With spring officially only one day away, it seems the unlikeliest of times to post an homage to bistro cooking. Warm, homey bistro cuisine is famous for asserting its vice-like grip on the comfort-food region of our brains in the chill of late fall, not when the daffodils are just about to poke their heads through the soil in our half-thawed gardens. But trust me, there’s method to my madness. I have recently fallen insanely in love with a salad from the famous bistro formerly of Lyon, France, Chez Tante Paulette, and have been scarfing down huge bowls of it with just about every dinner for the last month. I am characteristically incapable of being thusly seized without prattling on and on about it to everyone within reach. This, for good or ill, includes all of you.
This happy discovery of one more truly memorable recipe has of course led me to ponder, in a most unseasonal fashion, some of the other bistro dishes I have grown to love over the years. Thus, as I emerge from my winter hibernation (with apologies for leaving you so abruptly in the lurch after my Thanksgiving posting frenzy), I do so with a post (perhaps even two or three) sharing with you some of my favorites from the bistro category. If you are disinclined to partake of heartier fare in the spring, shelve them till the fall. But do yourself a favor and try a few whenever you are so moved.
The first three recipes come from Patricia Wells’ superbly researched and written cookbook, Bistro Cooking . In it she lets you peer over her shoulder as she eats at (and coaxes recipes from the proprietors of) many of the most famous bistros in France. It is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks, and any time I want to re-experience the joys of traveling in France (and the innumerable pleasures of the French table), but lack the time or money (or both) to hop on a plane, I just cook up something new from Bistro Cooking, and find myself instantly immersed in a delectable déjà vu visit.
First in the line-up is, of course, Tante Paulette’s Garlic Salad. Simple and straightforwardly robust, it won this jaded old girl’s heart with the first bite. After first sampling it, I went online to see where and by whom it might have been mentioned, and found reference to it from no less a food luminary than Todd English, proprietor and chef extraordinaire of Boston’s famed restaurant, Olives. Asked during an interview to list his favorite restaurants, Chez Tante Paulette was one of just a few that he named, and he specifically cited this simple salad. That’s how good it is. It features a wonderful mixture of greens, both bitter and mild, buttery soft and palate-ticklingly frizzy. These are brought to taste perfection with a spunky dressing emulsified with a healthy dose of Dijon mustard to the thick, creamy consistency of mayonnaise (but without the egg yolk). The final tossing is with large homemade croutons, crisped to perfection in a pan with cubes of richly smokey bacon and a sprinkling of minced fresh garlic. Pure heaven on a plate. And as you all know by now, I rarely rave about salads.
Notes: I did not follow the instructions for making the dressing in a bowl with a whisk, opting instead to use my blender to do the job (why else were they invented, pray tell?). Whatever form of “challenged” it is that prevents one from being able to deftly whip the contents of a small metal bowl with one’s right hand while steadily pouring a thin stream of liquid into the bowl with the left hand, I most assuredly have it! Blessedly, it was done in a snap with the blender. No sense constantly creating situations which highlight one’s personal limitations, in the kitchen or elsewhere, I always say. So, a blender it is! On that ego-preserving personal note, I now present the recipe. Try it. It is wonderful.
Also, I am unable to buy slab bacon locally, so I have been using Nueske’s fabulous thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon from The Fresh Market (a Whole Foods-style store near me), and I find it to work beautifully in the salad, diced in 1″ pieces. Stay tuned, however, for my own bacon project which I am about to complete: ten 1-pound slabs of cured pork belly which I shall attempt to smoke in a huge cardboard lamp box rig I have dreamed up!
SALADE A L’AIL CHEZ TANTE PAULETTE
2 T imported Dijon mustard (I just used my steadfast favorite, Grey Poupon)
2 T best-quality red wine vinegar
1/2 cup peanut oil (I use canola with perfect results; any regular unflavored oil will be fine)
6 cups mixed salad greens, such as red chicory, butter lettuce, curly endive, escarole and red oak-leaf lettuce, rinsed, dried and torn into manageable pieces
4 ounces slab bacon, rind removed, cut into 1” cubes (see the above note)
2 large slices country or whole wheat bread, cut into 1” cubes (I love a nice crusty loaf of multigrain for this)
2 large cloves garlic, finely minced
Place the mustard in a small bowl. Whisk in the vinegar and salt to taste; mix well. Slowly pour in the oil and whisk until the mixture is lightly blended. (This is a very thick dressing, almost like a mayonnaise.) Set aside.
Place the salad greens in a large, shallow salad bowl.
Place the bacon in a large skillet. Adding no additional fat, cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, just until the bacon begins to give off some fat, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the bread cubes and continue cooking, stirring from time to time, until both bread and bacon are browned, but the bacon still has some chew to it, about 5 minutes more. You want the bacon cooked and just beginning to crisp, but not fully crisp. (This is my touch, but since I am right now using thick-cut, not slab bacon, this is the only way to maintain some of the flavor and texture that is so important to the salad. Slightly limp bacon blends better with the greens, and lends more flavor and texture to each bite. I suspect that this will not be an issue with slab bacon, as the thickness should prevent it from losing its juiciness).
Pour the bacon and croutons over the salad, sprinkle with the garlic, add the dressing and toss thoroughly. Serve with additional slices of bread.
Next in the Bistro line-up are Provençal Scallops, dusted with lacy threads of fresh basil and served in a puddle of muddled garlic. On the side sit a couple of scrumptious garlic-topped Provençal Roasted Tomatoes. A garlic-lover’s fantasy meal! The garlic confit from whence you derive your soft and mellow garlic cloves, will be a welcome addition to your pantry; you can use it anywhere that might benefit from a bit of beefed-up oil.
Provençal Roast Tomatoes
1 T poultry fat
12 large sea scallops
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of thyme
24 fresh basil leaves, rinsed and patted dry
An hour or so before you plan to serve the scallops, prepare and bake the Provençal Roast Tomatoes. At the same time, prepare the Garlic Confit or warm the previously prepared garlic in a small saucepan and keep warm.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat the poultry fat until hot but not sizzling. Add the scallops and cook until almost opaque all the way through, about 3 minutes on each side. Once cooked, season the scallops generously with salt, pepper and thyme. You may want to cook the scallops in batches. If so, keep the cooked scallops warm next to the stove, but don’t place in the oven or they will toughen.
Place 3 scallops on each of 4 warmed plates. Cut the basil leaves with scissors and sprinkle on top of the scallops. Spoon several cloves of garlic and a touch of oil alongside each. Place two baked tomatoes alongside and serve immediately.
1 cup large garlic cloves
About 1 cup olive oil
Peel the garlic cloves and combine with oil to cover in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until the garlic is tender, about 20 minutes.
The garlic can be served immediately, or preserved indefinitely. Allow the mixture to cool and transfer to a jar, making sure the garlic is covered with the oil. Refrigerate. To serve, remove the garlic from the oil and warm in a sauté pan over low heat. The oil can be used to prepare a flavorful vinaigrette.
These oven-roasted tomatoes are wonderful even when made with off-season tomatoes, and are a great side for just about any plate that could use a dash of flavor. I love the fact that they are so easy to scale up or down. I keep a bag of homemade breadcrumbs in the freezer just so I can roast one or two on demand. The rest of the ingredients are most likely already in your pantry.
PROVENÇAL ROASTED TOMATOES
8 firm, ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds), cored and halved crosswise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 garlic cloves
¾ cup fresh breadcrumbs
A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely minced
3 T extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400º F
Arrange the tomatoes, cut-side up in a large baking dish. (Unless the tomatoes are exceptionally watery, do not seed or drain them: The tomatoes will hold their shape better and the natural juices will mingle nicely with the garlic and the herbs.) Season generously with salt and pepper. Slice the garlic into thin chips and sprinkle over the tomatoes. Combine the parsley and breadcrumbs and scatter the mixture over the tomatoes. Drizzle on the oil.
Bake, uncovered, until the tomatoes are soft, browned and sizzling, about 1 hour. Serve immediately.