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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

Baked Cucumbers

Baked cucumbers? That sounded to me like a joke – as who should say, “Have some of this delicious broiled coleslaw.” Yet that cucumber dish does exist: I came across it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while looking for a different recipe. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about French cuisine, but I’d never heard of this.

Curious about it, I did a little research in my other classic French cookbooks. I found no fewer than five cooked cucumber recipes in Larousse Gastronomique and similar numbers in both Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine and La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. de Saint-Ange. By golly, you’re never too old to learn something!

Of course, I had to try Julia Child’s recipe. It was a simple enough procedure. I gathered my ingredients for half a recipe and set to work.
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I’d bought Kirby cukes, the kind we prefer for eating raw and making pickles. The first thing to do here was peel, halve, seed, and cut them up.
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I then tossed the pieces in a bowl with salt, sugar, and red wine vinegar and left them there for about an hour to draw out their excess water. This is an alternative to blanching, which (as I learned) all the other recipes call for. Julia says her way lets them retain more flavor.
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Once drained and dried, my cukes went into a baking dish, to be tossed with melted butter, freshly ground black pepper, a chopped scallion, and chopped fresh dill, all of which sounded appropriate and tasty.
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The baking dish went, uncovered, into a 375° oven for a little over an hour, until the cucumbers were tender but still holding their shape. They didn’t look as attractive coming out as they had going in.
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And I’m sorry to say they didn’t do much for us. You could hardly even tell the vegetables were cucumbers. Mostly they tasted of dill and a light vinegar tang. Not unpleasant, but not at all interesting.
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Possibly Kirbies were the wrong cukes to use? Julia doesn’t specify a kind. In any event, I think I’ll just go on enjoying my cucumbers either pickled or raw.

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Julia Child has let me down! Always before, her recipes have unfolded for me in smooth, sensible stages, the ingredients behaving exactly as described, and the results – if not as perfect as hers – totally satisfying. But I’ve just spent an exasperating afternoon with one of the so-called master recipes in Julia’s The Way to Cook.

That morning, I was looking for something new to make with a chicken that I’d just taken out of the freezer. The book’s Ragout of Chicken and Onions in Red Wine had an encouraging list of ingredients, and the dish looked very attractive in the photograph:
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The recipe calls for three pounds of chicken parts for four servings, but there’d be only two of us for dinner. To avoid having to defrost the whole chicken in order to cut it up, I used my ever-reliable rubber mallet and Chinese cleaver to whomp the bird neatly in two.
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One half went straight back into the freezer. When the other half had defrosted, I cut it up and proceeded to the cooking.

The first step was to brown the chicken pieces in butter and oil. Now, I’ve been browning chicken all my adult life, including for many previous Julia Child recipes, so imagine my surprise to find that what I do is apparently no longer The Way to Cook.

I was to dry the chicken well (OK), get butter and oil very hot in a sauté pan (OK), add the chicken pieces, leaving air space between each of them (Huh?), and turn them every 20 seconds (What?) for about 5 minutes, when they’d be colored “a fairly even walnut brown.” (Oh yeah?) My chicken pieces, which required two batches when spaced, tried to come apart under so much handling and barely browned at all, even after 10 minutes.
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But all right, let’s go on with the recipe. I removed the chicken to a dish, added 1½ cups of chopped onion to the pan, and sautéed it until it softened and browned a bit. (A mistake here: the onion was supposed to be sliced. As things turned out, it made no difference at all.)
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Next was to transfer the onions to a sieve set over a bowl to drain off “excess fat.” Then – leaving the rest of the fat in the pan – put back the chicken pieces and the onions. Since I’d be defatting the whole sauce later, that onion treatment made no sense to me: It seemed a totally unnecessary step. But I did it.

Other ingredients went into the pan at the same time as the chicken and onions. A large garlic clove, “puréed.” (Purée one single clove? I used a garlic press.) Salt, pepper, and a pinch of thyme. Half a large tomato, chopped. 1½ cups of red wine; and enough chicken broth to barely cover the chicken pieces.
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It all had to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes “or until the chicken is tender when pressed.” I guess testing with the tines of a fork is not The Way to Cook any more, either.

Again, I took the chicken pieces out of the pan. I tasted the cooking liquid for strength and seasoning. It seemed fine to me, so I strained it into a pot, pressing hard on the solids to preserve their juices.
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I was reluctant to see them go. I often like a little texture in my sauces, and the book’s picture does show onions scattered among the chicken pieces.

Now I had to thoroughly degrease the strained liquid. That’s a task I hate, particularly when the layer of fat is so shallow that it can’t be spooned off without taking good liquid with it. This time I was reduced to drawing pieces of paper towel across the surface to absorb the fat – an expedient I suspect may also not qualify as The Way to Cook. Also, that was well-flavored fat, which I was sorry to lose.

Next was to thicken the sauce with beurre manié. Julia is precise about the technique: Off heat, you must whisk, not stir, the butter-flour paste into the sauce and bring it to a boil, whereupon it will thicken. Not for me, it didn’t. I repeated the process with a little more beurre manié. Still hardly any change.
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Well, I said to myself, it’s still early in the day. The sauce will sit at the back of the stove for a while and then be reheated with the chicken at dinner time. Maybe it’ll thicken by then.

Actually, it did, to some degree, but less than I would have liked. Not being a fan of curly parsley, I skipped the recipe’s serving decoration.
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So, how was it? The best I can say is Acceptable. The sauce tasted good, if a little acidic from the large quantity of wine. But the chicken itself hadn’t acquired any flavor from the other ingredients, which seemed a pity given all that effort. Fortunately, it was a tasty free-range bird to begin with. But I’ll never make the dish again: It’s too fussy for a family meal and not good enough for guests.

One last cavil about this recipe. Notice the color of my sauce: It’s purplish. That’s what happens when you cook with a lot of red wine. (Think coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon.) It does not produce the glowing golden brown of the book’s photo. Caveat coquus.

Given how I revere Julia Child, I do wonder how closely she herself was involved in creating the content of this book.

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My big fat three-ring recipe binder had gotten out of hand – again. Its patchwork pasted-up pages, accumulated over many years, its progressively inconsistent arrangement, and its sheer bulk made it hard to find things I knew were in there somewhere. Time to take it all apart, cull the contents, and reorganize it more sensibly. It was quite a job.

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I found recipes I’d completely forgotten about, some of which I couldn’t think why I’d ever saved. I discarded several dozen clippings – many that probably would produce excellent results – that no longer interested me enough to devote the required time or effort. For example:

  • A tripe dish that had to be simmered on top of the stove for “at least 8 hours”
  • A Brazilian feijoada with eight kinds of meats, including pig’s tails, feet, and ears; also oranges, collard greens, rice, and toasted manioc flour
  • A flourless chocolate cake that carried 950 words of instructions

On the positive side, redoing the binder recalled to me some recipes that I’d never gotten around to making but would still like to try, and other recipes for dishes that I’d enjoyed long ago but let slip out of mind. One of the latter is Bavette aux Échalotes, a recipe I’d clipped from 2002 issue of Saveur magazine and at some later date had written “Good” next to the title. It’s a very simple preparation for skirt steak with shallot sauce.
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I had some pieces of skirt steak in the freezer, as well as three plump shallots in the refrigerator, so there were the makings of a meat dish for a weeknight’s dinner for two.
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Tom minced the shallots for me while I salted and peppered the little steaks and sautéed them in butter and olive oil.
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When the steaks were nicely rare, I transferred them to a platter, covered them loosely with foil, put them in a warming oven, and returned to the stove to make the sauce. I stirred the shallots into the fat remaining in the sauté pan and cooked until they were just browned.
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Then, a quarter cup of red wine vinegar stirred into the pan and cooked down to a syrup, a good chunk of butter dropped in and swirled around until it melted, and the sauce was ready to be poured over the steaks for serving.
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The dish was delicious. So easy and yet so sophisticated – so quintessentially French. Skirt steak, like hanger steak, is one of the gamiest-tasting of all the beef cuts, as well as one of the easiest to prepare. This is a treatment for it that I hope never to forget again.

 

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Back in May, when I wrote about dinners I’d had in Lyon, I mentioned a sweet-sharp condiment that was served alongside foie gras at Brasserie Le Nord. It was an odd, nubbly relish, with a flavor like nothing I’d ever had before, and made an interesting foil for the luscious, silky foie gras. Here’s what it looked like:
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When I asked our server what was in it, she had to go into the kitchen to find out. Returning, she said that, today, it was red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. I’d never have guessed those! (Hmm: only today? Possibly different yesterday and tomorrow? Interesting.)

Back home, culinary curiosity demanded that I try recreating it for myself. I started with an internet search for “fruit condiments for foie gras.” Very instructive: There seem to be many such recipes, often quite complex, that I haven’t known about. However, none of them seemed as if they’d produce the texture I wanted.

Next I looked in my cookbooks for chutney recipes. That was more encouraging, because the basic approach to chutney is simply to chop the main ingredients, put them all in a pot, and cook them with some liquid and the desired seasonings until the mixture is as thick as you want it. So I assembled my four ingredients:
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Now, what proportion of each should I use? One onion gave me 2/3 cup, minced. Two stalks of celery, also 2/3 cup. One apple (quickly turning brown) gave me 1½ cups. And I took a whole cup of pureed pineapple, so there’d be plenty of juice in the mix.
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Wondering if it would be wise to cook the two vegetables by themselves at first to soften them a little, I divided each ingredient into halves and briefly sauteed half the onion and celery in butter. Then in two separate pots I combined the ingredients, the cooked vegetables and half the fruits in one, the raw vegetables and the remaining fruits in another.

What else should go in? I knew that Le Nord’s version didn’t have any Indian spices, but I had no idea what others there might have been. I decided to add only a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of apple vinegar to each pot – no other sweetener.
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Then I cooked both mixtures, covered, stirring occasionally, until they thickened enough to hold their shape, which took about 45 minutes. They came out looking very similar: the one with uncooked vegetables a little darker. (I do wonder what Le Nord used to make its version so red.) Both tasted fairly interesting, with almost no difference between them.
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Then came the fun part. We had a block of foie gras in the refrigerator (a gastronomical souvenir of the Lyon trip) just waiting for a chance to try the new condiment with. And we did.
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You can hardly see any difference in the two little heaps of – I still don’t know what to call it: relish, chutney, preserve, conserve, confiture? – but the slightly darker one is on the right. Both made a nice enough flavor and texture contrast with the foie gras, sweet and the merest touch piquant, soft and nubbly. I can’t say they provided any major enhancement, though. Foie gras is gorgeous enough on its own.

We tried some again another day with some good cheeses: same mixed result. The simple fact is, this little condiment is a lot of work, especially for the small quantity I could use while it was fresh enough: a restaurant’s dish rather than one to make at home. Still, it was an interesting experiment.

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Salade Lyonnaise

The deadly heat wave that scorched most of the US last weekend was my fault, I fear: The weather gods noticed that I’d just published a post saying summer in New York hadn’t been too hot yet. I’ll never learn!

So I’ve been back on the hunt for interesting new summer recipes. Today’s good salad dish came about by happenstance. For another kind of salad I needed frisée, which isn’t always available locally. Tom, doing the shopping, brought home the only head of it there was in any of our stores. The thing was gigantic: Even after using as much as I needed for that first dish, what remained was a great green wig more than 18 inches across.

 

Frisée is delicate, so I’d have to use it soon. Salade lyonnaise came to mind, since I’d enjoyed one recently during my cruise on the Rhône. It’s a dish of bitter greens and crisp bacon, an atypical vinaigrette, and the crowning touch of a poached egg.

Surprisingly, none of my cookbooks had a recipe for the dish, but the internet had many of them. One by Mark Bittman of the New York Times seemed like a classic so I took it as a model. For two portions I tore up enough of the palest friseé to fill two cups, tightly packed, and set it aside. Then I slowly crisped four slices of bacon in a skillet with a little olive oil.

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That was an error, as it happened. I was supposed to cut up the bacon raw, and I hadn’t paid attention. Not a problem, though: I took out the cooked slices, chopped them, and returned them to the pan, leaving in all the rendered bacon fat. Next I added a tablespoon of chopped red onion. That was twice as much onion as the recipe called for, but still a very modest amount.
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After a minute’s sauteeing, I stirred in two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and half a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to complete the dressing for the greens.

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For poaching the eggs, I used my regular technique (learned long ago from From Julia Child’s Kitchen.) A little fussier than Bittman’s, it turns out perfectly cooked fresh jumbo eggs in exactly 3½ minutes. Unfortunately, as can be seen below, this day one of my two eggs wasn’t fresh enough: the white spread out and partially slid away from the yolk, spoiling the oval shape.
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I slipped the eggs into cool water to halt the cooking and, since this was not for a company dinner, didn’t bother trimming off the unsightly bits. My bad. But they taste just as good as aesthetically pleasing eggs.
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I spread the frisée on two plates, tossed it with the rewarmed bacon dressing, and topped each with an egg. Here’s the portion with the nicer shaped egg:
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At table, after the usual family squabble over who should have the better-looking plate (This time Tom won; I got it), we each broke open our egg so the liquid yolk could mingle with the greens, and added salt and pepper to taste.
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Simply fabulous! I’d been worried that there might not be enough dressing to coat all the frisée, but it turned out to be a perfect amount. A vinaigrette with rendered bacon fat taking the place of olive oil is just wickedly good. A little more onion in the dish wouldn’t have hurt, and we both could happily have eaten a second poached egg on it. Even so, all the flavors came together in a luscious harmony, for a salade lyonnaise even better than the one our cruise ship had served.

Before the rest of my frisée wilts, I think I’ll be doing this dish again.

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On our Rhône cruise a few weeks ago, Tom and I took one evening away from the boat to dine at Le Gibolin, a restaurant in Arles about which we’d read many good things. I’m away on a trip again now, so for this week’s post I’ll copy out the entry I made in my travel journal about the perfectly splendid evening we had there. I’ll add that it followed upon an uncomfortably cold, wet day of touring.

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All today’s misery was amply redeemed by the most delightful dinner we have had in almost forever. Le Gibolin, on a tiny street in Arles, to which through a wicked rainstorm we were taken by a very pleasant young taxi driver, is the answer to a dream. Twenty covers, maybe four staff members, décor preponderantly bottles of wine, run by a most formidable but handsome woman, who was first very annoyed with us for arriving 20 minutes too soon, while staff dinner was still happening. (But then, why was the “open” sign on the door?) We were welcomed by the little dog of the house, however, and Madame’s anger didn’t extend to sending us back out into the rain. We were allowed to sit at our table and wait.

In time, Madame relented and placed the big chalkboard menu before us. It looked fabulous: classic Provençal dishes. Two courses for €28, three for €35, with five or six options each for entrée and plat.
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Our choices mollified her a bit, as did our request for her to select us glasses of wines for each course and – as the meal progressed – Tom’s knowledge and appreciation of them.

I had a croustillant de pieds et tête de cochon to start, and Tom had pâté de campagne. Impossible to imagine better of their kind. Even the cornichons were amazingly good. My dish had a green condiment so intriguing I had to know what the herb in it was. Madame seemed pleased to be asked. It was tarragon, but it didn’t at all taste of licorice. How did they do that?!
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The first wine she poured for us was a 2015 Cairanne from Oratoire Saint Martin, made from Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah. (Tom has more to say about the wines in his blog.)

Our main courses were, for Tom, poitrine de veau rôtie aux épices douces, and for me, carré d’agneau de Provence rôti. (€4 extra for the lamb.) Both, again, as lovely as could be imagined.
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Madame asked if we’d like more of the same wine with this course and we said no, a different one, please. So she brought a Côtes du Rhône from the same maker, called Les P’tit Gars, which was a blend that she said had more Mourvèdre. An amazing step up in richness from the first.

As we ate our main course, the petit chien of the house, who had been quietly sitting under the table next to our feet all the while, began gently tapping at our legs to remind us of his patient attendance. We each rewarded him with a few tidbits. Later he sought out other patrons, but came back when we ordered cheese.

We each received a whole little round of a goat called Pelardon – young, fresh, and intensely good. Le petit chien didn’t get any of them.
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With the cheese, we asked for yet another different wine and received an Ardèche Côtes du Rhône, made from old vines and with Alicante as the main component of the blend. Alas, we didn’t catch its maker’s name. It was brighter and more acidic than the previous wines – great with the cheese.

Madame was in full charity with us by now, and when after ordering a marc de bourgogne and an eau de vie de poire that she had declared was extraordinaire, we asked to purchase a bottle of the poire, we were definitely personae gratae. Without that €65 bottle, our bill came to €131, no single cent of which we begrudged. It was a magnificent dinner. Oh, that we could come back another time!

When our faithful taximan returned to pick us up, the rain had finally stopped, and I tried to get a picture of the restaurant. Not much luck – too dark on the street.
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After a short ride through the quiet town, a supremely satisfied couple stumbled up the gangplank to our boat at about 11 p.m.

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As I mentioned in last week’s post, Tom and I had carefully chosen restaurants for the three dinners we’d be having in Lyon after our Rhône cruise. We wanted simple brasseries or bouchons devoted to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Our selection was somewhat limited by our days’ including a Sunday and a Monday, when many restaurants there are closed. But we did very well with the ones we found.

 

Brasserie Georges

Brasserie Georges, huge, bustling, and immoderately lively, has been an institution in Lyon since 1836. We discovered it on our first visit to the city in 2008 and have ever since remembered the fabulous first course of roasted marrow bones we ate there. So of course we both had them again this time around.

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The menu called the dish Os à moelle à la croque au sel de Guérande, pain grillé. We called it heaven. The prized crunchy sea salt of the Guerande area gave a special zest to the soft, lush marrow as it melted onto the warm toasted bread. But each portion was enormous: We would have been wiser to split a single order instead of gluttonously plowing through the two.

For our second courses, Tom had steak tartare of Charolais beef, expertly prepared at our table with the condiments of his choice and served with a green salad and fried potatoes. I had tête de veau – calf’s head – with ravigote sauce and steamed vegetables. Both were fine of their kind.
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Needing a break from the multiple-course menus we’d been eating on shipboard, we simply stopped there: Georges’ food was very good, but not quite as magical as memory had painted it. Nonetheless contentedly stuffed, we strolled home and finished our evening with cognacs from the bar at our hotel.

 

Le Petit Léon de Lyon

Though it still calls itself a bistro, Léon de Lyon has become a double restaurant: the original establishment, dating from 1904, now features elegant, upscale cuisine, while a small new adjacent space, dubbed Le Petit Léon de Lyon, offers simpler, traditional fare. The little place was perfect for us.

We both started with the house’s pâté en croûte.
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The thick slices of buttery pastry enclosed a filling made from foie gras, veal sweetbreads, and vin jaune, a sherry-like white wine from France’s Jura region. Not so simple at that! It was marvelous, and so filling we could almost have stopped right there.

But we didn’t. For the main course, we’d both ordered Lyon’s signature tripe dish, gras double à la lyonnaise. Here the Petit Léon surprised us: What we received wasn’t the typical version, where the tripe is essentially stewed in onions and wine, but instead was cooked in a sauce with quite a lot of tomato and then gratinéed for serving. Very good, but not what we were expecting.
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The gras double tripe, so different from the honeycomb tripe that is all we get in the US, was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, but so unutterably rich in its sauce that neither of us could finish our portion. The fresh green salad that came alongside made a welcome brisk counterpoint, but it could only help so far. Once again, we didn’t go on to cheese or dessert.

 

Brasserie Le Nord

In addition to the original Michelin three-star Paul Bocuse restaurant just north of Lyon, there are seven less glittering Paul Bocuse restaurants in the city itself, including four brasseries named for the cardinal points of the compass. Each of those has a different culinary emphasis. Le Nord is devoted to “les grands classiques de la Cuisine de Tradition Lyonnaise.” We dined there on our last night in Lyon.

Our meal was indeed classic, in both simplicity and excellence. We both started with fresh foie gras, among the best we’ve ever had.
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Served with it was a cooked condiment made (I was told) from red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. It was fascinating – sweet but sharp, a wonderful foil for the goose liver’s richness. I’ve since discovered that similar fruit garnishes are very popular now, and I’m going to try making one like this for the foie gras that we brought home from this trip.

Next, Tom had lamb sweetbreads braised in a velvety brown sauce, and I had a leg of Bresse chicken cooked with cream and mushrooms, both very fine.
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Capable at last of going on to a light dessert, we both had dishes of delicious raspberries and strawberries in crème Chantilly. They were immensely refreshing after the richness of Le Nord’s cuisine.
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Every dish we had this evening was as near to perfection of its kind as I can imagine. The meal was a grandly memorable conclusion to our dining in Lyon.

 

Lest I forget: I should also mention that with each of these three dinners we drank remarkable wines, which you can read about in Tom’s blog.

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