By Melissa Clark, The New York Times
I can’t really speak French, but I cook in French. For years, I studied conjugations and the passé simple, practiced pronouncing yaourt and grenouille, but try as I might I just couldn’t seem to master it beyond the essentials like “deux pains au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.”
In the kitchen, however, I am fluent. The fistfuls of garlic and thyme, the pebbly feel of gray sel marin de Guérande between my fingers, and the lushness of an emulsifying sauce are now so ingrained, I can cook in French without thinking. The ethereal creaminess of a soufflé, the anchovy funk of a pissaladière and the caramelized depth of boeuf Bourguignon are as deeply part of me as the bagels and lox we ate in Brooklyn every Sunday.
That merging of classic French cuisine and the food I grew up eating in Brooklyn is the foundation of how I approach cooking. To me, the cuisines are not two distinct things, but rather seamlessly intertwined into a glorious whole, because I learned about them at the same time.
Yes, we waited in line for Di Fara’s pizza, Lundy’s clams, and chicken feet and tripe at our favorite dim sum palace. And we also spent countless weekends fussing over Julia Child’s terrines and Jacques Pépin’s coq au vin, which my mother might slather on leftover challah, and my dad might spike with soy sauce (sorry, Jacques). It wasn’t irreverence so much as an intense culinary curiosity, a playful exploration of the delicious. All of these influences are so essential to the way I think about food that they’re the touchstones of every recipe I create.
None of this would have happened if Great-Aunt Martha and Great-Uncle Jack hadn’t dragged my parents on their first trip to Europe — seven countries in 25 days — after medical school in 1960. My dad, whose ideal vacation up until then was fishing in the Catskills, didn’t want to go. But they went and fell hard for France, getting hooked on escargot, extra-crispy frites, and the high culture of Monet-filled museums and Gothic cathedrals, all so astoundingly ancient and different from the Yeshiva-centric Brooklyn they grew up in. My parents went back every year, first by themselves, then with my sister and me in tow.
My family’s true connection to the French was through our shared obsession with the food — learning about it, exploring it and preparing lavish feasts with it. When we weren’t cooking, we were planning the next meal, chasing the daily markets from small town to even smaller town, reveling in the figs, the sausages, the incredible cheeses we couldn’t get at home.
We also went to fancy restaurants. It was my dad’s quest to eat in every Michelin-starred restaurant in France, and he came pretty close, despite getting lost along the way. Pre-GPS, losing our way on tiny country roads was just a normal part of the journey to a meal. When my kindergarten teacher asked me what I did with my parents every August in France, I said, “First we get lost, then we have lunch.”
And this is exactly how I approach cooking. Yes, there are times I might meander down a seemingly dead end of harissa gougères only to end up with a buoyant soufflé, but I always find my way because, really, I’m not going very far. It’s all right there, rooted in my New York-Jewish-Francophile DNA. And my cooking ends up playfully and unmistakably French. At our house, the conversation might be in English, but dinner’s in French.
Asparagus, Goat Cheese and Tarragon Tart
Because you don’t have to make your own crust, this gorgeous asparagus-striped tart is so easy it almost feels like cheating. But it’s not. It’s just simple yet stunning, effortlessly chic and company-ready. As there are so few ingredients in this recipe that each one makes an impact, be sure to buy a good all-butter brand of puff pastry. If you can manage to serve this tart warm, within an hour of baking, it will be at its absolute best, with crisp pastry that shatters into buttery bits when you bite down and still-runny cheese. But it’s also excellent a few hours later, should you want to get all your baking done before your guests arrive. If tarragon isn’t your favorite herb, you can use chives, basil or mint instead. And if you can manage to trim all the asparagus to the same length, this tart will be especially neat and orderly looking.
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- 1 cup goat cheese, at room temperature (4 ounces)
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten, at room temperature
- 1 large garlic clove, finely grated or minced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves, plus more for serving
- 1/2 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 cup crème fraîche, at room temperature (8 ounces)
- All-purpose flour, for dusting the work surface
- 1 sheet or square all-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen (about 9 to 14 ounces; brands vary)
- 8 ounces thin asparagus, woody ends trimmed
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Red-pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 1/2 ounces Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler (about 1/2 cup)
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a medium bowl, use a fork or a wooden spoon to mash together the goat cheese, egg, garlic, tarragon, lemon zest, salt and nutmeg until smooth. Switch to a whisk and beat in the crème fraîche until smooth.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out puff pastry into a 13-by-11-inch rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a parchment-lined baking sheet. With a sharp knife, lightly score a 1/2-inch border around the edges of the puff pastry.
3. Spread the crème fraîche mixture evenly inside the scored border. Line up the asparagus spears on top, and brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle some salt and the grated Parmesan over the asparagus.
4. Bake until the pastry is puffed and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Let it cool on the baking sheet for at least 15 minutes or up to 4 hours before serving. Then sprinkle black pepper, red-pepper flakes (if using), the shaved Parmesan and tarragon leaves. Drizzle a little oil on top.
Tip: You can assemble the tart 1 day in advance; but reserve the sprinkling of salt and grated Parmesan until right before baking. Loosely cover the tart and store it in the refrigerator until it’s time to bake.
Scalloped Potato Gratin
Is there anything better than a molten, golden-topped potato gratin? I don’t think so, either. This one stays fairly classic — scented with sage, garlic and nutmeg, then showered with lots of nutty Gruyère. My tweak is in form rather than flavor. Instead of piling the potatoes an inch or two deep in a gratin dish, I shingle the slices in a shallow sheet pan. It gives the whole thing a more elegant look, and you get maximum browning and crunch on top. There’s less of the gooey center, but what it loses in ooze it makes up for in increased surface area for the crisp-edged baked cheese.
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick), plus more for greasing the aluminum foil, at room temperature
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
- 4 fat garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more as needed
- 5 large eggs
- 4 pounds russet potatoes (about 6 large or 8 medium)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 1/4 cups grated Gruyère (8 1/2 ounces)
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees, and brush 1/4 cup butter on a rimmed 17-by-13-inch baking sheet. Brush one or two pieces of foil (enough to cover the top of the pan) with more butter. Set the foil aside.
2. In a medium pot, bring the cream, sage, garlic, nutmeg, and a pinch of salt to a simmer. Simmer until reduced by a quarter, about 15 minutes.
3. In a large heatproof bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Beating constantly, gradually add a little of the hot cream to the eggs, then slowly pour in the rest of the hot cream, whisking to prevent the eggs from curdling. Set aside.
4. Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice the potatoes into 1/8-inch-thick rounds.
5. Arrange one layer of potatoes on the buttered baking sheet, slightly overlapping the slices. Sprinkle with 3/4 teaspoon of the salt, add pepper to taste, then pour half the egg mixture over the potatoes. Top with 1/2 cup cheese. Repeat the layers of potato, seasoning and egg mixture. Top with the remaining 1 3/4 cups cheese. Cover the baking sheet with the foil (buttered-side down) and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the potatoes and cheese are browned and bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool slightly, then serve.
Tip: You can assemble the gratin up to 4 hours before baking. Store it, loosely covered, in the fridge. The gratin can also be baked 4 hours ahead, kept uncovered at room temperature, and then reheated in a 450-degree oven until the top is shiny. It’s not quite as gooey as when freshly baked, but it’s still quite good.
Spatchcocked Chicken With Herb Butter
Spatchcocking (also called butterflying) a chicken helps it to roast more evenly and much more quickly, giving you perfectly tender, juicy meat with golden skin. This one is slathered with herb butter, making it extra fragrant. (If you have any herb butter left over, freeze it, then use it on steaks or fish or roasted potatoes.) Pulling out a well-flavored compound butter is one of those cheffy moves that makes almost everything taste better.
Total time: 1 hour, plus at least 2 hours’ chilling
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter (1/2 stick), at room temperature
- 4 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley leaves
- 2 teaspoons minced mixed fresh herbs — any mix of mint, oregano and marjoram
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
- 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken, spatchcocked and dried with paper towels (see Note)
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
1. In a medium bowl, mash together the butter, garlic, parsley, mixed herbs, thyme, rosemary, salt, herbes de Provence, lemon zest, white pepper and black pepper. Rub three-quarters of the mixture all over the chicken, including under the skin. (Reserve the remaining herb butter for serving.) Place the chicken, breast-up, on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate it, uncovered, for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
2. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Roast chicken until it is just cooked through (the meat will no longer be pink and the juices will run clear; an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thigh will read 165 degrees), 40 to 55 minutes. Let the chicken rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes before carving. Serve it topped with the reserved herb butter and lemon wedges.
Tip: To spatchcock a chicken, place the bird breast-side down on a work surface. Using a sharp knife or kitchen shears, start at the tail end and cut along one side of the backbone. Open the chicken up like a book, flip the chicken over, and press down on it to flatten it. Press firmly on the breastbone. You’ll feel it pop.
Campari Olive Oil Cake
When I posted a photo of this very modest-looking cake on Instagram, I was blown away by the response. Honestly, it didn’t look like much — a generic yellow cake with a golden top. I think just the very notion of putting Campari and olive oil in a cake is what made people stop and “like” it. And it is a pretty terrific flavor combination: The citrusy bittersweet character of the Campari goes really well with the fragrant oil, to which I also add melted butter for richness, as well as lots of fresh citrus juice and zest. On its own, the cake is a pretty plain-looking thing, but you can dress it up for a party, adding orange segments, berries and dollops of whipped cream or crème fraîche to the top. If you want to go one step further, simmer some Campari and a bit of sugar down to a syrup, and drizzle that all over the cake. It turns the cake more pink and accentuates its boozy flavor.
Total time: 1 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 servings
- 1/4 cup (55 grams) unsalted butter (1/2 stick), melted, plus more for greasing the pan
- 2 cups (255 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 2/3 cups (330 grams) sugar
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2/3 cup (160 milliliters) whole milk
- 2/3 cup (160 milliliters) mild olive oil
- 3 large eggs
- 1/3 cup (80 milliliters) Campari
- 1 tablespoon grated grapefruit zest
- 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- 1/4 cup (60 milliliters) fresh grapefruit juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Whipped crème fraîche or whipped cream, sweetened or not as you like, for serving
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. (You can use a regular 9-inch cake pan that is at least 2 inches deep, but the cake will be harder to unmold.)
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda. In a large bowl, whisk together butter, milk, oil, eggs, Campari, citrus zests, and citrus juices. Fold in the dry ingredients, then scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
3. Bake until the top is golden and springs back when lightly pressed in the center, 45 minutes to 1 hour. (A cake tester might emerge with a few crumbs, which is OK.)
4. Let the cake cool completely in the pan. Then run a butter knife around the edges and release the sides. Serve with dollops of whipped crème fraîche. This cake is best served on the same day that it’s baked.
And to Drink …
What does one drink with spatchcocked chicken? What do you want to drink? Roast chicken is not merely forgiving of many wines; it engages in an all-out embrace of them. White? Sure. Red? Of course. Dry? Yes, indeedy. Sweet? Why not? Sparkling? By all means. All this is to say, you don’t need to worry about the nuances of matching wine to food. Instead, pick what you are most in the mood to drink, and enjoy. Me, I’ve got a bottle of lean, minerally chardonnay from the Ebola-Amity Hills in the Willamette Valley of Oregon that I’ve been eager to open. But it could just as easily be chenin blanc from Vouvray, or a delicious Dogliani, made with the dolcetto grape. It’s up to you, as long as you like it.
— Eric Asimov
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