Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Brittany -- Domaine de Rochevilaine

After a week in the southwest of France, we spent a couple of days on the southern coast of Brittany. We had spectacular weather and fully enjoyed our stay at the Domaine de Rochevilaine, a Relais and Chateaux hotel consisting of centuries-old stone buildings located on the Pointe de Pen Lan, about an hour from Nantes.

Our lovely and spacious room was just above the rocks on the shore, and enjoyed an unobstructed view of the Vilaine Estuary and the land on the other side of the inlet. The Michelin-starred restaurant was in a different building; with southern and western exposures, it was bathed with sunlight during the long summer evenings we spent there.

Domaine de Rochevilaine in Brittany
Our room from the outside
Our room from the inside. Sylvie is loving it!
As expected, the food was excellent. Although it was no challenge for the chef, I particularly enjoyed the Penerf oysters, which were quite simply the best I have ever eaten: briny but not too briny, just the right size and tasting as though they had been harvested within minutes of our meal. They were so good that I ordered them again on our second night.

Penerf oysters
Joan's starters did require ccoking: red fruit ravioli and crabmeat, both very successful.

Red fruit ravioli
Crabmeat appetizer
For some reason, I did not photograph our main courses, which were just fine, but I woke up in time for dessert: a Paris-Brest that tasted as good as it looked despite the non-traditional presentation and perfect Crèpes Suzette.

Crèpes Suzette
Given the perfect weather, we took the advice of the person at the desk and drove to the Golfe of Morbihan. A three-minute ferry ride took us to the lovely Île aux Moines, where we lunched on moules frites at a picturesque restaurant overlooking the bay.

Île aux Moines
From there we drove to Vannes, which turns out to have a beautiful old town that is right out of central casting (or the equivalent for a location) for a Breton village.

Half-timbered buildings in Vannes
Symbol of Vannes
This is a great part of the world to spend time in, particularly when the weather is fine.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, July 24, 2016

French Countryside - Michel Trama

In the middle of nowhere in France, about an hour and ten minutes from Toulouse and thirty minutes from Agen - famous for making the best prunes in the world and for nothing else - lies the small hill town of Puymirol. Puymirol is also famous for just one thing: Michel Trama, a two-star restaurant in a lovely Relais and Chateaux hotel.

While it doesn't merit a trip from Paris, if you're in the neighborhood (which we were, since it's not too far from our friends' home in Périgord), Michel Trama is well worth a visit. We had a fine meal in a beautiful setting, helped by a warm clear night, a rarity in France this year.

After champagne and appetizers on the terrace, we entered the semi-enclosed dining room for the meal. Summer truffles are abundant at the moment, and we started with a salad of them with an impossibly thin shallot chip, followed by a cauliflower "risotto" with more summer truffles The latter, with crispy bits of tasty cauliflower, was one of the rare non-rice "risottos" that really worked.

Summer truffle salad with shallot chip
Cauliflower "risotto"
Following were the real starters. Here I decided to indulge myself, and ordered M. Trama's signature papillote de pomme de terre en habit vert à la truffe, a potato stuffed with a real (winter) truffle enrobed with a dense truffle sauce and garnished with slices of summer truffle. I know this is not pretty in the photo, or maybe in real life, but WOW, this is truffle mania!

Michel Trama's renowned potato with lots of truffles
Next up were very nice lamb chops,

Lamb chops with seasonal vegetables
followed by a lovely mixed dessert.

Mixed desserts, with paper-thin apples and sorbet
A very refined meal, well conceived and executed.

The dining courtyard at Michel Trama
M. Trama is an interesting man, who worked with Jacques-Yves Cousteau before deciding to spend his life cooking, opening a bistro in Paris. He is self-taught. He fulfilled his life's dream when he and his wife bought the 13th century building that houses his hotel/restaurant. Subsequently he has expanded and owns several buildings in the town. M Trama spends time at every table, making sure the diners are happy and giving the impression that he really cares. He studied in the US and therefore speaks good English and likes Americans, so our discussion went well beyond merely saying that we enjoyed our meal. 

Just what one wants to find in the French countryside.

Bobby Jay

Friday, July 22, 2016

Périgord -- Girolles

We spent a few days in le Périgord with good friends who have a magnificent home in the heart of the region. This year, a neighbor gave our friends a massive quantity of girolles that he had foraged on his own land. I made a dinner appetizer with half of them, but the really special thing was to make girolle toasts for breakfast. Nothing but an obscene quantity of mushrooms sauteed with a little garlic, lots of thyme, salt and pepper, served on slices of toast made with perfect country bread.

Sauteed girolles on country toast
Easy but hard to beat. All you need is loads of spectacular fresh girolles.

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Paris -- Maxim's Museum: A Little-known Treasure

At a friend's suggestion, we recently took a tour of Maxim's and it's attached museum. There were only three of us on the 2:00 tour given in perfect English by an amazingly well-informed and engaging guide, so we could linger over things that particularly caught our attention.

Maxim's, located at 3 rue Royale since the 1890s, is more than an iconic restaurant. It is the spot where everyone who counted in Paris appeared and where the famed courtesans became some of the richest women in France. The décor, which you will recall from Gigi and, more recently, Midnight in Paris, is OVER THE TOP, but in a nice way. Every inch is decorated, and all the period details have been retained.

Seeing Maxim's empty is a treat, as you can see. It is eminently photogenic.

Various views of Maxim's
In addition to the public rooms, upstairs in what used to be the private rooms is a museum containing the very fine Art Nouveau collection of Pierre Cardin, who is the present owner of Maxim's. The presentation of the items in the collection is most interesting, and echoes the period in which the object were created. Here are just a few of them:

Gaudi chairs
Bedroom by Gallé
Rare Tiffany lamp
Bedroom by well, I forget
Pierre Cardin is 94, and owns Maxim's personally. It is not clear what will happen to the place when he dies. While the physical premises are protected, it could become anything, even a clothing boutique. So we are going to go there for dinner on our next trip to Paris, while it still will be Maxim's. The food is apparently competently prepared but in a 1950s time warp. Still, . . ..

Maxim's is not the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, and thus is not for the first-time (or even second-time) visitor to Paris. However, if you have done the major sites and are looking for a visual ice cream sundae, Maxim's is well worth the trip.

Bobby Jay

Monday, July 18, 2016

Paris -- A Perfect Lunch at Le Cinq

We're just ack from nearly five weeks in France, where I was so busy that I was unable to post to this blog. So I'll be catching up over the next few days.

We ate well throughout this period, at restaurants, at friends' and at home, with the aid of the wonderful produce, meat and fish available in the summer.

Our first noteworthy meal was lunch at Le Cinq. As was the case with our first experience there at Christmas, we had a truly sensational meal: great food beautifully presented, with elegant but not over-the-top service, in a gorgeous room at the George V. We brought a Japanese friend who had thought she didn't like French food; she is now a convert!

The four-course lunch is 145 euros (about $160), including service and tax. Not cheap but for the level of experience, it is a steal. After all, the 3-1/2 hours it takes to enjoy this feast is like dinner and a show, which would cost far more.

Our menu included pre-amuse bouches, amuse-bouches, appetizer, main, dessert, post-desserts (the best possible kouign ammann, far better than the very good ones we had in Brittany) and post-post-desserts (chocolates, madeleines, fruit candies, marshmellows).

I started out by thinking I would not take pictures, but some of the dishes cried out to be photographed. For example, this seasonal white asparagus appetizer:

and this amazing onion appetizer, where the onions are somehow liquefied on the interior creating what amounts to onion profiteroles without the pastry shell,

not to mention the grilled and glazed pigeon with truffles, turnips and olives,

and cherries barely cooked in their own juice, scented with kirsch and served in a pistachio ice cream crust.

I'm ready to head back any time.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Spanish Night

As noted in my post of May 20, we recently spent a weekend in Madison, Wisconsin with friends, and did some cooking and relaxing together.

I made Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za'Atar and Lemon using their wonderful paella pan. I immediately developed a case of pan envy, and upon returning to New York, ordered my very own, a genuine classic carbon steel one from a maker in Valencia, the home of paella. By the way, "paella pan" is technically redundant, since paella refers to the pan as well as the dish, but I'll go with paella pan to avoid confusion.

Last night I broke it in, and served a completely Spanish meal for some good friends who are willing to share my experiments in the kitchen.

So here's my virgin pan, with four tablespoons of olive oil, just waiting to get to work.

Paella pan waiting to fulfill its destiny
I chose to do a classic chicken paella, following the recipe that accompanied the pan, except that I added a little (1/4 lb) chopped fresh chorizo to the grated onions and tomatoes that formed the soffrito, the flavor base for any paella and many other Spanish dishes. First the chicken.

Browning chicken for paella
After that's done, I sauteed slices of fresh artichoke hearts and a red bell pepper, then put them aside while I made the aforementioned soffrito. Finally the rice is added, together with chicken broth that was flavored with some excellent precious saffron that I bought over the Internet, first toasted and then infused in a bit of broth. The chicken and vegetables are placed on top, arrayed as attractively as possible. For about eight minutes, the rice is cooked at a fast boil, until the broth is reduced to the level of the rice.

Boiling the rice
Then the dish is brought to a low simmer for the final cooking.

Simmering the rice, nearly done
The finished paella (photo courtesy of Miyako Yoshinaga)
To stay on the evening's theme, I started with a platter of great Spanish products: Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and Marcona almonds, accompanied by some lightly cured (but not Spanish) green olives.

Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, Marcona almonds
Next, a simple salad of orange slices atop a bed of spinach with seasoned hazelnut oil and chopped hazelnuts.

Orange slices and spinach with hazelnut oil and hazelnuts
Finally, after the paella, a walnut cake with Spanish brandy, using the recipe from Claudia Roden's excellent The Food of Spain. A really interesting torte, with complex walnut notes beautifully offset by the brandy. A wet, dense cake -- it doesn't rise because no leavening is used, not even whipped egg whites -- so I served it with a dollop of crème fraîche on top.

Walnut cake with Spanish brandy
Inspired by the humble paella pan, this was a pretty authentic and really fun dinner. Viva España!

Bobby Jay

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cherries and Berries with GINGER!!!

I love, love, love ginger, and I like to use lots of it with fruit. So I grabbed a beautiful bunch of early but sweet and firm cherries from Washington and some Florida-grown blueberries, and concocted dessert.

Cherries and blueberries with ginger five ways
I pitted the cherries and cooked them in a small amount of Monin Ginger Syrup, with a dusting of powdered sugar and a nice pinch of powdered ginger. When the cherries were soft but maintaining their shape, I folded in blueberries and diced organic (spicy) candied ginger. Then served it with ginger ice cream that I made with fresh ginger into which I also folded diced candied ginger. So there you have it: ginger syrup and powder, candied ginger, and ginger ice cream (containing fresh and candied ginger). Four or five forms of ginger, depending on how you count.

(Other enhancements I have tried include chopped toasted almonds, almond syrup or kirsch liqueur instead of ginger and ground Amaretti di Saronno or other cookies, but the technique lends itself to endless variations depending on your taste and what's in your pantry.)

Need I say the dish was excellent, bursting as it was with cherry, berry and ginger tastes? How could it not be if you're a ginger lover?

Bobby Jay

Friday, May 20, 2016

Still Cooking

I haven't been posting lately, but I have been cooking, although not for any extravaganza.

We had a friend for a simple Sunday meal, and I made the Roasted Chicken Provençal from The New York Times, which has become a go-to one-hour meal for me and, apprarently, thousands of others (this is one of the Times' most popular dishes of 2015). I stick pretty closely to the recipe but add halved fingerling or baby Yukon gold potatoes to the pan while roasting. Why not get the starch course done at the same time?

Roasted Chicken Provençal
We stayed with friends in Madison, Wisconsin, and I contributed two dishes to our wonderful meal:

First, Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za'Atar and Lemon, from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, the breakthrough book that got me excited about Middle Eastern food. This doesn't look like much from the photo, but trust me, that's the photographer's (my) fault and not the cook's (mine). This and all of Ottolenghi's books are worth the space on your shelves.

Chicken with Sumac, Za'atar and Lemon
Also, Clotilde Dussoulier's easy and always-fabulous Flourless Orange and Ginger Cake, made by boiling oranges, mandarins or clementines for a couple of hours and then pureeing the whole fruits in a food processor to serve as cake filling. (Perfect for your gluten-free friends.)

Orange and Ginger Cake
More recently, confronted with magnificent local asparagus at my nearby farmers' market, I made Dorie Greenspan's Cheesy Rice with Asparagus, a risotto-like celebration of this seasonal marvel.

Cheesy Rice with asparagus
Speaking of seasonal asparagus, it is the beginning of that wonderful 6-month period where the local markets furnish us with great and inspiring ingredients, starting with ramps last month and running through asparagus, greens, corn, tomatoes, berries, melons and stone fruit. Time to cook and savor simple things that showcase the natural flavors that our soil give us. I will spend a month of that time in France, where they'll see us and raise us one.

Bobby Jay

Monday, April 25, 2016

Passover 2016 -- Another Sephardic Seder

A few years ago, I "converted" to Sephardism because I am much more excited by Sephardic/Mediterranean cuisine than by Ashenazic/Eastern European food. Ever since, I have been cooking dishes from all around the Mediterranean for our family Seder, with a major exception for  my sister-in-law's superb matzoh ball soup. This year she couldn't come, and I did not try to duplicate her wonderful soup; instead, I made a Watercress and Spinach Soup with carrot and chickpea "croutons" (see image below).

I recently read Engin Akin's excellent Essential Turkish Cuisine, and made her Fava Bean Purée with dill and red onions instead of a more conventional hummus or tapenade.

Fava bean purée with dill and red onions
Then I served Mario Batali's Lemon-scented Veal Meatballs, using matzoh flour instead of bread for the binding panade.

Lemon-scented veal meatballs
I also served my go-to Burnt Eggplant with Tahini, from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty,

Burnt Eggplant with tahini, pomegranate seeds on endive leaves
and my newest favorite, Socca (chickpea crepes), a favorite from Nice, from David Lebovitz' blog and his book The Sweet Life in Paris. (Too crazed to take photo.)

The fifth appetizer was my only concession to the Eastern European tradition: bites of gefilte fish procured from Citarella and served with homemade, head-exploding horseradish (recipe from America's Test Kitchen's d.i.y. cookbook).

Gefilte fish bites with homemade horseradish
For the dinner, I made the aforesaid Watercress and Spinach Soup, from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem.

Watercress and spinach soup with carrot and chickpea "croutons"
followed by Claudia Roden's Berber Couscous with Seven Vegetables, although I served it on crusty Persian rice rather than with couscous, which is not permissible during Passover, and Butternut Squash with Nigella Seeds, a deceptively simple vegetarian main from Ottolenghi's Plenty More. (I was too busy to remember to photograph the mains.)

One of the highlights of the Seder, for me at least, is haroset, a fruit and nut spread that is symbolic of the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt to make bricks for Pharaoh, eaten as the famous "Hillel Sandwich" with bitter horseradish on matzoh and thereafter just eaten on matzoh because it tastes so good. This year I made two varieties: first, Joan Nathan's Bordeaux Style Haroset from Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cuisine in France, which I have used for several years. Second, Syrian Haroset from an on-line recipe by Jennifer Abadi, a wonderful confection of tart Turkish dried apricots, lemon juice, orange flower water and chopped pistachios.

Bordeaux-style haroset
Syrian style haroset
For dessert, my go-to Blueberry (and raspberry) Pie from Food52 Genius Recipes, with alterations. I used Clotilde Dusoulier's pâte sablée made with gluten-free (and hence wheat-free) flour (Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free 1:1 Baking Flour) and I used potato starch in lieu of cornstarch (not Kosher for Passover) for the filling. A success, although the crust was not quite as crispy as the conventional wheat-based variety. Still, I now know how to make a gluten-free tart for my friends who can't or just don't eat wheat.

Blueberry (and raspberry) tart
Finally, for my ginger-loving mother, Fresh Ginger Cake from David Lebovitz' Ready for Dessert, adopted for Passover by using matzoh flour, served with crème fraîche.

Fresh ginger cake
Whew! At least I have a whole year to get ready to do this again.

Happy Passover!

Bobby Jay

For convenience, here is a list of the sources for the dishes that made up the meal.
  • Burnt eggplant with tahini and pomegranate seeds: Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty.
  • Fava bean purée: Engin Akin, Essential Turkish Cuisine.
  • Lemon scented veal meatballs: Mario Batali, Food Network. Caution: the recipe calls for 4 lemons; 2 are more than enough.
  • Socca (chickpea flour crepes): Lebovitz, The Sweet Life in Paris and
  • Bordeaux style haroset: Joan Nathan, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.
  • Syrian style haroset: Jennifer Abadi, blog Too Good to Passover.
  • Berber couscous with seven vegetables, Claudia Roden, Middle Eastern Food.
  • Persian rice: cooking lesson with Jennifer Ababi, Institute for Culinary education.
  • Squash with nigella seeds: Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty More.
  • Fresh ginger cake, David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert.
  • Blueberry tart: Kristen Miglore, Food52 Genius Recipes.