Saturday, December 27, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Gratin d'endive

Here in Paris it’s usually not as cold as in many parts of the U.S.  This has always amazed me, because on the map Paris is at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada. And yet the temperature rarely drops below freezing for long and snow is rare, thanks to the Gulf Stream which crosses the Atlantic and flows into the English Channel. That makes the climate milder.  On my first trip across the Channel to England, I was amazed to see the grass was still green at Christmas!
       Nevertheless, it rains a lot and the sun hides most of the winter.  That can chill you to the bone.  So winter often means “comfort food”, at least in the north of France.
       And yet... with all the excesses of the holiday season, and anxious to lose those added pounds you picked up (more the ladies than the gentlemen, but still...), I’ve chosen a winter dish that is low in calories as well as being inexpensive.  What more could you ask for, post-Santa?

P.S.  On a culinary note, although the word "endive" exists in both French and English, the French endive used in this recipe is generally called Belgian endive in English.  (Have I lost you yet?)  It's a member of the chicory family.  In fact, in the U.K. it is commonly called chicory when you find it on the markets.  The Dutch appropriately call it witloof  (or witlof), which means white leaf, perhaps as they don't want to be caught up in the attribution of a nationality to it.  After all, French fries are actually Belgian, so...

  • 8 endives
  • 1/4 of a stick of butter
  • 3 T of flour
  • ½ t salt
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 1 1/4 c milk
  • 1/4 c grated parmesan
  • 6 to 8 thin slices of prosciutto or other dry-cured ham
  • 2 T of shavings of Emmenthal or Comté cheese 
  • 1½ t freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
 - Wash the endives.  The white base of the endive is what makes it bitter, so you want to cut off just that part.  Take too much off and the endive will fall apart.
 - Melt the butter over low heat so that it doesn’t color.  As soon as it starts to bubble, take the pan off the burner and whisk in the flour, salt, nutmeg and Cayenne pepper.  Stir until it thickens.
 - Put the saucepan back on the burner and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  (Whole milk preferably, or else 2%, but NOT skimmed, as it could make the taste too “thin”.)  Turn the burner way down and continue to stir until there are no lumps.  Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.  It’s done when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
 - Add in the parmesan and continue to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cheese melts into the mixture.  Give it one last stir to make sure the cheese is evenly distributed, then take it off the burner.
 - Butter the bottom and sides of an attractive deep baking dish big enough to hold all eight endives in one layer.  (An attractive one so it can go directly onto the table.)  Arrange the endives in the dish and drape the ham over them.  (Another way is to wrap each endive in a slice of ham, provided the slices are large enough or the endives skinny enough.)  Pour the sauce over the top and add a few little dabs of butter on top.  Then sprinkle the cheese shavings evenly over the whole thing.
 - Put the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top becomes lightly browned.  Check that the endives are tender by sticking them with a knife.
 - Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve in its dish while it’s piping hot.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with this, try a crisp white wine, such as a côtes du jura or a riesling.

Obviously this dish will be much more delicious if you work from scratch, grating the nutmeg and parmesan yourself and using the more expensive types of ham.  But you can also make it with packaged sliced cooked ham and pre-grated Parmesan if you’re strapped for time and short on cash. It’s still a very tasty all-in-one meal that children just may like if you tell them it’s basically cheese and ham.  With the endive being white, they may not even notice it's a vegetable.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Out & About - Events - The Bar at Buena Vista

It’s October 1962.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy is President and I’m a junior in high school.  The Cuban missile crisis is rampant and we are all glued to our TV sets until the moment when the Russian cruiser with the nuclear missiles destined for Cuba does a U-turn and heads home.  The Brink of Destruction has been avoided.
     Now it’s December 2014.  Barack Hussein Obama is President and I’m an aging expatriate in Paris, where I’ve, by now, spent half my life.  And the Palais des Congrès is featuring The Bar at Buena Vista, starring some of the survivors of Cuban music shipwrecked by Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
     These are not the musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, but Toby Gough, the Scotsman who leads this troupe and acts as narrator, has banded together 17 of their talented compatriots to carry proudly the flag of Cuban music.  As Toby explains, it’s all built around the Cuban barman from the actual BVSC who introduced him to these legends.
     First out is The Black Prince, Capullo, aged 77.  Then, resplendent in red, comes Luis Chacon Mendive, aka Aspirina because his voice cures all ills, even at age 88.  After that a piano medley by maestro Guillermo Rubalcaba Gonzales, 84.  He starts with Guantanamera, followed by La Vie en Rose - it’s a French crowd after all - then on to El Cumanchero with a burning bongo solo, and finishing with Hernando’s Hideaway.  A little something for everyone.
Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo
     There’s also the dancer Eric Turro Martinez, called the Cyclone because of his ability to spin like a top all around the stage and around his partners, and who somehow manages to dance with three women at once.   Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo continues to sing with a strong voice at 82, his hips still swaying in spite of a cane that he tosses away in his last number.  Oldest at 92, but still with an unwavering voice, is Reynaldo Creagh.  And last, but not least, honneur aux dames:  Cuban diva Siomara Avilla Valdes, whose age is somewhere in the 70s.  In the middle of her song she dances with a young man from the front row who holds his own and they end up with some Dirty Dancing, Cuba-style.
     Following on rumba, mambo, cha-cha and son comes a tribute to Afro-jazz - and especially to Chano and Dizzy - as the amazing Elpidio Chapotin Delgado on trumpet breaks into a hot Cuban version of My Funny Valentine that would make Gillespie himself nod and smile.
     After an hour and a half followed by almost another full hour after the intermission, the audience is on their feet and dancing, me included. Ending with the classic Chan-Chan as an encore - and before their second show in only a few hours -  these octagenarians and nonagerians could teach the youngsters a thing or two.   It’s sad that they had to spend decades shining shoes, washing dishes, rolling cigars or working at the dry cleaners.  But it’s wonderful that their voices are still strong and they’re spending the last years of their lives traveling first class and bowing to a standing ovation.

If you want more information on the show, or to see a video-amalgam of the acts, click on

Monday, December 1, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mousse au chocolat

Joyeux Noël!
      Christmas in France is a family affair, and the big meal is served Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.  Or it used to be.  Nowadays it’s often served, as in America, on Christmas Day after the presents are opened.  The traditional dessert is a bûche, for which there are many different recipes, all of which are complicated to make.
     Christmas also means marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), each one individually wrapped in shiny gold foil.  But above all, it means chocolates.
     Some of my favorite memories are of hours spent watching pastry chef Bernard Bertheau make them himself in the basement of his shop in Montmartre. It was cramped by modern standards, and a lot of the equipment dated back to his start in the trade sometime shortly after World War II.  But it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean... and toasty warm.  I would pick my way down the narrow, winding stairs and hear him moan “Oh non, l’Américaine!”... with a big smile on his face.  Monsieur Bertheau loved to tease and he adored anyone who shared his passion for pastry and chocolates.
     I never failed to be amazed by the speed and sureness of his movements, and by how he always knew when the melted chocolate was too cold to work.  He’d pop the large stainless steel bowl back in his huge pastry oven for just a few seconds, pull it out, stir vigorously, drop in almonds or candied orange peel, then take them out one at a time, stuck on his fork (making that trademark three lines on the chocolate coating) and leave them to cool on the marble work surface.  He was proud of his handiwork, and I think he enjoyed “catching” me pop one into my mouth.  I’ve never tasted chocolate so good!
     One day Monsieur Bertheau retired and sold the shop.  I inherited some of his vintage chocolate molds, but so far I haven’t screwed up my courage to try them.  His act is just too hard to follow.  I’ve visited him and his wife in their home in their native Loire region.  Since the shop closed seventeen years ago, he hasn’t made a pastry or a chocolate.  But then I guess he made enough of them in his fifty-year career to last a lifetime.
     Still, I wish he would.
     And invite me.

There are as many recipes for mousse au chocolat as there are cooks.  Light and fluffy with milk chocolate, heavy and creamy with dark chocolate... With or without liqueur. And everyone likes their own best.
   This is Monsieur Bertheau’s version, which is easy and fast to make.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

  • 200 g (7 oz) of baking chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 30 g (1/4 stick or 2 T) of butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 c of liqueur such as cognac or Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 50 g (1 3/4 oz or 1/5 c) sugar

-  Select a 2-quart stainless steel bowl and a saucepan large enough so that the bowl fits snugly on top.  Pour boiling water into the saucepan and set the bowl on top of it.  Keep the water at a simmer.
- Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl.  Continue stirring until well blended, then remove the bowl from the pan.
- Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a wooden spoon until they are frothy.
- Mix the egg yolk/sugar mixture (and optional liqueur) into the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly blended.
- Place the bowl briefly in the refrigerator until the mixture is slightly cooler than lukewarm.  If it becomes too chilled, it will harden, so don’t let it get too cold.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
- Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture until it’s all the same chocolate-ness in color.  Do not beat or stir them or the egg whites will “fall”.
- Spoon the mousse into 4 ramekins.  You can decorate it with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, almond slices, cinnamon, mint sprig, or anything else your imagination whispers in your ear.
- Chill briefly until ready to serve.

P.S.  This is a good recipe for lactose intolerant people, as there is neither milk nor cream, only butter, which could, I suppose, be replaced by a non-dairy substitute, although I think Monsieur Bertheau would be chagrined.