It is absolutely no secret to anyone that knows me well that I am in head over heels in love with Provence, land of my predecessors. It’s heaven on earth; land of the golden sunshine, peopled by a population that are joyous, defiant, independent with a playful spirit, and best of all, they really love to eat. The cuisine is simple and rustic, yet diversely reflects the seasons on every plate. Limiting my favorites to a select, top 10 list was hard, but this is what I came up with.
Here is my list of Provencal Top Ten favorites:
- Roger Verge’s Olive Tart: Roger Verge created a very simple olive tart in tribute to a lovely old gentlemen who told him the history of where Verge’s restaurant stood. It was the site of an old olive oil windmill. The old man recounts his youth when he would go visit the miller., on the way he would gather young dandelions and wash them in a nearby stream. “The miller gave us a pignate or crock filled with olive oil that had just flowed off the millstones. We rubbed the bread with garlic, dipped it in the pignate and chewed all this along with dandelions in coarse salt. Add to this a shot of our wine from the hills! And so you see, my little one. I am not sure all your clients relish all your complicated stuff as much as we did that very simple food.”
- Burnt Fingers or brûle doigts: I love whimsical menu names and thankfully Provence is full of them. Sometimes the stories intrigue me more than the food. Fifteen years ago, I first read ‘Feasts of Provence’ by Robert Courier. The beautiful photography and carefully researched recipes transported me to Provence, as any good book should, to where Robert describes eating a popular fried seafood dish prepared by Chef Franck Cerutti at his simple restaurant Don Camillo in Nice. The name brûle doigts implies the fish is served so hot you literally burn your fingers eating it.
fish and vegetables for frying
- 8 ounces cleaned calamari cut into 1/4 inch rings
- 16 each smelts
- 8 each shrimp peeled and deveined
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 small Japanese eggplant sliced
- 4 each asparagus spear
- 1 each small, thin zucchini sliced
frying and finishing
- 2 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
- 1 tablespoon piment d'ville, see notes
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 1 box tempura batter
- 10 cups vegetable oil, to fry in
- 2 each lemons cut into wedges
- 1 cup rouille
fish and vegetables for frying
Marinate smelts, calamari and shrimp in buttermilk overnight. This tenderizes the calamari.
Soak Japanese eggplant slices in ice cold water for ten minutes to remove bitterness. Drain completely then mix with asparagus and zucchini.
frying and finishing
Mix flour with herbes de Provence, piment d’ville and sea salt.
Make tempura batter according to manufacturer's instructions.
Heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a large stock pot or household fryer.
Strain seafood and dredge in seasoned flour. Deep fry until golden brown and fully cooked, about five minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Dip vegetables in tempura batter and fry till brown and crispy, about five minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges and a ramekin of rouille to dip everything in.
Piment d'Ville is an espelette pepper born and raised in Boonville, California and in many way superior to its native counterpart. I say that because the dried espelettes we get here are usually very old and tired. Look for this online.
- Roasted Espelette Peppers with Goat Cheese, sauce Anchoiade: A really simple dish that has all the elements of Provence hidden within its layers. Smoky, roasted peppers married with wild dried herbs, pungent garlic, anchovies and creamy goat cheese. It makes for a wonderful appetizer or the base of a great meal, especially when paired with a big green salad.
- Pistou, Provencal Vegetable, Bean and Pasta Soup: No other soup, except for bouillabaisse which technically is not a soup, clearly defines Provence more aptly than Pistou. It’s the edible history of the ‘arrière-pays’, or hinterlands of Provence where farmers have long tended their fields of vegetables and fruits. There are several versions of Pistou ranging from ham and bean to purely vegetable. This one is based on what my maman taught me, though she might roll her eyes at the very thought of canned beans and San Marzano tomatoes being used.
- Mussels steamed in Pastis with Chorizo, Leeks and Piquillo Peppers: This recipe was born during the early days of Pili Pili in Chicago when I was looking for classic recipes I could modify for the American palate. To get the creative juices flowing, I would drink Pastis and watch Marcel Pagnol movies late into the night. I closed my eyes and imagined the smells, sounds and flavors of Marseille. I felt myself sitting outside watching the commotion of commerce unfold. I imagined a steaming bowl of mussels served by a gregarious waiter in a long, flowing black apron and white shirt. The sweet, salty scents of licorice, shellfish and spicy cured pork released into the air on billowy currents of steam.
Mussels ‘Pastis’ Spanish Chorizo, Leeks and Piquillo Peppers
The sweet, salty scents of licorice, shellfish and spicy cured pork released into the air on billowy currents of steam. Eyes closed in ecstasy as the first mussels are being savored. Crusty, warm bread patiently awaits its turn to swim in the broth.
- 2.5 pounds mussels cleaned
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic mashed
- 1 each thin leek cleaned and diced
- 1 each piquillo pepper diced
- 4 ounces Spanish chorizo diced
- 1 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup Pastis
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- pinch sea salt and black pepper
Use a pan large enough to comfortably hold the mussels. Melt the butter and cook garlic till the aromas are released.
Add the leek, piquillo pepper and chorizo. Continue cooking for a few moments till the leeks soften.
Add your wine, Pastis and cream then bring to a full boil.
Add the cleaned mussels, cover the pot tightly and steam till they all are open. Discard any that do not open.
Mix in chopped parsley and taste your mussel broth.
Season with sea salt and pepper. You may or may not need salt; It depends on the salinity of your mussels. Serve immediately in the pot with a bowl for shells.
Not much can be worse than eating a beautiful dish and chewing on gritty leeks. While working for Chef Louis Szathmary in Chicago in the mid 1980’s, I learned a trick for easily cleaning the dirt and grit out of leeks. Dice the leeks and soak in a large bowl of cold water. Add a tablespoon of salt and agitate the water. The salt acts as an abrasive and removes the grit. The sand will settle to the bottom of the bowl. Scoop leeks out of water and use. Do not pour the leeks and water into a strainer. If you do that you are pouring the sand back over the leeks.
My new favorite mussels come from Saltspring Island in British Columbia. The massive mussels have a bright salinity and a sweet ocean flavor that is addictive. You need to clean your mussels before using them. I usually wait till the last absolute moment keeping them alive as long as possible. Scour the shells with a clean stainless steel scrubby to remove any sea plants stuck to the shells. There may be a hairy fiber sticking out. This is called the beard. It is how mussels attach themselves to things underwater so they aren’t washed away by the tide. Grab hold of the beard and pull it out firmly. If your mussels are extremely fresh, you may be involved in a tug of war. Keep mussels submerged in a bowl of very cold water while getting everything else ready.
It won’t matter if the sun doesn’t come out when you serve this soup,
because it is hotter than the sunshine of the Midi. ~ Roger Verge
- Marseille fish soup, or soupe de poissons as it is called in the South of France, is something I actually yearn for all the time. The rich, assertive flavors redolent with the very soul of Provence takes me to the old port where I first tried it.
- Ratatouille: When I was a small child my mother used to keep a jar of ratatouille in the refrigerator at all times. It scared me to death, I thought eggplant was a plant made from chicken eggs. My mother would eat it by the bowl load; cold, hot it didn’t matter. I could never understand her love for it. Now it is something I keep on hand during the summer months when all the ingredients are at their peak flavors. It’s fantastic with poached eggs served on top, rolled into a creamy omelet or just eaten alone.
Provencal Vegetable Stew
- 2 each Japanese eggplant diced
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 each sweet onion diced
- 2 each red peppers diced
- 3 each zucchini diced
- 4 cloves garlic mashed
- 4 each tomatoes skinned, chopped
- 1 cup basil
- sea salt and black pepper
Submerge the diced eggplant in ice cold water and let sit for ten minutes to remove any bitterness. I started soaking eggplant rather than salting after reading a cookbook of Japanese dishes. I found it works better.
Heat olive oil in a large pan and sauté onions and peppers together over low to medium heat till softened and translucent, about ten minutes.
Drain eggplants well and add to onions and peppers. Continue cooking for another ten to fifteen minutes. The eggplant won’t be fully cooked but will be on the way.
Add zucchini, garlic and tomatoes and continue cooking on low heat till tender, about thirty minutes.
Add basil, salt and pepper and cook five more minutes.
Serve on its own or with a fruity French olive oil drizzled over and some grated parmesan.
- Artichoke Barigoule: There were two dishes my mother held in reverence, a true civet de lapin, or rabbit stew thickened with blood and artichokes barigoule. For that reason, they have always held a special place in my heart and stomach. My interpretation is more of a restaurant version, made more luxuriously by finishing with a small tablespoon of sweet cream butter.
Baby Artichokes simmered in White Wine, Thyme and Basil
- 1 pound baby artichokes about 10 to 12
- 1 each lemon sliced thin
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 2 quarts water
- 1 cup artichoke cooking liquid
- 1 cup white wine
- 1/4 cup fruity olive oil
- 3 ounces smoked lamb bacon diced
- 2 each young carrots peeled and sliced
- 3 cloves spring garlic mashed
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 each bay leaf
- 1 each lemon zest and juice
- 1/4 cup basil sliced
- 2 ounces unsalted butter optional
- sea salt and black pepper
Trim the top and bottom 1/4 inch off the baby artichokes. Use a sharp paring knife and trim the outer leaves off. Peel the stem if there is one attached. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise and drop into a pot with the lemon, sea salt and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer till tender, about 20 minutes. The tip of a knife should easily pierce the artichoke.
Put one cup artichoke cooking liquid, white wine and olive oil in a pan and bring to a boil.
Add lamb bacon, carrots, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Simmer till carrots are tender, about 15 minutes.
Add artichokes, lemon zest and some lemon juice. I say some lemon juice because I want you to taste it. Add just enough to taste it slightly. The purpose is to add just enough bright acidity to cut the fattiness of the olive oil and butter. The lemon flavor should not overpower the barigoule. Add basil and whisk in butter. Adjust salt and pepper and serve.
- Halibut Tian with Tomatoes, Caramelized Onions and Just-Dug Potatoes: A lot of friends had asked for this recipe shortly after posting a picture of it on Facebook. The dish was born of the moment, inspired partly by too much pastis and perhaps a memory not quite my own. We had just gotten back from France, and my garden was overgrown with weeds competing for the same limited resources that nourished my vegetables. I was doing everything to avoid tackling the tangled mess, so I started reading Roger Verge’s classic tome, ‘Cuisine of the Sun’ under the guise of research. I got to the pages where he delectably described in vivid detail a lunch with local fishermen, they had just caught two beautiful John Dorys, and were preparing a large, festive tian for everyone to enjoy. Verge waxed on poetically about “potatoes gilded with saffron, ruddy tomatoes, pale onions, bluish thyme, green bayleaf and steel-grey fish” cooked in the local baker’s oven and served in the golden May sunlight. I was hooked.
- Daube of Beef: Maybe I am like one of Pavlov’s dogs, but I start to crave beef daube (Provencal beef stew) as soon as the first cool Fall weather begins. Long ago Lisa and I lived in a small, off the grid hippie cabin deep within the woods, on the edge of Van Damme State Park in Mendocino, California. Our cabin often reminded me of Daudet’s windmill in Provence, though beaten and forlorn, it provided a quiet refuge from the bustle of modern life.