Kitchen Desk


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If you ask a Parisian butcher for coustillous, he will look at you as if you have just landed from another planet. This happened to me a couple of months ago in Paris. And, if you ask a Languedocian butcher what are coustillous in French, he too will look perplexed. This happened to my Parisian aunt when she asked our local butcher what her niece (that would be me) had been grilling the day before.

I’m not sure why we call travers de porc, coustillous. I’m only guessing that it has something to do with the spanish costillas de cerdo. In any case, they decidedly hold their place in the local gastronomy.  In the winter, you’ll find them braised with lentils, preserved confit-style and pan-roasted with Pardailhan turnips, and they play a substantial role in cassoulet.  During the summer, we like to cut them into thick slices and grill them over vines simply seasoned with salt and pepper, or bathed in flavorful marinades.  The following recipe is my current favorite inspired from the herbs growing in my garden.

Oh, I forgot to mention that coustillous are spare ribs.

Grilled Coustillous

Serves 6

  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 4 scallions, green and white part, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons minced coriander
  • 3 tablespoons minced lemon balm, or 1 minced stalk lemon grass
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons harissa paste or to taste (see note)
  • 3 pounds slab spareribs, cut into ½-inch pieces

Combine all the ingredients for the marinade in a mixing bowl. Wisk to combine.

Place the spare ribs in a shallow glass baking pan.  Pour the marinade over the meat and turn to coat all sides evenly.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

When ready to serve, preheat the grill to medium hot.

Remove the ribs from the refrigerator, uncover and shake each piece gently to allow excess marinade to drip off.

Grill for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the ribs. They should be fully cooked and juicy. Remove from the grill and let the ribs rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Note: harissa is a Moroccan paste made from hot peppers and spices. If not available, use your favorite hot sauce to taste.

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A trip to the fish market always turns up new strange creatures with intriguing names or looks, begging to be cooked and sampled. The experience can go from wonderful to down right awful. Shopping recently with my friend Kellie at the Halles in Narbonne, we came upon such a species with pretty hues of brown, green and blue named la vieille. While gently nudging me to buy it, the lady at the fish counter described it as a firm white fish with delicate flavors and very few bones. I was tempted for a split second to pick it up for my dinner party that night but my little hostess with the mostest inner voice told me to stick to the original plan: monkfish wrapped in bacon and sage.

Among the many monkfish preparations, one local favorite besides bourride, the garlicky aioli-laden fish stew, is gigot de mer (leg of lamb of the sea) scented with garlic and herbs, roasted on the bone on a bed of potatoes or vegetable.  In this part of the world, monkfish (baudroie in southern France, lotte for the rest of the country) is sold whole with or without its ugly head. In fact, I have seen so many of them that I no longer think of them as ugly. It comes in assorted sizes from petite for just two servings to large for six and extra large, which is perfect for roasting or grilling.  Once you make your selection, a good fishmonger will ask for your recipe and skin, remove any extra thin membranes and prep the tail accordingly. Above Nathalie, my favorite fish lady in Narbonne,  is intently listening to my instructions, which were to remove the central bone keeping the two fillets attached.

The idea was to make a boneless gigot de mer, stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic and sage, wrapped in bacon and tied like a roast. As the fish and bacon were sliding all over my cutting board, it quickly became apparent that the tying part required a lot more patience and time than I had that day — the guests were due in half an hour and the table wasn’t set, yet. I ditched the twine and tightly draped the bacon over, tucked the ends underneath.

I once made a less labor intensive version of the dish by simply wrapping each fillet individually and pan roasting them over medium heat. The crispness of the bacon played nicely against the moist pearly fish. But I prefer the oven method – what I lost in crispness, I gained in succulent, herbaceous, sweet and salty cooking juices.

Gigot de Mer Wrapped in Bacon and Sage

Serves 6

  • 2 monkfish tails, about 11/2 lb each
  • 3 tablespoons bread crumbs
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 6 sage leaves
  • 8 to 10 thin slices of bacon
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Finely mince the garlic clove and 2 sage leaves. Combine them in a small mixing bowl with the bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper.

Rub the monkfish tails with the mixture. Arrange them on a chopping board in opposite direction, so each end has one thick and one thin end tucked together.

Lay the bacon on a board, slightly overlapping and arrange the remaining sage leaves on top. Place the monkfish in the centre and wrap the fish as tightly as you can. At this point, if you have the time (and patience) tie the ensemble with kitchen twine as you would for a roast, in which case add 5 to 10 minutes of cooking since the “roast” will be more compact. Place in a roasting dish seam side down. Refrigerate until ready to cook.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Drizzle the fish with a little olive oil and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, basting once or twice with the cooking juices, until it feels firm to the touch and the bacon golden.  Remove from the oven and leave to stand for 5 minutes.  Cut into thick slices and serve with the cooking juices on the side.

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If the weather doesn’t seem to make up its mind, the crisp, just-plucked radishes showing up at the local markets and farmers’ stands tell us that spring is indeed here. Their alluring crispness makes a wonderful offering for an aperitif or with a sprinkling of salt and a dab of sweet butter as a light appetizer.  The unblemished tender leaves can be saved and served as a peppery delectable soup that is invigorating and hearty enough for a cool spring day.

If you plan to make the soup, the radishes should come from a farmer’s market. The greens should be bright and sprightly, and not showing any sign of fatigue. Those that have been kept under the supermarkets’ “reviving” sprinklers are loaded with water and often look kind of funky by the time you get home, and they should be discarded.

A garnish of thinly sliced radishes adds a nice crunch and looks pretty against the intense green background.  I also like to serve this soup with toasted slices of baguette, smeared with a thin layer fresh goat cheese and top with the radish slices.

Creamy Radish Greens Soup

Serves 4

  • One large bunch of radishes
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large spring onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large potato
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons crème fraîche or heavy cream, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Cut the greens from the radishes and wash carefully. Dry and chop coarsely.  Peel and quarter the potato.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat until translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the radish greens and a good pinch of salt, and toss until wilted. Add the potato and chicken broth. Season with salt to taste. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Puree the soup with a hand held mixer or in a food processor, or blender. Return to the pan. Swirl in the crème fraîche or heavy cream, and stir over medium heat until hot. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste and serve.

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I was recently asked by Catherine Nakasato, a friend and publisher of the quarterly ezine, Les Mots des Anges (Words of Angels), to contribute a recipe to the winter issue. It gave me the opportunity to play with ingredients and flavors I seldom have a chance to use in my French kitchen — in particular star anise, one of my favorite.

I chose the incredibly versatile duck legs as my canvas and infused them with herbs, ginger and crushed star anise along with few pinches of salt to extract moisture. The inspiration for the glaze/sauce came from leftover maple syrup brought by American friends last summer and is loosely based on a gastrique, the sweet and sour reduction that is the foundation for great recipes such as the classic duck à l’orange and many fruit sauces. The legs were slow-roasted until the meat was fragrant and tender, then glazed with the maple gastrique and finished in the oven for few more minutes until the skin was crackly and mahogany. They can be paired with pan-roasted turnips or potatoes, and steamed basmati rice. I also suspect that fluffy mashed potatoes would make a great sidekick.  I wouldn’t dare to say that the result was heavenly. Was it pretty good? Definitely.

Maple-Glazed Duck Legs

Six servings

  • 21/2 teaspoons coarse salt
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
  • 2 star anise, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 6 duck legs
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 11/2 cups red wine
  • Bouquet garni: 1 ½-inch slice fresh ginger, ½ teaspoon dry thyme, 5 peppercorns, 1 star anise wrapped in cheesecloth
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the coarse salt, ginger, pepper flakes, star anise and thyme in a large mixing bowl.  Add the duck legs and rub with the salt mixture until they are evenly coated.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whip off the duck legs with paper towels and place them skin side up on a single layer in a baking dish. Roast for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, bring the maple syrup to a boil in a heavy saucepan and simmer for 2 minutes.  Add the vinegar, stirring constantly.  Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the red wine and bouquet garni, and simmer until the liquid is reduce to about ¾ cup.  Season to taste with freshly ground pepper, if desired.  Remove from the heat and set aside.  Discard the bouquet garni.

Remove the legs from the oven and carefully pour off the fat from the pan.  Add ½ cup of cold water, gently loosen the legs, scraping the bottom of the pan.  Generously brush the maple sauce on the legs to glaze evenly and roast for another 30 minutes.

To serve, reheat the remaining sauce.  Arrange the duck legs on individual dinner plates and drizzle with the warm sauce.  Serve immediately.

The last time I had climbed a tree I was a 9-year old trying her best to keep up with a bunch of silly boys and their ridiculous games. On the way down I cut my wrist. I still have a small scar as a memento. Last month I climbed a tree, but the pursuit was far more delicious and worthy. Although I reminded myself that few decades had passed and that I probably was not as nimble (not that I ever was, really), the vision of a puffed golden cherry clafouti prevailed.

Served lukewarm, bursting with the ripe sweetness of fruit, clafouti is probably the ultimate comfort food. Traditionally made with cherries, it is equally delicious with most fruits and berries, from strawberries to apricots and peaches to apples and pears. The basic batter of egg, flour, sugar and milk can be altered according to the juiciness of the fruit on hand and preferred consistency – some like it custardy, others a little firmer. You can roast the fruit first, like they do in Gascony, with a couple of tablespoons of Armagnac, which takes the rustic dessert out of the nursery and onto the sophisticated grownup’s table. For a cherry clafouti it is best to leave the pits in! Besides saving time from a messy job, the cherries will hold their shape and juice during cooking, and the pits do add an almond flavor to the preparation as it bakes – this is not a cook’s tale! Kindly warn your guests.

Cherry Clafouti

6 servings

  • About 4 cups cherries
  • 2 tablespoons Armagnac or Kirch
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons crème fraîche or sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons flour

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Place the cherries in a bowl along with 1 tablespoon of Armagnac and the 2 tablespoons of sugar, and toss to coat evenly.

Transfer the cherries to a baking dish large enough to hold them on a single layer, and roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until warm and some of the juices start to release. Remove from the oven and cool.

Lower the oven to 350 F.

Meanwhile, whip the eggs until frosty, add the remaining sugar and continue whipping until thick. Add the milk, cream, remaining Armagnac, and flour. Whip until just blended.

Pour the batter over the cool cherries. Gently shake the pan to distribute the batter evenly.

Return to the dish to the oven and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until the custard is set and the clafouti puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and cool.

Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

The month of May was the coolest and rainiest in 38 years. Needless to say, crankiness was felt everywhere. A couple of weeks ago, in an effort to lift the mood, I hosted a spring lunch in which peas, fava, new onions, string beans and, of course, asparagus had a part to play. We started with a vibrant asparagus soup drizzled with a cèpe essence; a recipe Neal Fraser, chef-owner of Grace Restaurant in Los Angeles, contributed to Cooking on the Road. I love the simplicity and lightness of this soup combined with the intense woodsy flavors of the wild mushrooms and aromas reminiscent of damp underbrush in the spring, which, I thought, were very fitting for the occasion.

As I was directing the guests to their seats, my father felt compelled to make an announcement and to apologize for serving a soup as a first course. Why? I asked. Soups are appropriate for dinner and certainly not for lunch was the answer. I looked at him in disbelief, wondering when my father had morphed into a 19th century French Emily Post. My other guests, the polite ones, sensing a slight chill in the air, quickly sat down and silently grabbed their spoons. Then, the man sitting to my right declared: “sublissime.” Case closed!

Asparagus Soup with Cèpe Mushrooms Essence

Six to 8 servings

  • 1/8 ounce dried cèpes or porcini mushrooms
  • 1 cup non fat milk
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 jumbo white onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1 small head celery, chopped
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 3 bunches of asparagus, peeled and chopped
  • Kosher salt to taste

Place the dried mushrooms in a small saucepan. Add the milk and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let it steep for 20 minutes. Puree the mixture in a blender and strain through a fine meshed strainer. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until ready to use. This can be done up to one day ahead.

Heat the oil in a stock pot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the celery and some salt. Continue cooking until the vegetable are soft. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the chopped asparagus to the pot and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Puree the mixture in a blender and strain (optional). Adjust seasoning to taste with salt. The soup can be prepare ahead of time and kept refrigerated until ready to serve.

To serve, reheat the soup and ladle into serving bowls. Spoon or swirl some cèpe essence into each serving.

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“You are kidding, right?” I asked my aunt in total disbelief. Since the beginning of February I had been trying to connect with wild asparagus foragers who would graciously show me the ropes and, more importantly, the right places. So when my aunt offered to take me along on an expedition in my very own backyard, I picked up my little basket and trotted along.

In Languedoc foraging for young tender things is almost as big a sport as rugby. But you must know where. I know a chef who gathers purslane on very specific dry stone walls holding the garden terraces around his village. At a recent lunch at their home, Alain and Jocelyne Jougla served, along with a perfectly juicy guinea hen, a watercress salad so vibrant and delicate in flavor and texture, it bore no relation to any watercress I ever had. “We pick it in ditches around here,” offered Alain while his wife quickly corrected “not any old ditch; you have to be careful. This watercress grows along a very clean fresh water spring.”

Following my aunt around the park that surrounds my house, I was stunned at first to realize that what I had disregarded for years as webs of ugly prickly shrubs were actually asparagus ferns. I guess I have been a city dweller far too long! Then I found out that hunting for wild asparagus is not that easy, as they can be quite elusive and have a great talent to hide among and beneath bushes and weeds. They can also shoot up as high as 4 ft and sneer at you willowing in the sun as you take a break from crawling. I did manage (with the help of my aunt) to harvest enough for a light supper.

Wild asparagus are a lot milder than their domesticated counterparts and have a slight pleasing bitterness. The thin stalks are tough and fibrous, and should be discarded. The tips are usually steamed and tossed in light vinaigrette; omelets or scrambled eggs are also classic preparations. I saw a recipe for a soufflé — I think I’ll try it with my next “harvest.” That night, I kept it simple.

Scrambled Eggs with Wild Asparagus

Two servings

  • 1 cup wild asparagus tips or pencil asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced chives
  • 4 ounces smoked salmon

Blanch the asparagus tips in boiling salted water for 1 minute. Drain and refresh with cold water.

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and sauté for a couple of minutes until translucent. Add the asparagus tips and continue cooking over medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until they are tender.

Beat the egg with the milk, salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into the skillet and cook over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. The eggs should be just set and very creamy. Cook a couple of minutes longer if you prefer them drier.

Sprinkle with chives and serve with the smoked salmon on the side.

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