We first met Pascal Wagner in front of his small wine cave on a quiet street in sleepy Puligny Montrachet. He was anxiously pacing back and forth, chatting 200 miles an hour on a cell phone, in three different languages, with a client from some far off country. I didn’t want to disturb him but I had just begun braising an AOP Bresse chicken and needed an older white wine worthy of the celebrated bird. With a lit cigarette dangling precariously from the corner of his mouth, he motioned for us to be patient while he disappeared inside. He returned a moment later, still talking on the phone, clutching two fantastic bottles of an older white Meursault (chardonnay)….
I cannot think of a better way to whet my appetite than to nibble on some olives and saucisson with a glass
of wine. I started life as an olive purist, demanding they were only served simply brined and nothing else. Then I tried these, the marriage of flavors combined with the warmed aromatics make these olives irresistible. The flavors will literally jump out of the pan and seduce your palate. …
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.
As a small child, I believed in two things; Santa Claus and the virtues of a simple grilled Loup de mer, or branzino as it is more commonly called in the US. Loup de mer is a Mediterranean sea bass with a delicate flesh and addictively delicious crunchy skin when grilled. Get your coals white hot, put dried fennel branches on top then the fish and let the licorice smoky flavors pleasantly permeate your fish, lending a feeling of being in Provence. There is no greater act of love than sharing a wonderful meal you cook with the people dear to you. Remember, good food can happen anywhere, this one is especially good cooked over an outdoor fire, preferably deep in woods, with loved ones and a few bottles of great wine….
Fall had started in earnest; a cool, light mist was falling and we decided to take our dog Lucy for a long walk foraging wild cèpes. I built a roaring fire in our wood stove, placed a daube of beef on top to slowly braise, and decanted a heady bottle of red wine, then walked out into the dank Mendocino forest.
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.
Fall had started in earnest; a cool, light mist was falling on an otherwise drab day when we decided to take our dog Lucy for a long walk foraging wild cèpes. I built a roaring fire in our wood stove and placed a daube of beef perfumed with cinnamon stick and dried orange peel on top to slowly braise. We decanted a heady bottle of red wine and walked out into the dank Mendocino forest. …
A tian is an earthenware vessel of Provence used both for cooking and serving. It is also the name of the dish prepared in it and baked in an oven. – Wikipedia
A lot of friends had asked for this recipe shortly after posting a picture of it on Facebook two weeks ago. 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 in Cannes. 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.
To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean. Elizabeth David
A few days ago, Lisa and I returned from an all too short vacation in France. We started up north in Puligny Montrachet then worked our way south to the golden sunshine of my family’s beloved Provence. When we arrived at our home in Cagnes sur Mer, near Nice (France), I only wanted to drink roses, pastis and red Bandols and eat Provencal food. The idea was solidified after I returned from the local farmer’s market armed with a beautiful wild sea bass caught that very morning and a basket of perfectly ripe figs….
Sharing good food and wine with someone you love is perfection. – Jean-Andre Charial
The inspiration for today’s lunch in Provence was simple; it was cold out and I longed for comfort food. Everyone has their own mental picture of what that might entail, but for me, it is anything Provencal. What I love so much about Southern French cooking is that it is very approachable, unpretentious and rustic yet at the same time diverse and alluring. A food deeply rooted in its regionality which was carved out by conquest, invasion, and geography. It’s an artist’s palette of beautiful colors and textures, invoking a sensuous and communal dining experience….
A recipe is rather like a piece of music. Although the notes may be read and reproduced faithfully the result can still be crude, mechanical or just uninteresting. Roger Verge
Notes from My Fictitious Mazet
Recently I bought a home in Vancouver, Washington and found myself with the unenviable task of having to move yet again. Hopefully for the last time but who really knows. If I did my calculations correctly, at best I shall be carted off to the nursing home drooling uncontrollably in a snug pair of Depends by the time the last house payment is paid. At worst, I will be found by bill collectors thoroughly mummified with a glass of pastis in one hand and a tartine of tapenade in the other….
Many people in the Chicago area will remember my father Réal well. He was the longtime director of the Alliance Française. A wonderful gregarious man, very gifted at public speaking who absolutely loved food. There are two things I did not inherit from his set of genes. The first is the gift of public speaking. To speak publicly at my father’s level is an art form. He was brilliant. He could say one thing and literally mean another. I can remember one speech he gave while mad at me. He wove in some fatherly advice and a healthy dose of discipline. Not a single person in the crowd realized it. People were clapping and cheering. I was getting scolded publicly. The second was his cooking gene. Very sad about the first one. Positively giddy about the second. Quite frankly, the man could not cook at all. Or for those who knew my father well, his cooking was ‘god awful’ as he was fond of saying. I think my sister Anne inherited that gene. Thankfully my cooking gene came directly from Provence via my mother….
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
Nothing could be more Provençal than to eat a fish soup, whether it’s in the form of bouillabaisse, bourride or this simple rustic soup. Marseille fish soup, or soupe de poissons as it’s known, is something I crave all the time, the assertive flavors redolent with the very soul of Provence transports me back to the old port of Marseilles where I first tried it decades ago.
Ah soupe au pistou, I love you, thanks for making every single bite a golden taste of Summer! No other soup more clearly defines Provence than soupe au pistou. It is the edible history of the ‘arrière-pays’, or hinterlands of Provence where farmers have long tended their fields growing some of the most amazing vegetables and fruits. There are several versions of Pistou ranging from ham and bean based ones to purely vegetable ones. This one is based on what my maman taught me, though she would roll her eyes at the very thought of canned beans and San Marzano tomatoes. I find them to be suitable substitutes with little loss of quality and/or flavor. By all means substitute freshly cooked beans and just picked tomatoes. Pistou can be confusing for us Americans as it refers both to the soup and pesto-like basil sauce. The pistou sauce I make is not traditional but has an amazing flavor and stays green forever. Do not buy pre-made pesto as a substitute. They are vastly inferior and will ruin the final outcome….
French Soul Food?
I pondered what soul food meant to me. My initial thoughts conjured savory images of collard green and cornbread filled adventures at Chicago soul food stalwarts like Gladys Luncheonette, Army & Lou’s and Soul Queen eaten to a soundtrack of Don Cornelius’s Soul Train. Even now, decades later, as I sit typing behind my computer keyboard I still can’t just casually say Soul Train (the hippest trip in America) without mimicking the high pitched intro of the program and licking my lips….
A fantastique day! The sky was blue as the azure hues of the Mediterranean dotted with big puffy meringue clouds and temperatures holding in the 70’s. The promised rain had not come and the Mistral took a day off.
Walter, Lisa and I ran off to the Cavaillon intermarche for party supplies only to once again fill our cart with way too much cheese, saucisson, wine, fish and dairy products. I simply cannot help myself. There must be some 12 step program for gluttons. Hello, my name is Francois and I have a foie gras addiction. The menu for today’s madness is grilled fat white asparagus, tomato salad, roasted potatoes, various cured meats, my cousin Andre’s favorite Cioppino, Emincer de Boeuf Smitane and an assortment of grillable sausages.
We had Francois, Marc and Muriel from the Alps (Lolo’s family); Anne, Luciano et Annie (cousin, cousin’s son and aunt) from Marseilles and Aix en Provence; Andre, Lolo, Genevieve and Arlette (cousin, cousin’s wife, cousin and aunt) from Marseille; Catherine, Roland and Auguste (cousin, cousin’s husband and son) from Toulouse; Dan, Stephanie and Simone from California; Walter and Kathy from Sacramento and Lisa, Beaumont and Myself.
Today made me feel as though I wish I had spent more time with my family in life. I really do not regret much in life. It’s just I love my family a lot and want to be closer to them. A large ocean should not separate us. Another thing I realized is my mother’s paw print, if you will, on me. Every child has a more dominate parent who they are most like. I am definitely my mother’s child. And by virtue of that fact, the France I know existed 50 years ago. SACRE BLEU! The music I adore, Georges Brassens, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, etc. The non-compromising attitude towards food and wine, I love my maman. I wish she had come with us to France…
It was wonderful spending time with everyone in my family. Lisa and I both wished the day would last forever. So many times in my youth I sat at tables like the small children seated today. This meal has been played out 100’s of times throughout life. It is the family gathering anywhere. I look back in pictures and see my uncles and aunts in the vitality of their youth. Now it is time for us to stand in the pictures that form the child’s imagination and memories. It is our part in the wheel of life. The moments of Beaumont’s life he will cherish and remember to his dying days.
When you press me to your heart
I’m in a world apart
A world where roses bloom
And when you speak, angels sing from above
Everyday words seem to turn into love songs
Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be la vie en rose.
Good Night! La Vie en Rose…
Artichoke Tarte Tatin is perhaps my all time favorite recipe to make and eat. I owe my marriage and consequently my son on the merits of this dish. I originally developed it while Chef at the infamous Pili Pili restaurant in River North, Chicago for an article appearing in Chef Magazine. They were writing a feature on goat cheese and I wanted to do something different. After the shoot, I kept refining and updating it and eventually it became our biggest seller. I was serving about 72 tarts a night in a 120 seat restaurant. The recipe is easy to make but requires some intermediate skills. It is a savory play on Tarte Tatin, or caramelized apple tart. Try this for lunch with a big green salad and a glass of white wine!…
“It’s a simple business: Develop good food
and get it into people’s mouths. The rest sort of takes care of itself.”
~ Richard Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You
I once read an article detailing Richard Melman’s approach to designing a new restaurant concept. The very first step was to create a storyboard that told the story of the new idea, perhaps written by a person who worked there, and was asked to describe life and service in the restaurant. Everything, from the menu, wine list, art work to even the paint scheme emanated from it. The idea struck a chord deep inside because I am a visual and small detail oriented person. Since then I have tried to incorporate it into my approach writing menus.
a charcuterie market and a spice merchant’s market in Avignon
Lately I have been looking for the perfect Sous Chef and Pastry Chef. I described to a recent Pastry Chef candidate what I was wanting from her, “What I would love is your expression of what should be on the pastry menu of a Mediterranean Restaurant specializing in French, Spanish and Italian with forays into Morocco, Greece, Tunisia, Lebanon. It is our goal to convey the story, the history of the people, through food. If somehow you can distill this into pastries than you have gotten what I am attempting.”
I am not trying to be too esoteric; my goal is to take people somewhere, on a three hour adventure from their homes in the California Desert to the shores of the Mediterranean. I want the experience to be so authentic and real that if you closed your eyes, the flavors, smells and sounds may just well make you believe you are really there.
“The Mediterranean cuisine is one of the most colorful and vibrant in the world, providing sensual dishes flavored with wild herbs gathered from the hillsides; lamb and chicken are often roasted whole over coals; vegetables are abundant and used in a wide variety of soups, bakes and salads.”
Watch this Porchetta clip to get you drooling
My inspirations have come from spending a portion of my informative years visiting relatives all over the South of France, to comparative dining to reading a lot online, in books and vicarious trips lived through letters and phone calls of close friends. One of my favorite authors is Colman Andrews. I recently picked up his book “The Country Cooking of Italy” and came across his recipe for Sguazabarbuz, a variation of pasta e fagioli. The name intrigued me so much I researched it further. I came across a web site mentioning the history, “The story tells that on May 29, 1503 Lucrezia Borgia came to Ferrara to marry Alfonso I d’Este and a steward of the Palace, taking inspiration from her golden locks, created this special pasta and passed down the recipe from generation to generation. The pasta is cut into irregular strips, in fact they are called “maltagliati” (cut badly) and if it is cooked in a bean and pork fat broth they are called ‘sguazabarbuz’.”
Another dish making its debut will be a Pistachio, Polenta and Olive Oil Cake served with ‘Spice Road Caravan’ cherries and cherry sorbet. Individual three ounce cakes made from Sicilian green pistachios, polenta and olive oil batter cooked and served at room temperature garnished with fresh spun cherry sorbet and with what I term Silk Road Caravan spiced cherries. The Silk Road was a series of paths and trade routes connecting the Mediterranean to Eastern Asia. The famous camel routes brought cinnamon, nutmeg and other fantastic flavors into the Mediterranean melting pot.
My cake’s origins lay not in a cultural tradition passed generation to generation by any one culture but rather in my head combining bits and pieces of various experiences and references.
Pistachios are native to Western Asia and the Levant between Turkey and Afghanistan. The earliest traces of pistachios being eaten is 7,000 BC in Turkey, and cultivated and introduced into Europe by the Romans in 1st century AD. Polenta’s name was originally derived from the Roman staple puls, or pulmentum. Pulmentum also was the Roman’s soldier primary food. The soldiers were issued grain which they toasted on hot stones and either made into a porridge or baked into crude breads.
Polenta was originally made from millet, spelt or chickpeas, only when corn came from the New World in the 1600’s did polenta’s turn into a cornmeal porridge we know and love. Cherries originated in Asia and became well loved by the ancient Greeks first appearing in print in 300 BC in the writings of Theophrastus. By the first century AD, Pliny the Elder had listed eight different varieties under cultivation, some grown in the far off parts of the Roman Empire like Britain.
In America we have the freedom to combine, mix and mutate without the same restraints my French family would face. They would never dream to mix as freely as I will. Noted British Chef Marco Pierre White once said the kitchen was his freedom. The new, still nameless restaurant is my freedom.