While waiting for the royalties (tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini) to take up their summer residence, the advance team in my potager includes assorted lettuces, swiss chard and sorrel.

I have always been a fan of sorrel but its sheer abundance and pungent personality have turned me into a manic groupie. Besides adding large handfuls of leaves to spinach and swiss chard greens before cooking to give them a wonderful lift, I have used it, with different degrees of success, in practically anything I could think of — from the classics like sorrel and potato soup and creamy sorrel sauce for fish, to chicken in papillotes, shredded in salads, wilted with fried eggs, and a less conventional salmon spread with sorrel puree, then wrapped in rice paper and pan-fried.

The following risotto with a distinct French accent is among the many keepers. Too lazy to run to the store to pick up some arborio rice and Parmesan cheese, I used instead a white round rice from Camargue that worked extremely well, and some Cantal cheese that had lost its youthful prettiness for the cheese tray but none of its inner beauty. I hope my Italian friends will forgive me….

Sorrel Risotto

Four to 6 servings

  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 5 cups sorrel leaves (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ onion, minced
  • 2 cups white round rice from Camargue or Arborio rice
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup grated Cantal or Parmesan cheese, or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh coriander or basil

Rinse the sorrel leaves but do not dry them. Cut into large strips and place them in a saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat until just wilted.

Bring the broth to a low simmer in a saucepan. Reduce heat to low to keep warm.

Heat the olive oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the rice, stir to coat and continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes until the rice becomes translucent. Add the wine and stir until almost evaporated.

Add 1 cup hot broth, season with salt and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently. Continue cooking and adding about 3/4 cup of broth at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next. About 15 minutes into the cooking and just before adding the last of the broth, stir in the wilted sorrel. Continue cooking and stirring until the rice is tender and creamy but still al dente.

Remove from the heat. Add the butter and grated cheese and stir to blend. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately garnished with chopped coriander or basil.

Note: if sorrel is too pungent for your taste, you can substitute half of it with spinach.

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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Five days to Election Day for Les Municipales, in which all of France’s mayors and their councilors are up for reelections. This is a time for polemics, seduction and promises – empty or not. The campaign is hitting its stride. And, of course, my small town is no exception. For the first time in 18 years, the incumbent mayor finds himself running against not one, but two opposition lists. After years of bad management, fiscal irresponsibility, cronyism, and essentially running what once was a lovely village to the ground, this is not surprising. Intrigues and public debates have been all consuming, offering at times plenty of comical colorful moments straight out of a Pagnol novel.

Full disclosure # 1: my father is running as a municipal councilor on the independent list.

My father and his twenty-six running-mates have been plotting this moment for a very long time, and for the past several months regular strategic meetings are being held in great secrecy at my house. While I am not privy to what is being planned, I am always invited to the potluck aperitif that follows. It gives me a chance to catch up on the latest village gossip and sample the homemade hors d’oeuvres often prepared by the wife of the head of the list, who we hope will be our next mayor. But I am most intrigued by the homemade wines and liqueurs assembled by the enthousiast male members of the team. Every meeting brings the opportunity to try a new one. Obviously this is a competitive bunch and everyone love to show off the year’s new batch. Cartagène, the Languedocien answer to Pineau des Charentes, and orange and walnut wines are excellent, but I have developed a fondness for the verbena liqueur served in small brandy glasses and savored slowly. On the other hand, I find the quince wine refreshing and light, which can be trouble if you don’t know how to pace yourself. Trust me on that one!

Full disclosure # 2: I haven’t tested the recipes below. I don’t need to. I’m such an appreciative audience that they feel compelled to leave any leftovers behind. My stash is rapidly growing and should last for at least the first year of the mandate. Now, I’m wondering if these artisanal concoctions qualify as kickbacks!

Verbena Liqueur
Makes 1 liter, about 1 quart

  • 150 g sugar, about 2/3 cup
  • ½ liter water, about 2 cups
  • 50 fresh verbena leaves
  • ½ liter alcohol, about 2 cups (see note)

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and cool.

Wash and dry the verbena leaves. Place the leaves in a 1 liter bottle. Add the cold syrup and the alcohol. Cover and shake well. Let the bottle sit in a cool place for at least 10 days before using.

Serve this liqueur as an aperitif, after-dinner drink or drizzled over vanilla ice cream.

Quince Wine
About 1 liter, about one quart

  • 2 large quinces
  • 1 liter of rosé wine, about 1 quart
  • 10 centiliter alcohol, about 6 tablespoons (see note)
  • 200 grams sugar, about 7/8 cup

Scrub and wash the quinces thoroughly. Cut them into small pieces and place them in a large container.

Add the remaining ingredients; stir well to dissolve the sugar. Cover, and let it sit in a dark cool place for 45 days.

Strain through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth and store in bottles.

Note: In France you can buy 90% proof alcohol in pharmacies. Unflavored eau de vie or vodka are good substitutes

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A few days ago, my father picked up a mixture of ground veal and pork from our local butcher. I suspect he had a hankering for either stuffed vegetables or spaghetti and meatballs, two of his favorites. He does that sometimes when he has cravings; like when he came back one day with tender pieces of lamb shoulder and breast for blanquette, except he forgot to purchase the cream and lemon and a host of key ingredients for the dish. I made a faux tagine instead. He liked it. This time, since I didn’t have the right vegetables on hand, and I was feeling somewhat creative, I looked for something a little less pedestrian and found Boles de Picolat, a traditional Catalan recipe of meatballs and olives simmered in a rich spicy sauce.

As always with these types of stews, there are many versions, which means you can play and be as flexible as you want. You can make it with ground beef and pork, or pork and veal, or any combinations of the three. You can even add sausage meat to the mix, depending on how lusty you want your dish to be. Cinnamon is an important seasoning according to Eliane Comelade, the foremost expert on French Catalan cooking — it adds great depth and complexity to the sauce. Just as important are dried hot peppers; they play nicely against the sweetness of the cinnamon and cut through the richness of the sauce. Dried cèpes or chanterelles are often added toward the end of cooking lending an extra layer of flavors. But some cooks prefer to add few pieces of dry-cured ham instead. Last, traditionally, and everybody agrees on this, Boles de Picolat is served with warm fresh shell beans tossed with olive oil and a hefty amount of minced garlic. I didn’t have any and used chickpeas as a subsistute. They worked perfectly.

Boles de Picolat
Adapted from La cuisine Secrète du Languedoc-Roussillon by André Soulier (Les Presses du Languedoc, 1997)

Serves six

  • ¾ cup dried cèpes
  • 1 ½ to 2 inches day-old piece of baguette
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 11/2 pounds ground veal and pork mixture
  • 2 small onions, finely minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ¼ cup minced parsley
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 small dried chili peppers, or to taste, minced. You can also use hot pepper flakes, about ¼ teaspoon, more or less according to taste
  • 2/3 cup crushed plum tomatoes
  • ¾ cup pitted green olives

Soak the cèpes in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain.

In a bowl soak the bread in the milk for 10 minutes. Remove from the milk and squeeze out excess liquid.

In a mixing bowl, combine the meat mixture, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove, bread, parsley, egg and 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon. Season with salt and pepper and blend until well combined. Form mixture into medium-sized balls and set aside on a baking sheet.

Place the flour on a flat plate. Lightly coat the meatballs with the flour, shaking off the excess. Reserve any lefover flour. In a large heavy skillet, heat ½ cup of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Fry the meatballs in batches without crowding, until deeply brown on all sides. Transfer the meatballs as they brown to paper towels to drain. Continue until all the meatballs are browned.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining minced onion and garlic, and cook, stirring until lightly golden. Stir in the reserved flour from the dredging and cook for 1 minute, or until golden. Add the tomatoes, hot peppers and remaining cinnamon and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the meatballs and cover with about 3 cups of water. Season lightly with salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the olives; bring back to a strong boil and drain.

Add the olives and cèpes to the pot. If the sauce seems too thick, stir in a little water. Cover and continue simmering for another 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve with warm white beans or chickpeas tossed with garlic and olive oil on the side.

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Back from two days of sensorial overload at Vinisud, the trade fair specialising in wines from the south that takes place every two years in Montpellier, and a smorgasbord of great conversations with colorful characters as complex and deep as the wines they were pouring. So, with close to 1700 exhibitors, how do you compete for attention? With lunch, of course! By 11:30 AM, throughout the halls, little plates of food appeared from nowhere and set on the tasting tables, while notebooks and spittoons were set aside.

Some like Gabriel Meffre, one of the largest producers in Côtes du Rhone, offered elegant petit fours and canapés in a booth so sleek it could easy rival any modish wine lounge in New York, while many Languedoc producers took the opportunity to show off some of the best produce the region has to offer.

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The folks over at the Picpoul de Pinet appellation teamed up and hired an oyster producer from the Etang de Thau who served the briny shellfish shucked to order.

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Home-made foie gras terrines, either au naturel or with figs, were sampled with all manner of vendange tardives.

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To showcase their wines, the producers of the Côtes de Thongues, near Beziers, worked with Michel Aninat, one of the best charcutiers of the region. The rustic offerings included salt cured ham from the Montagne Noire, thyme-scented chunky blood sausage, classic peppery saucisson and eggplant tartines.

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Some producers from the La Clape wine district near Narbonne set out miniature tapas bars offering Serrano ham, fresh goat cheese and roasted pepper on olive oil soaked baguettes and Manchego cheese.

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Nutty goat cheese and semi-aged Cantal were sampled with both red and white varietals. And, hidden amidst the mess of bottles and glasses, a flaky apple tourte and a thick rich almond cream served in test tubes provided a sweet finale.