Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
I am back to my New York City kitchen after our vacation in France. This was the longest I'd ever been away and I spent much of it doing little more than shopping the markets in Aix-en-Provence where we had rented a little apartment, reading, and making dinner. It was humbling to cook with the quality of ingredients I'd find at the markets, which in Aix are held daily. On some days the markets are small, but three days a week the stalls would spill from the Place Richelme to the Place des Prêcheurs near the law courts. Most sold fruits, vegetables, cheese, olives and tapenades, herbs and spices, charcuterie (patés, sausages, hams), breads, and extraordinary and often unfamiliar seafood.
Occasionally I'd see a stall with chicken, pigeon, duck, and rabbit but if you wanted to buy lamb, beef or pork you needed to go to a butcher shop, or boucherie. On the bigger market days there would also be flower merchants and when we were there, glorious peonies were in season, in shades of pink and white I'd never seen before. There were also local specialties, like salad bowls and spoons made from olive wood and little bags of callisons, a candy made from almond paste and candied orange, topped with royal icing, and cut into diamond-like shapes which we discovered was a splendid accompaniment to either a cup of tea or a sip of Armagnac after dinner.
I was happy to discover that vegetable farmers sell large beets already roasted and peeled. The beets were superb when paired with the local, fresh chèvres and I was spared the unavoidable mess of cooking and peeling the beets myself. I also found that some of the seafood, including scampi and langoustines (a type of small lobster), were sold already cooked, although most were still in their shells, a small task to remove.
Going local for a couple of weeks means you can actually connect with people that you get to see every day. I made friends with a young woman in a boulangerie who spoke to me in English as I'd speak to her in French. We had about the equivalent skill in each other's language and happily made corrections to one another in our spirited conversations about the weather, baguettes, and counting change.
I discovered a superb butcher shop called Boucherie Fassetta, located on rue Espariat, one of the main streets in Aix's old town. These butchers made my cooking very easy because of how they prepped some of the meats, including patties of chopped veal that were dusted in breadcrumbs and Parmesan (a kind of homage to veal Milanese), house-made merguez sausage made with lamb and beef, and my favorite -- little serving-sized rosettes of seasoned minced lamb wrapped in thin strips of more lamb and tied with twine as if a gift.
I did manage to get out of the kitchen. Twice we visited Marseilles -- only a 30-minute bus ride from Aix. This city, which I expected to be decayed and dangerous, was in fact beautiful, monumental, multi-cultural, sophisticated, safe, and delicious. We ate bouillaibaisse one day and the next, while having lunch outdoors at the harbor watching the ferries to North Africa, the best couscous. Other days we toured tiny towns in the upper Luberon and also Avignon. But it was sheer joy to have unstructured days that began with bowls of tiny strawberries and ended with the last sips of red Bandol and crumbs of an aged local goat cheese.
After Aix we took the train north to Paris where we stayed in a small hotel and ate in restaurants, mostly neighborhood brasseries because as Paris is normally expensive, the exchange rate made it more so. But we did splurge on a late lunch at La Coupole where I had steak tartare and frites. Not my usual diet but when would I again be in a place that could make it so perfectly? This was also my birthday week and we celebrated at Josephine Chez Dumonet, on the Montpanasse end of le Cherche-Midi.
After taking a holiday like this I feel grateful, but also ruined by thoughts of wanting to do it again, often, and soon.
When I travel I try find a local dish and order it repeatedly, trying to memorize the flavor when it's done right so that I can make it at home. Over the years I've done this with tarte tatin, vinaigrette dressing, and lemon tarts. And on this trip, it was oeufs mayonnaise, or oeufs mayo as the locals call it.
This is an old-fashioned French appetizer, often found on the menu of classic Parisian bistros. Like many great dishes, it is simple but requires that every element be perfect. There is even a French organization called Association de Sauvegarde de l'Oeuf Mayonnaise whose mission it is to protect and defend the heritage of this dish. Such things happen in countries with true food cultures (as opposed to the U.S. which has gone from having no food culture to having a food entertainment and celebrity chef culture).
Oeufs mayonnaise only has two elements: hard-boiled eggs and mayonnaise. Sometimes it is served on a leaf of tender bibb lettuce; sometimes it is served with sliced tomatoes; occasionally a few cornichons are placed alongside. Often the mayo is simply spooned on top of the eggs; other times it's piped in a fancy swirl on top, or served in a little dish alongside the eggs to let the diner decide how much to add. In a way it's like deconstructed egg salad or deviled eggs, minus the mustard and spices.
Please do not make oeufs mayo with Hellman's or any other jarred supermarket mayonnaise. I like Hellman's and use it in potato salad and on turkey sandwiches. But oeufs mayonnaise demands a rich, creamy mayo, one without fillers or stabilizes. One with flavor. So make your own.
All too often, in this day when everyone has to put their mark on things (this isn't just with food) in an effort to be unique and new, we lose what is original and true. So resist trying to tart this up because when done right, oeufs mayo is a luxuriously unctuous dish, admittedly a little heavy on the cholesterol, but you won't eat it daily (as I did when in Paris) and it's a particularly satisfying start to a light main course. Maybe it's just an excuse to eat mayonnaise, but I really love it.
8 large or extra large eggs
1 1/2 cups of excellent mayonnaise, preferably homemade; see the link below for our recipe which you can also make using your food processor
4 leaves of bibb lettuce
Optional: in-season tomatoes, sliced, or large cherry tomatoes, slice in half
- Place the eggs in a saucepan of cold water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the eggs, still in their shells, until you're ready to use.
- Make the mayonnaise. You can use our recipe or any that you prefer. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- When ready to serve, peel the eggs and cut each in half, top to bottom.
- On individual plates arrange the lettuce leaves and place 4 egg halves on top. If using, arrange a few tomato slices in an attractive way around the eggs.
- Either spoon a generous tablespoon of mayonnaise as dollops on top of each egg half or else serve a little ramekin -- about 1/3 cup -- of the mayonnaise alongside each plate.
- Have salt and a pepper grinder available to pass.
A Dressing For Summer Salads
After our endless winter and then all that rain, rain, rain, our farmers here in the northeast are finally bringing their crops to market. First up are beautiful lettuces -- a beneficiary of all that rain, it seems -- plus scallions, spring garlic, ramps, cherries, berries, and asparagus. I love the flavor journey we all can take as we travel with our farmers through the various seasons.
As the weather gets hotter, many of you, like me, will be making meals with as little cooking as possible. I've recently started making a slight variation on my usual vinaigrette (red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, olive oil) that is a bit more complex and robust to drizzle on asparagus, or steamed baby potatoes, or the chicken meat I take off the bones of a store-bought rotisserie chicken, or large composed salads, like those served in Parisian brasseries that arrange plates with slices of ham, chunks of cheese, tomato wedges, a handful of mesclun, steamed potatoes, and maybe olives or pickles.
1 garlic clove, grated using a Microplane rasper or fine grater
1 medium shallot, finely minced (about 1 to 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (resist using the coarse kind; the smooth blends better)
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Several grinds of black pepper
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- In a small bowl or jar with a cover, combine the grated garlic, shallot, mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper. Either use a fork to whisk, or cover the jar and shake, to mix all the ingredients.
- Add the olive oil and whisk or shake to emulsify.
This dressing will keep for up to a week, refrigerated. Bring to room temperature and shake before using.
Eugenia Bone's The Ecosystem Kitchen
Eugenia Bone is a favorite food writer and fellow-NYC home cook whose splendid book, Well-Preserved, made a big impact on my kitchen about four years ago when it introduced me to home canning. I had always thought that "putting up" was out of reach for me given my small city kitchen. Wrong, as Eugenia taught me. And now my year-round pantry includes glass jars filled with Greenmarket sour cherries, plums, apricots, and especially my favorite NJ tomatoes. Just something for all you non-canners to think about as we approach the height of summer produce.
This September she is publishing her newest book -- The Kitchen Ecosystem. I haven't yet seen the book but she's launched its companion website and blog (see the link, below) and it makes for much pleasurable reading. Look especially for the "Cent'anni" articles about her father, Edward Giobbi, also a respected cookbook author and cook.
NYC Food Halls
This week New York City's Javits Center hosted the "Fancy Food Show" where food producers from around the world showed 2,700 different products to grocers, specialty shops, caterers, party planners, wholesalers, and the food media. It's an annual snapshot of current food trends and I'll be writing about it more in an upcoming newsletter, although it's no spoiler for me to say that Americans love sugar and hot sauce.
This annual summer event brings tens of thousands visitors to the show and to help give them ideas for NYC outings, The Specialty Food Association offers tips in their on-line newsletter. Here's a link to a terrific piece called "All Hail The Food Hall" that they published about the growing number of food halls in New York City. If you like places like Chelsea Market, Essex Street Market, and the Grand Central Market, this article will introduce you to Berg'n in Crown Heights and Hudson Eats in the financial district, plus give you a heads up on several new food halls in the works.
Salad Dressing Jar
I'm not a gadget kind of cook but every so often I find a new tool that I love and it becomes part of my daily kitchen. That's how I feel about my Oxo Salad Dressing Shaker. It comes in two sizes -- 1 1/2 cups or 1 cup capacity, in two colors -- green or black, and is dish-washer safe. I have the one-cup size in green and I bought mine at Zabar's but you can also find it at Amazon.
Could I instead just use a covered jar? Yes, of course, but I love how this shaker has a pouring spout and a leak-proof cap, making it far less messy than a jar. It's also dishwasher safe, and the sides of the jar have measurements if you want to make your dressing directly in the jar. What I often do is make my dressing in a little bowl and transfer any excess not needed on my salad into the jar and refrigerate it; because I almost always make the exact same vinaigrette there's no mixing of odds and ends (you might ask, why not just make less dressing but my ratio of 2 T. of vinegar to 5 T. of olive oil is so perfect I don't try to do the math to keep this ratio while making 25% or so less). Olive oil is a costly ingredient and I like not wasting any leftover dressing. Plus it's so handy to have it in the refrigerator, already made. If the olive oil solidifies while chilled, just run the jar -- still sealed shut -- under hot tap water until it liquefies. Resist putting it in the microwave as this might damage the jar.
Fried Green Olives
If you're lucky enough to have outdoor space -- maybe a terrace or balcony or a backyard, or maybe friends who have them -- this is the time when we luxuriate in outdoor eating. It's one of summer's best pleasures to have a cold beer or glass of wine or iced tea that had been brewed in the sun earlier in the day, plus hors d'oeuvres or a meal served family-style on big platters, eaten as the sky fades and the heat lifts.
For both a hot summer night or at the depth of winter, here is a recipe for one of the best hot hors d'oeuves I've ever made that you might want to add to your repertoire. Fried green olives. They are easy to prepare and cook on top of the stove (no oven heat needed) in less than five minutes. You can prep the olives several hours in advance and cook them up just as you're ready to serve. They're salty and crispy but their flavor really depends upon the olives you choose, so taste before you buy.
I usually use large, green, pitted olives that have been stuffed with pimentos because among the various pitted olives available to me at the places I usually shop, these taste best (mine are from Whole Foods). Don't try to pit your own as you'll just wreck the olives and it's important to keep them whole and intact, minus the pits. I know some people like their olives stuffed with blue cheese but I tried this recipe using them and the taste was just salty and oily and I've gone back to using fat, green, pimento-stuffed ones. Store-bought unseasoned fine breadcrumbs work best here.
This recipe is adapted from Arthur Schwartz's The Southern Italian Table, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. Thank you, Arthur.
Enjoy the start of summer cooking and have a happy July 4th weekend.