Sunday, August 10, 2008


That Cookbook Thing II - Râpée de Morvandelle

French lunches are almost always simple yet fully-flavoured affairs. There is great importance placed on fresh produce and a steady reliance on eggs, the superfood.

In her many texts, Elizabeth David paints glorious pictures of lunch at provincial hotels after drives in the countryside or along the roadside with provisions from a hotel proprietor or produce bought at an impromptu moment. Always, the descriptions of lunch menus are spellbinding. An enticing pastoral lunch is David's famous preference for an omelette and a glass of wine, preceded by home-made pâté, and olives, followed by fresh salad, a ripe, creamy cheese and small, fresh fruit, such as figs or strawberries. In the first instance, this lunch menu is beyond simple; it is a masterplan that can be adapted to every season. Thinking of the buttery, eggy omelettes, rich cheese, bitter salad leaves, salty olives, gamy pâté, and honeyed figs, one sees that this is an exploration of seasonailty, temperatures and textures. This is also a celebration of depth of flavours.

The most popular lunch item that has been appropriated by many a nation is quiche Lorraine (although often bastardised with the addition of cheese). In fact, such is the simplicity and convenience of making open-faced tarts that Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck first present readers of their Mastering the Art of French Cooking) with a series of quiches in their chapter on Entrées and Luncheon Dishes, from which That Cookbook Thing II tests this month's chosen recipe: Râpée de Morvandelle.

If one is too pressed to make a pâte brisée (as shown at the introduction of this chapter, which also gives detailed preparations on making soufflées, which I recognise may not be a typical offering at lunchtime these days) for a quiche, one can turn the filling of a quiche into a gratin (named for the shallow heat-proof dish in which it cooks). Gratins also often have cheese (usually Swiss cheese), bubbling and burnished as they come out of the oven and are transferred to the lunch table. Râpée de Morvandelle is a gratin of shredded potatoes with eggs, onion, and ham.

Râpée de Morvandelle
(from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

1/2 cup onions, finely minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
56g/4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
120g/3oz cooked ham, finely diced
4 eggs
1/2 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
120g/3oz cheese, grated (I used Gruyere; the receipe suggests Swiss)
4 tablespoons cream
salt, pepper
300g/10oz potatoes

1) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
2) Over medium-low heat, heat oil and 21g/1.5 tablespoons butter in a saute pan, then cook onions until yeilding but not coloured.
3) Turn heat up to medium, then add ham and cook for one minute.
4) In a bowl, beat together the garlic, parsley, cheese, cream, salt and pepper.
5) Add onions and ham to the beaten mixture.
6) Peel potatoes and grate them with the large holes of a box grater.
7) Squeeze water out of the grated potatoes.
8) Stir potatoes into egg miture.
9) Check for seasoning.
10) Heat 21g/1.5 tablespoons butter in a heat-proof baking dish or oven-proof saute pan/skillet. When warmed through and foaming, pour in the potato mixture.
11) Dot with the remaining 14g/1 tablespoon of butter.
12) Bake in upper-third of the oven until top has browned, approximately 35-40 minutes.
13) Serve from the baking dish or sauté pan.

True, this is simplicity itself, but it is an odd dish to pick to highlight a section of a cookery book. That said, like Elizabeth David's aforementioned lunch menu, many a technical foundation is taught in this chapter, and this gratin is appealing and adaptable. Imagine it encased in a buttery pâte brisée or swap out the onion for leeks and blitz chives into the butter that dots the gratin. This is the foundation for a lunchtime centrepiece; it is rich, fulsome, and perfect.

Feel free to check out the results of That Cookbook Thing II's other members: Sara of i like to cook, Ruth of Once Upon A Feast, Mary of The Sour Dough, Kittie of Kittens in the Kitchen , Elle of Elle's New England Kitchen, Deborah of What's In My Kitchen?, and Mary of Cooking For Five. Bon appétit.

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Monday, August 04, 2008


Crimson Dishes - Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler and Charkhlis Pkhali

Against a backdrop of darkening, shifting clouds and a sky of various shades of grey, the kitchen and dining room are aglow with the oven's soaring temperature, candles on the dining table and warm-hued meals (caramelised root vegetables, burnished poultry and red wine-based braises). One can, however, become disenchanted with contorni of roasted potatoes, kumara and parsnip or with honey-coloured puddings of lemons, pears and apples. Just when it cannot possibly get any colder (here, anyway), I switch out golden vegetables and fruit for a shocking display of intense crimson.

Rhubarb appears to have reached a whole new level of appreciation of late. What has always been a winter and spring feature in my household is now a trendy dessert offering. Rhubarb is an unusual vegetable. Its roots and almost lime green leaves are toxic, and its stalk, practically the colour of a cardinal's robe, is so tart that it has to be counteracted with obscene amounts of sugar. (To my knowledge, it is the only vegetable treated wholly as a fruit.) Stewed (best when cooked through but not mushy), vibrant rhubarb is a delightful antidote when the temperature drops.

I used to eat lemons right off the tree as a child, so I guess it is fair to say that I have a proclivity towards sour and tart food. Accordingly, I tend not to add but the least amount of raw/brown sugar to take the sourest edge out of rhubarb. Of course you can add more sugar. That said, I suggest that you be prudent because to oversweeten rhurbarb defies its purpose, and you might as well be having something else instead - add what I suggest here, then add more towards the end of the cooking period after you have sampled the rhubarb.

This particular cobbler is lifted from Jerry Traunfeld's greatly inspiring cookery book, The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor. I tried to find angelica for a variation, but I was not so lucky at the weekend. I have, however, tweaked the recipe: lemon zest to complement the rhubarb; rose water to perfume the rhubarb along with mint; and ground almonds in the biscuit mixture to round out the sweetness of the topping with full-flavoured nuttiness (pulverised walnuts and pistachios also work well). When slicing rhubarb wands, peel off any stringy bits that begin to come away because they only amplify the fibrous quality of rhubarb (its principal drawback, to my mind).

Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler
(Adapted from Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor)

For the Rhubarb:

750g/1.5lbs rhubarb stalks
2/3 cup raw/brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped English mint
1 tablespoon rose water
zest of one small lemon
14g/1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For the Biscuits:

2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup ground almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons white/granulated sugar, divided use
28g/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

1) Preheat oven to 200 C/400 F.
2) Wash rhubarb stalks, then chop off the ends (removing any dry ends).
3) Slice rhubarb cross-wise into 1.25cm/ 1.2" pieces.
4) Put into a baking dish (approximately 22cm/9" x 33cm/13") and mix in the sugar, mint, rose water and lemon zest.
5) Dot surface with the butter and bake for 15 minutes (until it softens and releases bubbling, crimson juices).

Prepare the biscuits as the rhubarb is baking.

1) Put flour, ground almonds, baking powder, salt and 3 tablespoons of the sugar into a bowl. Mix together.
2) Dice the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your finger tips, as you would when making pastry.
3) When the flour and butter mixture slips through the fingers like granules of rice, pour in the cream.
4) Mix cream with hands until clumps of dough are formed.
5) Put the dough on baking/parchment paper.
6) Divide dough into eight equal pieces and flatten each into a disk 5cm/2" in diameter.
7) Arrange on top of the rhubarb and sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of sugar.
8) Bake until the biscuits have browned all over, 15-20 minutes.

In all, this is a boon of a dessert - filling yet light. The rhubarb zings across the palate in a complex melange with the rose water, mint and lemon zest, partnered with the pronounced almond tones in the biscuit. Of course, it does not have to end here - a cobbler can be made with practically any fruit, but the choice to use rhubarb elevates the simple cobbler, making it an interesting dessert.

You might want to gild the lily and pair it with ice cream (I poured over some cream). Strawberry ice cream would make a great option, for strawberry is a traditional bedmate (remember, though, I made this in winter, so there weren't any fresh strawberries around for me to make ice cream). Ginger is another interesting partner, so I also recommend that you have a look at this Tamasin Day-Lewis recipe for Stem Ginger and Spice Ice Cream.

While the above recipe is a great way to end the night, a fabulous way to start a dinner party is with dips and pâtés or elements from zakuski, a Georgian tradition of small plates of contrasting temperatures and textures. While I've read a lot about zakuski, I have never hosted such a dining event (probably because I do not have the stomach to wash down shots of vodka between mouthfuls of food). I do, however, take a leaf out of Georgian housewives' books and look to zakuski for inspiration when creating a cocktail-hour menu.

Georgians love to combine coriander/cilantro and walnuts (such as in satsivi, the national sauce). This is an unusual yet intriguing interplay of flavours, realised perfectly in Charkhlis Pkhali - a beetroot, walnut and coriander pureé.

Charkhlis Pkhali
(from Diana Henry's Roast Figs, Sugar Snow)

700g/1.5lbs beetroot (washed and leaves chopped off 4cm/1.5" from base)
150g/6oz walnut pieces
1 teaspoon sea salt
5 cloves garlic, crushed
5 tablespoons coriander/cilantro, finely chopped
5 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil

1) Preheat oven to 190 C/375 F.
2) Wrap beets in aluminium foil, place them on a baking tray and bake until tender, approximately 1 1/2 hours.
3) In the meantime, grind together the walnuts, salt and garlic.
4) Add the herbs and continue grinding until a paste is formed.
5) When you can handle the beets, peel quickly and grate the flesh of the crimson orbs into a bowl (and wash your hands immediately afterwards to remove the stain).
6) Mix in the walnut paste and red wine vinegar, olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

What is great about this dish is that it can be made in advance and kept in the fridge. Bring it to room temperature before serving with pita chips (pita bread cut into triangles, toasted in the oven with olive oil, Hawaiian red clay salt and pepper) or toasted herb bread. You can gild this lily, too, by sprinkling pomegranate seeds once the dish has come to room temperature.

Charkhlis Pkhali and Rhubarb and Mint Cobbler are celebratory dishes. Vibrant in both colour and flavours, these crimson dishes fire up conversation around the dining table, allowing one to forget that it is dark and cold out.

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