Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What I have learned about CAVIAR

Until I married into the Boyer family, I was convinced I did not like caviar. Of course my only experience with it was at cocktail parties where a salty black spread on toast was offered up as "caviar." My father-in-law served caviar at my first Boyer family Christmas. I declined a spoonful he proudly doled out to each of us, beseeching him not to waste it on me, who did not appreciate the delicacy. He insisted I taste it, and as the tiny pearls released their nutty flavors in my mouth, I realized I had never tasted caviar before. I happily took my portion.  

In the 1980s Gerard and I represented the radio station he worked for (Europe1) at a $1,000-a-plate charity dinner (the station paid). All of the money raised from the two hundred guests went to the charity, as Marcel Dassault (the famous French aircraft industrialist) paid for the dinner. To oohs and ahhs, each table was served a large glass bowl of caviar on ice chips, passed around with a soup ladle so each person could take as much as he or she wanted. Seconds were offered before we moved on to foie gras and later lobster and dessert. The meal was so impressive to me that it inspired a New Year's Eve tradition for us and three other couples. Instead of going out to an overpriced Parisian restaurant and spending a fortune (they always hiked up their prices that night), we started pooling our resources and buying caviar, smoked salmon and foie gras with wines to accompany each and celebrating at home together.. The first year it was my job to go to Petrossian and purchase the caviar, the salmon and the blinis.

I waited on line for over an hour, and when it came to my turn, I was intimidated by the signs with prices ranging from 1,800 to 3,400 francs per kilo. (Today they cost between $2,000 and $4,800 a pound). Unsure of which to get, I asked the retailer his opinion. He had me taste all three—Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga—and asked which I preferred. I admitted that I liked them all and my uneducated palate could hardly tell the difference. He then advised me to buy the least expensive and get almost twice as much for the same price. I followed his advice, and my friends were thrilled. I asked why the Beluga was so much more expensive than the Sevruga. He explained that it was not a difference in quality; even though he thought the Beluga was the best, he did not think it was so much better than the Sevruga as to warrant the price difference. It was a simply a question of supply and demand. Most customers who were unsure of which to buy went for the most expensive—driving the price way up, far beyond the gastronomic value.

True caviar consists of brined unfertilized sturgeon eggs (roe). Beluga, Osetra and Sevruga sturgeons, with the largest roe and the lightest color, are considered the very best. Very light, or golden, roe is also designated “Imperial” caviar or “Royal” caviar, as it was once reserved only for royalty. Today all types of sturgeon are on the endangered species list. Eighty-five percent of today's wild caviar originates in the Caspian Sea, shared by Russian and Iranian producers.
American caviar
Recently American caviar has come into fashion—or should I say "back into fashion," because in the early nineteenth century, the United States was actually the world's leading producer of caviar. An abundance of lake sturgeon made it so plentiful and inexpensive that saloons served it to make customers thirstier. (Today peanuts and pretzels are used for that purpose.)
In recent years sturgeon farming operations in the United States and abroad have preserved both the species and the industry by producing some very tasty alternatives. Commonly farmed varieties are Osetra, Baerii, and White Sturgeon. Raising them in artesian well water, feeding them the ideal toxin-free diet and harvesting their roe at the ideal time makes for premium-quality caviar. Wild caviar, which can only be extracted twice a year, is preserved by using heavy salting methods. Farm-fresh caviar is a very high quality, low-sodium and affordable alternative.
Nonsturgeon substitutes
Paddlefish caviar is a good substitute for Beluga caviar—clear, glossy beads, buttery flavor, and steel-gray- to golden-gray roe. Bowfin caviar—more commonly known by its Cajun name, Choupique—has a distinctively sturgeon essence, with a mild flavor and firm, black beads, although smaller in size than Beluga. Salmon caviar is a favorite of sushi chefs everywhere. Its intense salmon-flavored, juicy roe has a distinctive popping characteristic in the mouth. Lumpfish caviar from cold Nordic waters is surprisingly good-tasting despite the fact that it is not expensive. It comes in black and red and is one of the pasteurized caviar types.
Serving caviar
If serving caviar as an appetizer, you need to count about 50 grams per person, meaning that one pound serves 10 people. At one point Gerard and I had special caviar dishes that presented the caviar on shaved ice, with a special mother-of-pearl spoon (metal can affect the flavor of caviar). We have had some very good years and some much leaner ones, so we have learned many ways to enjoy caviar. One secret is that caviar marries very well with eggs, and an egg dish can be  transformed into a festive delight with a little bit of caviar.  
Classic Russian combinations
Caviar on
blini (tiny pancakes) with a dollop of crème frâiche or a mixture of sour cream and heavy cream. Toast points or a small, thinly sliced baguette will do. Caviar is also served with lemon wedges, finely chopped onion and chopped hard-boiled egg and capers.
Soft Boiled Eggs with Caviar
You will need about 12 grams of caviar per person—so for four people, buy 50 grams; for eight, you will need about 100 grams, or a quarter-pound. One farm-fresh egg per person. One- to two slices of toast per person. Soft-boil the eggs for three minutes. Let them cool off under running cold water and place them in the eggcups.  Cut the top part of the shell off. Stir the egg after adding some salt and white pepper. Add the caviar and decorate with a stem of fresh scallion. Serve with toast cut into strips so they can be dipped into the egg.
Scrambled Eggs with Caviar
You will need a teaspoon of caviar and two eggs per person. Whisk the eggs in a bowl with a quarter of a cup of half-and-half. Season with salt, and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a large omelet pan. Add the eggs and cook them over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the desired doneness. Away from the heat, add another tablespoon of butter and stir until it has melted. Serve hot on a slice of toasted brioche with sprinkle one teaspoon of caviar over each portion at the table.

Caviar Pie


hard-boiled eggs, chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 cup chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion
6 ounces cream cheese, whipped or softened
½ cup sour cream
3½ ounces American caviar or black lumpfish roe
2 lemons, cut into wedges (for garnish)
3 sprigs parsley (for garnish)


Grease an 8-inch spring-form pan and set aside. Mix the chopped hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise to make an egg salad. Evenly spread it into the bottom of the spring-form pan and cover with a layer of chopped onion. Stir together cream cheese and sour cream until smooth and spread over the onion layer. Wrap the pan in cellophane and chill for at least three hours in the refrigerator (but it can stay overnight).

Once completely chilled, unwrap the pan and spread the caviar over the top. Run a knife around the edge of the pie and remove the side of the spring-form pan. Garnish with lemon wedges and parsley sprigs before serving. Serve with baguette rounds or other bread on which people will spread the caviar pie.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Recipe: Pears Poached in Red Wine

6 medium-size pears
1 bottle red wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
Vanilla-bean ice cream (optional)

Peel the pears, leaving them whole with their stems in place. Pour the bottle of wine into a pot just big enough to hold the six pears. Add the cinnamon stick. Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape the insides into the wine and then add the bean. Add the sugar. Place the pears in the wine and simmer long enough for the pears to be cooked through yet still hold their shape, turning them from time to time to ensure they are evenly cooked and get the red color evenly. (A needle or the sharp edge of a knife should go in with no resistance—it should take about 20 minutes.) Allow pears to cool down in the liquid. Stand them upright and keep them in the liquid in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, or up to 24 hours. 

Hours before serving, take pears out of the refrigerator and place them in a serving dish, standing upright if possible. (You can trim the bottom to flatten them to facilitate the standing-up). Heat the liquid in the casserole to a boil and allow to reduce until it is thick enough to coat a spoon. When serving dessert, dish out a pear with a tablespoon of vanilla bean ice cream (optional), and spoon some sauce over both.

Recipe: Alsatian Flamische

In Alsace Lorraine they make a pizza-like tart that I tried this past weekend to rave reviews. Having read in a French cookbook that it can be done with pizza dough if made on a pizza stone, I took Route 44 in the direction of Pleasant Valley and bought a pizza stone at Dutchess Restaurant Supply and a bag of fresh pizza dough and a slab of smoked bacon at Adams. The ceramic pizza stone evenly distributes the oven heat, while the porous nature of the stone helps absorb moisture—resulting in a crispy crust, much like one baked in a professional pizza oven. We made them small and served them with wine before a light dinner. Of course, one could make them larger and serve as the main course, but the cooking time would probably be a bit longer.  This is the recipe for the traditional Alsatian Flamische, but the variations of toppings for these "mini pizzas" are endless, including the famous Italian version with tomato sauce and mozzarella. 

(for 12 mini-tarts)
1 pizza dough
1 pound smoked slab bacon (Schaller & Weber)
1 cup crème fraȋche
3 small white onions, sliced very thin

Heat oven to 500° F. Place the pizza stone inside and allow it to heat for 25- to 30 minutes while you prepare the tarts. To prepare the bacon, trim off and discard the hard edges and excess fat and slice into thin pieces roughly a half-inch long (lardons). Roll out the pizza dough as thin as you can. Cut in half and roll out again. Cut in half yet again and roll out each of the four pieces again. Take a cookie cutter or wide glass or bowl and cut three rounds in each of the pizza-dough quarters (or cut each into three triangle shapes looking like pizza slices). Place a teaspoon of crème fraȋche at the center of each mini-pizza. Spread the cream out, but not to the edges. Add on some onion slices first, and then some lardons. Place the mini-pizzas on the hot stone in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove each one with the aid of a spatula. Serve immediately.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sweet Potatoes or Yams?

My brother and I once ruined the family Thanksgiving with arguing about whether sweet potatoes and yams were the same or different types of potatoes. Turns out we were both wrong. They are members of different families, and neither is actually a potato. Neither of them would have been eaten by the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, because neither had yet been introduced into New England. In any case my mother smothered whichever one she used with brown sugar, marshmallows and maple syrup, so that it mattered little what lay under all that.

Candied Sweet Potatoes was a Good Housekeeping favorite recipe for Thanksgiving. Since then I have come to love the real taste of sweet potatoes (or yams) and prefer to cook and eat them in simpler style.

To write this article, I began an Internet investigation to determine the differences between sweet potatoes and yams, but instead of clarifying the issue, my research caused greater confusion. All authorities seem to agree that they are two different plants with different botanical and geographic origins. The confusion is traced back to when sweet potatoes became an important crop in the American South. The African slaves referred to them as "nyami" (a crop they were familiar with in Africa). They became "yams," which led to the US Department of Agriculture requiring that yams also be identified as "sweet potatoes." No wonder we are all confused.

Some culinary experts, however, say that sweet potatoes are moist and sweet, while yams are dry and starchy. Others insist that yams are the sweeter of the two. There are hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes, some of which, I am led to believe, are sweeter and more moist than yams, but others, maybe not. The single most important difference for cooks and consumers is that yams (rough, scaly brown skin and fairly light-colored flesh) are low in beta-carotene, while sweet potatoes—which usually have a smooth, darker skin and could have any shade of flesh from pale yellow to deep orange or even purple—are high in beta-carotene. The darker the “meat,” the more beta-carotene, and therefore the more antioxidants and health benefits. 

In all of the following tips, suggestions and recipes, sweet potatoes and yams are interchangeable.

Selecting and storing sweet potatoes
Choose sweet potatoes with unblemished skins. Never refrigerate raw sweet potatoes, as it tends to harden the flesh and develop an unpleasant flavor.  Sweet potatoes are best stored at a cool room temperature (55° F–65° F). Cooked sweet potatoes, whether whole, mashed or candied, can be refrigerated for about a week or frozen for two- to three months.
Cooking sweet potatoes
Scrub the potatoes and boil or steam them with the skins on, which helps retain nutrients, for about 20 minutes for medium-size potatoes. Once cooked, the skins practically slide off, although they can be eaten as well.
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Baking them whole is one of my favorite ways of eating sweet potatoes. Plain, without the addition of any other ingredients, they are not particularly fattening, weighing in at an average 141 calories per spud. Look for sweet potatoes of the same size so that they require the same length of time in the oven. Bake 35- to 45 minutes (depending on size), until potatoes feel soft to slight finger pressure or a fork can be inserted easily.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Rinse but do not peel and then boil or steam medium-size potatoes about 20 minutes, until very tender. Remove the skins and mash or puree. For every pound of potatoes, add two tablespoons of unsalted butter, 1/8 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, and two to four tablespoons of milk or cream.

Sweet Potato Fries
Preheat oven to 425° F. Rinse and pat dry the sweet potatoes. Peel, cut in half and then cut into ¾-inch slices so they look like fries. Spread them out on the baking sheet so they are evenly spaced and not touching (this is important, or they will become soggy, not crispy), season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Mix them so that each fry is slightly coated with the oil and salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes, and then turn each of them over and bake another 10–15 minutes, until they are fairly dark and crispy.
Sweet Potato Casserole
Preheat oven to 350° F. For eight people, mix 4 cups of mashed sweet potatoes, 1 cup of brown sugar, 2 lightly beaten eggs, a half cup of milk, a half cup of melted butter and a teaspoon of vanilla, and place mixture into a greased 2-quart casserole dish.  Make a topping by combining a half cup of brown sugar, one-third cup of flour, one third cup of melted butter and a cup of chopped pecans. Sprinkle the topping over the sweet potato mixture and bake for 35- to 40 minutes, until hot and browned.

Time to Talk Turkey

With prices ranging from 40 cents to 9 dollars per pound, it is very difficult to decide what kind of bird it makes sense to buy. Today's legal and marketing terminology makes the choice  confusing.  I have put together a glossary along with some facts that are important to best determine which turkey to buy so that you and your guests can enjoy the culinary experience Thanksgiving can and should be. 

Age of the turkey

he flavor and tenderness of turkey meat is primarily determined by the age of the turkey at the time it is brought to market. A fryer/roaster is a small turkey of 4- to 8 pounds, usually no older than 4 months. A "Young" turkey is 4- to 8 months old has soft, smooth skin and tender meat. It is the optimum age for turkey roasting.  The meat and skin of a "yearling" (about 12 months old) are still reasonably tender but not quite as tender as in a young turkey. A "mature" or "old" turkey (15-plus months) is not suited for roasting because the meat is too tough.
Turkey gender
Hens are generally smaller than “tom” turkeys of the same age. Hens weigh less than 16 pounds, while toms always weigh more than 16 pounds. Tom turkeys have larger bones and fewer edible portions, which may be reason hens are preferred. Age, not gender, however, is the determining factor for tenderness, and all commercial turkeys are young and tender.
Turkey size
You should plan on about 1.5 lbs per person. This will ensure that you have enough on the day plus some leftovers.
Smoked turkeys
The smoking process cures and cooks the meat with indirect heat, so the turkeys are ready-to-eat. They are available in many different flavors depending on the type of fuel used for the smoking process.

Basted, self-basting or enhanced turkeys
To increase flavor, juiciness and weight, these processed turkeys are injected or vacuum-treated with salt, broth, spices, seasoning, various fats, flavor enhancers and other "approved substances."

"Fresh" or "frozen" turkeys?
If buying your turkey in a supermarket, it is hard to know just how fresh it really is. Labels can be deceiving. Turkeys are labeled "frozen" if they were chilled below 0° F. These flash-frozen turkeys are an economical choice and are frozen immediately after being butchered, so that they maintain their freshness. If marked "previously frozen," the turkey has been defrosted and cannot safely be refrozen. “Fresh” only means that the turkey has never been chilled below 26° F; it may have been butchered weeks or up to two months before being sold to you. Turkeys that have been chilled below 26° F, but not below 0° F, may not be labeled as "fresh" or "frozen," so they are often marked something creative, such as "hard-chilled" or "deep-chilled." 
Thawing a frozen turkey
The safest method is in the refrigerator. It can take up to 5 days for a 20-pound turkey to fully defrost.

Free-range turkeys
These birds are allowed to roam outdoors, which many people believe has a positive effect on the flavor of the meat, especially if the roaming area was not too crowded. The amount of space that a turkey is given to roam, regardless of whether it is indoors or out, actually affects the quality to a greater degree than if the bird is simply allowed to be outdoors.

Organic turkeys
They may be marked "organic" if they are allowed to roam outdoors (free-range), eat only organic feed and never receive any antibiotics or growth hormones. 

“Natural” turkeys
These free-range birds have very limited processing and no artificial ingredients or coloring.

Pastured turkeys
Raised outdoors, these turkeys have spent time hunting-and-pecking for insects and grass. Their varied diet and active life makes their meat more flavorful. 

Free-range birds are fed only on grain and never given antibiotics. They are individually inspected and raised and processed with strict guidelines, under rabbinical supervision. When they are processed, the turkeys are soaked in a salty brine solution to provide maximum tenderness and to give the meat a unique flavor.

Broad-Breasted Whites
These “modern" turkeys have been bred to maximize the conversion of feed to white breast meat in the shortest possible time. This is the perfect turkey for those who prefer the white meat to the more flavorful dark meat.

“Heritage” turkeys
Turkey breeds raised on small farms before turkeys were mass marketed are known today, collectively, as "Heritage Turkeys." These free-range birds generally have longer bodies and smaller breast muscles and are bit leaner than most Broad-Breasted Whites. They require an additional 2- to 3 months to grow to the proper size, making them more expensive than commercially raised birds. Their excellent flavor, texture and tenderness make them well worth the money. 

Bourbon Reds
These turkeys are named for their striking red plumage and for Bourbon County, Kentucky, where they were first bred in the 1800s. They're known for a delicious, full flavor and are considered one of the best-tasting heritage turkey breeds.

New England's traditional turkey. Flavorful meat.

Midget White
A smaller variety than most, these are a cross between Royal Palm turkeys and Broad-Breasted Whites. They are known for their deep, delicious flavor.

White Holland
Originally bred in Holland, this turkey has average flavor and tenderness.

Standard Bronze
Over American history Bronzes have been the most popular turkey variety. Originally they were a cross between the domesticated turkeys brought to the colonies by Europeans and the native wild turkeys of America.

Royal Palm
These turkeys were bred more for their good looks (striking black and white plumage) than for their  flavor. 

Black Turkeys
Black Spanish, or Norfolk Black, turkeys, were domesticated from Mexican wild turkeys brought back to Europe by the first Spanish explorers who visited the New World.

To brine or not to brine?
The greatest controversy amongst foodies these days is whether or not to brine turkey before roasting.
Many cooks swear by brining because it makes for a moister, more tender meat. On the other hand, brining makes it harder to get a crisp skin, leaves the cooking juices too salty to use for sauce or gravy, and gives the breast meat the texture of deli turkey (which I hate) rather than roasted turkey breast (which I love). So I personally prefer not to brine.
The most important roasting tip for turkey is to remember that the breast cooks much faster than the dark meat, and the bigger the bird, the greater the difference. There are many methods to avoid drying out the white meat while waiting for the dark meat to cook thoroughly. Some people like to cook the bird in aluminum foil or a special plastic roasting bag, but this stews the meat rather than roasts it. The secret I learned from Cordon Bleu many years ago is to soak a cheese cloth in melted butter and cover the breast with it, changing the cloth whenever it gets too brown and leaving it off for the last hour of cooking. 
Do not stuff your turkey ahead of time, as harmful bacteria growth could spoil the uncooked turkey. Just before roasting, stuff the body and the neck of the turkey. Do not pack the stuffing/dressing in the turkey, because the stuffing will expand during cooking. If packed in too tightly, it will be very dense instead of light. Using kitchen twine or skewers, tie or truss the abdomen closed and the legs together close to the body so that the stuffing cooks evenly. Alternatively stuffing can be baked in a separate pan.
Roasting pans
Use a shallow roasting pan. In a deep roasting pan, the meat will steam, not roast. If your turkey is 12 pounds or more, beware of the aluminum foil disposable roasting pans; they are not sturdy enough to hold a large bird and can buckle up and cave in when you are trying to remove the hot turkey from the oven.
Roasting times
A turkey is ready to be removed from the oven when it reaches 165° F at the thigh. How long this takes depends on the temperature of the oven, the size of the bird, whether it was frozen or fresh,  and whether it is stuffed or not. Plan on 20 minutes per pound in a 350° F oven for an unstuffed, defrosted turkey, or 15 minutes per pound for fresh. Add 5 minutes per pound if stuffed.

The purpose of basting is to produce a golden brown, crispy skin. It does not really produce moisture or otherwise improve the flavor of the interior turkey (that is accomplished with the cheesecloth dipped in melted butter—see "Roasting," above). You lose oven heat by opening the door too often, so keep the basting to a minimum, especially during the last hour of cooking.
“Resting” the bird
Allow the turkey to rest under an aluminum-foil tent (loosely placed to cover the turkey) from 20- to 30 minutes before carving so that the juices can redistribute throughout the bird. 

Leek Tart

In French this is called a Flamiche. It is a flan-like tart made with leeks cooked in milk to which lardons (pieces of trimmed slab bacon) have been added. As an impressive appetizer or a main course with a salad, this delicious Alsatian dish is always a hit—even with people who think they do not like leeks.


1 pie tart shell (Pillsbury, it can be used for savory tarts)
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 pound leeks
½ pound slab bacon
1 cups boiled milk (I use skim)
2 tablespoons flour
Freshly ground pepper


Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to coat the pie shell. Roll out the dough and line a 9-inch pie plate with it. Poke with a fork five or six times and freeze until you are ready to fill it. (Freezing the pie shell helps it hold its shape and resist absorbing the liquid from the filling; poking the holes avoids air bubbles.)

Trim off and discard the green part of the leeks so that there is only the white. Cut the white into fine rounds. Wash in cold water, separating the rounds to ensure that all of the dirt between the layers is removed. Line a mixing bowl with paper towels, place the washed leeks in the bowl and pat dry with more paper towels. Trim and discard the fatty section of the bacon slab and trim the hard exterior of the meat side. Slice across the remains of the slab into small, thin bits (which are called "lardons").  

Boil the milk and set aside. Preheat oven to 400° F. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium-large frying pan. Gently heat the lardons in the butter until they begin to color. Add the rest of the butter and the leeks on a very low flame and allow to cook slowly (not coloring) for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add half of the flour and stir. Add the rest of the flour and stir again. Allow to gently cook. Gradually add the milk (cold or warm), seasoning a couple of times with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Simmer on low heat for about 25 minutes. Remove pie shell from freezer, pour leek mixture into the shell and immediately place in the hot oven for about 20 minutes or until it turns golden brown. Remove from the oven and remove excess liquid with a paper towel. Serve piping hot in the pie plate or slide it onto a round plate.

Butternut Squash & Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks (whites only), washed and chopped
1 pound dry lentils
1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 pound butternut squash, cut into chunks

In a soup pot, melt the butter and sauté the leeks until translucent but not brown. Add the lentils and mix with the leeks. Add potato, carrot and squash. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Add more liquid if necessary. When all ingredients are soft, puree with a mixer. Serve with a dab of crème fraȋche or heavy cream in each plate. 

The Boyer Croque Monsieur

        Variation: For the Croque-Madame, just fry up an egg, place it on top and sprinkle with parsley.
There are literally dozens of ways of making this French working-class classic—some require special utensils. The Boyer family's open-faced sandwich uses half the bread, is easy to prepare in the average kitchen and is a family favorite. (Serves four. This recipe calls for two slices of bread each, but some of the family do ask for a third.) 

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk (I use skim)
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch nutmeg
8 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
8 ounces baked Virginia ham, sliced (but not paper-thin)                                                                           
8 slices Gruyère (Swiss Cheese)                                                                                                                
2 large tomatoes, sliced
3 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400° F.
Melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan and add the flour, whisking until it becomes unified into a paste. Slowly add the milk, ¼ cup at a time, whisking so that the milk is absorbed by the mixture and makes a thick white sauce (Béchamel). Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg, and set aside. Toast the bread, placing the slices on a baking sheet, and bake until a light golden color (two- to three minutes). Turn each slice and bake for another one- to two minutes, until lightly toasted. Lightly brush the toasted breads with the Béchamel sauce. Add a slice of ham to each, top with a slice of Gruyère and finally with a slice of tomato, and bake the open-faced sandwiches for 3-4 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil for one- to three minutes, or until the cheese topping is bubbly and lightly browned and the tomato is cooked. Serve hot with a knife and fork.

My Lasagna

I have been making lasagna for many years, following many different recipes requiring varying degrees of work and difficulty. This is the recipe that I find offers the most taste and satisfaction for the least amount of work. It uses many shortcuts that do not sacrifice flavor. It takes about 45 minutes to prepare plus 45 minutes in the oven. My family—including Gerard—is always happy when I make it. This lasagna is probably his favorite non-French dish. 

(Serves six–eight)

2 cans (14.5-oz ) Del Monte Stewed Tomatoes (Original)
2 cans (14.5-oz ) Del Monte Stewed Tomatoes (Italian Style or with Basil, Onions and  Garlic)
3 leaves fresh basil
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
2 pounds chopped beef (least fat)
1 pound thawed frozen sausage meat (Jones) or fresh sausage meat
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 pint milk (1-percent or skimmed is fine)
Dash grated nutmeg (optional)
2 packages Barilla's NO BOIL Lasagna pasta
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 sliced fresh mozzarella or bag of shredded mozzarella (Sargento)
1 cup grated Parmesan (optional)


Preheat oven to 350° F.

Make the tomato sauce:
Empty all four cans of tomatoes into a food processor (or into a pot if you use an immersion blender) and mash until they become a thick liquid. Warm up with the fresh basil in it, remove from the heat and allow the basil flavors infuse the tomatoes. Remove the basil before using.

Sauté the meat:
Sauté the chopped onion in the heated olive oil. When soft and translucent but not yet browned, add the minced garlic. Break up the chopped meat and sausage meat into bits and add to the pan, turning so that all of the meat browns evenly and mixes with the onions. Add salt and pepper. Drain and add a half cup of the tomato sauce. Mix.

Make the béchamel sauce:
In a saucepan, over low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and whisk in the 2 tablespoons of flour. While constantly whisking, slowly add (¼ cup at a time) two cups of milk (I use skim). It will thicken. Remove from heat. Add salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg. Cover the bottom of an oven-proof lasagna pan (roughly 9 inches x 14 inches, or 8 inches x 12 inches) with this white sauce.

Prepare the pasta:
The no-boil pasta makes this dish so much easier to make than when we had to boil the pasta first and deal with the wet noodles. The only inconvenience is learning to gently break the uncooked pasta to fit your dish without crumbling the pieces. Now that I have mastered the technique, I actually only use one box of pasta—but I suggest you purchase two so that you have some spares. Place a layer of uncooked pasta in the béchamel sauce to cover the bottom of the pan. The pieces will probably not fit exactly, so you will have to gently break a few of them in half lengthwise to fill in the gaps. (This does not have to be exact. There can be a very little space between them or at the sides.)

Layer the lasagna:
Ladle a thin layer of tomato sauce over the dry pasta and cover with half of the meat. Use a spatula to spread evenly and cover the entire layer. Place another layer of dry pasta and cover with the ricotta cheese. Add another layer of pasta and meat. Place the last layer of pasta and cover with tomato sauce. Cover with mozzarella and spoon on a bit more tomato sauce.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40- to 45 minutes. Allow to stand, covered with aluminum foil, for 10 minutes before serving.  Spoon some of the remaining tomato sauce on each portion and serve with grated Parmesan on the side for those who wish to add it. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Wiener Schnitzel (Breaded Cutlets)

The original Viennese "Wiener Schnitzel"  was always made from veal cutlets and no other meat, and for me they are still the best. But schnitzels are also good when made of pork, chicken or turkey breast. The important thing is to ensure that the boneless meat has been thinned and tenderized with a mallet before coating and cooking. Serve with Spaetzle, boiled potatoes or—best—parslied potatoes (see below). If making the parslied potatoes, you will want to begin making them before frying the tenderized cutlets. 

(Serves four)

4 veal cutlets, trimmed of any excess fat
Kosher salt
Fresh-ground black pepper
Flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten
Plain breadcrumbs (for breading)
Vegetable or peanut oil (for frying)
1 lemon, cut into slices or wedges
Fresh parsley, chopped


Put a cutlet down on a solid surface and then cover it with a double layer of plastic wrap. Using a wide mallet or a heavy-bottomed pan, pound the meat evenly until it is about 1/8″ thick all around. Repeat with the other pieces. Salt and pepper the cutlets and then dust them with flour. Dip a cutlet into the egg, making sure you evenly coat both sides, and then put it in the breadcrumbs. Turn it over to bread the other side with the crumbs. Hand-press the breadcrumbs into the meat, getting an even coating of breadcrumbs with no “bald spots.” Repeat with the rest of the cutlets.

In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat about 1/8″ of oil until hot. (You can test to see if the oil is hot enough by dropping a breadcrumb into the oil—it should sizzle and float to the top quickly.) Fry one or two cutlets at a time (depending on the size of your cutlets and pan). Wait until you see the edges turn golden; then, using tongs, gently flip it over and fry until the other side is golden. While the cutlets are frying, get a plate or wire rack with three layers of paper towels ready. As they finish, transfer the cooked cutlets to the paper towel–lined plate to soak up any excess oil.

To serve, plate the cutlets and garnish with lemon slices or wedges and parsley.

To make parslied potatoes, boil baby Yukon Golds, washed but still in their skins. When fully cooked, take them out of the water and allow them to reach room temperature. Before frying the cutlets, pull off the potato skins. While the cutlets are frying, melt some butter in a separate pan and warm the potatoes in the butter. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and chopped parsley.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Eating in France 2013

The following appeared as a series of articles (4 in total) in The Millbrook Independent describing our three week vacation in France indulging in food and wine. 


By the time you read this article, Gerard and I will be in France on a three-week whirlwind tour visiting friends and family, from which I will be reporting on my culinary experiences. I expect them to be good—even exceptional, as most of our friends and family are true foodies. But in addition to describing wonderful dishes and giving a few recipes, I shall be looking into a couple of specific aspects of French food in 2013.

First is the big question of gluten intolerance: why is it not a problem in France? The French think we are a bit crazy, as they don’t have this problem. Some months ago my doctor suggested that I read the book "Wheat Belly," by Dr. William Davis. As I read, it became obvious that I was one of those people who have developed a wheat intolerance; I was suffering from unpleasant symptoms (descriptions of which have no place on a Food page). I embarked on a gluten-free diet, and unfortunately I must report that it worked. I began to feel much better. As I read the French press mocking us for our "gluten-free" craze, it occurred to me to reread the passages of the book in which the good doctor puts the blame on American flour.

Dr. Davis explains that the flour we consume today is very different from the flour grandma used for her pies. Today’s over-processed flour is made from wheat that has been cultivated with 50- or 60 years of "continuous improvement" and genetic modification aimed at improving yield per acre.  The result creates indigestion for many people. This phenomenon squares with the campaigns in France (and Italy) against Monsanto and other firms that have tried to impose their GMO (genetically modified organism) crops on the lands of "slow food." So my hypothesis is: maybe the wheat-based breads, pastries and pasta in France and Italy do not pose the same problem. As I was considering this radical idea, I received an email from Mother Earth News asking, "Is Being Gluten-Intolerant an American Problem?" In the article a number of readers who had been gluten-free at home recount their experiences on trips to Europe, during which they consumed gluten products: they had no adverse reactions. So, in consultation with my doctor, I’ll try the experiment and just eat the way the French do. I shall let you know if my symptoms come back.

Second, it has been reported in France that the recession has had an adverse effect on the French diet. According to a recent study, the French midday break is down to an average of 22 minutes, compared with nearly 90 minutes two decades ago, when I lived there. Fast-food expenditures now account for 54 percent of restaurant sales. Of course, fast food in France does not refer strictly to McDonald's (whose sales in France are slumping this year). The most important drivers of the fast-food trend are the French boulangeries that offer freshly made soups, salads, quiches, pasta, or sandwiches for the same price as a Big Mac and fries. In France the restaurant business has been hit hard by the recession. 
Third, in an effort to reduce prices, many of the mid-level restaurants are resorting to "reheating outsourced ready-made meals," said lawmaker Daniel Fasquelle, who voted for a law requiring restaurants to print "fait maison" (homemade) on menus indicating dishes made from scratch. "I don't want chefs replaced by microwaves. Forty percent of tourists come here for our cuisine," he said. "If food quality continues to deteriorate, at some point jobs will be at stake. France is not like other countries when it comes to cuisine. It's the country of good food, good wine and we must keep it that way." Of course, I agree with him, and I shall try to get some perspective on these trends and report back to you on any changes I see.
Our first day in France, Gerard and I went to the local outdoor market. It is a relatively small market situated in the suburbs of Paris. Half of the stands were closed because it was August, yet there were still two fish mongers, three fruit and vegetables stands, two meat and a poultry vendor, a bakery, as well as a dairy and cheese specialist. The fruit stands seemed to go on forever with a vast array of peaches, berries and plums. Many kinds of plums each sweeter than the next. It was a feast for the eyes. The fish monger had more kinds of fish than I could recognize, and of course the Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops) still with their corals on them. It seems that we prudes in America, cut off the corals because they are the roe (eggs) and the semen of these hermaphrodites. The French fearing no such association with reproduction, enjoy both the muscle and the coral.

Veal hanger steak
At the meat counter my eye was caught by a cut I had never seen before. Next to the "onglet" or hanger steaks, was a similar cut but a lighter shade of pink and marked "onglet de veau" or veal hanger steak. Having never had or even heard of this before, I am pretty sure this was not readily available years ago when I lived in France, so I was eager to try it. We bought a few, pan fried them and served them with a bit of parsley-garlic butter.  Delicious. Tender, juicy and a stronger veal flavor than most cuts of veal. I wish we had it in Millbrook. That night Loulou (who will be 90 next week) made a soup au pistou with beans, carrots, leeks, potatoes, string beans and of course the basil- garlic-parmesan pesto sauce added at the table.

Lunch in Celles sur Belles

With an eight hour drive ahead of us, Gerard and I decided to break it up with a lovely lunch. We chose a restaurant in this little village known for its 17th Century Royal Abbey. In the shaded garden we enjoyed a special cocktail of Tourteau (much like a Dungeness crab its meat is somewhere between a crab and a lobster) over a brunoise de legumes.  We each had fish unknown in our waters, he a Filet de Loubine, and me a Pave de Maigre Girotte. Both were mild flavored white fish served in boneless fillets.  To finish we shared an incredibly impressive dessert made with meringue, almond cream and white chocolate which was as good as it looked. 


Here I sit on a splendid terrace surrounded by huge planters of red, pink and purple flowers, overlooking many miles of farmlands. We are visiting Laurent & Michelle Manrique (the couple's whose wedding we attended last year in Hawaii). Laurent is an extremely creative chef. His excellent mastering of French technique is combined with an innate and incredibly developed sense of taste and smell. He is capable of recalling them the way others can recall airs of music. And with a flair he can imagine how flavors will combine and create new dishes. (Readers will remember the watermelon, tomato and lobster salad he created one night at our home in Millbrook).  Patrons of Café de la Presse, Rouge et Blanc, Blanc et Rouge or the new Aquitaine in San Francisco or Millesime (where I fell in love with his lobster pot au feu) in NYC will understand.

We are in the tiny village of Roques, the birthplace of Laurent.  Population of the town is 115, but the village itself is but 22. At least half of them are relatives. We are with Laurent, his family and his partner Chris. They pulled out all the stops and made us a number of Gascogne specialties.
 The aperitif - the traditional "Pousse Rapière" (sword thrust) made of 3/4 Champagne and 1/4 Armagnac (official recipes suggest creme de amagnac) was served. Legend has it that the Three Musketeers (heroes of Gascony) drank this before battle to give them the strength to thrust the blades of their swords into and through the hearts of their enemies. 

Gascony is, of course, the home of foie gras, so we can expect to have it served in one fashion or another each day of our three day stay here. This evening was foie gras du canard made by Laurent's mother, Nicole and served simply on toast to accompany the Pousse Rapier. Then came her sister Glady's famous escargot. The recipe is traditionally one of the Basque country with some North African influences (left over from the Moors.) Unlike the classic "Escargots à la Bourguignonne" with herb butter, these snails are in a slightly piquant sauce made with tomatoes, ham, onions, and red peppers and seasoned with garlic, paprika, and cumin. No special escargot dishes or instruments here. Each of us was given a ladle of snails and a toothpick and with which we easily extricated them. I was told that the more traditional Gascone way of preparing snails is straight on the grill. Having been fed a special diet long enough for them to rid themselves of any nasty elements, the snails are placed alive on the burning charcoals with just a bit of salt and a drop or two of oil to cook up perfectly. Our hosts explained they had had a mishap the week before as the escargot were still far too alert when placed on the grill so they had actually starting walking right out of the fire. This turned off a few of the guests, so they have come back to Gladys's recipe.

The main course was of course, magret de canard. Very simply grilled on the barbecue. No rub, no marinade, no sauce. Just plain grilled duck. The choice offered was between rare or very rare ensuring that each piece was both tender and rich with flavor.  (If you do not like your meat rare, it is better to eat chicken, because the duck becomes too chewy and loses much of its great flavor when overcooked.)  I asked Laurent if we could grill the magrets we found in America this way. He answered, "alas, no. They just are not the same." The magrets were served with what the Gascones call "baked potatoes", meaning they are made in the oven. But unlike our baked potatoes, these Yukon Golds (Agata in French) are peeled, cut up into 1/2 "cubes and baked on a heated cookie sheet that has been greased with duck fat. Seasoned with salt and pepper, they cooked at 350F for the 30-40 minutes it took for the aperitif. During this meal we went on crescendo from a lovely wine to the sublime.  We started with a Cote-Rotie, M Chapoutier, 1994, then a wine from the South West which is little known in the US called a Madiran, Chateau Monteus, 1990. We continued with a Pomerol Chateau La Fleur-Petrus 1993 and then a St. Emillion Grand Cru 2003 from Chateau Lassegue, and finally a Chateau Lafitte Rothschild Pauillac,1992. Dessert was the "Croustade Gasconne" a regional specialty made of apples, or in this case, peaches, cream and a topping of handmade razor thin crispy flakes of a filo type dough. I could imagine the hours of work involved in confectioning this lovely dessert, as the flakes melted in my mouth giving way to the sweet yet slightly tart  peach flavor. The experience was enhanced by the spectacular pairing with a lovely sauterne- a Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2001.

Dinner took a good three hours and I must hasten to add that we were 12 people consuming all of this. We ate leisurely and it occurred to me that lively conversation is very much a part of the dining experience in France. We ate slowly savoring each item and entertaining each other with funny stories. My French impressed one of Laurent's uncles when he realized that this American fully recognized just how off color some of his stories were.  
Last week we drove to a small mountain village St. Chely D'Aubrac in Auvergne. It is on a pilgrimage trail, so many a hiker is spotted with their back packs and walking sticks stopping at cafes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our three days here would not be as rustic as that. We were visiting our friends, Francois and Martine, at their country home. It is a stone house and garden overlooking a mountain stream . The soothing sound of the watering rushing by adds to the ambiance. The interior has been redone and has all of the space and comforts of a modern home furnished with a charming mixture of traditional and modern pieces.  They welcomed us with a simple but tasty dinner at home. Grilled baby lamb chops (lamb was naturally raised in nearby Lozere).  As I side dish we ate sauteed zucchini with cantal cheese melted on top. I would soon discover that melting cantal cheese (or tomme fraiche) into or on top of various dishes is an important element of Auvergne cuisine. The dinner was finished with a "Flausanne" - a flan baked in a Pate de Fouace - a thin layer of brioche pastry to which a touch of fleur d'orange has been added, another regional specialty made by the local bakery.

Francois and Martine love food but prefer to eat out giving us the opportunity to discover this very beautiful region by driving to the most interesting culinary destinations in the area. It is important to mention that on this trip we did not visit BRAS, which is, of course, the best table in the area and one of the best in France. We did so ten years ago on our last trip to Aubrac when Michel Bras was still at the helm. He has passed the reigns to his son Sebastian, who was already cooking when we came last time. By all accounts the quality and creativity have remained at the same level, so I would encourage anybody passing through who cares more about great food than the cost of it, to try to get a reservation there. Our mission this year is to discover new places and really learn the traditional specialties of the regions we visit.

Auberge de Méjanassère.
Our first such adventure was luncheon (it started at 1:00 and ended at 4:00) at the Auberge de
Méjanassère. Near to nothing it is situated at the end of a 3 mile dirt road that climbs the mountain through a series of hair pin turns. It is actually a farm and a vineyard that has a few hotel rooms, and a restaurant which serves a copious meal made essentially from the products they raise on the farm.  However, you do not get to choose. They make what they choose to and you are served it and nothing else. Another peculiar practice is that they only serve one meal a day alternating between lunch and dinner. When calling to reserve a table you may learn when and what they are serving. There is room for about 35 people inside and another 25 on the terrace. We went for lunch and ate on the terrace and loved everything they brought us.

Lunch started with the traditional Auvernac plate of homemade charcuterie of terrines, pates, hams and salamis with pickles and bread. A simple taste of each is all that is recommended because it is easy to fill up on these delicacies leaving no room for the parade of specialties that are about to follow.  In good time (the service is not rushed) a  platter of "pascade aux herbes" was brought to the table. They looked like potato pancakes, but instead of being made from potatoes and onions this seemingly healthier version is made with spinach and Swiss chard. Delicious. We each ate two. Fortunately that is all there was because it would have been difficult to resist a third and there is still much more food to come.  (The very easy recipe for pascade is featured on this page.) A salad of local greens with edible flowers was net. Followed by sliced roast pork that was roasting on the spit when we entered. Most important was the traditional aligot - a puree of potatoes mixed with cream and cantal cheese. Probably not included on too many diets, but definitely a great tasting dish. I prefer it as a main course with a salad than as a side dish, but we all have to make sacrifices.   A cheese platter of local cheeses and homemade ice cream with fruit for dessert finished off the meal. All of the wines were made on premise and accompanied well the meal. After driving home we went for a long walk and a short rest to get ready for dinner. We would have to eat again.

Buron et Lac de Born
A mere 45 minute drive to reach the Plateau D' Aubrac, a large expanse of flat fields fairly high on the mountains, where the cows are brought to graze from the end of May until October. The Aubrac race are well known and prized for their delicious grass fed beef. Almost no fat but much flavor. The buron is a rustic bistro where only traditional dishes are served and the Aubrac beef is served in a variety of cuts. We took the "Cote de Boeuf" and while they recommended one for two people we six shared two and there was some left over for a doggie bag. (Of course, we had had a copious lunch and were not starving.) Before the main course we were served the obligatory charcuterie and surprised ourselves by tasting their pates, ham and salamis, which were just as good but very different from those we had eaten at lunch. The red meat was served bright red and it was barely tolerated to ask for it to be cooked a bit more.- like a dark pink. But it was tender an flavorful and much better rare than medium rare. I took only a spoonful of the aligot, enough to compare it with that of lunch. (this one had a rather strong garlicky flavor and seemed heavier than the one I loved at lunch. I opted for the other traditional side dish which is the truffade (also known as Refortillat).  This is a pan filled with potatoes on which cantal has been melted.) Unaware of its heritage, I have been making a similar dish for years with Swiss cheese. We drank Marsillac, a varietal that is grown in the region and seemed to go well with everything we ate, but there was no need to export it.

Restaurant de Vieux Pont, Belcastel
In a picture book village set in a tiny valley along the banks of the Aveyon, sits a beautiful stone bridge covered in ivy. Overlooking the bridge and the river is this lovely fine dining restaurant where we had our last meal in Auvergne. The chef welcomed us with a refreshing zucchini gazpacho. The three course meal consisted of a tomato confit and eggplant crumble, lamb sweetbreads with cauliflower puree (what a great idea!) and roast veal.  A very nice local wine "Ondenc" was served. We listened to the story of the large castle that dominate the village, which had remained empty for many decades until recently bought by an American couple who refurbished it and now spend their summers in this lovely village. I asked their name and the restauranteur smiled and admitted to only remembering their first names: Nick and Heidi. I later found out that their last name is Leone.

Giscard d'Estaing
While we are on the subject of names, villages and castles, I was amused to see another lovely village nearby called Estaing. Showing off my profound knowledge of French culture I remarked that I assumed that this was the native village of the former president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. My hosts were quite amused at my naive American assumption, and responded that no, his family was never from the village but that they had purchased the "d'" indicating the nobility. French nobles traditionally place a d' (meaning "of") after their name and before the name of their village to indicate their position. When a noble line comes to an end because of a lack of male heirs, one may purchase it, which Giscard's family did. Recently Giscard himself purchased the chateau in that same village so posterity will probably forget how it was gotten.

In promised to report back on how boulangeries/patisseries have fought back and won over the invading fast food chains. They have added sandwiches, crepes, individual portioned quiches, varieties of French versions of individual pizzas and other finger food that they sell for a fast food which the French prefer to hamburgers and fries. MacDonald is still going strong but sales have slumped as these traditional French vendors learned a few lessons from them and have increased their market share.  Now, I see the word "sanwicherie" added to the boulangerie, patisserie signs.

Gluten-freeIt is now 10 days that I have not been gluten free in France and must report that I am not having the kinds of problems I had in the US that made me give up gluten. One of the signs on a bakery may explain why. It read "All of our products are made with flour made from wheat that has been naturally cultivated and milled locally". 

Aix en Provence
I doubt that there is a better way to visit Aix en Provence than as guests of Frederic & Shirin Fekkai. The estate they built on what was once barren land is sumptuous. Breathtaking views, manicured gardens, fields of lavender and a large house that was well designed and decorated to be both beautiful and comfortable. So comfortable that I have to force myself to drive the five minutes it takes to get into town. But we did and visited the famous market where we saw probably over 100 vendors selling all sorts of produce, as well as the pottery, tablecloths, and espadrilles for which Provence is famous.

Frederic was planning a Pizza Party for the evening, so we stopped at La Fromagerie Du Passage Agard. Rarely have I seen such a beautiful boutique. Walls of wine bottles with a choice of at least 15 different roses from Provence in all different sizes. The display cases of certainly over 100 cheeses and saucissons Basques. We bought a "Jesus" which was one of the best saucissons either of us had ever tasted. We lunched at L'Epicerie at the Place de 3 Ormeaux.  As the name indicates, it is a grocery store that sells fine foods, but it also has a lovely terrace where they serve meals or coffee and tea in between lunch and dinner. There was a tempting choice of salads and main courses but my culinary curiosity got the best of me when I saw that their specialty was a "Roast Chicken au Coca Cola." Having spent 10 years of my life advertising Coca Cola to the French, I was stupefied to see this on one of their menus.  I have never even seen it in Atlanta! The chicken was moist and the skin nice and crispy. There was a slightly sweet flavor in the dark meat but nothing to prevent me from enjoying the meal. The desserts however were worth the detour. A lemon tarte that was exceptional, but above all the best Baba Au Rhum I have ever eaten. Actually I never much liked this dessert which I remember as a rich, heavy, soggy cake soaked in rum. Too wet, too heavy, too sweet. But they insisted we try it and brought to us a fairly large single portion cake with a syringe filled with rum. The cake itself was light and fluffy with a touch of rum flavor. When we emptied the syringe onto the cake so it absorbed more rum, it did not have the time to get soggy but stayed light and fluffy with the rich flavor of what was clearly an excellent rum. I highly recommend this dish.

Here in Aix (I am getting very local by using the town's nickname) when you have a pizza party  for about 30 people, you do not get the pizza delivered.  A truck comes to you and makes the pizzas to order on the spot.  Thin crusted in a variety of toppings: with and without tomatoes, cheese, olives, anchovies and mushrooms. Some boasted that the pizzas were better than in Italy, but with hats off to my Italian friends, I must say they were at least just as good.

After Aix we drove to Avignon to see the famous bridge and were enchanted by the beauty of the Pope's Palace (the popes from 1309 to 1378 were all French and housed in Avignon, not Rome.) At the foot of the palace is the La Mirande Hotel, once a cardinal's mansion, now a 5 star hotel
and highly noted gastronomic restaurant. We ate in the beautiful gardens and were as impressed with the food as the ambiance. We selected the " Méli-mélo of heirloom tomatoes, parmesan shortbread and fresh goat cheese." I expected the tomatoes to be flavorful, which they were, but the parmesan shortbread was a true discovery.  The main course was an exquisite Seabass fillet served with baby artichokes and roasted fingerling potatoes. Dessert was to our surprise a Baba au Rhum, which was good but not quite as good as the one at L'Epicerie. . Chef Jean-Claude Aubertin  came to greet us and took us for a tour of both the modern and the old basement kitchens and wine cellar- built in the early 17th century. He expects to be coming to New York this winter, and we made plans to visit one of our better restaurants together.

Frog's Legs
Last June,  the New York Times did a write up on a restaurant in Les Echets (a little village outside of Lyon) that specialized in frogs' legs claiming it was "a temple to frogs." Gerard who had, in his boyhood, enjoyed both catching and eating frogs prepared by his restaurateur grandmother, immediately made reservations for us and our trip was rerouted to include a frogs leg dinner.  I probably would have skipped the experience conjuring up memories of very garlicky frogs' legs dripping in butter, but marriage requires compromise, so I agreed.

The restaurant has been a notable stop for travelers for the last century and has remained in the family for four generations.  Master Chef, Christophe Marguin, offers a menu of many appetizing dishes, but we were here for the frogs' legs, so that is what we chose.   We were served frogs' legs in three different ways: fricassee, soup, and finally the classic sautéed frogs’ legs in butter. For this last dish, Chef Marguin lightly coats the frogs' leg with a very fine flour, heats the butter in a large frying pan until it sizzles forming large bubbles. The secret to success is waiting until the butter foams and rises in the pan turning nut-colored before putting the frogs' legs in to cook. As soon as they turn crispy brown, they are turned over one by one. Then they are sprinkled with raw chopped parsley and garlic and placed under the broiler for just five seconds before serving. They were succulent. We were advised that they are best eaten with your fingers (which seems incongruous in the classic fine dining restaurant) but I looked around and found that was the way that most of the diners were eating them. The frogs' legs dinner remains a highlight of our three weeks of eating in France. For dessert he too offered a Baba Au Rhum (it seems to be in igh fashion this season), but we opted for something chocolate instead.

Now we return to Millbrook, where our meals will be salads, vegetables, fish and chicken, all in small portions until we lose the extra pounds we put on during our gastronomic holiday. In rereading this column, I relived some of those moments and have to admit, I think it was all worth it.