Red is so hot right now
When I was in New York earlier this month I missed most all those little hands that hug me and hold me, the elbows that sometimes knock me out at night and, of course, the little faces that come with the hands, the ones with mischievous little smiles. These little hands were put to good use this weekend, shelling peas and beans but more about that later. A pair of hands comes with a pair of feet and little feet need little shoes. Gaïa, my youngest (for now), has always had a shoe obsession and changes shoes every hour of the day. Interestingly she hardly ever wears a matching pair, that would be a waste of time (so many shoes, so little time). When we were away she insisted on wearing the same princess dress every day, over her sweater, and a selection of shoes to go with it. My father-in-law was stupefied and asked “Is it normal that the kid dresses like that?” But since we’ve been back in our little corner of the world Gaïa has changed her tune and her outfit. All she wants to wear are red ballerinas. Every morning she wakes up, runs in her red ballerinas to her sister’s room and insists she wears the same. So just in case you had any doubts – Red is THE color right now, even the pears are wearing it!
Shades of Green
I have to admit that we’re still a long way from the colorful symphonies of summer but nature has taken out its paintbrush and given us a few strokes of green. And what lovely shades they are. The fava beans soup tastes like I’ve never had it before, the asparagus is even better than I remembered. I can’t wait for nature to start dipping into other colors but for now, green does it for me every day (we’re having broccoli pasta for lunch today, just let me finish writing this first). My husband and father-in-law went to the market on Saturday and came back home with crates of the greenest greens. We plunged them on our table and without so much as a human touch they arranged themselves to perfection. “Let the vegetables fall as they may” is our approach to food. All the kids joined in, there were a lot of jobs to be done. Shelling peas and beans, peeling asparagus. Those little hands did most of the vegetable work while I prepared the lamb shanks. I meant to cook them with olives and lemons but in the end I felt the olives weren’t needed so they were introduced to some charcuterie later in the day. Saturdays are market days and family food days, it seems we never stop eating. In the morning we had a huge fry-up, with Irish potato bread, eggs and bacon, then it seems that lunch just lingers on forever and finally changes its name to dinner.
Blue is the warmest color
If you are a regular reader you will be familiar with a certain blue table that more often than not holds the food I cook. It’s a very ordinary looking table, whose former life was amongst the market stalls. It came with the house when we moved here, stood inconspicuously in a corner. My husband took a liking to it and made it his makeshift desk. It’s by no means in perfect condition, with scratches and splatters of light-blue and yellow paint. It even sways down in the middle, like an old horse, from all the weight it’s carried in all its previous lives.
I would describe the color as a greenish blue but when the light hits the table in a certain way it’s almost indigo (there is a movie quote in here for you clever people). Simply put, it’s a good table and, I must admit, makes my food look good. Why am I talking, at length, about a table? You see, for me, a table is a symbol, an anchor for any family. A table has never been more important. We may not be able to live without our smartphones but we are not able to live decently without our tables. A family that sets a table every night and shares it, is at least doing something right. Food satisfies our hunger, but having it together connects us. People should not forget that. I have lived in France for a long time now and always had roots here, but I never cease to be amazed by the role food plays in our country. We take time to eat, we talk about the food, bien sûr, but the conversation goes further and before we know it stories are flying. A table is also a good place for education, especially for large families. Our kids break the rules all the time but at least they know that there are rules.
Like my mother always says “les bonnes manières commençent à table” (good manners start at the table).
And by the way, the table doesn’t have to be blue.
Here are three recipes to celebrate early spring.
Asparagus with fresh peas, fava beans and herbs.
This dish is a celebration of spring. It’s all about improvisation, you can add any seasonal greens you like. Here, the portions are light, perfect as a starter dish. The key is to cook the vegetables on a medium to high heat, so the vegetables are just cooked through, everything must be al dente. I love cooking with sorrel leaves, especially with seafood dishes. The lemony sharpness makes any dish stand out. Note: Do not overcook the sorrel leaves, or they will be all soft. Just throw them in, stir for a second or two, and serve immediately.
A bunch of fresh green asparagus, count 3 per person
A bunch of sorrel/oseille leaves
A few sprigs of fresh chives
70 g/ ½ cup chopped ramp/ aillet
2/ 3 sprigs mint, leaves picked
150 g/1 cup fresh peas, shelled
120 g/ 1 cup fresh fava beans, shelled and peeled
1 or 2 tbsp salted butter
2/3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
60 ml/ ¼ cup lukewarm water
Coarse sea-salt & freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated lemon zest, to serve
Shell the peas and fava beans. Peel the rough skin from the fava beans. Set aside. Thinly slice the ramps. Rinse all the herbs so they are ready for usage (you’ll be using kitchen scissors to cut them directly over the sauté pan).
Rinse asparagus under cold water. Peel the rough skin from the bottom half of the spears with a vegetable peeler. Cut off the rough ends. Slice the asparagus into 4 to 5 pieces. Slice the asparagus tips in half and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan on a medium to high heat, add the asparagus, peas, ramps and fava beans, saving the asparagus tips for the end as they are the most tender and cook faster. Stir for one minute then add 60 ml/1/4 cup water in the pan. Continue to gently stir for 2 to 3 minutes, until water has reduced, then add a tablespoon of salted butter. Add the asparagus tips, stir gently. With kitchen scissors, cut a few mint leaves and chives. Add the sorrel leaves. Stir everything gently. Season with salt and pepper, place on a plate and grate some fresh lemon zest on top. Serve immediately. Everything should be al dente.
Lamb confit with spices and lemon
This comforting dish is my idea for a perfect Saturday family lunch. There’s nothing more pleasurable than a cocotte slow-cooking in your oven, filling up the kitchen with the most inviting aromas. The lamb shanks are juicy and layered in flavors, the sauce is filled with lemon goodness, perfect to drizzle on a side serving of couscous. If you wish, add golden raisins and toasted almonds to the couscous to add a little extra sweetness. Make sure to pre-order the lamb shanks at your butcher’s (in France we call it ‘souris d’agneau’) as they are not always available.
6 small lamb shanks/ souris d’agneau
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon fennel seed
300 ml/ 1 & ¼ cup chicken or vegetable stock
6 cloves garlic for the paste + 8 garlic cloves for the lamb
A chunk of ginger (about 3 inches long)
4-5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 lemons, thickly sliced
Coarse sea-salt & freshly ground black pepper
For the meat paste
A small bunch of thyme
A few sprigs of rosemary
4 tablespoons liquid honey
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
Mix the peeled garlic cloves and ginger in a food processor until you get a smooth paste. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the thyme leaves, chopped rosemary leaves, nutmeg and cinnamon with the honey. Set aside.
Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper, and rub them all over with the herb and honey mixture.
In a large cocotte/ cast-iron dutch oven, heat the olive oil and brown the meat on all sides on a medium to high heat. Transfer meat to a plate. Add the fennel seeds and ground coriander in the olive oil, add the ginger and garlic paste and continue to cook until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Return the meat to the pot, stir for a few minutes to mix all the ingredients together, then add the chicken/ or vegetable stock. Bring to a soft boil, lower the heat and cover with a lid. Transfer pot to a preheated oven 160°C/ 320 F and cook lamb for 3 hours. Halfway through, add the unpeeled garlic cloves and sliced lemon and continue to cook covered. Serve with semolina (couscous) or steamed potatoes and drizzle sauce all over.
Cinnamon pancakes with Chantilly cream and pear
This recipe was kindly lent to me by my lovely Icelandic mother-in-law, Jóhanna, famous for her cinnamon pancakes. All our family members and friends rave on about her delicious pancakes, a staple dish in her household. They are extra special, not only because of the cinnamon flavor, but also for their light texture. A tip I found very useful was to cover them with a plate, then wrapping the plates in a kitchen cloth followed by a plastic bag – they keep their softness and retain all the great flavors. Here I served them with whipped cream and diced pears. Pears are subtle, so sweet and delicious, but I can’t wait for strawberry season, they will be perfect for these pancakes!
Makes about 20-25 pancakes
35 g/ 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
65 g/1/3 cup granulated sugar
500 ml/ 2 ½ cups full-cream milk
180 g/ 1 &1/2 cup plain flour
¼ tsp fine salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 to 2 pears, depending on size
250ml/ 1 cup heavy cream, for whipping
In a pancake pan, melt the butter, take off the heat and leave to cool. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine sugar and eggs. Whisk briskly for a minute, then gradually add the milk and flour, salt and vanilla extract, until you get a smooth, yet fluid batter. Add the cinnamon, mix well, then finally add the all butter that was in the pancake pan.
Heat the pancake pan on a medium to high heat. When the pan is very hot, spoon ¾ of a ladle of batter and pour on pan, swirling the pan to evenly cover the surface. Cook for a minute or so, until the edges start browning. Lift the edges slightly with a palette knife and turn the pancake to cook on the other side. For 30 seconds. The pancakes are best golden brown. Place on a plate and continue with the rest of the batter. When finished, cover with a plate, wrap with a clean tea-towel and cover with cling film (or a ziplock/ plastic bag) to keep the pancakes moist and soft. Leave to cool 10 minutes while you prepare the whipped cream and peel/ dice the pears.
Place 1 tablespoon of whipped cream in the centre of the pancake, add 2 teaspoons of diced pears. Fold in half and fold again to form a triangle. Serve immediately.