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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.

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Do you like lamb? Tom and I do, and as far as we know, so do all our friends. But many of our compatriots don’t. Evidently, US per capita consumption of lamb is about one pound a year, and more than two-thirds of the population eat no lamb at all. How many good meals those people are missing!

Lambivores can benefit from broad ethnic food interests: The culinary traditions of France, Italy, Spain, India, and the Middle East include many appealing lamb dishes. My latest find was a recipe for lamb shanks braised in the style of southwestern France, which appears in James Villas’ Country Cooking. The dish features garlic, rosemary, onions, and red wine – strong flavors that can stand up to lamb’s own hearty flavor.

I had a little trouble following the recipe’s first steps, which were to make incisions in the shanks, insert garlic slivers into them, sprinkle on chopped rosemary, and press it onto the meat. My garlic slivers popped out as soon as I pushed them in, and the rosemary fell off as soon as the pieces of meat were moved.

 

But I kept calm and carried on, salting, peppering, and flouring the shanks as directed. Next I browned them in olive oil, having scraped all the errant bits of garlic and rosemary into the casserole along with the meat.

 

 

While they were browning, in another pan I sauteed a heap of sliced onions in butter for five minutes. Even in a nonstick skillet, they seemed to want more butter than the recipe indicated, so I indulged them.

 

 

When all the meat was browned and set aside, I deglazed the casserole with a generous quantity of red wine and reduced the liquid by half.

 

 

Then the onions went into the casserole, the lamb shanks went on top, along with a modicum of broth, salt, and pepper, and the covered casserole went into a moderate oven for a good two hours. I turned the pieces of lamb a few times as they cooked. They came out richly brown, falling-off-the-bone tender, and utterly delicious.

 

 

I really don’t understand how anyone can not like lamb! Tom has told me that in his long-ago life in central Ohio, no one ate lamb because it was “too strong.” He couldn’t even find a butcher shop that sold it. Is this US aversion to lamb a regional thing? Readers, any thoughts?

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This week I reconstructed an ancient French dish to match with a tasting of two wines made from the Cabernet franc grape: one from France’s Loire valley, the other an American from a winery on Long Island’s North Fork, where traditional Loire grapes do very well. Tom wanted to compare the wines to each other, alone and with dinner.

 

To keep the contest “in the family,” we wanted to have a main course from the Loire region’s cuisine. Recipe research revealed that most specialties of the Touraine region are white-wine dishes, in keeping with the many lovely white wines of that area, as well as the culinary resources from its ocean access and many rivers. But we needed a dish to showcase red wine.

Waverley Root’s classic book The Food of France speaks admiringly of coq au vin made with the Loire’s Chinon wine. (We had a Chinon for our experiment, but it was to drink, not to cook with.) Root goes on to describe a variant on coq au vin dating from medieval times, “today almost confined to the valley of the Loire.” Its name is a metonymy: sang de poulet aux oignons, “chicken blood with onions.”

The dish is similar to a typical coq au vin – cut-up chicken braised with mushrooms, onions, and bacon in a red wine sauce – except for the final step, which is to stir chicken blood into the sauce. Root hastens to say that, since the blood is mainly a binder for the sauce, the dish can be made just as successfully with conventional thickeners. So, with a little help on ingredient proportions from a recipe for poulet au sang that I found in Larousse Gastronomique, I made the dish for our wine tasting.

I wasn’t repulsed by the idea of blood. I’ve often enjoyed blood sausages. I’d also encountered it in the Neapolitan dessert sanguinaccio, which is a chocolate pudding made with pig’s blood. It too can be made with other thickeners, and having tasted it both ways I must say the version with blood was better: it had a lush, velvety mouthfeel. But since fresh chicken blood is not a common grocery item in my neighborhood, I was happy to be allowed to substitute cornstarch.

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So, on to the cooking. Rather than a whole chicken to be cut up, which is really too much meat for two, I’d taken the lazy path of buying skinless, boneless chicken thighs. I sauteed them in butter until they’d just firmed up, then removed them to a dish.
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In the same pan, with a little more butter, I sauteed button mushrooms, tiny onions, and pieces of thick-cut bacon until the vegetables were about half done.
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I transferred them to the dish with the chicken to wait while I started the sauce. I sprinkled flour onto the remaining melted butter, stirred it in for a minute or two, added a lot of red wine and a little broth, and deglazed the pan.
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Back went the solid ingredients, along with a bay leaf, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper.
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It all simmered together, covered, until the chicken and onions were perfectly tender. At the end I thickened the sauce with cornstarch. I was also supposed to finish it with a flaming dose of brandy. I tried to, but my brandy perversely refused to ignite. Oh, well – I just gave it a stir and cooked a bit longer to burn off the alcohol.

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Dinner began with a tasting of the two wines by themselves, both of us taking notes on our impressions. Then we drank the wines with a small first course: baked zucchini boats stuffed with minced soppressata, onion, egg, and parmigiano. Not French, obviously, but tasty, and neither wine made any objection.
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Then came the main event, along with glasses of both wines: the bloodless wine-braised chicken, with small potatoes boiled in their jackets.
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It was a good coq au vin – and less fuss to prepare than some I’ve made from other recipes. I slightly regret not having been able to try it properly with chicken blood, but we enjoyed it enough just as it was that I expect I’ll be making it that way again.

The dish also served very well as a testing ground for the two Cabernet franc wines. If you’d like to know how that worked out, you can read about it on Tom’s blog, here.

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Eggs à la tripe popped into my mind the other day. Why, I don’t know – I hadn’t made them in more than 20 years. Nor do I know why I hadn’t: We’d definitely liked them on the few occasions I did. Somehow they just disappeared from my repertoire. If you’re not familiar with the dish, don’t be put off by the name: There’s no actual tripe in it.

As I recalled it, oeufs à la tripe was a very simple French preparation: just hard-boiled eggs and softly sauteed onions in a sauce of béchamel with gruyère. But, for the details, I had to figure out which of my cookbooks I’d found the recipe in.

Larousse Gastronomique, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame Saint Ange, Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, and the Time-Life Good Cook egg volume were all ruled out because they don’t use gruyère in their oeufs. The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking does call for cheese, but it’s a much more complex dish than the one I remembered. Clearly, the dish I remembered isn’t the primary or classic version. But it’s the one I wanted to have. On a hunch I checked Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and there I recognized my simple recipe. My research method may be haphazard, but its results are sound.

So merrily into the kitchen I went and set to work. My faithful knife man sliced half a very large Spanish onion for me, which I softened slowly in butter, covering the pan partway through so the onions wouldn’t brown and stiffen.
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While the onions cooked I sliced four jumbo eggs that I’d hard-boiled the previous day.
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Back at the cooking onions, I sprinkled on salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour; stirred the flour in well; and gradually stirred in 1⅓ cups of milk – thus making the béchamel right on top of the onions. When the sauce thickened, I stirred in ⅓ cup of shredded gruyère and let that melt in.
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Finally I gently folded the sliced eggs into the sauce, trying hard to keep them from falling apart. Snatched tastes of that sauce, by the way, were even better than Tom or I had remembered. Might have been given an extra boost by the excellent cave-aged gruyère I had on hand that day.

At that point the eggs are ready to eat just as they are, over toast or rice, the recipe says. But it has an alternative serving suggestion: spread the mixture in a gratin dish, dot with a little more butter, and run it under the broiler to brown lightly. I liked that, because it could all be prepared well in advance and just finished at dinner time.
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That evening we had the eggs and their lovely sauce alongside grilled boudin noir sausages. They made a nice sloppy summer supper, and an excellent match to a lightly chilled red Burgundy.
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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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I keep a lot of dried beans in the pantry, but whenever I consider them in the context of French cooking, all that usually comes to mind is cassoulet. I know the French eat beans in more ways than that, but I have to run through many good bean dishes from Italy, Mexico, and the USA before I can come up with any from France.

To broaden my leguminous education, I turned to the Dried Beans and Grains volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. There I found several French recipes for beans. I was intrigued by Haricots Blancs au Vin Rouge – white beans in red wine sauce – because the book it’s credited to is The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros. I hadn’t thought nouvelle cuisine had been interested in anything as solidly old-fashioned as beans, but there it was.

I quickly saw that the Troisgros brothers’ way of handling beans here was unusual – maybe that would be the nouvelle-ness of the dish? There are two standard ways of starting to work with dried beans: either soak them overnight in cold water, or give them a two-minute boil followed by a two-hour soak in the hot water. Either way, they’ll swell a lot and soften a little. This recipe said just to soak them for two hours in warm water. Really – only that? I did it, with a cup of white beans (the classic French Tarbais type). You can see by the “before” and “after” shots below, the beans hardly changed at all.
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Next, I was to put them and their soaking water in a pot with some carrot, onion, a clove, and a bouquet garni. I tied half a bay leaf, a little pile of parsley, and a sprinkle of dried thyme in a piece of cheesecloth, stuck a clove in a small spring onion, and peeled half a carrot. The beans and their seasonings were then to be brought to a boil, skimmed, and simmered “about one hour, or until tender.”
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It was clear there wasn’t nearly enough water there to last for an hour. I added more, and put a kettle on to boil water for further use. There was also nothing to skim; what could there have been? The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot for the simmering, which would have dried out the beans well before the hour was up. I covered it.

After the hour and another addition of boiling water, the beans had begun to swell but were still stone-hard.
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Another hour of simmering, more added water – nope, still not done. (These were not old beans, by the way; they were just last season’s crop.) Finally, after 2½ hours, the beans were tender, and I could move on to the next step. Which was, in a separate pot, to sauté a large chopped shallot in butter for two minutes, covered, then add six tablespoons of red wine and boil it down almost to dryness.
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The beans were to be drained and put into that pot, along with a chopped clove of garlic and some black pepper, and be cooked over low heat for 10 minutes. The mixture was so dry, I took it on myself to add some of the beans’ liquid. I also decided this was the time to stir in some much-needed salt, which, though on the recipe’s list of ingredients, was never mentioned anywhere in the instructions.

The semi-final step was to stir 2½ tablespoons of butter into the beans and “sauté” until the butter melted. (An odd choice of verb for a dense pot of beans, I thought.)
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The recipe stated that by then the beans “should bathe lightly in a broth,” and if they didn’t, to now add a few spoonsful of their cooking liquid. Unfortunately, the extra cooking time, both before and after the butter, had put too much stress on my already lengthily simmered beans: they were partially pureeing themselves. More liquid now would have had them not bathing in a broth but wallowing in a mud puddle. (Perhaps some fear of that eventuality prompted the very final instruction: to sprinkle chopped parsley over the beans in their serving bowl.)
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When we ate the beans I was relieved to find that, while the texture was wrong, the taste was fine. Ironically, at first bite, though they were totally meatless, we both thought that they tasted like cassoulet! That was due to their very smooth, complex flavor. You couldn’t identify the component tastes of onion, shallot, garlic, wine, and butter: All had blended into the beans and given them a sophisticated new identity – so French!

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This recipe remains a puzzlement to me, however. I feel sure my beans wouldn’t have taken so very long to cook if I’d I used a standard bean soaking method at the outset, and I can’t understand the purpose of the recipe’s short soak – or the fact that it neither specified enough water to last until the beans were tender nor acknowledged the possible need for extra water. There’s also the oddity of calling for a cover for the two-minute sauté of the shallots but not for the long simmering of the beans or their ten minutes’ cooking with the wine reduction. I can’t help wondering about the accuracy of the recipe’s translation from the original French.

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Mushrooms so often play a supporting role in culinary matters, it’s easy to forget how well they can shine as the star. I just discovered a recipe that, with little more than bread, butter, and mushrooms, produces a dish fit for a king.

(Warning: This photo does not do justice to the dish. My plating and presentation skills leave much to be desired.)
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The recipe, simply called mushroom croûtes, is in Raymond Oliver’s classic French cookbook, La Cuisine. I’d been interested in the dish for some time, and finally gave a try. I expected it to be good, but it was better than good; it was gorgeous. After one taste you could imagine yourself at a mid-20th century Michelin three-star restaurant – say, Grand Véfour, in its great days under Oliver – at a table draped in white damask, set with precious bone china and antique silver cutlery – being ceremonially served with an exquisite dish.

None of that was the case at my house, of course – but that was the feeling we got when we tasted the croûtes. And they were so simple to make!
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I started by slicing two large plain white mushrooms and sautéing them in a little butter. Salted and peppered them and set them aside.
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Next I minced six ounces of the same white mushrooms in the food processor and sauteed them, along with a chopped shallot, in butter in the same pan as the sliced ones. This step was similar to making duxelles, but it didn’t require the painstaking squeezing of the minced mushrooms in a towel to remove their juices. I thought they’d probably give out those juices in the sauté pan, but no – they stayed the same nice dryish, nubbly texture.
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When I judged they were done (they didn’t change much; just shrank some) I took them off the heat, added salt and pepper, and stirred in a few tablespoons of crème fraiche. They absorbed it immediately.

Next I trimmed the crust off two slices of my homemade bread and sauteed them lightly, one at a time – in butter, naturellement. This is a French recipe, after all.
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Now I had to assemble the croûtes: Put the bread slices in a shallow baking dish, spread on the minced mushrooms, arrange the sliced mushrooms over them and top with a little grated gruyère.
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The croûtes went into a 400° oven for about five minutes and came out as you saw above. They were inordinately rich and savory, and not just from the butter: It was that recently discovered fifth taste, umami. Evidently, mushrooms are high in glutamates, which are the source of umami’s delectability. In his day Raymond Oliver wouldn’t have known the chemistry of it, but he certainly knew how to produce it. Just a remarkable piece of culinary wizardry.

Beloved spouse and I were lucky enough, years ago, to dine at Le Grand Véfour during Oliver’s reign. It was an unforgettable experience that has left a large mark on our subsequent kitchen adventures. All these years later, every time I go back to his cookbook and rediscover the magic of his cooking, I’m reminded of how great a culinary genius he was.

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