Over the years I’ve spoken to many great chefs about their approach to food, what’s most important in creating a meal, what is cooking all about? Invariably I get the same answer – des bons produits (good quality ingredients). If you start with bad food you’re probably going to end up with … bad food. Or at the very least you’ll have a mountain to climb, what should be an enjoyable experience turns into a salvaging operation. So when I go to the market I have all these little chefs sitting on my shoulder saying “I know you wanted this or that but look at those fresh cherries” or “I know you’re in the mood for a steak but how can you resist that fresh sea bass”. These days I go to the market with an open mind and without prejudice. I will simply buy what catches my eye, there is nothing better than a trip to a bustling food market, and when you don’t know what you’ll end up bringing home it’s even more entertaining.
The weather these last few weeks has been so fickle, some days are lovely, others seem to be from another season or another part of the world. Don’t they know we are in the south of France? A few sunny days lured out the roses by the hundreds and then the deluge washed over them, drowned them, robbed them of their color. My husband is stoic about all this “In Iceland this would be fantastic weather” he always says. The way I feel about it is that if there is no sun outside I have to create some in the kitchen.
And so it was last Wednesday that I set out for the market, armed with an umbrella of course, determined to make up for all the rain, buying not only the freshest products but quite simply anything I wanted. The first thing that caught my eye were gigantic fava bean pods with a sign next to them that read “fèves pour soupe”. My aunt once gave me a fantastic simple fava bean soup recipe that everyone loves so that was my first purchase. Next to the fava beans were the most attractive beets. The farmer told me to get them too and reminded me that you can make a lovely juice from the stalks full of vitamin C. I usually add a few carrots as well. We discussed the beets and he told me his favorite way of preparing them was to make them into chips with a pinch of fleur de sel. I couldn’t resist that idea.
What goes well with luxury chips? How about a luxury sandwich, filled with all the things I like most. I strode purposefully across the street, to one of my favorite little gems in Médoc, Les délices du palais, an old-fashioned gourmet store with hundreds of jars filled with a thousand delights, cheeses, wine and anything to do with duck. The owner, Pascale, is always in the best of moods and greets her clients with such a sunny smile, just going there is a pleasure in itself. I got some duck magret breast, a little cheeky bit of foie gras, some wine, just the pure necessities.
We hurried home and called the kids up for fava shelling duties. Hudson went straight to work, Louise just eyed the cherries, peaches and apricots and asked “What’s for dessert”. I had planned on making a meringue to go with all those delightful fruits but time got away from us and instead I just made an easy wine syrup that looks like red caramel, threw in a few vervain leaves, vanilla pods and wrapped them in a parcel like a little present to be enjoyed later.
It was all lovely but in the end we all agreed that the winner on the day had to be the dessert. For me this is what cooking is all about, you take a few fresh fruits, each delicious on their own but mixed together with herbs, spices and wine, without hardly any effort you end up with something wonderful.
Des bons produits. Rien que des bons produits.
Les délices du palais, 13 Place Gambetta, 33340 Lesparre-Médoc, France
Fava bean soup (serves 4)
450 g/ 1 pound peeled fava beans
1 onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 large potato, peeled and sliced
80 ml/ 1/3 cup chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp olive oil
Water, enough to covet the vegetable
120 g/ 1/2 cup mascarpone
A large handful of fresh mint leaves
5 pancetta slices
A handful of croûtons
Salt and pepper
A dash of piment d’espelette
Cut off tip of each pod and squeeze beans. Peel skin from each bean. In a large pot, heat olive oil and fry onions until translucent. Add garlic, fava beans and sliced potato, continue to stir for 2 more minutes. Add the chicken (or vegetable) stock, and pour water in pot, enough to cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil and lower heat. Leave to simmer for 20-25 minutes. Purée soup in a food processor and return to pot. Meanwhile, prepare the garnishing. Fry pancetta in a pan until golden and crispy, drain and set aside. Prepare croûtons – rub sliced baguette bread with a garlic clove and drizzle with olive oil – grill in oven until golden, season with sea salt and set aside. Chop shallots and mint finely. Chop pancetta and croûtons to little bits (you can also use a food processor). Set aside.
Whisk mascarpone with 2 tbsp of chopped mint. Set aside.
To serve. Place all 4 garnishing – shallots, mint, croûtons and pancetta (all chopped finely) – in the bottom of each bowl. Pour soup and add a scoop of mint mascarpone cream. Sprinkle piment d’espelette. Serve immediately.
Gourmand sandwich (serves 3-4)
1 duck magret duck breast
16 thin slices of fresh foie gras (approx 4 thin slices per sandwich)
2 figs, sliced
1 egg yolk
5 small pickles, chopped
5 capers, chopped
1 tsp tarragon
1 tbsp mustard
1 tbsp & 1/2 vinegar
180 ml/ 3/4 cup olive oil
Salt (fleur de sel de Guérande) & pepper
Beets, fresh & finely sliced with a mandoline, or as finely as possible with a knife
A few leaves of sucrine lettuce
For the duck:
Score the magret duck breasts on the fatty side using a sharp knife, cutting in a cross hatch pattern (making the cross-hatches about an inch across). Season the magret duck breasts with coarse salt, and place them on a pan, fatty side down. Heat the pan to medium. Cook the breast until the skin is crispy and most of the fat has rendered, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on thickness of breast. Pour off the fat from the pan frequently and reserve in a bowl (you can use this fat to fry potatoes, it’s delicious!). It’s best to have the meat on the rosé side. Turn magret breast over, and fry for 3 minutes. Leave to rest for a few minutes, and slice breast into slim slices.
For the foie gras:
Drain pan, wipe off residue. Sprinkle flour on the foie gras slices on both sides and fry on a sizzling hot pan for 10 seconds approx on each side. Set aside and sprinkle with fleur de sel and black pepper.
For the tartare sauce:
Combine egg yolk, vinegar, mustard and whisk mixture. Add oil, drop by drop, while whisking (I use a pair of electric whisks) until you get a thick mayonnaise-like sauce. Add finely chopped pickles, capers, tarragon, a pinch of salt and black pepper. Set aside.
For the beet chips:
Slice beets as finely as possible with a mandoline or with a knife. Heat oil in a large deep-frying pan, approx 1&1/2 inch deep. When temperature of oil reaches 190°C/ 375F, throw in sliced beets by batches for a few minutes. Drain on kitchen paper or parchment paper and sprinkle with fleur de sel.
To assemble sandwich:
Spread tartare sauce on bread, line with sucrine lettuce, add magret, foie gras, sliced figs. Season with salt and pepper. Add more sauce if desired. Serve with beet chips. Enjoy!
Peaches & cherry papillotes (serves 2-3)
2 yellow peaches, sliced
A small handful of fresh vervain leaves
50 g/ 1/4 cup granulated sugar
60 ml/ 1/4 cup red wine
1 vanilla pod, split and cut in two
1 tbsp granulated sugar, to sprinkle
Preheat oven to 210°C/ 410F
To cook in papillote: a method of cooking in which the food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked. You can use parchment paper or aluminium foil.
In a small saucepan, add sugar and wine and bring to a soft boil. Lower heat slightly and stir until mixture thickens to a syrup, about 5-6 minutes. Set aside.
Slice peaches and remove stems from cherries. Make a papillote with parchment paper or aluminium foil, place all the fruits inside, add the vanilla pod (cut in two and split lengthwise). Sprinkle vervain leaves and pour red wine syrup. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar.
Close papillote by sealing the edges firmly and bake for 10 minutes. You can have it straight from the papillote or spoon fruits and sauce on a plate. Serve immediately while warm.