REAL FRENCH POLISH-AT HOME IN PROVENCE: PART 2

The American food writer Patricia Wells is a renowned champion of French cooking. For her new book, she applies her expertise to the fresh and fragrant cuisine of Provence. Michael Bateman chooses some favourite recipes xxxxxxxx
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Provencal cooking almost perfectly matches our aspirations in the healthy Nineties. It abounds with fresh vegetables, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, and plentiful seasonal fruit. Unlike the rich cuisine of northern France, with its dependence on butter and cream, the cooking medium of Provence is delicate olive oil, the mono- unsaturated oil now believed to be responsible for the low rate of heart disease around the Mediterranean basin.

Provence is the chosen home of Patricia Wells, an American who is recognised in France as a champion of French food (her books include Food Lovers Guide to Paris and Food Lovers Guide to France). Last week we gave a taste of Provence with recipes she learnt from the inhabitants of the village in which she lives, Vaison-la-Romaine.

We conclude the serialisation of her new book, At Home in Provence (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99), with some of her wider ranging recipe, weaving in experience gained as a major critic and food writer in France for 17 years. Chief of these influences must have been her collaboration with the man regarded as France's most eminent chef, Joel Robuchon. His gratin dauphinois (below) is sure to bring diners to their knees.

HERB-CURED FILLET OF BEEF: CARPACCIO

This is ideal for those who love the qualities of a classic carpaccio, but look for more herbal flavours in their food. A fillet of beef is marinated in herbs for 48 hours, then sliced very thinly. The flavours permeate the beef, making for a lively, delicious appetiser. Serve as you would any carpaccio, with thin slices overlapping on a chilled salad plate, sprinkled with olive oil and plenty of coarsely ground pepper. For a wholesome salad, drape slices of cured beef over dressed rocket, then continue with the oil and the Parmesan shavings. (I find that the beef stays perky and fresh for three days more. If any is leftover, chop it finely, form into patties and fry it up as a luxury hamburger.) Note that the herbs need not be stalked since they are used simply to flavour the beef and will not be consumed.

Serves 20

500g/1lb fillet of beef, rinsed and patted dry

8 sprigs of fresh tarragon, rinsed and dried

8 sprigs of fresh parsley, rinsed and dried

8 sprigs of fresh basil, rinsed and dried

10 sprigs of fresh thyme, rinsed and dried

112 tablespoons coarse sea salt

On a piece of foil large enough to wrap the beef, place half the herbs in a single bed. Sprinkle with half the salt. Place the beef on top of the herbs. Add the rest of the herbs and the salt on top of the beef. Wrap securely in the foil and place on a large plate to catch any juices. Refrigerate for 48 hours. To facilitate slicing, put the beef in the freezer two hours before serving. Unwrap the beef. Brush aside the herbs and salt. With a very sharp knife or an electric slicer, cut the beef as thinly as possible.

QUICK CHICKEN-LEMON SOUP

In the Sixties my favourite soup was a version of the Greek lemon soup avgolemono, a chicken stock enriched with rice, thickened with egg yolks and enlivened by a touch of lemon juice. Recently, I revived and revised it, creating a soup that's a relative of Italy's straciatella and Greece's avgolemono. This soothing warming dish can be prepared quickly and painlessly. Here the rice and the yolks gently thicken the stock, while the lemon juice brings out the fresh, clean flavours of the poached poultry. Simple as this soup is, it's elegant enough to present to guests when entertaining. Season at the last minute with your favourite herbs: tarragon and lemon grass are naturals with both chicken and mushrooms. The soup is also delicious the following day.

Serves 4

1.5 litres/212 pints home-made chicken stock

100g/312oz short-grain white rice

1 skinless boneless chicken breast, cut into matchsticks

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 large egg yolks

60g/2oz freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

sea salt to taste

freshly ground white pepper to taste

fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish

In a large stockpot, bring the chicken stock to the boil over high heat. Reduce heat, add the rice and simmer, covered, for five minutes. Add the chicken and simmer for five minutes more. Taste for seasoning. (The soup can prepared to this point several hours in advance.)

Meanwhile in a large bowl, combine the lemon juice and egg yolks and whisk to blend. Add half the cheese and whisk to blend. Set aside.

At serving time, add a ladleful of the warm (not boiling) soup to the egg mixture and whisk to blend. Pour back into the stockpot, whisking briskly until well blended. Add a grating of nut- meg and taste for seasoning. Serve in warmed shallow bowls, garnished with the remaining cheese and parsley.

GARLIC FAMILY SOUP

The final flavour of this soup is very creamy although there's not a touch of cream in the dish.

Serves 6-8

6 leeks

sea salt to taste

3 litres/5 pints water

2 medium onions (about 300g/10oz), peeled

6 shallots, peeled and halved lengthways

bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh parsley and tarragon, several bayleaves and celery leaves, wrapped in the green of a leek and tied with string

1 head of garlic, peeled and halved lengthways

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

750g/1lb 8oz starchy potatoes, peeled and diced

finely chopped fresh herb leaves, for garnish

Trim and rinse the leeks, separating the coarse dark-green parts from the white and tender pale-green portion. Chop white and pale-green parts. Set aside.

To make the stock combine the green portion of the leeks, a pinch of salt, and the water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to moderate, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice an onion in half lengthways. Place each half, cut side down, on a cutting board and cut across into very thin slices. Slice the remaining onion in this manner.

Put the reserved portions of the shallots, leeks, onions, bouquet garni, garlic, olive oil and salt in a heavy-bottomed stockpot. Sweat, uncovered, over moderate heat, until the vegetables are soft and tender, about 10 minutes.

Strain the leek broth and pour it over the vegetables. Add the cubed potatoes. Cover and bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Cook for one hour. Remove and discard the bouquet garni. Using a hand blender or immersion mixer, puree the soup directly in the stockpot. (Alternatively, pass the soup through the coarse blade of a food mill or use a blender. Return it to the stockpot.) To serve, transfer to warmed shallow soup bowls and garnish with fresh herbs.

MINTED CRABMEAT SALAD

Crab and mint are lively companions, reminding me of the complicity of the garden and the sea. Each ingredient has a proud elegance and a fresh clean taste. Allow the mint leaves to infuse for a full 30 minutes in the warmed vinaigrette, allowing for a subtle mingling of fresh mint and mellow crab. This dish makes an ideal lunch or supper dish.

Serves 4

4 tablespoons best-quality cider vinegar

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

30g/1oz fresh mint leaves, snipped with scissors

500g/1lb fresh crab meat, drained, picked over and flaked into generous bite-sized pieces

fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, combine the cider vinegar with the oil and bring just to the boil over moderate heat. Add half the mint, remove from the heat, cover, and set aside to infuse for 30 minutes. This will allow the mint to flavour the vinaigrette gently. Strain the vinaigrette into a bowl, discarding the mint. Place the crab meat in a bowl, pour the liquid over the crab, add the remaining mint leaves, and toss to blend. Season to taste. (This fresh mint must be added at the very last moment or it may turn brown and, potentially, bitter.)

Transfer to four small, chilled salad plates, and serve immediately.

SPICY RED PEPPER SPAGHETTI

Red peppers are seared with onions, garlic and a touch of pepper, enriched with chicken stock, then turned into a slightly coarse puree. The method of tossing the pasta - first with the cheese, then with the sauce - results in a pasta with greater depth of flavour, since the pasta first absorbs the cheese, then the rosy sauce. I often make a double batch for the freezer, for those days when I'm pressed for time in the kitchen.

Serves 4-6

4 red sweet peppers

500g/1lb onions

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

sea salt to taste

2 plump fresh garlic cloves, finely chopped

12 teaspoon crushed red peppers (hot red pepper flakes), or to taste

500ml/16fl oz chicken or vegetable stock, preferably home-made

500g/1lb spaghetti

90g/3oz freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Halve the peppers, trim and discard the core, veins and seeds. Chop the flesh coarsely and set aside.

Slice the onions by first cutting in half lengthways then placing cut side down on a board and cutting across into very thin slices. Set aside.

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the peppers and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring regularly until softened, about five minutes. Then add the onions, garlic, red pepper flakes and another pinch of salt and cook over moderate heat until the onions begin to soften, about five minutes more. (Do not let the onions brown.) Add the stock and simmer, uncovered, over moderate heat until thickened, about 30 minutes.

Transfer the mixture in small batches to a food processor or blender, being careful to remove the plunger or lid, so the hot liquid does not splatter. Process to a coarse puree. Return to the saucepan in batches and reheat gently.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, bring 6 litres (10 pints) of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add three tablespoons of sea salt and the spaghetti, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite, 11 to 14 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Put the drained pasta in a large bowl and add about half the cheese. Toss gently and thoroughly, until all the cheese has been absorbed. Add the pepper sauce and toss again, until all of the sauce has been absorbed. Taste for seasoning. Serve immediately, in warmed shallow bowls. Offer the remaining cheese to be sprinkled over the pasta.

ROASTED BRINE-CURED PORK

Be sure to choose a pork roast that is not completely devoid of fat: the fat will melt and circle the pork as it roasts, keeping the pork moist and delicious. Excess fat will fall into the drip pan to season vegetables resting below.

Serves 12

90g/3oz sugar

150g/5oz coarse sea salt

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

10 sprigs of fresh rosemary

10 sprigs of fresh thyme

6 fresh bayleaves

1.5-2kg/3-4lb boneless pork loin, rolled and tied with string at 3cm/112in intervals

To garnish:

8 carrots, trimmed and peeled

4 plump fresh heads garlic, top third trimmed and discarded

In a large non-metallic container, combine the sugar, salt, peppercorns, juniper berries, fennel seeds, half of the rosemary and half of the thyme, and the bayleaves. Add 1 litre (134 pints) of boiling water, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt completely. Add 3 litres (5 pints) of cold water to cool the brine.

Place the pork in the brine, making sure it is completely submerged. If the meat floats to the surface, weight it down with a plate. Cover and refrigerate. Allow the pork to cure for at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours, depend-ing on how much of a cured flavour you want. The brine will draw out moisture from the meat and accentuate its natural sweetness. The longer the curing process, the saltier and more pronounced the taste from the brine.

Several hours before roasting, remove the pork from the brine (reserving some for basting the meat) and place on a rack to drain. Allow the meat to reach room temperature.

Completely dry the pork with paper towels. Lace the remaining sprigs of rosemary and thyme under the string.

Heat oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7.

Place the pork on a roasting rack in a roasting pan. (The rack will prevent the pork from sticking to the pan and will allow it to roast more evenly.) Place in the centre of the oven and roast until the skin is crackling and brown, and the meat begins to exude fat and juices, which should take 20 to 30 minutes.

Reduce heat to 350F/180C/Gas 4 and baste, adding brine liquid if necessary - about 125ml (4fl oz) at a time - to maintain a thin layer of liquid in the pan. Arrange the vegetables around the pork.

Roast for about 25 minutes per 500g (1lb), or until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 150F/65C. Baste at 20-minute intervals. Remove from the oven. Place the roast on a cooling rack over a plate to catch the drippings.

Loosely tent with foil and set aside to rest for about 20 minutes in a warm place. To serve, remove and discard the string and the herbs. Cut the pork into thick slices and place on a warmed platter, along with the carrots and garlic. Drizzle with drippings collected during the resting period and serve.

TOMATO CLAFOUTIS

Why limit clafoutis - that cloud-like creation of fruits baked with a quick and simple batter - to desserts? Colourful with tomatoes, fragrant with fresh thyme, surrounded by a golden egg-and-cheese batter, it is a favourite summertime dish at our house. I have prepared this with both the traditional round and oval plum tomatoes quite satisfactorily. Serve with a light, green salad alongside, and you've got it made. And need I lecture? Only fresh thyme deserves the honour of this dish.

Serves 8

1kg/2lb firm ripe tomatoes

fine sea salt

2 large eggs, plus 2 extra large egg yolks

5 tablespoons creme fraiche or double cream

60g/2oz freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, carefully stemmed

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.

Core, peel and quarter the tomatoes lengthways. Place the quarters, side by side, on a double thickness of paper towel. Sprinkle generously with fine salt. Cover with another double thickness of paper towelling. Set aside for at least 10 minutes, and up to one hour, to purge the tomatoes of their liquid.

In a small bowl, mix the eggs, extra yolks, creme fraiche, half of the cheese, and half of the thyme leaves. Season lightly with salt and whisk to blend.

Layer the tomatoes on the bottom of a 27cm (1012in) round baking dish. Pour the batter over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and thyme. Place in the centre of the oven and bake until the batter is set and the tart is golden and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

JR'S GRATIN DAUPHINOIS

Chef Joel Robuchon is one of the greatest cooks I know, and his version of any dish is sure to bring diners to their knees. Not one ever to stint on butter or cream, he embellishes his potato gratin with plenty of both. Robuchon also cooks his potatoes in the creamy mixture first, making for a gratin that is ultimately rich and unctuous.

Serves 4-6

500ml/16fl oz whole milk

250ml/8fl oz creme fraiche or double cream

125g/4oz freshly grated Gruyere cheese

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

1kg/2lb firm-fleshed potatoes, peeled and sliced very thinly

1 plump fresh garlic clove, peeled and halved

45g/112oz unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.

In a large saucepan, bring the milk to the boil over moderate heat. Add the creme fraiche, and three-quarters of the cheese. Stir to blend. Season with the salt, freshly ground black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Add the potatoes and mix well with a wooden spoon. Cook over a low heat, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Rub the inside of a 2litre (312pint) ovenproof dish with garlic. Transfer the potatoes and their liquid to the baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and the butter.

Place in the centre of the oven and bake until the potatoes are cooked through and the top is crisp and golden, about 114 hours. Serve immediately.

APRICOT HONEY ALMOND TART

For the past 10 years, this has been my most successful dessert. I love to make it and eat it. It's one of those honey tarts that is so dazzling to look at, your guests will be incredulous, exclaiming "You made that?" And the recipe, from start to finish, is child's play. The pastry is simply patted into the tin, and it's foolproof. So much so that during the sizzling summer months I often get up very early and bake the tart first thing, before the idea of lighting an oven strikes me as a criminal act.

The purely Provencal combination of apricots, almonds and honey seems to have been made in heaven, for when apricots are at their peak, they virtually drip with the intense flavours of honey and of almonds. When apricots are out of season, I use fresh purple figs, halved lengthways and arranged in an attractive pattern on top of the pastry shell. Plums - or a combination of fruits such as peaches, apricots and nectarines - are also favourites. Whenever using stoned fruits, be sure to cut them in half and bake them cut side up, so the juices will reduce and intensify during baking. Baked this way, there is also less of a tendency for the juices to leak into the crust.

Serves 8

For the crust:

unsalted butter for preparing the tart tin

125g/4oz unsalted butter, melted and cooled

90g/3oz sugar

18 teaspoon pure almond extract

18 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

pinch of fine sea salt

180g/6oz plain all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons finely ground unblanched almonds

For the cream:

100ml/4fl oz double cream

1 large egg, lightly beaten

12 teaspoon pure almond extract

12 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons raw full-flavoured honey, such as lavender

1 tablespoon plain flour

about 750g (1lb 8oz) fresh apricots, stoned and halved (do not peel)

icing sugar, for decoration

Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Butter a 23cm (9in) fluted tart tin with removable bottom, then set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar and blend with a wooden spoon. Add the remaining ingredients, except the almonds, and stir to form a soft, biscuit-like dough. Do not let it form a ball. Transfer the dough to the centre of the buttered tin. Using the tips of your fingers, evenly press the pastry along the bottom and sides of the tin. The dough will be quite thin. Place the tin in the centre of the oven and bake until the dough is slightly puffy and set, about 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle the almonds over the bottom of the crust to prevent the crust from becoming soggy.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl, combine the cream, egg, extracts and honey and whisk to blend. Whisk in the flour. Starting just inside the edge of the prebaked pastry, neatly overlap the halved apricots, cut side up, at a slight angle, into two or three concentric circles, working towards the centre. Fill in the centre with the remaining apricots. Pour the cream evenly over the fruit. Place in the centre of the oven and bake until the filling is firm and the pastry a deep golden brown, 50 to 60 minutes. The apricots will shrivel slightly. Remove to a rack to cool. Sprinkle with icing sugar just before serving.

To prepare with raspberries, pre-bake the dough as directed, add the cream and bake until the filling is firm and the pastry golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. At serving time arrange a layer of raspberries (about 375g/12oz) on top of the filling. Sprinkle with icing sugar just before serving.

ELI'S APPLE CRISP

Prepare this with a good tangy cooking apple, and if possible, combine several varieties - such as Granny Smith, McIntosh and Fuji - for more depth of flavour and texture.

Serves 8

unsalted butter for preparing the baking dish

45g/112oz unsalted butter

1kg/2lb cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut lengthways into 8 even wedges

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

l2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1l2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 large eggs, at room temperature

75g/2l2oz sugar

250ml/8fl oz creme fraiche or double cream

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.

Generously butter a 27cm (1012in) baking dish, then set aside.

In a large frying pan, combine the butter, apples, lemon juice and a quarter teaspoon cinnamon and cook until just soft, about seven minutes. Stir in half a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Transfer the apples to the baking dish, evening them into a single layer with a spatula. In a large bowl, combine the eggs and sugar and whisk until well blended. Add the cream, the remaining vanilla extract and cinnamon. Whisk to blend and pour over the apples in the baking dish. Place the baking dish in the centre of the oven and bake until the top is a deep golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes. Do not underbake, or the results will be soggy, rather than crisp.

Serve cut into wedges, accompanied by a dollop of creme fraiche. The dessert is best served the day it is made, as the delicate flavours will fade.

LEMON POTS DE CREME

Serves 8

125ml/4fl oz lemon juice (about 4 lemons)

100g/312oz sugar

6 large egg yolks

375ml/13fl oz double cream

Preheat oven to 325F/160C/Gas 3.

In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice and sugar and stir to dissolve. In a large bowl, gently whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the cream. Whisk in the lemon juice and sugar, combining thoroughly. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve or several layers of cheesecloth. Let stand for two to three minutes, then remove any foam that rises to the top.

Place eight 125ml (4fl oz) ovenproof ramekins, custard cups, or petit pots in a baking pan large enough to hold them generously. Divide the cream evenly among the individual moulds, filling each about half full. Add enough hot tap water to the baking pan to reach about half the depth of the moulds. Cover the pan loosely with foil to prevent a skin forming. Place in the centre of the oven and bake until the creams are just set around the edges, but still trembling in the centre, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the moulds from the water. Refrigerate, loosely covered, for at least two hours and up to 24 hours. Serve the pots de creme chilled, without unmoulding.

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