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Bruno Courrèges, chief of police in a small Dordogne village, belongs to the grand tradition of fictional detectives-cum-gastronomes, like Nero Wolfe and Salvo Montalbano. But there’s one big difference between Bruno and those others: Bruno cooks. While investigating crimes and unmasking criminals, Bruno always finds time to prepare meals featuring dishes of his region for colleagues, neighbors, and lady friends.

Author Martin Walker describes Bruno’s kitchen work so lushly and appealingly (it’s Perigord – think truffles and foie gras) that, reading along, I often feel I’d need no further recipe to make his dishes at home. So Tom and I and our friend Hope did just that for our latest cookathon, our periodic all-afternoon playings in our kitchen, followed by an evening of enjoying the fruits of our labors. Here’s the Bruno-style menu we prepared this time:

Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs
Truffle Omelets
Spit-Roasted Lamb
Sarladaise Potatoes
Asparagus
Perigord Walnut Tart

Lush enough for you? This dinner turned out to be truly caloric megadeath.

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Foie-Gras Stuffed Figs

This isn’t actually one of Bruno’s own dishes, and it’s not in any of the books. The Bruno website, which has a recipe section, tells us that Bruno’s neighbor Pamela (“the mad Englishwoman”) once served them at a cocktail party, which undoubtedly Bruno would have attended.

We steamed dried Turkish figs to soften them a bit, sliced off the stems, poked a hole in each one, filled the cavities with pâté de foie gras, and chilled the figs for several hours. For serving we cut each fig in half. They were, as you’d expect, rich and luscious, though the two flavors remained independent, not combining to create any amazingly new third thing. Still, who can quarrel with figs and foie gras?

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Bruno would have drunk a glass of the local sweet Monbazillac wine with this. I couldn’t find any, so we had a 1989 Sauternes, which comes from the Graves region of Bordeaux, just southwest of the Perigord. In France, this is a time-honored companion to foie gras. It went very well indeed.

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Truffle Omelets

To date, Bruno has made truffle omelets in two of the books, Bruno Chief of Police and The Dark Vineyard. Of course, he uses eggs from his own hens and local truffles. We, alas, had to accept commercial products.

We’d intended to spring for fresh black truffles, but the Urbani company didn’t have any this week, so we had to settle for two ounces of flash-frozen. They were better than the ones that come in jars but not as fully fragrant as fresh ones. We were extravagant with them, though, steeping about half in the beaten eggs for several hours, then slicing the rest over the top of the cooked omelets – cooked in duck fat, in the true Bruno manner. Not at all shabby!

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Since our cellar doesn’t run to Perigord wines, with this course we drank another Bordeaux, a 2008 St. Emilion.

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Spit-Roasted Lamb

Bruno and his friends roast two whole spring lambs over an open fire at an outdoor feast in The Dark Vineyard. It was somewhat perverse of us to choose this recipe, since we have no access to an outdoor grill, and an entire lamb was clearly out of the question for three people. But we didn’t let logic or common sense slow us down. We had half a boned leg of lamb, which we stuffed with bay leaves and rosemary sprigs before rolling, tying, and setting up on my open-hearth electric rotisserie.

In the book, the lambs were basted repeatedly with a mixture of vin de noix, olive oil, and honey. I couldn’t get the actual French fortified walnut wine, but we approximated it closely enough with nocino, the Italian version. We used equal parts of nocino, olive oil, and chestnut honey. To our regret, we also didn’t have a branch of a bay tree to brush it on with, as Bruno did. So there were some compromises in our version of this dish.

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Happily, the lamb came out very well – tender and flavorful, delicately perfumed on the inside from the herbs and sweetly savory on the outside from the intriguing sweet/tart flavors of the baste. Continuing with Bordeaux wine, we drank a 1999 Chateau Gloria St. Julien, which accompanied the lamb beautifully: Cabernet always loves lamb.

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Sarladaise Potatoes, Asparagus

In Black Diamond, Bruno makes venison stew for a dinner in the home of his friend the Baron. Three of the other guests prepare sarladaise potatoes. There’s a complete recipe for the potatoes on the Bruno website, which we mostly followed. We parboiled waxy La Ratte heirloom potatoes, sliced and sauteed them in duck fat until they began to brown, then stirred in minced garlic and parsley for the last few minutes.

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This has not been a great winter for potatoes in our part of the world – most have been almost flavorless – but these were lush from the duck fat and zingy from the garlic. Alongside, we had fresh asparagus spears, just boiled and drizzled with melted butter. Bruno usually dresses his asparagus with hollandaise sauce, but for a meal he makes in The Devil’s Cave he doesn’t – because, he explains, there’d already been eggs in the omelet. So since we’d had our eggs too, we left the asparagus plain. We needed something on our plates that was green and not heart-stoppingly rich!

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Perigord Walnut Tart

In the books Bruno doesn’t make desserts very often, quite understandably given the satiety level of his cooking, so we cast our eyes farther afield. Knowing that walnuts are a prized specialty of the Dordogne, we looked up walnut dessert recipes from Perigord on the Web and chose one that looked not too complex. It’s a tart shell of sweet pastry dough, baked with a custardy filling of eggs, cream, milk, sugar, and lots of chopped walnuts. (One caution if you look at the recipe: I didn’t trust its pâte sucrée technique so I used a different version, one I’d made before and had more confidence in.).

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The tart was very sweet, but also very pleasant: cookielike crust, creamy center, crunchy nuts. I might well make it again – after a simpler dinner! – just cutting back a little on the sugar. With it we enjoyed another glass of the Sauternes, so ending with a liquid reminder of where we began.

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As I said at the beginning, this was a totally over-the-top meal. I don’t know how Bruno and his Perigueux friends can get through so many rich dishes at a sitting. Maybe they do it only once a year? And eat only green salads for a week after? I’m sure that we’ll never attempt to do it all even once again. But it was a heroic and fascinating experiment.

Here are the Bruno books in which the dishes appear:

Bruno books

 

 

Duck with Pears

Is there any fruit that doesn’t go well with duck? I’ve braised ducks with peaches, oranges, cherries, and mangoes; served homemade applesauce, Italian mustard fruits, and plain cranberry sauce alongside roasted ducks. I’ve even seen recipes for duck with pickled watermelon. And now I’ve added a new fruit to my repertoire of duck accompaniments: pears.

Barrenechea 2The recipe for Pato con Peras is in Teresa Barrenechea’s The Cuisines of Spain. It attracted me because of an unusual approach to the dish. The duck is roasted plain. The pears are poached in chicken broth. A rich sauce is made separately, and then everything is combined. It all sounded very good, and so it was.

Be warned, however: There’s a downside to this delicious dish. Roasting a duck at 450° F, per the recipe, makes a giant clean-up problem. In lieu of the three-pound duck Barrenechea calls for (a size we never see here), I used half of a big Muscovy. My half duck was done in less than an hour, but even though it was much less fatty than a Pekin would’ve been, smoke came billowing out as soon as the oven door was opened, and fat was dripping from all over its roof, sides, and shelves. The smell of cooking duck fat hung around in the apartment for days. Still, it was a good-looking roast.

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roasted half duck

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As soon as the duck was done, I drew off some of the pan drippings and in them slowly cooked a big batch of chopped onions, carrots, leeks, garlic, parsley, and thyme. When they were soft, I stirred in a grated tomato, the pear poaching broth, and a healthy dose of Amontillado sherry.

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I cut the half duck in two pieces, nestled it into the pan along with the pear wedges, and simmered it, covered, until everything was well heated.

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Then out came the duck and pears to be kept warm in the oven while I put the rest of the contents of the pan through a food mill. It made a thick, nubbly sauce with a wonderful aroma, which I poured into the duck’s serving dish.

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The combination was really luscious – the leg meat richly dark, the breast lighter but still full of flavor, the pears a sweet grace note, and the sauce pure ambrosia.

It also seemed quintessentially Spanish. That is, you’d never mistake it for a French or Italian preparation, even though the technique and ingredients are common in those cuisines too. Well, maybe not the sherry, but there was only ¼ cup in the entire dish, so if that’s what provided the magic touch I’m going to be using it again. I’ve made Spanish dishes from time to time over the years, but only lately do I seem to be developing a true appreciation of the nuances of Iberian cuisine. I look forward to exploring it further in the future.

 

???????????????????????????????Another of the bargain-price cookbooks I acquired at the cookbook sale I mentioned last week is Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. Goldstein was the celebrity chef-owner of Square One restaurant in San Francisco, lauded in the ‘80s as “one of the most acclaimed and influential Mediterranean restaurants in the United States.” As an East-Coast person, I’d not known much about her, back then, but I thought it might be interesting now to learn about her cooking style.

The book’s subtitle promises “robust recipes and lessons in flavor,” which sounded good. I found that the lessons are all about balancing among the four basic flavors our palates can actually discern: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Not a bad idea, though I don’t entirely agree with her placement of certain foodstuffs in the flavor categories. For example, Goldstein considers leeks sour; I’d call them sweet. And the recipes are certainly robust, but they seem to me to have an overlay of California culinary excess, no matter how much they’re “inspired” (a favorite Goldstein word) by Italy, North Africa, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. By which I mean if a recipe originally involved six or seven principal ingredients, a Californiated version will tend to have ten or twelve strong ones that, to my palate at least, will fight each other.

But many of her preparations did sound interesting, so I picked out two to try for a dinner one evening: Greek-inspired Flank Steak with Coriander, Nutmeg, and Oregano; and Gratin of Fennel and Endive with Gorgonzola.

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For the flank steak, you make a hefty seasoning paste: multiple tablespoons of ground coriander, cumin, nutmeg, salt, and cracked pepper; plus mashed garlic, oregano, and wine vinegar.

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The paste gets rubbed all over the steak and left to sit for an hour at room temperature. All those different flavors, while not incompatible, nevertheless set off my alarms: I wondered whether that thick, extremely aromatic coating would overwhelm the flavor of the meat.

rubbed flank steak

 

Happily, it didn’t. I broiled the steak to a good degree of rareness and – I must confess – scraped all the paste off the slices before eating them. I did taste a bit of the paste by itself; it wasn’t as strong as I’d expected, and it had given only a mild spiciness to the meat.

sliced flank steak

 

The effect was pleasant enough, but since I’d had to grind the cumin and coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle, the dish was more work than I thought it was worth. I suspect one could get more impact with fewer ingredients; possibly also less of them. This isn’t a recipe I’m likely to make again.

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The vegetable recipe I’d chosen redeemed California, however – it was really good, and an easy one to make. I quartered a fennel bulb and halved two Belgian endive heads, sauteed them briefly in butter and oil, added a little broth, and braised them until tender.

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That could all be done well in advance. Toward dinner time I arranged them in a gratin dish, dotted them with some creamy gorgonzola dolce, and put the dish under the broiler until the cheese melted and browned.

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It was a fine combination, with just the kind of contrasting flavors that Goldstein advocates – the sweetness of fennel, the bitterness of endive, the salty pungency of gorgonzola. This is a preparation I’ll definitely make again. It would probably be good with different cheeses, too. I’m thinking caciocavallo or Tuscan pecorino. We shall see.

Serendipity struck twice for me this week. First, I learned that the James Beard House, which is just a block from where I live, was having a big cookbook sale. I ???????????????????????????????went to it and came home with five books: two at $1, two at $5, and one at $10 – the “expensive” one a mint-condition English translation of La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. Coincidentally, this monumental French cooking classic from 1927, about which I’d been curious for a long time, was the original source of the recipe I wrote about here just last week.

The second bit of serendipity was finding some particularly good-looking skate at my fish market. Though skate is hardly an American staple, it’s available often throughout the year, and it’s always a treat for Tom and me – especially in the classic French preparation of raie au beurre noir. So I brought home one of these fresh, plump skate wings.

market skate 2

The recipe I usually use for this dish is from La Cuisine de France, by Mapie, Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec. But now with Madame de Saint-Ange at hand, I thought I’d try her version, which is quite a bit different. I’m glad I did, because it made the best skate I’ve ever eaten.

Madame’s general instructions for purchasing and preparing skate were very interesting, though more detailed than I needed, because the skate we get now is already carefully selected and cleaned. The court bouillon in which she poaches her skate is richer than in any other recipe I’ve seen. Instead of using plain salted water, as most do, she adds onion, vinegar, thyme, bay leaf, and – no kidding – leafless parsley stems. (I had only chopped parsley in the freezer, so I omitted that last item.)

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Also, Madame cooks skate longer than any other recipes I’ve seen: 25 minutes, as opposed to the more common 10. I guess that extra time is to infuse the flavorings into the fish, which it certainly did.

When the skate was done I transferred it to a platter, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and kept it warm in the oven while I browned the butter. After pouring that over the skate, I reduced some vinegar in the butter’s pan and poured that on too. Madame doesn’t use capers in her beurre noir, as most other recipes do, but her recipe doesn’t need them.

skate served 2

It didn’t make a gorgeous dish (so few of my kitchen creations do!); if I’d thought to cut the skate wing in pieces before cooking, it might not have gotten so ragged from maneuvering it out of the poaching pan. But it was truly delicious, and the little boiled potatoes and brussels sprouts that I served alongside adored the black butter sauce too. An excellent dinner plate!

NB: This was a big wing, and because skate is rich, we had generous leftovers. Two days later, they made a very tasty little appetizer, served on a bed of lettuce and dressed with a mayonnaise-mustard-horseradish-caper-cornichon sauce.

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I’m still having the wintertime craving for soup and bread that I wrote about here recently. This week I found a way to enjoy the combination in a single dish: a panade, a.k.a. bread soup.

The Soups volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series contains a chapter on panades, calling them “a time-honored marriage of bread and broth.” Several varieties of the type are described in detail, with step-by-step photo spreads of the procedures. As with all the volumes in this series, full recipes for the featured preparations are given in the recipe section at the back.

The first panade illustrated is a fairly simple one, with only a few ingredients other than the broth and bread.

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The recipe is credited to La Cuisine de Madame Saint-Ange, a source the T-L series has used elsewhere, one of whose other recipes I’ve written about here. I decided to try this one, and thought it would be fun to see how closely I could replicate the photos as I made the dish.

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???????????????????????????????I softened sliced leeks slowly in butter in an earthenware casserole. (Madame hadn’t specified earthenware; I guess T-L thought it looked attractive. But then it had to call for a fireproof mat between the pot and the flame. My sturdy La Chamba didn’t need that.) Then I poured in simmering broth. (Madame would have been content with plain water, but T-L suggested broth. Mine was Tom’s mixed meat-and-vegetable broth, a staple in our house.)

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???????????????????????????????Off heat, I broke three slices of lightly staled bread into the casserole, crusts and all. (This was my own Toasting White, from Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads – a sandwich loaf that I make occasionally as an alternative to Joy of Cooking’s White Bread Plus.) I covered the casserole and let the bread soak up the broth for 10 minutes.

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???????????????????????????????I thoroughly whomped the softened bread with a whisk, then covered the casserole and simmered it for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. (Madame didn’t want the bread pureed yet, and she said not to stir at all until the end, or else the bread would stick to the pan. Again, I followed T-L, except that it wanted the soup cooked uncovered. There was no sticking.)

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???????????????????????????????At the end, I whisked in a chunk of butter, two egg yolks, and some salt. (The salt was a reminder from Madame; T-L had neglected to mention adding any.)

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pic 5And here’s my soup, ready to eat. It was very good; unusual too. Thick and rich-tasting, but not like a cream soup; not totally smooth (as Madame said hers would be) but not like a flour-thickened liquid either. The egg and butter seemed to have just melted into the overall flavor, which was subtly sweet, hinting almost more of corn than leek.

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The T-L chapter’s introduction says “No matter what ingredients are incorporated into a panade, the taste and texture of the finished soup depend primarily on the quality of the bread itself.” So I have to credit my good hearty loaf, as well as my husband’s good hearty broth, for this very successful soup.

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Scaling back a recipe that serves six to eight to a size for just two persons can be tricky. Arithmetically, it’s no problem (a pocket calculator helps) but in practice it doesn’t always work well. I’ve had fairly good luck doing this, but sometimes I’m reminded of the pitfalls. So it was this week, when Tom asked for a Tarte Tatin for dessert.

We both love this tender, caramelized, upside-down apple pastry, though I hadn’t made one in years. I could have made a full-size tart using any of several of my cookbooks, but it’s a dish that isn’t as good leftover as it is freshly made, so I decided to try creating just a tiny one.

way to cookI based my experiment on the recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, which Julia says is her fourth and, as far as she’s concerned, her definitive version of the dish. She calls for a heavy nine-inch frying pan to make a tart serving six. Dusting off my high school algebra again (A=πr2), I calculated that my little six-inch cast iron pan should be the right size for one-third of the recipe. Thus arithmetically fortified, I bravely set to work.

Preparing the apples was the first step. An easy start: One-third of six apples is two apples. I peeled, quartered, and cored them; cut the quarters in half lengthwise; and tossed them in a bowl with sugar and lemon. My apple eighths were my first mistake, as you’ll see in a moment.

Next I had to prepare a caramel syrup. I melted butter in the frying pan, blended in sugar, and stirred until the mixture turned golden brown. That worked all right, though I now think I should have let it get a little darker.

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Off heat, I had to arrange the drained apple pieces on top of the syrup in the pan. Here’s where things got tricky. There wasn’t enough room in it to make the pretty circular design of slices that’s characteristic of a tarte Tatin. I had to just squeeze in my big chunks of fruit wherever they’d fit – heaping the upper layers above the rim of the pan, as Julia said I should, assuring me that they’d sink down as they cooked.

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Well, they didn’t. The next step was to put the pan back on the stove and cook for about 20 minutes, drawing up the juices with a bulb baster and drizzling them over the apples, until they softened and the syrup thickened. My bulky apples stubbornly resisted softening, both uncovered at first, then covered. (The full glory of hindsight now told me I should’ve cut them thinner!) Furthermore, the cover I used wasn’t a tight fit, so juices kept bubbling over and spitting down into the stove.

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Eventually (more like 40 minutes than 20) I called a halt, took the pan off the burner to cool a little, and prepared to roll out a circle of dough for the pastry cover. I’d taken a slab of my leftover dough from the freezer in advance, thinking it was ordinary short-crust pastry dough. As soon as I began to work it, I realized it was actually pasta frolla: maddeningly fragile, frangible stuff. (Ever-ready hindsight now reminded me to always – ALWAYS – label everything.) True to type, the pasta frolla kept breaking apart whenever I tried to lift the sheet of dough. I finally had to roll it between sheets of plastic wrap to keep it together, and then hustle it onto the apples, patching and pasting the edges back together.  It wasn’t supposed to look like this:

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In the subsequent baking, the caramel syrup continued to ooze out around the edges of the pan. Fortunately, I was expecting that now, and I’d put a cookie sheet on an oven shelf just below the tart, to catch the drips. By the end, the pastry had crumbled some more, and I nearly despaired.

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The last instruction was to tilt the pan at that point and if the juices were still runny, to put the pan back on the stove and boil them down to a thick syrup. No way I was about to try that maneuver with my little mess of a tart! I just covered the pan with a plate, reversed the two, and lifted off the pan. To my great surprise, aside from being paler than it should have been, the tart didn’t look too bad.

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And in fact, it tasted quite good. Two of us had no trouble eating it all at a sitting. It wasn’t overly sweet – possibly because a fair amount of the caramel syrup had escaped during the cooking – but the apples were sweet enough in themselves. I don’t remember ever having this trouble with full-size tartes Tatin, and even though this time I snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat, I guess I won’t be trying a miniature again.

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Where the Caramel Went

Where the Caramel Went

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Postscript: Brooding on those caramel spillages after cleaning them up, I recalculated the math about pan sizes. By golly, I’d gotten it wrong! The area of a nine-inch frying pan is 63.6 square inches, and the area of a six-incher is 28.3 square inches. Ergo, my small one was close to one-half the size of a large one, not only one-third of it, as I somehow originally came up with. (I’m literate, not numerate.)

But here’s the weird thing: That being the case, why couldn’t my more-than-one-third-size pan hold one-third of the recipe’s worth of syrup without dribbling all over the stove and oven? Yes, bigger pans have higher sides, but only proportionately. Beats me!

Homemade soup and home-baked bread are the most basic cold-weather comfort foods, and this winter has called for a lot of comforting. From my cookbook collection I recently compiled a list of a dozen new kinds of soup recipes to try, as well as several new kinds of breads. Here are the first ones I made.

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???????????????????????????????Soupe Dauphinoise

Mireille Johnston is best known for her Provençal cookbook, The Cuisine of the Sun, but I also like her The Cuisine of the Rose, which is about recipes from Burgundy and the Lyonnais. She says “For centuries, soup was the core of a Burgundian meal,” so the book has an extensive chapter on soups. The first of her rib-sticking recipes I wanted to make was for Soupe Dauphinoise.

The recipe starts with making a stock from veal bones, but my freezer is always full of Tom’s rich broth, made from odds and ends of meat, poultry, bones, and vegetables that he saves in a giant bag in the freezer until he has enough to work with, so I was able to save time – and gain flavor – there. I started by softening a big batch of chopped onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips in butter and olive oil, added broth, and simmered the pot, uncovered, for half an hour.

Separately, I sautéed some chopped watercress in butter and added that to the soup. I’d never cooked watercress before, so that was interesting to me. It held its flavor well, and I’m thinking of trying it in place of parsley in other preparations. At the end I stirred in two tablespoons of cream. That small amount didn’t turn my Dauphinoise into a cream soup but just gave the liquid a nice ivory color and a hint of richness.

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And a very good soup it was: fragrant, mild, pleasant, and vegetably sweet, gently strengthened by the meaty broth. It liked to have slightly stale baguette slices dipped in it. Next time I’ll put the bread in the bottom of the bowls to begin with.

Incidentally, this was another recipe that annoyed me with its vagueness about quantities. How big is a turnip? a carrot? a leek? I measured every vegetable ingredient that I used, and I annotated the recipe so I don’t have to agitate about it next time.

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Baking with JuliaRustic Potato Bread

Baking with Julia is based on one season of Julia Child’s television series. I’ve had the book for several years and have been pleased with some of its dessert recipes, as well as its splendid recipe for scones that I wrote about here two years ago. But I’d never paid much attention to its chapter on breads. I’m glad I finally did, because I found several recipes in it that I want to try soon. I started with Rustic Potato Loaves.

Compared to most yeast breads, this is very quick to make, once you’ve boiled the russet potatoes that make up half the dough. You mash the cooked, unpeeled potato with a little olive oil and yeast dissolved in some of the potato cooking water, add flour and salt, and knead very thoroughly, using a heavy-duty mixer. After a mere 20-minute rise in the bowl, the dough is shaped into loaves and given one more 20-minute rise. (I’ve never known a bread to rise so fully in as short a time as this one did!) The loaves are then baked on a stone at 375° for a bit under an hour. (Nor have I ever known a bread recipe to use the stone at as relatively low a temperature and short preheating time!) If you can start early in the morning, you can have the bread ready to eat for lunch.

The baked loaves are deliberately rough-looking. Unlike most free-form breads I’ve made, they’re slid onto the stone with the seam side up, not down – so the rising bread breaks the seam open. I must admit that mine, on the left below, opened more boisterously than the loaf illustrated in the book, on the right; but that didn’t hurt it any.

potato breads

This simple recipe produced a very successful loaf of bread, light for a potato bread, with a crisp crust, a soft, fine-grained crumb, and a fresh, almost nutty flavor. It’s fine for toast and excellent for sandwiches, and it seems to keep well. My only criticism is that the bits of potato skin in it – one of which you can see in the photo below – look like blemishes. I don’t think the skins contribute enough to the flavor to make them worth leaving in, and I won’t next time I bake one of these loaves.

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Here’s one more interesting thing about the recipe (which, by the way, is attributed to Leslie Mackie, a baker in Seattle). It insisted that the loaf would only be fully done when an instant-read thermometer plunged into the center registered 200° F. I’ve never seen that specification anywhere else, but I’m curious to see if it might apply to any of the other kinds of bread that I bake. If so, it could be a useful bit of lore – more reliable in determining doneness than knocking on the bottom of a loaf. We shall see.

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