I have been thinking that two of my favorite things, when it comes to cooking, are old-fashioned “grandmother’s cooking” and, of course, seasonal cooking. The former is often categorised (sometimes in a deprecating manner) as “comfort food”, meaning not serious food, something warm, tasty, satisfying but ultimately not exciting, modern or inventive. Then we have my other favorite, the much-loved, very fashionable, seasonal cooking or even better, local, seasonal cooking. Seasonal cooking can be of any variety, it can range from just cooking old family recipes with the vegetables from the garden behind the house to the avant-garde lab cooking of hyped up restaurants. But taking a closer look, “granny cooking” was always seasonal and usually local too. The vegetables in the stew never came from South Africa or New Zealand (unless that’s where the granny lived), they came from the garden or the market. I suppose the moral of the story is that when we look to the future we should always keep one eye on the past, when it comes to most matters granny knew best.
Inspired by these two muses of mine I have been cooking a lot of seasonal, old-fashioned food lately. And at the moment nothing is more in season than the most beautiful of greens, the endive (or the chicory as it is known to many). In France everybody’s grandmother used to make “endives au jambon” since anyone can remember, it’s a dish so unoriginal that few restaurants would dare serve it, which makes it rare, hard to find and thus priceless. Of course you can make a real mess of “endives au jambon“, you need good quality, crunchy, endive (chicory). And you need really, really good ham. Which brings me to a recent discovery. In our village there is a hairdresser and a shop that is also a bar. In the morning you can find camouflage wearing hunters drinking beer or stronger at the bar and in the evenings you can find the same camouflage wearing hunters drinking beer but usually stronger at the bar. The little store has a bit of everything, mostly canned products and such but they have wonderful eggs and the most amazing cooked ham that I’m in love with. The ham comes from a local producer by the way. When you bring home a box filled with endives and ham it just seems so obvious to wrap one around the other and cover them with a blanket of béchamel and grated cheese. I’ve been making it a lot this month and I will continue for a while until my appetite tells me to take a pause and have some more … next year.
Channeling a grandmother, serving up old-fashioned food on a daily basis, is never more appropriate than when you have a full house of hungry men, working hard in all conditions, trying their best to meet our deadlines, fighting alongside us in this wrestle with a house. We have Bruno, the electrician, who works quietly and thoroughly with his two apprentices who are also his children. Then there is Monsieur Bianco, the ever smiling plumber of Italian heritage who also has a son of an apprentice and a Rolodex of 1.100 clients according to his own account (which makes us clients no 1.101). I believe his bragging because his phone never stops ringing and I have observed that his work involves just as much networking on the mobile as it does fixing pipes. Yet somehow he gets things done beautifully which is all that matters. Last but not least we have Sasha and Alexei, our Russian masters of “pierre” who are as solid as the stones they carve. Recently we had a quick, working lunch with the Russians and our third guest was Monsieur Teyssier who despite appearances seems to own half the village and properties in St Yzans. He has recently sold one of his houses to our friends Matt and Yolanda so now he owns just under half the village. Gaia, my 3-year-old, was sick that day so she joined us and completing the guest list was Audrey who is never far from my side. Monsieur Teyssier is an encyclopaedia of all St Yzans but I always manage to offend him (though not seriously) by asking him about events that occurred long before he was born “But how old do you think I am Madam?” he always says with a wry smile.
At the end of the meal Monsieur Teyssier told me he had been touched by my choice of dishes, a familiar vegetable soup, a semolina cake and most of all the endives au jambon.
“How did you know this was the food I liked” he asked?
I though about it for a while and then said:
“I guess I’m old-fashioned”.
Soupe du potager/ Farmer’s soup
A perfect country soup, rich in flavors and texture.
450 g/1 pound potatoes, diced into small cubes
2 carrots, finely diced
1 leek, sliced finely
1 celery, sliced finely
1 onion, sliced finely
3 cloves garlic, sliced finely
300 ml/1 1 1/4 cup milk
80 ml/1/3 cup cream (crème entière liquide)
300 ml/ 1 1 1/4 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
A few sprigs of parsley, chopped
Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the onion and garlic and cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add all the vegetables, cook for a few minutes then pour the chicken stock. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Scoop out half of the vegetables, and, using a vegetable masher, mash the vegetables in the soup. Return the reserved vegetables, add the milk and continue to cook for a few more minutes. Serve with a drizzle of cream, scatter the parsley and a dash of piment d’Espelette. Serve with grilled country bread.
Endives au jambon/ Chicory ham rolls
I can’t get enough of this dish, it’s perhaps one of the most cooked meals in my house these days. It’s healthy, tasty and so comforting. The mustard gives an extra punch to the endives and ham. Make sure to drain the endives properly as they retain a lot of water. And don’t forget to season lightly – the mustard is already doing a good job.
6 slices of ham, approximately 360 g/ 12-13 ounces
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
100 g/ 1 cup Gruyère cheese (or Emmenthal), grated
Salt & pepper
Steam the endives for 15 minutes. Drain the endives head down – they retain a lot of water so it is important to drain as much as possible. (I use paper towels and gently squeeze excess water just to be sure). Spread a light layer of mustard on the endives, then roll them with the ham. Repeat with each endives. Season lightly with salt & pepper.
Place the prepared endives in a baking dish. Pour the bechamel sauce, sprinkle the grated gruyère cheese on top.
Cook in a preheated oven at 180°C/350°F for about 30 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
For the bechamel sauce
40 g/ 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
40 g/1/3 cup plain flour
500 ml/2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt & pepper
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Pour the milk and whisk continuously until smooth. When the mixture starts to boil, lower the heat and cook for about 10 minutes, until thick and creamy. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Gâteau de semoule aux raisins/ Semolina & raisin cake
This cake sends me right back to cozy afternoons chatting with my grandmother – she would tell me stories of our family, we would play my favorite card game called ‘le jeu des 7 familles’. This gâteau de semoule is rich, chewy, with a hint of rum flavor, it’s simply delightful, especially drowned in a home-made crème Anglaise (custard cream).
120 g/ 2/3 cup semoule de blé extra-fine (semolina fine or extra-fine)
90 g/ 8 tablespoons sugar
2 tbsp rum
600ml/ 2 & 1/2 cups milk
1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
2 tablespoons dried dark raisins
Butter, for the cake mould
Preheat the oven to 160°C/ 320°F
In a large saucepan, heat the milk with the vanilla beans and sugar on a medium heat. When the milk starts to simmer, pour the semolina slowly and stir. Add the rum and the raisins. Take off the heat.
Butter a pan ( I chose a bundt pan), pour the semolina mixture and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes.
Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then unmold the cake on a serving plate.
For the crème Anglaise
300 ml/ 1 & 1/4 cup milk
50 g/ 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla pod, split lengthwise
3 egg yolks
In a saucepan, heat the milk, vanilla beans and sugar until it reaches a soft boil.
In the meantime, whisk 3 egg yolks in a medium-sized bowl. Pour the milk in the egg yolk bowl, whisking continuously to avoid curdling. Pour the mixture back in the saucepan, set the heat to low and whisk until the sauce thickens to a custard cream.