Saturday, May 30, 2009

POULET YASSA - CHICKEN WITH ONIONS AND OLIVES

THIS LITTLE PIGGY WENT TO MARKET 

THIS LITTLE PIGGY COOKED AT HOME


Weekends are Market Days. Even if we take Marty out to the vineyards to run for an hour, we still try to hop over to the market before noon. And, of course, if weekends are Market Days, then that can only mean that we will be cooking.

Sundays we head over to the Marché Talensac, Nantes’ rather chi-chi place to shop for seafood, fruits and vegetables, cheeses and wine, and her only covered marketplace. The offerings are up-scale, the stands are neat and well organized, the prices following. But we know that the meat and chicken are fresh and top quality, the wines good, and we can find almost any spice, dried fruit, basically almost any ingredient, local or exotic, we crave to prepare almost any dish. And occasionally we even bump into M. Le Maire (the long-time Mayor of Nantes).

Marché Talensac, Nantes, though on Sunday mornings it is much more crowded

But Saturdays are reserved for Le Marché de la Petite Hollande. La Place de la Petite Hollande used to be on the water and where the Dutch boats would come and dock, selling their wares to the bustling crowds of “Nantais” who came to do their marketing at the covered “Halles”, thus the name “Little Holland”.

Marché de la Petite Hollande, Nantes, last century

Now La Petite Hollande is the “marché populaire”, the “people’s market”, tables set up willy-nilly displaying olives of every type, local cheeses and fresh eggs, vegetables still covered with dirt next to brown paper-wrapped flowers pulled straight from the ground. Trucks, side windows gaping, are lined up “la queue leu leu” (end to end) offering crêpes or pizzas, Russian pirogues, fresh brioches or roasted chickens hot and dripping straight off of the rotisserie, folding tables are weighed down with huge vats of bubbling Vietnamese or Madagascan dishes, and everything from Nems to Accras to baklava and spicy blood puddings can be found. And while Talensac market attracts the Bourgeois of Nantes, La Petite Hollande is where we come shoulder to shoulder with the North African, the West African and the Asian Communities, whole families often 3 generations together purchasing food, clothing and house wares, students looking for cheap eats and all those willing to fight the crowds, be pressed up against piles of lettuce and cool glass-fronted display cases, or insist (with much arm waving and laughter) on their turn in a mish-mash of clients in order to be able to fill their baskets with inexpensive, fresh products, fish, bread or tomatoes.

Marché de la Petite Hollande, this morning

A couple of Saturdays ago, we were wandering up and down the allies, ogling the prepared dishes, wondering if we should choose a roasted chicken or meat pirogues or sweet and sour shrimp when we came upon 3 young women surrounded by a trio of folding tables, selling the traditional specialties of their native country, Senegal. Two were calmly preparing fish and meat pastels, savory turnovers, one after the other, their KitchenAid mixer working furiously behind them, kneading dough. The third was standing in front of two huge pots where Poulet (Chicken) Yassa, chicken cooked in a thick sauce of onions and olives, and Boulettes de Boeuf (Beef Meatballs) Maffé, a rich peanut cream sauce, were simmering and giving off such an incredible odor that we couldn’t but stop and stare longingly at the gorgeous stews, breathing in deeply the heady odors.

We bought a barquette for two of the Chicken Yassa and a second filled with plain white rice and headed home where we sat down for an amazing lunch worth every ooh and ahh that it did indeed elicit. The sauce, as we soon discovered, surely made from a basketful of onions, was tangy with mustard and vinegar, bright and sharp with the juice of ever so many lemons and right then and there I decided that I absolutely had to recreate this delectable dish.

I searched the internet and came up with a slew of recipes, all rather similar seeing that it is a traditional dish, yet I came across one that seemed the closest to what I wanted proportion-wise, and in finding the recipe I also discovered the fabulous French-language cooking blog Passion Culinaire by a talented young woman Minouchka, filled with both French and more exotic, ethnic cuisines and dishes.

Haven't made the rice yet, but a beautiful Poulet Yassa all the same!

POULET YASSA
Inspired by Minouchka of Passion Culinaire

For 6 people, more or less

1 chicken, about 3.5 lbs (1.5 kg) or equivalent weight in favorite pieces
2.5 lbs (1 kg) onions
3 lemons
4 large cloves garlic
2 Tbs Dijon-style mustard *
2 Tbs vinegar (I used red wine vinegar) * + 1 tsp for marinade
4 Tbs vegetable oil, or as needed
1 cup or so olives, I used lemon-infused purple olives, but green are fine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Cut the chicken into pieces and remove excess pockets of fat and skin.

Squeeze the juice from 2 of the lemons into a bowl or platter just big enough to hold all of the pieces of chicken comfortably. Add 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Push the chicken pieces into the lemon juice and allow to marinate at least half a day if not all night.


Peel and slice the onions. Try and avoid cursing the entire time you slice onions, as I unfortunately did. Peel and mince or crush the cloves of garlic.


(At this point, husband walked into the kitchen after listening to me curse and scream at my dull knife and not-the-freshest onions for 15 minutes and he said “I thought cooking was supposed to be a pleasure!”)

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven. Heat either a tablespoon of margarine or vegetable oil, if needed, and brown the chicken in 2 batches, making sure not to overcrowd. Once all the pieces are browned all over, maybe 5 – 10 minutes each batch, remove them to a plate.


Heat 4 tablespoons vegetable oil in the same pot and add the sliced onions. Stirring almost constantly, or at least to make sure they are moving so the bottom slices don’t burn and so they all cook evenly, cook the onions several minutes until tender and translucent.


Once the onions are soft, translucent and just beginning to turn golden, add the minced garlic, the mustard and the vinegar. Salt and pepper generously.


Continue stirring as you let the onions continue cooking for 2 minutes. Now add a small glass of water, stir and allow to simmer for just a minute or 2 until the sauce thickens.


Add the browned chicken pieces to the onions and, stirring, cook for 2 minutes.


Add a small glass of water (I brought the level of water just up to barely cover the chicken) and the olives. Bring back up to the simmer and, over medium heat, cook for 20 – 30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened.


Add the juice from the last lemon, stir into the sauce and remove from the heat.


This dish can then sit until ready to make your rice, because with rice it is served. Reheat gently as your rice cooks, check for seasoning (salt, pepper and lemon) and then serve over white rice.


This is one of those dishes that improves with time! Don’t hesitate to make extra to reheat the second, or even third, day!

* Results: An amazing odor filled the kitchen creating a kind of human Pavlovian drool reaction. The Yassa was exquisite, delicious, yet it wasn’t quite tangy enough for either JP or me. At first I thought to add more lemon juice, yet after finishing the meal, I decided that the next time I prepare Yassa – which I definitely will! – I will increase both the mustard and the vinegar to 3 Tbs each, maybe add a bit more lemon juice at the end and go from there. It is such a simple dish to put together and so scrumptious it will amaze family and guests.

Friday, May 29, 2009

BROCCOLI SOUP WITH CRAB MEAT AND BLUE CHEESE CROUTONS

“I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
- President George H. W. Bush (22 March 1990)

Remember this famous statement that turned into a social uproar that had broccoli growers and moms everywhere up in arms? It had the Broccoli Growers of America shipping crates of the stuff to Washington D.C., the First Lady trying to apologize for her husband’s gustatory faux pas, it created a veritable Green Revolution, you could say, or more like a Green Battlefield on dinner tables all across America: “If the President doesn’t like it and won’t eat it, why do I have to, mom?” “Because, dear, it is good for you and he’s a culinary numbskull, honey!”


The cooking of certain foods has long been banned from our home, in theory, so they claim, because of the nasty odor that infuses everything, seeps into the sofa fabric, the curtains, the very walls of the apartment and hangs there for days on end, a fetid, foul stench comparable to a dog passing gas in an enclosed space or a backed-up septic tank. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage fall into this category of the banned. And JP (and needless to say, Simon, and I even think Clem would agree on this one) doesn’t even miss the food itself, the magic that is broccoli, the food of champions (it is so healthy).

"Damn, she made broccoli! Whew, what a stink! Get rid of it!"

When we were kids, we loved our vegetables – even though most came from a can - and we always had veg eating contests at the dinner table: the one who ate the most spinach was Popeye for the day, the one who ate the most broccoli flowerets (tiny trees) was the biggest giant. So watching husband and sons turn up their collective nose at one of my favorite vegetables is indeed incomprehensible to me.


When I saw this month’s Seasonal Food Challenge “In The Bag” (cook a dish using pre-selected seasonal ingredients) announced by new dad and Real Epicurean Scott over at, well, Real Epicurean I decided to hop on the virtual food cart, so to speak, and join the food fun. I looked in the bag handed to me and what did I find? You guessed it! Broccoli. Oh, heavens, how could I keep good my promise to Scott to participate in his challenge and keep the home front happy and tranquil? Even the mere mention of broccoli having been chosen for this cooking event and my desire to participate caused a ruffle, grimaces and complaints.

Happily, when I dug down into the bag, hidden below the (evil) broccoli, I saw that Scott had thrown in some Blue Cheese as well. Yay! Blue cheese is truly a favorite of ours, whether it be bleu d’Auvergne, Roquefort, bleu de Gex, Gorgonzola, Forme d’Ambert, well, you get the point. So I may just be able to sell them something cheesy. Maybe. But I was excited and had lots of fun ideas for this challenge.

But lots of fun ideas dwindle down to something simple when 1) husband is on vacation and there are plans to travel, 2) the month is filled front to back with 4-day weekends and husband wants your undivided attention, 3) The Move with a capital M, as I now call it, is imminent, images of cartons and bubble wrap floating before my eyes and the scary, dank basement calling my name, luring me down, down into the bowels of the building where mountains of damp, dirty boxes overflowing with old scraps of this and that, books and tools and baby clothes and who know what are begging to be taken care of…. And 4) someone has decided to go on a diet.

So I decided on a soup. A simple soup, broccoli slow-simmered with olive oil and broth, puréed then warmed with a bowlful or fresh crab meat gently stirred in and then served with warm-from-the-oven Blue Cheese Croutons. Soup to soothe, soup to heal, soup to nourish and soup to comfort.

A good soup will surely make you a Bon Vivant!

And congratulations to Scott and Gosia on the birth of Mia.


BROCCOLI SOUP WITH FRESH CRABMEAT
Based on a recipe from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups

This recipe can be easily doubled.

1 large head of broccoli
¼ cup (62.5 ml) olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
½ tsp dried thyme or 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ - 1 Tbs freshly-squeezed lemon juice, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh lump crab meat, about 1 cup or as you please *


* Sadly, I used canned crabmeat and I know that it will taste so much better using fresh. I can also see this soup being cooked with fresh shrimp simmered gently in the soup until pink or ladled over fresh sea scallops which have been sautéed in a splash of olive oil until golden and cooked through.

Cut off and discard the large, tough stem of the broccoli. Cut off the flowerets and cut into inch pieces. Trim the remaining stems and then thinly slice.


Put the prepared broccoli with all of the remaining ingredients except the salt and pepper (and start with ½ Tbs of the lemon juice) into a large soup pot.


Bring the soup to a simmer, cover, lower the heat just to keep the soup at a slow simmer and cook for 1 hour.

Remove from the heat and purée the soup. Taste, season with salt and pepper and add more lemon juice to taste.


Before serving, return to low heat, add the crabmeat and heat until warmed through.

Make the Blue Cheese croutons while the soup simmers.

BLUE CHEESE CROUTONS OR STICKS

1 cup (125 g) flour
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup butter, chilled
4 oz (120 g) blue cheese of your choice *
2 Tbs heavy cream or whole milk
1 egg + 1 Tbs cold water for egg wash
1/3 cup (2.7 oz, 75 g) grated Parmesan for dusting


* I recommend a rather strong, firm cheese. I used Forme d’Ambert and chilled it before using.
* The blue cheese can easily be replaced with the same quantity of almost any other grated cheese like cheddar, gruyere or swiss, just something firm enough to either toss in or rub in.

Combine the flour together with the paprika, salt and a generous grinding of black pepper.


Rub or cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse sand.


Chop the blue cheese as best as possible. If too sticky, chill until ready to use. Toss the chopped blue cheese into the flour/butter mixture and work until you have a smooth, slightly sticky dough. I put it into a food processor and processed in order to end up with something smooth without the cheese softening and turning too wet and sticky.


Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and chill for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C).

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured work surface to a thickness of less than ¼”.


Brush the surface with the egg wash then sprinkle liberally with the grated Parmesan all the way to the edges.


Cut either into bite-sized crouton squares or ½” x 1 ½” long sticks.


Place the croutons or sticks onto parchment-lined baking sheets and bake for about 15 minutes or until puffed and golden.


This recipe makes plenty of croutons or cheesy sticks to be served with soup, on salads or as an appetizer or accompaniment to a first course.


Results: a nice soup although I added just a tad too much lemon to it, although excellent once I stirred in the crab. And next time I definitely go to the trouble to find fresh crabmeat. I am thinking it may even be good iced. The cheese croutons/sticks are excellent!

One day, one day they will come to love broccoli as I do!

And as I was all alone for dinner last night, I am the only one who tasted it. And one of the three walked in and sniffed and said “Oooh, what does that smell like?”

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