: Instead of straining out half the vegetables in the stock, we blended them all (sheesh, why waste the fiber??) for extra body, making it thicker and more satisfying. The beans in this one are optional - probably will leave them out next time, unless it's midwinter.

Baby Greens Salad with Herbs, Roast Beets and Potatoes

OMG, this was GREAT! This is certainly the time of year for this salad, and we'll probably have it a lot in the coming weeks. The dressing is stupidly simple, but doesn't caress you unless you use the tarragon vinegar. We made some with a bottle of Spectrum organic white wine vinegar and a bunch of fresh tarragon sprigs - four days later, voilà!

We used dragon tongue beans, a beautiful, flattened low-string bean from the farmer's market, which were amazingly tender. With very light blanching they still lost some of their color, but it bumped up the sweetness a little. The baby Yukon gold potatoes were beyond incredible.... roasted, they were sweet with a delicious crust, well worth the extra time picking through the bins for equally-sized ones. We used calendula flowers instead of the nasturtium, which turned out even better (color/texture and taste-wise). The fresh herbs we used include two new favorites: chervil and lovage. These two are amazing together, and really helped make the salad the unusual delicacy it turned out to be. We also used the fresh tarragon, as well as 1/3 of fennel leaf we had left over from using the 'bulb' for soup.
**Note: this is not the best for 'family style' serving (a buffet, potluck, etc.). Plate everything out so everyone gets equal amounts of all the ingredients, and keeps it looking gorgeous!

Sour Cherries and Crème Fraîche
Finally, for a finish (as if that weren't already enough) we served sour cherries from the farmer's market. They are sour, profoundly red, and delicate with thin skins. We served them simply: cut in half, pitted, on a base of simple syrup with a drizzle of crème fraîche. (We made ours from a pint of warm organic heavy cream to which we added about 1/2 cup of Nancy's sour cream, then let stand at room temperature until it soured lightly. Refrigerated, it keeps for a while - we use it up before it grows anything fuzzy.)

Honestly, while we like the menu - apart from the somewhat incongruous soup - the salad and the cherries were the best parts. Fresh and local has become a cliché, but deservedly. We're fans.
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